Pvt. Olen Jay Gilson
Pvt. Olen J. Gilson was born on January 22, 1919,
in East Liverpool, Ohio to Oscar Gilson &
Delila Brown-Gilson. With his three brothers
and four sisters, he grew up at 1731 Globe Street
in East Liverpool. He graduated from
Pleasent Heights School and completed three years
of high school before going to work as a clerk at
a grocery store.
On March 22, 1941, Olen was inducted into the U.S. Army at Cleveland, Ohio, and sent to Fort Knox for basic training. During his training he was sent to radio school and qualified as a radio operator. In April, 1941, he received leave home and spent Easter with his parents.
After basic training, Olen was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, where he became a member of the 753rd Tank Battalion. The battalion had been sent to the camp from Fort Benning, Georgia. Maneuvers were going on at the base, but the battalion did not take part in them.
The 192nd was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, in the late summer of 1941, from Ft. Knox to take part in maneuvers. After the maneuver the battalion was not sent back to Ft. Knox but held behind at Camp Polk. The members of the battalion had no idea why this was happening. It was on the side of a hill, the battalion learned they were being sent overseas. Men too old to go overseas were released from federal service, and replacements for these men came from the 753rd Tank Battalion. Olen volunteered, with his friend, Eugene Greenfield, to join the battalion and became a member HQ Company.
The decision for this move may have been made as early as August 1941, and 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 San Francisco, California. From San Francisco, the tankers were ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, they were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases. Some men were held back for health issues but scheduled to join the battalion at a later date. Others were simply replaced.
The battalion traveled by train to San Francisco, California, and was ferried, on the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe, to Fort McDowell on Angel Island, where the soldiers were inoculated and given physicals by the battalion's medical detachment. Those who had medical issues were replaced or scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date.
The 192nd boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th. 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 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 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 9th, 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 15th, 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 16th, 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, the tankers were met by Gen. Edward P. King, who 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, but the fact was he learned of their arrival just days before they arrived. He stayed with the battalion until they had received their Thanksgiving Dinner. Afterwards, he went for his own dinner.
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 1st, the tank battalions were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. The 194th was assigned the northern half of the battalion while the 192nd was assigned the southern half. At all times, two members of every tank and half-track crew were to remain with their vehicles.
The morning of December 8th, the officers of the battalion were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just hours earlier. All morning the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45 in the afternoon, Japanese bombers appeared over Clark Field destroying the American Army Air Corps. James, and the other members of HQ, took cover since they had no weapons to use against the planes. After the attack, they witnessed the devastation caused by the bombing and strafing.
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.
The battalion remained at Clark Field for two weeks until it received orders to the Lingayen Gulf area were the Japanese had landed. The battalion repeatedly dropped back as it fought the Japanese.
On December 23rd and 24th, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta and found the bridge they were going to use to cross the Agno River was destroyed. The tankers made an end run to get south of river and ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening, but they successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province. Later on the 24th, the battalions formed a defensive line along the southern bank of the Agno River with the 192nd on the right and 194th on the left.
On December 25th, 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 held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27th and withdrew, following the Philippine Army, to the Tarlec-Cabanatuan Line and was near Santo Tomas and Cabanatuan on the 28th and 29th.
The tank battalions next covered the withdrawal of the Philippine Army at the Pampanga River. The battalion's tanks were on both sides of the on December 31st at the Calumpit Bridge.
On January 1st, conflicting orders, about who was in command, were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 and allowing the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders, since they came from Gen. MacArthur's chief of staff.
Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridge over the Pampanga River about withdrawing from the bridge with half of the defenders withdrawing. 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., on January 6th, the Japanese attacked at Remlus in force using smoke which was an attempt by the Japanese to destroy the tank battalions. That night 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.
The night of January 7th, the tank battalions were covering the withdrawal of all troops around Hermosa. Around 6:00 A.M., before the bridge had been destroyed by the engineers, the 192nd crossed the bridge.
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.
The next day, a composite tank company was formed 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 battalion 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. 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.
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.
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. C Company, 194th, which was attached to the 192nd, had only seven tanks left.
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 6000 troops who sick or wounded and 40000 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."
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. He somehow came up with enough bread and pineapple juice for the company, and they had what Bruni called, "Their last supper."
On April 9, 1942, Bataan was surrendered to the Japanese at 7:00 A.M. The members of the company remained in their bivouac. The first Japanese soldiers appeared at HQ company's encampment on April 11th, and 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 and place 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.
After this, the company boarded their trucks and drove to outside Mariveles. From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and were ordered to sit. As they sat and waited, the POWs 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 sat watching and waiting to see what the Japanese intended to do, a Japanese officer pulled up in a car in front of the soldiers. He got out of the car and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail. The officer got back in the car and drove off. As he left, the Japanese sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.
Later in the day, the POWs were moved to an open field in Mariveles. The POWs were left sitting in the sun for hours without food or water. Behind the POWs were four Japanese artillery pieces which began firing on Corregidor and Ft. Drum which had not surrendered. Shells from these two American artillery began landing among the POWs, who could do little since they had no place to hide. Some POWs were killed by incoming American shells. One group that tried to hide in a small brick building died when it took a direct hit. The American guns did succeed in knocking out three of the four Japanese guns.
The POWs were ordered to move again by the Japanese and had no idea that they had started what became known as the death march. During the march, the POWs received no water and little food. It took the members of HQ Company six days to reach San Fernando. Once there, the POWs were put into a bull pen that had a fence around it. In one corner was a slit trench to be used as a toilet by the POWs. The surface of the trench moved since it was covered in maggots. The POWs had enough room to sit, but they could not lie down.
How long the POWs remained in the bull pen is not known but they sat there most of the day. The Japanese ordered the POWs to form columns of 100 men and marched them to the train depot at San Fernando. There, they were put into a small wooden boxcar used to haul sugarcane and taken to Capas. The cars could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car. Those who died remained standing until the living climbed out of the cars at Capas. From Capas, they walked the last ten miles to Camp O' Donnell.
Camp O'Donnell was an unfinished Filipino training base that the Japanese pressed into service as a Prisoner of War camp. It turned out to be a death trap with as many as fifty POWs dying each day. There was only one working water faucet for the entire camp. To get a drink, men stood in line for hours, which resulted in many men dying while waiting for a drink. The death rate was so high that the POWs volunteered to go out on work details to escape the camp. The Japanese recognized that they had to do something to lower the death rate, so they opened a new camp at Cabanatuan.
It is known that Olen was sent to Cabanatuan in May 1942. The death rate at the camp dropped dramatically after it was opened when the Japanese issued the POWs Red Cross packages. Medical records at the camp show that Olen was admitted to the camp hospital on August 7, 1942, but what he was admitted for was not recorded, neither was the date he was discharged from the hospital.
In late 1942, Olen went out on a work detail to Clark Field to build revetments and a runway. He remained on the detail until he became ill. Medical records at Bilibid Prison, show that he was admitted to the hospital ward on December 23, 1942, with diphtheria and discharged on April 2, 1943, to Cabanatuan.
On August 15, 1943, Owen was sent out on a work detail to Las Pinas to build runways at an airfield in September 1943. With the arrival of his POW detachment, there were 800 POWs working on the airfield. The POWs were divided into two groups with the first group draining rice paddies and laying the foundation for the runway. The second POW detachment built the runway. In July 1944, with most of the work finished, most of the POWs were sent to Cabanatuan.
In late 1944, Olen's name appeared on a POW roster of men who were being transferred to Japan. The POWs were loaded onto trucks and taken to the Port Area of Manila. All the POWs in the detachment, that Olen was in, had arrived at the docks only to find the ship they were scheduled to sail on, the Arisan Maru, was not ready to sail. Another ship, the Hokusen Maru was ready to sail, but its POWs detachment had not completely arrived. So that the ship could sail, the Japanese switched the detachments and Olen's detachment boarded the Hokusen Maru on October 1st.
The ship sailed but dropped anchor at the harbor's breakwater. It remained there for three days and 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 who were out of their minds or hit them with canteens.
As part of a ten ship convoy, the ship 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. The maneuver failed since, on October 6th, two of the ships were sunk by an American submarine.
The ships were informed, on October 9th, that American carriers were seen near Formosa, so the ships sailed for Hong Kong. While on their way to Formosa, the ships received word that American planes were in the area. During this part of the voyage, the ships ran into American submarines which sank two more ships. The Hokusen Maru arrived at Hong Kong on October 11th and remained for ten days. While it was in port, American planes bombed the harbor on October 16th. On October 21st, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa, arriving on October 24th.
Olen was one of 294 POWs taken to a school house that was near the town of Toroku on Formosa. Since most of the POWs were weak from the length of the trip that it took to reach Formosa, they were not required to do hard physical labor. The POWs did light gardening and work around the camp, while the healthier POWs worked at a sugar mill.
In January 1945, most of the POWs were boarded onto the Enoshima Maru, which sailed on January 25th and arrived at Moji, Japan, on January 30th. After arriving, Olen was taken to Tokyo #23, where the POWs worked as stevedores and in ship construction. He remained in the camp until he was liberated.
After liberation, Olen was returned to the Philippines before being sent home. He sailed from Manila on the U.S.S. Hugh Rodman, and arrived at San Francisco, on October 3, 1945, nearly four years since he had sailed from the port. Olen arrived home on October 20, 1945, and was hospitalized at Fletcher General Hospital at Cambridge, Ohio. He was discharged from the Army on April 11, 1946, and he married and became the father of two sons. The family later moved to California where they resided in Lake View, West Covina, and later Oak Hills.
Olen Gilson passed away on October 29, 1995, in Phelan, California. He was buried in Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California.
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