116 Engineer Battalion: Combat and Labor in Papuan Campaign

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Engineers William Andel and Gene Rohlffs

 

 SALAMAUA OPERATION. A Company 116 Engineers both fought and labored in our Salamaua Operation. On 29 June 1943, two platoons of A 116 boarded landing barges just before dark at Mageri Point to hit the beach at Nassau Bay with Colonel McKechnie's 1st Battalion 162 Infantry. It was a black, stormy voyage some 35 miles along the shore - high waves, rain in black, icy sheets.

Under dripping ponchos, 30 men in each bouncing barge were crammed together. We stood in shallow water, or squatted, cowboy fashion. The 15-foot waves tossed barges high; they slapped down hard. Seasick pains racked some men's stomachs. They fought to the gunwales - to get there on time, if they could make it. Some boats got lost; the faster PTs had to regather them. With a speed below six miles per hour, the black voyage seemed to last forever.

Although the PT Navy knew the coast well, the PT boat leading our first wave got lost and had to backtrack for its convoy. Several times, our Amphibious Engineers thought that they saw a landing signal from the shore, but each time, something did not quite look right. Finally, a white light was blinking from where the beach-side Aussie guides signaled to us.

To 116 Engineers' Rohlffs, the sea outside Nassau Bay now seemed like glass until we turned shoreward. Even in. the black Guinea night, Rohlffs made out the three dim shorelines of Nassau Bay. As the barges neared the shore, the swells grew higher. Then the long swells became breakers 10-15 feet high which knocked the barges right and left.

Meanwhile 116's Driver Gray had started his D-4 bulldozer to warm it for an instant landing. We shuddered to think that the D-4 made our boat a prime target for machine guns.

Finally, we grounded on the beach. The ramp clanked down. First men off Rohlffs' boat were knocked flat and rolled in surf before they clawed in over the sand. But nobody drowned. Next men landing from the boat carried metal network sections for surfacing air-strips - metal networks that we always carried with us. We could walk ashore on these firm sections. They made a surface for the cat run ashore without bogging down in the sand.

When cat-man Gray opened the throttle of this idling D-4, a cloud of sparks geysered up the clouds - as it seemed to Rohlffs. Its clanking tracks and the sparks frightened off a lurking party of Nip soldiers who could have played havoc with our infantry. Little teams of Jap bayonet-men could have slain many of our confused, seasick men in the half-dark of our little jungle flashlights - or donned our helmets and. tricked us to shoot into one another. But the Japs feared that our tanks were attacking, and took to the brush.

Only 45 men and two officers of A 116 Engineers had beached on this dark Guinea Shore, for high seas had turned back the other Engineer Platoon. Most of us spent the last four hours of the night trying to keep warm in our wrung out fatigues under clammy ponchos - and feeling sorry for ourselves.

The wreck of our barges had marooned us on a Japanese coast. Half a mile northeast towards Salamaua Town were 75 Japs of 3rd Battalion 102 Infantry's machine gun Company, and two miles south, 300 more Japs of that Company. A total of 400 Infantry and 340 other elements were ashore - but minus 218 Field Artillery's guns, which the high seas had turned back. Lack of field artillery fire cover would increase our losses in the fights next morning and tomorrow night.

With early light, we engineers got to work. Gray's bulldozer made a track to haul supplies up from the beach. We sheltered a supply dump from Jap planes under trees about 200 yards north up the coast. With a sled built from native wood, we hauled supply loads from the beach to our new dump.

That day and the next night of 30-31 June were a time for labor and combat. When 162's A Company and Lieutenant Burke's attached platoon of the 6 Aussie Infantry met heavy fire from Japs north of our beachhead, we engineers went into action. With Amphibious Engineers of 532 Boat & Shore Regiment, we replaced the Aussies when their ammo ran low. Rohlffs with 4-5 others volunteered as litter bearers to help "A" men; but that outfit cared for their few wounded. Jap resistance was that day broken all the way north to the south arm of the Bitoi River.

But this A Company victory led into our bloody night fight of 30 June-1 July. Colonel MacKechnie had sent most of C 162 north to reinforce A Company.

Back at the beach with night falling, Rohlffs found other Engineers excited at the crack of Jap rifles to the southeast. Hurriedly, he dug a deep hole into the sand. When water flowed in, he dug a more shallow hole and braced it from caving in with a metal air-strip mat. After Rohlffs returned from helping cat-man Gray with a jam on his .50 heavy machine gun down on the beach, another Engineer jumped into his too-shallow hole for the night. Rohlfs never even knew this man's name.

A little after dark, a small force of Japs hit A 116's line of fox-holes. Just then, the men of 532 Amphibious Engineers ran up from the beach to join us. They had worked late in trying to'right their broached landing craft - 21 of them.

To come up beside us in the dark was the worst possible move that the Amphibs could have made. We combat Engineers were lying scared in the dark. We feared that anything moving was Japanese, and fired and grenaded at will.

Rohlffs remembers just two Jap rushes at 116 Engineers. In one such charge, cat-man Gray with a mechanic helper wiped out a whole Jap squad trying to slip past our flank on the beach.

Suddenly the Jap attacks ended. The night was now silent but for moans and death-shrieks until daylight. Too many of the men cried in English, but we dared not move to help them.

Dawn came finally. Up in a tree, a lone Jap sniper drew a fusillade from us. After 'awhile, somebody broke our tension with, "Looks like we got shredded meat for breakfast."

Now out of his hole, Rohlffs counted nine dead Yanks, seven dead Japs. In A 116 Engineers, Pfc Lester D. Rector was our only dead, and Coccia the only name Rohlffs remembers of our two seriously wounded. (The Amphibs lost seven killed and 12 wounded, but claimed 32 dead Japs.) Colonel MacKechnie, however, claimed a total of 50 Japs killed by his entire force, which number includes all that all Engineers killed. Most Japs bypassed us to rejoin the main Jap army northwards.

Helping Colonel MacKechnie, we two platoons of A 116 built a jeep road up Bitoi River towards Lababia Ridge. We helped C Battery, 218 Field Artillery carry their disassembled 75 mm cannon over 2,700-foot Lababia Ridge and position them on 1,000-foot Green Hill to help wipe out Komiatum Track Salient.

From Nassau Bay, we boarded barges again and landed at Tambu Bay for the siege of Roosevelt Ridge. We dug in two hospitals, operated two water-points, built roads and trails to help 162 capture Mount Tambu, and flank Roosevelt Ridge for attacks against it.

On 12 August, 10 Engineers volunteered to help 2nd Battalion 162's fight for Roosevelt Ridge. Against pillboxes, each man carried a charge of eight pounds' TNT in his hands and a second charge in his pack. Each 8-pounder of TNT was laced with primacord, to fire by an attached cap and grenade. When we pulled the grenade pin, only five seconds remained for us to run and hit the ground. Despite menace of Nippo fire, we blew up seven pillboxes, with perhaps six Japs per pillbox.

After the ridge was stormed, we built 900 yards' jeep track with a maximum grade of 33 per cent across the Ridge to supply 162 men fighting on Lokanu Bay. Two of us were wounded there - names unknown. We built a Strip for Piper Cubs. After Salamaua Town was won, we still built roads and bridges for 162 - then rejoined our Battalion to work at Base B on Oro Bay.

Such are some highlights of 116 Engineer Battalion (Combat) in the Papuan Campaign. A Company had a nightmarish fight on the wrecked Nassau Beachhead, and helped heave C Battery 218 Field Artillery's guns over Lababia Ridge. Major achievement of 116 Engineer Battalion, however, was not in battle but in construction of roads and bridges and bases.

 

CREDIT: Main incentive for this history was discovery of "Unit History" dated 26 October 1943 of 116 Engineer Battalion's Papuan Campaign. (I found this at Dwight Eisenhower Library on our Division Association's special visitation grant.) For Salamaua, I used also Historian D. Kenneth Deacon's 10-page typescript "116 Engineers in the Salamaua Campaign," Fred Devenney's "Night in Green Hell" (Jungleer, July 1959), Australian David Dexter's The New Guinea Offensives, 162 lnfantry’s Journal (9 July-13 September 1943), all unpublished manuscript by Colonel AR MacKechnie, "Operations of 162 Infantry in the Salamaua Campaign." We lack casualty lists for Salamaua Operation.