Tec 5 Wesley Roy Elmer
| T/5 Wesley R.
Elmer and his twin brother, Ray, were born
December 3, 1922, in unincorporated Keysville,
Wisconsin. He was one of the ten
children of Hubert L. Elmer and Myrtle A.
McKinney-Elmer. Like many others, Wesley
left school after completing grade school and went
to work as a farmhand and ended up working near
With his friend, Donald Knipschield, he joined the Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd Tank Company headquartered in Janesville. Since both of them were underage, they each forged the signatures of the other man's parents on the enlistment papers.
In the fall of 1940, the 32nd Tank Company was
called to federal service as A Company of the
192nd Tank Battalion. For almost a year
the battalion trained at Fort Knox,
Kentucky. The one thing that Wesley stood
out in was his inability to keep in step while
drilling. No matter how he tried, he just
could not keep in step with the other
soldiers. It was also at this time that
Wesley trained as a bow gunner in a tank.
In the late summer of 1941, the battalion took
part in maneuvers in Louisiana. Upon
completion of the maneuvers, they were sent to
Camp Polk, Louisiana, and informed that their
time in the regular army had been
extended. Upon hearing this news, Wesley
and the other members of the battalion were told
that they were being sent overseas.
The battalion traveled by train to San
Francisco. On the ferry, U.S.A.T.
General Frank M. Coxe, they were taken to
Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the
island, they received inoculations and
physicals. Those members of the battalion
who were found to have treatable medical
conditions remained behind on the island.
They were scheduled to join the battalion at a
That night those men assigned to tanks slept
under them. Those members of the company
not assigned to a tank or half tack slept in a
dried up latrine near the battalions
bivouac. In both cases it was safer than
sleeping in their tents.
A Company, on December 12th, was sent to the
Barrio of Dau so it would be close to a highway
and railroad and guard them against
sabotage. From there, the company was sent
to join the other companies of the 192nd just
south of the Agno River. The rest
of the battalion had been ordered north to the
Lingayen Gulf area where the Japanese were
A major problem they had to deal with was Japanese snipers. At night, the Japanese would sneak behind the main battle lines. On one occasion, Wesley was with Phil Parish when they came under fire by a sniper. Instead of wasting time attempting to pick the sniper off, Wesley took his Tommy-gun and fired at the tree. As he fired he moved his fire up the tree. His bullets hit the rope that held the sniper to the tree causing him to fall from the tree to his death.
According to Abel Ortega, it was during the battle with the Japanese that Wesley excelled. Ortega recalled that on Bataan, Wesley would simply go off into the jungle by himself. When he returned, he would always be carrying Japanese guns, swords or canteens. In Ortega's opinion. the only way Wesley could have gotten these things was by taking them off the dead bodies of Japanese soldiers. Ortega believed that once in combat, Wesley demonstrated the best qualities of a soldier.
Wesley also was wounded during the fight against the Japanese. During one engagement, a shell exploded near him. The explosion resulted in his being hit below the ear and in the shoulder by shrapnel.
After four months of constant strafing and bombing by the Japanese, Wesley became a Prisoner of War when the defenders of Bataan were surrendered to the Japanese. From Mariveles, at the southern tip of Bataan, Wesley began what became known as the Bataan Death March.
When he started the march, he was selected to drive a staff car for a Japanese officer. He did this job until the officer wanted to be driven down to Mariveles. When Wesley heard this, he ran off when the officer was not looking. His reason for doing this was that he knew that the Mariveles area was being shelled by Corregidor.
When Wesley was reunited with his company, he was already weak from lack of rest and malnutrition. He did not believe that he would survive the march. Wesley credited his friend, Donald Kniepschield, with helping him survive the march. What Donald did was set goals for himself and Wesley. "On the march, a lot of guys were dropping like flies. The ones who could get up, the Japanese beat them with billy-clubs until they got back in ranks. The ones that couldn't, they would just run a bayonet through them and leave them lying on the side of road. Don would would look at me and say. 'You see that tree way up the road. I think I can make it to that tree.' Well, I knew that if Don could make it that far that I could too. About the time we got to the tree, someone else behind us would fall out of ranks and the Japanese would run a bayonet through them. Then Don would say, 'You see that building up the road, well, I think I can make it to that building.' There is something about seeing a guy bayoneted that gives you more energy." Donald's goal selection helped Wesley to complete the march. Wesley did not know how long it took him to complete the march, but he believed it was somewhere around fourteen days.
In his opinion, the Japanese treated the Filipinos worse than they treated the Americans. The reason was that they could not understand why the Filipinos had fought alongside the Americans. "The Japanese didn't like the Filipinos very much. Every time they thought a Filipino looked the wrong way, they would run a bayonet through them."
The first camp Wesley was held in was Camp
O'Donnell. There, about 2,000 American
POWs died from disease and malnutrition.
The Filipino death rate was somewhere around
10,000 soldiers. Of this, he said,
were dying off at about 100 a day. We
were moved to another camp, guys didn't die
as fast there, although I can remember one
point when we were losing about 50 a day."
Wesley came close to dying from dysentery while
a POW at the camp. What kept him alive was
that the medic assigned to care for him would
beat him with a stick. This beating would
get him angry which kept him alive.
There fewer prisoners died, but the living
conditions were not that much better.
During this time, Wesley's weight dropped to 68
pounds. His normal weight was around 150
pounds. Part of the problem was that
Wesley vomited everything he ate. On June
18, 1942, he was put in the camp hospital.
According to records kept by the staff, he was
suffering from dysentery and appendicitis.
He was so sick, that the Japanese removed him
from the camp hospital and left him in the grass
Wesley credits a Sgt. Kenneth Grover with saving his life. Sgt. Grover, seeing the condition that Wesley was in, picked him up and carried him over to water. There, he washed him. He next got Wesley a meal of sugar and rice. He would feed some to Wesley and when he vomited it up, feed him a little more. He continued to do this until Wesley kept the food down.
While he did this, Sgt. Grover asked Wesley about his home and family. This got Wesley thinking of them and created in him a desire to see them again. In Wesley's opinion this "will to live" kept him alive.
Wesley, at this time, also had an appendicitis attack. The doctors knew that they had to operate to save his life, but their surgical tools were in poor condition. They finally removed his appendix by sterilizing a razor blade. Since there were no antibiotics, an infection set in, and it took a great deal of time for him to heal. The Japanese only allowed him eleven days to recover before he returned to work, which meant he returned to work ill. As if this was not enough, Wesley also suffered from beriberi, diphtheria and had gall bladder problems while in the camp. He was returned to the hospital and discharged on January 6, 1943.
In August 1943, Wesley volunteered to go to
Japan. The POWs were driven in trucks to
Manila and boarded onto a transport. The
ship, the Coral Maru, was
a cattle boat. It sailed for Japan on
September 20, 1943. After three days at
sea, it arrived at Takao, Formosa, on September
23rd. After a three day stay, it sailed on
September 26th, and arrived in Japan on October
5, 1943. Upon arriving in Japan, Wesley,
was sent to Tokyo Headquarters Camp which also
had the Shinagawa Hospital where the really sick
POWs were sent from various camps. The
camp was located on an island, which had been
reclaimed through the work done by the first
POWs in the camp, and composed of seven
buildings, one of which housed the headquarters
for all the POW camps in the Tokyo Area.
Food for the POWs was primarily barley and millet as the main food stuffs and rice was seldom see by the POWs. Occasionally, the POWs also received Miso soup, octopus, seaweed, and a Japanese radish known as a daikon. To supplement their meals, the POWs would steal vegetables from the camp garden. If caught, they were beaten with bamboo poles, kicked with hob-nailed boots, slapped, and thrown into the guardhouse.
Punishment consisted of beatings being given to
the POWs, and the POWs were beaten, they often
were forced to beat each other. The POWs
were beaten anywhere on their bodies, including
their faces. The beatings were done with
fist, wooden clogs, bamboo practice swords, or
any other item available at the time. Collective
punishment was also a common practice and the
POWs stood at attention until the guilty party
Wesley refused to keep track of time while a
of the fellows made calendars and would
cross off one day after another, but I
didn't. By not counting the days, the
time seemed to fly."
Wesley stated that not all the Japanese were
hostile to the POWs. He recalled that a
Japanese woman gave him and the other prisoners
cigarettes. A guard caught her and beat
her severely. Later, she returned and
again gave the POWs cigarettes.
Wesley also stated that the certain guards
enjoyed setting the POWs up for
favorite tricks of the Japs was for one to
come along and give you a cigarette while
you were working. Then just as you
started to smoke it, another in on the plan
would beat you for smoking without letting
him know you were going to do it. It
didn't take us long to catch on to that
Wesley Elmer passed away on June 8, 1995, and was buried at East Lawn Cemetery in Beloit, Wisconsin.