US 503rd PIR in the Big Fire Fight of Gabsohnkie

A part of the briefing for the Operation, showing the principal Jump Fields.

A part of the briefing for the Operation, showing the principal Jump Fields.

In the Pacific the Americans and the Australians continued with the re-occupation of New Guinea. The final goal was the port of Lae. Approaching the objective indirectly were an Australian seaborne force and an American airborne infiltration.

In Europe, following the losses encountered during the Sicily invasion, the fate of parachute and glider operations lay in the balance. Senior commanders, including Eisenhower, began to see them as very risky and potentially very costly operations. Whilst a detailed review was underway, the first major airborne operation in the Pacific theatre got underway. The success of the 503rd’s drop on the 5th September was one of the factors that helped keep airborne operations within the planning for Overlord.

The operation in New Guinea was onto unoccupied territory. Nevertheless there was confusion as troops were dispersed during the drop and took time to rendezvous together and gather up their equipment. There was also uncertainty as to whether the area genuinely was free of Japanese.

Allied Parachute jump in the Markham Valley under the cover of a smoke screen on 5 September 1943. General MacArthur accompanied the raid in a high flying B-17.

Allied Parachute jump in the Markham Valley under the cover of a smoke screen on 5 September 1943. General MacArthur accompanied the raid in a high flying B-17.

Louis G. Aiken, Sr., who was with Company “B” 503 PIR was one of those who jumped that night and became a witness to what they subsequently called the ‘Big Fire Fight’:

I had become, by virtue of the fact that I found the assembly point, a member of the group who were to eventually witness and survive the Big Fire Fight of 5-6 Sept at a place called Gabsohnkie.

The Lt. kept looking at his watch and eventually realized that his troops were not going to find the assembly point in time for him to move out at the assigned time. Actually I can remember he delayed departure for approximately one hour hoping that most of them would show up. Finally he counted heads and had about eight of those originally assigned and approximately four of us who had been assigned to other tasks, bundle humping etc. We departed, twelve good men and a determined young officer.

I was younger, much younger, than him but thoroughly dedicated, moved out toward the great adventure, sweating profusely — our Jump Suits which were especially designed to cause weight loss in the tropics, gear hanging and banging all over our bodies, as we approached the general direction of the 2nd Bn CP we encountered a number of coconut trees that evidently put up quite a resistance. One actually had been blown down and a number of others had the marks of what appeared to be Primer Cord. We considered shooting the wounded trees in the lower trunk area to put them out of their misery but realized we might antagonize some of the healthy trees that appeared to be guarding their wounded comrades. We could see the evidence of them having lost a good many coconut fruit in their encounter with someone or something that had access to Primer Cord and small blocks of explosives. We paid our respects and moved on toward the CP.

When we arrived it was rather late in the day (5 Sept 1943) and everybody was dug in and had made preparations for whatever might occur on this our first night in a Combat Zone. We assumed that inasmuch as we were only going to be in the CP area overnight and then move on early the next morning, that we would be allowed to bed down inside the perimeter — not so stated the powers that be, thank goodness. We were instructed to move outside the perimeter, dig in staggered along both sides of a small road that approached the 2nd Bn CP from the general direction from which we had come, good thinking because this would give some rear coverage for the CP just in case they received a frontal attack at the same time the Japanese decided to flank and hit the rear defenses they would encounter US and we was ready!

Well we dug in staggered individual sitting type foxholes about five to ten feet between positions and prepared to defend to the last man. We knew we couldn’t retreat for to do so would throw us in conflict with the CP perimeter and possibly shot as suspected hostiles. I got that word from watching John Wayne movies of the Old West, so Alamo here we stand, no quarter given or expected. “Hooray for George, Mac and Frank” was our battle cry.

This was a saying immortalized by “B” Co’s own “Snuffy” Garrett who was ejected, kindly but nevertheless ejected, from the cinema in Gordonvale, Australia when he got patriotically carried away as per usual: before each showing of a Film of Flicker, the Pictures of King George, General MacArthur and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were flashed across the screen. Snuffy was slightly inebriated and being very patriotic, he arose and saluted and shouted so all could hear “Hurray for George, Mac, and Frank!” He never got to see the main feature. However on special occasions we used this immortal phrase as our Battle Cry and of course we considered this, our first night in a Combat Zone situation, as a special occasion – little did we know how special it was to be.

This was the first and last time I ever dug in as an individual, without someone else to keep me company during the long nights of expected combat conditions. I dug in a bunch of times after that from New Guinea to Negros, three years and four days from date of departure to return in October 1945, all in Co. “B” ‘503” PIR (RCT). I was so young I think folks thought I was born overseas and therefore desired to remain in my place of birth. Nightfall and all is quiet and then sometime, to the best of my knowledge, between ten and twelve midnight all hell broke loose in the 2nd Bn C.P.

I figured we are in one hell of a fix and no place to go! I sat there in my foxhole and dug a little deeper trying to figure out what was going on. You know them birds that make funny noises at night, some sound like they are knocking pipes together and other sound like they are knocking blocks of wood together? I figured they were Japs sending code signals to each other, telling each other where twelve men and their officer were located outside of the CP perimeter.

I began to study my immediate front and about twenty yards to my front in a small opening with just enough moonlight or light showing through I detected a movement and then another and another and I guess I counted about 20 Japs moving past the small clearing; however like a good soldier I held my fire and decided against trying to alert the position to my left. Oh yeah, I was the furthest out on that twelve man line defense with the next position approximately 6 feet to my left and to attempt alerting him might alert the Japanese and jeopardize mine and his position. I was playing it cool and scared shitless and things were getting crowded as the Fire Fight picked behind me in the 2nd Bn.

Man, I figured this was it. Japs were everywhere and the continuous firing and explosion of hand grenades convinced me I was absolutely right. Before daylight came I had about 20 clips of M-1 ammo stacked on the lip of my foxhole, a machete, a knuckle type trench knife for hand to hand combat, a bayonet and several hand grenades all in position in front of me and I was ready and scared as hell!

It would have been nice if we had been assigned a newsman or cameraman to record this fireworks spectacle so we could at some later date show our children and grandchildren what it was like on our first night of combat at a place called “Gabsohnkie”, British New Guinea 5-6 Sept 1943.

The whole account can be read at the History of the 2/503rd PIR. Attempts to find the numerous Japanese casualties that they believed they had inflicted were in vain when morning light came, apart from more wounded coconut trees.

James P Lowe wrote his Thesis on the whole operation.

A map that formed part of the Operation Order for the 503rd PIR for 5th September 1943.

A map that formed part of the Operation Order for the 503rd PIR for 5th September 1943.

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