Pvt. Melvin Donald Ahlgrim was born on August 6, 1913, in Brainerd, Minnesota, to Louis F. Ahlgrim and Alice Prentice-Ahlgrim. With his two sisters and four brothers, he grew up at 1201 Seventh Street in Brainerd, 1123 Fifth Street, and 301 Fifth St. He left school after completing 7th grade and worked in a movie theater as a janitor. At some point, he joined the Minnesota National Guard.
On February 10, 1941, he signed papers that transferred him from the Minnesota National Guard to the regular army with the rank of Private. The men were given physicals, and men who failed were civilians again by noon. It is known that 82 men passed their physicals. After this was done, the men were issued clothing, field equipment, and barracks baggage. They also were issued tick bags, to be filled with straw and serve as mattresses, on the bunks. Bunks were set up in the armory on the main drill floor, the stage, and the second floor of the armory. Their first meal as members of the army was pork and beans, boiled potatoes, bread and butter, cabbage salad, cheese, apple pie, and coffee. Sgt. Russell Swearingen had the job of inspecting the company’s tanks and other equipment which was being shipped to Ft. Lewis, Washington, ahead of the company.
The soldiers’ second day of living in the armory was spent preparing for the trip to Washington State. Their first meal of the day was breakfast which was: stewed prunes, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, bacon, sweet rolls, milk, butter, and coffee. For lunch, they were fed boiled pork sausages, boiled potatoes, spinach, head lettuce, bread and butter, pie, and coffee. This was followed by a dinner of stewed chicken, mashed potatoes, celery and radishes, bread and butter, ice cream for dessert, and coffee.
The company’s two tanks, six trucks, reconnaissance car, tents, and tent stoves were sent to Ft. Lewis on a freight train on February 18. Just before midnight on February 19, the soldiers arrived at the Northern Pacific Railway Station led by the Brainerd Ladies Drum and Bugle Corps. Although it was 20 degrees below zero, the platform was jammed with families and friends wishing them well on their trip to Fort Lewis, Washington. It was said that many teary-eyed mothers and soldiers could be seen in the crowd. The train was scheduled to leave at 12:19, but it was 15 minutes late and left about 12:35. After it arrived the men got on and attempted to find their sleeping berths. The company had three sleeping cars, one kitchen baggage car, and a baggage car assigned to it. One man was too tall for his berth, so he spent the night sleeping in a chair. Another man couldn’t be found because he got tired of trying to find his berth and went to sleep in an empty one.
At 6:45 the next morning, the soldiers were awakened and had to attempt to get dressed in their berths. Their first breakfast on the train was oatmeal, bacon, bread, oranges, and coffee, and served to them in tubs that ran down the center of three train cars and had been cooked in the baggage car’s kitchen. They were served it in their mess kits and ate it in their mess kits on their laps as the train swayed side to side. One soldier, Pvt. Robert Swanson, lost his meal when the train suddenly jerked and his mess kit went flying off his lap onto the floor.
At Staples, Minnesota, the train cars were transferred to the Alaskan and the company had a six-hour delay because of a train wreck 25 miles outside of Fargo, North Dakota. The train was rerouted to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and from there was routed to Fargo. The train made a stop at Moorhead, Minnesota, and two of the companies sergeants – who had orders to buy an ax – got off the train. Both men believed they had stopped at Fargo where the train had a ten-minute stop. As they got to the station, they saw the train pulling away. A truck driver drove them the short distance to Fargo, where they rejoined the company. The train reached Mandan, North Dakota, at 5:15 that evening and had a 15 minute stop. To stretch their legs, the men got off the train to look around. It was there that PFCs Kenneth and Ernest Gorden received a telegram that their father had died and they were allowed to board another train to return to Brainerd. They rejoined the company after the funeral.
The next morning the train arrived at Livingston, Montana, and had a 15-minute stop. Again the soldiers left the train to see what they could see. It was there the train had to be held because Pvt. Arthur Thomas and Pvt. Raymond Fox had roamed too far from the depot – while looking for a present for someone – and did not get back to the station on time. Cpl. Kenneth Porwoll was caught by the men with KP and ended up on the crew cleaning up after the meal.
At 12:30 P.M. on February 22, the train arrived in Tacoma, Washington. From the station, they were taken by truck to Ft. Lewis. As they entered the base, they passed barracks after barracks and kept going. Many of the men wondered where they were being taken. When the trucks stopped, they found themselves in front of an area known as Area 12 with 200 brand new barracks that were built among the fir trees. It was referred to as being scenic since they had a view of Mount Rainier to the east 70 miles away. The barracks were located at the south end of Gray Army Air Field. Their twelve two-story wooden barracks and recreational and supply houses were on both sides of the road and covered an area of four city blocks.
The barracks were long and low and could sleep, 65 men. The buildings had forced air heating, but two soldiers in each one had to take turns at night to feed the coal furnaces. The barracks had electricity and adequate showers and washrooms for the men. There was a battalion mess hall that allowed 250 men to be fed at one time. Located across the street from the barracks was a branch of the post exchange.
Their first lunch at the base was waiting for them and had been prepared by C Company, who had arrived at the fort ahead of them. They had to wait to eat for about an hour because their mess kits had not arrived from the train depot. After they ate, they got to work fixing their cots in their barracks. Each man was issued two sheets, a mattress, a comforter, and a pillow and pillow cover.
Sunday morning the men got up and many went to church. The church was described as very beautiful for an army base. Catholic services were at 9:00 followed by Protestant services at 10:45. After church, the men spent much of their day working in their barracks. One of the major jobs was cleaning stickers off the window panes.
The weather was described as being constantly rainy. This resulted in many of the men being put in the base hospital to stop the spread of colds. Meals, at first, were somewhat improvised because both company cooks were in the hospital with colds. It was noted by the members of the company that the members of the other two companies found the morning temperature hard to deal with while it was warm to them. The longer they were there, the weather improved.
Once off duty many of the men visited the canteen near their barracks or went to the theater located in the main part of the base. The movies shown were newer but not the latest movies. A theater near their barracks was still being built, but when it was finished they only had to walk across the street. Since they were off Saturday afternoons on weekends, the men went to Tacoma or Olympia by bus that was provided by the Army and cost 25 cents. Tacoma was a little over 11 miles from the base and Olympia was a little over 22 miles from the base. Many of the men went to see the remains of the Narrows Bridge which had collapsed on November 7, 1940. On base, they played football, basketball, and softball. Cpl. Walter Straka who was in charge of the team held practice every evening.
At the end of February, the first detachment of men was sent to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for training as radio operators for 13 weeks. On March 5, the soldiers were paid for the first time receiving pay for 18 days of service. A second detachment of men was sent to Ft. Knox the second week of March. Another detachment of men was sent to mechanics school and gunnery school at Ft. Knox the last week in March. On March 10, the company took a 3-mile hike with backpacks. When they returned they had to pitch their tents and there was an inspection. They took an 8-mile road march through the fir trees on March 14. The next day they had a field inspection.
For the next six months, the battalion trained at Fort Lewis, Washington. A typical day started at 6:00 AM with the first call. At 6:30 they had breakfast. When they finished they policed the grounds of their barracks and cleaned the barracks. This was followed by drill from 7:30 until 9:30 AM. During the drill, the men did calisthenics and marched around the parade grounds. At 9:30, they went to the barracks day rooms and took classes until 11:30 when they had lunch. The soldiers were free so many took naps until 1:00 PM when they drilled again or received training in chemical warfare. They often took part in work details during this time. At 4:30 PM, they returned to their barracks to get cleaned up before retreat at 5:00 PM. At 5:30 they had dinner and were free afterward. During this time many played baseball or cards while other men wrote home. The lights out were at 9:00 PM. but men could go to the dayroom.
The uniforms they wore were a collection of various uniforms with some men wearing WWI uniforms, others denim work uniforms, while still others had the latest issue. One day three officers on horseback rode up to one of the companies and asked the sergeant in charge why the men were dressed the way they were. The sergeant explained they were a federalized National Guard tank battalion and what they were wearing is what they had. After this conversation, the three officers rode away. That afternoon, two trucks with new coveralls pulled up to the battalion’s barracks and each man was issued a pair. Since they were the best clothing they had, many of the men wore them as their dress uniform. As it turned out, one of the three officers who had talked to the sergeant was Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower who had overseen tank training for the army at one time.
The battalion at one point had more men at Ft. Knox than at Ft. Lewis, so they were given the job of garbage collection and distributing coal to buildings for the coal-fired furnaces. To train with their tanks, Major Ernest Miller, the commanding officer of the battalion had those still on the base train on the weekends. A Company reported for its weekly field inspection on April 20, and there were only 20 men left in the company. A few days later, seven more men were sent to Ft. Knox, and those left behind wondered how they would be able to get all the jobs expected of the company done.
The entire battalion on April 23 went on an all-day march, having dinner out in the woods, brought to them by cooks in trucks. It was a two-hour march each way and covered about 10 miles total. They stopped at noon in a beautiful spot in a valley where there was an old deserted apple orchard in bloom, the blossoms were like small yellow sweetpeas and it was just a mass of yellow. The other hill in the back of the valley was thickly covered with woods, many of the trees were the flowering dogwood and the many other flowers and strange plants made the soldiers conscious of the fact they weren’t in Minnesota. The company also received twelve motorcycles and every man in the company had to learn to ride them. The entire battalion on April 30, except ‘the selectees,’ who didn’t have shelter halves, went on their first overnight bivouac together. They left at noon and returned before noon the next day. Part of the reason they did this was to practice pitching tents and for the cooks, it gave them the chance to supply food to the men out in the field.
Their basic training was condensed down to six weeks under the direction of Sgts. Glen Nelson, Boyce Hyatt, Wallace Goodrich, and Donald Paine. The sergeants lived with them and dealt with all their problems or directed them to someone who could help them. They supervised the selectees’ calisthenics and drill, besides holding classes in all the different subjects they needed to be trained as tank battalion members. In May, seventeen “selectees” joined the company but lived with Headquarters Company.
The battalion during June trained under what was called, “wartime conditions.” On one date, orders they received orders at 2:00 A.M. to move out as soon as possible to the attack position. They found themselves in dense woods in pitch black conditions. For the tanks to move, a soldier guided them with a small green flashlight. The soldiers were expected to have their gas masks with them and had to use them if ordered to do so. The company on June 10, celebrated the fifth anniversary of its being mustered into the Minnesota National Guard. The soldiers had a large banquet dinner with a few cases of beer to make the celebration more festive. Major Ernest Miller gave a talk about the company’s history since it was formed in Brainerd. Many felt this was done for the benefit of the men from selective service. After dinner, they went to the theater that was located by their barracks and watched the official training film of the University of Minnesota football team. Ironically, the Golden Gophers’ official photographer’s son was in C Company.
In late July, the battalion still had only the eight M2 tanks that came with the companies to Ft. Lewis. It received some single turret tanks in late July that had been built in 1937, and a few beeps (later known as “jeeps”). It was the only unit at the base with them. On August 1st, the battalion was told it was losing B Company. The company was detached from the battalion and issued orders to Alaska. The rest of the battalion took part in what was called the Pacific maneuvers. During the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered back to Ft. Lewis, where they learned they were being sent overseas. The battalion’s new tanks were sent west from Ft. Knox, Kentucky, where they had been requisitioned by an officer of the 192nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Lt. William Gentry, for the battalion. Gentry was given written orders from the War Department giving him authority to take tanks from any unit so the 194th had its full complement of tanks. In some cases, the tanks he took had just arrived at the fort on flatcars and were about to be unloaded when he and his detachment arrived and took the tanks from soldiers waiting to unload them. From Ft. Knox, the tanks were sent west by train and were waiting for the battalion at Ft. Mason.
The story that Ernest Miller, in his book Bataan Uncensored, told was that the decision to send the battalion overseas was made on August 15, 1941, and was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. In the story, 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 Taiwan which had a large radio transmitter used by the Japanese military. 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.
Major Ernest Miller was ordered to Ft. Knox and got there by plane. On August 18, Miller stopped in Brainerd to see his family after receiving the battalion’s orders. When asked, he informed the Brainerd Daily Dispatch that the battalion was being sent overseas, but he did not disclose where they were being sent. He later flew to Minneapolis and then flew to Ft. Lewis. Different newspapers speculated that the battalion was being sent to the Philippines.
The fact was that the battalion was part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox and operational by June 1941. Available information suggests that the tank group had been selected to be sent to the Philippines early in 1941. Besides the 194th at Ft. Lewis, the group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – both had been National Guard medium tank battalions – at Ft. Meade, Maryland, the 193rd at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 192nd at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been National Guard light tank battalions. It is known that the military presence in the Philippines was being built up at the time, so in all likelihood, the entire tank group had been scheduled to be sent to the Philippines. On August 13, 1941, Congress voted to extend federalized National Guard units’ time in the regular Army by 18 months. Two days later, on August 15, the 194th received its orders to go overseas. The buoys being spotted by the pilot may have sped up the transfer of the tank battalions to the Philippines with only the 192nd and 194th reaching the islands, but it was not the reason for the battalions going to the Philippines. It is also known that the 193rd Tank Battalion had sailed for Hawaii – on its way to the Philippines – when Pearl Harbor was attacked. After it arrived in Hawaii, the battalion was held there. The 70th and 191st never received orders for the Philippines because of the war. It is known at least one heavy tank battalion had been scheduled to be sent, but it appears one had not been selected. Some military documents from the time show the name of the Provisional Tank Group in the Philippines as the First Provisional Tank Group.
On September 4, 1941, the 194th, without B Company, was sent to Ft. Mason, north of San Francisco, by train and arrived at 7:30 A.M. on the 5th. From there, they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe to Ft. MacDowell on Angel Island where they were inoculated. Those men with medical conditions were replaced.
The battalion’s new tanks had to have their turrets removed to fit them in the ship’s hold. So that the turrets went on the tanks they came off of, the tanks’ serial numbers were painted on the turrets. The soldiers boarded the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands on September 8th. The ship arrived at 7:00 A.M. on September 13 in Honolulu, Hawaii. The soldiers were given four-hour passes ashore. At 5:00 this part of the trip that it was joined by the heavy cruiser the U.S.S. Astoria and, the U.S.S. Guadalupe, a replenishment oiler. The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and the date became Thursday, September 18. On Friday, September 26, the ships entered Manila Bay at about 7:00 in the morning. The soldiers remained on board and disembarked at 3:00 P.M. and were taken by bus to Fort Stotsenburg. The battalion’s maintenance section, remained behind at the pier, with 17th Ordnance, to unload the tanks and reattach the tanks’ turrets which had been removed so the tanks would fit in the ship’s hold.
Upon arriving at the fort, they were greeted by General Edward P. King Jr. who apologized that they had to live in tents and receive their meals from food trucks until their barracks were completed on November 15. He informed the battalion he had learned of their arrival just days before they arrived. After he was satisfied that they were settled in, he left them. After spending three weeks in tents, they moved into their barracks on October 18, the barracks were described as being on stilts with walls that from the floor were five feet of a weaved matting called sawali This allowed the men to dress. Above five feet the walls were open and allowed for breezes to blow through the barracks making them more comfortable than the tents. There were no doors or windows. The wood that was used for the support beams was the best mahogany available. For personal hygiene, a man was lucky if he was near a faucet with running water.
The days were described as hot and humid, but if a man was able to find shade it was cooler in the shade. The Filipino winter had started when they arrived so when went to bed it was hot but by morning the soldiers needed a blanket. They turned in all their wool uniforms and were issued cotton shirts and trousers which were the regular uniform in the Philippines. They were also scheduled to receive sun helmets.
A typical workday was from 7:00 to 11:30 A.M. with an hour and a half lunch. The afternoon work time was from 1:30 to 2:30 P.M. At that time, it was considered too hot to work, but the battalion continued working and called it, “recreation in the motor pool.” Tank commanders studied books on their tanks and instructed their crews on the 30 and 50 caliber machine guns. The tankers learned to dismantle the guns and put them together. They did it so often that many men could take the guns apart and assemble them while wearing blindfolds. They never fired the guns because Gen. King could not get Gen. MacArthur to release ammunition for them.
For the next several weeks, the tankers spent their time removing the cosmoline from their weapons. They also had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their M3 tanks. None of them had ever trained in one during their time at Ft. Lewis. In October, the battalion was allowed to travel to Lingayen Gulf. This was done under simulated conditions that enemy troops had landed there. Two months later, enemy troops would land there.
It is known that they were paid at least once after arriving which was confusing since they were paid in pesos and centavos. Many men at first at to learn how much things cost in a new currency.
At the end of the workday, the men had free time. The fort had a bowling alley and movie theaters. The men also played softball, horseshoes, and badminton. Men would also throw footballs around. On Wednesday afternoons, the men went swimming. Once a month, men put their names for the chance to go into Manila. The number of men allowed on these trips was limited. Other men were allowed to go to Aarayat National Park where there was a swimming pool that was filled with mountain water. Other men went canoeing at the Pagsanjan Falls and stated the scenery was beautiful.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and were fed from food trucks. It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd Tank Battalion’s communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the 192nd’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, the CO of the 194th, read the messages of the attack. Miller left the tent and informed his officers of the attack. He also ordered his officers to have the half-tracks join the tanks at Clark Field. Their job was to engage Japanese paratroopers. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to the north end of Clark Field. HQ Company remained behind in their bivouac.
Around 8:00 A.M., the planes of the Army Air Corps took off and filled the sky. At noon the planes landed and were lined up in a straight line to be refueled near the pilots’ mess hall. While the planes were being worked on, the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45 in the afternoon on December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field. The tankers were eating lunch when planes approached the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American and counted 54 planes in formation. They then saw what looked like raindrops falling from the planes. It was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that the tankers knew the planes were Japanese. The tankers watched as American pilots attempted to get their planes off the ground. As they roared down the runway, Japanese fighters strafed the planes causing them to swerve, crash, and burn. Those that did get airborne were barely off the ground when they were hit. The planes exploded and crashed to the ground tumbling down the runways. The Japanese planes were as low as 50 feet above the ground and the pilots would lean out of the cockpits so they could drop the bombs accurately. It was reported that the tankers saw the pilots’ scarfs flapping in the wind.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, the dying, and the wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything else, 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. One of the results of the attack was that the transfer of D Company, to the 194th, was never completed. The company fought with the 194th but retained its designation of being part of the 192nd. That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their barracks. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed.
The next day, those men not assigned to a tank or half-track walked around Clark Field to look at the damage. As they walked, they saw there were hundreds of dead. Some were pilots who had been caught asleep, because they had flown night missions, in their tents during the first attack. Others were pilots who had been killed attempting to get to their planes.
On December 22, they were ordered to the Agno River near Carmen. There, they engaged the Japanese. The Japanese attempted to cross the river in several places. The tankers fired on them with their machine guns killing as many as 500 enemy troops. The night of December 22, the battalions were operating north of the Agno River when they found that the bridge they were supposed 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 the 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 tanks of the 192nd holding the Agno River from Carmen to Tayug, and the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road.
The 192nd received orders to withdraw, but for some unknown reason, the 194th did not receive the order. The battalion finally was ordered to withdraw and 1st Lt. Harold Costigan informed the members of A Company, and D Company, 192nd, that they would have to fight their way out. The tanks fought their way through Carmen losing two tanks but saving the crews except for Capt. Edward Burke. He had been hit by enemy fire and presumed dead. Two members, Pvt Gerald Bell and Pvt. August Bender, of the company were Killed in Action on December 26, attempting to hold a bridge open for withdrawing troops.
D Company found the bridge they were supposed to cross had been destroyed and abandoned their tanks. The company commander had them disable the tanks, but he hoped they would be recovered, but they were captured and put into use by the Japanese. One tank commander found a crossing and – at gunpoint – got his driver to take the tank across the river. He received the Silver Star.
The tankers were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29. On January 1, conflicting orders were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5. Doing this would allow 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 and 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 while the 194th held the bridge open. The tanks and Self Propelled Mounts were the only units that held the line against the Japanese at Guagua on January 5. That night the tank battalion and the self Propelled Mounts were holding a position near Lubao. It was about 2:00 in the morning when one of the battalion’s outposts challenged approaching soldiers. The soldiers turned out to be Japanese. When they attacked, the Japanese were mowed down by the guns of the tanks. The Japanese sent up flares to show where the American tanks were located. They then charged toward the tanks, through an open field, and were mowed down. When the Japanese disengaged at 3:00 A.M., there were large numbers of Japanese dead and wounded in front of the tanks. One of the SPMs was destroyed when a mortar round hit it. At the same time, one of the company’s tanks had gotten stuck in a rice paddy and the company attempted to hold the position so that a tank wrecker could pull it out. They finally had to withdraw leaving the stuck tank behind.
At 2:30 A.M., on January 6, the Japanese attacked Remedios 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 leapfrog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdrawal over the bridge. Once the 192nd crossed the bridge, the engineers destroyed it ending the Battle of Luzon.
January 8, a composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, 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 blown up, 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.
On January 12, Co. D, 192nd, and Co. C, 194th, were sent to Cadre Road a forward position with little alert time. Land mines were planted on January 13 by ordnance to prevent the Japanese from reaching Cadre Road. C Co., 194th, was sent to Bagac to reopen the Moron Highway which had been cut by the Japanese on January 16. At the junction of Trail 162 and the Moron Highway, the tanks were fired on by an anti-tank gun which was knocked out by the tanks. They cleared the roadblock with the support of infantry. 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-Hacienda 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 column of trucks that 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 Balanga-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 supposed 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 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. One night, the Japanese attempted to land troops on a beach guarded by B Co., 192nd. There was a tremendous firefight, but the next morning not one Japanese soldier had landed on the beach. The Japanese later told the tankers that the tanks were the reason why they attempted no other landings.
The tank battalions took on the job of guarding the airfields on Bataan in February. They had been constructed because of the belief that aid would be coming by air. Throughout the Battle of Bataan, men held the belief that aid would arrive. The Japanese bombed the airfields during the day and at night the engineers would repair them. 50-gallon drums were placed around the airfields to mark the runways, and at night fires could be lit in them to outline the landing strip. Food was also an issue and men hunted for anything they could eat. If it could be eaten, it soon became scarce on Bataan. The only animal that most men could not eat was the monkeys. The reason why was the monkeys’ faces made them look too human.
On March 1, the soldiers had their rations cut in half again and the men were starving. This meant that they only ate two meals a day. The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a scantily clad blond on them. They would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been a hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal. 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. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over on their way to the Dutch East Indies. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor, but Wainwright declined this suggestion.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese. C Company was attached to the 192nd and the company had only seven tanks left. A counter-attack was launched – on April 6 – by the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts which was supported by tanks. Its objective was to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. Other tanks of C Company tanks were supporting the 2nd Battalion, 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, which was moving east on Trail 8 toward Limay. It was about 5:00 A.M. at the junction of Trails 8 and Trail 6 when the battalion was ambushed by a large number of Japanese. The 1st Platoon of Company C was acting as part of the point when the lead tank was knocked out by anti-tank fire and the following tank was forced off the trail.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. Edward P. King decided that further resistance was futile, since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who were sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day. B and D Companies, 192nd, and A Company were preparing for a suicide attack in an attempt to stop the advance. At 6:00 P.M. that tank battalion commanders received this order, “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.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. A truck driver for A Company, 192nd, realized that he had bedding buried in the back of his truck and searched for it. The bedding became the “white flags” that were flown on the jeeps. At 11:40 P.M., the ammunition dumps were destroyed. At midnight Companies B and D, 192nd and A Company received the order from Gen. Weaver to stand down. At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The driver was from the tank group.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. At 6:45 A.M., the order “CRASH” was sent out and the tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
According to a member of HQ Company, Gen. King spoke to the men and said, “I’m the man who surrendered you, men. It’s not your fault.” He also spoke to the members of B Company, 192nd, and told them something similar. King ordered them to surrender and threatened to court-martial anyone who didn’t. Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would no attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do. After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col Collier and Maj Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit in line with the Japanese advance should fly white flags. Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived. King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
Unknown to Gen. King, an order attributed to Gen. Masaharu Homma – but in all likelihood from one of his subordinates – had been given. It stated, “Every troop which fought against our army on Bataan should be wiped out thoroughly, whether he surrendered or not, and any American captive who is unable to continue marching all the way to the concentration camp should be put to death in the area of 200 meters off the road.”
A Company was ordered to assemble in the jungle about three blocks from their disabled tanks. The members of the company divided the rations they had and also the pesos from the company’s treasury. Then they waited a few hours before the Japanese to make contact. For A Company, the surrender took place at Kilometer 167. The Japanese came down a small tail and it was noted that several of them had red faces as if they had fevers indicating to the Prisoners, of War, that the Japanese were in as bad shape as they were. When one Japanese soldier fell over, the others beat him until he got up and stood on his own. This was the first sign that being a Japanese Prisoner of War was not going to be a pleasant experience. A Japanese officer spoke to Bernie Fitzpatrick and another member of the company. He basically was telling them, “We will treat you as we treat our own. We can in honor do no less.”
The POWs were put into detachments of 100 men and marched about one kilometer when they were stopped. The Japanese then began searching the POWs. The first thing they had the POWs do is to show their hands. The GI tank wristwatch he was wearing was easily seen. A guard noticed the ring on one man’s hand and asked, “Wife-oo” and the man nodded yes, and the guards moved on to the next POW. They went from man to man taking rings and watches. If a POW attempted to argue for the ring, the guards simply took their bayonets and cut the man’s finger off. A Japanese officer arrived and shouted at the guards who stopped searching the POWs. The POWs were motioned to face left and march toward Cabcaben Airfield.
The POWs march for three or four kilometers and then turned around and marched back to where they started. They were ordered to fall out and left sitting in the sun with few trees for shade. They were ordered to fall in again and marched 12 kilometers to Cabcaben where they joined other POWs who had already been marched there. It was nearly dusk and more and more detachments of POWs kept arriving. The POWs were put on the airfield and given enough space to lie down for the night.
The next morning the Japanese woke them and had them form ranks. As they made their way north toward the Lamao area of Bataan. They were joined by other POWs coming from side roads and trails. There were many more Filipino POWs than Americans and the two groups mixed. The road was hard to walk on because of the holes from the shelling and bombings. The POWs were moved to the side of the road whenever a Japanese convoy came by heading south. The Japanese soldiers tried to hit the POWs in their heads with their rifle butts as they passed them.
They made their way north to Limay where they could see the destruction caused by the shelling and bombing. The jungle had been obliterated. They passed large crows that were eating the bodies of the dead Filipinos, Americans, and Japanese. Some of the crows circled over the POWs as they made their way north.
The members of the company were marched to the main north-south road where they were searched and stripped of watches, rings, wallets, and anything else the Japanese wanted. They next were made to form detachments of 100 men and made to march. They had started what they simply called “the march.” The guards were assigned a certain distance to cover and wanted to finish it as fast as possible so they moved the POWs at a fast pace which was hard for the POWs in worse shape. If a man fell the guards did not want to stop the column so they shot or bayoneted the man. When the guards finished their assigned part of the march, the POWs were allowed to rest, but when the new guards took over, they also wanted to finish their part of the march as fast as possible, so the POWs once again were moved at a fast pace.
The night of April 11 the POWs were marching again. The Japanese provided no water to the POWs. Since it was dark, men were able to fill their canteen cups at artesian wells since the guards could not see them. At a small barrio, Filipinos appeared with buckets of water for the POWs. The Filipinos were gone by the time the guards arrived to see what was going on among the POWs. The POWs were left in the compound for the day, and there was no cover from the sun that beat down on them. The Japanese gave enough water to the men to wet their tongues. The POWs did not know it, but they were receiving the sun treatment. Some men went out of their heads and drifted into comas. At 6:30 in the evening, the POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men. Once this was done, they resumed the trip north, but this time they were marched at a faster pace and were given very few breaks. When they did receive a break, they had to sit in the road until they were ordered to move.
When they were north of Hermosa, the POWs reached pavement which made the march easier. At 2:00 A.M., they received an hour break, but any POW who attempted to lay down was jabbed with a bayonet. After the break, they were marched through Layac and Lubao. It was at this time that a heavy shower took place and many of the men opened their mouths in an attempt to get water. The men were marched until 4:00 P.M. when they reached San Fernando. Once there, they were herded into a bullpen, surrounded by barbwire, and put into groups of 200 men. One POW from each group went to the cooking area which was next to the latrine and received a box of rice that was divided among the men. Water was given out similarly with each group receiving a pottery jar of water to share.
The POWs were awakened at 4:00 A.M. and ordered to form columns again. They were marched to the train depot in the barrio. At the depot, they were packed into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane. The cars were known as “forty or eights” since they could hold forty men or eight horses. Since there were 100 POWs in a detachment, the Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car. Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. The POWs marched eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell. The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base. The Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942.
Once in the camp, they were taken into a large field where they were counted and searched and all extra clothing that they had was taken from them and not returned. Blankets, knives, and matches were taken from them. If a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Finally, the camp commandant came out, stood on a box, and told them that they were enemies of Japan and would always be Japan’s enemies. He also told them that they were captives and not prisoners of war and would be treated accordingly. After the speech, the prisoners were allowed to go to their barracks. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp as the POWs who had Japanese items on them were executed for looting.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men and those who did sleep in one slept in one with as many 80 to 120 men. Most of the POWs slept on the ground under the barracks. There was no netting to protect the men from malaria-carrying mosquitos as they slept, so many men soon became ill with malaria. The ranking American officer was slapped after asking for building materials to repair the buildings.
The POWs received three meals, mainly rice, a day. For breakfast, they were fed a half cup of soupy rice and occasionally some type of coffee. Lunch each day was a half of a mess kit of steamed rice and a half cup of sweet potato soup. They received the same meal for dinner. All meals were served outside regardless of the weather. By May 1, the food had improved a little with issuing a little wheat flour, some native beans, and a small issue of coconut oil. About once every ten days, 3 or 4 small calves were brought into the camp. When meat was given out, there was only enough for one-fourth of the POWs to receive a piece that was an inch square. A native potato, the camote, was given to the POWs, but most were rotten and thrown out. The POWs had to post guards to prevent other POWs from eating them. The camp had a Black Market and POWs who had money could buy a small can of fish from the guards for $5.00.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added by the POWs who came up with the pipe, dug the trench, and ran the waterline. Just like the first faucet, the Japanese turned off the water when they wanted water to bathe, but unlike the first water line, the POWs had the ability to turn on the water again without the Japanese knowing it. There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp, and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use. When a second truck was sent to the camp by the Red Cross, it was turned away. The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one medic – out of the six medics assigned to care for 50 sick POWs – was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the bodies were moved to one side, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it. At one point, 80 bodies lay under the hospital awaiting burial.
Work details were sent out daily. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of POWs healthy enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. Many of these men returned to the camp from work details only to die. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The POWs on the burial detail often had dysentery and/or malaria and it was not unusual for POWs to die while working this detail. The Japanese finally acknowledged they needed to do something to lower the death rate, so they opened a new camp at Cabanatuan.
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas. There, they were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another line which took it to Cabanatuan. The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup. From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division. The transfer of POWs was completed on June 4, but Melvin remained behind because he was ill. He was admitted to the camp hospital on June 24, 1942. About Camp O’Donnell, he said, “I was one of the last ones out of O’Donnell. I was on the burial squad.”
In May, his parents received a message from the War Department.
“Dear Mr. L. Ahlgrim:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Private Melvin D. Ahlgrim, 20, 700, 213, who, according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“I deeply regret that it is impossible for me to give you more information than is contained in this letter. In the last days before the surrender of Bataan, there were casualties which were not reported to the War Department. Conceivably the same is true of the surrender of Corregidor and possibly other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese Government has indicated its intention of conforming to the terms of the Geneva Convention with respect to the interchange of information regarding prisoners of war. At some future date, this Government will receive through Geneva a list of persons who have been taken prisoners of war. Until that time the War Department cannot give you positive information.
“The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is to be hoped that the Japanese Government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At that time you will be notified by this office in the event that his name is contained in the list of prisoners of war. In the case of persons known to have been present in the Philippines and who are not reported to be prisoners of war by the Japanese Government, the War Department will continue to carry them as “missing in action” in the absence of information to the contrary, until twelve months have expired. At the expiration of twelve months and in the absence of other information the War Department is authorized to make a final determination.
“Recent legislation makes provision to continue the pay and allowances of persons carried in a “missing” status for a period not to exceed twelve months; to continue, for the duration of the war, the pay and allowances of persons known to have been captured by the enemy; to continue allotments made by missing personnel for a period of twelve months and allotments or increase allotments made by persons by the enemy during the time they are so held; to make new allotments or increase allotments to certain dependents defined in Public Law 490, 77th Congress. The latter dependents generally include the legal wife, dependent children under twenty-one years of age and dependent mother, or such dependents as having been designated in official records. Eligible dependents who can establish a need for financial assistance and are eligible to receive this assistance the amount allotted will be deducted from pay which would otherwise accrue to the credit of the missing individual.
“Very Truly yours
J. A. Ulio (signed)
The Adjutant General”
In July 1942, his parents received a second message from the War Department. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Private Melvin D. Ahlgrim had not been reported as a casualty. The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, until definite information to the contrary is received.
“Efforts to secure prisoner of war lists from the Philippines have not been successful to this date due to the lack of communication and the fact that the Japanese Government has not yet given permission for the Swiss representative and the International Red Cross delegates to make visits to prisoner of war camps in the islands. When the lists of prisoners are received, we will clear the name of your son and send you any additional information that we may have.”
It is not known if Melvin was with the original POW detachment or a replacement for a POW who could no longer work, but it is known that he was sent to Clark Field to build runways. Many of the POWs considered this as the best POW camp in the Philippines. When they arrived, they were put into barracks that had been constructed for the Philippine Scouts. Each POW had his own bunk and while cleaning up the junk from the fighting, the POWs found mattresses and blankets They also had washrooms with toilets and sinks with running water. The workday started at 6:00 A.M. with breakfast and they received supper at 6;00 P.M.at the end of the day. Both meals were cooked rice which was the same as in any other camp.
The POWs built revetments and a runway and worked seven days a week. Since no rock was available from a gravel pit, the POWs dug the rock out of the ground, with picks and shovels, and screened it so that it could be used as the base for the runway. While working, the POWs could not talk to each other. If the POW detachment dug up all its quota, its workday ended early, if not they worked until they met the quota. While building the runway, the rock that was used for the base ran out. To finish the far end of the runway, the Japanese engineers decided to use sand for the base. The result of this decision was that the first time a Japanese bomber landed on the runway its landing gear sunk into the runway and the plane flipped over onto its back. The POWs who witnessed this wanted to cheer, but they remained silent.
The Japanese did not give the POWs any medical supplies, and if they had them it was because the POWs had scrounged them. Sick POWs with malaria were not made to work. Neither were POWs who were injured, but the Japanese checked the POWs to ensure they hadn’t recovered. If a POW escaped, the POWs remaining POWs were forced to stand at attention, information, for hours. On one occasion, they stood at attention until 4:00 A.M. Afterward, they went to work.
The Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule since several POWs escaped from the detail. If one man escaped, the other nine men in the group would be executed. Men were often thrown into the metal shack that served as a cellblock that had no windows and had only enough room for the man to squat. Anyone put in it had his rations reduced. The POWs also witnessed the execution of Filipinos who had been caught stealing sheet metal. They were tied to poles and used for bayonet practice. The POWs stated that someone was always being hit over the head with a saber by one Japanese lieutenant. They also were beaten with a golf club.
In February 1943, his family learned he was a Prisoner of War.
“REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON PRIVATE MELVIN D AHLGRIM IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST MARSHALL GENERAL=
“ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL=”
Within days of receiving the first message, they received a second message.
“Mr. L. Ahlgrim
320 Fifth Street
“The Provost Marshal General directs me to inform you that you may communicate with your son, postage free, by following the inclosed instructions:
“It is suggested that you address him as follows:
“Pvt. Melvin D. Ahlgrim, U.S. Army
Interned in the Philippine Islands
C/O Japanese Red Cross, Tokyo, Japan
Via New York, New York
“Packages cannot be sent to the Orient at this time. When transportation facilities are available a package permit will be issued you.
“Further information will be forwarded you as soon as it is received.
Howard F. Bresee
Chief Information Bureau”
His father also received a POW postcard from him in August 1943 in which he stated he was in fair health. There was also a short handwritten message was at the bottom of the card. It appears Melvin may have become ill and was sent to Bilibid and appears to have remained there.
It is known that on March 6, 1944, POWs who had been selected to be sent to Japan arrived at Bilibid from Cabanatuan. A draft also took place at Bilibid and Melvin was selected to go to Japan. The POWs remained in the prison for two weeks before being taken to the Port Area on March 24. There they boarded a small ship, the Taikoku Maru, and were put into the number two hold. Since the hold was crowded, the POWs took turns sleeping in a sitting position or in shifts. They were the ship’s only passengers. Ore was also loaded onto the ship before the ship sailed the same day. Unlike other ships, the POWs were allowed to go on deck at will to use the latrine which was a shed built over the side of the ship.
The POWs were fed relatively well. The POWs cooked the food on deck on halves of 55-gallon drums that were used for wood-burning stoves. Large cauldrons were placed on the drums to cook the rice. This worked well as long as the weather was good. It was impossible for food to be cooked during the storm.
The ship sailed through a storm and arrived at Takao, Formosa, on March 27 and loaded more cargo. Since the storm caused the hold to get wet, many of the POWs ended up with colds or the flu. The ship sailed from Takao on April 3 and went to Nagasaki before arriving at Osaka on April 9. The POWs remained in the ship’s hold until April 10. Although most of the POWs from the ship were sent to Hitachi POW Camp, Melvin appears to have been sent to Tokyo #1. This is known because Melvin’s name is found on a handwritten roster from April 1944 of POWs held at Tokyo #1 which was also known as Kawasaki Camp. The camp appears to have opened with the arrival of the POWs.
What is known about the camp is its commanding officer went to school in the United States so the POWs appear to have received better treatment. When they went to work in the mine, the Japanese civilians also appear to have treated them fairly well. The majority of POWs did not remain in the camp long and were transferred to other camps in August 1944.
It is known Melvin was sent to Aisho Camp which was located on the side of a mountain. He was POW #141. Living conditions in the camp were atrocious. The camp had a limited amount of water because the water line to the camp was broken. This meant they could not wash after working and for cooking. The POW kitchen was 40 feet from the latrines resulting in flies being everywhere in the kitchen. The Japanese also did not supply lids for the cooking utensils. The Japanese guard in charge of the POW mess stole food for himself that was meant for them. POWs reported he was seen carrying sacks of rice and sugar, assigned to them, from the camp.
In the camp, the POWs slept in two barracks that were inadequately heated and during the cold nights, the POWs had only thin blankets to cover themselves with. Their beds were two platforms that went around the perimeter of each building. On the mats were lice-infested straw mats that they slept on. The Red Cross blankets that were sent to the camp, for the POWs, were issued to the guards.
The Japanese misappropriated the Red Cross packages for themselves and stored them in a warehouse inside the camp. Besides the blankets, they also took chocolate, canned meats, fruit, and milk, and clothing meant for the POWs. Since a certain number of POWs had to report for work each day, the Japanese medic in charge of the sickbay, sent men to work who were too sick to do heavy work. The Japanese also withheld medicine and medical supplies sent for POW use and used it for themselves.
Meals for the POWs were always the same. It was a mixture of barley, maize, Indian corn, and rice. Once a month the Japanese slaughtered a horse for the civilian workers, and the POWs got the bones which they cooked for days to soften them. They were then divided among the POWs.
The POWs worked in the Ashio Copper mine which had been closed but reopened because of the war. When they entered the mine or left to mine, they had to bow to the mine god. Many said their own prayers since the mine was in poor condition. Safety regulations in the mine were almost none existent and POWs were frequently injured. The POWs used sledgehammers to break large rocks into smaller ones so they could be loaded into mine cars. A Japanese medic determined who was healthy enough to work each day.
Recalling the work in the camp, he said, “Our prison party at Ashio was composed of a majority of Americans, 65 Dutch, and about 15 Englishmen. We were given burlap clothing but no shoes with temperatures as low as 10 degrees below zero, were required to march 5 miles to and from camp wearing nothing on our feet but such rags as we could find to wrap around our shoes.
“Our food consisted of three bowls of barley each day and a kind of stew made of greens by the sick prisoners. We had no salt. My weight dropped to 98 pounds I gained 35 pounds after arriving in California.”
Melvin spoke about the American air raids while he was in the camp. “At our prison camp, we often saw American and British bombers flying over to attack Tokyo or other points. The Japanese would run for cover, but we prisoners stood out and cheered. We did not care for ourselves; just so the boys gave Japan a plastering. One day a group of bombers zoomed down and flew low over our camp. We all stood outside and waved and cheered the pilots on.”
On October 20, 1944, his father received a copy of the short-wave propaganda broadcast he made from the War Department.
“Dear Dad: I hope you and everyone are well. Give my regards to all. I am in good health. Please don’t worry about me. I am longing for the day that I can see you all again. I have received your letters and am anxiously awaiting the next one. Love, your son Melvin D. Ahlgrim.”
It is not known how or when that POWs learned of the surrender. On August 25, U.S. Navy planes flew over the camp. The pilots described how when they flew over, the POWs – some of them stark naked – ran out of buildings. They described half-naked men hugging each other deliriously while others in loin clothes pounded each other. The POWs yelled and waved as the planes flew low over the camp dropping K rations, fruit, juices, sulfa, drugs, atabrine, morphine, and soap to the POWs.
Lt. Roy N. Bean, a Naval pilot, said, “On my first pass I saw about 120 men. They waved. I never saw anybody so happy in all my life. Several of them were naked and probably just got out of the sack. It was 6:30 in the morning. When we got there.
“Those fellows just went crazy; they danced and hugged each other and I could see that they were shouting at me. Some three papers into the air and waved and threw anything they could lay hands on to show us they knew who we were.
“It looked like a copper mine down there and those men were probably working there.
“From what I could see they looked healthy, with their dancing and yelling.
“I had no supplies but threw over my package of cigarettes. In all the hell we have been through, it did my heart good to see those men than to go home.”
The POWs at Ashio were officially liberated on September 4, 1945, and the extremely ill were flown out on special planes that landed at Yokohama and they were taken aboard the U.S.S. Merigold. The remaining 450 POWs boarded a train for the 90-mile ride to Yokohama. The trip ended up taking 14 hours. Under orders from the U.S. military, the camp guards escorted the former POWs. When he arrived at Yokohama, Melvin stated, “Both Tokyo and Yokohama are flat from the bombings. There is hardly anything left standing in the two cities. Our boys surely did a wonderful job of bombing.”
Once off the train, the former POWs were deloused and made to strip. The clothes that had been dropped to them were burned. They showered and were issued new clothes and boots. In Yokohama, Melvin met an Army Nurse, Dorothy Ziske from Aitkin, Minnesota. He said of his encounter with her, “When I arrived in Yokohama one of the first persons I met was Lt. Dorothy Ziske of Atkins. She informed me that all the nurses on Bataan and Corregidor refused their discharges so that they might remain in service until the men of Bataan and Corregidor could be taken care of and sent to their homes.”
It was during this time that his parents received another message from the War Department.
“Mr. and Mrs. L. Ahlgrim: The secretary of war has asked me to inform you that your son, Pvt. Melvin D. Ahlgrim was returned to military control Sept. 4 and is being returned to the United States within the near future. He will be given the opportunity to communicate with you upon his arrival if he has not already done so.
“E. F. Witsell
Acting Adjutant General of the Army”
He was taken aboard the hospital ship U.S.S. Marigold and sailed for the Philippines. It took the ship two days to reach the Philippines and it appears he remained there until September 11th when he was flown out. It is known that he was flown to the Island of Guam, Wake Island, Midway Island, and Hawaii. He was later flown to Hamilton Field north of San Francisco arriving on September 14th. From there he was taken to Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco for medical care.
After a one week stay at Letterman, he was transferred to Schick General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa. He spent nine months recovering at Schick before being moved to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, where he was discharged from the army. The final leg of his trip home to Brainerd was by ambulance from Minneapolis. He was the first member of A Company to return home, after the war, on October 1, 1945.
Melvin was discharged from the Army on June 7, 1946. In November, he married Arla Ivy Zierke and the couple became the parents of one daughter and two sons.
He resided in Brainerd and worked as a custodian for the Minnesota Highway Department. Melvin D. Ahlgrim died on June 27, 1986, in Brainerd, Minnesota, and was buried at Evergreen Cemetery, Brainerd, in Block 44, Lot 25, Section 1/4.