F Company 163 Infantry: Two Days of Infighting at Sanananda

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

 

            On 18 January 1943, battered F Company 163 Infantry got orders to find and fight Japs in the last great strongholds of Sanananda. These strongholds were Perimeters S-T-U-V astride that prominent east-west curve of Sanananda Road north of Fisk Perimeter. F Company had battled since 9 January, when we aided G Company to block the Japs' northern escape route on Killerton Trail. As "Rankin's Racers," or "Rankin's Raiders," F Company had then cut back east across the jungle in short, fast raids in the area near the Jap Hospital Lot. In killing some 100 Japs, our ranks had thinned from fevers, wounds and death. We were lean and hardened to fight one of the most heavily defended perimeters of Sanananda battlefield. We did not know locations of Jap positions, but we had to find and fight them.

           Although we heard that nearest Japs were full 400 yards southward, we dropped packs and deployed to fight now. Our scouts had seen Japs much farther north than 400 yards the day before.

At 0900, 2nd Platoon and 3rd Platoon pushed down the sides of Sanananda Road where water in holes or streams was two-six feet deep. We moved in squad columns: two squads forward, one squad back. Two scouts hunted ahead of each lead squad - just 10 yards ahead, the limit of vision in this jungle-swamp. Our supporting 1st Platoon and Weapons Platoon followed in double columns down the road. We carried full loads of ammo and two grenades per man; rations were delayed two hours behind us.

          Sanananda Road was a one-way strip of corduroy for jeeps through a 30-foot wide jungle clearing. Off the road where 2nd Platoon and 3rd Platoon waded, water in ditches, holes and small streams was two-six feet deep. We splashed in mud knee-deep to hip-deep, with our maximum 10-yard vision. After scouting 200 yards south, we met light Jap rifle fire, and about this time contacted Captain Reams' K Company on a mission like ours. To give K room to fight, we shifted our roadside platoons leftwards on the east side of the road. We were still receiving light rifle fire ahead.

          We sent 1st Platoon from Sanananda Road to envelop those Jap riflemen on our left. In column of files, 1st Platoon hiked 150 yards to find huts beside a stream six-eight feet deep - a stream which was not shown on the map. Then 1st Platoon deployed and moved obliquely towards the other two platoons deployed as skirmishers in front of the roadside. Some 20 Japs broke and ran like rabbits ahead of 1st Platoon; the other platoon slew all 20.

          F Company reorganized and moved 50 yards farther in the same formation before the shooting began. We then started up more Japs in the same maneuver and hunted them toward their road, killing 25 with Tommy guns and rifles.

          Having slogged 250 yards with no casualties, we now advanced on a 150-yard front. The jungle opened up before us, with visibility of some 35 yards. Our two lead platoons moved with two squads forward, and one squad back. Two scouts preceded each squad, with a distance of 15-20 yards ahead. In the next 75 yards, we flushed out and killed nine Japs. Our total bag of dead Japs was now 54.

          And then late that afternoon of 18 January 1943, F Company began its greatest day of battle at Sanananda - against Perimeter V, deeply hidden in kunai grass and jungle swamp.

          Despite careful patrolling, the squad of BAR-man Fallstick almost lost its scouts in the first shootout. With rifles ready, tense F Company had now moved south into an area where field artillery or bombs had slashed the trees to fragments. About 40 yards down the trail to our right, Fallstick was alerted by an Aussie helmet on the cross of a dead man. Cross and helmet led his eyes to a movement in the brush. He saw Japs all over the place, 30 yards away. We were walking blindly into their perimeter.

          Fallstick motioned to Compton, his ammo bearer; Sergeant Hundahl caught the signal also. But what saved Brown and Mohn, the scouts, Fallstick never knew. The Japs had still not seen us. The whole platoon fanned out to our closest protection - a ditch with three feet of water, jammed with shell-torn trees. From their suddenly-discovered perimeter, the Japs opened fire.

          When the dripping platoon crawled far enough ahead to get out of the ditch, we were in a position above a line of holes and bunkers. We looked down their throats 40 yards away, but they couldn't see us in the brush. Best of all, our backs were turned on the shelled-over ground, and they could not infiltrate and fire from concealment behind us.

          Chyboski, Etchingham, Compton, and BAR-man Fallstick teamed up for fighting that Jap line. Down a trail crossing before us to the left, Japs were hurrying into their positions. While the other three men took turns loading and firing at Japs dodging down the trail, Fallstick's BAR kept the men down in bunkers and holes directly ahead. Clip after clip he launched into any movement, of the eight or nine in his belt. These Yanks did not fire on men in white coats because they resembled officers. (They probably were officers.)

When we thought that we had silenced our sector, Sergeant Hundahl withdrew us to reinforce the other F men. To escape from our firing position, we four men had to circle back through a swamp of tall, thin brush. Jap bullets behind us sounded like rivet hammer on our helmets, but they were too high to hurt us.

Despite the good fight of this platoon, F now halted dead in our tracks under heavy Jap fire. A light machine gun and an heavy machine gun traversed the kunai, or searched it top to bottom in 50-round bursts. Riflemen also lanced at any movement. A 40mm mortar exploded some 20 shells near us, but these were apparently fired without observation. Any splash in this water surely drew Jap fire - even on runners from F's headquarters. Perhaps Corporal Harold E. Pulliam died here, and Horrocks was wounded in the neck.

          F Company's front was a bottleneck 200 yards wide, between Sanananda Road swept by machine gun fire on our right and a deep stream on our left. Ahead of us were Jap bunkers behind that ditch jammed with shell-torn trees and three feet of water.

          It was now 1630, close to dark in New Guinea's January. Rations meant for us at 1100 had now caught up. We made a drenched perimeter 150 yards wide, with its right on the road. Water was nowhere less than six-eight inches deep. We ate miserably behind logs and brush. All tobacco was wet, but vengeful snipers would have prevented smoking anyway. All night, half of us tried to sleep while the other half took turns on guard. We expected a Jap attack any time.

          In this chilly, soaked dark, F men did not understand the position we had to fight tomorrow. This was Jap Perimeter V, which on today's available maps is probably the eastern part of Perimeter U. The Jap line ahead protected a roughly square area containing a truck park and more Jap positions. The day before, F had faced west against the eastern side of that square, across a 200-yard length of water-filled ditch. On our right, the Jap fire lane of Sanananda Road sealed off our advance. To outflank that eastern side of the square, we had to cross another ditch, then fight a double line of bunkers 200 yards long which rested their right flank on a creek six-eight feet deep. The ditch and the creek would channel our frontal attack down a 200-yard lane under fire from riflemen, two light machine guns and one heavy machine gun. Lacking the heavy field artillery with unlimited shells, F Company would find this position impregnable. But on 19 January we fought valiantly.

          With daylight on 19 January, sodden F faced a battlefield of heavy casualties. Lieutenant Raber patrolled 150 yards left front to locate the Jap lines. At the deep creek, we turned westward. Just 20 yards ahead, we discovered a group of Japs preparing breakfast.

          Raber deployed us as skirmishers and placed one of his two BAR's into the best position to sweep the group. This BARman Heisler was to trigger the attack when he fired. But unavoidable sand and water had fouled his action. Slipping the bolt forward and recocking alerted the Japs. We fired too late, hit only a few. They scattered back to their first line of bunkers and returned fire. Our platoon was forced down to earth. Raber was the only casualty; a bullet bored his helmet and stunned him.

          A walking casualty, Raber told Sergeant Slyter to ask Captain Ellers for heavy fire support. Weapons Platoon's Sergeant Jacobsen gave Ellers protection while he set up an or to range in 163's 81's in battery at Musket Perimeter. About 1330, Battalion Commanding Officer Rankin and Aussie field artillery observer Peter Hirschel joined Ellers at the new observation post - only 30 yards from Jap lines.             We could see two ranks of bunkers blocking our way. About 1400, Aussie 25-pounders and our 81's barraged. In 90 minutes, the Aussies fired 156 shells. Our 81's registered with 12 heavy shells on the double line of bunkers, but 10 of them were duds in the soft ground. Shifting to light shells, they impacted 200 rounds on the bunkers. Ellers meanwhile sent small patrols to clear out individual Japs slipping past us towards the road.

          At first, this accurate support fire made F's war seem easier. This fire split the double line of softwood bunkers and slew most of the Japs inside. Firing where necessary, we passed both lines of shattered bunkers and counted 50 Jap dead. The battle was going well for F Company.

          But after 150 yards, the Japs halted us again. Our advance was wedged between the deep stream on our left and the deep ditch on our right, with Jap bunkers above that ditch. An light machine gun fired frontally at us, on the firm ground between the two watercourses. Shooting down the ditch that we had crossed on our right, a heavy machine gun enfiladed our front. Starting now, we probably had most of our casualties - all seven of our killed and 12 of our 13 wounded. (Lieutenant Raber was wounded early, as told elsewhere.)

          Against the heavy machine gun on our right, we made a daring charge, led by a sergeant name unknown. Maybe he underestimated Jap resistance, or the fervor of combat carried him and his men away. Against that heavy machine gun, he led a six-man charge across that ditch. He made it himself just over the top of the ditch; four other men died with him.

          We can only conjecture the name of this sergeant and the four dead with him - from a total list of two sergeants and five other men killed in F on 19 January. No one has said how Sergeant Aaron K. Dickey died, but Sgt. Harry L. Billsborough was killed within a yard of a Jap bunker; so Billsborough must have been the sergeant leading the charge. Pfc Bruce N. Beighey was killed also on the lip of a Jap dugout. Corporal Ernest C. Reynolds also led a charge against an machine gun before his mortal wound; perhaps he was part of the same attack. Pvt. Fritz Molitor was seen wounded among Jap bunkers; then he disappeared. BAR-man Pfc. John J. Kramarick was shot from behind by a Jap who feigned death in a hole. When Kramarick was found, he still clutched an unexploded grenade in his right hand. (He was probably the same corpse whom relieving Sergeant Don Wood of E Company saw still erect before a pillbox with a grenade still menacing it even in death.) Surely some of these men were in that charge: Billsborough, Beighey, Reynolds, Molitor and Kramarick.

Attacking on our right, BAR-man Fallstick positioned in a ditch leading into Jap lines and shop up a column of 10-15 Japs with half a BAR clip. Dodging answering bullets, he rounded a bend in the ditch and shot into movement in a bunker. While alternating bursts between this and another bunker, he was wounded by a bullet through lung and right arm. He was drowning face-down in shallow water, but Corporal Ward endured the agony of hernia to save Fallstick for the Medics.

          F lost one more killed and 12 more wounded, totaling seven dead, 14 wounded that 19 January Pvt. Harry L. Scott was killed. Alfred Brown was wounded in right arm and leg, Arguello in right forearm, Denton in right albow and Brune in right hand. Helmer was hit in the neck, Lawrence in left shoulder, Payne in left leg. Locations of Zimmerle's wounds are unknown. When a Jap rose to hurl a grenade, DeFrisco tried to warn others, himself took wounds in left arm and mouth from it. Shot in right wrist and left arm, Babicz wanted to keep on, but Sergeant Olberg ordered him to the medics.

          For protection on Sanananda Road from a night attack, Lieutenant Libke angled our mortars close to Jap bunkers. To sight accurately, Sergeant Jacobsen and Corporal Walkowicz had to pace off yards in open road. After we zeroed in three shots, five Jap officers in white marched up to draw fire and spot our weapons for suicide attacks. Then 20-30 Japs charged. Walkowicz Tommy-gunned an officer; then our mortars impacted in a great red flash. Later, we counted not 30 but 70 dead Japs nearby. Mortarmen like Mark, Reese, Bob Myers and Draski had done well.

          F's bitter day of battle ended with wondrous news. We were almost out of ammo, chilled and soaked, and Captain Buckland's E Company relieved us. The heroic Japs countered during our relief, but only lightly. E Company's fire repelled them.  But E Company wisely failed to attack that formidable combination of natural and Jap-made defenses. When, two days later, I and K Company's struck from the south and wiped out Jap Perimeter U and adjacent Perimeter V, E Company lay in F's old lines and gave only fire support against the penned Japs.  And worn, decimated F Company was long gone north to relieve Aussie 2nd 9 Battalion at Sanananda Village. Our two-day battle against Perimeter V was ended. Total cost - 14 wounded and eight dead.

 

CREDIT: Dr. Leeon Aller is primarily responsible for this second Sanananda story of F Company. He sent me 41st Division Training Note No.2, which is no longer available from Federal Archives. F Company's Jess Fallstick helped identify F Company. men's names from Chicago Tribune stories by George Weller (Nos. 9, 10 published in 1943). Fallstick's "BARman at Sanananda" (Jungleer, XII, 2) was important, and E Company's Don Wood's "Seventeen Days at Sanananda" (Jungleer XVIII, 2). (I made the error of placing the Jacobsen-Walkowicz incident in E Company's history because of inaccurate information deduced from Weller's stories.) Dr. Samuel Milner's "Victory in Papua" and 163 Casualty Reports were indispensable. I consulted also 163's “The Battle of Sanananda" and two documents both called "Extract from History." Dates of casualty report seem inaccurate. Comparative reading of other sources has caused me to move dates of casualties from 19 and 20 January to 18 and 19 January. Probable author of Training Note 2 is F's CD, then Captain Conway Ellers, per letter 5 November 1976.