C Company, 162 Infantry: Cless-Robson Fight for Salamaua

              On 12 July 1943, 162nd Regiment's 1st Battalion was deep in its five-day battle of the Bitoi River on the approaches to Salamaua. On 12 July, Lieutenant Ralph S. Cless had orders to take twenty-five men from our first platoon, plus one light machine gun, with five crewmen and three natives to lay an ambush on the Komiatum Track against Japs withdrawing to Mount Tambu. Leaving Ralph G. Robson's 3rd platoon outpost we began to climb Bui Kumbul Ridge. Luckily for us, Robson's platoon, on a different mission, was scheduled to follow our trail up the same ridge in fifteen minutes. For without Robson and thirty men, there may have been no Cless platoon left alive.

            Although he expected to fight no Jap army, Cless took all precautions in the wet, slippery, mountain jungle. For twenty-five to thirty yards ahead, three black Papuan infantrymen smelled their way. After these scouts, alertly strode two A Company guides, then Cless with Lt Grey of A Company, then our platoon at five-yard intervals in single file. Already jungle-wise, we moved quietly in the hot, steep, forty-five minute climb. About seventy-five yards from the summit, the jungle thinned to a steep, rocky slope.

            Near the lip of that ridge our natives signaled, "Japs!" We halted, packs slipped off, we checked M -1 's, got off the trail, and waited. Cless and Grey hurried up to whisper with the natives. Just ten to fifteen yards over the ridge-lip, they had seen a Jap officer and several men at a trail crossing. Cless deployed his ten-man first squad left of the trail, and his second to the right. The third half-squad remained in reserve with the light machine gun crew. Combat-ready, the first platoon crossed the ridge-lip [and] struck for the crest. Then Japs spotted our riflemen near the trail at fifteen yards.

            Our M-1's spoke; two Japs fell. From the cross-trails, a Jap light machine gun rattled [while] Arisaka rifles stabbed at us. With Jap fire heaviest on our left flank, we could not push forward there. But on the right, in thinner foliage, our squad met only scattered fire. Hoping to gain high ground above the trail crossing, we moved ahead. But at fifteen yards, a Jap heavy machine gun opened up [and] we took cover.

            With both ten-man squads committed frontally, Cless ordered the second squad to work up a gully on the right flank to enfilade that Jap heavy machine gun. While the half-squad tried to flank the Japs on our right, the Japs also made a flank attack on our left. They sent at least ten men to our left to come in on our rear.

            But the Sergeant of our left squad had three men out guarding that flank, standard operating procedure in Cless’ platoon. These three spotted the Japs flank attack [and] blew them back with rifles. Still guarding our rear, the five men of the light machine gun crew jumped into the fight; one gunner emptied a pistol clip into a Jap who had crawled within five yards of us.

            Meanwhile, our half-squad was stopped in its flanking movement by heavier fire. Already Cless' entire platoon was deployed, and the Japs had no flanks. We could do nothing but use the half-squad to fight a holding action. At this point, a Jap advance on both flanks could have enveloped us and wiped us out.

            Halfway up the ridge behind us, Robson heard the firing. Ordering his platoon sergeant to hurry the platoon, he panted up to Cless [and] got a hurried briefing. Quickly Robson swung his second squad in on our right, his third on our left, and his first to our rear. Thus, we had an all-around perimeter defense of riflemen with our light machine gun secure until needed.

            Jap pressure increased on our left; we counted at least three knee mortars and another machine gun in action there. All along the line more Jap rifles fired. Japs assaulted frontally; their bodies thudded wounded or dead on the stones. A few snipers climbed into trees and fired down on us; grimly we sighted and knocked them down screaming.

            We knocked out several machine-gunners with rifle fire but the machine gun’s fire did not cease. When a gunner was down, his number-two man pushed him aside [and] continued shooting at us. Our only hope was to spot the guns precisely and disable them with grenades.

            Our officers exposed themselves to find the machine guns. The Japs' fire-control had, by now, improved. Machine guns, mortars, rifles would build up a barrage, then remain silent for minutes. But knee-mortars, four of them, caused no casualties; many of them were duds. Under the barrages, we lay prone until they ceased and they set up targets for us. That's what it was, target shooting.

            Japs would rush, then fall hard. Or Jap riflemen would actually rise to their knees in the open and look for targets. Before their rifles touched their shoulders, we picked them off; they dropped their rifles and died.

            Scouting the jungle on the left, Robson thought he had spotted the machine gun that had blocked our right flanking movement. As he started back to [the] command post, eleven slugs from that heavy machine gun struck him. But he crawled over the slope to safety.

            Shortly after Robson was hit, Japs blasted hard into our left flank. With one dead and several wounded, Robson's third squad fell back, almost shattered. Cless called up Robson's fresh first squad from the rear into the firefight. The third squad Cless reorganized to hold our rear.

            The fusillades continued on our left. Every movement brought streams of machine gun and mortar fire on our riflemen. We realized that we were hopelessly out-numbered; we could not capture that high ground and dominate the cross-trails. Japs in the jungle were now within five to ten yards on our left [and] we blasted them with grenades.

            Cless decided to withdraw to Robson's smaller perimeter of last night. Over the sound-powered phone which Robson had ordered connected during the firing, Cless called A Company's Grey whose orders had been to place his men in Robson's old position. Cless requested Grey to send a squad forward to help extricate our wounded. Evacuating our men took a long hour. While we lay on the defensive and made every shot count against actual targets, we lost one more Yank dead and several wounded. Now our wounded were safe [and] orders came to disengage.

            First, Cless pulled back the machine gun squad, then Robson's battered third squad in the rear. Then the two squads on the right filed out. The second squad of Cless' first platoon, also on the right, fell back fifty yards [and] formed a temporary line on both sides of the trail. Finally our left flank fired a few more rounds, and man by man dropped downhill to the protection of the covering squad. Tired but grinning with relief, we left the dark-green Bui Kumbul Ridge.

Breaking contact took fifteen to twenty minutes. We were orderly and quiet; no man left his position until he was told; the NCO's kept full control of their squads all the way. We lost no equipment; each man shouldered his pack where he had left it.

            Withdrawal was, in fact, so orderly and quiet that Jap fire on our old positions still echoed on the ridge for twenty minutes afterwards. The Japs seemed to have too great a respect for our small numbers to press again.

            Back at the Robson outpost, we dug more and deeper holes and planned for battle. We even sent a reconnaissance patrol back to observe the Japs. We spotted two Japs a hundred yards down the ridge from the top, but they turned away. But we had returned to Robson's old outpost about 1630 hrs, and the Japs lacked the morale to attack. Except for the agony of the wounded, we had a quiet perimeter night.

            Next morning, Lieutenant Griffith, Commanding Officer, arrived with the rest of our Company. Already, at dawn Cless had sent three Yanks and a native to check the ridge. Japs still held it. About 1000, a field artillery observer arrived and directed the shelling of the ridge. Then all C Company probed the ridge again but found only twenty-two Jap graves, bloody bandages, discarded equipment, arms, and ammo.

            Evidently Cless and Robson hit the head of a Jap column withdrawing. From Green Hill, The Pimple, and Woody Island. We estimated that four-hundred to six-hundred Japs must have been in their little army. And with our natives, we had a total of 65!

            Despite the odds, C [Company] lost only two KIA and four seriously wounded. (The historian finds no report of Robson's death.) Yet we fought them to a standstill for over three hours. Probably we caught them by surprise; they were not dug in and had not planned their action ahead of time. Surprise was the only reason why we did not fight a Custer's Last Stand.

            But on our part, the Cless-Robson Fight with C Company's first and third platoons was a classic of scouting, teamwork, and front-line tactics.

 

Prime source was in Colonel MacKechnie's papers. I regret that no names of enlisted men were mentioned. (And neither 162 nor 163 left adequate Morning Report lists of casualties for the Papuan Campaign. Federal Archives are no help here.) I also wonder whether these papers have confused the "Lt Grey of A Co with that fine soldier, B Co's Lt James Gray. If this is so, I apologize to "Jim" Gray.