1st Sgt. Roger James Heilig
| 1st Sergeant
Roger J. Heilig was one of the three children of
Oscar A. Helig and Viola Strenging-Heilig. He
was born on March 8, 1921, in Oak Park, Illinois,
and lived at 2116 South 16th Avenue in Maywood,
Illinois. He attended Roosevelt Grade School
in Broadview and Proviso Township High School.
He was a member of the graduating class of 1938 from
Proviso. After high school, he worked as a
shipping clerk for the Jefferson Electric Company.
In 1937, Roger joined the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Tank Company from Maywood with his best friend, Warren Hildebrand. To do this, he had to get his parents to sign a consent form since he was only sixteen years old. On April 8, 1940, he was honorably discharged, but he reenlisted a month later in May of 1940.
On November 24, 1940, Roger went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, when the company was federalized and made part of the 192nd Tank Battalion. During his training, Roger attended technical school, there he learned to work with ordnance.
In the late summer of 1941, Roger took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to remain behind at Camp Polk. None of the members of the battalion had any idea why they were there. On the side of a hill, the members learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, many men had figured out they were being sent to the Philippine Islands.
From Camp Polk, the battalion traveled west over four different train routes. Arriving in San Francisco, the soldiers were ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, the soldiers were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases. Those with health issues were released from service and replaced.
The battalion sailed, on the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott from San Francisco on Monday, October 27th for Hawaii as part of a three ship convoy. They arrived in Hawaii on Sunday, November 2nd, and had a layover. The soldiers received passes and allowed to explore the islands. They sailed again on Tuesday, November 4th, for Guam. When the ships arrived at Guam, they took on bananas, vegetables, coconuts, and water. The soldiers remained on ship since the convoy was sailing the next day. About 8:00 in the morning on November 20th, the ships arrived at Manila Bay. After arriving at Manila, it was three or four hours before they disembarked. Most of the battalion boarded trucks and rode to Ft. Stotsenburg north of Manila.
At the fort, the tankers were met by General Edward King. King 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 love in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived.
For the next seventeen days the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons. In Roger's case, he worked with Pfc. Carl Maggio and Pvt. Joseph Lajzer. They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts.
The morning of December 8th, the officers of the battalions met and were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hours earlier. The 192nd letter companies were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield.
All morning long, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, all the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45 planes approached the airfield from the north. The tankers on duty at the airfield counted 54 planes. When bombs began exploding, the men knew the planes were Japanese. After the attack the 192nd remained at Ft. Stotsenburg for almost two weeks. They were than sent to the Lingayen Gulf area where the Japanese had landed.
Roger took part in the first tank action of World War II involving American tanks. During the withdrawal into the Bataan Peninsula, Roger demonstrated his personal courage. He was standing on a dyke along the south bank of the Agno River with his tank behind him. As he stood there, he noticed men coming across the river in the distance. At first, he dismissed these men as Filipino soldiers and began walking back to the tank. Suddenly, he stopped and turned. He realized that the last Filipino troops had already crossed the river.
Roger ran to his tank, grabbed his Tommy-gun, ran back to the dyke and threw himself on the ground. He opened fire on the men in the river and on the north bank. The Japanese on the north bank returned fire and shelled his position with mortars; but Roger held his position. In the ensuing battle, Roger killed over thirty enemy soldiers as they attempted to cross the river. He held his position on the dyke until he was reinforced.
On April 9, 1942, when Filipino and American forces were surrendered to the Japanese, Roger escaped to Corregidor. He became a Prisoner of War when the island was surrendered to Japanese on May 6, 1942. As a POW, he was sent to Cabanatuan. It should be mentioned that his parents did not learn that he was a POW until May 21, 1943.
Sometime in late 1942 or early 1943, Roger was selected for a work detail in Manila. It was while Roger was on this detail that his parents received word, on May 21, 1943, that he was a POW. This was the first news they had about him since he had left the States. The detail occupied the Bachrach Garage and repaired trucks, cars and other equipment for the Japanese. With him, on the detail, were Clyde Ehrhardt, Arthur Van Pelt, Warren Hildebrandt, Daniel Boni, and Ralph Ellis of B Company. He remained on this detail until October 1944 when the detail was disbanded and the POWs were sent to Pier 7 in Manila.
Roger and the other POWs were boarded onto the Arisan Maru. The POWs were schedule to sail on the Hokusen Maru, but the ship was ready sail and their entire POW detachment had not arrived at the pier. The Japanese swapped POW detachments and put the other detachment on the ship.
The Arisan Maru sailed on October 11th to avoid attacks by American planes. The ship returned to Manila to join the convoy. For the next twelve days as the ship waited, the POWs remained in the holds until the ship sailed a second time.
According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on Tuesday, October 24, 1944, near dinner time, POWs were on deck preparing the meal for those in the ship's two holds. The ship was, in the Bashi Channel, off the coast of China. There was a sudden jar which was caused by the ship being hit by two torpedoes. The ship stopped dead in the water. It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was the U. S. S Snook.
As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope ladders into the ship's two holds. Some of the POWs in the second hold were able to climb out and lowered a ladder to those in the first hold. They also dropped ropes down to the POWs in both holds.
Many of the POWs attempted to escape the ship by clinging to rafts, hatch covers, flotsam and jetsam. Most of the POWs survived the attack but died because the Japanese refused to rescue them. The Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as they attempted to reach them.
Sgt. Roger Heilig lost his life when the Arisan Maru was torpedoed in the South China Sea. Of the 1800 POWs on the ship, only nine survived the sinking. Since he was lost at sea, Sgt. Roger Heilig's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila. After the war, 1st Sgt. Roger Helig's family had a memorial dedicated to him at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
It should be mentioned that Roger's best friend, Warren Hildebrandt, whom he joined the National Guard with also died in the sinking of the Arisan Maru.