G Company 163 Infantry: The Kumusi Campaign

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian


            On 1 February 1943, G Company 163 Infantry campaigned again after the alleged termination of the Battle of Sanananda on 22 January 1943. Although fatigued and feverish from Sanananda, G Company had to slog and slosh 22 miles from Gona up jungle beaches to seize the mouth of the Kumusi River. Earlier, Kumusi Mouth was a rallying point for Japs retreating down Kokoda Trail from their Aussie battles - and a base for reinforcing their Sanananda garrisons. Trekking from Gona, G Company must cross at least nine rivers or streams before Kumusi Mouth.

And G Company expected battle. For on 31 January, 163's patrol under Lieutenant Nugent had alerted "G" for trouble. At Sangara Village, inland behind Popondetta, Nugent learned that 200 Japs had raided villages nearby, and that these Japs would surely escape by rafts down the Kumusi and regroup with other Jap commands at Kumusi Mouth and fight again. (One of the major Papuan rivers, the Kumusi flows north from behind Sanananda, then makes a great bend eastward to the sea.)

On 1345 1 February, "G" left Killerton Point - a small army on a fortnight's campaign. We had 88 "G" men, 250 natives carrying six days' rations, 13 AT men of 2nd Battalion Headquarters, radio man Perkins of 1st Battalion and Foster of 2nd Battalion. We had two "G" Medics and Captain Harry Smith's 6-man Medical Detachment.

Because of roadless coastal jungle, Commanding Officer Benson took the easiest way from Killerton Point to Gona 2 - right into Killerton Bay. We marched over a mile knee-deep to waist-deep for super-6-footers like Benson - and neck-deep for shorter men. Tall men held up shorter men's heads above the water. In Corporal Sahs' memory, most of the march was in waist-high, saltwater marshes. Luckily, the bottom was mostly coral, but some riflemen stuck in mud, and other men had to extract them. Because we naturally straggled, Benson twice looked back to see our 359-man convoy strung out over half a mile of water. Coming out on the beach again, G's point under Sergeant Clowes found Jap tracks and discarded sterno and meat cans.

And on 2 February, "G" was back into action. Arriving at Sebari Village after three hours' hiking that day, we met 1st Lieutenant Carsner's rookie platoon of G Company 186 Infantry. Some 600 yards north of Sebari, they had lost a native scout to a Jap machine gun. Benson attached Carsner's 45 men including two extra BAR teams, and prepared for Japs. Ahead of us was the Kombela River, which was so deep and fast that we could not wade through it as we had waded all other streams after we left Gona.

While most "G" men lunched and rested or bathed, Sergeant Clowes led a patrol to locate the Japs precisely. By 1330, Clowes reported that he had sighted no Japs in the 800 yards between "G" and the Kombela River - nor for 400 yards up the south bank.

Arriving at the river, "G" observed a possible Jap village. It seemed to be Jap because the huts were tangled in jungle across the river, unlike the peaceful native villages, which would be in open groves.

If Japs were there, they had a fine position. Where the Kombela bent back parallel to the sea was jungle - 200 yards wide between river and beach. Inland from the jungle all the way to the river was an open sand-flat - a field of fire 60 yards wide. But "G" saw no Japs - only sand or opaque brush down to the Kombela before us.

Benson planned to send three volunteers across on a raft to secure the foreshore. Meanwhile, Corporal Sahs' detail would bring up a small Nippo assault boat abandoned in the lagoon behind us and ferry more "G" men over to reinforce the three volunteers.                         

These three were G's Bill Ramsey, Sergeant Ronald M. Bretzke, and an Aussie-volunteer - Warrant Officer Dixon, liaison man with our natives. Natives built a raft for these men, then waded the raft across the Kombela while other "G" men covered the foreshores with their rifles. After the landing, the natives returned with the raft. Still, there was no Jap fire.

Suddenly, G's patrol found five Japs repairing equipment, back in the brush. Bretzke and Ramsay each shot a Jap, They then raced for the beach, threw themselves prone, and hoped to be saved by G Company's covering fire across the Kombela.

But Jap machine gun fire forced the three men into the sand. Bretzke lifted his head to return fire and was killed. Ramsay, Dixon kept heads down and feverishly stripped off shoes and clothing and rolled over sand into the water.

Jap fire struck at G 163 and G 186 across the river, but Benson had a BAR team run back up the beach and enfilade the Jap brush in the river-bend below them. Our two surviving volunteers crawled through rivulets at the Kombela's edge to where Jap machine guns could not touch them without exposure to our BAR team. Then Ramsay swam a hundred yards out to sea and came back to "G" still alive.

From across the river, Jap fire caught Sahs' detail loading the assault boat. When the shooting began, everybody made it safely into the jungle - except Cpl Arthur F. Sahs and Pvt Manuel S. Gonzales - whose actions made them special Jap targets. Gonzales was in the bow of the boat and holding it inshore by the stringer while Sahs was ashore and holding the stern in by the same rope.

While Gonzales leaped from the boat, Sahs fled wildly for cover. A slug hit Sahs in the elbow; his arm went limp, but he was safe in the jungle. But he saw Gonzales crumpled on the beach where a bullet had caught him as he jumped from the boat. The hollow-nosed bullet had struck him in the back to fragment into 3-4 pieces.

Sahs risked Jap fire to pull Gonzales back into the jungle. Prone behind a log, they heard Jap machine gun bullets chop it in two. Small mortar shells impacted close, but Sahs crawled rearward and dragged Gonzales feet first into safety. And 300 yards south of the Kombela front, another mortar shell wounded Kubista.

            From the south bank of the Kombela, where Benson had earlier posted us, a G 163 Platoon returned Jap fire and silenced it. Front-line surgery saved Sahs, Pvt. Wenzel A. Kubista - and even Gonzales, despite the evil fragments in his back.

Next day, 3 February, G 163 made an all-out attack. This time, "G" had more than a 3-man forlorn hope to raft across the river. Reinforcements had come up; Sergeant Rennel zeroed in two M Company 81 mortars with 17 Yanks manning them.

While Sergeant Rennel blasted the Jap jungle, some 20 Yanks of G's 1st Platoon under Sergeant Gammas boated across the estuary and made the beach-head for the rest of "G" to follow. So effective were Rennel's M Company 81s that "G" made five trips before ragged Jap fire began. Jap mortar fire splashed near 2nd Platoon during the crossing.

Rifles ready to kill, Gammas' 1st Platoon dashed across the open sand-strip some 60 yards into jungle. Suddenly we found Jap dugouts under our noses - so concealed that we saw them only three feet away. Yet we encountered no Japs - not even a corpse.

With G's other platoons supporting, Gammas' men now pushed north 400 yards unscathed. In thick brush, they found a Jap village, and had to search each hut separately. Then two Jap machine guns tore into Gammas' advance. Indian Pvt. Raymond A. Ackerman, our bugler, got his death-wound. Pfc Joseph A. Seibert was probably wounded there; he died 6 February, three days later.

Gammas' Platoon crawled back and brought down more mortar fire on the Japs. But Jap bullets still halted Gammas. Next in support, 3rd Platoon with Benson and Headquarters were stopped also. At sundown, Jap fire was as heavy as before. About 50 yards from the Japs, "G" dug a hasty, insecure night perimeter, but the Japs did not counter-attack in the dark.

Besides Seibert and Ackerman who were dying, "G" had four more men with wounds reported as serious. Besides Pfc Robert A. Meline and Corporal Bruce L. Baird with unspecified serious wounds, Corporal Robert A. Anderson was shot in the right arm. A bullet holed Corporal Frank R. Hanson's helmet dead center in the front. But the bullet deflected from his skull bone, then followed that bone up and over his helmet to drop out the back. His hair had a permanent part!

On 4 February, "G" pushed again under a mortar barrage and got nowhere. By now, Colonel Doe with Colonel Dawley, 163's executive, had come forward to consult with Benson back at Sebari Village. Doe ordered in an L Company Platoon for reinforcements.

And by 5 February, "G" had taken a Jap key position. It was a high tree platform 500 yards deep in jungle. From here, they had watched our movements and deployed their troops in the jungle to counter our attacks.

On 5 February, while G 163 advanced frontally, Benson used Carsner's G 186 and L 163 for a flank movement. These two units moved inland to Kumbata and Fuffuda Villages north of the Japs' right rear. From there, they were to hike to the coast, then strike south to trap the Japs fleeing from G 163.

But heavy jungle and poor guidance restrained Carsner until twilight. About darkfall, Carsner's men probed into Jap fire, had one wounded in action, and dug in to wait for daybreak.

On that same 5 February, "G" had advanced 500 yards under a rolling mortar barrage and overhead machine gun fire. Seriously wounded were Pvt Richard C. Ludlow, Pfcs Arnold L. Rients and Paul R. Schultz. Perhaps G 163 actually had pushed the Japs northward to block off Carsner and secure their own escape route. For by the end of the night of 5 February, the Japs' Kombela garrison had evaded the trap made by the two "G" Companies. 

At 1000 6 February, G 163 heard 186 fire 800 yards north. By'1315, we had covered the 800 yards to join Carsner at Bakumbari River Mouth. After five days' action, "G" found just two Jap dead. But against that stoutly held Kombela position, "G" had three dead, 10 seriously wounded.

On 7 February, Carsner's 186 men led out to pursue the Japs. About 1600, they contacted Japs again, this time dug in on the far side of an unnamed river somewhere past Buk Village. This time, Carsner tried to outflank the Japs by an attack from the sea in our new "Navy" - a single Higgins boat. Two Jap machine guns concentrated on the boat charging in. Carsner silenced both machine guns, but the coxswain turned back to sea before 186 hit the beach. (This was surely 186 Infantry's first beach-head action of World War II.)

Next morning, M's 81s blasted the Japs across the river. And by this time also, an Aussie 25-pounder - probably of Hall's Troop - was in action. With this help, G 186's second sea-borne attack was unopposed, and G 163 crossed and killed three Japs. And G 186 led us to the next unnamed river up the coast.

Preparing our crossing, the Aussie cannon began firing, but the Higgins boat was not available. By the time we had salvaged two Jap assault boats, it was dark. On that day, 8 February, we had advanced two miles by 1905. We bivouacked near a Jap hospital ground where we counted 10 unburied Japs who had died less than two days before.

Next morning, 9 February, we crossed this second nameless river safely. We hiked on to an inlet evidently extending so far inland that it seemed to Benson like a river. With no boats at hand, the natives made a dugout. We ferried clothes and equipment over while the men swam alongside to complete the crossing in the night at 2200.

Beginning 10 February, "G" had no further trouble en route to the Kumusi - only some six miles' sweaty trekking through heavy sand. We saw 25 more dead Japs, and our Aussie 25-pounder harassed Kumusi Mouth ahead of us.

And by 1050, 10 February, G 163 with G 186's Platoon were digging into wet sand on the south (or eastern) bank of the Kumusi's nearer of two outlets to the sea. We contacted a little war party of vengeful Aussies: they thanked us for driving 100 more fleeing Japs into their fire. G 163's field ranges came up, and Benson's men welcomed Carsner's 186 command into their chowline.

After the inevitable mop-up patrols - which killed but few Japs - G 163 with G 186 gladly turned over their mission to L 163 men and on 14 February boarded landing-craft back to Killerton.

Even if the Battle of Sanananda had ended a fortnight before G 163's Kumusi Patrol began, these Japs were still in fair condition to put up a fight against Benson's own fatigued men. To judge by their corpses, they were in good condition. Benson thought that they seemed well-fed. They had cooked rice and canned food - mostly Aussie canned food. Benson surmised that these were die-hard Marines of the same outfit that had fought 163 at Huggins Perimeter in January. In losing only three dead and 10 wounded for G 163, Benson had cannily used his riflemen G Company fashion and his supporting elements against a difficult Jap position.

Yet G 163 paid heavily in losses from disease rather than from killed or wounded. Before Sanananda, we had flown from Port Moresby with 170 men, six officers. But we arrived with only 40 men, two officers. We had started out with men already infected with tropical diseases. Men like Lieutenant Braman, G's future Commanding Officer, had hiked in a daze of malaria until evacuation about 5 February. The recuperating G Company 163 had well earned its coming respite - 4-5 months' comparative inaction as security for Popondetta Strip - and that wondrous return to Australia.

 

CREDIT: Bill Ramsey's story at Gearhart Reunion (1971) sparked this article. Captain Arthur (Buck Braman) sent me George Weller's three articles from Chicago Daily News, all dated 8 April 1943: (Although I have Weller's articles on Sanananda itself, I had not known that these Kumusi articles exist.) By courtesy of Colonel Charles Dawley, I received a xerox of Colonel William Benson's handwritten report, "Company G Activity from February 1 1943 through February 14, 1943." Other sources include Braman's undated letter (1972), Benson's "History of G Company 163 Infantry," "163 Journals January 1-31 March 1943," and "Patrol to the Kumusi," my story of G 186 from Lieutenant Carsner's account in Jungleer (September/December 1974).