T/4 Steve Lemke was born in 1912 and was the son of Adolph & Mary Lemke, who were immigrants from Poland. He was raised in Sturgeon Lake, Minnesota, and worked on the family's farm. On April 14, 1941, he was inducted into the U.S. Army and sent to Fort Lewis, Washington. There, he was assigned to the 194th Tank Battalion. |
On August 15, 1941, the 194th received orders, from Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for duty in the Philippines because of an event that happened during the summer. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a buoy in the water. 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, with a large radio transmitter, hundred of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plane and flew south to Mariveles and then returned to Clark Field. By the time the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next morning another squadron was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat which was seen making its way toward shore. Since communication between and Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat was not intercepted. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
In September 1941, the battalion, minus B Company, traveled by train to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California. From there, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, they were ferried to Fort McDowell on Angel Island and given physicals and inoculated. Men who had medical conditions were held back and replaced.
The tankers boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8 at 3:00 P.M. and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands. To get the tanks to fit in the ship's holds, the turrets had serial numbers spray painted on them and were removed from the tanks. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13 at 7:00 A.M., and most of the soldiers were allowed off ship to see the island but had to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M.
After leaving Hawaii, the ship 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 that were its escorts. During this part of the trip, on several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke. Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country.
The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and the date changed to Thursday, September 18. They entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M. 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.
On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. Two members of each tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles at all times and received their meals from food trucks.
The morning of December 8, 1941, at 8:30, the planes of the the Army Air Corps took off and filled the sky. At noon the planes landed to be refueled, line up in a straight line, and the pilots went to lunch in the mess hall. At 12:45 in the afternoon, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Danny lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Airfield.
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 10. The night of the 12/13, the battalion was ordered to bivouac south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge. Attempting to move the battalion at night was a nightmare, and they finally arrived at their new bivouac at 6:00 A.M. on December 13.
The battalion received 15 Bren Gun carriers on the 15th, and gave some to the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. They used the carriers to test the ground to see if it was solid enough to support tanks. They next were ordered to support the 71st Division in the area of Rosario on the 22, but the division's commanding officer ordered them out of the area, since he believed they would interfere with operations.
The night of the 22nd/23rd, the battalions were operating north of the Agno River when it they found that the bridge they were suppose to use had been bombed. On December 23 and 24, 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 tanks of the 192nd holding the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, and the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27 when they withdrew, following the Philippine Army, to the Tarlec-Cabanatuan Line and was near Santo Tomas and Cabanatuan on the 28 and 29.
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 31 at the Calumpit Bridge.
On January 1, 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 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.
At 2:30 A.M., on January 6, 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 7, 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 25. 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 25, 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 26/27, 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 28, were given the job of protecting the beaches, 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.
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.
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 3. On April 7, 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.
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."
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 tankers received the order "crash" sometime between 6:30 and 6:45, in the morning, on April 9, and destroyed anything that had military value for the Japanese. To destroy their tanks, they circled them, fired an armor piercing shell into the engine of each tank, opened the gasoline cocks in the crew compartments, and dropped hand grenades into them. Once this was done, they were ordered to Provisional Tank Group Headquarters and ordered to remain there.
It is believed that it was at this time that Steve and the other other members of his tank crew, Pvt. Rudolph Oliver, Pvt Arthur Gattie, all joined the guerrillas. It is not known when or how, but at some point Steve became a Prisoner of War. Most likely he surrendered when Gen. Johnathan Wainwright ordered all resistance to end with the surrender of Corrigedor. After being held at Bilibid, he would have been sent to Cabanatuan #3.
Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was previously known as Camp Panagaian. 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. About eight months later, Camp 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. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers. Steve was assigned to Barracks 5, Group II.
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 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.
While at Cabanatuan, Steve was admitted into the camp hospital. He was reported as a patient on June 27, 1942. The report does not give the illness or a date of discharge from the hospital. It is not known if he went out on a work detail, but the exact detail is not known.
In late 1944, when it became apparent to the Japanese that the invasion of the Philippines was near, most of the POWs were sent to the Port Area of Manila. The Japanese were attempting to send the healthy POWs to Japan, and other countries, to work as slave labor and prevent them from being liberated by advancing American forces.
As American forces approached the Philippines, the Japanese began to transfer large number of POWs to other parts of their empire. When Martin's group of POWs arrived at the Port Area of Manila, on October 2, 1944, they were scheduled to be boarded onto the Hokusen Maru, which was ready to sail, but the entire detachment had not arrived at the pier. Another detachment of POWs was waiting for their ship to be ready to sail, so the Japanese flipped the POW detachments so that the Hokusen
Maru could sail.
Nearly 1775 POWs were put on the Arisan Maru and packed into the ship's number one hold which could hold 400 men. Along the sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks which were so close together that a man could not lift himself up while lying down. Those standing also had no room to lie down. The latrines for the prisoners were eight five gallon cans. Since the POWs were packed into the hold so tightly, many of the POWs could not get near the cans. Anton Cichy stated, "For the first few days, there were 1800 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 there." Calvin Graef said, "We were packed in so tight most men couldn't get near the cans. And, of coursr, 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. Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died. The ship was anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days. The Japanese covered the hatch with a tarp during the night which left the POWs were in total darkness. Being in the cove resulted in the ship missing an air attack by American planes on Manila. At some point, the ship was attacked by American planes returning from a bombing mission 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 wire the ship's blowers into the lighting system which brought fresh air into the hold for two days. When the Japanese found out what the POWs had done, they power was turned off the power.
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. 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. Oliver 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. T/4 Steve Lemke 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, T/4 Steve Lemke's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.
The picture at the top of the page shows Steve Lemke with his sister and niece.