A Company 163 Infantry: Infighting Japanese Perimeters at Sanananda

By Colonel Howard McKinney with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

            On 30 December 1943, all 1st Battalion, 163 Infantry, flew across the Owen Stanley Mountains to fight Sanananda Battle. Fearing Jap airmen, we flew low. Lieutenant McKinney's plane glided in from north of Dobadura Strip. Quickly we filed into jungle and changed room for Aussie and Yank wounded to fly to Port Moresby.

            Then we hiked through mud and water up to knee-deep, single file, drenched in sweat and rain. Executive Officer McKinney hounded stragglers from the rear.

            A Company's first job was to guard the supply trail off Sanananda Road to Musket Perimeter - Regimental Headquarter’s. Next few days of securing the jungle supply trail was fine front-line training.

            We picked off two Japs spying from out of trees. At night we surrounded our perimeter with booby-traps wired to grenades - or "C" ration tins to tinkle against crawling Japs.

            On 8 January, 1st Battalion's Commanding Officer ordered Lieutenant McKinney to lead a platoon to Kana Perimeter where an Aussie field artillery short had wounded a C 163 man. Here C I63's Captain Van Duyn said that a Jap machine gun blocked the trail. He asked McKinney to take A 163's 1st Platoon and kill the Japs' machine gun.

            Ignoring Van Duyn, McKinney ordered 1st Platoon to cross the trail at irregular intervals. We got six men across before the seventh was wounded and evacuated. A Jap bullet cut McKinney's rifle sling. They got out alive the "C" man.

            On 9 January, 2nd Battalion Headquarters ordered McKinney to check out Jap "R" Perimeter. Strange noises suggested that the Japs were leaving. Our 2nd Platoon entered without firing. Unusually heavy rain had flooded out the Japs. The machine gun that had interdicted the trail yesterday was still in position. A dead Nip was tied there ready to fire.

            Fearing a twilight counterattack and night harassment, we lay on guard in the stench of Jap dead. We formed our perimeter defense with only our heads and firearms above water.

Next day we found Lieutenant Fisk's body with evidence of Japs' cannibalism. We buried gruesome Japanese dead. We reorganized ''R'' Perimeter, garrisoned with all A Company, less 3rd Platoon still attached to A Company. Surrounded by jungle and swamp - but for Sanananda Road - we were on higher ground with scrub brush six feet tall.

            Centering "R" Perimeter was a lone tree stump five feet high and three feet wide. We fashioned a ladder to it made of sound-powered wire and scrub-tree branches.

            Here we could watch Jap movement inside larger Perimeter "Q." This big oval-shaped strongpoint was studded with many machine guns - but all sighted frontally without any final protective lines. We stocked up "R" with ammo, rations, and other items scrounged from Regimental's supply dump.  But we still lived in mud holes under waves of stings from mosquitoes and other winged pests.

            On 13 January, McKinney had to prod Perimeter "Q's" north side at first daylight.  We moved 2nd Platoon north about 50 yards and found a western trail to cross Sanananda Road without the Japs seeing us.  A continuous rain helped to muffle our move southward toward "Q".  We found a Ford sedan and other gear on a little higher ground.  We saw that the Japs must feel secure there because of a belt of open ground about 30 yards wide.

            With a squad in reserve by the Ford sedan, our lead squad advanced as skirmishers around the northeast end of the grassland.  Our reserve squad waited in squad column. 

            We still had to crawl in water six feet deep. A Jap soldier still came out within 15 feet of our 1st squad and brushed his teeth. He disappeared without seeing us.

            McKinney led his skirmisher squad another 30 feet. He stopped beside a tree with a four-foot trunk. Then he pulled a pin from a grenade and rolled it down a perimeter "Q" fire lane

The explosion was the firing signal to A Company's first two squads. They had already deployed. Their guns emptied a formidable blast of fire into "Q." A Company had done their work; they fell back past the Ford which was now riddled with Jap fire that was too high.

            We lost only one man killed, three wounded. But we now knew the extent and strength of "Q" Perimeter.

            On 15 January, Lieutenants Nugent and Houston with 1st Platoon and 3rd Platoon assaulted "Q" again. Striking due west, Houston's Platoon broke through the first line of bunkers and took heavier fire from deeper "Q." This time S/Sergeant Ziegele and another soldier on the extreme right faced a pillbox mounting a .50 heavy machine gun.

            Placing the other man to cover the slot, Ziegele alone outflanked the pillbox without receiving fire. He shot blind through the slot at four Japs - slew one. He tried to pull the heavy machine gun through the slot.

            Then he crouched against the pillbox, reloaded, and killed two more Japs rushing out. Ziegele kept close to the pillbox until other Japs repelled him.

            Meanwhile, McKinney and 1st Sergeant Gonzales kept contact between A and B Companies to prevent a jungle-blind firefight between Yanks. Crawling back across the road, they survived Jap machine gun fire just over their heads. They launched a number of Aussie rifle grenades into the location of that machine gun.

            Now A Company was relieved against "Q" by K Company. K had seen less combat than A Company. And A had weakened the "Q" Japs to where they would be easier to wipe out.

            That night, McKinney was guided through the dark into Fisk (old Kano) Perimeter, which was Battalion Command Post. In a well- lighted tent, Lieutenant Colonel Lindstrom informed McKinney that he was now Captain of A Company.

            We would fight across more open ground outside the swampy roadside perimeters. Backed by C Company, we would circle through the jungle to the west, they turn and strike to the east. We did not then know that our mission was to attack Jap Perimeter "S," one of three Jap perimeters in the great eastern bend of Sanananda Road. Attack would begin at 0900 hours after 15 minutes field artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire - or until McKinney ordered "Cease fire!"

            At daylight 16 January 1943 McKinney met with platoon leaders to recon the terrain. Surprise was to find grass was just one to two feet high. We decided to advance on a wide front. We hoped to find a weak front to position all A Company into jungle cover.

            At 0830, A Company's three platoons were in line to crawl toward the Japs. McKinney followed middle platoon with his communications man and a runner. We had a sound-powered phone- only way to talk to platoons, weapons crews, and 1st Battalion Headquarters.

            Grass here was about two feet tall. Ground was rough with many little mounds that covered from flat trajectory fire.

            But in 75 yards from the Japs, their snipers could shoot down on us. Although inaccurate, they still hit many Yanks. Our light machine guns raked the treetops - but exhausted their belts.

            Shortly after we left our line of departure, our attack was doomed. A mortar round landed behind McKinney. It wounded the sound power-man - cut A Company out of touch for over an hour.

            This was one of the few Guinea days without cloudy skies and rain. Sun nearly scorched our hands on our rifles. Men passed out from the heat. Survivors dug little wells about 12 inches deep to water to revive to crawl back into shade and first aid. McKinney's runner Hardin from 3rd Platoon was shot through the head when he handed McKinney a message.

            Within 50 yards of the Japs firing lines, A Company quit our advance. Support fire had stopped. We lay flat and waited for C Company to take the Japs from the rear. Colonel Lindstrom got through on the phone to ask about our holdup. Finally Lindstrom ordered A Company back to the line of departure. A guide led A to 1st Battalion's new perimeter AD.

            Our 1st Battalion's AD Perimeter lay north of Sanananda Road - shouldered against Japs' perimeters S and T on our left and right.

            On that 16 January, A Company lost 9 men killed, 17 men wounded, plus 18 men and 2 officers from heat exhaustion.

            But why had C Company failed to take the Japs in the rear?  Behind a heavy barrage, A Company had driven the Japs back into stronger positions. But Captain Van Duyn's C Company recon party could not find a good position for a new perimeter. They regrouped with 1st Battalion at perimeter AD. Here Battalion anti-tank guns were firing into Japanese pillboxes.

            Next day,17 January, "A" rested and regrouped. We were down about 50 full strength with just two officers - Lieutenant Nugent and McKinney. We preferred to keep our smaller squads for better control and flexibility.

            On 18 January, A probed to southeast of our perimeter AD. We found snipers in trees 100 yards from AD, also located a bunker topping a ridge. Next day, 19 January, with K Company now attached, we probed 100 yards east of AD, then turned south. K was on the left. Sniper fire showed that we had again found the north end of Jap T. Ordered to remain there overnight, we talked about fueling and resupplying. A sniper slew a man in our group.

            On 20 January, we crept forward until machine gun fire stopped us. A Jap bullet splintered McKinney's rifle stock. Mid-afternoon, everybody withdrew to AD to plan a coordinated attack on T perimeter's Japs.

            A Company's men were fatigued, underfed, and sickening from malaria. We decided not to creep and crawl until fired on. We would fight walking as skirmishers and firing at anything that moved. Headquarters men and cooks would bear ammo.

            On 21 January came the final hours of the battle of Sanananda, with an all-out Yank offensive. With an Aussie field artillery officer, McKinney adjusted a round to hit the ridge topped by the bunker.

            We planned to have 15 minutes field artillery fire to 1030 hours, then five minutes fire from our heavy .81 MM mortars at Musket.

            Back in AD, McKinney found our men sitting on the edge of our holes, rifles in their laps, staring into space.

            With K Company on our left, A Company moved forward to within 50 yards to where our Aussie field artillery was impacting - and moved on forward when their fire lifted. Our heavy mortars still banged away as we penetrated the first line of Jap bunkers. Lieutenant Nugent and McKinney checked behind our advancing line to be sure everyone was firing. In this approach fire, our men gained confidence.

            The Japs leaped from their holes and were shot down as they ran. K Company had a field day of killing when many ran across their front. Ammo bearers slew some who hid and tried to escape after our firing line passed. We never slowed down until we came to Sanananda Road. Thus we wiped out Jap perimeter T.

            Over 500 bodies were counted, many dead from our support weapons. We had won the battle without losing a man. Some rifles were damaged from overheating, and we used a lot of ammo, but no one cared.

            Next day, we returned to AD except for a man from each platoon who went back to the open ground to find our dead from the holocaust of 16 January. Details from other outfits and graves registration men sought 163's other dead.

            A Company men were being hospitalized daily from malaria, and McKinney himself passed out. He awoke in the hospital at Port Moresby.

            Returned to A Company now at Oro Bay, McKinney found other men returned from the hospital. We were as low as 30 percent in numbers; decimated A Company built up in strength to all of 50 percent.

            McKinney was relieved of command of A Company and promoted to 1st Battalion S-3 (Operations officer). Along with his A Company, McKinney had fought gallantly at Sanananda.

 

CREDIT: "With A Company 163 Infantry at Sanananda, New Guinea" is title of Colonel McKinney's 16-page type-script. He intends especially to correct McCartney's error that 1st Battalion 163 Infantry won an attack over open ground on 16 January 1943. But McKinney does not seem to see that he has written a fine tactical study of perimeter fighting - the finest that I have ever read! He merely cites Paul Ziegele for his DSC, but I used the official statement about how Paul earned this award.