Atha

 

Pfc. Leon Foster Atha


    Pfc. Leon Foster Atha was born on May 20, 1916, in Monterey, Kentucky.  He was the son of  Kelly B. Atha & Amanda Fitzgerald-Atha and raised at 424 Averton in Frankfort, Kentucky, with his three siblings.  In the 1940 census, his occupation was listed as truck driver.   

    On January 21, 1941, Leon was inducted into the U. S. Army at Louisville, Kentucky, and did his basic training at Fort Knox. Kentucky, where he was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 192nd Tank Battalion.  He attended tank mechanic school and qualified as a tank mechanic.   It is known that he married Jeanette Lyons on August 8, 1941, in Frankfort, Kentucky.

    In September 1941, Leon took part in maneuvers in Louisiana.  After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to report to Camp Polk, Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft. Knox as they had expected.  On the side of a hill, the soldiers learned that the battalion was being sent overseas.  Those men 29 years old or older were allowed to resign from military service and were replaced by men from the 753rd Tank Battalion.
    The decision for this move -  which had been made in August 1941 - was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941.  A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd.  He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance.  He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of an Japanese occupied island which was hundred of miles away.  The island had a large radio transmitter.  The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field.
     When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.  The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat - with a tarp on its deck - which was seen making its way to shore.   Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped.  It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
    The company traveled west by train to San Francisco, California, and was taken by ferry to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island on the ferry the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe.  At Ft. McDowell, they were given physicals and inoculated for overseas duty.   Those men found to have a minor medical condition were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date, while other men were simply replaced.
    The 192nd boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th.  During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP.   The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd and had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
    On Wednesday, November 5th, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes.  It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge.  Sunday night, November 9th, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th.  During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Date Line.  On Saturday, November 15th, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon.  The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke.  It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
    When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16th, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day.  At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout.  This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way.  The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20th, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning.  At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg.  Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
    At the fort, the tankers were met by Gen. Edward P. King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed.  He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents.  The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived.  He remained with the tankers for the day and did not leave until they had their Thanksgiving Dinner.
    For the next seventeen days the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons which had been greased so they wouldn't rust during the trip to the Philippines.  They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts.  The plan was for them, with the 194th Tank Battalion, to take part in maneuvers.
    The tank battalions were put on alert and ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field on Monday, December 1st.  Two tank crew members remained with their tank at all times. 
The morning of December 8th, the battalion's officers were told of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just ten hours earlier.  As the tankers watched, the sky was filled with American planes.  At 12:30, the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch.  Around 12:45 in the afternoon as the soldiers were having lunch, they watched planes approach the airfield from the north.  It was only when bombs began exploding did the tankers know that the planes were Japanese.

    Being that their job was maintenance and ordnance, the members of HQ company remained in the battalion's bivouac.  Since HQ Company had no weapons to fight planes, they could do little more than watch the attack and take cover.
    When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield.  The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything that could carry the wounded was in use.  When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building.  Many of these men had their arms and legs missing.
    That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their tents.  They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed.  They lived through two more attacks on December 10th and 13th. 

    The battalion remained at Clark Field for two weeks until it received orders to the Lingayen Gulf area were the Japanese had landed.  The battalion repeatedly dropped back as it fought the Japanese.

    On December 23rd and 24th, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta and found the bridge they were going to use to cross the Agno River was destroyed.  The tankers made an end run to get south of river and ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening, but they successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.  Later on the 24th, the battalions formed a defensive line along the southern bank of the Agno River with the 192nd on the right and 194th on the left.
    On December 25th, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road.  The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27th and withdrew, following the Philippine Army, to the Tarlec-Cabanatuan Line and was near Santo Tomas and Cabanatuan on the 28th and 29th.
    The tank battalions next covered the withdrawal of the Philippine Army at the Pampanga River.  The battalion's tanks were on both sides of the on December 31st at the Calumpit Bridge.
    On January 1st, conflicting orders, about who was in command, were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 and allowing the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan.  General Wainwright was unaware of the orders, since they came from Gen. MacArthur's chief of staff.
    Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridge over the Pampanga River about withdrawing from the bridge with half of the defenders withdrawing.  Due to the efforts of the Self Propelled Mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a frenzied attack by the 192nd Tank Battalion the Japanese were halted.  From January 2nd to 4th, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.
    At 2:30 A.M., on January 6th, the Japanese attacked at Remlus in force using smoke which was an attempt by the Japanese to destroy the tank battalions. That night the tanks withdrew into the peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leap frog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd's withdraw over the bridge.  The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan.
    The night of January 7th, the tank battalions were covering the withdrawal of all troops around Hermosa.  Around 6:00 A.M., before the bridge had been destroyed by the engineers, the 192nd crossed the bridge.
    The next day, the battalion was between Culo and Hermosa and assigned a road to enter Bataan on which was worse than having no road.  The half-tracks kept throwing their rubber tracks and members of 17th Ordnance assigned to each battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations.  After daylight, Japanese artillery fire was landing all around the tanks.
    The next day, a composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Haines, B Co., 192nd.  Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire.  The rest of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Abucay-Hacienda Road.
    When word came that a bridge was going to be blow, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company.  This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
    The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road.  It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance.  It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon.  The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance.  Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400 hour overhauls.
    It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver:  "Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal.  If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay."
    The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Heicienda Road on January 25th.  While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M.  One platoon was sent to the front of the the column of trucks which were loading the troops.  The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese.
    Later on January 25th, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight.  They held the position until the night of January 26th/27th, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads.  When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were suppose to use had been destroyed by enemy fire.  To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
    The tank battalions, on January 28th, were given the job of protecting the beaches.  The 192nd was assigned the coast line from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan's east coast, while the battalion's half-tracks were used to patrol the roads.  The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.

    It is known that his wife received two letters from him during this time.  One letter was dated January 15, and the second was dated February 2nd.  She received both letters on March 31st.  In one letter he said, "The Japs are not so tough that they cannot be licked."  He also joked that he would like it to snow to cool things off.
    Companies A & C were ordered to the west coast of Bataan while B Company - which was held in reserve - and 17th Ordnance held the southern shore of Bataan.  The tankers were awake all night and attempted to sleep under the jungle canopy, during the day, which protected them from being spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes.  During the night, they were kept busy with repeated threats both on and off shore.
    On one occasion, a member of the company, who had gotten frustrated by being awakened by the planes, had his half-track pulled out onto the beach and took pot shots at the plane.  He missed the plane, but twenty minutes later, Japanese planes appeared over the location and dropped bombs that exploded in the tree tops.  Three members of the company were killed.
    The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available.  The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces.  There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over.
    The battalion also took part in the Battle of the Pockets to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line.  The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket.  Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank exited the pocket.  Doing this was so stressful that the tank companies were pulled out and replaced by one that was being held in reserve.
    To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used.  The first was to have three Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank.  As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole.  Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually exploded.
    The other method to use to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole.  The driver gave the other track power resulting with the tank spinning around and grinding its way down into the foxhole.  The tankers slept upwind of their tanks.
    In March, the amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks.  This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day.  At the same time, food rations were cut in half again.  Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor.
    The Japanese lunched an all out attack on April 3rd.  On April 7th, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening.  During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew.  C Company, 194th, which was attached to the 192nd, had only seven tanks left.
    The tanks became a favorite target of the Japanese receiving fire on trails and while hidden in the jungle. and could not fight back.  The situation was so bad that other troops avoided being near the tanks, and the 26th Cavalry turned down a tank company's offer of assistance in a counter-attack.
    It was at this time that Gen. King decided that further resistance was futile.  Approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day.  In addition, he had over 6000 troops who sick or wounded and 40000 civilians who he feared would be massacred.  At 10:30 that night, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms. 
    Tank battalion commanders received this order, "You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word 'CRASH', all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished."

    On April 8, 1942, Capt Fred Bruni told the members of HQ Company of the coming surrender.  He told them to destroy their weapons and anything else that the Japanese could use.  He gathered his men together and fed them what he referred to as "Their last supper."  They then received orders not to destroy their trucks.  The next morning they were Prisoners of War.

   On April 11th, the first Japanese soldiers appeared at HQ company's encampment.  A Japanese officer ordered Leon and the rest of his company, with their possessions, out onto the road that ran in front of their encampment.  Once on the road, the soldiers were ordered to kneel along the sides of the road with their possessions in front of them.  As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers, who were passing them, went through their possessions and took whatever they wanted from the Americans.

    Leon and his company boarded their trucks and drove to Mariveles.  From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and sat and waited.  As they sat, the POWs noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming across from them.  They soon realized that this was a firing squad and the Japanese were going to kill them.

    As they sat watching and waiting to see what the Japanese intended to do, a Japanese officer pulled up in a car in front of the Japanese soldiers.  He got out of the car and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail.  The officer got back in the car and drove off.  The Japanese sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.

    Later in the day, Leon's group of POWs was moved to a school yard in Mariveles. The POWs were left sitting in the sun for hours.  The Japanese did not feed them or give them water.  When they were ordered to move again, they had no idea that they had started what has become known as "The Bataan Death March."

    When they given a break on the march, the POWs were ordered into a field.  Behind the POWs were four Japanese artillery pieces which began firing on Corregidor and Ft. Drum.  These two islands had not surrendered.  Shells from these two American forts began landing among the POWs.  The POWs could do little since they had no place to hide.  Some POWs were killed from incoming American shells.  One group that tried to hide in a small brick building died when it took a direct hit.  The American guns did succeed in knocking out three of the four Japanese guns.

    The POWs were ordered to move again by the Japanese.  Leon and the other men had no idea that they had started what became known as the death march.  At some point Leon dropped out of the march.  It is not known when, but he did complete the march.

    At San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars that could hold forty men or eight horses.  The Japanese put 100 men into each car.  Those who died remained standing since they had no room to fall to the floor.  At Capas, the POWs left the cars and walked ten miles to Camp O'Donnell.

    Although the exact date is not known, Leon was selected for a work detail sent to Manila.  The POWs on this detail drove trucks for the Japanese.  Unlike many detils, the POWs drove the trucks without a Japanese guard being with them.  The POWs were given passes that allowed them to pass through check points.  When the detail ended, Leon was sent to Cabanatuan.  Not much is known about his time at Cabanatuan, but medical records kept at the camp show that he was hospitalized on August 1, 1942, because he was suffering from cysts that were the result of having malaria.  The records also show that he tested positive for tuberculosis.  How he was treated for it is not shown and the records do not show when he was discharged. It is known that he was sent back to the detail.
    On February 17, 1943, Leon was readmitted to the hospital ward, at Bilibid, with synouitis, an inflammation, in the right knee.  This injury was most likely the result of the knee being injured.  He remained at Bilibid until he was discharged, to Cabanatuan, on August 2, 1943.  It was also at this time, on June 18, 1943, that his wife learned he was a POW.

    In late 1944, when it became apparent to the Japanese that the invasion of the Philippines was near, the  Japanese attempted to send the healthy POWs to Japan, and other countries, to work as slave labor.  This was also an attempt to prevent them from being liberated by the advancing American forces.

    In early October 1944, almost 1800 other POWs were marched to the Port Area of Manila.  When his POW group arrived at the pier, the ship they where scheduled to sail on, the Hokusen Maru, was ready to sail, but some of the POWs in the detachment had not arrived at the pier.  Another POW detachment, scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru, had completely arrived, but their ship was not ready to sail.  It was at that time that the Japanese made the decision that they switch POW detachments so the Hokusen Maru could sail. 
 
   On October 11th, the Arisan Maru set sail but took a southerly route away from Formosa.  Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died.  The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days.  The Japanese covered the hatch with a tarp.  During the night, the POWs were in total darkness.  Being anchored in the cove resulted in the ship missing an air attack on Manila by American planes.  But, the ship was later attacked by American planes during its stay off Palawan.

    Each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice.  Conditions in the hold were so bad, that the POWs began to develop heat blisters.

    The POWs discover that although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not turned off the power to the lights.  Some of the prisoners were able to wire the ship's blowers into this electrical system.  Doing this allowed fresh air in the hold.  The blowers were disconnected two days later when the Japanese discovered what had been done.

    The Japanese soon realized that if they did not do something many of the POWs would die.  To prevent this, they opened the ship's number two hold and transferred 800 POWs into it.  During the transfer, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.

    The Arisan Maru returned to Manila on October 20th, where it joined a twelve ship convoy.  On October 21st, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea.  The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs making them targets for American submarines.  In addition, U.S. military intelligence was reading the Japanese messages as fast as the Japanese.  To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine crews that ships were carrying POWs which made the ships targets for the submarines.  The POWs in the hold became so desperate that they prayed for the ship to be hit by torpedoes.

    According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on Tuesday, October 24, 1944, about 5:00 pm, the ship was in the Bashi Channel in the South China Sea, off the coast of China.  Some of the POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs in the ship's two holds.  Suddenly, sirens and other alarms were heard.  The men inside the holds knew this meant that American submarines had been spotted.  They began to chant for the submarines to sink the ship.

    The Japanese on deck ran to the front of the ship.  As the POWs watched, a torpedo passedin front of the bow of the ship.  Moments later, the Japanese ran to the ship's stern and watched as a second torpedo passed behind the ship.  There was a sudden jar and the ship stopped dead in the water.  It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, in its third hold where there were no POWs.  It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was the U.S.S Snook.

    The Japanese guards took their guns and used them as clubs on the POWs who were on deck.  To escape, the POWs dove back into the holds.  After they were in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders and put the hatch covers on the holds, but they did not tie them down.  They then abandoned the ship.

    As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope ladders into the ship's two holds, but since they had not tied down the hatch covers, some of the POWs, in the first hold, were able to climb out and reattached the rope ladders.  They climbed out dropped ropes down to the POWs in both holds.

    The POWs were able to get onto the deck of the ship but made no attempt to abandon ship.  On the ship's deck an American major spoke to the POWs, he said, "Boys, we're in a hellva a jam - but we've been in jams before.  Remember just one thing: We're American soldiers.  Let's play it that way to the very end of the script."  Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them, "Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men."  The ship sank lower into the water.  

     A group of 35 POWs swam to a nearby Japanese ship, but when the Japanese realized they were POWs, they pushed them away with poles and hit them with clubs.  The Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as they attempted to reach them.

    As the ship got lower in the water, more of the POWs took to the water.  These POWs attempted to escape the ship by clinging to rafts, hatch covers, flotsam and jetsam.  Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking.  At some point, the ship split in two.  The exact time of the ship's sinking is not known since it took place after dark.

    Three of the POWs found an abandoned lifeboat, but since they had no paddles, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs.  According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru sank sometime after dark.  As the night went on, the cries for help grew fewer until there was silence.  The next morning, two more POWs would be pulled into the boat.

    Of the 1803 POWs who had boarded the ship, only nine survived the sinking.  Five POWs reached China by boat and were liberated.  Four were recaptured and sent to POW camps in Japan.  Three of these prisoners lived to see the end of the war.

     Pvt. Leon Foster Atha died in the sinking of the Arisan Maru on October 24, 1944.  Since he was lost as sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila. 

    It should be mentioned that Leon's wife, Jeanette, never remarried.  She passed away on April 8, 2004, and was buried at Glasgow Municipal Cemetery in Glasgow, Kentucky.  She had Leon's name placed on the headstone next to her name.


 


 



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