205 Field Artillery Battalion (and K Company 162 Infantry): Forward Observer Schroeder on Roosevelt Ridge

By Lieutenant Don Schroeder with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

            On 23 July 1943, 205 Field Artillery's forward observer Don Schroeder first fought the Japs. Still a rookie from overseas officer candidate school, Don volunteered to help K Company 162 Infantry. In their first major assault on Roosevelt Ridge, on 21 July, they were repelled by Major Kimura's 66 Regiment's 3rd Battalion. "K" was almost pinned down in black jungle on the south slope of the Ridge. But even finding K's front lines nearly killed Don. He was sent alone to follow wire into the jungle up the Ridge.

            Past 3rd Battalion Headquarters’ outguards near Boisi, he felt suddenly alone in heavy jungle with his borrowed carbine. He could see just 20 feet at best. He could hear no firing, not even birds, only his own heartbeat. But he wrongly believed that he was safe in US territory. Actually, he might bang into Jap killer patrols anywhere north of Boisi.

            Now Don faced the Ridge itself. Rapidly it steepened, and the jungle grew thicker than before. Soon he had to climb by grasping roots and vines. About three-fourths of the way up, he passed some K Company men who would have been lying down - if the ground had been level. Passing more "K" men, he expected to find the Forward Observer he was to relieve - or at least someone to brief him.

            As he climbed, he heard shots, but no bullets hissing above or impacting nearby. Suddenly the jungle thinned out, and Don was on the rounded top of Roosevelt Ridge and looking down the reverse side into Dot Inlet. He saw barges on the beach, and Japs moving far down there.

            But why were no "K" men around him firing on the Japs? An Army bugle sounded. Instantly a Jap heavy machine gun a "Woodpecker" - thudded bullets at him from the left. Don himself was the whole front line. Instantly, he threw his body backwards over the Ridge - fell 12 feet and landed on his back. But he was unhurt. The gunner surely believed that he had killed Don, and ceased fire. Shocked Don realized why "K" could not storm Roosevelt Ridge. From the left or west, hidden Jap machine guns enfiladed the bare crest to topple dead anyone who stood on it.

            Still shaking, Don found Captain Gehring and the other observer whom he had missed seeing just 20 feet below the crest. After briefing from this departing Forward Observer and Gehring, Don spoke to his new Communications man, Corporal Simpson, who would handle his phone wire to 205 Field Artillery on the beach.

            Gehring feared that the Japs would seize the unoccupied ridge-line above us, and fire down on "K." Don had Gehring drop "K" down the slope to be safer from our own shell-fire.

            Then Don registered 105mm cannon of B Battery 205 Field Artillery on the seemingly lower crest of the Ridge to the west. Then he tried to move the registration of his shells east along the ridge-line. It sounded simple, but it wasn't. The summit was narrow; he could not be sure just how far over some shells went. Shorts falling on our side could be disastrous.

            After careful and accurate adjusting, Don impacted the top of the Ridge before K Company. "K" then started to move up, but heavy rifle and automatic fire and a few mortar shells blasted "K." We had some casualties, and at that late time of day, Gehring got permission to withdraw.

            K Company bivouacked that night back in 3rd Battalion's perimeter. This was contrary to Australian advice not to give up the ground which "K" had gained that day.

            On his second day of combat, 24 July, Don started out with K Company just before noon. To be sure not to get lost again, he followed close with Corporal Simpson behind Gehring. Don wanted to be quickly at hand for Gehring when he would be needed.

            We moved farther east, then turned up towards the Ridge. The climb seemed steeper than the day before. Simpson was laying wire, but needed help. It took plenty of dogged sweaty labor to roll up that wire coil and carry other gear.

            On the Ridge top, "K" men were already partly dug in under light fire from front and that vicious left flank. Don could not see Dot Inlet on the other side, for this time he dared not raise his head high enough to be shot at. He did see some Japs on a high knoll or pimple to the east.

            Desperately, Don tried to identify some of his registration points of yesterday. Although not over 200 yards from yesterday's location, he failed to identify any point.

            Jap fire increased; "K" took some light casualties. Don had to call for a round of white phosphorous to orient himself. Since he feared to burn "K" men, he ranged it too far away. He heard the shell whistle overhead, but he could not hear it thud in the jungle, as he could have heard the impact of high explosive shells. For safety, he had to keep his head down but observe at the same time. He decreased the range, prayed, and fired a second white phosphorous shell. This time, he saw the smoke plume after a few seconds, and had an aiming point.

            Don changed fire to high explosive, with a delayed fuze. He hit the knoll where the Japs were digging in. He exploded some rounds just north of the crest, and also on it.

            Frontal fire ceased, and far to his east or right. But fire persisted from his west or left. Even with several carefully adjusted barrages, he could not pinpoint the source of that fire.

            A Jap bugle blew, and a few mortar shells struck among us. Gehring pulled back K Company, while Don covered it by a withdrawal barrage. K Company retreated again with their wounded, and Don spent the night with "K" a little north of Boisi. (By this time, General Coane had orders from his Aussie commanding officer not to leave the ground which we had won to huddle into a compact 3rd Battalion 162 perimeter on the beach.)

            On his third day of battle, 25 July 1943, Don fought Roosevelt Ridge with a new team. Battered "K" rested and hoped for replacements. Simpson rested also. Instead, Don climbed with giant Australian Sergeant Fred Makin of Papuan Infantry Battalion and three Papuan native soldiers. (Australian historian Dexter says that Makin was a 34-year old laborer from Canberra who was born in West Midland England.)

            Main mission of Don against Roosevelt Ridge now was to keep the Japs uncertain and insecure against a storming party. Don tried to top the Ridge again and knock out those automatic weapons that had expelled "K" from the Ridge. He also searched for Jap mountain guns that had harassed 3rd Battalion at other times.

            In a hot, humid climb, we reached a spur maybe 20-25 feet below the Ridge crest. After 30 minutes, a five-man Jap patrol passed east of us on that crest. They halted and started digging in before our eyes. A Papuan spotted to the west what looked like an observation post. Through glasses, Don saw much movement there, surprised that it might be a Jap field artillery emplacement.

            Don had a real problem to adjust 105mm fire on these targets. We were without wire, which enemy patrols could find and track to kill us. We had only Papuan runners to contact our batteries far below the Ridge. Don's old map was inaccurate. Rain-forest and rugged terrain made it hard to get a clear view. Jap patrols could be on any Ridge shoulder.

            But with such tempting targets waiting for the cannon before him, Don wanted to fire "so bad that I could almost taste it." He decided to fire by the field artillery observer's "2 BGs method" - "by guess and by God." His message form requested several rounds of high explosive, with a 50-yard decrease in range towards us.

            Don gave the message to a Papuan, and started timing his delivery to the waiting gunners in the flats. Uncaught by any Jap patrol, the Papuan did a marvelous job of fast slinking down through the mountain jungle to the gunners waiting below.

            In just 35 minutes, the first shell arced over. It crossed the Ridge to where we could not see or hear where it landed. A few seconds later, the next two rounds geysered the ridge summit, but were short of the suspected emplacement.

            Suddenly the whole Roosevelt Ridge popped out with Japs. Like ants, they leaped up where the rounds had impacted, and up before us, and eastwards. They were shouting; they seemed to Don to expect another attack from Tambu Bay.

            Don wrote a second message for a Papuan runner. Besides necessary corrections to shell that emplacement, Don asked for just two rounds each on two other targets, with another 50-yard decrease in range. First, the gunners were to fire for effect on the suspected gun emplacement, then space out fire on the other two targets.

            These were tricky adjustments, for once Don had sent the message by runner, he had no way to stop the fire, even if he brought down shells on our own observer party.

            It took 48 minutes for Don's second runner's message to get results. The volleys for effect looked fine. Shells impacted all around the emplacement areas. Some shells seemed like direct hits.

            One round for the other targets dived too close to us. Fragments flew close overhead. Another round to the farthest east struck a tree on our south slope and blew debris everywhere.

            Don now feared that the Japs knew that we were observing close to them, and that they were searching to kill us.

            Our second Papuan runner returned with a worried message from Captain Ghering, signed at 1305 Hours. Gehring strongly urged Don to come back in that night. Worse still, the runner himself said that Japs in force were behind us down the slope.

            We moved west beside the Ridge until we found another spur with a small indentation concealed among some brush. We dug in.

            Don sent our first runner down again with a new fire order. Agonizing over our unreliable map, he wrote: "One-fifty left. Repeat range. Repeat Btn three rounds. Am digging in." Don signed off, "LOVE AND KISSES." He never knew why he closed thus. As the runner took off, we tried to deepen our indentation in the scrub, even with our hands. Japs were all around us.

            After 50 minutes, new shells flew over - shells to our right and left, overs and shorts. Fragments sheared the scrub too close; concussions shook the earth and almost deafened us. The Papuans especially seemed to be dazed. Then Battery B seemed to increase the range; they fired another five rounds or more even across the Ridge.

            It seemed the right moment to escape! We hoped that the shell blasts had cleared off some of the Japs in our rear. Breathlessly we stumbled behind our Papuans to the Ridge base and scouted along the trail to 3rd Battalion's perimeter. It looked to Don as if we had made it safely.

            Suddenly a Papuan waved us off the trail. Makin dropped back and said that a Papuan had smelled Japs. Dark was falling. We crouched and observed for several minutes. It was silent and hard to see in the jungle shadows, about 1700 Hours.

            Don watched a shadow slip across the trail, from one tree to another. Yet because we were so close to 3rd Battalion's perimeter, Don was sure that the shadow was a Yank. He called out to the shadowy figure.

            Jap bullets flew at us. Although behind a tree, Don heard other bullets impact trees behind him. He knew that he would soon be hit.

            He dived left and came up behind a prone little log about two feet above ground. He was safe from concealed fire from the rear, but a slug from in front hit the log above his head.

            Desperately in the dim light, Don tried to see the Jap who had fired. Too late, Don saw him; the Jap shot smashed into his chest. Not yet in pain because shock had numbed him, Don was full of adrenalin. His carbine killed the Jap. Makin's tommy and the Papuan's Enfields drove off the Japs, with four dead and one wounded whom they carried off.

            Makin tapped the wire to 3rd Battalion; a patrol came with a stretcher. At 15 Portable Hospital, Don said that he was hit in his lung. Yet the X-ray showed no lung damage. When he took a deep breath, Don and the doctor heard blood rush in and out of the wound into the cavity between ribs and lung. The bullet had pierced Don's back at a flat angle, rebounded from his ribs, and bounced out again. Luckily, the bullet was a Jap .25 instead of a Yank .30, which would have killed him.

            Don had 52 days’ hospital. Almost hooked on morphine, he had to stop the shots. He contracted a fever like malaria until the remaining blood was siphoned from his chest cavity. Then came recovery.

            Back at Tambu Bay, Don was shocked to discover that Roosevelt Ridge was blasted and burned bare of its lordly rainforest - even its gigantic jungle trees. This mountain was just a chunk of pockmarked red earth. Don rejoined 205 Field Artillery Battalion still as a Forward Observer until transferred to 6 Division, but observing on the Ridge was his most vivid memory of the war. Makin and he both lived to perpetuate their comradeship.

 

CREDIT. Basis for this gallant history is a 13-page letter-size single-spaced typescript which Don Schroeder wrote before his return from overseas. Important supplementary documentation comes from 162 Infantry’s 1943 Journal – and from Australian David Dexter’s excellent The New Guinea Offensives. I have also a photoprint of Captain Frederick Gehring of K Company urging him to come down from Roosevelt Ridge on 24 July – and also Schroeder’s medal award. This story corrects or amplifies two of 205 Field Artillery’s earlier histories: “Cannoneers of Salamaua,” and “Cannoneers of Salamaua II,” in Jungleer Magazine on March 1965 and on October 1972.