E Company 162 Infantry

by Sergeant Floyd West

 

I never forgot that morning when a Jap Zero pilot flew close overhead and did not shoot me. On that morning of 1943, I was in a convoy of LCVs chugging up the New Guinea Shore to seize Morobe before the Salamaua Operation.

Unfortunately, my LCV was helplessly lashed to an immobilized LCV. That evening before in the other LCV, an unaware Yank had lighted his last cigarette and chucked the empty foil pack into the sea. The LCV sump pump had sucked up the foil and plugged itself. Because water leaked under the closed ramp, that pump was needed to draw water from the LCV floor.

The 30-man cargo had to bail the LCV with their helmets. The coxswain had to halt the LCV until the pump was unplugged. While the rest of the LCV convoy drove onto Morobe, the mobile LCV with me in it was lashed to the crippled LCV to help hold up the crippled craft.

We did not dare to beach the two barges on that unknown Guinea shore under dark mountains. Any straggling Japs, whether or not they had a machine gun, could murder us all at once. We lashed our two anchors together and let them drag below until they hooked into the shallows at a safe distance offshore.

All night the barges banged and bumped together in the waves. Many of us became seasick from the endless bouncing. Even if the we were able to keep dry and tried to sleep, it was a hard night.

Men in the immobile barge took turns to bail with their helmets all night from the water seeping under the ramp. One man had a flashlight to help start the complicated repairs, but not until morning could they actually work the pump.

Early next morning, out of the west from the direction of Morobe, a Jap Zero flew low less than 100 yards above the helpless LCVs. That Jap Zero flew low less than 100 yards above us. I looked up to see two more Zeros flying at 10,000 feet.

The lowest Zero was low enough for us to see the sunglasses on the pilot's nose, and his white silk scarf with the red ball of the Jap insignia on his forehead. But the pilot did not strafe us. He flew by and waved his wings, like saying, "You're lucky, boys!"

In my belt was a clip of .30 shells with tracers machine gun shells which could fire in my BAR. But I had sense enough not to fire on the plane. But the lieutenant in the other barge shot at the Zero with his .45. Luckily he must have missed, for the pilot seemed unaware of the shot.

I shouted, "Stop that shooting! Look up!" The lieutenant looked up and quickly sheathed his pistol. If the lieutenant had brought down three Zeros on our barges, we 60 men and four crewmen would have been just a temporary bloody spot in the ocean. But maybe the Zeros ignored us because they saved gas and ammo to strike richer targets farther west.

Soon the sump pump was repaired. We chugged on to Morobe and arrived at noon. Five minutes after we landed, I was seasick no longer.

At Morobe, 162 Infantry had another notable encounter with a Nippo plane. Every night, "Washing Machine Charley" flew over, awoke us, and drove us into slit trenches. But a Black Widow Spider -- a radar night fighter -- called on Charlie. One night we heard gunfire and saw a flaming red ball. Washing Machine Charlie was forever silent.

One death at Morobe stays with me. One day, some 163 Infantry men were swimming in the darkened brackish water near the river mouth. We had a guard for sharks. Suddenly, soundlessly, a man disappeared under the dark water. He had stood just 10 feet from three buddies. A crocodile must have dragged him down to cold, black, agonized death.

By 4 April, 162 Infantry was mostly based at Morobe, except for detachments back down the coast to Gona, to mop up Jap stragglers. A short way up Morobe River, PT crews had a base to refit their little boats to harass and sink Jap barges. Our 162 Infantry’s main task, however, was preparation for Salamaua.

But not until some nine months later did E Company 162 Infantry go into battle for our division. We were not in 162's beachhead at Nassua Bay, but we reinforced our 3rd Battalion where strong Jap forces had held from capturing Roosevelt Ridge -- 3,000 feet of jungle mountain running in from Tambu Bay. On 27 July, 3rd Battalion 162 positioned for our fight to storm Roosevelt Ridge, and on 28 July I was in the attack force. Having outshot the whole 2nd Battalion, I was assigned the heavy BAR which I could never permanently exchange for an M-1.

Our climb to combat on the ridge-crest was heartbreaking. We had to literally crawl up a 60-degree slope hand to hand to hand from one brush clump to another. My BAR weighed 22 pounds, and 22 steel clips weighed almost as much. I wore a 40-pound combat pack with at least four grenades in it.

In the area where "E" fought, the slope was less than 20 degrees, with visibility into the jungle less than 100 feet. As my BAR opened up, I worried about hitting F 162 men in the jungle who might have already taken the ground before us. Yet I had to spray the leafy tangle to cover E Company men, and hope not to hit any Yanks.

I expended all of my BAR clips against unseen Japs, and called for more. No BAR clips came, so I refilled my clips with machine gun cartridges. Every fourth was a tracer, but I continued the fight for Roosevelt Ridge. Again I sprayed the jungle - my gun now so hot that the barrel lightly burned my left hand.

This was a time in the midst of combat when a man's own life seems not to matter. I couldn't hear any other fire over the blasts of my BAR, and the machine gun bullets seemed to have halted Jap fire completely. I never stopped to think that even if I couldn't see where my tracers were hitting - that the Japs could see where they were coming from.

Then two Jap bullets found me. One really played havoc. The BAR was shot out of my right hand. A bullet hit my partly loaded BAR clip and blew it up while it was only partly fired.

The explosion smashed the knuckle above my right first finger. It stripped 90 percent of the flesh from the other side of the middle finger. Only a couple of strips of the clip remained in the BAR breach. My hand was permanently blackened from powder burns. Small fragments of cartridge casings and clips - dozens of slivers - dug into my right hand and shoulder and chest still to be removed by doctors years later.

I also had a hole the size of a half-dollar in my right cheek. The Medic - I remember his name as Williams - said, "You're sure lucky. It missed your jugular vein by less than an inch."

The most important first aid that Medic Williams gave me was for the middle finger with its 90 percent of the skin loose and dangling. He wrapped the loose skin back with a bandage over a tongue depressant. "I can save that skin for you," he said. "Don't let anybody unwrap it." Despite the offensive odor, I kept the bandage on and saved 90 percent of the skin with but a little scar tissue.

Leaving Roosevelt Ridge forever on my first day there, I noticed one wounded man with a chunk quarter-size on his bare rear. A mortar fragment had hit that part of his body which a training Sergeant had told me was the hardest to keep down.

My descent down Roosevelt Ridge easier than the climb, even with just one good hand to grasp the roots of the almost sheer slope. I descended mostly on the seat of my pants.

On that 28 July 1943, I left Tambu Bay by PT boat. I was forward on the bouncing deck, which bounced like all PT boats even in calm water. After a week in Dobodura Hospital, I was flown over the Owen Stanley Mountains first to Port Moresby, and then to Townsville, Australia.

While in hospital in Townsville, I had my purple heart pinned on my pajamas by Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Among the beds strode two generals, one wearing three stars. Rejoining E 162 regrouped at Rockhampton after Salamaua, I got a six-day Melbourne leave - all the leave I ever had in four years of military service.

 

Continued in Hollandia and Biak campaigns…