S/Sgt. Walter John Mahr was born in Oak Park, Illinois, on March 5, 1922, and was the son of Conrad Mahr & Anna Miller-Mahr. With his two brothers and two sisters, he lived at 408 South 13th Avenue in Maywood, Illinois. He attended St. Paul Lutheran Grade School in Melrose Park, Illinois, and Proviso Township High School in Maywood, where he was a member of the Class of 1940.
Walter had enlisted in the Illinois National Guard while he was still in high school. He did this because the National Guard unit in Maywood was a tank company and he loved to tinker with machinery to see how it worked, so the tank outfit seemed perfect for him.
In November 1940, the 33rd Tank Company was called into federal service as B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. The soldiers reported for duty on November 25 and marched to the Chicago & North Western train station in Maywood on November 28, where they boarded a train for Fort Knox, Kentucky. When they arrived at the fort, they lived in tents, with stoves in them, since their barracks had not been completed.
Walter was transferred to Headquarters Company when the company was created in January 1941. He was assigned to the company as a member of one of the three tasks assigned to the company. In June 1941, when Corporal George Smith was relieved of his duties in ordnance to become a tank crew member, Walter was promoted to corporal and took over his duties.
A typical day for the soldiers started in 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics.
At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After 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.
In late summer of 1941, the 192nd Tank Battalion was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers. While taking part in these maneuvers, the members did not know that they had already been selected for duty in the Philippine Islands. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk instead of returning to Ft. Knox as they had expected. It was on the side of a hill, that they learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, they knew PLUM stood for “Philippines, Luzon, Manila.” Most men received leaves home to say their goodbyes.
The reason for this move was an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf 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 that a large radio transmitter. The island was hundreds of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The and the next day, another squadron was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat that was seen making its way to shore. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
After the companies were brought up to strength with replacements, the battalion was equipped with new tanks and half-tracks with came from the 753rd Tank Battalion. The battalion traveled over different train routes to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, where they were taken by the ferry, the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe to Angel Island. At Ft. McDowell, on the island, they received physicals and inoculations. Men found with minor medical conditions were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd 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 S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline. On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward King, who apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that they had what they needed and that they received Thanksgiving 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.
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. It was at this time that Walter wrote a letter home. His only complaint about the Philippines was he didn’t like the climate. He also regretted that he would not be home for Christmas.
On Monday, December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard it against paratroopers. The 194th Tank Battalion was assigned the northern half of the airfield while the 192nd protected the southern half. At all times, two crew members had to remain with their tank or half-track and received their meals from food trucks. HQ Company made sure that the companies had what they needed.
The morning of December 8, 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the tankers were ordered the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. All morning long as they sat on their tanks, they watched as American planes filled the sky. At noon, the planes landed.
As the tankers were having lunch, 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. When bombs began exploding on the runways, the tankers knew the planes were Japanese. Since they had few weapons that could be used against the Japanese, they could do is watch.
On December 21, the 192nd was sent to Lingayen Gulf in an attempt to stop the Japanese from landing troops. From this point on the tanks would hold a defensive position until a new defensive line was formed and then withdraw from the position. They repeated this operation over and over again. It was during this time that he wrote a letter home which his family received in April 1942. In it, he told his family that he regretted missing Christmas at home.
Walter and his crew were involved in tank action against the Japanese. Walter was the member of the tank crew of Sgt. Raymond P. Mason and Pvt. Quincey Humphries, and Pvt. LD Marrs. Walter’s tank was advancing on Japanese positions outside of Tarlac and was a good distance in front of its support troops. Because of this situation, the Japanese were able to disable the tank by knocking off one of its treads and cutting it off from the support troops. Walter, Sgt. Mason. Pvt. Marrs, and Pvt. Humphries were ordered out of the tank by the Japanese. When they left the tank, they were told to run.
As they ran, the Japanese fired at them with machine guns. Sgt. Mason was killed instantly, but Walter, Humphries, and Marrs managed to make it to a sugarcane field and hid. It was in this field that Walter was found, with wounds on his legs, the next day and was taken to a field hospital for medical treatment. Humphries and Marrs were not seen again and believed to have been captured by the Japanese.
When Bataan was surrendered to the Japanese, Walter became a Prisoner of War and took part in the death march from Mariveles to San Fernando. At Mariveles, the POWs were ordered to move to a schoolyard where they were left sitting in the sun for hours. The Japanese did not feed them or give them water. Behind the POWs were four Japanese artillery pieces which were firing on Corregidor and Ft. Drum which had not surrendered. Shells from these two American forts began landing among the POWs who could do little to protect themselves since they had no place to hide. Some POWs were killed by incoming American shells. One group that tried to hide in a small brick building died when it took a direct hit. The American guns did succeed in knocking out three of the four Japanese guns.
Once at San Fernando, the POWs were put into a bullpen and ordered to sit. They had enough room to sit, but they could not lie down. Two were still alive and when one of the men attempted to climb out of the grave, the Japanese hit him in the head with a shovel and buried him.
The POWs were ordered to form 100 men detachments. Once this was done, they were marched to the train station in San Fernando and put into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane. The cars could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car. Those who died remained standing – since they could not fall to the floor – until the living climbed out of the cars at Capas. From Capas, they walked the last miles to Camp O’ Donnell.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino training base which the Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. 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 area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
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 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 on Corregidor were taken. In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp. Camp 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1.
Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with. To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became ill. 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.
After arriving in the camp, Walter became ill and was put in what was called “the camp hospital.” One barracks of the hospital was known as “Zero Ward” because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted the barracks. It was also where the sickest POWs were sent 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 records kept by the camp’s medical staff, Walter was admitted to the camp hospital on Thursday, June 18, 1942, suffering from cerebral malaria and assigned to Barracks 25. The records indicate that he died, at 20 years old, of cerebral malaria on Tuesday, June 23, 1942, about 6:00 P.M. and was buried in the camp cemetery.
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 the war, S/Sgt. Walter J. Mahr was reburied in Plot L, Row 11, Grave 138, at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila. It should be noted that his cross inaccurately shows him as a member of the 194th Tank Battalion. This is most likely the result of him being identified as a member of the battalion while he was hospitalized at Cabanatuan.
The photo, to the right, shows his name on the memorial wall at Cabanatuan Prison Camp, while the one on the left shows his grave at the cemetery.