Cannon Company 162 Infantry: Assault Guns at Zamboanga

By Gunner Harold Arkoff with Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian

 

The 105mm assault guns of Cannon Company 162 Infantry played an important part in defeating the Japanese in the Battle of Zamboanga. These were front-line cannon designed for close support of riflemen against pillboxes and bunkers.

But even if Cannon 162 began training with our guns at Toorbul Point in Queensland in February, 1944, we still had to fight as riflemen throughout the New Guinea Campaign. In fact, we even landed as a rifle Company at Zambo, on 10 March 1945.

Beaching from our LCI at 0934 19 minutes after 162’s first wave, we pushed inland through the ridge of rubble that had held up 162’s first landing barges. Warily with ready rifles, we scouted behind 162’s line companies towards Wolfe Field, 600 yards inland. Already, however, by 0930, I and K Companies ahead of us, had crossed the Strip without fighting.

Quickly, we carried out Cannon’s first Zambo assignment. We found that the 600 yards from Wolfe Field back to the beach was clear of bypassed Japs. Then we dug in opposite the Strip to secure Zambo Road, 162 Regimental Headquarters, and the supply dumps. We also helped unload an LST on the beach. That afternoon, Jap guns fired down from the hills at us. Pfc Roman J. Biel took a fragment in the stomach - although marked lightly wounded. Pfc Charles R. Crabtree had a fragment in the leg.

Next morn at 1040 11 March, Jap field artillery and mortars flamed a gas dump and ammo dump 200 yards east of 162’s command post and just 50 yards from Cannon. Our nearest men had to leave their holes because of the heat of the fire and the danger of more explosions. The rest of 11 March, our Cannon observers helped to spot Jap 75s in the hills and call down 205 Field Artillery shells on them. When F Company in Ratliff Force pushed west towards Caldera Point, 162 Headquarters believed that two of our cannon would go forward to help 162’s small flank offensive. But we were never called there.

At about midnight 12-13 March, eight Japs raided the dumps to burn those gasoline drums which their field artillery had failed to burn. These eight Japs crossed the Strip and Zambo Road and touched off those drums. They mined the road also.

Spotting a Cannon Company position, they pinned down its men with a light .25 caliber “Woodpecker” machine gun. They fired this light machine gun pointblank on us. We fired back with rifles and carbines until we drove them off. Jap machine gun slugs riddled the whole area. Next morn, a Jap lay dead only five feet from our holes. And next day, we found three dead just 30 yards up the road. We believe that Cannon killed those three from the eight raiders in last night’s fight.

But not until 16 March 1945, did Cannon 162 become a true assault gun cannon Company. Then, our six big 105s became our principal weapons. We were no longer just another rifle Company!

By 16 March, assault guns seemed to be necessary against the fixed positions of the tenacious Japs above in the jungle ridges that were close together. Regular long-barreled 105mm guns of our field artillery would not be accurate or safe to fire because of their flatter trajectory. Distances between our riflemen and the Japs on the next ridge would be only 200-300 yards.

And the Japs were holding out well against 162’s 1st Battalion and 2nd Battalion in the ridges above the bitterly contested San Roque area. Fighting in rain forest 1500 yards northwest of Masilay, 1st Battalion was halted before Jap mortars and field artillery. To the right on high ground north of San Roque, the Japs also held back 2nd Battalion. These battalion could not close the gap between them. Now Cannon Company’s four guns of our 2nd Platoon and 3rd Platoon had to close that gap.

On the morn of 16 March, Sergeant Padnuk’s 3rd Platoon’s two guns went to gith for 1st Battalion north of Masilay. It was a formidable small procession. A jeep of 2nd Battalion 162 Infantry guided us into the hills. Our Cannon Company jeep followed with Sergeant Padnuk, Lieutenant O’Hare and his driver. Next followed our six-wheel trucks, each with a 105mm Howitzer trailed behind it. On each truck was a six-man gun-crew. Both trucks were piled high with hundreds of partly loaded rounds. Each partial round was a brass cartridge case 20 inches long with a fused projectile in its head. Also piled in the trucks for propellants were powder bags still stowed separately in wooden racks. As needed, we would insert 2-4 bags into each cartridge before we fired.

From San Roque Perimeter a mile-and-a-half behind the lines, our convoy of three trucks and two command jeeps made a scary trip to the front. Going was slow up wet slopes and over muddy trails. Our loaded truck with No.1 gun slopped into tracks that a carabao could not have waddled through. Finally, our six-man crew had to manhandle it into place. Our No.2 gun and the guns of 2nd Platoon were set up nearby. With Corporal Strickland in charge of No.1 Gun, Computer Fire Director Arkoff and crewmen Di Stifano, Stallings, Naebar, and Gadaloun, we grunted and groaned the cannon forward. Finally, we had this 4977-lb. 20-foot gun into firing position.

Our gun now stood atop a ridge above a draw 400 yards from the next ridge where an estimated Company of Japs were holed up. (This was probably the beginning of the attack of I and K Companies of 162 Infantry against a height which “K” men would call Cram Hill. Probably we were about to fire for I Company’s attack. We separated the gun trails and dug them in and were ready to fire.

But the Japs saw our gun. A Jap light machine gun rattled and shattered two trees overhead. Several 25-caliber bullets zinged from our guns and made little chips on the olive drab muzzle. But our own riflemen silenced the light machine gun.

In five minutes, No.1 Gun was ready to fire-aimed straight across the valley into the Jap ridge a few hundred yards off. We swabbed the muzzle, leveled the gun-sight bubbles. We jammed in the shell. Corporal Strickland pulled the lanyard for our first shell fired in action.

First round was white phosphorus to verify the range. The white puff on the crest of the targeted ridge told us that our range was correct. Now we fired for effect along with the other three guns - 30 minutes’ rapid cannon fire - five to six rounds a minute - 300 rounds. We pumped shells through the gun as fast as we could load and fire. As fast as we threw out the hot spent cartridges behind us, we jammed new shells into the breach. We feared that new shells would prematurely explode in the barrel, but they never did.

Suddenly two Filipino scouts burst out of the rain forest beside us. They said that a few of our shells had gone wrong, into a detachment of their own guerilla 106 Division. They were across the ridge from near Moroc Village and pressing the Japs towards us.

After we corrected range and continued firing, I Company overran the blasted Jap position ahead. Regimental Headquarters reported a count of 40 dead Japs, with surely as many more sealed inside caves blasted shut by our fire. Cannon Company lost nobody; I Company had one dead, and 10 wounded.

As our first shoot-out on 16 March demonstrated, Cannon Company’s Assault Gun was effective for the shorter ranges of the Zambo ridges. The regular 105mm “field piece” of our field artillery had too flat a trajectory to impact the close-in Jap valleys. Our Model M-3 was not a field piece but a Howitzer. It had a shorter muzzle for the size of the projectile, which enabled it to fire over our advancing troops and hit targets close to them. Despite its range of 12,000 yards, we shot it mostly at 200-300 yards. We could turn it 23 degrees left or right without shifting it. We could depress it 65 degrees to fire downhill. Our M-3 was a fine battlefield cannon.

Thus, beginning 16 March, we were finally a real infantry cannon Company. From 16 March through 17 April, our 105mm shells aided riflemen to dig out die-hard Japs from their ridges. We hauled guns over mountain roads that were almost impassable. Instead of trucking in ammo, we used jeeps. Or we hand-carried it. Instead of our maximum range of 12,000 yards, most of our fire was point-blank shots from the top of one ridge to the top of the next ridge - 200 to 300 yards. Often we sighted a gun through the bore. Our three platoons fired independently, often 20 miles apart, for 162, 186, or 163 Infantry.

On 16 March, 2nd Lieutenant Swanson’s 1st Platoon supported F Company’s unopposed invasion of Basilan Island. On 18 March, other Cannon guns moved up to fire from I 162’s ridge position. On 19 March, we sent two guns to Kawit far west of Zambo City to fight for K Company 163 Infantry against a Jap gun at Caldera Point. On 22 March and again on 27 March, we assigned a platoon of our guns to 1st Battalion 186 Infantry after they took over from 162 Infantry on West Ridge.

When 2nd Lieutenant Swanson’s 1st Platoon’s two guns returned from Basilan Island, they almost met disaster on the Zambo mainland. On 21 March, they had orders for direct fire support to 2nd Battalion near Masilay, where they were trying to advance up East Ridge to capture Mount Capisan. On 21 March, 2nd Battalion was to advance 1,000 yards up East Ridge.

Swanson’s guns were positioned dangerously close to the Japs. They set up a gun in a valley 300 yards from the Japs - and the other in a palm grove only 150 yards from the lines.

Suddenly the guns took fire from both flanks. Rifles, machine guns, and mortars flailed us. Sierra, near his truck, took a field artillery fragment in his right shoulder.

Jap phosphorus shells flamed the brush less than five feet from an ammo pile near one of the guns. An explosion might have wrecked Swanson’s Platoon. Joseph Cappola rushed in to stamp out the fire. Although exposed to heavy Jap mortar shelling, Cappola kept on fighting the flames. Other men ran forward and helped put them out. Then they withdrew the gun to a position where the Japs could not strike it.

But 2nd Battalion’s attack on that 21 March was a failure. Spearhead E Company pushed just 500 yards safely up narrow East Ridge. Here they took fire from an estimated 50 Japs in a strongpoint of numerous pillboxes and trenches. E Company’s position was untenable. Battalion Company Caulfield ordered E Company back to their position of early morning.

Next day, however, with cannon support, our 2nd Battalion attached again over the same ground where E Company was halted yesterday. Fighting up parallel ridges behind a successful air strike and heavy field artillery fire, both companies seized yesterday’s objective 1,000 yards ahead. Dead Japs totaled 74. And on 23 March, with Cannon’s support again, E and F Companies contacted at the ridge junction closer still to Mount Capisan.

Thus, on 24 March, stage was set for 162’s 2nd Battalion and 3rd Battalion to storm Mount Capisan. Rain made Wolfe Strip useless and kept the Air Force grounded, but the battalions climbed grimly uphill. When 2nd Battalion met heavy resistance about 0900 before Bald Hill guarding Capisan, Cannon guns fought gallantly. Our salvos silenced numerous Jap machine guns as soon as they opened up. G Company captured Bald Hill and forwarded to overrun Mount Capisan itself. Forty Japs died on Bald Hill and Mount Capisan. For 162 Infantry, the main battle of Zamboanga was ended.

On the morning of 28 March, however, Cannon men became riflemen again. Guided by Graves Registration officer, Sergeant Padnuk led a 12-man patrol from Cannon’s Headquarter perimeter near San Roque to bring back a dead man. After some 400 yards cross-country trek through a clearing and over several ridges, we found the body, started him back on a 4-man stretcher.

As we crossed a clearing, a Jap light machine gun and rifles fired down at range 400 yards. They seemed to be in a large hole. Their grazing fire pinned down most of our 12 men, but some of us managed to return fire. From up the valley also, a Jap mortar tried to zero in on us with two rounds.

But the clearing chanced to be covered by Cannon’s own 3rd Platoon overlooking the Japs. Our 3rd Platoon shot a .30 and a .50 heavy machine gun into the probable Jap position. Sgt. Sergey Padnuk’s patrol leaped up and got out of there just as the third Jap round impacted where they were pinned down. Near casualties were T/4 Merlyn Howard and Carlos Jenkins. Howard had three holes in his fatigue jacket, and Jenkins had a bullet hole through his pants at the knee.

Last action of Cannon Company’s 105mm assault guns in World War II was the 5-day struggle for Sibago Island. Lying 28 miles southeast of Zambo City at the eastern end of Basilan Strait, this little lighthouse jungle island of two hills had a die-hard Nipps garrison of probably Jap Marines of 32 Naval Guard. When I & R was repelled on 267 April, an L Company Platoon with probably two M Company 81mm mortars reinforced I & R.

For close support, Cannon sent two assault guns to fire from Lanhil Island, 1,000 yards across the channel. Cannon’s guns got three direct hits on the lighthouse tower, but it still stood. By later afternoon, our guns had cleared the brush around the lighthouse and exposed a Nippo cave-mouth. Yet not until 0930 on 30 April did I & R count 58 Japs dead and report that the island was Filipino ground again. We had lost one L Company man killed, and two wounded.

At a cost of just three wounded, Cannon Company had fought for our Division in the Battle of Zamboanga. We had won our battle with an uncounted number of Japs wounded or dead.

 

CREDIT: Most important author is Gunner Harold Arkoff who wrote a complete history of Cannon 162 for all World War II - a single-spaced typescript of  nine pages. For this history alone, he wrote one typescript entitled "Description of Cannon Company's 105mm Howitzers and Their Operation," three pages long, and another typescript, "Cannon Company, 162nd Infantry Regiment Zamboanga, March-April, 1945," 5 pages long. Important also was detailed Award Story of Joseph Cappola. Useful archives were 162's "Report of Operation, Zamboanga  Area .." and 162's Journal throughout March, 1945. Story of Cannon 162 for entire World War was in the December 1960 Jungleer, and AI Morrow's story of Cannon in Parai Devile was in July 1973 Jungleer.