218 Field Artillery: Toem, Wakde, and Maffin Bay

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

      On 15 May 1944, 218 Field Artillery Battalion left bivouac forever on red-dusty Pancake Hill near Hollandia Town to load for battle for Wakde Island and Maffin Bay. By dark, we had boarded three  LSTs for the Wakde action. After Wakde fell, we would help formations not in the 41st Division to fight Maffin Bay Japs, while 947 Field Artillery was on Biak in our place. For over six months, we fired for these outfits in succession: 158 Infantry, then elements of six, Division, 31 Division, and 33 Division. In that spooky Toem jungle, we had to guard our perimeters, and train guns to fight in all directions. Battery A even fought off Jap grenadiers blasting our gun-pits.

     At 0740 17 May after watching the Navy blast Wakde Island, our advance parties landed on the Toem Foreshore. Deep seas offshore forced us to build a sand bag ramp to land our guns; we could not leave our LSTs until 0940. Positioned three miles east of our landing, Battery B was ready to fire by 1020. Battery A registered 17 rounds on Wakde, from 1226 to 1258; by 1300, we had all guns aimed on Wakde. From 1449 to 2220, Battery A fired 274 rounds - and that night 94 more harassing rounds.

     On that same 17 May, Captain Lorraine Smith and his Battery A observers landed from a transport and marched with G 163 from Arare Village to Tementoe Creek, east boundary of the beachhead. Smith tried to set up his observation post near the coast, where G Company's perimeter endured Jap harassment. At 0815 18 May, mortar, machine gun, and rifle fire broke out. Corporal William J. Pulver tried to set up his radio under threat of Jap fire, was hit in the head to die later. Blanchard and Captain Smith on either side of him were not hit, however.

     While observing on the beach, Smith's men saw G Company attacked at 0830, and G's Pfc William G. Barnes killed. Smith's men tried to register Battery A again at 0900, but Jap fire made observation impossible on this morning.

     On 18 May, before 163 Infantry assaulted Wakde, our turn to fire came after naval and air bombardment, 0700 to 0825. At 0830, we blasted Wakde for 23 minutes, along with other outfits of 191 Field Artillery group. Battery A fired 123 rounds from 0848 to 0901. (Between 1157 and 1315, Battery A helped prepare for the later mainland offensive west from Tor River toward the Jap 36 Division Regiments holding Sarmi. After registering 21 rounds westward, we turned all guns but No.4 back east.)

     Our 218 Field Artillery's 155 mm howitzers failed to penetrate the Japs' deep coral emplacements on Wakde, but we got credit for one firing mission. When C 163 tried to cross Wakde Strip to the north shore, intense Jap machine gun fire cut off the advance squads from C's main body. With 167 Field Artillery's help, 218 Field Artillery temporarily silenced the Jap machine guns and got all of "C" across on their second try.

     As mentioned already, even as early as Wakde assault day, 218 Field Artillery began firing from near Toem across the wide Tor River. Across the Tor - and moving to attack us from the jungle south of Toem also - were about 11,000 Japs of 223 and 224 Infantry, with some Jap Marines and eight 75mm cannon. We had to fire on Jap closing in from the dark southern jungle. We also had to fire west across Tor River to help regiments that would push against the Japs holding Maffin Bay and Sawar and Sarmi Strips.

     On 19 May, 2nd Lieutenant Mead and T/4 Marshall with Tracy and Walker (ranks unspecified) became Battery A's observer party for 3rd Battalion 163 Infantry on board Tor River west of Toem. Jap pressure was strong. On that 19 May, Battery A fought the Japs with 232 rounds, almost our top score of heavy 155 shells fired in one day in the whole operation. 

     About 1800 that 19 May, Battalion Headquarters reported 500 Japs between us and 163's perimeters, but we never saw them. That swampy jungle close to the narrow beach was a spooky place of many dark rumors. B Company 641 TD sent 20 men to us that night for more security. One man nervously fired at our aiming stakes lights.

     On 20-21 May, Battery A fired just 86 shells. On 22 May, Lieutenant General Walter Krueger gave our Hurricane Task Force orders that kept 218 Field Artillery detached from our 41st Division for some seven months. Krueger feared that Wakde Strip was still unsafe until he saw what the Japs' main army could do. While 163 Infantry still secured Toem Foreshore, he ordered newly come 158 Infantry to smash Jap concentrations westward and put them on defensive. Then followed bitter fighting long afterwards, that kept 218 Field Artillery in action months after 163 left to fight on Biak.

     Moved to a new position west of Arare, we had to fire westward along three miles of beach and jungle. We had to help 158 Infantry and later the 6 Division across Tor and Tirfoam Rivers, and to capture Lone Tree Hill, a maze of jungle, cliffs, and caves.

     On 23 May, Battery A registered and fired 61 rounds, and on 24 May, 141 rounds. On 24 May also, 218 Field Artillery with 147 Field Artillery Battalion (of 158 Infantry's combat team) with M 158's mortars fired to help K and L 158's advance west of the Tor. Later that day also, 167 Field Artillery marked with smoke the position of a Jap mountain gun that still held out after pinning down an L 158 advance the day before. We then threw in heavier shells into the smoke over that gun. A few days later, scouts found that there had been two guns instead of one. Both were still operational, but silent, with 23 dead Japs around them.

     On 25 May, Battery A fired 220 shells to help 158 Infantry cross Tirfoam River 1.5 miles west of the Tor, and secure Maffin No.1 Village on the coast. Then 158 with our observers went forward to strike the eastern slope of Lone Tree Hilll, a coast position tenaciously defended. Of 22 rounds, "A" fired 62, 0817 to 0843. At 1410-1543, we fired 125 shells around a truck and evidently nearby Japs and a supply dump.

     On that 25 May, we used an observation party in a buffalo to call fire on Japs near Maffin No. 1. A Jap shell holed the buffalo and drove the party to cover. Radio and other equipment were endangered. Corporal Hale, the machine-gunner, rushed back to start the engine and withdraw the buffalo.

     For our gunners, Piper Cub observers were invaluable. Flying in danger at 500-800 feet, they saw gun emplacements and bivouac areas hidden from ground observers. They called fire on a strategic Jap bridge over Woske River, maybe two miles past Lone Tree Hill. With 33 rounds from 1533 to 1610, Battery A got two direct hits and destroyed the bridge. Piper Cubs helped 218 Field Artillery to impact several anti-aircraft guns and bivouac areas.

     While battling for 158 Infantry, we knew nothing of Jap plans to overrun our beach-head by attacks from the southern jungle. Matsuyama Force and Yoshino Force - each about two battalions strong - planned to hit Toem Foreshore together. Luckily, blind jungle kept them from coordinating. They struck three days apart.

     On the night of 27-28 May, Colonel Matsuyama's men broke through 163's lines to the beach, yet were repelled. But Colonel Yoshino did better the night of 31 May-1 June.

     Despite small raids close by during 26-31 May, 218 Field Artillery was firing as ordered. Battery A shot 62 rounds 26 May, 47 on 27 May. While "A" loosed 155 shells on 29 May, Captain Platts flew five miles inland over Jap mountains in his unarmed Piper Cub. After marking a known target with smoke, he still flew low returning. Drawing fire from a hidden Ack Ack position, Platts hovered above it and called down fire that destroyed the gun.

     On 30 May, Battery A's Sigler spotted two Japs just 30 yards from No.4 gun. But over 600 rounds of .30 heavy machine gun bullets missed them. Our instant patrol found no Japs in the brush. "A" fired 225 shells that 30 May.

     On the night of 31 May-1 June, Yoshino Force hit four Ack- Ack gun positions unwisely isolated along the beach east of Arare Village. After damaging two 40 mm guns, they were repelled. Luckily, our Batteries B and C had that day moved 4,000 yards east of their old positions; but Battery A had a wild night fight. The two escaped Japs of 30 May had surely pinpointed our guns.

     At 2005, two hours before the quarter-moon rose, eight Japs tried to blow up Battery A's guns. Sergeant Smith first saw the Jap rush and fired. But three grenadiers leaped between Guns No.3 and 4 and lobbed five grenades into nine men trying to rest in No. 3's gun pit. Three of the five grenades exploded.

     Just before the grenades hit, Uzarewicz heard a yell, "Don't let the bastards get away!" Luckily, Uzarewicz turned on his face so fast that he left his hand still behind his back against his belt. His wounded hand may have saved him from paralysis with a fragment in his spine. Uzarewicz, Wertanen, and Corporal Fontana took serious wounds in their buttocks and the small of their backs. Hospitalized also were Golley and Staff Sergeant·Joe Smith - location of wounds not mentioned. Sometime in the attack, Corporal Klocko and T/5 Halm were gunshot in their left shoulders.

     At No.4 gun, three Japs died trying to grenade us. Rittenhouse and Preston each slew one with his light machine gun. Vandehey scathed the third Jap with a .50 heavy machine gun. One Jap was an officer with a sketch of our positions and written orders to kill our guns.

     At 0530, four Japs tried again to blow up Battery A's guns. One crossed the road opposite us and charged Gun No.3 with a mine bound to two charges of TNT. Johnston and Killion both shot him. He fell on his explosives; they blew his shattered body 10 feet high. (Johnston and Killion both fought in pain from grenade slashes in the earlier attack.)

     Two other Japs rushed behind Gun No.3 but were slain. One dying Jap fell into our hole, but Fox threw the Jap's mine safely from the hole away from himself. We found an unexploded mine 10 yards before No.3 gun. Apparently two Japs had lurked in the brush but could not get near enough to the gun to hurl their mine.

     About 0730, another Jap hovered near the brush, but our machine guns missed him. At the east end of Battery A's perimeter, Estepp and Williams killed two more Japs across the road. That night of 31 May-1 June, Battery A killed eight Japs. We lost no men killed but had six wounded and evacuated.

     After 1 June, we had no more attacks. While 163 left Toem to reinforce Biak, 218 Field Artillery (with 167 Field Artillery and B 641 TD) remained behind for 158's offensive across the Tor. On the night of 3 June, a few Japs broke through infantry positions, but 218 Field Artillery's fire helped stop them. On 4-5 June, Battery A shot 351 rounds.

     On 6-7 June, 158's 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion re-crossed Tor River. (They had withdrawn east to guard Toem after 163 left, until 6 Division relieved them.) On 6-7-8 June, Battery A fired 671 rounds to guard 158's Tor Bridgehead and help 158 to the east bank of Tirfoam River, about two miles. On 10 June, a Jap 75 on the beach between Snaky River and Lone Tree Hill harassed 1st Battalion 158 for a while. A 155 howitzer of ours got a direct hit and killed that gun

     On that same 10 June, 218 Field Artillery observers saved the lives of perhaps two 158 men. Ripani went forward under intense machine gun and rifle fire to evacuate a wounded man. Phone operator Walt Miller also advanced in direct line with heavy Jap fire to save a wounded infantryman.

     We then helped newly arrived 6 Division to conquer Lone Tree Hill in a 10-day fight, through 30 June. On 3 July, 155s prepared for that 6 Division to seize Hill 225 and Maffin Strip. The main Maffin Bay fight was now ended. By 9 July, 6 Division needed to advance no more against the decimated Jap Regiments. Wakde Strip and Maffin Bay staging area were secured,                

     But even after 6 Division left for other operations by 26 August, 218 Field Artillery stayed near Toem as security for 31 Division and then 33 Division's 123 Infantry. These rooky outfits held the area, and got their first combat training from the surviving Japs, who fought well when prodded.

     On 18 July-31 August, 218 hardly fired at all - just 207 shells. "B" fired none! We had fatigue details, training, and sports. Some men got furloughs. We averaged rotation home of 15 men monthly, had three sets of replacements. Beginning 11 August, we supplied 200 men for ship details. By 1 September, 218's fire tripled to 687 rounds by 14 December.

     Beginning 18 September, each battery took a fortnight turn in an advanced position across Tor River on Maffin Bay. Here we ranged the Sawar area to quell Jap activity. On 29 September, Battery A performed 218's final notable action of the operation. With 21 rounds, Gun No.2 destroyed a Jap cannon.

     Now 218 Field Artillery's time was up at Toem-Maffin Bay. On 14 December, orders came to turn in our 155s to Ordnance for replacement. After firing 12, 119 rounds since 16 May, they needed repairs. When we arrived "home" to the 41st on Biak, after leaving Toem on 14 December, General Doe had new M-1 guns waiting for us.

     And 218 Field Artillery had completed an important combat mission. From Wakde Strip, our bombers had smashed Japs in New Guinea and the Central Pacific. We had helped shatter forever two Jap regimental combat teams. We had supported elements of three divisions in their first battle experience. Toem and Maffin Bay were now an important staging area for non-combat transports to load troops into amphib craft or transports for new beach-heads. With few casualties; 218 Field Artillery had fought well.

CREDIT: Most important sources are untitled 24-page typescript history of Battery A 218 Field Artillery in World War II, and 36-page legal-size typescript, 218 Field Artillery Battalion/Annual Historical Report, with RR Smith's Approach to the Philippines. Other sources include "Sarmi Campaign Unit Journal/September 1-14 December '44," handwritten diary of Service Battery 218 Field Artillery untitled, Colonel Grant Green's letter 8 July 1944, and Allied Geographical Section's Terrain Handbook 26, on Sarmi. I would have never writ-ten this story but for T/4 Lloyd Willis who sent me his Battery A history.