Kopek

 


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 in San Francisco,California, by train and were ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. CoxeThe 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 tenss, 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 8th.  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.  The tank battalion commanders received this order on April 8th, "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."
    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 8th, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms with the Japanese.

    The morning of April 9th, 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 9th 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 two hold.  Along the sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks.  These bunks were so close together that a man could not lift himself up while laying down.  Those standing also had no room to lie down.  The latrines for the prisoners were eight five gallon cans which the POWs could not get near since they were packed into the hold so tightly.  The floor of the hold was soon covered with human waste.

    The ship sailed on October 10th but took a southerly route away from Formosa.  It arrived at a cove off Palawan Island where it dropped anchor.  This resulted in the ship missing an air attack, on Manila, by American planes.  During their time off Palawan, the POWs managed to hot wire the hold's ventilation system into the hold's lighting system.  The Japanese had removed the light bulbs, but they had not turned off the power.  For two days the POWs had fresh air, until the power was turned off when the Japanese found out what the POWs had done.
     The POWs began developing heat blisters, so the Japanese decided to move some of them to another hold.  While transferring the POWs one man was shot when he tried to escape.  It was also at this time the ship was attacked by American planes that had just conducted a raid on Palawan.

    The Arisan Maru returned to the Manila nine days later., where it became part of a twelve ship convoy bound for Formosa.  On October 21st, 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.  This made the ships targets for submarines.  In addition, to protect the fact that American Military Intelligence had cracked the Japanese code, the submarine crews were not informed that POWs were being transported on the ships.
    The evening of October 24th at about 5:00 P.M., the convoy was in the Bashi Channel, of the South China Sea, off the coast of China, when it came under attack by American submarines. The waves were high since a storm had just passed.  At about 5:50 P.M., a number of POWs were on deck preparing dinner.  About half the POWs on the ship had been fed.  When the guards ran to the bow of the ship and watched a torpedo as it barely missed the ship.  The guards next ran to the stern of the ship, and a second torpedo passed behind the ship.
    Suddenly the Arisan Maru shook, it had been hit by two torpedoes from the U.S.S. Shark, amidships, killing POWs while those still alive began cheering wildly.  A little while later the cheering ended and the men realized they were facing death.
    The guards went after the POWs who cooking dinner and began beating them with their guns and forcing them into the second hold.  Once they were in the hold the Japanese cut the rope ladders and slammed down the hatch cover before abandoning the ship.
    POWs in the first hold managed to make their way onto the deck and reattached the rope ladders and dropped them into the holds.  The surviving POWs made their way onto the deck.  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."
    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.  It was about this time that about 35 POWs swam to the nearest Japanese ship.  When the Japanese realized that they were POWs, they pushed them underwater with poles and drowned them or hit them with clubs.  Those POWs who could not swim raided the food lockers for a last meal.  These men wanted to die with full stomachs.  Other POWs took to the water with anything that would float.  
    Three men managed to get into a lifeboat that had been abandoned by the Japanese.  But since the sea was rough and they had no paddles, they could not maneuver the boat.  According to the men as the night went on, the cries for help became fewer until there was silence.  The next morning, they rescued two more POWs.

    According to the five POWs who had reached an abandoned lifeboat, the Arisan Maru sank slowly into the water.  At some point the ship broke in two where it had been struck by the torpedoes.  The exact time of the ship's sinking was not known since it occurred after dark.  The cries for help slowly ceased until there was silence.

    Pvt. Alexander R. Kopek lost his life when the Arisan Maru was torpedoed in the South China Sea.  Of the nearly 1800 POWs on the ship, only nine survived the sinking.  Eight of the men survived the war. 

    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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