146 Field Artillery Battalion On Biak Escaping the Parai Defile Death-Trap

By Hargis Westerfield Division Historian with 146 Field Artilley’s Captain Robert Allen

 

By daylight 28 May 1944 near Mokmer Village, we gun crews of 146 Field Artillery manned our 105 mm cannon while forward observer teams went to help 162 Infantry. On the 41st Division's second day on Biak, 162 Infantry had already passed easily through formidable Parai Defile last night. They expected to occupy Mokmer Strip before mid-morning. In the tangled brush ahead, scouts had spied only little scattered groups of Japs in the brush.            

 

By 0930, 3rd Battalion 162 had gained 1500 yards beyond Mokmer Village. Then battle began!

 

Suddenly K Company met a storm of machine gun and rifle fire. We slew eight Japs, but too many held Mokmer Road, and struck our right flank. Forward 3rd Battalion units pulled back 600 yards to where the road leaves the shoreline on a 200-foot cliff. (Perhaps this is where 146 Field Artillery's Pfc Edward V Sivula and T/4 Roger K Comstock became missing in action. Wounded by mortars and trapped in cave by rifle fire, they hid in coast cliffs for 16 days.)

 

1st Lieutenant Otto Schild's C Battery's forward observation party strung wires up to K' s point. They had to spread out along both sides of narrow Mokmer Road, for here was the only open ground for any observation at all. As we arrived, heavy small arms fire came from ahead and the inshore flank. And we heard the clanking advance of Jap tanks up the road from the Strip. At 0942, Battery C opened up on the Jap tanks.

 

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Wolffer with the Naval Shore Fire Control Party came up. Wolffer's party called down destroyer gunfire, and worked with his 146 Field Artillery's guns to block that tank attack. Four of our own M-4 tanks forward to fight the Jap tanks but also drew fire down on Schild's observer party.

 

Although our tanks took two direct hits from the Japs, they continued firing. The Jap tanks dropped into defilade, but a heavy barrage of mortar and dual purpose cannon fire crashed into 162's point. Under intense fire, infantrymen fell everywhere.

 

During these barrages, Lieutenants WoIffer and Schild exposed themselves continually to rise up and call shelling down on Mokmer Road to the Strip. This helped to lessen the furious fires of the Jap Infantry attack and neutralize the fire from the high ground.

 

All that day, Sergeant Donaldson was notable in his expert and brave work; as a lineman. When Jap fires held up 162's advance, he kept the phone line operating between Lieutenant Wolffer and the Naval Shore Party which called down destroyer fire. Jap mortars cut the line numerous times, but Donaldson continually repaired it. When the Jap riflemen surged forward, he assisted in evacuating the naval radio.

 

Lieutenants Schild and Wolffer took advantage of a lull during the Jap attack. They back-tracked along the road 75 yards to where they had better observation of the heights on our right flank where the fire originated. At 1120 hours, Schild brought a 146 Field Artillery shell concentration into the midst of the Jap mortar and artillery positions.

 

Our tanks withdrew to a station near our observers and drew a vicious barrage. Our 105s dueled that ridge until about 1300 when we had to shift fire to another hard-pressed section. From 1300 until retreat at 1730, 3rd Battalion endured intermittent Jap mortar fire.

 

Schild's and Wolffer's teams did gallant work that day, exposed to heavy fire to keep the phone line open from the forward observers to the Battalion radio. Besides Sergeant Donaldson, there were Gambecurte, Kocich, Jarvis - with Sergeant Marvel, Staff Sergeant Haug, T/4 Bock, and T/5s Olson and Perry.

 

Meanwhile that morning while 146 Field Artillery fought for that part of I and K Companies near Mokmer Strip, we fought also for other 162 Companies, for Jap scouts had spotted a fine field of fire to cut off 3rd Battalion from 162's connecting 2nd Battalion on the coastal strip behind 3rd Battalion. This was near Mokmer Village where the road drops to the beach, then rises 50 feet to go on to Mokmer Strip.

 

From near Mokmer Village (maybe East Caves) the Japs threw down murderous fire. They struck L Company at the end of 3rd Battalion and G Company at the point of 2nd Battalion. Despite several casualties, "L" with an "M" weapons detachment found a safe way to rejoin 3rd Battalion. (One cut off "L" Platoon had to fight east to 2nd Battalion's protection.) But 3rd Battalion was thus cut off from the regiment.

 

Observing for Battery B, 146's Lieutenant Thompson was with G Company's point in the defile. With his party and G's mortar observers, Thompson repeatedly tried to scale Parai Ridge to call fire on Jap emplacements. Shells and point-blank machine gun fire thwarted us.

 

Then the Japs retaliated against 146's Batteries in our advanced position near Mokmer Village. At 1330, Service Company's 2nd Lieutenant Silva saw Jap mortar fire adjusting from the sea 100 yards away. Silva warned our command post, but we could do nothing because we were firing a vital concentration for 3rd Battalion to halt a tremendous Jap attack.

 

As Jap observers adjusted their range, they walked their heavy mortar shells into us and increased fire. At 1400 hours, a shell burst on Mokmer Road near the Battalion radio jeep. Headquarters Battery's Sergeant Turner Paulson got his death wound. Others in 146 Field Artillery and 205 Field Artillery 100 yards east drew wounds from Jap mortars.

 

Three 146 men showed outstanding bravery here. T/4 Roger C McClintock lay by a phone controlling 2nd Battery's fire. Only protection was two supply boxes beside him. When he had to shift fire, he had to get up in the open to check his charts for firing data. After switchboard and operator were hit, 1st Lieutenant Frank E Ridenoure supervised repairs of wire connections. Later, he continually exposed himself to load wounded into trucks. Mortar shells landed close to the jeep where T/4 Vernon C Woltersdorf's radio was mounted. Fragments hit the jeep. But Woltersdorf kept on relaying commands and sensings to our fire direction center.

 

Our Battalion aid station was already crowded with 146 Field Artillery and 205 Field Artillery casualties. A shell exploded only a few feet from the tent where Captain Seymour R Katz and medics treated our wounded. The wounded were in shallow cover, but the medics worked over them in open ground. Katz got his death-wound, yet would not leave his wounded men until he had written out their evacuation orders. Medics Pfc Don R Houghton and Corporals William A C Kelley and Frank W Siefferman were also wounded. Staff Sergeant Paul K Anderson and T/3 August A Benites replaced Katz and the others to supervise aid to more casualties.

 

Mortar blasts stalked up and down our gun positions. One shell made a direct hit on a B try A slit trench. Killed was Pfc David J Schortgen, and T/4 John P Owsianka wounded. Even offshore rocket-fire could not silence the Jap automatic fire from the ridge-line above us.

 

Battery B's Commanding Officer, 1st Lieutenant Wilkinson, formed an attack patrol and mounted the ridge - but was recalled before they could fight.

 

After two hours of vicious Jap fire, "Division" ordered withdrawal from this untenable position east of Mokmer Village. We had 25 casualties: one officer and two men dead, and three officers and 19 men wounded. After orders at 1540, we quickly displaced back to our previous position near Ibdi. By 1730, we were ready to fire for 162 Infantry again.

 

But we feared an ammo shortage. In our hurried retreat, we had left too many shells near Mokmer Village. Commandeering trucks along Mokmer Road, Service Battery's Warrant Officer Robert E Dugan, Mechanical Sergeant Fowler, and Staff Sergeant Engert led back a supply party. By 1830, Service Battery had brought back to our gunners over 1,000 rounds.

 

While Jap mortars and artillery forced 146's retreat to Ibdi, 162's Colonel Haney planned 3rd Battalion's retreat from the Mokmer-Parai death-trap. When 3rd Battalion left the Parai area, all field artillery and Navy guns would fire to cover the Infantry's disengagement. Our 146 Field Artillery's 105s, with 947 Field Artillery's 155s, and 121 Field Artillery's 75s - all would impact west and north of 3rd Battalion. After 162 had passed the defile at Mokmer Village, most of our fire would shift onto the area of heaviest Jap gunnery - near the beach north of Mokmer Village - where were East Caves. At 1700 that 29 May, 3rd Battalion's retreat began. The three observation parties of Lieutenants Schild, Wolffer, and Ducommun linked up with the Infantry rear-guard and four tanks. Although the first retreating men of 3rd Battalion did not draw heavy fire, withering machine gun, mortar, and rifle blasts hit most of 3rd Battalion streaming east through the defile.

 

Under almost point-blank rifle shots with mortar shells bursting all around, our field artillery parties moved in rushes. Yet T/4 Plourde leaped from a tank-protected jeep to destroy a naval radio which had been with the party of slain Ensign Travis.

 

Fire became so deadly that retreating rear-guard Infantry and our field artillery observers had to drop down over the cliff, then one by one cross the bullet-swept beach to shelter in 2nd Battalion's perimeter.

 

As soon as 3rd Battalion had passed through 2nd Battalion, 146 Field Artillery placed defensive fire across the west and inland sides of 2nd Battalion. Especially heavy concentrations impacted the cliffs commanding the beach. We fired all night.            

 

But at 0500 next morning, 29 May, shells from unknown guns impacted 3rd Battalion's perimeter. To clear 146 Field Artillery from accusations of firing on our own Infantry, we had to risk observers' lives in the pre-dawn tropical dark. Sergeant Marcel and Lieutenants Edmond G Ducommun and Wolffer had to expose themselves to being shot by our own men. To readjust fire accurately, we had to walk through three infantry perimeters in the dark.

 

We ceased fire at 0600; but at 0630, we had to fire again.

 

A Jap tank-Infantry attack started against 2nd Battalion. At 0645, we held fire to keep from striking our own Sherman tanks moving to kill the Jap tanks. After 603 Tank Company destroyed seven Jap tanks, they reported that our field artillery caused great losses to attacking Jap Infantry.

 

Waves of mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire now fell on F Company holding the northwest lines of 2nd Battalion' s perimeter closest to the Japs. An observers' duel began between Jap and 146 observers.

 

Lieutenant Thompson, Staff Sergeant Meyer, and Corporal Mackey assisted F Company. They set up in a machine gun hold on the coral terrace. This machine gun position was on the seaward side, but where they could observe the high ground north of Mokmer Strip.

 

For still better observation, Thompson with Mackey extending the phone wire, inched forward from the machine gun position to a vantage position north of the coral ridge-crest. They brought telling fire on the Japs until rifle and machine gun fire drove them back into the machine gun hole - and then from the machine gun position.

 

Thompson realized that Jap observer teams were striking at them from the main ridge. Moving back under the shelter of the coral terrace, he again scaled the ridge from E Company's perimeter. From here, he safely adjusted fire on the cliffs. Soon all Jap fire ceased.

 

While Thompson's observer party fought the Japs, a destroyer of ours erred in target identification. It caused death and wounds in 3rd Battalion. Although wounded himself, T/4 Henry W Bock stuck to his radio and got through to the destroyer to stop the shelling.

 

Now began 162 Regiment's great retreat through Parai Defile. For they could not dislodge the Japs from the ridges. In fact, except for water communications, 162 Infantry was totally cut off from the Division. To extricate his Regiment, Colonel Haney planned for 1st Battalion to hold west of Parai while his other battalions passed through.

 

Withdrawal began at 1400. Most of 2nd Battalion left by amphib craft from Parai Jetty. While 146 Field Artillery and 947 Field Artillery observers protected their rear, the other two battalions and tanks marched east. Our observers called down a prepared barrage from Parai Jetty north to the cliffs. Afterwards, we observed an accurate creeping fire behind 1st Battalion's exposed rearguard.

 

Entire withdrawal was from 1400 to 1700. It was without casualties. Infantry Commanding Officers credited their safe withdrawal to our field artillery's continuous creeping fire.

 

When 163 Infantry (less 2nd Battalion) came from Toem on 30 May, 146 Field Artillery was reassigned from 162 Infantry. We supported 163 Infantry through the end of their Biak Operation at Ibdi Pocket. Meanwhile, we assisted 186 Infantry in their overland march to capture Mokmer Strip from the rear. But our most crucial exploits on Biak were to save 162 Infantry from disaster at Mokmer Village and Parai Defile.

 

In fighting for 162 Infantry on 27-29 May, we lost no guns to the Japs, but our casualties were the highest of any 41st Division Field Artillery Battalion in World War II. We had eight killed and 44 wounded - as many as some Infantry rifle Companies in the whole New Guinea Campaign. Such was the price we had to pay for the honor of our forward position to back 162 Infantry's first assault for Mokmer Strip.

 

 

 

CREDIT: Core of this story is a 6-page legal-sized typescript on the Biak Operation attributed to 146 Field Artillery's Captain Allen. Subtitles are "Battle for Mokmer Drome" and "Withdrawal." (For background, I have used also R. R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines; but where his hours conflict with Allen's, I have used Allen's. Allen I know to be closer to the action than Smith.) Other sources are 146's Biak casualty list, and award stories of Captain Seymour Katz; 1st Lieutenants Otto Schild and Frank Ridenoure; Staff Sergeant Paul Anderson; Sergeant John Donaldson; T/4s Vernon Woltersdorf and Roger McClintock; and Corporal Elbert Mackey. An earlier, less detailed report appeared in the April 1972 Jungleer, with the misleading title "Battle in Parai Defile". Published in August 1989 was a third 146 Field Artillery story of Biak called "Wet Landing and Night Combat."