Sgt. Lewis H. Brittan was born on October 10, 1915, to Max & Fannie Brittan who were Russian immigrants. He and his brother were raised in Downers Grove, Illinois, and attended Downers Grove High School where he played basketball.
After high school, he worked as a shipping clerk for a novelty company. His family also moved to 1844 South Komensky Avenue in Chicago during this time. He enlisted in the Illinois National Guard in Maywood, Illinois, in August 1940, with his best friend from high school, Albert Cornils because a draft act had been passed, and he knew he was going to be drafted. The 33rd Tank Company was being called to federal service as B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion, and was scheduled to serve in the Army for one year in November 1940.
Lewis trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and in January 1941, Lew was reassigned to Headquarters Company, when it was formed with men from the four letter companies of the battalion. His exact duties are not known.
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. Afterwards, 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.
In the late summer of 1941, Lew took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. HQ Company’s job during the maneuvers was to service the battalion’s tanks. Otherwise, they were not actively involved in the maneuvers. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft. Knox as they expected. It was on the side of a hill that the members of the battalion learned that they had been selected for overseas duty. Most of the men were given leaves home to say goodbye and get their business in order.
The decision for this move – which had been made on August 15, 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.
The battalion traveled west by train to San Francisco, California, where they were taken by the ferry, the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. At Ft. McDowell, they were given physicals and inoculated. Those men found to have a minor medical condition were held back and scheduled to rejoin 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 Gen. Edward P. King, who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers 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, did tank maintenance and prepared to take part in maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion.
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.
The tankers could do little more than watch since their weapons, except for the tanks’ machine guns, were useless against planes. After the attack, the tankers saw the damage done to the airfield. They remained at the airfield for a week before being sent north.
The battalion was sent to Lingayen Gulf, on December 21, where their job was to hold a position until the Filipino and American forces had established another defensive line. They would then disengage and fall back. Lew and the other members of the 192nd were the last American forces to enter the Bataan Peninsula as the rear guard.
On Bataan, HQ Company made sure that the letter companies received the necessary supplies during the Battle of Bataan. Since he was in the rear area, he did not take part in any combat against the Japanese. He did live with the constant strafing and bombings inflicted on the rear area by Japanese planes. On January 13, 1942, he was wounded.
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 and waited, 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.
The POWs were placed into groups of 100 with three or four guards. The guards assigned to duty on the march were extremely well-armed. Lew recalled that not all the prisoners taken on Bataan made the march. Many prisoners were immediately placed in work details and remained on Bataan.
To the prisoners, it seemed that the Japanese were in a constant rush to move them. Those not moving fast enough were hit with rifle butts or jabbed with bayonets. Those who could not go on and fell were shot. Lew witnessed two incidents where POWs were shot on the march. In one case, a man had to defecate and went to the side of the road. He was told to move by a guard. When he did not move fast enough, he was shot.
To Lew, the heat and lack of water were the two greatest enemies of the prisoners. The Japanese had searched the prisoners before the march and confiscated everything. This meant that they had no canteens to carry water in to drink. Lew recalled that he and the other prisoners were thirsty all the time. This was despite the fact that they were marching through water flowing from artesian wells.
Those prisoners who went to the wells for a drink were shot. It was not until the prisoners made it to San Fernando that they were fed and received water. They sat in a bullpen until they were ordered to form 100 detachments.
Lew never saw any signs of POWs being beheaded, but like all the prisoners, he heard stories of this happening. He was on the main highway and believed that the beheadings were done, by the Japanese, to the marchers on the side roads. He had also heard a story that one company of Filipino soldiers was totally wiped out by the Japanese, in this manner. The reason was that they were Asians who had fought alongside the Americans.
At San Fernando, Lew boarded the train and rode to Capas. From Capas, he marched the last few miles to Camp O’Donnell. When he arrived, he was extremely weak. Unknown to him, he was suffering from malaria. As it turned out, the area around Camp O’Donnell was infested with malaria.
Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that 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. When 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. As Lew recalled 50 to 80 men died each day over the next two months. To him, one of the worst things about Camp O’Donnell was the fact that there was one water faucet for 7,000 men.
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.
“Dear Mr. F. Brittan:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Sergeant Lewis H. Brittan, 20,600,393, 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 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”
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 Pangatian.
It was during this time that his family received a second letter 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, Sergeant Lewis H. Brittan 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.”
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.
Not long after arriving at Cabanatuan, Lew was sent to Manila to work the docks. The POWs were used as stevedores to load and unload ships. They were first housed in a warehouse which was poorly and ventilated. The bathroom and kitchen facilities were also poor.
It was while he was working on this detail that he had another attack of malaria and was sent to Bilibid Prison. According to records kept by the medical staff, he was admitted to the hospital suffering from malaria and remained in the hospital until he was discharged and sent to Barracks 18. After recovering from this bout of malaria, he was sent back to Cabanatuan to build runways and then was returned to Bilibid.
It was during this time that his brother, Jack, received the following telegram.
“=YOUR BROTHER SERGEANT LEWIS H BRITTAN REPORTED A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER FOLLOWS=
“ULIO THE ADK GENL.”
In July 1944, time that Lew was selected to be sent to Japan in a detachment of 1033 POWs who were boarded onto the Nissyo Maru. It was also at that time that his parents received a second from the War Department.
At first, like the other prisoners, Lew viewed the detail as a means of escape from life in the camps. He would later regret this belief. He and the other POWs had been put in the hold of the ship, back to back, while standing up. When the hold was full, the Japanese closed the hatches and put the remaining 600 POWs in the other holds.
The ship sailed on July 17 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. When it sailed at 8:00 A.M. as part of a convoy which sailed north by northeast.
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 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. They also 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.
One time, Lew was attempting to relieve himself in the designated area of the hold. He accidentally bumped into another prisoner. The man responded by attacking Lew. Lew’s life was saved by two other POWs who pulled the man off of him. The prisoners were only allowed on deck once a day for about fifteen minutes.
During the voyage, the prisoners heard a “bang” under the ship. They assumed that it was a torpedo from an American submarine. Another ship in the convoy that was carrying POWs was hit by torpedoes resulting in the deaths of almost 707 Americans. The attack took place at 3:00 A.M. The POWs did not know it, but they were under attack by a wolf pack made up of the U.S.S. Crevale, U.S.S. Angler, and U.S.S. Flasher.
The ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, on July 27 and sailed the next day for Moji, Japan. From July 30th to August 2nd the ship sailed through a storm. On August 3, the POWs were issued clothes and the ship finally arrived at Moji on August 4th at midnight. For Lew, this journey to Japan was the worst thing that he would experience as a POW. The trip to Japan took nineteen days to complete and resulted in the deaths of fourteen men.
When the POWs were disembarked from the ship at 8:00 A.M., they were broken into detachments of 100 men. Lew’s detachment was sent, by train, to an unknown POW camp. At some point, he was at the Tokyo Dispatch Camp, and from there he was sent to Sendai #10 outside of Tokyo.
Upon arrival, his physical condition was listed as being “fair.” He would remain in this camp to the end of the war and was used as a slave laborer in a steel mill. The Japanese withheld clothing, medical supplies, medicine, shoes, and food from the POWs that came in the Red Cross packages. In many cases, they used the supplies themselves. The wooden barracks had a small stove for heat during the winter and the Japanese only allowed the POWs three pieces of wood each day. If the POWs were caught smuggling coal into the camp, they were beaten. The food was also inadequate.
The POWs were also required to work long hours even when they were sick if they could stand. When the POWs reported for the sick call they were beaten to get them to go to work. When the sick came back to the camp, they had to clean up the campgrounds. Those POWs working in the steel mill were not given safety devices to protect him from excessive heat and fumes while they did dangerous work. If the civilians thought they weren’t working hard enough, they were slapped or hit with a piece of wood or iron bar.
Collective punishment was practiced in the camp. When one or two POWs broke a rule all the POWs were punished. Frequently this meant that they had to stand at attention for long periods of time. If a POW was put in the guardhouse his food rations would be cut in half for he did not receive any food.
Lewis was allowed to make a shortwave radio broadcast. In the message, he said:
“Dear Folks, received your letter also those from Jack, George, Ida, and friends. I am healthy and well. Congratulations to Pat. Give my love to Fay. Pictures were wonderful. I miss everyone tremendously. Tell everyone to continue writing. Hope to be home someday. Regards and love to mother and all. Lou.”
It was while at this camp that he witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo. After the raid, as the planes flew over the camp they would dip their wings to show the POWs that they knew they were there. He was officially liberated on September 16, 1945, taken to the docks at Yokohama, and boarded a transport for the Philippines where he received medical treatment.
“Mr. Frank Brittan: The secretary of war has asked me to inform you that your brother, Sgt. Lewis H. Brittan was returned to military control Aug. 13 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”
Lew returned to the United States on the S.S. Klipfontein, at Seattle, Washington, on October 27, 1945, and was hospitalized for thirteen months with tuberculosis. On May 20, 1947, he was discharged from the army and returned to the Chicago area. He married Julia Haataja and became the father of two sons and a daughter. Lew attended Roosevelt University, in Chicago, and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Accounting and worked as a comptroller for a car dealer and later as a tax adviser. The one lasting result of his POW imprisonment was that Lew loved to eat.
On September 23, 1990, Lewis Brittan died from a heart attack while sitting in a chair at home. He was buried at Shalom Memorial Park, Palatine, Illinois.