Biak – “a shitty little malaria and typhus infested atoll”

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

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

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.

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 Campaign in the Dutch East Indies, April - September 1944: American infantry advance behind a Sherman tank on the island of Biak. On Biak the Americans encounted stiff opposition and the island was not taken until August 1944

The Campaign in the Dutch East Indies, April – September 1944: American infantry advance behind a Sherman tank on the island of Biak. On Biak the Americans encounted stiff opposition and the island was not taken until August 1944

General McArthur’s progress across the Pacific was continuing with the next step in the New Guinea campaign the island of Biak. Here the Japanese commander adopted tactics that would be repeated elsewhere later in the Pacific campaign.

Instead of attempting to confront the invaders on the invasion beaches, he established concealed strongpoints in the interior of the island. US troops would progress inland to take the airstrips and then find themselves caught in prepared killing grounds. The Japanese, securely concealed in caves and other positions, were prepared to fight to the death. They would make the Americans pay a high price before giving ground.

Joel Kovitz was already a veteran of the Pacific war:

We were about to make an amphibious landing on an island called Biak, off the northern coast of New Guinea. This would be my fifth landing, and it looked like it could be a rough one. Biak was a shitty little malaria and typhus infested atoll about thirty miles long; we landed near the main town of Bosnik, built by the Dutch. The Japs had a couple of airfields there, which MacArthur needed in order to strike at the Philippines with his long range bombers. But he had greatly underestimated the strength of the Japanese garrison on Biak.

Captured records show close to ten thousand highly trained veteran troops on the island. The landing was lightly opposed, with sporadic fire and artillery from the massive coral cliffs that were facing the beach. Due to unforeseen strong currents on the beaches, several of the assault waves landed two miles from the designated beachhead. This required large troop units to literally march through each other on the narrow beach below the cliffs.

A captured Japanese officer’s diary described the confusion as “a masterpiece of American amphibious tactics!” At one point in the chaos the Japs actually mistook one of our bulldozers clanking along the beach for a tank! But indeed the first tank battle of the Pacific war was fought here on Biak, where our Shermans made mincemeat of their antiquated light tanks.

Reflecting their new strategy of letting us land on the beaches and then drawing us into ambush, the Japs were dug in with well-concealed positions in caves and bunkers, tunnels and trees. The Japs hadn’t been here long, only a couple months, but they had made excellent use of the subterranean system of caves that varied in size from a hallway to a five-story building!

Forgotten eons ago rainbow schools of fish swam through the corals and ridges that had been up-thrust by repeated volcanic convulsions to produce this labyrinthine system of caves, now filled with weird stalagmite and stalactite formations. These ancient caverns were also now filled with thousands of fanatic Imperial Jap soldiers and marines, able to appear and vanish at will on the battlefield; equipped with their artillery, mortars, machine guns, ammo dumps, and even wood houses for the officers!

The 41st Division had by now got a reputation for ruthlessness and expertise in jungle fighting. Originally called the ‘Sunset Division’, we were now known by the press as the ‘Jungleers’. Our shoulder patch was a representation of a setting sun; we were the sunset to the Jap flag’s rising sun motif. But recently Tokyo Rose had given us a new nickname: the “Butchers of Biak”. In her nightly radio broadcasts she would berate our alleged brutality, and try to destroy morale by predicting our impending doom. A captured Jap order directed the beheading of all American prisoners.

We were spread out along a narrow track through the jungle, seeking as usual to engage the enemy. The jungles on Biak weren’t generally as thick as other parts of New Guinea, but long spidery vines choked the trees like giant nightmare cobwebs, while 200 foot evergreens clawed at the heavens, and eight foot kunai grass obstructed the interior plains.

At this point I didn’t have my usual Thompson, for some reason I had had to turn it in and was carrying a carbine. Previously carried by a Lieutenant, this particular carbine’s wooden stock was shattered by a grenade when he was killed. I had removed the splintered bits of the shoulder stock and smoothed it down, and then with a Jap rifle’s cleaning rod heated red hot, had bored a hole in the pistol grip part of the wood. I then looped a piece of wire through the hole and attached a rifle sling. This arrangement allowed me to carry the cut-down carbine over my neck and hanging across my chest like you would carry a camera or binoculars.

We had been on the track in the steaming heat for several hours with no contact, when we walked right into an ambush! A squad of Japs came charging out of the snarled jungle to our left.

Coming straight at me a few yards away was a Jap Lieutenant with his bloody Samurai sword held high in the air over his head, screaming Tenno Banzai! I reflexively jumped into the brush at the right of the track, but to my surprise there was a solid wall of bamboo trees, and just as if I had hit a trampoline, was bounced right back onto the path and landed just at the screaming Jap’s feet! As he was swinging the sword down for the kill, I managed to aim my sawed-off carbine and in a split second I pumped a half dozen rounds into him!

Down he went, as the noise of battle raged through the jungle around us. The sword was covered with blood, testament to its having been used earlier that day. On his belt was a leather holster containing a Nambu 8mm model 14 automatic pistol, loaded and cocked; I couldn’t help wondering what the outcome of our encounter might have been if he had chosen to use his pistol instead of the sword. I guess his Warrior Code made him choose the sword; they had a strange concept of honor and combat.

This account appears in the remarkable WWII Scrapbook – the Life and Times of G.I.Joel . If the story sounds just incredible then you can see a short video of Joel Kovitz with the Samurai sword as he reminisces about that day. There is much more to explore on this site, which includes numerous photographs of Joel and his fellow G.I.s during the campaign in the Pacific.

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.

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.

"In one instance our position was attacked by two Jap medics, fully armed and determined to kill. I took several interesting souvenirs off their corpses, including photos of them in their white uniforms, a medic’s pouch with useful tins that I used for salt and foot powder, and some wounded-in-action tags with a line drawing of a Jap body on which to mark the location of wounds." Joel Kovitz

“In one instance our position was attacked by two Jap medics, fully armed and determined to kill. I took several interesting souvenirs off their corpses, including photos of them in their white uniforms, a medic’s pouch with useful tins that I used for salt and foot powder, and some wounded-in-action tags with a line drawing of a Jap body on which to mark the location of wounds.”
Joel Kovitz

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Pierre Lagacé May 27, 2014 at 10:39 pm

Quite riveting story.

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