PFC William Joseph Kerins was the second son of James A. & Cecelia Kerins and was born on February 28, 1919. The family lived at 2937 South Canal Street in Chicago, Illinois, and later in Berwyn, Illinois, at 6731 West Stanley Avenue. He left high school after three years and worked as an engraver.
The Selective Service Act went into effect on October 16, 1940, and he registered for the draft and named his brother, James, as his contact person. Bill enlisted in the Quartermaster Corps of the Illinois National Guard because he wanted to fulfill his military obligation, and the company was made up of men from Berwyn. He very quickly transferred to 33rd Tank Company in Maywood, Illinois, as it prepared to leave for one year of federal duty at Fort Knox, Kentucky. Joining the tank company meant he would complete his military obligation sooner.
On November 25, 1940, the tank company was federalized as B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. One group of 17 soldiers left Maywood on Wednesday, November 27 at 7:00 A.M. in a convoy of one command car (or jeep), two trucks carrying supplies, and three private cars owned by members of the company. The trip was not easy since for 120 miles the road was covered in ice which cleared up near Indianapolis. They had dinner and spent the night at Ft. Benjamin Harris in Indianapolis. After showering and getting cleaned up, they continued the trip. As they got closer to Ft. Knox. the weather got warmer and the snow disappeared. During the trip one of the main topics was were they going live in tents or barracks. They reached the base late in the day on Thursday and found they were housed in barracks for the night. After that night, they lived in tents.
Most of the soldiers made the trip to Ft. Knox by train on Thursday, November 28th. From their armory, the soldiers marched west on Madison Street to Fifth Avenue, in Maywood, and then north to the Chicago & Northwestern train station. In B Company’s case, they rode on the same train as A Company from Janesville, Wisconsin. In Chicago, the train switched onto the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad which took them to Ft. Knox. Once at the fort they were met by Army trucks at the station which took them to the fort where they reunited with the men who drove. The soldiers lived in six-man tents which had stoves for heat since they were assigned to a newly opened area of the fort and their barracks were not finished.
The soldiers 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.
1st/Sgt. Richard Danca – on December 26th – was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed HQ Company. 35 men were picked because they had special training. Many of these men received promotions and because of their rating received higher pay. The men assigned to the company still lived with the B Company since their barracks were unfinished until February.
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 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. The classes lasted for 13 weeks.
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.
B Company also moved into its barracks in January 1941. Most of the members of B Company were assigned to Barracks 53. 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. 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 sergeant’s office, and one was in the Lt. Donald Hanes’ office. Since by flipping a switch the speaker became a microphone, the men watched what they said.
The area outside the barracks was described as muddy and dusty most of the time. An attempt was made to improve the situation with the building of walkways and roads around the barracks.
It was also at this time that all the companies had 16 operational tanks and the first men from selective service were assigned to the companies. On January 10th, these men took their first tank ride and all of them had the chance to drive the tanks. They would permanently join the companies in March 1941.
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. One group of soldiers became known as “The Chess Clique.” As the weather got warmer, the men tried to play baseball as often as possible in the evenings. Volleyball was also often played. 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.
At 7:00 A.M. on Monday, June 16th, the battalion was broken into four detachments for a three-day tactical road march. The most important part of this march was to train the soldiers in loading, unloading, and setting up the battalion’s administrative camps. It also prepared them for the Louisiana maneuvers which they were scheduled to take part in during September.
The battalion 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 were the battalion’s kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The battalion 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 on Wednesday, June 18th through Lebanon, New Haven and Hodgenville, Kentucky.
In September of 1941, the 192nd Tank Battalion was sent to Louisiana on maneuvers. William believed that this training was beneficial to the men because it helped them adjust to the climate of the Philippines. At Camp Polk, the men were informed that they were going overseas and it would be for no less than six months and no more than six years. Since the battalion was being sent overseas, each man received a ten-day emergency leave home. When they returned, their old M-2 tanks were replaced with M-3 tanks. It was also at this time that the men officially were informed that their overseas orders were for deployment in the Philippine Islands.
From Camp Polk, the battalion traveled west over four different train routes. Arriving in San Francisco, the soldiers were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, the soldiers were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases. Those with health issues were released from service and replaced.
The battalion sailed, on the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott from San Francisco on Monday, October 27 for Hawaii as part of a three-ship convoy. They arrived in Hawaii on Sunday, November 2, and had a layover. The soldiers received passes and allowed to explore the islands.
On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline.
On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country, while two other intercepted ships were Japanese freighters hauling scrap metal to Japan.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward King who apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that had what they needed and that they all received Thanksgiving 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.
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 from the engines as they flew over 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 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” meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon.
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.
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.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the China Sea. On Monday, December 1, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers. The 194th Tank Battalion guarded the northern portion of the airfield and the 192nd guarded the southern portion. At all times, two members of each tank and half-track remained with their vehicles. Meals were served to the tankers from food trucks.
On December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. Bill heard the news as he was lining up for breakfast. The tanks were dispersed around the perimeter of Clark Field in anticipation of Japanese paratroopers. A short time later, the members of his battalion were informed that Japanese bombers were about 45 minutes away. The attack on Clark Field came at about 12:45 P.M. right after Bill had eaten lunch. All Bill and the other men could do was watch the high altitude bombers drop their bombs. When the dive bombers came in, the tankers did their best to bring them down with the weapons they had. After the initial attack was over, Bill’s platoon moved closer to the landing strip of Clark Field.
The tank battalion received orders on December 21st that it was to proceed north to Lingayen Gulf. Because of logistics problems, the B and C Companies soon ran low on gas. When they reached Rosario, there was only enough for one tank platoon, from B Company, to proceed north to support the 26th Cavalry.
On December 23 and 24, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta. The bridge they were going used to cross the Agno River was destroyed and the tankers made an end run to get south of the river. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening. They successfully crossed the river in the Bayambang Province.
On December 25, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27.
The tankers 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.
During the withdrawal into the peninsula, the night of January 6/7, the 192nd held its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leapfrog past it, cross a bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdraw over the bridge. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan.
Over the next several months, the battalion fought battle after battle with tanks that were not designed for jungle warfare. The tank battalions, on January 28, were given the job of protecting the beaches. The 192nd was assigned the coastline from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan’s east coast. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over.
The company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets – from January 23 to February 17 – to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line after a Japanese offensive was stopped and pushed back to the original line of defense. The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket. Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank exited the pocket. Doing this was so stressful that each tank company was rotated out and replaced by one that was being held in reserve.
To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used. The first was to have three Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank. As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole. Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually exploded.
The other method used to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole. The driver gave the other track power resulting in the tank going around in a circle and grinding its way down into the foxhole. The tankers slept upwind of their tanks.
While the tanks were doing this job, the Japanese sent soldiers, with cans of gasoline, against the tanks. These Japanese attempted to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the vents on the back of the tanks, and set the tanks on fire. If the tankers could not machine gun the Japanese before they got to a tank, the other tanks would shoot them as they stood on a tank. The tankers did not like to do this because of what it did to the crew inside the tank. When the bullets hit the tank, its rivets would pop and wound the men inside the tank. It was for their performance during this battle that the 192nd Tank Battalion would receive one of its Distinguished Unit Citations.
Since the stress on the crews was tremendous, the tanks rotated into the pocket one at a time. A tank entered the pocket and the next tank waited for the tank that had been relieved to exit the pocket before it would enter. This was repeated until all the tanks in the pocket were relieved.
What made this job so hard was that the Japanese dug “spider holes” among the roots of the trees. Because of this situation, the Americans could not get a good shot at the Japanese.
The tankers, from A, B, and C Companies, were able to clear the pockets. But before this was done, one C Company tank which had gone beyond the American perimeter was disabled and the tank just sat there. When the sun came up the next day, the tank was still sitting there. During the night, its crew was buried alive, inside the tank, by the Japanese. When the Japanese had been wiped out, the tank was turned upside down to remove the dirt and recover the bodies of the crew. The tank was put back into use.
At the same time, the company took part in the Battle of the Points on the west coast of Bataan. The Japanese landed troops but ended up trapped. One was the Lapay-Longoskawayan points from January 23 to 29, the Quinawan-Aglaloma points from January 22 to February 8, and the Sililam-Anyasan points from January 27 to February 13. The defenders successfully eliminated the points by driving their tanks along the Japanese defensive line and firing their machine guns. The 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts followed the tanks eliminating any resistance and driving the Japanese Marines over the edge of the cliffs where they hid in caves. The tanks fired into the caves killing or forcing them out of them into the sea.
The soldiers were hungry and began to eat everything they could get their hands on to eat. The Carabao were tough but if they were cooked long enough they could be eaten. They also began to eat horse meat provided by the 26th U. S. Cavalry. To make things worse, the soldiers’ rations were cut in half again on March 1, 1942. This meant that they only ate two meals a day.
The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a scantily clad blond on them. The Japanese would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal.
In March, 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. At the same time, food rations were cut in half again. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an all-out attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount 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.
A counter-attack was launched – on April 7 – 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.
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 and the white flag was bedding from A Company.) 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 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.”
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.
Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. 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 and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men 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 no 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 inline with 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.
On April 9, 1942, Bill along with most of the members of the 192nd Tank Battalion became Prisoners of War when the troops on the Bataan Peninsula were surrendered to the Japanese. The men received the news of the surrender from their officers. They spent the remainder of their time, as free men, destroying equipment to prevent it from being used by the Japanese.
On April 12, 1942, Bill and other members of his tank platoon were on the beach near General Hospital #2. It was there that the death march started for Bill. Bill recalled that the march was very slow under an extremely hot sun which resulted in high temperatures. If the men wanted something to drink, they had to break out of the line for the wells along the road. When a guard spotted a man who had done this, the guard would shoot at him. During the entire march, Bill and the other prisoners received only three handfuls of rice and three rations of water. All along the route, the Japanese sentries were sitting in their tents drinking soft drinks and taunting the POWs. Whenever POWs dropped to the side of the road, they were shot, bayoneted or killed by the sword.
The first camp Bill was held as a POW was Camp O’Donnell. Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino training base. The Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter.
The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Japanese Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day.
The POWs were dying at such a high rate that the number dead could not be counted. The food was horrible and so were the sanitary conditions. He was held there for about one week when he was sent to Calauan south of Manila to repair bridges. Most of the men on this detail were tankmen. This was due in part to the fact that the ranking American officer was Lt. Col. Ted Wickord commanding officer of the 192nd Tank Battalion. While on this detail, Bill came down with malaria and was sent to the new POW camp Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division.
While he was out on the detail, his parents received this message from the War Department.
“Dear Mr. J. Kerins:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Private Willliam J. Kerins, 20,600,353, 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 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”
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, Private William J. Kerins 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.”
The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march where held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 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. Camp 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1.
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. 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.
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
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. Tom was assigned to Barracks 7, Group II, which meant that the members of his group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. The two major details were the farm detail and the airfield detail which lasted for years. A typical day in any detail lasted from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugaii” 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.
The farm detail was under a Japanese guard known as “Big Speedo” because he was taller than most of the Japanese. He knew very little English and used the word “Speedo” when he wanted the POWs to work faster. Overall, the POWs felt he treated them fairly and did not abuse them. There was also a smaller Japanese guard known as “Little Speedo,” who was fair to the POWs and also used the word. “Smiley” was another guard who the POWs quickly learned not to trust. He always had a smile on his face, but he was mean and beat the POWs for no apparent reason.
The POWs cleared the area and planted camotes, cassava, taro, sesame, and various greens. The Japanese used most of the food for themselves. When the POWs arrived at the farm, they would enter a shed. As they came out, it was common for them to be hit over the heads by the guards.
The Japanese wanted an airfield for their fighters, so the POWs were given the job of constructing it. The POWs leveled the land and moved dirt. At first, they used wheelbarrows to move the soil, but when this became inefficient, mining cars and track were brought in, and the POWs loaded the cars and pushed them to where the dirt was being dumped.
The POWs also worked planting rice. While doing this, one of the favorite punishments was for a guard to push a man’s face into the mud. Once his head was in the mud, the guard would step on his head to drive it deeper. Other details did go out but usually lasted a few days. Major details, of hundreds of men, left the camp and worked on projects that lasted years. When, due to illness or death, details became depleted, more POWs left the camp for details as replacements.
The camp hospital was known as “Zero Ward” because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks. The sickest POWs were sent there to die. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves, and they would not go into the building. 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.
The POWs had the job of burying the dead. To do this, they worked in teams of four men. Each team carried a litter of four to six dead men to the cemetery where they were buried in graves containing 15 to 20 bodies. The death rate in the camp was nine men a day into November 1942 but dropped once Red Cross packages were issued at Christmas. Medical records from the camp show that Bill was admitted to the camp hospital on April 4, 1943. The records do not indicate why he was admitted or when he was discharged from the hospital.
It was in April or early May 1943, that his family learned he was a POW.
“REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR BROTHER PRIVATE FIRST CLASS WILLIAM J KERINS IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST MARSHALL GENERAL=
ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL=”
Within days of receiving the first message, they received a second message:
6731 Stanley Avenue
“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:
“PFC William J. Kerins, 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”
Bill remained at Cabanatuan until September 1943, when he was sent to Manila to be boarded onto the Japanese freighter the Taga Maru which was also known as the Coral Maru, and sailed from Manila on September 20 and arrived at Takao, Formosa, on September 23. After a three day stay, the ship sailed on the 26th and arrived at Moji, Japan, on October 5. These transports became known as “Hell Ships” due to the living conditions the POWs endured on the ships.
After arriving in Japan, Bill was sent to one of the Niigata #5-B. The first morning in the camp, the commandant had the men strip their clothes off. The prisoners then stood in the cold for an hour and a half. Once they began to turn blue, the commandant addressed them. He said, “I want you people to know that you are prisoners of war, and you will be treated like prisoners of war and not like guests of Japan.”
The POWs were used as stevedores at the Niigata docks and loaded and unloaded ships. It appears that most of what was unloaded was coal for the Rinko Coal Company, but it is known they also unloaded foodstuffs. Other POWs from the camp worked in a foundry. The POWs worked 14 to 16 hours a day and often worked 20 hour days.
The barracks were described by the POWs as being similar to chicken coops. The walls were lined with shelf like fixtures that the POWs slept on. There were no mattresses just hard wooden boards. Each POW received two thin plant fiber blankets during the summer and five blankets during the winter which did not provide much insulation from the cold. 100 POWs slept in each barracks.
To unload the coal, the POWs worked on high trestles to unload the coal from the ships into cars. The next day, the prisoners would unload the coal from the cars using baskets. POWs were often forced to work barefooted in the winter and in the rain which resulted in men having bruised, cut, and infected feet. Once a month the prisoners would get one day off.
Meals for the prisoners often consisted of rice. In the rice were small pebbles which damaged the POWs teeth. They also got fish heads steamed barley. The sick in the camp were forced to work since the Japanese needed a certain number of POWs to unload the coal at the docks. To get them to work, the POWs were punched, hit with sticks, clubs, rifle butts, and iron bars.
About a month before he arrived in camp, the Japanese had begun a routine of taking every fifth POW from morning roll call and making the men bow to the guards. As the men bowed, the guard kicked the men in their faces or they were hit on the back of the neck with a club while they were bent over. They continued doing this to the POWs until March 31, 1944.
At one point, a guard took the boots away from the POWs during the winter and made them work barefooted on the trestle in cold and wet weather. He also knocked the POWs down and kicked them. The result was that their feet were bruised and cut up from the coal.
A Japanese medical corporal at the camp sent POWs too sick to work which resulted in some of them dying. When the POWs reported for sick call, they were beaten, hit, punched, and kicked in the face or stomach. From September 3, 1943, to December 31, a guard jumped on or kicked the POWs suffering from beriberi and malnutrition. He ordered them to stand at attention and to bow. He was also known for appropriating the Red Cross packages sent to the camp for the POWs. In October 1943, he had those POWs suffering from dysentery brought to him. When they arrived, he poked them in their stomachs with a stick. He also hit them on the head and body with his hands, fists, and with a stick.
The International Red Cross visited the Niigata Camp twice. To prevent the representatives from hearing about the conditions the POWs were living in and the treatment they were receiving, the Japanese would not let the representatives speak to the prisoners.
The fact was that the Japanese used what was in the Red Cross packages for themselves including medical supplies, bandages, and medicines sent to the POWs. Only after having taken canned milk, canned meat, and chocolate from the packages, would they be given to the POWs. The Japanese also used the clothing and shoes sent for POW use for themselves, and all the Japanese in the camp slept with Red Cross blankets on their beds.
On April 1, 1944, he was transferred to Tokyo 15-B and again was working in a steel mill. What is known is that the two camps – at different times – were under the command of Tomoki Nakamura, who had been educated in the United States. During his time at each camp, he denied Red Cross packages to the POWs which would have supplied them with food, clothing, and shoes. Nakamura and the camp guards were seen wearing the Red Cross shoes meant for the POWs. He also wore shoes that were sent by the Red Cross for the POWs and handled them out to the guards. It was noted that in the snow blood was seen where the POWs had stood for roll call since many of the POWs did not have shoes.
For food, the Japanese had the POWs raise rabbits, but when the rabbits became large enough to eat, the Japanese did not allow them to slaughter them and the rabbits were allowed to starve to death. When the prisoners received meat, each POW received a piece the size of a thumbnail. Three times a year the POWs received fish three times in 1945. In place of vegetables, the POWs were given a flour made from tree roots which were impossible to eat, so most of the POWs wouldn’t even take it.
POWs reported that he used the Red Cross parcels for his own use and gave the food to the guards for their mess. He was known to have raided the parcels for the food, and on occasion, had the American POW cook it for him to eat. When flour and macaroni were sent from the main camp for the POWs, Nakamura gave it to the guards to eat.
About one month before the surrender, there was a noticeable change in the attitude of the guards. The POWs had no idea that the war had ended until a week after the official surrender took place. Before the surrender, the guards at the camp were replaced with guards who spoke more English and appeared to be trying to “soft-soap” the POWs.
At the same time, the area was being bombed and strafed by American planes on a daily basis. One day, an American plane came in low over the camp without any ground fire. A few hours later an American pilot came into the camp in a Japanese command car and informed the POWs that the war was over. Bill and the other POWs remained in the camp for about a week and then took a train into Tokyo. It was there that Bill first saw American troops.
His family received this message from the War Department.
“Mr. James Kerins: The secretary of war has asked me to inform you that your brother, PFC William J. Kerins was returned to military control Sept. 5 and is being returned to the United States within the near future. He will be given the opportunity to communicate with you upon his arrival if he has not already done so.
“E. F. Witsell
“Acting Adjutant General of the Army”
Bill was sent back to the Philippines to be fattened up. After passing a final physical, Pvt. Bill Kerins returned to the United States on the U.S.S. Hugh Rodman on October 3, 1945, in San Francisco. After a stay at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco, he returned to Chicago where he married Marguerite Mary Dom in Oak Park, Illinois, in 1947. They were the parents of a son and daughter.
William J. Kerins would later move to Sparta, Wisconsin, in 1967, and Lebanon, Oregon, in 1987. He worked as a civilian personnel director for the U.S. Army and Navy. He passed away in Lebanon, on March 22, 1991, and was buried at Sand Ridge Cemetery in Lebanon, Oregon.
The photo below was taken in 1943 while William Kerins was a POW in Japan.