Pvt. Alexander Raymond Kopek


    Pvt. Alexander R. Kopek was born in Kansas in 1914.  He was the son of Joseph Kopek & Pauline Gruzkiewicz-Kopek.  He lived at 2822 Perry Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri, with his two sisters and three brothers.  Alexander attended Manuel Training School and left school after 7th grade to work as a mechanic. 

    In 1941, Alexander was drafted into the U. S. Army.  He was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, where he was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 194th Tank Battalion.  He was trained as a tank mechanic.  He quickly rose in rank, and it appears, from available information, that he became a tank commander.

    In the late summer of 1941, the 194th received orders for duty in the Philippines because of an event that happened during the summer.  A squadron of American fighters were flying over Lingayen Gulf 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.  The squadron came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line, in the direction of an Japanese occupied island., located hundreds of miles to the northwest.  The island had a large radio transmitter on it.  The squadron returned to their flight plan and flew south to Marivles before returning to Clark Field.  When the squadron landed that evening, the pilot reported what he had seen, but it was too late to deal to return to the area. 
    The next morning, another squadron was sent to the area, but the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat which was seen making its way to shore.  Since communication was poor between the Air Corps and Navy, the boat was not stopped.  It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
     The battalion arrived at Ft. Mason i n San Francisco,California, by train and were ferried to F t. McDowell on Angel Island , on the U.S.A.T. General Fra nk M. Coxe .  The men received physical and shots from the battalion's medical detachment, and those men found to have medical issues were replaced.  At 9:00 P.M. on September 8, 1941, the tank battalion sailed and arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, at 7:00 A.M. on Saturday, September 13.  The soldiers were allowed off ship, but they needed to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M.  After it sailed, it took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes.  It was at this time that it was joined by the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Astoria , and an unknown destroyer.  Several times during this part of the voyage smoke was seen on the horizon.  Each time, the cruiser revved its engines and took off in the direction of the smoke.  All the ships it intercepted belonged to friendly countries.
    The Coolidge crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and it became Thursday, September 18.  The ship entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M., on September 26, and reached Manila several hours later.  The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M., and were driven on buses to Clark Field.  The maintenance section of the battalion and members of 17th Ordnance remained at the dock to unload the battalion's tanks and reattach the turrets.
    Upon arriving at the fort, they were greeted by General Edward P. King, who apologized that they had to live in tents.  He informed the battalion he had learned of their arrival just days before they arrived.  After he was satisfied that they were settled in, he left them. The second night in the tents, it rained so hard that the tents flooded.  On November 15, the battalion moved into their new barracks.
    The first week of December 1941, the tank battalions were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against enemy paratroopers.  Two tank crew members remained with the tank at all times.  The morning of December 8, 1941, the tankers heard the news of Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just hours earlier.  As they sat their tanks, the sky was filled with American planes.  At noon, the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch.
    The tankers were having lunch, which meant a tank crew member went to the food truck and got food for the other members of the crew.  As they sat in their tanks, they watched two formations, of 27 planes each, approaching the airfield from the north.  At first they believed the planes were American, it was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that they knew the planes were Japanese.
    The battalion was sent to the barrio of San Jaoaquin on the Malolus Road and moved to an area just south of San Joaquin near the Calumpit Bridge on December 12.  It would receive 15 Bren Gun carriers that were used to test the ground to see if it could support the weight of a tank.  The battalion moved again to west and north of Rosario and was operating in north of the Agno River the night of December 22/23.
    The tank battalions formed the Santa Ignacia-Gerona-Santo Tomas defensive line the night of December 26/27.  They were holding a new line at the Bamban River the night of December 29/30 and were at the Calumpit Bridge the next night.
On January 5th, they were at Lyac Junction and dropped back to Remedios were a new defensive line was formed.
    The night of January 6/7, the 194th withdrew over a bridge on the Culis Creek covered by the 192nd Tank Battalion, and entered Bataan.  The 192nd crossed the bridge before it was destroyed and entered Bataan.
    The tank battalions were covering the East Coast Road on January 8.  It was at this time that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks each and HQ Company with the 17th Ordnance Company were able to do long overdue maintenance on the tanks.
    The tanks continued to cover withdraws for the rest of January and February.  In March, HQ Company was recovering two tanks that had been bogged down  in the mud when the Japanese entered the area.   Lt. Col. Miller ordered the tanks to fire at point blank range and ran from tank to tank directing the fire.
    On April 4, the Japanese lunched an all out offensive at 3:00 P.M., and the tanks were sent to various sectors in an attempt to stop the advance.   When it became apparent to Gen. Edward King that the situation was hopeless and he wanted to prevent a massacre since he only 25% of his troops were healthy enough to fight, while approximately 6,000 troops were hospitalized from wounds or disease.  In addition, there were approximately 40,000 civilians.  The night of April 8, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms with the Japanese.
    The tank battalion commanders received this order on April 8 , "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 morning of April 9, at 6:45, the order "crash" was heard over the radios of the battalion.  The members of the company destroyed any equipment that had military value to the Japanese.  It was on April 9 that Alexander became a Prisoner of War when the Japanese entered the company's bivouac.

    Alexander took part in the death march and, at San Fernando, he and other POWs, were packed into small wooden box cars that were used to haul sugarcane.  The cars could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car.  At Capas, the POWs climbed out of the cars and walked the last miles to Camp O'Donnell.  Those who had died in the cars fell to the floors.

    The camp was an unfinished Filipino training base which 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.
    The camp was actually three camps.  Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march where held.  Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed.  It later reopened and housed Naval POWs.  Camp 3 was where those men captured when Corregidor surrender were taken.  In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp.  Camps 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1.
    Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp.  The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with.  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.
    In the camp, the Japanese instituted the "Blood Brother" rule.  If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed.  POWs caught trying to escape were beaten.  Those who did escape and were caught, were tortured before being executed.  It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
    The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them.  The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting.  Many quickly became ill.  He was assigned to Barracks 2, Group 2, which meant that the members of his group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers.
    The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens.  The two major details were the farm detail and the airfield detail which lasted for years.  A typical day on any detail lasted from 7:00 A.M. until  5:00 P.M.
    Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as "lugow" which meant "wet rice."  During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit.  Once in awhile, they received bread.
    The farm detail was under a Japanese guard known as "Big Speedo" because he was taller than most of the Japanese.  He knew very little English and used the word "speedo" when he wanted the POWs to work faster.  Overall, the POWs felt he treated them fairly and did not abuse them.  There was also a smaller Japanese guard known as "Little Speedo," who was fair to the POWs.  Smiley was another guard who the POWs quickly learned not to trust.  He always had a smile on his face, but he was mean and beat the POWs for no apparent reason.
   The POWs cleared the area and planted comotes, cassava, taro, sesame, and various greens.  The Japanese used most of the food for themselves.  When the POWs arrived at the farm, they would enter a shed.  As they came out, it was common for them to be hit over the heads by the guards.
    The Japanese wanted an airfield for their fighters, so the POWs were given the job of constructing it.  The POWs leveled the land and moved dirt.  At first, they used wheelbarrows to move the soil, but when this became inefficient, mining cars and track were brought in, and the POWs loaded the cars and pushed them to where the dirt was being dumped.
    The POWs also worked planting rice.  While doing this, one the favorite punishments was for a guard to push a man's face into the mud. Once his head was in the mud, the guard would step on his head to drive it deeper.  Other details did go out, but usually lasted a few days.  Major details, of hundreds of men, left the camp and worked on projects that lasted years.  When, due to illness or death, details became depleted, more POWs left the camp for details as replacements.
    The camp hospital was known as "Zero Ward" because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks.  The sickest POWs were sent there to die.  The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves, and they would not go into the building.  There were two rolls of wooden platforms around the perimeter of the building.  The sickest POWs were put on the lower platform which had holes cut into it so the they could relieve themselves.  Most of those who entered the ward died.
    The POWs had the job of burying the dead.  To do this, they worked in teams of four men.  Each team carried a litter of four to six dead men to the cemetery where they were buried in graves containing 15 to 20 bodies.  The death rate in the camp was nine men a day into November 1942, but dropped once Red Cross packages were issued at Christmas.
    It is known he was in the camp, in October 1944, when his name was posted for transport to Japan.  This was done because U. S. Forces days earlier the POWs heard the sound of American artillery as the invasion of Luzon was starting.   In addition, the Japanese did not want them to be liberated.

    When Alexander's group of POWs arrived at the Port Area of Manila in early October 1944, they were boarded onto the Arisan Maru .  They had been scheduled to be boarded onto the Hokusen Maru , but since one of the POW detachments in his group had not arrived on time, the Japanese switched POW groups and put another group of POWs on Alexander's ship so it could sail. 

    The POWs were packed into the ship's number one hold.  Along the sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks, but the bunks were so close together that a man could not lift himself up when he used one.  Those standing had no room to lie down.  The latrines for the prisoners were eight five gallon cans, which the POWs could not use since they were packed in the hold so tightly.  This resulted in the floor of the hold being covered with human waste.  Anton Cichy said , "For the first few days, there were 1,800 of us together in one hold.  I don't know how big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down.  We were just kind of stuck together."   Calvin Graef said about the conditions in the hold , "We were packed in so tight most men couldn't get near the cans.  And, of course, it was a physical impossibility for the sick in the back of the hold, the men suffering the tortures of diarrhea and dysentery.  We waded in fecal matter.  Most of the men went naked.  The place was alive with lice, bedbugs and roaches; the filth and stench were beyond description." 
   
  On October 11, the ship set sail but took a southerly route away from Formosa.  The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days.  The Japanese covered the hatch with a tarp so during the night, the POWs were in total darkness.  Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died.  Being in the cove resulted in the ship missing an air raid by American planes on Manila, but the ship was attacked once by American planes which were returning from an air raid on the airfield on Palawan .
   
Although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not turned off the power to the lights.  Some of the prisoners were able to hot-wire the ship's blowers into the light power lines.  This allowed fresh air into the hold, until the power was disconnected, two days later, when the Japanese discovered what had been done.
   
    After this was done, the POWs began to develop heat blisters.  The Japanese realized that if they did not do something many of the POWs would die.  To prevent this, they opened the ship's number two hold and transferred 600 POWs into it.  At this point, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.
    Of this time, Graef said , "As we moved through the tropical waters, the heat down in the steel-encased hell hole was maddening.  We were allowed three ounces of water per man every 24 hours.  Quarts were needed under these conditions, to keep a man from dehydrating.
    "While men were dying of thirst, Jap guards--heaping insults on us--would empty five gallon tins of fresh water into the hold.  Men caught the water in pieces of clothing and sucked the cloth dry.  Men licked their wet skins.  It was hell all right.  Men went mad."

    The Arisan Maru returned to Manila on October 20, where it joined a twelve ship convoy.  On October 21, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea.  The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs making them targets for American submarines.  In addition, U.S. Military Intelligence was reading the Japanese messages as fast as the Japanese.  To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine crews that ships were carrying POWs which made the ships targets for the submarines.  The POWs in the hold became so desperate that they prayed for the ship to be hit by torpedoes.
     Graef described the deaths of the POWs hold. "There were so many (that died) out 1800 .  The conditions in the hold.....men were just dying in a continuous stream.  Men, holding their bellies in interlocked arms, stood up, screamed and died.  You were being starved, men wee dying at such a pace we had  to pile them up.  It was like you were choking to death.  Burial consisted of two men throwing another overboard."   
    Cichy said , "The Japs told us that they'd be in Formosa the next day to pick up some cargo.  They had to make room on deck so they tossed a whole bunch of life preservers down into the hold. I held onto one but didn't think anything about it."   It was about 4:00 P.M. on October 24, and each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice.  Ten POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs in the ship's holds.  The waves were high since the ship had been through a storm in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea.  Suddenly, bells and sirens sounded warning of submarines.  The POWs in the holds chanted for the submarine to sink the ship.
    At about 4:50 P.M., about half the POWs had been fed.  As the POWs, on deck, watched, the Japanese ran to the bow of the ship and watched as a torpedo passed in front of it.  Moments later, the Japanese ran to the ship's stern and watched as a second torpedo passed behind the ship.  There was a sudden jar and the ship stopped dead in the water.  It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, in its third hold where there were no POWs.
    At first the POWs cheered wildly until they realized they were facing death.  Cichy recalled, "When the torpedo hit everybody in the hold hollered 'Hit her again!' We wanted to get it over with."  Lt. Robert S. Overbeck recalled , "When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn't care a bit--they were tired and weak and sick."   He also said , "The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn't break in two."   Overbeck also commented on the reaction of the POWs in the holds. "For about five second there was panic among us, but there were five or six chaplains who prayed fervently and quieted the men.  By then the Nips--300 of them on deck--were scurrying about, scared as hell.  The boilers exploded.  I don't think any of us got hurt in the torpedoing or the explosion.  Most of the prisoners were American, with a few British.  The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned ship. That was about 5:00 P.M."  It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the U.S.S. Snook or U.S.S. Shark.
    The guards began to beat the POWs on deck with their guns to chase them back into the holds.  Once they had, they put the hatch covers on the hatches, but because they had been ordered to abandon ship, never tied them down.  Cichy said , "The Japs closed the hatched and left the ship in lifeboats.  They must of forgot about the prisoners on deck who had been cooking.  When the Japs were off the boat, the cooks opened the hatches and told us to come up.  I was just under the deck, but there were a lot of the guys down below.  One of them escaped by simply walking into the water from a hole in the bulkhead.  He was Lt. Robert S. Overback, Baltimore."  Cichy added , "The Japs had already evacuated ship.  They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their own."
    The POWs left the holds but made no attempt to abandon ship.  On the ship's deck an American major spoke to the POWs, he said , "Boys, we're in a hellva a jam - but we've been in jams before.  Remember just one thing: We're American soldiers.  Let's play it that way to the very end of the script."  Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them , "Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men."   Overbeck also stated , "We broke into the ship's stores to get food, cigarettes, and water -- mainly water, we were so thirsty.  All of us figured we were going to die anyway.  The Japs ships, except for the destroyers, had disappeared.  All we had were life belts which the Japanese had fortunately thrown down the hold the day before.

    "But as darkness settled and our hopes for life flickered, we felt absolutely no resentment for the Allied submarine that had sent the torpedo crashing in.  We knew they could not tell who was aboard the freighter, and as far as the Navy could have known the ship could have been carrying Jap troops.  The men were brave and none complained.
     "Some slipped off their life preservers and with a cherry 'so long' disappeared." 
The ship slowly sank lower in the water.
    According to surviving POWs, the ship stayed afloat for hours but got lower in the water.  At one point, the stern of the ship began going under which caused the ship to split in half but the halves remained afloat.  Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking.  Some POWs attempted to escape by putting on lifebelts, clinging to hatch covers, rafts, and other flotsam and jetsam.  When they reached other Japanese ships, the Japanese pushed them away with poles.  Glenn Oliver said , "They weren't picking up Americans.  A lot of the prisoners were swimming for the destroyer, but the Japanese were pushing them back into the water."
    Oliver recalled , "I could see people still on the ship when it went down.  I could see people against the skyline, just standing there."   In the water, he watched as the ship went under.  "I kept getting bumped by guys wearing life jackets.  Nobody wanted to share my planks.  I didn't ask them."
    Three POWs found an abandoned life boat and managed to climb in but found it had no oars.  With the rough seas, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs.  According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru and sank sometime after dark on Tuesday, October 24, 1944.  Oliver, who was not in the boat, stated he heard men using what he called "GI whistles" to contact each other. "They were blowing these GI whistles in the night.  This weird moaning sound.  I can't describe it."  The next morning there were just waves.  Olvier and three other POWs were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and taken to Formosa.  They later were sent by ship to Japan.  The men in the boat picked up two more survivors and later made it to China and freedom.  Pvt.
Alexander R. Kopek was not one of them.   
    In 1945, his family received this message:  "The information available to the war department is that the vessel sailed from Manila on October 11, 1944, with 1775 prisoners of war aboard.  On October 24 the vessel was sunk by submarine action in the south China Sea over 200 miles from the Chinese coast which was the nearest land.  Five of the prisoners escaped in a small boat and reached the coast.  Four others have been reported as picked up by the Japanese by whom all others aboard are reported lost.  Absence of detailed information as to what happened to the other individual prisoners and known circumstances of the incident  lead to a conclusion that all other prisoners listed by the Japanese as aboard the vessel perished."
    Since he was lost at sea, Pvt. Alexander Kopek's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.   


 

 






 

 

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