C Battery, 218 Field Artillery: Cannoneers up Bitoi River

By Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian with Charles Ricks, Louis Reuter and Al Jones


            
At 0130 that dark morning of 5 July 1943, the first detachment of C. Battery 218 Field Artillery beached at Nassau Bay and dug in for a few hours' sleep under protection of 162 Infantry and B 218 Field Artillery. Our "pack" howitzers were 75's. Although C 218 had missed Colonel MacKechnie's "Shipwreck Landing" of 29-30 June, we faced danger immediately. That very dawn at 0715, Sergeants AI Jones and Vernon Bates were wounded by a booby trap grenade that our engineers had not removed. Both men were hospitalized, Bates was the more seriously wounded. And by 1600 next day, 6 July, Colonel Cochran ordered C to prepare to strike inland. We were to move up the Bitoi River among jungle swamps and floodlands and on into the wilds of Bitoi Ridge.

Overall mission of 162 Combat Team from Nassau Bay was to help Aussie 17 Brigade to pinch off the Jap salient of the Komiatum Track and capture Mubo Air Field. Fighting from almost impassable inland mountains, the Aussies could not capture Komiatum Track Salient alone and overrun Mubo Air Field at the extreme south end of the Track.

And C 218 Field Artillery's first objective was to slog and slosh with our 75's far enough inland to cover 162 and Aussie 17 Brigade against Komiatum Track. After that, we were to climb 2,800 foot Bitoi Ridge and harry the Japs northward until we drove them from Salamaua Town itself.

Already C was moving north from 162's Nassau Beach through sago swamps, and in fear of ambush from Japs fleeing from 162. That second night ashore, we had to sleep in holes - in six inches of water. Reuter never forgot that rain in the holes. He was grateful for the flotation bladders that pillowed his head above the water and kept him from drowning.

And on 7 July, the third day after C Battery had landed, Captain Burelbach was responsible for the massive job of heaving four 75's and ammo five hellish miles inland to Napier Village. Besides the four officers and 80 men of C, he had with him as helpers 35 men of Service Battery to penetrate the swamps of the south arm of the Bitoi and possible ambushes.

At first, C moved the howitzers on wheels over a half mile of jeep track, then inland by tractors, and then through the first mud and water. Working along the Bitoi River, we came to what we called "Dry Creek," although we called it "dry" only because the water was lower in this creek than in any other creek along the trail. Now the Caterpillar tractors failed us. We had to use ropes fore and aft to help the howitzers onward.

The Bitoi River was swift and swollen from mountain rains, but we had to cross it. While some men pulled ahead chest-deep, others held the howitzer with ropes to keep them from being thrown back downstream. And we had bamboo poles lashed together in the river to keep us from being pushed down into drowning holes under the current. Tall Reece began carrying replacement Hargan on his back through high water, for Hargan was only five feet tall.

Soon we had to disassemble the 75's and carry them, part by part. They were designed to break down to eight parts: barrel, recoil mechanism, two parts of the tail, the axle and two wheels. Largest part weighed 200 pounds. Some parts we carried on poles - four men to a team for relieving one another.

Records say that C Battery with Service's help crossed and recrossed Bitoi River anywhere from two to six times. There were good reasons for these different numbers. In our own mist of fatigue and incipient fever, it was hard to remember how many times the howitzers did cross. And in the swamps and wide curves of the south arm, it was hard to remember which was a crossing of the real river and which was a creek crossing. A way from the river, we climbed slippery rises that foreboded even rougher ascents in the days when we would have to push four guns up a real New Guinea mountain. We carried with us 400 rounds of ammo - another heavy job, for each projectile by itself weighed 14.9 pounds. (Yet in field operations, we could fire 400 rounds accurately in less than 30 minutes.)

That night of 7 July, C dug two separate perimeters on the Bitoi trail. Each perimeter protected two howitzers. We looked back with pride on a great day's march - we men of C Company and Service Batteries. Both Colonels Cochran of 218 and MacKechnie of 162 praised us for a marvelous job.

On 8 July, 50 AT 162 men came back from forward infantry positions to help us progress. And by 1600, Major Hintz reported that two C 75's were emplaced at a point on a stream a mile down the Bitoi River from Captain Burelbach's command post near Napier on the north side of the Bitoi.

And meanwhile, 218 Field Artillery's Headquarters Battery men were setting up an advance observation post to spot Jap targets for us among those blue jungle mountains and valleys. Here the Japs were dug in to protect the Komiatum Track which had been their main invasion salient from Salamaua.

Although the Aussie 2nd 6 Battalion guarded Brown's observation post on the main Lababia Ridge, our Jap targets began only 6,000 yards north on a round, forested peak of that same Lababia Ridge. Aussies called the peak "The Pimple" because if resembled a pimple among taller mountains, but it was all of 1,500 feet high. On it were at least 25 pillboxes and 50 weapons pits. The Japs on "The Pimple" had broken three Aussie attacks and cut off an attacking company for three days. "The Pimple" had been staging point for the Japs' all-out attack on Lababia Ridge on 20-23 June.

And north of "The Pimple" was the 1,000-foot Green Hill, thus named because among all the greenery of Vickers Ridge it appeared greenest. The precipices of Green Hill guarded the Japs from Yank pushes up the twisting, mountain - protected Bitoi River. "The Pimple" and Green Hill were C Battery's first targets; they had baffled Aussie attacks from inland for over two months.

And so, on 8 July 1943, Captain Brown reported to C Battery that Major Holmes of the Aussie 17 Brigade had given permission for registration fire on "The Pimple". For 218 Field Artillery, it was a great moment of the war - preparing to fire our first round in battle against the enemy. All of us signed our names on the shell. Sergeant Rethlefen's section had the honor of firing 218 Field Artillery's first round at the Pimple." Shortly after 1700, 8 July, C Company fired the first registration shot.

And at 1010, 9 July, registration fire was continuing on "The Pimple" and Green Hill, despite poor visibility. We registered again at 1200. Two hours later, we had orders from Aussie Major Holmes to fire what was a large number of shells from our limited supply. At 1500, C shot Concentration No. 500 on Green Hill - 32 shells in nine minutes. Captain Brown reported, "Excellent effect.”

And that night from 2130 through 0430 on 10 July, C Company harassed Points A, B, and C around Green Hill with 28 rounds. Brown observed Japs evacuating these positions.

            On 8 July, C Company had begun fire with only 400 rounds on hand, and demands on our ammo were heavy. On 10 July, 56 men had to portage 112 rounds in from the coast on those harsh, man-killing trails up the Bitoi. By 2000 that 10 July, we had expended 48 rounds on Concentration 502, which was "The Pimple." (that same day, we alerted for an air raid nine Jap bomber" and five Zeroes, 20,000 feet up. But they bombed near the coast and vanished.)

On 11 July came C's "big shoot-out." At 1115, Lieutenant Walwyn (B Battery) requested fire for Captain George's A Company. A had by now crossed Bitoi Ridge and was bucking Komiatum Track. We fired 37 rounds-but not the "big shoot-out."

But the orders for the "shoot-out" came at 1504 that memorable 11 July, 1943. Aussie Major Holmes requested field artillery fire at Bui Lahu Creek on the Komiatum Track - urgent! Target was an estimated whole company of Japs resting in full field equipment.

Viciously, we manned those guns. With delay fuze, we ranged in all four guns. Gunners like Ricks, Ryan and Burke sighted on the firing stakes then opened up. As four howitzers recoiled, four Number One men caught four empty shells and clanked them on the refuse pile. Four more shells leaped into four howitzers instantly. Four gunners checked firing stakes and found the range still right; Four Number One men pulled lanyards.

We had four rounds per gun - 16 rounds in the air in 36 seconds-fired a total of nine rounds per howitzer! After the concentration reports came back - Japs in trees, or pieces of Japs. Walwyn reported 50 dead Japs and many more wounded. We fired, finally, 50 rounds. C never forgot that "big shoot- out."

On 12 July, after we fired Concentration 502 the last time, unopposed Aussies took "The Pimple." One 13 July at dawn, we fired four concentrations into Woody Island; the Aussies seized it. At 0900, we hammered 100 rounds between Bui Lang and Bui Talal Creek for A Company. A then advanced up Buigap Creek - Komiatum Track itself - past abandoned holes and hundreds of dead Japs and fresh graves. At 1100, Colonel Taylor requested 60 rounds for Newman's C against dug-in Japs. The first few rounds panicked them. C's mission in clearing Komiatum Track was finished.

C Company headed on deep into the diabolical jungle mountains, two howitzers at a time. A platoon of 116 Engineers helped us carry the disassembled 75's. We went up Lababia Ridge - the first half a climb straight up-to captured Green Hill, and then down to Buigap Creek near Kitchen Creek.

And from about 18 July to about 19 August C Company fired mainly for Colonel Tylor's 1st Battalion against the unstormable Mount Tambu. On 30 July, when A and C Companyies of 162 made the attack, we helped other Yank and Aussie guns fire preparation. From 30 minutes before the assault until five minutes after it began, we blasted the southwest slope of Tambu with 208 rounds apiece. Like the Aussies' attacks on "The Pimple," this assault was a costly error, but through no fault of C 218.

On 4 August we had our only battle casualties, but not from Japs. The Aussies had not yet learned that field artillery was more reliable than mortars. One defective Aussie mortar shell impacted a combined observation party of C and Service Battery.

Although the party was behind a log, C with Service had five dead and one wounded. Dead were C's 2nd Lieutenant Frederick Osterholtz, Corporals Erby Newsom and Copp. C's Howard Lindenau lingered to die in hospital 15 September.  Service's Corporal Alfred Solis died also. Wounded was C's George Miller.

During this month of heavy fire, the work of C's artificer, Sergeant Totten, was outstanding. Since all our ammo was now air dropped, many shell casings were badly dented and not fireable. Often projectiles jammed in the case, with danger to gunners.

Totten headed the detail which repaired these shells- and Corporal Demonnis with Reuter and two natives. Under Totten's instructions, they extracted primers and projectiles and refitted them into cases already empty from firing. (After a shell fired, concussion actually improved the case for future use.)

Once a brass crosshead was broken, the crosshead that activated the firing pin on the gun. This break should have made the gun unworkable, but Totten fabricated a new brass cross- head and the gun worked perfectly again.

After Mount Tambu fell to 162, C rejoined A and B Batteries on Tambu Bay and began blasting Japs all the way into Salamaua. We registered on Salamaua at 1445 on 22 August, and at 2100 we heard a great explosion, as if we had blown up a large Jap ammo dump.

            Final report of C 218 Field Artillery at Salamaua concerns our Captain Burelbach. Attached as firing officer to the Aussie 15 Brigade, he became a savior for Captain Provan's Dawn Company, attacking up D Ridge. Trapped high up the Ridge, Dawn Company was low in ammunition and in a precarious position before Nips protecting their Scout Track escape route. Twice the morning of 1 September, Burelbach called down 218 and 205 Field Artillery to smash Jap charges.

At 1800, wounded Captain Provan himself stopped at 218's "Smith Battery" for personal thanks for our 75's. And later in the day Aussie wounded came by to repeat Dawn Company's gratitude for being saved from annihilation. And on 2 September, Burelbach was a hero again in protecting Dawn Company from another attack of these fresh, aggressive Jap marines. (They were members of Commander Takeuchi's 5th Sasebo Special Landing Force and had orders to wipe out the Aussies in one week.) Next day, Burelbach reported that he had got direct hits on three Jap pillboxes and had totally destroyed several light machine guns. And this is the final tale of C Battery, 218 Field Artillery, which helped capture Salamaua and saved many Yank and Aussie lives in doing so.

 

CREDIT: Indispensable were notes from interview with Charles Ricks, Allen Jones and Louis Reuter at 1972 Chicago convention. Important also was Australian David Dexter's The New Guinea Offensives, with maps and mountain descriptions. Other data came from "Report of 218 Field Artillery, 27 June '43 to 30 October '43," and "Journal June 26 10 Oct 4, 1943." I also used Colonel A.R. MacKechnie's "Operations of I62d Infantry in Salamaua Campaign, " and "Notes on Operation Morobe, Nassau Bay Area." (I mentioned 218 Field Artillery in my article on Mount Tarnbu (Jungleer, May 1959), where I erroneously said that 218 had 105 's instead of 75 's.)