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Combat Operations of the 155th Infantry Regiment in World War II – Honoring the memory of local WWII Veterans

Compiled and submitted

By Wilburn Bell

Editor’s note: This is the second installment of a new series of articles that chronicle the South Pacific combat operations of the 155th Infantry of the 31st Infantry Division in World War II.
      Independent Researcher Wilburn Bell has compiled a unique collection of information that honors these local men and their families. Bell’s own relatives, his Uncle Reid Bell and first cousin Wilmarth Strickland, were two of the men who served in the Live Oak National Guard unit that were transferred to Co. I, 155th Infantry during World War II.  

– More about the author at the end of this article.–

The 155th Infantry in New Guinea

– Part 2 –

The First Sawar Airdrome Battle

Members of the 155th Infantry, who had been pre World War II Live Oak National Guard unit, included James B. Barber, Reid Bell, Thomas I. Dasher, Clifton W. Greene, Melvin L. McMullen, John W. Rogers Jr., Wilmarth Strickland, (all of Co. I) and Lester W. Kent (3rd Bn HQ Co).

Others included Theron R. Howard , John T. Owens, Jr. , and Glenn Smith, and James P. Williams. Howard is believed to have been in Co. B, and may have been involved in the mission described below.

By March 2, 1944, the last elements of the 155th Infantry had cleared Camp Patrick Henry, Virginia, as part of the movement of the 31st Infantry Division to New Guinea in the South Pacific. The trip was made by ship, with Company I being among troops aboard the Adabelle Lykes, which listed during the entire forty day plus voyage in spite of efforts to correct the load shift problem at its passage through the Panama Canal. The ship was so crowded that mess capabilities only allowed the troops to be fed twice daily. Only after being at sea for three days in the Pacific Ocean after passage through the Panama Canal were the troops told that their destination was New Guinea. By mid April, the 155th Infantry had cleared Oro Bay, British New Guinea, and subsequently operated in the Wakde Island, Sarmi, and Maffin Bay area of New Guinea from July to September, 1944.

[Compiler’s note: Background material below, beginning with the arrival of the 31st Division in the Maffin Bay area of New Guinea, is directly quoted from: United States Army in World War II, The War in the Pacific, The Approach to the Philippines by Robert Ross Smith, a Center of Military History, U. S. Army, Washington, D.C., government publication (CMH Pub. 5-8, Lib. of Cong. Cat. No. 53-60474), originally printed in 1953 and reprinted in 1994 by the National Historical Society, p. 277).]

“The 31st Division began unloading at Maffin Bay [New Guinea] on 14 July [1944] and by the 18th, when the [31st Infantry Division] commander, Maj. Gen. John C. Persons, assumed the position of Commander, TORNADO Task Force [which included the 31st Division], all of the sixth Division, with the exception of the 20th Regimental Combat Team, had been relieved. The latter unit remained attached to the 31st Division until 21 August and left the area for the Vogelkop on the 26th. The remainder of the sixth division began leaving on 27 July. Except for the [reconstituted] 124th Regimental Combat Team, the 31st Division closed in the Wakde-Sarmi area [of New Guinea] by 15 August [1944].

The two regimental combat teams of the 31st Division, the 155th and the 167th, which operated at Wakde-Sarmi had no previous combat experience but received much valuable training in a series of patrol actions, company-sized scouting missions, and battalion reconnaissances in force. General Persons wanted to mount an offensive to drive the Japanese from a main line of resistance which they had established in the low hills between Metimedan Creek and Sarmi, but the demands for labor at the Maffin Bay staging area and the necessity for committing many troops to the defense of that area made it impossible to assemble sufficient strength for such an attack. Then, by the time the 6th Division’s requirements had been met, the 31st Division itself had to begin preparations for another operation. [Compiler’s note: That operation was the planned invasion of Morotai Island, to be spearheaded by the 31st Infantry Division’s three infantry regiments with supporting troops: the 124th, the 155th, and the 167th Regimental Combat Teams, and reinforced by the 126th Infantry in reserve.]

The 31st Division therefore had to confine itself principally to its patrolling missions, both west and east of the perimeter. Patrols east of the perimeter were sent out to hunt down stragglers from the Japanese Hollandia garrison, and most of them [the patrols], comprising armed natives of the Wakde-Sarmi area, were led by a Dutch officer, 1st Lt. C. J. Sneeuwjagt. Meanwhile, work went on at the Maffin Bay staging area, and during the period 18 July--31 August there was unloaded at Maffin Bay a daily average of 2,500 tons of various supplies. During the same period the 31st division lost 39 men killed, 195 wounded, 34 injured, and three missing. The division killed 294 Japanese, found 497 dead, and captured 14 others.”

[Specific operations involving the 31st Division’s 155th Infantry in New Guinea are chronicled below in National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Record Group (RG) 407.]
[Extracted from]: Historical Record, 155th Infantry, 1 Jan 44 To 31 Dec 44 [NARA RG 407]
“…This organization participated in the following [operation]:
(1) New Guinea (Wakde—Sarmi Area)

(2) Duration: 20 July 1944 to 9 September 1944

(3) Purpose: To protect Wakde Island [the site of a U. S. airbase north of the New Guinea coast] from enemy attack and maintain constant patrol activity against the enemy in this sector.

(4) Authority ordering: Commanding General, 31st Infantry Division [Maj. Gen. John C. Persons]

(5) …Battles: [First Sawar Airdrome Battle]
(a) Name: Sawar Airdrome [First Battle at Sawar Airdrome]
(b) Place: Wakde—Sarmi Area, Dutch New Guinea
(c) Date: 24 August 1944
(d) Campaign which battle was a part: New Guinea Campaign
(e) Forces engaged: 1st Battalion, 155th Infantry and elements of the Japanese 36th Division.
(f) Result:
The initial large-scale move by the 155th infantry against the remnants of the
Japanese 36th division came on the 24 August 1944 when the Commanding General, 31st Infantry Division [Maj. Gen. John C. Persons], ordered the major portion of the 1st Battalion [155th Infantry] to move in to Sawar Airdrome and destroy the enemy and his equipment.

Lt. Colonel Virgil S. Adkins, commanding the units, selected two rifle companies,
a heavy weapons company and attached personnel from Medical units, plus five medium tanks and security for the latter from the Mine Platoon of Anti-Tank Company.

The move was designed to determine, in extent, the enemy strength and disposition.
Approximately two months before another division [had] met considerable opposition from the forces in the area and their remaining potency was not known.

Snipers were encountered early in the morning of this one day reconnaissance in
force. The Battalion Command Post received fire from enemy knee mortars with no damage inflicted. The point met scattered resistance from enemy riflemen and killed several at close quarters in the dense jungle growth fringing the abandoned air strips. Japanese automatic weapons were brought into play and delayed the companies considerably. The terrain was flat and the growth arduously heavy.

One machine gun pinned down the leading elements until mortar fire was
brought on it. Supporting tanks closed on the automatic weapon and helped to silence it. Japanese heavy mortars and small arms fire became fairly intense during the latter part of the day. Several men were slightly injured by mortar shell fragments.

Complying with order of the Commanding General the Force Commander reorganized and returned to the perimeter under the cover of darkness. The enemy increased the tempo of the mortar and small arms fire, and in addition 75 mm gun fire from nearby Mount Hahko caused considerable harassment to the rear of the column.

Enemy casualties for the day were 20 known dead. Our own casualties numbered two

Next Time: The 3rd Battalion stages a reconnaissance in force to the Sawar Airdrome in New Guinea.

About the Author – Independent Researcher Wilburn Bell was born in Lafayette County and received a B.A. in Education with high honors from UF in 1971, and a Master of Education from UF in 1972. After a 37-year teaching career, he retired in 2009. Bell has had a keen interest in genealogy, local history, and military history most of his life.  After serving a six-year enlistment with the Florida National Guard, he was honorably discharged from the 269th Eng. Co. in Live Oak, FL, in 1971 as an E-4.  

Bell also compiled and edited Sworn and Examined: Witnesses to Suwannee Valley Reconstruction Violence in Florida’s Third Judicial Circuit, a self-published compilation of Congressional Hearing testimony.

Wilburn Bell may be reached at 386-294-1456.

Wakde-Sarmi Area, New Guinea, 1944. [Source: The Approach to the Philippines by Robert Ross Smith, p. 207.] -Map submitted by Wilburn Bell