2nd Lt. Harry Ricker Lafon Jr. was born in Perry County, Kentucky, on August 29, 1918, and was the son of Harry R. Lafon Sr. and Hattie Atkins-Lafon. He later lived in Harriman, Tennessee, and Harrodsburg, Kentucky. He completed two years of college at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. It is not known when, but Harry enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard’s tank company which met on the second floor of the D. L. Moore Building at 122 South Main Street since its armory was under construction and would not be completed until 1941. The company’s tanks were stored in a building three blocks away or, at other times, in the barn of one of the members’ family.
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 GHQ 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. 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.
He left school when the members of the company were sworn into the Regular Army on November 25, 1940, and given physicals. Men who were married were allowed to resign from the company, while other men inducted in the morning were released by noon the same day. When he was inducted, he held the rank of corporal. The company’s two tanks were loaded onto a flatcar and taken by train to Ft. Knox. The company left Harrodsburg on November 28 at 12:30 P.M. arriving at Ft. Knox about four hours later at 4:30 P.M.
The battalion was assigned to a new containment area of the base. The barracks were adjacent to the Roosevelt Ridge Training Area. 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. Men were picked for the company because they had special training and received promotions and higher pay. The men assigned to the HQ company still lived with the D Company since their barracks were unfinished.
There was a shortage of officers at Ft. Knox and some second lieutenants were commanding as many as three companies. It was during this time that Harry signed up to take the examination for a commission that was open to the highest three enlisted ranks.
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 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. 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 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. 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. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
During their free time, 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. It should be mentioned that since the members of the battalion were federalized National Guardsmen, men whose enlistments ended, at any time, were either released from federal service or reenlisted in the regular army.
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. It was also in February that Bill resigned from the army as an enlisted man and accepted a commission as a second lieutenant on February 12.
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 battalions 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, 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, Bellfontaine, 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.
Harry received a leave home at this time. While he was a student, Harry met Helen Frankie McCamish at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. They married on July 5, 1941, in Claiborne County, Tennessee.
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. Three of the company’s officers were released from service, so it is believed that it was at that time that Arch resigned as an enlisted man and accepted a commission as a second lieutenant.
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 and that 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 14, 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 10 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. He returned home to say his goodbyes and married Thelma A. Weidner on October 5, 1941. 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.
At 8:30 A.M. on October 20, over different train routes, the companies were sent to San Francisco, California. Most of the soldiers of each company rode on one train that was followed by a second train that carried the company’s tanks. At the end of the second train was a boxcar followed by a passenger car that carried some soldiers.
The company took the southern route along the Gulf Coast through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. At Yuma, Arizona the train stopped and the Native Americans entered the train cars and sold beads to the soldiers. The soldiers knocked each other over attempting to buy the beads. After the train pulled out of the station, someone noticed that the genuine Native American beads were made in Japan.
When they arrived in San Francisco, they were ferried, by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. When they got near Alcatraz, a soldier on the boat said to them, “I’d rather be here than going where you all are going.” 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 by men sent to the island as replacements. It appears these men came from the 757th Tank Battalion at Ft. Ord, California. Also waiting for the battalion was Col. James R. N. Weaver who was given command of the battalion.
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. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2, and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island. On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville, and, another transport, the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge. 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 transports carrying 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. 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, the rest of the battalion rode a train 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 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. Being an officer, Arch had dinner with the officers of the 194th Tank Battalion. D Company was scheduled to be transferred to the 194th so when they arrived at the fort, they may have moved into finished barracks.
The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents. D Company was scheduled to be transferred to the 194th Tank Battalion so when they arrived at the fort, they moved into their nearly finished barracks. Harry was reassigned to C Company of the 194th. The 194th Tank Battalion had left for the Philippines minus one company when its B Company was sent to Alaska while the remaining companies were sent to the Philippines.
The 192nd arrived in the Philippines with a great deal of radio equipment to set up a radio school to train radiomen for the Philippine Army. The battalion also had a large number of ham radio operators and shortly after arriving at Ft. Stotsenburg, they set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When they were informed it was the 192nd, they gave them frequencies to use. Men were able to send messages home to their families that they had arrived safely.
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 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 they threw footballs around during their free time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming. Men were given the opportunity to be allowed to go to Manila in small groups.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and were fed from food trucks. On December 7, the tanks were issued ammunition and the tankers spent the day loading ammunition belts.
It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd’s communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the battalion’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, the CO of the 194th Tank Battalion, read the messages of the attack. Miller met with his officers and informed them of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to an area between the two runways of the airfield.
All morning long, American planes filled the sky. At noon, every plane landed and lined up in a straight line to be refueled next to the pilots’ mess hall. The tankers were eating lunch when they saw planes approaching the airfield from the north. Many of the men believed they were American planes and had enough time to count 54 planes in formation. As they watched, what appeared to be raindrops – because they shimmered in the sun – appeared under the planes. With the thunderous explosions of the bombs exploding on the runways, the tankers knew that the planes were Japanese. The smoke and dust from the bombs blotted out the sun and made it impossible for the tankers to see more than a few feet. One bomb hit the mess hall where the pilots were eating.
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 straf. The tankers said they saw the pilots’ scarfs flapping in the wind.
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. One of the results of the attack was that the transfer of D Company, to the 194th, was never completed. The company fought with the 194th but retained its designation of being part of the 192nd. That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their barracks. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed.
The next day, those men not assigned to a tank or half-track walked around Clark Field to look at the damage. As they walked, they saw there were hundreds of dead. Some were pilots who had been caught asleep, because they had flown night missions, in their tents during the first attack. Others were pilots who had been killed attempting to get to their planes.
On the night of the 12th, the battalion was ordered to bivouac south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge. Attempting to move the battalion at night was a nightmare, and they finally arrived at their new bivouac at 6:00 A.M. on December 13. C Company was ordered to Muntinlupa near Bilibid Prison. The battalion’s reconnaissance half-tracks were assigned to defend Batangas Bay, Balayan Bay, and Tayabas Bay. The company remained at Muntinlupa from December 14 to 24 and did reconnaissance patrols and hunted fifth columnists who used flares at night and mirrors during the day near ammunition dumps. On one occasion, they saw someone signaling with a flashlight from a building. The tanks opened fire on the building. When they entered the building, there was no one in it, but they also had no more problems with fifth columnists.
At Lamon Bay, the Japanese landed 7,000 troops at 2:00 in the morning of December 24. After landing they began their advance toward Lucban. The commanding general, Brigadier General Albert M. Jones decided he wanted to see what was going on, so he did reconnaissance in a jeep with a half-track of the battalion to provide firepower. They were north of Piis when the half-track came under enemy fire. The driver attempted to turn the halftrack around and went into a ditch. The crew removed its guns and put down a covering fire allowing Jones to escape. The half-track crew was recommended for the Distinguish Service Cross but nothing came of it. Instead, the men – all but one posthumously – received the Silver Star after the war.
On December 26, the four tanks of the 2nd platoon, under the command of 2nd Lt. Robert Needham, were sent to an area on the east coast of Luzon near Lucban. The Japanese had troops in the area, and the American Command wanted to see what the strength of the enemy was in the area. Needham protested because he believed the tanks were entering a trap, but the tanks were ordered, by a major, to proceed, without reconnaissance, down a narrow trail. Since the area was mountainous, the tanks had a hard time maneuvering. As they went down the trail, the tanks attempted to keep their spacing so that the driver of each tank could each see the tank in front of him. At one point in the trail, the tanks found that the trail made a sharp right turn. As the lead tank made the turn, it was hit by a shell fired from a Japanese anti-tank gun. The shell mortally wounded Lt. Robert Needham and killing PFC Robert Bales. As the remaining crew members attempted to leave the tank they were machine-gunned.
Sgt. Emil Morello’s tank was the second tank in the column. As it came around the corner, his driver, Pvt. Joe Gillis realized he could not see the lead tank so he sped up the tank. As it turned out, this maneuver probably saved the lives of the tankers since a shell exploded just to the rear of the tank. The shell had been fired by a Japanese 77-millimeter anti-tank gun. The driver increased the tank’s speed and zigzagged to prevent the gun from getting off another shot. He then drove the tank into the log barricade and crashed through it taking out the gun. He continued to drive the tank down the trail until he reached an opening at a rice paddy. There, he turned the tank around and went back the way that had just come. He did this because Morello realized that the only way out of the situation was the same way the tank had come into it.
As the tank approached the destroyed barricade, the crew saw the lead tank off to the side of the road. It had taken a direct hit from the gun his tank had knocked out. The fire from the gun had knocked the hatch coverings off the front of the tank. From what the tankers could see, the Japanese had machine-gunned the crew while they were still in the tank. Believing they were safe, the members of the crew began to congratulate themselves on getting out of a tough situation. Suddenly, the tank took a direct hit from another Japanese anti-tank gun. The hit knocked off one of the tracks and the tank veered off the road and went over an earthen embankment. The shell also wounded Pvt. Joe Gillis, Pvt. William Hall, and an unknown crewman. The tank came to a stop in a rice paddy. They had no idea that their little reconnaissance mission had taken them straight into the main Japanese staging area.
The next two tanks were hit by enemy fire and disabled before the gun was knocked out by one of the tanks. Sgt. Glen Brokaw’s tank took a hit killing Pvt. James Hicks and Pvt. James McLeod, Hicks was a half-track driver who had volunteered to drive the tank. As Brokaw attempted to leave the tank through its turret, he was shot five times by the Japanese. The one surviving member of his crew, Pvt. Harry Sibert, was wounded and later died at a hospital. Brokaw would later state in interviews that he lost his entire tank crew that day. Sgt. Robert Mitchell’s tank was hit by enemy fire, popping a rivet that went into the neck of Pvt. Ed DiBenedetti. The tank went off the road and Mitchell, Anson, DiBenedetti and the fourth unnamed member of the crew escaped the tank and hid in the jungle.
Morrello’s crew played dead inside their tank. The Japanese pounded on the turret hatch and asked, “Hey Joe, you in there?” After the Japanese left the area 28 hours later, the crew left the tank and made their way to Manila. According to Morrello, Needham was still alive when he organized the surviving tank crew members to make a march to Manila, Needham refused to be moved. He believed that he would be a hindrance and jeopardize the attempt to reach the lines. He asked the men to button him in a disabled tank. He died in the tank.
Brokaw and Sibert were loaded into a taxi and taken to American a hospital near Lucbam by a Filipino taxicab. It was there that they were captured by the Japanese later that same day. From this time on, the tanks served as a rearguard as the Southern Luzon forces fell back toward Bataan.
The company was at Tagatay Ridge on December 31 and traveled 100 miles one night to Bocaue where it rejoined the 194th. On January 1, 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 bridge, over the Pampanga River, about withdrawing from the bridge. About half of the defenders withdrew. 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 allowing the southern Luzon forces to escape.
It was in January 1942, that the food ration was cut in half. It was not too long after this was done that malaria, dysentery, and dengue fever began hitting the soldiers. From January 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape while the 194th held the bridge open. The tanks and Self-Propelled Mounts were the only units that held the line against the Japanese at Guagua on January 5. That night, the tank battalion was holding a position near Lubao and one of the battalion’s outposts challenged approaching soldiers at 2:00 AM. The soldiers turned out to be Japanese. When they attacked, the Japanese sent up flares to show where the American tanks were located. They then charged toward the tanks, through an open field, and were mowed down. When the Japanese disengaged at 3:00 A.M., there were large numbers of Japanese dead and wounded in front of the tanks.
At 2:30 A.M., on January 6, the Japanese attacked Remedios in force using smoke which was an attempt by the Japanese to destroy the tank battalions. That night the tanks withdrew into the peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leapfrog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdrawal over the bridge. Once the 192nd crossed the bridge, the engineers destroyed it ending the Battle of Luzon.
January 8, a composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. The rest of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Abucay-Hacienda Road. When word came that a bridge was going to be blown up, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company. This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
On January 12, Co. D, 192nd, and Co. C, 194th, were sent to Cadre Road a forward position with little alert time. Land mines were planted on January 13 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. The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road. It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance. It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon. The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance. Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400-hour overhauls.
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.”
On January 28, the tank battalions were given the job of guarding the beaches so that the Japanese couldn’t land troops. The 194th guarded the coastline against Japanese landings from Limay to Cabcaban. During the day, the tanks hid under the jungle canopy. At night they were pulled out onto the beaches. The battalion’s half-tracks had the job of patrolling the roads. At all times, the tanks were in contact with on-shore and off-shore patrols. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings. It was also while doing this duty that the tankers noticed that the Japanese Zeros went after the PT boats as they made their way along the coast and made arrangements with the PTs to be at a certain point one morning. When the Zeros appeared, the tanks, half-tracks, and PT boats coordinated their fire and shot nine of the twelve Zeros before the Japanese broke off the attack.
At the end of February, the fighting almost came to a stop. The reason was the Japanese had not planned for a long-drawn-out campaign and had run low on food and ammunition, and their troops were as sick as the Filipino and American defenders. It was during this lull that they brought in fresh troops. The defenders 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. During this time the soldiers ate monkeys, snakes, lizards, horses, and mules. 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. They 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. The amount of gasoline in March was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. It was during this time that Gen Wainwright wanted to turn the tanks into pillboxes. Gen Weaver pointed out to Wainwright that they did not have enough tanks to effectively do this, and if they did, they soon would have no tanks. Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor, but Wainwright declined.
For most of March, the situation on Bataan was relatively quiet and the Japanese had been fought to a standstill. The newspapers in the States reported both sides were strengthening their lines in expectation of an all-out attack. The reports stated that the Japanese did not have air support because their planes had been shifted south in the assault on Java. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over. 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.
Having brought in combat harden troops from Singapore, the Japanese launched a major offensive on April 3 supported by planes and artillery. 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. The tanks were sent to various sectors in an attempt to stop the advance. On the 6, four tanks were sent to support the 45th Philippine Infantry, Philippine Scouts. One tank was knocked out from anti-tank fire at the junctions of Trails 6 and 8, and the other tanks withdrew. 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. 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 against the Japanese in an attempt to stop the advance. At 6:00 P.M. that tank battalion commanders received this order: “You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word ‘CRASH’, all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. A truck driver for A Company, 192nd, 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, 192nd, and A Company, 194th, received an order from Gen. Weaver to stand down.
At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The driver was from the tank group.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. It was at about 6:45 A.M. that tank battalion commanders received the order “crash.” The tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
As Gen. King left to negotiate the surrender, he went through the area held by B Company, 192nd, and spoke to the men. He said to them, “Boys. I’m going to get us the best deal I can. When you get home, don’t ever let anyone say to you, you surrendered. I was the one who surrendered.” Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Wade R. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north, they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from 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. After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col. Collier and Maj. Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit in the line of the Japanese advance should fly white flags. Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived. King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
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.”
On April 10, the Japanese arrived and ordered the Prisoners of War onto the road. They quickly stripped the POWs of their watches, pens, and sunglasses. The POWs were taken to a trail and found that walking on the gravel trail was difficult. They immediately witnessed “Japanese Discipline” toward their own troops. The Japanese apparently were marching for hours, and when a man fell, he was kicked in his stomach and hit in the head with a rifle butt. If he still did not get up, the Japanese determined that the man was exhausted and left him alone.
The trial the POWs were on ended when they reached the main road at Limay north of Mariveles on April 11, the officers with the rank of major or above were put into a schoolyard. The officers were told that they would be driven the rest of the march. At 4:00 AM, the officers were put into trucks for an unknown destination. It was there that the lower-ranking officers and the enlisted men joined the main column of POWs being marched out of Bataan. For the first time, they began to witness the abuse of POWs as they walked through Balanga to Orani. At Orani, the men were put into a bullpen where they were ordered to lay down. In the morning, the POWs realized that they had been lying in the human waste of POWs who had already used the bullpen. At noon, they received their first food.
When they resumed the march they were marched at a faster pace. The guards also seemed to be nervous about something. The POWs made their way to an area just north of Hermosa. where the road went from gravel to concrete, and the change of surface made the march easier. When the POWs were allowed to sit down, those who attempted to lay down were jabbed with bayonets. The POWs continued the march and for the first time in months it began to rain which felt great and many men attempted to get drinks. The POWs made their way north against the flow of Japanese horse artillery and trucks which were moving south. At times, they would slip on something wet and slippery which were the remains of a man killed by Japanese artillery the day before. When dawn came, the walking became easier but as the sun rose it became hotter and the POWs began to feel the effects of thirst. It was at this time that the POWs saw a group of Filipinos being marched by the Japanese. Looking at them, they realized that they had been hungry, but the Filipinos had been starving. When the men crossed the Lamao River, they smelled the sweet smell of death. The Japanese had heavily bombed the area causing many casualties and many of the dead lay partially in the river. The air corps POWs in front of them ran to the river and drank. Many would later die from dysentery at Camp O’Donnell.
When they arrived at San Fernando, the POWs were put into another bullpen and remained until they were ordered to form detachments of 100 men. How long he remained in the bullpen is not known. It was while the POWs were in the bullpen that many received their first food. At some point, the POWs were formed into detachments of 100 men and marched to the train station, where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “forty or eights” since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. Since the detachments had 100 men in them the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and shut the doors. The heat in the cars was unbearable and many POWs died but could not fall to the floors since there was no room for them to fall. The POWs rode the train to Capas where they disembarked the cars. As they left the cars, the dead fell to the floors. The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell an unfinished Filipino training base which the Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942.
Once in the camp, they were taken into a large field where they were counted and searched and all extra clothing that they had was taken from them and not returned. Blankets, knives, and matches were taken from them. If a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Finally, the camp commandant came out, stood on a box, and told them that they were enemies of Japan and would always be Japan’s enemies. He also told them that they were captives and not prisoners of war and would be treated accordingly. After the speech, the prisoners were allowed to go to their barracks. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp as the POWs who had Japanese items on them were executed for looting.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men and those who did sleep in one slept in one with as many 80 to 120 men. Most of the POWs slept on the ground under the barracks. There was no netting to protect the men from malaria-carrying mosquitos as they slept, so many men soon became ill with malaria. The ranking American officer was slapped after asking for building materials to repair the buildings.
The POWs received three meals, mainly rice, a day. For breakfast, they were fed a half cup of soupy rice and occasionally some type of coffee. Lunch each day was a half of a mess kit of steamed rice and a half cup of sweet potato soup. They received the same meal for dinner. All meals were served outside regardless of the weather. By May 1, the food had improved a little with the issuing of a little wheat flour, some native beans, and a small issue of coconut oil. About once every ten days, 3 or 4 small calves were brought into the camp. When meat was given out, there was only enough for one-fourth of the POWs to receive a piece that was an inch square. A native potato, the camote, was given to the POWs, but most were rotten and thrown out. The POWs had to post guards to prevent other POWs from eating them. The camp had a Black Market and POWs who had money could buy a small can of fish from the guards for $5.00.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line for 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 by the POWs who came up with the pipe, dug the trench and ran the waterline. Just like the first faucet, the Japanese turned off the water when they wanted water to bathe, but unlike the first water line, the POWs had the ability to turn on the water again without the Japanese knowing it. 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 Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use. When a second truck was sent to the camp by the Red Cross, it was turned away. The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one medic – out of the six medics 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 bodies were moved to one side, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it. At one point, 80 bodies lay under the hospital awaiting burial.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of POWs healthy enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. Many of these men returned to the camp from work details only to die. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The POWs on the burial detail often had dysentery and/or malaria. When they buried the dead, the next morning many were found sitting up in their graves, or that the dead had been dug up by wild dogs. The Japanese finally acknowledged that they had to do something, so they opened a new camp at Cabanatuan.
His parents received two letters from the War Department. The first arrived in May 1942.
“Dear Mrs. H. Lafon:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee if Second Lieutenant Harry R. Lafon Jr., O,415,583, who, according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“I deeply regret that it is impossible for me to give you more information than is contained in this letter. In the last days before the surrender of Bataan, there were casualties which were not reported to the War Department. Conceivably the same is true of the surrender of Corregidor and possibly other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese Government has indicated its intention of conforming to the terms of the Geneva Convention with respect to the interchange of information regarding prisoners of war. At some future date, this Government will receive through Geneva a list of persons who have been taken prisoners of war. Until that time the War Department cannot give you positive information.
“The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is to be hoped that the Japanese Government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At that time you will be notified by this office in the event that his name is contained in the list of prisoners of war. In the case of persons known to have been present in the Philippines and who are not reported to be prisoners of war by the Japanese Government, the War Department will continue to carry them as “missing in action” in the absence of information to the contrary, until twelve months have expired. At the expiration of twelve months and in the absence of other information the War Department is authorized to make a final determination.
“Recent legislation makes provision to continue the pay and allowances of persons carried in a “missing” status for a period not to exceed twelve months; to continue, for the duration of the war, the pay and allowances of persons known to have been captured by the enemy; to continue allotments made by missing personnel for a period of twelve months and allotments or increase allotments made by persons by the enemy during the time they are so held; to make new allotments or increase allotments to certain dependents defined in Public Law 490, 77th Congress. The latter dependents generally include the legal wife, dependent children under twenty-one years of age, and dependent mother, or such dependents as having been designated in official records. Eligible dependents who can establish a need for financial assistance and are eligible to receive this assistance the amount allotted will be deducted from pay which would otherwise accrue to the credit of the missing individual.
“Very Truly yours
J. A. Ulio (signed)
The Adjutant General”
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas. There, they were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another line which took it to Cabanatuan. The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup. From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was known as Camp Pangatian.
The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where most of the men who captured on Bataan and took part in the death march were held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed, but it was later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where most of those men captured when Corregidor surrendered were taken and it 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. 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.” The rice smelled and appeared to have been swept up off the floor. The other problem was that the men assigned to be cooks had no idea of how to prepare the rice since they had no experience in cooking it. During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in a while, the POWs received corn to serve to the prisoners. From the corn, the cooks would make hominy. The prisoners were so hungry that some men would eat the corn cobs. This resulted in many men being taken to the hospital to have the cobs removed because they would not pass through the men’s bowels. Sometimes they received bread, and if they received fish it was rotten and covered with maggots. To supplement their diets, the men would search for grasshoppers, rats, and dogs to eat. The POWs assigned to handing out the food used a sardine can to assure that each man received the same amount. They were closely watched by their fellow prisoners who wanted to make sure that everyone received the same portion and that no one received extra rice.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Returning from a detail the POWs bought or were given, medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned. Returning from details the POWs bought or were given, medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned.
The worst detail was the latrine detail, where the POWs cleaned the latrines used by the Japanese. They weren’t given any tools to do this job, so they cleaned them with their bare hands. The feces was carried to 55-gallon drums and dumped into them. It appears it was then used as fertilizer.
During June, the first cases of diphtheria appeared in the camp, and by July, it had spread throughout the camp. The Japanese finally gave the American medical staff antibiotics to treat the POWs, but before it took effect, 130 POWs had died from the disease by August. On June 26, 1942, six POWs were executed by the Japanese after they had left the camp to buy food and were caught returning to camp. The POWs were tied to posts in a manner that they could not stand up or sit down. No one was allowed to give them food or water and they were not permitted to give them hats to protect them from the sun. The men were left tied to the posts for 48 hours when their ropes were cut. Four of the POWs were executed on the duty side of the camp and the other two were executed on the hospital side of the camp.
The camp hospital was described as being horrible and beyond description. There was no water for washing and barely enough to drink. There were no blankets or any other coverings for the sick. Just like in Camp O’Donnell the dead were found around the camp.
The hospital consisted of 30 wards that could hold 40 men each, but it was more common for them to have 100 men in them. Each man had approximately an area of 2 feet by 6 feet to lie in. The sickest POWs were put in “Zero Ward,” which was called this because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves and would not go into the area. There were two rolls of wooden platforms around the perimeter of the building. The sickest POWs were put on the lower platform which had holes cut into it so they could relieve themselves. Most of those who entered the ward died.
Five POWs, in June, were caught receiving food through the fence from two Filipinos. All seven men were tortured before being executed on the 26th. The other POWs in their barrack had their food rations cut in half for three days. One POW escaped in July and 200 guards were sent out to capture him. It was said that the man’s body was found at the cemetery with over 50 bayonet wounds in it.
Four POWs in August managed to leave the camp to get food from friendly Filipinos. When they attempted to reenter the camp, they were caught. They were forced to stand at attention in the sun and were not fed or given water for three or four days. They were marched to a field, dug their own graves, and were shot.
On August 7, one POW escaped from the camp and was recaptured on September 17. He was placed in solitary confinement and during his time there, he was beaten over the head with an iron bar by a Japanese sergeant. The camp commandant, Col. Mori, would parade him around the camp and use the man as an example as he lectured the POWs. The man wore a sign that read, “Example of an Escaped Prisoner.”
Three POWs were recaptured on September 21, 1942, and who had escaped from the camp on September 12. They were brought back to the camp and where they had their feet tied together and their hands crossed behind their backs and tied with ropes. A long rope was tied around their wrists and they were suspended from a rafter with their toes barely touching the ground causing their arms to bear all the weight of their bodies. They were subjected to severe beatings by the Japanese guards while hanging from the rafter. The punishment lasted three days. They were cut from the rafter and they were tied hand and foot and placed in the cooler for 30 days on a diet was rice and water. One of the three POWs was severely beaten by a Japanese lieutenant but was later released.
On September 29, the three POWs were executed by the Japanese after being stopped by American security guards while attempting to escape. The American guards were there to prevent escapes so that the other POWs in their ten men group would not be executed. During the event, the noise made the Japanese aware of the situation and they came to the area and beat the three men – who had tried to escape – so badly that his jaw was broken. After two and a half hours, the three were tied to posts by the main gate and their clothes were torn off them. They also were beaten on and off for the next 48 hours. Anyone passing them was expected to urinate on them. After three days they were cut down and thrown into a truck and taken to a clearing in sight of the camp and shot.
The Japanese needed 1,000 POWs to go on a work detail to Davao in October 1942. On October 24, 1942, the POWs were marched eight miles to the town of Cabanatuan. At the town’s railroad station, they were loaded into boxcars, and the townspeople came out to watch the POWs as they boarded the trains. From their faces, The POWs could see that they had a great deal of sympathy for the Americans.
Unlike the trip to Camp O’Donnell, the doors of the boxcars were left open. This made the trip a great deal easier on the POWs. For whatever reason, the train stopped in several towns. When it arrived in a town, the Filipino people would come out. Many brought rice balls, fried chicken, bananas, and anything else they had with them. Because they were not allowed to approach the train, the Filipinos would throw food at the prisoners. When the train pulled into one town, the people gathered at the station. While the train set in the station, the Filipinos began to hum the song, “God Bless America.” They also called out to the POWs, “Mabuhay Joe,” which in English meant, “Long life Joe.”
When they arrived in Manila, they remained in the boxcars until after dark when they were marched two miles through the empty streets to Bilibid Prison. Once at Bilibid, they were fed mutton soup and rice. Bilibid had been built by the Spanish and had been a civilian prisoner before the war but the Japanese put it into use as a POW camp. The prison was a two-story mortar and brick building, that went out like spokes. surrounded by a high brick wall. At the entrance were two heavy iron gates.
Upon arrival at the prison, they were put in what had been the prison hospital and discovered that there were no beds in the prison. At night every prisoner slept on the concrete floor. The food was also of poor quality, but the one good thing about Bilibid was that the prisoners had more than enough water for drinking and washing.
Two days after arriving at Bilibid, the POWs were marched through the streets of Manila to the port area. Dewey Boulevard which had been the most modern street in the city was now lined with burnt-out empty buildings. Ashes were all that was left of the huts that had lined other streets in Manila.
At Pier 7, the POWs were boarded onto the freighter the Erie Maru. The hold was divided into box spaces and twelve men were assigned to each box. There was only enough room in a box for six men to sleep at a time. The POWs quickly became infested with bedbugs and lice. The hold smelled from the gasoline that was being stored in it and quickly was joined by the smell of human excrement. The hatches to the ship’s holds were left open to provide ventilation. The POWs were allowed on deck once the ship cleared Manila Harbor.
Food for the prisoners was generous and well prepared, with each POW receiving a full mess kit of rice and a canteen cup filled with a thick cabbage soup containing pork. They even were given corn beef and cabbage one night.
The trip to Lasang took thirteen days because the ship made stops at Iloilo, Panay, and Cebu, Mindanao. At Iloilo, they buried one man who had died. The POWs arrived at Lansang on November 7. When they arrived at the camp, the POWs were in such bad shape that the ranking Japanese officer, Mayeda, ordered them fed. They ate pork and beef, rice cabbage pinch, squash onions, potatoes, and peanuts which were all produced on the farm. From the orchards, they were given fruit which included raw and cooked plantains. The sick were given medical treatment, but it was discovered that not one of the POWs was a doctor. There was enough water for drinking, bathing, and laundry. When the recuperation took too long, their diet was cut to rice and greens soup.
At the camp, the POWs were housed in eight wooden barracks that were about 148 feet long and about 16 feet wide. A four-foot-wide aisle ran down the center of each barrack. In each barrack, were eighteen single-deck bays with wooden decks. Twelve POWs shared a bay which meant that 216 POWs lived in each of the barracks. The number was reduced to 8 men in a cage. To prevent escapes, four cages were later put in a bay. Each cage held two POWs. The roofs of the building were galvanized iron. Other buildings in the compound were Nipa barracks.
Little is known about the camp hospital. What is known was that those POWs who were too sick to work were beaten by the camp interpreter with a riding crop. Since POWs were transferred to and from the camp, it appears American doctors were sent to the camp.
The camp discipline was poor and the American commanding officer changed frequently. The junior officers refused to take orders from the senior officers. Soon, the enlisted men spoke, however, they wanted to talk to the officers. The situation improved because the majority of the POWs realized that discipline was needed to survive.
Meals for the POWs were initially 550 grams of rice per man per day, but this did not last. Men who could not work received 450 grams, and men doing special duty received 530 grams. Those men suffering from malnutrition received 490 grams while the ordinary workers received 570 grams. The men assigned to work in the rice fields received 600 grams. Every POW received 400 grams of vegetables each day. In March 1943, this changed to 450 grams for non-workers and 600 grams for workers. The non-workers also had their vegetables reduced to 200 grams each day while the workers received 300 grams each day. It was stated by men that they also had received 12 pounds of shark meat for each group of 100 men. During the last six months they were in Davao, fish was issued 3 to 4 times a month. Fresh fruit which was available all around the camp was not issued and the POWs were not allowed to eat any of it so it rotted in the fields.
There were various details. 30 men were assigned to work as carpenters, 25 POWs worked in the orchards, 50 POWs made rope, 20 POWs worked the bodega (storeroom) detail, and for four months the POWs cut and picked coffee. Another detail of 100 POWs worked at a lumber mill from December 1942 until February 1943. There were smaller details that took from 2 to 35 men that lasted weeks or months, while other details were continuous, such as the farm detail that 250 to 300 POWs worked on plowing fields and harvesting crops. The POWs worked ten hours a day seven days a week.
Three hundred fifty to 750 POWs were used in the rice fields. The number varied because planting and harvesting took more men. Many of the POWs became ill with what was called, “Rice Sickness.” This illness was caused by a POW cutting his foot or leg on a rice stalk. The POW developed a rash and suffered from severe swelling. If a POW bruised himself, the bruise developed into an ulcer. Most, if not all of the prisoners, suffered from malaria.
Another detail of 80 POWs was sent out each day to repair roads or build bridges between the Davao Penal Colony and the main highway to Davao City over which war materials and troops were moved. In the opinion of the POWs, they did more damage than good and intentionally kept the roads impassable. Other men worked in a quarry that contained a great deal of coral that cut their feet. What they dug out went to build the road. They also built machine gun revetments around the POW camp. The detail existed the entire time the camp was open and every POW worked on this detail at least one week each month.
Harry was assigned to the farm detail. The POWs planted and grew food for the Japanese Army and did not benefit from their work. What made working on this detail worse was the POWs could see fruit growing on the trees that they were not allowed to eat. When they attempted to eat the fruit, they were severely beaten. Instead, it was left to rot.
The POWs were still receiving three meals – which were measured down with a sardine tin – a day and received one water buffalo a week but they were being worked harder and longer. At times, after the POWs had slaughtered the water buffalo and had it ready to cook, the Japanese made them bury it. But for the POWs who never had enough to eat, the worse thing they experienced was watching fruit growing on the trees rot because they were not allowed to eat it.
The Japanese commanding officer ordered and allowed collective punishment of all the POWs if one man broke a rule. The punishment was usually issued to groups of 10 POWs and it was common to have the POWs kneel for hours and deprive them of sleep. If the POWs were found to have food on them when they returned from work, they were brutally beaten. At night the guards walked through the barracks a poked the sleeping POWs with bamboo poles to disrupt their sleep. Beatings were common, and the guards usually slapped the POWs in their faces. On occasion, there were severe beatings. This occurred if the Japanese suspected the POWs were planning an escape. When a Japanese officer, Lt. Hashimoto, discovered a pair of tin snips in the barracks and tortured all the POWs by putting a lighted cigarette to their pinuses.
It is known that in February 1943, each POW received 2½ Red Cross boxes. It is not known if the boxes were full or if the Japanese had gone through them and taken what they wanted from them.
After the escape of Capt. William Dyess, LTC Melvyn McCoy, Maj. Stephen Mellnik, Maj. Michael Dobervitch and another POW on April 4, 1943, the remaining POWs from their barracks were moved to another compound. They had their rations reduced to one-third and were confined to quarters but could not sit down during the day. They also were put to work in the rice fields at Camp Mactan.
Major Mayeda ordered a group of 200 men put into the guardhouse. It was stated they were fed salt and rice while they were in the guardhouse. The POWs had to stand for 45 minutes every hour in the guardhouse. They remained in the guardhouse from April 11 to May 8 or 9. He also ordered and allowed the collective punishment of all the POWs. If the POWs were found to have food on them when they returned from work, they were brutally beaten. At night the guards walked through the barracks a poked the sleeping POWs with bamboo poles to disrupt their sleep.
On May 15, 1943, the War Department released a list of names of men known to be Japanese Prisoners of War in the Philippines, Harry’s name was on the list. His family had learned he was a POW weeks earlier.
REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH THE INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR HUSBAND SECOND LIEUTENANT HARRY R LAFON JR IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST
ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL.
Within days of receiving the first message, his family received the following letter:
“The Provost Marshal General directs me to inform you that you may communicate with your son, postage free, by following the inclosed instructions:
“It is suggested that you address him as follows:
“2nd Lt. Harry R. Lafon, 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”
His wife also received a POW postcard from him at this time that indicated that he was being held in Davao.
When two POWs escaped from the rice planting detail on October 25, 1943, the Japanese believed someone had helped them escape. Twenty-one POWs from the detail were put into the guardhouse for ten days. They were made to stand at attention all day in the cells. The cells were eight feet long and three and one-half feet wide. Eleven prisoners were put into each cell. At night they were beaten with sticks when they attempted to lie down. They were fed one meal a day of rice with a little salt. The remaining POWs had to work without pants or shoes. Three officers from the detail were sent to the Japanese headquarters where they had their feet placed in buckets of water. For a half hour, the Japanese applied electric current to the water to get them to talk.
The Japanese ended the detail at the farm and sent the 650 POWs to Lasang on March 2, 1944, to build runways and revetments at Matina Airfield which was used for training by the Japanese Army and Navy. The POWs thought that it would not be as bad as the farm; they were wrong.
The POW barracks were only 400 yards from the airfield and near the latrines which meant they smelled and were infested with flies. The POWs believed their location was intentional so that if American planes attacked, they would kill their own countrymen. The POWs slept on the floors.
The Japanese commanding officer imposed a “no reading” policy in the barracks which resulted in men being beaten for violating it. It is known that on one occasion, 50 POWs were made to kneel on the sharp edges of railroad rails for 30 minutes. Many had deep cuts on their legs when they were allowed to stand.
When they arrived at Lasang, the POWs refused to work on the airfield since it would be used against other Americans. The camp CO set up two detachments of guards. One detachment set up machine guns that were aimed at the POWs. The second detachment had clubs and beat any POW that they felt was not working as hard as he could. The POWs were told they were going to also build runways and taxi strips. To do this, they were divided into two detachments. One detachment built runways and taxi strips while the other was sent to a quarry to mine coral for runways. The POWs dug out the coral, broke it up, and loaded it onto trucks that were driven to the airfield. The POWs broke up large rocks and loaded the gravel into trucks. Other POWs unloaded the trucks and dug trenches. They also drove the trucks, tractors, and rollers to level the base of the runways. The POWs worked on the airfield from March 2, 1944, until August 19. When the POWs slowed the pace of their work down to protest the working conditions, the Japanese resorted to torture to get them to work.
Since they were working with coral, the Japanese gave them Red Cross Shoe repair equipment to fix the soles and heals of their shoes. It worked so well that the Japanese confiscated the equipment to repair their own shoes. Soon, the coral cut into the soles of the POWs’ barefoot feet. It was stated that on two occasions the POWs were made to run barefooted over a mile on the coral runway. They were also used several times for bayonet training by Japanese troops. Although no contact was made, the screaming soldiers charged at the POWs with their bayonets aimed at them.
One day, while the POWs were digging a drainage ditch at the far end of the airfield, the POWs were working so slowly that little was getting done. The Japanese commanding officer of the detail, Lt. Hoshea, became so angry, he selected 15 POWs for punishment. A railroad rail was brought to the site and put on its side with the sharp end up. The fifteen men had to kneel on it and had three-inch to four-inch sticks – sharpened at both ends – put behind their knees so the weight of their kneeling would cause the sticks to go into their calves and upper leg. The POWs were told that the men would remain like that until the other POWs finished the ditch. The POWs worked as fast as they could, but the kneeling men could not get off the rail until all the tools were cleaned and stacked. The entire POW detachment was then made to run slightly over one and a half miles back to the camp.
On June 6, 1944, the POWs from the other details were sent to Manila, while the men working on the airfield remained on the island. Over the next two weeks, the atmosphere at the airfield changed. The Japanese posted guards with bayonets on their rifles by the POW barracks as air raids became daily. The Japanese camouflaged the airfield and hid their planes in revetments. The POWs heard rumors that the Americans had landed at Palau.
One night at 2:00 A.M. in August, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. From the sound of the engine, they knew it was American. It was the first American plane they had heard in over two years. As the plane dove toward the airfield, it dropped four bombs at the far end of the runway; the POWs celebrated silently. For the POWs, this was the first knowledge they had the Americans were getting closer. The planes never returned to the airfield and the POWs believed it was because they recognized the compound as a POW camp, but at night they heard the sound of Japanese ships and other airfields being bombed.
Air raids soon were nightly events. Japanese planes flying out of the airfield were loaded with bombs and carried extra gasoline tanks. Finally, all work on the airfield was stopped around August 5, and the POWs’ food rations were reduced to 200 grams of rice per man per day. The Japanese excuse was since they were not working they didn’t need as much food. The POWs were now so hungry that they raided the Japanese garbage pile for remnants of vegetables. On August 19 the POWs were lined up by fours, with the outside men having a rope tied to their wrists to prevent escape. They were marched shoeless to the Tabunco Pier and arrived at noon. There they were packed into the two holds of the Erie Maru. 400 POWs were in the first hold while the remaining 350 POWs were put in the second hold. In addition, several tons of Japanese baggage were packed into the hold. Around six that evening, the ship sailed.
Once the POWs were in the holds the Japanese put the hatch covers on the hatches. There was no room to move and it was impossible to sit down.
According to Pvt. Walter Alexander: “An hour after the hatch was closed men began to pass out. We started to break out with heat rash. We couldn’t move. We didn’t nearly have enough water.
“The hatch was opened at night but clamped down as soon as daylight came.”
The next day, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. An American plane flew over the ship. The sound of machine-gun fire was heard by the POWs. The Japanese once again tied down the hatch covers cutting off the air.
Alexander said, “We were still off Davao the next morning when the bombers came over. I think they were B-24s. We felt the concussion as the bombs hit near the ship. The boat rocked and the plates rang. We estimated that one bomb missed by maybe 100 feet.
“The ship pulled out during the bombing. The next day the escort ships dropped depth charges. We were in the hold three days to Zamboanga. We laid there 12 days still in the hold. A couple of boys went crazy.”
As the ship made its way north it swayed in the waves. Many of the prisoners became seasick. They retched when they tried to throw up since there was no food in their stomachs. Over the next three days, there were several more alerts. Each time the hatch covers were battened down leaving the POWs in darkness.
The ship arrived in Zamboanga on August 24 and waited ten days until the Shinyo Maru arrived. The POWs were not allowed out of the holds and the conditions in the ship’s holds were terrible. The holds were hot and steamy and the floors were covered with human waste. In addition, the longer the POWs were in the holds the stench became worse. During this time, the POWs were allowed on deck and sprayed with saltwater.
On September 4, the POWs were transferred onto the Shinyo Maru. 250 POWs were put in the ship’s smaller hold, while the 500 POWs were put into its larger hold. That night, bombs from American planes landed alongside the ship rocking and shaking it. The POWs prayed that the ship would be hit by a bomb
Of this, Alexander said, “Then we changed ships. They lowered a ladder in the hold and in our condition we had a hard time getting up. A lot of the men were in bad shape and a few had to be helped up.
“The fresh air felt good and the sunshine was blinding. There was another ship tied close by and were transferred to it. In this ship, they put 500 men in one hold and 250 in another. I was with the 500.”
The ship sailed on September 5 at 2:00 A.M. Before sailing, the hatch covers were secured so that the POWs could not lift them from below. The ship headed north in a zigzag pattern in an attempt to avoid submarines, and the POWs were no longer allowed on deck. Their lips and throats were covered with dust from cement that had previously been hauled by the ship. For the next two days, the ship made good time. It was at this time that the Japanese guards threatened to kill the POWs if the ship came under attack by American planes. The ship was now part of a convoy designated as C-076. Since the POWs had not heard any air raid alerts, they assumed that they were safe. In reality, American submarines were picking off ships in the convoy one at a time.
Alexander said, “This time we were right down in the bottom of the ship. Again there was barely enough room for men to sit down. What was worse, the ship had been carrying cement and we sat on an inch of cement dust. Any movement stirred up cement dust and made it almost impossible to breathe. The stench in this hold was as bad as the other.
“Our officers told us to sit still. We sat still. We sailed the same night and were down there two days.”
It should be noted that the United States had intercepted the order from the Japanese command sending the Shinyo Maru to Zamboanga. Someone misinterpreted the order as saying the ship would be transporting “750 military personnel” instead of “750 military prisoners” to Manila. The U.S.S. Paddle was sent to the area to intercept the ship.
PFC Victor Mapes talked about being in the ship’s hold, “I was down in the hold with 750 other Americans. They had us stripped down to G-strings. We’d left 22 days before from the southern Philippines — Davao.
“It was 4:00 P.M. when the convoy was spotted and the attack on the ships started. Pfc. Mapes recalled the event, “The Jap freighter Number 83 — was ripped apart by the Sub’s torpedo.”
Suddenly the Japanese removed the hatch covers. Sgt. Onnie Clem, U.S.M.C. said: “We looked up to see the Japs at both entrances with machine guns pointed at us. They started firing, spraying lead, in among the prisoners. Several hand grenades exploded among us.”
Sgt. Verle Cutter said, “We were in the hold wondering where they were taking us this time when the hatch was ripped open, we looked up to see Japs at both entrances with machine-guns pointed at us. They started firing, spraying lead, in among the prisoners. Several hand-grenades were thrown down among us exploded. How many of us were killed no one will ever know because then it happened.
“A loud explosion rocked the ship, and in the blackness of the hold, we could hear the vessel cracking up. Then after another explosion sounded in the aft hold of the vessel. We knew the ship had been torpedoed. Those Japs had tried to machine-gun and grenade us to prevent our possible escape.”
It was at 4:37 P.M. on Thursday, September 7, 1944, the U.S.S Paddle spotted the convoy off the west coast of Mindanao at Sindangan Point. It fired two torpedoes at the Shinyo Maru. The first torpedo hit the ship in its main hold. Moments later, a second torpedo hit the ship. There was a gaping hole in the ship’s side. The explosion blew some POWs out of the hold, through the hole, and into the water. Those POWs in the hold, who were still alive, saw the bodies of the dead floating in the water as the hold filled with water.
Sgt. Onnie Clem, U.S.M.C., recalled what it was like when the torpedoes hit.
“All I could see was orange. The next thing I knew I was floating in the air…I felt like I was among fluffy balls of cotton. (He was floating in the water and the furry balls were the bodies of the dead or other men trying to get out.) I thought, ‘Hell, I’m dead. This is what it’s like when you’re dead.”
The surviving POWs found that the hatch cover had been blown off the hold by the explosion. As the water level rose, they were able to climb out. Seven Japanese officers were on the bridge with rifles. As the POWs emerged from the hold, they picked them off. The lucky POWs made it through their fire and dove into the water. The POWs in the smaller hold were also wounded from the torpedo hits. But, the hold remained dry. Many of these POWs also were able to make it onto the deck and attempted to swim to shore. It was believed that only 250 POWs made it into the water and that the remaining 500 died on the ship.
According to the POWs in the water, the Shinyo Maru began to capsize. There was a tremendous crushing sound and the ship seemed to bend upward in the middle. The ship split in two and sunk into the sea. Japanese seaplanes dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the American submarine. When they spotted the POWs in the water, they strafed them. They stopped strafing when they realized that there were Japanese in the water too. The good thing about the depth charges was that they kept sharks away from the POWs.
A Japanese tanker that had been hit by torpedoes spilled oil and gasoline into the water and the ship ran aground. The Japanese quickly set up machine guns and fired on the POWs. Boats from the other ships in the convoy attempted to hunt down the POWs swimming in the water cruising in and out of the debris field hunting and shooting the swimming Americans. If they found a man, they shot him.
One officer recalled seeing a young soldier struggling in the water and asked him if he could swim. The soldier replied, “No sir, not very well.” The officer began to say, “Don’t worry, we’ll make it somehow,” but before he could finish, a shot rang out the young soldier’s head fell into the water. There was a bullet hole in his head. What saved many lives was that with dusk it became harder for the Japanese to see them.
PFC Mapes recalled, “The men began swimming toward shore three miles away — like a herd of sheep. The Japs from the other ships in the convoy were cutting them to pieces. I figured that the only way to survive was to break away from the bunch and swim to the opposite side.”
The Japanese announced to the Americans that if they surrendered that they would be treated with compassion, and about 30 men gave up after hearing this.
Sgt. Denver R. Rose was one of the 30 men. He recalled, “They tied our hands behind us and took us to another prison ship. They roped us together and stood us in a line along the rail. They then started shooting us one at a time.
“Using his sword a Jap cut the rope to lose the first man in line. He was taken to the stern of the boat and shot in the back. He fell into the water.
“Meanwhile, I found the frayed end of a steel cable by feeling with the fingers behind my back and rubbed the ropes across the sharp edges until I got free. I decided I just as soon be shot trying to get away as the other way, so I made a break for it. I ran to the front of the ship and slipped down into the anchor hole. After a while, I heard shooting again, so I let myself down into the water.”
Rose was the only man, of the 30 POWs, not to be executed.
Of the 750 POWs who were boarded onto the ship, 82 POWs survived its sinking. One man died on shore while the remainder were rescued by Filipino guerillas and returned to U.S. Forces in October 1944. 2nd Lt. Harry Lafon Jr. was not one of these men.
It is not known if 2nd Lt. Harry R. Lafon Jr. died when the ship was hit by the two torpedoes, if he was one of the POWs who was shot by the Japanese while trying to escape from one of the ship’s holds, or if he was killed while attempting to swim to shore. What is known is that 2nd Lt. Harry R. LaFon Jr. died on Thursday, September 7, 1944, in the sinking of the Shinyo Maru.
In February 1945, the families who lost a son, husband, or friend, on the Shinyo Maru received the following letter. Note that the letter never indicates that the government knew the names of the survivors.
Dear Mrs. Lafon:
The War Department has now received the official list of prisoners of war on the Japanese freighter, which you were previously was sunk on September 7, 1944. It is with deep regret that I must now inform you that your husband is among those listed as lost when the sinking occurred. The War Department regrets its inability to entertain a possibility of his survival and must now consider him to have died in action on September 7, 1944. The date of receipt of this final evidence was February 7, 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and his accounts be closed.
The information available to the War Department is that the vessel sailed from Davao, Mindanao, August 20, 1944, with 750 prisoners of war abroad. The vessel was sunk by torpedoes on September 7, 1944, off the western shores of Mindanao. The indications are that relatively few of the prisoners had the opportunity to leave the sinking ship and of those who did many were killed by enemy gunfire. A small number managed to reach shore and a close watch for others was kept for several days. The Japanese government reports all the prisoners as lost, indicating that no survivors are in the hands of that Government. There is no information as to what happened to the individual prisoners but known circumstances lead to the regrettable conclusion that all of the unaccounted for prisoners lost their lives at the time of the sinking,
It is with deep regret that I must notify you of this unhappy culmination of the long period of anxiety and suffering you have experienced. You have heartfelt sympathy.
R. W. MODERHAK
1st Lt. A.G.D.
Bureau of Public Relations
J. A. Ulio
The Adjutant General
The family also received this message from General George Marshall’s office:
“General Marshall extends his deep sympathy in your bereavement. Your husband fought valiantly in a supreme hour of his county’s need. His memory will live in the grateful heart of our nation.”
Since 2nd Lt. Harry Lafon Jr. was lost at sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila. It should be mentioned that after his name it shows the 194th Tank Battalion. Although D Company fought with the 194th Tank Battalion, the company was never transferred to the battalion and remained part of the 192nd Tank Battalion.