A Company, 163 Infantry: Fighting The Sanananda Road-Bend Perimeters

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with help of Dr. Leeon Aller

 

On 16 January 1943, A Company 163 Infantry began our final five days' heavy combat at Sanananda. On this 16 January, we spearheaded 1st Battalion's push to liquidate Jap Perimeters S-T-U guarding the road-bend northeast of Fisk Perimeter. These three perimeters were the surviving hard core of Jap resistance at Sanananda.

In this 1st Battalion attack, Captain Van Duyn's C Company was to work its way through lightly held Jap jungle and envelope "S" in the rear. But our A Company had to blast its way straight into Perimeter S. Aussie field artillery harassed "S" the night before.

A Company bivouacked as comfortably as well as we could 100 yards inside heavy jungle that night. Next morning after hot breakfast, we stacked packs, loaded ourselves with ammo and two grenades, then formed for action.

Initially, our preparatory fire seemed fine. Aussie field artillery barraged, beginning at 0945. D's heavy machine guns sprayed jungle brush on both flanks of 1st Battalion's front. From east of Fisk, M's heavy machine guns searched Jap areas on our right to southeast and south. At 0957, all 15 81s of D, H, and M Companies blasted from Musket. At 0959, 3rd Battalion's 60s - in battery south of Fisk - arced their shells down on the Japs.

But to A Company's Commanding Officer, Lieutenant McKinney, it seemed that field artillery and mortars impacted too far behind the Nippo front. But when he phoned to place fire closer to the Japs, an 81 short had cut the wires to Colonel Lindstrom. He could not change the fire.

All told, 163 Infantry fired 894 shells of caliber 81, and 789 of caliber 60. Machine guns shot 6,000 rounds of 50s, and 21,350 rounds of 30s. But only 100 field artillery shells hit Jap territory. So bunkers were not flattened; McKinney thought that most of our steel had missed the targets. Then before we cleared the assembly area, a mortar shot killed or wounded several "A" men.

With C Company abreast, "A" moved out on an 800-yard front. From the jungle edge, many of us saw our battle-field for the first time-100 yards' flat kunai opening, with Jap jungle on three sides. Since field artillery had plowed the ground for days, it was covered with fallen trees, occasional stumps 10-25 feet high, and sparse, 2-foot kunai. Shell-holes and depressions among stumps were hiding prone Jap skirmishers.

With 3rd Platoon flanking the road to our right, and 2nd Platoon on the left, we moved out for combat. Each platoon deployed two squads forward as skirmishers, and kept a third in squad column.

We crawled across our line of departure; Jap fire was already heavy. Snipers shot down from behind tall trees behind the strongpoint on 3rd Platoon's right. We brought our light machine guns up to our right front and expelled those snipers.

When a light machine gun and a heavy machine gun cross-fired on "A," we thought we killed both guns. Our riflemen fired on possible targets now and then, and kept crawling up. (Our tommies did not shoot; they smoked and drew Nippo fire.) In position behind trees on our right rear, A's 60s lobbed in shells to help a little, but Jap bunker roofs were too thick for them.

Jap fire stopped our crawling advance within 20 yards of the Jap bunkers. The combination of bullets in the flat kunai and an estimated four Jap machine guns was too much for us. Sun blazed; air in the kunai flat was dead and still.             Experienced in this kind of fighting, Jap gunners did not rake the grass. They fired at the base of any kunai grass that moved, and struck "A" men.

Under this hidden fire, many "A" men collapsed from heat or nerves. Two officers, 18 men collapsed from heat exhaustion. When our light machine guns emptied, snipers re-manned the trees and shot down again on us.

Although trapped under this fire, "A" showed high morale. Occasionally, McKinney heard a man say, "I'm hit," saw him crawl to the rear. Water was just six inches below kunai, and unhurt men dug seeps to bathe faces and quench thirst of wounded cobbers.

Wounded were McKinney's runners and two unnamed Medics. A third unnamed Medic crawled under fire with sulfa and drugs for those shot down, and stayed untouched.

By now, Lindstrom had the severed phone wire spliced, but "A" was too close to the Japs now to call for 81s on the bunkers. Lindstrom ordered a "B" Platoon to attack on the right to relieve pressure, but Jap fire grounded B's Platoon. "B" did slacken Jap fire, to some extent.

About 1200, Lindstrom ordered withdrawal from this hopeless attack. To rescue 2nd Platoon and 3rd Platoon, he dispatched 1st Platoon from reserve. Covered by our "A" Platoon and B's men, the trapped "A" men started to worm out through the kunai. From under guns of the Jap strongpoint on the far right, 3rd Platoon began retreat. They crawled to left rear behind covering platoons still in line, then back into jungle. They helped their wounded; not one man was left to die.

 Then the covering platoons blasted their way out again. As dusk confused Jap aim, our last man escaped. We had 12 dead: Corporal Otto L. May, Pfcs Frank Belchak, Floyd A. Bunker, William W. Chambers, Oscar G. Wells and Gilbert E. Strobach, Pvts. Dallas C. Harden, Leo R. Johnson, Merton E. Henderson, Rolland C. Taubert, Charlie T. Rowland, Jan R. Tatarski - who died at 12 Portable Hospital. We had one wounded, all but one marked "seriously," and all gunshot wounds. Pfc Ralph J. Rundelli and Pvt. M. Jacob Allen were shot in the back, Pfc Kenneth E. Jicha in right ankle, Pfc Mark A. Bashor and Pvt Crocs A. Casciato in right leg, Pfc Joseph F. Howell in right hip. Pfc Melvin K. Rash was wounded in left foot, Pfc Edward G. Olson in left thigh, Tech Sergeant Gunder T.  Skedsvold in lower thigh and leg, with side of body unspecified. Hit in right shoulder were Pvt John Del Sasso, Corporal Howard C. Wittlieb, Sergeants Campdon E. Lawson and Sgt Francis P. Weber; and Pvt. Lambert Hillebrand in right wrist. Staff Sergeant Harold A. Wolcott took a bullet in left hand, Pfc Euel E. Taylor in left arm, Corporal Billie L. Dorris in left elbow, with a complete fracture of his right arm. Pfc Edwin R. Hinrichs was marked "slightly wounded," part of body unspecified.

Despite A's 12 deaths, 18 wounded, our fight of 16 January was a success. For with opposition light on the left of 1st Battalion's 800-yard front, Lindstrom made a fine tactical move. He sent "C" with most of "B" in reserve to sweep around the right flank of the Jap lines. There we dug Perimeter AD - 200 north of the Jap perimeters extending 800 yards south to Sanananda Road. Then all remaining "A" men and the last "B" Platoon reinforced them. Meanwhile, Colonel Doe had sent Rankin's 2nd Battalion across the jungle from Killerton Track to team with Lindstrom. Now the Japs were cut off from the sea; "A" could probe for a soft spot - and go in to kill.

After our sunstruck repulse of 16 January, A Company huddled into shallow mud-holes. At dawn 17 January, Nips fusilladed and grenaded our holes, but with no reported casualties.

On 17 January, we were out of combat all day to bring up food and ammo, and regroup. Our decimated riflemen reorganized from three down to two platoons. Captain Reams' K Company joined us, but "K" was also low in manpower; together, "A" plus "K" was almost one company of normal size before battle.

To fight on 17 January, we patrolled southwest and south to find main Jap positions. Late on 17 January, a platoon patrol spotted three Jap bunkers of logs and earth on the far side of a kunai patch 75 yards wide. On 17 January, Hagedorn was shot in the right leg.

On 18 January, "A" and "K" teamed to fight those Japs - but with the fewest losses possible. After a short advance beside us, "K" took machine gun fire on the left - but across the road in the recon zone of 2nd Battalion. Both companies fell back to our assembly area, then started off to the right to avoid Jap bullets.

On this second try, we got lost in jungle for an hour, but found ourselves on the new supply trail "K" had cut for 2nd Battalion. Soon Jap fire crackled ahead, but we advanced until heavier fire halted us, but without casualties. Dark was coming; we ate and dug our bedrooms for safety.

After breakfast 19 January, we made a well-supported frontal attack. While heavy machine guns -perhaps M's - covered our right, we pushed our own light machine guns well out in front to protect our rifles. With "K" on left flank, "A" gained ground at first. Then our riflemen advanced so far that they masked our machine guns. The Japs rose up and stopped us. "K" captured a Jap Bren gun, and killed a few Nips. "A" lost two killed, seven wounded. Pvt Ernest T. Livermore and Pfc James A. Wojtech were killed. Pfc Robert D. Murray was wounded in right arm and left shoulder, Pfc Juan V. Rivera in right hip, Pvt Willard G. Cox in right leg. Staff Sergeant Christian A. Hanson was shot in left center of his back, Pfc John I. Veselka in left shoulder, Pfc Edwon D.Hayes in left foot. Area of Pvt William J. Mack's wound was unreported in casualty lists.

As "A" settled down for the night, Jap 40 mm mortar shells fell around us. Our light mortars arced in the direction of the Jap detonations and stopped the fire. These Jap mortars reopened during the night, but our 60s were still on target and silenced their fire.

At dusk that night, a wounded Jap had crawled into K's lines. He probably saved many Yank lives. He said that we were ramming straight into Jap Headquarters - into the fire of a trench system with 10 machine guns. We planned to miss them.

On 20 January, "A" mainly stayed quiet while I Company pushed north towards us - against the Jap perimeter between us which we later found to be 800 yards wide. Next day, we attacked to finish off the Jap road-bend perimeters.

At 1015 21 January, after "A" and "K" pulled back 150 yards, field artillery blasted the last Jap bunker line. As field artillery quieted at 1030, the Musket battery of 1581 mortars pounded the Japs, and a platoon of heavy machine guns combed brush and trees around the kunai opening. It was good to see our preparatory fire rip up the jungle edge.

             As mortars took up the fire, A's two remaining rifle platoons advanced. Our attack formation was in column of platoon. With a squad in reserve, our lead platoon moved in. Left squad went as skirmishers across the deep kunai; right squad filed through hampering jungle in squad column. A combat patrol from D's heavy machine gun men secured our right flank beyond our right squad; K Company kept up on our left.

Already, our assault fire started. From field artillery shells to mortar fire to machine gun traverses to A's rifle-reports - there was no lull in Yank fire   This time, "A" struck right to avoid the 10 Jap machine guns reported on the left by our Jap prisoner. Crossing the Nip main line, we counted 88 dead already from field artillery, mortars, heavy machine guns. Then Japs were breaking from their lines and fleeing down our front; without orders, our lead platoon's supporting squad closed to help the killing.

But "A" killed only 20-25; main Jap flight was down Sananada Road towards the Bismarck Sea which they would never reach. And these half-starved, feverish men ran in front of blood thirsty “A”. After pushing on the road, "A" sent a platoon to the right to mop up the edges, and "K" sent a platoon to the left for the same job. Securing the road with a platoon, "A" then went back the way we had come to slay those Nips who would not surrender - who hid out or shammed death.

While striking for the road, "A" had fanned out and helped "B" and "C" who were still held up. When Jap eased up, "B" and "C" surged ahead and liquidated the fronts that had hitherto blocked them off.

All told, 163 with field artillery slew 530 Nips; yet 163 altogether lost just one killed, six wounded. A Company reported no casualties. It was the largest single days kill since the Aussie victory at Gorari, in the Jap retreat from their attempt to capture Port Moresby over the Kokoda Trail. On that great day of 21 January 1943, Commanding Officer McKinney credited field artillery, mortars, machine guns for perfect fire support. The main Battle of Sanananda was now all but ended. Remained only the great attack 22 January had well avenged the loss of 12 dead and 18 wounded which we had taken in the sunstruck kunai on 16 January 1943.

 

CREDIT Basis of this second story of A 163 at Sanananda is 41st Division Training Note No. 2 (19 May 1943) with sketches probably by A’s Commanding Officer Lieutenant Howard McKinney. Dr. Leeon Aller supplied this Training Note from his papers after Federal Archives could not locate it. Also useful were Dr. Samuel Miner’s Victory in Papua and my earlier Sanananda history of A Company No. 55 in Jungleer. Where my earlier disagreed clearly with this Training Note. I have taken data from this Training Note as being more reliable. I also used official casualty lists which were unavailable to me when I wrote the earlier story.