Von Bergen




Sgt. Willard W. Von Bergen
    Sgt. Willard W. Von Bergen was born in October 8, 1920, to Henry and Minnie Von Bergen.  With his brother, sister and half-sister, he was raised in Park Ridge, Illinois, at 1939 West Oakton Street.  His father passed away in 1932, and his mother married William Warnke. 
    Willard attended Oakton Grammar School and Maine Township High School, where at fifteen years old, he was a member of the Class of 1936.  He was known as "Von" to his friends.  After high school, he worked at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago.  He met his future wife while working there.

    In 1940, Willard. along with his two best friends from Maine Township High School in Park Ridge, Jim Bashleben and Andrew Hepburn joined the Illinois National Guard's Maywood Tank Company together.  The reason he and his friends did this was that the draft act had just passed, and they wanted to fulfill their military obligation.  

    Willard, Jim and Andy went to Maywood and had an agreement that they would not enlist but see what the National Guard had to offer them.  Once in the armory, all three experienced the "divide and conquer" method of recruitment. After entering the armory, each one was taken on a tour by guardsmen and never saw each other until they were ready to go home.  On their way home to Park Ridge, each of the friends admitted that he had enlisted.

    In November 1940, Willard went with the 33rd Tank Company to Fort Knox, Kentucky.  In September 1940, the company had been designated Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion.  During his training, Willard qualified as a member of a tank crew.  He also was assigned to a tank as it's commander.

    Late in the summer of 1941, Ray took part in maneuvers in Louisiana.  According to members of the battalion, during the maneuvers, they broke through the defensive perimeter of the Blue Army and on their way to capture the headquarters of General George Patton when the maneuvers were suddenly canceled.  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. 
    Many of the POWs were given leaves home.  While on leave,
On October 8, 1941, Willard married Helen Connele.  He returned to Camp Polk with Jim Bashleben and Andy Hepburn.  Before leaving the fort, the battalion received the tanks of the 753rd Tank Battalion.
    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. 

    On December 21, 1941, Willard's tank platoon engaged the Japanese at Lingayen Gulf.  His platoon was selected because they had just refueled their tanks and had enough gas to make it there and back.  Willard's tank crew was under the command of 2nd Lt. Ben Morin.  The platoon was sent north to Agoo to engage the Japanese on December 22, 1941.  This was the first time American tanks were involved in tank to tank combat in World War II.

    During the engagement, the tanks came under heavy enemy fire.  When Lt. Morin's tank was disabled, the remaining tanks of the platoon attempted to come to his aid.  For some reason, Willard bent over in the turret of his tank.  While he was bent over, a Japanese shell came through the turret.  Had he been standing straight up in the turret, he most likely would have been killed.   Instead, he received minor wounds.  His tank crew spent the next four months attempting to slow the Japanese conquest of the Philippines.
    At about 6:45 in the morning of April 9, 1942, the tankers received the order "crash."  They circled their tanks and disabled them by firing an armor piercing shell into the engine of each tank.  They then opened the gasoline cocks inside the tanks and dropped grenades into them.

    Willard was now a Prisoner of War.  After the Japanese made contact with them, the tankers made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan.  It was from there that they started what they called "the march."

    The tankers made their way north along the east coast of Bataan.  The first five kilometers were uphill which made the march more difficult.  At one point, the POWs ran past Japanese artillery which was firing on Corregidor which had not surrendered.  When they reached San Fernanado, the POWs were put in a bull in which was covered in human waste.  In one corner was a trench that served as a toilet.  The surface of the trench moved from the maggots that covered it.
    The Japanese organized the POWs into detachments of 100 men.  They marched them to the train station and packed them into small wooden boxcars known as "forty or eights."  This referred to the fact that each car could hold forty men or eight horses.  The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car.
    During the trip to Capas, those POWs who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas.  From there, the POWs marched another ten kilometers to Camp O'Donnell.  When they arrived at the camp, the POWs were told by the camp commander that they were not POWs but captives and would be treated as captives.

    It was while he was a prisoner at Camp O'Donnell, Willard went out on a work detail to rebuild bridges in Bataan.  On this detail, he was reunited with his friend Jim Bashleben.  The commanding officer of the detail was Lt. Col. Ted Wickord of the 192nd Tank Battalion.  Wickord attempted to fill the detail with as many of his own men as he could.

    According to Jim Bashleben, Willard was working on this detail when he became ill and sent to Cabanatuan Camp #1.  Records kept by the medical staff show that Willard was admitted to the camp hospital on Sunday, July 5, 1942, suffering from malaria and dysentery and assigned to Barracks 28.  Records also show that he died of dysentery & malaria on Tuesday, August 11, 1942, at 6:30 PM. 

    When Willard's high school friend, Jim Bashleben, was given the chance to send a postcard home as a POW, he said "hello" to Miss Helen Connele.  He hoped by doing this that Helen would know that her husband was dead.  After the war when Jim returned home, Helen told him that as soon as she read his greeting she knew her husband was dead.

    Sgt. Willard Von Bergen's wife and family officially learned of his death on June 1, 1943.  A memorial service was held at Saint Luke's Lutheran Church in Park Ridge, Illinois, on June 5, 1943.

    After the war, the remains of Sgt. Willard Von Bergen were interred in Plot J, Row 4, Grave 13, at the American Military Cemetery outside Manila.





 


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