T/4 Ralph A. Madison was born in South Dakota on March 21, 1918, but he grew up in Monona, Iowa, with his two brothers and three sisters. He was the son of Ruel & Anna Madison. He attended a parochial grade school and went to high school. In 1937, his family moved to Milton Junction, Wisconsin.
In November of 1940, Ralph and his brother, Harold, joined the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Division Tank Company in Janesville. His reason for doing this was that the draft act had passed and he wanted to fulfill his military obligation. He also was aware that the tank company had been federalized and was to train in Kentucky for a year. During his time at Ft. Knox, Ralph picked up the nickname of “Dimples.”
At Fort Knox, Kentucky, Ralph was assigned to the ordinance for A Company. It was his job to carry supplies to the tanks. A typical day started at 6:15 A.M. with reveille, but most of the soldiers were already up so they could wash, dress, and be on time for assembly. Breakfast was from 7 to 8 A.M. which was followed buy calisthenics from 8 to 8:30. After this, the remainder of the morning dealt with .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistols, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in military tactics.
At 11:30, the tankers got ready for lunch, which was from noon to 1:00 P.M., when they went back to work by attending the various schools. At 4:30, the tankers day ended and retreat was at 5:00 P.M. followed by evening meal at 5:30. The day ended at 9:00 P.M. with lights out, but they did not have to be in bed until 10:00 P.M. when taps was played.
The battalion then went to Louisiana in late 1941, to take part in maneuvers from September 1 through 30. It was after the maneuvers that the battalion was ordered to remain at Camp Polk. On the side of a hill, the soldiers learned they were being sent overseas. Many were allowed to return home to say goodbye to families and friends. Others were released from federal service because of their age and replaced by men from the 753rd Tank Battalion.
The decision for this move – which had been made in August 1941 – 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 a Japanese occupied island which was hundreds of miles away. The island 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 – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and 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 members of the battalion were given furloughs so that they could say goodbye to family and friends. They returned to Camp Polk and traveled by train to San Francisco, California, and were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island n the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe. On the island, they were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases. Some men were held back for health issues but scheduled to join the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
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 of the tankers suffered from seasickness. Once they recovered, they spent their time 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 S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline.
During this part of the voyage, 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. During this part of the voyage, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The cruiser that was escorting the two Army transports revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it took off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out that the unknown ship was from a friendly country.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward P. King, who apologized that they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own. Ironically, November 20th was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons. The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea. They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance as they readied their tanks to take part in maneuvers.
The morning of December 8, 1941, Capt. Walter Write informed his company that Pearl Harbor had been bombed by the Japanese. The tanks were put on alert and took their positions around the airfield. At 8:30 A.M., American took off to intercept any Japanese planes. Sometime before noon, the alert was canceled and the planes landed and were lined up near the mess hall. Their pilots went to lunch.
The tankers were eating lunch when planes were seen approaching the airfield from the north at about 12:45. Many of the tankers counted 54 planes. The planes approached the airfield and watched what was described as “raindrops” falling from the planes.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. Since the battalion’s bivouac was near the main road between the fort and airfield, the soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks and trucks. Anything that could carry the wounded was in use. When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building. Many of these men had their arms and legs missing.
After the attack, the company was sent to the Barrio of Dau so it would be close to a highway and railroad. From there, the company was sent to join the other companies of the 192nd just south of the Agno River.
On December 23 and 24, the company was in the area of Urdaneta, where the tankers lost the company commander, Capt. Walter Write. After he was buried, the tankers made an end run to get south of Agno River after the main bridge had been destroyed. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening. They successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
On December 25, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27.
A Company was sent, in support of the 194th, to an area east of Pampanga. It was there that they lost a tank platoon commander, Lt. William Reed. The company returned to the 192nd on January 8, 1942.
On January 28, the tank battalions were given the job of protecting the beaches. The 192nd was assigned the coastline from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan’s east coast. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
The company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets – from January 23 to February 17 – to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line after a Japanese offensive was stopped and pushed back to the original line of defense. The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket. Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank exited the pocket. Doing this was so stressful that each tank company was rotated out and replaced by one that was being held in reserve.
To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used. The first was to have three Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank. As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole. Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually exploded.
The other method used to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole. The driver gave the other track power resulting in the tank spinning around and grinding its way down into the foxhole. The tankers slept upwind of their tanks.
While the tanks were doing this job, the Japanese sent soldiers, with cans of gasoline, against the tanks. These Japanese attempted to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the vents on the back of the tanks, and set the tanks on fire. If the tankers could not machine gun the Japanese before they got to a tank, the other tanks would shoot them as they stood on a tank. The tankers did not like to do this because of what it did to the crew inside the tank. When the bullets hit the tank, its rivets would pop and wound the men inside the tank. It was for their performance during this battle that the 192nd Tank Battalion would receive one of its Distinguished Unit Citations.
Since the stress on the crews was tremendous, the tanks rotated into the pocket one at a time. A tank entered the pocket and the next tank waited for the tank that had been relieved to exit the pocket before it would enter. This was repeated until all the tanks in the pocket were relieved.
On one occasion, Ralph and Phil Parish were sent to get gasoline and ammunition from a supply depot. As they were driving, they were attacked by Japanese fighters. The two men jumped out of the truck and ran into the backyard of a home. In the yard, was an air-raid shelter that the family had dug. Ralph and Phil jumped into the shelter joining the family. When the attack ended, the two soldiers climbed into the truck and drove to the depot. When they got there, they discovered that the Japanese had bombed and destroyed it.
The evening of April 8, 1942, Ralph learned that the defenders of Bataan were to be surrendered to the Japanese. The next morning Ralph was a Prisoner Of War. With the other members of A Company, he walked to Mariveles where he began what became known as the Death March.
When the POWs reached Limay, officers with ranks of major or higher were separated from the enlisted men and the lower-ranking officers. The higher-ranking officers were put on trucks and driven to Balanga from where they march north to Orani. The lower-ranking officers and enlisted men reached the barrio later in the day having marched through Abucay and Samal.
At 6:30 in the evening, the POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men. Once this was done, they resumed the trip north, but this time they were marched at a faster pace and were given few breaks. When they did receive a break, they had to sit in the road until they were ordered to move.
When they were north of Hermosa, the POWs reached pavement which made the march easier. At some point, they received an hour break, but any POW who attempted to lay down was jabbed with a bayonet. After the break, they were marched through Layac and Lubao. It was at this time that a heavy shower took place and many of the men opened their mouths in an attempt to get water.
The men were marched until they reached San Fernando. Once there, they were herded into a bullpen, surrounded by barbwire, and put into groups of 200 men. One POW from each group went to the cooking area which was next to the latrine and received a box of rice that was divided among the men. Water was given out in a similar manner with each group receiving a pottery jar of water to share.
The Japanese organized the POWs into detachments of 100 men. From the compound, they were marched to the train station, where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “forty or eights.” Each boxcar could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly that the dead could not fall to the floor. At Capas, as the living left the cars and those who had died – during the trip – fell to the floors of the cars. As they left the cars, the Filipino civilians threw sugarcane and gave the POWs water.
The POWs marched eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. They believed the camp could hold 15,000 to 20,000 POWs. When the POWs arrived at the camp, they were searched and anyone found with Japanese money was separated from the other POWs and sent to the guardhouse. These POWs were accused of looting the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers. Over several days, gunshots were heard coming from southeast of the camp as they were executed.
The Japanese also took away any extra clothing that the POWs carried with them and refused to return it. Since there was no water to wash their clothing, the POWs threw away soiled clothing and stripped the dead of their clothing. Few of the POWs in the camp hospital had clothing.
There was only one water faucet for the entire camp and men stood in line from 2½ to 8 hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guard in charge of the spigot would turn it off, for no reason, and the next man in line would have to wait up to four hours for it to be turned on again. Water for cooking food had to be hauled three miles to the camp. Mess kits could not be cleaned.
Since most of the POWs had dysentery, the slit trenches overflowed which resulted in flies being everywhere in the camp including the camp kitchen and in the food. The camp hospital had no water, soap, or disinfectant which also caused diseases to spread. When the ranking American doctor presented a letter with the medicines and medical supplies they needed to treat the sick, the camp commander, Captain Yoshio Tsuneyoshi, told him never to write another letter. He also said that the only things he wanted to know about the POWs were their names and serial numbers after they died.
The Archbishop of Manila sent a truck full of medical supplies to the camp, but the Japanese refused to let it into the camp. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross told a Japanese lieutenant that they could set up a 150-bed hospital for the POWs, he was slapped in the face by the lieutenant. Medicines sent to the camp by the Red Cross were confiscated by the Japanese for their own use.
The POWs called the hospital “Zero Ward” because most of the men who entered it never came out alive. The Japanese were so afraid of contracting an illness that they put a barbed wire fence up around it. The POWs in the hospital lay elbow to elbow on the floor and operations were performed with knives from mess kits. Only one medic, out of every six assigned to treat the sick, was healthy enough to perform his duties.
Each morning, the POWs walked around the camp and collected the bodies of the dead and placed them under the hospital building. To clean the ground, the POWs moved the bodies, scraped the ground, put down lime to sterilize the ground, moved the bodies back, and repeated the process where the bodies had lain. It took two to three days to bury a man after he died.
Any POW, if he could walk, went out on a work detail for the day such as the one collected wood for the POW kitchen. Some POWs went out on work details which lasted for months to get out of the camp. The worse detail a man could be put on was the burial detail. On this detail, two POWs carried a dead man to the camp cemetery. Once there, they put the body in a grave and held the body down with a pole, since the water table was high, and covered it with dirt. The next morning, when the burials resumed, the dead were often sitting up or had been dug up by wild dogs.
To get out of the camp, Melvin volunteered to go out on the bridge building detail which was under the command of Col. Ted Wickord, who had been the commanding officer of the 192nd Tank Battalion. The detail’s job was to rebuild the bridges that the retreating Filipino and American forces had destroyed as they fell back into Bataan.
The POWs first worked at Calaun, where they were amazed by the concern shown for them by the Filipino people. The townspeople arranged for their doctor and nurses to care for the POWs and give them medication. They also arranged for the POWs to attend a meal in their honor.
It appears Melvin became ill while out on the detail and was sent to Cabanatuan. 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 on any detail lasted from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. The POWs on the farm detail would have to go to a shed each morning to get tools. As they left the shed, the Japanese guards thought it was great fun to hit them over their heads.
The detail was under the command of “Big Speedo” who spoke very little English. When he wanted the POWs to work faster, he told the POWs “Speedo.” Although he was known to have a temper, the POWs thought he was fair. Another guard was “Little Speedo” who was smaller and also used “speedo” when he wanted the POWs to work faster. The POWs also felt he was pretty fair in his treatment of them. “Smiley” was another guard who always had a smile on his face but could not be trusted. He was the meanest of the guards and beat men up for no reason.
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 awhile, 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. According to medical records kept at the camp, Melvin was in the camp hospital on June 8, 1942. No date was listed for his being discharged.
The POWs also 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. While a POW there, his brother, Harold, died. Ralph remained at the camp until he was selected to go out on a work detail. In July 1943, he was sent out on the Las Pinas Work Detail as a replacement for a POW too ill to continue working. It was there that he built runways at Nichols Airfield.
The POWs were housed in the Pasay School in eighteen rooms. 30 men were assigned to each room and slept on the floor. Each morning they got up and did exercises. When they finished, they were fed breakfast and marched about a mile to the airfield. As they marched, the Filipino civilians expressed their sympathy for the POWs whose clothing had deteriorated to rags. Ralph remained on this detail until April 1944.
On this detail, the POWs had nothing but picks and shovels to build the runways. At first, the work was hard but not as hard as it was going to get. About 400 yards from where they began working where hills. The POWs removed these hills with picks and shovels. The dirt was put into wheelbarrows and carried to a swamp and dumped as landfill. This turned out to be inefficient, so the Japanese brought in mining cars and railroad track. Two POWs pushed each car to where it was to be dumped. He would remain on this detail for almost seventeen months.
The brutality shown to the POWs was severe. The first Japanese commander of the camp, a Lt. Moto, was called the “White Angel” because he wore a spotless naval uniform. He was the commander of the camp for slightly over thirteen months. One day a POW collapsed while working on the runway. Moto was told about the man and came out and ordered him to get up. When he couldn’t four other Americans were made to carry the man back to the Pasay School.
At the school, the Japanese guards gave the man a shower and straightened his clothes as much as possible. The other Americans were ordered to the school. As they stood there, the White Angel ordered an American captain to follow him behind the school. The POW was marched behind the school and the other Americans heard two shots. The American officer told the men that the POW had said, “Tell them I went down smiling.” There, the White Angel shot the POW as the man smiled at him. As the man lay on the ground, he shot him a second time. The American captain told the other Americans what had happened. The White Angel told them that this was what going to happen to anyone who would not work for the Japanese Empire.
The second commanding officer of the detail was known as “the Wolf.” He was a civilian who wore a Japanese Naval Uniform. Each morning, he would come to the POW barracks and select those POWs who looked the sickest and made them line up. The men were made to put one leg on each side of a trench and then do 50 push-ups. If a man’s arms gave out and he touched the ground, he was beaten with pick handles.
On another occasion, a POW collapsed on the runway. The Wolf had the man taken back to the barracks. When the Wolf came to the barracks that evening and the man was still unconscious, he banged the man’s head into the concrete floor and kicked him in the head. He then took the man to the shower and drowned him in the basin.
A third POW who had tried to walk away from the detail told the guards to shoot him, the guards took him back to the Pasay School and strung him up by his thumbs outside the doorway and placed a bottle of beer and sandwich in front of him. He was dead by evening.
The welfare of the POWs was of no concern to the Japanese. They only concern they had was getting the runway built. If the number of POWs identified as being sick was too large, the Japanese would simply walk among the POWs, at the school, and selectmen who did not display any physical signs of illness or injury. Men suffering from dysentery or pellagra could not get out of work.
In particular, “the Wolf” was hardest to convince that a man was sick. If a man’s arm or leg was bandaged, he would kick the man’s leg, in the spot, it was bandaged, and see how the man reacted. If the man showed a great deal of pain, he was not required to work. In one case, a man whose broken wrist was in a splint was twisted by the Wolf while the man trembled in pain.
The remains of the POWs who had died on the detail were brought to Bilibid Prison in wooden boxes. The Japanese had death certificates, with the causes of death and signed by an American doctor, sent with the boxes. The Americans from the detail, who accompanied the boxes, would not tell the POWs at Bilibid what had happened. It was only when the sick, from the detail, began to arrive at Bilibid did they learn what the detail was like. These men were sent to Bilibid to die since it would look better when it was reported to the International Red Cross.
Ralph was sent to Bilibid Prison which was the clearinghouse for POWs being sent to Japan or another occupied country. He was boarded onto the Hokusen Maru on October 3, 1944. Because of the conditions the POWs experienced, the ships became known as “hell ships.” On October 11, the ship arrived at Hong Kong before sailing for Formosa.
Ralph arrived in Formosa on November 9 and was held at Heito POW Camp. Upon arrival, the POWs were searched by 1st Lieutenant Tamaki the camp commandant. Tamaki took any medicine or medical instruments he found on the POWs and gave the items to a guard who followed him down the line. The POWs discovered this the next day when they had the chance to discuss what had been taken from them.
After five days in Heito Camp, the POWs were put to work and cleared rocks so that the land could be used to grow crops. The POWs worked in teams of five. Each team was expected to load three boxcars of ballast a day. Each car held ten tons of ballast. Ralph’s team was expected to meet this quota. If Ralph’s team or any other POW team did not meet the required quota, they were beaten.
The beatings took place as the POWs entered the camp. Those men selected, who the Japanese decided were “slackers” and selected for beatings, were pulled out of line as the POWs returned to the camp. Three or four guards dragged the POWs to a water trough. The man was thrown into the trough and held underwater. When the Japanese were done with this portion of the punishment, the POWs were taken into the guardhouse and beaten on their shoulders and backs and legs by Lt. Tamaki. After two or three days of beatings, the POWs were released.
Within days of arriving at Heito Camp, ten Americans came down with what was called by the British POW doctor as “brain fever.” Since the doctor had no medicine to treat the sick, they died.
Lt. Tamaki called the British and American POWs together. He asked the POWs how many had a fever. About fifty or sixty raised their hands. He told the POWs that the camp cemetery was very large and that he attended to put as many of them in it as he could.
The POWs at Heito suffered from beriberi and dysentery because of the poor diet. It is not known when Ralph came down with “brain fever.” What is known is that T/4 Ralph Madison died on Formosa on Wednesday, January 17, 1945.
Sgt. John Massimino of B Company, who was friends with Ralph, was on the detail that buried Ralph at Tomon Cemetery in Takao, Formosa. The remains of the POWs were later disinterred by American Graves Registration and moved to another location possibly the American Graves Registration Mausoleum in Shanghai, China.
Since T/4 Ralph A. Madison died on Formosa, his remains were buried at the American Military Cemetery at Honolulu, Hawaii.