Pvt. Cecil Raymond VAnDiver
Cecil R. VanDiver was born on
August 5, 1919, the son of Susie Cumingo-VanDiver and Cecil
O. VanDiver. He grew up in rural Mercer County,
Kentucky, on Cornishville Road and attended Cloyd Grade
School and Cornishville High School from which he
dropped out during his sophomore year. He worked with his
father on the family farm.
In 1939, Cecil joined the 38th Tank Company of the Kentucky National Guard in Harrodsburg with his best friends Bland Moore and Claude and Willard Yeast. The friends joined to have fun, to see new things, to have adventures, but little did they know they were signing up to become part of history.
While in the National Guard, the tank company was federalized in the fall of 1940. On November 28, 1940, the tankers rode a train to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where they joined National Guard companies from Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin and formed the 192nd GHQ Light Tank Battalion. Upon arriving at the base, he and the other soldiers found themselves housed in tents with stoves since their barracks weren't finished. After several weeks, they moved into their new barracks.
During his time at Ft. Knox, Cecil attended cooks school. Upon completion of the program he was assigned to Headquarters Company, as a cook, when the company was formed in early 1941.
During the late summer of 1941, Cecil suffered a hernia and was hospitalized at Ft. Knox. At this time, the 192nd was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers. Cecil joined the maneuvers several weeks after they had started. He and several other members of the battalion brought with them the remaining equipment of the battalion.
After the maneuvers, the 192nd was informed that it was being sent overseas. Cecil returned to Harrodsburg to say his goodbyes. He also married.
Cecil and the other members of the 192nd were sent west by train to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. After boarding a ferry, the soldiers were taken to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. When they got near Alcatraz, a soldier on the boat said to them, " I'd rather be here than go where you all are going. " Cecil believed he and the other men stayed on Angel Island for two days.
Island, the soldiers were inoculated for duty overseas.
The reason given for the battalion going overseas
was that they were going to take part in extended
maneuvers. The ship sailed on Monday, October
27th, as part of a three ship convoy. After sailing,
Cecil recalled that mail call was held as the ship
they were on passed under the Golden Gate Bridge. He
got his letters and made his way to the
railing. No sooner than he got to the railing that Cecil was
seasick. After the members of the battalion
got over their seasickness, they spent much of the time
training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning
weapons, and doing KP.
Cecil was working in the kitchen at that time. He and the other cooks had just finished preparing lunch and preparing to serve it. He recalled looking up and seeing a lot of planes approaching. Having heard the rumor that Clark Field was going to be reinforced he thought nothing about the planes approaching the airfield. He and the other men got up and began counting the planes.
It was at this time that bombs began falling from the planes. Cecil like the other men dove into a ditch. During the attack, Cecil stood up to see what was happening. He watched the trees exploding from the Japanese bullets. Capt. Havelock Nelson seeing Cecil standing up yelled at him to take cover.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. Since the company kitchen was near the main road between the fort and airfield, Cecil watched as the dead, dying and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks and trucks. He recalled that anything that could carry the wounded was in use. When the hospital filled, he watched the medics place the wounded under the building. Many of these men had their arms and legs missing. The sight sickened him.
That night, there was one air raid after another. Since they did not have any foxholes, Cecil and the other men used an old latrine pit for cover. Being that it was safer in the trench than in their tents, he and the other men slept in the pit. The entire night they were bitten by mosquitoes. The next morning the decision was made to move the company into an tree cover area. Without knowing it, he had slept his last night on a cot or bed. From this point on, Cecil slept in a blanket on the ground.
For Cecil, the coming month was a constant, slow, falling back toward Bataan Peninsula. He recalled that once they were in Bataan they had water all around them on three sides and the Japanese blocking the only way out.
During this time, the soldiers were bombed and strafed. The
morning before the surrender the Japanese bombed the ammunition dumps which were close to where Cecil's
company kitchen. That night the sky was lit by the fire burning of the ammunition dumps.
The morning of April 9th, the company was suppose to join up with other troops and surrender together. Cecil and the other men took their ammunition and weapons and put them in piles in the last tank and half-track they had. They poured gasoline into the tank and the half track and both were set on fire.
Two days after the official surrender, a Japanese officer and soldiers entered HQ
Company's bivouac. The Americans were ordered out onto the road that ran past their encampment.
Once on the road, the Prisoners of War were ordered to kneel along the shoulders of the road with their
possessions in front of them. As they knelt, Japanese soldiers passing them took what they wanted from
Finally, the members of HQ Company made their way to Mariveles by truck. At Mariveles Airfield, the POWs were herded into a field, and the Japanese soldiers had the POWs lined up for an inspection. The Japanese took the prisoners' jewelry and other items that had any meaning to them.
As the POWs sat in the sun, they began to notice a line of Japanese soldiers was forming across from them. The watched and realized that the Japanese were going to execute them. At that moment a Japanese officer got out of the car and ordered the soldiers to lower their guns. He climbed back into the car and drove off.
Cecil and the other POWs were ordered to move to a school yard where they were made to sit in the sun without food or water. The Japanese let them sit there most of the day before they were told to move. It was from Mariveles, late in the afternoon, that Cecil began what would later become known as the death march. With him on the march, was Bland Moore of D Company.
"Then the death march started, at a little town
called Mariveles. We marched all night the
first night. We marched on for days, it
seemed endless. They would tell us food was at the next
stop, but there wasn't any. My mouth swelled
up and my tongue burst open. When we came to
water, the Japs would post guards around the water
holes and wouldn't let us have any."
What made things worse was as they marched, they came across artesian wells and watering holes, but they were denied their request for water. The Japanese would chase the POWs away from the wells. It got to the point that even though the Japanese attempted to keep the prisoners from the water they still went to the wells. This resulted in the deaths of many men who were bayoneted while getting water.
Cecil recalled, "The Filipinos would try to help us. One woman tried to slip us some rice wrapped in a banana leaf. The Japs saw her and knocked her down. She was pregnant. They jumped up and down on top of her until she was dead."
Filipinos believed that the POWs had money and attempted to sell
rice to them. One of these vendors had rice in
a sock. As Cecil passed him he grabbed the
sock. The Filipino yelled at Cecil to give him
his money. Cecil told the man that he did not have
any which caused the man to pull a gun a
Cecil. Cecil was so tired that he did not care if the Filipino
shot him or not. Cecil looked at the man and
told him to shoot.
What little food Cecil and the other POWs got, consisted of burnt rice, tree bark and green banana shoots. At one point Bland and Cecil got a hold of a half a canteen full of burnt rice. Bland, Pvt. Earl Pratt, and Cecil split the rice among them.
Cecil even saw a suicide while on the march. A major jumped off a bridge that they were crossing. Before he jumped, he said , "I can't take it another step!" He leaped off the bridge and sank into the mud of the riverbed up to his shoulders.
At another point on the march,
Cecil fell out under a large tree, because he felt that he
could not take another step. Bland More and
another Pvt. Earl Pratt, of HQ Company, carried Cecil between
them so that the Japanese would not kill him.
These two did this although they themselves were having a
hard time walking. That night Bland gave Cecil
some water and a half of a cigarette which seemed to
revive him. The next day, Cecil was able to
continue on the march alone.
After several days, Cecil made
it to San Fernando. Cecil was so sick at this point
that he laid down in the bull pen they were put
in. Bland Moore saw him and told him not to give
up. When the order came to form 100 men
detachments, Bland picked up Cecil and told him to go. The
men were marched to the train station, there, the
prisoners were crammed into wooden
that were used to haul sugarcane. The cars were known
as "forty or eights," since each car could hold
forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed
100 POWs into each boxcar and closed the
doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly, that those who died
could not fall to the floors. At Capas, the
POWs disembarked and walked the last few miles to Camp
Cecil recalled that once in the camp men began to come down with beriberi and dysentery. Conditions in the camp were so bad that as many as fifty men died each day. Cecil worked the burial detail. The bodies of the dead were placed in mass graves. Since the water table was high, the workers used poles to hold the bodies down so they could be covered with dirt.
One day, Cecil was working the detail when he recognized the man he was burying as a friend from Harrodsburg, Edward G. Wills. Cecil did not want his friend to be buried in a mass grave and attempted to bury him alone. When the Japanese guard noticed what Cecil was doing, he pushed Cecil into the grave and had bodies thrown on top of him and began to have the POWs bury Cecil in the grave. Cecil made his way around the trench and found a spot where there was no Japanese guard and climbed out. The guard told Cecil that if he ever tried this again, he would be buried alive.
Each morning the POWs would return to the cemetery to dig graves for the men who had died during the night. When they got there, they found the arms and legs of the dead sticking out of the ground and wild dogs pulling on them. The men would chase off the dogs, knock the arms and legs down, and rebury them.
To get out of the camp, Cecil volunteered to go out on the bridge building detail. He was held at Calumpet in a school house near the bridge the POWs were rebuilding. Their diet consisted of fish and rice. The POWs developed beriberi, malaria, and dysentery; those too ill to work were sent to Cabanatuan and replaced by other POWs. During his time on the detail, seventeen POWs died.
One of the good things about this detail was that the Filipinos attempted the help the POWs by slipping them food. While the POWs were building the bridge, they camped along the bank of the river. At night, the Filipinos would cross the river in their small boats. After the Japanese guards had passed, the Filipinos put one or two of the prisoners in the boat and have them lie down to hide in the bottom of the boat. The prisoners were taken across the river where they were fed. When they had finished, the POWs were brought back to the camp. Cecil credited the improvement in his health to the efforts of the Filipinos.
When the bridge was finished, Cecil and the other POWs were returned to Cabanatuan
#1. They boarded trucks and were driving back to the camp. As they passed, a Filipino recognized
them as being Americans. He stuck up his hand and had made a "V for Victory" sign with his
fingers. The Japanese guards on the truck saw him do this and stopped the truck and chased him
down. The guards laid his hand on the road and caught off his two fingers with a bayonet.
While the ship set in the harbor, Cecil lost his eyesight because of the poor diet.
Another American, from Indiana, had a tube of onions he had stolen from the ship's galley. He gave
some of the onions to Cecil, who, because of the vitamins in the onions, regained his sight.
As they marched, the civilians in the town spit on them, hit them, and made fun of the POWs. The POWs reached a train station where they boarded a train and were given a little box which contained rice, pickled grasshoppers, and a little fish. They were sent on a three day train trip north to Mukden, Manchria,
The camp he was taken to had been a college, but the buildings had been bombed out. The only thing left of them were the basements, which the Japanese had built roofs over so that they could serve as barracks for the prisoners.
Since the POWs had come from the Philippines, many of the men were unprepared for the weather. Many became ill and died from exposure during the first winter. An American who was a carpenter built boxes for the bodies, but the ground was so hard that the dead could not be buried until the spring. To solve this problem, the bodies were stored in a large warehouse near the camp.
At Mukden each day, Cecil and
the others prisoners marched three miles to work and
back. They then spent the day unloading sacks of
cement and coal. The job was tough enough, but when
winter came the weather conditions made it
worse. The POWs often worked for hours in temperatures as low as
30 degrees below zero., so the men often grew beards
to protect their faces from the cold.
The Japanese decided that the POWs would be sent out to work in a factory in Mukden. The walk from the camp to the factory was three miles. The POWs marched to the factory every morning and marched back to the camp every night. Since the daily meal for the POWs consisted of rice and pickled grasshoppers, as they marched, if a cat, dog, or duck got caught in their ranks, one of the POWs would grab it and put it in his coat for supper.
Those men too ill to go to work were setting traps attempting to catch sparrows, dogs, or anything else they could eat. One day as Cecil returned to camp, he could not believe that he was smelling liver and onions cooking. It turned out that the men in the camp had found a wild onion patch near the camp and cooked them with a dog's liver. It was one of the best meals that Cecil had.
One day, Cecil and Claude Yeast were at the front of the POWs as they walked to work. Cecil looked up and saw a big yellow dog trotting through the town with a little girl in its mouth. The poorer villagers could not afford to bury their dead, so they left them out for the animals to get. That was the last time he ate dog meat.
At the factory, the Japanese used the POWs to run lathes, drill presses, and other machinery. When the Japanese believed that the POWs were good enough, they put them to work making gun barrels. The POWs intentionally messed up and ruined the barrels and also dropped sand into the oiling holes of the machines. When the Japanese realized what they were doing, they responded by making them work outside stacking lumber.
The factory they worked at had hogs that the Japanese said they were going to give to the prisoners for food once they were fat. Cecil's friend, Claude Yeast from Harrodsburg, was put in charge of the hogs. Claude used lumber and built a little shack that looked like it was part of the hog house. He put a wall up to hide it from the Japanese. Claude used this room to eat the feed what he was suppose to feed to the hogs. Cecil was lucky enough to have a chance to eat a meal of hot feed.
The Japanese could not understand why the hogs were not getting
fat. When the time came to butcher them, the Japanese butchered the hogs and kept the meat for
themselves. The prisoners cared less because they had eaten the feed in place of the hogs.
The Japanese began splitting the POWs up into smaller groups and sent them in groups of 100 to different factories. Some POWs worked in textile factories or in the steel mill. Cecil ended up working in the steel mill. Since the Japanese did not have enough masks, they made the POWs pour the molten steel without masks. It was at this time that Cecil got tuberculosis.
Just before the surrender, American planes bombed the main camp at Mukden. The reason this happened was the Japanese had intentionally set up three ammunition dumps that lined up with camp. Several Americans were killed in the air raid.
The first sign that the war was over was when Americans parachuted into the camp. After meeting with the camp commander, the announcement was made to the POWs that the war was over.
Finally, the terrible times came to an end when Cecil and the other prisoners were liberated. The prisoners had heard of the surrender, but the Japanese guards attempted to act like it never happened. One POW slipped around the guards and climbed over the the camp wall and saw Russian tanks passing the camp. The POW could speak some Russian and Polish and was able to communicate to the Russians that behind the wall were POWs. The Russians turned one of the tanks and came through the camp's gate. The tank stopped near the POWs and the crew disarmed the Japanese and gave the guns to the freed POWs.
The POWs stayed in their camp for three days before making their way back to the main camp where they were reunited with friends that they had not seen for sometime. At the camp, food was dropped to the POWs by American planes. The first American food to be eaten by the men, in over three years, was canned peaches. They washed the peaches down with coffee.
Being ill, it was determined that Cecil would be flown from Mukden to Kungming, China, and next flown to the Philippine Islands. In the Philippines, Cecil was put into a rest camp where the Americans attempted to give him, and the other men, anything that they had not had in three years.
From the Philippines, Cecil returned to the United States the U.S.S Joseph T. Dychman which sailed in September 1945 and arrived at San Francisco on October 16, 1945. He was taken to Letterman Hospital in San Francisco for further medical treatment. It was there that it was discovered that he had tuberculosis. Beca use of this condition, he was not discharged until July 18, 1946.
Cecil returned home to Kentucky and married Ruby Hawkins. The couple had two sons and a daughter.
He spent the rest of his life in Harrodsburg and remained friends with Earl Pratt the rest of his life.