641 Tank Destroyer Battalion I Blue-water Odyssey to Battle

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Captain Bennett Saunders, 641 TD S-3

(Continued from Training in Australia)

In December 1942, we were finally alerted for New Guinea; but only Recon Company flew the hump, Moresby to Dobadura. The other 641 units hung around until March.

Suddenly we were at Gladstone to embark on the Dutch "Bontekoe." We watched it unload battlefield salvage-blood- stained blankets, dented helmets.

            But we did not sail because these were the days of Admiral Yamamoto's all-out offensive against our shipping. For five days "Bontekoe" holed up in Townsville Harbor while Jap 100-plane raids hit Darwin, Moresby, Milne Bay, Oro Bay. On the sixth morn, G-2 predicted that the sky would be clear for us to slip into New Guinea.

Besides "Bontekoe", convoy included unlucky "Van Heemskirk" with 205 Field Artillery Battalion aboard, a Liberty ship, and an Aussie corvette as guard. Full speed ahead, we left Australia, crossed Torres Strait, and by late afternoon anchored near the head of Milne Bay. Here was the horror of New Guinea - air that was thick with humidity like looking through glass, unbroken seas of jungle.

Just as we anchored, we heard three rounds of ack-ack from probably No.3 Airstrip. We up anchored and ran 10 miles across the bay to Waga-Waga Jetty. We docked; orders came to disembark.

While "Bontekoe" scurried for open sea, we marched northwest up the coast to bivouac. About 0200, a message waked us: Jap task force heading for Milne Bay! And 641 TD was to defend the coast. In cold gray dawn, we desperately dug in.

Then nothing happened for two days while 641 TD waited by our holes. Suddenly "Bontekoe" came out of the ocean to anchor at Waga-Waga again. We filled in holes, policed area, and waited another night in tropical rain.

In morning sunshine, we boarded "Bontekoe" again. Hanging out bedding and clothes to dry, we settled down for a sleepy afternoon.

Three shots rang out from the warning ack-ack. Colonel Fertig ordered all 641 ashore; the real air raid crashed down.

In beautiful formation, high-level bombers marched down the bay, wheeled majestically, then blanketed the airstrip and dock area with bombs. Then came fighters and dive bombers. They worked over all ships-all but "Bontekoe." Five bombs splashed near the Aussie corvette.

Suddenly it ended. Machine guns, bombs and ack-ack blasted wildly. Then came silence. Five ships were flaming and sinking - including 205 Field Artillery's "Van Heemskirk" and the Liberty ship in our convoy. But the corvette was safe.

And "Bontekoe" was safe! Moored at the dock, we had been unnoticed and not even shot at.

Boarding again, we soberly watched salvage crews beach five burning ships. "Van Heemskirk's" 205 Field Artillery shells and aviation gasoline boomed and banged all night long.

Such was 641 TD's "Battle of Waga-Waga." Ran for Oro Bay and arrived after midnight two days later in a wild tropical storm. Lightning showed a small harbor with wreckage of ships protruding from waves everywhere, and a bombed-out jetty. A small launch towed a barge out; we crammed aboard. At dawn, more rain fell as we lightered ashore guns, trucks, and supplies.

As "Bontekoe" departed with the Aussie attack unit we replaced, 641 settled down to a useless defense of Oro Bay. We set up three Aussie 25-pounders back from Tobruk, along with our 37's.

Morale climbed on 14 May. A heavy Jap bombing attack ceased; our newcomer P-38's dived hot on the tails of those planes. The P-38's cleared those bombers from the sky; at one time, 12 Jap planes were splashed down in Oro Bay or fire-balled in the sky.

Suddenly 641 TD moved to Borico, north of Oro Bay, and was delightedly ready for action. We were attached to the First Cavalry Division for the Admiralty Islands Operation. We turned in our obsolescent unfought 37mm cannon. Ordnance dept. rolled in new, self-propelled tank destroyer units. We trained enthusiastically.

But a telegram from War Dept. ordered us to turn back in the noble tank destroyers. Our bright dream of battle for 1st Cavalry Division had faded. Then ships and planes brought in the 4.2 chemical mortars that became 641 TD's prime weapon in combat on Biak and the Toem Foreshore. These were heavy close-support weapons as powerful as cannon. Although we lacked even one training directive, with the help of Colonel Cochran we improvised our own table of organization and training manual. We now had 48 heavy mortars – 12 per company, six per platoon. Each section had a 1/4 ton tractor pulled by jeep.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Within three weeks, we had qualified all officers and a good many NCO's. By April 1944, we were with 41 Division at Finschhafen for the great New Guinea Campaign - for Aitape, Toem-Maffin  Bay, Hollandia, Biak. We fought to hell-and-back all over New Guinea. But here the tragicomic epic of 641 TD's attempt to get into combat comes to an end. The story of our battles is another great story.

 

CREDIT: Main source is Captain Ben Saunders' 23-page typescript prepared in 1974 from his huge collection of documents. Supporting details came from Tech Sergeant Deane Flett's three-page typescript "The 641 Tank Destroyer Battalion".