What is known about 2nd Lt. Robert Forrest Needham was that he was born on October 8, 1916, to James F. Needham & Maude L. Jones-Needham. With his two brothers, he grew up in Hanford, Washington. He attended Washington State University and was a member of the Army ROTC program.
After college, Robert was an adding machine salesman. With his wife, Patricia, he lived at 1530 West Dean Avenue, Spokane, Washington. When he was inducted, he entered the army as a second lieutenant. He was assigned to C Company, 194th Tank Battalion during its training at Fort Lewis, Washington.
Taking a train to San Francisco, they 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, and men who had medical conditions were replaced.
The decision for this move – which had been made on August 15, 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.
The tankers boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8 at 3:00 P.M. and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands. To get the tanks to fit in the ship’s holds, the turrets had serial numbers spray painted on them and were removed from the tanks. The enlisted men were also quartered in the hold. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13 at 7:00 A.M., and most of the soldiers were allowed off the ship to see the island but had to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M.
After leaving Hawaii, the ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time that it was joined by a heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Astoria, and an unknown destroyer that were its escorts. During this part of the trip, on several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke. Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country.
The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and the date changed to Thursday, September 18. They entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M. and reached Manila several hours later. The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M., and were driven on buses to Clark Field. The maintenance section of the battalion and members of 17th Ordnance remained at the dock to unload the battalion’s tanks and reattach the turrets.
After arriving at Manila, the members of the battalion were taken to Ft. Stotensburg by bus. Arriving there, the battalion was housed in tents. Gen. Edward King greeted the battalion when they arrived, and he apologized that they did not have barracks for them.
The battalion spent the next weeks removing the Cosmoline from their tanks. They also made a trial run to Lingayen Gulf simulating an invasion force landing there.
The morning of December 8, 1941, the tankers heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor ten hours earlier. The tank company was ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. All morning long, the sky was filled with American planes. At 12:30, the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch.
Around 12:45, the tankers were having lunch when planes were seen approaching the airfield from the north. As the tankers watched the planes, they believed that the planes were American. When bombs began exploding on the airfield, they knew that the planes were Japanese. Enormous explosions filled the ears of the tankers while smoke seemed to be everywhere. Being that their weapons were not meant to fight planes, the tankers could do little more than watch.
After the attack, the 194th was ordered to Mabalacat a few miles from Clark Field. The battalion remained in the area until December 13th, when they were ordered to Fort McKinley. The tankers were now part of the South Luzon Force and positioned south of Manila.
The company held the Tagaytay Ridge, on the 15th, and attempted to catch fifth columnists who sent up flares at night. On the 25th, they withdrew over the Taal Road to Santo Tomas and bivouacked near San Paolo and assisted in operations at Lucena-Pagbilao-Lucban area.
On December 26th, Robert’s platoon of tanks received orders to proceed to Lucban because the Japanese had landed troops in the area. When the tankers got to the Lucban area, an American officer ordered the tanks up Route 3 to see how strong the Japanese forces were in the area. Part of the reason for the tanks being called to do reconnaissance was that the American command wanted to impress the Filipino troops. Robert protested this move since no reconnaissance had been made of the area. He believed that the tankers could be entering a trap. In spite of his protests, he was ordered to proceed up the road.
Being a platoon commander meant that Robert’s tank was the first tank in the column. As the tanks went down the trail, the trail made a sharp turn. His tank made the turn and took out the Japanese anti-tank gun. But it was hit by a shell from a Japanese field artillery gun. The shell came through the front hatch and instantly killed his tank driver. The explosion also blew off Robert’s legs killing him. The tank swerved off the road into a ditch. The explosion had caused the front hatches of the tank to be blown off. This left the surviving crew members exposed to enemy fire. As the surviving tank crew members attempted to escape the tank, they were machine-gunned by the Japanese.
According to Sgt. Emil Morrello, Needham was still alive. When he organized the surviving tank crew members to make a march to Manila, Lt. Robert Needham refused to be moved. He believed that he would be a hindrance and jeopardize the attempt to reach the lines. He asked the men to button him in a disabled tank. He died in the tank.
2nd Lt. Robert F. Needham was Killed in Action outside of Lucban on Friday, December 26, 1941. Since his final resting place is unknown, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Silver Star.
After the war, a United States Recovery Team was sent to the Barrio of Piis in the Philippine Islands to recover remains. Local residents claimed that the remains of two Americans were still inside an American tank which had been destroyed during a tank battle in December 1941. One man was found in the tank driver’s side of the tank and the other was found in the assistant tank driver’s position. The residents did not bury the soldiers but filled the tank with dirt. When the bodies were removed and the remains of both men were buried at Batangas as Unknowns X-7 and X-8. In addition, the remains of a third American were found outside the tank and buried by the team.
The remains of one soldier were exhumed from Plot: 1, Row: 11, Grave: 323, and reburied in Plot: 4, Row: 8, Grave: 999 as Unknown X-3677 at Manila #2 on August 13, 1947. He was designated as Unknown X-4702 when the remains were moved to the new American Cemetery at Manila.
Since there was no way, at the time, to know if the remains found at the tank were those of Needham or another member of the crew, 2nd Lt. Robert F. Needham’s name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the new American Military at Manila.