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, and 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, and that 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 January 1941, he was transferred to Headquarters Company when it was formed with members of the fourth letter companies 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 was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana. 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 S. Patton. Those members of the battalion who were married, or 29 years old or older, were given the opportunity to resign from federal service. Men were given leave home to say goodbye to family and friends.
The battalion traveled by train to San Francisco, California. By ferry, they were taken to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island, where they received inoculations and physicals. Those members of the battalion who were found to have treatable medical conditions remained behind on the island and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.S Hugh L. Scott and sailed from San Francisco on Monday, October 27th, as part of a three ship convoy that arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd, and had a two day layover. The soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island. On November 5th, the ships sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. During this part of the voyage, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The cruiser that was escorting the two transports revved its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it took off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out that the unknown ship was from a friendly country.
Arriving at Guam on Sunday, November 16th, the ships took on bananas, vegetables, coconuts, and water before sailing for Manila. 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 would soon be at war. The ships entered Manila Bay on Thursday, November 20th, at 8:00 A.M. and docked at Manila later in the day. At 3:00 P.M. most of the soldiers disembarked and were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those assigned to trucks drove them to the base, while the maintenance section of the battalion remained behind and unloaded the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward King, who apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field, but he had only learned of their arrival days earlier. He made sure that they had what they needed and that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner. 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 Monday, December 1st, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers. The 194th Tank Battalion guarded the northern half of the airfield, while the 192nd guarded the southern half. At all times, two members of every tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles. Meals were brought to them by food trucks.
At six in the morning on December 8th, the officers of the battalion were called to the radio room at the fort. They were ordered to bring their tank platoons up to full strength at the perimeter of airfield. All morning the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, the tankers were having lunch and watched as 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. As they watched, the saw "raindrops" falling from the planes. When bombs began exploding, the soldiers knew the planes were Japanese.
The tankers could do little more than watch since their weapons, except for the tanks' machine guns, were useless against planes. After the attack, the tankers saw the damage done to the airfield. They remained at the airfield for two weeks before being sent north.
The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt. Fred Bruni, HQ's commanding officer, gave his men the news of the surrender. While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them. As he spoke, his voice choked. He turned away from the men for a moment, and when he turned back he continued. He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks. During the announcement, Bruni emphasized that they all were to surrender together. He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and any supplies that could be used by the Japanese. The only thing they were told not to destroy were the company's trucks. The men waited in their bivouac until ordered to move. Somehow, Bruni had found enough bread and pineapple juice for what he called, "Their last supper."
On April 11th, the first Japanese soldiers appeared at HQ company's encampment. Donald was now a Prisoner of War. A Japanese officer ordered the company, with their possessions, out onto the road that ran in front of their encampment. Once on the road, the soldiers were ordered to kneel along the sides of the road with their possessions in front of them. As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers, who were passing them, went through their possessions and took whatever they wanted from the Americans. They remained along the sides of the road for hours.
HQ Company finally boarded trucks and drove to just outside of Mariveles. From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and ordered to sit. As they sat, the POWs noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming across from them. They soon realized that this was a firing squad and the Japanese were going to kill them.
As they prepared to die, a car pulled up and a Japanese officer got out of the car and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail. After talking to the sergeant, he got back in the car and drove off. The sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.
Later in the day, the POWs were order to move and taken to a school yard in Mariveles and ordered to sit. Behind them were Japanese artillery pieces. The guns were firing on Corregidor and Ft. Drum. When the two American strongholds began returning fire, the prisoners found themselves in the line of fire and shells began landing around them. Five POWs who hid in an old brick building were killed when it took a direct hit. When the barrage ended, three if the four Japanese guns had been destroyed.
It was from this school yard that the POWs began the death march. The first five miles of the march was uphill. They made their way north from Mariveles to San Fernando. During the march men who had fell were shot and bayoneted where they fell.
When they reached San Fernando, the POWs were put in a bull pen which had been created by putting barbwire around a school yard. They were left there for hours sitting in the sun. At some point, the Japanese ordered them to form 100 men detachments. When this was done, they were marched to the train station.
At San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars known as "Forty or Eights." The cars could hold forty men of eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. Those POWs who died in the cars did not fall to the floors until the living left the cars at Capas. From Caps, the POWs walked the last ten miles to Camp O'Donnell.
Camp O'Donnell was an unfinished Filipino training base with only 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 at 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 and 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, but the Japanese refused to allow the POWs to receive the medicine.
According to records kept by the doctors at the camp, T/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 in a grave with 33 other men, five of whom were members of the 192nd Tank Battalion, who died on that date in Grave 214. Nine of the men buried in the grave were identified.
After the war, the U.S. Recovery Team could not positively identify the remains of T/4 Gerald J. Sterken, and 24 other men so they were buried as "Unknowns" at the new American Military Cemetery at Manila. His name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the cemetery.