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, and 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, where 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.  It is not known what specific training he received, but in January 1941, Lester was transferred to Headquarters Company when it was formed with men from the four letter companies of the battalion.
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 S. 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 were ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana.  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 who were married or 29 years old, or older, were given the chance to resign from federal service.  He received leave home to say his goodbyes. 
While he was home he got engaged to Lena Steinmeyer before returning to Camp Polk.    
    After the companies were brought up to strength with replacements, the battalion was equipped with new tanks and half-tracks which came from the 753rd Tank Battalion.  The battalion traveled over different railroad routes to  San Francisco, California, and were ferried to Ft. McDowell, on Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay.  On the island they received physicals and inoculations.  Those men with minor medical conditions were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date.  Some men were simply replaced.

    The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.S. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th, as part of a three ship convoy.  For many, it would be the last time that they would ever see the United States.  After getting over being seasick, the soldiers spent their time breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP.  The battalion arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd and had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island. 
    On Wednesday, 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 up 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.     
When the ships arrived at Guam, on Sunday, November 16th, they took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila.  At one point, the ships passed an island at night while the ships were in total blackout.  This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they soon be at war.  The convoy entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20th and docked at Pier 7 later that day.  Most of the soldiers disembarked about 3:00 P.M., and were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg.  Ironically, November 20th was the day the National Guard members of the battalion had originally been scheduled to be released from federal service.
At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward P. King, who apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field, but he had just learned of their arrival days earlier.  He made sure that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner. 
    For the next seventeen days the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons which had been greased to prevent them from rusting while at sea.  They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts.
    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.
    The morning of December 8th, the officers of the battalions met and were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hours earlier.  All the members of the 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 to be refueled 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.
    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, John and the other Prisoners of War 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 marched to a school yard in Mariveles and again 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.

   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 and closed the doors.  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, and 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.  Each morning when they returned to the cemetery, wild dogs had dog up the dead or the dead were sitting up in their graves.  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 loading and unloading ships.  He remained on the detail until July 1944, when it was disbanded.  
    The POWs
were taken to the docks at Manila after the detail ended.  There, the men were boarded onto the Nissyo Maru, on July 16, 1944, at 8:00 A.M. and the ship moved to the breakwater of the harbor and dropped anchor.  The POWs remained in the ship's holds for five days, from July 17th to July 23rd before the ship moved, at 8:00 A.M., again to a point off Corregidor and dropped anchor again at 2:00 P.M.  The ship finally sailed on July 24th as part of a convoy which stayed  close to the coast line to avoid submarines.  One ship was sunk by a submarine on July 26th during the night. The flames from the explosion shot over the hatch lighting the sky.  Ten days later, on July 27th, the ship arrived at Takao, Formosa at 9:00 A.M.  The next day the Nissyo Maru sailed, at 7:00 P.M., for Moji, Japan  Sailing through a storm for three days, it arrived there on August 4, 1944 at midnight.

    At 8:00 A.M., the POWs disembarked and were taken to the train station where they were taken by train to various POW camps along the line.  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 were not officially liberated until September 7th. 
    Lester was taken Yokohama and next to Okinawa; from where he was returned to the Philippines, by plane, for further medical treatment.  Lester sailed for home, on U.S.S. Gospar, on September 24, 1945, and arrived on October 12, 1945, at Seattle, Washington.  He was sent to Madigan General Hospital, 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, Illinois.  Lester O. Watson died on January 15, 1993, in Oak Park, Illinois.


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