D Company 186 Infantry: Battle for Mokmer Dromes
By Leroy “Nick” Wheeler, D Company186 with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 On 25 May 1944, D Company 186 Infantry embarked at Hollandia for Biak. Morale was high. Old-timers from Sanananda and rookies had integrated well in our march to take Hollandia. Despite lack of briefing and maps, D was confident -confident despite a rising apprehension of the unknown.

En route to Biak we had two alerts the night of 26 May. One was radar contact with a Jap plane, but it turned away without troubling us. Early on 27 May, we had sonar contact with a sub. We were alerted and called to stations, but sonar lost contact quickly. Perhaps it was a Yank sub.

Beginning 0650 on 27 May, D enjoyed the devastating Air Navy attack that pounded the beaches and often hid landmarks. But as our fleet neared the shore, we old-timers from amphibian training sensed something wrong. A strong, unexpected current was moving us west. After training at Toorbul Point, many noncoms were excellent water readers and understood the flow of currents better than the Naval sea-control party. We landed with battalions far off assigned beaches.

Attached to B Company to defend 186's extreme right flank, Lieutenant Gerber's D Company Platoon of heavy machine guns and Sergeant Crumb's squad of 8H landed at 0742, 2,250 yards west of their objective. But these D men with B had no opposition, and moved east to Green Beach 1, their objective.

The rest of D came ashore by 0742 at Mandom, 2,000 yards off target, then hiked east to Bosnek. Part of Colonel Fields' reserve battalion, we set up a temporary 1st Battalion defense line 100 yards inland. Then we got orders to unload LST's, along with all other men available at the beach. Filing through coconut trees to the ships, we took cover from a sudden Zero strafing - with no casualties. After rolling gasoline drums ashore, we set up perimeter defense for Division Headquarters.

Jap planes were over that afternoon - four bombers protected by six fighters. We thought that 9 of 10 planes were shot from the sky in minutes, that the last plane fled over Geelvink Bay. One falling plane crashed SC 999, the naval beach control ship about destroyer size. For some time we saw smoke and fire; the wreckage was dumped overboard.

Our concern about Jap raids made a tragic background for killing a Yank B-24, from our own anti-aircraft fire. MacArthur so badly desired Biak's airfields that he sent us into action without accurate maps. Field artillery and mortars were firing blind on Biak. Then on one of the days when D was still dug in near the beach, Sixth Army Headquarters told Division Headquarters that a B-24 was flying in accurate maps from Hollandia.

All units had orders to hold fire; the air drop was to be near the Bosnek coconut groves. When Service's Lieutenant Baldwin at 186's command post mentioned his premonition that somebody would shoot the plane down, Colonel Newman told Baldwin to knock it off. Newman seemed highly irritated with Baldwin.

D's 1st Sergeant LaHaie used every phone connection in D to warn us to hold fire on the B-24. He sent D runners to nearby units to warn them. He nagged D noncoms and re-contacted every platoon by phone.

Minutes later, the B-24 flew in from the west. In a wide S pattern, it passed over harbor shipping. Approaching 41st Headquarters, it lowered bomb - bay doors. At least one sack fell out. Staff Sergeant Pozzoli screamed, "Somebody will shoot him down!"

Somebody did fire - by rumor a gunner on a multiple .50 heavy machine gun. Some other gunners then fired too. Tracers streamed through the ship; it jerked skyward. Then it came down at a steep angle, not 100 feet above Division Artillery command post. Men saw bodies slumped at the windows. It landed in flames some 200 yards from Division Artillery command post. Of a rumored five-man complement in the plane, Captain Hunting of Division Artillery counted two charred corpses afterward.

Meanwhile, about midnight, 27-28 May, D Company's detachment with B Company on the east, was in our first action against the Japs. Gerber's gunners and Crumb's mortarmen heard engines of Jap barges coming from the east. A Jap recon group landed to probe location of 186's right flank. Attack lasted about an hour, but the Japs withdrew before daylight.

Although 162 was badly mauled at Parai Defile, 186's 1st Battalion remained in reserve but for D's detachment which returned to us from B. On 30 May, when 163's 2nd Battalion and 3rd Battalion reinforced the division, D was free to start west on 186's waterless trek to seize Mokmer Dromes from the rear.

On 2 June, D Company left its defense of Division Headquarters and crossed the ridges above Mandom to turn west towards Mokmer with 186. We moved on the left flank inside the coastal ridges. Although maps showed a trail with easy access to Mokmer, we found a hard march ahead. Soon we climbed in single file across ridges and broken terraces. The land was far rougher than the mountains D had trained on in Queensland. With our heavy equipment, we floundered sweating up and down jagged coral ridges and into draws and up again. We mostly travelled by azimuth, not by trail.

By 3 June, we had advanced 4 miles into that scrub - coral hell. Japs skirmished with 186's riflemen, but D had no fights. Dysentery, however, was D's agony; we thought that our bodies were rejecting the water.

Sergeant Criswell cites 3rd Platoon's Howard Nelson for martyrdom to his illness. Nelson was in agony and often dropped out of the line. Yet despite the weight of his 40-pound base plate and other equipment, Nelson kept staggering back to his place in the column.

Mortarman Fersch had to leave perimeter at first light because of dysentery. He walked down a small cliff to a terrace below. He suffered terribly from cramps. When he climbed back up, the platoon was gone; his squad leader had not missed him. Trying to follow our trail, he became lost in the maze of twisted terraces. Cowering in a cave that night, he realized that either Japs or 186 might shoot him on sight. Finally, he stumbled onto 116 Engineer unit and served there until rejoining us.

Water was a crucial problem. To fill canteens, we used night rains caught in ponchos. (Water was so short that when L men shot a Jap, they raced for his canteen. About 1/3 of L Company soon wore Jap canteens.)

On 4 June, we had hourly reports that the Jap navy was coming. Probable hour of attack was 1630. We were to dig in deep and hide in all the caves nearby to shelter from naval gunnery. Actual number of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers in the task force varied from hour to hour in the reports.

A frightening rumor was that Japs had landed north of us.

Rumored number of Japs grew from a division to a Corps. (Actually, some barges with a company of 221 Infantry and two light field artillery pieces did beach at Korim Bay the night of 3-4 June. And by 25 June, some 1,200 had arrived.)

With the end of this threat of Jap naval intervention, on 5 June, 186 neared Mokmer Ridge, which curved in such a way that we were headed due west instead of south towards the sea. While 3rd Battalion occupied the ridge top, our 1st Battalion bivouacked near the base. And D drew blood. In the night, a Jap officer with six men blundered over a tripwire into a heavy machine gun fire lane. We slew all seven - well-equipped, clean-shaven, young-looking and seeming full of fight.

After getting water on 6 June, on 7 June, behind heavy supporting fire, 186 seized Mokmer Dromes. D backed B and C when they occupied the main drome area.

Occupation was peaceful, but 186 had walked into another regiment-sized ambush like 162's at Parai Defile. For four hours, Jap field artillery, anti-aircraft, mortars and automatic weapons crashed down on us. E Company 162, which had followed us in the approach, was caught in the middle of the Strip, with no cover. An anti-aircraft gun shelled D; one died, 13 were wounded.

A big field gun, which D called Whistling Charlie, was firing shells fuzed to explode over our heads; it showered the Strip with fragments. Colonel Newman called D's Captain Klink to his command post and gave us the mission of killing that big gun.

When Klink returned to D Company, a Jap mortar chased him with shells. Klink ran madly; shells dropped just behind him. Finally, he fell safe into the hole made by a 500-pound shell.

D Company's mortars fired "battery right." Two Jap anti-aircraft units immediately saturated the area with shelling. Our 1st Sergeant Strebig had his back plastered with fragments. With bloody hands, we tore at the coral ground like madmen, trying to dig in. D was soon out of mortar shells; but Navy and five Air Force bombs blasted the hills while 121 Field Artillery adjusted fire for itself and 205 and 947 Field Artillery. The fire decreased before dark. The Jap guns that were still in action began moving to new positions.

Despite this heavy shelling of 7 June, 186 still held Mokmer Dromes. The Japs made no daylight ground attacks, and only in - effective night attacks on 3rd Battalion on 8 June.

But during daylight hours 8 June, D's mortars had good shooting to help 2nd Battalion 162. (This was the battalion that had joined 186 on the overland trek to Mokmer Dromes.) When 2nd Battalion 162 moved east to contact the other battalion of 162 fighting west from Parai, East Caves' mortars and automatic weapons halted 2nd Battalion. (The Japs' East Caves had been silent for nine days after they broke up 162's offensive of 29 May.)

And D 186 was primed to help 162 in distress. First, Lieutenant Hudnall and Staff Sergeant Imhoff registered our mortars. They fired a ladder of smoke shells to put our 81's on target. Set up in a parallel line, our six mortars detonated and impacted at the same instant. Often a gun crew had six shells in the air before the first one blasted the Japs. We poured in hundreds of shells on that Jap high ground. D stopped enough Jap fire to let 162 continue pushing; we got high praise for this day of good shooting.

On 9 June, D came out of our holes at Mokmer Dromes and fought to help B and C clear that tactical low ridge that was the anchor of Jap resistance on Biak. Nobody then knew that we were battling 1,200 infantry plus a naval guards unit plus field artillery and other supporting units.

Again, D's 81's adjusted mortar fire to get a base point close to the ridge line, and went into "battery right" again. For 20 minutes, our 81's saturated the ridge. Then D's heavy machine guns went forward behind the deploying rifle squads. The ground was fairly open, cover was limited. Moving up that ridge, we faced the Jap threat. We were a scared bunch of young men.

B with D's 1st Platoon of heavy machine guns almost reached the crest of the low ridge, but Jap machine gun fire drove us to earth. Jap infantry almost surrounded us. Our Lieutenant Cox's machine gun crews were down on that ground "half digging and half firing" to take pressure off B's forward riflemen. We delivered overhead machine gun fire while even D's ammo carriers fired their M-1's.

When the Japs counterattacked with two rifle platoons on our left flank, D had a great little victory. After B smashed one Jap pin's attack with heavy fire, B got orders to withdraw 400 yards. D's right flank heavy machine guns fired cover for that pullback.

But no order to retreat got to gunner Helphrey on the left flank. He was bitterly complaining that his heavy machine gun had not fired enough belts in B's advance. A high terrace had masked his fire.

Suddenly Helphrey saw a Nip officer blindly leading 29 men into his field of fire. Unaware of the Yank heavy machine gun 20 yards downhill, they halted and grimly fixed bayonets to smash B's unguarded and retreating flank. They could have caused panic in B.

 Helphrey hardly believed what he saw-a gunner's dream come true, at 20 yards a 30-man target. Half-sick with tension, he squeezed the trigger of his heavy machine gun. His bolt shot back; he emptied the whole belt into the Japs. All 30 crumpled and fell. Surely Helphrey saved a platoon or more of B from disaster.

            On 10 June, B plus C again attacked this same Jap ridge. This time, heavy field artillery fire preceded that attack; then D's 3rd Platoon 81's took up fire before B and C. This time the companies gained some ground, but a line of pillboxes held them. Again, a Jap counterattack hit 186's flank and forced withdrawal. F Company had to come up to rescue C. From 1300 to 1500, D and other outfits battered Jap position, but they were impregnable.

Colonel Newman would have mounted a third attack, but General Fuller changed plans. He called off our attacks and brought up 162 to help us against the ridge. He replaced two companies with two regiments, which would take over a week's fighting to clear that sinister, low, dark-green ridge.

Thus ended the first phase of D Company 186 Infantry's Battle of Biak. We had come through the dry overland maneuver, the great ambush at Mokmer Dromes and the hard two days' battle for the main Jap ridge on Biak. Allthough still holed up under Jap guns at Mokmer, we had high morale. We were ready for the next phase of infighting the Japs on Biak.

 

CREDIT: Main source is Wheeler's 69-page MS "Escapades on the Island of Biak," with information credits from Gerald LaHaie, Rueben Klink, David Herd, Thornton Crumb, Wayne Strebig, Marion Criswell, George Imhoff, Alvin Mazuti, Ernie Gerber, Willmar Stender, William Baldwin. Also used Eichelberger's Jungle Road to Tokyo, Riegelmans Combat (“Caves of Biak" chapter) and R.R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines.