Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion 163 Infantry: Wire and Water on Wakde

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian and Nathan J. (Sonny) Sonnenfeld

About 0735, May 1944, 1st Battalion 163 Infantry's Headquarters Company safely landed on Arare Beach across from Wakde Island which we expected to occupy safely tomorrow. Beaching was easy because light cruisers Phoenix, Nashville, and Boise had salvoed 6-inch shells into Wakde on our left flank for 50 minutes. Two LCIs rocketed the rear of our beach, and 3rd Battalion 163 Infantry landed before us, with A Company 116 Engineers and 27 Engineer Combat Battalion after them. After settling down in 163's perimeter, T/5 Drum's wiremen (with Sonnenfeld) had little to do but go swimming from that fine long sandy beach.

Next morning, 18 May, was beautiful to 1st Battalion wiremen - "clear, sunny, picture perfect," Nathan Sonnenfeld called it. Enhancing that beauty were 30 A-20s of Fifth Air Force which swooped to blast silent Wakde. Thirty minutes before our embarkment for Wakde, destroyers Wilkes and Rode fired 2350 rounds of 5-inch and 6-inch shells, and then little 20 mm and 40 mm machine cannon. Ten minutes before our barges left Arare, two rocket LCIs began barraging the 50-yard beach with its little jetty. Wakde took a total of 850 rockets that day.

Meanwhile, wiremen and other 1st Battalion Headquarters men laughed and joked cramming into barges to take over pathetic, battered little Wakde. We enjoyed the impact of bombs and shells and rockets on Wakde. We stood while barges circled in the water and waited for the exact moment to charge the beach.

Now our LCVP coxswain called, "O.K., fellows, it's time to take your kneeling positions. The rules say you got to get down on your knees." We wanted to keep on standing up, but we would be happy that we obeyed that order.

Then our barges straightened out to hit the beach abreast; Jap machine gun bullets struck us. They punched holes in wooden gunwales. T/5 Drum thought that he heard Jap mortars impact. As Drum tried to shrink into himself on the boat bottom, he saw that AT Platoon's  Mackowsky seemed to lie where he seemed to shield Drum from the bullets. Every time Mackowsky moved, Drum moved to keep Mackowsky between himself and the bullets. Drum was not selfish about hiding behind him. Something else had put Mackowsky there, and Drum was going to make use of him.

Driving for Wakde Beach even in the third or fourth waves, Headquarters Company lost Pvt Charles F. Herwig from a shot in the right forearm. On the same LCVP with Heinitz, Corporal Theodore J. Zwieczkowski was wounded in the hand. Zwieczkoski had been firing a heavy. 50 heavy machine gun into the beach. The barge grated the sand. As the ramp clanged down and we piled out of the craft, Pfc Samuel I. McIlvanie died from a bullet in the throat.

Now all Headquarters Company flattened on a bare beach with a low 30-40 rise ahead of us. We risked our eyes to look up over the sand to coconut palms, brush, and coral outcrops. We waited on our chests and faces for what seemed forever, although it could have been only 10 minutes. We were under fire from both flanks and before us. Finally, Tech Battalion's Commanding Officer Major Wing stood up and yelled, "Let's get the Hell out of here," and strode forward. The fire had died down. And all 1st Battalion reinforced charged off the beach, happy to be alive.

We wiremen set up our switchboard in our new Battalion command post near a cross-road centrally located on a slight rise. T/5 Drum, our leader, had already searched the beach-head for "wire-heads" and connected them with all our companies. While Jap machine gun and rifle fire streamed overhead, he discovered ·two damaged lines and repaired them. After our switchboard was in operation, we discovered an unexploded bomb next to the crater where we had sheltered that switchboard. We let that bomb stay there for our whole time on Wakde.

Fire fights seemed to go on all around us. Wireman Clifton James took an unusual wound. Sent down to the beach for water, James came under Jap fire, and crawled under the dock for safety. Bullets blew up a nearby truck tire. Fragments hit him in the mouth, knocked out teeth, broke his jaw in two places. James did not rejoin 1st Battalion until we had landed on Biak.

Late that afternoon, 1st Battalion's wiremen had a risky assignment for an important link-up north into Wakde. By now, A Company held a fine tactical position north of the Strip in northeast Wakde, but the Jap garrison still fought hard. When night came, "A" would be isolated and exposed to lap attacks north of that Strip and would need all the mortar and field artillery protection they could get. But "A" had travelled so far and fast west of the Strip and then around the cape eastward that they had no wire connection with Headquarters.

To connect with A Company, a five-man team of T/5 Drum, Sonnenfeld, and four others left Battalion Headquarters with two phones, and wire coils. Except for Sonnenfeld with his tommie, we had only our M-1s for protection, but our route was through an area where “B," "C," and the tanks had supposedly cleared out the Nips.

We hooked a roll of light combat wire to the switchboard and snubbed it around a tree to keep from disconnecting it. Moving out and unrolling the wire on the ground, we hiked much like a rifle company patrol. Treading at 20-30 foot intervals with Sonnenfeld as point, we had our sixth, get-away man trailing slightly to the rears somewhere on the way. We briefly endured sniper fire. We took some misses, but no fire heavy enough to pin us down.

But crossing open Wakde Strip was harder. At the south side of the narrower middle of the Strip, we could look across open surface to what seemed a long distance to the trees on the other side. Actually, it was only some 150 yards across, but C Company had lost some men when they crossed. But we would have a long hike to round the west end of the Strip as A Company had done earlier, and perhaps meet some bypassed Nippo riflemen who would see us before we saw them. We had to cross the Strip under threat of fire from the jungle.

Pointing out a spot where we could regroup on the other side, we took off with our extra wire coils and ran like Hell. We panted across in a weaving straight line. As Sonnenfeld wryly remarked, "A weaving straight line is the shortest distance between two points - when you are in combat!"

No Japs fired as we dashed across and fell exhausted but safe in the brush on the north side of the Strip. It was a sweaty, heat-struck dash in a temperature of 110 + degrees. Hearing heavy fire to our right, we warily brought our line over the ground that A Company had cleared when they pushed eastward. 

A Company welcomed our phones with great relief. We gave tired A Company most of our food and ammo and water and turned back for "home" in Headquarters Company. It was late in the day, and we became a little foolhardy. We accepted a tank commander's offer to ferry us all back on top of his vehicle across the open Strip. Yet we crossed without drawing fire.

Back in 1st Battalion Headquarters, Sonnenfeld and Drum and the other wiremen still had to try to dig in for the night. But at that late hour, we could only dig in about three inches into solid coral below an earthen surface. We tried to sleep between turns on guard, but Jap harassment broke up our sleep.

The worst attack was about 0200 next morning from perhaps a whole Jap Platoon. D Company's heavy machine guns ably defended our 1st Battalion's command post. Pfc James J. Eder, Reid, Retterath, and Staff Sergeant Dean E. Henry, among others, fought off a desperate attack. Henry was hit in left shoulder; Pfc Floyd Pender lost the toes of his right foot. Pfc Lors L. Nordmark took both bullets and grenade fragments in his legs. They killed at least 12 Japs and knocked out their machine gun by pointblank fire from Eder's own machine gun. Our 163 Journal reported that 10 of the Japs were Marines - probably from 91 Naval Garrison unit. They were well fed and physically fit, with new weapons and ammo.

By our second day on Wakde, one of 163's main problems was to get water from the beach-head to the front. Wakde was too small an island to have a permanent stream, and combat fire had damaged the cisterns that normally supplied it. Drinking water for us must be ferried over from the mainland, then stockpiled on the beach until forwarded to the companies inland. But evidently because only a little resistance was expected on Wakde, not enough plans had been made for supplying the front-line companies, even after the water was deposited on our beach.

Men up front drank from coconuts between intervals in combat, but in some areas, the coconut supply was exhausted. We would have to expose ourselves to Jap bullets for more coconuts. A number of men not in the line units because especially concerned about this front-line thirst - like Service Company's 1st Lieutenant Frank T. Nugent, C Battery 218 Field Artillery's Captain John Panek, and 1st Battalion 163 Headquarters Company's Sonnenfeld. These men made memorable efforts to bring up that crucial water.

Service Company's 1st Lieutenant Nugent made a heroic but tragic attempt to forward water. On 163's second day on Wakde, on the morning of 19 May, Nugent heard that an earlier water-party had failed, through no fault of theirs. Jap bullets had bled the cans of a forward Company. Calling together his assigned carriers, Nugent took them down to the beach for water from Toem.

About 250 yards from their start, Jap rifle fire wounded two men whose names are unknown. Jap fighters had slipped between F and C Companies and shot them down. Nugent called for five volunteers and tried another route down to the beach for water.

This time, Nugent's water-party made only a short distance. A burst of heavy machine gun fire fatally wounded 1st Lieutenant Frank Nugent, but he still had strength to order his assistants to carryon. Reported wounded about 0920, by 1440 Nugent was dead from those bullets in right arm and chest.

The leader of a 218 Field Artillery observer party had better luck, however. When he heard of 163's suffering up front, Captain Panek offered his party's services to carry water in the alligator which had ferried them from the mainland. Borrowing an machine gun and crew lent by Colonel Wing, Panek took 218 Field Artillery's Swails and Sergeant John Hanson with him. Boldly they lumbered their water-laden alligator through the dangerous scrub jungle and across the east end of the Strip to thirsty B Company. On the way, they slew three Nip riflemen, but did not have to fight off a heavy attack. They returned to the beach with B Company wounded. Later, Panek decided that the Nips had failed to fight his alligator because they thought that it was a tank.

About the time when Nugent got his death-wound, 1st Battalion Headquarters Company was short of water also. Even if Japs lurked somewhere between us and the beach, Nathan Sonnenfeld decided to act on his own. Taking only one young man with a tommie gun to guard him – a man whose name he did not remember, Sonnenfeld slipped through coconut aisles and brush down to the beach. Here he found 163's Commanding Officer - tall, thin Colonel Moroney, who seemed to Sonnenfeld six feet, four inches above ground. Looking around him, Sonnenfeld watched a group of Air Force Ground men who had prematurely landed on Wakde. While 163's men were thirsty in battle at the front, "Air Force" was writing letters, reading magazines, or making coffee. (Others were caught stealing wallets or watches from our casualties, and the order had come out for us to shoot to kill.)

Emotionally, Sonnenfeld grasped 163's Commanding Officer by the shirt and drew him close. Emphatically, he informed Colonel William J. Moroney about our lack of water. Moroney could have arrested Sonnenfeld for confinement and court-martial, but this old Regular Army and West Pointer asked simply, "What should we do?" Pointing to a 6x6 truck with the driver under it deep into a comic book, Sonnenfeld replied, "Colonel, just hook that truck to that water-trailer and give me that driver."

Colonel Moroney said to the driver, "Do what this man tells you to." (This was an example of Colonel Moroney's way with the men of 163 Infantry. Later, he was heard to say, "The 163 Infantry was already a going concern when I took command." Moroney had clearly seen that the best way to deal with the average 163 man was to give him head as you do with a good horse and let him run.)

After the hook-up with the trailer, Sonnenfeld gave the orders that may have saved them from dying like Nugent. He and the young man with the tommie gun lay down in the bed of the truck - one man on each side of it alert and ready to fight for his life. He told the driver to run the motor in low gear.

And the truck growled up the road where Nugent had been shot, all the way in low gear. Sonnenfeld thought that the growl of the motor scared off lurking Japs - that they may have believed that the truck was a tank that would machine gun them or run them down and crush them. The water arrived safely at 1st Battalion Headquarters Company where men drank happily. Sonnenfeld thought that big James downed three quarts himself, and for all of Headquarters Company, no water could ever taste better.

These were some of the adventures of 1st Battalion 163 Infantry's wiremen on Wakde. They will never forget their landing under the Jap machine gun ambush, laying the wire to A Company across the open Strip, and their thirst on waterless Wakde.

 

CREDIT: Most important sources are two undated cassettes sent by Sonnenfeld with the soundtrack from him, John Drum, and Clifton James. Sonnenfeld backed those cassettes with some 21 pages of handwritten letters dated 28 February, 26 July, 12 August, and 21 August - all 1982. Ray Heinitz sent an undated letter in 1982 also. I used data also from Award Stories of Sonnenfeld, Tech Sergeant John Drum of 163 Infantry - and Captain John Panek (C Battery 218 Field Artillery) and 1st Lieutenant Frank Nugent (Service 163). I used also General Eichelberger's comment on our "fine" 163 Infantry in Dear Miss Em, and a comment from Colonel Moroney at our North Aurora (III.) Reunion of Mid-America several years ago. Background is from 163 Infantry's Casualty List of 18 May 1944, and RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines.