1st Lt. William Henry Gentry
1st Lt. William H. Gentry was
born on November 19, 1918, to James T. Gentry and
Harriet Renfro-Gentry. He had two sisters and
a brother. He was raised on Burgin Road in
Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and attended McAfee High
School and attended college for one year.
On December 21, 1936, Gentry joined the Kentucky National Guard at Harrisburg. His reason for doing this was that the tank company needed someone to work on the tanks. Two of his friends, Archibald Rue and Jim Van Arsdall joined the National Guard with him.
When the tank company was called to federal service on November 25, 1940, Gentry went to Fort Knox as a staff sergeant. There, he trained as a tank commander. The one thing William noted about the year of training the tankers received is that they were never taught how to fight a defensive war with their tanks.
It was while he was at Ft. Knox that William took a test to become an officer. Since there was a shortage of qualified officers, the army was willing to test enlisted men. William passed the test, resigned from the army as an enlisted man and was inducted into the army as a second lieutenant on February 12, 1941. After receiving his commission, he was assigned to Headquarters Company. As an officer with HQ Company, William was assigned the duty of communications officer. He remained in job until December 14, 1941.
After nearly a year of training, he and the rest of the battalion went on maneuvers in Louisiana. After the maneuvers, at Camp Polk, Gentry and the other men learned they were being sent overseas.
The companies of the battalion each took a different train route to California. HQ Company took the southern route through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. They then went north through Los Angeles to San Francisco.
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Just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Gentry and the other tankers were on duty guarding Clark Field against attack. The news of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor had already reached the troops in the Philippines. News also arrived that Japanese invasion forces were approaching the islands.
Around 11:45 in the morning, planes appeared over Clark Field. At first the tankers watched in amazement, it was only when bombs began exploding that the soldiers knew that the war had arrived.
Gentry recalled that after the attack the wounded were everywhere. When the hospital ran out of room for the wounded, cots were set up under trees and anything else that could provide shade for the wounded.
On December 14, 1941, Gentry was assigned to C Company as the maintenance officer and a tank platoon commander. On December 22, 1941, C Company was sent north to Lingayen Gulf to support B Company in its job of serving as a rear guard so that the 26th U. S. Cavalry could withdraw from its battle with the Japanese. It was at this time that Gentry was assigned to C Company. The two tank companies repeated this job over and over again from Sison, Pozorrubbio, Asingan, and Tayug.
At Cabu, seven tanks of the company fought a three hour battle with the Japanese. The main Japanese line was south of Saint Rosa Bridge ten miles to the south of the battle.
During the withdraw on Luzon, the tanks were used to destroy machine gun nests and artillery emplacements. The Filipino Scouts would point out the nests and than the tanks would attack. The tanks would than hold their positions until the Scouts crossed rivers and bridges, then they would fall back. As they did, they blew up the bridges after the tanks crossed.
As the Filipino and American troops withdrew into Bataan, the tanks again were used as a rear guard against the Japanese. A Company was assigned to the west side of the peninsula, B Company was assigned to the center, and C Company was given the eastern side of the peninsula. Individual tank platoons at times were as far as 25 miles apart.
Gentry recalled that at Kabu, his tanks were hidden in brush. The Japanese troops passed the tanks for three hours without knowing that they were there. While the troops passed, Gentry was on his radio describing what he was seeing. It was only when a Japanese soldier tried take a short cut through the brush, that his tank was hidden in, that the tanks were discovered. The tanks turned on their sirens and opened up on the Japanese. They then fell back to Cabanatuan.
C Company was re-supplied and withdrew to Baluiag where the tanks encountered Japanese troops and ten tanks. It was at Baluiag that Gentry's tanks won the first tank victory of World War II against enemy tanks.
After this battle, C Company made its way south. When it entered Cabanatuan, it found the barrio filled with Japanese guns and other equipment. The tank company destroyed as much of the equipment as it could before proceeding south.
On December 31, 1941, Gentry sent out reconnaissance patrols north of the town of Baluiag. The patrols ran into Japanese patrols, which told the Americans that the Japanese were on their way. Knowing that the railroad bridge was the only way into the town and to cross the river, Lt. Gentry set up his defenses in view of the bridge and the rice patty it crossed.
Early on the morning of the 31st, the Japanese began moving troops and across the bridge. The engineers came next and put down planking for tanks. A little before noon Japanese tanks began crossing the bridge.
Later that day, the Japanese had assembled a large number of troops in the rice field on the northern edge of the town. One platoon of tanks under the command of 2nd Lt. Marshall Kennady were to the southeast of the bridge. Gentry's tanks were to the south of the bridge in huts, while third platoon commanded by Capt Harold Collins was to the south on the road leading out of Baluiag. 2nd Lt. Everett Preston had been sent south to find a bridge to cross to attack the Japanese from behind.
Major Morley came riding in his jeep into Baluiag. He stopped in front of a hut and was spotted by the Japanese who had lookouts in the town's church's steeple. The guard became very excited so Morley, not wanting to give away the tanks positions, got into his jeep and drove off. Bill had told him that his tanks would hold their fire until he was safely out of the village.
When Gentry felt the Morley was out of danger, he ordered his tanks to open up on the Japanese tanks at the end of the bridge. The tanks then came smashing through the huts' walls and drove the Japanese in the direction of Lt. Marshall Kennady's tanks. Kennady had been radioed and was waiting.
Kennady held his fire until the Japanese were in view of his platoon and then joined in the hunt. The Americans chased the tanks up and down the streets of the village, through buildings and under them. By the time Bill's unit was ordered to disengage from the enemy, they had knocked out at least eight enemy tanks.
Gentry and the other tankers withdrew to Calumpit Bridge after receiving orders from Provisional Tank Group. When they reached the bridge, they discovered it had been blown. Finding a crossing the tankers made it to the south side of the river. Knowing that the Japanese were close behind, the Americans took their positions in a harvested rice field and aimed their guns to fire a tracer shell through the harvested rice. This would cause the rice to ignite which would light the enemy troops.
Gentry spaced his tanks about 100 yards apart. The Japanese crossing the river knew that the Americans were there because the tankers shouted at each other to make the Japanese believe troops were in front of them. The Japanese were within a few yards of the tanks when the tanks opened fire.
Lighting the rice stacks, the Americans opened up with small fire. They then used their .37 mm guns. The fighting was such a rout that the the tankers were using a .37 mm shell to kill one Japanese soldier.
Gentry and his tank company were next sent to the barrio of Porac to aid the Filipino army which was having trouble with Japanese artillery fire. From a Filipino lieutenant, Gentry learned where the guns were and attacked. Before the Japanese withdrew, the tankers had knocked out three of the guns.
After this, the tanks withdrew to the Hermosa Bridge and held it on the north side until all the troops were across. The tanks then crossed to the south and destroyed the bridge which held the Japanese up for a few days. This was the beginning of the Battle of Bataan.
In addition to serving as a rear guard, the tankers burnt everything that was being left behind. They burnt warehouses, banks, and businesses that would help the Japanese.
In Gentry's opinion, what did the Filipinos and Americans in was the lack of food. The troops first ate the horses of the 26th U. S. Cavalry. They next ate the mules. When these were gone, the soldiers searched the rice stacks for rice. The average soldier was down to 800 calories a day or the equivalent of one meal. When the Japanese broke through the final line of defense, they did so against troops who were so sick with malaria that they could not hold their guns up to fire them.
Gentry and his tanks continued to fight until they were ordered to surrender on April 9, 1942. It was not until the 11th of April that Gentry and the other members of C Company became Prisoner of Wars. With his men, he made his way to Mariveles where he would begin the death march.
On the march, Gentry and the other POWs were put into groups of 100 to 150 men. It took him eleven days to complete the march. Gentry believed that the Japanese intentionally left him and other POWs sitting in the sun when they could have been marching. During this time, Gentry only had one ball of rice the size of a baseball and two stalks of sugar cane to eat. He also had very little to drink.
Gentry witnessed a number of incidents of Japanese brutality. He recalled that the Japanese took great pleasure in hitting Americans wearing World War I style helmets across the top of their heads. The reason was that at the top of the helmet was a rivet which would tear into the scalps of the men. Many Americans got rid of the helmets which proved to be a bad decision because of the sun.
Somewhere along the march, Gentry watched as POWs were forced to dig their own graves and then shot. They were then pushed into the graves and buried.
Suffering from malaria, Gentry was carried for three or four days during the march by his fellow tankers. In particular, 2nd Lt. Jacques Merrifield of B Company carried Gentry most of this time. Being out of his head, he did not remember much else of events along the march.
As a POW, Gentry was first held at Camp O'Donnell. Like so many others, he recalled that the waiting in line for hours for a cup of water was unbearable. In one case, he stood in line for two days for a cup of water.
At this time the number of POWs dying was somewhere around fifty a day. In his opinion, the lack of latrines may have contributed to this because those who were sick unintentionally spread their illnesses to others. He remained in the camp until June 6, 1942 when he was sent to Cabanatuan and assigned to Barracks #29 which was an officers barracks.
At Cabanatuan, the number of POWs dying each day was high. In the morning and afternoon, the dead were carried out. The next morning, those who had carried out the dead the day before were carried out to be buried. One reason Gentry believed that the death rate dropped was that the Japanese sent the POWs out in work details. Since they were no longer together in one place, the number of cases of dysentery decreased.
In Gentry's case, on October 27, 1942, he was sent to the Philippine Experimental Farm on the Island of Mindanao. The camp was about 36 miles from Davao City. There, the prisoners from Bataan and Corregidor were joined by POWs taken in the Southern Philippine Islands. Altogether, there were 2200 POWs on the island. On the island, the POWs cut wood for lumber, grew coffee beans, grew rice, and grew hemp for rope.
At the camp, the POWs were housed in eight barracks that were about 148 feet long and about 16 feet wide. A four foot wide aisle ran down the center of each barracks. In each barracks, were eighteen bays. Twelve POWs shared a bay. 216 POWs lived in each barracks. Four cages were later put in a bay. Each cage held two POWs.
The camp discipline was poor. The American commanding officer changed frequently. The junior officers refused to take orders from the senior officers. Soon, the enlisted men spoke anyway they wanted to, to the officers. The situation improved because all majority of POWs realized that discipline was needed to survive.
At first, the work details were not guarded. The POWs plowed, planted, and harvested the crops. The sick POWs made baskets. In April 1943, the POWs working conditions varied. Those working the rice fields received the worst treatment. They were beaten for not meeting quotas, misunderstandings between the POWs and guards, and a translator who could not be trusted to tell the truth.
During this time, Gentry worked on a rice farm where the prisoners were responsible for planting 1600 acres of rice. He was placed in command of the farm. Gentry and the other POWs attempted to grow as little rice as possible. Gentry like the other POWs would drop the rice stalks in the mud and "unintentionally" step on them.
When harvesting the rice, the POWs would "miss" the collection baskets spilling the rice onto the ground. At the threshing machine, the POWs made sure that as much of the rice as possible was blown away with the chaff. They would also "forget" to push the rice carts into the warehouse when it rained which caused the rice to get moldy.
Although they did these things, most of the rice still made it to the warehouse. Once piled inside, the prisoners often poked holes into the roof directly above the rice. When it rained, the rice would get wet and moldy.
It was at this time that Gentry and the other POWs learned to catch cobras to eat. The cobras were caught in the rice paddies. If one was spotted the POWs would jump on it.
The one good thing that happened to Gentry and the other POWs on this detail was that they were given Red Cross packages. The medicine in the packages also helped to bring the number of cases of malaria and dysentery under control.
On June 6, 1944, William was selected by the Japanese to be returned to Cabanatuan. It is believed that this was done because he was considered to be extremely ill. Gentry and the other POWs who were ill were sent by ship to Manila.
From Manila, he was returned to Cabanatuan where he was reunited with 2nd Lt. Leroy Scoville and 2nd Lt. Jacques Merrifield of the 192nd. The officers became bunk mates and watched out for each other. After he returned to Cabanatuan, the Japanese stepped up the shipment of POWs to Japan and other countries far from the advancing Americans. All prisoners determined to be healthy were sent to Japan or an occupied country. Only the sick and dying remained in the Philippines by January, 1945.
The reason Gentry was not sent to Japan was that he came down with dysentery at Cabanatuan. Those with dysentery were put into "Zero Ward." The Japanese were afraid of the disease. To account for the prisoners, the Japanese would stand on the outside of the wire fencing that surrounded the ward and call out the prisoners' POW numbers.
As time went on, Gentry and the other POWs began to see more and more American planes flying overhead on their way to bomb Manila and Japanese military bases. The prisoners knew it was just a matter of time before American forces landed on Luzon. They also knew that the Japanese had no intention of allowing them to be liberated by American forces.
It was on the night of January 30, 1945, that Gentry and the other prisoners were liberated when Rangers of the United States Army raided Cabanatuan to prevent the Japanese repeating the execution of prisoners that had taken place on Palawan Island. Gentry and the other liberated POWs were lead through enemy lines to American lines.
About three weeks after liberation, Gentry returned to the United States. He spent the next several months in the hospital. He was also promoted to captain February 18, 1945. He remained in the reserves and was discharged on April 1, 1953.
Gentry returned to Harrodsburg and married Katherine Poor. He became the father of a daughter and two sons. He was employed by the Corning Glass Company. William Gentry later moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, near his son.
Capt. William H. Gentry was awarded two Silver Stars for gallantry, one Bronze Star for bravery, one Purple Heart, one Expeditionary Medal, and a Good Conduct medal. He passed away on April 25, 2000, in Blacksburg. He was buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.