162 Infantry and 532 Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment: Miracle Landing at Nassau Bay

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

Few 41 Division men realize the importance of 162 Infantry's Nassau Bay invasion in 1943. Until then, mountain jungles and Japs had halted a strong Allied offensive. Fighting from inland to capture Mubo Strip, the Aussies could not truck enough supplies and ammo over roadless mountains for their campaign. They could not build roads fast enough; air-drops were of limited use. Confined to a narrow jungle shore, our 162 Infantry could make only slow advances. The Jap Army of over 6,000 securely held Salamaua on the coast with a strong line along the Bitoi South Fork inland to 15 miles southeast of Mubo Strip. They secured Nassau Bay with an advance strongpoint on Cape Dinga.

Using 532 Amphibious Engineers' barges, 162's Colonel MacKechnie planned to land 162 Infantry 1st Battalion at Nassau Bay and expel the Japs. We would then have a convenient supply base by sea close to the Aussies fighting for Mubo. After cutting off the Dinga Point Japs, we could team with the Aussies to envelop Mubo and fight for Salamaua Town.

But the Nassau Bay landing would be hazardous. Our only terrain information was from a hurried scout of two Aussies of 2nd 6 Infantry who had found a long stretch of unguarded sand between Dinga Point Japs and other Japs some two miles west on the Bitoi River. For secrecy, our voyage to the beach must be at night - 54 miles in open sea mostly by 36-foot landing barges. In always dangerous weather, we would land on an enemy shore in darkness. Yet orders were to land at midnight, storm or calm.

Number of Amphib barges was limited. The Amphibs would use 29 LCVPs-"Landing Crafts, Vehicle, Personnel," 36 feet long; 1 LCM-"Landing Craft, Mechanized," 50 feet long, and two Jap barges, length unspecified. With the help of 4 PT boats - 80-foot craft - the flotilla would carry 1,090 men, crewed by 87 A Company men and seven D Company men of 532 Amphibious Engineers.

To guide and guard those helpless barges, we had four PT Boats. Actually ships, these little 77-80 foot plywood destroyers cruised at 25-40 knots. Designed for shallow water, they carried machine cannon, depth charges, and torpedoes.

PTs 143 and 120 loaded 70 soldiers each. PT 142 carried just 10 - for reasons unknown. Without troops aboard, PT 168 patrolled against Jap barges and submarines. The 23 LCVPs took 36 men each, the LCMs each 60, and the two Jap barges at least 50.

Already, there were portents of a bad night passage over 54 miles' rough waters in open barges. Outside Morobe, high winds chopped the seas. Rain began falling in sheets. Major Rising of 532 Amphibs advised Colonel MacKechnie to postpone the operation. But poor radio communications kept him from permission from 6th Army Headquarters.

Starting at 1830, at 20 minute intervals, the barges in V-formation in three waves left Morobe. A PT Boat was to lead each wave. Because of rain and high billows, trouble began at once. Waves 1 and 2 readily followed their PT guides, but Wave No 3 failed to find PT 120 in the blackness. An Amphibious Engineer had to herd the 11 LCVPs and the Jap barge. (They failed to land at Nassau Bay that night.)

Losing contact with PT 120 was just the first mishap.

At 25 knots an hour, PTs 142 and 143 could not keep contact with barges laboring along at 7-8 knots. Blackness, driving rain, high waves made the barges hard to see.

Leading PT 168 without troops became totally separated and patrolled alone, although there was no threat from the Jap Navy that night. The three barge groups struggled on. Although 162's I&R men were stationed on three offshore islands to show flashing lights as guides, even the PTs could not see the lights through darkness and rain. Compass and watch and the dim loom of the land were their only navigational aids.

Meanwhile, Captain Burke's Aussie guides performed splendidly in trying to light us in to Nassau Bay. After a struggle through jungle and swamp behind the beach, they came upon the open sands just five minutes after the scheduled midnight hour. Burke's group set up three lights on the beach - two red lights 600 yards apart and a white light halfway between. Lieutenant Urquhart's group set up two lights farther south. The Aussies cut a Jap communication wire and posted 10 men on each flank, with seven by the center white light between the two red lights.

This was the most heroic half-hour of those Aussies of 2nd 6 Infantry Regiment. They lacked a radio to say whether or not 162's convoy had turned back in the storm. If the Aussies waited too long, many Japs would certainly find them and slay them.

Meanwhile, 162's convoy had battered its way through or over 12-foot waves and heavy rain over '54 seasick miles. Even the phosphorescent wake of the barge ahead was hard to see to keep in contact.

Leading Wave No 1, PT 142 overshot Nassau Bay, ran far up the coast, and had to turn back from perhaps Lokanu Bay past Roosevelt Ridge deep into Jap country. In turning back, PT 142 blindly ran among the barges of Wave No 2, which crossed before it. PT 142 narrowly missed a collision and scattered the 12 barges like minnows. Meanwhile Wave No 3 with probably two field artillery Batteries and an anti-aircraft PIatoon gave up the voyage and returned to Morobe.

Having regrouped Wave No 2's barges, the officers Waves 1 and 2 could see no guide-lights - not even the shore itself. But they reckoned that they were opposite Nassau Bay, and turned in where they hoped that it might be. Wave No l led the way.

Suddenly in the dimness, they saw lights. The Amphibs' Commanding Officer said that it was "perhaps the greatest of all coincidences" that they found the bay and the lights. '" At first they saw only the two lights of Urquhart's group, but they landed where they saw the three lights of Burke's group. In surfs 10-12 feet high, it was a confused, battered "shipwreck landing."

But Amphibs' orders were to land at any cost. Thus, about 0035 hours, Wave No 1 pointed their ramps straight for Lieutenant Burke's three lights, and charged the shore with their throttles wide open. Waves tossed the barges around like matchsticks, but they impacted the sand and dropped ramps. All 12 of them unloaded their troops safely. Except for two LCVPs, the Jap barge and nine other LCVPs hit so hard that they could not retract from the shore. The 12-foot breakers 'broached' them - beat them sideways and flooded engines and interiors.

About 0035 hours also, Wave No 2 of 11 LCVPs and one LCM struck for the beach. Again, they unloaded safely - even the bulldozer from the LCM, whose motor may have scared off a lurking Jap patrol who thought it was a tank. Some barges collided with the barges of Wave No 1, or ran over their ramps which they had dropped already. Like most of Wave 1, all of Wave No 2 broached in the surfs.

The two LCVPs of Wave No 1 which were still afloat returned to one PT boat and took aboard 70 men, including Task Force Commanding Officer Colonel MacKechnie himself. All 70 got ashore safely, but one of these LCVPs also broached and was wrecked. A total of 23 barges were battered into twisted masses of steel and wood by the pounding surfs.

It was lucky for 162's stranded men that Wave No 3 had never tried to land but had safely returned to Morobe.

Our Amphibs' Commanding Officer had wisely decided to hold eight more barges in reserve, also. For some days, these remaining craft would be the only transportation for supplies, ammo, and reinforcements.

Marooned at dawn on an enemy coast were some 740 men - 405 from 162 Infantry, and others from various support units. No field artillery guns had landed. Men faced attack from unknown numbers of Japs, and without means to withdraw if defeated or out of ammo. Throughout the morn, sporadic Jap rifle fire harassed the beach. The wrecked Amphibs formed a provisional infantry detachment of 68 men with rifles and machine guns salvaged from battered barges.

When A Company 162 Infantry fought the Japs on that first morning of the beachhead on the north flank, the Amphibs took part. When the Aussie Platoon ran out of ammo, we took over the front along with a detachment of A Company 116 Engineers. Although the Japs were defeated on the north, they overran a C Company Platoon on the south flank of the beachhead late that afternoon. When the Japs formed for a night attack on the beachhead, the Amphib detachment were ready.

Shortly before dark, Amphibs formed a defense line on the right flank beside detachments of A 116 Combat Engineers, D 162's mortar men, and headquarters personnel. About darkfall, we had to move from the right flank to dig in the left or southern flank - in time for the strong Jap attack that went on all night.

They fired furiously with light machine guns, mortars, rifles, and grenades. But their fire was wild and erratic, and we returned heavy fire with our rifles and light machine guns. When they infiltrated, we met them with grenades, bayonets, and knives.

Towards the bleak morning, some Japs slithered through the brush close to us and called clearly in English, "All you Engineers fall in! Hey, Joe, your boats are coming in!" One even shouted, "532nd Engineers, we'll get you!" No doubt some of their scouts had crawled close enough to our lines to learn the number of our regiment. But when they closed in on us, we had to disembowel only a few of them to make the others run.

In the dark about dawn, a screaming band of Japs made a headlong charge. Some did manage to break through. Then we slew at least 12 - in return lost seven killed, eight wounded. Afterwards, Colonel MacKechnie credited us Amphibs for saving his whole command. He had already committed his reserves on the north front except for us.

It was wise that the Amphibs' Commanding Officer had reserved eight barges from last night's stormy voyage. Lucky also was it that heavy seas had held back Wave No 3 from beaching. For now these were Colonel MacKechnie's only connection with Morobe supply base.

On the second morning while 162 Infantry was still fighting, 10 LCVPs arrived with badly needed supplies and 190 men of Wave No 3 which had failed to land before. Despite 5-foot combers, we drove for the shore. First barge beached right into a nest of Nippos who had not yet retreated. With rifles and machine guns, troops leaped ashore and expelled the Japs. On the right beach, an officer exposed himself to flag the other barges into the right area. Only two capsized in the 5-foot waves.

Regular supply missions of us Amphibs had begun.

On the night of 2-3 July, PT Commanding Officer Lieutenant Atkins convoyed a convoy to land at Nassau Bay. While Lieutenant Commanding Officer fired on remaining Japs still holding Cape Dinga, 11 barges beached on their own power. Little Aussie trawlers towed others. Perhaps this convoy brought in Battery B 218 field artillery whose four 75s bombed possible areas of Jap concentration north and south of the beachhead.

The 54 miles of sea between Morobe and Nassau Bay was menaced by Jap air raids, but we Amphibs kept on voyaging, but mainly by night. Japs searched the seas from above, and attacked at every chance. Not until 10 July did our Air force gain superiority over Nippo planes.

In one encounter, 2nd Lieutenant Charles C. Keele and a four-man crew were strafed by a low-flying plane. Machine gun bullets mortally wounded Keele, and damaged his barge. Although probably still close to Morobe, Keele refused to turn back with desperately needed supplies. Before his death, the crew landed their cargo at Nassau Bay.

On 9 July, an LCM crew evacuating wounded 162 men, saw four Jap Zeros shoot down a B-25. Changing course, we rescued the surviving flyers clinging to floating parts of the plane. Evading the bombs of the Zeros, we fought off the planes with our .50 heavy machine gun. Finally we beached back at Morobe with five wounded Amphibs and 59 jagged holes in the hull of our LCM.

By the 11th day after the Nassau Bay landing, our little Amphibian fleet had labored hard over the 54 miles from Morobe base to Nassau Bay. We had carried two Infantry Battalions, two field artillery Batteries, one anti-aircraft Battery, and a company of Combat Engineers. We had also carried an Engineer Shore to (less a Platoon), 480 native carriers, three portable hospitals, and 450 tons of supplies. On return to Morobe, we bore with us the sick and wounded for extended treatment.

While 162 Infantry was marching overland towards Roosevelt Ridge on 17-20 July, we landed field artillery and a medical group for them on Tambu Bay. The guns we landed included 12 105 mm and 12 75 mm guns and eight Australian 25-pounders - important to win Salamaua. In our regular runs to Tambu Bay, we often endured shelling from Japs on Roosevelt Ridge.

When on 20 July, Tambu Bay troops sorely needed phone wire, seven Amphibs volunteered to run a barge to beach under Jap field artillery observers. Need was so great that we could not wait until darkfall. As we landed, large caliber shells exploded all around the barge but without hitting us. We unloaded the wire, quickly lifted ramp, and saved ourselves.

These are highlights of the Samamaua Operation for A and D Companies of 532 Engineer Boat & Shore Regiment, plus men of 562 Engineer Boat Maintenance Battalion, and 587 Signal Company. Our losses in battle were comparatively light: eight killed, three missing in action, and nine wounded. But without our barges, the Allied victory at Salamaua might well have been impossible.

 

CREDIT Basic document for this history is Amphibian Engineer Operations, by Office of the Chief Engineer, General Headquarters, Army Forces, Pacific. With these, I considered Samuel Eliot Morison's Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier, which is Vol VI of his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Australian David Dexter's The New Guinea Offensives, and Colonel AR MacKechnie's Report of Operations of 162 Infantry, 41st Infantry Division in Papua New Guinea. All are contradictory, but I judged them from the positions taken by Amphibian Engineer Operations, a book discovered at Duke University's Eichelberger Collection in a visit financed by our 41st Division Assn. Thrilling story of Aussie guides who lighted the landing appears in David Dexter's The New Guinea Offensives, published by Australian War Memorial in Canberra.