Pvt. Joseph Donald Lajzer was born on October 30, 1918, in Toledo, Ohio. He was one of five sons and two daughters born to Peter & Katherine Lajzer. With his three brothers and two sisters, he lived at 3345 Maple Street in Toledo and attended St. Albert’s School and then Webster Elementary School. He attended Woodward High School for three years but left to support his family. Joe worked constructing a park with the Civilian Conservation Corps.
During Joe’s training, he was trained as a tank driver and to do maintenance work on machine guns. He then was sent to Camp Polk Louisiana with the 753rd in 1941. At Camp Polk, he volunteered to join the 192nd Tank Battalion. The battalion had been selected for overseas duty and needed replacements for men who had been determined “too old” to go overseas. After volunteering, he was assigned to Company B.
The 192nd’s deployment to the Philippines was code-named “PLUM.” This was supposed to be a secret move. One day Joe and three other members of B Company went to a local tavern. When the waitress saw him she said, ” Hey Joe! I hear you’re going to the Philippine Islands. Your code name is PLUM.” Joe thought to himself that it wasn’t much of a secret if the civilians knew where they were going.
From Camp Polk, the battalion traveled west over four different train routes to San Francisco, where the soldiers were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, the soldiers were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases by the battalion’s medical detachment. Those with minor health issues were held on the island and scheduled to join the battalion at a later date. Others were released from service and replaced.
The battalion sailed from San Francisco on Monday, October 27 for Hawaii as part of a three-ship convoy. They arrived in Hawaii on Sunday, November 2, and had a layover. The soldiers received passes and allowed to explore the islands. They sailed again on Tuesday, November 4, for Guam. When the ships arrived at Guam, they took on bananas, vegetables, coconuts, and water. The soldiers remained on ship since the convoy was sailing the next day. About 8:00 in the morning on November 20, the ships arrived at Manila Bay. After arriving at Manila, it was three or four hours before they disembarked. Most of the battalion boarded trucks and rode to Ft. Stotsenburg north of Manila.
At the fort, the tankers were met by General Edward King. King welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons. They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts. The plan was for them, with the 194th Tank Battalion, to take part in maneuvers.
As a member of Company B, Joseph was assigned to ordnance and worked with Pvt. Carl Maggio and 1st Sgt. Roger Heilig. The men made sure that the tanks had the ammunition, food, and gasoline they needed.
Joe and PFC Carl Maggio were sitting outside their tent loading machine gun belts. They had heard the news about Pearl Harbor from the medics, but, they did not believe it. As they worked they heard a noise, Joe and Carl looked up and saw planes. Since they all knew B-17s were supposed to be landing at Clark Field, Joe paid little attention to the planes.
When he heard the sound of bombs exploding Joe took off for cover. He remembered seeing men running in every direction. About two blocks from his tent, he found a ditch that was being dug and dove into it. He shared the trench with two Filipinos. Doing something was better than just sitting there, so Joe pulled out his .45 and started shooting at the planes.
Being assigned to ordnance Joe and 1st Sgt. Roger Heilig worked to get the tanks the supplies they needed. It was while Joe was doing this job that he met a British officer. The officer asked Joe and three other men if they could shoot a .45. Each took a turn attempting to hit a1917 can of rations. Joe was the only one to hit it. The officer made Joe his Bren-gun carrier driver.
Joe drove the Bren-gun carrier for one or two weeks and drove the officer to the front. He would stop the carrier and the officer would get out. He told Joe to wait for him for an hour and if he didn’t return to leave without him. The fifth day they did this Joe waited the hour. The officer did not return, so Joe waited a second hour. After that hour, Joe returned to the bivouac area. He never saw the officer again.
Joe was next posted on a machine-gun detail with two other members of the 192nd. They each worked a two-hour shift. The machine-gun covered an area which the Japanese could attack through. One night Joe was doing his shift when a Sgt. Chuck Kimberly told him of the surrender. He finished the shift and left the other two men sleep. The next morning they destroyed the machine-gun. Not that long afterward, Japanese soldiers came through the clearing that their machine-gun had covered.
The Japanese soldiers searched Joe and the others. The first soldier took his watch. The next Japanese soldier took his lighter and gave him matches. A third soldier took the matches.
Joe and his company made their way to Mariveles and stayed there for a day. They were fed a spoonful of rice and a square piece of bacon. Joe and two other men pulled their food so that they would each get a larger portion.
Joe took part in the death march and recalled that the POWs had no food, no water and no rest. On the march, he tried to help the weaker POWs to march. One of these was Maj. Havelock Nelson.
On the fourth day of the march, Joe and the other Prisoners Of War heard a rumor that the injured would be driven to the POW camp. Joe began to act like he was lame. He slowly began to fall behind his group. To his left was a guard, the guard looked at Joe and chased him with his bayonet pointed at Joe. He recalled that the prisoners marched well into the night, and as they marched, were unaware that they were marching on the bodies of the dead who had been run over by Japanese trucks.
At San Fernando, about 100 POWs were packed into a boxcar. Those who died remained standing until the car was emptied at Capas. When the prisoners got off the train, there were Japanese offering them money to buy food. Joe did not take it but knew others who did. He walked the last miles to Camp O’Donnell.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino training base that the Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They also searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Joe counted 38 men who were separated from the rest of the POWs. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting. Joe was thankful that he had not taken the money at Capas, and he was even more thankful that the Japanese soldier had taken the matches from him.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. When the Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, Tsuneyoshi 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.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had been laying was scraped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day.
It was in May or early June that his family received a message from the War Department.
“Dear Mrs. K. Lajzer :
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Private Joseph D. Lajzer, 35,017,526, who, according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“I deeply regret that it is impossible for me to give you more information than is contained in this letter. In the last days before the surrender of Bataan, there were casualties which were not reported to the War Department. Conceivably the same is true of the surrender of Corregidor and possibly other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese Government has indicated its intention of conforming to the terms of the Geneva Convention with respect to the interchange of information regarding prisoners of war. At some future date, this Government will receive through Geneva a list of persons who have been taken prisoners of war. Until that time the War Department cannot give you positive information.
“The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is to be hoped that the Japanese Government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At that time you will be notified by this office in the event that his name is contained in the list of prisoners of war. In the case of persons known to have been present in the Philippines and who are not reported to be prisoners of war by the Japanese Government, the War Department will continue to carry them as “missing in action” in the absence of information to the contrary, until twelve months have expired. At the expiration of twelve months and in the absence of other information the War Department is authorized to make a final determination.
“Recent legislation makes provision to continue the pay and allowances of persons carried in a “missing” status for a period not to exceed twelve months; to continue, for the duration of the war, the pay and allowances of persons known to have been captured by the enemy; to continue allotments made by missing personnel for a period of twelve months and allotments or increase allotments made by persons by the enemy during the time they are so held; to make make new allotments or increase allotments to certain dependents defined in Public Law 490, 77th Congress. The latter dependents generally include the legal wife, dependent children under twenty-one years of age and dependent mother, or such dependents as having been designated in official records. Eligible dependents who can establish a need for financial assistance and are eligible to receive this assistance the amount allotted will be deducted from pay which would otherwise accrue to the credit of the missing individual.
“Very Truly yours
J. A. Ulio (signed)
The Adjutant General”
To get out of Camp O’Donnell, Joe volunteered to go out on a work detail to rebuild the bridges they had destroyed during the withdrawal into Bataan. 250 POWs arrived at Calauan on May 10, from there, the POWs were divided up into detachments and sent to different barrios. In Joe’s case, he was sent to a sawmill near Lipa Batangas. Joe recalled that he and the other POWs slept on the ground. He also said that each POW had to pick up a log and carry it to the mill.
It was at Lipa Batangas that Joe and his fellow POW’s had one of the few moments that could be described as humorous. The POWs had been working in the hot sun and wanted a break. Joe being the brave one went up to the Japanese officer in charge of the detail and in his poor Japanese, asked the officer for a break for the POWs. The officer did not respond. Joe returned to his fellow POWs cursing in English and Polish about the officer.
When the officer did not respond a second time, Joe began to curse in Polish and English. The officer looked at him and said in perfect English that Joe was right and that the men deserved a break. Joe felt pretty silly.
When the officer got done talking, Joe asked him where he had learned to speak English. As it turned out, the officer had been educated at a university in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He told Joe he returned to Japan to visit his mother and father and that the Japanese government would not let him out of the country.
Later in the day, an American sergeant escaped. During the escape, a Japanese soldier had been killed. The Japanese had forty Filipinos and seven GIs lined up. A Japanese lieutenant had a hat with 22 pieces of paper in it. He came up to Joe and the POWs he was with and told each man to pull out a sheet of paper. Three sheets of paper had “Xs” on them. He told them that the men who pulled out the sheets with the “Xs” would be killed. Another lieutenant, who went to the school in the U. S. came by and asked what was going on, when he found out, he said to the first Japanese officer that Joe and the other POWs had been with him and would not be executed.
While Joe was on the detail, his family received a second message from the War Department. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Private Joseph D. Lajzer had not been reported as a casualty. The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, until definite information to the contrary is received.
“Efforts to secure prisoner of war lists from the Philippines have not been successful to this date due to the lack of communication and the fact that the Japanese Government has not yet given permission for the Swiss representative and the International Red Cross delegates to make visits to prisoner of war camps in the islands. When the lists of prisoners are received, we will clear the name of your son and send you any additional information that we may have.”
He remained on the detail until September 8 when the POWs were sent to Cabanatuan which had opened to replace Camp O’Donnell. The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march where held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where those men captured when Corregidor surrendered were taken. The Japanese wanted them to be separated from the Bataan POWs. In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp. Camps 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1.
Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with. To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which 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.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. The two major details were the farm detail and the airfield detail which lasted for years. A typical day in any detail lasted from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in a while, they received bread.
The camp hospital was known as “Zero Ward” because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks. The sickest POWs were sent there to die. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves, and they would not go into the building. There were two rolls of wooden platforms around the perimeter of the building. The sickest POWs were put on the lower platform which had holes cut into it so they could relieve themselves. Most of those who entered the ward died.
The POWs had the job of burying the dead. To do this, they worked in teams of four men. Each team carried a litter of four to six dead men to the cemetery where they were buried in graves containing 15 to 20 bodies.
After arriving in the camp, Joe began to suffer from hemorrhoids and was put into Zero Ward on Tuesday, September 9, 1942. He recalled that he was surrounded by men dying. To get out of the ward, Joe would take a walk. It would take him four hours to walk a block and four more to walk back. He was finally discharged on Friday, October 16.
Joe went out on a work detail to Camp Murphy arriving there on October 23, 1943. The POWs on the detail worked at constructing a northeast to the southwest runway. The workday for the POWs was from 8:00 A.M. until Noon and 1:00 P.M. until 5:00 P.M. When they arrived at the airfield they were divided into two groups which alternated between working for an hour while the other and resting for an hour.
The work was hard and required the POWs to remove dirt and rock from one area and dumping it onto the runways. The dirt and rock were removed with picks and shovels and put into mining cars which were pushed by POWs to the area where they were going to be dumped.
In May 1943, the work was sped up. The POWs weren’t sure if this was because they were behind schedule or if the airfield was needed because of the military situation. The runway was built through rice paddies which made the work harder since they still had water in them.
On January 29, 1944, the POWs were moved to Camp Murphy #2. POW work hours were also changed in January 1944. From this time on, the POWs started at 7:00 A.M. and worked until 11:00 A.M. to avoid the hottest part of the day. In the afternoon, the POWs worked from 1:30 to 5:00 P.M. They had their one day off a week cut to a half-day a week. On May 26, the afternoon work hours were extended to 6:00 P.M. At some point, some POWs were assigned to building a second runway about three miles from the camp. Detail ended on August 20, 1944, and the POWs were transferred to Bilibid Prison.
On March 1, the POWs witnessed the execution of Pvt. George Garrett by the camp commander, Lt. Yoshi Koshi, for planning to escape. According to the POWs, Garrett and two other men had planned an escape and were informed on by the Navy Chief Signalman, Harold Hirschberg, who the POWs considered a collaborator. According to the POWs, Hirschberg told Garrett, who he had, had a fight with, “You’ll never leave this camp alive.” The POWs stated that over several days, the Japanese starved Garrett, beat him, and finally placed a garden hose in Garrett’s mouth until his stomach was filled with water. The Japanese then stood on his abdomen which caused his death three days later.
It is not known when and if his family learned he was a Prisoner of War. It is possible that they never learned he was alive until he was liberated.
Joe was sent to Bilibid and stayed in the prison for about a month and was boarded onto “hell ship” the Hokusen Maru on October 1, 1944. The ship sailed but dropped anchor at the harbor’s breakwater. It remained there for three days and the temperatures in the hold rose to over 100 degrees causing some men to go crazy. The Japanese threatened to kill the POWs if they didn’t quiet the men. To do this, the sane POWs strangled those out of their minds or hit them with canteens.
As part of a ten-ship convoy, it sailed again on October 4 and stopped at Cabcaban. The next day, it was at San Fernando La Union, where the ships were joined by four more ships and five escorts. The ships stayed close to the shoreline to prevent submarine attacks which failed since, on October 6, two of the ships were sunk.
The ships were informed, on October 9, that American carriers were seen near Formosa and American planes were in the area. The decision was made that the ships would sail to Hong Kong. During this part of the trip, the ships ran into American submarines which sank two more ships. The Hokusen Maru arrived at Hong Kong on October 11. While it was in port, American planes bombed the harbor on October 16. On October 21, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa, arriving on October 24.
Many of the POWs disembarked the ship, on November 8, and held at Inrin Temporary Camp on Formosa. The POWs did light work and gardened. The healthier POWs worked at a sugar mill. The Japanese told the POWs that if the Americans invaded Formosa that they would all be killed. When the Japanese decided to send the Hokusen Maru POWs to Japan, they determined he was too ill to go. Joe was reassigned to OKA Camp where the POWs constructed runways. Joseph also was held at Heito and Taihoku #6. Joe was one of eleven Americans held in his camp. Joe also worked on a sanitation detail at one of the camps. He recalled two men would carry a bucket and dump it into a concrete pool.
Joe and the other prisoners had no idea how the war was going. The first hint that something was happening was when they saw B-29s and P-38s over the island. The P-38’s were involved in dogfights with Japanese planes. Around September 1, 1945 food was dropped to the POWs from planes. The Japanese then gave each POW five cigarettes and a handful of peanuts. The POWs were told that they did not have to work that day.
On September 6, 1945, the U. S. Navy came to the island and the POWs were liberated. It was at that time that his parents received another message from the War Department.
“Mr. Kuno Bashleben: The secretary of war has asked me to inform you that your son, Pvt. Joseph D. Lajzer was returned to military control Sept. 6 and is being returned to the United States within the near future. He will be given the opportunity to communicate with you upon his arrival if he has not already done so.
“E. F. Witsell
“Acting Adjutant General of the Army”
In September 1945, Joseph was returned to the Philippine Islands for medical treatment. He was boarded onto the U.S.S. Yarmouth and arrived in San Francisco on October 8, 1945.
Joseph Lajzer married, Adelina Lopez, and became a father of two children. He reenlisted, but this time in the U.S. Air Force. He was a veteran of the Vietnam War. After Vietnam, he was an airplane mechanic at Kelly Air Force Base. When he retired from the Air Force, he resided in San Antonio, Texas.
Joseph Lazjer passed away on March 16, 2013, in San Antonio, Texas. He was buried at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.
The photograph at the top of this page was taken immediately after Joe was liberated from the POW camp on Formosa.