75 Years Ago: “The Drin” (Drin-yoo-more) Part I

TE_Bell_Aitape
Captain Thomas E. Bell, Jr., (Clemson ’39) at the time of the Driniumor River battle

 

And now, a long-overdue post series.  Last month we as a country memorialized the 75th anniversary of the Normandy invasion in Northern France.  On the same day, very little was going on the the Pacific.  Everywhere, either with Nimitz or MacArthur, major actions were either ending or getting ready to happen.  Just before midnight on 10 July 1944, however, elements of the Red Arrow Division (primarily, First and Second Battalions of the 128th Regiment) were about to enter the fight for their lives against a major night attack by the Japanese.  The two armies had been probing each other’s lines for several weeks after the American landing at Aitape, New Guinea, and in a lot of ways the Americans expected some kind of attack on this forward perimeter, just not one this big and well-organized.  It became, in some respects, a battle like the Tenaru River on Guadalcanal except with more artillery support, and even like a smaller tactical Battle of the Bulge in the jungle.

I may have mentioned elements of this battle in an earlier post, which talked about some of the actions of soldiers under the command of Captain Sheldon M. Dannelly, then commanding C Company 128th.  Especially, of how the chance discovery of a reference to a letter written to the next of  kin of MOH awardee Sgt. Gerald Endl by his CO, “Sheldon Darnelly” opened up the most startling discovery of the whole research effort–that Dannelly had had three of the Red Arrow Division’s eleven Medal of Honor recipients under his command at time each performed the heroic action as witnessed.

What I thought I would do here is repop the Drin story and combine it with passages from the”32 Book”, so that you might see how detailed the book was/is, and consider getting your hands on a copy if you have not yet.  The main viewpoints come from the post-action report of Captain Thomas E. Bell, Jr. (Clemson ’39), from the memoir of Sergeant (later, Lieutenant) Jesse M. Coker, then an enlisted man in a position on the bank of the Driniumor River, and the speculative account pieced together in the 32 Book about what transpired in the jungle on the opposite bank, during 1st Battalion’s ill-advised and ill-fated recon-in-force.  Other sources, such as Edward Drea, Stephen Taafe, the Lauer 127th unit history, and the official Army “Green Volume” are also used; proper citations can be found appropriately in the 32 Book, Chapter 8.

[NOTE: Dr. Jesse Coker was a first-class individual, with whom I had the privilege of corresponding by letter and phone 2013-2014, and he never let on he was terminally ill.]

The story begins in May 1944 with the Aitape landings, the 127th Regiment supporting elements of the 41st Division.  Higher command was convinced that a large concentration of Japanese forces had congregated further to the east, near Wewak, and authorized a strengthened patrol to move further down the coast and try to locate the Japanese.  The unit assigned to this task was C Company, 1st Battalion 127th, under the command of Captain T.D. (Tally) Fulmer, Clemson Class of ’39.  Because of his and Powell A. (Presbyterian College ’41) Fraser’s noted heroism in the closing stages of the Buna campaign, each had gained a Distinguished Service Cross, as well as higher command.  While Fulmer took permanent command of C Company 127 (he had been the last surviving company officer at Buna), Fraser rose to rank of major and became Battalion Commander of 1st Battalion 127, a post he held the rest of the war, quite a feat to remain there (and he was the only Bn CO in the Division to do so).   Also involved in this action was the relief element, A Company 127, now commanded by Hermann Bottcher, the hero of Buna who had risen from enlisted man to receive a battlefield appointment of Captain by direct order of General Robert Eichelberger.  Major Fraser dispatched these two companies as the “Nyaparake Force” to occupy a series of coastal villages, interrogate the natives, and located the supposed Japanese threat.

Eventually, they did find the Japanese, and fought a sharp engagement with them on the night of 14 May, in which Fulmer’s perimeter experienced an enveloping action, leaving many Japanese dead and two of his own on the beach the next morning.  The same thing happened to Bottcher on the 23rd of May.  These strong night attacks were evidence to General William Gill, 32nd Division Commander and in charge of the overall sector, that there was indeed a very large force out there.

Afterwards, Fulmer’s company was plucked off the beach by a flotilla of Navy PT boats, and Bottcher managed to fight his way westward to a safe village.  They were rewarded by having to answer to negative rumors filtering down that they had gotten themselves outflanked and surrounded.  Fulmer was denied a Bronze Star, but retained command of C Company; Bottcher was transferred from command of A Company to command of the 32 Recon Troop, a position he held until his death at Leyte later in 1944. The 127th Regimental Commander, a famous old Michigan Guard colonel named Merle Howe, got replaced in oversight of the eastern sector. His replacement in that role was one of “Eichelberger’s Boys” who came in and took over everything during the crucial days of Buna when MacArthur had ordered Eichelberger to relieve and replace the beloved 32nd Division Commander, Major General Forrest Harding–Clarence A. Martin, by then a Brigadier General, who would soon have to make snap decisions during the massive enemy assault on the American lines.  Fear of embarrassment, failure, and the subsequent wrath of MacArthur, seemed to dictate many command decisions for those in the Sixth Army.

Throughout the rest of May and June, elements of the 127th, as well as the 126th, continued to encounter small probing attacks between the Aitape beachhead and the areas originally scouted by the Nyaparake force.  But the big attack would fall entirely on elements of the 128th Regiment in July (75 years ago this week).

MacArthur’s Sixth Army Commander (General Krueger) made the decision to reinforce the west bank of the Driniumor River as a forward line of defense for the Tadji (airfield and beachhead) perimeter, and from there patrol, then draw and/or await any large-scale attack by the Japanese, should it indeed materialize.  The 128th Regiment, 32nd Infantry Division, along with additional Infantry Regimental Combat Teams (RCT) and detachments from other divisions, eventually received orders to fortify this line, which ran several miles inland from the mouth of the river southward to a village in a crook of the river bank called Afua.

From the coast running inland along the west bank of the Driniumor, the order of battle found 1st Battalion 128th covering the outermost (nearest the beach) sector; next in turn was 2nd Battalion 128th, which was positioned, in order of companies: F, E, and G. To the right flank of G Company 128th was I Company (and in order of companies, the rest of 3rd Battalion) 127th, and further inland to their right, all the way to the sharp, pronounced bend in the river at Afua, was the 112th  RCT (Texas National Guard, an independent ex-cavalry regiment).  In 2nd Battalion 128th, Captain Tom Bell (Clemson ’39) thus had a reliable company on either side of him, each with commanding officers who along with himself made up Lieutenant Colonel Herbert A. Smith’s stalwart and rather stable company level leadership.  Leading F was Captain Robert Beam “Woody” Wood, Bell’s friend and fellow Southerner (N.C. State ’39), who had taken over command after the departure of Captain Jefferson R. Cronk, the hero of the 31 December 1942 Mission Spit action at Buna.  In command of G Company was Captain Ted Florey, who in the absence of their regular CO at Buna had commanded the outfit (then including Bell, as a platoon leader) during their initial escapade in the sago swamp, and had likewise led them out of that predicament with or without orders.  In this present situation, Florey for one was taking no chances.  His company somehow located a quantity of barbed wire, which he ordered strung directly in the riverbed in front of his assigned sector.

This section of the Driniumor, as E Company’s Jesse Coker recorded, was normally fordable; the highest bank was “approximately six feet, and instead of sand bars, gravel ‘bars’ shared the river with small desolate islands covered in tall kunai.  This complicated the defense of the river because of the protection these bars and islands would provide for the enemy.” Directly across from E Company’s position was an especially large island, which, as American intelligence later learned, was a major objective the enemy called the Kawanaka Shima. Because the Americans had orders to prepare an “Outpost Line of Resistance” as if for a picket, or “delaying action” (as opposed to a stronger “Main Line of Resistance”), their defenses were set up accordingly, with less improved cover; foxholes had connecting trenches to the machine gun positions but, save for Florey’s barbed wire, that was about all they had.

The defense line became even thinner when on 9 July a follow-up order detached the entire 1st Battalion 128th, quite unexpectedly, to perform a “reconnaissance in force” along the coast, which meant that 2nd Battalion now had to adjust its own lines to cover the newly-vacated sector.  As a result, Captain Wood’s F Company alone now had “to hold the 1st Battalion’s former line, about 3,000 yards in length.”  Captain Bell’s Company E men, “with one heavy machine gun platoon attached, extended their own northern flank by another approximate 1,000 yards,” making them alone responsible for a 1,750 yard long defensive line, the initial frontage “normally defended by a battalion.”  In the opinion of Coker, and possibly others with like opinions now silent, “this was an impossible defense situation, especially at night in a jungle.”

Meanwhile, the Japanese were astutely aware of these adjustments; from hidden observation posts in daylight they marked locations of strong points, command posts, etc. for reference at night.  Coker noted that they “did a great job of hiding from us; yet they watched us and knew exactly where we were located,” and knew “that we were vulnerable, because . . . [they were] watching the 1st Battalion as they were leaving the line.”

The continuing aspirations of those “anxious to please MacArthur” and avoid the proverbial black eye begat safe, vacillating, and noncommittal decisions and estimates back at GHQ. MacArthur’s G-2 (Intelligence) had projected an attack in force sometime between 1 July and 15 July, but no attack came for the first week and a half. [See, for example in this case, Edward J. Drea, “Defending the Driniumor,”  as Drea portrayed the failure of MacArthur’s G-2 to properly heed the updates from the “Ultra” decryption of Japanese communications traffic as a key factor in the battle and its outcome.]  Patrols continued to report enemy buildup east of the river, and at some point the orders for the defense line evolved from a mere delaying action to a hold “at all costs” mission.  To the eyewitness on the front line in E Company, the change in plans seemed “ridiculous,” as “the generals in commanding positions, far away from the scene, could not believe that we would be attacked by a significant enemy force.”  It seemed an “impossible line of defense without any reserves, because these same generals would not send us reinforcements.  We could no longer execute the original order to fight a . . . [delaying] action before withdrawing to our own main line of defense.”  The company commanders took time to reposition men and weapons as best they could.  Again from Coker’s valuable firsthand account,

“On July 10, 1944, our company commander . . . [Bell] . . . a veteran of Buna, placed his men at places he felt were most vulnerable—realizing that no way could they stop a determined Japanese attack.  My squad was placed on the left flank of Co. E between a water-cooled machine gun [M-1917 .30 caliber Browning] on my left and an air-cooled [M-1919 .30 caliber Browning] machine gun on my right.

. . . we used the same military tactics that the veterans had learned in combat at Buna—two men per foxhole, one man always awake.  No one ever left his foxhole at night, or he risked being killed instantly or chanced being wounded by his own men.  The pitch black jungle nights made it impossible to see anything.  You could wave your hand directly in front of your eyes without seeing it.”

Little did these troops know that they would soon face three full-strength Japanese infantry regiments. In his report submitted later to Sixth Army G-3 (Operations), Captain Bell remarked that small American detachments had patrolled the far bank and about three to four miles beyond during late afternoon, so consequently  “the enemy had moved approximately four battalions of infantry plus artillery to the opposite bank of the river between the time of our patrols and his attack.”  The final G-3 report noted that at the time, “every indication was that the enemy was avoiding the Second Battalion 128th sector, except for reconnaissance, and led to the  . . . [guess] that the main attack would come in . . . [their] sector.”

Just before midnight on 10 July, “just as the moon was rising,” the Japanese commenced a “brief but intense” artillery preparation, “which came as a surprise because no enemy artillery had been identified within range of the Driniumor,” and the distance from their base at Wewak was an estimated “two-month trek through the dense jungle.” [These were purportedly “mountain guns” that could be disassembled and manhandled by teams of soldiers, something the Japanese had proven adept at achieving all the way back to Malaysia.]  The forward advance scouting by the Japanese proved effective, and the few shells they fired were directed at pinpointed targets, which they generally hit.  Bell later reported that

“Some of the enemy had infiltrated into our positions before the attack began and fired flares directly over our CP [Command Post] and mortar positions.  All during the artillery preparation, the enemy delivered heavy machine gun fire into our lines and concentrated on our machine guns in the sector where the main thrust was to be made.” 

Also, “in the faint light of the moon,” the enemy moved “an estimated company” of soldiers onto the Kawanaka Shima from where they threw grenades while the artillery barrage took place. Then, “about ten minutes after this action, a bugle sounded, the artillery fire lifted” and Japanese infantry “charged in three waves on a 100 yard front” facing Bell’s position.  In the brief cannonade, a shell from one of these mountain guns “had landed in Company E’s CP destroying all of the communication equipment.”

This left the keystone of 2nd Battalion’s defensive line in some confusion, initially, as the first human wave assault began working across from the opposite bank of the river.  Captain Bell, though himself injured by shell fragments from the hit on his Company CP, managed to stay in command.  When interviewed in the 1990s, he would recall that the company was fortunate enough to have had a forward observer from the field artillery regiment in their sector, who was placed right at the front line with a pack radio.  Even though communications with the other companies in the line were out, at least the forward observer was able to call down artillery directly into the center of the river, right in front of the American positions. Quickly, “previously registered American artillery, machine gun, and mortar fire responded vigorously.  Exploding shells blasted away the underbrush and, in conjunction with the tracers and starshells, exposed the massed enemy soldiers.”  The barbed wire that Company G had placed in the river bed proved its worth, as it “served to trip the waves of soldiers as they tried to cross the river, making it easier for G Company to kill hundreds.”  The artillery rounds “soon began to come in at a rate of about twenty per minute.  In little more than an hour, 1300 rounds had been fired.  Very few of these rounds missed their target.” The air “became saturated with the smell of cordite,” and smoke “hung low like a dense fog” over the river.

At first, the Americans held their own.  Bell later reported that the first two waves were stopped, “but the third wave carried through because of our scarcity of ammunition and his overpowering numbers.” Coker recalled that during the first hour he felt “confident that we were winning regardless of insurmountable odds,” which were estimated at “ten to one.”  He continued,

“One of my riflemen . . . and I kept reassuring one another that we were coming out on top.  Not a single Jap had penetrated my squad’s line. Together with artillery and machine guns we were literally slaughtering the Japs by the thousands.  In fact, our company was given credit for killing over 1,000 Japs.”

Had they known earlier that they would be ordered to hold at all costs, and if 1st Battalion had not been pulled from the line, forcing committal of the reserves (F Company) they could have further fortified their defenses and “possibly could have held and not been outmaneuvered.”  As it were, the 2nd Battalion, “with approximately 800 men (there were at least 1,000 when it was full strength), was now trying to hold in the darkness a three and one-half mile line,” and found it impossible to “preclude a breakthrough by thousands and thousands of combat-experienced Japanese soldiers.” Soon, and somewhat inevitably, the sheer weight of numbers prevailed on the more weakly defended portions of the line.  Coker recorded,

“I soon realized the importance of adequate communications, and the anxiety that occurs when there are none.  I was aware that something was happening to my right flank that could spell trouble.  A few minutes later, to my left, a serious problem was developing in F Company’s sector. . . . The walking wounded related to me the seriousness of the situation.  It did not take a genius to determine that we were losing on my left and probably on my right front.”

Then, “after awhile,” he added, “the firing to my right flank seemed to be letting up.  I feared that the Japs might be breaking through because the river was so narrow in places. I was to learn later that this was the case,” but not at the time since the communications between companies were still out.”

The American line was breached in two places, at the extreme flanks of E Company’s sector where it joined those of F and G, respectively.  Total frontage penetrated was about 1,300 yards, through which the Japanese regiments streamed into the American rear areas until well after sunrise. Company F (Captain Wood) signaled to General Martin’s headquarters that Company E “had disappeared from the river line.”  Bell later reported that “the enemy rushed straight through the CP and mortar positions in force.  Our CP and mortar personnel began to move back with their wounded, halting every few minutes to form a perimeter . . . and try to contact the battalion.”  They retreated northwest, at daybreak locating Second Battalion Headquarters, which itself had had to move several hundred yards to the northwest to get out of the impact area of the Japanese shelling.

Ironically, the breakthrough expended the momentum of the Japanese, who evidently were practically starving to death because once they consolidated their gains in the American rear areas they gorged themselves from stockpiles of rations. This distraction gave pockets of Red Arrow Division soldiers, cut off by the attack, opportunities to make their way through the pitch black jungle back to their secondary lines of defense, or to dig in and wait for friendly patrols to locate them.  Small unit clashes continued,  but most of the American efforts refocused on regrouping. “No accurate count” of E Company’s casualty numbers was available for hours after the breakthrough, but later reports estimated “about ten men killed and twenty wounded.”  Further, the reports emphasized that “casualties had not caused the withdrawal.  The main factors were lack of ammunition and the physical impossibility of holding” against the enemy numbers faced, of which Company E “had probably been outnumbered nearly ten to one.”  In daylight, the mangled corpses of thousands of Japanese soldiers could be seen washing out to sea from the mouth of the river, and others that hung up on gravel bars in the shallows stayed there until they became skeletal remains.  Most of them had been killed in the river by artillery and machine-gun fire.

In executing the ill-advised reconnaissance-in-force, the 1st Battalion 128, including Captain Sheldon Dannelly (Wofford College ’39) now leading C Company, had made it as far as the village of Yakamul (the terminus of Fulmer’s earlier Nyaparake Force operations) when news reached them of the massed Japanese assault across the river. Consequently, in the early morning hours of 11 July the Battalion was ordered to turn south into the jungle and engage the Japanese lines on the coastal flank.  In doing so, they were soon stopped by heavy enemy action, and consequently their scattered small units made their way back along the coast or else were picked up off the beach by landing craft. Blakeley notes that their casualty numbers for the abandoned reconnaissance-in-force mission totaled “three killed, 3 missing, and 13 wounded.” Once again, Dannelly’s outfit found itself in the thick of the action; twelve of the thirteen wounded, and at least one of the dead, were his men.  His lead platoon appears to have served as point unit for the aborted attack south, then to have provided rear-guard coverage during the subsequent withdrawal.  They initially made contact with a large force of Japanese and a “fire fight developed.”  The enemy force moved quickly, with a heavy base of fire, to try to envelop the platoon.  In doing so, they isolated seven of the twelve Americans wounded in the sharp initial engagement.  Since the platoon leader was one of those hit, the platoon sergeant, Gerald L. Endl, a Buna veteran from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, assumed command and moved forward alone to engage the enemy single-handedly “in a close-range fight,” buying for his men ten critical minutes to crawl forward and evacuate the trapped, wounded men.  Endl then returned into the jungle darkness four more times and personally carried additional of the wounded to safety.  While bringing out the fourth man, Endl himself was cut down by a burst of enemy automatic fire.  For these acts of gallantry, Staff Sergeant Endl was awarded a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor, the first of three such awards bestowed on men serving in a unit under Captain Dannelly’s command.  Later, in penning a letter of condolence, Dannelly informed Mrs. Endl, “I have never met a finer soldier. . . .  Many wounded comrades owe their lives to [his] unselfish courage. . . .  His every concern seemed to be for his men and he gave himself in a fight to save some of [them] . . . in the face of heavy enemy fire.” [NOTE: This was in a blog post in 2014 by the Wisconsin Veterans Museum.  A pure accidental discovery that the blogger, an intern at the Museum, had misspelled Dannelly’s name as “Darnelly”.  I knew exactly who this was and convinced (basically, bribed) the Museum to send me a pdf of the letter.  It opened a whole new channel of significance for the 32 Book and changed the story near the end of the manuscript development phase.]

Meanwhile, the trial by fire of Bell’s E Company 128th was far from over.  On 13 July the Japanese once again fell upon them, this time while in their new positions well west of the Driniumor. “Giving proof,” however, “that it had not lost its combat effectiveness after its disaster during the night of 10-11 July, Company E held firm and drove off the Japanese.” Later, for “exemplary leadership and bravery” during the Driniumor melee, Bell received the Silver Star, as well as the first of his two eventual Purple Hearts.” The initial bulge in the northern sector created by the Japanese assault took five days to mitigate, but in the end the American units were able to restore the lines to their original positions.

So ended the first chaotic phase of the Driniumor engagement.  Stay tuned…

 

 

 

 

 

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