Bob Burns' Story of Toem-Wakde

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian and Company 163's Bob Burns

 

            Leaving Korako Beach at Aitape about 1600, 15 May 1944, C Company 163 Infantry rode an LCI (Landing Craft Infantry) in the convoy to capture Wakde Island. Enjoying a cool offshore breeze, we watched the sinister jungle move past in its endless green. Although our convoy hugged the shore, our flat-bottomed little LCI began pitching and caused some seasickness. C Company's Burns feared destruction; waves heaved C's LCI almost clear of the sea, then let it drop with a bang. He expected the LCI to split in two, but it was stouter built than he thought.

            Arriving at Hollandia at 0600 16 May, we anchored until dark, then slipped out in convoy to sight the Toem Foreshore by Wakde at 0530, 17 May 1944. From Sarmi Village far west and along the shore to Wakde on our left flank, Navy and planes blasted every possible target. Burns saw 6·8 shells at a time strike into Wakde targets. Great fires flamed on Wakde Island, silent under the coconut palms.

            Landing on Toem Foreshore some time after 0715 from LCIs, "C" waded in waist-deep. Climbing an 8-foot bank, we staggered through shell-torn ground and sent out patrols that found no Japs. Colonel Moroney turned us left down a little truck trail. On both sides of us, blind jungle threatened ambush, but our sweaty hike under full pack for three miles made us forget our worries.

            C Company dug in close to the shore, with field artillery batteries just 50 yards behind us zeroing in on Wakde. Almost 40 guns hit Wakde -105s from Cannon Company 163 and 167 Field Artillery, and 155s of 218 Field Artillery. Destroyers pounded Wakde; PT boats ran in close and broadsided Wakde.

            But after "C" dug in during early afternoon, Burns likened it to a family reunion rather than a beachhead. Kitchens sat up; we went swimming. Mail bags were opened. Burns read his 6-7 letters while guns roared behind him. Burns could not sleep that night in his hole because the big guns impacted Wakde from behind him. But he lay happy- sure that no Japs could be alive there tomorrow.

            And when "C" crammed into LCMs at 0845, 18 May, with cannon firing even more heavily, Burns was still happy. As we shoved off, great waves threw his LCM up and slapped it down into the troughs. We looked across the waves to quiet Wakde Beach.

            But when we got between Wakde and our machine guns firing from little Insoemanai Island behind us, Jap bullets flailed us from Wakde. While our first waves from A and F Companies were already ashore, we were still out in the water under heavy fire. Bullets flew overhead - or holed the gunwales around us. We hugged a light metal sheet near the boat's floor - as close as we ever hugged anything before in our lives. Pfc Thomas J. Smith was hit in the windpipe. Leonard was gunshot in right temple in our LCM at 0920.

            About 0924, our coxswain drove us far up on land. We piled out and hit the beach prone, where Smith was slowly dying. Under Jap machine gun fire which missed us by inches, we spread flat on the beach and worked our way forward. While moving inland, our cook, T/4 Fred F. Sunderman, was probably killed, reported dead at 0930. Pfc Harvey C. Hayes may have got his death-wound then; a falling tree broke his back.

            Burns had hit the beach, prone behind a big coconut log. Here he waited until the companies began fanning out inland. Then he was up and dodging, tree to tree. Having lost contact with his squad, he joined C's 1st Platoon and moved forward with it. Ahead, he saw our two tanks shatter a few pillboxes. Probably in this advance, Corporal Lester L. Suits died, and Leonard was shot in left temple-both reported casualties at 0945. Kraus was gunshot in the head - time and place not recorded.

            Returned to his squad by noon, Burns ate K rations with them on a little rise of ground where they could still see the beach. Occasionally, stretcher-bearers passed with wounded, but Burns thought that the fight was practically over.

            But Burns' Wakde war was far from over. Main part of C Company re-gathered and moved to the south edge of Wakde Strip where unharmed palms still stood upright among supply dumps and intact buildings. 

            Then Burns had the greatest fright of his life. "C" had orders to cross the Strip and contact A Company pushing Japs east along the north shore. Tanks were to guard us across the open Strip.  But when Staff Sergeant Seeger's recon squad crossed the Strip and returned safely in about 30 minutes, Capt Kent of Wing's 1st Battalion's Staff decided to send us all over minus tank protection - although with a mortar barrage as preparation.

            About 1400, Lieutenant Moore's 1st Platoon started, followed by 2nd Lieutenant Larson's 2nd Platoon with two squads. Suddenly two Jap machine guns opened up. Burns ran faster than he had ever run before in his life, or would ever run again. Dust spurted up all around his feet. He saw only one small shell hole in the Strip; his only salvation was to get across. His 200-yard run seemed to take hours. He misjudged the distance to the ditch, dived in too soon and cruelly skinned head and knee.

            Two of Burns' squad were hit - on each side of him. Pvt Glen W. Yates made the ditch but died a few minutes later, a wound in the abdomen. Zerr was wounded in right leg and left thigh. In Moore's 1st Platoon, Pfc Donald R. Kleeman died from a shot in the chest. Wounded also in platoons unspecified, were Henry Johnson with a bullet in the thigh, and Hurley, shot in right leg. Burns wondered how machine guns could fire over 200 bullets at our crowd, yet kill only two and wounding three.

            Weapons Platoon with 167 Field Artillery and 218 Field Artillery now silenced the Japs, and at 1545, the other "C" men safely crossed the Strip. When a tank with A Company in from the west joined us north of the Strip, we went with them to clean up northeast Biak - which was "Coffin Corners." Once a sniper fired on "C" from a coconut tree, but our heavy fire smashed his tree and probably slew him. We passed many wrecked Jap planes and unexploded bombs on the Strip. At the east end was wreckage of maybe two Yank planes and shoes and charred clothing of what 2nd Battalion Headquarters reported as four dead fliers - and notebook of airman 2nd Lieutenant Vanderbeck.

            C's first battle-day on Wakde was closing. Leaving "A’' still connecting the Japs, we spread out and re-crossed the Strip. South of the Strip, Japs sniped at us along the trails - especially from a small knoll eastward among warehouses. Light machine guns fired every few rods and drove us into ditches. Reported wounded at 1800 going into bivouac were S/Sergeant Perkins in left leg, and Schwartz in left hand. Japs sniped heavily at us now, but we dug in by pitch dark to help B Company on our left cordon off the Japs eastward. C's right flank was on the sea south of Wakde.

            On 19 May, "C" again fought the Japs penned in Coffin Corners. While "B" and "F" pushed on our left, we teamed with all three tanks of 603 Tank Company to fight along the shore slanting northeast to the rounded rump of Biak. Tanks' names were "Wake Island", ""Hellzapoppin", and "Shangri-La." 1st Lieutenant Stanfield's 1st Platoon had two of the tanks; Larson's 2nd Platoon with Burns had the other.

            Topping a slight rise east, we found the Japs. Bullets rang on armor as our tanks shattered pillboxes and riflemen shot at Japs fleeing from pillboxes. Sergeant Siemkiewicz was probably wounded during one of these actions, at 1045 in right shoulder while he directed an attack on a Jap position. Rifle bullet penetrated his back to the spine. He never walked again.

Gullo had a fractured right patella. Time and circumstances of Gullo's wound are unreported.

While Lieutenant Larson directed fire by radio from behind a tank, a Jap leaped from a trench and on top of the tank, in nothing flat. He tried to shove a grenade into a gunport.

            At first, excited Larson merely stared and said, "There's a Jap getting on the tank". Then Staff Sergeant Seeger fired; Laron fired; others fired. It took 8-10 bullets to kill that Jap. After that, the tank stayed bolted up, all the time.

            This Jap had charged from a T-shaped shallow trench just 3-4 yards before the tank. Only 4 feet deep, the trench lay hidden under dried palm branches. Now we saw 14 live Japs in it. Big Martinez lifted his heavy BAR. "Let 'em have it!" we yelled, but he seemed scared to fire. Then a Jap officer jumped out screaming, with lifted saber. "Marty" cracked 20 rounds from his BAR and killed seven of the Japs. Later, he said that he had held fire because he feared a jam.

            When the Jap officer screamed, all Larson's "C" men reared up and went in firing. The brush was alive with Japs. We advanced firing into some 28 Japs. Our quick M-1s killed half, drove off the others. Some 14 Japs lay dead - big "Tiger Marines." They were probably members of a 150-man Company of 91 Naval Garrison Unit - rumored advance party of 1200 men unable to land.

            Soon "C" had no return fire, but Lieutenant Stanfield was sure that hidden Japs still faced us on our left. He did not want to risk hitting "F." Two tanks went elsewhere. Tank No.3 and Larson's 2nd Platoon fought slowly east in line of skirmishers, then turned northeast at the beach. We combed the brush for Japs.

            At 1647, Colonel Moroney reported that Wakde Strip was now all 163's. Surviving Japs crouched in an oval pocket 500 yards long on the curved cape of northeast Wakde. Our Lieutenant Foster's 3rd Platoon had counted 200 Jap corpses where "C", "B", and "F" had fought. Leaving "N' and "F" men to contain the Jap pocket, we withdrew with "B" and some other men to the beach for a hot meal and a good night's rest.

            About 0530 at daylight 20 May, we watched from our holes while 6-8 Japs of a bypassed 37-man group ran around with flaming torches among trucks of probably 836 Engineer Aviation Battalion. Prematurely parked on Wakde, the trucks had been poorly guarded. Fearing to hit other troops, we could not fire. Avenging Engineers slew 36 Japs and caught a prisoner, at cost of three dead Engineers.

            On 20 May, some "C" patrols checked for Japs in rear areas, and others moved toward the pocket where "F" would help on the left. Crossing the south end of the Strip, we met some resistance. Pussich was probably shot in the face here. Then working on the pocket, we contacted 5-7 Japs in a cave about 1115. Storming the cave with probably a flame-thrower, we pushed against the Japs under a coral beach shelf, and finally contacted "F" down from the north at 1539. C's war on Wakde was finished, and at 1910 after supper, we left Wakde forever.

            Returned to Toem Foreshore, C Company, like almost all 163 outfits, cut jungle poles and framed our tents for a garrison camp. On the narrow shore between dark jungle and surf, lights shone long after dark. Our security was only a squad on guard in holes behind the tents.

Yet our Jap war was still going on. A graveyard was growing on the shore behind "C". After 163's Insoemanai and Wakde burials, corpses of 158 Infantry were arriving - in truckloads. From 158 Infantry's fights west of Tor River 10-12 miles west of Toem, 42 corpses were buried on 23-25 May, with more to come.

            This growing graveyard behind us should have alerted 163 Infantry to the continued danger of Jap armies striking us to cut off 158 Infantry's supply ships on the shore behind us. On the night of 25-26 May, a Jap officer died on a recon patrol before our lines. Rumor had it that he was mapping our defenses.

            But when the night attack of 27 May struck, "C" was unready. Tents were alight "like a church; with card players: An estimated 50 Japs burst through our tents and charged right through C's security squad behind the tents - 12 surprised men in 4 holes, 3 to a hole. We blazed away, but they ignored us and galloped on to their defeat on the beach.

            Yet "C" had nine casualties that night. A shot in the head killed Pvt. Francis M. Buck; a shot in the abdomen killed Pfc Everett W. Gilkison.  Pvt. Sidney D. Spear was hit in both legs but did not die until 30 May. Schneekloth took a bullet wound in right shoulder, Limpert in left knee, Schoening in the chin. T/5 Lindway was shot in right arm, Prerost in left arm and right foot, Bystrek in the ear. We have no more details of the fighting where "C" lost these three killed and six wounded.           

            For next night, 28 May, 163 sternly dug in to fight a human sea of Jap bayonet men. Nerves were taut. Early in the night, most of 163's machine guns fired most of their bullets - from 3rd Battalion on our left flank to H Company on Tementoe Creek. Under a moon coming in and out of clouds, our front flamed like sunrise. No Japs charged. Thousands of rounds of ammo were wasted because tense gunners probably misunderstood an order. But from his hole, canny Burns saw no Japs and restrained his two rooky riflemen from crazy blasting away.

            "C" was glad to leave spooky Toem. On 30 May, we embarked with 1st Battalion and 3rd Battalion to fight on Biak. At Toem-Wakde, we lost seven killed (three of them at Toem) and 16 wounded (six of them at Toem). Aided by tanks on Wakde, we had fought well.

           

Credit: Justification for C 163's second Wakde story comes from discovery of Bob Burns' Diary with important personal information - and letters of 27 and 28 Aug 1977. Other new data are from Casualty Lists unavailable to me in 1969. I used also RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines and my earlier story, with Lieutenant Walt Larson, "C Company 163's Coconut Hell on Wakde" (Story . No. 46 in June, 1969 Jungleer. Burns' Diary also gave me C Company's story on Toem Foreshore. These new sources have caused me to correct some statements printed in earlier story. Earlier story also named some men as wounded but not hospitalized. My practice is to omit names of men wounded but not hospitalized.