B Company 116 Medical Battalion: Medics at Toem

                                

            Just before dark 27 May 1944, B Company 116 Medics blissfully relaxed for a good night’s sleep, even in the jungle of Toem Foreshore across from conquered Wakde Island. For the first time since Arare Beach 10 days ago, we had dined under our newly erected canvas mess-fly. We had had our first mail-call since our landing. Luxuriously, some of us opened up cots with mosquito bars and flotation bladder pillows - on the ground outside our hole. Now we gathered in little groups for small-talk and the cigarettes before lying down. For we rejoiced because 163’s “Wakde War” was over.

            At our officers’ meeting in Tornado Task Force Headquarters, Brigadier-General Doe had congratulated our 163 Regimental Combat Team for our victory and told us to get out of our holes. There were no Japs within 20 miles, said General Doe. We were to set up above ground and live like men.

            But as we started to bed down, we heard a Jap bomber - “Washing Machine Charlie” - swooping in from the east. No doubt he was targeting plane-packed Wakde Strip, but each explosion came closer and closer. After each bomb, we tensed because we felt that the next bomb was labeled for us. Then came our long wait until it exploded somewhere else.

            Sitting on the edge of his foxhole while the bombs fell, Commanding Officer Captain Van Buskirk observed far eastward on his right front above the jungle, a series of exploding flares. Thoughts of Japs’ attack were farthest from his mind. He assumed that while he met at Task Force Headquarters, another anti-aircraft unit had moved into what had been vacant jungle.

            Commanding Officer “Van” paid no more attention to the flares. Dark had fallen. He left the edge of his hole, crawled under the mosquito bar into his cot, and took off his fatigues for the first time since Aitape. He donned red-white-and-blue pajamas that had come in the mail that day. Now he lay comfortable on his back on clean canvas, gazing up into the dark above his mosquito bar. Although relaxed on his cot, he was still a little skittish at sleeping above ground.

            (And if Van had known what that series of flares meant back there in the jungle, he would have already been back in his hole and reaching for a grenade. He might have had his finger already in the locking ring of the grenade. For those flares were not from a new anti-aircraft battery position, but surely summons for Colonel Soemon Matsuyama’s striking force from 224 Infantry to assemble before an attack.)

            And B Company 116 Medics was in an exposed position between the road and the sea. North across the Tementoe Creek to Tor River Road was our Medics’ lightly guarded ambulance park. (We did have a line of holes along the road.) We lay outside the larger perimeter of 1st Battalion 163 Infantry to our left - which extended from the sea deep inland. And that 1st Battalion163 perimeter was defended with only a few scattered front-line holes: On our right flank close to the sea, there really was an anti-aircraft detachment, but it could not defend our front from an attack. (And to the right of the anti-aircraft detachment alongshore was Dr. Garlick’s totally exposed three Portable Hospital.)

            About 15-20 minutes after Van had blissfully stretched out for a whole night’s sleep on his cot, Jap rifle fire struck B 116’s bivouac from our front and deep right flank. We Medics hit our holes - some men hit so fast that they took their mosquito bars with them. Dinky new carbines and heavier M-1s of old-timers leaped out from the crotches underneath our cots and into our arms. Hands on trigger-guards, we held fire and waited tensely.

            Jap mortar shells arced into B 116 - mostly into the mess area in a roadside corner towards our far left. Some Jap grenades armed against trees and landed in our holes, but we threw them back before they exploded. The anti-aircraft gunners on our right flank threw down on the Japs’ charge. They leveled their 20mm guns and battered the area where Van had seen the series of flares.

            T/5 Joseph Zelesnikar lay in hole in mid-front of our defensive area near the road. He had with him a new man - from a group of 12 replacements. The Nippo rush surrounded Zelesnikar and the new man and isolated them. He tried to restrain the rookie, but the man leaped out of his hole and ran for the rear. Zelesnikar leaped out of his hole to tackle him and save his life. In that black confusion, one of our Medics fired on this supposed Jap, and slew Zelesnikar. Two other Medics were lightly wounded that night - their names forgotten and unrecorded on 163’s casualty lists. It now seems as if the Japs fought merely a holding action on their left flank against us. Their main attack was against 163’s infantry.

           Luckily, B 116 had no patients in our area. We merely brought in sick men or casualties from the front, and forwarded them to Hollandia hospitals. To our right on the coast on the other side of the anti-aircraft men, Dr. Garlick’s 3rd Portable Hospital was not so lucky. With their patients, they lay exposed and undefended. Garlick’s Medics made an orderly and safe evacuation of their patients, however.

           Although 224 Infantry did not drive home their attack on us, the fight lasted until nearly morning. Ban estimated that 70 dead Japs were found in the whole 163 combat team’s area. But including B 116 Medics, our probable losses of dead were four men of 163 Infantry, five Engineers of A Company 116, and another unknown Medic from another outfit besides our T/5 Zelesnikar.

           Although we repulsed the Nips’ attack their reports admitted no repulse. Next day, Tokyo Rose radioed that our few survivors of the night action had escaped by water from Toem. Final Jap report of their attack was more restrained. The report said that Colonel Matsuyama’s 224 Infantry had quietly assembled under cover about two miles north of Toem and had made a surprise attack with limited success. Part of his detachment had penetrated as far as the beach. It had forced a number of us to flee in landing craft. But in that newly made salient, our Naval and field artillery guns had caused heavy Jap casualties. (This is the first recorded report of any Navy or field artillery action in the 163 area!) Fearing that his narrow salient would be pinched off, Matsuyama had withdrawn his advance elements and had given his exhausted troops a breathing spell.

           Enough of this face-saving Japanese account! But what can we say about General Doe’s permission for us to sleep out of our holes because no Japs were within 20 miles? In the first place, even in jungle terrain, 20 miles was not great distance for the march of a die-hard Jap regiment. And during 23-27 May, General Doe had plenty of data to suggest that Jap infantry was in force close to 163 Infantry. On 24 May, an outpost of 1st Battalion 163 had killed a Jap Lieutenant with sketches of our positions on his corpse. On 23-27 May, Japs had strongly held a log bridge across Tementoe Creek in 2nd Battalion’s area and had pulled back fighting the very day before the night when Matsuyama struck. It is hard to understand Doe’s permission to let 163 Infantry relax while the Japs were anywhere nearby.

            But as for B 116 Medics, we were twice lucky that we lost only one man killed, and two apparently lightly wounded. First, we were lucky that the Japs’ main attack was not meant for us, but only to kill our infantry. Second, we were lucky that the attack had only slanted across our front and left us in relative safety. We had hit our holes fast and stayed there until the charge was ended and the last Japs had fallen back. But it had been a night that B 116 never forgot.

 

CREDIT:  Dr. (then Captain) Van Buskirk’s 2-page single-spaced typescript dated 16 July 1982 is personal source of the Toem story. I used also my own “War of Nerves at Toem” (Jungleer, June 1979), Reports of General MacArthur, Japanese Operations in the Southwest Pacific, and RR Smith’s Approach to the Philippines.