Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion 163 Infantry: Blow-up Hill and Pasananca

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield Division Historian and Clifton James, Sr. (Headquarters Company 1st Battalion 163 Infantry)

When Headquarters. Company of 1st Battalion 163 Infantry charged into San Mateo Beach on 10 March 1945, Jap fire struck our LCI. Runner Cliff James thought that all the Jap 20mm guns of Zamboanga fired at us. We beached under a bank 8 feet above us, impossible to scale with our heavy gear. A tankman of A Company 716 Tank Battalion saw our trouble and drove into shallow water nearby. We jumped on his tank, ran-to the rear, and climbed onto the beach. Jap fire hit nobody, and passed on. Headquarters Company pushed inland a mile to hole up in deserted Jap trenches, near Wolfe Strip.

(Only years later do we realize how near disaster 163 came from our own planes. While General Thomas White – Commanding Officer of XIII Air Force - General Doe, and General Eichelberger watched from the deck of their Navy command ship, three flights of Liberators almost bombed us. Arriving late from Halmahera, they ignored Air Control, and bombed while we were already ashore. After the first two strikes, General Doe asked Air Force General White to stop the bombing. Pacing the deck nervously, General White blanched and said that he had no radio contact. But even Flight No.3 hurt no 163 man; a swamp had retarded our advance. But General Doe did credit XIII Air Force for hitting Caldera Point, which could enfilade our landing beach.)

On 11 March about 1050, we had our first casualties. When getting out of a jeep, James heard the Jap shell coming, threw himself into a hole just in time. Reichenberger was killed; 2nd Lieutenant Seiler died later. The same shell wounded Major Alfred, Staff Sergeant Duvall, T4s Barnes and Barnard, T/5 Kisser, and Private Leach.

Although briefly in reserve, 1st Battalion moved into combat the afternoon of our second day at Zambo, 11 March. When E and F Companies pushed into palm groves below Santa Maria Village. 1.9 miles north of Zambo City, Jap machine guns, a 20mm cannon, and small arms fire lashed F Company. Withdrawing 200·300 yards south, "F" needed reinforcements.

But when 1st Battalion forwarded under cover of combined fires of "F'" and 146 Field Artillery, opposition was light. Our battalion's greater fire power drove back the Japs' first line. They retreated 200 yards, and held. Headquarters Company's 1st Lieutenant Foster's team knocked out a Jap 20mm gun too close to us. At 1655, 1st Battalion had three litter cases and two walking wounded still to evacuate that night. Our 1st Battalion casualties totaled five dead, 10 wounded. James saw many dead that day -including, of course, Jap corpses.

Runner James got little sleep that night of 11 March. All night, men shot and threw grenades at the dark. Two men panicked from holes somewhere in 1st Battalion and were killed, but the Japs did not attack.

On 12 March, 163's 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion tried to advance north against the entrenched Japs. While our 2nd Battalion pushed left of the Zambo City-Pasananca Road, 1st Battalion pushed on the right of that road, with Tumaga River on our right flank. We fought a suicidal defense in depth of 2,000 well-armed men of 33 Naval Guards-the crack "Jap Marines." Their holes and pillboxes were nearly invisible in coconut plantations overgrown with brush. Besides deadly little 20mm guns, they had several 75s not detected yet.

On that 12 March, 1st Battalion took fire from probably anti-aircraft guns of 20mm at 0940, but attacked at 1005 and by 1158 was through heavily mined and booby-trapped Santa Maria Barrio. But by 1345, we were stopped in an area of pillboxes guarded by barbed wire, and called for tanks. In two hours of intense battle, the tanks destroyed six 20mm guns and several machine guns with maybe 100 dead Japs. We fought side by side with 2nd Battalion.

But with C Company leading, 1st Battalion made just 400 yards that day, despite probable tank help and 146 Field Artillery's two direct hits on two Jap guns. When digging in that night, James saw his hole of last night; Headquarters Company had not moved far. Our 1st Battalion counted five dead, 10 wounded. Of these, Battalion. Headquarters Company lost two wounded – Tech Sergeant Cliff Davis and T/5 Stern.     

Japs cut our communication lines that night. Reports came that two platoons were to hit us in the dark. Major Kent hoped for a suicidal "Banzai" charge so that we could mop up the survivors. But no attack came.            .

On 13 March, 1st Battalion pushed again into the deadly coconut groves before Pasananca, with 2nd Battalion again on our left flank. This third hard day of battle led up to Blow-Out Hill that afternoon.

C Company was on the point a second day, but "B" moved in front of "C" and took fire from "C" men who thought that they were Japs. Casualties, if any, were unrecorded; but C's Tech Sergeant Walter Yates halted us and ran to inform "C" men. As' Yates rejoined' "C", a sniper killed him. Maybe because Yates carried Captain Houston's binoculars and so seemed to be an officer.

Then a 20mm and a .75 opened up and stopped 1st Battalion. When we called for a tank of 3rd Platoon 716 Tank Battalion, and C's Gould volunteered to guide the tank. Shortly after, the tank returned to report that Gould was killed.

Then Sergeant Harvey B. Stuart went out on the trail before the tank, but Japs jumped in front of him. Stuart slew all three. But before he could shelter behind the tank, a 30 mm gun ricocheted off the steel sides and killed Stuart. The tank now spotted the. 75 and smashed it, and maybe 100 Japs.

Again 1st Battalion pushed on Pasananca - "A" on the left, and "C" on the right. A bunker on the other side of a creek halted C Company; 2nd Lieutenant Moore and Worthley wiped out its 5-man crew. But another machine gun at the base of a hill stopped C's'1st Lieutenant Irish's Platoon and killed one and wounded one. A bullet in the groin seriously wounded Irish himself.

In this area where "C" halted, barbed wire was pegged 6 inches above the ground; we wondered why. To our left, Runner James saw a hill about 100 feet high which was covered with coconut palms, surely the same hill near which Irish was wounded. James did not then know that he was looking at Blow-Out Hill, He did not know that an E Company Platoon had finally fought its way to the summit while other "E" Platoons waited below for tank-cannon to blast concealed Japs holding both flanks. James was, in fact, cutting a souvenir belt-buckle from a Jap killed by Moore and Worthley.

Suddenly the whole hill lifted up. James dove into a trench as deadly debris fell-shattered trees and chunks of earth. Abbott fell on top of James in the trench. He leaned an arm on James' helmet, and a falling rock broke his wrist.

Now we saw why the Jap wire was only 6 inches above ground. As men ran for cover, they tripped on wire while hill fragments crashed down on them. C's Tegeler ran down the road toward a bridge that was mined. At Major Kent's warning, James grabbed him and took him to where Captain Baron and other medics worked on men lying everywhere around.

Flames, chunks of earth, rocks, and even whole palm trees erupted from Blow-Out Hill. At 1500 feet over the blast, 146 Field Artillery's observer saw debris fly far above in this explosion that tore a 200-yard crater in Blow-Out Hill.

In C Company where coconut logs fell, Burns sensibly embraced a tree. He still took a dent in his helmet. But “Louis Uhler the jeweler" died of a broken neck, and 14 other "C" men were first listed as lightly injured in action, which must mean that they were struck.  Far left of Coconut Hill, A Company also suffered. As palm trees flew through the air, Sergeant James was thrown up five feet, sprained his ankle coming down, and could not hear for an hour. Sergeant Neil Hyde was killed; A Company reported a total of four casualties. D Company had four "lightly injured in action," probably blow-up casualties.

In Runner James' 1st Battalion Headquarters Company, Paul J. Branden was killed, and Staff Sergeant Harrison lightly injured-both Blow-Out Hill casualties.

Our recovery from that deadly blast was rapid, however. Unhurt men dreaded a Jap assault at once. Perhaps no attack came on E's front because the hill blew out on the wrong side, against the Japs. On C's front, the Japs seemed leaderless. C's Burns heard them loudly talking. Without orders, he and other "C" men set up machine guns and mortars and fired at close range. Jap talk turned into screaming; they did not attack.

In all 1st Battalion, probable final figures for the blast were two dead, 20 wounded. In 2nd Battalion, E Company alone lost three dead, 18 wounded. Total in 163 was perhaps five dead, 38 wounded. The hill had blown prematurely, or losses would have been far greater.

Yet both battalions quickly moved out against the Japs again. While 2nd Battalion leftwards got a foothold on the west ridge of Pasananca and fought there, 1st Battalion had our own hard fight. We advanced step by step against small arms and mortars to the groves' edge just south of Pasananca. In open ground, fire from three sides hit us, forced back into the groves to dig in. From Santa Maria to Pasananca, 1st Battalion had made 1.5 miles on 11-13 March.

On 14 March, all arms blasted the powerful Jap lines holding Pasananca - field artillery, Air Force, and infantry - including Cannon Company. At 0800-0830, 146 Field Artillery fired eight concentrations, and marked with smoke the air-bomb lines. At 0920, two squadrons of B-24s hit the Japs, then 3 minutes field artillery. Four more B-24 squadrons then struck between 0936 and 0945. After mortar preparation, "B" and "C" advanced.

Even after heavy preparation, 1st Battalion had hard going. Tropical growth had hidden many Jap bunkers. After a few hundred yards, Jap 20mm guns, field artillery, and some small arms slowed us. We reached the cross-roads below Pasananca by 1225; but 2nd Battalion on our left had not come up on line. We were exposed to Jap flanking fire. At 1300, Japs began circling our right flank. Six 1st Battalion Headquarters men had to provide security until an "A" Platoon came to take over.

About 1200, five tanks forwarded and claimed destruction of 16 pillboxes and one 20mm gun. B Company gained 700 yards; but by 1615, 1st Battalion had to dig in for the night. Brightest spot of 14 March was that we heard Jap demolitions going on in Pasananca. In Battalion Headquarters Company, Sergeant Myers was wounded; total 1st Battalion losses were three dead, nine wounded, and one injured.

Next day, 15 March, we progressed, however. Some Japs were still in Pasananca, but our objective now was to capture Zambo City Reservoir, 1.7 miles north of Pasananca. An "A" patrol on our right flank reached the reservoir, and passed it to meet a "C" patrol which had come directly up the main road from Pasananca. Following these men, 1st Battalion by 1625 held the 2-mile circumference of the reservoir. (It could hold about 1,500,000 gallons; but Jap neglect and guerilla sabotage had made it useless. C Company 116 Engineers would soon make it operational again.) On 15 March, 1st Battalion Headquarters had just 1 injured - Delrial. Two men were wounded in 1st Battalion.

From high ground above the reservoir, the Japs still menaced us on 16 June. At 0710, their 20mm gun drove 1st Battalion to ground, forced Major Kent to dive for his hole with the gun shooting at his heels. Two "D" gunners fought it with their .30 light machine gun; but even field artillery and mortars failed to kill it. AT Company's .57 recoilless cannon broke it with three rounds.

            When Major Kent had a council of Battalion officers that afternoon, a knee mortar shell impacted his command post about 1425 and caused havoc. When the shell hit, Kent was out of his hole while Hurley bathed his eye inflamed from a centipede bite of last night. Capt. Merrick, new Battalion. 8-3, sat on the edge of a hole with his helmet off. On the side of Runner James' hole, C's Captain Houston sat. The Commanding Officer of A Company, 116 Engineer, 1st Lieutenant Elwood Call, stood at one end. Call said that he did not know how to disarm a new type of Jap mine. Captain Merrick heard the shell corning. The Jap mortar shell killed Call by a fragment in the chest.

Another fragment mortally wounded Capt. Harold B. Houston in the side. Kent was wounded in both knees, Hurley torn up badly. James, Merrick were struck in the head - James three times. Captain Skauge, Battalion Executive, was also wounded, and Merrick's orderly in shock.

Already badly holed on the way, an ambulance arrived with two volunteer drivers. As they helped lift us from under a big tree, more Jap mortar shells fell nearby. The drivers evacuated at 80 miles per hour to save us - right through the Japs. Wounded Merrick and James lay on either side of Houston in the hospital when he died. On 16 March, 1st Battalion Headquarters lost one dead, five wounded, from a total of two dead, 18 wounded, and one injured.

,     In the next few days, the other 163 Battalions helped drive the Japs from the overhanging ridges. On 17 March, 1st Battalion lost just two wounded. When "C" with two tanks won a hill north of the reservoir, on 18 March, "C" had one dead; 1st Battalion Headquarters had Marsee wounded. By 23 March, all 1st Battalion was relieved and safe in a rear area. Of 19 killed and 70 wounded in all 1st Battalion, Headquarters 1st Battalion had lost five dead, 17 wounded against Jap Marines without planes, tanks, heavy field artillery. But we had killed many more Japs and driven them from their Pasananca stronghold into starvation jungle ridges.

 

CREDIT: Indispensable core story is Cliff James' letter, 8 November 1978, backed by 163's Journal 17 February-29 May 1945, 1st Battalion 163's S-1 Journal 10-29 March 1945, 146 Field Artillery's Captain Robert Allen's "Zamboanga Recaptured," and 716 Tank Battalion's "A Company on Zamboanga-Jolo." Important also were Morning Reports of all 1st Battalion Companies, and "Special Report No. 68/Zamobanga,” donated by Major John Jacobucci. These men supplied important letters: Major General Jens Doe, 27 January 1961, Colonel (now Brigade General) Kenneth Sweany, A 163's Sergeant Clifton James and Robert" Ace" Heleman, and C's Bob Burns and 1st Lieutenant George Irish. Dr. Arthur Merrick (then the newly transferred captain of B 163) phoned from Washington, D.C. on 28 March.