E Company 163 Infantry: Lucky Platoon at Sanananda         

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield and S/Sergeant (Later Major Don Hulin)

            On 7 January 1943, E Company,163 Infantry first hit our holes in Musket Perimeter while Japs in trees overhead dueled with Yank counter-snipers. From Staff Sergeant Hulin's 3rd Platoon. Sergeant Max Larson's 3rd Squad reinforced an outpost of 1st Battalion's Anti-Tank Platoon. Hulin's Platoon had already lost Corporal Robert C. Persful on our second day at Port Moresby. Persful was accidentally injured when a big Lancaster bomber blew up on taking off. He was evacuated before E Company ever flew over the Owen Stanley Mountains to Sanananda Battle.

            On our first night, Hulin was downright spooked, but his 3rd Platoon did not throw any grenades nor have any fire-fights. Next day, 8 January, when "E" supported B Company's bloody attack on Perimeter Q and E's Guy L. McDermeit died, 3rd Platoon' s holes were in a quieter sector of Musket. After the attack, Hulin heard that there was a casualty in the outpost where his squad had reinforced the Anti-Tank men. Anxiously, he crawled over to the command foxhole and looked upon the first American dead he had ever seen. A sniper bullet had entered above the cheek on one side, and slanted down to exit below the cheekbone on the other side. Hulin could not help his thankfulness that the dead man was not a comrade from his own Platoon. For he had commanded 3 Platoon before shipping out from Fort Lewis to Australia and knew many of his men like his own family.

            Next morning when 2nd Battalion moved out from Musket Perimeter over Suicide Trail to cut the Japs' supply line on Killerton Track, "E" was last in line. And Hulin's 3rd Platoon was last in E Company's soggy march. Past maggoty Jap dead, we slushed through mud often waist-deep. On this march, E Company endured some rifle-fire - although the Killerton Track Japs seemed not to know that 2nd Battalion was making a push.

            Just as we came out of the swamp into the narrow kunai flat beside the trail, there was a spot where the Nips had a fairly clear view of us. Here a bullet hit Staff Sergeant Stennes, Weapon Platoon's leader in the upper right arm. But by nightfall, 2nd Battalion bestrode the track, dug into mud and water - unless, like F Company, they had the slightly higher ground of "Rankin Heights" to the north.

            Hulin's 3rd Platoon couldn't dig in, but had to bed down in water. We frantically pulled in brush or plants from all directions to try to keep head and shoulders and feet out of the water and have our rifles clear to fire. But you couldn't disturb the brush too much, or you'd get a burst from a Jap machine gun. The Nippo gun hosed down our area periodically, just for luck.

            Here on 12 January, Browning Automatic Rifle gunner Herb Smith took a stray bullet in his right thigh. The same bullet splintered upper hand-grip of Baughman's M-l.

            Then on 14 January, B Company's Sergeant Bilbao's patrol caught a sick Jap unable to keep up with his retreating group. He reported that the formidable Perimeters P were being evacuated - the perimeters which 2nd Battalion had cut off on our move of 9 January.

            At first, orders were for Hulin's 3rd Platoon to secure E Company's drive to the south. It was a fearsome assignment. Despite the threat of that Jap machine gun that had fired above us in the water, 3rd Platoon had to move out from our watery bivouac some 50 yards. Then we must wait for the rest of E Company to pass through, and bring up the rear. But that Jap machine gun must have pulled out in the night, for we did not draw even a shot from it.

            Following the move of E Company, we found many Japs dead; the 81 mm mortar battery in Huggins Perimeter with Aussie Hanson Troop's 25-pounder cannon had been effective. But leading E Company men must have run into Japs lying on the ground pretending to be corpses. Staff Sergeant Don Wood of 2nd Platoon certainly saw one Jap on the ground with no flies on him, and had to shoot him. Orders came: if there are no flies on it, shoot it.

            While Wood's 2nd Platoon edged to the left, Hulin's 3rd Platoon veered to the right. About this time, a burst wounded BAR-man Voce in the shoulder. It also tore the side of Voce's helmet and nicked his ear. Some time during the morning, Gove was wounded in right hand and shoulder.

            We never certainly knew where the fire came from that wounded Voce, but a little later, we saw three Nips run with a light machine gun from left to right and towards us. They dived into an empty Jap hole.

            After we pinned them down with our fire, Hulin called to 2nd Squad's Sergeant Max Larson, "Give them a burst, and I'll go after them." But when he charged the hold with his tommie, he found only a dying Nip. The other two had crawled safely away. Hulin still has the dying Nip's cigarette case, billfold and picture. The billfold held a U.S. dollar, half-dollar and quarter. Hulin wonders whether the Nippo was a coin collector. After helping to clear the Japs from Perimeters P, E Company with 2nd Battalion scouted back north up Killerton Trail, which our scouts had already found to be clear of Japs. The Aussie 18 Brigade passed us going north of us, to cut into Sanananda Road closer to the sea.

            E Company also patrolled east towards Sanananda Road. In those thickets where F Company's Emil F. Prinz, Sergeant Rausch, and 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Ogden were killed, men of Hulin's 3rd Platoon helped punish the Japs who had slain them.

            Major Rankin of 2nd Battalion sent E Company's Captain Buckland out with an overnight patrol to find where Ogden, Prinz, and Rausch had died. Next morning, they spotted Japs making a sudden transfer of their light machine gun from one dugout to another dugout. Buckland told 3rd Platoon's Stiener and Sergeant Lund to kill them. The three Japs were gunned down from the rear.

            Near Sanananda Road, E Company halted in the Hospital Lot which G Company had cleared on 16 January. We saw huts of various sizes built by natives evidently, and connected by catwalks over low ground or swamp. In the huts were beds made of poles with bodies in various stages of decomposition. Probably no corpses had been buried or cremated for several days. There were a few glass vials of medicines. One hut may have been used for remains to ship back home. Jap belts of 1,000 stitches hung there, and lengths of cloth with ashes and personal items knotted into them.

       Here Major Rankin of 2nd Battalion set up Command Post in an old Ford sedan. After two days in this stinking area, Hulin heard Rankin phone to Colonel Doe. Rankin wanted 2nd Battalion to move south or north - no matter in which direction out of there. We moved south on Sanananda Road, and into battle again.

            On one patrol, 3rd Platoon almost surprised Japs whom we heard chopping wood. But before we could see those Japs, we came upon two Japs lying on the ground. They pointed to their heads for us to kill them. Some unnamed man of 3rd Platoon stupidly did kill both of them - for which act Hulin chewed him out. The chopping in front of us died out, and we never had a chance to deal with those Japs.

            On 19 January, E Company followed "F" down a trail towards Jap Perimeter U, south of the great eastern bend of Sanananda Road before it squirms north again to the Bismarck Sea. When F Company attacked, "E" was strung out along the trail. While taking it easy, we heard a heavy fire-fight ahead.

            Then E' s Exec, Lieutenant Rottman, came back to Hulin's 3rd Platoon with orders. "Get your guys together and move up behind F Company."

            Following standard procedure, Hulin slipped up the trail with an advance party: Sergeant Lund, the platoon guide, and all three squad leaders: Sergeants Claus Jensen, Max Larson and Bob Harding. For security, he also took a BAR team from Larson's 2nd Squad.

            We contacted F Company's 3rd Platoon, which was last on the trail and in reserve. Their Platoon/Sergeant warned us, "Watch it. It's damn hot in there."

            We did not yet realize how much trouble F Company had gotten into. Wedged between two hip-to-shoulder-deep streams in a swamp, D's forward platoon was under grazing fire from two Jap machine guns, with rifle fire and grenade blasting.

            F Company was retreating. Their walking wounded were coming out, and then F's able-bodied rear-guard. We hiked forward in a terrain rather open to our right front, with a stream several yards to our left.

            After advancing only a few yards past these "F" men, we sighted a column running towards us, in single file. At first, we thought that they were F's rear-guard. When they were only a short way off, we realized that they were Japs - evidently in a counter-attack.

            From here on in, things happened fast. We opened up and hit the ground while 3rd Squad came up on line with Sergeant Harding, and part of 2nd Squad joined Sergeant Larson. All of us were firing.

            Now the Japs were crawling up and returning fire. There were 10-15 Japs - perhaps more who joined them and built up their fire-fight. Hulin could identify no officers among them - nor saw any Jap with an officer's saber. But there were Japs in the rear with great lung power, and one Jap in particular who seemed to direct their whole fight.

            Hulin with 3rd Squad' s Stack and Charles Thompson were down in the same Jap foxhole and firing - Hulin with his tommie gun. To Hulin's right, 2nd Squad's Crawford would rise on his elbow and fire off a clip from his M-l - then lie down and insert another clip, then rise up and blast off again.

            Stack caught a Jap bullet in the front of his helmet. It furrowed his scalp, drove on through his helmet and out the other end. It knocked his helmet into the water. Hulin put the compress from Stack's first-aid kit on the wound and then replaced the wet helmet on his head to keep the compress in place.

            Besides Stack, Stevens and Strong took bullet wounds both in their right shoulders. Worst wound of all was Sergeant Lund's; a bullet blinded him forever in the right eye. Our 3rd Platoon was lucky to get by with no killed and just four wounded.

            Suddenly our fight ended - no more firing - just like that. When Captain Buckland called Hulin back to report, he stood upright, and fell flat on his face. His legs had gone dead from lying in the hole, and probably from tension also. Believing that the Japs were trying to run to our left to bypass us, Buckland moved Sergeant Wood's 2nd Platoon to tie in on 3rd Platoon's left, and added E' s light machine gun section to 3rd Pin for greater security.

            But the night was quiet. Just before dark, several Japs, one at a time, broke out and ran across the open to our right front. We fired, but missed all of them.

            When I Company came down the trail behind us next morning without opposition, we were sure that the Japs who had fought us last night were in fact withdrawing from Perimeter U.        After F Company's withdrawal from yesterday's bloody fight, E Company sweated it out waiting for orders. What company would be next to lose men in cracking the Nippo positions which had repelled F Company?

            We were relieved to hear that I Company was selected for the final attacks on Perimeter U. Hulin did not then know that I Company had already fought Perimeter U unsuccessfully beginning on 18 January, although from another direction. Probable reason, however, why Colonel Doe replaced E Company with I Company was that I Company with our 3rd Battalion did not get into action at Sanananda until 14 January. For their transport from Australia had been delayed from arriving at Port Moresby with the other ships of 163 's convoy. The Dutch ship Swarthundt ("Black Dog") had engine trouble out at sea and had to put into Townsend for repairs. And so, on 18-21 January, I co fought Perimeter U, with some 10 dead and 18 wounded.

            So it happened that during the three days of I Company's hard assault, E Company's main tactic was support fire against Perimeter U. Our 3rd Platoon had no more casualties. (Saturnino Arevalo of another platoon did die of gangrene from a leg wound.) In fact, lucky 3rd Platoon lost none of the four dead which E Company suffered through Sanananda Battle: Arevalo, Pvt John J. Potts, Guy L. McDermeit, Corporal Charles D. Ashcraft. Our 3rd Platoon's wounded were about half of E Company's wounded in the whole operation. Like E Company themselves, Hulin's 3rd Platoon had fought effectively and had been lucky.

 

 

CREDIT: Major credit for this detailed history goes to Don Hulin's three letters - 28 Mar. 1980, 1 Dec. 1981 and 17 Feb. 1982-nine pages of single- spaced typescript. Don Wood wrote on 25 Mar 1982 with an important quotation from Don Stennes about the loss of Corporall Persful. Other personal narratives which I used are Don Wood's "Seventeen Days at Sanananda" (Jungleer, Aug. 1967), reprinted in The Fighting Jungleers), and George Weller's sixth and seventh of a series of news reports on Sanananda (Chicago Daily News, 1943). Background comes from original handwritten "War Diary/163rd Combat Team, 14 Dec 1942 to 31 Jan 1943," "New Guinea Chapter/ the Battle of Sanananda," 1631nf's Sanananda Casualty List, and Dr. Samuel Milner's Victory in Papua. After his commission, Hulin commanded the Flame Thrower Unit of 3rd Battalion 126 Infantry (32 Div) in the Philippines, fought also in Korea, and finally retired as a Major.