1st Battalion 186 Infantry Headquarters Company: Wounded Near Death on Biak

By Al H. Hoffmeister with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

            On bloody Biak, 1st Battalion 186 Infantry Headquarters Company's Al Hoffmeister was wounded horribly and a long time close to death. Up until 7 June 1944 when 186 Infantry captured Mokmer Strip, Al had it about as good as any enlisted man could have it in a combat outfit. Al was in S-3 (Operations), a Staff Sergeant and a topographical draftsman. Al's duty was to keep all locations of Japs and Yanks plotted on a map at all times.

            Although 1st Battalion 186 landed in the wrong place on Biak - about 2.5 miles west of where we were ordered to land - we hiked east to Mandom and bivouacked for six days until 2 June. When headquarters company climbed the coastal cliffs to join in 186's overland march to Mokmer Strip, Al did not suffer as much from thirst as riflemen did. He had an extra Jap canteen, and in 1st Battalion was closer to sources of supply from the water convoys. But still, he never forgot that wonderful rain of 5 June when a long, heavy downpour kept 186 Infantry from being halted dead in their tracks.

            Once in that march, Al saw a Jap jump from brush a few feet off and arm a grenade. He put that grenade under his helmet and blew off his head. On the afternoon of 6 June, a mortar shell blasted near 1st Battalion Headquarters. A fragment almost entirely amputated the left arm of a Rifle Company runner.

            Before daylight 7 June, AI's company was awakened on Mokmer Ridge to get C rations before the push down to the Strip. AI then heard of the landing on Omaha Beach in Normandy. He saw that of his three ration cans, he had two supper cans and no dinner can. He had a cold premonition that he would not be there for supper.

            Then with 3rd Battalion on our right flank, AI's 1st Battalion marched down the brushy slope to Mokmer Strip and crossed the opening without Jap opposition. AI's 1st Battalion formed a line of companies to defend the east end of the Strip, all the way from the ridge down to the beach.  Near a crushed coral road, headquarters company men looked for the best site for 1st Battalion command post. Among the several dead Japs along the road, Al searched for maps, letters, orders, or other information to identify units, positions, and numbers.

            And then AI's disaster premonition came true. With Staff Sergeant Pharr of S-2 (Intelligence) and recruit Nelson also of S-2, they scouted along the coral road. On the ridge above them, the heavily armed Japs whom they had bypassed were still hidden and silent beside their guns and mortars and stacked ammo.

            On their right, Pharr and AI saw a crevice - or perhaps a cave entrance. Despite its silence, AI took no chances. He threw his last two grenades as far as he could into the black mouth. He heard the blasts but never knew whether they had hit any Japs.

            A few yards farther on the road, there crashed before them and around them the thunderous openings of the Japs' four-hour bombardment of 186 on the Strip - on 7 June 1944.

            Pharr had been scouting ahead of the other two men. He was on the right side of the road - Nelson the left - and AI on the right a number of yards behind. All three men flattened into the roadside ditches to hope for the end of the shelling. But the shells never stopped falling. Tops of the palms between the road and beach were being "blown the hell off." If the Jap guns depressed a little more or the mortars angled a little higher, all three might be killed.

            AI decided to slide back down the ditch and crawl into the opening where he had thrown the grenades. He could shelter there 30 inches below the surface and recall Pharr and Nelson to hole up with him. (Perhaps Al feared that a Jap Infantry attack was coming.)

            Prone in the entrance, AI covered Pharr and Nelson with his carbine. Deep in the dark behind him, he heard a sound like somebody stumbling over broken wooden boxes. Al thought that his earlier two grenades had left some wounded Japs alive. He ought to get out of the entrance where he was outlined against the daylight. He might get a grenade lobbed at him.

             Just as he straightened up, while the shellfire still blasted from the ridges, several red-hot battering rams hit AI in the abdomen. They blew him out of the hole, blew his carbine out of his hands, even blew off his ammo belt. A hole about six by one inch was torn into his lower left abdomen. Al feared that it was deep enough for his death.

            Still cool as a cucumber, AI tried to save himself, as shell fragments and machine gun bullets impacted nearby. He dared not take sulfa because his stomach or intestines might be pierced. For a long time, he did not know that he was holed through right thigh and ankle, for the shock from this abdominal wound hurt him too much to realize these other two wounds.

            While AI was still in shock, four young, sparsely bearded Japs boiled up from the cave with long rifles and long bayonets. Al faced them almost eye to eye - four scared but determined men. And before them lay unarmed Al almost mortally wounded.

            Why did they fail to shoot AI dead from a distance? Had daylight after the cave dark dazzled them? Or was it the shellfire? Or did they just want bayonet practice? They jabbed at AI with their bayonets, but somehow missed. Al shouted to Pharr and Nelson for help.

            Under the bombardment, Pharr could not hear AI. But he did chance to look back, and shot at once. His carbine hit the first two in the belly; they folded up like rabbits and died close to AI.

            In frenzy, Al pressed his belly wound with his right hand. He rolled over, crawled and half ran several yards down the ditch, and huddled behind a large coconut log. By now, Pharr had slain the last two of the four Japs.

            But three more bayonet men leaped from the cave into the daylight. Nelson slew one; AI never knew what became of numbers six and seven. As for the cave, AI heard; months later, that the cave ran all the way down to the beach. It would take riflemen and flame throwers to wipe out 50 Japs left in the cave.

            Other 1st Battalion Headquarters men were moaning in pain nearby. AImost at once, Al got first aid - from an older Battalion Medic whose name he forgot. This Medic put a compress on AI's belly wound, but never knew about the two leg wounds. A morphine shot relieved the pain but let AI's mind think clearly.

            Half an hour later, littermen packed Al about 100 yards to the sheltered side of rock outcrops parallel to the beach, among many wounded on stretchers and some walking wounded. AI guessed that of some 85 casualties from the bombardment, 70 still lived. He saw Corporal Hopkins from Headquarters Company with a phosphorous fragment in his back. Leslie G. Craig lay unconscious near Al - with a right arm wound and a hole in his skull just over the ear.

            About 1400, landing craft drove in under fire for Sboeria Beach where Al lay wounded. He saw water spurts leaping around them from Jap fire. One craft lurched under a hit; smoke and flames flared high into the sky. (Actually, three tanks were landed, but two craft were damaged, and most craft never beached. A previous landing attempt was a total failure.)

            Twice as the day grew later, the wounded were again moved; the second time into a huge bomb crater on the open cliff-top above the beach. AI saw more than a dozen litters around him.

            About dark, a headquarters man said that Colonel Russell Fields and other 1st Battalion officers at command post talked of moving from the Japs' overhead field of fire. They did not know what they would do with their wounded. Lying helplessly wounded, AI was never more scared in his whole life than at that moment. Next time that he saw a man from his outfit, he asked for a weapon to protect himself from Nippo killers. A recent transfer to 1st Battalion Headquarters Company but an old-timer overseas, Minnesotan Larry Amdahl kindly brought a loaded carbine to Al. Lovingly, Al laid the carbine butt on his chest and pointed it between his toes at the crater rim. He could silhouette Japs on the rim in the dark and maybe shoot a few. He could fire his last two bullets into his brain. For the only time in his whole life, Al thought of suicide.

            But 1st Battalion 186 Headquarters Company did not leave their position. AI believed that he might have dozed off until dawn. Every time that he moved, he felt warm and wet under his rear. The fragment that had passed through his right leg had pierced a vein. The Medic had missed that wound, and another that had grazed his right thigh farther up. He was of course in dire danger of infection.

            About daylight 8 June, Amphibious Engineers beached with supplies and ammo and began to evacuate the wounded. But when carried down to the beach, AI heard a major and corporal agree that they lacked room enough for AI. They would have to leave without him.

            AI swore at them, "I can't hack it another day; I got it yesterday morning. I can't hold out much longer." The major flashed a light on Al's wound tag and said, "He's right. We have to take him!" They lashed AI's litter on the hood of the buffalo out before the windshield and headed into the open sea. Salt spray drenched AI; the wounds burned like fire as they drove east towards Bosnek - about mile offshore.

            Lying on his back, AI was first to see three Jap planes zoom towards them from the direction of Bosnek Beach. AI alerted the major, who ordered the corporal driver to zig-zag to save them. One plane left formation and charged down with machine guns blazing. To protect AI, the major placed his own helmet over AI's head.  "A helluva fine gesture". The strafing missed them, and the plane flew on west. (Probably the Jap airman was short of gas after a raid on Bosnek shipping, and he had a long flight back to his field on Vogelkop Peninsula at the head of western New Guinea.)

            In mid-morning, about 24 hours after his wound, Al and litter were borne to Bosnek for major treatment. Here, sandbags surrounded the wounded in their litters around the operating pit. Operating pit was bulldozed out of the hard coral 5-6 feet deep and the soil stacked in bags around the pit. Medics carried AI and litter down into a large dug-out roofed with tarps and electrically lighted. Other doctors were working on other patients all around him.

            Operating lights burned Al like red-hot iron. Silently, doctors ran probes through both leg-wounds that were treated for the first time. They cleaned the wounds and packed them. From his belly they picked out fragments of ammo clips and chunks of dirt. Having only Novocain as a local anesthetic, AI passed out for the first time since his wounds.

            When AI came to, he and his litter were carried up a long, narrow gang-plank into a Navy LCI - "Landing Ship Infantry." (This was a small ship about 100 feet long with several decks and usually 3-4 machine cannon mounted topside.)

            Al rolled from his litter into a clean, white-sheeted cot the first sheets Al had seen since a Sydney furlough a year ago. Sheets were surprise enough, but then a Navy Lieutenant asked AI whether he would like an unbelievable lunch green peas, mashed potatoes, and steak with gravy.

            This menu was an indirect medical verdict that was the most glorious news of AI's life. This menu indicated that AI had no holes in stomach or intestines. This American food was delicious with his hope to live!

            That afternoon of 8 June, the LCI left Bosnek and about mid-morn on 9 June, it hove to beside a giant hospital ship with dazzling red crosses. It seemed about ten stories high - probably a converted luxury liner. We were out of sight of land in the middle of the sunny blue Bismarck Sea.

            A boom swung down from tall ship's after deck and flattened on the LCI deck. With AI's and maybe six others' litters on a pallet, the boom lifted out over the open sea and even spun around. AI was as scared as he had been when he feared that he would be deserted while lying wounded back on Biak.

            But Al landed safe on the after deck and was carried into a large room the size of an auditorium. Here were real beds with clean white sheets and many nurses and doctors for the 60 patients. The hospital ship waited out in the sea for several days until it was full of the casualties who kept arriving.

            Landing at Finschafen, AI entered 364 Station Hospital, a first-class outfit. In 10 days, his leg wounds healed so that he could stand. After three weeks, he was on the operating table to finish off his abdominal wound. Doctors went to work again on the 6-inch jagged cleft across where his belt would be. Cutting all around the perimeter below the skin layer, they pulled the outer skin together and stitched it. It looked like a large baseball cover. But after the stitches were cut, the skin pulled apart to leave a scar about an inch wide. AI could never wear an ammo belt again. AI was transferred from 1st Battalion 186 Headquarters to wait about six months in casual outfits until his discharge 17 May 1945.

            Al really had his death-wound on Biak. But Staff Sergeant Pharr's carbine, Amphibious Engineers and Medics saved him for a ripe old age.

 

CREDIT. In many ways, this is the history of many men's front-line wounds. Over 95 per cent of this history comes from AI's two marvelous single-spaced handwritten letters on sheets 8.5 by 11 inches in size. First letter is eight pages long, dated 1 March; second letter is twelve pages long, dated 11 April - both in 1986. Other documentation comes from Staff Sergeant Robert B. Pharr's Silver Star Award, and RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the only time in his whole life, Al thought of suicide.


 

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