Our Navy and Amphibious Engineers: First Wave Fighters for Wakde

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

Most 41st Division veterans are unaware of the front-line fighting and casualties of our Navy and Army Amphibian Engineers when 163 Infantry stormed Wakde Island Beach. Yet without firing of Navy Destroyers and LCIs(“Landing Craft, Infantry”), and without the dogged Amphibian Engineers, 163’s charge for Wakde Beach would have been a disaster. It would have been a pile-up of wrecked barges and scarlet 163 corpses idly rolling in the surf. This is how the Navy and “Amphibs” helped us. (Right name of “Amphibs” is “Engineer and Boat and Shore Companies,” EBSR.)

On D-Day morn, 18 May 1944, our leaders were still uncertain of how many Japs held Wakde, but they expected heavy resistance. So at 0750, the Wakde assault began by 36 medium bombers (A-20s) of Fifth Air Force. At 0830 while 163's 1st Battalion plus E Company loaded into barges of A Company 542 Amphibs, the Navy opened fire.

At 0830, Destroyers Wilkes and Roe began bombarding Wakde from opposite ends of the invasion corridor between Insoemanai Island and Wakde: In 15 minutes, they blasted Wakde with 240 5-inch shells, an average of 16 per minute. At 0830 also, SC 703 stationed itself 600 yards south of Wakde in the invasion corridor, and 1200 yards west of the actual landing beach. SC 703, a submarine chaser, was the "control boat" for our beachhead.

In six waves, a total of 27 landing barges were to leave Toem Foreshore at 5-minute intervals. Each wave would drive due north from Toem past the west end of Insoemanai Island on their right. When each wave reached SC 703, it was to turn right between Wakde and Insoemanai and charge for the 150-yard stretch of sand north of Wakde Jetty.

About 0850, two LCIs led 163's first wave around the "corner" between Insoemanai and Wakde - the "corner" which SC 703 was marking. The LCIs exploded 850 4.5 rockets on the landing beach and the jetty. On past the LCIs drove the barges - with just 1,200 yards of water to cross before the beach.

But the Japs were now tensed in ambush at their machine guns and mortars on the beach to the left of the barges. The 6 waves of barges chugging hard abreast had to expose their longest sides to the Wakde mainland just a few hundred yards north of them. There the Japs had emplaced machine guns in dugouts, or in the gun turrets from wrecked planes. The machine guns were cleverly camouflaged and covered. A reef protected that coast from a direct landing.

The Navy had suspected this Jap machine gun attack from Wakde on the left flank of the barges charging for Wakde Jetty. An air photo of Wakde in a Terrain Handbook had revealed that reef-protected coastal strip about 300 yards long, suspiciously clear of tropical growth. A third LCI, No 31, impacted it. End of LCI 31's rocket fire seemed to be the Japs' signal to open up. A machine gun barrage impacted from that coast at our barges. LCIs Nos 73, 34, and 31 stood 150 yards offshore and struck back at the Jap machine guns with every machine-cannon they could bring to bear.

Farther back, SC 703, the control boat, fired also from her 3-inch cannon and 20mm guns whenever she had an interval between the waves of barges passing by.

Despite Naval superiority in fire-power, it was a hard fight against those hidden Jap machine guns. Their positions were hard to find. Spotters on SC 703 found six machine gun positions in fairly close limits. But to do this, they had to backtrack the line of bursts that fell close to the vessel. Spotters also located the machine guns' dugouts by wisps of bluish smoke apparently from defective ammo.

They were expert, well-trained veteran Nippo gunners. Among them were surely men of 224 Infantry Regiment of the Jap 36th "Tiger" Division after warfare in China - or the 91 Naval Guards ("Jap Marines"). All of their carefully controlled machine gun bursts ranged from 12 to 20 shots and then ceased awhile to keep our spotters from locating the dugouts. Our own LCIs' fire and that of SC 703 flailed the beach and helped the Jap gunners to remain concealed. Jap fire came also from mortars and rifles whose positions we never could discover.

The gallant LCI crews paid in death and wounds for their courage in close combat. LCI 173 had one dead, three slightly wounded, including their commanding officer. A Jap 20mm shell started a fire in their 40mm shells near the bulwarks before it was put out. Another 20mm shell alighted in her 40mm ready box but failed to explode. LCI 34 had six casualties - three of them severely wounded, of whom two died. By later figures, losses of those two LCIs totaled 14, 20 percent of the total number of about 70 in their crews. (LCI 31, which was farthest west from the Jap gunners' concentration on the barges, luckily had no losses.)

Those three little LCIs deserve more honor from the 163 Infantry than they have ever received. They were only light little 100-foot craft with guns fore and aft and amidships, and fine Jap targets high in the water.

Yet the three LCIs kept up constant fire while our 1st Battalion had to run a possible 1200-yard gauntlet of Jap machine guns. Our barges had to run broadside to the machine gun fire and in ranks that they had to keep - three to six craft abreast. Without the LCIs, we would have beached with many dead and wounded already in the barges. Or more likely, we never could have grounded on the beach,at all. (We can find names of just two killed and five wounded in all 163 Infantry before we actually touched down on the beach.)

Despite the Navy's rockets and gunnery, A Company 542 Amphibs (with a B Company detachment) suffered three deaths and many wounds before they landed on Wakde. When the six barges of Wave No 1 was some 300 yards from beaching, light Jap machine gun and rifle fire began. Some fire came from the southern, right flank; but most of it was from the beach to the north and left where those LCIs were fighting the machine guns. Against Wave No 1 with six barges, the fire was irregular and weak - and against Wave No 4 with four barges, which followed close after.

Then against the last four waves of 163 Infantry, the Japs threw in all the machine gun and mortar fire that they could bring to bear - against 17 barges broadside.

Although 163's men could at least flatten behind the steel gunwales of the barges, the Amphibious Engineers had to expose themselves to guide and steer. Coxswains must especially be exposed while they steered on the small platform aft of the troop space. They had to see over the ramp. Bow lookouts had to lift their heads from the gunwales to watch for submerged coral reefs that could rip open the bottoms and drown men or let them be picked off while they tried to swim.

In one barge, a correspondent for Yank Magazine saw a coxswain die from a bullet in the head. In A Company barges two coxswains died. (One of these may have been the man mentioned by the Yank correspondent.) One coxswain had saved himself by crouching low behind the gunwale, except for quick glimpses ahead. When the barge was 10 feet from the shore, he put out his hand for a signal for a soldier to loosen the left side of the ramp. A rifle bullet wounded his left hand.

When an Amphib crewman was hit, another took his place - until sometimes no Amphib was left to steer; A Jap 20mm shell struck one ramp and killed or wounded several men. Later, they found 68 flattened bullets in the barrage, beside the 20mm fragments. At least three times, the final steersman was a man who had never before had his hands on the controls of a barge.

In a barge of B Company 163 men, all Amphibs were wounded - the coxswain and other crewmen. B Company's Sergeant Bilbao seized the controls unfamiliar to him, and lurched the barge over to ground on Insoemanai Island. Another man returned it to land on Wakde. A war correspondent guided in one barge. Still another amateur coxswain was a Red Cross photographer. After its coxswain was killed, the Red Cross man kept the barge in formation until the engine-man took over the helm.

After the barge hit Wakde, he exposed himself to Jap bullets to turn the winch to lower the ramp.

One handicap to succoring casualties was the lack of available Medics. One Medic was assigned to ride in just one of four barrages. Often he was in the wrong barge when a casualty needed him in another barge. Several barges lost time in running their wounded back to the destroyers.

Total number of A 542 Amphibs' losses was two officers and three enlisted men killed, and two officers and 28 men wounded. Attached B 542 had seven wounded. A Company lost 33 per cent of their men; over a fifth of all Wakde casualties were Amphibs. In three days' fight on Wakde, 163 Infantry, however, had just 23 dead and 80 wounded. Like the Navy, the Amphibs were important to help 163 Infantry.

After A 542 beached 163's fighters, Amphibs still had combat and hard labor ahead to land supplies. E Company 593 Amphibs took over port battalion work on Wakde. With their Shore Battalion's Weapons Platoon from Battalion Headquarters, they were rushed to Wakde prematurely. Because 163 was fighting Japs just 200 yards inland, E 593 had to dig in under heavy machine gun and rifle fire.

After the Japs died or fell back, "E" began unloading fuel and other bulk cargo from barges brought from Toem by A Company. Beach was sandy with a slope right for dry landings, but there were other difficulties. Jap fuel drums and debris must be moved. Sporadic sniper fire caused several casualties, but we worked hard to unload four LSTs.

Guarding E's flanks that afternoon, Amphib Weapons Platoon slew several more Jap riflemen and killed a beach pillbox that 163's men had missed. As soon as the surviving Japs fell back, we extended the dump area farther inland. By day's end, we had a dispersal ground 200 yards long and 100 yards into Wakde. For the Amphibs, the remainder of the Wakde operation was without fighting - only hard labor.

Of the 800-odd Japs on Wakde, largest company was 280 men mostly from 3rd Battalion 224 Infantry, with a few Weapons Company men also from 224 Infantry. Besides fragments of other commands, there were 150 "Jap Marines" of 91 Naval Guards. Lieutenant General Hachiro Tagami had planned to move two more Marine Companies to Wakde, but waited a day too late before 163 Infantry landed.

After the Wakde battle, Amphibs helped the Infantry Regiments on the New Guinea mainland. To serve the Regiments attempting to capture Sarmi Strip, A Company 542 Amphibs ran a ferry of three barges for crossing the wide Tor River towards Sarmi. All went well as long as 163 Infantry secured Toem Beachhead. But when 163 Infantry had to reinforce their 41st Division on Biak, 158 Infantry had to fall back towards Toem.

Two strong Jap forces were preparing a counter-attack on the Toem-Arare Beach, but Brigadier General Edwin Patrick did not discern the danger, even after the first attack. On 27 May, shortly before 163's first two battalions departed for Biak, Colonel Soemon Matsuyama's men of 224 Infantry had attacked. They broke through 163's carelessly defended front at Toem and were finally halted only at the beach.

Yet Patrick was unaware of the coming attack of Colonel Naoyasu Yoshino's 223 Infantry from the southwest. Patrick's few jungle patrols had found no Jap menace from the southern jungle. Patrick had no defenses in depth now that 163 Infantry was gone.

On the night before Yoshino's attack, he had 21 different little fortified positions alongshore for 12 miles. Five of them were little gun positions of 202 Antiaircraft Artillery Regiment between Arare and Unnamed River.

On 30 May at 1830 about dusk, some 100 Japs of Yoshino's 223 Infantry struck anti-aircraft's No 6 Gun Position on the beach. They caught anti-aircraft men in swimming, and 593 Amphibs relaxing after a hard day's work on shore party.

The Japs drove No 6 gun crew from their position and captured at least a .50 heavy machine gun. This gun they turned on the swimmers and on 593 Amphibs' Shore Battalion. The Amphibs manned their .30 machine guns and with rifles and grenades repelled the Japs. Fight continued for hours after dark. The Japs overran two out of four gun positions that they attacked.

About 2200, the Japs struck again at the south end of the Amphib area. Trying to burn Task Force supply dumps, they had a suicidal fight with B Company 158 Infantry. They left 52 known dead for a US loss of 12 killed, 10 wounded. Amphibs had two slightly wounded.

On 24 June, Amphibs landed I and K Companies of 1st Infantry Regiment with tanks into a hot fight near Rocky Point to cut off Japs holding Lone Tree Hill. A Jap 75 cannon sunk one barge-load of wounded men, but a .37 gun on another barge silenced the 75 and saved all the wounded.

Until June's end, 593 Amphibs' Shore Battalion helped defend Toem Beach against Jap infiltrants. They cleared 2 miles of fire lane 150 feet wide belted with barbed wire and studded with pillboxes. For 10 consecutive days, they helped guard that lane against four furious attacks, with only light losses.

Such were main actions of US Navy and Amphibs at Toem-Wakde-Maffin Bay. Without Navy-Amphib expertise, Wakde Beach would have been a disaster. After Wakde, Amphibs fought and labored for 163 Infantry, 158 Infantry, and 6 Division. They fought and labored hard and well.

 

CREDIT: Most important sources are Capt. Bern Anderson's "Report of Operations; Capture of the TOEM-WAKDE Island Area ... " of 7 June 1944; and Amphibian Engineer Operations, which is Vol IV of "Engineer Operations in the Southwest Pacific 1941-1945." Other sources are Capt. A.G. Noble's "Report of the Toem-Wakde Operation," of 22 Sept. 1944; "It's a Crazy War Up on Wakde," probably by Corporal George Bick from Yank Down Under (21 July 1944); Sarmi, which is Terrain Handbook No. 26 of Allied Geographical Section; 163 Infantry.'s Casualty Report; Samuel Eliot Morison's New Guinea and the Marianas, which is Vol VIII of his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II; and R.R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines. Our 163 Infantry historians were unaware of the full contribution of Navy and Amphibs in averting disaster on the beach. I regret that more data cannot be had on the casualties of the Amphibian Engineers in the charge for Wakde.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beach. (Most important facts of this history came from visits to U. S. Navy Yards Archives at Washington, D. C., and Gen. Eichelberger Collection at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Our 41st Division. Assn. financed these visits.)