D Company 186 Infantry, II: Sluggers with Heavy Weapons
By Nick Wheeler, D Company 186 with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

After fighting in 1st Battalion 186 Infantry's unsuccessful ridge attacks of 9-10 June 1944, D was back on the beach at Sboeria. Although 1st Battalion was again in reserve, we worked and slept under threat of shells from Horseshoe Hill, that U-shaped ridge position that was a series of jungle terraces above Mokmer Dromes. Jap binoculars on Horseshoe Hill observed every move we made below. Any large movement of men or trucks or tanks drew instant, accurate shell fire that drove us cringing into hard coral.

D's 81's had helped silence some Jap positions, but the cave guns seemed untouchable. We had seen that many guns were mounted on railroad tracks. They rolled out, were quickly manned, then shot accurately. Some of them we identified by usual number of rounds they fired - or by their span of time in action. Many of us gave names to those guns. D's mortar observers became more familiar with those Jap guns than anyone else.

Thus expert mortarmen - Lieutenant Hudnall, Staff Sergeants Crumb and Imhoff - got orders to accompany a tank to kill Jap guns. Our three men originated a firing plan with the tank unit commanding officer. We would put the tank in firing position, then wait for a gun to come from its cave. Our three D men would stand on top of the tank with field glasses. When the Jap gun fired, it threw up a short burst of white smoke. When that smoke flew up, our observers would spot it and give the range data to the young lieutenant behind the tank. He would phone the tank crew to set their guns to fire for effect.

Thus went D's observers into action with a tank and a protecting rifle squad from a line Company. In 20 minutes, a Jap gun stuck its muzzle out. Shells crashed on Mokmer Strip. Reading the mil scales on the glasses were Crumb sitting above the right track and Imhoff above the left track. Hudnall observed over the turret top to the rear. He soon ordered the tank to fire.

The tank fired and rocked violently. Following the tracer shells, Crumb and Imhoff corrected fire with changes in elevation and deflection. The gun was now precisely on target; Imhoff was about to call, "Fire for Effect!"

Suddenly the three D men felt a dull explosion and a rocking sensation. Using our tracer pattern, the Jap gunner had scored a direct hit. Right track below Crumb was blown off, a rifleman was killed, two more wounded.

Yet the tank gun was still operable; we were on target and could kill the Jap cannon and complete our mission. But we hadn't noted the nervousness of the tank crew. The tank lieutenant ordered, "Abandon tank!" Instead, our sergeants ordered the crew to fire for effect.

Yet, the tank lieutenant kept shouting, "Abandon tank!" Cowering in a great shell hole, we found a field observer team with a young shavetail commanding. He was so frightened that he would not register field artillery on that gun. After a few minutes, the Jap gun destroyed the tank. (We have no record of whether that Jap gun was ever punished.)

A staff officer saw D's action. Since the shell had burst directly under Crumb, he wanted to put Crumb in for a medal. Crumb then asked for medals for Hudnall and Imhoff also; they had shared the risk. When the staff officer said that three awards were impossible, Crumb refused. Although easy-going and well-liked, Crumb let his temper flare at what he considered an unequal offer. No award was presented.

During 10-13 June, D had nerve-wracking fire from the ridges. Jap field artillery, anti-aircraft and heavy mortars sprayed us with fragments daily. Often we moved to alternate positions to confuse gunners. Worst of all were Jap anti-aircraft; they screamed after us constantly. We feared those gunners more than anything else in the world. They fired time - fuzes close to ground, and we dug like moles to save ourselves.

Although we realized that we had it easier than riflemen under fire of accurate Jap Arisakas, we labored to give line outfits their needed support. D's observers and wire crews surely worked overtime. We got support fire where it was needed and when it was needed, D probably knew more about locations of Jap guns and caves than anyone else on Biak. Time and again, Colonel Newman singled out our observers and wire teams for tough missions of rifle platoons.

On 13 June, we had our first dead; a Jap gun crew tried to wipe out our 81's. The blast caught 3rd Platoon's mortarmen in shade under ponchos where they were playing cards with 1st Platoon men.

In seconds, the gun pulverized the area. It ruined most ponchos, but the men under them were deep in holes. Pfc Charles H. Griffin of machine guns was killed; seriously wounded were Scott, Staff Sergeant Budach and Corporal Newport. A field artillery observer at once engaged the position; the fire stopped almost as fast as it began. D's mortarmen manned the untouched tubes and kept on firing.

Now Lieutenant Colonel Fields got orders to team his 1st Battalion with 162 1st Battalion for a flank attack on Horseshoe Hill. For the Japs so strongly held the forward side of the hill that 162's 3rd Battalion could not dominate that ridge even with 2nd Battalion's help. Friendly natives reported that the Japs were guarding the last waterhole midway between Hill 320 and Horseshoe Hill. Although General Doe did not know that this waterhole was actually West Caves, he believed that here was the strong- point-the key to Horseshoe Hill.

            At 0800 14 June, D with 1st Battalion 186 left the beach and hiked 100 feet high to the Japs' left flank. D led 1st Battalion, then came Lt. Col. Fields' command post, 116 Collecting Company, D and finally B. C had D's 2nd Platoon of heavy machine guns, while 1st Platoon heavy machine guns was in battalion reserve. (Our 81's stayed on the beach in regimental battery.)

In the jungle climb, 1st Battalion bypassed three known Jap positions. At a wide space between contours 80 and 100, we turned hard left to a westward trail. C killed two patrols of 36 Japs. Advance continued through a hot, matted jungle - D's 2nd Platoon of heavy machine gun's with C's 60 mm mortars.

About 1400, signs were ominous from 162 leftwards. C passed word not to fire on a B162 squad that was forced back. When another B 162 squad came through C's lines, its leader told Sergeant Herd that two heavy machine guns were lost.

C 162 pushed through a third ridgeline before dusk, and dug in with our two heavy machine gun sections to defend them. Throughout the night, small groups of Japs attacked from near a road that entered our position from the west. D men thought a full company attacked; we had good shooting. The Japs struck between two of D's heavy machine guns; we worked on them with help from C's rifles. Early in the morning, we had a great kill. Shouting war cries, some 50 Japs hit C's left flank on the road. From the shelter of our perimeter at daybreak, we counted 30 dead Japs.

And D was angry after a sleepless night. We were miserable in the heat; our uniforms were shredded. Morale was down because General Fuller was relieved from command. We only knew that Eichelberger of Buna was now commanding officer, and we feared being thrown away, as we thought 32 Division men had been thrown away.

Now Lieutenant Gerber with Staff Sergeant Herd went forward to high ground in our perimeter to search with field glasses for Japs. Japs were moving in small groups to a suspected defense position behind the road. At the base of a large clump of bushes to the right of this position, Gerber looked right into binoculars of a Jap inspecting us. When a Yank observer called for a few rounds of field artillery on the Japs, a short gave Gerber a light wrist wound. He ordered our heavy machine guns to search the Jap area now and then.

And by 0730 15 June, D was in close combat with Jap tanks. Their overhead support fire slashed at B and C - from the high ground before us and Hill 320 on our right. We heard Jap tanks clanking from behind the hill before us; it made hair curl on the back of our necks.

At 300 yards, tank No.1 opened fire with a 37 mm cannon - a grim, smoking little machine with high turret. Officers and NCO's got everyone into firing position, but we really needed no help against this tank. The 1st Battalion AT Platoon heavy machine gun emptied a full .50 belt against the tank; rifle clips emptied into it too. Suddenly the tank turned off the road and disappeared, trailing smoke. We saw another tank coming; riflemen guarded it, but it abruptly withdrew.

For the next five hours, B, C and D kept low beneath Jap machine gun fire. From behind us, C Battery 121 Field Artillery dropped 600 rounds on the ridge and halted some of the Jap fire upon us.

At 1310, we had a second Jap attack headed for us. At 300 yards, the tanks fired and rolled in fast. A C bazooka team fired but had only near misses.

Dug in on a small nose on ground above the road, D's 2nd Platoon had an excellent field of fire. Our machine guns shot fiercely at tank No. 1. Gunner Click almost had his head blown off the slug tore his helmet from his head.

But as tank No.1 closed in, Click kept firing; he helped C's morale greatly. The C bazooka team scored a direct hit and stopped the tank. It had closed to 100 yards; all of us fired crazily into it.

Absurdly, the turret popped open; a Jap soldier stuck out his head. Our steel striking the turret sounded like popcorn on a hot skillet. The turret closed; two more bazooka shells hit the tank. It turned back into brush and burned.

With its .37 belching fire, tank No.2 now charged us. Our hot guns blasted back. As it closed to 60 yards, the .50 heavy machine gun damaged its turrets and hampered the .37 from firing into us. C's bazooka men launched three rockets uselessly. One bounced off the turret; one bounced off the track. The third merely destroyed the tool rack.

A 4.2 mortar now fired on the tank; one short hit a foxhole and killed a C man. In trying to bring the damaged .37 into position to fire, the tank turned left and caught on a coral ledge and stripped its tracks. The tank crew left and rushed for cover under a hail of rifle fire.

Gerber, Herd and two C men volunteered to check the tank for more Nips. In hurrying, they triggered a 186 booby trap but were unhurt. A Headquarters Company flamethrower and three Jap mortar shells caused the tank to flame and explode. In this fight, D lost one man wounded and evacuated - Lee Ward.

At 0815 16 June, 1st Battalion killed four more Japs. It amazed us that the Japs were fresh and attacked vigorously - probably new arrivals on Biak. Meanwhile on 16 June 186's 2nd Battalion shock troops stormed Horseshoe Hill and closed the Great Gap between 162's 2nd Battalion and 2nd Battalion. Although D's men in 1st Battalion had to keep low during 2nd Battalion's attack, our mortarmen down on the beach lobbed in many of the 1,000 shells that tore up the Jap ground before the push. Back with 1st Battalion, D's Boyce was wounded.

That night, 2nd Platoon's heavy machine guns were protecting five tanks. Knee mortars impacted; we also detected a Jap suicide team crawling before our machine guns. In the dark, Gerber felt frenziedly for his carbine to signal his guns to fire. When he found it and pulled the trigger, we killed seven. The Japs carried stachel charges and grenades - no doubt to kill the tanks.

And on 19 June, when 186 in a great tactical move enveloped West Caves in the rear, 1st Battalion moved out to contact 186's 2nd Battalion and seal the Japs' escape routes. On 21-22 June, the night of the Big Banzai, D's heavy machine guns placed heavy fire on Jap attacks. Crawling forward to a machine gun hole, Captain Klink took an ugly wound in his knee from a mortar blast. Next morning, a litter jeep evacuated Klink. Twice en route to the coast, his three-jeep convoy had to take cover from Jap fire on the terraces. Luckily, there were no casualties.

For D, the main action on Biak was over with just one man killed. We had three good men who were still to die.

When the Japs tried to reorganize at Wardo Bay in southeast Biak, D was ashore with 1st Battalion on 17 August. Although Jap opposition was light, we were worn down from combat. One dark night, Rue at his heavy machine gun challenged a man relieving him. Another man went berserk; his rifle wounded Rue in the arm and killed Sgt. Lee Ward when he awoke and raised his head from a foxhole. (Ward was wounded earlier, on 15 June.) To save the berserk man's life from Ward's friends we hurried him off on a barge next morning.        

            On 29 August died beloved Pvt. Joe T. Palmiero - master of mortar gunnery and indirect fire. When Lieutenant Harper's A Company patrol filled two of 10 Japs in native gardens, Palmiero helped Staff Sergeant Crumb with mortar adjustments. The second time Palmiero raised his head above a log, he took a bullet between the eyes. Another unseen Jap group joined the fight. When the Japs broke for high ground, D avenged his death; our mortar slew 14 of 25.

Returned from Wardo, D had a tragic accident. While setting up a motor generator to light the camp, Harry W. Lawrence caught fire from high octane gas fumes that lay low in the heavy jungle. The fumes exploded from contact with fires that had smoldered from the previous day. Although McGough and Moore extinguished the flames, Lawrence died in the hospital days later. We thought that a letter from Lawrence's stateside wife had finished him. She was getting a divorce; his doctor said that Lawrence had given up wanting to live.

And thus ended the second phase of D 186's Battle of Biak. Repelled after 9-10 June to emplacements under Jap fire at Mokmer Dromes, we joined Colonel Fields' 1st Battalion to fight the tanks before West Caves. Although D's losses were fortunately light, our expert gunnery and mortaring had saved lives and served 186 wherever Colonel Newman needed us.

 

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