O'BRIEN HILL
by Eric Hammel

Copyright © 1989 by Eric Hammel



In the zone of the1st Battalion, 161st Infantry Regiment on July 27, Lieutenant Colonel Slaftcho “Joe” Katsarsky’s infantry companies descended early into the low-lying rain forest in front of O’Brien Hill and advanced toward the next hill, another nameless hump that would soon bear the name of a fallen American. Company C had the vanguard, with Company B close behind. The battalion made continuous progress until it reached the base of the objective. Then the Japanese on the heights resisted with light and heavy machine guns, Japanese rifles, captured American rifles and automatic rifles, and Japanese and American hand grenades.

While Company B moved into the forest to bridge a widening gap between Katsarsky’s battalion and the adjacent 1st Battalion, 145th Infantry, Company C waded in against the Japanese defenses. Second Lieutenant Louis Christian was leading his Company C platoon up the slope when his men froze under the fire of automatic weapons emplaced in a pillbox to the front. Christian, who had been the regimental sergeant major during the Guadalcanal fighting and had only recently accepted a commission, crawled alone through the light mantle of underbrush, right up to the face of the pillbox that had stymied his platoon. He chucked in several hand grenades, which silenced the Japanese machine gun.

The entire company was having a bad time. The troops stoically waded into the fire of several emplacements, but they were forced to stop when they came under fire from yet more machine guns. Then the Japanese infantry counterattacked off the ridgeline. Lieutenant Christian was taking a breather alone when he saw his platoon start to pull back. As the unprepared American riflemen tumbled to the rear to find safe positions from which they could beat off the counterthrust, Christian remained where he was to direct fire from supporting mortars. A burst of machine-gun fire killed him as he searched for targets, and so the hill was given his name.

Company C pulled back and dug in. An artillery forward observer mouthed a frantic order into his field telephone and, after a moment, the ridge erupted under 105mm shells. The 1st Battalion’s 81mm mortars also were hastily brought to bear. When Japanese 90mm mortars responded, Lieutenant Colonel Joe Katsarsky ordered Company C back to O’Brien Hill.

The ordeal of the 1st Battalion, 161st, was only just beginning. Shortly after the main body of the battalion returned to O’Brien Hill, a large American unit passed through from the north. Following it was a large Japanese infantry force. No one really knew what was going on, but Katsarsky’s battalion inherited the Japanese. That was at 1430 hours.

The first contact came when several Japanese blundered into the fire zones of several American machine guns and were dispersed. Shortly, the Japanese launched several squad-size probes against O’Brien Hill. They had a fairly good idea about how the hill was defended by 1630 hours, when Katsarsky’s troops first heard Japanese soldiers in the forest getting themselves worked up for a big fight.

There was a low saddle on the battalion’s right flank, and a gully stretching from left to right across the immediate front. Dense growth filled the gully. The forward slopes of O’Brien Hill were outposted near the edge of the forest, within a wooded fringe fronting the high, open hilltop. The battalion command post was only fifteen yards behind the outpost line.

The Japanese, who were yelling taunts at their adversaries and encouragement among themselves, swarmed over the low saddle and through the tree-choked gully. American hand grenades rained down on them from the heights, as did American 60mm and 81mm mortar rounds. The high-strung chirping of Nambu 7.7mm light machine guns sounded through the throaty bursts of the mortars, and streams of bright tracer reached toward O’Brien Hill through the black wall of the night.

The initial assault was launched by about one platoon. It was stopped cold by methodical American riflemen and machine gunners. Two more frontal assaults of about platoon strength also collapsed as soon as they lapped upward from the gully and saddle. Then the Japanese withdrew. They knew what they had come to learn; Katsarsky’s battalion had been probed.

Joe Katsarsky knew, by 0800 hours, July 28, that his battalion had been cut off. Litter teams attempting to reach the regimental aid station were fired on along the trail to the rear of O’Brien Hill, and several litter bearers and previously wounded soldiers were killed. Jeeps bringing urgently needed ammunition from the regimental supply depot were fired on as they approached O’Brien Hill. Several drivers were killed, and soon four disabled jeeps blocked the vital link. All Katsarsky could do was draw some of his troops off the line and send them back over the trail to try to clear out the bushwackers.

The heavily armed clearing force moved cautiously up the narrow track and the fringe of trees at its edge for two hours, killing many Japanese along the way. By 1000 hours, the road seemed to be clear. The clearing force filed up the reverse slope of O’Brien Hill and broke up to move back to the line.

While the track was being cleared, the Japanese somehow sensed that the American battle line had been weakened, so they prepared an assault. The first file of Japanese attackers raced out of the forest just as the road patrol was breaking up to return to the lines.

The outposts were hit first, and the men in them withdrew. Tracer rounds stitched the air back and forth, and Japanese explosive bullets popped loudly as they plowed into earth, wood, and flesh. Shelter halves the Americans had stretched overhead to ward off the powerful sun were shredded within minutes, and they had to be pulled down to prevent them from becoming entangled with the barrels of weapons peering over the edges of the fighting holes.

The battalion aid station, which was located on the nose of the hill, had to be pulled back over the crest so the medics could move safely among the wounded. When the battalion communications center was menaced by machine-gun fire, the radiomen had to abandon their posts.

A Japanese sniper armed with an American BAR was spotted and grenaded from his tree-top perch. Am American corporal, second-in-command of a rifle squad, was shot to death hauling ammunition to his men. A lieutenant who had been nicked in the back of the neck during the road-clearing operation bled for two hours before he found time to seek treatment.

The assault was mainly on the 1st Battalion’s right. The Japanese had done some superb reconnoitering, for most of the troops dispatched on the road-clearing patrol had been drawn from this sector and replaced by a few pistol-toting mortarmen. There was one light air-cooled .30-caliber machine gun on the right, but the gunner was absent due to illness and the assistant gunner had wandered off to a latrine moments before the attack commenced. The only man in the gun pit was Private James Newbrough, an inexperienced ammunition carrier.

After a weird exchange of taunts, three Nambu-carrying Japanese charged Newbrough’s gun, firing from their hips. Two of the Japanese died and the other withdrew. Newbrough kept spraying bullets around, but the more he fired, the more attention he drew. The shelter half over the gun pit was shredded, and the underbrush nearby was mown down to ground level. Private Newbrough finally figured out that by unfastening the machine gun’s traversing mechanism he could aim the gun from the underside of the barrel, which meant that his head would be that much lower.

Newbrough’s team leader, Corporal Dick Barrett, was in the rear when the fighting broke out. As soon as he realized that Private Newbrough was alone in the gun pit, he gathered as much ammunition as he could carry and headed back. Barrett arrived just as Newbrough was preparing to secure the gun and withdraw. While Corporal Barrett fed in a fresh ammunition belt and settled in behind the machine gun, Private First Class Hollis Johnson, a BARman, moved in closer to cover the two machine gunners with fire from his weapon.

To the men involved, the fight seemed to go on for hours. However, it ended at 1045 hours, after only forty-five minutes.