AT Company 162 Infantry: Our Southern Philippine Campaign

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Stephen Counts and Fred Kielsgard

     At 1615 6 March 1945, Anti-Tank Company 162 Infantry left Mindoro Island for battle at Zamboanga. In the choppy, land-locked Sulu Sea, our LCI No. 616 bobbed like a cork. At 0939 10 March, we beached at San Mateo, weak-kneed and queasy.

     Landing was quiet at first but for occasional Jap shells. We hoped for another easy invasion like at Hollandia. With Hoffman borrowed from another squad as first scout, Kielsgard's men were first "AT" men ashore. We had to work our way through barbed wire tangles, but no expected Jap machine gun fire stabbed at us.

     AT Company had orders to hold near the beach until assignment for the attack inland. Then Jap shell-fire increased - rumored from our own 75s captured back in 1941-42. Sergeant Counts' squad of our Mine Platoon was luckily four feet deep in a Jap trench. But forward, Kielsgard wished that his men had carried portable fox-holes. Tanks parked near his prone squad; Jap cannon fire intensified.

     Since his squad lacked a phone to AT Company's command post, Kielsgard dashed' through shell-file for withdrawal orders. The shells seemed to chase him. Every time he made a short dash and dropped, a shell kicked up dirt behind him.

     AT Company had perimetered near the end of a bamboo grove 500 yards north of the beach. Kielsgard brought back his squad, and returned borrowed Hoffman to Sergeant Riley's squad. While Riley's squad dug in yet probably stood up while digging, a Jap shell blasted a few feet away. It killed Pfc. Kenneth H. Hoffman. Riley was closer to the exploding shell, but its impact merely stunned him.

     As later waves of landing craft unloaded troops and supplies, the bombardment increased. The ground rose slightly from the beach to Wolfe Strip inland, and Jap shells had to whistle low just overhead to impact the beach targets behind us.

     Emplaced near AT Company, our 205 Field Artillery Battalion at first felt safe from Jap guns. Their fire-control trench was only 75-100 feet from "AT." About 1700, a Jap shell burst in a tree about five yards behind the fire-control trench. It killed five field artillery men, including Major John E. Ramstead, T/5 Salvador J Gulotta, T/4 Lewis G Peeler, T/4 William J Reiling, Cpl Modesto Hernandez; and wounded eight others, including Lieutenant Peterson, Survey Officer.

     Concussion wave of this shell knocked down almost all of "AT" nearby. T/4 Marley took a steel chunk in his shoulder. Marked lightly wounded were Simpson, 1st Lieutenant Crawford, Tech Sergeant Palmer. Tech Sergeant Counts was partly deaf in his right ear for several months.

     Around Zambo, Anti-Tank Company's main duties were like our duties in other operations. We served as riflemen; the Japs had no tanks to fight. (Nearest we ever came to Jap tanks was when they charged down Parai Defile on Biak. But that tank-battle went on above us on our right flank.) At Zambo, we secured 162's flanks or rear, and ran recon patrols. But, as on Biak when needed at Ibdi Pocket, we were needed for battle at San Roque.

     After L Company was forced from the strongly held San Roque area on 12 March, "AT" had a fighting assignment in that bypassed Pocket. While "L" and other 3rd Battalion Companies moved to storm the Japs on the ridge above San Roque Pocket, "AT" teamed with E Company to clear the Pocket.

     By 0820 14 March, AT Company had orders to assist E Company's fight through San Roque. Leaving 1st Platoon near Wolfe Strip, we reinforced E Company While "E" pushed into the pocket with 716 Tank' Battalion's 1st Platoon of A Company, we secured the base of our little task force.

     At 1310 that 14 March, E 162 met small arms fire. Losing Pvt. Garland J. Layton to die of wounds, "E" repelled a Jap flankstrike, and captured two small knobs on the north ridge. Tanks claimed destroying six pillboxes, several small arms emplacements.  E Company drove a deep wedge into shell-blasted San Roque Pocket.

     On 15 March, "AT" attacked San Roque Pocket with our 2nd Platoon and Counts' 4th Platoon - better known as Mine Platoon because we were originally equipped with mine-detectors. We now acted as tank infantry protectors for 716 Tank Battalion's two tanks. Forming column on the road a short way south of San Roque Village, we marched northwards, with 2nd Platoon left of the tanks, and Mine Platoon on the right.

     Discovery of two Jap mines slowed us down on the road. Both were 500-lb Jap bombs buried upright with only their detonators just above the surface for our tanks to hit. Although easy to detect because the hard-packed soil of the road was disturbed in digging them in, we moved slowly. Here was a time when Mine Platoon needed our mine-detectors, but we had to lose them eight months ago at Parai Defile and never received more of them.

     About a half-mile north of San Roque Village, we entered a wide valley with a ridge slanting northwest about 2-300 feet west of us. In the valley, we deployed to protect the tanks. While 2nd Platoon advanced 100 yards west of them, we advanced 100 yards east of the tanks. Both "AT" and the tanks penetrated ground crowded with Jap pillboxes and slit trenches. Field artillery and Air Force had chewed up the earth. We saw many bomb craters. The terrain before Mine Platoon was clear of all Japs.  

     Then about 1010, Jap fire plunged from the ridge at us. Most of the fire fell from that part of the ridge directly north of the column. It caused casualties to 2nd Platoon men closest to the fire.

     Mine PIatoon took cover in shell-holes and bomb-craters and joined 2nd Platoon and the two tanks in firing back at the ridge. We had no real targets - just quick puffs of haze to aim rifles at. Some of the haze was from machine guns. Counts doubted that any Mine Platoon man expended over a clip or two.

     But 2nd Platoon on our left suddenly began a harder fight at an ambush of Jap infantry. In firing on that ridge and in keeping up with the tanks, they must have failed to secure their left flank against a slope of supposedly empty foxholes.

     Now these positions came alive with Japs firing on 2nd Platoon or thrusting with bayonets close to us. As one" AT" man set himself to leap over a slit trench, a live Jap rose and lunged at him with a bayonet. He jumped back and shot the Jap. For a few minutes, 2nd Platoon had hand-to-hand combat. Probably here, Slack was seriously wounded and the big Texan Staff Sergeant Otto Mueller was killed.

     The whole advance was stalled. The tanks machine-gunned the ridge, but seemed to have little effect on reducing the Jap machine-gun fire. Tankmen later claimed credit for overhead fire that allowed 2nd Platoon to crawl back to safety, but they could not silence the ridge.

     We could not bring out Mueller's body. In return for Slack's wound and Mueller's death, we claimed 15 dead Nips. Surviving Japs evidently cleared the ridge area before next day for 162's Journal credits our fight for driving the Japs from San Roque Pocket. We had begun a general evacuation of the Japs that would take them from their Mount Capisan stronghold farther north and into the rain-forest west of Sinonog River.

     After AT's big fight at San Roque Pocket, Mine Platoon got an easier assignment to secure 162's 81mm mortar positions at San Roque Village. Some days later, Kielsgard and 4-5 more volunteers went back to recover Mueller's body. Kielsgard still remembers heavy rain forest nearby and steep high ground close to it - a perfect spot for an ambush. Yet we recovered Mueller without firing a shot.

     At 0722 17 March, Nips mortared "AT" at San Roque with 15 rounds. We had no casualties. Now "AT" was reassigned to outguard 162's Headquarters. The battle-front was not air-tight; many maverick bands of Japs were still reported at large. But we had no fights with them.

     "AT" continued setting up security perimeters. One night we dug in on both sides of a much-used trail. About midnight, a booby-trap exploded up the trail. We heard the "pit-pat" of a barefoot Nip running downward among us. He ran all the way through our perimeter and out the other side and blew another booby-trap. Then he trotted back through the whole company again - really flying low and fast this time. He escaped back up-trail with his life. We didn't fire a shot, for we feared to hit our cobbers on the other side of the perimeter.

     On the night of 26 March late in the Zambo operation, "AT" and Counts and Gunia especially, had a frightening experience with booby-traps. By this time, our booby-traps were far more sophisticated than in the earlier New Guinea campaigns. Earlier, we had simply tied a grenade to a tree and attached a trip-wire to the loosened pin. But the grenade took all of three seconds after the Jap tripped the wire. It was often just a warning device for us crouched in our holes. Hearing the detonation, the Jap could leap away, hurl, himself prone, and be unhurt.

     At Zambo, however, we had instant detonators to replace slow detonators in a grenade, or screw into other types of anti-personnel mines. That night of 26 June, "AT" guarded a well-worn trail on a ridge through dark, heavy rain forest. Counts with Gunia was setting traps with the new, instant detonators about 50 feet outside perimeter. We had one truly deadly anti-personnel mine - a block of cast iron, 6 by 10 inches full of TNT. This was "Big Bertha," to place in the most threatened spot - the only sure killer we had.

     Counts placed her on a bench 5-6 feet from the trail, waist-high with the trip-wire crossing the trail. Gunia and he agreed that whoever hit the wire would be "evaporated." Suddenly at dusk, Counts had orders over the phone. Because a combat patrol was out and might come down our trail, we had to go out in the open in the failing light and disarm our trail traps. While he neutralized the downhill traps, Counts sent Gunia to silence Big Bertha. Just as Counts had secured his traps, he heard a thunderous burst from exploding Big Bertha. It rocked the ridge, echoed up and down the valley.

     "Damn! Joe's dead!" Counts said in his grief and anguish. He blamed himself for sending Gunia where he himself ought to have gone. Head down, Counts turned slowly back up the trail. He was in no hurry; he had to face what was left of "AT" cobber Joe Gunia.

     But Gunia lived! On the other side of the perimeter, Counts saw all of Gunia, with two Mine Platoon men escorting him to a hole. Although at first stunned from concussion, Gunia soon recovered. Sole wound was a small fragment in a little finger. Gunia had survived by a million to one chance.

     On 3 May, "AT" with our regiment and 3rd Battalion 163 attached, left Zamboanga Peninsula to fight on the Mindanao mainland. To conquer great Mindanao Island's mainland, General Eichelberger already had his Eighth Army's 24 and 31 Divisions, 108 Regiment and a 164 Regiment Battalion. But he needed every handy battalion to destroy the unexpected 50,000 to 58,000 Japs on the island. Landing at Parang 4 May, "AT" helped to mop up the southwest corner of Mindanao after 24 Division had spearheaded the landing.  

     On 13 May, "AT” had 162's first fight against 40-501Japs near Dilap, 20 miles inland near Mindanao River. When Jap fire grounded our scouts, Counts called for help to save them. We withdrew under heavy mortar fire but had no losses, although our arms were only carbines and rifles. Returning better armed next day, we could not find the Japs.

     On 30 May, "AT" was in a truck convoy for Maramag on Sayre Highway, main north-south route on Mindanao. Monsoon rains and other troop moves had turned this neglected road into a quagmire. The mud halted our trucks, and by 5 June, General Sibert of X Corps had cancelled this move.

     About 24 June, "AT" left Sayre Highway to rejoin 162 Infantry, already in heavy combat near Davao City since 10 June. Although 162 Infantry and 3rd Battalion 163 Infantry had broken main resistance before Calinan on 18 June, "AT" helped pursue the Nips.

     Patrolling a dirt road near Lorenzo, 2.5 miles northeast of Calinan on 26 June, we found our last heavy resistance of World War II. At least four automatic weapons fired on us. Hagner was lightly wounded. The Nips were well dug in, among many pillboxes. Two days later L Company was repulsed with five dead, 12 wounded. Not until 30 June after 205 Field Artillery barrages and two tanks' help would 3rd Battalion destroy the 22 pillboxes holding us up and push through to Davao River - this time without losses.

     AT 162's Southern Philippine Campaign was for us one of a few comparatively light actions, with just two dead and six wounded at Zambo, and one at Lorenzo. It was hard work and plenty of it, of course. Looking back on the campaign today, however, we believe that the whole Southern Philippine Campaign was mainly to keep us fit for the Division's invasion of Kyushu scheduled for 1 November 1945. We are happy that World War II ended.

 

CREDIT: Fred Kielsgard's letter in Jungleer of May 1979 started this story, backed by Fred's second letter of 20 June 1979, and Steve Counts' letters of 21 November and 26 December 1979, and 27 January and 12 February 1980. Documents consulted were 162's casualty lists and March, 1945, Morning Report-with 162's Narrative and Journal of the Southern Philippine Campaign in Zamboanga and Central Mindanao. I used also "'A' Company on Zamboango-Jolo" of 716 Tank Battalion, "205 Field Artillery Battalion Historical Record V-4 Zamboanga," and RR Smith's Triumph in the Philippines. "

Note:  Full names of those killed were added from research data in 2015.