Cpl. Elmer John Bensing Jr. was the son of Elmer J. Bensing Sr & Lenore Wilson-Bensing and was born on December 12, 1918, in Louisville, Kentucky. With his three younger brothers and two younger sisters, he resided at 1452 South Hemlock Street. He was a high school graduate and worked in payroll at an auto body shop before he was inducted in the Army.
On January 22, 1941, Elmer was inducted into the army at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He did his basic training there and qualified as a radioman. He was assigned to D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion during his basic training.
In September of 1941, Elmer took part in the Louisiana maneuvers. After the maneuvers ended, Elmer and the rest of the battalion learned they were being sent overseas. He returned home to say his goodbyes and married Thelma A. Weidner on October 5, 1941.
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 2 and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 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 Colonel Edward P. King, who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents
For the next seventeen days, the tankers 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. It was at this time that Elmer was transferred to the Provisional Tank Group as a radio operator. He was most likely assigned to a half-track.
On Monday, December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard it against paratroopers. The 194th Tank Battalion was assigned the northern half of the airfield while the 192nd protected the southern half. At all times, two crew members had two remains with their tank or half-track and received their meals from food trucks.
On December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Clark Field. The tankers fought back the best that they could, but their weapons weren’t of much use against planes.
During the Battle of the Philippines, Elmer fought to slow the Japanese advance as long as possible. Since no help was coming, it was just a matter of time before the battle would be lost.
The Japanese liked to use snipers. The snipers would climb high into the tree. They then would tie themselves onto a large branch of the tree with a vine. On one occasion, being in an area where several soldiers had been shot, Elmer took his sub-machine gun and began shooting at a vine running up a tree. He followed the vine up the tree until he cut it with his fire. The Japanese sniper fell from the tree.
An all out attack was launched on April 3rd. 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.”
On April 9, 1942, the members of the tank group were informed of the surrender to the Japanese. On April 10, the Japanese arrived and ordered the HQ personnel onto the road. When the POWs were ordered to move, they found walking on the gravel trail difficult. When the trial ended, the POWs and the POWs were on the main road, the first thing the Japanese did was separate the officers from the enlisted men.
The Prisoners of War were then left in the sun for the rest of the day. That night they were ordered north. The march was difficult in the dark since they could not see where they were walking. Whenever they slipped, they knew they had stepped on the remains of a dead soldier. The POWs made their way north, against the flow of Japanese troops, who were moving south. At Limay on April 11, they were put into a schoolyard until ordered to move.
They made their way north to Balanga and arrived in Orani on April 12, where they were reunited with the officers of the tank group. At 6:30 that evening, the POWs resumed the march and were marched at a faster pace. The guards also seemed to be nervous about something. This time they made the POWs make their way to Hermosa. There, the road went from gravel to concrete. This change of surface made the march easier. When the POWs were allowed to sit down, those who attempted to lay down were jabbed with bayonets.
The POWs continued the march and for the first time in months, it began to rain which felt great. At 4:30 PM on April 13, they arrived at San Fernando, where they were once again put into a pen which was already occupied by Filipino soldiers. The POWs were put into groups of 200 men to be fed. A couple of the POWs would get the food which was distributed to each member of the group. Water was given out in a similar fashion. That night, not all the POWs could lie down to sleep. At 4:00 A.M., the Japanese woke the POWs, formed detachments of 100 men, and marched them to the train station.
At the train station, the POWs were crammed into small wooden boxcars known as “Forty or Eights,” since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese forced 100 men into each boxcar and closed the doors. Those who died remained standing since there was no room for them to fall to the floors. At Capas, the living left the cars and the dead fell to the floors.
The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base. The Japanese pressed the camp 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. The ranking American officer was beaten with a broadsword when he asked for medical supplies, additional food, and materials to fix the roofs of the huts which leaked.
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 scrapped 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 Panagatian.
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.
In the camp Elmer was assigned to Barracks 12 in the camp. While he was a prisoner, he contracted malaria, berberi and dysentery. According to medical records kept at the camp, he was admitted to the camp hospital on January 14, 1943. He remained in the camp until July 1943. At that time he was sent to Manila and boarded onto the Clyde Maru. The ship sailed on July 23, 1943.
The POWs were taken to the Port Area of Manila for shipment to Japan. He and the other POWs were put into the holds of the Clyde Maru and spent 12 days in the holds on the trip to Japan. The only washroom were buckets that were lowered down by ropes. During the trip, many of the prisoners died. The bodies were pulled from the hold on ropes and thrown overboard.
In Japan, the ship docked at Moji and the POWs disembarked and were put into a movie theater. From there, Elmer was taken to Fukuoka #3-B, where the POWs worked at the Yawata Steel Mills doing manual labor. The camp was on the side of a hill and had a wooden fence around it. The POWs walked down hill through the town and rode a train to the mill.
The work was to shovel iron ore and rebuild the ovens. The POWs were sent into the ovens to clean out the debris while the ovens were hot, because the Japanese would not let them cool off. To get out of the ovens POWs worked fast. Hand grenades and shell casings from the mill 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 flimsy wooden barracks that the POWs lived in, which housed 150 POWs, were always cold since the Japanese heated them on a minimal basis. and were infested with lice, bedbugs, and fleas. At the end of the barracks were latrines wih 6 wooden stalls, 1 urinal, and 4 sinks. There were two tiers of shelves that served as beds for the POWs. One was six inches from the floor while the second was six feet above the floor. Each POW received a straw mat to sleep on at night.
Food for the POWs consisted of a main dish of rice, wheat, wheat flour, corn, and, Kaoliang, a millet. The POWs carried their lunches, which was millet, to work in small bento boxes. To supplement their diets, the POWs in the camp would hunt rats at night for meat. On the two occasions the POWs had meat, the meat that was given to them was rotten.
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 that was in the packages. Any surgery in the camp had to be performed with hacksaws and crude medical tools 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. The hospital was built to house 50 POWs, but on an average day, there were 200 POWs in it.
Five days a month, the POWs were allowed to exchange their worn out clothing for new clothing, but a Japanese guard in charge of this beat POWs attempting to exchange their clothing. The POWs went without clothing to avoid the beatings which resulted in men developing pneumonia and dying. In addition, the POWs went barefoot in the winter instead receiving new shoes. After the war, a warehouses full of 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 were 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. All POWs who died were reported to have died in the camp hospital.
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. The soldier died the next day. After going through all he had suffered, the soldier died when freedom was almost his.
When the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the prisoners were returned to the camp early. They did not return to work for days. When they did go back to the mills, they again came back to the camp early.
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.
As they returned, they saw Japanese facing speakers and listening. An American who could speak Japanese told them that the war was over. When a Japanese officer repeated this, the prisoners knew that it was true.
On September 20, 1945, the former POWs were rescued by American troops. Elmer was returned to the Philippines. He was boarded onto the U.S.S. Marine Shark arriving at San Francisco on November 1, 1945. His journey back to the U. S. had ended where it began a little over four years earlier. Elmer was awarded a number of medals. Among them were the purple heart and bronze star.
Elmer was discharged on February 26, 1946. He returned to Thelma and the couple raised a son and daughter. To support his family, he worked as a payroll clerk at K.A. Barker Construction Company.
Elmer J. Bensing passed away on December 23, 1998, in Louisville, Kentucky. After a memorial service at Chapel Hill United Church of Christ, he was buried at Evergreen Cemetery in Louisville.