B Company, 163rd Infantry -  Sanananda: The Victory Phase

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian with Col. Robert M. Hamilton and Sgt. James J. Eder

            On 16 January 1943, B Company,163 Infantry began the "victory" phase of Sanananda - as opposed to our earlier, "heroic" phase, of 3-12 January. In our "heroic" phase, B Company had almost single-handedly bucked the Japs' "R" Perimeter north of [our] Musket [perimeter]. We had lost heavily - 17 dead, 23 wounded. Weapons and field artillery support had been ineffective. But in our final, "victory" phase, B would coordinate action with other 163 outfits and heavy support fire for ultimate victory.

            During this final phase of B's action, we became part of Colonel Lindstrom's 1st Battalion fight against triple Jap Perimeters S, T, and U. Astride the great road bend east of Musket Perimeter, S-T-U made the hard core of Jap resistance at Sanananda. According to three prisoners questioned three days after our initial fight, S-T-U was heavily defended. Garrison was 400 strong, with 10 heavy machine guns, 10 light machine guns, a 75 AT cannon - with a regimental headquarter of an unspecified regiment.

            Yet despite the strength of their perimeters, the Jap garrison was starving. Standard daily ration of rice had been 28 ounces per man; it was down to two by 7 January - and to nothing four days before we fought S-T-U. Mortar shells and rifle ammo were strictly rationed.

            Unlike B and C's earlier assaults on Q-R, the attack of 16 January was no poorly covered attack of a single company. After 15 minutes Aussie field artillery, Yank 81' s and 60's with machine gun drumfires, A and C moved out.

            B was in reserve at first. But four machine guns searched the kunai flat around prone A Company, as 20 A men collapsed from heat. Lindstrom ordered a B platoon in to help A. Because of the hurried briefing, Hamilton almost lost his relief platoon.

            But probably A's Lieutenant McKinney himself credited B for drawing fire from A and causing Nip shooting to slacken somewhat. A's support platoon reinforced B. While both platoons fired cover, A slowly retreated about 1200 to reform leftwards behind the original line of departure.

            Compared to A's total of 9 dead, 17 wounded, this one B platoon had 5 dead. Besides Pvt Russel S. Hapke, Pvt Leroy G. Blumenthal and Sergeant Henry Johnson, we lost 'Sioux' Willie Morin dead on the Popondetta evacuation plane. (Edeline said that Morin had killed 25 Japs.) Corporal Harvey C.Lingle was listed as wounded, but later as dead.

            Despite A's severe repulse, Colonel Lindstrom maneuvered successfully on 16 January When C on A's left met little opposition, he ordered C and B's two unfought pIatoons and drove around the Jap right flank. Here he set up Perimeter A-D, reinforced with A and B men as they returned from frontline combat that day.

            Perimeter A-D was strategically located north of Sanananda Road in the 45-degree angle of that road-and some 400 yards from either arm of that angle. We could smash any large group that fled towards the Bismarck Sea. Augmented by Major Rankin's 2nd Battalion from Killerton Trail, we could infight against Perimeters S-T-U. The Battle of Sanananda was almost finished.

            But for B 163, four more days of combat hell remained. On the morn of 17 January we waited for ammo and hot meals-such as they were. C rations and bully beef were hard to take! And after a three-man patrol found the Japs in the same position as yesterday, we made a recon in force on that azimuth which the patrol gave us. Thus began our fight on S-T-U.

            Commanding Officer Hamilton thought the recon in force unsuccessful, but no B man was even wounded. That night, our remnant of B quietly dug in 100 yards from the Jap pillboxes. Our strength was low; Hamilton cut the three rifle platoons to two. Sergeant Eder's Weapons platoon was down to two light machine gun squads and a 60 mm mortar squad.

            On 18 January we left our lone mortar squad and a kitchen detail in last night's perimeter and moved out to fight. Carefully, Lieutenant MacKenzie scouted the brush. About 100 yards north, we saw 5-6 Jap bunkers on the far bank of a stream five yards wide, and water about chest deep.

Here 2nd Platoon pushed first. As it began to cross, Japs opened fire.

            Everyone was down and crawling. Our right squad fired faster and worked up to eight yards from the Japs. The left squad pushed ahead also. Now the platoon sergeant and two men crossed the stream and went to work with grenades and tommies.

            They silenced the bunker before them. Nearby Japs fled back through a communications trench, into a second line of bunkers, Now all of 2nd Platoon's right squad and the other men of the left squad crossed, and 2nd Platoon's two squads crawled ahead in a skirmish line. Ahead was a second line of Jap bunkers-15 yards behind the first, and 30 yards apart.

            After 2nd Platoon cleared the way, 1st Platoon closed up behind the center of the line, about 15 yards back. All this movement drew ground fire from rifles and machine guns, and tree fire from snipers.

            Now the supporting 1st Platoon had orders to push to the left of the 2nd Platoon. It covered the advance with four 3-man patrols to the right, and three patrols on the left.

            But the leftward patrols reported back with bad news. After working west 75-175 yards, they could find no flank to the Jap lines. They were continuous; two lines of Jap bunkers stretched as far as they could see. Hamilton thought it high time to dig in for the night.

            And B made perimeter here in that first line of Jap pillboxes. This perimeter was shaped somewhat like a baseball diamond-but with an elongated angle pushed out close to the unbroken Jap second line. The two short angles anchored on two vacated Jap bunkers. The shallow fourth angle was back on the safer side of the creek, for closer contact with our kitchen and 60 mm mortar crew to the rear. We posted Eder's two light machine guns at opposite angles to enfilade our front-or, if needed, to pivot to defend the rear point of the diamond. In this diamond perimeter, B had no Jap trouble that night.

            On that day of frontal attack of 18 January, B had two wounded-Land and Plotts. For some days, we thought Gorichs was dead, but later Ramsey found him alive and well at the Medics.

            On 19 January Captain Van Duyn's C Company came up on B's left at daybreak. Van Duyn and Hamilton then linked up all four rifle platoons and the 60mm mortars in a telephone party line to their dual command post. Now platoon leaders could report on breaks in Jap fire and coordinate advances. With one commanding officer left at the phone, the other could be at the front with his men.

            C breached the Jap line first. Despite heavy fire, Staff Sergeant Mohl with Corporal Rummel crossed the creek, killed six bunkers and blasted a hole for all C to reinforce them. Partially relieved of Jap fire, B also attacked.

            Soon the three squads of Hamilton's lead platoon were committed. Each squad lay deployed in a semicircle against a pillbox ten yards away. While their squad fired into the slot, two selected men worked forward and arced in grenades. Thus B cleared two bunkers in the Jap second line.

            Just as our attack seemed about to pierce the perimeter, the Japs left their broken first and second lines. They formed a new line some 30 yards back and held us as dusk began to fall. B had lost Burnham, Abbott wounded.

            On 20 January, B stayed put because Colonel Doe needed all field artillery and mortars to help Captain Dupre's I Company attack U Perimeter from the south. (U was south of Sanananda Road.) And two B patrols found that on the left more Jap bunkers were evacuated from the line that we broke the day before. The Japs still held a third line, however.

            And on 21 January came B Company's last great fight at Sanananda. When A Company. plus K Company on our left followed a heavy barrage into T Perimeter and gutted it, B plus C also struck. B had orders to attack across a Jap graveyard and take Perimeter U across Sanananda Road. When our field artillery and mortars fell on B instead of the Japs, some of us were buried by earth. Yet we dug out our B men with no casualties.

            After the barrage, Lieutenant Radow suggested that Sergeant Eder lead the advance. Badly scared but simply saying "Follow me," Eder stepped out ahead of B's few remaining men. At the road, he saw three Japs watching him. He shot down one with his carbine; the other two merely looked at the dead comrade. Eder shot the second; the third dropped behind a parapet and escaped.   

            Over his shoulder, Eder saw his men halfway across the graveyard.  Then an M-I started the fire fight. Too close to the Japs and alone, Eder took a grenade blast that knocked him down and wounded him in his neck and elbow. But he was down on the ground when Jap machine guns fired over him and drove B back into the jungle.

            Somehow back in safety with B Company, Eder heard that his close friend Frank Compa lay wounded in the cemetery. At first well covered by our fire, Eder crawled in safety and called for Compa. Then Jap machine guns shot close. Eder said he must have gone mad in fear; he leaped upright and fled back to B Company unhurt. Later, he found that Frank Compa had died at once from machine gun bursts.

            With S and T liquidated, Jap Perimeter U was still untaken across Sanananda Road. It was still too strong to be stormed by B, now down to 30 men at the front.

            Now C Company's Lieutenant Shelley crawled over to Eder's command and said that C had orders to withdraw from our flank. But 1st Battalion's headquarters told B Company to stay there-feverish, tired, and hungry. When another barrage fell on the Jap perimeter before us, we prevented any escapes. We saw other units mopping up along the road. And so on 21 January 1st Battalion had overrun Perimeters S-T; B claimed 171 dead Japs out of 531 killed on 21 January. And B had lost Frank Compa.

            Our phone had gone dead, but B grimly sat in our defensive position from 21 January through 25 January. After three days without food, there came B's Mess Sergeant Archiquette sloughing through the mud to Eder's command. He carried two pails of rice and hardtack-the first hot food we'd seen for six days-and cigarettes. "It's all over," said Indian Archiquette. "Just eat and relax." Most of us sighed and quietly fell asleep.

            Probable total of casualties for B was 25 dead, 28 wounded. Then we had the sick-so many that Hamilton soon gave up listing - like, Poynter, Nelson, Miller, Lara, Magdois.

            Lieutenant Robert Hamilton's log of his illness epitomizes what many B Company men suffered. In the midst of combat, malaria and dysentery hit him - on 16 January when we began fighting Perimeter S-T-U. On 19 January the fever seemed over, but it was back again next day, 20 January, into those last days of battle. For six nights in a row, but still commanding B Company, he went without sleep, endured dysentery. He forgot when he was without chills and fevers and headaches. Finally evacuated to Australia, he was hardly convalescent 23 days after the start of the fever 16 January.

            Then came the day of B's victory parade - as much as a 41st man ever got. As senior non-commissioned officer, Eder got orders to form B and hike to Soputa. In route step, B marched out-just 18 of us - with cooks, clerks, KP's. Passing Huggins Graveyard, most of us feared to look aside.

            Then a jeep pulled to the side of the road. It sported a two-star flag. James Eder ordered B to attention as we paraded past General Fuller. Fuller returned Eder's salute. Eder heard a staff member say: General, there goes what remains of one company-the raggedest, stinkingest, and fightingest outfit in the 163 - B Company."

 

Credit:  Indispensable was Sgt. James J. Eder's 7-page, single-spaced typescript, "B" Company and I," with his letter of 13 Feb. 1973. Also indispensable was Captain (Now Colonel) Robert W. Hamilton's rain-blurred diary with casualties' names and dates. Basic narrative is also probably by Hamilton - "An Unsupported Attack " from "41 Division Training Notes, No.2, Part IV." I also used Dr. Samuel Milner's Victory in Papua, George Weller's 1943 Chicago Tribune articles, 163 Infantry's The Battle of Sanananda, and extracts from 163's History.