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.
    The battalion boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge at 3:00 P.M. on September 8, 1941.  The ship sailed at 9:00 P.M. the same day.  The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13th at 7:00 A.M.  The soldiers were allowed to go ashore for the day, but had to report back to the ship before it sailed at 5:00 P.M. the same day. 
   After sailing, the ship took a southern route away from the main shipping lanes and was joined by the heavy cruiser the U.S.S. Astoria.  Several times during this part of the trip, smoke was seen at the horizon, so the cruiser took off to intercept the ship.  Each time the ship was from a friendly country.  The ships arrived at Manila Bay, Philippine Islands, at 7:00, the morning of September 26th and docked at Pier 7 in Manila.  The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M. and taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. where they lived in tents, along the main road between the Clark Field and the fort, until their barracks were completed on November 15, 1941.  The maintenance section, with 17th Ordnance unloaded the tanks and reattached the turrets which had been removed so the tanks would fit in the holds.
    The first week of December, 1941, the tank battalions were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield 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 12th.  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 4th, 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, he sent staff officers to negotiate the surrender of Bataan on April 8th.

    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 ten miles to Camp O'Donnell.  Those who had died in the cars fell to the floors.

    The conditions in the camp were so bad, that the as many as 50 men died each day, and there was only one water faucet for the entire camp.  The situation was so bad, that the Japanese opened a new camp at Cabanatuan.  Alexander was one of the healthier POWs, so he was sent there and assigned to Barracks 2 Group 2.  It is not known if he went out on any work details while in the camp.  But 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 were approaching the Philippines, and 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, amidship, 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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