I Company 186 Infantry: Our Hard Luck At Hollandia

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Sergeant Emerson Koenig (I 186)


            Leaving Gladstone Harbor on an Aussie ship, 9 March 1944, I Company 186 Infantry returned to New Guinea - this time actually for combat. In the 1943 Papuan Campaign, we had endured jungle camp discomfort and bush patrols but had lost no men in battle. In the coming New Guinea Campaign, however, we would fight and lose men killed or wounded.

Ironically, our greatest losses would be our first losses. It was ironic to suffer many casualties in a holocaust from our own Navy's planes on D-Day at Hollandia.

But at first, I Company's arrival at Finschafen gave us as pleasant a surprise as we could expect in New Guinea after our 1943 experience. The "Finsch" jungle had become a great armed camp. Muddy trails and corduroy roads had become wide streets or thoroughfares. Kunai grass landing strips were now huge coral runways. Our bivouac area was clean, straight tent street. We saw piles of replacement motors for planes.

We soon learned that I Company had an important part in the coming Hollandia Operation. Communications Sergeant Koenig found this out when he was the only enlisted man to attend a special briefing with our Executive Lieutenant Foster.

For Hollandia, I Company had one of our most important tactical missions of World War II. Our mission would be on the Humboldt Bay foreshore, about four miles south of Hollandia Town. About the middle of the crescent-shaped Humboldt Bay foreshore, a narrow inlet led into smaller Jautefa Bay. On the western side of this inner bay was our 3lBn's first main objective. This was Pim Village from which they were to seize flat-topped Pancake Hill, wrongly suspected of being fortified with concealed Jap heavy artillery.

I Company's mission concerned taking the inlet from Humboldt Bay into Jautefa Bay. This inlet was a narrow pass maybe 600 yards wide. Our mission would be on the south side of that pass which Cape Tjeweri nearly closed-and on the narrow sandspit south of the Cape. Here was a Jap dual purpose gun to smash any try of 3rd Battalion to penetrate from Humboldt Bay into Jautefa Bay and take Pim Village.

"I" was to land on that Humboldt Bay foreshore south of Jautefa Bay - called White Beach 3. After we killed the Jap gun and secured Cape Tjeweri, we were to patrol southeast along - shore to fight any Japs sent from the southeast to close the Jautefa pass. If possible, we were to get prisoners for questioning.

We laugh at one minor order. A field range, pots, pans, and carving knife were to land and give us a hot meal as soon as possible. Sergeant Koenig cannot recall eating anything for the next 36 hours.

 I Company's hard luck began at once. A week before leaving, we boarded a little Dutch tramp with a Java crew. Luckily, we loaded days before sailing, or a sick outfit would have beached below Cape Tjeweri.

For ours was a ship foul with dysentery germs. After eating our stew on deck, we had only cold, sloppy water for our mess-gear. The stinking heads had wet floors and leaking troughs. In a day aboard, 80 percent of "I" was doubled up with cramps and hurriedly dashing for the foul heads. (Koenig thought that dysentery spared him because he never ate much until sometime after a change of station.)

            "I" hurriedly entrucked back to camp. With knees drawn up, we were hard to carry in litters. Medics made tent-to-tent calls for us. Several days later, "I" again boarded that Dutch ship, now scrubbed and shining - some parts even repainted.

About 0715 22 Apr 1944, we swarmed down landing nets into LCMs and headed for White Beach 3. For miles up the beaches off Humboldt Bay, three light cruisers and six destroyers fired.

As I's LCMs chugged near a destroyer firing broadsides over our heads, we watched it roll sidewise from the recoil of the guns, then forward again. Its guns dipped into the sea. When it righted, another salvo tore overhead into the Jap coast.

We didn't object to the heavy shelling, at first. Dust rings on the beach, smoke, and fire - all assured us that Jap opposition would be less for our landing. But as we closed on the beach, we feared we would hit it among our own shells.

Shellfire ceased. In smooth water, our LCMs beached on almost dry land, about ¾ miles south of the Cape Tjeweri tip.

As we rushed down the dropped ramp, bayonets fixed, we had hard luck again. Somehow, a Yank stumbled and bayoneted 1st Lieutenant Headicke, our Commanding Officer. The point penetrated his right biceps. Despite loss of blood, Headicke remained Commanding Officer for some four hours after the wound. He did not leave until Cape Tjeweri was all clear of Japs - Ieft only when too weakened to resist others' pleas to save himself.

Fanning out rapidly ashore, "I" saw our first Jap and shot him down, unarmed and dazed from shellfire. We were angry at his Aussie belt-buckle and uniform. We now hunted to avenge Aussies.

After that bombardment, the sandspit of White Beach 3 was a perfect obstacle course - all shell-craters and mounds and felled coconut trunks and shattered branches. But it was not over 1/3 mile wide and backed by mangrove swamps. We cleared it easily while our rifles talked.

While slaying 5-6 straggling Japs, we located that battered anti-aircraft gun emplacement. Naval gunfire had already smashed it into a scrap-heap. But later, we got official credit for destroying that gun.

For some protection, our radio unit set up close to a mound of debris. While sending, the radio picked up faint Jap voices close by. We realized that we had positioned just six feet from the slot of a pillbox that had guarded the anti-aircraft gun. We opened the top and exploded two grenades inside. Talk ceased. We detonated another grenade to be sure that all men were dead.

About 350-400 yards south, a Jap wandered onto the open beach. Koenig lost an unpaid bet to rifleman Wheat beside him. Elevating his rifle-barrel about 15 degrees, Wheat killed the Jap with one shot. For Missourian Wheat, it was like picking off a squirrel from a branch across a ravine.

Ready to move out again, we found another Nip whom we had bypassed. He saw that we did not want more kills, and cannily asked in English for a cigarette. He said that he thought he was on the California coast. He was sent off to Battalion Headquarters, alive.

With this prisoner's guard on a landing craft, Koenig sent an important message: "I Company down beach 3/4 miles. Later, he sent another: "I Company over one mile down beach - no activity - main body marked with red flag on beach." Those two messages could have averted the holocaust from our Navy Hellcats.

Overhead, we heard the steady drone of planes. They were certainly our planes, and some of us approvingly squinted into the sun at four Navy Hellcats pointed from the sea at us. On the open beach, Voorhees stood with 1st Lieutenant Haedicke beside him. Voorhees kept our red identification flag stretched tight. Haedicke would try to wave the planes off with his unwounded left hand. Neither Haedicke nor Voorhees would be hit.

Down from the sky, the planes grew larger. They plummeted at us with a roar and a scream. We stared unbelieving, then hurled ourselves into the sand or swamp mud.

Slugs patterned the sand, splashed into the mangrove swamp, cracked the fallen coconut palm trunks. The planes skimmed the jungle trees and banked out of sight. Relievedly men rose with grit and mud on their faces and saw bullet dents on the sand. The sound of the planes faded away.

A second time, Hellcat motors thundered as the planes hurtled from the morning sun. One by one, they peeled off and struck at us flat on the beach. Bullets thudded into soft flesh. We cried for Medics while Haedicke and Voorhees tried to signal off the planes.

Despite Communications Sergeant Koenig at the radio, Haedicke could not contact 41st Headquarters, nor the two destroyers hovering offshore to fire for us on call. Men were dying from our own planes; we could do nothing to stop the fire.

Perhaps the Hellcats made four strafing runs; all men are not agreed on the number. But on the last (perhaps fourth) pass, the 50-caliber slugs found a small Jap supply dump on the beach. There they hit Pvt Sam J. Deese in both legs. Deese was caught in the dump fire. Sergeant Allen dashed in among the flames and dragged out the helpless man. After evacuation, Deese died of his wounds. The Hellcats were suddenly gone, as fast as they had come.

            There is some doubt about whether or not the planes made fully four strafes at us. Leopold and Sergeant Sharpe said that they had three passes; Sergeant Clark and Lieutenant Wholey said that they had four passes. Koenig, however, thought that the planes lacked enough ammo for four blasts of fire. He also thought that the number of casualties would have been higher for four alleged strafes - and that all casualties seemed to happen on the same run. Koenig concluded that there were perhaps two observation runs, a partial strafing, and a devastating strafing. But our dead and wounded were everywhere on the beach.

Besides Deese who would die, Pfcs George H. Mitchell, Clifford L. Van Orden, and Alley D. Massengill were dead already. Pvt John R. Koprada and Pfc John H. Sponsler died during the evacuation. "I" had six dead, 18 reported wounded. Wounded included 2nd Lieutenant Cox, Staff Sergeants Johnson, Rae, Kroppe, Harden, McCumber, and T/5 Leach. Other wounded were Spino, Christopherson, Thompson, Wilfley, Anderson, Watkins, Musgrove, Williams, Miller, Ashby, and Stotler. (Koenig adds names of Swain and Lenbeck, although not on the official list.) Commanding Officer Haedicke now let himself be relieved, weak from loss of blood after the bayonet.

Other men were narrowly missed. One man lost a heel. Canteens were holed, helmets and shovels dented. Caliber .50 holes were so thick on the beach that a man could hardly lie down without covering a bullet hole.

What caused Naval Air this tactical error? Koenig thought that because the planes lacked enough targets, the primed pilots had to shoot something. Since I Company's landing was isolated from others, the Hellcat leader must have thought that we were a Nip outfit in retreat. I Company may never know the cause.

            The rest of our Hollandia Campaign was mostly just hard work. Next morning, we boarded amphibs to cross Jautefa Bay and land at Pim Village. Climbing a steep, muddy road, we rejoined our Regiment about 1600. Next day, 24 April, "I" and M's heavy machine guns started west towards Lake Sentani and Hollandia Strips. After the muffled sound of a shot, Brown came to Medics with a joint shot off his left index finger. We saw no fleeing Japs, but hiked peacefully west to the east end of Lake Sentani.

I Company had to hike the north shore road to the Strips, but we found a supply of Jap signal corps bikes to ease our hike. On 25 April, our march halted because a Jap anti-aircraft Battery fired predetermined bursts somewhere on 3rd Battalion. Our answering fire - probably from 205 Field Artillery Battalion - was about 50-100 yards short of range. Our guns were not close enough; the Nip gunners escaped. On 26 April, "I" captured, the southeast comer of Cyclops Strip. We saw 6-8 old dead Nips, many burned out fighter planes, underground supply rooms with intact equipment - but no live Japs.

On 29 April, we secured a flank while 1st Battalion's B and C Companies attacked some 400 Japs on Hill 1,000. From a flank ridge, we watched 205 Field Artillery impact a jungle triangle where the Japs were holding. When the battery fired for effect, a gun shorted into C Company - killed two, wounded two. Shelling halted until range was corrected. Next day, "B" with Field Artillery routed the heaviest concentration of Nips in the 41st's Hollandia Operation. I Company was now needed only for patrols.

But why was Hollandia so weakly held the finest air-sea base in western New Guinea? Of 14,000 Jap effectives at Hollandia, 80-90 per cent were only Service Company men. The Japs' three generals arrived in Hollandia late in March or early April too late for defense planning. Strong defensive positions were lacking. On 30 March-3 April, General Kenney's 5 Air Force had wrecked 275 of Hollandia's 300 Jap planes, mostly parked wing to wing on the Strips.

And where were Hollandia's infantry defenders? Lieutenant General Hatazo Adachi's 18 Army was too far off - 325 miles east on the roadless Guinea Short. Our planes and PT boats controlled the sea. When Jap Headquarters on 25 March ordered Adachi to move one division 215 miles from Wewak to Hollandia, he wisely delayed the move until 18 April, too late to fight our landings of 22 April. For Adachi wrongly believed that we would strike at Wewak or Hansa Bay, and wanted his men there to fight us. He was thus able to fight the Battle of the Drinumor River, that last great battle for New Guinea, fought even after Biak.

As for I Company 186 Infantry, our Hollandia Operation gave us three episodes of hard luck. After having 80 percent of us down with dysentery on embarking at Finsch, we lost our Commanding Officer accidentally wounded by his own man. Then our own Navy Hellcats wounded or slew us in a little holocaust on White Beach 3. Such was the dire history of our Hollandia Beachhead. After “easy" Hollandia, I Company was hardened indeed for the fight well on Biak.

CREDIT: Important original sources are Koenig's 9-page typescript (14 May 1980), and his letter of 30 May 1980. Somewhat useful was an anonymous handwritten 19-page manuscript from Dwight Eisenhower Library's Federal Archives. It seems to have been prepared after interviews by an unnamed writer at Kure, Japan, on our Division's History Team in 1945. Useful was RR Smith's Approaches to the Philippines. This is first time that our Association history mentions death of Sam J. Deese, as verified by I-186's enlisted' men's payroll for May, 1944, and overall 186 Infantry list for whole war.