Pvt. Lester Owen Watson

    At this time, very little is known about Pvt. Lester Owen Watson.  What is known is that he was born on June 26, 1916, to Harold and Minnie Watson in Missouri.  The family would later live in Jennings, Kansas,  before moving to Illinois.  With his brother and sister, he grew up at 908 West Saint Charles Road in Maywood, Illinois, and attended Proviso Township High School.  He left school after two years and worked at a company that manufactured steel drums.  His job was to spray paint them.


    Lester joined the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Battalion Tank Company which was headquartered in an armory on Madison Street in Maywood.  On November 25, 1940, the company was federalized and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for training.  During his training there, it is not known what training he received.
In the late summer of 1941, the battalion was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, to take part in maneuvers.  The Red Army, which the 192nd was a part of, made a major breakthrough and were about to overrun the Blue Army's headquarters when the maneuvers were canceled.  Many of the members of the battalion said it was because General George Patton, the commander of the Blue Army, did not want to lose the maneuvers.
    After the maneuvers he and the other members of the battalion remained behind at Camp Polk.  None of them had any idea why they had not returned to Ft. Knox.   The battalion members learned that they were being sent overseas.  Those 29 years old or older were given the chance to resign from federal service. 
    At Camp Polk, Louisiana, he with his fellow tankers learned that instead of being released from federal service they were being sent overseas.  He received a leave home to say goodbye and then returned to Camp Polk. 
While he was home he got engaged to Lena Steinmeyer.    
    After the companies were brought up to strength with replacements for the men released from federal service, the battalion was equipped with new tanks and halftracks.  The battalion traveled over three different railroad routes to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. 
    On the island, the soldiers were inoculated and received physicals.  Those who had minor medical issues were held back and scheduled to rejoin 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.  For many, it would be the last time that they would ever see the United States.  The battalion arrived at Honolulu on Sunday, November 2nd.  The soldiers were given leaves so they could see the island.  On Tuesday, November 4th, 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.  
Ironically, it was the day the National Guard members of the battalion had originally been scheduled to be released from federal service.
    Seventeen days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the members of 192nd arrived in Manila.  The battalion was deployed Fort 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.  They spent the next seven days preparing their equipment for use in the maneuvers they expected to take part in.
    The morning of December 8, 1941, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield.  Early that morning, the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had reached the Philippines.  The tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers.  As they sat on their tanks, they watched American planes fill the sky.  At noon, every plane landed. 
    The tankers were eating lunch when they saw 54 planes approaching the airfield from the north.  As they watched the planes, they saw what looked like raindrops falling from the planes.  When bombs began exploding on the runways, the tankers knew the planes were Japanese.  Most of the tankers could do nothing but watch since their weapons were not meant to fight planes. 

    After remaining at Clark Field for several weeks, B Company was sent to Lingayen Gulf in an attempt to stop the Japanese from landing troops.  Lyle, along with the other members of Company B, fought the Japanese for four months. They did this with little food and no hope of being relieved.

    At Gumain River, the tank companies formed a defensive line along the south bank of the river.  When the Japanese attacked the position at night, they were easy to see since they were wearing white t-shirts.  The fighting went on all night.  The line of defense held by the 192nd almost broke.   When dawn came, the tankers had held onto their position and were able to hold up the Japanese for several weeks. 
The tankers noted that the Japanese soldiers were high on drugs when they attacked.  Among the dead Japanese, they found the hypodermic needles and syringes.     
    The tankers soon found themselves in given the job of holding a defensive line so that the other troops could disengage and form a new defensive line further south.  They repeated this action over and over.

During the Battle of the Points the tanks were sent in to wipe out Japanese troops that had broken through the main defensive line and than trapped behind the line after the Filipino and American troops pushed the Japanese back.  According to members of the battalion they resorted two ways to wipe out the Japanese.
    The first method was to have three Filipino soldiers sit on the back of the tanks with sacks of hand grenades.  When the Japanese dove back into their foxholes, the tank would go over it and the soldiers would drop three hand grenades into the foxhole.  Since the ordnance was from World War I, one out of three hand grenades would explode.
    The second method was simple.  The tank was parked with one track across the foxhole.   The driver spun the tank on one track.  The tank dug into the dirt until the Japanese soldiers were dead.

    The morning of April 9, 1942, at 6:45, the tankers received the order "crash."  They circled their tanks.  Each tank fired a armor piecing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it.  They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks.  Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
    After the Japanese made contact with B Company, the members of the company made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan.  They were now officially Prisoners of War.  At Mariveles, the Japanese took blankets and other items from the POWs that they could use.  The tankers striped anything from their uniforms that indicated that they were tankers.  They heard the rumor that the Japanese were looking for them.  
    The tankers made their way north along the east coast of Bataan.  The first five miles of the march was uphill.  They received little food or water.  One night as they were being given a break, it began to rain.  This provided some relief for the men.
    At San Fernando, they were herded into a bull pen.  One corner had a slit trench which was meant to be used by the POWs as a washroom.  The surface of the trench moved because it was covered by maggots. 
    Near dusk, the POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men.  They were marched to the train station in San Fernando and boarded onto small wooden boxcars used to carry sugarcane.  Each car could hold forty men or eight horses.  The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car.  Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas and walked the last ten miles to Camp O'Donnell. 
    Camp O'Donnell was an unfinished Filipino training base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp.  There was one water faucet for the entire camp.  Disease in the camp ran wild with as many as 55 POWs dying each day.  The burial detail worked long days attempting to bury the dead.  To lower the death rate among the POWs, the Japanese opened a knew camp at Cabanatuan.
    Lester was sent to the new camp and remained there until October 1942 when he was selected for a work detail at the Port Area of Manila.  The POWs on the detail worked as stevedores on the docks.  He remained on the detail until July 1944 it was disbanded.  
    The POWs
were taken to the docks at Manila.  There, the men were boarded onto the Nissyo Maru, on July 15, 1944.  The POWs remained in the ship's holds for two days before sailing.  Ten days later, on July 27th, the ship arrived at Takao, Formosa.  The next day the Nissyo Maru sailed for Moji, Japan, and arrived at there on August 3, 1944.

      In Japan, he was held as a POW at the Kamioka POW Camp.  The POWs in the camp were used as miners in a zinc and lead mine.  It was at this camp that he would be liberated in late 1945.  The POWs in the camp did not officially get liberated until September 6th.  He was returned to the Philippines, by plane, and sailed for home on U.S.S. Gospar, which sailed on September 24, 1945, and arrived on October 12, 1945, at Seattle, Washington.  He was sent to Madigan General Hospital at Ft. Lewis, Washington.

    After Lester was liberated he wrote his first letter home since he had been taken a POW.  He was unaware that the letter, addressed to his mother, would not be read by her.  His mother had passed away on September 10, 1944.

    Lester was discharged on February 26, 1946, and returned home to Maywood.  He later moved to Hillside.  Lester O. Watson died on January 15, 1993, in Oak Park, Illinois.


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