B Company 163 Infantry: Bayonet Charges at Sanananda

by 1st Lieutenant (Then 2nd Lieutenant) Walter L. McKenzie with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

            At Sanananda, B Company 163rd Infantry began with defective ammunition: armor-piercing (AP) shells were jamming our semi-automatic M-1s. First round would misfire; we had just one ramrod for every nine riflemen to eject the bullet. Ingenious Sergeant Fiscus found that working the M-1 trigger guard would recock the rifle. The cartridge usually fired the second time. But each squad's BAR and the 1903 bolt-action rifle would fire AP. The squad tommie gun shot .45 cartridges all right, but we had only one spare clip per gun. One man had to reload that clip while the other fired.

            Yet B Company had to fight with defective AP ammo in our first fight when we relieved Aussie 2/7 Cavalry Regiment in Musket Perimeter. At once, the Japs struck to defeat our untried men. Despite AP, we repelled them, but in 45 minutes, we were short of ammo. Then Sergeant Russ forwarded the right ammo instead of AP. Russ and 2nd Lieutenant McKenzie ran from hole to hole and laid out clips. We stopped two Jap attacks, two hours apart.

Pvts Arthur J. Knoepfle's shoulder was hit, Oscar F. Del Castillo's left elbow, Albert R. Miller's left hip. Pfc Thomas F. Guider and Sergeant Donald F. McKinster were shot in lower parts of body. Pfc Isadore M. Robdjek's left arm was broken.

            By day, Japs harassed us with unlimited machine gun ammo. They lacked grenades, however. When our automatic weapons drew fire, we hid them where they were safe. Then we turned accurate rifle fire on the Jap machine guns and often silenced them.

            Thus, for almost two weeks, "B" held Musket Perimeter - like a frontier outpost against Indians. Japs held P Perimeters 300 yards south, and Perimeters Q-R 25-50 yards north. Only access to Musket was through and around Jap Perimeters P.

            Only a few feet above swamps, Musket Perimeter was an oval space 75 by 50 yards. It was a grassy, brushy flat over-looked by tall snipers' trees above dense undergrowth - a deadly perimeter hard to defend. At once, "B" began trying to break out. Browning automatic riflemen fired up our last AP bullets to destroy snipers each morning. Then we moved around fairly safe until the Japs' mid-day attacks - seven attacks on seven consecutive days. The Japs then failed their daily attacks; then they tried five night attacks. Our grenades stopped those five consecutive night attacks.

            B's first attempt to break out of Musket was a Weapons Platoon attacks January, three days after we occupied Musket. Fiery Captain “Red” Hamilton planned it - Colonel Doe's nephew, trained as a Field Artillery officer. His battlefield tactic was simple - a bayonet charge. Weapons Platoon specialists held no line positions for Musket, and so Hamilton used them - perhaps more 60 mm mortar men than any other Weapons men.

About 1235, 5 January, 1st Lieutenant Ellers' Weapons men assaulted. We lined up 25 men, fixed bayonets, and charged when a police whistle blew. Hidden Jap machine guns stopped us dead, number of casualties in that first charge unknown.

"It should have worked," said Hamilton. Another charge of 25 with police whistle and fixed bayonets failed also. Perhaps all of four hidden Jap machine guns shot men dead.

In one of these charges, Pfc Leo J. Limbocker died. Pvt John McMeel and Sgt Otis H. Potter tried to save him, but Jap tracers stopped them. Both men were killed also. We never found McMeel's body - only momentos his own mess gear left in Jap Headquarters. Pfc Julius B Mendoza was wounded and had to be left to die under Jap guns that night. Killed also was Staff Sergeant Ralph E. Sullender. Corporal Orelio Pickenstein was shot in the neck and 1st Lieutenant Ken Ellers in right arm.  As sole remaining front-line officer besides Captain Hamilton, 2nd Lieutenant McKenzie must be part of every important patrol or attack. His weapons were limited. Only once could he ever get a light machine gun; they were protecting B Company Headquarters. Heavy machine guns were protecting 1st Battalion Headquarters.

Sergeant Owen D. Gaskell was killed that day, precise circumstances unknown. Maybe he threw himself on a grenade to save others. Maybe he saved a supply party by grenading pillbox slots until the supply party passed and he was killed. That night, Pfc Thomas W. Conner's grenade rebounded from a tree to kill both Pvt. Lester Koustrop and him in the same hole.

On 7 January, a sniper bullet struck across Staff Sergeant Marvin S. Lockman's back and killed him. Pfc Frank J. Gorishek was slain also, on 8 January.  

On 8 January, "B" charged bayonets again. Aussie General GA Vasey permitted Doe to attack. While hit Perimeter Q, Doe would strike where we had lost out on 5 January - against Perimeter R. Aussie Hanson Troop's 25-pounder cannon first wasted 15 minutes' fire on Perimeters Q-R. Their only shells had delayed fuses which penetrated the ground and often even failed to explode. Our charge was a walk with bayonets and no whistle.

            Our charge stopped instantly in thick jungle brush only 25 yards from Jap machine guns. Marly in 2nd Platoon heard heavy fire before his squad even left their holes. Staff Sergeant Eder of Weapons said that the Japs let us get only 5-10 feet from our holes before they blasted us. Backing 2nd Platoon’s rush, Sergeant Rubens found the men grounded, dead or wounded. Old-style long bayonets caught in vines when we raised them to fire. After first rush, McKenzie ordered our bayonets left behind.

            With platoon sergeant Henry "Boak" Wilson, McKenzie's 3rd Platoon started through E Company holed on our left flank. When Jap machine guns opened up, we hit the ground. Moving on, we veered left to where McKenzie thought that we ought to pierce the Nippo lines. When Wilson sensibly objected, McKenzie withdrew 3rd Platoon to Musket.

            "B" had nine killed, eight wounded, perhaps our highest total of any World War II fight. Dead were Pfcs Robert F. Russell and Denton B. Carroll, Pvts Adam Genther and Lester B.Foltz, Sergeant Hugh M. Holmes, and Corporals Bernard W. Irmen and Frank A. Rogers. Pfc Perdin O. Nore died of wounds. We never found Berg's body - like McMeel's on 5 January. Besides Sergeant Norton E. Rubens reported shot in the right hand, wounded included Pfc Faurto Castillo, hit in shoulder and left hip; Ephion Laabs shot in left shoulder; Corporal Adam Petrovich in left shoulder and arm. Shot in the hips was Pvt Charles McFarland, Pfc Arbbi Kjembus in left hand, Pvt Tyree W. Martin right foot. Pvt Walter A. Cawiezell's right ear drum was traumatically ruptured. After futile bayonet attacks, morale was low in Musket.

            The Japs seemed to have an impenetrable cordon northwards. But why didn't Colonel Doe prepare our attacks with 37 mm guns or 81 mm heavy mortars? Sighting 37 mm guns into pillbox slits would have smashed the Jap crews. Instead, their shells blasted off tree-crowns concealing snipers above Musket Perimeter. In our final assaults, the 81s almost unaided blasted out surviving Jap perimeters. McKenzie felt that Doe and Hamilton reserved 37s and 91s to secure their Headquarters.

            Departing Aussie garrison had left us a three-man outpost just 15 yards from the Nippos. McKenzie called it dangerous and worthless; Hamilton insisted on keeping it. We had to replace those three men every 24 hours to remain sane after long silence close to death. Every day, McKenzie had to point the way for one man at a time to and from these holes, but on 10 January, Hamilton sent him elsewhere. Relieving men that day, Sergeant Shirley H. Fiscus died with a shot in the brain. Outpost was then abandoned.

            "B" suffered horribly in water in our holes. McKenzie never remembered sleeping at all. For warmth, he sat back to back with his runner in a clammy pool - once bailed 200 consecutive helmets of water but failed to lower the level.

            In two weeks, most of "B" had malaria, but a man had to have 103 degrees of temperature before hospital. Malaria or not, we had to hold Musket Perimeter.

            McKenzie suggested that Hamilton should relieve a few men at a time into higher, dryer, parts of Musket for a few hours. They could dry out awhile and keep water-wrinkled hands able to handle a rifle. Hamilton replied, "Those men can stay out there 30 to 60 days if necessary. There is no limit to human endurance." But to save Hamilton himself from the danger of a Jap breakthrough, McKenzie finally prevailed on him to rotate men back to a few hours of heavenly dryness and warmth.

            On 12 January, Australians' three tanks and two battalions failed to raise our Musket siege by storming Perimeters P south of us. Lieutenant Colonel, Hatsuo Tsukamoto's 3-inch shells smashed all three tanks. Aussie infantry casualties were 151 - 34 dead, 51 missing in action - with minor ground gains. General Eichelberger and the Aussie generals feared to attack again. They agreed the "P" would fall only after intense mortaring and constant harassing - slow work indeed through poisonous swamps.

            But B Company triggered downfall of Perimeters P. About dawn 14 January, a "B" patrol found a sick Jap lying in bushes south of Musket. Some men wanted to kill him. In the nights, we had heard screaming that sounded like McMeel or Berg under Jap torture. McKenzie saved the Jap because Division Headquarters wanted to question him. When he fainted, we gave him a "C" ration. He actually broke off twigs for chopsticks to eat it! Sergeant Wilson had to carry him part way down the Supply Trail. The prisoner told Division Headquarters that all able-bodied men had left "P" two days ago. Aussies and our 2nd Battalion at once liquidated "P" and slew 252. Sanananda Road was opened; Musket Perimeter siege was raised.

            On 15 January, Hamilton told McKenzie's 3rd Platoon to strike Perimeter R again. But Colonel Doe ordered us to join other companies east of Musket. No one told them that we were coming. "K" men believed that we were Japs - shot Staff Sergeant Warren I. Wilson across upper lip and holed Sergeant Pickett's pack before ceasing fire.

We learned that battered B Company was in reserve for A plus C's attack on Jap Perimeter S across Sanananda Road. Next day, on 16 January, A Company lost heavily in a deadly attack that failed across almost open terrain. But McKenzie and B Company did not know of A’s failure. He was wrongly told that A and C Companies together had won Perimeter S already; we had only to mop up. He was to lead 3rd Platoon in single file into "S".

But McKenzie had learned to doubt every order. Halting 3rd Platoon and all B Company, he probed forward with Bermudez and Sergeant Lee. Jap fire cracked at them, they never knew how they managed to escape alive.

Angrily Hamilton rushed up to lead "B" forward instead of McKenzie. McKenzie gripped Captain Hamilton by the shoulders, turn him back - and surely saved his life.

Now the truth came out about 163's attack that morning. A Company's Commanding Officer told Lieutenant Colonel Lindstrom of 1st Battalion that this attack would fail. Lindstrom relieved him. C Company's Captain Van Duran, also refused to attack but was not relieved. A Company pushed alone and failed - with nine killed and 37 other losses facing the Japs. Hamilton attached Staff Sergeant Henry Johnson's 2nd Platoon to fight under McKenzie's command. But just a minute or two before the jump-off, Hamilton suddenly withdrew 2nd Platoon from the fight - without informing McKenzie.  Johnson rose up to call to ascertain that his last man was out - and died from a bullet in his head.

Still unaware of 2nd Platoon’s withdrawal, McKenzie's 3rd Platoon was now in place before the Jap perimeter. Heavy fire lashed us. Set up on left flank, Staff Sergeant Eder's light machine gun could not draw fire enough from the Japs to help us. Like Johnson, 3rd Platoon's Corporal Harvey C. Lingle died with a bullet in the head. BARman Corporal Willis D. Morin got his death-wound - a bullet through nose and left eyebrow. Bernard Marly and Pvt Leroy Blumenthal tried to save Morin. A Jap slug in the spine paralyzed Blumenthal who died 10 days later. Trying to tell McKenzie that dead Johnson's platoon had gone, Runner Russell S. Hapke died a few feet from the Lieutenant. With 2nd Platoon's help, we might have surprised and routed the Japs. After 2nd Platoon left, we were lucky that the Japs did not wipe us out. Only in semi-darkness could our 3rd Platoon escape the Japs.

            Next day, 17 January, McKenzie and Sergeant Lee guided officer observers to where they watched the Jap lines just 20 yards off. By their perimeter size, McKenzie estimated that it held 150 Japs on the side where we had attacked the day before. An Aussie veteran observer advised mortars and an attack at once.

So on 18 January, we were promised a barrage - 81 mm mortars for the first time. Although 90 rounds were promised, just 30 fired - total misses near unburied Johnson. Attack failed.

On 19 January, "B" kept fighting - with a Platoon-sized Company. On 20 January, Pvt Robert F. Plotts was hit in right leg, and Pfc Lionel A. Goricks by "shrapnel" in right leg also. Medic Donald Abbott would die of wounds two days later.

On 21 January, came finally the 81 mm barrage McKenzie had long wanted - 2,000 rounds preparing a four-company attack on Perimeter S. B's Pfc Eldrid C. Burnham took fragments in right arm, left side of face; Pvt. Harlow H. Henninger was shot in left leg. Sergeant Frank Compa was killed; Gerald Beck died of wounds. But we slew the Japs in droves and seized Perimeter S. Still, on 23 January, Pvt Kenneth L. Estes was shot in right arm, other circumstances unknown.

In B Company's Sanananda Battle, we began with 187 men, but ended with 21 on duty. We lost at least 27 killed, 27 wounded, and 112 out with malaria. All 163 Infantry had just 96 dead, but over 25 per cent of those dead from "B". In all of our attacks, we had just one mortar blast of 30 wasted rounds. So much for bayonet charges that never touched a Jap! For Good Soldier McKenzie and others, these are proud but bitter memories.

 

These battles took place in January 1943. The result of high casualties caused by Green troops led by Green officers. Walter McKenzie with the assistance of Hargis Westerfield published this account in November 1985. Surely Lieutenant McKenzie's excellent history explains why B Company lost 27 out of 96 men killed in action in 163 Infantry's Battle of Sanananda. Prime credit is due to McKenzie's letters dated 8 August, 14 September, 3 October, and 23 October all in 1984, plus additional notes in 1984. I used also official Casualty Lists, and Dr. Samuel Milner's Victory in Papua (where Milner does not contradict McKenzie). We owe a great debt to B 163's Corporal Bernard Marley who contacted McKenzie by phone and letter and helped to break his 41 years of silence.

Walter McKenzie's letters have destroyed credibility of the earlier report of B 163 's Sanananda Operation - especially in the climatic phase of 16-21 January. (This report is in a document entitled "An Unsupported Attack," from "41 Division Training Notes:' No.2, Part IV.) This false report even got into Dr. Samuel Milner's official Victory in Papua, beginning on p. 356. Being unaware at that time of its fallacy, I also used the document my B 163 history, "Sanananda: The Victory Phase" (Jungleer, June 1974), and in C 163's "Fisk Perimeter and Afterwards" (Jungleer, October 1978) where I wrote of B Company and Company in action together.