Continued from Aitape...

Soon after Aitape General Doe was ordered to form a task force of 22,500 men. The 163rd Infantry and our supporting elements were included in this task force. Our objective was to take Wakde Island, which was located up the New Guinea coast. Meanwhile, the rest of our Division was now at Hollandia preparing to land at Biak Island, which was far to the northwest.

The majority of the troops headed to Wakde Island boarded LCI’s in order to make the three-day trip. Our strategy included making a landing first on the mainland opposite of Wakde Island. This put us in a much better position because we denied the enemy any place to use artillery against Wakde as we made our landing. We were also able to place our own preparatory fires on the island. At dawn on May 17, following a large naval and air bombardment, we went ashore at Arare, which was west of Toem Village. After establishing a beachhead we moved toward the Tor River preparing for our advancement to Wakde.

The 1st Battalion stayed near the landing site in order to prepare for the next days landing on Wakde. In the early afternoon we sent several support units, including the mortars and machine guns, to a small island named Insoemanai, which was situated between Toem and Wakde. There our weapons and artillery began delivering heavy fire on Wakde, in addition to the docked ships and aircraft. Our 81 MM Mortars, heavy machine guns, 4.2 Mortars and artillery continued firing on Wakde throughout the night. The next morning all of the A, B and C Companies of the 1st Battalion, and D Company 81 MM Mortar observer teams, which was reinforced by F Company, were loaded into landing craft near Toem for the short trip to Wakde. As our landing force headed toward Wakde the rocket ships, cruisers, destroyers and aircraft joined the battle, and I remember thinking to myself ‘there can’t be anyone left alive on this island.’ I was wrong, because as we came around the edge of Insoemanai, headed toward our landing area, all hell broke loose.

Once we were within three to four hundred yards of our landing beach the naval and air support ceased fire. All of the sudden the Japs came out of their bunkers and started firing. Every landing craft was raked with fire as we became caught in crossfire with their machine guns. During our first advancement I traveled with the A Company. My mortar observer team was composed of ten men who were observers, radiomen and wiremen. (Mortar observers always accompany assault platoons so they can direct close in mortar fire.) As we neared the beach, two of A Cos. Coxswains were killed, including the one on my craft. I took the helm as our craft started to veer of course and managed to steer us onto the beach. My radioman was shot through the wrist as we got the ramp down and hit the sand. Fortunately the bullet went in between the bones making a clean wound. He was back with our unit about ten days later.

Our approach onto the beach had A Company going in on the right, and F Company going in on the left. As we hit the beach we began to move inland quickly. The Japs, who were hidden in concrete bunkers straight ahead, stopped our advancement. Gradually a few men were able to get into firing positions in order to bring these bunkers under fire. Unfortunately progress was slow and costly. During this first phase three out of our four Company Commanders were wounded.

We were to have four M4 tanks to assist us in this operation. Due to high surf one of the tank’s engine shorted out while loading. The other three made it to Wakde, but not all of them were put to work. One of the tanks sank in about seven feet of water while it was being unloaded onto the beach. The other two remaining tanks were successfully unloaded and they began to crawl up over the beach. As they made their ascent it seemed like every Jap on the island fired on them, but to no avail. Some Japs even rose from their trenches and tried to mount the tanks with grenades. They were quickly shot by our supporting Infantry. The tanks went about destroying the Japs bunkers. They would approach the positions and fire their 75 MM guns point blank. The Japs had an elaborate system of bunkers and pillboxes to contend with so progress was slow. Both of the tanks operated in the A Company’s sector because the ground was firmer. Once we finally gained possession of the highest ground on the island, we reorganized and allowed the tanks to go aid B Company.

Once we were reorganized the machine guns from Insoemanai moved over to Wakde to lend much needed support to the assault platoons. Our mortars, however, remained on Insoemanai and continued firing from that position. Resistance stiffened again as we neared the airstrip, which ran the full length of Wakde Island. The entire area was one bunker after another and in addition the airplane revetments were well fortified. For the rest of the day the Japs delivered a series of counterattacks every 20 or 30 minutes. During one of these attacks, Lt. O’Donovan lost my map case that he was carrying. This did not improve my opinion of him.

As our units began to consolidate their positions and dig in for the night, my observer team moved into a perimeter near a corner of the airstrip. The Air Corps Engineers had now begun moving trucks and machinery into the beachhead. This added to the congestion at the landing area. We were unable to get water on the island for our troops. This caused some soldiers to attempt to gather coconuts while under enemy fire for the milk they contained. A few soldiers were wounded on account of this effort.

As night approached we dug into our positions. Captain Skauge came to Sergeants Larson, Sullender, Eder and myself and told us that there were Japs moving across the airstrip toward the B Company’s position. He said, “I want you to go out there and see if you can snipe on them and put a stop to it.” We took up our positions on the edge of the airstrip where an oil dump had burned during an earlier attack. It was late evening, the sun was right on the horizon, and we could see the Japs moving across the strip between the sun and us. Sgt. Eder, who was a Negro with very dark skin, always claimed that he was an Indian. As we lie there shooting at the Japs he said, “We had better darken up here some.” He grabbed a handful of the old burned oil residue and rubbed it all over his face. It was a good idea to help keep us from being seen so easily in the low sunlight. What was strange and amusing, however, was that Eder was already as black as he could get. I remember Sgt. Larsen barely able to keep from laughing. We were able to get a couple of Japs, as we all lay there ‘camouflaged.’ Soon it got late and we moved back into our perimeter for the night.

As our D Company machine gun platoons came over from Insoemanai Island they related a very harrowing experience. We learned that during the night our Artillery Battery, who was firing from the mainland, had accidentally fired a concentration of fire on our own troops. Several of our own were shot and killed. Fortunately, none of our D Company men were killed, but we still felt the burden of the loss. Later that evening an armored vehicle brought us much needed supplies of water. Finally, late that night, we all settled into our positions and spent time wondering ‘what if.’

All throughout the night we harassed the enemy using artillery fire at the rate of twenty rounds per hour. It was just enough to hamper their movements. At 0200 hours we saw movement on the road between the airstrip and our position. We knew that the movement was not our troops because we never moved at night. It was a platoon of Japs, led by an officer, armed with light machine guns and knee mortars. They were undoubtedly intending to hit B Company from the rear. They did not know that we were dug in on the corner armed with heavy machine guns. We had the advantage because our positions were about four feet higher than the road.

As the enemy approached our machine gun positions Sgt. Eder, who was in one gun position, and Sgt. Henry, who was in another on the corner, called “Halt!” At that same time they threw their grenades. The Japs were unable to get away from the on slot of grenades and machine gun fire so they crawled up to the bank at the edge of the road. They had unknowingly put themselves within five feet from our outer positions. Sgt. Henry and his men would pull the pin on their hand grenades, hold them two to three seconds, and then toss them over the bank. Because the grenades had a five second fuse this didn’t give the Japs enough time to find them in the dark and throw them back. Soon some of the Japs crawled up the bank and began throwing grenades into our perimeter. They were so close to my position that all of the grenades went right over my head. One grenade went over me and then lit in Pender and Pinkley’s hole. It exploded, blowing some of Pender's toes off and wounding Pinkley badly in both legs. At this time a Jap crawled up on the bank within four feet of Eders gun position, not knowing that Eder was so close. Eder killed him with his machine gun. (The next morning Eder reached out and picked up the Jap machine gun, without ever getting out of his hole.)

Tracer bullets and grenades continued to fly over me. I had a real scare when something landed in my hole. I searched for it quickly, thinking that it was a grenade. I didn’t find out until the next morning that it was part of my radioman’s carbine. Apparently it had been hit by fire and part of it had landed in my hole. As the firing continued I became more and more nervous. Because the fire was so close I was scared to reach up and grab my rifle. I rolled onto my back, pulled out my trench knife and waited for the inevitable to happen.

Across the road, the Japs set up a machine gun and began firing into the perimeter. Sgt. Henry was hit and the bullet passed through his left shoulder. He never said anything until the next morning. He just took his pills and patched himself up as well as he could. Once daylight approached he checked to see that all of his men were all right, and then he said, “I guess I’ll have to go to the medics.” As it turned out, two bullets had hit Dean. The doctors probed the wound and decided that the bullets had went on out. (Later, after the war, Dean went in for a physical and an X-ray discovered that there was a bullet lodged next to his spine.)

After a night of intense fighting, daylight came none to soon. With the sun rising we searched the area for any wounded Japs, but found none. Not a surprise because we had heard them dragging their wounded away during the night. We did find thirteen dead enemies in the road near Sgt. Henry’s and Sgt. Eders positions.

At daybreak we were forced to watch as three Japs destroyed some Air Corps Engineer trucks. The trucks had been delivered onto the road leading to the airstrip the night before. The Japs poured gasoline on them and then set them on fire. We were unable to shoot at them because our troops were just on the other side. To us it seemed like such a waste because we figured that the Corps had no business bringing in equipment until the island was secured.

The tanks were late getting into the action this morning because the Air Corps Engineers were forced to battle with the Japs near the beach. They were attacked by a troop of 54 Japs, who had somehow been bypassed. A sergeant took command and organized an enveloping counter attack that wiped out the enemy force. A feat that was respectable, considering they were non-infantry troops. When the tanks did get back on line there were three of them because the tank that had sank during the landing phase was put back in operation.

With the assistance of the tanks most attack plans for the day were executed very well. By early evening we had pushed all of the remaining Japs into the northeast corner of the island. They retreated into several caves and bunkers and hunkered down for the night. At about 1700 hours the majority of our men were pulled back and we began to establish a line across the island. Our kitchens were brought over from the mainland and a hot supper was served. We settled into our holes and fortunately most of us were able to get some sleep during the night.

Early the next morning our positions were consolidated and the mopping up activities began. We counted 803 dead Japanese. Many of these losses came from the much-dreaded Tiger Marines group. The Tiger Marines were one of Tojo’s prized troops and they had participated in the Rape of Naking, China. They proudly claimed to be “The Conquerors of Java”. The defeat of the Tiger Marines gave us great satisfaction and we were proud of our efforts.

During these three days of violent combat 20 of our men were killed and 36 were wounded. Five of those killed came from our D Company. The D. Company also had 7 wounded, making this one of our most costly battles. (Sgt. Eder gave an account of the battle to our historian, Dr. Hargis Westerfield. The account is printed in my book “THE 41st INFANTRY DIVISIION” on page 114. His story doesn’t entirely agree with mine but each person sees events from a different place and a different perspective.) The following D Company men lost their lives on Wakde: Pasley, Kuhn, Smoger, Nordmark, and a young soldier from my observer team whom I don’t remember the name of. The following men were wounded on Wakde: Henry, Pender, Phillips, Eades, Marshal and Pinkly. Later in Toem, Lygren was wounded.

In late afternoon, with the island secured, we turned it over to the Air Corps and returned to the mainland at Toem. Once again we set up a perimeter, this time on the beach with outposts on all of the trails leading to the jungle. During our tour on Wakde, the rest of our Regiment had moved out in both directions from the beachhead: the 3rd Battalion west toward the Tor River and the 2nd Battalion east of Tementoe Creek. Our Battalion now was in charge of manning the perimeter and providing any necessary details.

We maintained our position on Toem and on the night of May 27 a sizeable Jap force attacked us from the jungle. Unfortunately we had not had enough time or manpower to patrol the jungle adequately. The night before a Jap had hit one of our outposts while we were brewing up some coffee. He jumped in and cut two men with a saber before being killed. This should have been our clue that the jungle was full of Japs. During the last couple of days the 1st Battalion had set up some garrison type tents in the Toem area. At about 2000 on May 27 Jap forces attacked us through this 1st Battalion area, though the 1st Battalion Headquarters and through our hospital. Our units were forced back to the beach.

That same afternoon Richard Ahlstrom, several others and myself were helping deliver artillery ammunition to the north side of the Tor River. The delivery was by boat because they had not yet finished a bridge over the river. We unloaded late that evening, and began the trip back to Toem. Because it was late and the sky was turning dark we decided to stay close to the shore. All of the sudden we were fired upon by people on the shore. The skipper of the LCT (Landing Craft Tank) radioed his mother ship and explained the situation. His commander ordered us to head out to sea. As he turned the craft and headed out the firing got worse. They opened up on us with both 50-calibur machine guns and 40-millimeter cannons, hitting the fresh water tank with the 40MMs.

All of the sudden the LCT Captain realized that these probably were our own guns firing at us. He quickly turned on a floodlight and held the ships flag out so they could see it. It was a good, brave decision. The firing stopped immediately. Our guns on shore had thought that the movement was a Jap craft trying to reinforce their troops in the area. After the incident we went a little further out to sea, and then headed east towards Toem. Once there he tried to get a signal from shore so that we could beach and unload. After several attempts we did not get a signal, so he decided to pull back out a little further to sea and anchor for the rest of the night. As we sat out on the open sea we had no idea what was going on back at shore.

Once daylight broke we moved to the beach. We were unloading from the craft when all of the sudden we saw men down on the beach in their underwear. These were men from the hospital who were forced to flee when the Japs swept through the area. As we marched back up to our camp area, we saw the evidence of battle. Our men told us many harrowing stories from the night before. One spooky story came about as our men watched the Japs sneaking through the crosses of our own graveyard, which was close to our tents. The Japs had made an air attack on our newly captured Wakde airstrip at the same time as their ground attack.

The day after this near disaster, we took bulldozers and dozed fire lanes back into the jungle, dug gun emplacements, strung barbed wire and set out tripwire booby traps. That night was an uneasy night. As daylight came, one of my men in a hole close to mine, said, “Sergeant, I had a heck of a dream last night. I dreamed I had a snake in bed with me.” He sat up on the edge of his hole, lit up a cigarette, and then saw a large snake down where he had been sleeping. He had undoubtedly felt the snake, but thought he was dreaming. “Some times dreams come true,” I told him.

The following night everyone was still very tense. All of the sudden a wild pig stumbled into one of our booby traps and set it off. We all thought that we were being attacked again so we began firing our machine guns and we ended up just wasting a lot of ammo. We were all on edge and we didn’t want a reoccurrence of the night of the 27th.