Sgt. Owen Leonard Sandmire
Sgt. Owen L. Sandmire was born
October 24, 1918, to Leonard and Bessie Sandmire
in Viola, Wisconsin. He was the fourth child
of eight children. "Sandy" as he was called
by his friends, grew up first in Reedsburg,
Wisconsin, where he graduated from Reedsburg
Elementary School. His family then moved to
Lime Ridge, Wisconsin, where he graduated from
Lime Ridge High School in 1938.
Sandy went out on his own at fifteen since it would make it easier on his family. His father was a barber and could not make enough to support his large family.
On September 16, 1940, Sandy enlisted into the Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd Tank Company from Janesville. Sandy decided to do this after drinking a few beers with some National Guardsmen. His reason for doing this was the draft act had recently been passed and he did not want to be drafted into the army. It also had already been announced that the tank company was going to be called to federal duty. Sandy and his friend, Bob Stewart, were also not having very good luck finding steady jobs, so being in the army with regular pay sounded good to both of them. Two months later, Sandy would be called to federal duty when the 32nd Tank Company was federalized as A Company, 192nd Tank Battalion.
At Fort Knox, Sandy was trained as a tank driver. This would be the position he would hold throughout his tour of duty with the 192nd. Since the members of the battalion were trained to do more than one job, he was also trained on a motorcycle as a reconnaissance sergeant. It was also at this time that he became good friends with Harvey Riedeman.
After almost nine months of training at Fort Knox, the 192nd was sent to Louisiana to take part in the maneuvers of 1941. On route to the maneuvers, on his motorcycle, Sandy served as traffic director of the convoy. According to him, the worst thing about the maneuvers was the snakes. It was after the completion of the these maneuvers that the 192nd was informed that they had been selected for duty overseas.
Over four different train routes, the 192nd was sent west to Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco, California. Before leaving for the Philippine Islands, the final replacement soldiers joined their new battalion. Sandy also was assigned his new tank which only had four or five miles on it. The irony of receiving the tank was that although it was new, it was already obsolete.
After stops in Hawaii and Guam, the 192nd arrived in the Philippine Islands on Thanksgiving Day, 1941. Two weeks later they would find themselves on the front line of battle against the Japanese.
Sandy recalled that on December 8, 1941, he and the other soldiers of A Company looked up at the formations of planes over their heads. He recalled how beautiful they looked. When the first bombs exploded, he and the other men ran to take cover. Sandy avoided being hit by enemy fire by playing "leap-frog" over a wall. If the Japanese planes came from the side of the wall he was on, he would jump to the other side and use the wall to shield himself from enemy bullets. During the attack, a Filipino woman was hit by enemy fire in the hip. Sandy attempted to help her, but she would not allow him to help her.
A few days after the attack, Sandy and the other members of the 192nd were sent north to Lingayen Gulf. There, the tanks were spread out about a mile apart. The tanks could not do much to stop the Japanese because of the area each tank was expected to cover and the fact that the Japanese simply had too many troops to stop. Sandy remembered that from this time on all the Filipino and American troops did was retreat.
While withdrawing from an area, A Company had been given cigar boxes that Philippine Ordnance had made into land mines. Sandy and another soldier were suppose to place them along the sides of the road since the Japanese, like the Americans, marched alongside the roads in the ditches.
Since the soldiers never had been trained in the use of landmines, Capt. Walter Write told the soldiers, "Sergeant, get the men back. This mine doesn't look like and may go off." As he released the mine, it went off in his hands blowing off his arms, one leg and blinding him. He died of his wounds a short time later. In Sandy's opinion, the morale of the company dropped after Write's death.
On Christmas Day 1941, Sandy recalled that the tankers had turkey for Christmas dinner. He also recalled that during this lull the fighting, that he realized he had been wearing the same clothing for eighteen days. He and the other tankers got sleep when they could. Often they slept on their tanks.
It was in the jungle that the tankers found out how inappropriate the M3 tanks were for use in the Philippines. Off the road, they had to travel with their turrets backwards. If the tankers did not do this, the guns would get stuck in the jungle growth. The tanks were also restricted to the roads since they would get stuck in the mud of the rice fields. The high silhouettes and straight sides of the M3 also made the tanks easy targets for the Japanese.
After the Filipino and American Forces had retreated into Bataan, Sandy and the other tanks of A Company were sent to clean out the pockets of Japanese troops that had been landed behind the defensive line. What made this job so hard was that the Japanese dug "spider holes" among the roots the trees. Because of this situation, the Americans could not get a good shot at the Japanese.
With the help of B & C Company tanks, the pocket was cleared. But before this was done, one C Company tank which had gone beyond the American perimeter was disabled. The tank just sat there. When the sun came up the next day, the tank was still sitting there. During the night, its crew was buried alive, inside the tank, by the Japanese. When the Japanese had been wiped out, the tank was turned upside down to remove the dirt and recover the bodies of the crew.
In another incident, Sandy recalled that there were cliffs that had caves in them. The Japanese Marines used the caves for protection and would climb to the cliffs to enter them or leave them. The tankers fired into the caves repeatedly until the Japanese were dead or came out of the caves.
Sandy and John Hopple, of B Company, and two other men of the 192nd risked their lives to rescue another member of their battalion who had been wounded. The four went into an area under fire, put the man on a stretcher, and carried him out. The other three men with him were wounded. Sandy could not recall if the man that was rescued survived or if he died of his wounds But the other three men who had been wounded rescuing him, died of their wounds. For this action under enemy fire, Sandy received the Silver Star.
It was also during this time that Sandy and Albert DuBois accidentally gave a tank crew from B Company a good scare. The two soldiers were on guard duty and found the duty boring. To keep themselves entertained, the two men began tossing a "dummy" hand grenade to see who could throw it the farthest. During one of his tosses, Sandy's throw went through the open hatch of a tank. Believing the grenade was live, the crew began digging through the junk on the floor in an attempt to get the grenade out of the tank. When it did not explode, the tank crew members looked out of the turret and found Sandy walking alongside of the tank. Sandy looked up at the crew and asked, " Did anyone see a practice grenade land around here?" In Sandy's opinion, if the crew could have, they would have shot him on the spot.
During the Battle of Bataan, Sandy came down with dysentery. While he was ill, his tank was destroyed. This resulted in Sandy assuming the role of reconnaissance sergeant for the192nd. To do this duty, he was assigned an Indian Motorcycle. Having trained at Fort Knox on Harley-Davidison motorcycles, Sandy found it hard to adjust to the controls of the motorcycle which were just the opposite of a Harley.
Sandy's tank was near kilometer 208 a little ahead of the remainder of A Company. "Photo Charlie" flew over and stayed around for awhile. His tank crew believed their tank was pretty well camouflaged, but had dug small trenches to take cover in if they were attacked. Not too long after "Photo Charlie" had left, a Japanese glider bomber came in and laid a bomb beside their tank. They were on the other side of the tank, so they did not get hit by shrapnel. They quickly moved the tank into denser jungle.
Having eaten everything that moved in the jungle, out of food, ammunition and medical supplies, on April 8, 1942, the word came down to Sandy and the other tankers that Bataan was going to be surrendered. Sandy was ordered to destroy the remaining tanks and make them unusable to the Japanese. He had the tanks placed in a circle and fired a round of armor piercing shells into each tank. Next, a high explosive shell was shot into each tank. When his task was complete, Sandy and the other members of A Company marched to Marveles at the southern tip of Bataan. From there, Sandy began what would become known as "The Bataan Death March."
On the march, Sandy stayed with the members of A Company. For the marchers the worst thing was the heat and lack of water. Those men who fell out were killed. Prisoners became so desperate that they often risked their lives to get a drink of water. The Filipino civilians along the route risked their lives, and often gave their lives, to give the soldiers a drink of water. The soldiers often drank water in the ditches alongside the road. This water was filled with bacteria. Often, the bodies soldiers who were killed by the Japanese were floating in the water. Those who drank this water came down with dysentery.
At San Fernando, Sandy and the other Prisoners of War boarded a train and were crammed into boxcars. With the Filipino sun beating down on the roofs of the boxcars, the journey by train was unbearable. The prisoners were packed in so tightly that when a man died, he could not fall down. There were no provisions for water or toilets, so the floors of the boxcars became a sea of diarrhea, vomit and urine. The prisoners disembarked from the train at Capas and marched the final few miles to Camp O'Donnell.
Sandy did not stay at Camp O'Donnell for long because he went out on a work detail to Manila. The detail was under the command of Japanese engineers whose job it was to rebuild the bridges, roads and airfields that had been destroyed by the Filipino and American troops as they retreated into Bataan. While working on this detail, the POWs lived in a bowling alley in Manila. With him on this detail were Forrest Knox, Lloyd Richter, Alva Chapman of A Company.
While on this detail, Sandy came down with diphtheria. A Japanese doctor took one look at him and said, "No good, no good," and gave Sandy two aspirin. This was the only help that Sandy ever received as a POW. He laid in his own filth unable to eat or swallow. He lost his eyesight, and his weight dropped to 89 pounds. To this day, Sandy has no idea of how he survived this illness.
Sandy also suffered from scurvy on the detail. His skin became raw and hurt. The POWs somehow got a hold of alcohol. He put a little on his skin. It felt better so Sandy splashed himself with the alcohol. It began to burn so badly that he took a shower for almost a hour.
Sandy also recalled that a Filipino had been accused of stealing a truck by the Japanese. Each night, the POWs heard the man's screams as he was tortured. The Japanese put lit cigarettes in the mans nostrils and ears. They also beat the man. Sandy stated that he found out later that the man had not stolen the truck.
In June 1943, when the detail ended, Sandy was
sent to Cabanatuan. Medical records kept
at the camp indicate that Sandy was in the camp
hospital on July 20, 1942. The records do
not indicate what his illness was or the date he
Sandy was sent out on a work detail to build runways at an airfield the Japanese were extending runways at. The POWs did the work with picks and shovels. The POWs would work a week at the airfield and spend the next week at a farm.
Sandy was at the farm planting potatoes. He had been on the detail for about a week and had learned how to plant the potatoes. One guard known as "Air Raid" came up to him, Sandy was sitting on the ground, and asked him if he knew what he was doing. Sandy responded with a yes. Air Raid did not know that Sandy had been planting potatoes for a week. He believed Sandy was telling him that Sandy knew more about planting potatoes then he did. He came over to Sandy and hit him in the head with a pick handle. Sandy was in the camp hospital for ten days.
Body lice was one of the worst things that the POWs suffered from in the camp. To get rid of them, the POWs rubbed a concoction of paste that he believed were made from rotten eggs. Whatever it was, it helped relieve the POWs from the lice.
Sandy remained at Cabanatuan for sixteen months until he was sent to the Port Area of Manila. Before he was sent to Japan, an American doctor recommended that he have his tonsils out. This was because he had had diphtheria and was being sent to Japan. While performing the tonsil surgery, the doctor was allowed only one 60 watt bulb for light. The light was allowed to be on only a short time at night. The doctor removed Sandy's tonsils with only local anesthetic that was running out about the time the bulb was turned out.
It was also at this time that Sandy lost his vision. He believed it was a result of diphtheria. How long it took to get his vision back he did not recall.
Sandy remained in the Philippines until July 1944. On July 1st, he and other POWs were taken to Manila. Owen was boarded onto the Canadian Inventor for shipment to Japan. The prisoners were packed into the hold of the ship so tightly that they had to sleep in shifts.
The bathroom for the prisoners was a rack that hung over the side of the ship. To get to it, the POWs had to climb up ladders from the hold. This situation meant that there were always lines of men on the ladders attempting to get to the rack. Since many of the men were suffering from dysentery, vomiting or had diphtheria, they did not always make it out of the hold before they relieved themselves. This was due to the fact that they were so sick and weak that they could not control their bodily functions. The trip to Japan aboard the Hell Ship took two months.
It was in the hold of the ship that Sandy was reunited with Ed DeGroot of A Company. The two men somehow got the job of preparing the evening meal for the other POWs. Having this job enabled the two men to get out of the hold of ship. It took the ship almost two months to reach Japan.
According to Sandy, after stopping at Formosa and unloading salt, the ship sailed for Japan empty except for the POWs. During this part of the trip it ran into rough waters and bounced in the water like a cork for ten days. The stern of the ship would come out of the water and the ship would shake as the propeller spun in the air. When the stern reentered the water, the ship took off.
The ship arrived at Moji and the POWs were unloaded. From Moji, they were taken by ferry to the Island of Honshu. They then took a train to Fukuoka. In Japan, Sandy was assigned to Omine Machi POW Camp. There the POWs were used as slave labor in coal mines.
Somehow Sandy ended up running the pneumatic drill cut holes into the cool vain. He did this for about a year. When he had finished drilling the Japanese would out dynamite charges into the holes. As they waited for the Japanese to blast, the POWs got their only break. The coal that was blasted loose was cleaned up by the next shift of POWs. The next day, they started all over again.
One day, while the POWs were walking into the mine to their work places, Sandy was the last man in line. A big Korean, who was in servitude to the Japanese, was standing in the shadows. Since Sandy was extremely tired and had his head down, he did not see the Korean and salute him. The Korean, whose battery was attached to his helmet light by a wire, swung the battery and hit Sandy in the back of his head. Knocked unconscious, Sandy fell to the ground breaking his left wrist and was left for dead in a ditch. This made mining extremely painful, and his wrist would bother him for the rest of his life.
In his estimate, during his time as a POW, Sandy suffered from dysentery, diphtheria, pellagra, scabies, malaria, a skin rash, scurvy, dengue fever, and beriberi. He would suffer from the skin rash the rest if his life.
Sandy was able to adapt to any situation and learned to mend his own shoes. When other POWs learned of this, he found himself the proprietor of the prison camp's shoe repair shop. He also believed that his attitude kept him alive. "I saw so many of my friends just lay down and die. I just hung in there and did anything to keep alive."
One day the prisoners did not have roll call and the guards were gone. This was the first sign that the prisoners had that the war was over. Sandy recalled that the camp commandant was still in the camp and paid the price for being there. Many of the POWs held him directly responsible for the deaths of many POWs. Some of the POWs pulled him from his quarters and tore him to pieces. They believed he was receiving the same treatment he had ordered that they be given.
Fearing for their lives, the prisoners stayed in the camp for ten days. American B-29s appeared over the camp and dropped 55 gallon drums containing food to the former POWs. What amazed the prisoners was that the Japanese civilians would bring the drums to them without touching anything in them.
The prisoners were finally boarded onto a train for the East Coast of Japan. They were deloused and their clothing burned. After receiving new clothing, the former prisoners were boarded onto a hospital ship. Owen was returned to the Philippines to be "fattened up." He then flew on a DC3 back to the United States. In October 1945, Sandy was reunited with his parents.
Besides the Silver Star, Sandy also received the Purple Heart, the POW Medal, the Bronze Star, the Asiatic/Pacific Campaign, the American Defense Medal, World War II Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Philippine Defense Medal, and the Combat Infantry Medal. The 192nd Tank Battalion received the Presidential Unit Citation with Two Oak Leaf Clusters. He was discharged, from the army, on May 11, 1946.
Sandy had a recurring nightmare of being chased by a Japanese guard. When the guard caught him, he couldn't move his arms and the guard beat him mercilessly.
The picture of Sandy, at the bottom of this page, was taken while he was a prisoner at Omine Machi in Japan. After the war, Owen Sandmire worked for the Oscar Meyer Company in Madison, Wisconsin, and in Sherman, Texas, as a power plant supervisor. He retired after 33 years in 1981 and moved to Sarasota, Florida.
Owen Sandmire passed away on March 10, 2004, from injuries he received in a motorcycle accident. After his death and following his request, he was cremated.