947 Field Artillery Battalion: Our 155 MM Howitzers For Biak

by Colonel Hugh Kennedy (Commanding Officer 947 Field Artillery), and Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian


 This is the little-known story of how the hammer-blows of 947 Field Artillery's powerful 155mm howitzers helped rescue 162 Infantry from Parai Defile, then overwhelm the Japs on Horseshoe Ridge. Attached to our 41st Division on 15 March 1944, we had battled the Hollandia mud without casualties, and fired just one concentration of shells. But on Biak, our war for the 41st meant wounds and suffering and death for 947 Field Artillery men.

On 27 May 1944, Battery C with Lieutenant Colonel Kennedy himself, made an easy landing on Bosnek Jetty. We fired only 20 rounds all day, and on 28 May advanced 2.5 miles down the road to near Ibdi Village. Here "C" was to support 162 Infantry now entering Mokmer Village past Parai Defile. By 1245, the other 947 Field Artillery Batteries had joined us.

Our position was dangerous. Unseen Japs watched from low dark-green ridges above us. About 1400, Japs mortared our constricted clearing of 200 by 300 yards where we tried to dig in through solid coral.

One of their first 81 mm mortar shells blasted Headquarters Battery's radio section. Four men were killed outright: Putman, McCue, Staff Sergeant Peay, T/4 James Smith. Corporal Rice, T/5 Hertel died of wounds. Seriously wounded were Neesen, T/4 Savoy; lightly wounded were Fuqua, Zeig, and Corporals Frank Smith and Turman. A fragment hit Col Kennedy in the back but did not wound. Another shell burst near Battery B's No. 1 Gun and wounded four men: probably Reeves, Eichman, Sanders, and Wade.

Service Battery's men secured our inland flank. After a patrol that found no Japs, they tried to dig in. A lucky Jap round on the coral lip of our machine gun position wounded Bryna, Sergeant Cook, Captain Jackson, killed gunner T/5 Mathes. No Japs attacked. Later we learned that the shells were unobserved that day, on targets set up previously. A charge of Japs could have played havoc with our battalion.

While Battery C began our Battalion's retreat to a position half a mile east of Bosnek, Batteries A and B stood to their guns. Down at Parai Defile that disastrous 28 May, 162 Infantry needed our shellfire to cover their withdrawal from positions advanced too close to Mokmer Strip.

Our 1st Lieutenant Doughty volunteered to lead an observation party to help 162 Infantry, along with Corporal Davis (the only other man named in the party). Embarking from Bosnek on a beach-craft, we bypassed Japs that had cut off 162, and landed at Parai Jetty. Here about 1530, Lieutenant Colonel Hollister asked for Doughty's help to smash Jap counter-attacks.

Within 15 minutes after we arrived, Doughty had shells striking those Jap advances with deadly accuracy. Joining the four tanks with 162's men on rear-guard, Doughty climbed on top of the lead tank which was drawing mortar and machine gun fire. Then Doughty left the tank and moved back several more yards towards the Japs for better observation.

Back under Ibdi Ridge, our Batteries A and B fought heroically. While Service Battery’s "infantry" crouched in shallow holes to scan the dark Jap ridge northward, our highly-trained 7-man gun-crews continued firing.

Barrage after barrage on call, our great 155mm howitzers hurled 95-lb. shells. As soon as tubes were cleared of left-over smoldering powder that might explode the next shell among us, our gunners pulled lanyards and arced new shells down the shore.

Up front, 162's Colonel Hollister was amazed at the speed when our shells began falling as soon as he had specified our targets. Doughty's shells accurately impacted 100-200 yards behind 3rd Battalion. Retreating at 162's rear, he directed those saving barrages - rolling barrages in reverse. He helped 3rd Battalion back to dig better positions in Parai Defile, by dusk.

             That night, Jap planes dropped flares on Batteries A and B. They seemed to try to pinpoint our guns for ground or air attacks. When our machine gun opened fire with anti-aircraft outfits, we claimed the death of a Zero that crashed into cliffs about 100 yards northwest of Battery A.

Back at Parai Defile in 162's final evacuation on 29 May, Lieutenant Doughty's observation post guarded retreating 162 Infantry with barrages in reverse until they were saved from destruction. During 24 hours' fire 947 Field Artillery had expended 1100 rounds 162 Infantry.

When 162 had cleared Parai Defile and holed up at Mandom, 947 Field Artillery had become the front line. So by 1730, we displaced back to Battery C east of Bosnek. The battalion fired throughout the night.

On 1-4 June, we fired often, day and night. In return, Japs harassed us. In the dark of 1 June, a Yank patrol from an unnamed outfit slew two men of a Jap patrol on our inland flank. The Japs carried explosive charges surely intended to kill our guns. Next day, however, Battery B's Captain Avery's patrol could not contact any Japs on that flank.

On 3 June, about 1700, Jap planes strafed Battery A just east of Bosnek and fired a powder dump. Battery A's Captain Wiggans led a party to defuze shells already heated, remove nearby powder, and put out the fire.

On 4 June, we heard that a Jap fleet with battleships bore reinforcements for Biak. (That fleet did have 1 battleship.) We dug in our guns facing the sea. Headquarters and Fire Control covered behind a low ridge. But Jap scout planes wrongly reported that our protecting fleet was stronger. The strike was called off. That night, our own fleet of 14 ships passed by the south coast of Biak and made us feel safer.

Some day on or after 1 June, Lieutenant Runkle headed an observation party for fire for 186 Infantry on their overland march from Bosnek to seize Mokmer Strip from the rear. With Lieutenant Runkle, Patterson, Sergeant Oldham, and Corporal Lenzner contacted Colonel Newman's party about to hole up for the night. As we tried to dig in, Japs sprayed the area with machine guns, mortars. Newman urged us to disperse while we crawled.

Crawling on hands and knees to evade a supposed line of fire, Oldham and Lenzner drew a blast of machine gun fire that passed close between Lenzner's head and Oldham's rear. Each man believed that the other was dead. Meanwhile, 186's men found the Japs and killed perhaps 11. Our position was impossible; Newman radioed the main 186 perimeters and informed them that we were joining them in the darkness. Hiking through mud, water, and darkness, we entered 186's perimeter in safety. We still had to dig shallow holes to sleep in.       

Back at our Batteries at 0600 on 7 June, we took three bombs near C Battery's No.1 Gun. Six men were wounded: probably Gulley, Le Blanc, Lannon, T/5 Gibson, and Corporals Davis and Little.

Despite those Japs' bombs at 0600, 947 Field Artillery were ready on call at 0700 to help Runkle's observation post to help 186 Infantry capture Mokmer Strip. At 0700, from Mokmer Ridge, Runkle's observation post was directing shells in 30 minutes' preparation for 186 Infantry to swoop on the Strip. (Just as Runkle's men started down with 186, a P-38 of ours made two passes on us, but missed and turned off. We might have fired back on the third pass.)

Now 186 on the Strip took a heavy bombardment from that same ridge where we had missed the Japs and bypassed them. Their machine gun fire ricocheted from the Strip before the foot-high revetment of coral stones that we lay behind.

Between their machine gun bursts, we observed smoke rising from the ridge jungle and called our 155 shells down on that smoke. Japs wheeled mountain guns from caves, fired down on us, and hid the guns again. Once the shells bracketed our party, but no more shells came down to split the bracket and destroy us. By late afternoon, Jap fire had noticeably lessened, and at least six gun positions were silenced. Later we heard that Runkle's men, unawares, were directing fire for all battalions of Division Artillery.

Also on 7 June, 947 Field Artillery prepared for 162's landing at Parai Jetty which bypassed Japs holding Parai Defile to the east and put 162 in position to join up with 186 on the Strip. Observing from a buffalo offshore, our Captain Austin called 155s down on suspected targets before we landed. Lieutenant Colonel Hollister lauded us for our immediate and thorough coverage of every target that he pointed out.

Back at Mokmer Strip that 7 June, our 2nd Lieutenant Holmquist's observation lost a man killed, perhaps another wounded. Some time while observing after 1400 while three newly landed tanks were destroying Nippo guns, Holmquist lost T/5 Jorgenson killed by machine gun fire.

Altogether, 947 Field Artillery had as many as 6 observation posts active at one time on Biak, either for 162 Infantry or 186 or 163. Two of our officers were detached as liaison for 121 Field Artillery's 75s for the whole campaign. One of our most effective observation posts was a floating post offshore on an LCV. Although under Jap fire for several times, it claimed destruction of an ammo dump, naval and anti-aircraft guns.

On 8-20 June, a number of our guns returned to our old position below Ibdi Pocket ridges, to fire for 186 and 162 against the Japs holding Horseshoe Ridge, that supreme tactical position which denied our heavy bombers the use of Mokmer Strip.

From Ibdi Pocket above us, the Japs shelled around us every night between 1700 and 1800 with mortars and a  75 mm mountain gun or guns. Fire seemed to be directed principally at the cub strip near Batteries C and B. Sometimes, wild shots impacted our battalion area. This nightly shelling went on until our guns left the area on 20 June. The shells caused no damage. We believe that the Japs sighted those guns on 10 June, but did not again observe the results of their fire - just hoped for the best.

On 11 June while still below Ibdi Pocket, 947 Field Artillery began heavy firing to help 162 Infantry to capture Horseshoe Ridge guarding Mokmer Strip. Even with our 155's assistance, 3rd Battalion 162 could not get under way until mid-afternoon against the rugged, dense rain-forest of the ridge with its Jap defenders. We had to pound Horseshoe Ridge for over a week to help 162’s advances.

On 19 June, 947 Field Artillery teamed with 121,167, and 205 Field Artillery to help 186 Infantry in General Eichelberger's plan to place 186 Infantry in the rear of West Caves, which were Jap Headquarters on Biak. Concluding at 1040, this overwhelming bombardment helped 186 to advance with but few losses. After this advance, 186 had cut off Jap reinforcements and supplies from the north coast of Biak. Even the escape of any large number of Japs from West Caves became impossible. On the night of 21-22 June, 160 of these trapped Nips tried to break out of West Caves. Here 186 Infantry killed 115 of them while 162 Infantry killed 17. Not until 27 June, however, could 1st Battalion 162 finally enter safely those silent, corpse-redolent Jap Headquarters.

Our Battle of Biak was almost ended. Taking up a new position 700 yards west of Parai Defile, we helped 186's L and K Companies against the main surviving Jap strongpoint northwest of 186's perimeter behind West Caves. On 24 June, we helped to neutralize or destroy 2-3 Jap mountain guns so that "L” and "K" could overrun that strongpoint.

Firing missions became few and scattered until Battery C fought for Ibdi Pocket. On 23-25 June, 947 Field Artillery did move to the coast below Borokoe Strip, probably to help 24 Division's 34 Infantry to advance. We had good luck on 28 June. Battery A had lent a tractor to "B" of 168 Field Artillery, that other 155 mm outfit which came to Biak after the Parai Defile ambush. Probably an overheated motor fired the tractor and exploded three 155 mm shells on it. No casualties occurred to 168 Field Artillery, but we wonder whether 947 would have been so lucky if the tractor had been in our hands.

On 12 July, Battery C saw 947's last heavy combat - ironically some revenge for our casualties in the early days on Biak. For we fired from our early position under Ibdi Pocket on Ibdi Pocket itself. On 12-23 July - but for three days - we pounded those coral ridges to help 3rd Battalion 163's difficult attacks. Some 20,000 shells of 146 Field Artillery had already reduced that opaque jungle to mere stumps. After our Battery C's precision blasting of shell-bare terrain, some 200 Japs - most of the remaining garrison - escaped into northern Biak. All told, Battery C expended 2,145 rounds of our 95-lb shells, probably the record number for 947 Field Artillery in the whole Biak Operation.

It was, however, necessary for B-24s to drop 64 1,000-lb bombs on the Pocket to destroy the remaining Japs. And even after the B-24s, 146 Field Artillery threw in 1,000 rounds of 105 mm shells, while we of 947 Field Artillery fired 275 rounds of 155 mm shells. Then 3rd Battalion 153's assault was almost unopposed.

The death of Ibdi Pocket concluded 947 Field Artillery's war for the 41st Division. Firing day or night, our 155 mm shells helped rescue 162 Infantry at Parai Defile, and win Horseshoe Ridge and Ibdi Pocket. The 41st Division Artillery reported that we had fired 9,746 shells in 362 missions. We fought literally in the front lines at times - lost eight killed and 14 wounded. After leaving the 41st, we would again fight well in the Philippines.

 

CREDIT: Prime source is due to Colonel Hugh Kennedy's 15-page, single-spaced typescript of 947 Field Artillery's history at Hollandia and Biak. This typescript is an expansion of a portion of Colonel Kennedy's History of the 947 Field Artillery Battalion/From December, 1943 to September, 1945, which is now out of print. Kennedy backed his documents with letters of 23 July, 20 October, 30 October, and 4 November, 1980. I used also award stories of Merton Austin, Fay Davis, and Edward Doughty, with 162's Lieutenant Colonel Hollister's "Certificate" of 3 July 1944. Some brief notes came from 41st Division Artillery’s "Narrative Report of the Biak Operation," and RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines - neither of which even suggests adequate credit to the heroic work of 947 Field Artillery on Biak.