My Sanananda Experiences with L Company, 163rd Infantry Regiment

by Arthur W. Merrick

 

We arrived in the Buna-Gona area on 3 January. We were welcomed by some members of the Papuan Infantry Battalion (PIB), Aussies, and Fuzzy Wuzzies (so-called because of their thick, wild black hair). The word back to us is that the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 163rdRegiment are in a place named Sanananda and in contact with the enemy.

On 9 January we left Port Moresby - fast. Trucked to an airstrip, split into groups of 20,and boarded C-47's. Shortly thereafter we were flying over the Owen Stanley mountain range. P-38's, P-51's, and some Zeros off in the distance we were told.

We landed on a grassy strip near a small place named Dobadura. Rifles and handguns were loaded with live ammunition, a strange but comforting feeling. We packed up and struck off down a track for the places Soputa and Sanananda. We walked some nine miles, walking 20 minutes, resting 10. We stopped and set up overnight camp. I slung a hammock which was fairly comfortable until it started to rain and rain and more rain. Scarcely slept a wink.

On 10 January we got to Soputa and set up a perimeter. Everyone was told to be in your freshly dug foxhole by dusk. Shortly after we started digging - 'bang, bang,' went a tommy gun. The shooter shot his buddy in the arm. And, just a few minutes later, a Browning automatic rifleman opened fire. No enemy around but nonetheless I jumped into my foxhole. Nerves, no Japs. The next day we improved our area. We could hear a goodly amount of small arms and Aussie .25 pounder fire from the Sanananda area. Casualties coming back and the news spread that we would soon be moving up.

The following morning we moved out, four Aussie tanks ahead of us. Considerable small arms fire off to our left flank. We moved through jungle slop, mud, and dirty water mostly up to our knees, sometimes near the hips. Not far from the Huggins perimeter everyone was given two to four grenades. We got there about 1800 hours. Jap snipers were about but no one was hit. Our L Company relieved B Company. It was a sleepless night. We now were in actual combat with Japs, out there, trying to kill us. My foxhole had some six inches of water in it so it was fairly shallow.

The night produced a vigorous grenade battle. Our men threw some 60 of them. Jap casualties unknown; we had none. The actions of the Japanese snipers was fairly predictable. They shot into the perimeter about every 0900 and 1500 hours most every day.

The next morning, just after 0930 hours my machine gun section sergeant, Deval Cassidy, was shot through the head and killed by a sniper. In tracking the sniper I came across the body of a B company sergeant, Owen Gascall. How his company missed finding him I shall never know. I collected his "dogtags." I looked around this so-called Huggins perimeter (named for an American soldier who was killed here earlier) and wondered how in the hell we, and the Japs, could wind up in such stinking, sloppy swamp, mud, and filth. Sure as hell nothing to fight for here. In reality we were there to stop the forward progress of these people. Near our kitchen, such as it was, hanging from a tree by a rope around one leg, was a dead Jap - a sniper done in. It was a typical jungle tree but many leaves and branches had been blasted away. He hung from a limb of the tree just some 30 meters in the air and very near my jerry-rigged foxhole.

We 'lived' in this area for the next twelve days. Losing my section sergeant, and as a consequence of the dead sniper hanging in the tree, I formed an anti-sniper unit. Interesting personnel - Sergeant Kenneth VanBorg, from Chicago (he later received a battlefield commission). Corporal Kit Pangle, from Arkansas (who had an aversion to wearing combat boots) Private First Class Matthew Black Dog, from Montana (deadly rifleshot), and me. We eliminated a goodly number of Japanese tree-located snipers.

Our company was ordered to attack to our direct front, through the jungle at 1400 hours, Lt.  Wall's platoon began spreading out with orders to destroy Jap coconut pillboxes as we moved forward.

Three of our men were killed: Pvt Frank M Cleland, Pfc Frank L Churchill, and Pfc Bruno F Zurawski; Pvt Robert G Weaner and Pfc Dorman C Milligan were wounded; four men were missing. We took no Japanese positions. Lt. Sander's platoon moved out to support Lt. Wall. Heavy fire. With no additional support our two engaged platoons had to fall back. We killed maybe 10 enemy. The four men who were missing were found alive. They had been pinned down for hours by heavy machinegun and rifle fire.

The following morning all available units were given general coordinates upon which to launch maximum firepower. This consisted of rifle, BAR, light and heavy machine guns, 60mm mortars from all companies, 81mm mortars and Aussie 25pounders (about 77mm). We maintained this savage assault for nearly five hours. Some 900 rounds of 60mm mortar fire were expended by the rifle companies and 15 or so 81mm mortars were constantly active. When this fire ceased several rifle companies made direct frontal attacks into the jungle.

Our L Company went through the area where Wall's and Sander's assaults were stopped the day before. We encountered little opposition except for sniper fire. We were told that an Aussie unit, well to the left flank of our attack, lost 38 of 40 men in their frontal attack and all four of their tanks.

Our own assault was very successful. Most of the enemy had pulled back. The next day we did some cleaning up. We salvaged what Jap equipment was useful and buried their dead as best we could. Their physical condition was very poor, although we did find a good deal of rice. We also collected a good deal of ammunition along with several maps and documents. One of our senior commanders was with a newspaper correspondent near where I came out of the jungle, George Weller, of the Chicago Daily News. He interviewed me and later wrote a story about my anti-sniper team.

It now is 17 January and we are still collecting Japanese equipment and souvenirs throughout the areas they had set up to defend. Likely I do not smell very nice. I've fought, slept, waded in mud and slop, and contended with the jungle in the same inner and outer clothes since 4 January. Many men of our company have been, and are being, shipped out with dysentery, fever, diarrhea, skin disorders, etc.

We've just had a personnel shift - Captain Armstrong to Battalion S-3, Lt. Peterson to Commanding Officer of our company, and I to Executive Officer (second-in-command). Our company was moved into Battalion reserve. Still much small arms fire and mortar activity from our other Battalion rifle companies. The Executive Officer of our Battalion, Major Kelly, zigged the wrong way and a sniper shot off three of his fingers. In addition, he caught hell from Colonel Doe, our Regimental Commanding Officer.

It is 19 January and our units are slowly moving up the Sanananda trail. Scarcely any slack in distant rifle fire. A day later we are ordered out of reserve and given an attack order. Fortunately the order was later cancelled; we were in no condition to sustain another assault. Rather, Company I took up the attack. Lt. Olsen, newly assigned to the company from the 162nd regiment, was killed. Four men on a combat patrol were surprised by Jap fire. Three were killed, the other wounded. Our company was still in the Huggins perimeter helping out on combat patrols. The Aussies have cleared the track and all resistance to our rear and flank. Now we have a barely-called-road on which to bring in vehicles, supplies and food, and to carry out our wounded, injured, and sick.

A terrible event occurred two days later. A 81mm mortar group, probably Company H, fired a short round into the I Company command post(CP) killing the Company commander, Captain DuPree and the First Sergeant Jim Boland (who was a friend). Three others were wounded including a close friend, Lt. Kenneth (Butch) Leibach.

Reconnaissance in strength was ordered for all companies. Snipers still active. The next morning we moved into the jungle through rotten, stinking mud, swamp, and mangroves. Our attack was to begin at 1030 hours following a concentrated mortar, machine guns, and artillery barrage. Three men from each squad were to be the point men. As part of the assault fire, the machine guns were to sweep the trees for snipers. When it started all hell broke loose - artillery, mortars, machine guns, BARs all firing at the same time. Strangely, it was comforting to have this concentration of fire power into the areas we intended to assault. Our company machine guns were sweeping the trees with continuous fire.

We crept up on the moving barrage hoping no short rounds came in. We charged through the jungle in spite of the slop. An I Company sergeant near me was killed. We charged on. I killed a sniper just after he fired one round. In 41 minutes (by the clock) it was all over. I counted the time. Not one man was lost in our now depleted company. We killed an estimated 36 Japanese. Next, we turned a 180 degrees and retraced our charge, tearing apart the coconut pillboxes. We also buried the dead Japs as best we could. K Company, on our left flank, killed some 50 of the enemy.

Plenty of loot and booty. I wasn't much into collecting stuff from the dead Japs. Along came an order to set up a Battalion perimeter. You could scarcely exist with the stench from the Jap bodies laying all over the place. We slept best we could. There still is one lone sniper around but mostly he was inactive. The night event - two grenades were thrown.

On 23 January I took my first bath since early January. A few dead Japs in the stream but it was glorious bathing! More men lost because of fever, mostly. We were ordered to Gona to relieve an Aussie contingent. Over in the K Company area three Japs rose up from the brush to apparently surrender. Lt. Rawstrom motioned them to raise their arms .A camouflaged machine gunner cut the lieutenant to pieces. All of the Japs were killed.

The next day we headed out for Gona - 3rd Battalion Headquarters, Companies I, K, L, and M plus medics. Broiling sun and we soon lost several men. We were carrying full gear. By the time we got to Gona, at 1950 hours, we were completely done in. Through the jungle and its' insects, snakes, wild boar, and huge spiders along with the slimy mud, filthy water usually at knee level or higher and then out into the miserable heat. We covered some eight and a half miles. We lost 12 men in the delivery of our company to this place. Cold supper, of course. Amazing how often your life was not your own - somebody ordering you to do things like this - and you did it.

The next morning we relieved the Aussie contingent. Lt. Sanders was ordered to move his platoon to a nearby native village to escort trains of natives to the Gona Mission. Lt. Schaeffer and his men were sent to guard an outpost near Garara. The men remaining were mostly assigned patrol duty. Patrols were sent out daily - one such patrol covered eight miles, in and out of the jungle. The other covered three and a half miles through the jungle. One day I went with the patrol covering the longer trek. I brought up the near rear. Sergeant Sweeney was in command of the patrol. I was jabbering away with one of the men when the patrol was stopped and word from Sgt. Sweeney filtered back. "Tell Lt. Merrick to keep his trap shut!" Shortly after, the sergeant's tommy gun discharged. A Jap we had been tracking, unbeknownst to me, was shot dead. Another 'stray' wandering the jungle trails.

Our Company CO, Lt. Peterson, now down with a fever. His Rx was 30 grains of quinine per day for three days. I'm running the company. Many of the Aussies we relieved had been in this lousy part of New Guinea for nine straight months without relief. They left us some useful hammocks and blankets. Our First Sergeant Rhodes was sent off to the 12th Portable Hospital with a very high fever. Sergeant Van Borg assumed acting 'Top.' I'm feeling good. Chow consistently poor.

We did these same operations until 12 February. People out with the fever; others returning from the hospitals. I went down for one day. The patrols are still killing Nips. I got a new set of fatigues! I had worn the other set since 4 January. Our patrols have killed 86 Japanese with no losses to our side. Most of these Japs were lost souls, wandering up or down the jungle trails searching for their own men and fractured units - and food. No prisoners were taken.

There is a general feeling of intense hatred for the Japanese. A large share of this attitude comes from what they did to millions of Chinese in China, others in Pearl Harbor and the Phillipines, Malaya, HongKong, Wake Island and the cannibalism earlier displayed. One day on patrol it was reported that our Pfc. R.J. Benson killed six Japs with one clip of ammunition - no prisoners.

This is the 13th of February and we are ordered to relieve G Company on duty near the Kumusi river, some distance northwest of here. We were cautioned this company has had nine men killed or wounded in this location. We packed up, walked down to the beach, piled into Higgins boats, and headed up the coast. We reached our destination at 1700 hours. G Company was down to 42 enlisted men and two officers.

I had a rather high fever, diarrhea, and I lost my dinner. Dr. Charlie Kotner gave me a shot of morphine and soon after I settled into dreamland. I felt better the next morning. G Company men were gone. We have taken up patrol duties once again. We also were reinforced with a squad of heavy .30caliber machine gunners and a squad of 81mm mortar people from M Company. In addition, we received two 37mm rifles. We also had a few Aussies with their 25pounders. The Aussies included a Major Woodahl, a Lt. Stark, and we later had an Aussie Warrant officer (WO) McWatters from the PIB join us.

A week later our company is down to less than 100 men. Lt. Peterson is ordered to report to Gona so, again, I am the acting company commander. A native arrived to inform us that several Japanese were swimming some two miles down the beach. I sent Corporal Wooten and eight other men and a few volunteers from the Aussie group, including Lt. Stark, and two natives to investigate. When they got there they saw a few Japs running into the jungle. Stark, Wooten, Hughes, Civetta, and two other Aussies set off after them. Three of some 10 Japs hid behind a huge tree and threw several grenades into our men. Cpl Royce D Wooten was killed; Pvt Donald E Hughes, Civetta, and Stark were wounded. A boat was requested to get these wounded to a hospital. Much delay. Lt. Peterson arrived on the boat we needed to evacuate our wounded. All three Japs were killed, others were chased on into the jungle - not caught.

Patrols out every day but, no Nips. The mosquitoes and black gnats were in terrible concentrations. We had v-mail call, rations improved, and lots of tobacco arrived. Three more men were evacuated with high fevers. More sad news, our man Hughes died. We're down to 90 men (we left Australia with 182). We were located next to the Kumusi river drainage into the ocean. We tossed a few grenades into the swirl of river and ocean. Dead and stunned fish surfaced. We had fresh fish for dinner.

Many natives crossing the river to return to their homes in the Buna-Gona area. For tobacco and cigarettes, as well as some food, 23 of the younger natives stayed with us to help build a small bridge over deep jungle slop and clean up the area. I was called Tobada by these young men (which I was told meant 'white boss man'). My contact was Bajare (presumably native boss man). Two women came to me and said they wanted their husbands back. I obeyed - could I say no? Soon hundreds of natives were moving from Katuna, some place up the coast, back to villages down the coast. Many crocodiles seen around the drainage but, of little concern to the natives. Our medics tried their best to treat these people with bites, sores, infections, scratches, cuts, and wounds. Oh so many with body problems!

All of my native workers leave tomorrow to join their families. Patrols out every day, now and then a Nip is killed. No prisoners. Our company strength is down to 83. Lt. Wall is gone, with fever. Sergeant Reynolds, attached to us from M Company, was evacuated and later died from some sort of malignant fever. We have something new, Atabrine to replace Quinine.

The war goes on. Jap bombers over us nearly every night and unload somewhere down the coastline. We received several boxes of bananas, coconuts and pau-pau from our PIB friend, Mr. McWatters. A thoughtful, nice treat.

Early March and we still are running daily patrols - little action. Lt. Colonel Cheadle, Executive Officer of the 162nd Regiment, dropped in. Some of his outfit are to relieve us soon. We have a new military ration called the J (J for jungle). Much better and more diversified than the K and C rations. A couple of officers from regimental headquarters dropped in to 'bring us up to speed about our pay records.' They were reviewed at regimental headquarters. Yippee!

Our regimental strength is down to about 900. To date 109 killed in action with four missing in action. Over 400 have been shipped back to Australia. Our 1st Battalion is down to about 160men; the 2nd and 3rd Battalions to less than 400 each.

We have been notified that we are to be relieved from this duty station by G Company of the 162nd Regiment. Our Lt. Peterson has been promoted to captain. On 9 March we are relieved - piecemeal. Reason - there is a scarcity of boats. Since our stay here we have killed 12 Japs. Our total, excluding the fighting in the Sanananda area is 107. Mr. Weller, aforementioned Chicago Daily News correspondent, wrote a good story about the actions of L Company. We picked up another body problem - severe rash. The only Rx was "paint it with iodine or benzoine." The next morning 51 of our men departed; the rest tomorrow. Our destination is Cape Killerton and thence to near the Dobadura airstrip.

Our last group of men departed on boats to Cape Killerton and, under the blazing sun, walked one and a half miles with full gear to Horando. Then onto some Jap trucks and through the Sanananda area where we fought for so many days. As fast as the plants grow in the tropics we scarcely recognized the place. Only the remains of the Jap sniper hanging well above the ground by a rope tied to his leg was evidence of where we initially got into this war.

 

CREDIT:  Above is excerpted pages from 35-page "World War II Experiences" by Arthur W. Merrick, with permission of the author.  (Merrick was later Commanding Officer of B 163 at Toem, Biak, and Zamboanga - and three times wounded in action.)