The 32D 'Red Arrow' Veteran Association

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The 32D Infantry Division

in World War II

The ‘Red Arrow’

New Guinea Campaign - Biak

 

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New Guinea Campaign: Biak

The successful Allied seizure of the key Japanese air bases at Hollandia at the end of April 1944 was quickly exploited by further westward assaults along the north coast of New Guinea. The 163D RCT (41ST 'Jungleer' Division) established a beachhead at Maffin Bay (about 150 miles west of Hollandia) on 17 May 1944, in preparation for attacks on nearby Wakde Island and the airfields near the village of Sarmi (on the coast about 18 miles east of the beachhead). Part of the 163D assaulted Wakde Island on 18 May, and secured it after several days of stubborn fighting. On 22 May the 158TH RCT (a non-divisional unit) pushed east from the beachhead toward Sarmi and to secure the high ground around Maffin Bay. The 158TH encountered strong opposition and, vastly outnumbered, pulled back toward the beachhead to wait for reinforcements, in the form of the entire 6TH Infantry Division (which would relieve them on 14 June). After Maffin Bay was secured, it became a major staging area to support further operations westward on New Guinea, as well as the eventual operations in the Philippines.

One of the New Guinea operations it supported was Biak. The island of Biak is 45 miles long and 23 miles wide, and lies off the center of strategic Geelvink Bay, near the western end of New Guinea. The Japanese had established 3 airstrips on Biak, and these air bases could support Allied heavy bombers.

“The Japanese had begun to construct airfields on this plain [on the south coast of Biak] late in 1943, and by April 1944 had completed two strips. The most easterly was Mokmer Drome, near the village of Mokmer. About two and one-half miles west was Sorido Drome, located near the village of the same name. Both these strips were close to the southern shore of Biak. Between them, but about three quarters of a mile inland, was Borokoe Drome, which became operational early in May 1944. (Smith 281) [added 14 Dec. ‘12]

The seizure of Biak was important, not only to complete Allied dominance of all of New Guinea, but also to support looming operations against the Philippines and Borneo.

“Biak was different from most of the Pacific islands on which American troops had fought. It had been described as “one huge lump of coral.” Cliffs rise abruptly from the sea, and innumerable caves honeycomb the island. Much of it is covered with rain forests and jungle. Drinking water is scarce.” (Blakeley 175)



“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

Description: Description: http://www.32nd-division.org/history/ww2/buna/New%20Guinea%20Map2(t).jpg

Map depicting the location of Biak in relation to New Guinea, from U.S. Army Center of Military History brochure ‘New Guinea’.

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

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Map of the Schouten Islands depicting some of the key place names on Biak, from The Approach to the Philippines.

 

 

The unit tasked with the capture of Biak was named Hurricane Task Force. The majority of this force was comprised of the 41STJungleer’ Infantry Division, minus its 163D Inf. which was still engaged on Wadke Island. The 41ST Div. was commanded by MG Horace H. Fuller, who also commanded the task force.

 

The ‘Jungleers’ were reinforced with:

two field artillery battalions,

two antiaircraft artillery battalions,

one 4.2-inch mortar company,

one medium tank company (minus 1 platoon),

one engineer boat and shore regiment (minus 1 boat company),

several antiaircraft batteries,

three engineer aviation battalions (for airfield construction),

other miscellaneous engineer units,

numerous medical, quartermaster, and signal corps units. [added 14 Dec. ‘12]

 

One of the additional field artillery battalions was from the 32D Division and it played a key role in the operation. “From early in the Aitape operation until the latter part of the Leyte campaign, one battalion of the 32d Division was detached, and it led an orphan’s existence (Blakeley 175).” The 121ST FA Bn., commanded by LTC Arthur E. Solem, was attached to the 41ST Division on 10 May 1944, during the opening stages of the 32D Division's operations at Aitape (250 miles to the east). The 121ST, normally equipped with 155mm howitzers, but now equipped with truck-drawn M-1, 75mm howitzers, was assigned to direct support for the 186TH Infantry Regiment (41ST Division).

 

“Alamo Force was able to supply the Hurricane Task Force with little detailed information concerning the enemy situation on Biak Island. It was known that early in May the Japanese had ordered the defenses of Biak to be strengthened. Aerial reconnaissance disclosed that some effort was being made on Biak to comply with these orders and that a large amount of matériel had reached the island during the early months of the year. The extent of the Biak defenses however, was unknown.” (Smith 285)

 

Japanese troop strength on Biak was estimated at 4,400 men, 2,500 of which were believed to be combat troops. It was supposed that most of these troops were clustered around Mokmer Drome, the most easterly of the airfields. [added 14 Dec. ‘12]


On 25 May Hurricane Task Force departed from Hollandia. The naval elements to transport and support the task force in the initial amphibious assault were commanded by
Rear Admiral William M. Fechteler and included 2 heavy cruisers; 3 light cruisers; 21 destroyers; 5 APDs; 8 LSTs; 8 LCTs; 19 LCIs (3 of which were rocket-equipped); 1 seagoing tug (ATF); numerous small craft (LVTs, LVT(A)s, DUKWs, and LCVPs); as well as several underwater demolition teams. Two reinforcement groups which would follow included even more ships.

 

Close air support would be provided by the Fifth Air Force from bases at Hollandia and Wakde Island. Long-range and strategic air support would be provided by Fifth Air Force, Thirteenth Air Force, as well as Australian and Dutch aircraft.

 

If ground reinforcement were needed, it would mainly come from Hurricane Task Force Reserve which included a battalion (-) from the 186TH Inf. and the 41ST Cavalry Reconnaissance Troop. Additional potential support from Alamo Force Reserve included the 128TH and 158TH Regimental Combat Teams.

 

“Since little was known about the coral reef fronting the four Biak beaches, the landing plans differed from those for most previous operations within the Southwest Pacific Area. Amphibian vehicles such as LVT's and DUKW's were to make up the initial waves, because it was obvious that standard landing craft could be counted on for only limited use. The amphibian vehicles of the first waves were to be carried to Biak aboard LST's and were to unload in the stream outside the reef. After putting the initial waves ashore, the vehicles were to return to the LST's and shuttle supplies to the beaches. LCPR's, considered light and small enough to find channels through the reef, were to take some troops ashore after the first few waves had landed. Eight LCT's were supplied by Allied Naval Forces for the express purpose of taking ashore tanks, 105-mm. howitzers, trucks, and bulldozers. The LCT's were to be driven as far up on the reef as possible and over it if feasible, and it was hoped that there would be enough water shoreward of the reef to float them. The equipment these craft were to take ashore was so important to the success of the operation that the risk of damage to them [the LCT’s] on the coral reef had to be accepted. (Smith 286) [added 14 Dec. ‘12]

 

At 0715 hours on 27 May, the initial assault elements from the 186TH Infantry, commanded by Col. Oliver P. Newman, landed on beaches Green 1, 2, 3, and 4 near Bosnek. There was minimal resistance; the enemy had been caught by surprise.

“Battery C of the 121st Field Artillery Battalion was the first artillery unit to land. It was ashore and ready to fire by 0730. The rest of the battalion was not far behind [ashore by 1100], but only Battery C actually went into action on the first day. Resistance was feeble that day although the enemy attacked the ships and beaches from the air.” (Blakeley 175)

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

Description: Description: Description: Description: http://www.32nd-division.org/history/ww2/biak/Biak3(1944)(t).jpg

Mokmer Drome on Biak under Allied air attack, possibly the pre-invasion bombardment the morning of 27 May 1944.

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

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Unloading supplies and equipment on Biak, likely the morning of 27 May 1944. LVT(A)'s are in the foreground, two LST's are at Old Jetty in the background.

The 186TH Inf. completed their primary mission, securing the beachhead, by about 1200 hours on 27 May. Meanwhile, the 162D Infantry (41ST Division), which had begun landing about 0900, was soon moving westward along the coast as part of their primary mission, to secure the three Japanese airfields. [added 14 Dec. ‘12]

The high level planners had envisioned the seizure of Biak to only take about a week, and the activities on the 1st day indicated that this estimate might be met. However, it soon became evident that the planners had (yet again) underestimated the enemy, both in strength and tenacity. After the battle, it was learned that there were about 11,400 Japanese troops on Biak (as opposed to the 4,400 Japanese the planners had estimated). The assault landings had been relatively easy, because the Japanese commander, with insufficient troops to effectively defend the entire coast, had concentrated his strength inland around the airfields.

On 28 May, as the Americans started to push inland and toward the airfields, enemy resistance increased dramatically. Patrols from the 162D Inf. were only 200 yards from the airfields when a determined Japanese counterattack pushed them back. The soldiers of Hurricane Force also encountered stubborn Japanese positions established in the numerous caves that dotted the island's mountainous interior. “Much bitter and involved fighting ensued in which the rough terrain and lack of water added to the problems of the invading forces (Blakeley 176).” Due to the scarcity of fresh water, the soldiers were often limited to just 1 canteen a day while enduring the equatorial heat (Biak is only about 60 miles from the equator).

    “The 121st was actively engaged throughout this period, probably more so than the other artillery units which were sometimes handicapped by the fact that they were manning heavier weapons. On 7 June, for example, the 121st fired over 2,000 rounds.” (Blakeley 176)

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

Description: Description: Description: Description: http://www.32nd-division.org/history/ww2/biak/Biak4(1944)(t).jpg

The East Caves area where the 162D Infantry first encountered the Japanese on Biak. This Japanese counterattack started about 1000 hours on 28 May 1944.

On 29 May the Japanese launched another counterattack, this time supported by about 6 light tanks, “thus beginning the first tank battle of the war in the Southwest Pacific Area (Smith 310).” The Japanese Type 95 ‘Ha-Go’ tanks, equipped with 37mm main guns, scored several hits on the American tanks, but caused little serious damage. However the 75mm guns on the U.S. M-4A1 ‘Sherman’ tanks from 1ST Platoon, 603D Tank Company, had devastating effect on the lighter Japanese tanks.

“One enemy 37-mm shell locked the 75-mm gun of one Sherman in place, but the American tank backed partway into a shell hole to obtain elevation for its weapon and, despite the damage, managed to destroy one of the enemy tanks (Smith 310).”

Like their armored counterparts, the Soldiers of the 162D Infantry handily repulsed the enemy infantry that day. [added 14 Dec. ‘12]

On 1 June the 163D RCT, organic to the 41ST Division, arrived to reinforce Hurricane Force. The 163D had just been released from its mission on Wakde Island. The airfields themselves were soon in American hands, but they couldn't be used by Allied warplanes yet because the Japanese still controlled some of the surrounding high ground and could place fire on the airfields.

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

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Soldiers from the 162D Infantry seeking cover as they move westward along the southern shore of Biak. Possibly taken between 28 May and 7 June 1944.

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

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The Parai Defile located between the villages of Parai and Ibdi on Biak. Likely taken between 28 May and 10 June 1944, when the Japanese were evicted from the area.

 

    “On 14 June, in a movement reminiscent of what had happened at Buna, General Eichelberger was sent in to take over command of the Task Force when both Generals MacArthur and Krueger became dissatisfied with the slowness of the operations and the failure to capture the airfields at an early date. The fact that General MacArthur’s headquarters had already announced that victory had been achieved on Biak did not help matters. Eichelberger arrived on the island on the 15th. Even as he was in the process of taking over command, a particularly bitter battle was in progress, a battle which included a vigorous enemy counterattack employing both infantry and tanks.” (Blakeley 176)

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

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A disabled Japanese Type 95 'Ha-Go' tank. It is possible that this tank was disabled during the 15 June 19 44 attack or the 29 May 1944 attack on Biak.

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

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Infantrymen, supported by M-4 ‘Sherman’ tanks, moving up to the attack on a ridge north of Mokmer Drome on Biak ca. 16 June 1944.

The Approach to the Philippines, the Army's official history, describes the 121ST's performance during this recent enemy counterattack on Biak, “The 121st Field Artillery Battalion, while it had hit no tanks, had proved a real aid during the battle. It prevented Japanese infantrymen from forming for the attack and neutralized a number of enemy machine guns by firing 600 rounds into the area northwest of the 1st Battalion, 186th Infantry. (qtd. in Blakeley 176)

Circa 22 June, 2LT Hans M. Jensen, from Menomonie, Wisconsin, and assigned to Co. A, 128TH Inf., led a patrol to destroy Japanese ack-ack position in the vicinity of Mokmer Drome. According to a dispatch by Ralph Teatsorth, a UP war correspondent, 2LT Jensen “thought it would be a 3-hour job, but it lasted 2 full days during most of which the men were without water and rations. Hearing the Japanese had sneaked in behind them, they were able to wreck a mortar position and three 20mm ack-ack positions. Jensen's patrol, hemmed in by the Japanese, "bazooka'd" their way out, killing 18 of the enemy and chasing the rest.” This incident might be the basis for 2LT Jensen’s Bronze Star for Valor. He was a SSG with the same unit at Buna and had been awarded the Silver Star for his actions there on 15 Dec. ’42. He had been a CPL in Co. A, 128TH Inf., Wisconsin National Guard, at Menomonie, WI, when 32D Div. mobilized on 15 Oct. '40. [added 12 Apr. ‘13]

The Americans gained complete control of the high ground around the airfields on 27 June, when they cleared the last of the Japanese cave positions. However, the fight for total control of the island would continue for 3 more weeks.

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

Description: Description: Description: Description: http://www.32nd-division.org/history/ww2/biak/Biak7(19440617)(t).jpg

One of the entrances to the West Caves, near Mokmer Drome on Biak. Possibly taken on or after 17 June 1944, when the Japanese were evicted from the area.

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

Description: Description: Description: Description: http://www.32nd-division.org/history/ww2/biak/Biak8(19440617)(t).jpg

One of the entrances to the West Caves, near Mokmer Drome on Biak. Possibly taken on or after 17 June 1944, when the Japanese were evicted from the area.

“NEW” photo added 14 Dec. 12

U.S. Army Signal Corps photo

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Entrance to the East Caves, near the village of Mokmer on Biak. Likely taken on or after 27 June 1944, when the Japanese were evicted from the area.

 

On 28 July the 121ST FA Battalion fired its last round in support of the infantry on Biak.

On 20 August 1944 Biak was officially declared clear.

    “On 11 September, the 121st was reequipped with tractor-drawn 155mm Howitzers. On 2 October the battalion reverted to the 32d Division, but it remained on Biak until 13 November, when it sailed for Hollandia.
    “On 6 December, in company with some rear echelon elements of the 32d, it sailed for Leyte. It was put ashore on the east coast on 14 December and was back with the Division two days later.”
(Blakeley 176-7)

Next Section - New Guinea Campaign - Morotai

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Bibliography (primary sources for historical information regarding the 32D ‘The Red Arrow’ Infantry Division’s exploits during World War II):

Blakeley, H. W., Major General, Retired.  The 32D Infantry Division in World War II.  The Thirty-second Infantry Division History Commission, State of Wisconsin, n.d.
Cannon, M. Hamlin. 
Leyte: The Return to the PhilippinesU. S. Army Center of Military History, 1954.
Carlisle, John M.  Red Arrow Men: Stories About the 32nd Division on the Villa Verde.  Detroit: Arnold-Powers, Inc., 1945.

Drea, Edward J.  Defending the Driniumor: Covering Force Operations in New Guinea, 1944.  Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1984.

Drea, Edward J.  New Guinea - The U.S. Army Campaigns of World War II.  U. S. Army Center of Military History, n.d.
Hill, Jim Dan, Major General, Retired.  The Minute Man in Peace and War.  Harrisburg: The Stackpole Company, 1964.
Jungwirth, Clarence J.  Diary of a National Guardsman in World War II.  Oshkosh, WI: Poeschl Printing Company, 1991.
Mayo, Lida.  Bloody Buna.  Canberra, Australia: Australian National University Press, 1975.

Miller, John, Jr.  Cartwheel: The Reduction of Rabaul.  U. S. Army Center of Military History, 1959.

Milner, Samuel.  Victory in Papua.  U. S. Army Center of Military History, 1957.
Papuan Campaign - The Buna-Sanananda Operation.  Washington, D.C.: Historical Division, War Department, 1945.
The Red Arrow - 1955 - The 32D Division, Wisconsin National Guard.  n.p., 1955.
Smith, Herbert M., Lieutenant Colonel, Retired. Four Score and Ten: Happenings in the Life of Herbert M. Smith.  Eau Claire, WI: Heins Publications, 1995.

Smith, Herbert M., Lieutenant Colonel, Retired. Hannibal Had Elephants II.  Eau Claire, WI: Rev. William A. Heins, 1995.

Smith, Robert Ross.  The Approach to the Philippines.  U. S. Army Center of Military History, 1953.
Smith, Robert Ross. 
Triumph in the Philippines.  U. S. Army Center of Military History, 1963.

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