36 Infantry Division Tank Company (Jap) and US 603 Tank Company: First Tank Battle in the Southwest Pacific

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

            Federal Archives have two conflicting stories about the tank battles in Parai Defile of 28-29 May 1944. Japanese story is about a proud victory they had before our tanks destroyed seven of their tanks. Our story tells about the routine smashing of their light tanks by our medium US tanks.

     

      I. The Japanese Story. The Jap story does not directly mention their first maneuver of 28 May. It only says that at 1500 that day, 2nd Lieutenant Murao and three men were killed. Actually, on 28 May at range 1200 yards, our General Sherman tanks drove some Jap tanks into cover.

      But main Jap story begins 29 May, the morning when they struck with nine tanks of their 222 Infantry Regiment, 36 Tiger Division. At 0610 29 June, the Jap tanks left their concealed bivouac on the north edge of Mokmer Drome and clanked downhill to the beach. With them were a maintenance squad and 32 men of 107 Air Construction Unit (Engineers) with an unnamed Lieutenant.

      All these tanks were the well-known Model 2595 or 1936 which bore the name "KO-GO." These models had fought in China. Armor plate was mainly .5-inch steel. Each three-man crew was armed with a 37mm gun in the turret. A 7.7 mm machine gun was mounted in the turret's right rear, and a second 7.7 mm gun forward in the hull. All guns had telescope sights. KO-GO tanks had been effective in Malaysia where Allied troops had no training to fight them - and had no tanks of their own.

      The Jap attack was gallant. Almost at once, our Navy spied them and fired, but even three ships failed to hit them.

      Soon the tanks hit a US advance force, a line of some 80 men with a machine gun on the inshore flank. In the lead, 1st Lieutenant Iwasa's tank charged with his .37 mm cannon and 7.7 machine guns blasting away. He cut into the rear of our demoralized infantry. Behind Iwasa's tank, Sergeant Major Sugiyama marched in the open as liaison man. Supporting Iwasa, Warrant Officer Subota and 2nd Lieutenant Kambe's tanks followed, guarded by the unnamed Lieutenant with 32 Air Force Engineers.

      As our US casualties increased, we were running away along the shore. Then about 150 Yanks landed from barges to counter-attack, but half of them were wiped out. Then US planes began to bomb and strafe the tanks. The Japs called them six "North American" planes and 10 "Consolidated" planes. Now our own tanks fired, which the Japs thought to be medium amphibious tanks.

      This uneven battle soon ended. The liaison tank flamed up first; then 1st Lieutenant Iwasa's tank was smashed. There died Sergeant Major Sugiyama, the liaison man. Seeing that Iwasa's tank was wrecked, Warrant Officer Tsubota ordered retreat, but he also died, with 2nd Lieutenant Kambe and 14 unnamed enlisted men.

      II. Our U.S. Story. The Jap narrative of this tank combat on Biak is one for them to take pride in. It surely is accurate in some respects. But still it is not fully truthful. On that third day when 162 Infantry fought in Parai Defile, we have no records in U.S. files of continuous Naval gunfire on their tanks, nor of attacks of any planes whatsoever. We know that K Company 162 Infantry was not panicked before their charge. Nor do we know of any counter-landing party which the tanks half annihilated. This is our own nearly accurate story of the Japs' tank disaster.

      During 162 Infantry's check in Parai Defile 28 May 1944, Jap tanks first appeared. During the third Jap attack at 1400, "K" saw 5 Jap tank turrets bobbing east along Parai Road.

      While 146 Field Artillery's 105 mm shells fired a concentration before the tanks, four of our own General Sherman tanks opened fire with their 75s at 1200 yards. Aided by our offshore destroyers, they drove the tanks back into defilade.

Although the Jap tanks seemed not to have fired, other weapons did hit our tanks - three of them. One tank took a dual purpose shell on its 75 mm muzzle. Although the shell split down the barrel for several inches, the gun still fired. When our lead tank emptied shell cases from its "pistol port," a nearby shell exploded and blew fragments inside. The tank flamed; two of the five crewmen were wounded.

      Safe behind armor of the second tank in column, Pvt Rudolph Peralta saw the interior of the damaged tank in flames. Peralta seized a fire extinguisher, dashed 25 yards to that tank under Jap fire. He put out the blaze and saved the crew, but the Jap fire slew him.

      Meanwhile, a tank intercom failed. Captain Thierolf risked life outside the tank armor to guide the tanks by hand-signals.

      Nightfall of 28 May 1944 was bitter for the harassed men of 162 Infantry in Parai Defile. Although 542 Amphibious Engineers had replenished our critical ammo and medical supplies, the victorious Japs had us almost surrounded. And tomorrow, we knew that we had to face fresh Infantry waves and those tanks we had seen at a distance.

      Instead of the Japs' 37 mm guns, each mounted a 75 with 3.3 inch machine guns, and even a 2-inch smoke mortar in the turret top. The 75 had 71 rounds to fire, and the two machine gun over 12,000 rounds. Minimum armor width equaled the Japs' width of 1/2 inch; but maximum width was 3.94 inches. The Shermans were far superior to the Japs' light KO-GO tanks.

      At 0700 next morning, 29 May, E 162's 1st Platoon defeated the first strike of 2nd Battalion and 3rd Battalion 222 Infantry. E Company's Staff Sergeant Carlson did not see even one Jap escape alive, but no "E" man was hit.

      Then, about 0800, three Jap tanks and waves of Infantry appeared west and north of our 2nd Battalion' s front. It does seem certain that a Jap Lieutenant with 32 men of 107 Airdrome Construction Unit closely followed 1st Lieutenant Iwasa' s lead tank. The first tank battle of World War II in the Southwest Pacific had begun.

      E Company was first to hear the clank of the oncoming Jap tanks high on the ridge to our right. Instantly, 1st Lieutenant Uppinghouse phoned for our own tanks. Staff Sergeant Carlson well remembered the interesting few minutes he had while yearning for our tanks to come. He longed for a bazooka or even a flamethrower to fight the Japs, but "E" lacked any AT weapons. Just a few moments before the tanks crested the ridge and dropped down the slanting road, our tanks forwarded to help.

      About 475 yards west of E Company, the bobbing turrets of the small Jap tanks clanked down the slope where the main coastal road crossed the western cliffs. (They did not look "little" to us!) In the narrow 40 yards between the cliff and beach, the three-tank first wave deployed on the incline. They readied to sweep through the coconut grove and shoot up our fearful lines. They advanced in "left echelon formation," which means that each tank advanced on the left of Lieutenant Iwasa's lead tank.

      From holes of AT 162's Mine Platoon by the road, Sergeant Counts watched our Sherman medium tanks rumble past to hold our lines.

      Forwarding in single file, our tanks caught the three Jap tanks echeloned on a steep pitch of the narrow road. Counts and other AT 162 men huddled prone when the Jap 37s wheezed overhead.

      Other more accurate Jap projectiles ricocheted off tank turrets and bow curves. But they failed to penetrate our 3-inch steel - merely left grooves about 1/4 inch deep.

      Now our tanks fired. At 50-100 yards range, just one round of their 75 mm armor-piercing fire halted all three Jap tanks in their tracks. One of those shells pierced the right flank of a Jap tank and came out the rear wall. It left a hole a foot in diameter from the front through the rear.

      But piercing the half-inch steel of all three tanks and immobilizing them was not enough. Jap crewmen might still be alive inside who could still kill. Our 75s changed to high explosive anti-personnel shells. They rammed through the front armor and exploded inside - even blew the turrets from the tanks. Not a man could remain alive inside.

      We can be fairly sure that the small part of the Japs' own story is true. Probably 1st Lieutenant Iwasa's lead tank did go up in flames, and 2nd Lieutenant Kambe and Warrant-Officer Tsubota died in their tanks. Dead also was liaison man Sergeant Major Sugiyama outside the tanks. These were the dead named for 29 May; and 2nd Lieutenant Murao had died when we first took their tanks under fire the day before.

      About 30 minutes later, the second wave of four Jap tanks with Infantry made a second charge. Exactly as before, they dropped down the ridge road and deployed in left echelon to charge through the coconut grove. One die-hard Jap gunner was lucky this time. His 37 mm armor piercing shell entered the shield protecting the points where the 75 gun enters the hull of the tank. It dug half an inch into the turret arm. Now this 75 could not be elevated or depressed. The driver pulled out of line and backed into a shell hole to get some elevation. The gunner then killed one of the Jap tanks.

     In these two fights, the Japs lost all seven of their fighting tanks, but had the sense to withdraw their last three. On 15 June 1944, they would fire more successfully when Colonel Field's 1st Battalion 186 Infantry fought for the approaches to West Caves. On that 15 June, our tanks were not up in time to oppose them.

     It's hard to justify Colonel Kuzume's use of his little tank fleet in narrow Parai Defile. But we can argue that ordering in his first wave was a justifiable calculated risk. He might have reasoned that his previous day's victory had so demoralized 162 Infantry that we would panic from Parai Defile at the sight of the tanks. And he might not have known that our tanks' thicker armor, long range, and superior penetration would mean certain destruction of his tanks.

     But there are stronger arguments against Kuzume's use of even one tank. On 28 May, his unsupported infantry had already won the battle of Parai Defile. And it was wrong to deploy the tanks like a bayonet charge on a front just 10-13 yards apart between Parai Ridge and the shore. They were almost impossible for a field artillery barrage to miss.

     Yet any possible justification for Kuzume's employment of tanks applies only to sending in the first wave. He had no right to send in a second wave. It had to attack on the same narrow front against the same heavier tanks - a foolish, suicidal waster we cannot justify. When Kuzume fought 1st Battalion 186 Infantry (and B 162), he got better results; but he had only three left to go into action.

     But we must admit that our own US commanders failed to learn quickly the Japs' lesson of the absurdity of assaulting narrow Parai Defile with tanks. On 3 June, five days after 162's retreat, seven of our Sherman tanks with L Company 162 Infantry tried to force Parai Defile again.

     Jap Infantry cut off L Company's lead Platoon. Two tanks hurried forward to save that platoon. Then from 1430 to 1640, our tanks shelled the cliffs. They saved the platoon, but they could not clear the ridge to go farther into the Defile.

     Then the inevitable occurred. Shortly after 1640, a Jap in Yank uniform leaped from the brush. He mounted our lead tank, exploded a grenade down the hatch. He slew the driver, wounded T/4 Gallant the bow gunner, and T/5 Nolan. Despite severe wounds, Gallant pushed aside the dead driver and seized the controls. He tried to turn the tank back to retreat. When piles of logs halted Gallant, Sergeant Earl climbed from another tank turret in full view of the Japs overhead. His hand signals guided Gallant to maneuver the tank. The bulldozer of T/5 Winkler of C Company 116 Engineers tumbled a pile of stones and logs aside to let the tank escape from another attack. Our own tank-infantry failure underscored what the Japs' failure should have taught us about frontal tank pushes into Parai Defile.

      Action of Japs' three remaining tanks on 14-15 June showed how effectively even thinly armored light tanks could be used. On 14 June, a Jap tank-infantry team routed B Company 162 Infantry from an exposed position during 1st Battalion 162 Infantry s push on West Caves. Next morning, a tank-infantry team again caused losses to that same B 162 before it had to retreat from a fine frontal defense. But on that 15 June, the Japs lost all three of their last tanks in front attacks on 1st Battalion 186 Infantry.

           Thus perished the last tanks of 222 Infantry Regiment's Tank Company. In Parai Defile and before West Caves, they had their moments of glory. This is their epitaph for all Americans to read:  Like good soldiers, these Japanese tank-men carried out orders in the face of certain death.

 

CREDIT: Basic document is 4-page legal-size photo print entitled Enemy Tactics, Material and Terrain, in the Subsection "Jap Tanks on Biak Island." Translated Jap story is about a half-page single-spaced typescript with a legal-size map of terrain and tank movements. (I found these pages while on a Visitation Grant of our 41st Division Association in 1985.) Besides our 603 Tank Company's report in this document, I used also Award Stories of 603's tank men Peralta, Thierolf, Earl, Gallant, and Nolan - and 41st Division's Winkler of C Company 116 Engineers. Important also for US story was Steve Count's letter of 23 December 1976. Counts was in AT 162. Don Carlson's undated narrative from L Company 162 Infantry was also important. Christopher Foss' book, Tanks and Fighting Vehicles had useful datum. Useful also was RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines, but he states that four Jap tanks attacked in the first wave, whereas I have used 603 Tank Company Commanding Officer's statement that three tanks attacked in the first wave.