163 Infantry I&R: Fourteen Hard Miles Over Biak

By Pete Gianopulos (I&R, HQ)

On August 1944, 163 Infantry's Information and Reconnaissance Platoon began an important and memorable 3-day patrol all the way across Biak towards Sawabas Village on the northeast shore. Headed by 2nd Lieutenant Bernard Pfirrman, 24 green-clad scouts with eight natives and a Netherlands Indies interpreter, hiked north to plot a 14-mile trail and report on Jap activity in that Biak Wilderness. For 3,000 Japs had still not surrendered, even after the shattering of Ibdi Pocket on 22 July. They could regroup for suicide attacks, if we did not keep them off balance.

Although we were strong for a recon patrol, we would not fight except where we would have to. Except for my M-1 which I would not part with, we carried only light carbines. Our NICA (the interpreter) had a carbine and a long sword - which he would soon use in a grisly manner. Acting as scouts and carriers, eight natives went unarmed. Besides Pfirrman, David M. Levitt and Sergeant Rocco Capirci were on this patrol. Others were Squad Leader Tech Sergeant William L. Wedge, Sergeants Bunk and Robert B. Haas, and Corporals Allen and Edwin R. Crosen, with Cox, Grubich, James C. Haley, and Noble Murray (the assistant to Captain Boyd E. Budge.) Also probably on this patrol were Charles C. Calkins, Vard T. McNair, Robert J. Rhode, Jack L. Pearson, Rush L. Shosted, Rob Roy Rutherford, and maybe Archie L. Shovan. (Shovan could not lift one arm to a horizontal position after the saber cut he got at Toem.)

Even deep in the Biak wilderness, we would keep close contact with 163 Headquarters. Where our radio would be useless, we would have other help. A field artillery recon plane with 163 Headquarter's Captain Budge would fly over us three times daily to check up. For dire emergency, we had a basket of four carrier pigeons.

At 0730, 7 August, I&R hit the trail north - the very day that our 163 Infantry tried to contact 162 Infantry to break up Japs gathered on Korim Track. Our first morning, we made good time. We had covered the first part of the trail before. But for security, we always kept two natives ahead who could see Japs before we could. At first, we hoped to complete our mission in two days, and return to the luxuries of a garrison camp.

We had to cross a swamp, but it did not hold us back much. Taking our break after crossing, we watched our natives peel  the bark off rotting wind fallen trees. They found broad worms about 1.5 by 1 inch which they ate - or tucked away dead in their loin-clothes for later eating. One  bravely bit a worm, but he said that he preferred even K rations to it.

We hiked onwards in a long single file, with two native scouts leading off. My assignment was to plot the trail, and so he was usually third or fourth from the patrol head.

By 1630, we had found our probable first day's objective - a 300 by 400 yard clearing which we believed to be about halfway across Biak. There were a few huts in the clearing.

A two man scouting party checked out the clearing. They reported that six Japs were sitting beside a hut in the center of the clearing.  

Lieutenant Pfirrman tried to encircle and capture the six Japs. One group of us would enter the clearing from the right, and another from the left. Pfirrman's group would advance direct up the trail to the huts. We wanted prisoners - not dead men.

But our three groups had not gone 10 yards before fire broke out from the center party. One Jap had walked down the trail towards Pfirrman's group. Pfirrman had to shoot him, and the other Japs scattered into the jungle.

While the Lieutenant and others searched the huts, we guarded the clearing edge. I became scared as it felt like hundreds of Jap eyes were peering from the jungle at me in the open clearing. For the shots had alerted the jungle to our presence.

After flaming the huts, I&R slept on a small hill under trees at the northeast side of the village. After digging 3-man holes, we ate our K rations, and then slept - with always a man awake in each hole.

It was hard to sleep between turns on guard in this enemy land, but our night was peaceful.

Next morning, we had our K ration breakfast - the hot Nescafe did taste good - shouldered packs and moved out with carbines ready. We looked forward to an early end of our trip. As Captain Budge in his Piper Cub had reported to Headquarters at 1500, we expected to reach Sawabas and our waiting landing craft early that morning. We had only seven miles of our 14 to go. But in less than 200 yards, we found a trail position where an estimated 25-30 Japs had camped last night. Now we were trailing them at a short distance behind. We wondered whether all of us would ever reach the north side of Biak.

About 1130, our two lead natives sighted three Japs coming down the trail towards us. We hit the ground. Across the trail from me up front, another Yank fired. He killed one; the other two escaped.

We moved more carefully now. About 1500, we saw three more Japs on the trail ahead. Lieutenant Pfirrman decided that it was time to catch some prisoners. We crept up on them and captured them without firing a shot. One Jap had a leg injury. Gangrene had set in. He lay smiling up at us from a crudely made stretcher. It was a queer sort of smile, one that is not so graciously acknowledged. A second Jap was thin from hunger and jungle diseases could hardly stand on his feet.

The third Jap, however, was in good condition, and their leader. Up the trail, he said, was a large group of Japs who wanted to surrender.

Now Lieutenant Pfirrman became eager to catch a large number of prisoners. It would be great publicity for all of us, we thought. For we did not know that any large number of Japs had ever surrendered before.

We ordered four reluctant natives to shoulder the litter with the gangrened Jap. We hurried with him and the skinny Jap as fast as we could.

I suspected something phony in this promised surrender; it seemed to me that the three Japs were left behind the Jap detachment as bait for a trap. Yet I sensed that it was futile for me to speak up.

The natives had trouble carrying the sick Jap. Through the interpreter, Pfirrman told them to leave the Jap by the trail. They literally dropped him from their shoulders and began stripping him. It would be better to kill this incurable man than handicap the patrol in their attempt to capture Japs who might menace other Yanks if they were left without surrendering. The Javanese lifted his sword overhead and brought it down hard on the Jap's neck. (No doubt he had seen Japs behead his own people.) '.         .

As we hiked faster, the skinny Jap could not keep up. Pfirrman dropped three men behind to follow more slowly with him. They could catch up later on.

As we neared the coast, the land grew rougher. We climbed through a coral ridge. We scouted through a row of unoccupied pillboxes. I was even more fearful of a Nippo trap ahead.

About 1630, when we were 100 yards past those empty pillboxes, Captain Budge flew over us in his Piper Cub. We halted to talk with him, but the dense jungle hid us from the plane. The only way that he could fix our position was to have us tell him the exact moment when he was over us.

While talking by radio to Budge, Lieutenant Pfirrman sent our Javanese and two outguards to take position on the next little coral ridge.

Suddenly heavy Jap rifle fire blazed out at all of us just as we topped the ridge. We hit the dirt, then looked up to find the source of the fire and return it.

All that I could see were bullets richocheting off the trees and rocks around us. A bullet took off one of Sergeant Capirci's left fingers. An radio man was shot in his arm. Levitt had a leg gash, probably in his left knee.

As we blasted back, the Jap fire ceased. I didn't fire at all as I saw nothing to shoot at, and did not want to waste bullets and have to clean my M-1 without need to.

Pfirrman detached some of us to climb the ridge leftwards to secure us against any Jap attack in that direction. The rear men in our column had instinctively turned to guard us from an attack behind us. Our right flank seemed to be safe because a tall coral ridge protected it.

The three men who had dropped behind with the skinny Jap now rejoined us. On hearing the sounds of battle up ahead, they feared that losing contact would mean their deaths. After what was really a mercy killing of the unfortunate Jap, they hurriedly caught up.

What should our patrol do now? If we backtracked, that row of empty pillboxes in our rear might be reoccupied with Japs loaded to kill us. We loosed a pigeon, but the fire had so scared it that it refused to flyaway. Luckily, Budge's Piper Cub was still overhead. Captain Budge said that we were within 400 yards of the beach, where we had expected a rescue from landing craft.

When Lieutenant Pfirrman recalled those of us sent to guard our left-flank ridge, we drew fire from our men watching for Japs. We hit the dirt unharmed before their fire halted.

Pfirrman decided that our best possible escape was to climb the high coral ridge on our right where we had seen no Japs, move 400 yards parallel to the beach, then climb down to catch the landing craft that we hoped to be there for us.

With our casualties, we hurried as fast as we could. We had no trail. After the first high ridge, we had to climb up one razor-back ridge and down another. At least, we were escaping the Japs. Most of us were out of water. The natives showed us some vines to gash for water. It did moisten our throats.

As the sunlight disappeared towards night, Pfirrman took four of us to hurry ahead of the main body with the wounded, to try to make contact with the barges down at the beach. Leaving our packs for the others, we started ahead down the coral ridge in the falling dark. Our feet tripped into coral holes hidden by leaves and broken branches.

Somewhere a short way below, we heard our landing craft circle as they awaited us. But the coral fragments were so rough that we had to stop and lie down in the smoothest little hollow that we could find as the dark fell. To feel safer, we lay as close as possible for the reassurance that touching gave us. We knew that nobody could walk over the coral without awaking us, but we slept with one eye closed and the other open.           •

With the bleak but welcome daylight, we started down the rough, coral ridge and straggled over level ground onto the sandy beach. The barges were out there - two LCMs and a crash boat - 300 yards off and leaving us. I threw a phosphorus grenade, and they slowly turned back to us.

We waded out on the open ramps and climbed aboard. The crew gave us water and opened up some cans of tomatoes for us. It was a feast!

While all guns on the craft pointed shoreward against possible Jap riflemen, four of us without Lieutenant Pfirrman went with full canteens to bring back to our buddies.

After going inland some distance, we had to climb that first coral ridge before we began calling out the names of our buddies. At first, they were quiet because they feared that we were Nips. Finally came our reunion with them - and their gratefulness as they shared our canteens.

They still had with them our third prisoner, the able-bodied Nip. Carrying 4-5 packs, he followed us, grinning. He, too, was happy to be alive. Later, we learned that he had lived in the States, had gone to school there, and could speak English. He had shared our food and cigarettes and was almost one of us. (When we disembarked on south Biak with this prisoner, an officer chewed us out for not guarding him in the way that the officer thought that he should be guarded.)

Tired, dirty, and sleepy, but happy, we quickly rounded Capes Lombee and Wararisbari on northeast Biak and landed near 163 Headquarters on the south shore. How homelike had our company street become - the sagging, weathered tents, the hot food in our mess-gear, and the springy canvas cots to lie back on! We were glad to leave the Japs who had fought us for other outfits to deal with.