The original plan from MacArthur's headquarters included orders for Sixth Army. The campaign was "to include the occupation and neutralization of the entire Bismarck Archipelago and the north coast of New Guinea west to the Sepik River." Lieutenant General Walter Krueger's Sixth Army was given the task "to seize the Seeadler Harbor of the Admiralties, establish airdrome and light naval facilities there to support subsequent operations along the north coast of New Guinea, and be prepared to seize the Hansa Bay area of New Guinea." BREWER was the code name assigned to this operation. The original orders were issued on 23 November 1943 and supplemented on 13 February 1944; D-Day was tentatively designated to be 1 April.
The Admiralty Islands group consists of two principal islands, Manus to the west and Los Negros to the east. The northern shore of these two plus the continued curve of the other islands form Seeadler Harbor. The two main islands are separated by a shallow, narrow strait which is navigable by small boats and canoes. Seeadler Harbor is twenty by six miles; the entrance channel to the harbor is between the islands of Ndrilo and Hauwei.
On 5 February, Sixth Army G-2 had overseen the graduation of class one from the Alamo Scouts Training Center. The class had begun on 27 December 1943. Four Alamo Scouts teams (McGowen Team, Barnes Team, Sombar Team, and Thompson Team) were formed and awaited orders for missions. They didn't have long to wait. Almost immediately the G-2 staff began planning for a one-week reconnaissance mission of the western area of Manus Island. The team would be infiltrated by submarine and recon to the east. This plan was revised to make it a four day patrol of the Marakum area on New Guinea. Insertion was to be by PT boat, beginning sometime between 24 and 28 February. The revision was approved on 21 February by Krueger's chief of staff; his handwritten note on the mission outline said, "concur - this should be a good test for [S]couts and should prove of value to them."
All of that, however, changed three days later. MacArthur had been so impressed with the progress of the most recent operations by Sixth Army (at Arawe, 15 December 1943, and Cape Gloucester, 26 December 1943, on New Britain Island, and at Saidor, 2 January 1944, on the north coast of New Guinea) and with analysis of aerial reconnaissance of Los Negros Island that he ordered BREWER's D-Day moved up. Specifically, a reconnaissance-in-force on Los Negros was directed to begin on 29 February.
Krueger was a cautious commander. Neither he nor his staff believed that the Japanese had abandoned Los Negros even when, as in this case, the bombers flying distraction for the photo planes had flown in over the target area at twenty feet above the deck. He knew that is was easy to fool aerial reconnaissance. His intelligence staff had estimated the strength of the Japanese garrison force to be about 4,500. He, therefore, directed two separate actions to begin. First, he ordered Major General Innis P. Swift, commander of the 1st Cavalry Division, to form a reinforced battalion element to conduct the reconnaissance-in-force on the 29th, landing on the east side of the island at Hyane Harbor. Second, he told Colonel Horton V. White, Sixth Army G-2, to conduct a reconnaissance of the south coast of Los Negros and of the five thousand foot runway at Momote Airdrome, beginning on the 26th. Colonel White assigned the mission to the Alamo Scouts.
The McGowen Team (consisting of Lieutenant John R.C. McGowen, Technical Sergeant Caesar J. Ramirez, Sergeant Walter A. McDonald, Sergeant J.A. Roberts, Private First Class John P. Legoud, and Private Paul V. Gomez) had been briefed on the mission to recon the Marakum area and were preparing to leave when D-Day was changed. The Alamo Scouts immediately began to revise their plan. While Sergeant Ramirez led the planning effort, Lieutenant McGowen coordinated mission support. On the evening of 25 February, the plan was briefed to General Krueger and the G-2 staff. The plan was approved. Before leaving, Krueger assured the team that theirs was an important mission and that he was confident of their success.
The plan was for the team to be inserted by Catalina flying boat (PBY) on the 26th. They would debark the plane in the morning darkness off the southeast point of Los Negros and paddle their rubber boat to shore. To keep the Japanese busy, B-25s were to bomb the airstrip and harbor area while the PBY was landing. Once ashore, the team was to break up into twos, recon the area to the northeast, and be prepared to be extracted the following morning. The B-25s were also laid on for the second day. Lieutenant William F. Barnes, leader of the Barnes Team, would be aboard the PBY for each trip to act as the team's contact officer, that is, a liaison between the team and its support elements. In the event the team could not be picked up on the second day, the PBY was to return the next day.
None of the Alamo Scouts got much sleep that night. At 0330 the next morning, they had all their equipment loaded aboard the PBY. The Scouts wore jungle camouflage uniforms. They each carried a weapon of choice. For most this was a carbine, although at least one carried a Thompson sub-machine gun. Additionally, they carried grenades and two days' worth of K rations. They wore soft caps instead of helmets and green camouflage face paint. An SCR-300 radio was carried to communicate with the PBY. The SCR-300 is an FM walkie-talkie with a range of about twenty-five miles. The plane taxied across Langemak Bay and took off into the darkness. Several hours later, as they approached Los Negros, they could see that it was covered by a heavy storm. The pilot decided not to chance the landing and turned the plane around. The Alamo Scouts spent the day at Langemak Bay, on U.S.S. Halfmoon, a sea plane tender that was "home" for the PBY. Their mission was put on hold for twenty-four hours.
The departure on the 27th was a repeat of the day before. This time, though, there was no storm or bombing mission. The latter did not occur until later in the morning. Unfortunately there was also no darkness. Landing in the dawn made the pilot very nervous. Realizing that they were exposed to observation from ashore, the Alamo Scouts quickly unloaded their rubber boat and began to disembark. The pilot was not as calm as his passengers. He continued taxiing at a speed that made it tough for the Scouts to get in their boat. "I was so damn mad about the plane not slowing down," McGowen said later, "I couldn't focus on anything else." Eventually the whole team made it into the boat and began rowing. The plane picked up speed and took off.
It took the team about a half-hour to reach shore. Gomez jumped out and helped pull the boat in. (After the invasion Gomez was chagrined to learn that MacArthur awarded the Distinguished Service Cross to a second lieutenant, who landed with the assault forces two days later, for being "the first man ashore.") The team moved quickly off the beach. The boat was deflated and buried near a tree which the Scouts agreed would be easy to find when they returned. They figured the azimuth for their reconnaissance route and the team moved out toward their objective, Momote Airdrome.
Although their route was over fairly level wooded terrain, the Alamo Scouts found few landmarks on which to guide. They stuck pretty much to their original compass heading to guide them. After almost three hours on patrol they came across the first sign that the island was not deserted. What they found were vines strung from tree to tree to tree, about five feet off the ground. These, the Scouts decided, must be used to keep Japanese soldiers from straying off the trail in the dark of night.
Suddenly the jungle quiet was broken by a machine gun, shooting in bursts. This was followed quickly by the sounds of a bombing raid - strafing gunfire and bombs exploding. The air strike that was to have covered their landing and approach to the shore was being executed! McGowen's patrol report described what happened next. "After the raid, we continued on the same azimuth and shortly came across newly dug trenches running northwest and southeast. These trenches were camouflaged with leaves and small branches which were still green. Vines ran parallel with the trenches, which we believed to be markings for them. We saw approximately 200 yards of trenches. These were two feet deep and two feet wide. We saw three positions which we believe to be machine gun positions."
As the Scouts moved carefully past the line of trenches, they heard a scream, followed by a voice apparently trying to quiet whoever was crying out in pain. They froze for several minutes, then continued on patrol when they heard nothing further. At this stage, McGowen was walking point. The Scouts had not gone very far when McGowen saw a Japanese soldier pass in front of the patrol. He gave the "Freeze!" signal and the patrol froze instantly, standing up. At least fifteen Japanese soldiers, all carrying shovels, passed along a trail in front of the still frozen Alamo Scouts and no one noticed them. McGowen said later, "I never wanted to hit the ground so bad in my life, but I didn't dare."
Despite being in an obvious adrenal rush, the Alamo Scouts took time to notice a nearby shack, which was well camouflaged, and the uniforms and insignia of the passing Japanese soldiers. The uniforms were a dark brown and the soldiers appeared to be very healthy.
Again the Scouts moved cautiously from the area and continued on patrol. At about 1300, they came to a wide creek near the airstrip but were unable to cross it because of its size. They decided they had come as far as they could and turned back. On the return trip, they made no contact with any more Japanese but Ramirez and Gomez became separated from the rest. This happened at a trail crossing point, when Japanese soldiers walked along the trail. Although none of the Scouts was seen, they were on both sides of the crossing point. By 1800, however, all six of the Alamo Scouts were safely in their rendezvous site. The patrol report describes what happened next. "A small, little-used trail ran along the coast about 30 yards from the beach. A few tracks were seen on this trail. We set up an all around security and remained there all night."
The next morning, the patrol was up early and made radio contact with Barnes, their contact on the PBY. McGowen sent a short message, that the area was "lousy with Japs," in case the Scouts could not be extracted. They pumped up their rubber boat and began rowing out to where the plane was to land. The same pilot must have been flying because he did not want to stop and let the patrol get on board in an orderly manner. Instead, he kept the plane moving. Eventually the first four made it aboard. Then McGowen was knocked into the water, apparently by the nearby propeller. But luck was with him as the only damage was to his cap, which had been ripped off his head. McGowen and Roberts, the last man in the rubber boat, were pulled onto the plane and it took off, leaving behind the team's boat.
The PBY arrived back at Langemak Bay at about 0930. Major Franklin M. Rawolle, of the G-2 staff, was on Halfmoon waiting for the Alamo Scouts to return. McGowen repeated the information contained in his radio message to Barnes on the PBY, that Momote airstrip and Los Negros was "lousy with Japs." Rawolle realized the importance of the recon team's information and immediately arranged for a PT boat to take him and McGowen to meet the cavalry reconnaissance-in-force element, which was then on its way to Los Negros. Eventually they found and boarded the destroyer carrying the command element.
Brigadier General William C. Chase had been designated commander of the reconnaissance-in-force element. His units included the 2nd Squadron, 5th Cavalry Regiment reinforced by a section from 99th Field Artillery Battalion, the 673rd Anti-aircraft (Machine Gun) Battery (Airborne), a Shore Battalion detachment of 592nd Engineer Boat and Shore Regiment, a platoon from A Troop, 8th Engineer Squadron, and the 30th Portable Surgical Hospital. General Chase also realized the significance of the Scouts' report. He called a hasty conference of his subordinate commanders and the naval gunfire liaison element. He was able to arrange for more naval gunfire, specifically targeted along the route of the Alamo Scouts' reconnaissance and concentrated at the point where they had landed.
On MacArthur's staff, Lieutenant General George C. Kenney, commander of Allied Air Forces disputed the worth of the information obtained by the Alamo Scouts as twenty-five enemy "in the woods at night" and not at all valuable. The BREWER Operation After Action Report, however, attributes the significance of the role played by the McGowen Team. It says, in part, "The need for all available gunfire was apparent. Subsequent developments proved that the Scouts were. . . correct . . . with estimated total garrison of between 4,000 and 5,000 troops." The toe-hold gained by the reconnaissance-in-force was a success and led to a fuller exploitation within days by the 1st Cavalry Division. It was not until later, after many documents captured during the fighting had been translated, that the full story could be told. These documents revealed three critical factors:
- First, the Japanese garrison commander on Los Negros had specifically ordered his troops not to shoot at planes flying overhead in order to give the appearance that the island was deserted;
- Second, the McGowen Team had been spotted when their plane dropped them off. Unknown to them, the Japanese were actively trying to find them the entire time there were on the island; and
- Third, the Japanese commander deduced that the landing of the Alamo Scouts was a prelude to an invasion at that point. As a result, he moved many of his forces away from the Hyane Harbor area to reinforce the area where the patrol started. In the words of the BREWER Operation After Action Report, "In a letter captured later appeared a terse testimony to the import of the Scouts' mission. The letter, written by a Japanese executive officer to the commander of his battalion, summed up an explanation of the action with the cryptic phrase - 'We were fooled."
Following the debriefing of the McGowen Team, the Alamo Scouts prepared some "lessons learned," which would be sent to both Sixth Army G-2 and the Alamo Scouts Training Center. The point was to have later missions profit from their experience. One important item they recommended was that future operations should not rely on the PBY for insertion or extraction. The plane required good weather and almost daytime conditions for landings. Neither of these conditions, the Scouts said, was particularly good if their missions were to be conducted in secret.
On March 20, 1944, the day after he approved the orders, General Krueger travelled to Fergusson Island, home of the Alamo Scouts Training Center, and presented the Silver Star to the McGowen Team for the reconnaissance of Los Negros. Major Rowalle, who had helped McGowen brief the commander of the reconnaissance-in-force element, stood in the front row of those in attendance. Krueger was extremely proud of "his" Scouts and told them so. He and they knew that the success of the McGowen Team was confirmation of Krueger's vision when he created the Alamo scouts. What they did not know then was just how correct his judgment had been. In the two years of their existence, the Alamo Scouts would conduct more than one hundred missions behind the lines without having a man killed or taken prisoner. Techniques that they developed are still being employed today by Special Forces and Long Range Surveillance Units. During their brief history, Krueger would approve and present many more awards to the Alamo Scouts but none was more satisfying than this first.