Pvt. Michael S. Wepsiec
| Pvt. Michael S. Wepsiec was born on August 7, 1915, and was the son of Casmir and Catherine Wepsiec, who were Polish immigrants. He grew up in Chicago, with his four sisters and two brothers, and was raised at 2347 South Homan Avenue. Before joining the Illinois National Guard, he worked for the Illinois Northern Railroad. |
When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the draft act into law, Mike and friends Steve Gados and Ed Plodzien decided that they would enlist in the Illinois National Guard at Maywood, Illinois. Their reasoning for doing this was twofold. They believed that enlisting in the National Guard would allow them to quickly complete their one year of military service, and they also believed that if they had to be in the army it was better to ride in a tank than march on foot.
On November 28, 1940, the Maywood Tank Company was called into federal service along with companies from Ohio, Kentucky and Wisconsin. Together, the companies formed the 192nd Tank GHQ Light Battalion. The battalion trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, until late August 1941.
From September 1st through 30th, Mike took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. 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.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything that could carry the wounded was in use. When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building. Many of these men had their arms and legs missing.
That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their tents. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed. They lived through two more attacks on December 10th and 13th.
Mike was involved in the first tank to tank combat involving American tanks in World War II. His tank platoon had been sent to Lingayen Gulf, on December 21st, to knock out Japanese machine gun nests and give cover so that the 26th U. S. Cavalry could withdraw. The problem they faced was that they had never been trained to fight in a jungle.
Since there were rice fields on both sides of the road, they could not use the V-formation to attack. They also found themselves in single file formation on the main road. It was at this time that Lt. Ben Morin and his crew, which included Mike's friend Steve Gados, were taken Prisoners of War.
The tankers were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27th, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28th and 29th. On December 31st/January 1st, the tanks were stationed on both sides of the Calumpit Bridge when they received conflicting orders, from Gen. MacArthur's chief of staff, about whose command they were under and to withdraw from the bridge. The defenders were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 which would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders.
Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridges over the Pampanga River and about half the defenders withdrew. Due to the efforts of the Self Propelled Mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a frenzied attack by the 192nd Tank Battalion the Japanese were halted. From January 2nd to 4th, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.
At 2:30 A.M., the night of January 5th/6th, the Japanese attacked at Remlus in force and using smoke as cover. This attack was an attempt to destroy the tank battalions. At 5:00 A.M., the Japanese withdrew having suffered heavy casualties.
The night of January 6th/7th the tanks withdrew into the peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leap frog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd's withdraw over the bridge. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan, before the engineers blew up the bridge at 6:00 A.M.
The next day, the battalion was between Culo and Hermosa and assigned a road to enter Bataan on which was worse than having no road. The half-tracks kept throwing their rubber tracks and members of 17th Ordnance assigned to each battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations. After daylight, Japanese artillery fire was landing all around the tanks.
A composite tank company was formed, the next day, under the command of Capt. Donald Haines, B Co., 192nd. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. The rest of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Abucay-Hacienda Road.
When word came that a bridge was going to be blow, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company. This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road. It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance. It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon. The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance. Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400 hour overhauls.
It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver: "Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay."
The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Heicienda Road on January 25th. While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M. One platoon was sent to the front of the the column of trucks which were loading the troops. The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese.
Later on January 25th, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight. They held the position until the night of January 26th/27th, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads. When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were suppose to use had been destroyed by enemy fire. To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
The tank battalions, on January 28th, were given the job of protecting the beaches. The 192nd was assigned the coast line from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan's east coast, while the battalion's half-tracks were used to patrol the roads. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
Companies A & C were ordered to the west coast of Bataan while B Company - which was held in reserve - and 17th Ordnance held the southern shore of Bataan. The tankers were awake all night and attempted to sleep under the jungle canopy, during the day, which protected them from being spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes. During the night, they were kept busy with repeated threats both on and off shore.
On one occasion, a member of the company, who had gotten frustrated by being awakened by the planes, had his half-track pulled out onto the beach and took pot shots at the plane. He missed the plane, but twenty minutes later, Japanese planes appeared over the location and dropped bombs that exploded in the tree tops. Three members of the company were killed.
The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over the area.
B Company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line. The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket. Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank exited the pocket.
To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used. The first was to have three Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank. As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole. Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually exploded.
The other method to use to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole. The driver gave the other track power resulting with the tank spinning around and grinding its way down into the foxhole. The tankers slept upwind of their tanks.
In March, the amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. At the same time, food rations were cut in half again. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor.
Mike believed that the Japanese reinforcements from Singapore were the reason Bataan fell. These troops were battle hardened and fierce fighters. The Japanese lunched an all out attack on April 3rd. On April 7th, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. The number of operational tanks also became more critical with C Company, 194th - which was attached to the 192nd - having only seven tanks left.
The tanks became a favorite target of the Japanese receiving fire on trails and while hidden in the jungle where they could not fight back. The situation was so bad that other troops avoided being near the tanks, and the 26th Cavalry turned down a tank company's offer of assistance in a counter-attack. When General King saw that the situation was hopeless, he initiated surrender talks with the Japanese.
At 6:45 A.M., the tanks received the ordere "crash" which meant they should detroy their tanks. They circled the tanks and fired an armor piercing shell into the engine of each tank and opened the gasoline cooks in the crew compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. At 7:00 A.M., the officially became Prisoners of War. Mike and the other members of his company destroyed their vehicles except for two trucks. They planned to ride in these two trucks to the destination that the Japanese selected. Instead, the Japanese took the trucks and Mike found himself walking to Mariveles, where would begin what became known as the death march.
On the march, Mike recalled that the Japanese killed prisoners for the smallest things. If a POW fell and another attempted to help him, they both were killed. Despite this, Mike believed that he did not see as much brutality as other men witnessed.
According to Mike, a break on the march was stopping and standing in position. Meals were "middling" which was very bitter and hard to eat. He also believed that escaping was the same as suicide because the POW would need a large amount of quinine to survive in the jungle.
He made his way north to San Fernando where the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars known as "forty and eights," since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. Once at the train station, the Japanese packed 100 POWs into each boxcar and closed the doors. During the trip, those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. From there, they walked the last miles to Camp O'Donnell.
Mike was held at Camp O'Donnell for two weeks before he was sent out on a detail. He was sent out to bring damaged American trucks to San Fernando. To do this, the POWs would tie the vehicles together with ropes behind an operating car or truck. The operating car would pull the disabled vehicles. POWs were in each car and drove them to San Fernando. It was at San Fernando that Mike had his first attack of malaria.
After the scrap-metal detail ended, Mike was sent to Cabanatuan #1 where he was held for one month before he went out on a work detail, but it is not known what detail he was sent out on.
At first, the prisoners worked only half a day because their guards were seasoned troops who had no desire to stand out in the hot Filipino sun in the middle of the day. When these troops were replaced by new recruits, the POWs found themselves working until 8:00 o'clock at night.
Mike believed that what really drove the Japanese crazy was that after working all day the POWs would return to the camp singing songs like "God Bless America." At this time, Mike developed wet beriberi and his body bloated up to his waist. He was sent to Bilibid Prison where he was given vitamin B pills. He was told to take all the pills, which he did, and they saved his life. After taking them, his body returned to its normal size in a matter of days. When he recovered, he was sent to Cabanatuan.
Food in the prison camps was scarce. Mike remembered a dog that an American major was feeding. He and the other POWs believed that the dog was eating food that should have gone to them, so they slaughtered the dog and ate it.
The POWs also spent endless hours talking about food and how they would prepare it if they could while on work details. These conversations inspired Mike to write a cookbook. To do this, Mike took the bags from the cement that was being used to build the runways and wrote down the recipes. Somehow, Mike managed to keep the cookbook which is pictured at the bottom of this page.
Mike remained at the camp until he was selected to go out on a work detail. In July 1943, on the Las Pinas Work Detail. It was there that he built runways for the Japanese Navy at Nichols Field.
The POWs were housed in the Pasay School in eighteen rooms. Thirty men were assigned to each room and slept on the floor. Each morning they got up and did exercises. When they finished, they were fed breakfast, which was fish and rice, and marched about a mile to the airfield. As they marched, the Filipino civilians expressed their sympathy for the POWs whose clothing had deteriorated to rags.
On this detail, the POWs had nothing but picks and shovels to build the runways. At first the work was hard but not as hard as it was going to get. About 400 yards from where they began working where hills. The POWs removed these hills with picks and shovels. The dirt was put into wheel barrows and carried to a swamp and dumped as landfill. This turned out to be inefficient, so the Japanese brought in mining cars and railroad track. Two POWs pushed each car to where it was to be dumped. He would remain on this detail for almost seventeen months.
The brutality shown to the POWs was severe. The first Japanese commander of the camp, a Lt. Moto, was called the "White Angel" because he wore a spotless naval uniform. He was commander of the camp for slightly over thirteen months. One day a POW collapsed while working on the runway. Moto was told about the man and came out and ordered him to get up. When he couldn't four other Americans were made to carry the man back to the Pasay School.
At the school, the Japanese guards gave the man a shower and straightened his clothes as much as possible. The other Americans were ordered to the school. As they stood there, the White Angel ordered an American captain to follow him behind the school. The POW was marched behind the school and the other Americans heard two shots. The American officer told the men that the POW had said, "Tell them I went down smiling." There, the White Angel shot the POW as the man smiled at him. As the man lay on the ground, he shot him a second time. The American captain told the other Americans what had happened. The White Angel told them that this was what going to happen to anyone who would not work for the Japanese Empire.
The second commanding officer of the detail was known as "the Wolf." He was a civilian who wore a Japanese Naval Uniform. Each morning, he would come to the POW barracks and select those POWs who looked the sickest and made them line up. The men were made to put one leg on each side of a trench and then do 50 push-ups. If a man's arms gave out and he touched the ground, he was beaten with pick handles.
On another occasion a POW collapsed on the runway. The Wolf had the man taken back to the barracks. When the Wolf came to the barracks that evening and the man was still unconscious, he banged the man's head into the concrete floor and kicked him in the head. He then took the man to the shower and drowned him in the basin.
A third POW who had tried to walk away from the detail told the guards to shoot him, the guards took him back to the Pasay School and strung him up by his thumbs outside the doorway and placed a bottle of beer and sandwich in front of him. He was dead by evening.
The remains of the POWs who had died on the detail were brought to Bilibid Prison in boxes. The Japanese had death certificates, with the causes of death and signed by an American doctor, sent with the boxes. The Americans from the detail, who accompanied the boxes, would not tell the POWs at Bilibid what had happened. It was only when the sick, from the detail, began to arrive at Bilibid did they learn what the detail was like. These men were sent to Bilibid to die since it would look better when it was reported to the International Red Cross.
In August or early September, 1944, Mike and the other POWs were sent to Manila. Before they left for Manila, Mike experienced his first act of kindness by a Japanese soldier. The sergeant in charge of their detail knew they were being sent to Manila, so he purchased a bottle of saki and made sure each prisoner had a drink. This was the sergeant's going away present to them.
When Mike's group of POW arrived in Manila, the Japanese were about to send a ship load of prisoners to Japan. The Japanese decided to send Mike's group instead because they were physically in better shape.
Mike's POW detachment was sent to the Port Area of Manila. The detachment was scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru. Another POW detachment was scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru. The ship was ready to sail, but it's POW detachment had not completely arrived at the pier. The Japanese switched POW detachments so the ship could sail. The Arisan Maru, the ship Mike had been scheduled to sail on, was sunk by an American submarine in the South China Sea on October 24, 1944. Only nine POWs survived the sinking.
Mike and the other men boarded the Hokusen Maru on October 1, 1944, and the ship moved to the harbor's breakwater. They remained in the hold for three days before the ship sailed.
During the three days the ship was anchored at the breakwater, the temperatures in the hold rose to over 100 degrees causing some men to go crazy. The Japanese threatened to kill the POWs if they didn't quiet the men. To do this, the sane POWs strangled those out of their minds or hit them with canteens.
Mike spent 38 days on the ship before reaching Formosa. For Mike, this was probably one of the worst experiences he had as a prisoner. It seemed to him that the youngest prisoners died first. Mike watched as those who were nineteen year old died, next he watched as the twenty year old died, he than watched as the twenty-one year old POWs died, and so on. As soldiers continued to die and as their ages got closer to his, Mike wondered when his turn to die would come.
As part of a ten ship convoy it sailed again on October 4th and stopped at Cabcaban. The next day, it was at San Fernando La Union, where the ships were joined by four more ships and five escorts. The ships stayed close to the shoreline to prevent submarine attacks which failed since, on October 6th, two of the ships were sunk by American submarines.
The ships were informed, on October 9th, that American carriers were seen near Formosa and American planes were in the area. The decision was made to send the ships to Hong Kong. During this part of the trip, the ships ran into American submarines which sank two more ships. The Hokusen Maru arrived at Hong Kong on October 11th. While it was in port, American planes bombed the harbor on October 16th causing the ship to rock in the water. On October 21st, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa, arriving on October 24th.
On November 8th, the POWs disembarked the ship and were taken to a temporary POW camp at Inrin. The Japanese had decided that they were too ill to be sent to Japan. Most of the POWs did light work or gardening. The healthier POWs were used to harvest sugarcane and process it. He would remain there until January 1945.
It was on Formosa that Mike experienced a second act of kindness shown to him by a Japanese soldier. The commanding officer of the camp knew it was Christmas. He had a water buffalo brought into the camp for the prisoners to slaughter. The POWs had steak for Christmas.
In January 1945, Mike and 300 other POWs were selected to be transferred to Japan. On January 25th, Mike and the other prisoners were boarded onto the Enoshima Maru and spent twelve days on the hell ship. The reason for this was that the ship made several stops along the coast of China. It was on this trip that the convoy was attacked by an American submarine. One torpedo passed by the stem of the ship and a second torpedo went past the stern and hit a tanker. Mike believed that the Americans knew their ship was carrying POWs.
Arriving in Moji, Japan, Mike and the other POWs rode a train north to Sendai, from there they were taken to
It was in this camp that Mike was beaten for whistling in the mine. While exhaling, he whistled. The mine worker with him beat him on the head for doing this. The reason was that the Japanese believed that whistling made the "mine gods" happy and would cause them to stop holding up the ceilings, and the mine in turn would cave in on the workers.
Lice were one of the big problems facing the POWs. Mike and the other men would take the carbide lamps they used in the mines and run them along the seems of their clothes. As they did the heat popped the lice.
The POWs knew how the war was going because the American planes flying overhead were an indication to them that the United States was winning. It got to the point that they began to bet on dates that the war would end. Mike picked August 7, 1945, because it was his birthday.
When the war ended, Mike was flown to Okinawa and returned to the Philippine Islands for medical treatment. Boarding the U.S.S. Admiral C. F. Hughes, he arrived at Seattle, Washington, on October 9, 1945. From there, he was hospitalized at Madigan General Hospital at Ft. Lewis, Washington.
Mike returned to Chicago and was discharged on August 24, 1946. He married, raised four sons and a daughter. Mike went back to work on the railroad he had worked for before enlisting in the National Guard. He retired from the Santa Fe Railroad which had absorbed the short line railroad that he had originally worked for.
Mike Wepsiec passed away on October 15, 2001, and was buried at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois.