Cpl. Joseph Gillis was born on September 18, 1920, in Wheeling, West Virginia. He was the son of Giovanni T. Gillio-Tos & Victoria F. Moral-Gillo-Tos, he had five brothers, one sister, three half-brothers. His mother remarried and he grew up in Watsonville, California, and attended high school there. He was the younger brother of Sgt. August Gillis and the step-brother of Sgt. Emile Morello of C Company. At some point, with his brother, he moved to Castroville, California, and enlisted in the 40th Divisional Tank Company of the California National Guard.
On February 10, 1941, Joseph’s tank company was federalized as C Company, 194th Tank Battalion and was sent to Fort Lewis in Washington state for eight months of training. During that time, he attended different tank classes and qualified as a tank driver.
In September 1941, the 194th was sent to the Philippine Islands as part of the attempt to strengthen the American Military Forces in the islands. The reason for this move was based on an event that happened during the summer. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd in the water. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and 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 located hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. By the time the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next morning, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat which was seen making its way to shore. Since radio communications between the Air Corps and Navy were poor, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
In September 1941, the 194th, minus B Company, was ordered to San Francisco, California, for transport to the Philippine Islands. The tankers were taken by train to Ft. Mason in San Francisco and arrived at 7:30 in the morning. They were ferried on the U.S.A.T. Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island where they received physicals and inoculations by the battalion’s medical detachment. Men found to have medical conditions were replaced.
To get the tanks to fit in the ship’s holds, 17th Ordnance removed the turrets and spray painted the tanks’ serial numbers on them. The tankers boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8 at 3:00 P.M. and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13 at 7:00 A.M., and most of the soldiers were allowed off the ship to see the island but had to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M.
After leaving Hawaii, the ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time that it was joined by the U.S.S. Astoria, a heavy cruiser, and an unknown destroyer that were its escorts. During this part of the trip, on several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke. Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country.
The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and it became Thursday, September 18. The Coolidge entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M., on September 26, and reached Manila several hours later. The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M., and were driven on buses to Clark Field. The maintenance section of the battalion and members of 17th Ordnance remained at the dock to unload the battalion’s tanks and reattach the turrets.
The battalion rode buses to Fort Stotsenburg and taken to an area between the fort and Clark Field, where they were housed in tents since the barracks for them had not been completed. They were met by General Edward P. King, commanding officer of the fort who made sure they had what they needed. On November 15, they moved into their barracks.
The morning of December 8, 1941, the tankers were told of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. All morning, the sky was filled with American planes. At 12:30 the planes landed, to be refueled while the pilots went to lunch. Around 12:45, the tankers noticed planes approaching the airfield. Some of the soldiers commented about how pretty the planes looked. A few moments later, bombs began exploding on the runway destroying almost the entire American Army Air Corps.
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. The night of the 12th/13th, the battalion was ordered to bivouac south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge. Attempting to move the battalion at night was a nightmare, and they finally arrived at their new bivouac at 6:00 A.M. on December 13.
After the 194th was sent to Calumpit Bridge area. On December 12, the tankers found themselves attempting to make their way through an unknown area. One platoon of tanks took a wrong turn and ended up heading toward Bataan. They finally made their way south through Manila and joined up with the Southern Luzon Forces.
It was at this time that C Company was ordered to support forces in southern Luzon. The company proceeded through Manila. Since they had no air cover, most of their movements were at night. As they moved, they noticed lights blinking or flares being shot into the air. They arrived at the Tagaytay Ridge and spent the time attempting to catch 5th columnists.
They remained in the area until December 24, when they moved over the Taal Road to San Tomas and bivouacked near San Paolo and assisted in operations in the Pagbilao-Lucban Area supporting the Philippine Army. One of the most dangerous things the tanks did was cross bridges with a ten-ton
On December 26, the five tanks of Joe’s platoon were sent to an area on the east coast of Luzon near Lucban. The Japanese had landed troops in the area, and the American Command wanted to see what the strength of the enemy was.
The tanks were ordered by a major to proceed up a trail, without reconnaissance. The tanks went down a narrow path. Joe’s tank was the second tank in the column. Since the area was mountainous, the tanks had a hard time maneuvering. As the tanks went down the path, the drivers attempted to keep their spacing so that each driver could each see the tank in front of him. At one point, the tanks found that the trail made a sharp turn. Joseph made the turn with his tank and realized that he could not see the lead tank. In an attempt to find the lead tank, Joseph sped his tank up.
As it turned out, this maneuver by Joe saved the lives of the tankers since a shell exploded just to the rear of the tank. The shell had been fired by a Japanese 77-millimeter anti-tank gun. Joe increased the speed of his tank and zigzagged to prevent the gun from getting off another shot. He then drove the tank into the log barricade and crashed through it taking out the gun.
Joe continued to drive the tank down the trail until he reached an opening at a rice paddy. There, he turned the tank around and went back the way had just come. He did this because his tank’s commander realized that the only way out of the situation was the same way the tank had come into it.
As they approached the destroyed barricade, Joe’s tank crew saw the lead tank off to the side of the road. It had taken a direct hit from the gun his tank had knocked out. The fire from the gun had knocked the hatch coverings off the front of the tank. From what the tankers could see, the Japanese had machine-gunned the crew while they were still in the tank.
Believing they were safe, the members of Joe’s crew took their tank began to congratulate themselves about getting out of a tough situation. Suddenly, the tank took a direct hit from another Japanese anti-tank gun. The hit knocked off one of the tracks and the tank veered off the road and went over an earthen embankment. The tank came to a stop in a rice paddy. They had no idea that their little reconnaissance mission had taken them straight into the main Japanese staging area.
As Joe and the other men in the tank played dead, the Japanese tried to open up their tank. Later in the day when a new group of Japanese soldiers came upon the tank, they too tried to get into the tank. The tankers sat quietly in the tank, without food or water, until seven the next morning. Knowing that it was safe to do so, they left their tank and attempted to make their way to the American lines.
The tank crew, with the help of Filipino guides, walked for the next six days attempting to reach their lines. At Nagcarlan, a Catholic priest gave them food. Since the Japanese were approaching the barrio, he also told them which trail to take to reach the coast.
Reaching the coast, the tankers were able to get a boat to take them to Manila. There, the tank crew caught the last boat leaving Manila for Corregidor. From Corregidor, the tankers were taken by boat to Mariveles.
On April 9, 1942, Bataan surrendered. Corregidor held out until May 6 when the Japanese launched an all-out attack on the island. It was on that day that Joe became a POW. The POWs were herded onto the beach in what became known as Corregidor POW Camp. They remained there for two weeks until they were transported by barge to near the coast of Bataan. They then had to jump into the water and swim ashore.
On land, they were used to repair a pier which had been damaged during the Japanese attack on the Philippines. When the work was done, they were ordered to create detachments of 100 men. Having heard about the march from Bataan many feared they were going to experience the same treatment. To their surprise, they were treated fairly well.
The POWs marched down Dewy Boulevard and taken to Bilibid Prison. They were transported by truck to Cabanatuan had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was formerly known at Camp Pangatian. The camp was actually three camps. Camp One was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march where held. Camp Two did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp Three was where those men captured when Corregidor surrendered were taken. In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp. Camps One and Three were later consolidated into one camp.
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. What details Joe took part in from the camp is not known.
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. In addition, the lack of proper bathrooms contributed to 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.
Records kept by the medical staff at the camp hospital show that Joe was admitted on November 1, 1942, suffering from dysentery. The document also indicates that on Monday, November 23, 1942, Cpl. Joseph Gillis died from dysentery and was buried in the camp cemetery. A separate document shows his time of death at approximately 3:15 in the afternoon. His family learned of his death on July 15, 1943.
At the request of his family, Cpl. Joseph Gillis remains were returned to the United States in 1950, and he was buried at the Garden of Memories Memorial Park in Salinas.