|Sgt. Willard W. Von
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
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.
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.
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.
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.