162 Infantry Medical Detachment: Our Salamaua Operation

by Medic Chester Clark with Medic Bob Dakin and Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

On 25 June 1943, we men of 162 Infantry's Medical Detachment got a threat of what our Salamaua Operation would be like. At that time, we were still on Morobe Bay ready to embark for Majeri Bay, our jumping-off place for the Nassau Bay landing. Majeri was 12 miles up the New Guinea coast from where we were to leave to land on the Japs' Nassau Bay.

At dusk, most of our landing craft moved out in drenching rain. Embarked on Boats 25 and 26, we rode out into the storm for several hours. We got lost in the dark. We took in water and almost sunk. Landed at Majeri in a safe harbor, we dug holes to sleep briefly. We had to rise to hide equipment under the bushes from Japanese planes.

Real action began on the night of 29 June. All of us were ready to leave early, but just five Medics loaded on various craft. But not until almost the very last minute, we suddenly had just a half hour to carry our whole aid station equipment to load after all other units were aboard.

Cowering aboard at dark in a sleeting rain, we left at 1915 hours in the second wave. For six hours, we rode in cold and rain in rough water. Chester Clark was among the seasick. We were finally beached at 0130, over the breached wrecks of probably 21 other landing craft. Leaving all our gear on our boat, we waded wet ashore. Grouping with Dr. Carter, our Commanding Officer and Task Force Surgeon, we crawled into brush for three hours of more or less sleep in the rain.

At daylight, we awoke to an entire morning of rain. We salvaged what gear we could from our wrecked craft. Our large main aid chest was afloat; Clark found that his medical records were soaked.

By 1000 hours, we heard gunfire north up the beach where A Company was already in combat. Setting up our tent fly from the rain, we soon had 3-4 wounded to care for - had two corpses. Corporal Edwin D Michael was killed and Medic Madison Aldige who ran to give him first aid.

Chaplain Barney Youngs chose a beach side temporary graveyard. Both men's bodies were caked with sanded rain and surf. We removed Aldige's first aid kits and laid him and Michaels so that we could not see their faces. Our Medics and Chaplain Assistant Sid Stafford were the burial party.

Father Haley held Catholic services for Aldige, but Michael's dog-tags did not state his religion. So both chaplains carried out burial services for Michaels. With just two dead and four wounded, A Company won our first fight that day, but 30 June would be a long day's dying for Yanks and Japs.

About dusk, a C Company Platoon out-posted south of our beachhead was overrun, including Commanding Officer 2nd Lieutenant Robert C "Bob" Brown and young 2nd Lieutenant Ramon M Rodriguez age 19, only lately made an officer. At least one of the four died on a Nippo bayonet.

Near the command post, our Medical Detachment dug in for the expected Jap attack that night. This time, however, Clark, with Dr. Carter, Lieutenant Ingrisano, our Assistant Surgeon, with Medics Bob Ingle and Walter Katarzy lay under cover in the tent of 24 Portable Hospital. (Clark still wonders where the Portable Hospital men were sleeping.)

That night, we heard much mortar and sniper fire, but none of it hit our tent. (Observer Gorrell Norman of 218 Field Artillery wrote that Japs on his side of the perimeter actually were firing blanks.)

At 0430 that dawn, we awakened gripping our rifles for a Jap attack that never came. We spent the rest of the morn attending 20 wounded in the Portable Hospital tent. On that hot, dry day, Clark saw 13 men we buried in the sand. About dark, Chaplain Youngs with Clark slipped out to find and list the four dead killed last night in C Company.

On 3 July, our Medical Detachment with 1st Battalion left Nassau Bay to move north along the coast to the South Arm of Bitoi River. (Before emptying into the sea at Duali, the Bitoi broke into the North Arm and the South Arm.) After moving north, we would turn left up Bitoi River to climb 17,000-foot Bitoi Ridge. We Medics would then help 162 Infantry and the Aussies on the Komiatum Track and later to occupy Salamaua Town.

On that 3 July, we packed in an all-morning rain, but left most of our gear behind to come up with native carriers. With 1st Battalion, we trekked 6-7 miles north up the beach on a rugged trail. That night, Clark washed muddy pants, shoes and socks in Bitoi River. He slept in a banana garden with some protection from the rain under his poncho. "Punk" was the password for that night.

On Sunday 4 July, we started out at daylight without breakfast, later ate on the trail. About 12 hours, we arrived at the Aussie camp at Napier, where Buyawim River from the southeast joins Bitoi River flowing down from Bitoi Ridge. We attached ponchos to a frame of jungle branches, dug in under the frame, then cleaned and shaved. Thirteen of us fell asleep under this shelter.

On that 4 July, Japs of Company I Oba's 3rd Battalion 102 Infantry ambushed a supply train of our 1st Battalion about three miles inland behind us on Bitoi River. Many if not all Yank carriers must have been unarmed, to judge by actions of the I & R Platoon. They tore boards from supply boxes for the fight for their lives that they expected to make. Our armed guards' guns scattered the Japs to flee across the Bitoi, but three men died from 1st Battalion Headquarters: Pfc John T Reynolds and Corporals James R Wirt and Wayne Burchett.

On 8 June, Clark started to become part of 1st Battalion's move to cut Komiatum Track which would isolate the Japs at Mubo Drome and cause them to retreat. With Dr. Ingrisano and Medics Bernie Cochran and Nick Nexcot, Clark hiked west up Bitoi River all day with Captain Newman's C Company. We came to the falls and bridge that afternoon. On 9 July, we labored most of the day for a mile and a half about 1700 feet up Bitoi Ridge. Here 1st Battalion 162 Infantry Headquarters would be in position to 17 July 1943.

Besides being a Medic with the routine duties of caring for casualties and sicknesses, T/5 Clark also held important NCO positions. He was Battalion Medical Clerk to record names of men who came on sick call to the dispensary and their treatment. He was already Graves Registration Clark under supervision of Chaplain Youngs, Graves Registration Officer. (They had received special instruction for these duties.) He also passed on mail for Medics of 1st Battalion. His work would cause him to rise from the rank of T/5 to T/3 in two years - his highest rank in the Army. On late afternoon of 11 July, medics were very busy with A Company's casualties whom Dr. Carter and his crew brought to command post. While trying to cut Komiatum Track, A Company had three dead, eight wounded. These wounded included Lieutenant Marvin Noble, hit twice, one in his shoulder and once in his arm which was broken. Later that day, Noble and Wilson were evacuated down the steep, slippery mountain jungle trail. Carried by eight native bearers, Noble took five days to reach Nassau Bay.

Also among A Company's killed that day was Medic Dallas Thacker, a close friend of Clark. Thacker got his death-wound just after he finished bandaging Noble again. A Jap mortar fragment hit Thacker flattened on the edge of a hole that could contain only the three men already in it. Because of Thacker's stomach wound, Noble's retreating platoon had to leave him to die, a death that must have come almost instantly.

Not until four days later did Medic Ray Duttine and a patrol search for Thacker's corpse. There they found also the corpse of A Company's BARman Mathew Perpich. Because of the rocky hillside, the best the patrol could do was to cover Thacker and Perpich with rocks and small sticks.

Probably on 14 June, Lieutenant Ralph Robson of C Company was evacuated by natives down that hard track off Bitoi Ridge to the coast. In maneuvering his platoon to help another Platoon of C Company from overwhelming odds of retreating Japs, Robson had taken 11 wounds from a Jap machine gun. Yet these wounds would not have been serious except for the delay before he could get plasma treatment.

Medic Bob Dakin of L Company was ordered to escort Robson and other wounded those eight mountain jungle miles down to the coast. Besides Robson, the casualties' party consisted of another litter case and three walking wounded. Eight natives, four to each of the two litters, carried the men on their shoulders.

In the eight natives' innocent minds, armed Dakin with his heavy medical equipment was their reliable protection against an ambush of roving Japs. He therefore had to stride in front of the group. Although he had a tommie gun and an Aussie Mills bomb, he had the burden of his pack and medics saddlebag, which would have thwarted any attempt to put up a fight. He was lucky to encounter no Japs.

The walking wounded carried nothing, but they were the most painful group of all.

There was no rain that day, and of course the trail was mostly downhill. But twice, they had to ford one swift mountain stream. Water was almost waist-deep.

They did have to stop fairly often, to let the pained wounded men rest, even from walking or being gently carried in litters. Dakin still remembers his order in pidgin English which he gave to the bearers to lay down their two litters: "Sleepum beddy belong ground." There was no Jap ambush ahead. Dakin happily remembers turning his wounded over to beach hospital men, eating voraciously and falling asleep.

(Dakin also remembers observing front-line operations of a Portable Hospital in surgery. For 2- 3 weeks, this hospital was setup less than 50 yards from men in combat. "Operating room" was an oversized foxhole with a pyramidal tent pitched above it with the sides rolled up. Sandbags were piled high around this foxhole. There Bob Dakin sat and watched the deft surgeons in action. Once he watched them repair holes in a wounded man's small intestine. He marveled at how they would pull a loop of intestine from an abdomen, patch the intestine, and then replace that loop and pull out another loop to work on.)

One of the most unforgettable attacks of 1st Battalion 162 Infantry was that doomed attack against Mount Tambu on 30 July 1943. After an hour's mortar and field artillery barrage that morning, Colonel Taylor's 1st Platoon tried for over three hours to overcome that triple tier of dark pillboxes in a jungle wall 60 feet high.

Our Medical Detachment aided 53 casualties. Clark remembers that most of Captain Newman's C Company's 1st Platoon was wounded. Medic Richard M Monger was also killed in the Mount Tambu assault.

Not until 19 September was 1st Battalion able to occupy deserted Mount Tambu from which continual blasting had forced the Japs. Here we found bodies of C Company's Pfc Joseph M. Balisteri, A Company's Corporal Russell E. Lewis, 186 Infantry's observer Staff Sergeant Harold W. Elliott and Medic Corporal Byron Hurley.

Body of Medic Staff Sergeant Samuel A. Sather seems to have been brought out on the day the attack failed. Although a Supply Sergeant for 116 Medics, he went forward with a litter party during the fighting. Sather was actually one of four litter bearers evacuating a wounded man. He was bearing the rear end of the shaft on the left side. The Nippo bullet passed through Sam Sathers and killed him, and then wounded Medic Majors in the heel.

One of the better technicians of 116 Medics, Byron D. Hurley volunteered to search for the last wounded. In finding one poor fellow, he crept too close to a Jap machine gun. It made a point blank kill of him. Hurley's corpse was unrecovered for 19 days.

Twice after Mount Tambu, we Medics had to treat a sizable number of mortar casualties. On 30 August, a mortar shell on Captain George's A Company injured eight. This occurred during A 162's fighting outpost on Grassy Spur on Scout Ridge northwest of Roosevelt Ridge where they savaged encircling Japs for five days.

Next day, 31 August, one of our own mortars shorted to wound 16 men of C Company. Medic Quince Williams was wounded then. All of our Medics with men of 1st Battalion Headquarters went to carry Williams and three other serious casualties back through darkness on a steep long trail. Next day, walking wounded and litter cases were guided down to the beach hospitals.

In early September, the Salamaua Operation was almost ended as 162 Infantry chased the fleeing Japanese remnants through Salamaua. On the early morn of 11 September we packed and left forever those desolate jungle mountains. In pouring rain, our strenuous long hike was down to the beach. In the early daylight of 12 September - when 162 Infantry seized Salamaua Town, Clark had his fourth bath in 11 weeks and luxuriously shaved in a freshwater creek. Our 162 Infantry Medical Detachment was back to routine sick calls and camp maintenance.

About midnight 24 September, we lay in good bunks aboard an LCI convoyed to Oro Bay, to ship out "home" for Australia.

Debarking at Oro Bay, we heard a band playing. Beside the dock, Colonel Archibald MacKechnie was standing at attention. The memory will still bring tears to the eyes of some who read this.

 

CREDIT: Prime credit is due to an 11-page double-spaced diary of Chester Clark, former Secretary of Great Lakes Chapter. A long letter of Dr. (PhD) Robert Dakin of Ohio University told of his evacuation of wounded men down Bitoi Ridge and of his view of a wounded man's operation. Medic George Jackson's three-page letter included the story of the last days of Medics Hurley and Sathers. Finally, Dakin sent me those good words about our fine, kind-hearted Colonel Archibald MacKechnie!