Pvt. Jesse Willard Durham was born on August 11, 1916, in Jacksonville, Texas, to Lonnie L. Durham & Lillie Stuart-Durham. With his three sisters, he grew up in Cherokee County, Texas, and attended high school for one year.
Jesse was inducted into the U.S. Army on March 18, 1941, in Houston, Texas, and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training. What training he received is not known. After completing his basic training, he was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, where he was assigned to the 753rd Tank Battalion.
The 753rd had been sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, in the late summer of 1941. Maneuvers were taking place at the fort, but the battalion did not take part in them. After the maneuvers, the 192nd Tank Battalion was sent to Camp Polk, but none of its members had any idea why they were being kept at the base. It was on the side of a hill that they learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within in hours, many of the men had figured out that they PLUM stood for Philippines, Luzon, Manila. Those men 29 years old or older were given the opportunity to resign from federal service. Replacements for the men came from the 753rd Tank Battalion. Jesse was one of the men who volunteered or had his name drawn to replace a National Guardsman. The 192nd also received the battalion’s tanks and half-tracks.
The decision to send the 192nd overseas – 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.
Over different train routes, the battalion was sent to San Francisco. Once there, they were taken by the ferry, the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. At the fort, they received physicals and inoculated against tropical diseases from the battalion’s medical detachment. Those men with minor health issues were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion in the Philippines. 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. They 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 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. This event was repeated several times during the voyage.
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 that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner – which was stew thrown into their mess kits – before he went to have his own. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
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.
The tanks were ordered to the perimeter of the Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers on December 1st. At all times two members of each tank crew had to remain with their tank. That morning of December 8, 1941, the tankers were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. When they looked up that morning, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed, parked in a straight line outside the mess hall, and their pilots went to lunch.
Around 12:45 in the afternoon, the tankers noticed planes approaching the airfield. When bombs began exploding around them, they knew the planes were Japanese. Besides their .50 caliber machine guns, they had few weapons to use against the planes. Most took cover and waited out the attack. After it ended, they saw the destruction done by the bombs.
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.
On December 23 and 24, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta. The bridge they were going used to cross the Agno River was destroyed and the tankers made an end run to get south of the river. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening. They successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
On December 25, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27.
The tankers fell back toward Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27 and were at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29. While there, the bridge over the Pampanga River was destroyed, they were able to find a crossing over the river.
C Company was re-supplied and withdrew to Baluiag where the tanks encountered Japanese troops and ten tanks. It was at Baluiag that Gentry’s tanks won the first tank victory of World War II against enemy tanks.
On December 31, 1941, Capt. William Gentry, commanding officer of C Company, sent out reconnaissance patrols north of the town of Baluiag. The patrols ran into Japanese patrols, which told the Americans that the Japanese were on their way. Knowing that the railroad bridge was the only way into the town and to cross the river, Lt. Gentry set up his defenses in view of the bridge and the rice patty it crossed.
Early on the morning of the 31st, the Japanese began moving troops and across the bridge. The engineers came next and put down planking for tanks. A little before noon Japanese tanks began crossing the bridge.
Later that day, the Japanese had assembled a large number of troops in the rice field on the northern edge of the town. One platoon of tanks under the command of 2nd Lt. Marshall Kennady was to the southeast of the bridge. Gentry’s tanks were to the south of the bridge in huts, while third platoon commanded by Capt Harold Collins was to the south on the road leading out of Baluiag. 2nd Lt. Everett Preston had been sent south to find a bridge to cross to attack the Japanese from behind.
Major John Morley, of the Provisional Tank Group, came riding in his jeep into Baluiag. He stopped in front of a hut and was spotted by the Japanese who had lookouts in the town’s church steeple. The guard became very excited so Morley, not wanting to give away the tanks positions, got into his jeep and drove off. Gentry had told Morley that his tanks would hold their fire until he was safely out of the village.
When Gentry felt the Morley was out of danger, he ordered his tanks to open up on the Japanese tanks at the end of the bridge. The tanks then came smashing through the huts’ walls and drove the Japanese in the direction of Lt. Marshall Kennady’s tanks. Kennady had been radioed and was waiting.
Kennady held his fire until the Japanese were in view of his platoon and then joined in the hunt. The Americans chased the tanks up and down the streets of the village, through buildings and under them. By the time C Company was ordered to disengage from the enemy, they had knocked out at least eight enemy tanks.
C Company withdrew to Calumpit Bridge after receiving orders from Provisional Tank Group. When they reached the bridge, they discovered it had been blown. Finding a crossing the tankers made it to the south side of the river. Knowing that the Japanese were close behind, the Americans took their positions in a harvested rice field and aimed their guns to fire a tracer shell through the harvested rice. This would cause the rice to ignite which would light the enemy troops.
The tanks were about 100 yards apart. The Japanese crossing the river knew that the Americans were there because the tankers shouted at each other to make the Japanese believe troops were in front of them. The Japanese were within a few yards of the tanks when the tanks opened fire which caused the rice stacks to catch fire. The fighting was such a rout that the tankers were using a 37 mm shell to kill one Japanese soldier.
Jesse’s tank company was next sent to the Barrio of Porac to aid the Filipino Army which was having trouble with Japanese artillery fire. From a Filipino lieutenant, they learned where the guns were located and attacked. Before the Japanese withdrew, the tanks had knocked out three of the guns.
After this, the tanks withdrew to the Hermosa Bridge and held it on the north side until all the troops were across. The tanks then crossed to the south and destroyed the bridge which held the Japanese up for a few days. When the company entered Cabanatuan, it found the barrio filled with Japanese guns and other equipment. The tank company destroyed as much of the equipment as it could before proceeding south. This was the beginning of the Battle of Bataan.
During the Battle of the Points the tanks were sent in to wipe out Japanese troops that had broken through the main defensive line and than trapped behind the line after the Filipino and American troops pushed the Japanese back. According to members of the battalion, they resorted two ways to wipe out the Japanese.
The first method was to have three Filipino soldiers sit on the back of the tanks with sacks of hand grenades. When the Japanese dove back into their foxholes, the tank would go over it and the soldiers would drop three hand grenades into the foxhole. Since the ordnance was from World War I, one out of three hand grenades would explode.
Having brought in combat harden troops from Singapore, the Japanese launched a major offensive on April 4. The tanks were sent to various sectors in an attempt to stop the advance. On the 6th, four tanks were sent to support the 45th Philippine Infantry, Philippine Scouts. One tank was knocked out from anti-tank fire at the junctions of Trails 6 & 8, and the other tanks withdrew. On April 8th, the 194th was fighting on the East Coast Road at Cabcaban.
It was the evening of April 8 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.”
About 6:45 in the morning of April 9, 1942, the tankers received the order “crash.” They destroyed their tanks and waited for the Japanese to make contact with them. When they did, the Americans officially became Prisoners of War. Having heard a rumor that the Japanese were looking for them, the tankers got rid of anything that indicated that they were tankers. They made their way, as a company, to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan. There, they started what they simply referred to as “the march.”
From Mariveles, the POWs made there way north to San Fernando. They received little food and almost no water. At San Fernando, the POWs were packed into a bullpen. In one corner was a slit trench that was used as a washroom. The surface moved from the maggots that covered it.
The Japanese ordered the POWs to form detachments of 100 men. They were marched to the train station and put into small wooden boxcars that were used to haul sugarcane. The cars could hold forty men or eight horses and known as “Forty or Eights.” The Japanese packed 100 men into each car. Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. From there, they walked the last miles to Camp O’Donnell.
Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed 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. 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 Pangatian.
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. The POWs were forced to work in the fields from 7:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the evening. Most of the food they grew went to the Japanese not them. Other POWs worked in rice paddies.
The POW barracks were built to house 50 POWs, but most held between 60 and 120 men. The POWs slept on bamboo slats without mattresses, covers, or mosquito netting. The result was many became ill.
Each morning, the POWs lined up for roll call. While they stood at attention, it wasn’t uncommon for them to be hit over the tops of their heads. In addition, one guard frequently kicked them in their shins with his hobnailed boots. 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.
The camp hospital was composed of 30 wards. The ward for the sickest POWs was known as “Zero Ward,” which got its name because it had been missed when the wards were counted. The name soon meant the place where those who were extremely ill went to die. Each ward had two tiers of bunks and could hold 45 men but often had as many as 100 men in each. Each man had a two-foot-wide by six-foot-long area to lie in. The sickest men slept on the bottom tier since the platforms had holes cut in them so the sick could relieve themselves without having to leave the tier. According to camp medical records, he was admitted into the camp hospital on August 21, 1942. The records do not indicate what the illness was or when he was discharged.
It appears that Jesse went out on a work detail. Medical records, from Bilibid Prison, show he was admitted with beriberi and discharged from the medical ward on April 2, 1943. He was again admitted to the camp hospital on April 17, 1943. Once again, no reason for the hospitalization or discharge date was given.
In the fall of 1944, Jesse’s name appeared on a list of POWs being transferred to Japan. This was being done because American forces had landed in the Philippines. By train, the POWs were taken to the Port Area of Manila to Pier 7.
The POWs were scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru. While the POWs were on the dock waiting to board their ship, the Hokusen Maru became ready to sail. Since the entire POW detachment assigned to the ship had not arrived, the Japanese put Jesse’s POW detachment on the ship since it was ready to sail. The Arisan Maru, Jesse’s original ship, was later sunk by an American submarine on its way to Hong Kong. Only nine of the 1803 POWs on the ship survived its sinking.
The ship sailed but dropped anchor at the harbor’s breakwater. It remained there for three days and the temperatures in the hold rose to over 100 degrees causing some men to go crazy. The Japanese threatened to kill the POWs if they didn’t quiet the men. To do this, the sane POWs strangled those out of their minds or hit them with canteens.
As part of a ten-ship convoy, it sailed again on October 4 and stopped at Cabcaban. The next day, it was at San Fernando La Union, where the ships were joined by four more ships and five escorts. The ships stayed close to the shoreline to prevent submarine attacks which failed since, on October 6, two of the ships were sunk.
The ships were informed, on October 9, that American carriers were seen near Formosa and sailed for Hong Kong when it was informed American planes were in the area. The ships changed course during this part of the trip and attempted to reach Hong Kong. The ships ran into American submarines which sank two more ships.
The Hokusen Maru arrived at Hong Kong on October 11. While it was in port, American planes bombed the harbor on October 16. On October 21, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa, arriving on October 24. The POWs remained in the ship’s hold until November 8 when they were disembarked. The Japanese had decided they were too ill to be sent to Japan. Since the POWs were in such bad shape, the Japanese opened a new POW camp which was given the designation of Inrin Temporary Camp. The POWs were given light work to do. Those who were in better shape worked at harvesting sugarcane or at a sugarcane mill.
In January 1945, the POWs were taken back to Takao and boarded onto the Enoshima Maru and put in a hold that also had hemp in it. Some of the POWs discovered that underneath the hemp were sacks of sugar and pellets with canned tomatoes on them. The POWs helped themselves to the canned tomatoes. The ship arrived safely at Moji, Japan on the 30th, and the POWs disembarked and were marched to a schoolhouse. When they arrived, the Japanese had them strip off their clothes, since they were infested with lice and deloused the POWs before they entered the school. The POWs were taken to the train station and sent to various POW camps in Japan. In Jesse’s case, he was taken to Sendai #3 where the POWs worked for the Mitsubishi Mining Company at a lead and zinc mine.
In the camp, the guards carried bamboo clubs which they hit the POWs with on a regular basis for various reasons. When being punished, the POWs were ordered and forced to stand at attention, in the snow, in their inadequate clothing. On several occasions, they were forced to stand at attention with holding buckets of water at arms’ length.
What is known about the camp is that the hospital was a cold wooden barracks that was sealed against the cold. Medical equipment was poor and fourteen POWs died in the hospital. All the deaths were contributed to lack of clothing against the cold and inadequate heating of the barracks and poor diet. Even though POWs were certified as too sick to work, they were forced to work in the mines because a certain number of POWs had work each day.
Red Cross clothing was stored in a warehouse at the camp and never issued to the POWs. The Japanese used blankets intended for the POWs as cushions for chairs in the camp’s offices. They also wore the shoes and Red Cross clothing meant for the POWs. If Red Cross packages were given to the prisoners, they had been previously opened and cigarettes and chocolate bars were missing. Food also meant for the prisoners was eaten by the Japanese.
Red Cross medicines and medicals supplies that would help the prisoners were not given to them. The camp doctor was known to eat vitamin tablets from the packages in front of the POWs. The sick POWs were forced to work in the mine when they were physically unable to work. Those who reported for sick call had to line up in the hallway to the Japanese doctor’s office and take off all their clothes before they entered. While in line, they were often slapped in the face. The doctor made the POWs stand at attention, bow, and follow orders given to them. Since this took so much time, most of the POWs were never examined and had to work. Cold weather clothing and blankets from the Red Cross were never given out to the POWs who had to sleep in the poorly heated barracks in the winter.
The POWs were marched to and from the mine by Japanese civilians. If they fell behind during the march, the guards beat them with their bamboo clubs. While working in the mine, if an “Overseer,” the name given to the civilian supervisors, thought a POW was not working hard enough, the POW received a whack with a bamboo stick.
On August 15, the POWs were ordered out of the mines. When they got topside, they saw the Japanese civilians crying and heard loudspeakers blaring. When they got up to go to work on the 16th, they were told they had the day off because it was a holiday. They had never received a day off for a holiday before this. They began to wonder if the war was over.
Three American fighters flew low over the camp on August 21. As they did they tipped their wings. A note was dropped indicating B-29s would come over the camp the next day. The next day the planes appeared and dropped food to the POWs. Three POWs were killed since some of the parachutes did not open. The following day B-29s dropped clothing to the POWs.
On September 12, 1945, Jesse was liberated when an American major and three enlisted men entered the camp. The POWs were taken by train to Sendai and later were returned to the Philippines, where he was promoted to Corporal. After receiving medical treatment Jesse was returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Tryon which arrived at San Francisco on October 24, 1945.
Jesse W. Durham returned to Jacksonville, Texas, and spent the rest of his life there. He passed away in Jacksonville, Texas, on September 12, 2000, and was buried at Resthaven Memorial Park in Jacksonville.