146 Field Artillery on Biak: Wet Landing, Night Combat

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield and Captain Robert Allen, 146 Field Artillery

 

When 146 Field Artillery's 105 mm howitzers beach-headed on Biak on 27 May 1944, our landing was part of a calculated risk. So important to General Fuller was the early beaching of guns, tanks, trucks, and bulldozers that they were loaded on eight special LCTs ("Landing Craft, Tanks"). These long barges were to be driven by Navy coxswains up the outer reef and over it as far as possible, then into the shallow water before the beach. So important was this cargo of guns, tanks, trucks, and bulldozers to assist our infantry that Fuller had to accept the risk of damage on the coral. Immediately after securing our landing, 146 Field Artillery must turn to support the westward rush of 162 Infantry to capture Mokmer, Sorido, and Boroko Strips.

As our LCTs raced for the smoky shore, Battery A's LCT came under fire from a Jap machine gun already in A's proposed position. But pointblank fire from a watching destroyer knocked out that machine gun.

All of our three gun batteries had to make wet landings from the LCTs. Some of our guns and vehicles had to be dragged across 50 feet of water 3-4 feet deep, but we landed and got into position in good time. The LCTs were just slightly damaged. Only guns to land ahead of 146 Field Artillery were Battery C 121 Field Artillery's pack 75s.

Battery B of 146 Field Artillery dropped gun-trails just inland of the new jetty at Bosnek, while "A" and "C" positioned on higher ground some 400 yards east. When our Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Virgil L Anderson found that 186 Infantry did not need support near Bosnek, he had our Fire Direction Center mass the fires to support 162 Infantry's march towards Mokmer Strip. Battery A was ready to fire at 1000 hours, and "B" and "C" by 1030. (The 155 mm guns of Battery C 947 Field Artillery were ready at 1230.) At 1500 hours we had our first Biak casualty. Service Battery's Sergeant Donald Stewart was killed when a falling limb impacted him from a shell-torn tree.

About 1300 hours, 162' s 3rd Battalion in the lead halted before heavy rifle and machine gun fire from 1500 yards east of Parai Jetty where the road begins to enter the Defile between cliffs and sea. Fire seemed to come from the cliff caves and lower coral terraces.

From our new LCV observation post offshore, Captain Bedke registered a 146 Field Artillery Battery on those Jap strong points. But we knew that our firing results would be limited. We would have to fire from an angle east up the shore, and many Jap weapons were in caves and crevices facing seaward to the south.

We decided to call for Naval assistance. Lieutenant Wolffer radioed a destroyer offshore which directed heavy fire on the caves and coral terraces. But for maximum effect, Wolffer exposed himself to wade out on the reef to contact a rocket LCI. With signal flags, he wigwagged to penetrate the cliff caves with rockets that would accurately explode inside. (Meanwhile, another man of Wolffer's observation party, Sergeant John N Donaldson, dared Jap fire to rescue a wounded 162 Infantryman.)

When 3rd Battalion 162 dug in for the night near Parai Jetty, 146's Communications Section strung wire for shell fire to protect them. Jap sniper fire was continual against our Communications men. During exchanges of fire, Sergeant Burnette slew a Jap - 146 Field Artillery's first known kill.

Finding that 186 Infantry's opposition at Bosnek was only light, Batteries B and C in late afternoon displaced forward down the coast to Ibdi with a skeleton Fire Control Center. By 1725, Battery C was registered. We prepared for defensive fires to support 162 Infantry against night attacks at Parai, but they had no need to call us that night.

Our forward Batteries B and C had unknowingly placed themselves in danger of a desperate Jap night attack. Battery C was up ahead, closest to Mokmer Strip. No units but Japanese were in front of "C" but for 162 Infantry, three miles away at Parai. Battery B was 200 yards to our rear.

It was bad enough to have this exposed forward position, but we were unable to entrench ourselves properly. Before we could set up a secure defensive perimeter, we had to organize fires to defend 162 Infantry. Thus our registration fires helped to reveal our new positions to Japs of 3rd Battalion 222 Infantry who were on the Ibdi heights above us.

They were well concealed in those vague dark-green jungle terraces overhead. (3rd Battalion 222 Infantry would be the last formation on Biak, which 163 Infantry and the bombers would not destroy until seven weeks later.)

Absolute security was also impossible to use because elements of 162 Infantry were still streaming past on the way to Parai Village for the great assault on Mokmer Strip tomorrow. Battery C prepared our inadequate defenses with the belief that infantry troops would be strung along the beach road just a few feet from the left front of our gun positions.

We placed two machine guns in a stronghold a few yards to the right of No. 1 Gun. Their fire lanes were to the right and the front of our gun positions. We sighted another machine gun a few yards to the rear of this stronghold. Its field of fire was to our right and our right rear. Not one machine gun guarded our left flank on the road.

Fifty yards to our rear, an Air Corps anti-aircraft unit had positioned across Parai Road to the left. Battery C placed only one sentry as liaison between the Air Force and us.

Besides failing to protect our flank on the road, we also made another disastrous error. Because the early night hours were quiet, we allowed some men to sleep outside of their holes. Only about 30 yards off the road and 30 yards back of No. 4 Gun, our wiremen huddled down in a close-packed group, a ready target for bayonet-men. Behind them also on the road were men of our Maintenance Section.

We were a perfect set-up for a mass Jap attack. It could have wiped out a whole Battery of men and guns, and even caused 162 Infantry to hold up their Mokmer offensive to secure their rear. Lucky were we that only a small raiding party with almost no demolition charges for our guns hit Battery C that night.

       At midnight, Jap bayonet-men charged down the road toward the open side of Battery C's Perimeter near the road. From the brush, six to seven Japs with leveled bayonets drove off the lone sentinel contacting the Air Corps Engineers. With those leveled bayonets, they swarmed in among the close-packed sleeping communications men; they pinned some of them to the ground with bayonets. Their officer slashed half-awakened men with his saber.

Grunting bayoneting Japs drove the Maintenance men back into the brush. Our gun crews and machine-gunners were already cut off from the road by thickets that our bulldozers had not had time to level last night. Our other fighters could only feel sick while they listened to the helpless cries of men being butchered near the road.

Pfc. Raymond Howerton and Corporal Joe Lashappell were slashed or stabbed to death, probably while still in their sleep. Pfc Walter R. Thurlow took a thrust in his abdomen and was left for dead. All night, he lay agonizing alone, and died the next morning before the attack ended and Medics could come to him. A few yards off, Sergeant Fred L. Dutton was found dead. He had put up a fight, but a saber cut him down before he could flee into the brush.

Thus died four men. Bayoneted and seriously wounded was Pfc James H Peeler, but he did slay the Jap who had thrust into him. Like Corporal Linsley Postlethwait, also pierced and badly wounded, Peeler escaped into the inner perimeter. Both men took refuge at the command post behind the guns and underwent Medics's treatment while the fight still raged.

T/5 John E Hunt was less seriously wounded and escaped. He saved himself by rolling under a vehicle away from where he was struck and lying still. Also less seriously wounded, T/5 Robert S Craig also escaped in an unreported way during the confusion.

Meanwhile, our machine guns could not fire down the road because our guns and other equipment lay in the line of fire. But Corporal Young and crew rushed a machine gun to an exposed position behind No. 2 gun and slew two Japs. The main Jap force then moved back down the road in front of our guns and equipment and blocked off Young from firing again. But Young's first burst had flamed a pile of powder bags. For several seconds, the position was lighted up like noonday. We heard Jap voices chatter along the road. They soon attacked again - with grenades, rifles, and light machine guns. Some slipped around to the right flank also and hurled grenades into the perimeter. One placed a demolition charge near No.4 gun, but it failed to damage the piece. This is the one time in the entire night attack that the Japs did what should have been their reason for the raid - to kill our guns.

One little Jap group subjected Battery B to a brief attack before a gun position. They grenaded our outpost there and fired into the perimeter. Our .50 heavy machine gun tried to enfilade them beside the perimeter, but it jammed after the first round. The Japs fired back with their light machine gun and continued throwing grenades.

Outpost guard Zeulner left his hole and shot at the Jap machine gun with his carbine. He got off four rounds, but the carbine jammed. He threw a grenade; it failed to explode. The Japs rained in grenades on the outpost, but they hurt nobody. Later, blood on the road showed that Zeulner's few rounds surely got results.

At daybreak, the Japs broke off their attack. While Medics tended our wounded from outlying positions, we counted casualties. We added to our roster Pvt Stanley T Lish, wounded by a sub-machine gun. So far, we had four dead, five wounded. But we would have two more serious casualties.

After daylight, Pvts Donald R Antonovich and Jack C Murray were searching into the sinister brush on our right flank to see whether they could find signs that our machine guns had hurt any Japs on that side. A moment later, we heard a terrific explosion. We rushed out to find Antonovich and Murray both badly burned and wounded by a Jap explosive trap. A wounded Jap had lain quietly all night where he and another Jap had fallen under our machine gun fire. The other Jap had died during the night, and his own blast killed the Jap who set it off. Neither Antonovich nor Murray died of wounds.

We found only certain proof that six Japs were killed - and one of those in the Air Force position nearby. Those Air Force Engineers had lost one killed, and one wounded. Bloody trails showed evidence of other casualties - whether dead or wounded, we did not know, since the Japs even carried off their own corpses.

In early morn, Battery A and the remainder of 146 Field Artillery's men moved up beside us. Lieutenant Setzer and his Battery commanding officer's party took fire from a Jap machine gun between Batteries C and B. So the rest of 146 Field Artillery positioned on the other side of the Bosnek - Parai Road. We cut broad fire-lanes on the right flank across the road, and received no further attacks that morning.

On that morn of 28 May, 205 Field Artillery and 947 Field Artillery came down from Bosnek and set up near us. We were all now ready to give full support to 162 Infantry's fight for Bosnek Strip.

Such is the saga of 146 Field Artillery's first day on Biak our landing and emplacement at Ibdi and our vicious little night fight against the Jap raiders who were probably from 3rd Battalion 222 Infantry. Considering the precarious position that 146 Field Artillery lay in below Japs on the Ibdi ridges, we were lucky to lose only four killed, and finally, seven wounded.

We lost no guns. Although we know of only six Jap casualties for sure in contrast to our five dead, and seven wounded, it was in the end only a minor skirmish. From here, it seems that a heavier attack would have wiped out at least Battery C and caused 162 Infantry to fall back from their forward position at Parai Village. And so, their night attack remains only a bitter and proud memory of 146 Field Artillery on Biak.

 

CREDIT: Personal basis of this history is "Bosnek Beachhead," a 3-1/2 page single-spaced type-script by Captain Allen, which is a small part of his coverage of 146 Field Artillery throughout World War II. Useful also was R. R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines. I found Allen's narrative in Federal Archives. Story of 146 Field Artillery in Bongao-Sanqa Sanga was in Jungleer for June 1985. Hollandia story was in May 1968 Jungleer; Parai Defile (Biak) story in April 1972; Jolo Mountain Story in January 1979; Mount Daho story (Jolo) in June 1963 ; and Zamboanga story in March 1970. Although I covered 146 Field Artillery's overall Parai Defile story in an earlier Jungleer, I could not then give them full credit for their landing and night battle. Such is my reason for this history.