Capt. Fred Tobias Bruni Jr. was born on January 21, 1905, in Monroe, Wisconsin, to Fred T. Bruni Sr. & Elizabeth Wild-Bruni. He was one of the couples’ five children from his mother’s second marriage, and he also had three half-sisters and three half-brothers. He attended grade school and high school in Monroe, and on June 28, 1921, joined the Wisconsin National Guard. During his time in the National Guard, he rose in rank from private to sergeant. Sometime in 1923, he moved to Janesville looking for work and transferred to the National Guard tank company there.
While living in Janesville, he married, Hazel Buss, and the couple resided at 1242 South Washington Street. The couple became the parents of an infant son, Ronald, who died at the age of two months. He was made the tank company’s first sergeant in 1937 and on June 14, 1938, he received a commission as a Second Lieutenant in his Janesville unit. He was known as “Fritz” to the other members of his unit and was known to always have a joke or story to tell.
Fred was employed at the General Motors Automobile Plant in Janesville as an assembler and became a line supervisor. On October 30, 1940, he was promoted to first lieutenant when his tank company was federalized. Fred was now a member of the 192nd GHQ Light Tank Battalion which was formed from National Guard units from Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky. He was transferred to HQ Company on December 20 and made the battalion’s maintenance officer.
For the next year, the battalion trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky. In early 1941, Fred was transferred to B Company, but it is not known how long he remained with the company. At some point, he reassigned to HQ Company for a second time.
From September 1 through 30, 1941, the battalion took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. His company did not actively take part in the maneuvers, but they did maintenance work on the tanks and scout cars. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft. Knox. None of the members of the battalion had any idea why they were there. On the side of a hill, the members learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, many men had figured out they were being sent to the Philippine Islands.
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.
Being over 29, Fred was given the opportunity to resign from federal service but chose to remain with the 192nd. With the release of officers who were considered too old for their rank, Fred was promoted to captain on November 3, 1941, and given command of HQ Company when Capt. Havelock Nelson was made the battalion’s executive officer.
On October 20 from Camp Polk, the battalion traveled west over different train routes arriving at Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, where the soldiers were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M Coxe, to Ft. MacDowell on Angel Island. On the island, they were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases. Those men with major health issues were released from service and replaced, while others were held back and told they would rejoin the battalion at a later date.
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. They 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, the transport, 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, the tankers were met by Gen. Edward P. King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents, but the fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived. He remained with the battalion and made sure they received their Thanksgiving Dinner – which was a stew thrown into their mess kits – before he went and ate his own dinner.
The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons, which had been put on the guns to prevent them from rusting during the trip to the Philippines. They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts and preparing to take part in maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion.
On December 1, the tank battalions were sent to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. The 194th was given the northern part of the airfield to defend and the 192nd had the southern half to protect. At all times, each tank or half-track had to be manned by two members of its crew. Those on duty were fed by food trucks.
The morning of December 8, HQ Company remained behind in the battalion’s bivouac. When Bruni told his men of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor they laughed. Having been in the Philippines for eighteen days, they believed that this was the start of the extended maneuvers. He told them to listen up because what he was saying was the truth. He again told them that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and they were given guns and told to clean them. As they did this, they still believed that they had started maneuvers. It was early afternoon when this belief was blown away.
All morning long, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, all the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45 planes approached the airfield from the north. The tankers on duty at the airfield counted 54 planes. When bombs began exploding, the men knew the planes were Japanese.
The company members took cover since they had no weapons to use against planes. When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything that could carry the wounded was in use. When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building. Many of these men had their arms and legs missing.
Five days later on December 13, Fred and 1st. Lt. Emmett Gibson – who had been an Illinois National Guardsman – were walking together and talking. Gibson had had a premonition of his own death. What really bothered him was that it was his daughter’s birthday. Bruni tried to get Gibson’s mind off the idea by talking about the north woods of Wisconsin and fishing there. Suddenly the two men were strafed by a plane. While they were talking, seven Japanese fighters had appeared over the airfield. Gibson jumped into a half-track that was hidden under a tree and grabbed its machine-gun and began firing. Bruni told Gibson to stay where he was and directed Gibson’s fire.
That afternoon, another attack took place on the airfield with seven Japanese bombers appeared over the airfield. Gibson again climbed onto a half-track and grabbed its .50 caliber machine-gun and began firing. Fred called out to Gibson, “Stay there, and I’ll direct your fire.”Fred walked out into the open with bombs exploding around him. He proceeded to direct Gibson’s fire at the Japanese bombers as bombs exploded around him. Gibson opened fire where Fred told him to do so. Together, they were credited with shooting down one of the bombers.
For the next four months, Fred lived through constant strafing and bombings during the retreat into the Bataan Peninsula. On one occasion, the bombing was so severe that he jumped into the nearest two-man foxhole and made it a three-man foxhole. As commanding officer of HQ Company, it was his job to make sure that his men supplied the tanks and kept them running.
Sometime during this time, his wife Hazel received a letter from him. In it he said:
“With the help of God and the U.S.A. we’ll pull through this.”
For the next four months, the members of HQ Company worked to keep the tanks running, This meant they often had to recover tanks that had been disabled. The reason they did this was that they need the tanks for spare 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. 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 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 8, 1942, it was Fred’s job to inform the sergeants of HQ Company of the plans to 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, and he turned away from the men for a moment. When he turned back he continued and told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks. During the announcement, he emphasized that they all were to surrender together. The company ate what he called, “Our last Supper,” which consisted of bread and pineapple juice.
The next day, April 9, 1942, the members of HQ Company were officially Prisoners of War. With the other men, he remained in the camp until April 11. That morning, a Japanese officer and soldiers appeared in their bivouac and ordered them to move out to the road that ran in front of the encampment. When they reached the road, they were ordered to kneel along both sides with their possessions in front of them. As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers passing them took whatever they wanted from their possessions. They remained along the sides of the road for hours.
HQ Company finally boarded their trucks and drove to outside of Mariveles. From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and were ordered to sit. As they sat and watched, Fred and the other 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 sat watching the Japanese soldiers, a Japanese officer pulled up in a car and stopped in front of the soldiers. He got out and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail. The officer got back in the car and drove off. As he drove away, the sergeant ordered his soldiers to lower their guns.
Later in the day, Fred’s company was moved to a school yard in Mariveles. In the schoolyard, they found themselves between Japanese artillery and the guns firing from Corregidor and Ft. Drum, which had not surrendered. Shells from the American guns began landing among the POWs who had no place to hide. Some of the POWs were killed by the incoming shells.
The POWs were ordered to move by the Japanese and had no idea that they had started what became known as the death march. During the march, they received no water and little food as they marched 65 miles to San Fernando. There, they were boarded onto small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane which was known as forty or eights, since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese forced 100 POWs into each car and closed the doors. Those men who died remained standing since there was no room for them to fall.
The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which 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.
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 Japanese 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. He remained there until going out on a work detail. After completion of the detail, he was sent to Cabanatuan #3 which had been opened for the POWs captured on Corregidor.
Cabanatuan was actually three camps. Camp One was for the POWs who surrendered on Bataan and were held at Camp O’Donnell. Camp Two was two miles from Camp One and was closed since it did not have an adequate water supply. It later was used for Naval POWs. Camp Three was for the POWs taken at Corregidor or who were hospitalized when Bataan surrendered.
During his time as a POW, Fred kept a notebook on the other members of his original tank company from Janesville. In the book, he wrote down where the members of A Company were being held as prisoners. If a man died, he wrote down the date, location, and cause. Much of what he wrote was based on what other POWs told him.
When he realized that he was going to be transferred to another part of the Philippine Islands, Fred sent the following letter to Lt. Henry Knox. The letter was smuggled into Cabanatuan #1. How this was done is not known.
” How are you and the boys? I hope that you are making contact with the boys of the company and the Janesville boys in Headquarters Company. I would you to make a list of the dead ones and get the cause of death and date of their death so that we can have something to go by when the day comes. I hope the dying siege is over with. Things are in good shape here, and I wish they were all up to this camp. I mean the whole battalion.
“I would like to visit a few days down at your camp so that I could say hello to all the officers and men that you can see. And tell them to keep clean and healthy for the day is coming and I want to see them alive. So take good care of yourself and tell the rest goodbye. And do what I told you.
“Capt. Bruni “
On August 2, 1942, the POWs arrived at Puerto Princess on Palawan Island to build an airfield while ten POWs worked as mechanics at a Japanese garage repairing trucks. The POW camp was designated 10-A and they occupied the old Constabulary barracks. Since the quarters had fallen apart, the POWs spent the next week attempting to make the barracks livable. Food for the POWs was wormy rice and a cup of soup. Those who were sick had their rations cut in half.
When work was started on the airfield, the Japanese expected the prisoners to build it with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. Since they were clearing a jungle, trees had to be removed. This was done by the POWs taking turns chopping down the trees. It took the POWs about a year to clear the area for the airfield. The work was so hard that POWs were returned to Manila and new POWs arrived on a regular basis.
On August 2, 1942, Fred was selected to be the ranking American officer on a work detail to Palawan Island in the Philippines. The POWs left Cabanatuan on July 24, 1942, and driven by truck to the Port Area of Manila. There, the POWs loaded building supplies onto the Santos Maru which they took to Palawan Island. It was while he was a POW in the camp that his wife, Hazel, heard from him for the last time. She received a POW postcard dated August 26, 1942.
Six POWs were caught stealing food in December 1942. The men were tied to trees and beaten by the Japanese guards with wire and clubs. After they were untied, they had to stand at attention and be beaten until they passed out.
Bruni was the ranking American officer and in charge of the detail. In this role, he often found himself giving orders that created resentment among the enlisted men. Many failed to see that Fred had little choice in the matter; either he gave the order or he or the men would be punished.
During July 1943, two POWs escaped from the camp and were recaptured by the Japanese Secret Police which was known as the Kempei-Tai. The men were beaten with clubs and swords and had judo used on them. The Japanese put the men on a truck which made its way toward a beach. According to Filipino civilians, they heard four shots. Later, some of the POWs saw the men’s graves.
On October 3, seven POWs were punished by the Japanese. They were beaten, clubbed and hit with swords, and had judo used on them before they were suspended above the ground and beaten again.
Fred frequently was involved in situations where no matter what he did, he would anger either the enlisted men or the officers. Things really came to a head during Christmas of 1943
In late 1943, the Japanese promised the POWs a large Christmas dinner. There was already a great deal of resentment toward the officers since they did not have to work while the enlisted men did. When Christmas arrived, the “large dinner” turned out to be a total of six chickens. Fred found himself having to make a choice between giving all the chickens to the enlisted men or giving five chickens to the enlisted men and one chicken to the officers. He chose to give one chicken to officers. This leftover 100 enlisted men to share five chickens.
Many of the men carried hard feelings toward Fred because of this decision. It was around this time that his wife received a POW postcard in which he said, “Don’t worry. I’ll be home soon. Regards to the boys at the plant, relatives, friends, and neighbors.”
When the majority of work was completed on the airfield, the Japanese decided that half the POWs would be returned to Manila. The POWs were divided into two groups of 150 men. One of the groups was returned to Manila on a ship on September 22, 1944.
An American B-24 bombed Palawan on October 19, 1944. During the attack, planes at the airfield were damaged and two ships were sunk. Nine days later, American planes returned and bombed the airfield destroying 60 planes. The POWs had to hide their joy and silently cheered the air raid.
After the second air raid, the POWs were ordered to dig three air raid trenches. The trenches were five feet deep and four feet wide. Each trench could hold 50 men. The officers had a smaller trench. The Japanese believed that American forces would land on the island sometime in mid-December and a convoy was spotted heading toward the island on December 12. The POWs were unaware that the Japanese command at the airfield had received this message the evening of December 13. “At the time of the enemy landing, if the prisoners of war are harboring an enemy feeling, dispose of them at the appropriate time.”
On December 13, two Japanese officers told the POWs that they were going to work early the next day. They went to work, but at noon they were returned to the POW compound. On December 14, an American convoy was spotted by Japanese planes. The Japanese believed that Palawan would soon be invaded by the advancing American forces. The fact was the convoy was heading to the Island of Mindoro Island just south of Luzon.
The POWs were ordered into the shelters after American planes were spotted. After a while, the POWs came out of the shelters but remained near them. At 2:00 PM, the POWs were ordered back into the shelters. The Japanese had given the order that all Prisoners of War should be executed and were planning to kill them.
According to the surviving POWs, the POWs again received orders to go into their air raid shelters. The POWs did not move since they did not hear any planes, so the Japanese again ordered them into the shelters. After they were in them, gasoline was poured on the shelters and torches thrown into both ends. The shelters went up in flames.
Cpl. Elmo Deal said, “There were 150 soldiers, sailors, and marines at Palawan. In December the Japs got word there was a big convoy at sea.
“They thought the convoy which was going to Mindoro Island was headed their way and they became crazy with fear.
“They herded us into a string of underground shelters in a compound near the barracks. I don’t know which Jap officer gave the word but they threw gasoline in on us and ignited it. We tried to get out the other end of the dugout but they mowed us down with machine guns.”
Sgt. Douglas Bogue who also escaped the massacre said, “I looked out (of his trench) and screaming heathens were pouring gasoline into A Company’s shelter and tossing torches inside. When the Yanks in flames came scrambling out, they mowed them down.”
After the war, Fred’s family learned that he had been executed. This information was provided by another soldier, from Janesville, who liberated the island. The soldier told Fred’s family the events of his death. He told them how, as the POWs rushed from the shelters, the Japanese bayoneted and machine-gunned them. After this, dynamite was thrown into the trenches to assure that the POWs were dead.
In Bruni’s case, he and three other officers, Lt. Cmdr. Henry Knight, Lt. Carl Mango, and Warrant Officer Glen Turner had their own trench.
Once in it, the Japanese poured gasoline on it and set the trench on fire. Mango, the camp doctor, made it out of the trench, with his clothes on fire, pleading with the Japanese to show mercy to the prisoners. He was shot and his body set on fire.
Forty or fifty men still managed to get out of the trenches. Those POWs who managed to escape jumped from a fifty-foot cliff to the beach. Shore sentries and guards on barges shot at them from the cliffs and boats. Those who were recaptured by the Japanese were buried alive while those who survived the massacre successfully hid and later swam to their freedom.
One POW who was recaptured had attempted to swim to freedom. The Japanese stuck him with bayonets and poured gasoline on his feet and set him on fire. The entire time they mocked him and continued to bayonet him. They finally poured gasoline over his entire body and watched the flames devour him.
Of the POWs who had managed to escape, only eleven survived what became known as the Palawan Massacre. Capt. Fred T. Bruni was not one of these men. Early in 1945, his wife received several POW cards from her husband. She hoped that this was a sign that he would be home soon and had no idea that he had already been murdered. His murder was confirmed when his wife received the small notebook he had kept as a diary while a POW. The book had a mark on it that indicated it had come from the Island of Palawan.
Capt. Fred T. Bruni was burned to death with 138 other POWs on Palawan Island, by the Japanese, on Thursday, December 14, 1944. He and the other POWs were murdered because the Japanese did not want them to be liberated by advancing American troops. When American troops did land on Palawan, they found the mass grave for the POWs and the diary Fred had kept while a POW. In it, he recorded the deaths of the other members of A Company. The official announcement of what had been done on Palawan was not made to the known until March 3, 1945.
The communique to Mrs. Hazel Bruni told her of her husband’s death in the POW execution. It said:
“Capt Fred T. Bruni was in the brutal massacre of 150 members of the U.S. army, navy, and marine corps in a gigantic gasoline bonfire on December 14, 1944, at Puerto Princess prison camp, Palawan, in the Philippine Islands.
“This group of prisoners was attacked without warning by their Japanese guards who attempted to massacre the prisoners to the last man. Ten prisoners succeeded in escaping and these were the only survivors. It had now been officially established by reports received by the war department that all the remaining prisoners perished as a result of this ruthless attack.
“Edward F. Witsell, acting adjutant general of the army“
Bruni’s family held a memorial service for him in Janesville on Sunday, November 11, 1945, at Overton Funeral Home. In 1952, the remains of Capt. Fred T. Bruni Jr. and the other American soldiers, who had died on Palawan Island and not identified, were returned to the United States. Since the remains of the POWs were so badly burned that they could not be identified, the soldiers were buried in a common grave on February 14, 1952, at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
The picture below is of Capt. Bruni’s name on the headstone of the Palawan Massacre victims at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. The burial was attended by his wife, his mother, his sister, and his three brothers.