Pfc. Louis Casmer Zelis
Pfc. Louis C. Zelis was born on February 13, 1914, and was one of the four sons born to Mary
& John Zelis. He graduated from Kelly High School and worked as advertisement distributor for a dry good
company. He married and resided at 1528 West Jackson Boulevard in Chicago.
Louis was drafted into the Army on January 22, 1941, in Chicago, and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he was assigned to Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion. He became a member of the company because the army was attempting to fill vacancies in each of t he companies with men from the home states of each company.
A typical day started at 6:15 A.M. with reveille, but most of the soldiers were already up so they could wash, dress, and be on time for assembly. Breakfast was from 7 to 8 A.M. which was followed buy calisthenics from 8 to 8:30. After this, the remainder of the morning dealt with .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistols, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in military tactics.
At 11:30, the tankers got ready for lunch, which was from noon to 1:00 P.M., when they went back to work by attending the various schools. At 4:30, the tankers day ended and retreat was at 5:00 P.M. followed by evening meal at 5:30. The day ended at 9:00 P.M. with lights out, but they did not have to be in bed until 10:00 P.M. when taps was played.
In the late summer of 1941, the battalion took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to report to Camp Polk, Louisiana. None of the members of the battalion had any idea why they were there. On the side of a hill, the members learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, many men had figured out they were being sent to the Philippine Islands. Men who were 29 years old were released from federal service and replacements came from the 753rd Tank Battalion.
At Camp Polk, the battalion learned that they had been selected to go overseas, because of an event that happened during the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots - whose plane was lower than the others - noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line, in the direction of an Japanese occupied island, hundreds of miles to the northwest, which had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan and landed in the evening. Since it was too late to do anything that day, another squadron was sent to the area the next day, but the buoys had been picked up and a fishing boat was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was poor, no ship was sent to the area to intercept the boat. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
From Camp Polk, the battalion traveled west over four different train routes and arrived in San Francisco, California, where they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, the soldiers were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases by the battalion's medical detachment. Those men with minor health issues were released held back on the island and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Some men were simply replaced. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. 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. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9th, 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 Dateline. 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.
At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward P. King, who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
For the next seventeen days the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons. They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts. The plan was for them, with the 194th Tank Battalion, to take part in maneuvers.
On December 1, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field. Two members of each tank crew remained with their tanks at all times. The morning of December 8, the officers of the battalions met and were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hours earlier. The 192nd 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 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. After the attack the 192nd remained at Ft. Stotsenburg for almost two weeks. They were than sent to the Lingayen Gulf area where the Japanese had landed.
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 and 13.
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 22, 1941, as the driver of 2nd Lt. Ben Morin's tank, Louis and the other members of the crew were sent north, with four other tank crews, to come to the aid of the 26th U. S. Cavalry of Filipino Scouts. The cavalry was engaged in a battle with the Japanese near Damortis and attempting to withdraw.
As the tanks proceeded north, they were bombed by Japanese planes. When the tanks found the 26th Cavalry, the Japanese had deployed along the sides of the road. Louis weaved the tank allowing the other members of the crew to fire their stationary machine guns at the enemy alongside the road.
After the tank took a shell hit to the right side of the hull knocking the door in front of Pvt. John Cahill loose, Louis pulled the tank into a dry rice patty to allow the tank crew to replace the door. It was at this time that a Japanese tank rammed Louis's tank at the left front sprocket causing the track to jam.
When Louis attempted to pull back onto the road, the right track kept pulling the tank off to the left. A second shell hit the tank damaging the door in front of Pvt. Cahill's face further. Another shell pierced the tank's hull entering the battery case and causing a fire. The crew put on their gas masks and Louis turned on the extinguishers putting the fire out.
When four Japanese tanks approached the disabled tank, two Japanese soldiers got out of their tanks and approached the disabled tank. The two men looked into the tank through the shattered hatch. To their surprise the tank's crew was still alive. The soldiers retreated to their tanks.
Lt Morin asked his tank crew if they wanted to shoot it out with the Japanese with their side arms or if they wanted to surrender. The crew decided it would be better to surrender. They hoped that if the did, that they would be exchanged for Japanese POWs.
In Louis's own words, he described what happened:
"The Japs has just landed at Lingayen and we went down to stop them there. We were told they only had small arms and baby tanks our light tank - I was the driver - and two others charged them. The first we knew an anti-tank shell knocked off the window shield of the tank. Five or six tankettes (the Japanese baby tank) rolled up the road. They stopped and a couple of Japanese climbed out and started toward us. They peered through the shattered shell and saw we were still alive. Then they ran back to their tanks. Our lieutenant asked us if we should surrender or try to shoot it out with our pistols. We decided to surrender, hoping we would soon find a way to freedom.
"We waved a towel. An English speaking Jap said for us to come out. They tied our hands and put us on the back of the tankettes. They treated us right well - then. They brought us to a village. A colonel questioned us about our strength. We said we didn't know. He had us put in the bandstand in the village park and we spent our first night there.
"The next day they questioned us some more and then put us in a store. We stayed there for several days, and they then put us in a truck and brought us to Tarlec. They told us that if one tried to escape all would be killed.
"We worked at a hacienda, getting it ready for the generals and colonels whom the Japanese expected to capture soon. After Bataan and Corregidor fell they transferred us to Cabanatuan. My three tank mates all have been sent to Japan."
Louis and the other members of the crew were now Prisoners of War. As a prisoner, Louis was first held at Agoo and Bauang. The POWs refused to bow to the Japanese which resulted in their being severely beaten. It was after one severe beating the men decided that it was better to bow than die.
On June 12, 1942, Louis and the other tankers were sent to Cabanatuan which 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. 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.
The POWs were sent out on work details one was 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. The POWs on the farm detail would have to go to a shed each morning to get tools. As they left the shed, the Japanese guards thought it was great fun to hit them over their heads.
The detail was under the command of "Big Speedo" who spoke very little English. When he wanted the POWs to work faster, he told the POWs "speedo." Although he was known to have a temper, the POWs thought he was fair. Another guard was "Little Speedo" who was smaller and also used the word when he wanted the POWs to work faster. The POWs also felt he was pretty fair in his treatment of them. "Smiley" was another guard who always had a smile on his face but could not be trusted. He was the meanest of the guards and beat men up for no reason. He liked to hit the POWs with the club. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads.
Other POWs worked in rice paddies. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Returning from a detail the POWs bought, or were given, medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned.
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 consisted of 30 wards that could hold 40 men each, but it was more common for them to have 100 men in them. Each man had approximately an area of 2 feet by 6 feet to lie in. The sickest POWs were put in "Zero Ward," which was called this because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves and would not go into the area. 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.
He recalled that 20 men to 40 men were dying each day. While a prisoner of the Japanese, his weight dropped from 170 pounds to 107 pounds. The daily meal for a POW at Cabanatuan was a half pint of raw rice and two sweet potatoes a day. When they had the time, the prisoners would sit around and talk about the food their mothers use to make back home.
At Cabanatuan, Louis was assigned to a detail commanded by Capt. Arthur Warmuth. One day, the Japanese wanted prisoners with dysentery to clean a dung pile. Capt. Warmuth attempted to ensure that the POWs were treated as ill men and not have to work. He complained to the commanding officer in a tone that got the message across. The officer hit him with a judo chop, and while he was lying on the ground, he was kicked in his head and stomach. Louis recalled how helpless he felt as he stood and watched this being done to a man he had come to respect. Capt. Warmuth was taken unconscious to the camp hospital where he recovered from the injuries.
Medical records kept at the camp show that Louis was admitted to the camp hospital on Saturday, October 31, 1942, and was treated for an eye ulcer, but no date of discharge was recorded. The records show that he was readmitted to the hospital on Friday, May 29, 1943. Why he was admitted is not known since it was not recorded. There also was not date of discharge recorded.
According to Louis, what kept the prisoners going at Cabanatuan was the grapevine. It was their way of hearing what was going on in the war. As time went on, the prisoners, through the grapevine, heard that the Americans were on their way back to the Philippines. The men thought this was a dream too good to be true. One morning they heard rumbling in the distance. This rumbling, was the sound of the American invasion forces shelling the beaches of Luzon.
During his time as a POW, Louis's family received one card from him. The card was received on January 15, 1945. It was dated May 6, 1944.
Medical records kept at Cabanatuan show that Louis was admitted to the Hospital Building 7 on July 18, 1944, from Division I, Building ##1. No reason was given for why he was admitted. The records also show, on July 21st, he was moved to Building 4 and, on July 26, 1944, to Building 12. The Japanese considered to be too ill to be sent to Japan, so he remained at Cabanatuan.
Louis was liberated when United States Rangers, supported by Filipino Guerillas and Buffalo Scouts raided Cabanatuan to prevent the Japanese from killing the prisoners. The Rangers took the freed POWs through enemy held territory to the American lines. After reaching American lines, the former POWs saw an American flag in front of a hut; Many of them ran to it to touch it.
When his mother, Mary, heard the news, she said, "Thank God for the good news."
Being the first member of B Company liberated, Louis was flown to Hickam Field in Hawaii and the Hamilton Airfield near San Francisco. When he returned to Chicago, he told the families what he knew about the other members of Company B. He was discharged from the army on August 18, 1945.
In many papers, a photo appeared of Louis and his wife, Mae, after they were reunited. But, the affect of his years as a POW was that their marriage ended in divorce. He would later marry Helen Migliarini, who passed away in 1966.
Louis Zelis passed away on June 17, 1974, in Chicago and was buried at Saint Casimir Catholic Cemetery in Chicago.
Return to B Company