In early October 1944, American and Australian forces were attempting to drive a stake through the heart of Japanese resistance on New Guinea. Although the Allied landing on Morotai some two weeks earlier had all but concluded the New Guinea campaign, approximately 200,000 hardened Japanese troops remained in isolated pockets and still posed a formidable threat. Sixth Army, under the command of Lieutenant General Walter Krueger, learned of the plight of a prominent Dutch governor and·his family who were being held by the Japanese at a bypassed prison camp in the Cape Oransbari area of the eastern coast of the Vogelkop, the so-called "bird's head" of New Guinea. Krueger and his G-2 (intelligence) section wanted to rescue the governor as soon as possible. They could not justify diverting conventional combat troops still fighting on Morotai and along the northern coast of New Guinea for such an operation. Instead, Krueger opted to use two teams of Alamo Scouts, Sixth Army's elite reconnaissance unit which he had formed in November 1943.
For Lieutenants Thomas J. Rounsaville and William E. Nellist and their teams, it would be their first real test. Rounsaville and Nellist were the only officers retained from the fourth Alamo Scouts training class at Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea. They and their teams had graduated barely three weeks earlier and were anxious for a mission they could sink their teeth into. "We spent our first couple of weeks conducting small patrols on the mainland and with the Navy riding around in PT boats," said Nellist. "The Cape Oransbari mission was our first mission of any real consequence." Each team had been on a "warmup" mission, but they had not been specifically trained for raider operations. These were more commonly performed by U.S. Ranger units. But the highly trained Alamo Scouts were experts at getting in and out of enemy territory undetected, which was half the battle.
Rounsaville and Nellist had each assembled a crack teams of Scouts. As was standard selection policy in the Alamo Scouts, each enlisted man named by secret ballot the one officer that he would most like to go on a mission with behind enemy lines. He also named the four enlisted men from the entire class that he would most like to go with on such a mission. Likewise, each officer listed in order the five men that he would most like to have on his team.
Rounsaville was a hard-charging veteran of the 187th Glider Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne Division, with a contagious sense of humor. He had selected an outstanding group of men. They were: Technical Sergeant Alfred (0pu) Alfonso, Sergeant Harold (Hal) Hard, and Privates First Class Rufo Vaquilar, Francis H. Laquier, and Franklin B. Fox.Rounsaville first learned of the prisoners at Cape Oransbari on September 28 while on Roemberpon, a small island about three miles off the eastern coast of the Vogelkop. He and his team had been observing and reporting on enemy barge supply stations operating near the Maori River south of Manokwari. Lieutenant Louie Rapmund, a Netherlands Indies Civil Administration officer using the island as an evacuation point for prisoners who had escaped from the Japanese on the Vogelkop, had learned of the governor's plight from a released prisoner. Rapmund immediately passed the information to Rounsaville, who was in daily contact with Sixth Army G-2.
Rounsaville didn't waste any time. Accompanied by Rapmund, the former prisoner, and his team of Alamo Scouts, Rounsaville led his team to the mainland and made a detailed reconnaissance of the prison camp. After collecting the information they needed the party returned to Roemberpon Island where they were joined by Nellist and his team. On October 2, after gathering the released prisoner, and several guides and interpreters, the Alamo Scouts headed to Biak Island to plan the mission.
Nellist had also assembled a crack team of Scouts. He had seen action at Buna with the 511th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 11th Airborne, and was the finest shot in the Alamo Scouts. His team included: Staff Sergeant Thomas Siason, Technical Sergeant Wilbert C. Wismer, Sergeant Andy E. Smith, Private First Class Sabas A. Asis, Private First Class Gilbert Cox, and Private Galen (Kit) Kittleson.
Once at Biak, the teams met with members of the Sixth Army G-2 staff and devised a plan. The entire mission was to last twelve hours. The Alamo Scouts hoped to get in undetected, free the governor and his family, and get out. Since Rounsaville had already reconnoitered the plantation and was familiar with the camp, he was named as the overall team leader, with Nellist the assistant team leader. Lt. John M. Dove, a veteran Scout of two harrowing missions behind enemy lines, was designated as the contact officer. He would be responsible for inserting and exfiltrating the teams.
With all plans laid, the Scouts departed Biak that afternoon, but were forced to return because of a heavy storm. They tried again the next day. This time one of the PT boats struck a floating log. With its screws bent, the boat had to return to Biak. Finally, on October 4, on their third attempt the Scouts reached their drop off point at 7 p.m., three-and-a-half miles north of Cape Oransbari. The mission was a go!
Under a full moon, the Rounsaville and Nellist teams, along with Dove and his three-man contact team, quietly boarded three rubber boats. Barely a word was spoken. As they had done so many times before in training, the Scouts deftly paddled their boats to shore. Forty-five minutes later they were ashore. They had slipped in undetected.
To insure that the local natives wouldn't tip off the Japanese that the Scouts had landed, Rounsaville and Rapmund had stacked the odds in their favor. Prior to traveling to Biak to plan the mission, they had taken charge of all native boats, thus restricting native movement. By the time anyone realized what was happening, the Scouts would be gone. As soon as Rounsaville determined that the Scouts had not been noticed, he sent a native guide into the jungle to find the trail leading to the prison camp. Within minutes, the guide returned. He had found it! With everything going as planned, Dove and his contact team wished the Scouts luck, tied the rubber boats together, and returned to the PT boat to wait.
Silently, the Scouts snaked their way through the jungle single-file. The jungle canopy drowned out all light of the full moon. For six-and-a-half hours the Scouts inched their way along the muddy trail. "We went four or five miles along the jungle trail at night," said Kittleson. "It was so dark that we used flashlights taped to the end of our weapons and that was hairy! Here we were behind enemy lines using flashlights at night! But it was so damned dark you couldn't see your hand in front of your face!" "I wasn't worried about using flashlights," added Rounsaville. "Hell, the last thing the Japs expected was for an enemy patrol to be snooping around the jungle at night carrying flashlights!"
At 2 a.m., when the Scouts reached the outskirts of the prison camp, Rounsaville sent the natives in to gather some eleventh hour information. Earlier reports indicated that twenty-five enemy troops occupied the camp and that two thousand were garrisoned approximately twenty-five miles away. But the Scouts planned to be long gone before any from this garrison could reinforce the camp. While they waited for the natives to return, the Scouts heard rifle fire in the distance. They concluded that the shooting was only Japanese troops hunting wild pigs and that they posed no threat to the mission. As the natives checked the prison camp, the Scouts rested.
Within an hour the natives returned and verified the reports on the Japanese troops. The two teams quickly reviewed their plan of attack. The operation would consist of assaults at three points:
- Rounsaville and his team, plus Asis and Smith, would initiate the operation with assaults at two points within the main compound. Rounsaville and his men, along with Rapmund and three natives, would attack the hut containing the largest concentration of troops. At the same time Asis, Smith, and a native guide, would attack a hut containing five enemy Kempeitai (intelligence) men who were holding a native chief hostage. Smith would attempt to capture the ranking Kempeitai.
- Nellist would lead his team to a secluded Japanese outpost located on the beach two-and-a-half miles to the east, where they would wait for a signal to attack. The outpost was near the Scouts' exfiltration point and had to be neutralized. As soon as they heard shooting, Nellist and his team would take the outpost and secure the exfiltration point.
At 4 a.m., both of the Alamo Scouts teams were in place. Rounsaville and his men positioned themselves outside a large hut where eighteen enemy troops were sleeping, while Asis and Smith waited at their assigned hut. Elsewhere, Nellist and his team had arrived at the outpost and were waiting in the grass east of a guard shack containing a heavy and a light machine gun and four sentries.
At 4:10 a.m. Rounsaville fired a single shot into the large hut signalling the start of the attack. He then emptied his magazine. Seconds later his men tossed in phosphorus grenades and burst into the hut, killing ten troops. Although badly wounded, six managed to escape into a swamp behind the hut. Two were discovered hiding in a ditch and were killed. The others, screaming from their severe wounds, made their way into the jungle and were presumed to have died.
Asis and Smith quietly entered their assigned hut. "We sneaked into the hut and bumped squarely into a bookcase that the Japs had in front of the door," recalled Smith. "But the Japs didn't wake up. I went left and Bob Asis went to the right. I emptied one clip into the two cots along the wall, dropped my clip, and reloaded another. Asis did the same thing on the left."
The Scouts knew exactly where the ranking Kempeitai slept. While preparing for the mission, Smith had learned an order in Japanese. "I had memorized an order telling the Kempeitai that if he surrendered he would not be harmed. As I approached his cot and pulled back the mosquito netting, he went for his knife. I was so pumped up and scared that I couldn't remember one damned word of Japanese! Needless to say, I didn't take him prisoner." Following a quick search of the hut for documents, Asis and Smith freed the native chief, set fire to the hut, and rushed to help Rounsaville's team.
Three minutes after the first shot Rounsaville gave the order to cease fire. Moving quickly, the Scouts fanned out and searched the huts and dead bodies for documents. Rapmund, Asis, Smith, and another Dutch officer began releasing prisoners and assembling them for the journey to the coast. "We were in there less than four minutes before we secured the area," said Smith. "In that short time we had all the prisoners released and had killed all the Japs. The raid went off like clockwork."
Their search completed, the Scouts destroyed the enemy radio and began setting fire to the huts. During a final search of the large hut, Smith discovered a gramophone sitting on a table. Beside the gramophone sat several Bing Crosby records. Smith put on one of the records and sat down for a rest. Moments later, just as he was enjoying the first verse of "Melancholy Baby," Vaquilar walked in and opened fire, spraying bullets into the wall less than a foot from Smith's head. "What the hell are you shooting at!" screamed Smith. "The damn fight is over!" The tight-lipped Vaquilar simply nodded and left the hut. As Smith turned and looked at the wall behind him, he noticed an enemy soldier sinking slowly to the floor - his bayonet fixed firmly on his rifle. "That Jap fell dead right behind my chair," Smith added. "That was the end of the music."
At approximately 5:30 a.m. Bill Nellist and his men were getting edgy. They had not heard any rifle fire from the village, and they were beginning to wonder what was wrong. The dense·jungle had muffled the fire from the village and Nellist was unable to hear the signal to commence the attack. But Nellist didn't have time to worry. His team had a mission to complete. As two sentries cooked breakfast, Nellist and Cox crept through the grass to within ten feet of them. Suddenly, the sentries stood up and began walking toward the Scouts. Not wanting to wait and see if the guards had spotted them first, Cox raised up and blasted one of the men with his Remington shotgun. Nellist calmly dropped the other with his M-1 Garand. The rest of the team then opened fire. The two remaining sentries fled into the weeds behind the hut, but Nellist and Siason soon found them. "We weren't in the habit of taking prisoners," said Kittleson. "Nellist and the others took care of the Japs so quickly that I didn't fire a shot!" After collecting the two machine guns, one of which was British, and conducting a quick search for documents, the Scouts set fire to the hut. All they could do now was wait.
Back at the village, Rounsaville and his men had assembled the former prisoners and were ready to go. Rounsaville dispatched a messenger to Nellist advising him to contact Dove aboard the PT boat and to arrange for a pick up. Just as Nellist and his team were completing their phase of the mission, Rounsaville Team and the entire party of newly-released prisoners began to make their way to the rendezvous point.
Barely two hundred yards into the journey, Alfonso discovered a man hiding in the brush at the bank of the Maori River. The Scout raised his Browning .12 gauge shotgun and pointed at the man. "Me no Jap, me Frenchman, me got wife, ten kids--go with you!" he said. "Why the hell didn't you tell me that you spoke English!" barked Alfonso. With that, twelve more people joined the procession.
When the messenger arrived and relayed Rounsaville's instructions, Nellist turned on his radio and sent: "Jack, this is Bill. Jack, this is Bill." This was the signal for Dove's contact team to move to the rendezvous point. At 6:30 a.m. Rounsaville Team and its caravan of weary, but elated, ex-prisoners arrived at the beach where they were greeted by Nellist and his team of Alamo Scouts. Overwhelmed by the event, the Dutch and Javanese began singing the Dutch national anthem. Within thirty minutes, sixty-six former Dutch and Javanese prisoner and one large French family were safely aboard PT boats on their way to freedom, led boldly by the Alamo Scouts.
"With the exception of a minor communications problem the Cape Oransbari prison rescue was an absolutely flawless mission," Rounsaville said later. "It was a textbook operation. We hit that camp at the right time, at the right place, with the right men!"
During the war the Alamo Scouts performed 106 known missions without losing a single man. They are considered to be the U.S. Army's first LRRP and LRSU unit. In 1988 the Alamo Scouts were recognized as a forerunner of the modern Special Forces and were awarded the Special Forces tab by the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.