163 Infantry and 116 Medical Battalion: Deepwater Patrol: Kumusi River Coast

by Captain Boyd Budge and Drs. Mark Holcomb and Hargis Westerfield

            Late in February 1943 after the Battle for Sanananda, Captain Mark Holcomb, Assistant Medical Surgeon, volunteered for one of the most unusual missions of his whole career. At that time, L Company 163 Infantry had replaced G 163 on their mop-up patrol at Kumusi River mouth, 22 miles northwest of Gona. Desire for a medical inspection of L Company's outpost became Dr. Holcomb's excuse for adventuring on what became a hazardous experience.

            Captain Boyd Budge, 163's Intelligence Officer, asked Medic Holcomb to travel by motor boat into Jap country 37 miles past L Company's outpost. Here in the mud of a shallow bay at Amboga River mouth, our Air Force had reported seeing a wrecked Japanese plane that we could spot at low tide. Holcomb was an excellent swimmer. Budge wanted him to dive for the plane and get information about it.

            Holcomb's only problem was to get permission from Major John White, 163's Regimental surgeon. White granted this permission when Holcomb promised a medical inspection of L Company's outpost.

            In this wilderness of the Guinea Shore, we needed a boat for conveniently contacting any 163 Infantry outposts. For reliable aid would be quicker by water than by land on this water- logged coast of swamps, tidal pools, and many river crossings swollen from daily tropical rain storms. Rafts or boats were required at almost every inlet.

            We used a motor boat which had been salvaged and reconditioned after the close of desperate Jap resistance at Sanananda, 22 January 1943. It was little more than a fragile shell. Planking was thin, light boards covered with waterproof fabric. But the frame and rib construction were strong enough. The stern was hardwood with sturdy stern posts 8 inches higher than the gunwale.

            Running equipment was makeshift and primitive. This 25-foot open boat with only a covered bow was guided by a wheel at the coxswain's chair which was attached by a clothes line cable and pulleys to an old type tiller (or "handle") and rudder. Shift and throttle on the instrument panel were homemade. There was a crank to start the motor. We did have an anchor - but no life preservers, no running lights, no bilge pumps. It was not made for beaching; a short pier had been built to dock the boat at Gona.

            This flimsy motor boat was not made for a direct landing. For a bridge to any landing but at Gona, we had an 8-foot dinghy tied behind the motor boat. This dinghy was sturdily constructed of a dark-brown hardwood with oars and oar locks. It was rugged enough to beach. Before the war, plantation owners must have used this whole shebang to haul natives, supplies, fuel, mail, or a passenger or two from a coastal freighter.

            Crew of this boat was provided by two men from Service Company 163 Infantry. The enlisted man who skippered it had had some experience with small boats and their motors. He cranked the boat to start it and kept it in working order. Like the other crewman, his name is unremembered. Besides Holcomb and Budge, a third passenger was Lieutenant Floyd Stanfield, Platoon Leader of 163's Intelligence & Reconnaissance Platoon. All five men would be needed.            Just after daybreak, we chugged out from the dock at Gona. The 27-mile trip along the dark Guinea shore was uneventful, in fairly placid water. (We had no idea of the wild storm that was coming.) It was an easy landfall at L Company's out-posted patrol at Kumusi River mouth. Here L Company's men seemed unusually active. We came close enough inshore to hear that they desperately needed a boat to help them.

            "L" had lost a man when an early morning patrol had tried to wade across the Kumusi. His body could be anywhere in the swift, deep, dark water at the mouth of the swollen river; or it could have been washed out to sea. We took an hour trying to drag the bottom to find the soldier. But our anchor failed to hook him. After all, it was three hours after he had disappeared at crossing the river. In discussion with L 's patrol Commanding Officer, we decided to wait for the flood to lower before keeping on with a search for the body. But the coming stormy weather on our voyage, kept us from more help to L Company.

            (There was some talk that the dead soldier had been dragged under by a crocodile, but we heard no more about any crocodile. But we do know that his corpse was retrieved from the sea just outside of Kumusi mouth about two days later)

            After L Company's outpost, our sea patrol was probably slowly chugging into Japanese country. Ahead, we had an estimated 37 miles more to Mambare River delta. We slowly worked our way closer inshore. Now a wind had come up, and a little sea was running. There was some cloud cover, and the water changed to a gray color. The tossing of the boat made it harder to study the water and the coast with our field glasses. We also had the problem of water splashing into our gasoline.

            Half a mile before us, we discovered what seemed to be the stump of an uprooted tree closer to shore. It was stuck in the mud. We could see no other object in the water. The stump may have been what was reported from the air to be a wrecked Jap fighter plane.

            We decided that our cruise patrol was at the halfway point of our supply of fuel and that we ought to turn back. We drained the water from our sediment tank and refilled our gas tank from bidons. We still had maybe 20 gallons of gas on reserve for later in our voyage.

            And suddenly we five men in a fragile open boat were in danger of death on the treacherous jungle Guinea Shore - with Japs anywhere in that green darkness. When we had to stop our motor, we saw that the wind was drifting us closer inshore. To avoid it, we decided to change our returning course east by northeast. And without a compass, we had to guide ourselves just by dead reckoning.

            After altering course, we had to face the problem of still higher waves. Any time the motor stopped and we lay dead in the water, the attached 8-foot dinghy became a problem. Always we needed to keep a man in the dinghy to bail it out. When full of water, it became a dead weight and forced us to expend extra fuel. As the storm heightened, a man could barely bail fast enough to keep it afloat.

            Yet we could not cut it loose; we might drown if we did. We had no life preservers. If the thin inner shell of our motor boat was broken, we would sink instantly. A four-mile swim in high waves to the shore would be impossible for most of us. The dinghy would become our slim chance to reach the shore and live.

            The storm rose higher. It tore at our clothing and deafened us. In fear, we had to look up at billows an estimated 20 feet above our turned up heads.

            At the crest of a wave, the dinghy suddenly tautened its rope and made that rope sing as the two boats jerked apart. When we settled down into the trough of a wave, the bow of the dinghy would crash into the stem of the motor before it. We were lucky that the stern was made of unbreakable hardwood with upstanding eight-inch posts.

            Two men had to straddle the motor boat's gunwales to keep the dinghy away from battering it - especially against a side that could be shattered.

            Only a combination of luck and dexterity kept us from getting an arm or leg caught between the boats if the waves caused a collision. Holcomb almost lost his right arm in an averted crash. Another man managed to save his leg when it dangled overside, but the careening boats did not hit it.

            Among the 20-foot waves jiggling the boats, even a skilled Medic would have been unable to save a broken arm or leg from permanent crippling.

            The expert coxswain from Service Company 163 Infantry had to be kept to the wheel of the motor-boat to keep us from broaching and capsizing. This left four men to take turns to man the row boat and save it. The other Service Company man was first to jump into the dinghy to squat and bail it out. After he was exhausted, I & R's Lieutenant Stanfield had his turn - then Captain Doctor Holcomb, and finely, Captain Budge. At the end of about an hour, the PFC took another turn, followed by the other three.

            Every time we hit a crest, the tow rope tautened so fast that it seemed to sing. Finally, the worn rope started to break at the bow ring on the dinghy.

            Holcomb's and Budge's quick thinking and actions saved the dinghy from being torn loose-and surely our lives if the motorboat gunwale should be broken. He could not find any other rope in the motor boat, but the end of the tow rope was under his feet. Holcomb lobbed the rope-end to Budge in the dinghy. Budge inserted the rope into the ring just in the nick of time. The old rope completely unraveled and snapped. So Budge's name is not on a death-list when drowned in the storm, or killed by Japs on the shore.

            After one more hard hour, the wind and waves began to die down. No longer did we have to fight off the dinghy from crashing into us. We no longer had to bail it The storm had lasted five long hours.

            Now that we had ridden out the storm, we faced another dire problem. That was the problem to safely navigate back to life in U .S.-Aussie territory. Without a compass and during the storm, our only guide was to motor against the wind. The stars finally appeared. Now we were able to keep on cruising southwards into safety by pointing our bow at that wonderful Southern Cross in the sky.

            We took turns at keeping the navigator headed for the Cross. Watching that Cross, Holcomb felt deep appreciation for Columbus who made great use of the stars in guidance to America. Holcomb never knew how long or how often he stood watch, but he was totally unaware of anything but the Cross. He never forgot the brightest star at the end of the lower pole of the Cross, which is named Acrux and is 220 light- years away from the earth and 1400 times as bright as our sun.

            But we still had plenty to worry about. Keeping our bow on the Cross did not inform us how far the wind had driven us out to sea, or where the dangerous Guinea Shore was from us. Holcomb estimated that we were about four miles offshore, but he worried about whether it was U.S. or Japanese shore.

            So we changed course from south to southeast. Occasionally, as we slowly cruised, we used our waterproof signal light to send out SOS calls. We could now see the jungle outline of the shore. And finally, we saw light!

            The light signaled for our password, but we then realized that it had changed yesterday at noon. Like being without a compass, we had not expected the needs for this new password. We signaled, "Is this Gona?" We got no reply, and continued southeast.

            Forty-five minutes to an hour later, we mushed into mud and were stopped. Our signal light revealed soft mud and exposed rocks. All of us but the coxswain had to flounder overside to push us back from the stocky mess.

            Then flared the menacing surprise of a bright searchlight from the coast. But we got no Jap gunfire. Soon we stopped being afraid. We realized that friends had understood our plight. Their bright light moved before our bow to light us to safety. That light came from the Australian position on the point just east of Gona.

            Back into deep water, we flashed "Thank you," reversed our motor boat and continued westward with the dinghy. Feeling our way just a short time, we spotted our dock at Gona. The Coleman lantern still hung on the pier, but the light had gone out hours ago.

            In the jeep that we had parked 18 long hours yesterday, we drove back to 3rd Battalion 163 Infantry Headquarters. Here we found Battalion Intelligence Officer and his duty Sergeant very busy. They were trying to decipher a message from an outpost west of Gona. We had to read it for them ourselves. They had failed to reply when we had signaled, "Is this Gona?"

            But we dirty, wet, tired, and sleepless five adventurers could now laugh. We had survived a deadly I8-hour saga without being dismembered by crashing boats or being drowned. We had not recovered the L Company man's body. We had found no wrecked Japanese plane. But we had a memory of fine teamwork and heroism.

 

CREDIT: Prime credit is due to Captain Budge's 8-page triple-spaced typescript with 1-1/2 pages commentary by Dr (then Captain) Mark Holcomb of 116 Medic Battalion.