Biak:  The Probing Knife of War

by Charles Marion Solley, Jr., I Company, 186th Infantry

I never made the initial landing at Biak.  I was a replacement sent to Finschafen where I was in reserve for Hollandia, and then to Biak.  As we moved from place to place, we slept outside at night; under the Southern Cross, looking at the stars at night, watching flying fish jump into the boats.  In Hollandia I learned I was part of the 186th Infantry.  It was some time in June 1944 when we were bring moved on as replacements for Biak.  It was an old, dirty Dutch boat used to trade coconuts which took me and some others to Biak. 

The one thing that I received and kept forever was a little New Testament.  I recorded the name of my mother, a few old friends, and the names of my officers in I Company of the 186th.  My Platoon leaders were 2nd Lieutenant Reed P Waters, and other Lieutenants Paulson, Lee, Tuttle, Boe, Foster, Cox and Holson.  I also wrote my Company Commander was Captain Heidrick who had been wounded at Hollandia.  Seven of us were replacements being moved by truck past Mokmer Drome.  I was assigned a BAR, M-1 rifles were assigned to Dan Wissel, Eddie Stewart, Al Gilbert, Steve Suwinski, Jack Johnson and another man with an Italian name. 

We were assigned to establish another perimeter about 20 feet away from the rest, using a machete for chopping light trees and bushes.  We dug new foxholes mostly using an Army shovel.  We ate rations, drank hot tea from a billy-can and whatever rain took place. 

We moved further north while locating the Japanese.  We went on more patrols, especially toward a small ridge where the Japs were still firing at us.  There we finally killed about 14 Japs whose bodies were rotting in a few weeks.  But in our foxholes at night, the Japs kept making Banzai attacks, sometimes running dogs to get us mixed up.  We killed two or three Japs a night, or early in the morning at times.

Dan Wissel and I shared a foxhole, took turns watching and sleeping.  Sometimes we had no sleep.  None of our watches worked, but I had taken a Japanese watch that glowed in the dark -- the only watch we could see.  The worst attack came the night of 24 June.  A heavy machine gun opened fire, and the Japs attacked us.  Four of our group were killed; Staff Sergeant Orville K Simmons died first, then Sgt. John E Manning, Pvt Angelo J Gemelli and Pfc Douglas H Mason.  Pfc Melvin Boyd was badly wounded. 

Day after day there would be another Banzai attack.  Suddenly there would be Japs coming through the trees and bushes.  I had been shooting my BAR and had run out of shells.  A Jap was coming at me with a bayonet. My right arm was cut, so I knocked my right hand away and threw the empty BAR at the Jap.  It hit him in his face.  Then Dan Wissel shot him. I tied a piece of cloth on my arm for a while before I could see a Medic.

The Japanese machine guns were cutting down those light trees across that area.  I saw one of our Medics run across that open area, pick up a wounded man, and run him across for safety.  One of the bravest men I ever saw!

We moved further north towards that ridge.  In one of those ridges there was a cave where a Japanese officer had worn some silk clothes, had a Samurai sword, and he had formally killed himself.  We were so tired, we were looking for a place where we could open a few Army tents and some cots and get some sleep.  But another unit had been moved to our replacement area near that ridge, so we had to find another place. 

We dug in near K Company, and both companies established some perimeter alarms using barbed wire and hand-grenades for safety.  We also established two men for guard duty at a foxhole each night.  Dan Wissel and I also remembered that we both had heard the sound of a Jap "Betty Bomber" flying toward the Mokmer Air Base.  We phoned and told our commanding officer about it.  He phoned Mokmer to tell the Anti-Aircraft crews.  The AA officers told us that we were just drunk.  But suddenly that "Betty" dropped a bomb at our air base and got away!

It was early August, and Colonel Newman knew that we were going to the Philippines, and that we needed to clear out the remaining "Samurai" in Biak because they could still attack some of the non-infantry near the Mokmer Air Base.  That meant that I Company was to move up that North Trail and locate as many Japs as we could. 

About five of us knew where to locate a native farm where there was an open area for dropping rations, equipment, ammunition, including a new pair of jungle boots for "Solley" who had his shoes all cut up from coral rocks on Biak.  In that North Trail area we established some new foxholes, perimeters, and a new patrol for locating the Japs. 

Our platoon leader was Lt. Waters.  Sometimes we discovered places where Japs had built houses, were eating rice and Japanese cans of food, and they had cooks.  But on every day, we had someone being shot or wounded.  Japs would fire down on us from the top of tall trees.  We were also fired on by machine guns and knee-mortars.  Obviously, there were still many "Samurais". 

I still remember the time our little squad had to climb up on top of a large log, were fired on again, and had to re-cross the log.  I was carrying our BAR.  I tripped on crossing that area, and a Nambu machine gun fired at us, then had to change its clips.  But it missed me and I ran further away.  I wasn't hit, although my shirt was full of holes.

But a knee-mortar shell exploded near my right knee.  Later one our scouts loaned me a pair of tweezers and I picked out some of that shell from my knee.  Years later, shrapnel was still working itself out of that knee. 

The next day (8 August) Lt. Waters wanted to find the Japs, so he sent our patrol out led by two scouts moving toward that North area.  Again, we found several "houses" where the Japs lived.  They even had a cook, extra rice and even some of our Army rations, and tea.  When we had slowly walked about 50 feet, suddenly I had the feeling that something serious was about to happen.  In the front lead, our two scouts hit the ground.

From the ridge, a rifle-shot hit the first scout in the chest, (probably Pfc William L Stanton reported seriously wounded ). I saw him bleeding. Another shot impacted the second scout's helmet. Another shot climbed over the top of the helmet. It did not even graze him. Then two Japanese Nambus opened fire at Lt. Waters.  I hit the ground about three or four feet away, and I drew as much fire as I could with my BAR.  Lt. Waters could not move; he was hit in the chest. Platoon Sergeant Boone took the rest of our unit and made a sweep to the left, and the remaining Japs ran away.

About 60 feet away we had a doctor; the only one I had ever seen near the middle of a battle.  Lt. Waters was still losing blood.  Konen was our scout and four other men carried Waters back down the long trail.  But Lt. Waters died from the loss of blood. 

The day he died, I wrote the following poetry:

            Lieutenant, Hold on; just a little longer.

I can't move, but I can draw their fire.

Two machine guns; one's straight ahead; one is to the left.

            Lieutenant, Hold on.  Don't you die on me.

We've come too far; two years, a thousand miles, thirty six men.

            The men have them flanked.  The guns are gone.

Dammit, why'd you do it?  Why'd you take my place?

            Hold on, Dammit, don't you die on me.

            Lieutenant, don't you die on me.

 

            The probing knife of war dissects the sternest soul of men,

                        Reveals the little flaws where none before have been.

 

It was while sleeping in foxholes on that North Trail that some of our men had been sick with hepatitus and had to be sent to a hospital in Hollandia or Finschafen.  Some of us ran a continuous fever with some kind of jungle Typhus.  I also had a fever of about 110 for several days.  By October we managed to return to our tents for some rest.

At that time, I wanted to meet our chaplain who was near Colonel Newman's area of the 186th Infantry.  I had been on clean-up detail, and had to walk about three or four miles for the Chaplain's meeting.  For some stupid reason, I left my BAR.  It was getting dark, and I was alone.  There was a dump area for garbage, and I heard a Jap looking for some food.  I yelled at him, and he ran practically on top of me.  I grabbed him and the two of us fought, hand to hand.  I was still angry about the loss of my lieutenant.  The Jap picked up a rock and busted my nose; I kicked him in his gut.  I found another rock and knocked him unconscious and finally killed him.  Then I realized that if the officers found the Jap body, they would order us to go on more patrols.  I drug the Jap body into the nearby jungle.

Then I went on to where that church service was going to take place.  But I had blood all over my face, on my clothes and on my fingers. Some of my buddies said that I looked terrible.  I told them what had happened.  They helped me clean up with some water from a listerbag, and I sat way at the back.  I listened to the church service, but was looking at the blood still on me.  When I got back to I Company I cleaned up with some soap.  But I repressed this incident for many years.

After the war, I went to the VA to deal with malaria, jungle fevers, shrapnel and my broken nose. It was there that a doctor gave me some sodium pentothal, and for the first time I was able to talk about that experience.  To talk with that doctor really helped me.  

 

CREDIT: After Jungleer publication of Solley's history of winning a DSC at Annunanga in the Zamboanga Operation, Historian Hargis Westerfield asked him for his history of combat days on Biak. What appears above is Charlie's firsthand account from the typescript in the archives. Other sources are 186 Infantry's casualty list.