S/Sgt. Richard C. Armato was the son of Italian immigrants and was born on January 15, 1912, to Antonia Gigante-Armato and Dominick Armato. He grew up in Melrose Park, Illinois, and with friends joined the Illinois National Guard as a member of the 33rd Division’s Tank Company in Maywood, Illinois. Before he was inducted into the army in 1940, Richard worked, as a bank clerk, at the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago and lived at 741 North Waller Avenue in Chicago. When his tank company was called to federal service on November 25, 1940, Richard was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for training.
A typical day for the soldiers started in 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics.
At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterward, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
At Fort Knox, Richard learned to operate all the equipment that was used by the company. What his specific training and duties were is not known, but in January 1941, he was transferred to Headquarters Company after it was formed.
He next went to Louisiana, where the 192nd took part in the Louisiana maneuvers of 1941. HQ Company kept the letter companies supplied and the tanks running. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft. Knox. It was on the side of a hill that the battalion was informed they were being sent overseas. Being 29 years old, he was given the chance not to go overseas, but he chose to stay with the battalion.
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 a Japanese occupied island which was hundreds 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.
Many of the members of the battalion were given furloughs so that they could say goodbye to family and friends. They returned to Camp Polk and traveled by train to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, and were ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe. On the island, they were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases by the battalion’s medical detachment. Some men were held back for health issues but scheduled to join the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. 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 2nd 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 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 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 20, 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 that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that they had what they needed and that they received Thanksgiving Dinner – which was a stew thrown into their mess kits – 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.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons. The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea. They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance.
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.
At six in the morning on December 8, the officers of the battalion were called to the radio room at the fort. They were ordered to bring their tank platoons up to full strength at the perimeter of the airfield. All morning the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, the tankers were having lunch and watched as 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. As they watched, the saw “raindrops” falling from the planes. When bombs began exploding, the soldiers knew the planes were Japanese.
As a member of HQ Company, Richard remained in the battalion’s bivouac. He and the other men took cover to protect themselves from the bombs and bullets. After the attack, he saw the damage done to the airfield.
HQ Company worked to supply the letter companies of the battalion with ammunition and fuel. They also attempted to recover tanks that were disabled to used for parts.
The Japanese launched an all-out attack on April 3. On April 7, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. C Company, 194th, which was attached to the 192nd, had only seven tanks left.
The tanks became a favorite target of the Japanese receiving fire on trails and while hidden in the jungle. and could not fight back. The situation was so bad that other troops avoided being near the tanks, and the 26th Cavalry turned down a tank company’s offer of assistance in a counter-attack.
It was at this time that Gen. King decided that further resistance was futile. 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. At 10:30 that night, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms.
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.”
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, “Our 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 waiting, the POWs 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 ordered to move and taken to a schoolyard in Mariveles and 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.
It was from this schoolyard that the POWs began the death march. The first five miles of the march was uphill. They made their way north from Mariveles to San Fernando. During the march men who had fallen were shot and bayoneted where they fell.
When they reached San Fernando, the POWs were put in a bullpen which had been created by putting barbwire around a schoolyard. They were left there for hours sitting in the sun. At some point, the Japanese ordered them to form 100 men detachments. When this was done, they were marched to the train station.
At San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars known as, “Forty or Eights.” The cars could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. Those POWs who died in the cars did not fall to the floors until the living left the cars at Capas. From Caps, the POWs walked the last ten miles to Camp O’Donnell.
The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
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.
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. When the ranking American officer asked for medical supplies, additional food, and material to repair the leaking POW huts, he was beaten with a broadsword. 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 the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic 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 ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area they had been laying was scraped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier 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. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW 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 and was formerly known at Camp Panagatan.
The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 housed the POWs who had been captured on Bataan and held at Camp O’Donnell. Camp 2 was two miles from Camp 1 and was closed because it lacked an adequate water supply. It was later reopened and held Naval POWs. Camp 3 was eight miles from Camp 1 and six miles from Camp 2. It housed the POWs fro Corregidor and those men who had been hospitalized when Bataan surrendered. The camp was later closed and the POWs were sent to Camp 1.
The barracks were built to house 50 men but it was common for 60 to 120 men beings assigned to a barracks. The POWs slept on bamboo slats with mattresses, covers, and mosquito netting. This cause diseases to spread quickly among the POWs. Richard was assigned to Barracks #5, Group 2.
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.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. 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. 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. 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.
The Camp 1 hospital was made up of 30 wards. One ward had been missed when the wards were being counted so it was given the name of “Zero Ward.” The ward became the place were POWs who were going to die were sent. The Japanese were so terrified by it, that they put a fence up around it and would not go near the building.
Medical records from the camp show that Richard was hospitalized on April 13, 1943. The records do not show why he was hospitalized or when he was discharged.
During this time, Richard was selected to be sent to Japan. On July 15, 1944, he was one of the POWs who boarded between 25 to 30 trucks for Bilibid Prison. The POWs left the camp at 8:00 P.M. and arrived at Bilibid at 2:00 in the morning. The morning of July 17th, the POWs at 7:00 A.M. the POWs were marched to the port area. When they arrived, the Japanese attempted to put 1600 POWs in the rear hold of the Nissyo Maru, until they realized this could not be done, they then moved 600 POWs to the forward hold. The POWs were put in the holds back to back so tightly that they could not move.
The ship sailed later that day and dropped anchor off the breakwater of the harbor. For the first day and a half, the POWs were not fed. When they were fed, they received rice and vegetables and a canteen cup of water. They would receive this meal and the amount of water twice a day. Since there was no organized system in place, the really sick POWs did not eat.
On July 17, the ship moved to a point off of Corregidor and dropped anchor about 5:00 P.M. and remained until July 24. When it sailed, it sailed at 8:00 A.M. as part of a convoy. The ships sailed north by northeast, and on July 26, at 3:00 in the morning, there was an explosion and large fire off to the side of the ship. The POWs could see the light, from the fire, through the hatch of the hold which was not covered. It turned out that one of the ships, the Otari Yama Maru had been hit by a torpedo from the U.S.S. Flasher which was a part of a three-submarine wolf pack.
The fact was the two torpedoes were fired at the Nissyo Maru, but because it was riding high in the water, the torpedoes went under it and hit the other ship. The POWs heard the explosions as other ships were hit. In one case, the explosion was so great that the POWs saw the flames go over the uncovered hatches. Four of the thirteen ships in the convoy were sunk.
Many of the men started to scream and a guard fired his machine gun into the hold. The other guards began making gestures that they were going open fire on the POWs unless they quieted down. The POWs were calmed by Father John Curran, O. P., who told them that they could not do anything but pray. He then began saying the “Our Father” and the screaming subsided. Other reports say that Lt. Col.Stanley Reilly, another Catholic chaplain, somehow managed to climb up a pole that was covered in human feces, and held himself above the men. From this position, he said the Hail Mary to calm them down.
The remaining ships reached Takao, Formosa, the morning of Friday, July 28 and sailed again that evening for Moji, Japan. The ship sailed through a storm, which made the submarines go deep and it arrived safely at Moji near midnight the night of August 3.
The next morning the POWs disembarked the ship and marched to a theater. They remained in the dark theater for hours. The Japanese ordered the POWs to form detachments of 200 men. The detachments were marched to the train station and boarded trains to the camps they were assigned. From Moji, Richard was sent to Fukuoka #3-B, where the POWs provided slave labor for the Yawata Steel Mills. Their work was to shovel iron ore and rebuild the ovens. The POWs were sent into the hot ovens to clean out the debris. Since the Japanese would not let them cool off, the POWs worked faster on this detail. If an air raid took place while the POWs were at the mill, they were put into railway cars and the train was pulled into a tunnel.
Two products from the mill, hand grenades, and shell casings, helped the Japanese war effort. If an air raid took place while the POWs were at the mill, they were put into railway cars and the train was pulled into a tunnel. They worked from 8:00 A.M. until 4:00 P.M., and received a half hour lunch.
The barracks that the POWs lived in were always cold since the Japanese heated them on a minimal basis and were infested with lice, fleas, and bedbugs. Only the sick rooms had heat. All POWs who died were reported to have died in the camp hospital. Food for the POWs consisted of the main dish of rice, wheat, wheat flour, corn, and, Kaoliang, a millet. To supplement their diets, the POWs in the camp would hunt rats at night for meat. On two occasions the POWs received meat. In both cases, the meat was rotten but the POWs ate it anyway.
Although medical supplies for the POWs were sent to the camp by the Red Cross, the Japanese commandant would not give the American medical staff the medicine, medical supplies, or medical equipment that was sent. Instead, the Japanese doctor misappropriated the items. Any surgery in the camp had to be performed with crude medical tools, even hacksaws, even though the Red Cross had sent the proper surgical tools. To meet quotas for workers, the sick POWs were required to work even if it meant they could possibly die from doing it. The Japanese camp doctor made the sick stand out in the cold for hours. He beat them and allowed the guards to beat them before he examined them to determine how ill they were.
Five days a month, the POWs were allowed to exchange their worn-out clothing for new clothing, but a Japanese guard beat POWs attempting to exchange their clothing. The POWs went without clothing to avoid the beatings which resulted in men developing pneumonia and dying. This meant that men went worked in the winter without shoes. After the war, a warehouse full of Red Cross clothing and shoes were found at the camp.
The POWs were beaten daily with fists and sticks for violating camp rules, and the guards often required them to stand at attention, in the cold, while standing water. In one incident an entire barracks was slapped in the face, by the guards, because some POWs had smoked in the barracks. During the winter, POWs who were being punished often had water thrown on them. A group of about 60 POWs was made to crawl on their hands and knees, while carrying other POWs, on their backs. As they crawled, they were hit with bamboo sticks, belts, and rifle butts. There were two brigs in the camp which had as many as 20 POWs in them at a time.
Another incident involved an American soldier who traded with the Japanese. The war was almost over and Japan was about to surrender. The soldier traded for roasted beans. As it turned out, the beans had been tainted with arsenic and the soldier died the next day. After going through all he had suffered, the soldier died when freedom was almost his.
The Yawata Steel Mills were the primary target for the second atomic bomb, but since the sky was extremely overcast, the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. This time, they saw Japanese workers facing in the direction of radio speakers with their heads bowed. The Americans thought that the emperor had passed away. The truth was that the second atomic bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, and the emperor was announcing Japan’s surrender. An American ensign, who could read and speak Japanese, saw a newspaper with the announcement of the surrender. He was the first person to inform his fellow POWs that the war was over. They were then told the same news by a Japanese officer.
After three and a half years as a POW, he was liberated when the Japanese surrendered in 1945. He returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Joseph T. Dychman arriving on October 16, 1945, and was discharged, from the army, on June 20, 1946. He returned home to Melrose Park.
Richard later joined a monastery in Wisconsin where he studied to become a Catholic priest. After leaving the monastery, he moved to San Diego, California, where his sister and brother-in-law had moved. He worked as a title searcher for American Title & Insurance.
Richard Armato passed away on August 3, 1985, and was buried at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego next to his brother-in-law. He was 73 years old.