Watson_L

 

Pvt. Lester Owen Watson


    At this time, very little is known about Pvt. Lester Owen Watson.  What is known is that he was born on June 26, 1916, to Harold and Minnie Watson in Missouri, and the family would later live in Jennings, Kansas,  before moving to Illinois.  With his brother and sister, he grew up at 908 West Saint Charles Road in Maywood, Illinois, and attended Proviso Township High School.  He left school after two years and worked at a company that manufactured steel drums, where his job was to spray paint them.

   

    Lester joined the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Battalion Tank Company which was headquartered in an armory on Madison Street in Maywood.  On November 25, 1940, the company was federalized and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for training.  It is not known what specific training he received, but in January 1941, Lester was transferred to Headquarters Company when it was formed with men from the four letter companies of the battalion.
   
In the late summer of 1941, the battalion was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, to take part in maneuvers.  The Red Army, which the 192nd was a part of, made a major breakthrough and were about to overrun the Blue Army's headquarters when the maneuvers were canceled.  Many of the members of the battalion said it was because General George S. Patton, the commander of the Blue Army, did not want to lose the maneuvers.
    After the maneuvers he and the other members of the battalion remained were ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana.  None of them had any idea why they had not returned to Ft. Knox.   The battalion members learned that they were being sent overseas.  Those who were married or 29 years old, or older, were given the chance to resign from federal service.  He received leave home to say his goodbyes. 
While he was home he got engaged to Lena Steinmeyer before returning to Camp Polk.
    The decision for this move -  which had been made in August 1941 - was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941.  A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, 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.  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 which was hundred of miles away.  The island had a large radio transmitter.  The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field.
     When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.  The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat - with a tarp on its deck - which was seen making its way to shore.   Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped.  It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines. 
   
    After the companies were brought up to strength with replacements, the battalion was equipped with new tanks and half-tracks which came from the 753rd Tank Battalion.  The battalion traveled over different railroad routes to  San Francisco, California, and were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell, on Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay.  On the island they received physicals and inoculations by the battalion's medical detachment.  Those men with minor medical conditions were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date.  Some men were simply replaced.

    The 192nd boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th.  During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP.   The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2, and had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
    On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes.  It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. Calvin Coolidge.  Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11.  During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Date Line.  On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon.  The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke.  It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
    When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day.  At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout.  This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way.  The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20th, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning.  At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg.  Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks. 
Ironically, November 20 was the day the National Guard members of the battalion had originally been scheduled to be released from federal service.
   
At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward P. King, who apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field, but he had just learned of their arrival days earlier.  He made sure that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner. 
    For the next seventeen days the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons which had been greased to prevent them from rusting while at sea.  They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts.
    On Monday, December 1, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers.  The 194th Tank Battalion guarded the northern half of the airfield, while the 192nd guarded the southern half.  At all times, two members of every tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles.  Meals were brought to them by food trucks.
    The morning of December 8, the officers of the battalions met and were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hours earlier.  All the members of the letter companies were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield. 
    All morning long, the sky was filled with American planes.  At noon, all the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch.  At 12:45 planes approached the airfield from the north.  The tankers on duty at the airfield counted 54 planes.  When bombs began exploding, the men knew the planes were Japanese. 

    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 10th and 13th.
    The tank battalion received orders on December 21 that it was to proceed north to Lingayen Gulf.   Because of logistics problems, the B and C Companies soon ran low on gas.  When they reached Rosario, there was only enough for one tank platoon, from B Company, to proceed north to support the 26th Cavalry.
    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 24, the battalions formed a defensive line along the southern bank of the Agno River with the 192nd on the right and 194th on the left.
    On December 25, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of 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 and 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.  The 192nd was assigned the coast line from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan's east coast, 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.
    Companies A & C were ordered to the west coast of Bataan while B Company - which was held in reserve - and 17th Ordnance held the southern shore of Bataan.  The tankers were awake all night and attempted to sleep under the jungle canopy, during the day, which protected them from being spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes.  During the night, they were kept busy with repeated threats both on and off shore.
    On one occasion, a member of the company, who had gotten frustrated by being awakened by the planes, had his half-track pulled out onto the beach and took pot shots at the plane.  He missed the plane, but twenty minutes later, Japanese planes appeared over the location and dropped bombs that exploded in the tree tops.  Three members of the company were killed.
    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.
    The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt. Fred Bruni, HQ's commanding officer, gave his men the news of the surrender.  While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them.  As he spoke, his voice choked.  He turned away from the men for a moment, and when he turned back he continued.  He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks.  During the announcement, Bruni emphasized that they all were to surrender together.   He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and any supplies that could be used by the Japanese.  The only thing they were told not to destroy were the company's trucks.  The men waited in their bivouac until ordered to move.  Somehow, Bruni had found enough bread and pineapple juice for what he called, "Their last supper."
    On April 11, the first Japanese soldiers appeared at HQ company's encampment.  Donald was now a Prisoner of War.  A Japanese officer ordered the company, with their possessions, out onto the road that ran in front of their encampment.  Once on the road, the soldiers were ordered to kneel along the sides of the road with their possessions in front of them.  As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers, who were passing them, went through their possessions and took whatever they wanted from the Americans.  They remained along the sides of the road for hours.           

    HQ Company finally boarded trucks and drove to just outside of Mariveles.  From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and ordered to sit.  As they sat, John and the other Prisoners of War noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming across from them.  They soon realized that this was a firing squad and the Japanese were going to kill them.

    As they prepared to die, a car pulled up and a Japanese officer got out of the car and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail.  After talking to the sergeant, he got back in the car and drove off.  The sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.

    Later in the day, the POWs were marched to a school yard in Mariveles and again ordered to sit.  Behind them were Japanese artillery pieces.  The guns were firing on Corregidor and Ft. Drum.  When the two American strongholds began returning fire, the prisoners found themselves in the line of fire and shells began landing around them.  Five POWs who hid in an old brick building were killed when it took a direct hit.  When the barrage ended, three if the four Japanese guns had been destroyed.

   The tankers made their way north along the east coast of Bataan.  The first five miles of the march was uphill.  They received little food or water.  One night as they were being given a break, it began to rain.  This provided some relief for the men.
    At San Fernando, they were herded into a bull pen.  One corner had a slit trench which was meant to be used by the POWs as a washroom.  The surface of the trench moved because it was covered by maggots. 
    Near dusk, the POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men.  They were marched to the train station in San Fernando and boarded onto small wooden boxcars used to carry sugarcane.  Each car could hold forty men or eight horses.  The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car and closed the doors.  Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas and walked the last ten miles to Camp O'Donnell. 
    Camp O'Donnell was an unfinished Filipino training base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp.  There was one water faucet for the entire camp, and disease in the camp ran wild with as many as 55 POWs dying each day.  The burial detail worked long days attempting to bury the dead.  Each morning when they returned to the cemetery, wild dogs had dog up the dead or the dead were sitting up in their graves.  To lower the death rate among the POWs, the Japanese opened a knew camp at Cabanatuan.
    Lester was sent to the new camp and remained there until October 1942 when he was selected for a work detail at the Port Area of Manila.  The POWs on the detail worked as stevedores on the docks loading and unloading ships.  He remained on the detail until July 1944, when it was disbanded.  
    The POWs
were taken to the docks at Manila after the detail ended.  There, the men were boarded onto the Nissyo Maru, on July 16, 1944, at 8:00 A.M. and the ship moved to the breakwater of the harbor and dropped anchor.  The POWs remained in the ship's holds for five days, from July 17th to July 23 before the ship moved, at 8:00 A.M., again to a point off Corregidor and dropped anchor again at 2:00 P.M.  The ship finally sailed on July 24 as part of a convoy which stayed  close to the coast line to avoid submarines.  One ship was sunk by a submarine on July 26 during the night. The flames from the explosion shot over the hatch lighting the sky.  Ten days later, on July 27, the ship arrived at Takao, Formosa at 9:00 A.M.  The next day the Nissyo Maru sailed, at 7:00 P.M., for Moji, Japan  Sailing through a storm for three days, it arrived there on August 4, 1944 at midnight.

    At 8:00 A.M., the POWs disembarked and were taken to the train station where they were taken by train to various POW camps along the line.  In Japan, he was held as a POW at the Kamioka POW Camp which was also known as Nagoya #1.  The POWs in the camp were used as miners in a zinc and lead mine. 

    The Japanese treatment of the POWs was brutal.  If one POW broke a rule, all the POWs would be beaten, clubbed, or burned on their hands, necks, and abdomens.  When the Japanese heard news of an air raid by the Americans, they selected eight or ten POWs and punished them.  Afterwards, they threw them into the guardhouse where the men were forgotten.  The POWs also learned that when the Japanese called them out in the middle of the night for an inspection, it meant that the Japanese had suffered another defeat and that the Americans were getting closer.
    The day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the Japanese were angry and made the POWs do close drill before going off to work.  The POWs had no idea why this was done.  When they got to the mine, they noticed a guard in the tower.  The guard was a "spotter" looking for American bombers.  The next day, the prisoners did not have to work.  They were told it was the birthday of the wife of the mine owner.  The following day, the guards were gone and had left their guns, without bolts, behind.  The POWs broke into the supply hut and ate the first good meal they had in three and one half years.  Finally, on a radio the POWs heard the emperor announcing the Japanese surrender.
    It was at this camp that he would be liberated on September 7, 1945, and taken to Yokohama for transport to the Philippines.  Lester was flown from Yokohama and to Okinawa; from there he was returned to the Philippines for further medical treatment.  Lester sailed for home, on U.S.S. Gospar, on September 24, 1945, and arrived on October 12, 1945, at Seattle, Washington.  He was sent to Madigan General Hospital, Ft. Lewis, Washington.

    After Lester was liberated he wrote his first letter home since he had been taken a POW.  He was unaware that the letter, addressed to his mother, would not be read by her.  His mother had passed away on September 10, 1944.

    Lester was discharged on February 26, 1946, and returned home to Maywood.  He later moved to Hillside, Illinois.  Lester O. Watson died on January 15, 1993, in Oak Park, Illinois.


 

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