M Company 186 Infantry: Our Biak Story

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with M 186's John Lapham


About 0735 27 May 1944, most of M Company 186 Infantry landed unfought with our 3rd Battalion at Bosnek on Biak. Two heavy machine gun sections attached to I and K Companies landed 2300 yards west because of an unknown inshore current and had to hike back to Bosnek.

One heavy machine gun section with L Company climbed a trail to secure Bosnek Ridge. About 1345 an "L" patrol scouted to our right, halfway up the trail. After gunfire, we saw L's Staff Sergeant Donald J. Foote borne back dead from a bullet in his chest. Japs of 1st Battalion 222 Infantry were putting up scattered resistance in jungle north of us.

Now with L 186, that same "M" heavy machine gun section guarded over 100 yards of a ridge behind Bosnek. About 0630 28 May, Japs howled "Banzai!" and attacked. "L" had three wounded, but we killed 14 Jap men, an officer. Probably lightly wounded that day was M's Pvt Jesse W. Lawrence.

In our early days on Biak, Nippo plane raids seemed continuous. So trigger-happy were our anti-aircraft gunners that they even killed a plane of ours, which was flying in maps. At 2020 the night of 30 May, bombs from Nippo planes killed T/4 Arvid E. Sternquist, seriously wounded Pvt John E. Reed and Staff Sergeant Lester E. Gant. Gant lost an arm.

            All three men were mess personnel. When 162 Infantry failed to force Parai Defile, General Fuller needed our 186 Infantry to march overland to bypass Parai Defile and seize Mokmer Strip. So on 31 May as soon as 163 Infantry's 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion arrived from Toem, we turned over Bosnek Beach to them and crossed Bosnek Ridge into the dry jungle scrub.

On 1 June, 3rd Battalion with M Company moved north across the ridge and by 1100 was entrenching at the west end of the area which the Japs had surveyed for an air-strip. At 1330, K Company repelled a Jap force of some 25 men. In dead night after 0300 1-2 June, a company and a half of Japs struck 3rd Battalion from the south while other Japs hit from the northwest.

Main attack, of course, came from the company and a half to the south, with support of mortar and machine gun fire. Four hours' hand-to-hand fighting began, when 3rd Battalion rapidly adjusted our lines and trapped most of them.

            In this wild combat, two L Company men were killed within 10 feet of the hole where Pate and Lapham crouched. In a nearby hole, probably L's Pvt Harvey R. Lloyd was killed at once. Pfc Adolph G.  Freiman would die of wounds on 4 June, two days later.

When some L Company riflemen called over to M's gunners for more grenades, ammo-bearer Lapham responded. He left his safe slit trench near the heavy machine gun and collected M men's grenades in his helmet. He slipped behind the first line of holes and dropped grenades into the hands of grateful riflemen who asked for them. Although naturally in great danger from being shot in the dark by our men, and with Japs yards away firing automatic weapons, heroic Lapham was unhurt. He may have averted a Japanese breach of our lines.

            That night, 186 Infantry slew 86 Japs. Entire Regiment lost five killed, 10 wounded – including   Pvt James P. Bunnell of AT Company. Most of our 186 Infantry losses were in 3rd Battalion, three killed, eight wounded. In M Company, Pfc Floyd L. Ellmore was reported lightly wounded (probably in this action), other circumstances unknown.

Despite the sleeplessness and confusion from this night action, 186 Infantry marched forth at 0900 2 June. While 3rd Battalion plus 1st Battalion slogged west, 2nd Battalion with AT Company secured our north flank against the Japs. The road died out. In that rocky coral scrubland, our five attached tanks became useless. Without their protection, we had to advance against the Japs. In this progress of 2 June, 186 Infantry lost six killed, 10 wounded - but killed 96 Japs who battled with machine guns and rifles in little patrols. M Company had no losses. The Regiment made 400 yards west from their tentative plan of going 500 yards. It was not easy going.

After the first day of our westward advance, Jap fighters almost disappeared. But in the heat and humidity in the breezeless 12-foot scrub that walled us in, our march became a thirsty trek.

In that dry scrubland, water was our greatest problem. Well-drillers dug only dry holes. Once we found a well that held water for a single company, but it was dry 10 minutes later, on 4 June. We had a shortage of water-trailers and 5-gallon bidons. Water had to come slowly by truck up 10 miles of rough road. Water had to come by a circuitous road that backtracked east to Opiaref, then bent north and turned west to where we sweated behind B Company 116 Engineers bulldozing our new road.

From L Company's Biak narrative, we can appreciate the shortage of water which our M Company and other 3rd Battalion outfits also had to endure. Supposedly starting out from the coast with two canteens full on 2 June, "L" had no water at all issued next day, on 3 June. On 4 June, "L" actually received a whole canteen full for each man! On 5 June, we had no water issue. Colonel Newman expected to have to stop the whole waterless regiment dead in our tracks. But about 1200, a heavy rain pooled our open pouches and was funneled into our empty canteens while we drank and rejoiced. Then on 6 June, water arrived up that lengthening road from Bosnek, and L Company had two full canteens to fight on again.

On 5 June, after the rain had filled our canteens, K Company's 1st Platoon about 1400 found an approach up over the southern ridge above Mokmer Strip. Our 3rd Battalion of course with M Company -  immediately positioned on the ridge-top where through thick jungle we could glimpse Mokmer Strip, 2500 yards southwest.

            Well resupplied by 6 June, especially with water, our 3rd Battalion with 1st Battalion on our left was now ready to seize Mokmer Strip. And on 7 June, after some bombing by 5 Air Force and 30 minutes' preparation by 121 Field Artillery, who had followed on our overland trek, we marched downhill. We seized Mokmer Strip without fighting. By 0850, our lead platoon was on Sboeria Beach. By 0915, attached 2nd Battalion 162 Infantry had closed in behind us, and the rest of 186 Infantry was following us into Mokmer Strip.

Mokmer Strip now seemed like an easy conquest. But about 0945 from Mokmer Ridge where we had bypassed them, the Japs impacted us. With all the field artillery and machine gun fire that they could bring to bear. It was a four-hour blasting. Especially vicious were heavy mortar and 20 mm fire from the direction of East Caves where our field artillery could not range in. And from northwest along the low ridge behind West Caves, 75 mm cannon or dual purpose anti-aircraft fire whistled down, but our observers could not locate them. By calling fire on positions which they could pinpoint on the ridge that we had just crossed, our field artillery and 81 mm mortar observers did diminish that fire by 40 percent. By late afternoon, at least six Jap positions were silenced, and mortar fire had become lighter.

On that 7 July, M Company had more casualties in that one day than on any other single day in our whole war - one killed, eight reported seriously wounded. Killed was Pfc Clarence J. Ogborn. Reported seriously wounded were 1st Lieutenant Lloyd G.  Males, Tech Sergeant Mark H. Hathaway, Sergeant Walter L. Decker - along with Pfcs Clarence H. Payne, Francisco Z. Cortez, Joe Garcia, Gerald C. Jensen and Pvt Hanes E. Larsen. Nearby L Company lost five dead, six wounded. Of the 14 killed in all 186 Infantry that day, "L" plus "M" had eight.)

Even as early as 1040 while Jap field artillery bombarded us, 186's Commanding Officer Colonel Newman tried to run in supplies and tanks from the sea. Besides tanks, we needed medical supplies, especially blood plasma. Our 3rd Battalion reported having only enough plasma for 50 men. But not until 1236 could 1st Battalion men locate a beach at Sboeria Village where barges and LSTs could land.

In the face of remarkably accurate fire from the ridges, it was hard to beach the tanks and supplies. And in a 12-foot coral seaside cliff, Japs held caves with machine guns, backed by mortar bunkers near the coast road. When they first tried to land, three tank-loaded LCMs and some LCVs had to sheer off because of direct fire from the cliff caves. Although two of the LCMs with tanks were damaged, three tanks landed by 1340.

The tanks crunched a few shore bunkers that they could sight near the road with their guns, but they then turned in- land to fight Nippo positions on the ridges. And 186 Infantry still had to clear out the caves in the 12-foot cliff where tanks could not bring their guns to bear.

While I and K Companies fought the Japs in this cliff, at least one M Company man volunteered to help them. Although a supply Sergeant in M Company, Staff Sergeant Richard M. Ten Eyck with an unnamed assistant went into action. Killing a number of Japs, Ten Eyck cleared numerous caves, even put a 20 mm machine cannon out of action. Once, he even stood up on a ledge in full view of a Nippo gun pit and slew the crew. No doubt other "M" men fought that cliff also.

That night, Jap patrols harassed I Company's 3 Platoon from the beach. About 2230, their machine gun fired over us. They showered grenades within 25 yards of our holes. Firing for effect 100 yards before our perimeter, M's 81 mm mortars weakened their harassment so that I and L Companies could stop the assault. The Japs seemed to attack for two purposes. Mainly, they wanted to keep our supply parties from landing in the protecting dark. But they also may have been on recon to locate our lines for the great night assault of 8-9 June.

We did not then know that Lieutenant-General Takazo Numata had assumed personal command of the Japs' western area. He had issued orders for a final attack by all available men to retake Mokmer Strip.

The full moon was up by 2100 that night of 8-9 June. About 2130, K Company opened fire on 12 advancing Nips whom the full moon outlined against the white coral Strip. "K" shot rifle grenades and 60 mm shells at them, with unknown results. Presumably some of those same Nips went to ground and struck back at "K" with knee mortars.

After the mortar fire, the Japs seem to have sent trained dogs to help them accurately locate our holes. Several dogs did trot up to within 100 yards of 3rd Battalion's position at the west end of 186's perimeter. Two of them halted and barked. Other dogs trotted up soundlessly, then returned to the west. Japs then moved up past where the line of dogs had stopped

A Jap whistle blew. The Japs attacked under cover of the mortars, which now began lifting and moving east. Our .50 caliber heavy machine guns of 3rd Battalion Headquarters searched for the mortars, but heavy Jap fire flailed at them with each burst. We ordered our .50s to cease fire. But M Company's .81 mortars blasted out the Jap mortars. Then M's mortars detonated so dangerously close to our lines that we had to cease fire also.

L Company's 3rd Platoon with at least 1 "M" heavy machine gun was positioned on an inland road that turned north off the main beach road. In that position, the road became an obvious corridor of Jap attack. Despite close in fire of our .60 mortars, grenades, and rifles, Nippo bayonet men got through to kill. Bayonets and other weapons killed seven "L" men and wounded three more.      

In a hole near gunner Lapham, a Nip reared up and bayoneted an "L" rifleman in the back. Another Yank in the same hole shot the Nip dead. While the dead or dying Nip fell on an "L" man, he knifed the Nip again because he thought the enemy still endangered him.

Lapham rose to his knees and called for a Medic nearby. A probably wounded Yank fired a tommie at Lapham. A .45 slug caromed off his helmet just above the right ear but failed even to draw blood. A Jap or Yank rifle bullet would have killed him.

About 0500 at dawn, three blasts of a Jap whistle ordered their withdrawal. Still in our holes, we had killed 42 known' Nips and lost 13 killed and 38 wounded in all 186 Infantry. (Of these, our 3rd Battalion had eight dead and 20 wounded.) On 8 June "M" reported 2nd Lieutenant Richard A. Hansen killed and Pfc Gerald C. Jensen and Pvt David Nelson lightly wounded.  On 9 June, "M" reported Pvt Steve J. Sykora and Pfc David J. Gitelson as both lightly wounded.

Despite failing to destroy 186 Infantry, the Japs' story was different. They credited 222 Infantry with advancing halfway down the Strip (where we were not even dug in) before we halted them. A Company of 19 Naval Garrison ("Marines") had infiltrated across the Strip into our rear but were too few to hold the ground.

Next morning, M's Lapham witnesses the desperation of our night fight. We saw a dead "L" rifleman with a bullet in his throat. While he fired his M-1, the bolt had caught his jacket lapel and held him while the Jap bullet killed him. A mortar had blown two "L" men from their hole; they found half a body 50-60 yards away. And in one of their shell-craters of 7 June, he found 8-10 dead Nips.

Such is the main tale of M 186 on Biak, but we had more combat still. On 10-24 June, we had seven more losses. Pfc Frank Quirk was lightly wounded on 10 June, and Wilson lightly injured, 15 June. On 19 June, the day that 3rd Battalion cut the West Caves supply lines, Pvt Marvin B.Short and 2nd Lieutenant William F. Gallagher were lightly wounded. On 20 June, the day that K Company tried to take Hill 320, Pfc Robert Verdugo was lightly wounded. On 21 June, the night of the West Caves Banzai, Pfc Levi D. Alexander was seriously injured. Pvt. Enrique Martinez was seriously wounded, 24 June, the day that 3rd Battalion attacked Jap gun positions in the hills. Nothing more can be found about these last "M" casualties.

On Biak, M Company 186 Infantry had just three killed, from a total of only 25 casualties. Despite the hardships and risk that "M" endured, we served the 41st well, with but few losses in action.

 

CREDIT: Personal stories are from letters of John Lapham, 26 November 1982, 12 January 1983 - and Clarence Malcolm 27 May 1983. I used also award stories of Lapham and Richard Ten Eyck. "Record of Events" of M 186 on Biak was almost useless, but some fine help came from "Record of Events of Company L, from 25 May 1944." Other important data came from 186's Biak Casualty List, 186's Infantry's "Journal" and "Narrative" from 2 May 1944 to 20 August 1944, RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines, and Reports of General MacArthur: Japanese Operations in the Southwest Pacific Area.