1st Lt. William Henry Gentry was born on November 19, 1918, to James T. Gentry and Harriet Renfro-Gentry. He had three sisters and one brother. He was raised on Burgin Road in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and attended McAfee High School and attended the University of Kentucky for one year. On December 21, 1936, Gentry joined the Kentucky National Guard at Harrisburg. His reason for doing this was that the tank company needed someone to work on the tanks. Two of his friends, Archibald Rue, and George Van Arsdall joined the National Guard with him. During this time, he attended Infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia.
On November 25, 1940, the tank company was called to federal service as D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. The company boarded 10 trucks in Harrodsburg on November 28 and its tanks were loaded onto a flatcar and taken by train to Ft. Knox. The company left Harrodsburg at 12:30 P.M. arriving four hours later at 4:30 P.M. When the tank company was called to federal service Gentry went to Ft. Knox as a staff sergeant. After arriving, 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.
The First Sergeant, Edwin Rue, on December 26, was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed HQ Company. Many of the men picked to be transferred to the company – from all the battalion’s companies – received promotions and because of their ratings received higher pay. The new company was the largest company in the battalion and divided into a staff platoon, a reconnaissance platoon, a maintenance platoon, a motor platoon, and the usual cooks and clerks that every company had. Men were assigned various jobs which included scouts, radio operators, mechanics, truck drivers, and other duties. Men were also sent to specialty schools with training in areas like tank mechanics, radio, automotive mechanics, and small and large arms.
D Company moved into its barracks in December 1940. The barracks were adjacent to the Roosevelt Ridge Training Area. The men assigned to the HQ Company still lived with the D Company since their barracks were unfinished. 25 men lived on each floor of the barracks. 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 allowing for 50 men to sleep on each floor. The first sergeant, staff sergeant, and master sergeant had their own rooms. There was also a supply room, an orderly room – where the cooks could sleep during the day – and a clubroom. The company shared its mess hall with A Company until that company’s mess hall was finished.
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 first sergeant’s office, and one was in the captain’s office. Since by flipping a switch the speaker became a microphone, the men watched what they said. The men assigned to HQ Company moved into their own barracks by February. The guardsmen were housed away from the regular army troops in the newly built barracks. Newspapers from the time state that the barracks were air-conditioned.
The biggest problem facing the unit was the lack of equipment. Many of the tanks were castoffs from the regular army or pulled from the junkyard at Ft. Knox and rebuilt by the tank companies. The tanks were also restricted in where they could be driven and very little training was done with the infantry. The companies received new trucks and motorcycles in the Spring of 1941.
The men received training under the direction of the 69th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division. This was true for the tank crews and reconnaissance units who trained with the regiment’s tanks and reconnaissance units and later trained with their own companies. 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 13-week 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 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.
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. As the weather got warmer, the men tried to play baseball as often as possible in the evenings. 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.
It was while he was at Ft. Knox that Bill took a test to become an officer. Since there was a shortage of qualified officers, the army was willing to test enlisted men. William passed the test, resigned from the army as an enlisted man, and was inducted into the army as a second lieutenant on February 12, 1941. After receiving his commission, he was assigned to Headquarters Company and became the battalion’s communications officer or S-6. Also during February, four composite tank detachments made of men from all the companies of the battalion left Ft. Knox – on different dates – on problematic moves at 9:00 A.M. The detachments consisted of three motorcycles, two scout cars, sixteen tanks, one ambulance, and supply, fuel, and kitchen trucks. The route was difficult and chosen so that the men could become acquainted with their equipment. They also had to watch out for simulated enemy planes. Bridges were avoided whenever it was possible to ford the water. They received their rations from a food truck.
In late March 1941, the entire battalion was moved to new barracks at Wilson Road and Seventh Avenue at Ft. Knox. The barracks had bathing and washing facilities in them and a day room. The new kitchens had larger gas ranges, automatic gas heaters, large pantries, and mess halls. One reason for this move was the men from selective service were permanently joining the battalion. The one thing Bill noted about the year of training the tankers received is that they were never taught how to fight a defensive war with their tanks.
On June 14 and 16, the battalion was divided into four detachments composed of men from different companies. Available information shows that C and D Companies, part of HQ Company and part of the Medical Detachment left on June 14, while A and B Companies, and the other halves of HQ Company and the Medical Detachment left the fort on June 16. These were tactical maneuvers – under the command of the commanders of each of the letter companies. The three-day tactical road marches were to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and back. Each tank company 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 included the companies’ kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The detachments 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 through Lebanon, New Haven, and Hodgenville, Kentucky. At Hodgenville, the men were allowed to visit the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. The purpose of the maneuvers was to give the men practice at loading, unloading, and setting up administrative camps to prepare them for the Louisiana maneuvers.
From September 1 through 30, the tankers took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. The entire battalion was loaded onto trucks and sent in a convoy to Louisiana while the tanks and wheeled vehicles were sent by train. The maneuvers were described by other men as being awakened at 4:30 A.M. and sent to an area to engage an imaginary enemy. After engaging the enemy, the tanks withdrew to another area. The crews had no idea what they were doing most of the time because they were never told anything by the higher-ups. Some felt that they just rode around in their tanks a lot. During the maneuvers that tanks held defensive positions and usually were held in reserve by the higher headquarters. For the first time, the tanks were used to counter-attack and in support of infantry. Many of the men felt that the tanks were finally being used like they should be used and not as “mobile pillboxes.”
During their training at Ft. Knox, the tankers were taught that they should never attack an anti-tank gun head-on. One day during the maneuvers, their commanding general threw away the entire battalion doing just that. After sitting out a period of time, the battalion resumed the maneuvers. At some point, the battalion also went from fighting in the Red Army to fighting for the Blue Army.
The major problem for the tanks was the sandy soil. On several occasions, tanks were parked and the crews walked away from them. When they returned, the tanks had sunk into the sandy soil up to their hauls. To get them out, other tanks were brought in and attempted to pull them out. If that didn’t work, the tankers brought a tank wrecker to pull the tank out from Camp Polk.
The one good thing that came out of the maneuvers was that the tank crews learned how to move at night. At Ft. Knox this was never done. Without knowing it, the night movements were preparing them for what they would do in the Philippines since most of the battalion’s movements there were made at night. The drivers learned how to drive at night and to take instructions from their tank commanders who had a better view from the turret.
At night a number of motorcycle riders from other tank units were killed because they were riding their bikes without headlights on which meant they could not see obstacles in front of their bikes. When they hit something they fell to the ground and the tanks following them went over them. This happened several times before the motorcycle riders were ordered to turn on their headlights.
One of the major problems was snake bites. It appeared that every other man was bitten at some point by a snake. The platoon commanders carried a snakebit kit that was used to create a vacuum to suck the poison out of the bite. The bites were the result of the nights cooling down and snakes crawling under the soldiers’ bedrolls for warmth while the soldiers were sleeping on them. There was one multicolored snake – about eight inches long – that was beautiful to look at, but if it bit a man he was dead. The good thing was that these snakes would not just strike at the man but only struck if the man forced himself on it. When the soldiers woke up in the morning they would carefully pick up their bedrolls to see if there were any snakes under them. To avoid being bitten, men slept on the two and a half-ton trucks or on or in the tanks. Another trick the soldiers learned was to dig a small trench around their tents and lay rope in the trench. The burs on the rope kept the snakes from entering the tents. The snakes were not a problem if the night was warm. They also had a problem with the wild hogs in the area. In the middle of the night while the men were sleeping in their tents they would suddenly hear hogs squealing. The hogs would run into the tents pushing on them until they took them down and dragged them away.
The food was also not very good since the air was always damp which made it hard to get a fire started. Many of their meals were C ration meals of beans or chili that they choked down. Washing clothes was done when the men had a chance. They did this by finding a creek, looking for alligators, and if there were none, taking a bar of soap and scrubbing whatever they were washing. Clothes were usually washed once a week or once every two weeks.
It was after the maneuvers that the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana. It was on the side of a hill that he and the other members of the battalion learned that they were being sent overseas. Being that he was married, he was given the opportunity to resign from federal service. He chose to remain with the battalion and go overseas. He received leave home to see his family and say goodbye before returning to Camp Polk.
The 192nd Tank Battalion received orders for duty, in the Philippines, because of an event that happened during the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a buoy in the water. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island. When the squadron landed he reported what he had seen but it was too late to do anything about it that day. The next day, another squadron was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat that was making its way toward shore. Since communications between the Air Corps and Navy were poor, the boat escaped without being stopped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
Many of the members of the battalion were given furloughs so that they could say goodbye to family and friends. The battalion’s new tanks which came from the 753rd Tank Battalion and the 3rd Armor Division were loaded onto flat cars, on different trains. At 8:30 A.M. on October 20, over different train routes, the companies were sent to San Francisco, California. Most of the soldiers of each company rode on one train that was followed by a second train that carried the company’s tanks. At the end of the second train was a boxcar followed by a passenger car that carried some soldiers. The company took the southern route along the Gulf Coast through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. At Yuma, Arizona the train stopped and the Native Americans entered the train cars and sold beads to the soldiers. The soldiers knocked each other over attempting to buy the beads. After the train pulled out of the station, someone noticed that the genuine Native American beads were made in Japan. When they arrived in San Francisco, they were ferried, by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, they were given physicals by the battalion’s medical detachment. Men found to have minor health issues were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced. The soldiers spent their time putting cosmoline on anything that they thought would rust.
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, another transport, the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge. On 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, but two other intercepted ships were Japanese freighters carrying scrap metal. 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.
While on the Hugh L. Scott, Gentry wrote this letter home on November 19, 1941.
Well, today I am twenty-three years old. I will never have another birthday at sea. Every day we look at water and exclaim “Why we went by here yesterday!” It all looks alike. I would not take any amount for my voyage but wouldn’t give a dime for another. Will write as soon as I know what our new address will be.
Your loving son,
The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. One thing that was different about their arrival was that instead of a band and a welcoming committee waiting at the pier to tell them to enjoy their stay in the Philippines and see as much of the island as they could, a party came aboard the ship – carrying guns – and told the soldiers, “Draw your firearms immediately; we’re under alert. We expect a war with Japan at any moment. Your destination is Fort Stotsenburg, Clark Field.” At 3:00 P.M., as the enlisted men left the ship, a Marine was checking off their names. When someone said his name, the Marine responded with, “Hello sucker.” Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks. The rest of the battalion rode a train to Ft. Stotsenburg.
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. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived. He made sure that they had dinner before he left to have 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. The area was near the end of a runway used by B-17s for takeoffs. The planes flew over the tents at about 100 feet blowing dirt everywhere and the noise was unbelievable. At night, they heard the sounds of planes flying over the airfield which turned out to be Japanese reconnaissance planes. In addition, the khaki uniforms they had been issued also turned out to be a heavy material which made them uncomfortable to wear in the tropical heat.
The 192nd had a large number of ham radio operators and shortly after arriving at Ft. Stotsenburg, Bill had the men set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When they were informed it was the 192nd, they gave them frequencies to use. Men were able to send messages home to their families that they had arrived safely
After arriving in the Philippines, the process was begun to transfer D Company to the 194th Tank Battalion, which had left for the Philippines minus one company. B Company of the battalion was sent to Alaska while the remaining companies, of the battalion, were sent to the Philippines. The medical clerk for the 192nd spent weeks organizing records to be handed over to the 194th.
The day started at 5:15 with reveille and anyone who washed near a faucet with running water was considered lucky. At 6:00 A.M. they ate breakfast followed by work – on their on the tanks and other equipment – from 7:00 A.M. to 11:30 A.M. Lunch was from 11:30 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. when the soldiers returned to work until 2:30 P.M. The shorter afternoon work period was based on the belief that it was too hot to work in the climate. The term “recreation in the motor pool,” which they borrowed from the 194th Tank Battalion, meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon.
At Ft. Stotsenburg, the soldiers were expected to wear their dress uniforms. Since working on the tanks was a dirty job, the battalion members wore coveralls to do the work on the tanks. The 192nd followed the example of the 194th Tank Battalion and wore coveralls in their barracks area to do work on their tanks, but if the soldiers left the battalion’s area, they wore dress uniforms everywhere; including going to the PX.
For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies on the base. They also played horseshoes, softball, badminton, or threw footballs around during their free time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming. Men were given the opportunity to be allowed to go to Manila in small groups.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and were fed from food trucks. It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd’s communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the battalion’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, the CO of the 194th Tank Battalion, read the messages of the attack. The officers of the 192nd were called to the tent and informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to the south end of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. HQ Company remained behind in their bivouac.
On the morning of December 8, all the tank crews were brought up to full strength at the perimeter of Clark Field. During the night, word had been received about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. HQ Company remained behind in the battalion’s bivouac. When they were told 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. The company commander, Capt Fred Bruni, 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 around noon that this belief was blown away.
All morning long, American planes filled the sky. At noon, every plane landed, to be refueled, and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, as the tankers ate lunch, 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. The tankers believed the planes were American until they saw what appeared to be “raindrops” fall from the planes. When bombs began exploding around them, the tankers knew the planes were Japanese. The members of HQ Company could do little more than watch the attack and take cover since they had few weapons to be used against planes.
During the attack, American pilots attempted to get their planes off the ground. As they roared down the runway, Japanese fighters strafed the planes causing them to swerve, crash, and burn. Those that did get airborne were barely off the ground when they were hit. The planes exploded and crashed to the ground tumbling down the runways. 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. That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their tents. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed. They lived through two more attacks on December 10 and 13. According to official military records, with the attack, the transfer of D Company to the 194th Tank Battalion was suspended indefinitely, so the company remained in the 192nd Tank Battalion but fought with the 194th.
Because there was a need for an officer in C Company, on December 14, 1941, Gentry was assigned to C Company as the maintenance officer and a tank platoon commander. He was promoted to First Lieutenant on December 19. On December 22, C Company was sent north to Lingayen Gulf to support B Company. The companies were given the job of serving as a rearguard so that the 26th U.S. Cavalry could withdraw from its battle with the Japanese. The two tank companies repeated this job over and over again from Sison, Pozorrubbio, Asingan, and Tayug. 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 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.
At Cabu, seven tanks of the company fought a three hour battle with the Japanese. The main Japanese line was south of Saint Rosa Bridge ten miles to the south of the battle. The tanks were hidden in brush as Japanese troops passed them for three hours without knowing that they were there. While the troops passed, Lt. William Gentry was on his radio describing what he was seeing. It was only when a Japanese soldier tried to take a short cut through the brush, that his tank was hidden in, that the tanks were discovered. The tanks turned on their sirens and opened up on the Japanese.
After this battle, C Company made its way south toward Cabanatuan. When it 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. The tankers fell back toward Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27, and 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, 1st Lt. William Gentry, commanding officer of C Company, sent out reconnaissance patrols north of the barrio of Baliuag. 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 2nd Lt. Marshall Kennady was to the southeast of the bridge. Gentry’s tanks were to the south of the bridge in huts, while the 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 2nd 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 Bill’s unit was ordered to disengage from the enemy, they had knocked out at least eight enemy tanks.
It was at this time that he wrote a letter home that went out on a U.S. submarine.
Mail is going out. I will endeavor to put in a few words many thoughts. I am giving the Japs plenty, and have much more to pour out. Ed was killed the other day. It was a sad bit of news to me. The general awarded me the silver star for gallantry in action. I am sure hungry for some good American food.
Lots of love to all,
Gentry and the other tankers 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 so it would catch fire and light up the enemy troops. Gentry spaced his tanks 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 with their small arms. The engagement was such a rout that tank crews were using a single 37-millimeter shell to kill a single Japanese soldier.
Gentry and his tank company were next sent to the barrio of Porac to aid the Filipino army which was having trouble with Japanese artillery fire. From a Filipino lieutenant, Gentry learned where the guns were and attacked. Before the Japanese withdrew, the tankers 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. This was the beginning of the Battle of Bataan. In addition to serving as a rearguard, the tankers burnt everything that was being left behind. They burnt warehouses, banks, and businesses that would help the Japanese.
In Gentry’s opinion, what did the Filipinos and Americans in was the lack of food. The troops first ate the horses of the 26th U.S. Cavalry. They next ate the mules. When these were gone, the soldiers searched the rice stacks for rice. The average soldier was down to 800 calories a day or the equivalent of one meal. When the Japanese broke through the final line of defense, they did so against troops who were so sick with malaria that they could not hold their guns up to fire them.
Gentry recalled that the enlisted men caught a monkey to eat, “The boys caught a tough monkey one day. They boiled him for 24 hours and roasted him for 12 hours. With considerable ceremony, they brought the roast to me on a platter. ‘Lieutenant,’ one of them said, ‘we have a roasted monkey for you. Do us the honor of taking the first helping.’
I knew perfectly well they wanted to test it out on me because it was the first old monkey we had tried to cook. But I kept a straight face. I tore off a leg and bit off out a chunk of meat. I chewed it for 30 minutes and finally swallowed it. When the boys saw it didn’t hurt me, they cut the meat into bits small enough swallow without chewing, and went ahead and ate it.”
With fresh troops brought in from Singapore, the Japanese launched an all-out attack on April 3 against the defenders. 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. Gentry was named the battalion’s maintenance officer on April 6, but he never took the position. On April 7, 1942, the Japanese broke through the east side of the main defensive line on Bataan. A counter-attack was launched by the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts which was supported by tanks. Its objective was 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, was attached to the 192nd and had only seven tanks left.
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. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day. Companies B and D, 192nd, and A Company, 194th, were preparing for a suicide attack against the Japanese in an attempt to stop the advance. At 6:00 P.M. that 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.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. Phil Parish, a truck driver for A Company realized that he had bedding buried in the back of his truck and searched for it. The bedding became the “white flags” that were flown on the jeeps. At 11:40 P.M., the ammunition dumps were destroyed. At midnight Companies B and D, and A Company, 194th, received an order from Gen. Weaver to stand down. At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The driver was from the tank group.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. It was at about 6:45 A.M. that tank battalion commanders received the order “crash.” The tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
As Gen. King left to negotiate the surrender, he went through the area held by B Company and spoke to the men. He said to them, “I’m going to get us the best deal I can.” He also said, “When you get home, don’t ever let anyone say to you, you surrendered. I was the one who surrendered.” Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Wade R. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north, they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would not attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do. After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col. Collier and Maj. Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit in the line of the Japanese advance should fly white flags. Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived. King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
C Company remained in its bivouac until April 11 when the Japanese made contact with them. Gentry and the other members of C Company were now officially Prisoners of War. With his men, he made his way to Mariveles where he would begin the death march. While assigned to HQ Company, Bill had become friends with 2nd Lt. Jacques Merrifield, the two men did the march together.
On the march, Gentry and the other POWs were put into groups of 100 to 150 men. It took him eleven days to complete the march. Gentry believed that the Japanese intentionally left him and other POWs sitting in the sun when they could have been marching. During this time, Gentry only had one ball of rice the size of a baseball and two stalks of sugar cane to eat. He also had very little to drink. Gentry witnessed a number of incidents of Japanese brutality. He recalled that the Japanese took great pleasure in hitting Americans wearing World War I style helmets across the top of their heads. The reason was that at the top of the helmet was a rivet that would tear into the scalps of the men. Many Americans got rid of the helmets which proved to be a bad decision because of the sun. Somewhere along the march, Gentry watched as POWs were forced to dig their own graves and then shot. They were then pushed into the graves and buried.
It took Merrifield and Gentry 12 days to complete the march. “I saw dead men all along the side of the road. When we got to camp, I got a little spot of ground inside the fence. I had a pair of coveralls, a pair of shoes, a canteen, cup, and spoon. I had no socks, no toothbrush. That’s all I had until someone died.”
At some point on the march Gentry had an attack of malaria, during this time, he was carried for three or four days by his fellow tankers. In particular, Merrifield carried Gentry most of this time. Being out of his head, Bill did not remember much else of events along the march.
At San Fernando, the POWs were put into a bullpen, but how long they remained there is not known. At some point, the Japanese ordered them to form detachments of 100 men and marched them to the train station. The boxcars that the Japanese packed them in were known as “forty or eights” since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. Since there were 100 men in each detachment, they put 100 men into each boxcar and closed the doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly that those who died remained standing because they could fall to the floors. When the living left the boxcars at Capas, those who had died fell to the floors of the cars. From Capas, 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 was often done so the Japanese could bathe and wanted more water. 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. This situation improved when a second faucet was added by the POWs who found the piping and dug the trench for the waterline. When the Japanese turned the water off, the POWs had the ability to turn it back on again without the Japanese knowing.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men but those who did sleep in one slept in a barracks it was with as many 80 to 120 men. 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 ranking American officer asked the Japanese for medical supplies, additional food, and materials to repair the roofs because they were leaking. This resulted in his being beaten with a broadsword. When the Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, Tsuneyoshi refused to allow the truck into the camp. The Japanese Red Cross sent a truck of medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use. A second truck was sent by the Red Cross with medical supplies, but it was turned away at the gate of the camp.
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 cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it. At one point, the bodies of 80 dead POWs laid under the hospital awaiting burial.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of POWs healthy 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. Many of these men returned to the camp from work details only to die. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so they opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
During May, his family received a letter from the War Department.
“Dear Mrs. Harriet Gentry:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee if First Lieutenant William H. Gentry, O,404,976, 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 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 as Camp Pangatian.
Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with. In early June, four POWs escaped and were recaptured. They were brought back to the camp and tied to posts and beaten. After three days they were cut loose from the posts and made to dig their own graves. They stood in graves facing a Japanese firing squad and were shot. After they had been shot, a Japanese officer used his pistol and fired a shot into each grave.
The men were also put into ten men groups known as “blood brothers” if one man escaped the other ten would be killed. The Japanese logic was these men should have been able to stop the man. The men in the groups lived together in the same barracks, slept together, and went out on work details together. The barracks used by the POWs were built to hold 50 POWs, but the Japanese put from 60 to 120 POWs in each one. There no shower facilities and the POWs slept on bamboo strips. In addition, no bedding, covers, or mosquito netting was provided which resulted in many becoming ill. It is known that John was housed in Barracks 18. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. Since the POWs were underfed, many became ill and died of malnutrition.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. Each morning, as the POWs stood at attention and roll call was taken, the Japanese guards hit them across 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 to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Another detail was sent out to work at Cabanatuan Airfield which had been the home of a Philippine Army Air Corps unit and known as Maniquis Airfield. The Japanese had the POWs build runways and revetments. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. 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 to drive their faces deeper into the mud. 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. Returning from details 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.
During June, the first cases of diphtheria appeared in the camp, and by July, it had spread throughout the camp. The Japanese finally gave the American medical staff anti-biotics to treat the POWs, but before it took effect, 130 POWs had died from the disease by August. On 26 June 1942, six POWs were executed by the Japanese after they had left the camp to buy food and were caught returning to camp. The POWs were tied to posts in a manner that they could not stand up or sit down. No one was allowed to give them food or water and they were not permitted to give them hats to protect them from the sun. The men were left tied to the posts for 48 hours when their ropes were cut. Four of the POWs were executed on the duty side of the camp and the other two were executed on the hospital side of the camp.
The camp hospital consisted of 30 wards that could hold 40 men each, but it was more common for them to have 100 men in them. Each man had approximately an area of 2 feet by 6 feet to lie in. The sickest POWs were put in “Zero Ward,” which was called this because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves and would not go into the area. There were two rolls of wooden platforms around the perimeter of the building. The sickest POWs were put on the lower platform which had holes cut into it so they could relieve themselves. Most of those who entered the ward died.
In July 1942, the family received a second letter. 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, First Lieutenant William H. Gentry 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.”
On August 7, one POW escaped from the camp and was recaptured on September 17. He was placed in solitary confinement and during his time there, he was beaten over the head with an iron bar by a Japanese sergeant. The camp commandant, Col. Mori, would parade him around the camp and use the man as an example as he lectured the POWs. The man wore a sign that read, “Example of an Escaped Prisoner.”
Three POWs escaped from the camp on September 12, 1942, and were recaptured on September 21 and brought back to the camp. Their feet were tied together and their hands were crossed behind their backs and tied with ropes. A long rope was tied around their wrists and they were suspended from a rafter with their toes barely touched the ground causing their arms to bear all the weight of their bodies. They were subjected to severe beatings by the Japanese guards while hanging from the rafter. The punishment lasted three days. They were cut from the rafter and they were tied hand and foot and placed in the cooler for 30 days on a diet was rice and water. One of the three POWs was severely beaten by a Japanese lieutenant but later released.
On September 29, the three POWs were executed by the Japanese after being stopped by American security guards while attempting to escape. The American guards were there to prevent escapes so that the other POWs in their ten men group would not be executed. During the event, the noise made the Japanese aware of the situation and they came to the area and beat the three men who had tried to escape. One so badly that his jaw was broken. After two and a half hours, the three were tied to posts by the main gate and their clothes were torn off them. They also were beaten on and off for the next 48 hours. Anyone passing them was expected to urinate on them. After three days they were cut down and thrown into a truck and taken to a clearing in sight of the camp and shot.
The Japanese needed 1000 POWs were to go on a work detail to Davao in October 1942. On October 24, the POWs were marched to the barrio of Cabanatuan, loaded onto boxcars, and sent by train to Manila arriving in the afternoon. During the trip, the doors of the boxcars were left open so there was ventilation. When they arrived in Manila, they remained in the boxcars until after dark when they were marched through the empty streets to Bilibid Prison. Once at Bilibid, they were fed mutton soup and rice.
The next day they were assembled in 100 men formations and marched to the Port Area of Manila where they boarded the Erie Maru. The hold was divided into box spaces and twelve men were assigned to each box. There was only enough room in a box for six men to sleep at a time. The POWs quickly became infested with bedbugs and lice. The hold smelled from the gasoline that was being stored in it and quickly was joined by the smell of human excrement.
The next morning the POWs were fed rice and spinach soup. At noon, they received rice and dried fish. For dinner, they had corned beef and rice. The POWs assigned to cooking discovered the Japanese officers had a large stock of captured American pork and slipped it to the men in the holds which resulted in many of the POWs developing dysentery.
The trip to Lasang took thirteen days because the ship made stops at Iloilo, Panay, and Cebu, Mindanao. At Iloilo, they buried one man who had died. The POWs arrived at Lansang on November 7.
When they arrived at the camp, the POWs were in such bad shape that the ranking Japanese officer, Major Mida, ordered them fed. They ate pork and beef, rice cabbage pinch, squash onions, potatoes, and peanuts which were all produced on the farm. From the orchards, they were given fruit which included raw and cooked plantains. The sick were given medical treatment and there was enough water for drinking, bathing, and laundry. When the recuperation took too long, their diet was cut to rice and greens soup.
In Gentry’s case, he was sent to the Philippine Experimental Farm on the Island of Mindanao. The camp was about 36 miles from Davao City. There, the prisoners from Bataan and Corregidor were joined by POWs taken in the Southern Philippine Islands. Altogether, there were 2200 POWs on the island. On the island, the POWs cut wood for lumber, grew coffee beans, grew rice, and grew hemp for rope.
At the camp, the POWs were housed in eight barracks that were about 148 feet long and about 16 feet wide. A four-foot-wide aisle ran down the center of each barracks. In each barracks, were eighteen bays. Twelve POWs shared a bay. 216 POWs lived in each barracks. Four cages were later put in a bay. Each cage held two POWs.
Food was one of the main topics at the camp. When talking about the men in the camp, he said, “Two-thirds of the men thought about food two-thirds of the time. No sooner than we’d finish one meal we would start worrying about where the next one was coming from.”
The camp discipline was poor. The American commanding officer changed frequently. The junior officers refused to take orders from the senior officers. Soon, the enlisted men spoke anyway they wanted to, to the officers. The situation improved because the majority of POWs realized that discipline was needed to survive.
There were various details. 30 men were assigned to work as carpenters, 25 POWs worked in the orchards, 50 POWs made rope, 20 POWs worked the bodega (storeroom) detail, and for four months the POWs cut and picked coffee. There were smaller details that took from 2 to 35 men that lasted weeks or months, while other details were continuous, such as the farm detail that 250 to 300 POWs worked on plowing fields and harvesting crops. 50 to 100 POWs were sent to a plantation and given the job of building roads. In the opinion of the POWs, they did more damage than good and intentionally kept the roads impassable. The Japanese decided that they were getting nowhere, so they sent the POWs to the ricefields to plant rice. At first, the work details were not guarded. The POWs plowed, planted, and harvested the crops. The sick POWs made baskets. In April 1943, the POWs working conditions varied. Those working in the rice fields received the worst treatment. They were beaten for not meeting quotas, misunderstandings between the POWs and guards, and a translator who could not be trusted to tell the truth.
During this time, Gentry was put in charge of the POW detail that grew rice on 1,600 acres. He said, “Rice was the main crop and I was in charge of a group of farm laborers, with the entire operation under the supervision of the Japanese.” Gentry and the other POWs attempted to grow as little rice as possible. Gentry like the other POWs would drop the rice stalks in the mud and “unintentionally” step on them.
350 to 750 POWs were used in the rice fields. The number varied because planting and harvesting took more men. Many of the POWs became ill with what was called, “Rice Sickness.” This illness was caused by a POW cutting his foot or leg on a rice stalk. The POW developed a rash and suffered from severe swelling. If a POW bruised himself, the bruise developed into an ulcer. Most, if not all the prisoners, suffered from malaria.
While working in the rice fields the POWs would catch as many as 15 to 20 cobras a day. “Every time a cobra stuck his head up in the rice field. eight or 10 men would bounce on it before you knew what was happening. We caught them bare-handed, knowing we had no antibody and that one bite meant sure death. But you must remember the boys were tough, as well as Hungary. They were not afraid of anything.
“I’ll never forget that one afternoon I saw a crowd of the building in the camp. A cobra was in the middle of the crowd. A soldier named Bill said: ‘Watch me, boys, I’m good.’ he passed the cobra with one hand, and grabbed it around the hood with the other hand. The secret in catching them bare-handed is to move faster than the cobra can strike. I never saw or heard of a man dying from cobra bute.”
When harvesting the rice, the POWs would “miss” the collection baskets spilling the rice onto the ground. At the threshing machine, the POWs made sure that as much of the rice as possible was blown away with the chaff. They would also “forget” to push the rice carts into the warehouse when it rained which caused the rice to get moldy. Although they did these things, most of the rice still made it to the warehouse. Once piled inside, the prisoners often poked holes into the roof directly above the rice. When it rained, the rice would get wet and moldy.
While at Davao, Gentry came up with a way to process sugar with a press and several old kettles. It took about six hours to make a supply of sugar. The Japanese figured out what the POWs were doing and began to store the sugar in a warehouse. So that the Japanese Army could not get any sugar, Gentry reduced the number of POWs working to the point that they would only make enough sugar for the guards and POWs. “We were determined,” he said, “to produce nothing that could be used by the Jap Army.”
The War Department, on December 21, 1942, released the names of officers known to be held as Prisoners of War by the Japanese government in the Philippines. Gentry’s name was on the list. His family had been informed he was a POW weeks earlier.
REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH THE INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON FIRST LIEUTENANT WILLIAM H GENTRY IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST
ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL.
Within days of receiving the first message, his wife received the following letter:
“The Provost Marshal General directs me to inform you that you may communicate with your son, postage free, by following the inclosed instructions:
“It is suggested that you address him as follows:
“1st Lt. William H. Gentry, U.S. Army
Interned in the Philippine Islands
C/O Japanese Red Cross, Tokyo, Japan
Via New York, New York
“Packages cannot be sent to the Orient at this time. When transportation facilities are available a package permit will be issued you.
“Further information will be forwarded you as soon as it is received.
“Howard F. Bresee
“Chief Information Bureau”
During his time in the camp. Gentry came down with scurvy. One of the results was his two front teeth became loose. To keep his teeth, he chewed on a native tobacco every day for one week. When he stopped, his teeth were stronger and there was only a small gap between them.
Nights in the camp were a nightmare of insects. He saw men grow weak because of the loss of blood from insect bites. “We considered it lucky to find a place with the combination of lice, bedbugs, and red ants. The bedbugs ate the lice, the red aunts ate the bedbugs, and all we had left to fight were the red ants. They are so small you can hardly see them, but if one gets on your foot you think red hot coal has hit you.”
It was at this time that Gentry and the other POWs learned to catch cobras to eat. The cobras were caught in the rice paddies. If one was spotted the POWs would jump on it. Remembering this he recalled. “I’ll never forget that one afternoon I saw a crowd outside of the building in the camp. A cobra was in the middle of the crowd. A soldier named Bill said ‘Watch me, boys, I’m good.’ He passed at the cobra with one hand and grabbed around the hood with the other hand. The secret in catching them barehanded is to move faster than the cobra can. I never heard of a man dying from a cobra bite.”
The one good thing that happened to Gentry and the other POWs on this detail was that they were given Red Cross packages. The medicine in the packages also helped to bring the number of cases of malaria and dysentery under control. The Japanese kept the small sizes of shoes that were sent in the Red Cross packages, but the POWs soon learned how to cut down a larger pair to a smaller size. They also cut pants that were too long into shorts and used the leftover material as a thread to patch holes in their worn-out uniforms.
Gentry learned to roll cigars while at Davao since a native tobacco plant was plentiful. “Give me your specifications as to color and size, and I can roll you as good as good cigars as you can buy.” His weight also dropped from 210 to 138 while at Davao. “I was so thin, I could wash my shirt without taking it off, using my ribs for a washboard.”
After the escape of Capt. William Dyess, LTC Melvyn McCoy, Maj. Stephen Mellnik, Maj. Michael Dobervitch, and another POW on April 4, 1943, the 600 remaining POWs from their barracks were moved to another compound and had their rations reduced, they were confined to quarters, and they were abused. During the day, they were not allowed to sit down. The Japanese commanding officer ordered and allowed collectives punishment on all the POWs. If the POWs were found to have food on them when they returned from work, they were brutally beaten. At night the guards walked through the barracks a poked the sleeping POWs with bamboo poles to disrupt their sleep.
When two other POWs escaped, 22 other POWs were confined to the guardhouse for ten days. They were made to stand at attention all day in the cells. The cells were eight feet long and three and one-half feet wide. Eleven prisoners were put into each cell. At night they were beaten with sticks when they attempted to lie down. They were fed one meal a day of rice with a little salt.
The Japanese ended the detail at the farm and sent the POWs to Lasang on March 2, 1944. The POWs thought that it would not be as bad as the farm; they were wrong. The barracks of the POWs were only 400 yards from the airfield. The POWs believed this was done so if American planes attacked, they would kill their own countrymen. 550 POWs either built runways or were sent to a quarry to mine coral for runways. The POWs dug out the coral, broke it up, and loaded it onto trucks that were driven to the airfield. When the POWs slowed the pace of their work down, the Japanese resorted to torture to get them to work.
As the American forces got closer to the Philippine Islands the Japanese began to send as many POWs to Japan or other occupied countries as possible. On June 6, 1944, the Japanese sent the POWs to Lasang, Mindanao, by truck. Once there, the POWs were boarded onto the Yashu Maru and held in the ship’s front holds for six days before it sailed. The ship sailed on the 12th and dropped anchor off Zamboanga, Mindanao. for two days before sailing for Cebu City arriving on June 17. The POWs were taken off the ship and held in a warehouse. The POWs were returned to the dock and boarded an unnamed ship and arrived in Manila on June 25.
From Manila, he was returned to Cabanatuan where he was reunited with 2nd Lt. Leroy Scoville and 2nd Lt. Jacques Merrifield of the 192nd. The officers became bunkmates and watched out for each other. Medical records kept on Cabanatuan show that he was admitted to the camp hospital. On August 12, 1944, he was transferred from Division II, Building #15 to Hospital Building #3 suffering from dysentery, It is also known that during his time in the camp, he was beaten on two occasions. The exact reasons are not known.
Life in the camp was monotonous, and the POWs continued to go out on work details. Food once again became a concern for the POWs. On September 21, 1944, the POWs saw their first American planes. Not long after this in October, 150 guards who had been at the camp awhile left the camp by truck for duty at other places. The Japanese began sending large numbers of POWs to Japan and other occupied countries. This was done so that the POWs would not be liberated by the advancing American troops. His two friends, Jack Merrifield and Leroy Scoville were selected to be sent to Manchuria and left the camp between October 16 and 18, but he appeared to have been considered too sick to be sent to Japan.
The POWs heard a rumor from the guards that Americans were on Mindanao Island. It turned out the rumor was false. The POWs heard and saw explosions from the heavy bombing of Clark Field on October 29. From a map in a Japanese paper – on October 30 – they learned that American troops were on southern Luzon. In addition, American planes flew over the camp that night. The Japanese guards admitted, on November 2, to the POWs that American troops were on Leyte and Mindoro. On November 5, American bombers flew over the camp all day long. To see how close the Americans were, the POWs looked for land-based planes but saw none. The next day, the POWs watch two planes circle the camp. As they watched, the planes strafed and bombed Cabanatuan Airfield. The airfield was bombed and strafed three times that day.
From talking to the guards, the POWs learned that there are only about 1000 American POWs left in the Philippines. The rest had been sent out on ships for Japan or other parts of the empire. The POWs knew there were about 500 POWs at Cabanatuan so the remainder had to be at Bilibid Prison outside Manila. By November 13, the POWs no longer excited by American planes flying over the camp. What they wanted to know was where the troops and tanks were. On November 24, a large convoy of Japanese trucks passed the camp at night heading north. The POWs also received mail that was postmarked May and June 1944 which was the fastest they had ever received mail before. During this time the meals got worse and they received less rice and instead of fish, they were given fish powder. The POWs’ breakfast was plain lugao. To supplement their meals they ate dog soup. From November to December food was the main focus of the POWs.
American planes again appeared over the camp on December 14 and bombed to the north and west of the camp. For the first time, the POWs believed the planes were land-based. The next day before dawn, American planes flew over on their way to bomb Clark Field. The POWs heard and saw anti-aircraft fire as the planes attacked Later that day, they saw more planes flyover and bombed the Cabanatuan Airfield twice in one day. The next night, December 16, the POWs were sleeping when explosions from six bombs from an American plane dropped on a Japanese convoy on the road that ran past the camp woke them. At first, the POWs thought the camp was being bombed and took cover. A few days later the POWs heard that 38 Japanese soldiers had been killed and 20 wounded during the attack. That same day at 8:00 P.M., the Japanese moved some tanks, armored trucks, and small artillery pieces into the camp and stored them in old barracks and mess halls that had been abandoned.
The Japanese camouflaged the camp with nets, ropes, wires, and tree branches on December 18, and the next day the POWs heard the news that Americans had landed on Mindoro Island south of Luzon. It was at this time that two truckloads of Japanese troops and equipment entered the camp, as well as, several truckloads of lumber and supplies were brought into the camp. Approximately 100 Japanese troops with full combat gear entered the camp after dark. Food again was an issue, and the POWs noted their food was radish tops and some meat. When they received fish, the dried fish issued to them was mostly scales and bones since worms had eaten the meat.
The POWs watched heavy American bombers attacked by a single Japanese plane on December 22, and one plane crashed. The POWs hoped that it was the Japanese plane. A few days later, on December 24, 21 American bombers flew over the camp on their way to bomb Clark Field. In the distance, the POWs heard the ack-ack fire from the Japanese anti-aircraft guns. As the planes flew over the camp on the way back from the bombing, the POWs counted that all 21 planes had survived the mission.
On Christmas Day, the POW watched American fighters and bombers attack Clark Field. Again, they heard the bombs exploding the fire from the anti-aircraft guns. The next day they heard a rumor that all the POWs at Bilibid had been sent to Japan. Two days later, on December 28, the POWs were awakened by the sound of Japanese tanks and trucks passing the camp. Someone was able to see that the Japanese soldiers were dressed as Filipino civilians.
On the morning of January 7, 1945, the Japanese abandoned the camp and told the POWs that they were no longer prisoners of war. Before they left, the camp commander told them that if they stayed in the camp they would be safe but if they went beyond the fence they would be shot. The POWs wondered if the Japanese were going to return to kill them. During this time, the prisoners raided the camp warehouse for food and clothing. Retreating Japanese soldiers spent the nights in the camp but did not bother the POWs. Ironically, they asked the POWs for food. The POWs on January 9, heard shelling from American guns in the distance. Many wondered when the troops and tanks would reach them. The next day, Japanese troops returned to the camp and posted guards who had been wounded in combat. They also returned the POWs to the hospital area of the camp.
The U.S. 6th Rangers left on the mission to liberate the camp on January 28, and at 2:00 P.M. the Rangers crossed into Japanese territory. They reached the camp on January 31, 1945, and by 5:45 P.M. they had taken positions around the camp. At 7:40 P.M. the Rangers opened fired on guardhouses and by 8:15 P.M. the camp was secured and the POWs had been rescued without any POW casualties. Two POWs later died because of health issues. Bill recalled that when the firing started he was outside and took cover in a ditch during the firing. He saw American soldiers at the gate but thought they were prisoners leaving the camp. He went to join them and ran into a Ranger who thrust .45 into his hand and said, “Come on, buddy, we’ll lead the parade.”
The Filipino guerrilla forces who held the bridge prevented the Japanese from reinforcing Cabanatuan. At 8:40 P.M., the Rangers signaled the guerrillas that all POWs had been rescued. The Rangers and former POWs reached Plateros at 10:00 P.M. and sent a radio message sent that all POWs had been rescued at 11:00 P.M. before leaving at 11:30 P.M. left Plateros for American lines. From this point on, American planes protected the group which successfully reached American lines on February 1, 1945. When he liberated, Bill’s weight was down to 70 pounds.
He recalled the officers had a pool on when they would be liberated. About 20 minutes before the raid, he was ready to sell his chance at guessing the time of liberation. “But when the Rangers came I won $190—not to mention my freedom.”
About the raid, he said, “I am eternally grateful to the Rangers. And it wasn’t luck, but pure science, that was responsible for the success of the mission. It was a miracle, though —and the movies will never be able to duplicate it.”
About three weeks after liberation, Gentry returned to the United States. He spent the next several months in the hospital. He was also promoted to captain on February 18, 1945. William returned to the United States on the U.S.S. General A. E. Anderson which sailed on February 11, 1945, from Tacloban, Leyte, Philippine Islands. The ship had a two-day layover at Hollandia, New Guinea, from February 18 to 20, before it sailed for the U.S. arriving at San Francisco on March 8, 1945.
When he first got home, he and the other former POWs denied the mistreatment of the POWs by the Japanese. This would appear to be an attempt by the government to protect the men still in Japanese hands. He also toured Kentucky to get people to buy war bonds and remained in the reserves until he was discharged on April 1, 1953.
One of the first things Gentry wanted to do when he got back to the U.S. was to drive a car. In San Francisco, he borrowed a friend’s car and drove it around the city.
Gentry returned to Harrodsburg and married Katherine Poor, on June 27, 1945, and became the father of a daughter and two sons. He was employed by the Corning Glass Company. William Gentry later moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, near his son. His wife passed away in April 1999.
Capt. William H. Gentry was awarded two Silver Stars for gallantry, one Bronze Star for bravery, one Purple Heart, one Expeditionary Medal, and a Good Conduct Medal. He passed away on April 25, 2000, in Blacksburg and was buried at Spring Hill Cemetery in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, next to his wife.