"PURPLE HEARTS ON NOEMFOOR"
Noemfoor was an insignificant little Island off the Northwest Coast of New Guinea. The only reason it was given any attention whatsoever by Higher Command in mid-1944 was that it had two operational airfields and one well along in construction. MacArthur's advance through the South West Pacific Area (SWPA) needed airfields in the area for launching air strikes into Borneo, the Celebes and into the Philippines.
The Japanese had scraped these fields out of almost solid coral using slave laborers from Taiwan. There were an undetermined number of Imperial Japanese Air Corp and service troops on the Island. For some reason these people are always referred to as non-combatants but those we met on Noemfoor turned out to have plenty of fight in them.
Noemfoor was hot and humid. One can get an idea of the normal temperatures when considering that the Northern tip of the Island is located at a Latitude of one half of a degree South of the Equator.
The Island is about 15 miles long and 10 miles wide at the widest point. Except for patches where natives had cleared jungle off small plots of land for their gardens the Island was almost entirely covered with heavy jungle growth over the coral base. The Island is very flat, with little of the land exceeding 400 feet in elevation. The highest point was, a rumored hill known only as Hill 670. This hill was the objective of a number of operations of the 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team over the month and a half fighting took place in July and August 1944.
The Japanese had built and operated Kamiri Airdrome in the Northwest corner and Namber Airdrome in the Southwest corner of the Island. Namber was, actually, a strip used only occasionally by fighter aircraft while Kamiri was considerably larger. Kornasoren Airdrome was under construction by the Japanese, at the North end of the Island, as the American troops landed. United States construction crews greatly expanded Kamiri and finished and enlarged Kornasoren.
On 2 July 1944 the 158th Regimental Combat Team, an Arizona National Guard outfit known as the Bushmasters, landed on the Northern shore near Kornasoren and almost, immediately, bogged down. The 503rd Parachute Regimental Combat Team was called upon to bail them out. The parachute outfit had been held at Hollandia as a mobile reserve for this and other operations under way at the time. On 3 July the First Battalion of the 503rd jumped on Kornasoren and took over the pursuit of the Japanese troops attempting to evacuate in the face of the large invasion. It would have been preferable for the whole of the 503rd regiment to jump at one time but there were not sufficient C-47 transport aircraft available, in the South West Pacific Theater of Operations, to drop the whole Regiment in one lift. The First Battalion was followed by the Third Battalion, which jumped on Kornasoren on 4 July. Because of high casualties, experienced by the jumpers in those two battalions, the jump of the Second Battalion was called off and they were flown to Biak. There the Second Battalion was loaded on amphibious landing craft and transported to Noemfoor on 9 July, landing at the Namber Airdrome.
By this time a bit more was learned about the enemy on Noemfoor. There were thought to be about 1200 Japanese Air Corp and Service troops under Command of Colonel Shimizu. They were well armed with light and heavy machine guns, knee mortars, rifles, and of course, the usual sabers. The troops had evacuated the airdromes and headed for higher ground, Hill 670 in particular, where they intended to hold out as long as possible.
Hill 670 was located an inaccessible 6 or 7 miles from the North end of the Island. It was hard to get to because of heavy Jungle which overlaid the Coral outcroppings. There were no roads or trails anywhere near the hill. The hill could not be seen from the air so bombing or shelling it with artillery would be a matter of pure guesswork. The hill would have to be found and attacked on the ground.
A native track led from the North end of Namber Airdrome eastward to an area where natives on the Island gathered in an attempt to stay out of the way of the fighting between the Japanese and the Americans. The Second Battalion had patrols working this track almost immediately after landing on 9 July. At the closest point this track passed within three or four miles of Hill 670.
On 16 July "E" Company was on its way across the Island, following the track, when darkness fell and the Company quickly went into bivouac for the night. At that time, and most all nights, units avoided moving around after dark. The general rule at night was "if it moves; shoot to kill! It is, probably, an enemy."
During the night Captain Samuel N. Smith, from Denton, Texas, the Company Commander, received a message from Battalion Headquarters, stationed back on Namber Airdrome. "E" Company was to attack Hill 670 from the Southeast. "E" Company consisted of three rifle platoons and a mortar platoon, a total of, roughly, 120 Officers and Enlisted Men. A section of Light Machine Guns from Headquarters Company, Second Battalion had been attached to "E" Company to support the rifle platoons.
I was the Platoon Leader of the Second Rifle Platoon. I was First Lieutenant Donald E. (Don) Abbott from St. Helens, OR. My platoon was chosen by Captain Smith to lead as the point because we were considered, generally, to have the best scouts in the Company. While the other two rifle platoons, occasionally, relieved my platoon, it soon became evident much better time could be made by using my platoon exclusively. Two scouts out of six in the second platoon stood out as better than the others. They were Galen C. Kittleson, now a retired Command Sergeant Major in Toeterville, IA and Loyd G. Nelson, now of Pensacola, FL. Shortly after our encounter at Hill 670, Kittleson was chosen to be an Alamo Scout, a collection of outstanding soldiers who scouted landing beaches before amphibious landings as the allied troops made their way toward the Philippines.
The two scouts led the column. I followed them by 20 to 50 yards where I could always be in contact with them and Captain Smith. He stayed back another 50 yards. My platoon sergeant, Tech Sergeant Leonard A. Peterson, of East Amherst, NY, was close behind Captain Smith and in contact with the rest of the Platoon.
Following the Second Platoon was the Machine Gun section, Company Headquarters, the First Platoon, The Mortar Platoon and the Third Platoon, protecting the tail of the column.
It sounds as if this was a long formation and it was. When advancing through heavy jungle, such as experienced on Noemfoor Island, it is almost impossible to advance in any other formation without becoming separated. Likewise the use of patrols protecting the flanks was seldom used because of the difficulty In maintaining contact.
It is virtually impossible to move a column of 120 people silently enough that they cannot be detected by the enemy, but we tried to maintain silence for the sake of the Scouts, if for no other reason. In this case, however, the column had a problem. Located near the tail of the column, at the head of the mortar platoon was First Lieutenant John L. Lindgren, Mortar Platoon leader of Los Angeles CA. Immediately ahead of him was Dr. Charles H. Bradford, of Boston, MA. Doctor Bradford had joined the 503rd when it was stationed in Australia and he was an orthopaedic specialist in a station hospital. Being parachutists we suffered many sprains, breaks, etc. which were treated by Doctor Bradford at the Hospital. After some discussion he decided he might as well join the 503rd instead of getting the men second hand in the Hospital. He was considerably older than the run-of-the-mill paratrooper and soon made many friends among the troopers who looked upon him as a father figure. His eyesight was not good and he wore thick lenses. He constantly had trouble keeping his glasses clean. In the extreme heat and humidity of Noemfoor the Doctor's glasses would fog so entirely that he had a difficult time seeing where he was going. Consequently, he often knocked down some of the jungle brush or vines. Lt. Lindgren, who was less than light on his feet, would stumble over the debris Doc Bradford knocked down. There was a continual, WHANG! as something was knocked down by Doc, followed by, BANG! as Lindgren tripped and fell. Then came loud curses. This commotion could be clearly heard at the head of the column and, presumably, by enemy outposts well ahead of the column.
(Before long, as a tribute to his lack of jungle stealth, Lt. Lindgren became known as 'Jungle Fox', a satirical sobriquet by which he was known for the rest of his life.)
Kittleson and Nelson, carefully, checked out every yard of the advance before continuing as rapidly as safety allowed. Kittleson would check a suspicious outcropping of coral and signal Nelson "OK" and then advancing a bit further. Nelson would, in turn, pass the information on to me. The three of us, through months of training together and running patrols in other places, such as East of Hollandia, had become a team able to communicate silently without a need for words. None of us could explain how we communicated but it worked, that was what was important.
The advance was, strictly, by compass heading since there were no trails or roads to follow. Occasionally, something which appeared to be a trail would be encountered but would turn out to be a game trail or an aberration on the jungle floor. The advance was hard work too. The jungle covered the coral outcroppings, sometimes making it so a high point would look like vegetation, when it was solid coral. Other times a deep hole could be covered like a trap with vegetation which would not hold the weight of a man.
The map the Company had to work with had been drawn from aerial photographs and were virtually useless. How the Engineers made these the people on the ground were never certain. It appeared contours must have been drown by use of the photographs which, of course, could not see through the trees down to the jungle floor. The troops often felt the contours represented the tops of the trees instead of the jungle floor. At any rate the map indicated Hill 670 was about 5 miles from our previous bivouac area and could only be found by following an azimuth. The view was limited to a few yards in front of the scouts. Landmarks to steer toward were virtually non existent. Maintaining an azimuth with a high degree of accuracy was virtually impossible. We had, however, become fairly adept with this method before so felt we were headed toward Hill 670. The distance travelled, however, was more difficult to measure because of the need to, carefully, scout out the advance slowed us, considerably.
We had left our bivouac area around ten in the morning and it was now about 1600 hours. It was probable we were getting close to Hill 670 although we had no physical indication. Our advance continued to be along, generally, level land.
Suddenly, Nelson indicated to me that Kittleson had spotted a Japanese heavy machine gun emplacement and that he had been seen. Silently, I asked him how many Japanese and Kittleson motioned back he thought there were six.
I indicated for them to spray the gun with their Thompson Sub Machine Guns and, then, pull back. I dove for a spot behind a tree. The tree was what we called a Banyan with broad, flat, knife-like roots, perhaps two inches thick. The trunk of the tree was, perhaps, a foot and a half in diameter. I poked my head around the left side of the tree but could not see the machine gun. I, then, turned my head to tell Sam Smith what was ahead and to order Sergeant Peterson to send one of our squads around to the left and come in on the machine gun from that side.
Kittleson and Nelson sprayed the area and started back to where I was. Then the machine gun opened up, apparently shooting at me since they hit the tree I was behind with a quick burst. I did not know it at that instant but they also sprayed to the right of the tree because they hit at least three of the people back down the column.
I had not completed my order to Sergeant Peterson when the Japanese Machine Gun opened up. I was hit in the middle of my chest by a round which came through a root and knocked me on my rear. I had always hoped that if I were to be wounded, it would not be in the torso, particularly not in the chest but here I was hit in the chest. I was wearing a one piece fatigue uniform. Because of the heat the uniform was well open at the neck. I looked down and saw blood all over the front of me. I could see a hole a little larger than the diameter of a bullet in the middle of my chest. Wiping the blood off the wound I was surprised to see a small chunk of metal. I was wearing my "dog tags" on a metal chain and thought to myself "the bullet must have hit the chain and that is a piece of it which I should get out of there". I flicked the metal with a fingernail and a whole bullet popped out from between two ribs. The round was pretty hot and slippery so I dropped it in the leaves on the jungle floor. I have always thought it was a shame I could not have kept the bullet as a souvenir but it still lays on the jungle floor in the middle of Noemfoor Island. It appears the bullet hitting the knife-like root slowed it down enough to keep it from going through me but still had enough velocity to knock me on my can.
By this time there was a lot of blood down the front of my fatigues. Sam had come up immediately after I had told him what was in front, He, sensibly, had remained behind the tree and was not hit when the machine gun opened up. As he approached I told him "They got me!". Sam, later told me he really thought they had because of all the blood.
Shortly, I found the whole bullet was not the only thing that had hit me. Apparently at least two other rounds hit the top of the root and shattered. One flat piece of a bullet fragment plastered against the middle of my chin. Another bullet shattered and went in and out of the left side of my neck. This one left a piece 0.8 x 1.6 mm in size (about the size of my little fingernail--it is still in my neck). Doc Bradford, who soon came forward has told me, in recent years, he thought I really was a "goner" when he first saw me. The bullet shrapnel on my chin and in my neck was where most of the blood had come from.
Actually, I came out much better than three others. In the burst of fire from the Japanese Machine gun Corporal Wilbur R. Anker, from the Machine Gun section, was hit in the spleen. He died in agony during the night. PFC. Muñoz, also from the Machine Gun section, was badly wounded in the left shoulder. After the Japanese fired the Machine Gun burst they had tossed several grenades and Pfc. Frank Molinaro, one of my men in the Second Platoon, was hit by a fragment in his left knee.
By the time the squad had completed its flanking movement, the Japanese had pulled their machine gun back and had drug off their casualties. All that was left in their position was several pools of blood. It was approaching sundown and the Company did not want to be caught moving in the night. The dim light under the jungle overstory was bad enough. We didn't need a pitch dark night. So Sam Smith ordered everyone to dig in as much as possible in the coral and be prepared for an attack during the night. Luckily, the Japanese had enough with the one encounter and, probably, were hoping we would not attack them during the night.
Cpl. Anker's died of his wound during the night. There was nothing Doctor Bradford could do beyond injecting him with morphine to keep him from suffering. Muños' shoulder wound was not improved by the filthy jungle and Doc Bradford told Sam he, probably, would not pull through unless he could be admitted in a hospital soon. Frank Molinaro had not realized he had the grenade fragment in his knee until an hour or so later when it began to hurt from the inside instead of the outside. Although my wounds looked bad, they were not disabling and, in fact, did not even hurt badly.
As morning light came, Sam took stock of his position. He had one dead, one very badly wounded man, who needed hospitalization, and two other wounded who might get infection if not treated soon. He had tried to raise Battalion Headquarters all night on his radio but without success. In fact the Company had not been in radio contact with anyone since shortly after leaving the previous nights bivouac. The radios we were given were a pile of junk. They added a lot of weight to our packs but never worked when they were needed. Sam agonized over the fact he would have to give up making contact and fixing the enemy forces which were supposed to be located on Hill 670. He reached the conclusion he had better turn around and go back to the previous nights bivouac where the wounded could be evacuated. He would have to give up without reaching our objective. At first light, the Company turned around and headed back the way it had come. Aside from the wounded there was another reason the Company wanted to get back to the track. They had left the bivouac area with no rations and they were beginning to undergo the pangs of hunger.
A make-shift litter was made for Muños. The route was so difficult that nearly every man took his turn helping to lug the litter. By the time they reached the track. and Muños reached the temporary hospital it was well after dark of the second day. I was able to make my way without help as was PFC Molinaro but we were allowed to travel light. The rest of the Company was exhausted from lugging Muños.
About half way back to the track two Japanese somehow were able to get themselves captured before someone shot them, a very fortunate and uncharacteristic happening. They looked as if they were not over 15 years old and they were obviously next to starvation. They would wolf down any small bit of food any of our men would give them out of pity for their condition.
The prisoners were put in the care of Sergeant Grady, Platoon Sergeant of the Mortar Platoon. Although the Japanese, together, probably did not weigh 200 pounds, they were loaded down with mortar ammunition when the regular bearers pulled their turn as bearers of the litter carrying Muños.
The "E" Company mission to reach Hill 670 was not accomplished and we lost one man killed, one man badly wounded and two others hit. The wounded who would go on to fight another day. Four Purple Hearts and nothing to show for it.
FROM OUR DOCUMENT COLLECTION - GENERAL ORDER 25 (9 July 1944)
listing the awards of Purple Hearts on Noemfoor.
© 2000 by Don Abbott, All Rights Reserved
(Reproduced by permission of the Author. )
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