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World War II: Capture of Morotai

Originally published by World War II magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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In mid-August 1944, the 33rd Infantry Division was transferred from Sixth to Eighth Army control in New Guinea. Following the division's introduction to combat, the Christmas present for its troops was a South Pacific cruise to Morotai, a small island in the Moluccas group nearly 300 miles northwest of Sansapor, New Guinea.

General Douglas MacArthur's staff knew that if U.S. forces held an airstrip in this group of islands in the Dutch East Indies they would have a strategic base from which to launch operations against the Philippines, about 400 miles away.

To meet the October timetable for MacArthur's return to the Philippines, troops of the 31st Division and the 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division, had streamed ashore on Morotai on September 15, completely surprising and dispersing an enemy force of 1,000 men. Airstrips were immediately built to accommodate the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bombers of the Thirteenth Air Force. A strong perimeter defense around the new base was adequate protection against the small, disorganized elements of Japanese remaining on Morotai.

But the enemy moved quickly to oppose the Americans. While the troops of the 'Golden Cross (33rd Division) were en route to take over from the Dixie Division (31st), the Japanese put an infantry colonel ashore on Morotai to organize their remaining forces there. And in a series of nightly shore-to-shore movements from the nearby island of Halmahera, the Japanese reinforced Morotai in preparation for a counterattack. Running a gantlet of U.S. Navy PT-boats cost the Japanese heavy losses, but by December, when the 33rd Division set sail for the island, the bulk of the Japanese 211th Infantry Regiment was in place.

The Japanese colonel assembled his forces in the area of Hill 40, where they posed a serious threat to American air and naval installations. He sent out reconnaissance patrols and directed his soldiers to harass the perimeter of the American base. The colonel kept up those tactics until December 14, when it became apparent that he was capable of an attack in force. Captured documents indicated that the Japanese planned to sweep out of the jungle and wrest the Gila Peninsula from the Americans, including the airstrips. To remove this threat, it was necessary to seek out the enemy in his lair and destroy him. The island's U.S. garrison forces were tied down to perimeter defense when the 33rd was brought in from New Guinea. The division's 136th Infantry Regiment was to bear the brunt of the task.

There were serious obstacles from the start. The regiment would be cut off from the coastal bases and required to operate independently. Supplies would have to be carried by hand over tortuous jungle trails under heavy guard, or airdropped. Few native carriers were available. Finally, the enemy had the advantage of being engaged in his own element.

Before moving out on the attack, the 33rd was subjected to air raids from enemy bombers based at Halmahera and Borneo. Christmas Eve was a particularly active night; Japanese bombers dropped sticks of bombs directly on the airstrip, destroying several B-24s. Night fighters patrolling the peninsula engaged two of the Japanese planes and sent both down in flames.

Christmas dinner could have been enjoyed in more elegant surroundings; nevertheless, the 108th Quartermaster Company served combat units the traditional feast. Some men, scheduled to go into the line on Christmas morning, had their holiday meal on the night of the 24th, while others ate turkey for breakfast on the 25th. One rifleman of Company A, 136th Infantry, was seen taking a turkey drumstick from his pocket and munching on it as the truck taking him into the line departed.

Colonel Ray E. Cavenee, the 136th Infantry's regimental commander, ordered an inland movement on December 26. Two columns were to approach the enemy forces. The regiment, less the 3rd Battalion, moved to the Pilowo River, while the 3rd Battalion stayed at Radja. Supporting artillery moved to Ngelengele Island, off the west coast of Morotai.

The jungle trails were more difficult to negotiate than U.S. forces had anticipated. Men carrying packboard loads of heavy mortars, machine guns and ammunition quickly became exhausted, and loads had to be transferred to fresh carriers every 15 minutes. When the troops were a mile inland, the radio blanked out, cutting communication between the two columns. An artillery liaison plane took up the job of intercolumn communications, flying overhead from one column to another and relaying messages.

The Pilowo column did not meet the enemy until December 30, when a reconnaissance patrol operating on the left (north) flank encountered a small group of Japanese in the vicinity of the Pilowo River, south of Hill 40. The patrol was then directed to the left flank, where it pushed north of the Pilowo on January 1 and discovered an entrenched enemy force.

The 1st Battalion, commanded by Major Lewis L. Hawk, had already swung to the north and was ordered to attack. Early on January 2, the battalion reconnoitered prior to the assault and discovered that the Japanese position reached farther east than they had realized.

Colonel Cavenee, who maintained his regimental command with the 1st Battalion, realized that the enemy force was strongly fortified and decided to launch a coordinated attack on the morning of January 3. The 2nd Battalion, commanded by Lt. Col. Arthur T. Sauser, was ordered west of the Japanese position to facilitate an envelopment of the enemy force, while the 1st Battalion was ordered to attack from the south. An artillery concentration from Ngelengele provided support prior to the order to move out. At 10 a.m., the battalions attacked simultaneously.

Two hundred yards from the enemy positions, where patrols had roamed at will a day earlier, the attackers came under fire from snipers in the trees. To add to the problem, many of the Japanese flung short-fused charges of TNT from camouflaged positions under the roots of trees. Despite this harassment, both battalions managed to gain ground. When sniper fire became in tense, an effort was made to bypass it. This meant moving off the trails through the stifling jungle, where visibility was 20 feet at best and every foot of it hard going.

The 1st Battalion, attacking toward high ground under devastating small-arms fire, was stopped 80 yards short of the enemy position. At that distance, the Japanese were difficult to pinpoint, but the broad front of enemy fire and the sound of automatic weapons gave some indication of their positions. As the 1st Battalion evacuated its wounded, the 2nd Battalion to the west was engaged in a desperate firefight. Its attack had started toward the enemy flank, but the impenetrable jungle growth, coupled with sniper fire, forced the 2nd to move its attack southward. The 2nd Battalion overran the two forward enemy positions and wiped them out. Late afternoon found the 2nd Battalion on the west flank of the 1st Battalion. The 2nd fumed to face north and dug in for the night.

Cavenee pondered the many problems that confronted him. Supplies were a major concern–his regiment had used up ammunition beyond the capacity of resupply and hand-carry, and K rations were short. The 100 native bearers attached to the regiment could transport only a fraction of what was needed. Air supply appeared to be the only solution. Cavenee ordered an area 500 yards to the rear of the regiment cleared to receive an airdrop.

The evacuation of wounded seemed an almost impossible task. The call for a stretcher promptly brought an aid man with a litter, but it took three more men to carry the wounded soldier to an aid station. Evacuation to the coast from the aid station was a two-day trip one way and took eight men for each casualty. The demands of supply and evacuation were cutting appreciably into combat strength. To conserve troops, the decision was made to bury the dead nearby, to be disinterred and removed to the coast later.

The closeness of the terrain prevented the use of heavy machine guns and mortars. Cannon and anti-tank companies also had to be held in coastal areas. Every attempt to use mortars had resulted in tree bursts that imperiled friendly troops. Lack of fields of fire–with visibility of 20 feet at best–made the heavy machine guns useless. Heavy weapons companies were withdrawn from combat and became responsible for receiving airdrops, resupplying front-line troops and evacuating casualties.

It was determined that the Japanese resistance consisted of about two infantry battalions. The enemy had no more than two small mortars, at least two machine guns and no artillery.

At dawn on the morning of January 4, U.S. artillery concentrated on the enemy positions. The 1st and 2nd battalions of the 136th Infantry Regiment moved out to the north, but before they had advanced 40 yards, harassing fire from snipers in trees and the familiar crackle of the Japanese Nambu light machine gun began plucking at the underbrush. Fortunately, the Japanese fire was mostly inaccurate.

The fighting quickly degenerated into skirmishing at squad level. The close proximity of the opposing forces precluded the use of artillery. It was the soldiers' individual weapons that would decide the outcome of the battle. The snipers were searched out and shot. Individual enemy soldiers who were dug in were flanked and destroyed with hand grenades. Progress was slow. The 136th Infantry Regiment fought the rest of the day before nearing the main enemy position.

With night coming, Cavenee had an important decision to make. Should he pull back his troops to a safer position, or should he hold on where he was through the night? The Japanese defensive positions were mainly standing holes with log fronts and no overhead cover. They would be extremely vulnerable to artillery, but an effective barrage would require a pullback. Cavenee decided to pull back and let the artillery go to work.

The two battalions of the 136th had barely completed their shallow, two-man foxholes 100 yards south of the Japanese positions when the 105mm howitzers of the 210th Field Artillery opened up. Fragments flew over the heads of 136th troops all night. During lulls in artillery fire, the enemy returned to the treetops and poured down small-arms fire.

Holding a light under his poncho, the colonel studied his map and messages. Fortunately, the supply situation was much improved. The airdrop had been effective, with a 95 percent recovery, and the heavy-weapons troops had overcome formidable obstacles in moving supplies forward.

Resupply was not without its problems, however. Only medical supplies had been dropped by parachute the rest had been pushed out of the hatches of Douglas C-47 transports as they made a pass at 200 feet. All of the communication-wire spools were damaged beyond use. Two men had been killed and several more injured because they had not stayed clear of the drop area.

Ingenuity aided in the evacuation efforts. Bamboo rafts were devised to float the wounded down the Pilowo River to the coastal area. Bamboo poles, 8 feet long and 3 inches in diameter, were lashed together in a single layer to make rafts 5 feet wide. The flotation was just right for a wounded man, yet the rafts were light enough to permit the bearers to lift them over shallow spots. The carriers guided the rafts by wading or swimming alongside as the wounded men floated downstream. The trip downriver now took one day instead of two and required only four litter bearers per man instead of eight.

The troops were weary, but Cavenee knew that no more than two enemy battalions of reduced strength opposed his men. The Japanese regiment's 3rd Battalion had been identified as the unit in the path of his own 3rd Battalion's column, which was now only 2,000 yards to the north, approaching Hill 40. The colonel ascertained that with reasonable progress his 3rd Battalion could join the fight on the afternoon of January 5. On further consideration, he determined he didn't want to wait for this battalion to join in a coordinated attack. He decided to launch his strike the morning of January 5 with the 1st and 2nd battalions. The 3rd would join the fight from the north as quickly as it could.

Two thousand yards to the north, the 3rd Battalion was digging in for the night. Its march from Radja had started badly. From the outset, the unit had been harried by the enemy. From December 26 to 28, it had been viciously attacked each night by an enemy force. Intelligence revealed it was the Japanese 211th Infantry's 3rd Battalion which had been detached from the regiment for a special mission to Radja to await and guide reinforcements coming from Halmahera on barges. The Japanese barges, however, were ambushed after slipping through the Navy PT-boat screen and were destroyed along with 50 tons of food and supplies.

Major Ralph Pate's 3rd Battalion had experienced the hardest march thus far in the campaign. The jungle growth that his men plowed through was more dense than that encountered by the Pilowo column. Moreover, to join the fight for Hill 40, the 3rd Battalion of the 136th had to abandon the trails and travel cross-country. Time and again, the 3rd was uncertain of its exact position.

Whenever the 3rd Battalion became lost in the jungle, the helpful liaison plane would come to its aid. Through radio direction, the plane would first locate the column, which was not visible from the air. Fly north a little, those on the ground would direct. Now bank right about 45 degrees…you are overhead now! With the column thus located, the plane would report the position of the column in relation to certain features of nearby terrain.

Although the battalion had marched and fought its way forward for 10 days, it was still in reasonably good fighting shape. The number of dead Japanese found buried along the trail indicated horrendous losses suffered by the enemy. Major Pate believed the lack of Japanese resistance during the previous two days indicated that the enemy had withdrawn. Actually, he learned later that the Japanese 3rd Battalion, 211th Infantry Regiment, had been eliminated as a military force.

An alert was sounded on the morning of January 5 as Company B, commanded by Captain Charles Kissel, started moving on the right of the 1st Battalion. American troops immediately took up their positions and manned their automatic weapons. An attack was bearing down on the extreme right flank of the U.S. position, but the Japanese soldiers were cut down in their tracks. The sword-waving officer in command had charged to within 10 yards of the Americans when a Browning automatic rifle burst stopped him as suddenly as if he had hit a brick wall. His last act was to throw his Samurai sword into the U.S. position.

The officer and eight other enemy soldiers were found dead. This raised a couple of questions. Why had the Japanese troops abandoned their fortifications to fight in the open? Did this indicate that they were vacating their position? The Americans never did learn the answers.

The 3rd Battalion arrived in time to participate in a coordinated attack by all three battalions of the 136th, which began on schedule at 7 a.m., after a final burst of artillery fire. The jungle had become unusually quiet, with no fire from enemy positions. The advancing troops became apprehensive. Company B of the 136th was on the right and had easy going along a trail, advancing rapidly over a slight rise. Just ahead was the enemy position. Without realizing it, a squad moved directly into the path of a cleverly concealed Japanese machine gun. Scarcely 10 feet from the squad, the machine gun spat flame, and within five seconds eight members of the squad lay dead or wounded. The squad next in line immediately hit the ground barely 50 feet from the enemy position. Four men on the right of the squad moved to the east and flanked the gun emplacement. Two grenades finished it off.

When the machine gun opened up on Company B, another enemy emplacement opposite Company G also began to fire. It was apparent that the two enemy machine-gun positions were part of a final protective fire plan in which the firing of one was the signal for the second to open up. Fortunately, Company G had not arrived in position when this gun fired, so it was a small task for them to take out the gun that had prematurely disclosed its position.

The two machine guns proved to be the last organized Japanese defense. The 1st and 2nd battalions then rushed the remaining enemy riflemen and proceeded to mop up the position. The devastation of the Japanese perimeter was spectacular. The aid station and command post had been blown to pieces by artillery fire. There was evidence of many tree bursts, and flying fragments had taken a terrible toll. During the course of the three-day battle, the Japanese had buried their dead in shallow graves.

The Japanese had been short of food but were adequately supplied with medical, signal and engineering equipment. The radio sets and fire-control instruments appeared to be of excellent quality and workmanship. There were 150 gas masks in a central dump, but no other chemical stores. The biggest prize captured was a sign that read Morita (211) CP.

The 1st and 2nd battalions continued moving north, pursuing any surviving Japanese and joining with the 3rd Battalion. The forces met at 2 p.m. without encountering any more enemy soldiers. Shortly thereafter, it was verified that the Japanese 211th Infantry Regiment, less its 3rd Battalion, had constituted the resistance on Hill 40. These troops had been ordered to hold the position at all costs, and only an estimated 40 enemy soldiers, some of whom were wounded, had made their escape.

The 33rd Division's 130th Infantry Regiment also participated in what came to be known as the Second Battle of Morotai. Edward Rosenfeld, a platoon leader in Company A, remembered his unit's role in the battle: Our mission was to maintain a secure perimeter around the airfield and to conduct reconnaissance patrols. In one particular action, Company B of the 130th suffered several casualties. But with reinforcements from Company A we were able to assemble a recon column of nearly 200 men, including an artillery forward observer and an engineer.

All the Americans soldiers had to cope with trying to move through jungle that was virtually impenetrable. Rosenfeld recalled that there were places where there was never any daylight. He also remembered that the troops' progress was agonizingly slow: We had to hack our way through nearly every foot of the jungle where the maximum distance we would cover in a day was 1,000 yards.

Major General P.W. Clarkson commended the field artillery for its performance during the campaign. When the 136th Infantry and the enemy were at a costly standoff on Hill 40, it was the howitzers of the 123rd and 210th Field Artillery battalions that shifted the balance of power. Their sustained barrages broke the back of a stubborn enemy defense that would not yield to rifles and grenades.

Mike Morrone, who was with A Battery of the 210th, confirmed the accuracy of his battery's 105mm howitzers. We would have six rounds in the air before the first one landed, he said. I remember Brig. Gen. Alexander Paxton, CO of division artillery, was observing our fire and responded with 'Perfect!'

General Clarkson also singled out the medical detachment of the 2nd Battalion, 136th Infantry, commanded by Captain Harold Tannenbaum, for special commendation. Time after time, aid men of this detachment voluntarily went into the 20-yard strip of jungle separating the opposing forces in search of casualties. Medics with the battalion aid station had it no easier. Japanese snipers and raiding parties harassed the medics' facility, as well.

Private Marion Urban's heroism was typical. An F Company aid man, Private Urban repeatedly made the trek into no man's land to drag casualties back to safety. Urban was killed toward the end of the campaign while trying to rescue a Company F squad leader caught in a devastating cross-fire on exposed ground. Urban was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.

Heroism was commonplace throughout the ranks of the 136th Infantry Regiment on Morotai. Cavenee, who had served as a line infantryman during World War I, set the example for his troops by personally leading the final attack.

Staff Sergeant Adolph Stebe rushed a Japanese machine gun that had his squad pinned down on a stretch of jungle trail. As he threw a grenade into the position and motioned his men forward he was downed by an enemy rifleman at almost point-blank range.

Sergeant Joseph Wujcik's squad was in a similar situation. Intent on getting his men past the enemy, the squad leader rose to his feet, drawing machine-gun fire away from the rest of his squad. Taking advantage of the diversion, riflemen swarmed over the enemy position, but not before Wujcik was killed.

The campaign on Morotai ended January 14, 1945, 20 days after it began. During that time 870 Japanese were killed and 10 captured. Casualties for the three battalions of the 136th Infantry totaled 46 killed in action and 104 wounded.


Author William P. Endicott is a veteran of the fighting on Morotai. This article originally appeared in the July '99 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!

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One Response to “World War II: Capture of Morotai”


  1. 1
    Rosanne Nielsen says:

    I read the above article. I want to find out about the battle the 136th Inf. Regt. fought on Feb. 17. My uncle, 1st. Lt. William M. Harrill, died that day. Thanks for any help anyone can give me.

    I know he is buried in Manilla and have seen online the site and cross which has his name.



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