The Memoirs of Armand Charest Part II

Chapter 16

D-Day Plus Six… The Cave Battles

Map of Biak Island drawn by Armand Charest

E Company, now down to less than twenty-five men, is now witness to the strangest battle of the War in the South Pacific. For the first time the infantry has to deal with enemy soldiers taking refuge in caves.

I am told that when this particular island rose from the ocean bottom, it was primarily a hunk of coral that through centuries of ocean corrosion had developed an extensive system of interlocking caves. That explained why the enemy soldiers always infiltrated our rear and attacked supply and engineering outfits. They made their way through the caves!

In this situation a long but narrow valley led up to mountains honeycombed with caves. The two attacking American battalions blocked the only exit at the lower end of the valley. The Japanese could not escape, but they tried, oh how they tried. Every day, the division band members, trained to be gunners, turned their quadruple truck-mounted .50 caliber machine guns on the cave entrances. I can still see ricocheting bullets climbing the steep mountain walls and screaming into the air. In the intervening quiet spells, Australian civilian Japanese speakers relayed messages to the enemy soldiers through their bullhorns. According to the American soldiers with whom we talked, the Japanese could be heard arguing among themselves. Then, our boys said, they could hear shots inside the caves. Then there was complete silence.

Then the Royal Australian Air Force came in for some action. Their daredevil pilots were a cocky group as was the ground army. In my opinion the two best armies in the war were the German army and the Australian Imperial Forces also known as the A.I.F. composed of volunteers who went overseas to fight for England. They were very equally effective in North Africa and the jungles of New Guinea. The pilots flew antiquated but marvelous airplanes, the P-40 Kittyhawks, whose nose sections were decorated with Tiger shark teeth. The idea was for the pilots to leave the neighboring airstrip, come up the valley and skipbomb their bombs into the caves. It was a great idea, but it did not work.

We watched the planes fly low and drop their bombs, watched in fascination as the bombs skipped along the valley much like a stone skipping on water, watch in disappointment as the bombs hit the mountain face and exploded. Plane after plane tried it with no luck. No bomb entered the cave. When one plane could not climb away from the mountain in time and hit the wall, the exercise was called off.

Next came the engineers. Somehow they managed to drag barrels of heavy oil to the mountaintop. Since fissures were evident everywhere, pouring the oil into the cracks was a simple operation. This they did with alacrity. Next came the torches. The engineers just tossed them down and we watched as burning oil came cascading through the cave openings. This was done for the following three or four days. The Japanese did not surrender.

Meanwhile, E Company had its hands full maintaining its position at the crossroads. The survivors ran patrols every day while keeping lines of communications open to other companies. At the same time we had to deal with Japanese soldiers trying to escape from the caves. The night brought the sounds of war very close as the enemy soldiers tried time after time to escape. They came onto American positions in waves only to be cut down by concentrated machine gun and artillery shells know as canisters, deadly shells that were nothing more than enlarged shotgun shells. They died by the hundreds. First thing every morning, bulldozers would chug up to the First Battalion lines and push the corpses into shallow trenches.

Company E soldiers soon became victimized by a severe attack of diarrhea, known as the G.Is. Most of the boys were incapacitated, too weak for patrolling. The dozen men still operating, Burke and myself included, now ran three patrols per day. The came a fateful decision by the high command.

The Regimental Commander ran out of patience. He ordered the caves to be sealed. He said that we had used up enough time and his regiment was too decimated. So, once again the engineers climbed the mountain. This time they carried explosives that they set at intervals on the mountain face. At a signal they set off the charges. We watched as once again man demonstrated his infinite capacity to harm his fellow man.

The whole mountain face came crashing down, effectively blocking the cave entrances. The remnants of the 162nd Regiment along with the reinforcing 34th Regiment left to establish a perimeter defense of the three airfields which the Allied Air Forces were already using to bomb Japanese targets further North. Thus ended the battle of the caves and the official campaign for the island of Biak, off the New Guinea coast. The Second Battalion started the campaign with 500 infantrymen. Less that two weeks later, we could only muster about fifty. E Company had less than twenty men still on their feet.

Was the enterprise worth it? Who knows. Were those islands worthy of the sacrifices of thousands of young allied lives, mere boys who never had a chance to live? Once again, who knows. We continued with patrols for several months, bringing in Japanese survivors but also losing some boys as well.

I thought of Sergeant Brown for many years. I never forgot my reaction as the medics carried his body past us. I cried like a baby.

Websites About Present Day Biak Island:

 A database of photographs, descriptions and locations of WWII wreckage remaining on Biak Island, Irian Jaya, Indonesia.

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