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.
Bill enlisted in the Quartermaster Corps of the Illinois National Guard because he wanted to fulfill his military obligation. The company was made up of men from Berwyn. In November of 1940, he was transferred to 33rd Tank Company, Maywood, Illinois, as it prepared to leave for federal duty at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and going with meant he would complete his military obligation sooner.
When the 33rd Tank Company arrived at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, they were joined by National Guard companies from Janesville, Wisconsin, Port Clinton, Ohio, and Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Together, they would become the 192nd Tank Battalion. At Ft. Knox, Bill was trained as a cook, baker and radio operator. He was also trained on half-tracks. The battalion was stationed near as OTC Center. The reason for this according to members of the battalion was that the army wanted to keep the 192nd somewhat isolated from the regular army because they were Guardsmen.
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. The cruiser intercepted several other ships which all were from friendly countries.
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, the tankers were met by General Edward King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived.
At Ft. Stotsenburg, the sleeping quarters for the 192nd consisted of tents. Each tent had eight men assigned to it. During the next seventeen days, Bill and the other men spent most of their time loading live ammunition. They also spent a large amount of time going over their equipment and preparing it for maneuvers. The battalion was on full alert from the day it landed in the Philippines. During this time, the battalion’s reconnaissance unit made recon patrols up to the Lingayen Gulf. When they returned to Clark Field, they reported that it would be an excellent place for the landing of troops.
The first week of December 1941, the tankers were ordered to Clark Field to assigned locations. At all times, two members of each tank crew or half-track crew had to remain with their tank or half-track.
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 at the river in the Bayambang Province.
On December 25, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27.
The tankers 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 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 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. On April 7, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted 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. At 10:30 that night, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms.
Tank battalion commanders received this order: “You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word ‘CRASH’, all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished.”
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 the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area they had 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 Caluan 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.
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 on 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 awhile, 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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, at 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.