186 Infantry’s 2nd Battalion Headquarters Company: Into the Slot At West Caves
By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Machine-Gunner Casimer Hebda

When Headquarters Company of 2nd Battalion 186 Infantry landed on Biak, we hit the wrong beach. An unexpected six-mile an hour current pushed our tracked landing crafts too far west. Smoke and dust of the bombardment obscured landmarks. We grounded in a mangrove swamp at Mandom in water and muck. Headquarters Company's machine-gunner Hebda slipped into water up to his head.

Colonel Newman landed here with his command post group and all of our 2nd Battalion - along with a D Company machine gun platoon and an 81 mm mortar section. Although isolated in Jap country, they quickly moved inland to Bosnek Road and by 0745 were hiking east to our original beach.

Despite confusion of unscrambling units which had landed in the wrong places, 2nd Battalion was ready for action at Bosnek by 1200. Rifle Companies of 2nd Battalion began probing the low coastal ridges. Soon we discovered the dangers of the caves and Jap holes. One Sergeant looked down into a hole and was shot in the head. We dropped a grenade into the hole and disposed of the Jap.

From 27 May to 31 May while 162 was repelled from Parai Defile far west of us, 2nd Battalion 186 Infantry patrolled to help secure the Bosnek area. On 28 May, men found a large cavern near 2nd Battalion Headquarters Company with some 15 Japs hiding in it. On that day, several Japs died trying to escape, but the day when the cavern was finally cleared has gone unreported.

Scouting about four miles east of Bosnek alongshore on 29 May, men of 2nd Brigade found a rough motor road curving back west from Opairef Village. This road led to land surveyed for a Jap Strip directly north of Bosnek - the start of the long road that 116 Engineers would build for 186 to seize Mokmer Strip.

On 31 May, 163 Infantry's 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion came from Toem to relieve 186 Infantry Regiment from Bosnek Beach. First, however, 2nd Battalion had to march east to Opairef and slay the few Japs holding out nearby. With B Company, our own F Company had trouble with them. But. by 1500 that 31 May, we had overrun those Opairef Japs.

Next morning, 2nd Battalion turned inland from Opairef to follow the road west to the Survey Strip. Forty-five minutes after 3rd Battalion climbed up from Bosnek and perimetered at the west end of the strip, our 2nd Battalion dug in near the east end. When Nips of 1st Battalion 222 Infantry attacked that night of 1-2 June, 3rd Battalion slew 86 Japs, Our 2nd Battalion had only slight action. At dawn of 2 June, a Jap officer did perish under an E Company light machine gun.

By 0900 2 June, 186 Infantry began our hard trek west towards Mokmer Strip. While 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion with five tanks advanced abreast down the road, 2nd Battalion with AT Company patrolled north of the road. We protected 186's right flank and line of communications. By 3 June, however, 2nd Battalion also had to assist Regimental Supply Officer to carry food to the forward battalions.

On that agonized five-day march to seize Mokmer Strip from inland, thirst was our greatest problem. On one day near the end of the march, 2nd Battalion's Headquarters Company had halted because we lacked water. Then arrived a truck with five-gallon cans.

Laying down his pack, Hebda took Howe's and Miller's canteens and his own to fill them at the truck. A Medic and two other Yanks were also filling canteens. Suddenly from the dark scrub jungle, four Japs leaped out and began firing. Hebda dived into a ditch. Labbee had his .50 heavy machine gun set up already and shot them down.

All 2nd Battalion was rushed from watering to prepare new defense positions. Hebda had to leave the empty canteens which he had tried to fill. Miller and Howe left Hebda's pack which he had dropped near them. That night, he had to borrow others' rations, and a shovel to dig in.

(Perhaps this action occurred on 5 June north of Mokmer Ridge near the Strip. Some 15 Japs hit 2nd Battalion's flank and rear with grenades, knee mortars and rifles. A G Company patrol was credited with clearing that area. Twelve Japs died.)

That night, Japs walked around shouting, "Hey Joe, where are you?" We kept quiet. One Jap did step into a hole with a Lieutenant from another outfit who had a carefully sharpened machete. He chopped the Jap to death. The Lieutenant laid the machete back on the edge of his hole, but it fell and cut his own leg.  Next day, some men returned for their canteens. All were shot full of holes. Hebda's pack was gone - with his gold pocket watch inside.

By 6 June, 186 Infantry had positioned on or north of Mokmer Ridge above Mokmer Strip. On the morn of 7 June, after 30 minutes' fire mainly from 121 Field Artillery's 75s, 186 Infantry’s 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion marched down and occupied undefended Mokmer Strip by 0850. ("F" was attached to 1st Battalion.) The other 2nd Battalion outfits hand-carried supplies over the ridge-crest and onto the Strip - as did Cannon Company and a Service Company detachment. Reported booby-traps caused us to follow the trail carefully.

Suddenly at 0945 when we had hardly dug in, Jap shell fire impacted 186 Infantry. From the ridges where we had bypassed them unawares, Jap field artillery, anti-aircraft, mortar, and automatic weapon fire rained down.

Leaping into their hole on the northwest flank, Hebda and Howe watched a mortar shell impact 50 yards away. Another exploded within 25 yards. “It looks like we're next," said Hebda. But Shell No.3 struck another outfit's hole, where an officer lost a leg.

But Headquarters Company 2nd Battalion survived the heavy bombardment throughout 7 June with just three wounded. Seriously wounded was T/4 Darrell B. Cline with T/5 Forman D. Dunlap and Corporal Delbert H.Hall lightly wounded. Our whole Regiment had 14 killed, 68 wounded. On 8 June, T/5 Boyd Blankenship and Pvt Clarence E. McClain were lightly wounded.

After 186 Infantry loosened Jap pressure on Mokmer Strip. 16 June was the day when our 2nd Battalion closed the Great Gap on Mokmer Ridge between 162's 2nd Battalion and 3rd Battalion. This Great Gap had existed since 12 June when 162 Infantry first topped Mokmer Ridge. By 15 June, those two battalions had narrowed the Gap to 500 yards. On 16 June, 186's 2nd Battalion finally closed the Gap and turned the ground back to 162 Infantry again.

For Hebda in 2nd Battalion Headquarters Company that 16 June was a day of long, fearful waiting. Headquarters Company had climbed the ridge after the rifle companies of 186 Infantry until they felt surrounded in the dark jungle heights. Then they halted and dug in to back "E" “G” · and "H" fighting ahead of them.

In his hole under a bush to the left, Hebda heard a big Jap gun fire across the trail. Force of the trajectory was so great that he thought that its wind would lift off his pants. He could even hear the Jap officers' firing orders ahead of him.

Here Hebda waited for 12 long hours. After the Gap was closed in the morning smoke bombs had to be fired to cover the companies' retreat from their advance too far. When he left his hole, he saw 5-6 Yank dead around him. Seeing three men carry a wounded man, he went to help them. The man's leg was swollen huge as a balloon. He was screaming with pain.

Besides closing the Great Gap, our 2nd Battalion had found the western Jap lines defending West Caves. Although 2nd Battalion lost 15 killed and 35 wounded - an outstanding loss for a day in the 41st Division - 65 Japs were dead. In 2nd Battalion Headquarters Company, our Pvt James Phipps was shot in the ankle. Lightly wounded was 1st Lieutenant George Blanton other circumstances unknown.

On 19 June, 186 Infantry dug in north of West Caves and severed Jap supply lines into the Biak hinterland. On 20 June, 162 Infantry from the south began to flame gasoline drums into the caves. The die-hard Japs must come out fighting, or burn.

And on that night of 20 June, 2nd Battalion 186 Infantry held the slot that the Japs had to charge through. Facing south towards West Caves, Tech Sergeant Hall's AT Platoon of 2nd Battalion Headquarters held the actual roadblock with two .50 heavy machine guns, one on either side of the road. A steep ridge protected Hall's left flank. To his right, G and F Companies held the lines with their .30 light machine guns and .60 mortars to brace up their rifles. Two Sherman tanks backed their lines, maybe 100 yards to the rear. M Company's .81 mortars were also dug in to support us.

On that night of 20 June, Japs with knee mortar coverfire tried to penetrate 2nd Battalion’s lines. Some of these Japs may have scouted us to feel out our positions for the next night's great attack. But 12-15 Japs came through Headquarters Company's perimeter, and we held fire in that deceptive dark. Hebda said that they carried gun barrels that seemed to be 7-8 feet long. Whatever the aims of this little night offensive, 11 Japs died that night.

This night fight of 20 June may well have been the prelims for the coming great night battle of the night of 21-22 June. For this battle, the Jap officers had selected a striking force from mainly 2nd Battalion 221 Infantry, some of the most effective Japs still alive on Biak. They were not originally in the Biak garrison; they had slipped ashore from barges into Korim Bay after a night run of over 75 miles from Noemfor Island to the west. (They were not members of the 36 Division already on Biak, but of the 35 Division at Manokwari on the New Guinea mainland.) For most of them, the daylight hours of 21 June would be their last hours on earth.

After the attack of 20 June, 2nd Battalion Headquarters' machine-gunners had stretched a trip-wire across the road and attached if to a great heap of empty 5-gallon drums. Our two heavy machine guns were sighted to hit that trip-wire, even in the dark.

Attack No.1 came in the dark night of 21 June. At 2100. Japs charged up the road. They tripped the wire; falling cans clanked. Gunner Howe with second gunner Lang and gunner Labbee with his second gunner Klovas loosed their heavy .50s at the unseen wire. Wounded Japs moaned. Other Japs impacted knee-mortars around us, machine-gunned our lines. Sheets of flame made the jungle bright as day.

As we silenced the screaming charge, G 186's Sergeant Jensen fired .60 mm mortar shells as close as 50 feet from our holes to drive crawling Japs into our fire-lanes. Colonel Maison sensed that the Japs' deployment area was a small clearing around a great tree 100 yards back. They did not know that the great tree was zeroed in for our mortars. M Company's heavy .81s blasted around that tree and scattered the Jap support troops

Attack No.2 came at midnight. They first lobbed in knee-mortars, futile in the dark. Our mortars and machine guns repulsed their attack. Remarkable was the action of 2nd Battalion Headquarters' .50 heavy machine guns. They were not exactly right for anti-personnel fire. They would be best against tanks or strafing planes. But even without the firing speed of .30 machine guns, they could do plenty of damage. They were so conspicuous, however, that they became a main objective of Jap Attack No.3.

Attack No.3 came at 0400 in the late dark of before dawn 22 June. It was a forlorn hope - stealthy and desperate - mainly grenades and bayonets. And our machine gun ammo was running low. From his hole, Hebda called back to Sergeant Dailey to gather ammo to carry.

It was 30 feet back to Sergeant Dailey - but the longest 30 feet that Hebda ever traveled in his life. But he got back safely with the ammo. So dark was the night that he never knew whether any Japs ever fired at him. Tech Sergeant Hall also carried ammo up to the holes.

But the die-hard Japs closed in. All along 186's line of hole, hand to hand combat began. When a Jap landed even in the hole of Captain Pendexter, Battalion Medic, he slew him with a machete.

Howe's machine gun jammed. An already wounded Jap rushed the gun, and bayoneted Corporal George H. Miller in the shoulder.  Pfc Theodore P. Howe gripped the Jap by the throat. Frenziedly the Jap pulled out a grenade. It exploded between them; both fell dead.

Meanwhile. second-gunner Lang wrestled a Jap rifle from him and killed him with the bayonet. Lang leaped from his hole and slew four more Jap grenadiers.

Second-gunner Klovas rushed back 50 yards from Labbee's gun and called forward a Sherman tank. Sergeant Synakiewicz' tank rolled up and blasted the Japs' charge at us. I Company 186's .60 mm mortars angled fire in from the west across our front and finished Jap Attack No.3.

Howe was only 186 man killed that night. Corporal Miller's bayonet wound was light. In all 186, only four more wounded were reported on 21 and 22 June. In 2nd Battalion 186 Headquarters, Pfc Paul Irish was seriously wounded, but we cannot find out whether any man but Miller was wounded actually in that night fight.

Jap report is that 150 men attacked that night. As Attack No.3 ended, 109 were dead. At 0815 next morning, G 186 slew nine more behind a tree, and 10 others playing dead by the road. Total Jap dead, therefore, was probably 128.

When General Robert Eichelberger came up to investigate last night's firing, a Jap knee mortar shell dropped harmlessly two feet before Chester Klovas, Tech Sergeant William Hall, Casimer Hebda, an unknown Lieutenant and Eichelberger himself. Probably this was the final Jap shot in 2nd Battalion 186 Infantry Headquarters' night fight of 21-22 June 1944. Now we needed only to load the dead Japs into trucks to be hauled away for a mass burial, and continue the siege of West Caves.

 

CREDIT: Casimer Hebda's 3.5 page typescript sparked this history He typed it about 14 February, and sent additional data to me about 7 April 1984. Most useful also were 186's Narrative of Operations on Biak, RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines, Fred Larey's letter of 3 September 1964, and I-186's Roger Jensen's letter of 10 July 1969. Useful also were 2nd Battalion 186's Award Stories of Theodore Howe, Chester Klovas, Howard Lang, Tech Sergeant William Hall, Casimer Hebda, and Gillis Labbee. Other sources were Arthur Vesey's story, "Dear Hirohito, Better Tell Your Boys About Chicago" (Chicago Tribune - 22 June 1944), and 186's Biak Journal. Most of this history supersedes my earlier story, "Battling Kuzume's Big Banzai," which appeared in the December 1970 Jungleer.