L Company 162 Infantry At Zamboanga: San Roque and Sibago Island

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian and L Company's 1st Lieutenant David Camack


On 10 March 1945, L Company 162 landed after heavy bombardments at San Mateo Beach, about 3.5 miles west of Zambo City. We pushed inland unopposed through silent Jap trenches with pillboxes, many intact from gunnery and bombs. At 1220 with 3rd Battalion we advanced from temporary positions around northeast end of Wolfe Strip. Orders were to skirt east end of swamp near Wolfe Strip and occupy San Roque Barrio, about three miles away.

Thus "L" began our Southern Philippine Campaign - against Japs supposedly less tough than the hardened veterans of Salamaua and Biak. Organized in the Philippines in 1943, Lieutenant General Tokichi Hojo's 54 Independent Mixed Brigade was a miscellany of garrison units, fragments of other commands and replacements. Mostly lacking combat experience, they still had Jap courage. And like the Japs of Cebu City, 541MB held some of the best defenses in the southern Philippines. On a front five miles wide, often three miles deep, they had barbed wire, extensive minefields and plenty of automatic weapons, mortars and field artillery. They had 56 20mm guns and 23 75cm cannon.

Yet on this first day, opposition was slight. Out of 11 3rd Battalion casualties, "L" had three marked lightly wounded: Hopple, Staff Sergeant Peiffer and Captain Goggin. After fighting a few rearguard Japs, 3rd Battalion bivouacked south of San Roque Village and that night endured only slight harassment from night fighters.

Goggin was replaced as Commanding Officer by 1st Lieutenant Camack, executive officer of I Company, on 11 March L Company moved through low, wooded foothills until about 600 yards south of San Roque. Patrols reported Jap defenses ample for a regiment, but we made just slight contacts. "L's" Sergeant Campione was lightly wounded - out of only four in 3 Battalion, of whom one died. That night, Japs against harassed.

On 12 March, our 3rd Battalion began its real action against the great San Roque strongpoint. First, I Company moved 2500 yards north and seized a trail junction at a village which we renamed Harlowton, Here I Company blocked a northwest-southeast trail joining a southward trail. We interdicted the main Jap front. East- ward, one main Jap body faced 163 at Pasananca. The other Jap group faced us men of 162, extending from San Roque north and west to the Sinonog River and the final stronghold of Mount Capisan.

L Company readied to attack San Roque. This village area was bowl-shaped, about 1,000 yards in diameter, and surrounded by rising ground. Here the Japs had almost completed a naval forces headquarters - numerous offices and barracks, even with running water. It was an area of trenches, bunkers, and pillboxes, notably on the south road. North and northwest, two adjoining valleys held a large hospital, a plane - parts dump and several shops. Both valleys were strongly fortified. Our air strikes had leveled most buildings.

Thus, San Roque bowl was an excellent position for Japs to conceal a large body of troops. It was also excellent for a stubborn defense, or a massed counterattack.

On 12 Mar., "L" went up against that concealed threat. Specifically, we had orders to seize one of the ridges overlooking the bowl. If we held the ridge, we could cover other 3rd Battalion men's entrance into the bowl.

So, Commanding Officer 1st Lieutenant Camack sent a recon patrol to find the best avenue of approach. The patrol was also to report whether one ridge would be a safe position for "L".

The patrol found the approach from the south safe enough. Even though brush was heavy and entrenchments ample for a whole Jap regiment, the patrol saw only a few stragglers. But it erred greatly selected a ridge too small for L Company to occupy. Only a few men could see from it to cover 3rd Battalion's advance into San Roque.

When he moved "L" up to the ridge, the alarmed Camack wondered why Japs had let L Company get even a foothold. The knifelike ridge was too narrow and too short to hold. Only a few men could actually look down on the town. A platoon could hardly find space on it to dig in, let alone all of L Company.

At once, Camack phoned 3rd Battalion’s Commanding Officer that this terrain was useless to protect an advance. And this ridge was impossible to hold. L Company’s right flank on the ridge was open to fire from higher ground. And that high ground was now coming alive with Japs. Directly in front of us, Japs were occupying a ridge 200 yards away.

            But 3rd Battalion’s Commanding Officer seemed unimpressed by Camack’s report of danger to L Company. Camack had orders to do everything possible to hold his ground.

            Already, Jap fire had begun from the right flank of “L’s” short and narrow ridge – against an exposed squad probably in Lieutenant Gesk’s platoon, dug in 10-15 feet from Camack. From the forward ridge at 200 yards, sporadic fire also struck at us. L Company was already in a bad spot.

            We could not clearly see those moving Japs in the brush and behind ridge crests. We could only fire in their general direction with our small arms, “L’s” light machine guns and tow of “M’s” heavy machine guns. We had to set up one “M” heavy machine gun to fire from the left front of our ridge, with five protecting riflemen on the top close by. Despite our failure to discern individual Japs, Camack would later find that we had hit some, however.

            First death in all 162 Infantry at Zambo was 1st Lieutenant Robert K. Bentley, battalion communications officer. He had volunteered with “L” for liaison and observation. Twice he traced a broken phone line 30-50 yards while fully exposed to Jap fire. This time, he moved in to the open for 100 yards to mend the break. An allegedly stray bullet killed Bentley. Others were wounded.

            Camack finally persuaded 3rd Battalion’s commanding officer that L Company was uselessly exposed and got permission to retreat. With 1st Lieutenant Geske, Camack ably organized the withdrawal, despite mounting Jap rifle fire against our ridge. We were lucky that the Japs were firing only small arms. With machine guns or mortars, they could have maimed or killed many more.

            Camack’s first duty was to save M Company’s two attached heavy machine guns. To protect them, he set up our two L Company light machine guns in final protective lines, with covering riflemen. And 1st Lieutenant Geske with 1st Lieutenant Rummel – hardened old vet of C 163 at Sanananda – risked Jap fire while they tried to extricate other men unaware of our retreat order. Field artillery now fired smoke shells over our retreat to conceal us from Jap plunging fire.

            But one group of six Yanks was still isolated in firing positions and unaware that Jap killers were moving in. Stokes and Waynick dodged back from the clump to tree clump to spot the six men and recall them to “L’s” covering force.

            Among last to leave, or course, was Commanding Officer Camack. All wounded got out. Camack became one of a party of eight - he remembered youthful Calvin Young among them - who gathered rifles some men had dropped. Besides the walking wounded, men helping the wounded had dropped rifles - no doubt on orders. As many as eight may have been wounded; two more fell from heat exhaustion.

When Camack reported in person to battalion command post, a visiting brigadier general complimented him for setting up his fine delaying action to protect our retreat. More important to Camack, however, were the profuse thanks of M Company's Lieutenant Walt Kelly for saving his two heavy machine guns and their crews.

On that 12 March, "L" had nine hospital casualties. Bauder was seriously injured. The other eight hospitalized were marked lightly wounded: Griego, Jamison, Epstein, Horner, Amaral, Waldecker, T/5 Gagliardo and Sergeant Weaver. Two more were heat exhaustion casualties. (On that 12 March, only other 3rd Battalion men to suffer were from K Company with five casualties - but three of them killed.) We were unsure, however, if all of "L's" casualties came from that San Roque ridge. For that night, "L" repelled an hour-long attack, which could have caused some of these losses.

Yet 41 Division Artillery's "Narrative" differently records L Company's San Roque fight of 12 March. Division Artillery said that at 1400, we repelled 800-1000 Jap Marines, in a situation so fluid that field artillery was useless to assist L Company. It added that at 1645, Japs expelled us from San Roque, which we retook within hours.

But 162's "Narrative" numbers the Japs not as 800 but 300. And Camack did not even have field artillery observers with L Company, for 162 had not planned to use field artillery in attacking. For another, 162 Company was to seize another ridge in front of L Company to work with "L" to mortar down the Japs in San Roque bowl. Moreover, "L" and other 3rd Battalion units never San Roque, while E Company with tanks and AT Company choked out resistance.

With other 3rd Battalion men, "L" reinforced I Company at Harlowton northwest of San Roque. We became part of a 162 encircling movement against the main Jap body opposing our regiment on the western front above Zambo. We were to drive the Harlowton Japs northwest to their stronghold of Mount Capisan.

On 13-15 March, all 3rd Battalion had few losses - and all of them in "L". Weis, Stewart and Staff Sergeant Kliever were lightly injured in action; one of these men with a sprained ankle. On 14-15 March, we lost none - with only an "I" man injured in all 3rd Battalion.

On 16 March, "L" occupied I Company's perimeter while "I" and "K" abreast attacked the first hilltop northwest of Harlowton. Here two Jap companies resisted until 1125 next morning. Counted were 40 dead Japs; certainly many more were killed and sealed inside caves that we blasted shut. Inactive that 16 March, "L" lost none; "I" and "K" together had five dead, 15 wounded. On 17 March, our Sergeant Losinski was wounded from a stray U.S. plane bullet; other 3rd Battalion outfits had only two wounded, one injured.

On 18-19 March, we captured two steep hills and had almost all of 3rd Battalion's casualties. On 18 March, "L" advanced about 700 yards northwest against some Jap opposition, including mortar shells, and secured the next hill. We contacted 163 Infantry from the east. Although "I" and "K" together lost just one killed and one wounded, we lost Pvt. Joseph T. Costello (killed) and nine wounded. Lew Wilson was recorded seriously wounded. Lightly wounded were Kramer, Trager, Foreman, Grazer, Archie Kelley, T/5 Hattabuch, Sergeant Beck, Staff Sergeant Blumenfeld and Ed Wilson. On 19 March, we took another hill to the northwest, with fewer losses. Lightly wounded were Karam, Conley, Weldon, Tech Sergeants LaVelve Davis and Blanchard. Rest of 3rd Battalion had an injured officer.

On 20-24 March, "L" was part of 3rd Battalion's continued advance along with 162's other two battalions and 186's 1sr Battalion against Mount Capisan. On 22 March, our battalion stayed in place for field artillery and planes to pound Capisan. But we lost O'Neal Wood seriously wounded and Pfc Fritz H. Goedeke dead of wounds. When a three-pronged drive stormed Capisan late 24 March, our part was to overrun the hill mass east of this supremely important mountain. We lost no one. All of 3rd Battalion had one killed and one wounded. We then went to work with all of 162 to clean up Jap remnants in the Zambo Mountains.

A month later, L Company was the main outfit in 162's last Zambo shootout. This was the four-day fight for Sibago Island. Lying 28 miles southeast of Zambo City at the eastern entrance to Basilan Strait, Sibago is just 1.5 miles long by 3/4 miles wide and shaped like a kidney bean. Highest of its two hills was 630 feet, with a lighthouse topping one hill. A large detachment of diehard Nips held its wooded cliffs.

Local Filipinos told us only that some Japs were on Sibago. After air-dropping 500 specially prepared leaflets uselessly on their positions, we took direct action. Following a light air strike, 162's I & R landed on Sibago at 0900 on 26 April, with two PT boats supporting. Advancing up a ridge, I & R halted under intense rifle and machine gun fire. Unable to maneuver in that small area, I & R found its position untenable. Tech Sergeant Schramm was wounded.

Withdrawing to Lanhill Island, 1,000 yards north, I & R got reinforcements from an "L" platoon, and two 81mm mortars, probably from M Company. A cannon 162 platoon also emplaced on Lanhill to fire on order. We had another air strike with 105 bombardment and landed again at 1005 next day, 27 April. No machine guns fired this time, but lively rifle fire impacted near us. Corporal Ralph F. Inman was killed, Forte and Sergeant Darrell Brown wounded.

Trying to top the Japs' pointed ridge, L's Commanding Offcier Camack saw no sense wasting men to storm it. We had scouted the heights from all directions, but most approaches were almost perpendicular. We needed mountain-climbing equipment. Camack withdrew us to the beach and called for more bombing before advancing again. Not until two days later, 30 April, did we leave Sibago Island. Instead of 26 Nips originally suspected there, we had slain 58.

Already on 27 April, 162 was alerted to embark from Zambo Peninsula to the Mindanao mainland for our final battle of World War II. In the Zambo Operation, "L" had suffered only minor casualties, with three dead, 30 wounded and four injured in action. After our repulse at San Roque - through no fault of ours - we had done well in the advance on Mount Capisan and in clearing Sibago Island.

 

CREDIT: Most important sources were Ietters of Dave Camack (12, 23, 27 July 1972) and his notes to my letter of 18 July 1977. Important were Award Stories of Bentley, Cemsck , Geske, Rummell, Stokes and Waynick. Rest of this I pieced together from 162's "Report of Casualties", 162's "Report of Operations, Zamboanga Area, Mindanao," and "Headquarters 41st Division Artillery ,Narrative Report of Zamboanga Operation." Thanks also for Major John R. Jacobucci's "Special Report No. 68" on Zamboanga (14 February 1945) from Allied Geographical Section SWPA. Credit is due also to U.S. Eighth Army's "Operational Monograph on the Zamboanga Sulu Operation."