186 Infantry and 532 Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment: The Hollandia Fire and Lake Sentani

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

 

Surely the most important Jap victory against our 41st Division was the blast of just one aerial bomb on White Beach 1 at Hollandia. Ironically, jungle terrain forced us to lay out a perfect target for a lone plane to fire off our congested ammo and gas dumps on White Beach 1.      

 

For Hollandia beaches were impossibly narrow for wartime landings. Best of those beaches, White Beach 1, was 800 yards long, but just 70 yards wide. Behind most of this Beach, a wide, water-logged mangrove swamp could never be a dump site - or even an exit road without heavy labor. Air photos had failed to reveal the swamp because the jungle hid it. And abandoned Nippo dumps were scattered too close on the dryer 70 yards of beaches. Our field artillery and anti-aircraft batteries also took up space among the old Jap and new US supply dumps. A perfect target for a Nippo bomber was Hollandia's White Beach 1.

 

But we Amphibs - 532 Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment - had to land cargoes of at least seven LSTs before dark. Shortage of ships in New Guinea was too crucial to idle the LSTs for even a day. It was not sensible to risk cargoes in ships for a Nippo bomber. So the Shore Party of our Amphibs, the Naval Beach Party, and Cannon Companies of 162 and 186 Infantry unloaded all seven LSTs before dark on D-Day, 22 April 1944. They drove off trucks, jeeps, and bulldozers, and off-loaded 2625 tons of bulk cargo. Smaller craft lightered ashore the cargo from Australian Attack Transport Westralia.

 

Then White Beach 1 exploded and roared up in flame in our faces. In mellow tropical twilight just before dark, we heard a Jap bomber overhead. Flying through mountains, then too low above the beach for radar detection, it evaded our Ack-Ack which never fired. Evidently guided by the light of a flaming Nippo dump, the plane loosed just one stick of five bombs on the north part of White Beach 1. Three bombs merely geysered up sand and water, but No 4 hit the edge of a Nippo ammo dump.

 

Instantly the dump exploded. Thundering blasts went on all around us. A Jap gas tank blew up. And an alleged "signal control mishap" let the plane escape without Ack-Ack fire. 

 

E Company’s Amphibs and other beach outfits desperately went to work. We tried to cut a fire-break - rolled gas drums away and carried off other supplies to make that break 30 yards wide down to the sea. Roller conveyors trundled other supplies to safety. Human chains passed other equipment out of immediate reach of flames. 

 

At first, we seemed to confine the fire by this fire-lane. Then flames hit another ammo dump. When it exploded, bullets and metal fragments sprayed the beach. Some Amphibs were hurt; survivors fell back under the rain of death.

 

The fire leaped our 30-yard break and flamed new heaps of supplies. Flames raced from dump to dump. Again and again, explosions showered the beach with murderous missiles.

 

Although repelled by this flame-wall, we Amphibs worked frantically to save what we could. By now, all personal gear was lost. Vehicles burned up; roller conveyors were destroyed.

 

Facing exploding shells and searing flames, our little landing crafts beached in the heat and evacuated men who were burned or wounded. There were many heroic rescues.

 

One herioc action was by four enlisted men on a B Company 532 LCVP. When explosions started, the LCVP was offshore near Hamadi Island. Blinker signals said that wounded men were cut off from rescue by shore-and 'the LCVP drove for the beach. As we closed in, a heavier explosion rained fragments into the sea around us, but we charged on in.

 

We grounded, helped men aboard, and shoved off. Explosions shook the beach and wounded two of the men we were saving. We carried out casualties down-shore south across Jautefa Bay Channel to White Beach 3-and returned to save more men. (The author omits names of these B 532 men.)

 

A B Company 532 Amphib officer - probably 1st Lieutenant Heath - remembered that a wounded soldier had been borne in from danger and placed in a dugout among the dumps. This lieutenant organized a rescue party for the wounded men. Amid fires and explosions, they carried him to safety from the flames.

 

2nd  Lieutenant Dalton of 532 Shore Battalion's Headquarters Company aided six wounded men caught in the middle of the fire-break that was overrun. Gasoline flamed within 25 feet. After ascertaining that the six were safe, Dalton rescued a seventh man from a fox-hole threatened by flames.

 

Collecting Platoon of B Company 162 Medics had set up their aid station centering the dumps. They seemed to be in the path of the flames. Despite falling metal fragments, litter men moved through the blazing, smoking dumps on rescue missions. Aid men worked under the same menace to save wounded whom the bearers brought in. Several times, they had to move the station itself away from the flames. Named for outstanding heroism were these three doctors: Major Carl D. Makart, Captain Vincent S. Cunningham and Captain Stephen A. Swisher.     

 

All through that night of 23-24 April and all next day, great fires still blazed on White Beach 1. Ammo still exploded; more men were wounded or burned. Desperately, we still tried to drag supplies and equipment from the flames' path. Many Amphib officers and men worked 36 hours - or until they fell exhausted.

 

Well into 24 April, the great fires raged. Over 60 per cent of the rations and ammo that had landed by twilight 23 April was destroyed - an estimated value of $8,000,000 in 1944 dollars. Dead were 24 men, 100 burned or wounded. Our devoted Amphibs had saved many more from the casualty list. Last reported losses occurred in late afternoon, 24 April while the dumps still burned. Heat set off a 90 mm shell into our regiment area. Killed was another Amphib, and another wounded.

 

But this holocaust of rations and ammo could have caused temporary failure of the Hollandia Operation, at least, with many more casualties. While advancing inland, 186 Infantry had to halve rations and conserve ammo. Although 162 Infantry did seize Hollandia Town, orders were to limit operations to patrolling and making defenses, until further notice. Lucky was it that the Japs lacked even a small air force and even one reinforced infantry battalion to attack our crippled beachhead.

 

While Beach 1 fires still burned, 12 heavily laden LSTs arrived offshore from eastern New Guinea. Seven were originally destined for our 41st Division on Humboldt Bay, but five were turned from 24 Division at Tanamerah Bay because its narrow beaches and muddy tracks were impractical for staging supplies. The 24th Division must use the same supply beaches as the 41st.

 

Because Hollandia Harbor with Challenger Cover was studded with coral reefs, the Amphibs had to continue using the same outer beaches. White Beach 3 - which was south cross-channel from Cape Tjeweri - would be hard to land on. The off-shore gradient was unsuitable to beach large LSTs.

 

Then an experimental LST hurled itself full speed at White Beach 3. It grounded 40 yards offshore, but unloading was possible when the tide fell four feet. Shore parties waded out waist-deep to unload. Vehicles drowned out as soon as they drove off the LST ramp, but tractors heaved them ashore.

 

Then LST commanding officer Captain Cutler ordered his commanders to run all their vessels at high speed to ground as close to the foreshore as possible. They rammed the beach so hard that after they were unloaded, extricating them was hard work.

 

With White Beach 3 as a temporary dump area, the Amphibs in small craft then transferred LST cargoes 2500 yards over water to White Beach 4. Here within Jautefa Bay was a dump area wide enough to store supplies to help our 41st to capture the Hollandia strips. Men of 24 Division's 34 Infantry assisted our Amphibs. (These 34 Infantry men had been unneeded in combat.)

 

While our Amphibs were fighting the great fire and their problems, the 186 was already advancing up the inferior Jap road 18 miles from Pim Village on the coast, to Lake Sentani, south of the Hollandia strips. Field artillery and supply trucks followed this fragile road so close that it turned to muck. Under heavy rains, 186 Infantry labored forward, mud-hole to mud-hole. Where the road crossed sago swamps, some culverts and two bridges caved in, to make land traffic almost impossible.

 

Then our LVTs of 2nd Special Brigade Support Battery forwarded to assist in moving supplies. They helped greatly, but by dusk, seven LVTs and two DUKWs were bogged down. Next day, we yanked them from the mud and dragged field artillery and supply trucks onward again. But on 26 April, Nippo destructors blew up bridges along the narrow road. Well before noon, 186's spearhead 1st Battalion was stalled indeed.

 

By now, 1st  Battalion 186 Infantry was just about 6.5 miles from Cyclops Strip, most eastern of the three Hollandia airfields that were Task Force objectives. But over three miles of this road led among the steep slopes and cliffs of the north shore of Lake Sentani. If the Japs blasted down the lakeside road cuts, 186 Infantry would have an almost impossible task to bypass damaged portions.

 

Colonel Newman of the 186 perceived that tactful usefulness of our Amphibs. While 3rd Battalion pushed on the north shore road, he would embark 1st Battalion on LVTs and outflank the Jap positions. (Probably largest lake in New Guinea is winding Lake Sentani, which fills the great gorge between coastal Cyclops Mountains and lower mountains southward. Lying west of Hollandia, it is about eight miles wide at its widest, and 14 miles long at its longest. For 186 Infantry, it became an east-west water-borne approach to the three Hollandia Strips.)

 

At Koejaboe Jetty, we unloaded supplies from LVTs, and reloaded them with two companies of 186's 1st Battalion. (We know that C Company was one of them.) With two combat LVTs and two DUKWs in the vanguard, this convoy moved west along the lake. Surprised Nips manning lake-shore mortar batteries and inshore anti-aircraft guns tried to fight, but our rockets quickly silenced them. The Japs' bursts damaged two of our LVTs but without casualties. At 1150, we landed both companies at Nefaar Village, the rest of 1st Battalion later. By 1530, 3rd Battalion also arrived unopposed over the lakeside road to meet us in Nefaar.

 

Next day, 26 April, while 186's main body maneuvered towards Cyclops Strip, our Amphibs were water-borne again. We loaded 2nd Battalion 186 at Koejaboe Jetty, and again started out with our Amphibs' two combat LVTs and two rocket DUKWs leading. We voyaged some 2.5 miles west of Nefaar Village to the jetty south of Ifaar Village.

 

Nearing the jetty, we took Jap fire from an island and a peninsula to the west. Their fire sank one LVT, but we silenced the Japs. Leaving Sentani Lake with 186's men still "on deck”, our LVTs clanked up Ifaar Road to rejoin 2nd Battalion to their 186 Infantry at the Strips. By 1645, 186 Infantry held all three strips, and had contacted 24 Division men pushing east from Tanamerah Bay. Since 186 Infantry held Hollandia Town already, Hollandia Operation was completed.

 

But our Amphibs continued inland labor for 186 Infantry and 24 Division Combat LVTs carried on extensive recons into every island and inlet of Lake Sentani, but met only token resistance. We also laid wire under water from Koejaboe to near Sentani Strip. Because the north shore lake road was still nearly impassible, for some seven days, we carried ammo and supplies over the water highway of Lake Sentani.

 

Back down at the beaches, our Amphib unloading continued - the major reason why we were there. Now based mainly on difficult sloping White Beach 3 beside Lake Tjeweri, we emptied LSTs into our LCMs. By mid-afternoon 25 April, we had our barges lined up in groups of five where they awaited orders to cross 2-3 miles of Jautefa Bay to unload at Pim Village to be trucked inland. Since only three of each of these five LCMs at a time could unload at Pim Jetty, often 25 LCMs had to idle offshore for their turn at the dock.

 

Overworked men and machines broke down; for we were now supplying both 41st and 24 Divisions over that swampy road up to Lake Sentani. For example, on 25 April, Maintenance Company had five LCMs and six LVPs deadlined for repairs. (In one day, nine LVTs were seen out of action on Sentani Road. One LVT sank in Sentani; a rocket DUKW fell apart beyond repair.) This is a small part of the saga of 532 EB&S Regiment's crucial fight in the Hollandia Operation. We beached the frontline riflemen. We battled the Great Fire, the mud on Sentani Road, and the hold-out Japs on the Lake. Our labor, our fire man-ship, and our skirmishes on Lake Sentani - all of these were a major contribution of our Hollandia victory for the United States.

 

 

 

CREDIT: Outstanding source is Amphibian Engineer Operations, which is Volume IV of "Engineer Operations in the Southwest Pacific/1941-1945." (I discovered this out-of-print volume while on a Division History Grant at Duke University's General Eichelberger Collection) Help comes also from RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines, which in turn relies heavily on "Reckless Task Force Report" of Hollandia Operation. Useful also was Terrain Handbook No 25 (New Guinea), of Allied Geographical Section, SW Pacific Area. I also used Karl Dod's The Corp of Engineers: the War Against Japan.