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. At Proviso, he was a member of the Class of 1936. After high school, he worked as a sander at a wholesale furniture company.
On November 14, 1940, Henry entered the Illinois National Guard. In September 1941, his tank company was federalized, and he trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and in Louisiana. During this training, Henry qualified as a cook and worked in the company’s mess hall at Ft. Knox. Although he was trained as a cook, Henry still wanted to be a member of a tank crew.
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. 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 parent and tell them he was fine.
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.