L Company 163 Infantry: The Great Ambush on Jolo

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian and Captain William F. Schacht

 On 27 April 1945, L Company 163 Infantry moved on Japs defending Mount Tumatangas, the great semi wilderness overhanging Jolo City southwards. This was the last phase of the Battle of Jolo. Here entrenched were the Japs' unbroken 363 Infantry Battalion, and fragments of 365 Battalion which had held the first line of Mounts Magusing and Datu.

Prominent core of Jap resistance was a great brush-filled crater supposedly shaped like a figure 8, halfway up on the northeast Tumatangas slope. Japs were dug in on the rim of the Great Crater, with mortars and machine guns. And after 3rd Battalion stormed the crater rim, the Japs were still strong and clever enough to ambush Lieutenant Schacht's 1st Platoon in a memorable disaster.

Trucked up a rugged road into a palm grove 27 April, L Company had our first panorama of the Tumatangas wilderness. It was high, steep ridges covered with cogon grass - like the tall coarse kunai of Sanananda. It was also deep ravines of bamboo thickets and banana groves. Grassy ridges, thicketed ravines - they stretched over many miles to the final steep peak of Tumatangas (2664 feet), sheer above heavy rain forest. As L learned after fighting the Great Crater, the Tumatangas wilderness was a labyrinth perfect for a deadly Jap ambush.

L's first assignment was to relieve K Company now battling Great Crater point-blank. The crater laid some 1500 yards northeast of Tumatangas Peak, between the rocky lower pimple of Batu Puti on the west, and Hill 1020 on the east. Although reportedly shaped like a figure 8, the map shapes it like a whale with the wider forepart swimming west. Great Crater was 600-700 yards long, 300 yards at its widest, and 200-300 feet deep with a brushy floor. Japs held its rim.

When L came to the Great Crater, K still blasted it, and Cannon Company's 105 gun, two AT Company's 57mm cannon, machine guns and heavy machine guns with 146 Field Artillery's howitzers. Dust and fragments hurtled high overhead. Twice already, Jap fire forced back a K Platoon attacking the North Rim. Toward late afternoon, K won the rim and killed eight Japs surviving the shellfire.

Relieving K by dusk, most of L entrenched on Hill 1020 east of the crater. Schacht's 1st Platoon holed up on the North Rim among Jap fragments and fired all night and grenaded dislodged, living Japs. At dawn, we counted nine more dead Japs.

After the Great Crater was silent, heavy concentrations of Japs still waited to kill, in the maze of ridges and ravines northeast toward Tumatangas Road. Tactical objective was for L to contact I Company's perimeter, some three miles north. Between L and I lurked vengeful Japs who would set up our Great Ambush of 29 April.

On 28 April Schacht's Platoon left the North Rim to contact I Company. Mortars barraged ahead; 3rd Platoon flanked us on the right. We maneuvered safely 600-700 yards across cogon grass against a dark, dense thicket. Unexpectedly, we faced the outside curve of a concrete or stone half-circle, 50 yards from end to end. Guerillas called it an old Spanish observation post against Moros. Its crannies and peepholes menaced us; we found some pillboxes and dumps. We blew up dumps and hideaways in the wall; Captain Evans of 3rd Battalion Headquarters brought a demolition squad to destroy a bunker and part of that wall. Our check at the obstacle of the "Stone Fort" was a factor in the Great Ambush of 29 April.

Suddenly late that 28 April Major Milford gave an order that led to Schacht's platoon's disastrous ambush. At 1700, Tech Sergeant Brownhill was to take a 15-man patrol to contact I's perimeter before dark. Orders were to move fast. In that stinking terrain, we found seven Japs newly dead from field artillery. But after an hour, the tense Schacht heard that we made contact.

Back on the North Rim among putrid Japs, we slept and guarded that night with fearful knowledge. All 1st Platoon was to patrol three miles to I Company through that same Jap maze of ridges and brush. And Brownhill's 15 men reported Jap signs everywhere.

Orders were unchanged at dawn 29 April; we grimly rolled combat packs. Ahead of us, guerillas shot up their ammo at the "Stone Fort." The slight mortar barrage before us could well have shown our route to the Japs.

Also before us, Lieutenant Steege's I Company Platoon crossed cogon grass to the west near the palm grove where L detrucked two days ago. Midway in the cogon, Jap automatic fire hit an I Medic -either Evar Peterson or Edmund Kurkowski who died later that day. The Jap fire halted; I Company took up security for our left flank.

Leaving the North Rim of the Great Crater, Schacht's Platoon crossed unharmed the same cogon field where Steege's medic was struck. We began the march that led directly to ambush in the Small Crater.

Start of the best route to I's perimeter was down from high ground north of the Great Crater, then across lower end of the Small Crater northwards. Small Crater was just below the ridge, where the "Stone Fort" stood. In fact, the high ground where the "Stone Fort" stood was a U-shaped ridge that surrounded the small, oval crater, except at the north end.

Schacht's Platoon did not try to descend to the Small Crater from the right or east arm of the U-shaped ridge. The "Stone Fort" blocked the right arm of the summit of the U-ridge, and slopes down to the Small Crater were so thick with forest that they seemed impenetrable. (Later, two Jap light machine guns would shoot down on us from there.)

About three-fourths of the way on the ridge, we turned right to hike across the level floor of the crater. We did not know that a Jap heavy machine gun waited on the ridge just before we turned off.

Descending the steep ridge into the crater about 1100, Schacht halted the lead squad to take a breather for the other men to catch up, near the low north exit of the crater. Schacht forever remembers the tall, wooded conical peak on his left.

Then from all sides, Jap fire blasted out. Wounded men shouted in pain; American bodies thudded to the ground quietly or crawling for cover. A steady stream of bullets kicked up dust everywhere. Prone in agony, we crawled for even an inch of defilade, but on that flat surface we had none. There were few big trees to crawl behind, where bullets plunked also.

The prone Benson heard men return fire. BAR-man Stanley Shilliday excitedly called, "Fire! Shoot back!" But Sergeant Benson already was wounded in the head with a bullet through his helmet and could not fight. In a few moments, he did not hear Shilliday again; the BAR-man was dead.

Three Jap machine guns arced down on us from the U-Ridge; a dozen riflemen fired from all sides. The heavy machine gun shot from the end of the left arm of the ridge where we had turned down, and two Jap light machine guns shot from thickets just below the "Stone Fort." All Japs were invisible and sighting on us down on the floor of the crater. There we crawled like worms searching for any kind of a hole.

In seconds, Schacht lost control of squad leaders and the radio man, who in turn could do nothing. He crawled some feet towards the radio, but about six bullets impacted on all sides. One hit between his legs; another ticked his helmet.

Schacht tried to relay messages back down the column. While he squirmed under fire and awaited a reply, two men yelled, "I'm hit!" A machine gun burst hissed over his back and impacted between him and Phillips, lying close together. A round clipped a grenade from Phillips' shoulder strap. A machine gun bullet grazed the skin high on Phillips' chest. The nearest squad leader to Schacht, Sergeant Dixon, was wounded. And so it kept on-several more minutes' of pure hell.

When no word relayed back from the radio operator, Schacht saw that he could get no message through for help. As bullets whipped above or thudded close, he wondered, "Which one's got my name on it?" Men under fire felt hopeless, but Schacht, who could do nothing for some 30 men, suffered far worse.

He had long ago given up hope for an organized withdrawal. He passed orders to survivors to leave in groups as best they could. He'd take two men, try to dash out of sure death to get help. With a lump in his throat, he ordered Romanenghi, Phillips and McBath heading the prone column, to hold the ground and try to round up others to lead to I's perimeter.

Hearing more cries of the wounded, we crawled, ran and ducked; bullets followed our every move. Crossing the low crater-mouth ridge, we had a little cover. Inaccurate bullets indicated that we had to run the long way to I.

Far off the route that Brownhill took last night, we fled through fields and bamboo thickets. Suddenly McCullough shouted, "They're Yanks!" We were safe within the 1st Platoon perimeter. Leaving Bronwnhill and McCullough to fire three shots in strings and smoke grenades to guide artillery survivors, Schacht jeeped back towards the crater. At AT Company's roadblock, seven men had come out alive.  

            Dave Johnson had a chest wound. Next to arrive was Tramel, lucky to have four mere nicks. Sergeant Dixon had two wounds - one in the leg. Rogers had lost lower jaw, teeth and tongue.

Back at the ambush crater, Schacht found confused and silent men who had escaped. Jap fire had stopped. It had lasted 15 intense minutes, and now we had to rescue the last men.

            Tech Sergeant Dostal's 2nd Platoon rescue party and Lieutenant Steege's 1st Platoon entered the crater and reassembled survivors with a string of three rifle shots. Several men were still unaccounted for:

Blakemore, Benson, Dahlstrom and Shilladay.

Returning with three seriously wounded in litters, Dostal's men saw a pillbox blocking the only feasible exit from the crater. With I men's help, they angrily cleared it without more losses. Steege shot three Japs running out of it.

Late that evening, Schacht accounted for all of his men. Of some 30 on patrol 16 of them were casualties. Besides Tramel and Phillips mentioned already, two more escaped with light wounds - Beach and McCullough. Besides Johnson, Dixon and Rogers with wounds specified already, we had seven more seriously wounded. Wounded in the shoulder, Cronin (like Rogers) had lost tongue, teeth and lower jaw. Hickman also had a shoulder wound. With his head wound, Benson lay some three hours quiet with red ants crawling over him. Finally, he heard our voices and worked his way to Dostal's rescue patrol. Staff Sergeant Stafford was hit in the leg. Brazzanovich and Delmonico also had serious wounds.

We lost two killed. Last body we found, and by accident, was Staff Sergeant Kenneth Dahlstrom's a bright reliable veteran with some two months before rotation. Stanley Shilliday lay dead beside his BAR, with only five rounds left in the breach.

But how, when the Japs had surprise, invisibility and overwhelming firepower, did 1st Platoon escape with only two dead, 10 seriously wounded? The Japs lacked grenades and mortars. But why did they fail to follow their surprise volleys with a bayonet charge? We like to believe that they feared close combat because men like Shilladay would not be killed until his last five rounds were expended. (We had no evidence of any Jap casualties.)

Japs attacked L that night, both on Hill 1025 west of 3rd Battalion's garrison camp and back at the crater. After 3rd Platoon's Lieutenant McGee killed a Jap that night, his comrades lurked nearby to barrage our holes with grenades at dawn. A grenade in Young's hole cost him a foot.

Such was L 163's heaviest combat on Mount Tumatangas. After the ambush, Schacht's understrength platoon was soon back on patrol. Although the Great Crater fight of 3rd Battalion had broken serious Jap resistance, some 90 fighters held out on Jolo until surrender after V-J Day. For Schacht's 1st Platoon of L Company, the Great Crater and the Great Ambush are a memory of self-sacrifice and heroism.

 

CREDIT: L Company's Otto Matjeka first told me about the Great Ambush before 1964. Recently, Lieutenant (later Captain] Bill Schacht sent me his 32 page diary of action on Jolo. Important also are Gene Stafford's brief story to Matjeka, letters of Carl Phillips (5 February 1976), R.J. Benson (2 June, 19 July 1976). Other sources are Captain Robert Allen's "Battle for Tumatangas," 163 Infantry’s Casualty List and Journal.

 

Note:  Cronin and Rogers later died of the severe wounds received in this action.