B Company 163 Infantry: First Wave on Wakde Beach

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Sergeant William C. Davidson and Corporal Raymond H. Wilcopolski

 

            When B Company 163 Infantry's high-ramped landing-barges charged for Wakde Island about 0900, 18 May 1944, we expected no battle - even if B Company was the first wave. We were unaware that a Jap light machine gun had fired periodically from left of Wakde Jetty - a gun that field artillery from Toem had failed to kill. At 300 yards' range, destroyers and LCIs fired a last covering barrage into the shell-broken coconut groves before us.

As if by remote control, all firing stopped but for our motors' drone. We stared over narrowing waters at the quiet sands of Wakde closing in. A cameraman stood quietly taking pictures.

Then a hail of bullets pounded our gunwales, holed the upper half of our barges. We cowered as low as we could in that jam of men and rifles. Overhead, our barges' machine guns fired back, but Amphibious Engineers screamed as bullets hit them. On Boat No. 12 coxswain and two crewmen were knocked down. Our Sergeant Gorichs and Medic Stabek were both shot in their right legs. Sergeant Bilbao seized the helm he knew nothing about, jammed our 2nd Platoon over to Insoemanai Island. A trained driver brought us to Wakde 45 minutes later.

Ramps thudded on sand. We leaped out, fell prone just below a stream of Nippo bullets 18 inches overhead. The shelf of the beach saved us from many deaths. For reasons unknown, the Japs seemed to use no 20mm shells or .50 heavy machine guns on us, but other machine guns and rifles kept "B" down and crawling ahead. (Later, we learned that 2 U.S. heavy machine guns had fired on us from left of the Jetty. A 20 mm shell did pierce the side of one LCVP.)

Two tanks of 603 Tank Company landed behind us and silenced the heaviest fire, and sprung us from the beach, but we had to crawl on our bellies like snakes inland. Tying in with F Company on our left, our 3rd Platoon and 1st Platoon made 200 yards by 0950. (Our diverted 2nd Platoon and Staff Sergeant Lorenzo's .50 heavy machine guns sent over the night before, still waited for a barge back from Insoemanai Island.) Despite our intense shooting, we saw no dead Japs anywhere. Except for a few squads in delaying action, they retreated to hide and fight. But we had a few wounded.

B Company now turned at right angles to fight eastward, with the Strip flanking us. C Company needed our two tanks, and the heavy jungle ahead would have retarded them. With 2nd Platoon back from Insoemanai on our left, 3rd Platoon on our right and 1st Platoon reserved to guard Weapons platoon, we moved out. We grenaded some empty bunkers for security - and got credit for thus clearing C Company's front for their push to the Strip.

When 3rd Platoon's Tech Sergeant Gardea heard a Jap shouting orders, he seized a BAR and shot rapid fire to smash the expected attack. As he reloaded, a Jap grenade wounded his eyelid and face. A furious attack forced us back to a clearing where we could better form to contain this Jap pressure.

During this attack, our mortars got emergency orders to fire on the frenzied Jap attack. Without time to dig in, Kroll fired his mortar bracketed by Jap mortar explosions. Although surely knowing that his death was certain, Pfc. Albert R. Kroll shot round after round to defend our hard-pressed riflemen up front. When he corrected adjustment of the barrel, a Jap mortar shell blasted before him and killed him. That shell also wounded Junior Brown in arm and leg, Branch in right arm, and Corporal Talley in the head.

Japs were charging, screaming. Twice, 15-man squads rushed us; twice, we mowed them down in groups of 15. Then they fell back into jungle to reorganize. Third tank was hit so hard that we had to recall the tanks. About 1430, we lost 1st Sergeant Shamley, wounded from a bullet in the hip. Intense Jap fire struck down at us from the trees.

Our two tanks arrived with an "F" Platoon to reinforce hard-fought B Company. Tank automatic fire cut Japs out of trees like hot sun melting butter. Jap bullets ricocheted from the tanks. A frenzied charge mounted one tank, but the other tank's fire sliced them off. The survivors left their dead and wounded and dived back into jungle. Sometime during this fighting near the Strip, Tech Sergeant Korpi had crawled under fire to bandage and save a wounded comrade.

As dusk came, "B" dug in, with a whole bidon of water sent up for the canteens of each depleted platoon. With the Strip on our left flank, we tied in with F Company now moved to our right, with "C" flanking "F" to make a continuous line to the beach. D Company sent two heavy machine guns to enfilade our front. We had time for a quick cigarette to soothe our nerves.

On this 18 May, "B" lost more men than any other company on Wakde. Besides McHugh and Kroll named already, we had five more dead - Pfcs Eathel I. Fish with a brain wound, Edward F. Correia and Pvt. Walter J. Oakes shot in the chest, Pfc. Leonard Witoslaski shot in the right thigh, and Medic T/5 Charles H. Rogers in abdomen.

We had many wounded. Besides Ernest R. Shamley, Vencedor Gardea, Lionel Gorichs, Maxam, Junior Brown, Paul Caulkins, Raymond Cargal, Stephen Harvey, Maurice Talley, Carl Branch, James Cranford, and Medic Leonard M. Stabek, we had 11 more wounded to hospital. Leroy Dean was hit in wrist and head, Charles F. Curtis in shoulder, Staff Sergeant Daniel Benski in shoulder and right hand. Jessie Calderon, Staff Sergeant Louis J. Dalsky were both wounded in right arms; Jean A. Brostad in left arm. Richard J. Potts and T/5 Walter C. Hendrickson were hit in left elbows, Tech Sergeant Charles S. Larson in right wrist, Billie J. Chaney in left palm. Location of Irwin Greenberg's serious wound went unreported on casualty' lists. Except for Phillip Scopelite with a fragment in right shoulder, we are uncertain whether any of these wounds were from bullets or mortar fragments. 

On this 18 May, B's losses totaled 7 dead, 23 wounded to hospital. Of 21 killed on Wakde on 18 May, 7 were "B" men. Of 53 seriously wounded, 23 were "B" men.

That night, the Japs seemed to fire every five minutes, and often with tracers, which we had never known them to use before. About midnight, they attacked in 15-man squads, but B with D's heavy machine guns cut them down. We had no "B" casualties.

At daylight, a Jap voice howled orders before another charge. The empty bunkers which we had grenaded yesterday came alive with drunken Nips. As voices grew louder, the first Jap charged alone and died writhing from two "B" rifle shots. Then they hit our perimeter from all sides, but died before they reached us. In broad dawn, a voice ordered their withdrawal. Our casualties were few.

After this fight, we could not advance again, unless we wanted to waste men. Ordered to await tank help, we endured agonizing thirst under danger of Jap rifles. We shot down coconuts and crawled under Jap menace to get coconut milk for our thirsty wounded.

By 1130, a tank forwarded to help us, and we felt safe to straighten up out of our holes. F Company reinforced us on our right flank, and halved our front so that we could concentrate more effectively against the dark jungle ahead. Mission was to contact A Company advancing from their night perimeter north of the Strip to round the east end of the Strip. Water came up for our dry throats and empty canteens.

Then 2nd Lieutenant White's right Platoon moved out with the tank. At 10-20 yards behind the tank, a squad followed it, while the other two squads guarded each side, far away enough to avoid Jap ricochets. Ahead were two bunkers with two or more walls of coral logs and several feet of crushed coral backing the logs. Bunker slots were only six inches high, and two feet long.

White's left squad fired frontally to seal the slot of the left bunker, and the tank attacked the right bunker. At 50 yards, three 75 mm shells tore the bunker apart. Then the tank machine guns covered the charge of our right squad to finish the Japs with grenades and bayonets. Ten Japs lay dead beside their rifles and 2 light machine guns.

Now the tank fought Bunker No.2 about 50 yards on the left front while the right squad protected the right side of the tank and the left squad shot at the slot. At 20 yards, a 75mm shell slugged the bunker. The dazed Japs ran into the open, but our right squad slew all eight, captured their light machine gun.  

With the Japs under control, orders came to push forward and clear the remainder of the south edge of Wakde Strip. We were to contact A Company on the end-corner of the Strip.

As our alert rifles advanced again, four Nips fired from the nose-guns of a wrecked bomber. At Staff Sergeant Belgarde's request, the tank charged with machine guns blazing, and at 20 feet slashed the plane into a thousand pieces with a single 75 shell. Clanking on, the tank blasted paths for us through impassable brush, but we had to comb every square foot for Jap riflemen in their holes. About 1640, "B" finally contacted A Company at the end of the Strip near the northwest corner of Wakde.

With A Company on our left and "F" and "C" to our right, we now formed a rough half-circle around the last Japs. On the northeast cape of Wakde, they holed up in coral caves near the sea - in a triangle with its inland leg about 500 yards long.

Terrain was too rocky for tanks in these caves opening towards the sea. Our 20-man patrol perhaps from all four companies fired into the cave-mouths and grenaded them, but we got no return fire. Our 3rd Platoon's Sergeant Loren E. Case stood and started to enter a cave. A Jap shot mortally wounded Case in the head.

Attempting to save his life, B's Sergeant Hawkey and an unknown "A" man charged in firing. Under this cover, B's Castor and A's More crawled to drag Case to a waiting ambulance. But Case died shortly afterwards.        

Thus ended B Company's second day on Wakde. Our men were among the lucky ones to pull back into the conquered part of Wakde for a hot meal and plenty of water. Sergeant Davidson and Corporal Wilcopolski never forgot that hot soup. Most of us slept hard, except for turns on guard.

On that 19 May, we had lighter losses - two dead, three wounded. Besides Case, Pvt. Richard C. Dandurand perished from a bullet in the head also. Our three wounded were slashed by fragments - 1st Lieutenant Harold B. Houston in left hand and shoulder, Pfcs. George S. Canell in arms and hips, Carlo J. Rumisek in arm and left side of abdomen. (Casualties in other companies totaled three dead, and 19 hospital wounded.)

Next morning, 20 May, "B" briefly mopped up. While "A" and "C" circled the Strip, Sergeant Davidson of Tech Sergeant Tessmer's patrol killed the last of two Japs in the open on the south side of the strip near a work-shop. And at 1400, B Company departed forever from that rubble of coral and splintered coconut logs with some 800 corpses that we had to make of Wakde. (Before the war, it had been a quiet, bucolic coconut grove with a leisurely German proprietor.)

Core of the 800-man garrison had been 280 men of 9 Company 3rd Battalion 224 Infantry including a platoon of 75mm guns, and a few mortar and light machine gun and heavy machine gun squads, from other companies of 224 Infantry. They fought beside 150 men of probably 91 Naval Garrison Unit "Jap Marines." A Hawaii-born anti-aircraft observer taken prisoner, said that his own outfit had been 93 strong-perhaps from 53 Field anti-aircraft Battalion. Remaining estimated number of 227 men were from miscellaneous units and fragments of units. Major Wing reported that 91 different formations had manned Wakde.

Because of B's heavy fighting, our losses were out of proportion to the losses of the other three rifle companies. We had lost nine dead compared with the other three companies' total loss of 15. We had 25 wounded compared with the other three companies’ total loss of 42 (that is, seriously wounded and into hospital). D Company had four killed and five seriously wounded, but lighter losses could be expected of a weapons company.

After running into a beachhead ambush in the first wave - the most serious ambush in the history of 163 Infantry - B Company landed fighting. As tank-infantry, we pushed to Wakde Strip, then turned east to battle through the fortified jungle south of the Strip. In carrying on the tradition of valiant combat at Sanananda, B Company had played a major role in winning Wakde Island from the die-hard Japanese.

 

CREDIT: Indispensable personal narrative for this story was 8-page, single-spaced typescript of Davidson & Wilcopolski from Federal Archives. Capt. Arthur W. Merrick's "Invasion of Wakde Island" described B Company's tank-Infantry attack. Other original sources include 163's Wakde-Toem Journal (12-30 May 1944), and Colonel Leonard Wing's "One Step Westward," which appeared in infantry Journal. RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines is a valuable commentary on these sources. B's microfilm Morning Report was unreadable for Wakde, but I used 163's Casualty Lists, and Award Stories of Korpi, Kroll, Castor, and Bilbao.