1st Battalion 186 Infantry: Blunting Colonelonel Kuzume’s Last Offensive

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

On 13-19 June 1944, 1st Battalion 186 Infantry took part with 162 Infantry's 1st Battalion in probably the most important maneuver of any 186 Battalion in World War II. This maneuver on Biak was to drive west in the rear of the Japs battling 162 Infantry on Mokmer Ridge. We were to cut behind those tenacious Japs on Mokmer Ridge and strike other Japs guarding what natives had told us was the last remaining Jap "waterhole" on Biak.

As of 13 June, we thought that we were to attack a waterhole garrison. We did not realize that this "water- hole" was Colonel Kuzume's West Caves. We did not expect that Kuzume's last tanks would team with massed Jap infantry to crush us dead in that hilly jungle.

For this great maneuver, General Doe attached 186's 1st Battalion to 162's 1st Battalion. Once we had crossed Mokmer Ridge going north in a safe place while the 162 men crossed on our left, we were to team with them and drive west at Kuzume. D Company's .81 mortars would stay behind in Regimental Battery. We got a kind of reinforcement. This was our own A Company - less a PIatoon - which had been detached at T-Jetty for special duty with 162 Infantry. Covering fire would come from 641 TD's 4.2 mortars and the 75mm cannon of 121 Field Artillery - a battalion especially attached to the 41st for Biak.

By this time in the New Guinea Campaign, 1st Battalion 186 were seasoned jungle troops, perhaps the most experienced on our regiment. At Hollandia, we fought on Borgonjie River and in the final showdown at Cyclops Drome. On Biak, we were first to attack Mokmer Ridge on 9-10 June. We were already tempered for our greatest test on Biak.

On 14 June at 1800, Lieutenant Colonel Field's 1st Battalion moved out to battle. We marched in column of companies. C Company was advance guard, followed by A's two platoons. After "A" hiked Field's command group, then 2nd Battalion Medics with attached Medics from 116 Clearing Company. Next came D's heavy machine guns and 1st Battalion Headquarters’ AT Platoon. B Company secured our rear.

While 1st Battalion 162 men moved north over a trail through 3rd Battalion fighting on Mokmer Ridge, our 186 Battalion had to trek on a wide arc farther east. First we followed a trail leading north of the east end of Mokmer Strip. We crossed Mokmer Ridge about 500 yards east of 162. Now we moved northeast along a rough trail leading toward the ridge crossing which 186 Infantry had used to occupy Mokmer Strip on 7 June.

C's advance now prowled in blind jungle and rough country. It was a dark land of dense second growth with some large trees - rolling terrain broken abruptly by low commanding heights. At 0930, shots rang out on the trail, about 800 yards north of Mokmer Ridge. C Company men took fire from a small Jap group and killed three.

Our Battalion's march became even slower and more careful. Turning a "corner," we scouted west in almost a straight line to where the yet unknown strongpoint of West Caves awaited us.

About 1035, Tech Sergeant Ackley's first squad of C Company surprised Japs in hasty positions astride the trail. Severson killed four Nips in one long BAR burst. To the right of the trail, Sergeant Wilkinson detected a Jap ambush before it was sprung. His squad wiped out a whole Nip squad, killed 15. Schlabach was wounded.

While protecting Ackley's Platoon, Horn, T/5 Viscioni, Tech Sergeant Snell fired on two Japs to the right of the trail. The Japs took cover among giant ferns, shot back. Fifteen more Japs opened fire on a long line beside the two. C Company's Pfc Wilfred N. Horn got a leg wound, Pvt Lenvel L. Edwards a wound high in the head. The Nips howled and rushed; our BARs and grenades repelled them. We counted twelve dead.

Evidently 20 Jap riflemen originally held a ridge 100 yards long to the right of the trail and parallel to the trail. To finish off the survivors, we loosed Lieutenant Peterson's A Company Platoon. His men shot their way down the ridge, slew four men, two officers.

About 1200, "C" moved out again and killed two more Japs. With 2nd Platoon and 3rd Platoon abreast on either side of the trail, "C" advanced in line of skirmishers, scouts out ahead. At 300 yards, a Jap light machine gun, rifles, and a grenade launcher shot from a knoll at 2nd Platoon left of the trail. Heavy growth blocked us frontally. Placing BARs to cover side trails, Ackley called Lieutenant Strong for company mortars. Five rounds of C's 60s smashed dug-in Japs; our advance killed another Jap and took the gun. Pfc Donald C. Boggs was wounded from the fragment of a Jap suicide grenade. In the next 800 yards, "C" lost four men from heat exhaustion.

By 1430, C Company was in line with B 162 300 yards south of us, and both Battalions moved forward abreast. Since 162's men had also met Jap opposition that 14 June, we could not make physical contact until 735. Both Battalions were 400 yards short of assigned objectives, but we dug perimeters, tiredly, tensely.     

For that day's action, 1st Battalion claimed 20 known dead, 10-12 possible. Four "C" men were wounded. C's lead scouts evidenced thorough training; they saw the Japs' camouflage in time, slipped up and fired first. Not one scout was wounded. Then our lead squads opened fire at once. "A" men also fought well.

But on 14 June, we had hit only die-hard Jap outposts, mostly riflemen, in hastily prepared positions. And 121 Field Artillery's 75s had helped us greatly. From 0800 to 1640, they had fired 1608 shells of interdictory and preparatory fire at the northwest ridge above the location of the suspected Jap waterpoint. Yet both Battalions were still some 400 yards short of our objectives.

Our real fighting was only beginning. For before dark, patrols discovered that 1st Battalion 162 south of us was on the Periphery of West Caves. We now realized that it was the major Jap strong point on Biak - Jap Headquarters with a 1,000-man garrison.

Colonel Kuzume struck at us with tanks and infantry in the early darkness. At 1930, his tank-infantry fighters expelled B 162 from a semi-isolated position northwest of their main Battalion perimeter. B 162 men sheltered awhile in B 186 holes. A B 162 squad leader said that Japs had captured two heavy machine guns, presumably from D 162.

Then from the darkness near the road into our perimeter from West Caves, perhaps an entire company of Japs attacked us in small commands. They struck between B and C Companies astride the road. They struck between two flaming "D" heavy machine guns and our M-1s and grenades. They harassed all night. In early morn, 50 men charged C's left flank near the road, and against "B" men farther to the left. At dawn, we counted 30 Jap dead, including an officer on a "B" parapet with his saber ready to slash.

Next morning, on 15 June, 1st Battalion expected storming parties of tanks and infantry. At 0700, 121 Field Artillery's observer adjusted fire on possible tank approach routes northward. In tight perimeters, our 186 Battalion waited in holes. C Company held our northwest perimeter; "A" shouldered against "C" at a 45-degree angle for the northeast perimeter. B Company with D's heavy machine guns closed the gap between A and C's perimeters on the south, with 1st Battalion AT's 50s to fire final protective lines. Our whole Battalion was on a slight rise of ground.

Then with daylight, "B" had orders to dig in left of the road from West Caves, where D's heavy machine guns and 1st Battalion Headquarters were positioned already. From brush high above "B," heavy Jap rifle and machine gun fire flailed out. B's M-1s and BARs lashed back at suspected Jap snipers in tall trees. When four Japs moved out at us from a cave opening, we killed them or drove them back. "D" men machine-gunned the cave entrance; now and then, a few Japs ran out and fell.

At about 0715, two Jap tanks, each with an infantry platoon, hit us from the West Caves road. Men from B 162 ran from them to shelter in our holes. At 250-300 yards, each tank opened with its .37mm cannon and its .25 light machine gun and charged our holes. Our rifles and mortars killed or scattered the tank-infantry while D's heavy machine guns flailed the tanks. Just as the tanks turned to flee, the .50 heavy machine guns of Battalion AT Platoon were brought forward into action from the east. The AT gunner on the north emptied his whole bag of cartridges into the broadside of the last tank. That tank smoked, turned off the road out of sight. A column of smoke rose from that dead tank a long time.

Thus ended the first attack of 15 June. (On our left, B 162 had fought a third tank-infantry team of Japs. When some "B" men's fire scattered the infantry, the tank ran away.)

It was probably during the first attack on our 1st Battalion that A Company's 1st Lieutenant Lester Hansen reconnoitered behind our holes to set up flame-throwers as a final protective line. But a .37 shell fragment hit him in the spine, kept him from ever walking again.       

At 1400 two tanks attacked our holes again. This time, 121 Field Artillery .75s impacted 600 rounds on the Japs. The .75s hit no tanks, but they neutralized machine gun and rifle fire against us. They kept Jap Infantry from forming for the attacks.

Tank No. 1 hit C Company arid D's heavy machine guns head on, while Battalion AT Platoon 50s blasted it. C's bazooka men Schultz with loader Jewell fired three ineffective rounds - two of them not exploding. At a "D" heavy machine gun, a Jap slug almost tore the helmet from gunner Click's head, but he continued firing. At 200 yards, Tech Sergeant Cottingham's bazooka shell hit the tank just above the turret. As the tank turned, Wilkinson with Hyde his loader got a rocket into its rear. Les De Witt arced the AT shell from his grenade launcher into the tank. It disappeared into the brush, halted, and burned.

Blazing with automatic fire, Tank No.2 closed in on "C." Its .37 gun struck at emplacements. But the .50s crippled the rotor mechanism in its turret. The Schultz-Jewell team fought Tank No.2 with three more rockets, hit it three times. Last shot destroyed the tool rack, probably damaged the tracks. Trying to bring the .37 to bear on us from the damaged turret, it stripped its tracks on the coral. Despite heavy rifle fire, the crew escaped from the dead tank.

Thus ended our tank-battle of 15 June with three dead tanks, at least 20 dead Japs. Besides A's 1st Lieutenant Hansen, we counted 13 more wounded: "B" lost Pfc Claude G.England, Pvt Robert P. Grassmeyer, Sergeants Carlton Greigg and Guy C. More. "D" lost Pfc William McKenzie. C's wounded were not recorded. Others of 1st Battalion's wounded were perhaps light wounds of men never hospitalized.

Even during battle, patrols went to find Jap concentrations and prepare for the next push at West Caves. A's patrol found no Japs, but C's found them. A Jap patrol chased Staff Sergeant Neeno Schena's three-man patrol. Our men fired machine guns on him, in error. Yet on the right flank of our next day's offensive, he found a 50-man Jap entrenchment on a hill northwest. Our field artillery neutralized this position before the next day.

That night at 2130, we called in field artillery on a column of Japs marching with flashlights on the high ground above us, and put out their lights. While D Company's heavy machine guns on the road guarded five tanks which had joined us that afternoon, knee mortars barraged "D." A Jap suicide squad with satchel charges crept up under our heavy machine guns to kill the tanks. Our guns slew seven Japs and saved the tanks.

On 16 June, 2nd Battalion 186 closed the Great Gap on Horseshoe Ridge for 186 Infantry. For 2nd Battalion, our 1st Battalion secured a road down which Jap reinforcements might come. Jap small arms fire killed B Company's 2nd Lieutenant Edmond T. Redding. "C" killed seven Japs.

On 17 June, we marched again with 1st Battalion 162 on West Caves. While AT Platoon's .50s secured our roadhead, A Company led out with five tanks. (A's detached Platoon had returned to us on 15 June.)

Although 162 with tanks had to clear two machine guns and a .75 cannon from the heights, we found that the Japs had evacuated our side of those heights. "A" killed two Japs in a pillbox. In "D," Maisey was wounded; and Hoagland wounded in "B." C's Pfc Toney L. Bernheisel died of wounds. "A" killed ten Japs that night.

On 18 June, we held our holes with almost hourly exchanges of Jap and D Company mortar blasts. Stress of command responsibilities caused relief of our fine Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Russell R. Fields, with stomach ulcers.

And on 19 June, 1st Battalion 186 Infantry reverted from attachment with 162 Infantry, back to 186 Infantry command. At 1230, we marched to link up with other 186 Battalion to cut off West Caves from reinforcements from the north.

And so concluded 1st Battalion 186 Infantry's most important maneuver of World War II. Coordinating well with 4.2  mortars and field artillery, we blunted Kuzume's final tank-infantry attacks. We had minimum casualties, for so important a maneuver. We attained a position where we could end the Biak war. Our 186 Infantry reached a level of efficiency that would continue into the Battle of Zamboanga, and on into the Japanese invasion if that invasion had ever come to pass.

 

CREDIT. Prime data are from "History of First Battalion 186 Infantry (while detached from Regimental Control 13-18 June 1944)," RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines, "Narrative Historical Report of Biak Operation" (121 Field Artillery), and Award Story of 11 Lieutenant Lester Hansen. I also found a few meager notes called "History of A Company 186 Infantry', 2-15 June 1944." B's Biak story appeared in Jungleer for November 1966; C's in June 1969; and D's in March 1976 and January 1977. A letter from 186's Ibsen Nielsen (10 March 1980) says that unfortunate Lester Hansen - despite becoming a paraplegic graduated from law school and became a practicing lawyer.