A Company, 162 Infantry: Cutting the Komiatum Track

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Lieutenant Marvin Noble

 Komiatum Track was the Japs' supply trail to Mubo Strip which our Aussie allies were trying to envelop from the southeast. Mubo Strip was the Japs' farthest advance from Salamaua Town. North from Mubo, an estimated 1500 Japs held eight different positions. While George's other two platoons were to press on Japs nearest to Mubo, Noble's assignment was to hit the Japs farthest north and drive down to join George's other men. With Lieutenant Gray's Weapons Platoon (less a mortar and a machine gun crew) Noble's Platoon was to descend from 1st Battalion 162 Headquarters on 1800-foot Bitoi Ridge. He was to turn south down Komiatum Track beside Buigap Creek, and strike the Japs.

With a day's rations, we carried all the clips that we could, some grenades, and perhaps nine rounds for our 60 mm mortar. Lacking a map, we did have a fine guide, Aussie Corporal GL Smith, who had helped light up 1st Battalion 162's landing at Nassau Bay. (Smith would die in action 20 March 1945.)

About 1800 10 July, we left 1st Battalion Headquarters and hiked northwest across Bui Kumbul Creek through heavy jungle that extended north towards Mt Tambu. We made good time early, in fairly light underbrush with 30-40 yards visibility. By 1200, we crossed Bui Kumbul Creek and turned west at about a 90-degree angle. We kept much interval between men, and moved carefully by hand signals in total silence. Without a trail, we climbed 1500 feet over a ridge, then dropped down to Komiatum Track about 1630.

Fresh Jap footprints marked the Track. Crossing it, we dug holes, set up our light machine gun, and bedded down in a hard rain-storm that lasted all night. Four of us would not spend another night alive.

Captain George later said that Noble's Platoon was wrongly led into a position 1500 yards farther north than it should have been. Perhaps Noble's epic fight of 11 July 1943 would have been more successful if they had attacked farther south; but they would fight gallantly and well.

At daybreak 11 July, Noble dispatched two recon patrols to find the Japs in that mountain jungle labyrinth. Patrolling north up Buigap Creek, Lieutenant Gray was to follow the Track 700-800 yards north to secure our rear. Platoon/Sergeant Fogel was to take six men including BARman Perpick to locate the Japs ahead. Fogel was to avoid combat and report back in an hour.

About 30 minutes after Gray's men went to our rear, we heard heavy rifle and automatic fire from that direction. In 15 minutes: Gray returned, but without all of his men.

Gray had followed fresh footprints to check out a side trail off Komiatum Track. The patrol saw bamboo huts about 100 yards ahead. As they got within 50 yards, a Jap rose up from the huts and exchanged fire. We sprayed the huts, but 9-10 Japs - who may have been caught asleep - poured out and shot back. Gray's men killed them or drove them off, but we were unsure how many Japs were loose to fight again. Rumor had it that some Yank's gun jammed, or we would have killed them all.

Now Noble's men were in a sticky position. Fogel's patrol had not reported back about the unknown number of Japs ahead. Live Japs from the huts could pick up from the rear.

In the next 10-15 minutes, we heard several shots behind us - and a final Jap shot. We hoped that some of Gray's patrol were still alive and fighting back there.

Noble and Sergeant McClendon (who had been with Gray) then tried to get into the rear of the Jap huts. Crossing Buigap Creek, they climbed a steep 400-foot hill. From the crest, they looked down 20-30 yards towards the Jap huts

McClendon pointed out movement in the brush; Noble shifted position for a clearer sighting. This man was surely a Nip. Noble's tommie cut him down at 35-40 yards.

Changing position on the crest, they peered down into the brush again. They saw movement; a Jap rifle cracked and wounded McClendon in the thigh, but came out the other side. With no bones broken, McClendon rolled back to Buigap Creek while Noble covered him.

They hid across the creek 10-15 minutes. The Jap who had evidently hit McClendon looked down from the crest. He crossed over to the open hillside above Noble and McClendon.

            They fired together and cut him down. His body rolled behind a big tree on the steep slope with only the legs exposed. Noble's grenade dislodged him to roll all the way down into the creek. They found maps and papers on his body for Battalion Intelligence, and rejoined Noble's command.

Perhaps an hour and a half had passed since both recon patrols had gone out. Fogel was still missing. We still did not know how many Japs still menaced our rear where Gray had fought. Yet Captain George's orders were to attack south at 1200 to meet A Company's other two platoons battling the Japs.

Noble still had to ascertain that no Japs could strike our rear. He took two men back up the trail to where Gray had fought. The place was quiet in death. They saw a Jap corpse in a deep hole where Platoon Staff Sergeant Albert E. Miller had probably blown off his head.

Dead with his face to the foe lay Weapons Platoon's Miller, and Noble read the story of his death-fight. Miller's rifle lay under his prone body, magazine empty. One hand was under his chest where he had reached for another clip to reload. He was pierced through the chest from the front - Al Miller - the man who remained behind to finish the job. Miller died the ideal death of a soldier - face to the front against the enemy of his nation.

Medics Thacker and Aldige bandaged McClendon's thigh and devised a stretcher for him. It was now 1100, late to get into position for the scheduled 1200 attack with A's other two platoons to the south. We moved out quick as possible - at wide intervals - our scouts well ahead.   

After an hour, the trail began to widen. Noble now presumed that we padded somewhere near the entrance of Buigap Creek with Bitoi River. Here was a footbridge some 30 yards long with its walkway of poles. Buigap here was 40-50 feet wide - a raging stream at least five feet deep. We marched down the Track towards combat.

Now we met Sergeant Fogel's patrol which had forayed south hours ago, to find the Japs, avoid battle, and return in an hour. Fogel had escaped the Nips with five of his six men still alive. But BARman Pfc Matthew F. Perpich was left dead on the trail.

The twisting trail had probably led Fogel too deep among the Japs. Probably they crossed Buigap Creek and climbed a little grade around a trail-curve. They had rounded a shoulder of brush sticking up above a bank. Then they had scouted down-trail through a large jungle opening. Perpich's BAR must have drawn a fire concentration that killed him, but Fogel's other five men had escaped but left Perpich behind.

Now Scouts Mendoza and Paul Adam led Sergeant Benedict's squad and 3rd Platoon across Buigap Creek and around the hill- shoulder into danger. Among underbrush, with 20-30 yards visibility, we took scattered rifle-fire on our right flank awhile. To halt that fire, Noble detached BARman Elliot, Paul Peterson, and another unknown rifleman. Jungle and Japs caused this BAR group to disappear for days.

Now 3rd Platoon scouted gradually down-trail to the crest of the next rise. Over the crest, we looked another 50 yards to Purpich's body on the trail.

            About half-way up to his body, Scout Adams saw a Jap cross the trail and kneel behind a bamboo clump. This Jap knew that we saw him.
Adams called Lieutenant Noble forward with the Aussie guide. Corporal Smith walked down the hill 10-15 yards ahead of them. "Come on!" he called. "Let's go get 'em! They don't want to argue with us." As he moved out, Benedict's squad and part of another squad deployed as skirmishers to cross the clearing.

            Then Benedict thought that the whole Jap army opened up on us - heavy Jap rifle and machine gun fire. We dropped to earth and blasted back into the brush at them. Instantly we had three men wounded. Keast was hit in the foot, Aussie Smith in left wrist, but neither man had a broken bone. Throwing grenades, Noble took a wound in his left shoulder. Just a little behind him, Benedict saw a little spot of blood on that shoulder.

Our rifles and two of Noble's grenades and maybe two more he got from another rifleman could not quell Nippo fire. With Aussie Smith, Noble ran back to get help from our light machine gun and mortar with Weapons Platoon. He bled somewhat still from the left shoulder wound.

Halfway back, a bullet hit Noble's right elbow, broke both arms, knocked the tommie from his right hand. He dived into a pit where Sergeant Stone gave first aid.

Despite his broken arm, Noble dropped 20-30 feet to the creek-bank and moved safely back to where Weapons men waited with light machine gun and 60 mm mortar. But he failed to have these weapons brought up to crack the Japs' position. Someone misunderstood him.

For by now, it was too late in the day for an attack to succeed. And Noble believed that A Company's other platoons had not attacked on our left flank to the south of us. (They had attacked, but Noble did not find out what they did until years later.)

We lost nobody recrossing Buigap Creek on the bridge, but BARman Elliot and his two men failed to answer our calls or our two strings of three rifle shots. The Japs following our retreat were now in the clearing where we had fought them. Elliot's men dared not answer us - would not return for some days.

We started up a steep hill on the trail just north of Buigap Creek. About 200 yards up it, Jap mortars fired at us. First volley was too long to hit; the second was too short. The third closed the bracket and caused some casualties. Just as he finished bandaging Noble again, Medic Dallas C. Thacker was killed.

            We could hear mortar shells leaving the tube. Every time they fired, we hit the dirt. We were now among some Jap holes. When one round fired, Adams fell into a hole, head down. One of the Medics screamed when hit in the stomach just outside Adams' hole. Because of the stomach wound, we could only leave him to die. (We are unsure whether he was Medic Thacker or another Medic; two were killed.) Gunner Wilson got a fragment in his leg; Rifleman Red Nelson was wounded, portion of body unknown. Nielsen was hit - but only on his pack.

In this threat to Noble's whole detachment, we could not carry McClendon up the steep slope on his stretcher. Despite thigh wound and in dazed condition from shock, he had to climb on foot. But we helped him all we could while gripping trees and vines to help us climb. The Jap mortar shells continued walking up the track for some time, then no longer fell. Having seen stakes earlier, we wondered whether the gunners fired unobserving from predetermined sightings.

Next morning, a patrol including Adams, Bury, and Dick and some unnamed men slipped back around a hogback and shot up Japs just picking themselves up from bivouac to pursue us.

With Lieutenant Gray now Commanding Officer instead of wounded Noble, 3rd Platoon and attached Weapons men limped painfully up the ridge north of Buigap Creek and back to 1st Battalion Headquarters and Medics. Battle fatigue struck two men; one went berserk, and another was shot in the hand. After an operation, Noble was borne back down through jungle mountains to Nassau Bay - a painful trip of maybe five days, with eight Papuan carriers taking turns.

Nearly 40 years later, Noble would learn what Captain George's other two platoons of A 162 did on the day that 3rd Platoon fought. That morning, another "A" Platoon killed four Nip outguards and pinpointed out their position near Bui Savella Creek, south of where the Japs halted us.
Forty Japs died from A's mortars and C 218 Field Artillery's 75s. Next day, after 30 minutes' field artillery preparation, George found the Japs' position deserted. His men then moved north and buried Purpich, Miller, Thacker, and the second medic. More fighting with field artillery help, remained for A 162 through 13 July before we drove the Japs out of their last positions.

In Cutting Komiatum Track, George's other platoons with C 162 and the Aussies fought well, but Noble's men were among those deepest into combat among all the Americans. Without field artillery help, we had played an important part in pressing their withdrawal from their long salient down from Salamaua past Roosevelt Ridge and Mount Tambu into Mubo Strip. Noble had led a heroic fight against the grim, stubborn Japanese. Captain George later gave Noble credit for triggering the whole Jap withdrawal from the Komiatum Salient.


 CREDIT: Indispensable source is Lieutenant Marvin Noble's cassette given to me at San Jose Reunion (1981), backed by Bill Davis' and Sergeant Glenn Benedict's cassette answering my letter of 20 August 1981. (Noble talked his cassette after my letter of 29 May 1981.) Other sources are Sergeant Ambrose Burkhartsmeyer's letter 20 September 1981, Sergeant Robert Little's typescript about 14 June 1969, and Captain George's letter to Colonel AR MacKechnie of 12 July 1944. Colonel MacKechnie's official report of the Noble fight is erroneous, but Wm McCartney in The Jungleers copied it unknowingly, as did Australian David Dexter (with some modifications) in The New Guinea Offensives. Lieutenant Gray did not catch 10 Japs asleep and slay them all at once, and a half of Noble's men did not become casualties. Noble and his men have corrected these misstatements.