Cpl. John L. Massimino was born July 8, 1915, in Akron, Ohio, and was the son of Frank & Mary Massimino. His family moved to Illinois where he lived at 640 Harrison Street in Oak Park, with his sister and four brothers. It is known that during the 1920s, his mother died leaving his father to raise his to raise the children.
John graduated from Oak Park-River Forest High School in 1935, and after high school, John ran a machine for Chicago Screw Company for two years before taking a job in an Oak Park florist shop as a clerk. He joined the Illinois National Guard’s 33rd Tank Company in Maywood, Illinois, on November 25, 1940. Because of his physical size, John was known as “The Mouse” to the other members of the company.
On November 25, 1940, the Maywood Tank Company was called into federal service and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for training. Upon arrival at Fort Knox, the company was given the designation of Company B of the 192nd Tank Battalion. John, like all the members of the company, was trained to operate tanks, half-tracks, and motorcycles. John qualified as a tank driver.
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.
During Christmas in 1940, John received a leave home. While he was home, he stopped into a local Oak Park newspaper and asked to have it delivered to him at Ft, Knox. While in the newspaper’s office, he did an impromptu interview about life in the Army. “The food is marvelous. We have been at Fort Knox for only one month, and I have gained seven pounds. I don’t believe that they have served the same meal twice.” He also said when he was asked about his shoes which seemed to be a little large, “The Army has the finest shoes in the country. I had to hike fourteen miles in these shoes when they were new, and I did not get one blister. You get a new pair if you do get blisters.” He also said the battalion’s barracks were well heated and neglected to mention that the members of the battalion were living in tents when they arrived at the base.
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 during 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 to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island on the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe. On the island, they were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases by the battalion’s medical detachment. 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 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 P. King, 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 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.
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.
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 prepared to take part in maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion.
On December 1, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers. Two crew members had to be with their tank at all times. They received their meals from food trucks.
The morning of December 8, the officers of the battalions met and were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hours earlier. The 192nd letter companies were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield.
All morning long, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, all the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45 planes approached the airfield from the north. The tankers on duty at the airfield counted 54 planes. When bombs began exploding, the men knew the planes were Japanese.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and 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.
That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their tents. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed. They lived through two more attacks on December 10 and 13.
The tank battalion received orders on December 21 that it was to proceed north to Lingayen Gulf. Because of logistics problems, the B and C Companies soon ran low on gas. When they reached Rosario, there was only enough for one tank platoon, from B Company, to proceed north to support the 26th Cavalry.
On December 23 and 24, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta. The bridge they were going used to cross the Agno River was destroyed and the tankers made an end run to get south of the river. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening. They successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
On December 25, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27. The tankers fell back toward Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29.
On December 31/January 1, the tanks were stationed on both sides of the Calumpit Bridge when they received conflicting orders, from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff, about whose command they were under and to withdraw from the bridge. The defenders were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 which would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders, and when he learned of them countermanded them.
Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridge over the Pampanga River and about half 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. From January 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.
At 2:30 A.M., the night of January 5/6, the Japanese attacked at Remedios in force and using smoke as cover. This attack was an attempt to destroy the tank battalions. At 5:00 A.M., the Japanese withdrew having suffered heavy casualties.
The night of January 6/7 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 withdraw over the bridge. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan, before the engineers blew up the bridge at 6:00 A.M.
The next day, the battalion was between Culo and Hermosa and assigned a road to enter Bataan on which was worse than having no road. The half-tracks kept throwing their rubber tracks and members of 17th Ordnance assigned to each battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations. After daylight, Japanese artillery fire was landing all around the tanks.
A composite tank company was formed, the next day, 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, 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.
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.
It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver: “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.”
The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Hacienda Road on January 25. While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M. One platoon was sent to the front of the column of trucks which were loading the troops. The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese.
Later on January 25, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight. They held the position until the night of January 26/27, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads. When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were supposed to use had been destroyed by enemy fire. To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
The tank battalions, on January 28, were given the job of protecting the beaches. The 192nd was assigned the coastline from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan’s east coast, while the battalion’s half-tracks were used to patrol the roads. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
Companies A & C were ordered to the west coast of Bataan while B Company – which was held in reserve – and 17th Ordnance held the southern shore of Bataan. The tankers were awake all night and attempted to sleep under the jungle canopy, during the day, which protected them from being spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes. During the night, they were kept busy with repeated threats both on and offshore.
The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over.
The company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets – from January 23 to February 17 – to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line after a Japanese offensive was stopped and pushed back to the original line of defense. The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket. Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank exited the pocket. Doing this was so stressful that each tank company was rotated out and replaced by one that was being held in reserve.
To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used. The first was to have three Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank. As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole. Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually exploded.
The other method used to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole. The driver gave the other track power resulting in the tank going around in a circle and grinding its way down into the foxhole. The tankers slept upwind of their tanks because of the rotting flesh in the tracks.
While the tanks were doing this job, the Japanese sent soldiers, with cans of gasoline, against the tanks. These Japanese attempted to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the vents on the back of the tanks, and set the tanks on fire. If the tankers could not machine gun the Japanese before they got to a tank, the other tanks would shoot them as they stood on a tank. The tankers did not like to do this because of what it did to the crew inside the tank. When the bullets hit the tank, its rivets would pop and wound the men inside the tank. It was for their performance during this battle that the 192nd Tank Battalion would receive one of its Distinguished Unit Citations.
Since the stress on the crews was tremendous, the tanks rotated into the pocket one at a time. A tank entered the pocket and the next tank waited for the tank that had been relieved to exit the pocket before it would enter. This was repeated until all the tanks in the pocket were relieved.
What made this job so hard was that the Japanese dug “spider holes” among the roots the trees. Because of this situation, the Americans could not get a good shot at the Japanese.
The tankers, from A, B, and C Companies, were able to clear the pockets. But before this was done, one C Company tank which had gone beyond the American perimeter was disabled and the tank just sat there. When the sun came up the next day, the tank was still sitting there. During the night, its crew was buried alive, inside the tank, by the Japanese. When the Japanese had been wiped out, the tank was turned upside down to remove the dirt and recover the bodies of the crew. The tank was put back into use.
During one tank engagement with the Japanese, Lt. Ed Winger’s tank was disabled by the Japanese. The Japanese used flame throwers on the tank blinding John the tank’s driver. The tank ended up wedged between two trees.
After escaping from the tank and attempting to make his way to the Filipino and American lines, Lt. Winger was shot by a Filipino soldier who mistook him as an infiltrator. To save Lt. Winger’s life, John carried him for three days in an attempt to reach a military hospital. Lt. Winger died before reaching the hospital. For this action, John received the Silver Star.
At the same time, the company took part in the Battle of the Points on the west coast of Bataan. The Japanese landed troops but ended up trapped. One was the Lapay-Longoskawayan points from January 23 to 29, the Quinawan-Aglaloma points from January 22 to February 8, and the Sililam-Anyasan points from January 27 to February 13. The defenders successfully eliminated the points by driving their tanks along the Japanese defensive line and firing their machine guns. The 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts followed the tanks eliminating any resistance and driving the Japanese Marines over the edge of the cliffs where they hid in caves. The tanks fired into the caves killing or forcing them out of them into the sea.
In February 1942, B Company was also given the job of defending a beach, along the east coast of Bataan, where the Japanese could land troops. One night while on this duty, the company engaged the Japanese in a firefight as they attempted to land troops on the beach. When morning came, not one Japanese soldier had successfully landed on the beach.
After being up all night, the tankers attempted to get some sleep. Every morning “Recon Joe” flew over attempting to locate the tanks. The jungle canopy hid the tanks from the plane. Walter Cigoi aggravated about being woken up, pulled his half-track on the beach and took a “pot shot” at the plane. He missed. Twenty minutes later, Japanese planes appeared and bombed the position. Frank took cover under a tank.
After the attack, the tankers found Richard Graff and Charles Heuel dead, and Francis McGuire was wounded. Another man had his leg partially blown off. The tankers attempted to put the man in a jeep, but his leg got in the way. To get him into the jeep, his leg was cut off by T/4 Frank Goldstein.
The soldiers were hungry and began to eat everything they could get their hands on to eat. The Carabao were tough but if they were cooked long enough they could be eaten. They also began to eat horse meat provided by the 26th U. S. Cavalry. To make things worse, the soldiers’ rations were cut in half again on March 1, 1942. This meant that they only ate two meals a day.
The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a scantily clad blond on them. The Japanese would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal.
In March, the amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. At the same time, food rations were cut in half again. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor.
The Japanese launched an all-out attack on April 3. On April 7, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. C Company, 194th, which was attached to the 192nd, had only seven tanks left.
The tanks became a favorite target of the Japanese receiving fire on trails and while hidden in the jungle. and could not fight back. The situation was so bad that other troops avoided being near the tanks, and the 26th Cavalry turned down a tank company’s offer of assistance in a counter-attack.
It was at this time that Gen. King decided that further resistance was futile. Approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6000 troops who sick or wounded and 40000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. At 10:30 that night, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms.
Tank battalion commanders received this order: “You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word ‘CRASH’, all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished.”
The night before the surrender, John, Sgt. Jim Bashleben and a few other members of B Company stopped a supply truck. The men gorged themselves on condensed milk. After drinking the milk, he had energy that he had not felt in months. He felt so good that he said, “I could have probably done the march walking on my hands.” It was John’s belief that the milk helped him, and the others, survive the march. He started the march on April 9 and arrived at Camp O’Donnell on April 15.
On the march, John witnessed several instances of brutality. The Japanese would line the prisoners up and make them wait for hours to get a half cup of water. He once saw a Japanese officer walk along the line and knock the cups out of the hands of the prisoners before they had a chance to drink the water. John recalled that men who died on the march were buried where they fell. In one case, John saw a Japanese detail burying a man who was not dead. When the man tried to crawl out of his grave, a Japanese officer hit him with a shovel and then they buried him.
On the march, a Japanese guard saw that John had a small signet ring on the little finger of his left hand. The ring belonged to Betty Jean Smith of Oak Park. It was a link with the past life he no longer had. He was not about to give the ring up. He ducked in front of a slow-moving group of marchers which caused the guard to lose him.
John also received a beating as a prisoner while on the march. One night the prisoners were herded into a small corral, and since he was tired he laid down to sleep. A Japanese officer, who was walking in the corral, stumbled over him. In anger, the officer kicked John six times in the head. The officer finished the beating off by throwing a brick at him.
The POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men and marched to the train station in San Fernando, where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “forty or eights.” The cars were called this because each car could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car and closed the doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly that those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. From there, they walked the last miles to Camp O’Donnell.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino training base which the Japanese pressed 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 Japanese 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.
At Camp O’Donnell, he also witnessed brutality over and over again. In one case, a Japanese guard called a young American soldier to come across the perimeter wire to him. When the soldier did, the guard grabbed him and said he was trying to escape and shot the man.
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.
The POWs were sent out on work details one was 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 the same word 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. He liked to hit the POWs with the club. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads.
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.
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.
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, John was hospitalized on Friday, June 19, 1942, suffering from malaria. He remained in the hospital until he was discharged on August 25. John was again admitted to the camp’s hospital on April 13, 1943. The report does not indicate why he had been admitted or when he was discharged.
In December 1943, he was selected for a work detail to Clark Field. The POWs on the detail built runways. He developed the philosophy that to survive he should do what the Japanese wanted him to do. One day, he overslept and did not report for “tinko” or roll call on time. He was beaten for oversleeping by the Japanese guards who used the butts of their rifles to beat him. They aimed their blows at the lower part of his body and his legs which resulted in his legs being swollen and discolored for weeks. He remained on this detail until September 1944, when he was sent to Bilibid Prison where he remained for several weeks.
The POWs boarded the ship, the Hokusen Maru, on October 1 and 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 for the ships to go 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 causing the ship to rock from the explosions nearby. On October 21, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa, arriving on October 24.
Upon reaching Formosa, the POWs were unloaded since many were in very poor condition. John was one of 110 Americans sent to Heito POW Camp and arrived there on November 9, 1944. The reason they were sent there was that the Japanese were too hard-pressed to send them on to Japan. He remained in the camp until January 24, 1945.
When they arrived at the camp, the POWs were made to stand in line. The camp commander, 1st Lieutenant Tamaki, went down the line and searched the POWs and their bags. In John’s case, he confiscated the vitamin pills that John’s sister had sent to him in a Red Cross package when he was at Clark Field. Tamaki also took two bars of soap away from John. The next day, the POWs met and noted that Tamaki had taken all the medicine and first aid equipment from them.
John described the work the POWs did in the camp. In his own words, “After we were there about five days, they started the men working. My job was to load ballast stones on boxcars. Along with four other men, I had to load three boxcars each with ten ton of stone per day. To perform this job we each used a basket called a ‘punk.’ Those who were too ill to perform this type of work, worked on the camp farm.”
On the treatment he saw given to POWs in the camp, he said, “On at least six different days, I saw the guards seize different men as we marched into the compound at the end of the day and throw them in a water trough in front of the Japanese guardhouse. I then saw the guards hold the man underwater, head and all. I did not witness the entire proceeding in each case but saw only a few minutes of each incident. However, in each instance, I could hear the rest of the struggle from inside my barrack. After the struggle in the water trough ended, I saw the man marched into the guardhouse. I could hear the men screaming.”
John learned from his talks, with these men, that once they were inside the guardhouse they were beaten by Lt. Tamaki. Tamaki hit them on their backs and shoulders and their legs with a bamboo cane. After two or three days, the POWs were released from the guardhouse. A few of these POWs showed John the welts on their backs and legs from the beatings.
Every two weeks, John would get a day off. On that day, he worked in the camp garden. As he recalled, “Because of the hard labor I was performing, I received a day off every two weeks. On one of my days off, I was planting cabbages or some similar vegetable, right outside the guardhouse. During that day I heard a man scream three different times, and each time I could distinctly hear Captain Tamarki laugh. This occurred sometime in January. The screams occurred for three or fours minutes each time. While the man was screaming, I could hear blows.”
John also recalled that not too long after arriving in the camp, ten Americans died from severe headaches or “brain fever.” The British POW doctor could not do anything for the men who came down with the fever since he had no medicine. Capt Tamaki called both the American and British POWs together and had a talk with them. He asked if any of the POWs had a fever. About fifty or sixty POWs raised their hands. Capt. Tamaki told the POWs that the camp had a large cemetery with a lot of room in it for all of them. He told the POWs he was going to work hard to fill the cemetery.
John recalled he was on the burial details for two of his friends, Sgt. John Morine, from Port Clinton, Ohio, and T/4 Ralph Madison, from Janesville, Wisconsin. According to John, both men died from the fever. John recalled, “Late in January after ten men had died, and one week before we left Heito, Capt. Tamarki called all the prisoners, British and Americans before him, and made a little talk. He asked how many men had headaches. Fifty or sixty men raised their hands. Capt. Tamarki said that was fine that he had a big cemetery out there and that there was plenty of room in it for all of us and that he was going to try very hard to fill it. Then he laughed and dismissed us.”
John also recalled that when the Japanese colonel who was in charge of making sure that the POWs were fed well came to the camp, the POWs rations were increased. He would tell them how lucky they were to be Japanese POWs. He mentioned meals of ducks, geese, pigs, and vegetables. All these were raised in the camp. After the colonel left the camp, the POWs rations were reduced to 450 grams of rice and one potato a day. John pointed out that the potatoes grown in the camp were washed, cooked and fed to the pigs that were raised at the camp.
John and the other POWs were boarded onto the Enoshima Maru on January 25, 1945, at Keelung, Formosa. Before the ship sailed the Japanese asked the POWs if anyone had headaches, 30 POWs were taken off the ship. He finally arrived in Japan and was sent to Naruo Camp where he worked in a graphite factory manufacturing electric carbide rods. The work produced ulcers on the POWs, which would grow in size the longer that they worked in the factory. The camp was opened for the POWs from Formosa on February 2, 1945, and was closed May 29, 1945, after the area was extensively bombed by American B-29s.
John was sent to Nagoya #9, outside of Toyama, in north-central Honshu, Japan. There, John worked in the kitchen. Most of the prisoners in the camp did dock work and loaded and unloaded ships. The meals he and the other five POWs prepared was mostly made up of wheat, rice, and soybean. Every tenth day, they either fried the fish or made a soup with fish in it. They also had to prepare lunches for the other POWs to take with them.
The POWs lived in two barracks which had dirt floors. The barracks had 100 feet long and 24 feet wide, with two tiers of platforms around the perimeter of each building. The POWs were given straw mats to sleep on, on the platforms. An 8-foot wide aisle ran down the center of the barracks. A ten-foot-high fence encircled the camp.
There was no real hospital building and one end a 42 foot by 24-foot area at the end of a barracks was used for this purpose. There was room for 20 POWs, but every day, there were as many as 100 sick POWs. The hospital was manned by an American doctor, who was a dentist, four American medics, and one Japanese medic. Once a month, each POW received a two-inch square piece of soap. All medical records were destroyed on August 16, 1945.
The men would wear out from being overworked and underfed. Then pneumonia took over and the men died in a couple of days. Their bodies would be put in a four-foot by four-foot by two-foot-tall box. It had handles that allowed it to be carried. A Buddhist priest from the village walked ahead of the procession in his white and gold robes. When the remains were returned to the camp, they were in a four-inch by four-inch by twelve-inch box. The man’s name and serial number were on the box. The box was kept by the camp commandant in his office.
Being that the Japanese had a quota of POWs they needed to work on the details each day, those suffering from diarrhea or dysentery were not considered sick. The sick were beaten with shovels to get them to do work that they were too sick to do. They also had their meal rations reduced.
Clothing for the POWs came from the Japanese. Many wore Japanese Army uniforms and getas which were traditional Japanese footwear. While working the POWs wore straw shoes, hats, and raincoats for inclement weather. If the POW still had his GI shoes, the Japanese provided leather for repairs.
Collective punishment was a common occurrence in the camp. When one POW broke a camp rule, all the POWs were punished. On one occasion, for 7 days, the POWs were denied coal, in the middle of winter, because someone had broken a rule. 15 POWs were accused of stealing rice from sacks that they were unloading from a ship. Once they returned to the camp, they were forced to kneel for from 1½ to 5 hours to get them to confess. Six of the fifteen men confessed and the others were fed and sent to their barracks.
When the camp commandant left the camp at 8:30 that evening, all the POWs were called from the barracks by the second in command and ordered to stand at attention. They were then beaten with pickax handles, rope, that was about 3 inches thick and five feet long, clubs, and farrison belts across the buttocks, face, and legs.
When the POWs passed out, they were either thrown into a large tub of water, with their hands and feet bound, or they had water poured on them until they revived. They once again had to stand at attention as the beating continued for a total of 3 hours. One POW counted that he received 150 blows to his face and 20 on his buttocks.
The Japanese denied the POWs food, clothing, shoes, and other items sent to the camp by the Red Cross. Instead of giving these things to the POWs, the Japanese pilfered the items for their own use. The guards were seen wearing shoes sent by the Red Cross for the POWs.
While a prisoner, John witnessed the bombing of the City of Toyama by 150 B-29s. When they were through, he watched the city burn. He thought it was a beautiful sight.
John remained a POW until he was liberated at the end of the war. He was returned to the Philippines and after medical treatment, he was boarded onto the Simon Bolivar arriving at San Francisco on October 25, 1945. After receiving additional medical treatment, he was discharged, from the Army, on April 28, 1946. Before he was discharged, on February 26, 1946, John was interviewed to give testimony against Japanese Captain Tamaki who commanded Heito POW Camp on Formosa. Captain Tamaki had been charged with the mistreatment of American POWs.
John returned to Oak Park, Illinois, but he did not marry the girl whose ring he had risked his life to keep. He also took advantage of an all-expense-paid two-week vacation, at a first-class hotel, all former POWs were offered if they lived in the Sixth Service Command who were on 104-day furloughs. He and two relatives stayed at the Bismarck Hotel in Chicago. At the end of his furlough, he reported to Ft. Sheridan, Illinois.
John married, Maxine Sobeske on Saturday, May 31, 1947, and the couple became the parents of two children. He resided in Bensenville, Illinois, and worked for Illinois Bell Telephone where he became a foreman until his retirement. After he retired, he and his wife moved to Seminole, Florida.
John L. Massimino passed away on October 23, 2001, in Florida. He was buried at Bay Pines National Cemetery, Bay Pines, Florida, in Section B, Site 282.