41st Division Headquarters (and 186 Infantry): General Fuller's Resignation

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Colonel (later Brigadier General Kenneth Sweany) and Colonel (later Major General Oliver Newman)

                                         

What are the true reasons why Major General Horace Fuller requested relief from commanding our 41st Division on Biak? For Lieutenant General Walter Krueger never ordered Fuller's relief as Commanding Officer of the 41st; he removed Fuller as Commanding Officer of Hurricane Task Force commanding the 41st. Was relief ordered because of Fuller's own errors? Or was relief ordered because of Sixth Army General Krueger's errors? We believe that Krueger was wrong.

Fuller's first alleged error occurred on Z-Day, when our Navy misjudged the current velocity off Bosnek, and dropped 186 closer to Mokmer Strip than 162 Infantry. Although 162 was to spearhead the push, 186 landed far closer.

To 186's Colonel Newman (and to historian RR Smith in 1953), it therefore seemed logical that 186 take over 162's mission. Pushing at once, 186 might gain valuable time. Newman radioed General Fuller for permission to march. During beachhead training in Australia, we had readily changed missions when landings went wrong.

But Fuller ordered 186 to move east to Bosnek past 162, while 162 struck for Mokmer. Despite danger of Jap attack from dark Biak ridges, both regiments countermarched on that narrow Biak foreshore, with Japs observing above them. Lieutenant Joe Crawford (E 186) later heard that a Jap outfit looked down on the flank of countermarching E Company. Luckily, the Japs had no order to attack.

Fuller surely lost time here - 110 minutes. Although Newman had his 2nd Battalion and most of 3rd Battalion under direct control at 0740, not until 0930 did 162's Battalion pass where Newman had beached at 0715. Only a light screening force of Parai Defile Nips resisted 162's push 110 minutes later. It's easy to conclude that Fuller erred in ordering 162 to continue original mission.

But let's stop to think! Our Navy's rockets and big guns were ready offshore to blow a Jap attack apart almost pointblank. The Jap menace was not so great as it appeared.

As for losing time, would 186 Infantry have done better in Parai Defile by arriving 110 minutes earlier? It took four hours for 162 to neutralize the light Jap holding force in the Defile.

Could 186 have done better? And even if 186 had been quicker, the Jap ambush from East Caves would have probably mauled 186 just as 162 was mauled next morning.

And switching missions with 162 might have been disastrous to Newman. In Australia on practice landings, Newman had never switched regiments when a landing miscarried. Newman had changed only battalions of his own regiment. Altering regimental missions in Jap country could lose more men than 162 lost in Parai Defile.

For field artillery and Navy observers had embarked with 162 units. Location of field artillery positions, travel routes, command posts, fire direction centers were on 162's maps. Naval gunfire coordinates were on those maps. All units were specifically briefed. To change regimental missions would have meant so many changes of unit assignments that some of them might be missed and fail to get the orders. And reassigning messages must go on the radio in English. Alert Jap listeners would learn unit locations and plans for battle. If Fuller changed assignments from 162 to 186, chaos would result.

Fuller's second alleged error came later, when 186 Infantry and 116 Engineers built the new road behind Bosnek to Mokmer Ridge behind the Strip. During most of 186's overland march, only one bulldozer and some few B 116 Engineers labored on that necessary supply road. Colonel Newman said that abundant equipment was back on Bosnek Beach. We lost time here indeed.

But was Fuller's failure to provide more road-building gear an error? Or was it wise strategy? Since Mokmer Strip was still Jap-held, Fuller on his own initiative built an airfield on Owi Island. He saved many pilots' lives in emergency landings. On 17 June, for example, 15 planes had exhausted their gas in fighting a storm back to their base. They safely landed on Owi Strip. Important also, Owi-based planes guarded Bosnek Beach from bombs like the one that crippled us at Hollandia. (Fuller also lined the Bosnek coast with anti-aircraft guns so that a Jap raider would meet a solid wall of flak.) And from Owi would fly the B-24s that killed Ibdi Pocket and saved many 163 men's lives.   

            Fuller's third alleged error came after Newman had hiked 186 Infantry to the end of the new road and poised 186 on the ridge above Mokmer Strip. Fuller insisted that Newman seize the Strip without delay.

            Newman believed that Fuller crucially erred here. Reasoning that the hidden Jap positions were sighted south towards the sea, Newman wanted to find the Japs and hit them in the rear. He planned to send a 186 Battalion down the right side of the high ridge above Mokmer Strip, and another down the left side. Thus he would strike Horseshoe Ridge from the rear. But he failed to get Fuller's order to clear the ridges before capturing the Strip.

While still on the heights, Newman took some precautions. He interrupted 186's push to halt both lead battalions to scout the ridges right and left. But in tangled cliffs and blind jungle, neither battalion found any Japs.

He thought that his right (west) patrol would have made a gigantic difference on Biak, but we have never found the complete story on that patrol. It totally missed the Jap emplacements. Nobody knows why it missed; we can only surmise. Maps suggest that Jap guns were about 1,000 yards off, but hidden in jungle ridges. Perhaps the patrol simply failed to see the Japs - like other patrols with more time. Perhaps quiet Jap outposts saw them pass and miss the positions. Perhaps there was no real patrol - just a few scared flankers fearing to lose contact with 3rd Battalion.

Newman, however, gallantly rebuked himself for not finding the Japs. He told historian RR Smith that his worst mistake was in not personally supervising the patrol.

At first appraisal, Newman seems right to advocate hunting down the Japs while 186 still held the ridges. At first, Fuller seems wrong in ordering Newman to take the Strip.

For on 7 June after we seized the Strip, the bypassed Japs had us trapped. When we revealed our lines on Mokmer, Jap shells and bullets impacted from four different azimuths. They fired from the low ridge NW which our patrol had missed, northwards, northeast, and from East Caves. Field artillery, anti-aircraft, mortars, automatic weapons battered us - 75s, 20 mm guns, heavy mortars like our 81s. It lasted four hours, despite counter fire from 121, 205, and 947 Field Artillery - our 75s, 105s even 155s. Not until late afternoon, did our field artillery silence six gun positions - and cut Nip fire 40 per cent. We had 14 dead, 68 wounded. We were positioned for a deadly night attack from the Japs. We would have to storm ridges from which we had just descended.

            But did Fuller really make a third error in ordering 186 off the ridges? Up there, 186 was at the end of a difficult supply line, and alone among the whole Jap army. Three great Jap fortresses swarming with fighters were on both flanks. Eastward was East Caves and Parai Defile holding back 162, and the Japs 3rd Battalion 222 Infantry free to attack from Ibdi Pocket. West were batteries and infantry of Horseshoe Ridge above the Strip, and the West Caves garrison. Below the Strip, ap pillboxes held the beach. Colonel Sweeny, Fuller's Chief of Staff, believes that 186 would have bogged down in the impossible task of extricating the Japs from West Caves.

Fuller seemingly made no third error when he placed 186 Infantry on Mokmer Strip. Our field artillery, platoons, and 186 patrols found the Jap field artillery and smashed it. On the night of 8-9 June, 186's perimeter was so strong that it readily repelled the night attacks on the Strip. (We thought that we had halted a mere night harassment; but Lieutenant General Takazo Numata said that with this "huge" failure, Jap morale began to fail.)

            Fuller's fourth alleged error is that he never personally inspected our battle-front. Eichelberger himself made this charge; and General Doe himself said as much to G 163's Westerfield at Bozeman Reunion. We can readily attribute this fault (if it was a fault) to a direct order from General Krueger himself. On Hollandia Beach when our Task Force loaded for Biak, Krueger told Fuller: "General, I want you to know that I do not give DSCs to division commanders for being in the front lines. Your place is in a command post." It would have been foolish to risk our 41st's Commanding Officer to a stray Jap bullet, and Fuller obeyed Krueger's order.

(Eichelberger was unaware of Krueger's order to Fuller.) Like Doe, he said that part of the slow action on Biak was due to Fuller's failure to inspect his battle-front. But Eichelberger complained about Doe for the same reason! He said that although Doe was well forward, he lived on the shore and did not keep close contact with battle a mile away.)

We therefore deny that Fuller made these four alleged errors. (1) He rightly refused to endanger the Z-Day advance to Mokmer by shifting 162's mission with 186. (2) He rightly assigned most Task Force equipment to building Owi Strip to secure us from bombs like the one that fell at Hollandia. (3) He rightly had 186 Infantry seize Mokmer Strip without delay. (4) He rightly followed Krueger's order to command from Task Force command post, rather than to expose his important life at the front.

            None of these arguments reflects in any way on 186's Colonel Newman, who Eichelberger lauded as "aggressive." Newman's was the viewpoint of a fighting regiment which wanted combat on Biak, and which was a prime cause of victory on Biak. But Newman was unaware of General Krueger's pressure on Fuller.

Lieutenant General Krueger and his 6 Army Staff made three errors that caused Fuller's request to be relieved from command.

Krueger's first error was a glaring underestimate of Jap strength on Biak. His Alamo Force said that the Japs totaled some 4,000, of whom 2,500 were infantry. Actually, Jap sources make the number into 12,000, with 4,000 Army and Navy "combat effectives." (remaining 8,000 were, of course, fighting men also.) During the Jap Navy's KON Operation, about 1,200 slipped in. Grand total of Japs on Biak was perhaps 13,200. Fuller landed with just two regimental combat teams, reduced by attrition at Hollandia.

 

 

 

Krueger's second error was his piecemeal assignment of regiments to Biak. Two landed on 27 May; we needed at least three. First regiment was necessary for a frontal attack. Second regiment was necessary to secure the base on the beach. Third was necessary as a maneuvering force overland. But this third regiment, 163 Infantry, did not arrive until 31 May, four days after Z-Day, with 2nd Battalion delayed behind it at Toem until 12 days later. Six days later, a fourth regiment, 34 Infantry, had to reinforce us against the Japs west of Mokmer Strip.

Krueger's third error was to send insulting messages and letters to Fuller. His directives pressed Fuller and hampered his efficiency in planning and commanding. As his Chief of Staff, Colonel Sweany says, "Loyalty down the chain of command is as important as loyalty up." Shortly after Fuller's first request for a third regiment of infantry, Krueger's abrasive messages began. They complained of how the daily situation reports were submitted and of our lack of progress. They urged increased action. Fuller's staff would change format of the next report to follow Krueger's wishes, but next day another querulous request would change the desired type of report, and again urge action.

So angry were these messages that General Eichelberger himself had to stop them. The morning after becoming Commanding Officer on Biak, he got such an angry message. He fired back that he would do nothing on Biak until he fully knew the situation. Krueger sent no more such messages, for Eichelberger had the same rank as Krueger, and prestige as a front-line general. Eichelberger had the clout to do what Fuller could not do.

In summing up, we must conclude that Fuller evidently did not err on Biak. But Krueger (with his staff) made three: He grossly underestimated the numbers of Japs on Biak. He sent two regiments to fight where we needed four.  3) His irate messages damaged Fuller's morale to the point of resignation.

Despite his tactlessness, Krueger still failed to remove Fuller from commanding our 41st. Using the excuse that assigning 34 Infantry to Biak had made it a corps operation, Krueger placed Eichelberger in command. Despite pleas of Eichelberger and other high-ranking officers, Fuller resigned, because he thought that Krueger no longer trusted him.

Such is the case for General Fuller as Commanding Officer of the 41st on Biak - and against Fuller's Commanding Officer, General Krueger, in the Battle of Biak.

 

CREDIT: I believe that this study supersedes much of that of RR Smith's on Fuller's command problems in Approach to the Philippines. Crucial to the final draft was Sweaney's 7-page letter of 9 Oct 1978. Equally important were Newman's letters of 18 July and 18 Sept 1961, 10 Feb 1963: 7 Feb 1972, with "Newman's Notes," copied for me by Office of the Chief of Military History. Highly important also was Dear Miss Em/General Eichelberger's War tn the Pacific (Editor Jay Luvaas). Background is from RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines, and Reports of General MacArthur/Japanese Operations In the Southwest Pacific Area.