36 Japanese Division: Matsuyama and Yoshino Forces at Toem

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

            After 163 Infantry stormed Wakde Island, our Regiment and attached outfits had two memorable little battles on the adjoining Toem mainland against the Jap 36 Division - before we left forever. Even during Wakde Fight on the first day's close, General Doe ordered our 3rd Battalion to make a bridgehead across Tor River west of Toem. Thus began a US attempt to capture Important Sarmi Strip, 16 miles westward. Allied Intelligence was unaware that the Japs' Sarmi garrison was nearly 11,000, with over 4,000 combat soldiers. One Regiment was not enough!

But 163 Infantry never left Tor River's west bank to fight for Sarmi. Sixth Army's Lieutenant General Krueger instead ordered 158 Infantry to capture Sarmi. Our 163 Infantry's mission was now to hold the Toem area as a supply base for 158 Infantry. (But neither 158 Infantry nor men of three divisions ever took Sarmi.)

Already on 18 May when 163 landed on Wakde, Lieutenant General Hachiro Tanoue planned to overrun 163 at Toem. He wanted to undercut any Sarmi offensive and force its withdrawal.

General Tanoue planned a pincers strategy to strike 163 Infantry from both sides on the night of 25-26 May. One pincer arm would be Matsuyama Force from the east towards Hollandia; the other arm would be Yoshino Force from Sarmi in the west. Colonel Soemon Matsuyama was recalled from a march halfway to Hollandia to recapture it. This Force contained 224 Infantry Regiment's 2nd Battalion, 3rd Battalion, and Headquarters Company with a Battalion of 36 Division mountain artillery. Back near Sarmi, Colonel Naoyasu had 223 Infantry (less 2nd Battalion), three mountain guns, and 104 Field Airdrome Construction Unit. Luckily for 163 Infantry, Matsuyama and Yoshino failed to strike together.

 

I. Matsuyama's Attack on 1st Battalion 163 Infantry. We cannot understand why Matsuyama surprised and overran 1st Battalion 163 on the night of 27-28 May. As early as 24 May, Japs strongly held Tementoe Creek's east bank to screen Matsuyama's men. On 24 May, their light machine guns repulsed a G-163 position. They killed Javanese scout Marooch and seriously wounded G's Stanley Vitosky. From a plane, 163 Headquarters Leslie and Milder discovered a network of Jap trails. It took two combat patrols of E Company to repel Japs from the Tementoe bridge where "G" was stopped. E's Pfc Robert Moxey died, and H's Pvt David E Holbrook was wounded. Headquarters Company's Pvt Archie L Shovan killed a Jap officer and captured his sketches of our positions, while suffering a serious saber wound to his neck and shoulder.

Yet when Matsuyama struck the night of 27-28 May, 1st Battalion was still guarded only by a wide-spaced line of holes. Tents were up; 100 A Company men were detached unarmed to unload ships on the Toem Foreshore.

That night, General Doe himself lulled us into false security. While Matsuyama deployed in nearby jungle, Doe assembled us just before dusk and told us that we could get out of our holes. He said that there were no Japs within 20 miles.

Colonel Matsuyama' s men had carefully scouted 163' s lines, for he avoided our 2nd Battalion dug in on Tementoe Creek, and 3rd Battalion's fortified bridgehead on Tor River. He hit 1st Battalion's thinly spread line of holes in the middle of the beachhead.

During pitch-black night at 2030, an estimated 100 Japs struck 1st Battalion's area. (Other figures say about 200 men.) Divided into small groups - but in two major commands - they carried grappling hooks, knives, grenades, knee-mortars, and rifles. They had at least one light machine gun. Their grappling hooks had two prongs, like anchors and were attached to long ropes by which they could pull to explode booby traps harmlessly. A knee mortar barrage began the attack. While their mortars drove us to ground, their grappling hooks caught our booby trap wires and exploded our grenades. They surely knew precise location of our traps, for their advance went on with no delay and no known Japs' casualties.

They struck from southeast and southwest - two different commands about 150 yards apart. First command shouted wildly and threw grenades. They fired a light machine gun down A Company's street and holed up their tents. But this command's howling rush with grenades was just a feint to cause confusion. The second command - officially estimated 35-40, and unofficially 100 - made the main drive. Easily they broke through 1st Battalion's far-spread perimeter holes. An estimated 25 made the serious penetration. (Unofficial story is that they numbered 100.) According to an official Jap Field Manual, they were trying to reach our Regimental command post and kill our top officers. Some of our staff officers were actually cut off outside their holes in a tent - and actually unarmed. Ten of those Japs almost reached our command post before they were cut down.  Such is the official report, but 163 men said that they tried to blow up our motor pool - 100 of them. From a slit trench, four blazing M-1s stopped them - from motor pool chief Staff Sergeant Burton, Staff Sergeant Engbretson, T/4 Switzer, and T/5 Donakowski. They piled up 13 dead Japs, the last just 20 feet away. On a whistle signal, all Matsuyama's men withdrew.

Sketches of our positions had already turned up in Headquarters Company's Shovan's fight with the Jap officer three days before. Now we picked up from Jap corpses more diagrams of weapons locations and holes. Thus goes the unofficial report and the later official report of the night fight of 1st Battalion 163 Infantry, 27-28 May. During this same action, Japs also rushed into the perimeters of A 116 Medics and B 116 Engineers. Both penetrations seem to have been brief - especially into the Medics' perimeter. They had just one dead. B 116 Engineers had six dead and perhaps two wounded; but 1st Battalion 163 had six dead, 14 wounded. Some of these dead were allegedly killed by their own men in the dark. Number of dead Japs cannot be found. Highest estimate from everywhere was 70, and the Japs had a habit of carrying off their own dead.

Matsuyama told a different story of the attack, however surely just to save face. He said that Jap detachment bored all the way to the beach and drove some of us to save ourselves in offshore landing craft. Then our Naval gunfire and field artillery reacted voluntarily. Fearing that his narrow salient would be cut off, he withdrew his men for a breathing space. (He said nothing about charging in again.)

This fight of 1st Battalion 163 Infantry on 27-28 May was but nearly disastrous, Matsuyama's 224 Infantry failed to make the most of it.

 

II. Yoshino's Attack on 202 Anti-Aircraft Arty Battalion and B Company 158 Infantry Regiment. Yoshino Force failed to strike until 30-31 May, three nights after Matsuyama' s attack. Specified reason for delay was due to the obstacle of wide Tor River which they had to cross. Because of danger from our Naval gunfire at the mouth, they trekked inland four miles over mountainous jungle to where Foein River flowed into the Tor. They had to wait for a 36 Division Engineer unit to bring down landing craft and collapsible boats on Foein River. After crossing, they took three days to go into position two miles south of Arare Village, the midpoint of the U.S. positions lined up on the beach.

Yoshino Force was now crouched in the jungle to play havoc because we had 15 anti-aircraft positions spread out over seven miles of the beach. Brigade General Patrick had strung these 15 anti-aircraft emplacements along the coast to protect against now-flying Nippo bombers. The lesson of what one bomb had done to our Hollandia supply dumps were certainly in Patrick's mind. But even if the anti-aircraft positions were well-fortified, they would be hard to defend - small battery crews in a little circle of holes. (Patrick had replaced Doe who by this time was in Biak with most of 163 Infantry to reinforce his hard-pressed 41st Division.)

Only three Infantry formations guarded the entire beachhead between Tor River and Tementoe Creek, for most of 158 Infantry was perimetered across the Tor towards Sarmi. Only 2nd Battalion 158 Infantry was on Tor-Tementoe Beach. At Arare, they protected Hurricane Task Force Headquarters and the supply dumps. All of 163 Infantry had gone to Biak except for 2nd Battalion and Cannon Company. 2nd Battalion was on rear guard at Tementoe Creek. Cannon Company holed up with 167 Field Artillery on Unnamed River. At least seven anti-aircraft batteries were isolated with only their battery personnel for protection, and some others in little perimeters easily overrun if attacked.

Patrolling the blind jungle and swamp south of the beach had been neglected. Between 28-30 May, only five patrols went out, and they found nothing - except, ominously, a newly cut trail 1,000 yards south of Arare. On 28 May, Task Force's General Patrick had estimated that there were only some 300 Japs in roving bands south of Toem and Arare. This figure was 3-4 days old on 28 May, and apparently based on one recon by air. Actually, there were over 2,000 organized troops within three miles of Toem.

            Most vulnerable attack targets were four small emplacements of Batteries A and B of 202 Anti-Aircraft Artillery strung out along the beach. B Batteries Gun Position No 6 was over 500 yards from the nearest friendly units - which were also anti-aircraft outfits that could not leave their guns to support it in a fight. Only the day before Japs were seen moving in the jungle south of "B-6"; one Jap was killed nearby.

            Then at 1805 the night of 30 June, a guard at B Battery's Position No 6 challenged two men in the jungle across the beach road. Other Japs were moving west down the road. When they did not answer his challenge, he fired, and hit the ground.

Instantly, Jap machine guns, rifles, mortars, and even grenades hit the B-6 position. The anti-aircraft men killed 10 Japs, but one heavy machine gun jammed. The second gun became overheated and had to cease fire. The Japs were hard to hit in the dark. They were heavily camouflaged with leaves and nets down to their hips. After one Yank was killed, the anti-aircraft men left their emplacement and fled 500 yards east on the beach road to Battery A's Position 7.

Joined with the men of A-7 - they had already stopped one attack - the B-6 men helped fight about 15-25 Japs. From 1840 to 0430 next day, the Japs struck intermittently, but rifle and machine guns fire repelled them.

About 500 yards west of the B-6 position where the first attack had occurred, Battery A-6 also endured harassment from Jap mortar, rifle, and machine gun fire. At least twice, the gunners repulsed attacks.

A fourth position, Battery B-8, which was 400 yards west of A-6, was assailed about 1830 also. The anti-aircraft men's .50 multiple heavy machine gun became overheated and jammed. Rifle ammo was running out. Scurrying from the gun-pit, they took cover in the shore brush until the Japs left at 0430.

            All attacks began about the same time, about 0830, and some men glimpsed a Jap officer with his saber who was giving orders. All Jap dead had rolls of white gauze in their mouths, and the Jap officer had completely covered his lower face. We thought that they used these means to prevent them from shouting or screaming when they were wounded.

While they attacked our anti-aircraft batteries, Yoshino's men also tried to storm 1st Battalion 158 Infantry protecting Task Force Headquarters and the supply dumps. About 1900, rifle and machine gun fire began impacting 1st Battalion positions. A captured heavy machine gun fired also. At 2200 came a furious suicidal attack against B Company - beaten off with rifles, grenades, bayonets, pistols, and even knives. They failed to fire the supply dumps with demolition charges and Molotov cocktails. All attacks ended about 0430.

Our total losses from Yoshino's attacks were just 12 dead, 10 wounded. At daylight, we found 52 dead Japs before 202 anti-aircraft Battalion guns and B 158 holes - and saw blood where they had carried away other casualties. Summing up, although two anti-aircraft batteries held out against the Japs, they overran two others. They captured a .50 heavy machine gun which they fired on 158 Infantry. They damaged a multiple .50 machine gun mount and threw out the barrels. Two 40 mm "heavy" guns were damaged, and communications and electronic gear. They also claimed that they had penetrated our "outer perimeter," but that they lacked resources to exploit their victory. They were gone by full daylight.

Our General Patrick feared a second night attack on those 21 different positions. Next morning, he cut down our perimeters from 21 to 8. Except for 2nd Battalion 158 Infantry, he concentrated all of 158 Infantry between Tementoe Creek and Tor River. He positioned all anti-aircraft guns inside larger perimeters - except two within 400 yards of quickly available protection. He sent out abundant jungle patrols. But the Japs never mounted a strong attack again.        

For both Jap forces were withdrawing. Coordinating them to strike at once from the jungle had proved impossible. On 10 June, Yoshino force recrossed Tor River to defend Sarmi. Difficulties in regrouping and collecting food held Matsuyama Force from retreating until 12 June. By that date, 2nd Battalion 163 Infantry was long gone to rejoin our Regiment fighting on Biak.

These veteran Japanese soldiers had fought gallantly with their usual elan against our heavier armament and our own American bravery. But since their artillery was useless for night firing and since they were isolated from General Tanoue's main army, they could not defeat us. But for the entire month of June, they fought like samurai in defense of Lone Tree Hill until almost wiped out.

 

CREDIT: Incentive to writing this history was discovering two studies entitled "Jap Raiding Parties in the Wakde-Sarmi Campaign," being pages 11-13 of a brochure called "Enemy Tactics, Materiel and Terrain." I found these pages at Washington National Records Center, while using our Division Association's 1984 Visitation Grant. I used also these earlier Jungleer stories: "163 Infantry Regiment War of Nerves at Toem" (January 1979); "B Company 116 Medical Battalion at Toem" (April 1984); and "A Company 116 Engineers: Matsuyama Force Breaks Through at Toem,". I also owe a great debt to R. R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines, because he had access to data unavailable to me. General Douglas MacArthur's Reports of Japanese Operations in the Southwest Pacific, Vol II, afforded Jap statements of these actions. (Smith calls the supreme commander of the Japanese "Tagami;" MacArthur's report calls him "Tanoue." Smith says that both names are possible from the Japanese translation.)