162 Infantry Regiment in the Salamaua Operation: Results of a Divided Command

by Lieutenant Colonel Carl Webber with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

As Executive Officer of Major Archibald Roosevelt's 3rd Battalion 162 Infantry in the Salamaua Operation, Captain Carl Webber experienced the farce of divided command. After Colonel Archibald MacKechnie beach-headed his 1st Battalion 162 Infantry on Nassau Bay, our 41st Division's Major General Horace Fuller detached MacKechnie's 2nd Battalion and 3rd Battalion.

Fuller assigned Colonel Mack's detached two battalions to the command of his 41st Division's chief of artillery, Brigade General Ralph Coane (pronounced "Co-ANE" to rhyme with "grain"). About 10 miles north of Mack's beach, Coane was to emplace guns on Tambu Bay to blast the Japs' Salamaua Strip northward across the ridges.

Those two 162 Infantry Battalions taken from MacKechnie would have to secure Coane's field artillery base. To secure his guns, the battalions would have to seize the ridges above the guns. Japs already held those ridges - most important of which became named Roosevelt.

While Coane' s guns shelled Salamaua, Colonel Mack's 1st  Battalion was to climb the mountains above Nassau Bay, drive the Japs from Komiatum Track, and storm Mount Tambu. Colonel Mack's force would be commanded by Australian Lieutenant General Sir Stanley Savige.

While Savige commanded MacKechnie, Coane was also to be commanded by the commander of the Aussie New Guinea Force. Yet  Coane was to be still under American Fuller's command!

At once, Fuller's Chief of Staff Colonel Kenneth Sweany, objected to Fuller's formation of this divided command. Since MacKechnie's men would be part of New Guinea Force, Sweany said, Fuller would have no command over their fighting. Sweany also objected to placing artilleryman Coane in command of infantry while experienced MacKechnie himself was deprived of his Battalions. (This historian also reasons that Mack should have commanded capable field artillery officers like Colonel William Jackson of our 41st.)

Fuller would usually take Sweany's recommendations after some thought, but this time, Fuller refused. Sweany realized that Fuller still wanted to keep control of MacKechnie.

Misunderstandings quickly arose. Aussie General Savige asked who commanded Roosevelt's 3rd Battalion - Savige, or U.S. General Coane. Isolated in jungle mountain headquarters, Savige had not yet been clearly informed about Coane's mission.    (Probably also, he had not seen a copy of Fuller's complicated order which put Roosevelt under Coane and thus under Savige's orders.)

Puzzled, Savige then radioed to his own Aussie superior commanding officer to ask who commanded whom. From far south across New Guinea at Port Moresby, Lieutenant General Sir Edmund Herring replied, " ...all units Mack Force are udder control of your 3rd Australian Division." Savige naturally thought that he commanded 3rd Battalion, and passed down orders to Roosevelt's 3rd Battalion. Herring's message should have settled everything, but it did not.

Roosevelt refused to obey Aussie orders, for he understood that Fuller commanded him. He said that he would take orders only from his own 41st Division commanding officers.

On July 12, Roosevelt's long letter to General Coane complained that total confusion prevailed back at Nassau Bay where no one was in authority over Aussie forces, Coane Force, and U.S. forces. Roosevelt had confusing and contradictory orders; his own 3rd Battalion Headquarters had too small a staff to handle problems of supply for the three different forces.

His letter also warned of danger from the Japs. If they attacked now, they might bring shame and disgrace to everybody. Roosevelt asked Coane to send a high-ranking officer to command at Nassau Bay. We have no record that Coane even replied to his letter.

Yet Roosevelt followed Aussie orders - led his 3rd Battalion north to guard Coane's move to emplace guns at Nassau Bay. He well knew that the Aussie order was dangerous. He would have to leave Nassau Bay unprotected but for service troops, although it was the head of the Australian and U.S. mountain supply line.

Roosevelt lacked a supply train also - neither native carriers nor an Amphib craft detachment. To cross his Battalion over deep, swift Bitoi River, he had just one Amphib assault Boat.

Yet Executive Officer Webber had so well organized 3rd Battalion's movement that it was completely crossed by 0900 hours. Then I and L Companies attempted an inland hike to reach Boisi Village below the ridges above Tambu Bay. They followed a secret inshore trail which Papuan Infantry scouts had told them about. It was believed that the Japs had used it to escape from MacKechnie after he beached at Nassau Bay. But the secret trail was impossible. They had to machete jungle all the way - over one series of razorback hills after another. During the next two days, rations were exhausted and many mens shoes became unserviceable  “I” and "L" had to rejoin K Company waiting for us after only a day's march up the coast. So 3rd Battalion was unable to deploy on arrival at Tambu Bay and move on a wide front against the Japs on the ridges.

Thus, two days after leaving Nassau Bay, on July 20, K Company entered Boisi Village and came under fire from Jap guns on Roosevelt Ridge 1500 yards northwards. Captain Lovell and Executive 1st Lieutenant Dorigan were both wounded. Eight men were wounded, and two were killed. Probably 218 Field Artillery's 75s silenced the Jap cannon from their new positions on the coast.                                                                          On July 22, K and L Companies tried to storm the eastern part of Roosevelt Ridge. One "K" squad actually topped the ridge, between two concealed Nippo positions. After the repulse, the Companies fell back to their new Boisi positions.

But the problem of divided command continued. It would be some three weeks before 162 Infantry could capture Roosevelt Ridge. Two probable reasons for this delay seem to be evident. One is that Coane understood that he had only to emplace guns by Tambu Bay to fire over Roosevelt Ridge at Salamaua. Another reason is that aggressive and experienced Colonel MacKechnie was relieved from commanding 162 Infantry - even from his 1st Battalion remnant left to him after the rest of 162 Infantry went under Coane's command. General Fuller relieved Colonel Mack during a squabble resulting from that same misunderstanding as to who commanded 3rd Battalion 162. Colonel Mack was "kicked upstairs" to become liaison officer between 162 Infantry and General Savige's Aussie 3rd Division.

After K and L Companies failed a frontal attack on Roosevelt Ridge, Aussie Savige clearly told General Coane the best strategy to take it. Maps revealed that the ridge was higher on the western, inland edge than on the eastern edge. Papuan scouts had reported that the western edge was just lightly held. Savige told Coane to attack the Jap' s positions from the west; we now had five field artillery batteries to support such an attack.

Coane did send probably I Company to the west - even promised General Savige to be on the way to success before dark on July 25. On that day, with field artillery support, 3rd Battalion did gain 50 yards up the ridge before a counter-attack forced them back. Coane's force remained safely and compactly perimetered in the Boisi area, although Papuan scouts begged to lead them back against the Ridge again.

The Roosevelt Ridge situation improved, however, by July 27-28. From newcomer 2nd Battalion, E and F Companies gained a firm hold on a small ridge slightly below the crest. By July 27 also, I Company of Roosevelt's 3rd Battalion had made a significant gain near the west end of Roosevelt Ridge.

I Company had fought up Scout Ridge at right angles to Roosevelt Ridge and captured Bald Knob. This was the highest "pimple" on that area which 162 Infantry now held. Only 2.5 miles from Salamaua Town, it became a perfect observation point from which to bombard Salamaua Town and Strip. On Bald Knob, I Company almost continuously battled the Japs. Now it was I's turn to repulse them by rolling down grenades.

Webber made a trip with signal men up from 3rd Battalion to inspect I's new position. Climbing the almost vertical ridges in tropical heat was indeed hot pain. Only guide was the wire leading up past a heap of I Company's Nippo corpses. They picked their way past a water hole which "I" and the Japs shared at different times by mutual agreement. They climbed past trip wires lined with K-ration cans where grenades could be attached for night protection     

At nightfall, Jap mountain gunfire opened from about 600 yards away. It seemed to be ranged in from a Jap perimeter just 200 yards off.

Occasional tree bursts made the shells extremely effective. When a shell slashed a tree directly above the perimeter, "I" had many wounded.

Webber had a foxhole in the command post with Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colvert, but they had to leave it. Medics needed the hole for the wounded, to give them plasma transfusions.

Webber had to wander around under field artillery fire to seek an empty foxhole. When he found one, he bailed it out and dropped dead asleep in the mud. The shellfire had stopped.

By daylight, Webber started back to 3rd Battalion through L Company's position. He met no Japs, but going down was harder than going topside. He slipped in mud and tripped over roots and saplings. At the ridge-bottom near Boisi, he halted for a creek and waterhole he had used before. He was encased in reddish mud from the wet trench on Bald Knob. While washing off the dripping mud, he had a hot battle with "piss ants" that kept dropping from the shrubbery above him. About a half-inch long, they bit viciously. When crushed, they smelled sour, pungent.

Back at 3rd Battalion command post, Webber learned that Jap mortars had slain four men, wounded several more, including Lieutenant Mikesell, Battalion intelligence officer. Command post had to move to a safer place.

Despite successes of I, E, and F Companies on July 27-28, Roosevelt Ridge was still untaken. There was no real progress deep into August. Because of that same old dispute about command of 3rd Battalion, Fuller had fired Colonel MacKechnie from any control of 162 Infantry - MacKechnie ablest U.S. field commanding officer of all.

Perhaps about this time, Major Roosevelt decided to complain to General MacArthur himself about lack of leadership in the siege of Roosevelt Ridge. To do this, Roosevelt would have to risk his military career and be subject to court martial.

After General Fuller and most other 41sters had returned to Australia, Chief of Staff Sweany was left in charge of the continuing fight for the Ridge. About noon one day, haggard Major Roosevelt entered Sweany's office at Dobodura.  He asked permission to see MacArthur about relations with the Aussies, and about the divided command.

Sweany forbade Roosevelt to visit MacArthur's Headquarters or write anything to him. Sweany also ordered him to remain at Dobodura until commanded to return to Roosevelt Ridge.

It is still unknown whether Roosevelt really complied with Sweany's order not to talk to MacArthur. But the siege of Roosevelt Ridge was about to conclude successfully.

After Fuller relieved Colonel MacKechnie on July 22, he assigned MacKechnie to Coane. Coane made him liaison officer to the Aussie 3rd Division, "just to get rid of me," said Mack.

But on arrival at 3rd Division Headquarters, Colonel Mack learned that the canny Australians were for him. They had gone over Fuller's head and persuaded MacArthur to restore MacKechnie back to command 162 Infantry. His regiment would now be detached from Fuller to the command of Aussie New Guinea Force generals.

With Colonel Mack's return to command 162 Infantry, General Coane was needed no longer. He rejoined General Fuller in Australia.

For the final assault on Roosevelt's Ridge (Aug. 14, 1943), Colonel Mack now used Major Lowe's 2nd Battalion. For preparation, he did what artilleryman Coane should have done - ranged in all Aussie and U.S. guns he could bear on it. He also called down Bofors AA guns with 20 Air Force bombers. To keep Japs from reinforcing their Ridge garrison, H Company 162's Captain Heiser hammered the rear slope with an 81 mm mortar barrage.

Triumphant MacKechnie watched the ridge top literally lift with the bombardment. As shellfire moved before them, the troops easily occupied the ridge without casualties. Thus ended this great barrier to capturing Salamaua.

Captain Webber did not see the Ridge again until after 162's great assault. Just after his night with I Company on Scout Ridge, a long, vicious malaria attack had hospitalized him. While furloughed down to Sydney, he had recurrences of his malaria for a month in and out of a Sydney hospital.

When he did return to 162 Infantry, his long absence had caused his replacement as Executive Officer. He was transferred from infantry and promoted. He became a major and an Air Force Inspector-General. He had a well-merited high type of public relations assignment. He finally became a Lieutenant Colonel.

Thus resulted General Fuller's divided command of 162 Infantry before Salamaua. Fuller probably retarded U.S. victory for a month. Luckily, the Japs were too defensive-minded for an offensive during this time. Luckily, the Australian generals were wise enough to get Colonel. MacKechnie returned to rightful command of all 162 Infantry. This divided command was a bitter farce that never should have happened.

 

CREDIT: Most responsible for this history is Lieutenant Colonel Carl Webber's 13-page single-spaced typescript entitled "From Nassau Bay to Tambu Bay, Boisi, Roosevelt Ridge & Salamaua," with a postcard marked November 12, 1989. Webber's type-script contains a copy of Major Archibald Roosevelt's letter to General Ralph Coane (August 13, 1943) and Coane's letter to appointment to com- mand (July 11, 1943). Almost equally important are citations from Australian David Dexter's The New Guinea Offensives (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1961), and General Ken Sweany's letter of December 30, 1988 (3.5 pages, single-spaced type-script). First-hand information about Colonel Archibald MacKechnie's return to command of 162 Infantry and the seizure of Roosevelt Ridge comes from the Colonel's two-page letter of May 1, 1959. I made an earlier study of the Salamaua command problem in Jungleer magazine's story, "162 Infantry Headquarters: Good Soldier MacKechnie's Salamaua Operation".