Pvt. Steve Kodaj
Pvt. Stephen Kodaj was born
on April 3, 1917, to Michael Kodaj & Sophie
Kleich-Kodaj in Chicago, Illinois. He was
the oldest of three sons born to the couple.
He was known as "Steve" to his family and
friends. His family moved to Brookfield,
Illinois, where he lived at 4029 South Anna
Avenue. He worked in a nursery as a
On July 16, 1940, he joined the Illinois National Guard because he wanted excitement. His tank company was called to federal service and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky to train. While at Ft. Knox, he trained as a tank driver and assigned to a tank crew.
In the late summer of 1941, Frank 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. 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 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.
The battalion was suppose to receive additional training after arriving on Luzon. This training came in the form of actual combat against the Japanese invasion forces.
Steve concluded that the Japanese soldiers were savages because of the way they fought and treated the Filipinos. From December 1941 to April of 1942, Steve with the other members of his company fought to slow the Japanese conquest of the Philippine Islands. This effort on the part of the Bataan defenders bought time for the Allies to reinforce Australia and ruined the Japanese plans of invasion.
When the defenders of Bataan were surrendered to the Japanese, Steve destroyed his tank. Instead of surrendering, he escaped to Corregidor. He was assigned to the 4th Marines and fought on for another month until the Japanese all out attack on the island resulted in the surrender of the American forces there. When Corregidor surrendered, Steve became a Prisoner of War.
As a POW Steve was first imprisoned at Cabanatuan #3. From Cabanatuan, he was sent to Manila and worked on the Bachrach Garage. He and the other POWs on this detail repaired equipment for the Japanese. Steve was considered too sick to work and was sent to Bilibid. When he had recovered, he was given an physical and determined healthy enough to be sent to another occupied country.
On October 5, 1942, Steve and another 1600 POW's were sent to the dock area of Manila, They spent two days housed in a warehouse on the dock before being boarded onto Tottori Maru.
The ship sailed for Takao, Formosa. The prisoners were divided into two groups. One group was placed in the holds while the other group remained on deck. The lucky POWs remained on deck. The conditions on the ship were indescribable, but those in the hold were worse off than those on deck. This situation was made worse by the fact that for the first two weeks of the voyage the prisoners were not fed. Many POWs died during the trip.
Shortly after leaving Manila, the Tottori
Maru came under a torpedo attack by an
American submarine. The captain of the
ship maneuvered it to avoid torpedoes. The
POWs listened as the two torpedoes fired at the
ship missed, but another ship in the convoy was
The ship continued its voyage arriving at Takao, Formosa, on October 12th. The ship remained at Takao for four days before sailing. It returned to Takao the same day and sailed again on October 18th. When it reached the Pescadores Islands, it dropped anchor. It remained off the islands until October 27th when it returned to Takao. During this stay, the POWs were disembarked and washed down with fire hoses. During their time in the ship, they were only fed twice.
The ship sailed again on October 30th. On October 31st, the ship stopped at Makou, Pescadores Islands, before continuing its trip to Pusan, Korea. During this trip, the ship was caught in a typhoon which took five days to ride out.
After 31 days on the ship, the Totori Maru
docked at Pusan, Korea, on November 7th.
1300 POW's got off the ship and sent on a four
day train trip north to Mukden,
Manchria. There, they worked in a sawmill
or a manufacturing plant.
As a POW at Mukden, Steve was sent to Branch Camp #3 which was known as the Shenyang Camp. There, he worked in a sawmill producing lumber. Steve delighted in sabotaging the mill to stop its operation. Even though they were in Manchuria, Steve and the other POWs knew how the war was going. During his time at Mukden, the only member of B Company Steve was in touch with was William Kindell.
At some point, Steve cut his finger. Since the doctors had no medicine to treat the POWs with, the finger became infected. The infection became so bad that it spread up his arm. After it was examined by a Japanese doctor, the doctor told him that it would have to be amputated the next day. According to Steve, another POW told him to put cigarette ash on the wound to draw out the poison. He did this and to his amazement his arm was better the next day.
On another occasion, Steve violated a camp rule. For his punishment, he was hit with a bamboo stick on his shoulders and head. The guard hit him so hard that the stick broke.
In September of 1945, Steve and the other POWs were liberated by Russian troops. After he was freed, Steve's family received a letter from him dated August 23, 1945. This was the first news they had received from him since November 1941. A month after liberation, Steve was returned to American authorities. He remained in Asia for one additional month before being returned to the United States.
Steve was finally discharged, from the army, at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on May 3, 1946, with the rank of sergeant. He returned to Illinois and married. He would move to Oakland Park, Florida, and raise a family.
On November 11, 1988, Veterans Day, Steve was awarded the medals he should have received after he was liberated. One of those medals was the Silver Star.
Steve Kodaj passed away on March 12, 2005, in Tallahassee, Florida.