Tec 5 Wesley Roy Elmer
Tec 5 Wesley R. Elmer and his
twin brother, Ray, were born December 3, 1922, in
Keysville, Wisconsin. He was one of
the ten children of Hubert L. Elmer and Myrtle A.
McKinney-Elmer. Like many others, Wesley
left school after completing grade school and went
to work as a farmhand.
With his friend, Donald Knipschield, he joined the Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd Tank Company headquartered in Janesville. Since both of them were underage, they each forged the signatures of the other one's parents on the enlistment papers.
In the fall of 1940, the 32nd Tank Company was called to federal service as A Company of the 192nd Tank Battalion. For almost a year the battalion trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky. The one thing that Wesley stood out in was his inability to keep in step while drilling. No matter how he tried, he just could not keep in step with the other soldiers. It was also at this time that Wesley trained as a bow gunner in a tank.
In the late summer of 1941, the battalion took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. Upon completion of the maneuvers, they were informed that their time in the regular army had been extended. Upon hearing this news, Wesley and the other members of the battalion were informed that they were being sent overseas.
The battalion traveled by train to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. There they received the proper inoculations before sailing to the Philippine Islands. With the battalion, Wesley arrived in Manila on Thanksgiving Day, 1941. Two weeks later, he survived the Japanese attack on Clark Field.
During the Battle of the Philippines, the Filipino and Americans had to deal with what seemed to be the endless strafing by the Japanese planes. Another problem they had to deal with was Japanese snipers. At night, the Japanese would sneak behind the main battle lines. On one occasion, Wesley was with Phil Parish when they came under fire by a sniper. Instead of wasting time attempting to pick the sniper off, Wesley took his Tommy-gun and fired at the tree. As he fired he moved up the tree. His bullets hit the rope that held the sniper to the tree causing him to fall from the tree to his death.
According to Abel Ortega, it was during the battle with the Japanese that Wesley excelled. Ortega recalled that on Bataan, Wesley would simply go off into the jungle by himself. When he returned, he would always be carrying Japanese guns, swords or canteens. In Ortega's opinion. the only way Wesley could have gotten these things was by taking them off the dead bodies of Japanese soldiers. Ortega believed that once in combat, Wesley demonstrated the best qualities of a soldier.
Wesley also was wounded during the fight against the Japanese. During one engagement, a shell exploded near him. The explosion resulted in his being hit below the ear and in the shoulder by shrapnel.
After four months of constant strafing and bombing by the Japanese, Wesley became a Prisoner of War when the defenders of Bataan were surrendered to the Japanese. From Mariveles, at the southern tip of Bataan, Wesley has become known as the Bataan Death March.
When he started the march, he was selected to drive a staff car for a Japanese officer. He did this job until the officer wanted to be driven down to Mariveles. When Wesley heard this, he ran off when the officer was not looking. His reason for doing this was that he knew that the Mariveles area was being shelled by Corregidor.
When Wesley was reunited with his company, he was already weak from lack of rest and malnutrition. He did not believe that he would survive the march. Wesley credited his friend, Donald Kniepschield, with helping him survive the march. What Donald did was set goals for himself and Wesley. "On the march, a lot of guys were dropping like flies. The ones who could get up, the Japanese beat them with billy-clubs until they got back in ranks. The ones that couldn't, they would just run a bayonet through them and leave them lying on the side of road. Don would would look at me and say. 'You see that tree way up the road. I think I can make it to that tree.' Well, I knew that if Don could make it that far that I could too. About the time we got to the tree, someone else behind us would fall out of ranks and the Japanese would run a bayonet through them. Then Don would say, 'You see that building up the road, well, I think I can make it to that building.' There is something about seeing a guy bayoneted that gives you more energy." Donald's goal selection helped Wesley to complete the march. Wesley did not know how long it took him to complete the march, but he believed it was somewhere around fourteen days.
In his opinion, the Japanese treated the Filipinos worse than they treated the Americans. The reason was that they could not understand why the Filipinos had fought alongside the Americans. "The Japanese didn't like the Filipinos very much. Every time they thought a Filipino looked the wrong way, they would run a bayonet through them."
The first camp Wesley was held in was Camp O'Donnell. There, about 2,000 American POWs died from disease and malnutrition. The Filipino death rate was somewhere around 10,000 soldiers.
"They were dying off at about 100 a day. We were moved to another camp, guys didn't die as fast there, although I can remember one point when we were losing about 50 a day."
Wesley came close to dying from dysentery while a POW at the camp. What kept him alive was that the medic assigned to care for him would beat him with a stick. This beating would get him angry which kept him alive.
Wesley was next held at Cabanatuan. There
fewer prisoners died, but the living conditions
were not that much better. There, Wesley's
weight dropped to 68 pounds. His normal
weight was around 150 pounds. Part of the
problem was that Wesley vomited everything he
ate. On June 18, 1942, he was put in the
camp hospital. According to records kept
by the staff, he was suffering from dysentery
and appendicitis. He was so sick, that the
Japanese removed him from the camp hospital and
left him in the grass to die. He was
returned to the hospital and dicharged on
January 6, 1943.
Wesley credits a Sgt. Kenneth Grover with saving his life. Sgt. Grover, seeing the condition that Wesley was in, picked him up and carried him over to water. There, he washed him. He next got Wesley a meal of sugar and rice. He would feed some to Wesley and when he vomited it up, feed him a little more. He continued to do this until Wesley kept the food down.
While he did this, Sgt. Grover asked Wesley about his home and family. This got Wesley thinking of them and created in him a desire to see them again. In Wesley's opinion this "will to live" kept him alive.
Wesley at this time also had an appendicitis attack. The doctors knew that they had to operate to save his life, but their surgical tools were in poor condition. They finally removed his appendix by sterilizing a razor blade. Since there were no antibiotics, an infection set in and it took a great deal of time for him to heal. The Japanese only allowed him eleven days to recover before he returned to work, which meant he returned to work ill. As if this was not enough, Wesley also suffered from beriberi, diphtheria and had gall bladder problems while in the camp.
In August of 1943, Wesley volunteered to go to Japan. He was sent to Manila and boarded onto a transport. The ship, the Coral Maru, was a cattle boat. It sailed for Japan on September 20, 1943. After three days at sea, it arrived at Takao, Formosa, on September 23rd. After a three day stay, it sailed on September 26th, and arrived in Japan on October 5, 1943. Upon arriving in Japan, Wesley worked in a coal mine.
On November 28, 1944, Wesley was moved to Shinagawa where he collected scrap metal. From this camp, he was sent to the Headquarters Camp in Tokyo. He and the other POWs worked in steel mills, freight yards and in sugar lockers. He was then sent to Haraoka #3 near Nangano, Japan.
Wesley refused to keep track of time while a
of the fellows made calendars and would
cross off one day after another, but I
didn't. By not counting the days, the
time seemed to fly."
Wesley stated that not all the Japanese were
hostile to the POWs. He recalled that a
Japanese woman gave him and the other prisoners
cigarettes. A guard caught her and beat
her severely. Later, she returned and
again gave the POWs cigarettes.
Wesley also stated that the certain guards
enjoyed setting the POWs up for
favorite tricks of the Japs was for one to
come along and give you a cigarette while
you were working. Then just as you
started to smoke it, another in on the plan
would beat you for smoking without letting
him know you were going to do it. It
didn't take us long to catch on to that
During his three and a half years as a POW,
Wesley suffered from a variety of diseases; such
as: dysentery, diphtheria and jaundice. He
believed he survived because of his
just wanted to live. A lot of guys got
to the point where they didn't care anymore
and they gave up. I always thought about
getting back to the States. That kept me
At the end of the war, Wesley was liberated and returned to Manila. After being fattened up, Wesley returned to the United States and to Beloit, Wisconsin. He was discharged from the army on May 7, 1946. Wesley married and became a father. He later lived in Waunakee, Wisconsin.
Wesley Elmer passed away on June 8, 1995. He was buried at East Lawn Cemetery in Beloit, Wisconsin.