Sterken

 

Tec 4 Gerald J. Sterken


    Tec 4 Gerald J. Sterken was born on March 30, 1918, in Richland, Iowa, to Gerrit & Catherine Sterken.  He had four brothers and one sister.  The family resided in Tood County, South Dakota in 1930, Clinton, Wisconsin, in 1935, and Avalon, Wisconsin, in 1940.  Gerald left school after eighth grade and worked as a farm hand on the family farm.
    At some point, Gerald joined the Wisconsin National Guard in Janesville, Wisconsin.  His tank company was federalized in September 1940 and designated A Company, 192nd Tank Battalion.  On November 25th, the soldiers came together and spent the next few days organizing their equipment.  On November 28th, they left by train for Fort Knox, Kentucky.  After a stop in Maywood, Illinois, to pick up B Company, the soldiers arrived at the base.
    During training at Ft. Knox, Gerald was promoted to Technician Fourth Class.  This rank meant he had received special training on tanks.  He was referred to as sergeant. 
It is known that Gerald, like all the other members of the battalion, learned to operate all the equipment of the battalion. 
    In late August, the battalion was informed it would take part in maneuvers in Louisiana.  During the maneuvers the battalion performed exceptionally well.  After the maneuvers, instead of returning to Ft. Knox, the battalion remained at Camp Polk.  None of the members had any idea why they were being kept there.
    On the side of a hill, the battalion members were informed that they were being sent overseas.  They were told that this decision had been made by General George Patton.  Those members of the battalion who were 29 years old or older were given the opportunity to resign from federal service.  Men were  given leaves home to say goodbye to family and friends.
    The battalion traveled by train to San Francisco.  By ferry, they were taken to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island.  On the island, they received inoculations and physicals.  Those members of the battalion who were found to have treatable medical conditions remained behind on the island.  They were scheduled to join the battalion at a later date.
   
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.S Hugh L. Scott and sailed from San Francisco on Monday, October 27th, for Hawaii as part of a three ship convoy.  They arrived at Honolulu on Sunday, November 2nd.  The soldiers were given leaves so they could see the island.  On November 5th, the ships sailed for Guam.  At one point, the ships passed an island at night.  While they passed the island, they did so in total blackout.  This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way.  When they arrived at Guam, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables.  The ships sailed the same day for Manila and entered Manila Bay on Thursday, November 20th.  They docked at Pier 7 and the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. 
    At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward King.  The general apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield.  He made sure that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own. 
Ironically, November 20th was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
   
For the next seventeen days the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons.  The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea.  They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance.
    On the morning of December 8, 1941, the members of A Company were informed of the Japanese attack on Clark Field.  His tank and the others were sent to the perimeter of the airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers.  About 12:45 in the afternoon as the tankers were eating lunch, planes approached the airfield from the north.  At first, the soldiers thought the planes were American.  It was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that they knew the planes were Japanese.
   The 192nd remained at Clark field for about a week before they were ordered to the barrio of Dau so it would be near a road and railroad.  For the next four months, the tankers held positions so that the other units could disengage and form a defensive line. 
    On one occasion the company were in bivouac on two sides of a road.  The posted sentries and most of the tankers attempted to get some sleep.  The sentries heard noise down the road and woke the company.  Every man grabbed a weapon.  As they watched, a Japanese bicycle battalion rode into their bivouac.  The tankers opened fire with everything they had.  When they stopped firing, they had completely wiped out the bicycle battalion.
    The night of April 8, 1942, the members of A Company circled their tanks.  Each tank fired one armor piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it.  The tankers next opened up the gasoline valves and dropped hand grenades into the turrets.  The next morning at 7:00 A.M. they became Prisoners of War.
    The members of A Company made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan.  It was from this barrio that the tankers started what they simply called "the march."
    The POWs made their way north from Mariveles.  The first five miles of the march were uphill.  At one point, the members of the company had to run past Japanese artillery firing on Corregidor.  They received little water and little food.  When they reached San Fernando, they were put into a bull pen.  In one corner of the bull pen was a trench the POWs were suppose to use as a washroom.  The surface of the trench was alive with maggots.  How long they remained in the bull pen is not known. 
    The Japanese ordered the POWs to form ranks.  They were marched to the train stationed and packed into small wooden
boxcars used to haul sugarcane.  Each car could hold forty men or eight horses.  The Japanese  packed 100 POWs into each car.  Those who died remained standing since there was no place for them to fall.  At Capas, the living left the cars and the dead fell to the floors.  They walked the last ten miles to Camp O'Donnell.
   
Camp O'Donnell was an unfinished Filipino training base.  There was one water faucet for the entire camp.  Men literally died for a drink.  The death rate in the camp began to rise until as many as 55 men dying each day.  The burial detail worked non-stop to bury the dead.  Often, when they returned the next morning, the wild dogs had dug up the bodies or the bodies were sitting up in their graves.   
    To lower the death rate, the Japanese opened a new camp near Cabanatuan.  The healthier POWs were sent to the camp.  It was while Gerald was a POW in the camp that he became ill.  He was admitted to the camp hospital on June 12, 1942, suffering from dysentery and inanition.  He was put into Barracks 2 in the Hospital Area of the camp.  Since the doctors had no medicines, they could do little for the sick.  It should be mentioned that, on several occasions, the Philippine Red Cross came to the camp with medical supplies for the POWs.  The Japanese refused to allow the POWs to receive the medicine.
    According to records kept by the doctors at the camp, Tec 4 Gerald J. Sterken died of dysentery and malaria on Friday, July 24, 1942, at 11:30 P.M.  He was buried in the camp cemetery. 
    After the war, the U.S. Recovery Team could not positively identify the remains of Gerald Sterken, so he was buried as an "Unknown" at the new American Military Cemetery at Manila.  His name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the cemetery.


 

 

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