I Company 163 Infantry: Ambush on Biak
By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian with
I Company's Walt Timm, Ballard Stanchfield, Dante Prandi, C.A. "Bud" Holgren and John Sullivan

             On 19 June 1944, I Company 163 Infantry dispatched an unlucky little, partly-armed convoy for K Company behind Mokmer Ridges directly north of West Caves. We I Company men knew that K needed our supplies badly. But we did not know why the detail totaled only 25-30 men, and why we were mostly unarmed.

We had heard nothing of the importance of 3rd Battalion in General Eichelberger's masterly maneuver of 19 June against the Japs' West Caves. Only the day before, I and K and other 3rd Battalion elements supposedly had received General Doe's order to assist Eichelberger's great move of 19 June. While 186 Infantry got behind West Caves and blocked the Japs' supply road, 3rd Battalion had this assignment to help 186's other companies.

We were to assemble along the northern slopes of Mokmer Ridge near Hill 320. From there we were to prevent Jap reinforcements from attacking 186 Infantry on its move. Yet survivors of this I Company carrying party had no knowledge of I Company's place in this grand strategic design.

Nor can survivors of this carrying party explain why we went unarmed and not over 30 strong. It is true that - if we go by a map of 20 June - only 1,000 yards of scrubland separated us from K Company. And of course, our own arms and ammo would add extra weight for us. But on days before this carrying party, 3rd Battalion had some bloody little skirmishes with Japs in this area. So we went mostly unarmed!

We know that K badly needed food and ammo, but we believed that I was in a sort of rest camp. Scout Sullivan said that we were supposedly in a safe area. And for the first time, he did not wear his steel helmet.

Survivors remember something of our order of march, and a fair number of the names of the men. Tech Sergeant Ed Wilson led the way with his M-1; followed John Sullivan and his Tommy gun. Next came unarmed carriers, Mihoover and Labencki, then Bender with a .45 pistol which could be valuable at pointblank jungle ranges. Ballard Stanchfield was sixth in line with another .45, then Petersburg, unarmed.

This line-up is the memory of Stanchfield, 30 years after the fight, but changes in the order could have occurred by the time that the Nippos hit us. At the time that the attack began, Walt Timm says that he himself was about fourth or fifth in the column. He was certainly close to Petersburg, as his story of the action will make clear.

In this column also were Holmgren, Danti Prandi, Beznick and Sergeant De Vries. Prandi says that he was near the end of the column, with DeVries.

And so I Company's convoy sweated forth in mid-afternoon, on a trail following wire towards K Company. Suddenly the ambush crashed down on us.

 Under packs already heavier, I's men were laboring from an area of huge rocks, trees and heavy brush when it happened. We were still in what seemed to be safe territory, only 200 to 450 yards from our home perimeter. As the first six men started into a kind of clearing about 30 feet wide, the Japs hit us.

John Sullivan says that he was then first in line. Walt Timm heard a grenade or knee-mortar shell explode among us; men fell. Along with the blast and the thud of bodies, it seemed to Timm as if a whole side of the jungle trail was moving in on us. Japs in camouflaged uniforms charged in on us with rifles and bayonets and even the barrel of a knee mortar. Light was on their bayonets as they leaped at us from 5-6 feet off the trail out of the kunai grass.

The fight was all over in 10 seconds. It seemed to Timm that a wave of 15 Nips bore down on us, although statements from others cut the number down to eight.

   

 The grenade or shell detonated between Miller and Milhoover. Pfc Clarence Miller died instantly; Pvt Godfrey Mihoover was fatally wounded, John Sullivan wounded also.

Timm was sure that Tech Sergeant Ed Wilson killed one Nip with his M-1; then a shot in the head killed Wilson.

Timm fought briefly with a Nip armed only with a bayonet. The Nip was on Timm's back briefly; then Timm threw him off. Somebody else slew that Nip.

About this time, a grenade impacted close to Timm. He hit the dirt just in time to save himself, except for a few steel fragments. Timm thought that this grenade fatally wounded Milhoover, although Stanchfield thought that the first explosion had done it. In this melee, it was hard to be certain on the cause of any casualty.

Having hit ground with the first explosion, Stanchfield saw a Jap trying to bayonet Labencki. Bender got that bayonet man with his .45; but as the Nip fell he pierced Labencki in the thigh.

Bender then wrestled another Nip to the ground. Labencki and he beat the Nip to death with their helmets.

Petersburg and Stanchfield leaped to their feet. Stanchfield killed one Nip; Petersburg snatched a rifle from the ground and killed another. Both shot at a Nip far to the right, but they never knew whether they wounded or finished him.

But this is the way Sullivan saw the mix-up Sullivan who was then in first scout's position, unhelmeted but carrying his Tommy gun. For him, the ambush broke out on the narrow trail, just after he had passed the small clearing. The Japs let Sullivan and two others pass. Then he heard grenades explode on the trail; fragments pierced the back of his neck and shoulders. Turning, he saw maybe eight Japs charging. His Tommy gun emptied a clip into them, but he did not know how many he hit. The others rushed in to kill too fast for thought.

A Jap jumped Sullivan with a bayonet and broke his cheek-bone. And worse still, what he thought to be a knee-mortar barrel crashed on his head.

At the moment he did not even realize that a bayonet had slashed him. Desperately he grappled with the bayonet man and fell to the ground with him. He had the Jap on his back and on his own right side on the ground. His right hand passed around the Jap's neck and strangled him to death.

Believing to this day that the other four armed men with him at the head of the column were wiped out, Sullivan ran back down the trail to the unarmed men. While on the run, he saw another Yank down, trying to evade a Jap bayonet over him. Sullivan saw the bayonet lunge all the way through the man's thigh. Then another Yank - he thought it was an Indian-gripped the Jap and killed him with a .45. (Was this the same Labencki whom Stranchfield saw receive the bayonet, and was Bender the Indian who slew the bayonet man?)

By the time he reached the ration train, Sullivan was dazed and half-blinded from blood in his eyes which were swelling shut. He would be blind for several weeks.

Prandi was a lucky man in this ambush. By chance, he was not up forward in the action. He had delayed a little to help an unarmed replacement replace his pack properly, and so was near the rear of the carrying party. During the wild struggle he crouched behind a great rock at the trail bend. To Stanchfield up front, the action seemed to last 10 seconds; to Prandi, it seemed long and drawn-out until all unarmed men got orders back to I Company's perimeter.

It looked as if the rescuers had only to tend the wounded, but a "dead" Jap detonated a grenade. Tech Sergeant Morris took a large fragment in his shoulder, and we had to kill the Nip all over again.

Thus ended I's ambush of 19 June 1944. K failed to get the supplies needed that day. For I had hands full to doctor and carry out the wounded before the dark fell. I Company's dead had to lie where they had fallen until an armed detail went for them next morning.

Clarence J. Miller and Ed Wilson were dead already: Pfc Raymond P. Medina lived until the rescue party was about ready to carry him back to I Company. Fourth dead was Godfrey W. Mihoover, who died from shock, according to Ballard Stanchfield.

Besides losing four killed, I had three wounded: Labencki, Tech Sergeant Morris and Sullivan.

The badly-wounded Sullivan remembers that men lifted him up and carried him for what seemed a long time. Then they jeeped him to a field hospital. No medics worked on him for some time; he heard that others were dying. He remembers that one boy died on the operating table - the newest man who joined I Company just three weeks ago, tall and very young. Sullivan forgot his name, but perhaps this was Mihoover whom Stanchfield remembers.

All told, Sullivan had received four separate wounds. He had a shower of fragments in neck and shoulders from that first explosion, then the bayonet wound that broke his right cheekbone. He had a deep gash from the knee-mortar barrel’s. He found a fourth minor wound under his chin from another grenade. But for him, the most painful part in the field hospital was to have the hair shaved off his head for treatment. This blade must have been several years too old for its job.

Medics transferred him to the local evacuation hospital, then to general Hospital at Hollandia. They tried to return him to I Company, but he kept on passing out. After three months, Sullivan went to reclassification center so that he ended up in AFWESPAC G-4 Headquarters in Manila.

Back in I Company, we surmised that the Jap ambush had been a matter of sheer bad luck for our supply convoy. Judging by the knee mortar, we supposed that a reinforced mortar crew had started out to drop a few shells into I's perimeter.

But then the "mortar snipers" chanced to observe our supply patrol. Without risking I Company's probably vigilant outguards and hidden machine guns, they could kill a large number of Yanks right there before their eyes. They could also halt supplies needed for another outfit. We were lucky that they did not hold fire until the leading armed men were farther up the trail so that they could have erupted among the defenseless "cargadores." And in this ambush all of the eight Japs may have been killed, but they had indeed made of I Company's supply train a successful target of opportunity.

 

CREDIT: Prime credit is due to letters from I 163's Walt Timm, Ballard Stanchfield, Dante Prandi, C.A. "Bud" Holgren and John Sullivan. Background is from R.R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines. I Company's men wrote these letters in 1974 after I queried in Jungleer about 163's Casualty List of 19 June, when I supposed I 163 was out of action. After 30 years' elapse, some data in the letters were contradictory, naturally. (Neither 163's Narrative nor Journal on Biak mentions 3rd Battalion for 19 June. And Journal entries have disappeared.)