PFC Joseph F. McCrea was born on March 2, 1920, in Benton, Wisconsin, and was the son of John R. McCrea & Flora Mae Peacock-McCrea. It is known that his mother passed away soon after his birth. He grew up in Benton with his brother and two sisters. His father passed away in 1938, and Joe moved to Janesville, in 1939, to live with his sister and her family. In 1940, Joe joined the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Tank Company headquartered in an armory in Janesville.
On November 28, 1940, Joseph went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, the company when it was called to federal service as A Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. At Ft. Knox, Joseph had trained as a radioman and was assigned to a half-track.
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 the 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 the late summer, the tankers were ordered to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers. At one point, the 192nd, which was part of the Red Army, broke through the Blue Army’s defensive perimeter. As they were about to overrun the headquarters of General George S. Patton, the maneuvers were canceled.
After the maneuvers, the 192nd Tank Battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana instead of returning to Ft. Knox. The members of the battalion had no idea why they were sent to the fort. It was on the side of a hill that they learned they were being sent overseas. Those men who were married or 29 years old, or older, were given the opportunity to resign from federal service. Once this was done, replacements came from the 753rd Tank Battalion which had been sent to the base. The 753rd also gave their tanks to the 192nd.
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 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.
In August the battalion was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers from September 1 through 30. It was after the maneuvers that the battalion received orders to report to Camp Polk, Louisiana, for further orders. On the side of a hill, the tankers were informed that they were being sent overseas. Joe received a furlough home so he could say his goodbyes.
The battalion traveled, by train, over different routes to San Francisco, California, where they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T.General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island and received inoculations and physicals from the battalion’s medical detachment. Those members of the battalion who were found to have treatable medical conditions remained behind on the island. They were scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date, while some 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.
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 that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that they received what they needed, and 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 readied their tanks to take part in maneuvers.
On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members, or half-track crew members, remained with each vehicle, at all times, and received their meals from food trucks.
On December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Joseph lived through the attack on Clark Field. That morning, the tanks were brought up to full strength at the perimeter of the airfield. At 12:45, planes were spotted approaching the airfield, and the soldiers had time enough to count 54 planes in formation. When bombs began exploding on the runways, the tankers 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, the tankers lived through several more air raids. Most 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 for the next three and one-half years.
On December 12, the company was sent to the Barrio of Dau so it would be close to a highway and railroad from sabotage. Joe, Sgt. Dale Lawton and Pvt. Abel Ortega stayed behind. For days, they were strafed and bombed by Japanese planes since there was no American Air Corps.
For the next four months, Joe worked with Forrest Knox in ordnance. Together they worked to keep the tanks of A Company supplied with working machine guns, gasoline, and food. On one occasion, during the night, Joe and Forrest were sleeping alongside a tank. A commotion started and Joseph woke Forrest up. The two men barely got into the tank when a mortar round exploded where they had been sleeping. His job, at this time, was to stay in contact with the tanks. The crew members of his half-track were Sgt. Dale Lawton, Pvt. Abel Ortega, and at times Capt. Walter Write and 2nd Lt.Henry Knox.
It also seemed that Joe was selected by the Filipinos when they found unexploded enemy ammunition. The Filipinos were always trying to give him the ammunition that they found. On one occasion, a Filipino attempted to give him a 75 millimeter Japanese shell. When the other members of his company saw this, they took off for cover. Joe, on several occasions, attempted to explain to the Filipinos that the shells were dangerous and that they should get rid of them.
The company’s last bivouac area was about twelve kilometers north of Mariveles and looking out on the China Sea. By this point, the tankers knew that there was no help on the way. Many had listened to Secretary of War Harry L. Stimson on short wave. When asked about the Philippines, he said, “There are times when men must die.” The soldiers cursed in response because they knew that the Philippines had already been lost.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese. When General King saw that the situation was hopeless, he initiated surrender talks with the Japanese.
When the Filipino and American forces on Bataan were surrendered, on April 9, Joseph became a Prisoner Of War. He took part in the death march from Mariveles to San Fernando. He then rode a train in boxcars crammed with POWs.
At Capas, Joseph and the other POWs disembarked the freight cars and walked the last three miles to Camp O’Donnell which 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 been laying was scrapped 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. To get out of the camp, he went out on a bridge-building detail under the command of L. Col. Ted Wickord of the 192nd. Joseph was sent to Calauan to rebuild a bridge that had been destroyed by the retreating American troops.
Arriving at Calauan, Joseph was reunited with John Wood, Phil Parish, Forrest Teal, James Schultz, Lewis Wallisch and Ken Schoeberle of A Company. Bill Nolan also joined the detail with Joseph. He was also sent to Batangas and Candaleria to build bridges. While on this detail, Joseph developed malaria and was sent 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 camp hospital was composed of 30 buildings. One was known as “Zero Ward” because it was missed by when the barracks were counted. The name soon came to mean the building where the sickest POWs were sent there to die. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves from disease, 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 date that Joseph was put into the camp hospital is not known, but it is known he was admitted to Building 17. At some point, he was visited by Ardell Schei who had been a medic with the 192nd. Schei stated that Joe was so out of his head, from malaria, that he did not want to see anyone.
Pfc. Joseph F. McCrea died of malaria on Tuesday, September 15, 1942, at approximately 8:00 A.M. at Cabanatuan POW Camp and was buried in the camp cemetery. After the war, Joseph’s uncle, Harold, had his remains returned to the United States. Joseph remains arrived in Wisconsin in October 1949, and he was buried in Saint Patrick’s Cemetery in Benton, Wisconsin, next to his parents.