B Company 641 Tank Destroyer Company Insoemanai Island, Maffin Bay, Noemfor

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian and Captain Bennett M. Saunders, 641 TD Battalion

 

            Fighting with our 4.2 mortars, we men of B Company 641 had an overworked and nerve-wracking war in 1944. From 17 May through 20 July we fought from Insoemanai to Tor River to Noemfor Island. We also fired at Aitape, Actual casualties were just three wounded in action, but three more unnamed wounded revealed our stresses. They were all shot in the foot and labeled "non-battle casualties."

Passing Wakde Island silent under shellfire about 0830 17 May 1944, B 641 's LST hit a reef before Arare Beach. We had to carry mortars, ammo, and other gear ashore in shoulder-deep seas. At 1500, we boarded LCMs for Insoemanai Island.

A reef held our LCMs offshore from Insoemanai Beach. Again we waded through seas 4-5 feet deep hauling heavy equipment. We had sniper fire from Wakde at 700 yards but no one was hurt. We set up mortars and arced 150 rounds into Wakde - flaming fuel and ammo dumps. Already, B 641 had to supply a harassing detail for another outfit. Before coming to Insoemanai, Lieutenant Finnegan and 25 men had to lay a Cub air strip for our field artillery.

That night of I7 May caused us to rename Insoemanai as "Insomnia Island." All night, field artillery and 163's Cannon Company fired over our heads at Wakde. Their shorts and high bursts luckily missed us, but badly hurt E and H Companies. 163 Jap planes flew over us, but we had no losses. Water was lacking, but the Guinea rain fell until 0500.

On 18 May, while 163 staged to hit Wakde, we wet and sodden men hauled and unloaded ammo until 0830. At 0857, along with field artillery, we opened fire. In 24 minutes, we shot 603 rounds on Jap pillboxes, gun positions, and Wakde Strip. At 0900, Sergeant Debortole took a Jap bullet in his left shoulder. All day, nerve-wracking Jap shells flew over us.

            On 19 May on Insoemanai, B 641 waited for orders while destroyers fired on Wakde Strip. We saw our tanks fighting. At 1414, we gladly left Insoemanai, after wading through 4-5 feet of water to reload mortars and remaining shells.

As we landed at Toem, rain was falling. At 1800, Captain Marshall and six men reconnoitered to Tor River, which 163 expected to fight across. At 1815, 105 men and four officers went to guard 167 Field Artillery and 218 Field Artillery against Jap infiltration. Heavy Jap fire missed us. Everyone in B 641 was soaked with rain.

On 20 May, Captain Marshall and 21 men dug in one mortar six miles west of Toem on the Tor River. We fired 18 rounds at the Japs. Not until 25 June did we learn how important those 18 rounds were. Captain Marshall, Staff Sergeant Gale L Bettesworth and the 20 men had sprung loose an I 163 patrol which the Japs had pinned down under machine guns. Our 18 rounds expelled the Japs.

On 21 May our new Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Vernon F Woebbeking and 25 men placed a mortar near Tementoe Creek and lobbed 18 rounds on Jap positions. From a plane, Lieutenant Finegan reported good shooting.

At 1330 22 May, 641 dug in all our mortars on Tementoe Creek. Nearby Jap snipers caused us to keep careful security.

Morale lifted that 22 May. Orders came to rotate 13 happy men Stateside. Besides the great pleasure of knowing that these men would go home, we had 13 more vacancies for promoting men still with us.

But while B 641's happy 13 men got ready for rotation, a war of nerves intensified during 23-27 May. Japs were daily reported nearby. We dug in deep, kept a strong guard always.

            On 24 May, our field artillery barraged the Tementoe area. At 0530, we had a red alert for bombers. Japs infiltrated next to us. In that spooky jungle, it was a relief to everyone that the 13 rotation men emplaned safely to a staging area.

On 26 May, our war of nerves got worse. Field artillery fired again on the Tementoe area. We expended 16 rounds on Japs near Aslsarer Village. Japs lurked in the jungle near us. At 1900-2000, we had another red air alert. Small arms fire went on all night; we didn't sleep much.

Just after midnight - 0100 on 26-27 May - Japs were among us. T/5 James E Umphries killed one six feet from a mortar position. This Jap seemed in fine physical condition. He had a rifle and bayonet, two grenades, 120 cartridges and three bags of rations.

            Then that night of 27-28 May, Matsuyama Force pierced the lightly defended center of 163's lines at Toem Village and charged all the way to the beach before motor pool rifles killed them. Like 163's 2nd Battalion near us, 641 was lucky to be in holes guarding the left flank. At 2015-2030, we again had red alerts - three of them. There were seven bomb runs overhead, probably against planes on Wakde. At 2015-2030, the Japs struck, and we fired our machine guns on them. Their fire was heavy around us at times, but they did not charge us. We lost no men. After the fight, many Japs killed themselves.

At dawn 28 May, light Jap small arms fire still hit our area. While we improved holes and fire-lanes, we also sent four mortar sections of Lieutenant Wagner's 2nd Platoon to Tor River for 158 Infantry. Since 23 May, 158 Infantry and tanks had fought down Maffin Bay beach to try to capture Maffin Strip, about 12 miles west of Toem. And 158 badly needed help.

Almost at once, Japs tried to infiltrate our four Tor mortar positions, attacking at 0200. A grenade wounded Corporal Walter J Flain in the leg. At 0215, Sergeant John Masayko killed a Jap near his mortar. Small arms and grenades repelled the Japs.

Back at Toem on the same night, our 1st Platoon fired 355 rounds on the Tementoe Japs from 1120 to 1230. At 1800 30 May, 1st Platoon again fired 113 rounds in the Tementoe area.

On the night of 30-31 May, B's 2nd Platoon supported 158 Infantry and attached units against the Japs. They struck us in charges like those of 28 May against 163 Infantry at Toem. From 1830 to 0430 on 31 May, Yoshino Force struck isolated anti-aircraft positions strung out along the beach. They overran two anti-aircraft positions and destroyed much gear, then knocked themselves out fighting B Company 158 Infantry.           

            On this 30-31 May, B 641's 2nd Platoon shot 67 rounds to assist in halting Jap attacks. Beginning at 2045, we had a red alert Jap machine guns and knee mortars harassed us all night. And on 1 June, we again endured Jap rifle and machine gun fire. We killed a Jap inside our perimeter. We fired 75 more rounds on Jap guns and on assembly areas.

Jap pressure on 2nd Platoon at Tor River was evidently so harrowing to sleepless men that on 2 June we began replacing 2nd Platoon with 1st Platoon. On 2 June, 2nd Platoon repulsed a Jap attack on our perimeter's left rear. We lobbed 12 rounds on the Japs.

On 3 June, back near Tementoe Creek, 1st Platoon fired 310 rounds on Jap positions. But 2nd Platoon, on the Tor, was under more danger. Yoshino Force made many small attacks on the Tor Bridgehead held by 2nd Battalion 158. On that 3 June, E 158 repelled Japs before their perimeter, which was close to us. Our 2nd Platoon again blasted Jap concentrations, expending 109 rounds.

During the night of 5 June, B 641's command post back at Toem took small arms fire and killed a Jap inside our perimeter.

On that 5 June also, 1st Platoon at Toem had again replaced 2nd Platoon on Tor River. We shot 10 rounds supporting K 158 against the Japs. (K 158 was probably merely defending its perimeter, while 158 Infantry waited for reinforcements to push west for Maffin Strip again. For 158 Infantry had retreated from heavy Jap pressure back on 30 May.)

            Now 641's command post and four mortar sections were detached for 158's new offensive and combined with 158's 147 Field Artillery and our 41st's 167 Field Artillery. It had been left at Toem when 163 departed to fight on Biak.

            On 7 June, 1st Platoon fired 104 shells. We supported F 158 whose 2nd Battalion patrolled across Tor River to "Maffin 1," the name of a coast village. We fired 150 rounds that night.

            On 8-9 June, our divided B 641 supported 158's seaside attack towards Tirfoam River and Maffin Strip. Often, however, our support was merely supplying security guards for other outfits. For example, on that night of 8 June, 16 B 641 men helped I-158 on perimeter guard. Repeatedly we guarded the two field artillery battalions - fatiguing details that told on our morale. For on 8 June, a 641 man was wounded in the second toe of his left foot at 1630 a difficult place indeed for a Jap to hit. Casualty was labeled "non-battle," the first in B 641.

            Meanwhile, 158 halted its push. General Krueger ordered 158 to capture Noemfor, a sizable island west of Biak. (Krueger would send in the 6 Division to replace 158 Infantry.)

             On 10 June, however, two of our mortar sections moved up from Tor River to Maffin 1 Village, and lobbed 102 rounds on the Japs. We got a direct hit on a Jap .70 cannon. At 1900-2400, Jap small arms fire hit our area. On 11-15 June, we fired a total of 403 rounds from both platoons. During 11-13 June, Japs were near us all night, but we did not have to fight them. On 15 June, our detachments and field artillery were relieved of their exhausting perimeter guards.

            When 158 staged from Toem for Noemfor Island, B 641 continued fighting for Maffin Strip. Attached to 6 Division's 20 Infantry, the entire company moved to the Tor area, became part of 20 Infantry's push to capture Maffin Strip. On 16-18 June, we fired 180 shells. At 1000 18 June, a man was wounded in his left foot. It was the second of those sad  22 "non-battle" casualties.

            On 20-22June, we supported 20 Infantry fighting to storm the two tops of Lone Tree Hill, which blocked the beach invasion path to Maffin Strip. With a hard core of two Battalions of 224 Infantry, some 1800 Japs held the Lone Tree Hill area.

On 20 June, Lieutenant Woebbeking and six mortar sections of 1st Platoon moved up for close support of 20 Infantry. From Maffin 1 Village, 2nd Platoon fired 234 rounds for 20 Infantry's assault. White phosphorus shells had good results. The Jap's reply was counter-battery fire from their .70 cannon.

            On 21 June, B 641 again battled the Japs on Lone Tree Hill where 20 Infantry fought at closer range. At 1345, along with our field artillery, our 4.25 fired for 15 minutes, and 3rd Battalion attacked across Snaky River. Including white phosphorus shells, we lobbed in 329 rounds. Jap cannon struck back, destroyed two mortar carts and damaged two more. Wounded were Pfc Thomas P McKenna in left arm, and Pvt Joseph Cohen in left foot - both at 1730.

On 22 June, B 641 fired our heaviest barrage so far in World War II: 929 rounds for 20 Infantry to overrun Lone Tree Hill. On 22June, our last day of battle in the Toem-Maffin area, we silenced the Japs' field artillery. Actually, the 20 Infantry struggle for Lone Tree Hill continued through 25 June.

Suddenly, at 1200 22 June, B 641 left forever the battle for Maffin Strip. From Maffin 1 Village, we returned to Toem, On 27 June, six mortar sections practiced making a beachhead landing. On 24 June, we had our last "non-battle" casualty, a man shot in the right foot. Perhaps waiting at Toem depressed him after a long period of almost unbroken action. It started at Aitape 23 April B 641 was now greatly under strength from the 13 men on rotation, the combat casualties and the sick still hospitalized. We were down to 142 men, four officers.

Now we had to invade Noemfor Island, second largest of the Schouten Islands after Biak, and 67 miles west of Biak. General MacArthur needed the three Jap air-strips on Noemfor to help occupy the Vogelkop Peninsula and expel the last Japs from New Guinea. Through Noemfor from Vogelkop came barge loads of Japs to reinforce Colonel Kuzume on Biak.

Teamed with 158 Infantry, B 641 boarded LCIs at Toem on 30 June. At 0500, 2 July, we waited off Noemfor's Kamiri Beach for air and naval bombardment. At 0800, 1st Platoon's six mortar sections landed behind 158 Infantry and at once began firing 86 rounds on Japs. From 0905 onward for two hours, Jap mortars or 70 mm cannon bombarded us, but we lost no "B" men. But 2nd Platoon's LCI stuck on a coral reef 400 yards out. A truck hit a deep hole and drowned three mortars until next tide. Finally 2nd Platoon landed and fired 12 rounds while 158 easily captured Kamiri Strip.    .

Our remaining days of hard work and mortaring on Noemfor are quickly told. On 3-5 July, 1st Platoon spent 255 rounds. On 6-7 July, 2nd Platoon and 158 Infantry embarked to land at Namber Strip, 12 miles south of Karniri. We beached and fired some 200 rounds. Our Noemfor war was over while 158 and 503 Parachute Infantry hunted the remaining Japs in 180 square miles of jungle-covered coral much like Biak. We went back to labor details.

            Colonel Shimizu's Noemfor garrison had only some 2,000 infantry mainly from 219 Regiment, and from 222 Infantry, who failed to pass Noemfor to fight on Biak. This hardest battle was an ineffectual suicide attack against Hill 201 on 4 July.

            The Japs had forced 3,000 Javanese to build roads and an airstrip by hand. Laborers included women and teen-agers. Poorly rationed and unsheltered, only 403 were alive when we landed. The Japs also worked 900 Formosans of their own army on half-rations until they collapsed. Only 550 lived. We killed some 1730 Japs and captured 186.

On 20 July, the 641 left for Hollandia, and our New Guinea campaign ended. From Insoemanai to Maffin 1 Village to Noemfor; we fired some 3600 rounds. We had no dead, only three wounded in action, and three other wounded. We fought hard, and had good luck.

 

CREDIT Prime sources are Captain Saunders' "History 1941-1944/ 641 Tank Destroyer Battalion.” and anonymous Journal B Company 641 TD Platoon 22 March - 22 July 1944. 641 TD was renamed 98 Chemical Mortar Battalion, Background is from RR Smith's Approach to IM Philippines, Reports of General MacArthur in the Pacific Area, and my own story of 163 Infantry, ''War of Nerves at Toem " Jungleer, January, 1979). Ben Saunders has done a great work of preserving 641 TD's history; I also cite Richard Gerttula for his contributions on 641 TD's Battle of Biak.