L Company 163 Infantry: War Of Nerves At Davao

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian, with Captain William F. Schacht


On 10 May 1945, L Company 163 Infantry with other 3rd Battalion men got orders to leave delightful Jolo Island and reinforce 24 Infantry Division's Davao Operation in southern Mindanao Island. Breaking camp at 0400 12 May, 3rd Battalion was on LCIs and LSTs by 1717. Topside, we watched rich green Jolo drop behind us into the Sulu Sea. Only Mounts Bahu and Tumatangas stood up longer until the sea swallowed them.

Ahead of us were weeks of often bewildered detachment from our own 41st Division into our rival 24 Division. First came days of nerve-wracking guard duties and sudden moves among Davao Japs. We often exchanged fire with them. Then came our sweat-soaked battle in black Abaca jungle to take Riverside-Calinan. Fighting was often as hard as at Sanananda.

At dawn 14 May, the second day from Jolo, our little 12-ship convoy passed captured Zamboanga City and turned northeast to round southern Mindano and turn into Davao Gulf. Rumors were that the Japs were harassing the shore with big guns.   

Landing at Talomo at sunrise 15 May, we heard field artillery blasting a few miles inland. Although 24 Division held 80 miles of coast, Japs held the ridges only 1-2 miles inland.

Past the usual coastal flats of coconut palms, we saw a thickly populated country of numerous isolated houses and small villages. Surprising and scaring were rugged and rocky mountains, with beautiful snow-caps. We feared that we would soon have to fight among them.

By 1400, 3rd Battalion had scattered among trucks to guard approaches to Davao City, on the eastern side of Davao River. K Company fragmented into eight detachments to guard three bridges and five road-junctions. I Company occupied Flattop Hill. Battalion Headquarters with AT Platoon was on Hill 120 above Davao River.

Our L Company went to Dry Gulch Hill. Trucked to Davao River, we had to ferry over. Just two days ago, the Japs had blown the bridge. We drove through the shattered ruins of Davao City. After nine miles, we left the main road north of Davao for Dry Gulch Hill.

Morale hit bottom. Dry Gulch Hill was 300 feet high, and full of shell holes and studded with barren tree snags. Sun blazed down viciously hot; corpses of 40 dead Japs reeked from shallow holes. We did not have to dig in, for A Company,19 Infantry left us their holes full of red mud. Japs were on three sides of us, we heard, and nearest neighbors were I-163,1800 yards west, on Flattop Hill.

Worst of all, we were totally disarmed for night combat. We even lacked grenades! Weapons Platoon had no mortar shells and machine gun belts. Headquarters had no communications equipment. Grenades and Weapons ammo and wire had been shipped in boxes. Evidently 163 Headquarters on Jolo thought that 24 Division Headquarters would let us equip ourselves on the beach. We now dreaded what else 24 Division would do to us orphans.

Luckily, no Japs attacked that night of 14-15 May. If they had known that we had no grenades or field artillery on call, it could have been a bad night of close combat with rifles and bayonets.           

On 15 May, 3rd Platoon patrolled but found nothing in a 500-yard radius. Then weapons ammo and wire arrived. We quickly equipped ourselves. About 1400, a Jap machine gun opened up. Our mortar barrage quieted the machine gun. A knee mortar shelled us. We called for a heavy field artillery barrage that silenced the mortar. Meanwhile at 1600, three Jap field artillery rounds hit nearby. About sunset, L Company 1800 yards westward took machine gun and field artillery fire that wounded two men. Japs were just 200 yards north, on Highway 12. Yet our night was quiet. (We had heard that our only duties for 24 Division would be to act as security guards in rear areas!)

On 17 May, "L" continued our strange security guard. When 1st Platoon patrolled 1,000 yards from our hill, they were inside 50 yards of chattering Japs at Road Junction 5 on Highway 13, north of us. Returning, 1st Platoon suddenly saw dead Nips 500 yards north of "L." While we patrolled, I Company on Flattop Hill took mortar blasts and countered with 60s and M Company's 81s. The Japs began a little "banzai," which failed.

Things improved for 3rd Battalion. With the Davao Bridge rebuilt, all battalion equipment arrived. Battalion Headquarters now had a fine building in Davao; company kitchens were set up there. A few from each company could go on leave into Davao.

On his visit, Schacht examined the fine buildings that were shell-gutted. New markets, stores, and barber shops were flourishing. He saw many Filipino men in white with straw hats, and women in flowery dresses with lipstick and rouge on their faces. But they did not seem friendly, as in Zambo and Jolo. After all, Davao was known as "Little Tokyo" because of Jap colonization. At 3rd Battalion Headquarters, Schacht was happy to shave and shower and put on clean clothes before returning to the Dry Gulch hell.

Fear came to L Company that evening: our first Jap rocket. From behind a ridge some 1800 yards northwest, the first rocket slowly glided at us - clearly seen with its stream of red flame and black smoke.  

When that first rocket soared, we were unsure whether to hit a hole, or see whether it was coming close, and then run. Most of us holed up. It shook L Company and fired brush 200 yards behind us. Nip mortar rounds hit also, but we thought of them as mere pebbles, contrasted to the new rockets. This rocket was like a piece of dynamite 3 feet long by 1.5 feet in diameter, with fins that dropped off in flight. We feared that other rockets would be more accurate, but they were not.

Schacht bedded down in his hole again-a former Jap bomb shelter, safe under palm logs. Rats kept waking him, scuttling and rustling nearby. The night before, he awoke with one sitting on his knee appraising him.

On 18 May, L's 2nd Platoon scouted in a 1,000-yard radius - to Road Junction 5 north, and Davao Race Track east. They found only Jap debris - boots and rice bowls. (M Company at 700 yards distance detected and disarmed six mines - all 500-lb. bombs.)

On 20 May, "L" got orders to leave corpsed-up Dry Gulch Hill for Davao City. (We left 24 Division's 19 Infantry to fight north on the east bank of Davao River, then turn west to defeat Rear Admiral Doi's Infantry and Marines at Mandog. Our own 3rd Battalion would later get a harder battle assignment with 34 Infantry.)

Relieved into Davao City, "L" found a day of heaven. "Heaven" was a concrete floor of a shell-torn old garage with part of the tin roof remaining to deflect that night rain: At church services that night, L Company men sang hymns on the old garage driveway while the sun sat in a heavy cloud-bank. All the strangeness and beauty of religion was once again with Schacht as he stretched out his tired body and relaxed in dreams.         

On 21 May, "L" made another repulsive perimeter on low ground about 800 miles west of Libby Village, back west across Davao and Talomo Rivers. Perimeter was in a briary, swampy coconut grove of Jap trenches overgrown by a thicket. That night, guerillas fired heavily 800 yards from us and kept our guards' heads down. They killed no Japs! Next day, we remained in the same perimeter-morale low, with no cigarette issue and no mail in a time that seemed forever.

Suddenly at 1600 23 May, we entrucked to the fighting front north at Mintal Village, to guard 21 Regiment Headquarters that night. While we dug in, Jap mortar and field artillery barrages fell all around us, but hurt nobody.

About 0030, a night fight began. We barraged grenades at Nips trying to knock out our mortars. Until daybreak, Jap fire and our grenades kept us tense.

But that night of 23-24 May, a 5-Jap suicide squad infiltrated through L Company and hugged the piers of Mintal bridge with armfuls of explosives and blew it up. Next morning, all around the broken span, we saw arms and legs and bodies of the five dead Japs. That bridge was only supply line for two battalions of 21 Infantry fighting east of the Talomo on the drive to Riverside Village. (It was not usable again until late afternoon.)

That morning, L Company had to ford the Talomo in water waist-deep. By 1200, we were on top of Hill 280, a battered, barren knob of broken pillboxes and shell-torn corpses. Our 21 Infantry's 1st Battalion had won and lost the hill and retaken it in a battle on 8-10 May. In daylight, only stray rifle bullets and machine gun bursts bothered us.

But far into the night, our field artillery and some Jap guns were whistling shells overhead. Jap shells kept us on edge and frequently flat in our holes. Just as off-duty men stretched out to sleep, the Japs barraged us.

We would hear the gun-report miles away. Came then moments of listening for the steel to whistle down while we squirmed and hoped. Then the shell would hit - all of 75 yards away. Came other reports over and over again until our nerves were uncontrollable and we sickened in our stomachs. The barrage lasted only 10 minutes, and no shell hit closer than 75-100 yards off, but we were mostly awake all night.

So accurate seemed the Jap fire that we guessed that they were using a fine 200-foot tree on our hill for a firing sight. We took seven charges of dynamite to shatter it. On 25 May, an A 21 Infantry patrol south on Highway 12 fought the Nips 600 yards away, and kept us down in our holes awhile.

On 26-29 May, L Company first secured Hill 280, except for 1st Platoon's move on 28 May to take over E 21 Infantry's position on Hill 220. We replaced guerillas at the bridge with a 12-man guard. While both "A" and "E" of 21 Infantry helped their Regiment against Japs farther north on Highway 6, 34 Infantry was fighting towards 21 Infantry from south of us, and trying to make contact.

On 26 May, our patrol on Highway failed to contact 34 Infantry because the Japs halted us there. When our company outposts changed guard, a Jap machine gun opened up from across the river, but fired too high to hurt anybody. Our mortars opened up on those Nips, and we watched them squirming away.

That evening, five stray Japs walked upstream towards us. Outposts' fire pinned them to the bank, killed one. A grenade explosion in the grass made us think that second Jap had committed suicide. The other three may have escaped.

That night after our 3/4-ton battalion ammo truck supplied us, a Jap bangalore torpedo exploded under it, half-way between Mintal and Libby. Although damaged badly, the truck returned to 3rd Battalion area. But a man was killed, another wounded. On 28 May, near the place of this ambush, 3rd Battalion's wire truck narrowly escaped another bangalore torpedo. K Company then had to patrol the whole Mintal-Libby Highway.

On 29 March came glorious news that we were relieved for rest camp. By that date, 34 Infantry had squeezed out Jap opposition and contacted 21 Infantry. Now 34 Infantry relieved us on Hill 280 with AT 34. We cheerfully entrucked back to our rest area near Libby Strip seven miles from Davao City.

Unloading in a coconut grove atop a steep little knob, we soon had a cool cleared camp, with the help of bulldozers. We set up tents and unfolded cots again. Three miles from our hills top, we viewed the Pacific, bright blue past the green of the coconut palms. Of course, we still had to secure perimeter holes and share bridge guards with K Company. That night of 31 May, men were writing letters again, or playing cards, or hearing music over 3rd Battalion radio.

Schacht and other officers helped build their private dining room from fragments of a destroyed house. They built it to house a dish-rack of abandoned Nip china. Even bully beef and dehydrated potatoes tasted better in china than on mess- gear. Fourteen letters arrived! Although still wobbly from re- cent dysentery, Schacht was happy. He could keep clean, read and write, and sleep above ground in a cot. Then came a second batch of mail!

But on 3 June, L Company's morale dropped - after only four days' rest-camp. Tired already from Jolo and Zambo battles for our 41st, we thought that we had also seen enough action around Davao with 24 Division. On 14-29 May for 24 Division, we had spent most of our time in holes or on patrols. We had exchanged fire with Japs - endured Jap field artillery, machine guns, mortars - even Jap rockets and some rifle-fire. Lucky to have no casualties, we thought that we had served this "foreign" 24 Division more than enough.

Now, however, we heard that our 3rd Battalion would team with 34 Infantry to fight north from Ula and then Riverside to meet 31 Division, which was pushing south from 35 miles away. On 4 June, L's 114 men and three officers - Captain Arnold, 1st Lieutenants McGee and Schacht - entrucked to reinforce L 34 in the black abaca jungle north of Mintal.

In our under-strength L Company of 117, many men were ready to break down from fevers or just convalescent from them. One of these convalescents was our new Commanding Officer Captain Arnold, an old Guinea vet newly in command. As we passed Zambo on 15 May en route to Davao, his fever of 104 had caused him to be removed to Dr. Katner's ship on a stretcher. After a unit of plasma and glucose - then morphine and codeine - he fell sick again after rejoining L Company on 16 May. Again he had glucose intravenously - but on 26 May was back to "L" for battle. Men like Arnold went north to fight again.

 

CREDIT: This story is first half of 66-page typescript extracted from Schacht's original Diary, including his fine maps. Other sources include L 163's Captain Jack Arnold's Diary, RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines, “3rd Battalion Journal/V-5 Operation Davao, Mindanao/From May 10 to July 10, 1945," and "24 Division Rpt. Mindanao".