Our Amphibian Engineers (542 EB & SR 2SB): Beachhead Battles for Biak
By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

              Amphibian Engineers of 542 Engineer held Mokmer Strip during their first crucial days Boat and Shore Regiment with other Amphib attachments played crucial parts in the 41st's Biak victory. In combat, we helped make Bosnek Beachhead. We rescued many 162 Infantry men from the Parai Defile disaster - especially the wounded. In combat also, we supplied 186 Infantry to after capturing it.

             At daybreak 27 May 1944 after Navy and Air bombardment, we Amphibs launched our barges from LSTs and loaded infantry to hit Bosnek Beach. At 0657, Wave No. 1 of 20 LVTs (tracked) formed and headed for Bosnek. Second and third waves, each of 20 LVTs, followed 5 minutes apart. Waves Nos 4 and 5 went next - 13,and then 12 DUKWs - amphibious trucks. After small support ships fired 684 rockets, our machine guns quickly silenced light Jap mortar and machine gun fire.

             But coxswains could not see the beach through bombardment smoke. An unknown four-knot current deflected our prows west. Instead of coral beaches, Wave No 1 saw only a mangrove swamp. First four waves landed 2-3,000 yards west of Bosnek Beach.

             Luckily, the Japs' 2nd Battalion 222 Infantry did not attack, and 186 Infantry's men landed safely. Only near Bosnek, the Japs would fight piecemeal from fixed positions. Most of Waves 1-4 and part of Wave 5 beached wrongly, and 186's men marched to their original objectives.

             Meanwhile Amphibs of 542 Regiment's Shore Battalion tried to find a landing beach for eight LCTs. For protection against possible Jap attacks, their tanks and guns must be quickly beached. But everywhere, the reef was a solid barrier to flat-bottomed craft. Finally, Amphibs found that opposite the shore farthest east, the reef curved inward to within 10 yards of the sand.

             When an LCT struck for that reef, Jap fire began. The LCT pulled back to safety, and a destroyer and a rocket LCI impacted the Japs while 186 men flanked them on the beach. After the Japs' defeat, the LCT unloaded in 3-5 feet of water 10 yards out. The other seven LCTs had to unload tanks, guns, bulldozers into small Amphib craft to ferry them ashore.

             Landing was lightly opposed, yet dangerous. E-542's Pvt. Dale C. Gleespen fell off an LST and was drowned. While scouting close inshore for landing sites east of Bosnek, our barges had grenades thrown at them. Five planes struck at these barges, but our gunners claimed that they themselves downed all five.

             At 1000 while seeking a road inland, E-542' s Captain De Ford had a call for help from probably 186 Infantry. Japs in two caves 50 yards apart had halted them, wounded an officer [reportedly 1st Lieutenant James R. Cain of 41st Recon] still lying near one cave. Their own rifle fire could not reach the Japs inside the caves. Our men were out of grenades.

             Captain De Ford, Lieutenants Rial and Brim, Corporal Martin, and five other men fired and silenced Jap return fire from snipers' holes in the cliff and from the two caves. Smith and Lorix blasted the caves with grenade launchers. Closing in, they found that the Infantry officer had died. As they were about to throw hand grenades into one cave, a Jap officer with saber and an enlisted man with bayoneted rifle charged them.

             DeFord put a .4 5 bullet into the officer's brain, but Lieutenants Rial and Brim finished him off. Larix was wounded in arm and shoulder. An enlisted man slew the Jap rifleman.

             An Amphib bazooka team arrived to fight the east cave. After six rockets with rifle and tommie gun fire, we rushed into the cave and found 60 dead Japs. Then we cleaned out the west cave - in two hours' battle had slain 100 Japs.

             When seeking a place to tie up a floating dock, Lieutenant Norris and an enlisted man drew grenade blasts from a cave. Return grenades killed the Japs. On recon, Goldberg and Laurie also killed two. At 1500 hours, Infantry asked us to launch rockets from an LCI into the cave. Instead, White and Brumhall brought a bazooka; its three rounds killed at least two Japs and silenced the cave.

             A few planes raided us. About 1700 the first day, several Jap fighters and perhaps four bombers swept undetected on our LSTs from over the low cliff northward. Despite the surprise, Aant-aircraft crews and Amphibs of 542 Regiment and tw Engineer Special Brigade Support Batteries fought back. Three bombs hit an LST deck, but failed to arm because they fell at too low a height. They merely cracked open and were thrown overboard.

             One of those bombs narrowly missed our Brigade Commanding Officer General Heavey, but wounded his aide. Anti-aircraft fire destroyed one bomber that fell on the LSTs. A crippled bomber dived for destroyer Sampson, but missed and briefly flamed a sub-chaser when a wing brushed it. Other two bombers and the fighters were also knocked down. Our Engineer Support Battery claimed a kill of two bombers and one probable bomber.

             By 1730 D-Day, when LSTs embarked for Hollandia, Amphibs with infantry assistance had unloaded two tanks, 28 guns, 500 vehicles. They had unloaded the whole assault force of 12,000, and 85 percent of their bulk supplies.

             On the second Biak day, the Japs trapped 162 Infantry's 2nd  Battalion and 3rd Battalion in Parai Defile. At their cry for help, 11 L VTs and all available LCVPs were loaded with supplies and ammo and raced down to Parai Defile.

             The LCVPs could not cross the reef before Parai Jetty, but the LVTs crossed on their tracks. When Jap guns and mortars on Parai Ridge tried to destroy the LVTs, we fought back with rockets and 37 mm guns, knocked out one Jap position.

             From Support Battery barges, we lost three wounded. A field artillery man from the 41st was killed therein. Our LVTs evacuated many of 87 wounded and ferried ammo and medical supplies from the LCVPs. D-542's Amphib Engineers repaired Parai Jetty. They landed a 947 Field Artillery observer to crash down a 155 mm gun barrage.

             On that first battle-day of 162 Infantry in Parai Defile, it was a costly but orderly withdrawal. But they were still in the Defile. Next day, 14 LVTs of 2 ESB's Support Battery had to evacuate many of 162's 96 wounded. Jap fire stopped the LVTs' first try to reach Parai Jetty, but on the second try, they landed and carried those wounded back to Bosnek.

             But on that second day, 29 May, 162 Infantry had to escape from Parai Defile because they could not destroy the Japs' mortars and guns on the heights. Most of 2nd Battalion and part of 3rd Battalion retreated under fire from the cliffs into the tracked landing craft. Hundreds of men waded through surf to the reef to embark in LVTs and LCVPs. Two combat LVTs and a flak LCM fired from them and knocked out at least one Jap mortar position. From Parai Jetty, Lieutenant Stewart's LVT loaded vehicles and other heavy equipment. But by now, the Japs had closed in to mortar the LVT and damage it. One Amphib lost his leg.  Evacuation continued well into the night. One DUKW remained ashore to save two fugitives and make a final search.

             Earlier, however, during the daylight hours of 29 May, Amphibs formed a landing party for a rear guard of 162 Infantry. With six other officers and some 100 men, D 542's Lieutenant Steward climbed Parai Cliff to make a covering shell for retreating 162 Infantry.

             Fortunately, Nippo riflemen had been cleared from the cliff before we topped it. But our little command was in great danger; we had just one fire unit per rifle, and 200 rounds for each of our five machine guns. Because we must fight only if attacked, we held fire on the number of Japs we saw or heard close to us. After several hours' tense picketing, we marched east paralleling the main body until we reached the new barrier to the Japs. A Jap mortar destroyed Spears' rifle and wounded his finger - our sole casualty. Meanwhile, Amphibs' Lieutenant Portch of Headquarters Company 542 set up 537 mm guns at the barrier. They killed two Japs before they turned over the 37s to 162 Infantry.

             Meanwhile, Amphibs of 2 Eng Special Brigade's Shore Battery were scouting the small palm-fringed Padaido Islands southeast of Biak for setting up a PT base and an air strip. Finding no Japs on Owi or Mios Woendi Islands, they still landed A 163 Infantry for security, on 5 June. Captain Wells' barge convoy fought two strafing Nippo planes and hit both. Captain Buck claimed downing a plane with his rapid-fire 37 mm gun. An LCT captured a live Jap pilot from the sea.

             These planes were part of a 15-plane raid. They bombed Bosnek beaches, but too late in the day to hit any LSTs, which had departed already. But a bomb blew off the shoulder of Shore Battalion Headquarters Company's Bouquette at this machine gun and killed him. F 542' s Reese took 15 slugs in hip and back, but lived.

             Back in Parai Defile, the Japs still held a long, unbroken roadblock. So on 7 June, Amphibs led a major drive to end this block by striking its rear from the west - while part of 162 Infantry pushed from the east. Amphibs loaded 162 Infantry's I and K Cos on 18 LVTs of 2 ESB Support Battery and convoyed them to Parai Defile. Guards were two combat LVTs, a rocket LVT, and four rocket LCVPs. After a barrage of 264 rockets, "I" and "K" landed unopposed, and CN 162 later. In a few days, Parai Defile would be finally cleared of Japs.

             On 7 June also, Amphibs embarked to assist 186 Infantry. By now, 186 had bypassed the Japs' main army by a westward overland march. That morning, they had captured Mokmer Strip, but unbeaten Japs still surrounded them. Reports were that 186 Infantry had 300 yards of beach open where it was safe to land to supply them.

             Early on 7 June, a convoy of 10 LVTs and three LCMs left Bosnek to help 186 Infantry. Each LCM carried a medium tank, of which 186 Infantry could have brought none through the ridges. Escort was four rocket LVPs, two flak LCMs, and an LCS - all from our Amphib Support Battery.

             Scouting the shore, we saw no 186 men, but Japs fired mortars and machine guns at us. We feared to hit 186's men if we fired back. About 1300, 186 men marked a part of the beach with a ground flare, and we started to land the three tanks. As the three LCMs reached the reef before the beach, 30-40 Japs rushed from native huts. We slew most of them. The tanks landed and silenced Japs machine guns and mortars, and then a 75 mm mountain gun and a 20 mm machine cannon on low Mokmer Ridge before us. Two of the three tank-carrying LCMs were so damaged that they could not retract ramps - had to retreat in reverse 9.5 miles back to Bosnek to keep from shipping the seas.

             Until all Jap fire on the beach was silenced, we decided to run in supplies and evacuate 186's wounded only at night. But still as dusk fell, we had no clear idea of the location and extent of 186's beachhead.

             Trying for a night landing on Mokmer Beach was a frustrating experience. Shortly after 2400, two LCVPs of a convoy of 14 followed an LCS to the reef. There they waited 25 minutes for 186's men to wade out and unload them. But they saw nobody. (Commanding Officer Colonel Newman of 186 Infantry thought that we failed to land because Division Headquarters had failed to relay his signals, and also because of Amphib over-caution.)

             At 0400 with some moonlight, however, 7 L VTs with a covering flak boat lumbered across the reef. Brief and harmless Jap fire came from the shore. Unloading a third of 186's daily rations with heavy weapons ammo, our LVTs evacuated 92 casualties.

             On our returning LVTs in sight of Bosnek, a Jap dive-bomber wounded two already wounded 186 men and a 4-year-old native child. (Off Parai in another command, a man of 2 ESB Support Battery was killed.)

             Next night, on 8 June, 18 LVTs again supplied 186 Infantry at Mokmer Beach, despite Jap fire on our flanks. Our LVTs transferred 94 casualties across the reef to LCMs for Bosnek.

             Final runs to Mokmer Beach were on 9 June. Our combat LVT intentionally drew fire from an isolated Jap pocket which threatened our landings. Tanks later fired from LCTs and destroyed those gun positions. That night, 13 LVTS re-supplied 186 Infantry and evacuated 44 more casualties. By next day, 162 Infantry had ended Jap resistance in Parai Defile, and it became more efficient to supply 186 Infantry by truck rather than by water.

             With Parai Defile opened, our Amphibs' war on Biak was almost over. Final combat was at Wardo, on Biak's west coast. There the Jap army tried to regroup for a final attack. On 17 Aug at 0830, after Air-Navy preparation, five LVTs dashed for the shore, then 15 LCMs two minutes later. Opposition was light; small arms hit a support LCS. A shell wounded two Amphibs. After 75 Japs were found dead, Wardo Operation became a routine mop-up.

             For Amphibs of 542 EB&SR and 2 ESB, the Battle of Biak was a competent operation. After landing and fighting at Bosnek Beach, we helped save 162 Infantry from destruction in Parai Defile. We fought open a supply corridor to 186 Infantry at Mokmer Beach. We lost five killed, 40 wounded, and one missing in action. Jap fire damaged some Amphibian craft, but none were sunk except a DUKW of attached 812 Amphib Truck Company at Parai Defile.

             Emblems of our 41st Division were the low gray landing craft of the Amphib Engineers. Our 41st Division was actually an Amphib outfit!


CREDIT: Outstanding source is Amphibian Engineer Operations, which is Vol IV of "Engineer Operations in the Southwest Pacific/1941- 1945." (I discovered this out-of-print volume while on a Division History Grant to Duke University's Eichelberger Collection.) I have combined this source with an earlier history which I wrote from a 43-page typescript called "AlA Reportl542 Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment." R. R. Smith's Return to the Philippines was useful also.