Chapter 11: Wakde Falls

The Biak and Wakde Island campaigns were not long in materializing. Hardly had the red dust from Hollandia and Aitape been washed out of the men’s hair when General Doe was given command of Tornado Task Force, whose mission was to secure Wakde Island and that portion of the New Guinea shore adjacent to it. Wakde Island on the map is called Insoemoar Island. It is two miles long and a mile wide, and lies offshore about two miles from Toem Village.  How much the Japs used the island is not known, but they did develop an airfield which handled many of their planes. Elaborate hangars, control towers, radio stations and quarters were established and an extensive roadnet and system of supply dumps had been built.  These came in for a lot of attention from the Allied Air Forces in 1944. The seizure and development of the Wakde area as an advance air and naval operating base would prevent hostile interference with the development of the Hollandia area and also would assist in the support of subsequent operations to the northwest.

The Allied force was composed of the 163d Infantry Combat Team (reinforced), with the 167th and 218th Field Artillery Battalions furnishing support for the operation. Since the latter was at Hollandia the convoy had a layover at Humboldt Bay until loading details

were completed. The 128th RCT of the 32d Division, located at Aitape, and the 158th RCT, an independent combat team located at Finschhafen, were designated as reserves for Alamo Force, the code name applied to the Sixth Army units participating in the Wakde-Biak invasions, and these units were to be prepared to reinforce either task force. Meanwhile, at Hollandia preparations were going forward for the landing at Biak which was to be made on the heels of the Wakde invasion.

Occupation of Wakde was to be a shore-to-shore operation by elements of Persecution Task Force, composed of 22,500 men. Wakde was too small an island to permit the landing of all combat and service troops of the task force. By making a landing on the mainland, the force would eliminate the congestion of troops and supplies, would secure excellent artillery positions to support the subsequent landings on Wakde, and, conversely, would deny the enemy the areas in which he could place artillery to fire on the island. A landing at Toem was not feasible because this village was within close range of any hostile guns that might be on Wakde. Arare, west of Toem, was selected as the landing site because it would eliminate much of this threat.

Following a naval bombardment on the morning of 17 May the force made a landing against light opposition at Arare on the Dutch New Guinea mainland, across the channel from Wakde. The 163d Infantry landed in column of battalions with the 3d Battalion seizing the initial beachhead. After establishing the beachhead this unit deployed toward the Tor River in order to secure the west flank of the beach. The 2d Battalion pushed elements along the coastal road to the Tementoe Creek, but the bulk of the unit occupied positions at Toem. The 1st Battalion came ashore and followed the 2d Battalion down the beach to Toem where it immediately began preparations for the movement to Wakde the following morning.

During the landings on the mainland two LCVs reconnoitered Insoemanai Island and found it unoccupied. During the afternoon of D-day, Company D, three heavy-weapons companies of the 163d Infantry, and one company of 4.2-inch mortars landed on the island. The seizure of this objective gave the landing force going ashore on Wakde additional fire support.  Wakde and Insoemanai Island also were bombarded by naval and air units during the landings on the mainland. The 191st Field Artillery Group, with Cannon Company of the 163d Infantry and the 167th Field Artillery Battalion attached, supported the eastward advance of the 2d Battalion. When it reached Toem it went into positions and prepared to support the assault on Wakde.

Wakde came under naval, aerial, artillery and mortar bombardment for more than twenty-four hours. Destroyers stood a thousand yards offshore while rocket launchers drove in closer to shore to release their projectiles.  The Fifth Air Force bombed and strafed from tree-top level. No Japs could be seen. No return fire was encountered and the commander of the Insoemanai Island detachment sent word that if his orderly didn’t have sore feet, the two of them could wade over and take Wakde. Air units reported that no flak had been encountered for the past ten days. However, the forces landing on Insoemanai Island on D-day had received light machine-gun and rifle fire from Wakde. All of this led to the belief that there would be very little resistance.

The landing force was four companies (A, B, C and F) and four General Sherman medium tanks. Approximately two-thirds of the troops were veterans of the Buna-Gona-Sanananda fights while the rest were well trained replacements who had joined the Division during its latest sojourn in Australia. Three weeks earlier this same outfit had made landings at Aitape, and it was just six weeks since the unit had left Australia.

Six waves loaded in four LCVPs at Arare Village on the mainland on 18 May and each was followed by four LCMs. The landing points chosen were the jetties on the south side of the island. This appeared to be the only reef-free beach and had the added advantage of lending itself to machine-gun and mortar support from Insoemanai Island.

Companies A and F were to go in abreast, with Company A on the right, followed by Companies B and C. Company A was to turn to the right and clean up and hold the southeast tip of the island while Company F was to turn left and mop up the southwestern portion of the island, and then move up to an assembly point at the east end of the airstrip. Companies B and C were to push inland towards the airstrip. Thus, it was figured that merely by establishing a beachhead and capturing the second objective, the airfield, two-thirds of the area would be in Allied hands and the island would be cut in half. Then resistance could be reduced in piecemeal fashion. Because so little resistance was anticipated, LSTs with supplies were scheduled to come in at H plus 1. For shore-to-shore communication an underwater telephone cable was laid from the mainland to Insoemanai and later to Wakde.  In loading on the mainland a heavy surf was encountered.  One tank shorted out its ignition system, thus putting it out of action even before the loading was completed.

The leading wave began to receive Jap rifle, mortar and machine-gun fire about three hundred yards from the beach, despite the close mortar and machine-gun support from Insoemanai Island. At first most of the enemy fire was frontal and did little damage, but as the men closed in the fire increased in intensity and came from the flanks as well, causing heavy casualties.  Several coxswains and boat operators were killed and, although no boats had to turn back, several got out of control and disrupted the wave and boat organization.  Later information and evidence indicated that the Japs expected the landing on the opposite side of the island and they were braced against that point. Reefs and jagged rocks, however, denied the beach there and the invading troops would not have had the benefit of effective supporting fire from the mainland and Insoemanai Island.

After the third was ashore, other waves received less fire while approaching the shore because the Japs, by this time, were concentrating on the assault companies.  These, in spite of heavy beach fire, had reached some cover along the beach shelf and fringe. The supporting fire from Insoemanai kept the Japs in their installations and prevented them from rushing the pinned-down troops on the beach. It also prevented the enemy reinforcements from moving out of the interior of the island.

During the landing phase of the operation, three company commanders were casualties. Things were pretty hot and as the landing progressed the messages sifting back to those still at Hollandia indicated that the resistance being encountered was the toughest that had thus far been put up by any enemy garrison along the New Guinea shore. The beach strip was open sand.  Those who made it ashore were hugging the ground, shoulder to shoulder, under the beach shelf. They were pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire from concrete blockhouses, a trench system and a series of caves.  Inland there was a mass of blasted coconut trees and frond, wrecked piers, warehouses and equipment. The noise was deafening. Gradually, individual men worked forward and gained firing positions but this method was slow and extremely costly in proportion to the ground gained.

The three tanks started ashore and they laid down machine-gun and cannon fire as they started down the ramp. One tank immediately disappeared in seven feet of water and only the top of the turret hatch was visible. Now only two tanks remained. When they hit the beach every Jap on the island fired futilely at them.  Japs raised up from the trenches and stuck heads out of pillboxes to gape at them. Fifteen minutes after the tanks landed the Allies had fire superiority in the beachhead area. Later 150 dead Japs were counted here.

The two tanks worked together beautifully and they had a psychological effect upon the enemy. Stories were told of Japs shaking angry fists at the steel monsters and charging them with sabers and bayonets. A few Japs managed to get atop the tanks but were killed before they could do any damage.

The island was covered with bombproof bunkers and pillboxes. Some of these had walls of coconut logs, ten to fourteen inches in diameter, with six to eighteen inches of coral rock and soil between them. In some cases gas drums filled with sand, truck bodies and

frames, and steel landing boats were incorporated in the construction. Roofs were usually of three to five feet of coral. The enemy holed up in these installations all during the bombardment phase of the invasion and lived a life of comparative ease and safety. The only disadvantage evident was the poor organization of these bunkers and pillboxes. There was no plan or system as to their location.

The tanks broke the stalemate on the beach but it was impossible to keep the entire line moving with only two of them. It was at this time that the two tanks were used together in order to help the infantrymen forward by groups from right to left. Both tanks went into the Company A sector because the ground was firm there. It was the highest elevation on the island and commanded the beachhead. It was assumed that the Japs would fight hard to hold this but the unpredictable Nip didn’t have over a dozen men on the ridge and these withdrew rather than face the pressure. Company A reorganized on the ridge and the tanks transferred their support to Company B, which started forward but ran into long-range enfilading fire from its right and right front. Some of this fire, it was later learned, was delivered from the roofs of partially destroyed buildings and from a water-storage tower. The result was that the l63d right flank separated and a gap developed.

Company B reached the airstrip, but Company F reported that it was up against stiff resistance. It was in terrain resembling a bowl and was bucking against strong emplacements. Company F was in the pit of the bowl and the enemy emplacements were on the rim.  The unit was suffering some casualties.

Company C reported light opposition and expected to reach the airstrip without help. However, the tanks were sent to support it to insure its reaching the second objective without mishap. Simultaneously, Company A was ordered to leave one squad to hold the high point it had just taken while the remainder of the company took up positions to the right of Company F. The units trying to relieve Company F ran into an extension of the resistance that was holding up that unit.

More trouble and inconveniences were developing. LSTs and barges were landing and sailors and Merchant Marine men were under foot everywhere. Two of them rolled over a supposedly dead Jap; however he had life enough to detonate a grenade, killing himself and seriously wounding both seamen. The underwater telephone cable refused to work and radio had to be used exclusively. Before long the network was jammed with messages. The first bulldozer ashore tore out all four company phone lines to the command post. At this time Company D was ordered to rejoin the 1st Battalion on Wakde, this unit having landed on Insoemanai the previous day.

Company C by now had reached the airstrip and the tanks were turned over to Companies A and F.  The obstacle delaying their progress was soon overcome and they swept around the west end of the airstrip. The plan was to advance two companies abreast through area between the north side of the strip and the beach. The tank commander notified the infantry commander that the tanks had exhausted their supply of ammunition and that a trip back to the beach was necessary reload. This trip would require at least an hour and it was already 1630. The infantry commander still was determined to get the remainder of the Japs into a smaller area so they could be contained and held better during the night.

Companies A and F ran into more resistance on the  extreme northwestern tip of the island and their advance was slowed down. It was obvious that the Japs were moving in and building up a line against them. This was one of the rare instances where Jap officers seemed to take command of their troops and direct them. The terrain here favored the enemy. There were some coral crevices and rocks, the brush and debris was dense and thick, and wrecked planes, trucks, and equipment were scattered about in confusion.

Although the southern edge of the airstrip was secured by 1700, grazing machine-gun fire from the eastern end of the strip made crossing impracticable.  However, part of Company C was later sent across the drome under protecting fire from the weapons platoons of both Companies B and C. This movement cost three casualties, but it severed the enemy’s route of reinforcement and withdrawal. In the final analysis 94 Japs were cut off and trapped in approximately a ten-acre area surrounded by the two companies plus two platoons.  The fight to eliminate the trapped enemy troops continued for about a half hour and many Japs began individual suicidal action.

The Japs left on Wakde now were confined to about an eighth of the total area. During this time Company B was taking a lot of punishment and it was ordered to fight merely a holding action. This company was receiving enemy grenade and knee-mortar fire and, furthermore, the Japs were slipping around the company’s right flank. To halt this enemy action and to prevent the enemy from again deploying over the whole island, including the beachhead. Company A pushed forward on the north side of the strip as far as it could.  At the same time Companies C and F were pulled out and put on a line with Company B, thus completely closing an encirclement from the mid-point of the airstrip to the seacoast on the east end of the island. By the time Companies C and F got into position, Company A had gained five hundred yards on the north side of the strip. Then more opposition developed. It was getting late and the units began to consolidate their defenses for the night. With the aid of carrying parties and an Alligator, water and a re-supply of ammunition were delivered to all units as they dug in at the end of the first day’s fighting.

The night was relatively quiet. Company G took some intermittent knee-mortar fire until about 2000.  Harassing artillery fire at the rate of twenty rounds per hour was delivered on that portion of the island still held by the Japs. In order to halt the knee-mortar fire, the artillery was drawn in as close as possible and fired thirty rounds. This silenced the Jap until daybreak. At 0200 a platoon of Japs, consisting of an officer and fifteen men, with a knee mortar and a light machine gun, advanced down a side road toward the battalion command post perimeter. A Sioux Indian sergeant had a light machine gun covering the road and he allowed the enemy to approach within five yards of his position before he opened fire on them, killing fifteen. One prisoner, a Hawaiian-born Jap marine who spoke excellent English, walked into a supply dump on the beach and surrendered. This was the only captive taken throughout the entire fight.

At daybreak a party of six or eight Japs set fire to four trucks belonging to the aviation engineers. These trucks had been driven inland and left without adequate guards. Fifty-four Japs, who had been by-passed during the first day’s fighting, had assembled during the night and made a futile attack on a group of Air Force engineers on the beach. A sergeant took command of the situation, organized an enveloping counterattack and wiped out the enemy. Company A was desperately short of water. An adequate supply to carry it through to noon had been delivered the previous night but Jap fire throughout the night had punctured many cans. This company had killed over eighty Japs who were trying to escape through it during the night and early morning.

The tanks were slow in reporting to the front area that morning, the delay being caused by the fight between the Japs and elements of the engineers. This fight resulted in everyone in the beachhead area being pinned down. When they did put in an appearance there were three of them, the third being the one which had dropped into the water at the beachhead during the previous day. It had been towed out and put into operation.

The attack for the second day called for Company A to hold fast since it was planned to push the remaining Japs into the area just in front of this company. On the south side Companies B and C, with the aid of the tanks, were to advance until they pinched out Company F. When the advance reached the narrow area between the east end of the airstrip and the seacoast, Company F then was to join Company A for the final clean up.

The plan worked well. Company A, now on the north of the strip at its eastern end in three platoon perimeters, held fast and sniped Japs, like shooting ducks from a blind, until noon. At noon both flanks made contact. The whole island had been covered by now but there still were Japs left. These were hiding under debris and in cleverly concealed pillboxes, while the more tenacious ones crawled into coral caves crevices, several of which were on the east end of the island. From these they fought fanatically to the bitter end. Tanks proved ineffective against these caves as the openings faced seaward and the approaches were too rocky for the tanks to negotiate. Flamethrowers were pressed into action and by evening all the emplacements were cleaned out. The last organized resistance which had continued stubbornly from the northeastern section of the island, was reduced during this second day of fighting. The day also marked the unopposed landings of Company E on Liki Island and Company I on Niroemoar Island. Radar installations were established on these islands without enemy interference.

At 1700 all units were pulled back to the mid-point of the island for the night. Kitchens were brought over from the mainland and the men were given a good, hot B-ration supper. Guards were posted and the men settled down for a good night’s sleep.

Next morning the consolidation of Wakde and scattered mopping-up activities continued and 803 enemy dead were counted. Intelligence officers revealed that there had been nineteen different Japanese units represented.  These varied from port detachments to two companies of Tojo’s much ballyhooed “Tiger Marines,” who were veterans of several years of fighting in China, had been in on the rape of Nanking and boasted the name of “Conquerors of Java.” In the forty-eight hours of fast and continuous action the Americans had 20 men killed and 36 wounded. Over one hundred bunkers of concrete or coconut logs and twelve deep caves, containing food, water and ammunition, had been reduced.

With its task successfully concluded the 1st Battalion returned to the mainland on 20 May. Work progressed on the strip from the time it was secured until 21 May, when the first P-38s, P-40s and medium bombers arrived to use it as a forward base.

While the 1st Battalion had taken Wakde, patrols on the mainland had contacted Japs on both sides of the Tor River, but no strong offensive action had been taken pending the arrival of the 158th Infantry Combat Team. This unit reached Toem on 21 May and began a push west of the Tor River against heavy hostile fire.  As the 158th Infantry took over the fight in the Maffin Bay area, the 163d Infantry Regiment prepared for movement to Biak where it would rejoin the 41st Infantry Division.

The 41st Division in its bitter struggle for Wakde Island had secured another airdrome which would be an important factor in the westward advance of the Southwest Pacific Forces. The campaign was unique for its brevity and conclusiveness, and marked the first time that terrain and conditions permitted the full use of tanks. This was not a large-scale operation but it embodied all the ugly factors that go into the making of any war, no matter how remote or unexploited by the press and radio.