Panek’s Career with 218 Field Artillery

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian with Major John Panek

            On 18 March 1944, Captain Panek's forward observation party from C Battery 218 Field Artillery was first assigned to charge into Wakde Beach in an LCVP of A Company 163 Infantry. Probably we would have been in the same LCVP where a coxswain was killed and A's Commanding Officer Lieutenant Rhodes was wounded and put out of action. But suddenly, we OP men discovered that we had our own private amphibious craft an alligator with chauffeur for our war on Wakde.

            Since 218 Field Artillery already had difficulty receiving from our "610" radio, Panek conferred with Wire/Sergeant Hewitt about whether we could lay our own underwater cable from Arare Beach to Wakde. Hewitt said that the cable might be practical. We hurried to load a portable switch- board, "130" wire, and wire-laying gear from 218 Field Artillery. Also on board besides Panek were Swails, Bates, Corporal Hale, Sergeants Hanson and Lauzon, and Lieutenant Leigholt. Although Panek was commanding officer of C Battery, he had a special assignment as observer for Colonel Green, 218 Field Artillery Battalion's commanding officer.)

            By the time our alligator was loaded and seaborne, 163's 2nd Battalion plus F Company was already ranked and charging for Wakde Beach. Running much slower than the LCVPs, we cruised some distance behind them. We still got the attention of Jap machine gun fire but were not hit.

            When we set up our switchboard on Wakde Beach, Panek found that his project of an underwater cable was successful. For three days, this wire was 191 Field Artillery Group's main communication with our fire-base at Toem. (This 191 Field Artillery Group consisted of 218 Field Artillery with 155mm guns, and 167 Field Artillery and Cannon Company 163 with 105s.) And Wakde Force's Commanding Officer Major Wing was happy because he too might use our cable.

            But when Panek told Major Wing that we were ready to call fire from our 155s, Wing was extremely cautious. For the night before, our own Field Artillery had shelled E Company guarding our Provisional Groupment on Insoemani Island across from Wakde. Seven men were seriously wounded: two of them would soon die. Luckily, Wing believed, however, that 167 Field Artillery had shelled E Company the night before - not our 218 Field Artillery - and finally consented to use our cannon. (The commanding officer of 191 Field Artillery Group accused inexperienced Cannon 163 of the disastrous shellfire, but a Cannon spokesman denies this accusation.) Panek thus fronted for 167 Field Artillery's Colonel Beach until Wing consented to let 218 Field Artillery fire. Of course, both Battalions then fired!           Later that 18 May, when Jap machine guns cut C Company in two when trying to cross Wakde Strip, both 218 Field Artillery and 167 Field Artillery silenced the lap machine guns. All of C Company then crossed the Strip.

            Now it was late in the afternoon of 1st Battalions 163's first bloody day on Wakde. Panek heard Wing conferring with another officer about the difficulty of forwarding water and ammo - probably to B Company. (Evidently our expectation of an easy victory on Wakde had caused laxity in planning to supply our men against those stubborn Japs. And the Japs were slipping around B Company's right flank and menacing our beachhead.

            Panek then volunteered the services of our alligator to carry ammo or water to the front. He asked only that Wing lend him a machine gun with its crew.

            When soldierly Wing granted Panek the machine gun with gunner an loader, Panek put Lieutenant Leigholt as exec with the alligator. With Leigholt were 218 Field Artillery's Swails and Sergeant Gene Hanson.         .

            We feared that the Japs would gut our open alligator with grenades when we rumbled towards B Company through the brush. Seeing several Nippo riflemen, we were badly scared, but we slew three of them. We were also scared when we crossed the open Strip, but nobody shot at us there. B Company welcomed us with our water cans and ammo. Loading some of B's wounded, we returned safely through that dangerous overgrown coconut plantation.

            During the next day or so on Wakde, while the battle still went on, our alligator made more successful supply trips to the front and did not lose even a man wounded. Why did the Japs fail to attack this obvious and easy target? We concluded later that the Japs must have thought our alligator was a heavily armored tank which might readily blow them to pieces, or run over any Japs who tried to escape.

            Throughout most of 18 May, 218 Field Artillery's fire on Wakde was continual. Sometimes against those formidable and deep bunkers and pillboxes, all 12 of our 155s would fire a concentration.    Sometimes we directed 10 rounds from every gun on a target - a salvo of 120 rounds at a time. And we might keep on firing for effect after all of those 10 rounds of 12 of our guns. Our batteries called for so many more shells that even the cooks were drafted to truck them to our gunners.

            That night, Major Wing called for 20 rounds per hour on the Japs' final positions in the corner of northeast Wakde. When knee mortarmen harassed B Company's holes early that night, Wing had us range our guns as close to B's front as we could. Then 30 rounds silenced the Jap mortarmen - whether rounds from 167 Field Artillery, 218 Field Artillery, or Cannon 163 is not known.

            At daylight 19 May, Panek awoke from his hole before the alligator. The morning was quiet as he looked out over the terrain. Out front lay a number of dead Nips, and rifles shattered by grenades. As Panek dropped back into his hole for more rest before the hard day ahead, he heard a little "zing" over his head. A bullet hole appeared in the line of fire which would have passed through his brain.

            For two days more, Panek's observers were assigned to Wakde. On the morning of 20 May while we stood in the alligator, we saw 6-8 Japs setting fire to poorly guarded Engineer aviation trucks. (Aviation ground forces had landed prematurely on Wakde even during our first fighting on D-Day.)

We field artillery men opened up on the incendiary Japs with our carbines, but could not save the trucks. Despite the long range for our short-barreled little carbines, Panek was sure that he killed an apparent Jap Marine of 91 Naval Garrison Unit. He was probably a Staff Sergeant - 6 feet tall and weighing about 190 pounds. Panek still has his picture. A Sioux Sergeant, formerly a 163 Infantry member, hastily organized his Air Force counter-attack and slew all 54 Jap raiders.

            Returning from conquered Wakde on 20 May, Panek was complimented by Battalion Commanding Officer Colonel Green for his good job. Green also said, "John, would you mind going out tomorrow with a forward observation group? I need someone of your caliber." Panek was to take his alligator and crew west across Tor River to cover 158 Infantry's attempt to capture Sarmi Strip. For the Jap 70s of 36 Division were giving 158 plenty of trouble. They would fire 25-30 rounds, then cease. Although our guns' counter-fire would seem to silence the Japs' guns, after 1-2 hours, they would open up again.

            Panek decided to scout up the beach in his alligator for closer observation of the Jap guns. Perhaps he would observe from out in Maffin Bay. And so we drove about a mile west across Tor River.

But our alligator became a prime target for the Jap 70s. A first round hit below us - and a second round in front. Round number 3 split the bracket; it exploded under our vehicle.

            Packs and supplies around us padded us from serious wounds but for a few trivial cuts in Panek's chest. We piled out of the alligator and took cover from shellfire among the arching aerial roots of tropical trees above us. As we withdrew under jungle protection, Panek glimpsed on his right a Jap bayonet attached to a rifle. And a Jap was also attached to that rifle. Panek seized the rifle from the Jap and killed him.

            About a mile back down the beach, safe from the shells, we discussed what to do. We were an observation post without communications. Radio, telephone wire were all back with the alligator - perhaps destroyed, along with our rations and water cans.

            Corporal Hale, our machine gun-gunner, said, "I know how to drive. I'll get it back." He planned to work up under jungle cover until abreast of the alligator, then make a dash for its controls, if any were operable.

            About an hour later, Hale chugged back in the alligator. Only damage was a 6-inch hole between the tracks. It was now useless on water and obviously a slow target on land. In the rest of the Maffin Bay Operation, we used a jeep to carry our field artillery observers as close as possible to our target.

            Panek and his observers spent about three weeks with 158 Infantry. Every 3-4 days, he rotated some men up from his own Battery C. He wanted to help their morale - to have them see the effect of their hard work and gunfire upon the Japs.

            Panek never forgot that especially fearsome night of about 26 May. When 158 men dug a night perimeter, our observation post had to be out in front of them to range in our 155s for protection against a Jap night attack. We notified the 158 outfit's commanding officer that we would be before their perimeter, and that we would phone him to alert the men in their holes when we were ready to pass through in the dark. We did not want 158's machine gun to fire a final protective line through our flesh and bone.

            Adjusting fire was difficult on this evening. Darkness fell before we had registered our 155s. We tried to phone that 158 commanding officer to ask him to pass through the lines, but we got no reply. Rather than risk trying to pass through those alert pickets with their hands on their grenades in their holes, we dug in on the beach. We spent that weary night between our venomous infantry and the Japs who might crawl in on us with knives in the dark.

            Ours was an interesting method of adjusting fire to protect our infantry perimeters. We began by shooting one gun into the sea. From observing the splashes, we could bring in fire parallel to our lines as close as it was safe. Of course we fired just one gun at this time to conserve our store of heavy 155 shells. Then we could turn the guns inland before our perimeter, and then fire a battery volley to be sure that all guns were adjusted right.

            Thus we fired on defense. Our offensive fire - especially in counter-battery fire - was much more difficult. For often the Japs sheltered their guns in caves and rolled them out to fire. When we ranged in on them, they wheeled their guns back into the safety of the caves. Finally after our observers located them, a Navy cruiser had to silence them by direct frontal fire from the sea. For final security, 158 Infantry flamed out the caves.

            After 218 Field Artillery withdrew west of Tor River, we forwarded one gun every day to range and destroy an important Jap footbridge across a river towards Sarmi. (Name of that river is not remembered.) After demolishing that bridge, the gun was retreated back across the Tor River into our Battalion's main emplacements.

            In these shoot-outs, Sergeant Rutherford and Corporal Hicks of C Battery were often gunners with that advanced gun. They needed only 2-3 rounds to smash that bridge. But every night, persistent Japs rebuilt that bridge. This action of blowing apart and rebuilding the bridge went on for 30 days!

For working our guns, T/4 Lloyd "Skip" Willis gained special recognition. He invented a new kind of gas pad to fit in the 155mm gun breach and keep the guns firing more accurately, and at longer ranges. When a gun fired, explosion of gases in the breach would impact the shell to fire harder and farther.

            These pads were made of fiber, but with sustained usage, the fibers dried out and let the gases escape harmlessly into the air behind the gun. Then ingenious T/4 Willis got tape from the Medics. He wrapped several layers securely around the used-up pad. He discovered that his "medical" pad worked better than a new pad. For this achievement, Willis was called all the way up to the Battle of Biak to demonstrate this effective new pad. (We believe that "Skip" Willis should have had a bronze star for his originality.)

             Such were high points of Captain Panek's war on Wakde Island and at Maffin Bay. At Zamboanga Battle in our Southern Philippine Campaign of 1945, Panek daily made two recon flights over the Jap lines to pinpoint targets for our 155s. Pilots were either Lieutenant Case or Lieutenant Janssen. On our third day at Zambo, about 1745 on 12 March, his pilot had to swoop at dangerously low heights to see into the jungle foliage. A Jap 20mm machine-cannon struck one of the plane's main struts, but Panek continued observing, and calling down fire.

            Seeing small fires on the ground and Japs milling around a large hut and many tents - surely a headquarters area - he saturated the area with all of the available 12 guns of 218 Field Artillery. After firing this mission, he attacked a gun position. Fifty Japs ran from it into a nearby rainforest grove. He dropped eight volleys into that grove; they surely caused numerous casualties.

             On Wakde and at Maffin Bay and Zamboanga, Panek was a front-line artilleryman. On deadly Wakde, he led a daring alligator crew of field artillery men and infantry to carry water for thirsty infantry. His ground or air observation at Maffin Bay or Zamboanga were risky - and accurate. Panek richly deserved his promotion to the rank of Major by the war's end.

 

CREDIT. Basic personal history comes from Major Panek's 9-page handwritten letter of 19 April 1982, backed by his two Award Stories - for his actions on Wakde and at Zamboanga, I used also Corporal Maurice Hale's Award Story for action at Maffin Village 1. Documentary sources include 24-page typescript history entitled "218 Field Artillery Battalion in World War II," and 36-page legal-size typescript "218 Field Artillery Battalion/ Annual Historical Report (1944)," and R. R. Smith's Approach to the Philippines. Other documentary sources include my own Division History published in Jungleer, "Toem, Wakde, and Maffin Bay" (Jungleer, Oct. 1981), "218 Field Artillery Battalion Unit Journal" (Zamboanga), and "Zamboanga Campaign Historical Report of 218 Field Artillery Battalion (10 March 1945 - 20 June 1945)."


 


 

 


 

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