| Pvt. Robert Edward Boehm was born on November 25, 1921, to Edward H. Boehm & Margaret Mary Tilton-Boehm, and was the couple's only child. He was raised at 113 North Walnut Street in Janesville, Wisconsin, and attended local schools. |
On November 25, 1941, he was called to federal service with the 32nd Tank Company of the Wisconsin National Guard which was now A Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. Traveling to Fort Knox, Kentucky, on November 18, 1940, he spent nearly a year training with his company. It was during this training that he qualified as a tank driver and machine gunner and assigned to tank crew of Sgt. Herb Durner.
In the late summer of 1941, Robert took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. After the maneuvers the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft. Knox. On the side of a hill, he and the rest of the battalion learned that they were being sent overseas. Those men who were 19 years old or older, were given the chance to resign from federal service. They were replaced with men t=from the 753rd Tank Battalion. The battalion also received the 753rd's M3A2 tanks. After receiving a leave home, he returned to Camp Polk, Louisiana.
The decision for this move - which had been made in August 1941 - was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of an Japanese occupied island which was hundred of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field.
When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day. The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat - with a tarp on its deck - which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
Many of the members of the battalion were given furloughs so that they could say goodbye to family and friends. They returned to Camp Polk and traveled by train to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, and were ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe. On the island they were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases by the battalion's medical detachment. Some men were held back for health issues but scheduled to join the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2 and had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Date Line. On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20th, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward P. King, who apologized because the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner.
The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
For the next seventeen days, Bob and the other members of his tank crew, Herb Durner, Dale Lawton and Ken Squire worked to prepare their tank for maneuvers. One of the biggest jobs they had was removing cosmoline from the guns of the tanks which had been greased to prevent them from rusting at sea. They also prepared to take part in maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion.
On Monday, December 1, 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 the attack on Pearl Harbor, Capt. Walter Write told his men about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and ordered all the tankers to the perimeter of Clark Field. Most of the tankers believed that this was the start of the maneuvers.
As they sat in their tanks, they watched as American planes flew overhead all morning. Around noon, all the planes landed to be refueled and were lined up in a straight line outside the mess hall. The pilots went to lunch while their planes were suppose to refueled.
Around 12:45 in the afternoon, planes approached the airfield from the north. Like the other men, Robert believed they were American until they felt and heard bombs exploding. During the attack, Bob and the rest of his tank crew fired at the planes, but could do little damage since they did not have the proper weapons.
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 else 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.
After the attack on December 12, the company was sent to the Barrio of Dau so it would be close to a highway and railroad and prevent sabotage. From there, the company was sent to join the other companies of the 192nd just south of the Agno River.
On December 23 and 24, the company was in the area of Urdaneta, where the tankers lost their company commander, Capt. Walter Write. After he was buried, the tankers made an end run to get south of Agno River. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening but successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
On December 25, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks were asked to hold the position for six hours; they held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27.
The 192nd and part of the 194th fell back to form a new defensive line the night of December 27 and 28. From there they fell back to the south bank of the BamBan River which they were suppose to hold for as long as possible. The tanks were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29 serving as a rear guard against the Japanese.
A Company was sent, in support of the 194th, to an area east of Pampanga. It was there that they lost a tank platoon commander, Lt. William Read. On a road east of Zaragoza, on December 30th, the company was bivouacked for the night and posted sentries. The sentries heard a noise on the road and woke the other tankers who grabbed Tommy-guns and manned the tanks' machine guns. As they watched, a Japanese bicycle battalion rode into their bivouac. When the last bicycle passed the tanks, the tankers opened up on them. When they stopped firing, they had completely wiped out the bicycle battalion. To leave the area, the tankers drove their tanks over the bodies.
As the Filipino and American forces fell back toward Bataan, A Company took up a position near the south bank of the Gumain River the night of December 31 and January 1. Believing that the Filipino Army was in front of them allowed the tankers to get some sleep. It was that night that the Japanese lunched an attack to cross the river. Robert climbed out of his tank to see what was going on and had the steel helmet he was wearing shot off his head. He got back into the tank.
As the Japanese attempted to advance they were cut down by the tankers. The tankers created gaping holes in their ranks. To lower their losses, the Japanese tried to cover their advance with a smoke screen. Since the wind was blowing against them, the smoke blew into the Japanese line. When the Japanese broke off the attack, they had lost about half their men.
At Guagua, A Company, with units from the 11th Division, Philippine Army, attempted to make a counterattack against the Japanese. Somehow, the tanks were mistaken, by the Filipinos to be Japanese. The 11th Division accurately used mortars on them. The result was the loss of three tanks. The company rejoined the 194th west of Guagua and was returned to the 192nd.
The tanks often were the last units to disengage from the enemy and form a new defensive line as Americans and Filipino forces withdrew toward Bataan. The night of January 7, the A Company was awaiting orders to cross the last bridge into Bataan. The engineers were ready to blow up the bridge, but the battalion's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Ted Wickord, ordered the engineers to wait until he had looked to see if they were anywhere in sight. He found the company, asleep in their tanks, because they had not received the order to withdraw across the bridge. After they had crossed, the bridge was destroyed.
While American and Filipino forces were withdrawing from the Pilar-Bigac Line, the battalion prevented the Japanese from overrunning the position and cutting off the withdrawing troops. The morning of January 27, a new battle line had been formed and all units were suppose to be beyond it. That morning, the tanks were still holding their position six hours after they were suppose to have withdrawn. While holding the position, the tanks, with self-propelled mounts, ambushed, at point blank range, three Japanese units causing 50 percent casualties.
On January 28, the tank battalions 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. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
A Company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets - from January 23 to February 17 - to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line after a Japanese offensive was stopped and pushed pack to the original line of defense. 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. Doing this was so stressful that the tank companies were pulled out and replaced by one that was being held in reserve.
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.
While the tanks were doing this job, the Japanese sent soldiers, with cans of gasoline, against the tanks. These Japanese attempted to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the vents on the back of the tanks, and set the tanks on fire. If the tankers could not machine gun the Japanese before they got to a tank, the other tanks would shoot them as they stood on a tank. The tankers did not like to do this because of what it did to the crew inside the tank. When the bullets hit the tank, its rivets would pop and wound the men inside the tank. It was for their performance during this battle that the 192nd Tank Battalion would receive one of its Distinguished Unit Citations.
Since the stress on the crews was tremendous, the tanks rotated into the pocket one at a time. A tank entered the pocket and the next tank waited for the tank that had been relieved to exit the pocket before it would enter. This was repeated until all the tanks in the pocket were relieved.
The soldiers were hungry and began to eat everything they could get their hands on to eat. The Carabao were tough but if they were cooked long enough they could be eaten. They also began to eat horse meat provided by the 26th U. S. Cavalry. To make things worse, the soldiers' rations were cut in half again on March 1, 1942. This meant that they only ate two meals a day.
The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a scantly clad blond on them. The Japanese would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been hamburger, since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal.
On March 2 or 3, during the Battle of the Points. The tanks had been sent in to wipe out two pockets of Japanese soldiers who had been landed behind the main defensive line. The Japanese were soon cut off. When the Japanese attempted to land reinforcements, they landed them at the wrong place creating another pocket. Both of the pockets were wiped out.
The company's last bivouac area was about twelve kilometers north of Marivales and looking out on the China Sea. By this point, the tankers knew that there was no help on the way. Many had listened to Secretary of War Harry L. Stimson on short wave. When asked about the Philippines, he said, "There are times when men must die." The soldiers cursed in response because they knew that the Philippines had already been lost.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched a attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese. When General King saw that the situation was hopeless, he initiated surrender talks with the Japanese.
The tanks became a favorite target of the Japanese receiving fire on trails and while hidden in the jungle. and 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.
It was at this time that Gen. King decided that further resistance was futile. Approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who were sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. At 10:30 that night, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms.
Tank battalion commanders received this order, "You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word 'CRASH', all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished."
On April 9, 1942, Robert became a Prisoner of War when Bataan was surrendered to the Japanese. He and the other members of A Company made their way to Mariveles where they began the death march.
The POWs, marched for days without food or water. At San Fernando, they were packed into wooden boxcars used for hauling sugarcane. The POWs were packed in so tightly, that men suffocated from lack of air and after dying remained standing. At Capas, the prisoners disembarked and the dead fell to the floors of the cars.
The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O'Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base. The Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter.
The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Japanese Red Cross sent medical supplies the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150 bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area they had been laying was scrapped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick, but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas. There, the were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another line which took it to Cabanatuan. The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup. From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was formerly known at Camp Panagaian. After arriving in the camp. Robert was assigned to Barracks #7.
To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught, were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard. Returning from a detail the POWs bought, or were given, medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned.
The camp hospital was composed of 30 wards. The ward for the sickest POWs was known as "Zero Ward," which got its name because it had been missed when the wards were counted. Each ward had two tiers of bunks and could hold 45 men but often had as many as 100 men in each. The sickest men slept on the bottom tier.
Robert also came down with dysentery and put into the camp hospital on July 16, 1942, and was discharged from the hospital on September 6. He was again hospitalized on Saturday, April 3, 1943, but no illness or date of discharge were given.
It is known that Robert went out on a work detail, but what he did on the detail is not known. Medical records from the Naval Hospital at Bilibid show that he was admitted to the hospital. When he was discharged, he was returned to what was referred to as "The Japanese Detail."
Robert remained in the Philippines until December 1944, when he sailed for Japan, on December 27, 1944, on the Enoura Maru which also carried survivors of the Oryoku Maru sinking that took place on December 15. The ship reached Formosa safely.
The POWs from the Brazil Maru were transferred to the ship on January 6, and put in its forward hold. One of those transferred to the ship was his friend Lt. Leroy Scoville. While in harbor, at Formosa on January 9, 1944, the Enoura Maru was attacked by American planes and one of the bombs exploded alongside the ship blowing a hole in its hull. A second bomb fell right through the open hatch exploding in the hold that Robert was being held in. The bomb fatally wounded Leroy Scoville. Scoville asked Robert to give his parents a aluminum wristlet he was wearing before he died. It was the only possession that he still had after the Oryoku Maru sank.
The dead POWs were left in the hold with the living. When it appeared that the Japanese intended to leave them there, the POWs stacked the bodies under the hatch so that they would be the first thing the Japanese saw when they looked into the hold. The Japanese finally brought a barge alongside the ship and loaded the dead on it. From there, the bodies were taken to shore and were dragged by their feet to the grave the Japanese created on a beach.
Robert arrived in Japan at Moji, on the Brazil Maru, and was held as a prisoner at Fukuoka #3-B, which was built on a side of a hill with a wooden wall around it. The POWs lived in flimsy wooden barracks that were not heated and were always cold. Along the walls were two tiers of platforms on which the POWs slept on with straw mats. One tier was located six feet above the floor and the other was six feet above the floor that the POWs reached by climbing ladders. The baracks were infested with lice, fleas, and bedbugs.
The POWS worked in the Yawata Steel Mills, where they shoveled iron ore and rebuilt the ovens. The POWs were also sent into the ovens to clean out the debris. Since the ovens were hot, because the Japanese would not let them cool off, the POWs worked faster on this detail. Two of the things made at the mills were hand grenades and shell casings for the Japanese war effort. If an air raid took place while the POWs were at the mill, they were put into railway cars and the train was pulled into a tunnel. They worked at the from 8:00 A.M. until 4:00 P.M. and received a half hour lunch.
Food for the POWs consisted of a main dish of rice, wheat, wheat flour, corn, and, Kaoliang, a millet for breakfast and supper. Their lunches, which was millet, was taken to work with them with bento boxes. The only time meat was served to them was when rotten meat was discovered and the Japanese decided to give it to the POWs.
Although medical supplies for the POWs were sent to the camp by the Red Cross, the Japanese commandant would not give the American medical staff the medicine that was in the packages. Any surgery in the camp had to be performed with crude medical tools even though the Red Cross had sent the proper surgical tools. To meet quotas for workers, the sick POWs were required to work even if it meant they could possibly die from doing it. The Japanese camp doctor made the sick stand out in the cold for hours. He beat them and allowed the guards to beat them. The only other member of A Company in the camp was Thomas Samek who died in February 1945. All POWs who died were reported to have died in the camp hospital.
Three days a month, the POWs were allowed to exchange their worn out clothing for new clothing, but a Japanese guard in charge beat POWs attempting to exchange their clothing or shoes. The POWs went without clothing and shoes, to avoid the beatings, which resulted in men developing pneumonia and dying. After the war, warehouses were discovered containind Red Cross clothing and shoes, and leather to repair shoes.
The POWs were beaten daily with fists and sticks for violating camp rules, and the guards often required them to stand at attention, in the cold, while standing water. In one incident an entire barracks was slapped in the face, by the guards, because some POWs had smoked in the barracks. During the winter, POWs who were being punished often had water thrown on them. A group of about 60 POWs were made to crawl on their hands and knees, while carrying other POWs, on their backs. As they crawled, they were hit with bamboo sticks, belts, and rifle butts. There were two brigs in the camp which had as many as 20 POWs in them at a time.
Another incident involved an American soldier who traded with the Japanese. The war was almost over and Japan was about to surrender. The soldier traded for roasted beans. As it turned out, the beans had been tainted with arsenic. The soldier died the next day. After going through all he had suffered, the soldier died when freedom was almost his.
The Yawata Steel Mills were the primary target for the second atomic bomb, but since the sky was extremely overcast, the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. This time, they saw Japanese workers facing in the direction of radio speakers with their heads bowed. The Americans thought that the emperor had passed away. The truth was that the second atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, and the emperor was announcing Japan's surrender. An American ensign, who could read and speak Japanese, saw a newspaper with the announcement of the surrender. He was the first person to inform his fellow POWs that the war was over. They were then told the same news by a Japanese officer.
Robert remained in the camp until he was liberated by American troops in September 13, 1945. After liberation, he was sent to Nagasaki for processing. In somewhat of an ironic situation, Robert was interviewed by Thomas W. Ehrlinger who had been his roommate at the University of Wisconsin. Ehrlinger's job was to process the former POWs.
Robert returned to the United States on October 19, 1945, arriving on the S.S. Simon Bolivar at Seattle. He later returned to Janesville after the war and met with LeRoy Scoville's family during which he gave them the wristlet.
Robert transferred to the United States Air Force and remained in the military until July 31, 1962. While he was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base at Dayton, Ohio, he married Helen Marie Fox on October 19, 1946. In 1956, he and his family drove the Alcon Highway when he was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska, and his youngest daughter was born on the base.
During this time, Robert rose in rank to Sergeant Major and became the Personnel Officer. After he retired, he moved to Eagle River, Alaska. There, he and his wife raised their six children. To support his family, he took tourists on hunting trips.
Robert Boehm died in a hang-gliding accident at Kincaid Park in Anchorage, Alaska, on September 11, 1977. He was buried at Ft. Richardson National Cemetery, Ft. Richardson, Alaska.