E Company 163 Infantry: Blowout Hill at Zamboanga

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian with E 163's BARman Robert Sams

This is the story of Blowout Hill at Zamboanga Battle, on 13 March 1945. The mine under Blowout Hill played havoc with the Platoon of E Company 163 Infantry who were on the hill when the Japanese blew the mine by two suicidal Marines. But despite the agony of men of E Company and other outfits, this is basically a tale of Japs' failure to make full use of their deadly weapon. It is also the harrowing story of BARman Robert Sams and the grievous wound that he suffered on Blowout Hill.

On 12 March 1945 - the day before Blowout Hill - E Company 163 had not suffered many casualties. On that 12 March, we had begun pushing in our 2nd Battalion towards the heavily fortified Jap Marines of 33 Naval Guard at Pasananca. Our 2nd Battalion push began in column of companies. G Company led out with "E" following, and "F" in the rear. By 1230, G Company had encountered heavy field artillery and machine gun fire, and had lost two killed and two seriously wounded. E Company had echeloned to the left to protect G's flank, but had less trouble. By nightfall, 146 Field Artillery's 105 guns with five tanks of 716 Tank Battalion had made easier the way for farther advances next morning up the highway to Pasananca Village. Our 2nd Battalion had advanced some 400 yards against that fortress of overgrown bunkers and hidden 75 mm cannon.

On the morning of 13 March, the day of Blowout Hill, G Company went into 2nd Battalion reserve and hoped to rest, and our E Company led out with "F" behind us. At first, our advance was easy towards what would become Blowout Hill. Without vicious fire from the Jap 75s which had been silenced the day before, opposition seemed much lighter. With tanks and 105s to assist us, we had only rifle fire and mortars to fight. At 1000 when a Jap mortar fired, our own mortars knocked it out. E Company overran an abandoned Jap 20 mm dual purpose gun. By 1040, we had pushed 200 yards north of 2nd Battalion's forward command post and had contacted men of 1st Battalion advancing in the jungle on the eastern side of Pasananca Road.

E Company's main effort that day had been to march directly forward towards Pasananca Village. This frontal push meant that we had to drive the Japs from a low jungle hill. Heavy jungle crowned its top. It was almost flat on the top, with a gentle curve for a summit. This was deadly Blowout Hill.

E Company's BARman Sams remembered afterwards that "E" had that morning come to an open area of 300-400 feet before we started up the hill. On our first try across the open area, "E" took several casualties. Staff Sergeant Raymond L. Wieder must have died here, for his death was reported at 1020, but we have no way of finding the names of the wounded at that time. The Japs were dug in at the base of the hill, and their machine gun and rifle fire was heavy. We had to call for the tanks to blast out the Japs with our 75 mm cannon.

It was probably E Company's 2nd Platoon that started over the hill with the other rifle Platoons on our flanks. After a rough climb to about the middle of the hill, 2nd Platoon began advancing too far ahead of our flanking Platoons on rougher ground. A halt was called.

BARman Robert Sams and his assistant were left a short way to the rear to guard a cross-trail. They endured much Jap rifle fire and were about to dig a hole and pull the hole in after them. As could be expected then, they had orders to go forward again.

Once more, E Company's officers called a halt. Sams and his unknown assistant took the usual infantrymen's positions in battle. They dropped down for rest and shelter close to an unknown Medic. (Sams was a new man in E Company. He had joined only at Mindoro, and had hardly begun to know the names of other "E" men.)

When the explosion lifted up Blowout Hill beneath them, neither Sams nor his BAR assistant knew when it happened. He thought that it killed his assistant outright. The nearby Medic was mangled and broken horribly, but Sams knew nothing about either man at that time. Sams recovered consciousness to find himself crawling downhill in unbearable pain.

About 1440 that 13 March 1945, Japanese Petty Officers Eizo Sakanishi and Akiyo Yamauchi blew the mine by hand. Thus they died gamely for the Emperor. They exploded many tons of TNT, naval depth charges, and torpedoes. The whole hilltop lifted skyward. Flying at 1500 feet, the cub pilot of our 146 Field Artillery Battalion saw a column of smoke and debris far over his head. Below, trees and chunks of earth and stone fell back into a crater over 200 yards in diameter.

Before the explosion, the reserve G Company had moved to the hill base near the waiting tanks. About the time that we arrived, we could still see E Company's Platoon on top of Blowout Hill. Then the entire hill seemed to fly high in the air. Hunks of rock and coral weighing tons flew skyward. While the earth shook, pieces of equipment and maybe men looking like old sacks were blown high overhead. A sheet of flame shot upward 100 feet.

For a few seconds, "G" stood dazed by the thunder. Then all G Company dived for cover. Rocks and dirt rained down on a nearby tank; a huge chunk of rock struck about 200 feet away from cowering "G" men. But no G Company man was hurt. Choking smoke and dust then rained on us, and we heard the agonized call for Medics.

When Sams of E Company came to himself after painful crawling, many Medics and rear echelon men were working on his body. They cut off all his clothes, gave him a shot, and lifted him into a litter.

Just as maimed Sams was placed on a cot in a tent of a beachside hospital whose number he does not remember, a lone Jap raider dived from the setting sun. Twice the plane bombed and strafed the hospital area. Sams later heard that Naval anti-aircraft fire had downed the plane. This was the only reported air sortie at the Battle of Zamboanga of the depleted Jap Air Force in the Philippines.

E Company men on top of the blast suffered most of the casualties, of course. For the whole day, "E" listed a total of 34 names in the Morning Report, but it did not state exactly which of these men were in the explosion. E Company had been in combat before the explosion. (As mentioned before, Staff Sergeant Raymond L. Wieder was killed long before, at 1020.)

Pfc Alfred H. Hanenkrat and Pvt Otto J. Brandel were reported dead at 1500, about the time when the mine blew up. Besides these two killed, we have the names of 31 E Company men who were also reported as casualties on 13 March 1945.

A strikingly large number of these "E" casualties were reported as "lightly injured in action," an unusually large number for a Morning Report. We therefore believe that these injured were almost all explosion casualties - and no doubt a large number of the wounded.

There were 14 wounded in action. Seriously wounded was Pios. Lightly wounded were 2nd Lieutenant Roger I. McMillan, Staff Sergeant William P. Williamson, and Sergeant Joseph D. Spinella. Other wounded were Staff Sergeant Thomas W. Parker, Pfcs Glen O. Ashby, William F. Neithercutt, Howard W. Olson, Benjamin Marshall, and Peter Raykov, Pvt Joseph M. Meyer, Robert E. Deaton, Willard D. Scott, and Thomas A. Moody. There were 17 marked lightly injured in action.

Strange as it seems, Sams himself was reported lightly injured in action! Strangely enough, Sams' X-ray showed no internal damage. But that quaking ground above the explosion had beaten him into a pulp. He was black and blue all over. He had a knot in his spine. Even after a month's hospital and rest camp, he was hardly able to walk. Also injured were Staff Sergeants Hunter W. Newton and Alfred W. Nelson, and Sergeants Gabriel P. Moran and Clovis L. Norman. Others were Pfcs Bernard B. Jones, Pvts Robert E. Boyer, Jarvis D. Bradford, Garfield Austin, Roy E. Lowe, Deles E. Loney, Gaylor J. Bannick, Edward D. Breckenridge, Phillip J. Falasca, and Ambrose Pena.

Finally, the last two names on the casualty list seem to deserve special mention as casualties of the blast. Perhaps because of the confusion in the dust and smoke after the explosion, Pvts Ollie W. Brehm and Henry Bridegam were first marked as missing in action. Later, their names appeared on the list as lightly injured in action.

Thus, of 33 possible casualties of the explosion, two were reported killed, one seriously wounded, 13 lightly wounded, and 15 lightly injured. Hanenkrat and Brandell were surely killed in the blast, and most of the other 31 were also blast casualties.

And in 1st Battalion 163 Infantry across Pasananca Road, a fair number of the casualties there were surely victims of the blast. Here, C Company men cringed under entire trees falling on their ground. Pfc Lewis C. Uhler of C Company was carried away to die of a broken neck. Besides Uhler, on 13 March, "C" reported three lightly wounded, and eight lightly injured. On C's right in A Company, two were named as killed that day, two others seriously wounded, and three others lightly wounded. (Although "A" spoke of four mine casualties, their Morning Report failed to name them.) In "D" there were one lightly wounded, and four others lightly injured. As in E Company, however, we are fairly sure that most if not all of the lightly injured were mine casualties, perhaps because of the unusually high proportion of them in combat. Despite the number of 163's casualties and the size of the blowout - all of 300 yards in diameter - why did the Japs fail to realize only meager results from the blast - in comparison to what they should have realized? Why did they fail to destroy almost all of E Company and most of the tanks? Why did they fail to follow through on the blast with an all-out Marine attack at a time when the forward companies of both 163's Battalions might have been demoralized?

The Japs may have failed to begin a die-hard offensive because the hill blew off in the wrong direction for them - on the Nippo side of Blowout Hill. Perhaps for concealment from our scouts and observation planes, they had been forced to dig in from the wrong side. And perhaps their misguided explosion demoralized them also from taking the offensive. On 1st Battalion's front, they seemed to have prepared no attack. After the blast, C Company had heard only disorganized shouting and movement on their Jap front - and had silenced the noise with only one machine gun belt. In 2nd Battalion, a G Company patrol around the left of Blowout Hill found that the Japs had not even left their entrenchments around what G Company would call "Death Valley."

And after that momentary dazed halt from the blast, 163's offensive continued the rest of that bloody day of 13 March. Despite G's halt at Death Valley, other elements of 2nd Battalion moved up. Before dark, 2nd Battalion had a foothold on the west ridge that commanded Pasananca Village. And 1st Battalion had advanced to the woodland edge just south of Pasananca, where heavy fire and the dying light finally repelled them. Both Battalions still needed several more days to overrun Pasananca, but despite Blowout Hill, they were now positioned for final victory.

Of E Company's 33 alleged casualties of 13 March which were mostly from Blowout Hill, we have the later history of the suffering of just one man Sams, whose first agonies we have mentioned already. His spine was fractured, and by October 1972, he had endured two spinal operations. A seriously diseased kidney showed signs of previous injury. It bled continuously and must be removed. Yet Veterans Administration gave Sams only a 40 per cent disability payment - and not for his kidney. Because Sams could not remember which Zambo beach hospital had treated him, he could find no evidence that the damaged kidney was a battle injury. Like probably some other Blowout Hill casualties, he would never get adequate compensation for this necessary kidney operation.

Such was the Blowout Hill disaster and its agony, as epitomized in maimed Robert Sams. The Morning Reports of 13 March name just 57 casualties, and not all from the mine. Another official report goes up to 83. Yet the blast did not get its fullest effect and did not halt 163's 13 March advance.

POSTCRIPT: Best proof of 163's Infantry's good luck  Blowout Hill comes from the story of Americal Division's blowout at Go Chan Hill, about 2 miles north of Cebu City in the middle Philippines. On 29 March 1945, 18 Infantry prepared to withdraw from heavy fire on Go Chan Hill. It was a low, brushy rise with a shallow curve, much like our Blowout Hill.

When the Japs blew an ammo dump on Go Chan Hill's eastern spur, A Company 18 Infantry lost 20 dead and 30 wounded. B Company 716 Tank Battalion lost a tank and crew and had two more tanks damaged. Already under strength from Leyte Battle, A Company's survivors went to other 1st Battalion rifle companies. Not until the close of 30 March did 18 Infantry storm Go Chan. In contrast to this American holocaust, E Company's agony was far easier than most E Company men have ever realized.

 

CREDIT: Indispensable core of this history is BARman Robert Sams' letters of 4 September and 30 October 1972, and 3 January 1973. The 30 October letter was over 2 pages, single-spaced. Backing these letters were 163 Infantry's Zamboanga Journal and Casualty List, and Captain Robert Allen's 146 Field Artillery history, "Ring of Fire at Zamboanga," from March 1970 Jungleer. (For 163 Infantry itself left no narrative report - only their Journal.) I used also these published histories: 1st Battalion 163 Infantry: "Pasananca and the Reservoir Perimeter" (Jungleer, February 1966), and the Japanese Marchine's "Saga of a Japanese Civilian Marchine' by Makoto Ikeda (Jungleer, May 1987). Story of the successful Japanese explosion under Go Chan Hill in Cebu comes from RR Smith's Triumph in the Phillippines.