167 Field Artillery on Palawan: Concentration 476 to Rescue E Company 186 Men

by 167 Field Artillery's Bill Morse with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian


On Filipino Palawan Island, C Battery 167 Field Artillery fired one of the most effectively coordinated missions of any Field Artillery Battery in World War II. This was Concentration 476 to rescue 1st Lieutenant Robert Reeves' 2nd Platoon, 186 Infantry, on 2 March 1945.

Three days after 186's unopposed landing, Reeves' E 186 Platoon hunted Japs in the tall hills west of Puerto Princesa Bay. With them were C Battery 167 Field Artillery's observation party: Staff Sergeant Richard Tyrell, T/4 Edwin Benckart, and Pfc Charles Petley.

As we rounded Hill 1125, we killed a Jap and heard chopping dying away. As we took a break on a knoll before turning back to the coast, we realized that we were under observation from a higher knoll across a ravine. When 2nd Platoon filed down the forward side of the hill, rifles and machine guns shot from a bunkered position on the second knoll. Lieutenant Reeves and a scout were wounded, another scout slain. Like these casualties, other "E" men were pinned down behind or under some logs.

The "E" Platoon called for field artillery help to rescue the men, but we lacked a map of the area. From his Piper Cub, 167 Field Artillery's Lieutenant Colonel Dwight Beach flew to adjust our 105 mm shells on the target. For Tyrell had used the mirror on his field artillery compass to call Beach for assistance.

After a few rounds by Beach, Tyrell was able to locate the bursts and take over the rescue mission. To avoid hitting our own infantry, Tyrell did not use the faster method of firing "shorts" and "overs" and then splitting the difference. Our 41st Division procedure was called "creeping fire." It meant firing rounds over, then shortening range by small steps until we were on target. Even this slowly, Tyrell rapidly brought our 105s just over the heads of the patrol, and within 100 feet of the wounded. This fire was unavoidably close to the wounded, and done only in the most threatening situations.

Back at the gun positions, we fired faster and faster. For we got our fire commands quicker than Battalion Fire Direction Center could give them. By the time "Fire Direction" told us, we at the guns knew them already. We had listened to the radio messages between Tyrell and Direction Center. We could foretell all orders - like a new one to change to fire half smoke-shells.

Morse helped gunners' morale by keeping them informed on the situation up front. He told Battery C what the target was - that it was a rescue mission and that their own Staff Sergeant Tyrell was Forward Observer.

As soon as heavy fire began, we foresaw that we would have ammo supply problems. Our ammo Sergeant asked Morse for help to carry ammo from Battery dump to the guns. Ammo supply lay 150-300 feet to left rear of our howitzers, and still stacked on the ground or on trailers. Ammo Sergeant had only a small ammo section group and a 3/4-ton truck. But 1st Sergeant Mel Davis ran up to say, "I just closed the kitchen, and sent all but one man to help carry ammo."

All drivers, mechanics, machine gunners, and communications men were now uncrating and carrying ammo to help out the 3/4-ton truck which took too long to load.

Executive Officer 1st Lieutenant Ray Hahn then took command of our ammo detail. He left 2nd Lieutenant Morse at the phone from Fire Direction with T15 Cecil Harrison to record fire commands and pass them to C Battery's four guns. All others frantically rushed to feed shells into C's guns.

Suddenly Tyrell ordered "Cease Fire" to Numbers 1 and four guns. They were the outside pieces. Tyrell had found that he was getting tree bursts from those outside pieces. Tall trees diverted their shells off the target. But Tyrell could keep Guns No 2 and 3 hitting target because the trees were low before their trajectory. Nos 2 and 3 were now shooting over Tyrell's head and about 60 feet before E's wounded to hold off the Japs.

Staff Sergeant Edling, Section Chief of No 1 gun, rushed to Morse in anguish to ask, "What did we do wrong?" Morse patiently explained why No 1 gun had to cease fire. Morse told Edling and his gunner to remain at their piece to wait for new fire orders. Except for Section Chief and gunner, both idled gun crews also began to carry shells to Guns No 2 and 3.

Fire order now was "Shell one-half smoke, one-half HE (high explosive)-fuze delay."

We had a hitch about smoke. No 2 and 3 gunners reported, "Only 10 rounds smoke are left." Ammo Sergeant reported, "No more smoke in C Battery dump."

Tyrell called E 186 men to halt rescue attempt until we - could get more smoke. We kept up rapid fire with HE to keep Japs neutralized.

Fire Direction ordered B Battery half a mile off to dispatch all their smoke shells at once. To Morse, it seemed like hours waiting, but in very few minutes, he saw a 3/4-ton truck overloaded with shells turn into C Battery at high speed.

But the load of shells was not from B Battery but from A Battery. For as soon as Morse reported the need for smoke, A Battery's Captain Howard Perry had ordered all his smoke shells heaped on the truck and forwarded. It was a record run for Palawan Island roads - seven miles in nine minutes - and without orders.

With smoke on hand, our fire mission reached crescendo. We ordered the fastest fire possible. We were lucky that the ground under the Battery was heavy clay and very dry. There was no wheel-bounce. Trails were firmly set. There was no lateral or rear displacement of the pieces in firing. We were shooting "Charge 5"- maximum being "Charge 7" - at an elevation of 400- 500 miles - about 30 degrees.

Both crews moved so fast that the breach opened and the empty cartridge case was ejected as the tube reached full recoil. Many times the new round was already loaded as the tube returned to battery firing position. We fired as fast as the famous French 75s in World War I - but almost never that fast with 105s in World War II.

Roar of rapid fire was almost continuous, with chant of commands at the piece and the smell of burned powder. When the tube was back in firing position, Section Chief reached out to set the gunner's quadrant on marks at the top of the level. Number One Gunner quickly checked elevator bubble and called "Set!" Gunner instantly checked his sight for direction, called "Ready!" and Section Chief yelled "Fire!" Then the two guns blasted. "Set-ready-fire!"

"Set-ready-fire!" "Set- ready-fire! "were all the words that Morse could hear. But to fire that fast ammo must arrive on the run. All must be hand-carried. It took too long to load it on the truck and unload it on the run.

About this time, Captain OD Maxie, Battalion Surgeon, stopped to watch Morse on the phone. Some ammo problem slowed rate of fire, and Morse had Maxie spell him on the phone, 4-5 minutes. So Maxie, for the only time in his career, had violated the Geneva Convention against participation of a Medic in combat.

During all this fire, observers Tyrell and Benckert alternated their duties. One man forwarded to observe impact; the other man talked on the radio. When the observer had to make a correction, he crawled back to the radio. Then in turn, the other man crawled forward to observe.

Third man of the observer party, Petley of Brooklyn, volunteered with the Infantry rescue party to help save E's wounded. He crawled up with the "E" men covered by our smoke. Above him roared delayed action fuze shells that burst several feet underground. Petley helped carry wounded to Medics.

All of E Company's 2nd Platoon then fell back some 200 yards to better ground for defense, with Petley still in rear guard. While "E" disengaged, rapid field artillery shell fire continued at first, then rapidly slowed down as they found their new position. It was now 1600 hours, 1 hour and 20 minutes since 167 Field Artillery had our first fire orders.

Not until 40 years later might Morse read of E 186's casualties, which 167 Field Artillery kept down. There were a few more than one killed and two wounded. Pvt Roy R. Sansbury died of a neck wound. After his first wound, Pvt Charles R Maurer moved and drew more fire to finish him. Five men survived their wounds. Most serious were probably wounds of 1st Lieutenant Reeves and Dwight Shonyo who dragged Reeves out of fire. Although merely grazed in one leg, Reeves lost 2/3 of a knee-cap from the other leg. A "pork chop" was sliced from Shonyo's back. A bullet hit Vezane on his wrist. Watkins' type of wound is unknown. (Reeves so well recovered from his knee-cap wound that he could walk only a little stiff.)

So strongly defended was Hill 1125 that it took 1st Battalion 186 - who had replaced E Company - with 167 Field Artillery to overrun that tough position. On the first day of fighting when 1st Battalion 186 took over, "A" had one killed, and "D" two wounded. On the second day, B Company failed in three pushes. Machine guns grounded us on our first try. After C 167's 1st Lieutenant Ehrlich adjusted shellfire, "B" was stopped dead again by machine gun fire from a pillbox. C Battery neutralized that pillbox, but "B" failed again - with a total of one killed, four wounded all day.

Only on the third day did "B" seize that pillbox, after field artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire - 341 shells in three concentrations. C Battery made a direct hit on the pillbox, but "B" finally killed it with a flamethrower. Only one B Company man was wounded. The Japs withdrew, but abandoned two 20mm guns and two machine guns, with a few corpses. (They usually carried off most of their dead.)

In 167 Field Artillery, Morse still well remembers that great first day of saving E's 2nd Platoon from annihilation. He remembers incidents and men of that day like clicks of a fast-moving slide projector. He remembers Mess/Sergeant Herbst with a big grin as he trotted up with two 42.1 pounds of shell, one under each arm. He remembers 1st Sergeant Mel Davis when he closed the kitchen and all other battery details to forward ammo. He never forgets the tottering overloaded truck of A Battery's Captain Perry who delivered smoke shells without order. Perry's initiative was crucial in saving E Company lives - a whole platoon of them.

Key observer Tyrell told Morse that he was surprised to find both canteens empty after the fight. Yet Tyrell had no memory of taking even one drink from them.

Along with fine gunnery and observation, understrength 167 Field Artillery's was an outstanding achievement in supplying abundant shells. Although Battery tables of organization called for 95 men, we had just 52 men to pass ammo and fire. A single round weighed 42.1 pounds. Each unopened wooden case held two rounds - weight 84.2 pounds. Number of rounds we fired was 507. We had to lift each round four times before gun-crews jammed it into howitzer breaches. Besides normal exertion of lifting, we must add the work of lateral movement of 6 to 10 feet at the guns, with 150-300 rounds to move from the battery dump.

Since 52 men carried and passed ammo, each man handled an average of 1,824 pounds. Shells were of an unwieldy shape and size. We loaded and fired all 507 in 1 hour and 20 minutes. (Actually, most of the passing occurred in 40 minutes in the middle of firing.) And remember that we had to police gunpits of empty brass' and powder bags so that crews could move and load and fire unhampered. We had to bring up a new supply of shells - 160 rounds, 40 per gun, although just two men did most of the firing.

We had good reasons why 167 Field Artillery was so skilled a "gun-crew" - observers, gunners, and supply men. After three years overseas, we were all proud of our outfit, and knew our job. Cross-training for all jobs was routine; batteries operated more by suggestions than by orders. Years of training and job skills and loyalty converged to save infantry lives. No battery ever fired a more worthy mission than C Battery 167 Field Artillery. Lieutenant Bill Morse well remembers every man in 167 Field Artillery Battalion. And of all these men, Staff Sergeant Dick Tyrell was the best technical field artillery man he had ever known in his whole life.

 

CREDIT. Finest source was Bill Morse's typescript of an estimated 3,158 words -13 pages. These were Morse's personal memories, or from 167 Field Artillery's untitled history of the Palawan Operation. Morse wisely backed his memories by letters from Dick Tyrell and Ed Benckert - and discussions with Mel Davis, Tom Pettifer, and Don Marsaw. Morse's son, Major Dwight Morse (Field Artillery) checked on ammo weights of World War II 105 mm howitzers. I also consulted 186 Infantry's  "The Palawan Story" was first printed in Jungleer in October 1979, and E 186's "First Blood" still earlier, on February 1962.