zelis

Pfc. Louis Casmer Zelis


    Pfc. Louis C. Zelis was born on February 13, 1914, and was one of the four sons born to Mary & John Zelis.  He graduated from Kelly High School.  Louis was married to Mae and lived on the south side of Chicago at 1528 West Jackson Boulevard.  He graduated from Kelly High School and worked as advertisement distributor for a dry good company. 
    Louis was drafted into the Army on January 22, 1941, in Chicago, and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky.  At Ft. Knox, he was assigned to Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion.  He became a member of the company because the army was attempting to fill vacancies in each of
the companies with men from the home states of each company.

    In the late summer of 1941, the battalion 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. 
    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 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 October 29th 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 22, 1941, as the driver of 2nd Lt. Ben Morin's tank, Louis and the other members of the crew were sent north, with four other tank crews, to come to the aid of the 26th U. S. Cavalry of Filipino Scouts. The cavalry was engaged in a battle with the Japanese near Damortis and attempting to withdraw.   

    As the tanks proceeded north, they were bombed by Japanese planes.  When the tanks found the 26th Cavalry, the Japanese had deployed along the sides of the road.  Louis weaved the tank allowing the other members of the crew to fire their stationary machine guns at the enemy alongside the road. 

    After the tank took a shell hit to the right side of the hull knocking the door in front of Pvt. John Cahill loose, Louis pulled the tank into a dry rice patty to allow the tank crew to replace the door.  It was at this time that a Japanese tank rammed Louis's tank at the left front sprocket causing the track to jam.

    When Louis attempted to pull back onto the road, the right track kept pulling the tank off to the left.  A second shell hit the tank damaging the door in front of Pvt. Cahill's face further.  Another shell pierced the tank's hull entering the battery case and causing a fire.  The crew put on their gas masks and Louis turned on the extinguishers putting the fire out. 

    When four Japanese tanks approached the disabled tank, two Japanese soldiers got out of their tanks and approached the disabled tank.  The two men looked into the tank through the shattered hatch.  To their surprise the tank's crew was still alive.  The soldiers retreated to their tanks.

    Lt Morin asked his tank crew if they wanted to shoot it out with the Japanese with their side arms or if they wanted to surrender.  The crew decided it would be better to surrender.  They hoped that if the did, that they would be exchanged for Japanese POWs.

    In Louis's own words, he described what happened:

    "The Japs has just landed at Lingayen and we went down to stop them there.  We were told they only had small arms and baby tanks our light tank - I was the driver - and two others charged them.  The first we knew an anti-tank shell knocked off the window shield of the tank.  Five or six tankettes (the Japanese baby tank) rolled up the road.  They stopped and a couple of Japanese climbed out and started toward us.  They peered through the shattered shell and saw we were still alive.  Then they ran back to their tanks.  Our lieutenant asked us if we should surrender or try to shoot it out with our pistols.  We decided to surrender, hoping we would soon find a way to freedom.

     We waved a towel. An English speaking Jap said for us to come out.  They tied our hands and put us on the back of the tankettes.  They treated us right well - then.  They brought us to a village.  A colonel questioned us about our strength.  We said we didn't know.  He had us put in the bandstand in the village park and we spent our first night there.
    The next day they questioned us some more and then put us in a store.  We stayed there for several days, and they then put us in a truck and brought us to Tarlec.  They told us that if one tried to escape all would be killed. 
    We worked at a hacienda, getting it ready for the generals and colonels whom the Japanese expected to capture soon.
After Bataan and Corregidor fell they transferred us to Cabanatuan.  My three tank mates all have been sent to Japan."

    Louis and the other members of the crew were now Prisoners of War.  As a prisoner, Louis was first held at Agoo and Bauang.  The POWs refused to bow to the Japanese which resulted in their being severely beaten. It was after one severe beating the men decided that it was better to bow than die.

    On June 12, 1942, Louis and the other tankers were sent to Cabanatuan.  There, he recalled that 20 men to 40 men were dying each day.  While a prisoner of the Japanese, his weight dropped from 170 pounds to 107 pounds.  The daily meal for a POW at Cabanatuan was a half pint of raw rice and two sweet potatoes a day.  When they had the time, the prisoners would sit around and talk about the food their mothers use to make back home.

    At Cabanatuan, Louis was assigned to a detail commanded by Capt. Arthur Warmuth.  One day, the Japanese wanted prisoners with dysentery to clean a dung pile.  Capt. Warmuth attempted to ensure that the POWs were treated as ill men and not have to work.  He complained to the commanding officer in a tone that got the message across.  The officer hit him with a judo chop, and while he was lying on the ground, he was kicked in his head and stomach.  Louis recalled how helpless he felt as he stood and watched this being done to a man he had come to respect.  Capt. Warmuth was taken unconscious to the camp hospital where he recovered from the injuries. 
    Medical records kept at the camp show that Louis was admitted to the camp hospital on Friday, May 29, 1943.  Why he was admitted is not known since it was not recorded.  There also was not date of discharge recorded.

    According to Louis, what kept the prisoners going at Cabanatuan was the grapevine.  It was their way of hearing what was going on in the war.  As time went on, the prisoners, through the grapevine, heard that the Americans were on their way back to the Philippines.  The men thought this was a dream too good to be true.  One morning they heard rumbling in the distance.  This rumbling, was the sound of the American invasion forces shelling the beaches of Luzon.

    During his time as a POW, Louis's family received one card from him.  The card was received on January 15, 1945.  It was dated May 6, 1944.  

    Louis was liberated when United States Rangers, supported by Filipino Guerillas and Buffalo Scouts raided Cabanatuan to prevent the Japanese from killing the prisoners.  The Rangers then took the POWs through enemy held territory to the American lines.  After reaching American lines, the former POWs saw an American flag in front of a hut; Many of them ran to it to touch it.

    When his mother, Mary, heard the news, she said, "Thank God for the good news."

    Being the first member of B Company liberated, Louis returned to the United States on  February 25, 1945, arriving at Hamilton Field near San Francisco.  When he returned to Chicago, he told the families what he knew about the other members of Company B.  He was discharged from the army on August 18, 1945.

     In many papers, a photo appeared of Louis and his wife, Mae, after they were reunited.  But, the effect of his years as a POW was that their marriage ended in divorce.  He would later marry Helen Migliarini.

    Louis Zelis passed away on June 17, 1974, in Chicago.  He was buried at Saint Casimir Catholic Cemetery in Chicago.




 


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