A Company 116 Engineers: Night Fight at Toem

By A Company Engineers’ G.D. “Tony” Rohleffs, George D. Moore, and George Kraemer with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

On 17 May 1944, A Company 116 (Combat) Engineers beached in the second wave following 3rd Battalion 163 Infantry on the Toem Foreshore opposite Wakde Island. The other two battalions of 163 Infantry landed after us. Attached to 27 Engineer Battalion, we began clearing bivouac and dump areas, and helping Amphibious Engineers offload ammo and other supplies from ships. With 27 Engineers, we began building a two-lane truck road alongshore from Toem to Arare.

Our Toem-Wakde Operation was to be the usual beach heading Engineers' hard work; but it would also be where we had our one bad night of Jap attack.

On the morning of 18 May when 163 Infantry's 1st Battalion plus E Company stormed Wakde, George Moore was among the Engineers sent to help B Company 116 Medics set up inshore from A 116. Casualties were flooding the Medics from a total of 40 killed and 107 wounded. It seemed to Moore that there were many trucks of US dead. In the afternoon, Moore was on a detail to dig graves inland south of A 116's camp. Only known Wakde casualty of A 116 was Renteria, marked "seriously wounded" with a gunshot through his right arm. He was shot on 22 May on Wakde; we have no report on what he was doing on Wakde.

But by 27 May, the Japs seemed no longer to menace our men at Toem. Battle was going on about 20 miles east of us, where 158 Infantry was assailing Lone Tree Hill towards Sarmi Strip.

On that peaceful early night of 27 May, A 116 Engineers' camp had almost a holiday atmosphere. Men were swimming from the beach north of the new two-lane road. Electric lights shone from kitchen and showers. In kerosene-lighted tents, cots were spread for card games or sleeping. (So luxurious was Toem that nearby B 116 Medics had two gasoline-powered washing machines.)

We engineers looked forward to another great night of unbroken sleep - but for the guards in a listening post and in a pillbox with three men and a heavy .30 caliber machine gun. Yet dense jungle to hide Jap charges, began just 100 yards in from the beach and ran back six miles to mountain foothills. But A 116 Engineers did not worry that a surprise rush of Jap bayonets from the dark could readily overrun our heavy machine gun post. Our 163 Headquarters gave us no warning of any Jap danger.

On our two inland jungle trails were sets of booby traps for night security. But here also, security precautions were lax. The man in charge of those booby traps, A Company's Artificer Rohlffs had to go alone to set those traps just before dark, and just after morning light fall. A 116's operating procedure was that every man assigned a job was on his own to get that job done. Despite his pleas for a trigger-man to crouch on guard over him, PFC Rohlffs could get no security while his nervous hands adjusted delicate explosive mechanisms.

And so that night once more, Rohllfs leaned his tommy-gun against a tree and worked with sweaty, trembling hands among grenades, land-mines, and bouncing betties. Often he started at dark jungle noises, but he could not risk an explosion in his face if he seized his tommy-gun to defend himself. But no lurking men of Colonel Soemon Matsuyama's force bayoneted him kneeling over his booby traps.

After setting the traps, Rohlffs looked forward to a quiet talk with his tent-mates, then sleep in the peaceful jungle dark. On the way back, he talked a little with T/5 William J. Mossman at his listening post ahead of the .30 heavy machine gun which was our only security to warn against a Jap onslaught. Mossman was a nice, quiet boy whom other engineers guess to have enlisted when still only 16 years old. Mossman too had set booby traps before his listening post which he shared with just one man, a Canadian born Indian, Vic Paul. This was the last time he would ever talk to Mossman, who did not have long to live.

Then Rohlffs homed to his tent - a little three man officers' tent in the western section of the camp where headquarters personnel slept. Beside the tent was a large eight man air-raid hole covered by metal airfield ground nets and earth. Here slept men of Headquarters personnel unassigned to squads- command car drivers, cat-men, mechanics, and company clerks. East across a wide lane down to the sea were the ordnance tent where Rohlffs worked, the supply tent, the kitchen, and random squad tents. The showers were just south of them, closest to the jungle.

With tent-mates Roberts and Lucy, Rohlffs quietly chatted before turning in. Surely they talked about going home, for the rotation points system had begun for the 41st. On 23 May, Bell, Beaver, Franklin, "Scotty," and "E.V." had already emplaned for the States. Since most "A" men had twice the needed 85 points for home, names were drawn from a hat. Rohlffs' name had come up. Since he had been overseas even in the surf landing on Nassau Bay that began the Salamaua Operation, he would be happy to rotate home in June. Nothing could be more on his mind than "home" and the fear that he would not live to make it.

That quiet talk over the cigarettes was reassuring to Rohlffs. At the same time in a larger squad tent, Moore watched other men tranquilly playing cards by the light of a kerosene lantern.

Suddenly Rohlffs, Lucy, and Roberts heard a loud "Pop!" "Sounds like a field kitchen blew up," one man said. (A Jap had tripped a wire that exploded a grenade.)

Tommy-gun fire rattled from the listening post of Mossman and the Canadian Indian Paul. Then we all heard the opening bursts from the three man crew at the machine gun. With that fire came "all kinds of hell" - grenade blasts, rifle and automatic fire, screaming Japs, bugle calls, and whistles that sounded foreign.

Before they heard the echoes from the first shots, Rohlffs, Lucy, and Roberts seemed to feel their guns leap into their hands. They slipped under the tent-sides into the great eight man hole and readied to repel the Jap charge that seemed certain to come.

The screaming and firing came in waves, then suddenly quieted and started over. Crouching Rohlffs saw a body darken his loophole. The body said nothing, but it lay right against the muzzle of Rohlffs' tommy.

"Let him have it!" whispered one man. "Hold it!" said the other man in a low voice. We expected all kinds of horror to break out: Nips ringing us to strike with long bayonets, a grenade about to be rapped outside to arm for blasting us, and death in many more ways.

After at least ten long minutes, the alleged Jap blacking out the hole spoke in good old American English. He only wanted to share the hole with us. The noise of the attack was dying down.

But the men in Moore's squad-tent were not near any eight man hole. After that first booby trap popped, somebody turned out the kerosene lantern. Moore dived for the tent floor, with Morris prone before him. Other card players dived into small holes outside.

Moore heard rifle-fire from his right near the command post area, from T/4 Kraemer, and Corporals Robin and Richardson. Our .30 heavy machine gun kept on firing. Moore heard Japs in the tents of 2nd Platoon on his left. He heard a final whistle, and thought that this was the signal for the Japs' withdrawal. But he still did not dare to leave his tent in the dark. Japs might be lurking behind to kill him, or some Engineers might slay him by mistake. All the remaining night, Moore crouched by his gun in tent shadows.

T/4 Kraemer had to lie flat on ground behind a palm tree about 20 feet left of his 2nd Platoon tent. A Jap grenade exploded too close to his right leg but did not wound him. He fired a clip and a half and thought that he surely wounded one Jap.

In ugly daybreak, we looked tiredly and bleary-eyed on our camp that was peaceful last night - and now a corpse-littered battlefield. Moore could not talk at first; his voice may have left because of his fear. Moore seemed to see many corpses, mostly Japs', but even a few engineers. (God knows, even one dead Yank was one too many.)

We thought that we could reconstruct the time sequences of the attack. First, the Japs struck the listening post of Mossman and Paul. It was a small round hole, maybe three feet around, and four feet deep, with no overhead protection.

William Mossman had died on his tommy-gun but alerted our camp to fight back in seconds. He had piled up six twisted corpses with his tommy  - although Paul may have killed more than one of these. Mossman died with a hole in his head. Paul said that he had hidden all night under Mossman's body to save his own life.

Secondly, the Japs had flailed the three man pillbox armed with the .30 caliber water-cooled heavy machine gun with its flash-hider. This pillbox was formidable. It was shaped something like a horseshoe behind a curved sandbagged barricade, and roofed to repel grenades and plunging bayonet men. Entrance was from the rear down a ramp.

Regular Army Sergeant Wisniewski commanded, with gunner Nichols and assistant Murray. From the dark, the Japs had used preparatory automatic fire. They had set up a shoulder-operated little automatic weapon on a bipod. Moore believed that Mossman had slain the gun crew before they had struck the pill box slot. But the bayonet charge came anyhow. Japs rushed with bayoneted rifles. Some ran with bayonets lashed to long poles.

They charged the pillbox in ranks, shoulder to shoulder. Moore saw bodies piled on tops of bodies. As the machine gun mowed down the first rank, the second rank charged and was shot, then another. Moore could see just how many waves had charged. Nichols' continuous fire had slashed the corpses over and over. He could not risk grenades from men still alive.

When Moore saw them, the corpses lay where Nichols' machine gun had piled them. They were not yet stacked to truck off for burial. Moore wishes that he had counted them, today, but he was far more concerned with the number of Engineer casualties.

One lone Jap did start a bayonet attack towards the pillbox entrance behind the gun, but Murray shot him down. It was a silhouette shot into a dark blur in the night.

Probably at the same time of the pillbox charge, other Japs had charged to the left of our listening post and pillbox - on the side closest to the sea. They seemed to fan out to catch our men in showers and squad tents.

Four or five Japs were sprawled dead in the showers. Two more lay silent in the opening behind the showers and before the squad tents nearer to the coast. Six lay before Mossman and Paul's listening post, and an uncounted number before the .30 heavy machine gun. Rohlffs estimated a total kill of 35.

A Company 116 Engineers had five dead, and two seriously wounded. Besides T/5 Mossman shot through the head, T/5 Clyde P. Wilds was found dead near the heavy machine gun with a bullet in his pelvis. T/5 Russell C. Larsen's body lay between Rohlff's tent and the jungle near a dismounted truck hood used as a tent. Bullets had pierced Larsen's head and chin. Pfc George E. Eichenlaub was dead across the road near the beachside palms-arm shot off and a fragment in his left side. A shot in the chest had killed Pvt. Richard E. Renkel. Where he was found is unknown, but Moore saw him carried off for burial. B 116 Medics' Joseph Zelesnikar also lay dead in our area; he may have come to aid our Engineer casualties.

Two men were reported seriously wounded. Pfc James R. Thomas took a bullet in the groin; Pvt Roland R. Robertson was shot in the jaw. And there were mental casualties, one of them Rohlffs' close friend. While visiting him at B 116's hospital, Rohlffs watched three Engineers crawling around on the earth and making queer noises. The sound of a distant shot would jerk them into spasmodic moves.

Near Toem, A 116 Engineers had listed only a few casualties after that 27 June fight. On 29 June, Sergeant William M. McNulty was accidentally killed when he came too close to our heavy machine gun in the dark. On 29 June also, John D. Brown was' reported missing in action, later confirmed dead. On 30 May, Pvt Woodrow W. Grizzle was shot in his left hand, and recorded "seriously wounded."

Not until they read these words will many A 116 men realize that the night attack of 27 June was merely a  "diversion" - an attack to draw attention from the main attack. Main attack struck 163's lightly held 1st Battalion perimeter farther inland. By hitting us Engineers, the Japs hoped to panic 163 Infantry, or to weaken them by sending forces to help us. But this attack from Colonel Soemon Matsuyama's 224 Infantry (36 "Tiger" Division) had merely lost good men whom he could have used elsewhere. As for hard fighting A 116 Engineers, we are lucky that Colonel Matsuyama did not throw all of his men at us and drive us into the ocean.

 

CREDIT: George Moore's letters of 21 February and 24 March 1987 - 10 pages handwritten - helped to complete what Tony Rohlffs began - a full length story of A 116 Engineers at Toem. (George Kraemer also helped from a 2 page letter of 9 July 1987.) Tony Rohlffs began it all with 18 pages handwritten - an undated letter and a second letter of 12 April - both in 1982. Important also for this story were two Federal Archives studies entitled" Japanese Raiding Parties in the Wakde-Sarmi Campaign," from a typescript called "Enemy Tactics, Materiel and Terrain." Background comes from RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines. (Smith never mentions this study of Jap raiding parties.) I used also 163 Infantry's Wakde-Toem "Casualty Lists," which includes A 116 Engineers' casualties.