Deckert, PFC Henry J.

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PFC Henry John Deckert was the son of Adam Deckert Sr. & Maria E. Schoenwolf-Deckert and was born on December 11, 1917. With his two brothers and sister, he lived at 220 South 11th Avenue in Maywood, Illinois. After graduation from St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Forest Park, he attended Proviso Township High School and graduated as a member of the Class of 1936. After high school, he worked as a sander at the Ed Roos Cedar Chest Company in Forest Park.

The Selective Service Act went into effect on October 16, 1940, and Henry registered for the draft. He named his mother, Mary, as his contact person. Knowing that he was going to be drafted, on November 14, 1940, Henry joined the Illinois National Guard. On November 25, 1940, his tank company left Maywood for one year of military training, at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

One group of 17 soldiers left Maywood on Wednesday, November 27th at 7:00 A.M. in a convoy of one command car (or jeep), two trucks carrying supplies, and three private cars owned by members of the company. The trip was not easy since for 120 miles the road was covered in ice which cleared up near Indianapolis. They had dinner and spent the night at Ft. Benjamin Harris in Indianapolis. After showering and getting cleaned up, they continued the trip. As they got closer to Ft. Knox. the weather got warmer and the snow disappeared. During the trip one of the main topics was were they going live in tents or barracks. They reached the base late in the day on Thursday and found they were housed in barracks for the night. The next day they were moved to tents.

Most of the soldiers made the trip to Ft. Knox by train on Thursday, November 28th. From their armory, the soldiers marched west on Madison Street to Fifth Avenue, in Maywood, and then north to the Chicago & Northwestern train station. In B Company’s case, they rode on the same train as A Company from Janesville, Wisconsin. In Chicago, the train switched onto the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad which took them to Ft. Knox. Once at the fort they were met by Army trucks at the station which took them to the fort where they reunited with the men who drove.  The soldiers lived in six-man tents which had stoves for heat since they were assigned to a newly opened area of the fort and their barracks were not finished.

When they arrived at the base they lived in six men tents with stoves that provided heat. They spent the first six weeks in primary training. During week 1, the soldiers did infantry drilling; week 2, manual arms and marching to music; week 3, machine gun training; week 4, was pistol usage; week 5, M1 rifle firing; week 6, was training with gas masks, gas attacks, pitching tents, and hikes; weeks 7, 8, and 9 were spent learning the weapons, firing each one, learning the parts of the weapons and their functions, field stripping and caring for weapons, and the cleaning of weapons.

1st/Sgt. Richard Danca – on December 26th – was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed HQ Company. 35 men were picked because they had special training. Many of these men received promotions and because of their rating received higher pay. The men assigned to the company still lived with the B Company since their barracks were unfinished until February.

A typical day for the soldiers started at 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. The classes lasted for 13 weeks. 

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 they ate they stood in line to wash their mess kits since they had no mess hall. About January 12, 1941, their mess hall opened and they ate off real plates with forks and knives. They also no longer had to wash their own plates since that job fell on the men assigned to Kitchen Police. 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. 

B Company also moved into its barracks in January 1941. Most of the members of B Company were assigned to Barracks 53. The bunks were set up along the walls and alternated so that the head of one bunk was next to the foot of another bunk allowing for more bunks to be placed in the least amount of space. The one problem they had was that the barracks had four, two-way speakers in it. One speaker was in the main room of each floor of the barracks, one was in the sergeant’s office, and one was in the Lt. Donald Hanes’ office. Since by flipping a switch the speaker became a microphone, the men watched what they said.

The area outside the barracks was described as muddy and dusty most of the time. An attempt was made to improve the situation with the building of walkways and roads around the barracks.

It was also at this time that all the companies had 16 operational tanks and the first men from selective service were assigned to the companies. On January 10th, these men took their first tank ride and all of them had the chance to drive the tanks. They would permanently join the companies in March 1941.

During their free time during the week, the men could go to one of the three movie theaters on the outpost. They also sat around and talked. One group of soldiers became known as “The Chess Clique.” As the weather got warmer, the men tried to play baseball as often as possible in the evenings. Volleyball was also often played. At 9:00 P.M., when lights went out, most went to sleep.

On weekends, men with passes frequently went to Louisville which was 35 miles north of the fort, while others went to Elizabethtown sixteen miles south of the fort. Those men still on the base used the dayroom to read since it was open until 11:00 P.M. 

At 7:00 A.M. on Monday, June 16th, the battalion was broken into four detachments for a three-day tactical road march. The most important part of this march was to train the soldiers in loading, unloading, and setting up the battalion’s administrative camps. It also prepared them for the Louisiana maneuvers which they were scheduled to take part in during September.

The battalion traveled with 20 tanks, 20 motorcycles, 7 armored scout cars, 5 jeeps, 12 peeps (later called jeeps), 20 large 2½ ton trucks (these carried the battalion’s garages for vehicle repair), 5, 1½ ton trucks (which were the battalion’s kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The battalion traveled through Bardstown and Springfield before arriving at Harrodsburg at 2:30 P.M. where they set up their bivouac at the fairgrounds. The next morning, they moved to Herrington Lake east of Danville, where the men swam, boated, and fished. The battalion returned to Ft. Knox on Wednesday, June 18th through Lebanon, New Haven and Hodgenville, Kentucky.

In the late summer of 1941, Henry took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana. 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 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.

From Camp Polk, the battalion traveled west over four different train routes. Arriving in San Francisco, the soldiers were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, the soldiers were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases by the battalion’s medical detachment. Those men with health issues were released from service and replaced. Other men were held on the island and scheduled to 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. 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. The cruiser would intercept several other ships during the trip.

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 and did tank maintenance as they prepared to take part in maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion.

After arriving in the Philippines, Henry convinced his high school friend, 2nd Lt. Ben Morin, to sign the papers that would transfer him to a tank. Morin had just been commissioned a second lieutenant. Knowing that Henry really wanted this, Lt. Morin signed the papers. Henry was assigned to the tank of Sgt. Jim Griffin as the assistant tank driver. The tank driver was Cpl. Bob Martin, who was a high school classmate of Henry’s.

On December 1, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers. Two crew members had to be with their tank at all times. On the morning of December 8, 1941, all the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of the airfield. They had received word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As they sat in their tanks and half-tracks they watched as American planes filled the sky. At noon, the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, the tankers watched as planes approached the airfield from the north. When bombs began exploding on the runways, they knew the planes were Japanese.

At 12:45 in the afternoon on December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the soldiers lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Airfield. That morning, they had been awakened to the news that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor just hours earlier. The tankers were eating lunch when planes approached the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American. They then saw what looked like raindrops falling from the planes. It was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that the tankers knew the planes were Japanese.

The company remained at Clark Field for the next two weeks until it received orders to proceed north toward Rosario. Henry took the time, on December 12, to cable his parents. In it, he said, “I am well. Don’t worry. Merry Christmas. Love Henry Deckert”

The tank battalion received orders on December 21 that it was to proceed north to Lingayen Gulf. Because of logistics problems, the B and C Companies soon ran low on gas. When they reached Rosario, there was only enough for one tank platoon, from B Company, to proceed north to support the 26th Cavalry. Just north of Rosario, Henry’s platoon engaged the enemy.

During the attack, the tank of Lt. Ben Morin was disabled by the Japanese. Henry’s tank attempted to come to the aid of Lt. Morin’s tank which was under heavy enemy fire. During this engagement, Henry was credited with wiping out a Japanese machine gun nest while manning his tank’s machine gun. The Japanese machine gun’s position had given the Japanese command of the road.

Taking heavy tank fire, the remaining tanks of Lt. Morin’s platoon attempted to withdraw. Because of the terrain, the tanks had a difficult time turning. As his tank was attempting to turn, a shell hit the bow gun at the ball socket joint. The explosion from the shot came into the tank. Henry’s crew heard him groan. He had been decapitated. Bob Martin, who was sitting next to him, watched the entire event.

Pfc. Henry J. Deckert was Killed in Action at the barrio of Agoo on Monday, December 22, 1941. He was 24 years old. He was the first member of Company B, and the first American tank crew member, to die in World War II in tank to tank action. Henry’s body was taken by other members of the platoon to a Catholic church in Rosario. There, after a short service led by the parish priest, he was buried.

His parents received this telegram from the War Department on January 19, 1942.

“THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEPEST REGRET THAT YOUR SON PFC HENRY J DECKERT WAS KILLED IN ACTION IN DEFENSE OF HIS COUNTRY ON TWENTY TWO DECEMBER IN PHILIPPINE ISLANDS. LETTER FOLLOWS

                                                                                                                       “ADAMS THE ADJUTANT GENERAL”

Since Lt. Ben Morin had been taken prisoner on the day Henry died, he did not learn of Henry’s death until Bataan was surrendered, and he was reunited with other members of the 192nd at Cabanatuan POW Camp. Henry’s death was something that Lt. Morin always carried with him. The reason for this was that Henry was originally assigned to the company as a cook but wanted to be a member of a tank crew. It was Lt. Ben Morin, Henry’s high school classmate, and friend, who had signed the papers that allowed Henry to be reassigned to a tank.

His parents held a memorial service for Henry on February 14, 1942, at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church at 11th Avenue and Lake Street in Melrose Park.

After the war, at his parents’ request, Pfc. Henry J. Deckert’s remains were returned to Illinois on August 15, 1948. On August 17, 1948, with full military honors, Henry was laid to rest for the final time. Today, Henry lies, next to his parents, at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.

PFC Henry J. Deckert was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

It should be mentioned that Henry’s two brothers, Adam Jr. and David joined the Marines to fight the Japanese. David saw action in the Gilbert Islands, and after he returned home, he married the sister of Pvt. Henry Rusch who was also a member of B Company.

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