Monday, February 18, 2013

Infantry Battle in New Georgia

With U. S. Forces in New Georgia--"When they got on the target, one Jap went 40 feet in the air, over the tops of the trees, just floated up lazy like, turned over one time and came back down."

"Then there was another that went up like a pinwheel, all arms and legs twisting in the air. He was an officer, I think, because I saw a saber go one way and a pistol the other. The next morning I stumbled over that saber and Howie got the pistol. There was one Jap blown plum out of his pants. We found the breeches hanging way up in the limb of a tree."

That was how first Sgt. Orville (Pappy) Cummings of Spokane, Washington, described the results of mortar fire on a Jap gun position during one of the 12 days that his infantry battalion drove a wedge from the jungle-land behind Munda airfield to the sea.

They fought three separate actions, each as different from the other as night from day. The story of the battalion and particularly of 1st Sgt. Cummins’ A company is the story of jungle combat--of attack and counterattack and then attack again.

Their first engagement lasted seven days. It was fought on a hillside and in a gully that was the jungle at its worst, where visibility was normally 15 yards and the war between the Jap and the American was waged at a distance that was often not more than 15 feet.

The hill was named O'Brien Hill for 1st Lt. Robert M. O'Brien of Everett, Washington, who died there. A second hill, immediately to the front, was named for 2nd Lt. Louis K. Christian of Pullman, Washington, who had received a field commission from the ranks on Guadalcanal and was killed at the beginning of the seven-day fight.

The battalion had shot its way from the line of departure to O'Brien Hill, and on the afternoon of the second day, C Company attacked due west toward Christian Hill, followed by B company. When they reached the foot of the slope and could go no further, they pulled back to allow the artillery and mortars to give the place a thorough working over.

Then, with B Company in advance, they tried again the next day. The battalion attack was again stopped cold. Insult was added to injury when the infantry found itself being shot at with our own weapons, our grenades, our BARs. Some of the Japs even wore our jungle "zoot suits." In some previous fight their take had been good, and they made the most of it.

With night coming on and the enemy still intact, the battalion pulled back to O'Brien Hill, and set up a perimeter defense of outposts pushed out ahead of a circular main line of resistance. They were there on the fourth day, throwing fire across the hill in front and directing fire at a strong point to their left, under assault by another unit.

On the fifth day occurred a series of events that were the beginning of a battle with all the trimmings.

The unit on the battalion's right had pushed ahead, had been badly hit and had been ordered back to reorganize . At chow time the unit, weary and somewhat bewildered, started back through the 1st Battalion lines. Behind it came the Jap, engaging its rear elements. In the jungle there was a confusion of friend and enemy, and for a while nobody knew exactly what was going on, least of all the Jap.

But he soon learned. He had been following a unit in withdrawal, and he ran flush into another unit of unknown strength, firmly emplaced on O'Brien Hill. The withdrawing unit moved through, it's rear elements disengaging the enemy and leaving him to the men of the 1st who waited for the counterattack to reach them.

At 1430 the Jap hit and the fight was on. Twenty-six hours later it was over. An estimated enemy body of two reinforced companies, which just about matched the battalion’s strength, had been so completely wrecked that in the days to follow there was no evidence of it again.

The first contact, when the advancing enemy ran head-on into light machine guns, rocked him back on his heels. For two hours, in the light of the afternoon, the attack came in squad groups as the Jap sought to probe the defensive lines, to see what this was he had smacked into. He stabbed inquisitively here and there, testing the front, testing the flanks, with six men, then a dozen, rushing forward. He got nowhere. When darkness came the battalion heard him digging in.

On the battalion's right flank was a saddle that led from O'Brien Hill to another rise to the right front. To the immediate front, stretching from right front to left, was the gully that was dense with jungle. The forward slope of O'Brien Hill was fairly open. The outposts were at the edge of the jungle and the main line of resistance not more than 15 or 20 yards behind them, with the CP a little higher and to the rear.

That night the Jap, more sure of himself, came in. He came across the saddle and up from the gully. It was obvious that he was trying his old trick of attempting demoralization because he yelled like a Comanche when he rushed, and when he was preparing to rush he yelled threats: "American soldier will die tonight. Prepare to die, Yank-eee!"

He worked by familiar formula, throwing in his little grenades which exploded with much noise and little effect, tossing in his knee-mortar shells, pouring in his fast-firing, brittle-sounding automatic fire. His yelling, which was mostly inarticulate, was constant, and the men of the battalion yelled back insult for insult.

"Americans cowards!" yelled the Nips.

Tojo eats —!" yelled the infantry.

Three times during the night the Jap attacked in what would amount to platoon strength, and each time the attack was cut to pieces. That night the .30-caliber light machine guns did the work of the defensive design heavies. In the morning the air-cooled lights looked as if they'd been in a fire, with their barrels burnt orange and flaking. But they kept on firing.

In the jungle the first light of dawn always brings heavy fire, and this time it was heavy. But the Jap tried no further attack. He was saving himself for something else, perhaps waiting for a better time.

At 0800 the battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Joe Katsarsky of Battle Creek, Mich., sent out a combat patrol to the extreme right flank. They cracked a body of Japs who were attempting to cut the line of supply and then work into the flank and rear.

By pulling out the officers and men for the patrol, the battalion weakened the perimeter, but it had to be done. The Jap had machine-gun fire on the supply trail, cutting it off, and men died as they started back with casualties or came forward with supplies. Drivers were shot at the wheels of their jeeps. Before it was over four jeeps blocked the trail.

The patrol went out, fought sharply and within two hours was back again, just in time. The Jap apparently was aware of the move, and even before everyone was back in position the grand assault got under way. Nothing could be more typical of the vaunted Japanese do-or-die technique than the 45 minutes in which they stormed the battalion's defense.

Everything in front of the battalion came forward, screaming. Jap bullets raked the hillside in a grazing fire that ranged from 6 inches above the ground to 3 feet. Shelter halves that had been stretched above foxholes were cut to ribbons and the sticks that held them up were splintered. The men tore them down to avoid getting entangled in the canvas.

The Japs used tracers and explosive bullets that trailed a brief string of fire and cracked sharply when they hit twigs. The Jap soldiers came forward in bunches, leaping and running like maniacs and yelling at the tops of their voices. Their bayonets were fixed and they might have tried to use them, but they never got that close. Two of them tumbled into outpost foxholes, dead before they hit the emplacements themselves.

The outposts withdrew to the main line of resistance as the battalion tightened against the strain. The aid station, which had been on the forward slope, moved to the other side of the hill because the fire was so thick that the medics could not get off the ground to attend the wounded. During the melee, when there was no work for them, the message-center people kept low and played Battleship. Finally, their shelter shot to ribbons, they moved.

The CP and the MLR stayed put. Men were hit. Once a man was gutshot and two medics picked him up and walked him, one on either side, through the fire to safety. Another man was shot and as he raised up he said, "I'm hit” as he fell forward, he said, "I'm dead." He was.

Capt. Ralph Phelps of Spokane, Wash., the battalion exec, was in a foxhole conference with the CO of A Company. As they talked, a stream of machine-gun bullets went between their bodies, less than 6 inches apart. They scooted down further, looked at each other, and went on talking. In the v of a tree was a Jap with a BAR which he let fly at intervals as he ducked up and down. They called him "Jack-in-the-box." A grenade got him.

Because there were no men to be spared for ammo carriers, the noncoms divided their time between controlling their men and supplying them, which in either case meant exposure to murderous fire. A corporal was killed as he crept forward with ammunition for his men. A buck sergeant, Hubert Santo of Medford, Oreg., held his part of the line together by galloping over the hillside in the dual role of ammo carrier and platoon leader. His outfit had no lieutenant.
In the heat of the fight, men were too busy to think of anything but the business at hand. A Lieutenant, wounded on the patrol action when a bullet hit his helmet and cut through the back of his neck, found time to have it dressed 2 hours later. Men said strange things, like the soldier whose shelter had been riddled with bullets. A flare dropped on the already-demolished canvas and he yipped in anguish, “There goes my tent!”

The fight centered on the right flank. In some positions there were mortar men armed only with pistols, put there to fill in while the patrol was gone.

On the right-flank center was a light machine gun with both gunners gone, one sick and the other momentarily absent at the start of the attack. Manning the gun was the ammunition carrier, a sandy-haired, drawling buck private named James Newbrough of Monument, Colo.

When the attack started Newbrough was on the gun. A Jap in front of him yelled, "Americans cowards!"

“The hell you say," Newbrough snorted.

"Come on out and fight," yelled the Jap, tossing a rock.

"Come on in and get me," said Newbrough.

The Jap and his comrades thought that over, threw a few more rocks and then screamed, "Here we come!"

Three of them sprang out with .25-caliber light machine guns, which they fired as they rushed. Two of them died in their tracks. The third ran.

As the fight progressed Newbrough, alone on the gun, kept it going constantly. Nobody, not even he, knows how many belts of ammunition he expended. As the gun continued to fire, it attracted more and more attention until it seemed that Newbrough was the only target. Bullets splattered into everything, cutting down the shelter half on top of him and clearing the underbrush from around him.

Newbrough unfastened the traversing mechanism and, crouching low, sighted along the under side of the barrel so that no part of him was above the level of the gun itself. With his hand over his head he hung onto the trigger and raked the ground before him.

His gun corporal, Dick Barrett of Rosburg, Wash., managed to get through to him with ammunition when the supply was almost exhausted, and Pfc. Hollis S. Johnson of McKenzie, Ala., came up to cover him with a BAR. Newbrough, a shy kid with a country brogue and the faintest show of a beard, probably saved the battalion that day.

The attack, once stopped, was not repeated. The battalion smashed it, but not until other units approached from two sides did the Jap see proof that his case was hopeless and withdraw in the late afternoon. With its ordeal over, the battalion took Christian Hill against little opposition and advanced 800 yards through the jungle before darkness halted it.

On the ninth day A Company was in front of the battalion advance, which skirted northward of Biblio Hill overlooking Munda airfield, moving across country that itself was hilly though less densely jungled as it ran westward to the sea.

The battalion chose a bivouac area for the night and A pushed out in advance, taking up positions and setting up an OP on the forward slope of a hill in front of the bivouac. On the left, on Biblio itself, another unit was engaged with the enemy.

From the company OP on the morning of the tenth day the company commander, Capt. Donald Downen of Pullman, Wash., saw an amazing sight--probably one of the few such scenes any American has witnessed in the war in the Pacific.

Immediately before him in a slight draw less than 100 yards away were Jap shacks, their tin roofs bright and a searchlight position in the midst of them. He saw Japs moving leisurely across the terrain, going in and out of the hub, puttering around as if there were no war within a thousand miles. Aware that his company's presence was completely undetected, he watched the Japs and studied the terrain ahead.

Then he reported back to Battalion, which moved up to direct an artillery concentration that shortly went plowing into the peaceful scene. When the guns had done their work, A Company threaded its way down across the draw and up the gentle rise immediately ahead.

Capt. Downen set up his CP in a 1,000-pound bomb crater. Almost abreast of it and perhaps 50 yards away, Cpl. Garrit Hulstein of Hospers, Iowa, established an OP in a similar crater. Although there was a little fire from the front, the terrain ahead looked comparatively harmless.

Then a heavy-caliber gun blazed, and Hulstein reported what he took to be a 77-mm mountain gun almost directly ahead and 50 yards away. As the barrel moved slightly, the corporal shoved the man beside him downward just as the gun blasted again. This time a foot and a half of the rim of the bomb crater was shot away, leaving men dazed and one man buried beneath clay dirt and coral. He was pulled out, unhurt.

Of the gun the men could see only the mouth of the barrel and two upright objects on either side, which they thought were wheels.
Battalion was contacted, not without trouble, because the gun was firing into the CP. A mortar treatment was started on the way. Hulstein went back to bring up the weapons company commander and while the mortars tossed in 81-mm shells, A Company began to move, not yet aware of what it was up against. It was entering one of the most unusual fights of two campaigns.

One platoon moved to the left and the other moved to the right to flank the piece. A machine gun in the OP crater covered their advance, peppering the top of the emplacement. As they moved, six Japs started across in front of them heading toward the gun. The left platoon, under Lt. Bob Brown of Bellingham, Wash., blazed away. Sgt. Elmer McGlynn of Seattle grabbed a BAR and turned it loose on automatic: the Japs never got where they were going. The platoons moved on, waiting for the mortar barrage to lift.

Company Headquarters, composed of the captain, his runner, the first sergeant and the mail orderly, went forward to coordinate the flanking attack. They were looking straight into the bore of the gun and knew only that, whatever it was, it was beautifully camouflaged.

When they were close enough the mortars quit, and Downen and his three men realized that they were nearer than either of the two platoons. There was no time to waste so they rushed the gun. Not until they were upon it did they realize that, instead of a field piece, it was a dual-purpose antiaircraft gun—and not one but two and perhaps more.

The captain got one Jap outside the emplacement. His mail orderly, T-5 David Lloyd George of Kalispell, Mont., got another. Then Pfc. Wiley Howington of Asheville, N. C, the company runner, went into action.

He leaped into the gun emplacement and found the Jap gun crew still huddled in the dugout, which was tunneled into the side of the emplacement itself. The mortars had driven them inside, and they never had time to get out. Howie fired a clip of M1 slugs into them, then leaped across to the other side of the entrance, fumbling first for another clip and then for a grenade.
George followed him in and opened up with a tommy gun.

"By Gawd," drawled Howie with an accent that was straight from the North Carolina hills, "I tell you there wuz some scramblin' down in there."
Five Japs were dead and a sixth was at the far entrance, trying desperately to get out. 1st Sgt. Cummins, who is built like a pint-sized quarterback, got him by degrees.

"I could see just about six inches of his rump sticking out and I bored him” Cummins said. "He'd keep sliding back—never could get that part of himself out of the way and every time he'd slide back I'd bore him again. Finally he slid back too far."

Now one gun was out. But there was another, some 35 yards away. In the first gun pit the four men could see the 75-mm rifle turn toward them, the elongated barrel moving fast. Cummins had one of the two grenades in the group and he heaved it--a perfect throw into the emplacement. The barrel stopped.
He grabbed Howington's grenade, which Howie hadn't been able to unhook when he wanted it, and it burst at the mouth of the dugout. Next day when the mop-up came, there was nothing left there to bother them.

When the excitement momentarily died, Capt. Downen saw men of his right platoon motioning to him frantically, pointing somewhere beyond the second gun at a place almost directly in front of them. At that instant the third gun roared, firing directly into the face of the platoon but just over their heads.
Downen yelled at them to get out, but the muzzle blast of the piece, not more than 20 yards away, had deafened them. Finally he waved them back, and they crawled to the rear, dazed by the terrific shock of the explosion. A Company with two guns down and a third discovered, withdrew to the bomb craters and called for mortar fire. That's when Cummins saw the Japs flying through the air.
"But the prettiest thing was when the mortars hit the ammunition," he added. "It looked like a million tracers going off at the same time."

No. 3 gun was gone. By that time the fourth and last was discovered and a direct hit by the 81s put it out of action. Actually there were five of the dual-purpose pieces, which the outfit thinks was a Jap Marine A A installation, but the fifth gun was never fired. The six Japs who started across in front of the left platoon were the crew, caught out of position.

On the eleventh day the battalion was on the move again, cleaning out the bivouac area behind the guns and capturing two other AA positions without opposition. They moved through a hospital area, rich in booty which they had no time to collect.

As they passed through, there was scattered firing. In a bombproof dugout there were several Japs and one of them held up his hands crying, "Me surrender! Me surrender!"

Defense of the beach was set up facing the sea and when the battalion hit them, the Japs tried to turn around and fight with their backs to the water. There were not many of them but they were trapped and desperate. The beach wire, meant to stop a seaborne invasion, was cut through from behind.
The battalion hit the beach defense at 1530 on the eleventh day. They received fire from pillboxes and pulled back to let the mortars in. But as they did, the Japs moved in toward them, letting go with a Lewis gun and machine guns and rifles in grazing fire 2 feet off the ground.

The terrain was of bomb-chewed coral, underbrush and water holes. A Company found itself in a position where practically the whole outfit was pinned down without a field of fire, only a few feet from the sea.

Behind a log was Pfc. Charles Boughner of Seattle with an M1. He alone was able to get in effective shots and soon it was apparent to everyone that Boughner in his position could do more than a platoon, or even the company.
He fired the M1 until there were no more clips. Someone tossed him a tommy gun and he emptied it. Another M1 was passed to him. S/Sgt. Bob Isaman of Chewelah, Wash., was at his feet and loaded clips as fast as Boughner could fire them. In the heat of the fight Isaman noticed what Boughner did not—that Jap bullets were smashing faster and closer to the log. He made the rifleman get underneath it instead of over it. The firing position was just as good; he could still see the enemy.

A BAR was passed to him. Boughner emptied clip after clip and the men around him threw every available cartridge toward his position. Isaman loaded them and passed them on. A belt of machine-gun bullets was tossed over, and they were reloaded and expended. Finally the Jap positions were quiet.
"That," said Sgt. Cummins, "was one time when a man was in attack supported by a company."

It was too dark to do more. That night the infantrymen heard the splash of wading feet and they fired when they caught sight of dark shapes against the water. Some of the Japs may have made it to a tiny island near by, but whether they did or not, their fight for New Georgia was over.

Next morning the battalion stood on the beach and looked out to sea.

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