T/4 Birchell Keeling was born on May 9, 1923, in Washington County, Kentucky, to Cecil J. Keeling and Rose L. Fowler-Keeling. He grew up in Burgin, Kentucky, with his sister and brother, and was the cousin of Earl Fowler. At some point, he joined the Kentucky National Guard’s tank company in Harrodsburg.
After the German tank divisions rolled through Europe in 1939 and 1940, the Army created the U.S. Armored Forces on July 10, 1940. Included in the force were the National Guard GHQ tank battalions. The General Headquarters tank battalions were still considered infantry and created a “buffer” between the armor forces and infantry to protect the regular army tank battalions from being used by the infantry when they wanted tanks. The theory was that this would allow the Armor Force to develop into a real fighting force. To do this the Kentucky National Guard was informed on September 1, 1940, that the tank company was being called to federal service for one year.
It was reported that men who did not want to go to Fort Knox, Kentucky, or men who were married with dependents were excused from federal service. At 7:00 A.M. on November 25, the remaining members of the company met in the large hall on the second floor of the D. L. Moore building at 122 South Main Street and were sworn into federal service. The company used the hall above the store for its drills since its armory was in the process of being built. The remaining members of the company were sworn into the Regular Army, given physicals, and some men inducted in the morning were released by noon the same day. A flatcar for the company’s two tanks and a passenger car for some of the soldiers were added to a train for transport to Ft. Knox. Most of the company boarded 10 trucks in Harrodsburg on November 28 that left Harrodsburg at 12:30 P.M. arriving at Ft. Knox at 4:30 P.M.
Their first impression of the base was that it was a mud hole because it had rained continuously for days, and it continued to rain after they arrived. Someone at the base told them that at the fort, “You either wade to your ankles in dust, or mud to your knees.” When the entire battalion arrived at the base, it had a total of eight tanks. The biggest task at Ft. Knox facing the members of the 192nd, was that each company had to get used to the other. During this process of adjustment, the members of the different companies often were involved in fistfights. As time passed, the fights ended and the members of the battalion became friends.
Unpainted temporary barracks were their first housing since their barracks were not finished. Each man had a steel cot to sleep on. 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 25 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. Twenty-five men lived on each floor of the barracks. When men were assigned to the company from selective service, they lived in tents next to the company’s two barracks. The tents were on concrete slabs and had screened wooden walls and doors with canvas roofs. Each tent had a stove in the center for heat and electricity for lighting. The officers had their own barracks with private rooms for each officer. In addition, each officer had an orderly to clean his room.
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.
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.
For Christmas, members of the company received 4½ day furloughs home while other men remained at Ft. Knox. The base was decorated with lighted Christmas trees along its streets and each night Christmas carols were sung by a well-trained choir that went from barracks to barracks. The sight was said to be beautiful as the soldiers entered the camp from the ridge north of their barracks. The workload of the soldiers was also reduced for the holidays. Christmas dinner consisted of roast turkey, baked ham, candied sweet potatoes, snowflake potatoes, giblet gravy, oyster dressing, cranberry sauce, pickle relish, grapes, oranges, rolls, fruit cake, ice cream, bread, butter, and coffee. After dinner, cigars, cigarettes, and candy were provided.
Since none of the letter companies wanted to give up their tanks, the War Department allowed the battalion to form an HQ Company and keep its four tank companies. 1st Sgt. Arch Rue was given the job of picking men to be transferred to the soon-to-be-formed HQ Company. The men assigned to the HQ company still lived with the D Company since their barracks were unfinished.
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. One hundred and forty-nine men from Selective Service were assigned to the battalion on January 10.
A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes lasted 13 weeks and consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistols, 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. Afterward, they attended the various schools to which they had been assigned on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, and radio operating. At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms 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. 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. On 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.
During their free time, the soldiers went to the movies, went to dances held every two weeks, went to the post library, went skating every weekend, and played as members of the company’s basketball. In the spring and summer, the company had a volleyball team and a baseball team. They also had a bowling league and competed against the other companies of the battalion and against companies from other units. Men also participated in boxing. Men who lived within 50 miles of the fort were allowed to go home on weekends. The soldiers who remained on base went to Louisville 35 miles to the north of the base or Elizabethtown 16 miles to the south of the base. Those men still on the base used the dayroom to read since it was open until 11:00 P.M.
The battalion also had its first target practice at the 1st Cavalry firing range on the 7th. The men fired both the 30-caliber and 50-caliber machine guns. The next day, they fired the 45 automatic pistols. On the 9th almost every member of the company had a chance to drive a tank. On Friday, they went to the gas chamber which was filled with tear gas. After they entered with their gas masks on, they could not leave until they removed their masks. As soon as the gas hit them, tears flowed. All men who held the rank of Private First Class were ordered to report for motorcycle classes at the Armored Force where they were taught the functions and duties of a motorcyclist in the garrison and combat. Ten other men from the company were attending “trade” classes or radio school from 8 to 11:30 each morning.
The men also received their government-issued toiletries at this time and were issued a razor, savings and toothbrushes, and three towels. They also received another pair of pants for their uniforms which meant they had their full complement of clothing. The battalion also now eating from plates with silverware instead of from their mess kits.
The entire battalion on January 28, took part in a one-day problem that had to do with the deployment of large units of tanks and put into practice what they had learned in the classroom. They were up at 5:00 A.M. and reported to the tank parks of the 1st and 13th Armor Regiments. It was a long tough day for all the soldiers, but they all believed they had learned more in that one day than they had learned in an entire week of school. It was also at this time that each company had a tent so they could make minor repairs to their tanks. It was noted that the men from every company seemed to enjoy working on their own tanks. They were also taking the tanks out on the trails and obstacle driving which resulted in the companies developing many good tank crews.
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 larger 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.
As the weather got warmer in April the topic became when would they receive their summer uniforms. The uniforms they had were a heavy material and would be uncomfortable in the Kentucky heat. During the month, the company was back in its tanks. It was on the 24th that the battalion’s tanks were proceeding in a column and one of the motorcyclists, from C Company, was showing off his riding skills and zoomed past the tanks. When he cut back into the column, he hit a rut of gravel and fell off the motorcycle about four feet in front of a tank. The tank crew was able to stop the tank before it ran over him.
At the beginning of June that a detachment of men went to Detroit, Michigan, to pick up 39 trucks for the battalion. The exact date they left is not known, but they spent the night at Patterson Field, Ohio, from there they went north through Springfield, Urbana, Bellefontaine, and Bowling Green, Ohio, before entering Michigan. It took the tankers two days to get to Detroit. While they were there, a large number of them crossed the Detroit River, visited Windsor, Canada, and mailed postcards home. It is known they were back at Ft. Knox before June 6.
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.
At the end of June, the battalion found itself at the firing range and appeared to have spent the last week there. According to available information, they were there from 4:00 A.M. until 8:30 A.M. when they left the range. They then had to clean the guns which took them until 10:30 A.M. One of the complaints they had about the firing range was that it was so hot and humid that when they got back from it that their clothes felt like they had stood out in the rain. Right after July 4, the battalion went on a nine-day maneuver. Twelve of the battalion’s tanks were sent to Rock Island, Illinois, to be overhauled but were returned before the battalion went to Louisiana.
Another detachment of men was sent to Detroit in July. It is not known why they were sent there, but it is known they were there for 7 days. It was during this time the men began hearing the rumor that part of the battalion was being sent to South Carolina while part of the battalion would be going to Texas. They also heard that the battalion would be taking part in maneuvers in Arkansas and that after the maneuvers, the battalion was heading to Ft. Benning, Georgia, for six weeks before they were sent to the Philippines.
During August the battalion was involved in the making of the short movie, “The Tanks are Coming” for Metro Golden Meyer starring George Tobias. It was stated that they were filmed loading and unloading their tanks, but it was not indicated if it was on and off trains or trucks. Some men stated they also took part in other scenes during the movie.
About half of the battalion left Ft. Knox on September 1 in trucks and other wheeled vehicles and spent the night in Clarksville, Tennessee. By 7:00 A.M. the next morning, the detachment was on the move. On the second day, the soldiers saw their first cotton fields which they found fascinating. They spent the night in Brownsville, Tennessee, and were again on the move the following morning at 7:00 A.M. At noon, the convoy crossed the Mississippi River which they found amazing and spent the night in Clarksdale, Mississippi. At noon the next day, the convoy crossed the lower part of Arkansas and arrived at Tallulah, Louisiana, where, they washed, relaxed, and played baseball against the locals. It also gave them a break from sitting on wooden benches in the trucks. During the trip, the convoy was involved in a number of accidents that appeared to involve the battalion’s motorcycles but no details are known.
Some of the members of the battalion left Ft. Knox for the maneuvers by train on September 4. It is known that the tanks had been loaded onto train cars and that the train had a kitchen for them to have meals. The time of departure for the train was 6:30 PM. and the arrival time in Tremont, Louisiana, was scheduled for around midnight the night of September 5, but the train did not arrive until 3:00 AM on the 6th. When they arrived at Tremont, the men who had driven to Louisiana were waiting for them at the train station. The tanks were unloaded in the dark while the men were eaten alive by mosquitos. That night they were allowed to go to Monroe, Louisiana, and it was said there were more soldiers in the town than civilians.
When they arrived, the battalion was assigned to the Red Army, attached to the Fourth Cavalry, and stationed at Camp Robinson, Arkansas. The battalion’s bivouac was in the Kisatchi Forest. What made the bivouac worse was that the rainy season started and the men found themselves living in it. On one occasion the battalion was bivouac near a canal and the next morning the men found themselves in water over their shoes trying to dig ditches for drainage. The members of B Company captured a medium size alligator in their bivouac and pulled it around at the end of a leash made from a rope. Two days later the battalion made a two-day move, as a neutral unit, to Ragley, Louisiana, and was assigned to the Blue Army and fought with the 191st Tank Battalion as the First Tank Group.
The mobile kitchens moved right along with the rest of the battalion. In the opinion of the men, the food was not very good because the damp air made it hard to get a fire started. Many of their meals were C ration meals of beans or chili – which they called “Iron Rations” – that they carried in their backpacks and choked down. Drinking water was scarce and men went days without shaving and many shaved their heads to keep cool. 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.
The tankers stated that they had never seen so many mosquitoes, ticks, and snakes before. Water moccasins were the most common snake, but there were also rattlesnakes. Snake bites were also a problem and at some point, it seemed that every other man was bitten by a snake. The platoon commanders carried a snake bite kit that was used to create a vacuum to suck the poison out of the bite. The bites were the result of the night cooling down and snakes crawling under the soldiers’ bedrolls for warmth while the soldiers were sleeping on them. 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. 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 the snake.
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.
During the maneuvers, 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, in support of infantry, and held defensive positions. Some men felt that the tanks were finally being used like they should be used and not as “mobile pillboxes.” 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. A number of men felt that they just rode around in their tanks a lot.
While 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 for a period of time, the battalion resumed the maneuvers. 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. It was said that the clay at Ft. Knox was not as bad as the sandy soil in Louisiana. 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.
It was not uncommon for the tankers to receive orders to move at night. On October 1 at 2:30 A.M., they were awakened by the sound of a whistle which meant they had to get the tanks ready to move. Those assigned to other duties loaded trucks with equipment. Once they had assembled into formations, they received the order to move, without headlights, to make a surprise attack on the Red Army. By 5:30 that morning – after traveling 40 miles in 2½ hours from their original bivouac in the dark – they had established a new bivouac and set up their equipment. They camouflaged their tanks and trucks and set up sentries to look for paratroopers or enemy troops. At 11:30, they received orders, and 80 tanks and armored vehicles moved out into enemy territory. They engaged the enemy at 2:38 in the afternoon and an umpire with a white flag determined who was awarded points or penalized. At 7:30 P.M., the battle was over and the tanks limped back to the bivouac where they were fueled and oiled for the next day.
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. 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.
Water was rationed, so the soldiers washed in streams after making sure there were no alligators or snakes nearby. If they took a bath, they did it in cold water. Men went days without washing their faces. The popular conversation during the maneuvers was where the battalion being was being sent next. Rumors flew that after the maneuvers they were going to Ft. Ord, California, Ft. Lewis, Washington, Ft. Benning, Georgia, or Ft. Mead, Maryland.
After the maneuvers, there was a rumor they were going to be sent to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, but many of the battalion members expected to return to Ft. Knox. Instead, the battalion received orders to report to Camp Polk, Louisiana. At this time, Major Bacon Moore was relieved of command of the 192nd because of his age and Major Ted Wickord became the commanding officer of the battalion. On October 3, Wickord was ordered to Ft. Knox and received the orders to send the battalion overseas. After he returned to Camp Polk, on the side of a hill, the battalion learned that it had been selected to go overseas. Those men who were married with dependents, 29 years old or older, or whose National Guard enlistments were within months of ending were allowed to resign from federal service. They were replaced with men from the 753rd Tank Battalion who volunteered or had their names drawn out of a hat.
Both new and old members of the battalion were given furloughs home to say their goodbyes. After their furloughs, the men returned to Camp Polk, where they prepared for duty overseas. Cosmoline was put on any weapon that possibly could rust while at sea. During this time, they once again lived in tents. The battalion was scheduled to receive brand-new M3A1 tanks but there was a delivery problem and this could not be done. Instead, they were given M3A1 tanks – from the 753rd Tank Battalion and the 3rd Armor Division – to replace their M2A2 tanks. Many of these “new” tanks were within 5 hours of their 100-hour required maintenance and only new to the battalion.
There are at least two stories on the decision to send the battalion overseas, but the decision appeared to have been made well before the maneuvers. According to one story, the decision was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of Taiwan which had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day. The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck covering the buoys – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and the Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
Many of the National Guard members of the battalion believed that the reason they were selected to be sent overseas was that they had performed well on the maneuvers. The story was that they were personally selected by General George S. Patton who had commanded the tanks of the Blue Army to go overseas. It is true that Patton praised the battalion for its performance during the maneuvers, but there is no evidence that he personally selected them for duty in the Philippines.
The fact was that the battalion was part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox and operational by June 1941. During the maneuvers, they even fought as part of the First Tank Group. Available information suggests that the tank group had been selected to be sent to the Philippines early in 1941. Besides the 192nd, the group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – the 191st had been a National Guard medium tank battalion while the 70th was a Regular Army medium tank battalion – at Ft. Meade, Maryland. The 193rd was at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 194th was at Ft. Lewis, Washington. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been National Guard light tank battalions. It is known that the military presence in the Philippines was being built up at the time, so in all likelihood, the entire tank group had been scheduled to be sent to the Philippines.
On August 13, 1941, Congress voted to extend federalized National Guard units’ time in the regular Army by 18 months. On August 15, the 194th received its orders to go overseas. The buoys being spotted by the pilot may have sped up the transfer of the tank battalions to the Philippines with only the 192nd and 194th reaching the islands, but it was not the reason for the battalions going to the Philippines. It is also known that the 193rd Tank Battalion was on its way to the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the battalion was held there. It is known one of the two medium tank battalions had received orders for the Philippines and was on standby, but the orders were canceled on December 10th because the war with Japan had started. Some documents from the time show the name of the Provisional Tank Group in the Philippines as the First Provisional Tank Group.
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.
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 with men sent to the island as replacements.
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 2nd, 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 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.
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.
At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward P. King Jr. who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they had what they needed and received dinner – which was stew thrown into their mess kits – before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched the ragged World War I 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.
D Company was scheduled to be transferred to the 194th Tank Battalion so when they arrived at the fort, it is believed they moved into their finished barracks. The 194th Tank Battalion 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 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,” 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 tankers 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, and 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.
It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd’s communication tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ernest Miller, Major Ted Wickord, CO, 192nd, Captain Richard Kadel, CO, 17th Ordnance Company, and Gen. Weaver read the messages of the attack. Maj. Miller left the tent and informed the officers of the 194th about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank crews were ordered to their tanks which were joined by the battalion’s half-tracks.
Around 8:00 A.M., the planes of the Army Air Corps took off and filled the sky. At noon, the planes landed and were lined up – near the pilots’ mess hall – in a straight line to be refueled. While the planes were being serviced, the pilots went to lunch. The members of the tank crews received their lunches from the battalion’s food trucks. At 12:45 in the afternoon, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the company lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field. The tankers were eating lunch when planes approached the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American and counted 54 planes in formation. They then saw what looked like “raindrops” falling from the planes. It was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that the tankers knew the planes were Japanese. It was stated that no sooner had one wave of planes finished bombing and were returning to Formosa than another wave came in and bombed. The second wave was followed by a third wave of bombers.
The bombers were quickly followed by Japanese fighters that sounded like angry bees to the tankers as they strafed the airfield. The tankers watched as 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. The Japanese planes were as low as 50 feet above the ground and the pilots would lean out of the cockpits so they could more accurately pick out targets to strafe. The tankers said they saw the pilots’ scarfs flapping in the wind. One tanker stated that a man with a shotgun could have shot a plane down.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, the dying, and the wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything else, 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.
After the attack, the tank crews spent much of the time loading bullets by hand from rifle cartridges into machine gun belts since they had gone through most of their ordnance during the attack. That night, since they did not have any foxholes, the men used an old latrine pit for cover since it was safer in the pit than in their tents. The entire night they were bitten by mosquitoes. Without knowing it, they had slept their last night on a cot or bed, and from this point on, the men slept in blankets on the ground.
After living through two more attacks on the 10th and 12th, the 194th, with D Company, was moved, the night of the 12th, to an area south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge arriving there at 6:00 A.M. On December 13, the tankers were moved 80 kilometers from Clark Field to do reconnaissance and to guard beaches. On the 15th, the battalion received 15 Bren gun carriers but turned some over to the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. These were used to test the ground to see if it could support tanks. That night the tanks left Clark Field and were sent to Maracot. The tanks were set up along the bank of a river. During this time, little happened, but the tankers were strafed a few times by Japanese planes.
The tank battalions were sent to the area around the Lingayen Gulf. The company was near a mountain, so many of the tankers climbed to the top. On the mountain, they found troops, ammunition, and guns but were just sitting there watching the Japanese ships in the gulf. They had received orders not to fire. The tankers walked down the mountain and waited. They received orders to drop back from the mountain and let the Japanese occupy it. They watched as the Japanese brought their equipment to the top of the mountain. The Americans finally received orders to launch a counterattack which failed.
On December 22, the companies were operating north of the Agno River and after the main bridge was bombed, on December 24, it made an end run to get south of the river and not be trapped by the Japanese. The tanks held the south bank of the river from west of Carmen to the Carmen-Akcaka-Bautista Road with the 192nd holding the bank east of Carmen to Tayug northeast of San Quintin. Christmas Day, the tankers spent the night in a coconut grove. As it turned out, the coconuts were all they had to eat. From Christmas to January 15, 1942, both day and night, all the tanks did was cover retreats of different infantry units. The tanks were constantly bombed, shelled, and strafed. The tanks formed a new defensive line known as the Santa Ignacia-Gerona-Santo Tomas- San Jose line on December 26. When they dropped back from the line, all the platoons withdrew, except one which provided cover, as the other platoons from the area. One tank went across the line receiving fire and firing on the Japanese.
At Bayambang, Lt. Weeden Petree’s platoon lost a tank. It was at this time that the company lost all their tanks, except one, because the bridge they were supposed to cross had been destroyed. The company commander, Capt. Jack Altman, could not bring himself to totally destroy the tanks, and the Japanese repaired them and used them on Bataan. The sergeant of the one tank, which had not been abandoned, found a place to ford the river a few hundred yards from the bridge. The tank commander received the Silver Star for saving the tank.
The tankers were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27th, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29. On January 1st, conflicting orders were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5. Doing this would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders since they came from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff. Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridges over the Pampanga River. Due to the efforts of the Self-Propelled Mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a frenzied attack by the 192nd Tank Battalion the Japanese were halted. From January 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the Southern forces could escape. At 2:30 A.M., the night of January 5, the Japanese attacked Remedios in force and used smoke as cover. But since they were wearing white t-shirts they were easy to see in the dark. This attack was an attempt to destroy the tank battalions. At 5:00 A.M., the Japanese withdrew having suffered heavy casualties.
On the night of January 6th, the tanks withdrew into the peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th could leapfrog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdrawal over the bridge. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan before the engineers blew up the bridge at 6:00 A.M. It was at this time that the tank companies were reduced to three tanks each. This was done to provide tanks to D Company, while those crews still without tanks were used as replacements for the wounded or sick.
A composite tank company was created on January 8 under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Company, 192nd, and sent to defend the Wast Coast Road north of Hermosa. Its job was to keep the north road open and prevent the Japanese from driving down the road before a new battle line had been formed. The Japanese never attacked allowing the defensive line to be formed. The tanks withdrew after they began receiving artillery fire.
The remainder of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of Aubucay Hacienda Road. While there, the tank crews had their first break from action in nearly a month. The tanks, which were long overdue for maintenance, were serviced by 17th Ordnance and the tank crews had two or three days of rest. It was also at this time that tank companies were reduced to ten tanks, with three tanks in each platoon. This was done so that D Company would have tanks. It was on January 9th that the Japanese launched a major offensive on what was called the Aubucay Hacienda line that stretched from Aubucay on the east coast of Bataan to the China Sea on the west.
The Japanese attacked through the Aubucay Hacienda Plantation which was the location of most of the fighting took place. The defenders stated that the bodies of the dead Japanese piled up in front of them and actually made it more difficult for the next Japanese troops to advance against the line. One tanker from B Co., 192nd, said that when they walked among the Japanese dead, they found hypodermic needles on them. To him, this explained why they kept coming at the tanks even after they had been hit by machine gun fire. The defenders’ artillery was so accurate that the Japanese later stated the defenders were using artillery pieces like they were rifles. The biggest problem was that the defenders had no air cover so they were bombed and stated constantly and were constantly harassed by snipers. The tanks often had the job of protecting the artillery. None of the tank companies liked doing this job since after the guns fired a few rounds it didn’t take the Japanese long to zero in on where the guns were located. It didn’t take long for the gun crews to learn how to “shoot and scoot.”
On January 12th, Co. D, 192nd, and Co. C, 194th, were sent to Cadre Road in a forward position with little alert time. Land mines were planted on January 13th by ordnance to prevent the Japanese from reaching Cadre Road. C Co., 194th, was sent to Bagac to reopen the Moron Highway which had been cut by the Japanese on January 16. At the junction of Trail 162 and the Moron Highway, the tanks were fired on by an anti-tank gun which was knocked out by the tanks. They cleared the roadblock with the support of infantry.
General Weaver also issued the following orders to the tank battalions around this time: “Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay.”
During this time, the tanks often found themselves dealing with officers who claimed they were the ranking officer in the area and that they could change the tank company’s orders. Most wanted the tanks to kill snipers or do some other job the infantry had not succeeded at doing. This situation continued until Gen Weaver gave a written order to every tank commander that if an officer attempted to change their orders, they should hand the officer the order. When the officer looked up at the tank commander, the tank commander had his handgun aimed at the officer. Gen Weeaver had ordered the tank commanders to shoot any officer attempting to change their orders. This ended the problem.
On January 20th, A Company was sent to save the command post of the 31st Infantry. On the 24th, they supported the troops along the Hacienda Road, but they could not reach the objective because of landmines that had been planted by ordnance. The battalion held a position a kilometer north of the Pilar-Bagac Road with four self-propelled mounts. At 9:45 A.M., a Filipino warned the tankers that a large force of Japanese was on their way. When they appeared the battalion and self-propelled mounts opened up with everything they had. The Japanese broke off the attack, at 10:30 A.M., after losing 500 of their 1200 men. It was also at this time that the Japanese ended the assault and waited for fresh troops to arrive. This lull lasted six weeks.
The defenders were ordered to withdraw on the 25th to a new line known as the Pilar-Begac Line. The tanks were given the job of covering the withdrawal with the 192nd covering the withdrawing troops in the Aubucay area and the 194th covering the troops in the Hacienda area. At 6:00 PM the withdrawal started over the only two roads out of the area which quickly became blocked, and the Japanese could have wiped out the troops but did not take advantage of the situation.
On January 28th, the tank battalions were given beach duty with the 194th assigned the coast from Limay to Cacaben. The half-tracks were used to patrol the roads. One night while on this duty, the B Co., 192nd, engaged the Japanese in a firefight as they attempted to land troops on the beach. When morning came, not one Japanese soldier had successfully landed on the beach. The Japanese later told the tankers that their presence on the beach stopped them from attempting landings. While doing this job, the tankers noticed that each morning when the PT boats were off the coast they were attacked by Japanese Zeros. The tank crews made arrangements with the PT boats to be at a certain place at a certain time and waited for the Zeros to arrive and attack. This time they were met by machine gun fire from the boats but also from the machine guns of the tanks and half-tracks. When the Zeros broke off the attack, they had lost nine of twelve planes.
The battalions took on the job of guarding the airfields in Bataan in February which had been constructed because of the belief that aid would be coming by air. Throughout the Battle of Bataan, men held the belief that aid would arrive. The Japanese bombed the airfields during the day and at night the engineers would repair them. 50-gallon drums were placed around the airfields to mark the runways, and at night fires could be lit in them to outline the landing strip. The well-camouflaged tanks surrounded the airfield and had several plans on how they would defend the airfields from paratroopers.
The Battle of the Points also took place at this time. The Japanese landed Marines behind the main line of defense in an attempt to cut the supply lines from Mariveles to Baguio. After they had landed they were quickly trapped on a point sticking out into the China Sea. When the Japanese attempted to reinforce the point, they landed on another point, and the second group was quickly trapped. The Army Air Corps men converted to infantry, the 45th and 57th Philippine Scouts. and companies from the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalion were involved in the elimination of the points. When the Japanese attempted to send in a third detachment of reinforcements, the last three P-40s appeared and strafed the barges. The strafing ended the Japanese attempt to reinforce their troops. Through a coordinated attack by the infantry and the tanks, the Japanese were pushed back to the caves below the points before being wiped out.
Tanks parts were now rare and 17th Ordnance made repairs however they were able to make them. Tanks that had damaged main guns often had the barrels cut down – similar to a sawed-off shotgun – to keep them firing. 17th Ordnance also provided anti-personnel by converting WWI shells from the Philippine Ordnance Department so that they could be fired by the tanks. The company also had to deal with the fact the tane tanks’ suspension systems were locking up after being near or in salt water. The information was sent to the War Department which replaced the suspension system on all vehicles using it.
On March 1st, the soldiers had their rations cut in half again and the men were starving since they were only being fed meals that were mostly rice twice a day. It was said that if an animal could be eaten, the defenders of Bataan ate it. Only monkeys were hard to eat since their faces made them look human. The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a picture of a scantily clad blond on them. They would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been a hamburger since the men were so hungry and more likely would have surrendered for a good meal. Since the leaflets were printed on tissue paper, they made good toilet paper. The amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day except for the tanks. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over on their way to the Dutch East Indies. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor, but Wainwright declined this suggestion.
During this time, two tanks had gotten stuck in the mud, and the crews were working to free them. While they were doing this, a Japanese regiment entered the area. Lt. Colonel Ernest Miller ordered his tanks to fire on the Japanese at point-blank range. He also ran from tank to tank directing the crew’s fire. The Japanese were wiped out. On March 21, the last major battle was fought by the tanks.
At some point, Birchell was hospitalized at Hospital #2 at Cabcaben, Bataan. The hospital – which was created in December 1941 – was staffed by 8 doctors, 4 dentists, 3 pharmacists, and 2 MAC or administration officers who handled the paperwork. The hospital is known to have outdoor wards for the sick and wounded but shelter halves were used to provide cover for the patients. The hospital also had an operating room, a water plant, and an operating room which was a tent with a wooden floor that could hold the weight of the surgical equipment. A second surgical room – that held four operating tables – was built with wooden walls since casualties were expected to increase. The original operating room was replaced with another operating room because it was too close to the road and dust was everywhere. There was also a dental laboratory which it was said did excellent work. The hospital was near the bank of the Real River so a channel was dug that diverted about half of the river’s water to the water filtration plant supplying the hospital with an abundant chlorinated water supply. Electricity was supplied by a generator.
Food at the hospital consisted of fruit juices, canned milk, and meat. The number of patients the hospital received increased in February, and Birchell may have been one of them. No information has been found as to why he was admitted, but the battalion was involved in the Battle of the Points. The records kept by the medical staff indicated that casualties increased at this time and that there was a large influx of patients the night before the surrender. In addition, the medical staff stated that the closer to April the number of cases of men with food deficiency diseases increased.
The reality was that the same illnesses that were taking their toll on the Bataan defenders were also taking their toll on the Japanese. American newspapers wrote about the lull in the fighting and the building of defenses against the expected assault that most likely would take place. The soldiers on Bataan also knew that an assault was coming, they just didn’t know when it would take place. Having brought in combat harden troops from Singapore, the Japanese launched a major offensive on April 3 supported by artillery and aircraft. The artillery barrage started at 10 AM and lasted until noon and each shell seemed to be followed by another that exploded on top of the previous shell. At the same time, wave after wave of Japanese bombers hit the same area dropping incendiary bombs that set the jungle on fire. The defenders had to choose between staying in their foxholes and being burned to death or seeking safety somewhere else. As the fire approached their foxholes those men who chose to attempt to flee were torn to pieces by shrapnel. It was said that arms, legs, and other body parts hung from tree branches. A large section of the defensive line at Mount Samat was wiped out. The next day a large force of Japanese troops came over Mt. Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. 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 were 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 on 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.
According to a member of HQ Company, Gen. King spoke to the men and said, “I’m the man who surrendered you, men. It’s not your fault.” He also spoke to the members of B Company, 192nd, and told them something similar. King ordered them to surrender and threatened to court-martial anyone who didn’t. 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.
At 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 the 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. 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.
After this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived and King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff who had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get assurances 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.
Unknown to Gen. King, an order attributed to Gen. Masaharu Homma – but in all likelihood from one of his subordinates – had been given. It stated, “Every troop which fought against our army on Bataan should be wiped out thoroughly, whether he surrendered or not, and any American captive who is unable to continue marching all the way to the concentration camp should be put to death in the area of 200 meters off the road.”
It is known that Birchell was still in Hospital #2 when the surrender took place on April 9, 1942. This prevented him from taking part in the march from Bataan. It was feared that the Japanese would send troops right through the hospital since it was along the main road, but Gen. King apparently told the Japanese where the hospital was because this never happened. The first Japanese – 10 to 12 men – arrived at 9 PM but set up a bivouac for the night and left the next morning. A Japanese medical officer arrived the next day and questions were asked and reports were asked for. He told the medical staff what they could and could not do. One thing that changed immediately, was that the patients would no longer receive fruit or milk. They were also told they could only use the water supply for drinking and any other use would result in death. The Filipino patients were told to leave the hospital, and 5500 of its 7000 patients left and ended up on what became known as the march. The only Filipinos left were those that were bed cases. Most of the Filipinos who left the hospital when ordered died on the march.
The Japanese occupied the area and set up artillery that completely surrounded the hospital and fired on Corregidor. On April 29, the hospital was shelled when Corregidor returned fire from Japanese artillery that was set up next to the hospital buildings. This was done to use the POWs as a human shield. Ward 14 was hit resulting in the deaths of 5 POWs and wounding 12 other patients. When Gen. Wainwright learned where the guns were firing from, he stopped his guns from returning fire. It was April 29th when they heard a terrific artillery bombardment on Corregidor. On the 3rd and 5th the bombardments were even worse. They received word that Corregidor had surrendered on the 6th.
It was known that the hospital would soon be closed although no date was known. Among the patients were mechanics who were able to get abandoned buses running. The buses were double-decked to carry as many patients unable to walk as possible. It was determined it would take two trips to do this. The patients who could walk would walk from Hospital #2 to Hospital #1. Many of the patients had recovered and wanted to leave the hospital and requested to do so. A Japanese medical officer informed them that they were better off staying in the hospital than being sent to Camp O’Donnell where 50 to 60 POWs were dying each day.
On May 12th, the hospital closed and the POWs were marched on the 12th and 13th to Hospital #1 at Little Baguio. As they marched they saw the dead still lying along the sides of the road in the ditches since the carnage had not been cleaned up. The POWs were identified as the Cabcaben Detachment on May 19, 1942. When they arrived at Hospital #1, they were held in an area north of the hospital that had been used by the Ordinance Department before the surrender. It is known that a roster of Prisoners of War from Hospital #2 who were patients was taken and Birchell’s name was on it. The POWs remained at Little Baguio until May 26th when they were taken by a truck convoy to Bilibid Prison near Manila. In Tagalog, the word “bilibid” means prison but the Japanese now called it a hospital and turned it over to US Naval medical personnel as a hospital. The trucks carrying the men from Hospital 2 passed through a massive archway and two sets of iron gates in the cement and brick wall that surrounded the prison. Inside there was a third wall that divided the grounds. The trucks stopped in front of a three-story building that had once been the prison hospital. There was no roof over the third floor and when it rained, the rainwater seeped down to the second and first floors.
The POWs got out of the trucks and lined up to be counted. After this was done, they were sent to the second floor of the former hospital and took the floor over. The second floor was described as a big bare room, with stairs at both ends, without one cot and only a few mattresses lying on the floor. Most of the really sick lay on the concrete floor. Wherever the other POWs threw their belongings became their spot.
The other buildings in the prison were long narrow one-story wooden structures where the patients lay with their heads against the wall and their feet toward the center aisle of the building. Some of the sick had mattresses, others lay on blankets on the floors. Many of the POWs had no real clothing. It was stated that there were six or seven of the buildings and each had a pharmacist’s mate in charge of it. Men stated that the Naval personnel kept the buildings clean and sanitary.
The POWs had rigged a long flushing latrine described as an open depression. At the end was an automatic flusher made from half a gasoline drum they rigged up that allowed for a steady stream of water from the city water main to flow through it. When the drum filled, it tipped and flushed the latrine. It then swung back into position to fill and then repeated the process.
The prison guards carried rifles with bayonets attached. The guards seemed to be everywhere. They were outside the prison, walked the grounds, and walked through the hospital wards. When they did, the POWs were expected to stand up and bow to the guards or be beaten. This was a completely different experience than Baguio where – except for the one area that they were forbidden to enter – the POWs were allowed to walk where they wanted without Japanese interference. They also had never had a “bango” but now they did it daily until their first morning in the prison. The Japanese expected all the POWs to line up. This included the sick. The senior officer checked the POWs then they stood until every POW in the prison – from every building – was counted and a comparison was made of the count to the books with the recorded number of POWs being held. Sometimes it took as many as three counts before the numbers matched.
Most of the POWs from the Bataan hospitals remained at Bilibid until May 30 when they were moved to Cabanatuan. By train, they were taken to the barrio of Cabanatuan. From the barrio, they marched passed Cabanatuan #1 which had not opened and would house most of the POWs who had done the march. They marched to Cabanatuan #2, and those men who fell were not killed but beaten until they got up. It was stated that if they did not get up, they were put on a truck and driven to the camp. When they arrived there was no water supply, so men dug holes in the ground and sucked on the moist soil. That night it rained which probably saved many lives.
In May, his parents received the first message from the War Department
“Dear Mrs. R. Keeling:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee if Technician Fourth Grade Birchell Keeling, 20,523,481, 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 were herded onto the road and retraced their route back 5 kilometers to Cabanatuan #1. When they arrived, it was said that the water supply was inadequate and the POWs stood in line for as long as two to three hours to get a canteen of water. They were given small quantities of rice in bulk for a group of men organized by their units and cooked by the unit. Later that same day, the first POWs who had been on the march out of Bataan began to arrive in the camp from Camp O’Donnell. The POW transfer from Camp O’Donnell ended on June 4th.
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 barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks and divided into groups of ten men. This meant that the members of their group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers. Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in a while, they received bread. If they received fish it was rotten and covered with maggots.
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 name soon came to mean the ward where POWs went to die. 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.
Birchell was hospitalized on Sunday, June 14, 1942, with dysentery and was assigned to Zero Ward. According to medical records kept by the POW medical staff, T/4 Birchell Keeling died from dysentery on Wednesday, July 1, 1942, at approximately 3:00 A.M. He was the 513 POW to die in the camp and was buried in Grave 1010.
It is not known when his parents learned of his death, but it could have been after the war when information recovered at Cabanatuan on the POW deaths at the camp was used to contact families.
After the war, the remains of T/4 Birchell Keeling were not identified and he was buried as an unknown at the American Military Cemetery in Manila, Philippine Islands. His name appears on the Walls of the Missing at the cemetery. It should be noted he is listed as a member of the 194th Tank Battalion. This was a common error since the company fought with the 194th but was never transferred to the battalion.
Note: T/4 Birchell Keeling’s MIA case is considered active by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and it is attempting to contact his family to collect DNA for the identification of his remains.