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Needham, 2nd Lt. Robert F.

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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 called up in July and was assigned to the 194th Tank Battalion. He was later assigned to C Company as a tank platoon commander as it prepared to leave Fort Lewis, Washington.

The story that Col. Ernest Miller, in his book Bataan Uncensored, told was that the decision to send the battalion overseas was made on August 13, 1941, and was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. In the story, 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 Formosa which had a large radio transmitter used by the Japanese military. 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 buoys on its deck covered by a tarp – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and the 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 fact was that the battalion was part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox and operational by June 1941. Available information suggests that the tank group had been selected to be sent to the Philippines early in 1941. Besides the 194th at Ft. Lewis, the group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – the 191st was a National Guard medium tank battalion while the 70th was a regular army tank battalion – at Ft. Meade, Maryland, the 193rd at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 192nd at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been National Guard light tank battalions. 

On August 13, 1941, Congress voted to extend federalized National Guard units’ time in the regular Army by 18 months. Major Ernest Miller was ordered to Ft. Knox by plane arriving the next day August 14th. That afternoon he received the battalion’s overseas orders. During the meeting, one of General Jacob L. Dever’s staff officers – Dever was the commanding officer of Ft. Knox – let it slip that the battalion was being sent to the Philippines. On August 18th, Miller stopped in Brainerd to see his family after receiving the battalion’s orders. When asked, he informed the Brainerd Daily Dispatch that the battalion was being sent overseas, but he did not disclose where they were being sent. Miller later flew to Minneapolis and then flew to Ft. Lewis. Different newspapers speculated that the battalion was being sent to the Philippines. The fact there were only three “overseas” locations the tanks could be sent which were Alaska, Hawaii, or the Philippines, and Alaska was already eliminated because B Company was being sent there. Ironically, a week before this, the wife a 194th officer, from St. Joseph, Missouri, wrote him a letter and asked her husband, Is it true that your unit is going to the Philippines?”

Documents show that the entire First Tank Group was scheduled to be sent to the Philippines. The buoys being spotted by the pilot may have sped up the transfer of the tank battalions to the Philippines with only the 192nd and 194th reaching the islands, but it was not the reason for the battalions going to the Philippines. The 193rd Tank Battalion had sailed for Hawaii – on its way to the Philippines – when Pearl Harbor was attacked. After it arrived in Hawaii, the battalion was held there. One of the two medium tank battalions – most likely the 191st – had standby orders for the Philippines, but the orders were canceled on December 10th because the war with Japan had started. Some military documents from the time show the tank group in the Philippines was scheduled to be made up of three light tank battalions and two medium tank battalions. Other documents show the name of the Provisional Tank Group in the Philippines was also called the First Provisional Tank Group. At the same time, the men in the Philippines referred to the tank group as the First Tank Group.

After receiving orders to report to Ft. Mason, California, men with dependents, men 29 years old or older, or whose enlistments were going to end were replaced. The replacements came from the 41st Infantry Division and had absolutely no training in tanks. The remaining members and new members of the battalion – on September 4th –  traveled south from Ft. Lewis, by train, to Ft. Mason north of San Francisco arriving at 7:30 A.M. on the 5th. From there, they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe to Ft. MacDowell on Angel Island where they were inoculated and given physicals by the battalion’s medical detachment. Those men with medical conditions were replaced. These replacements appear to have come from units stationed at Ft. Ord, California. 

The battalion’s new tanks were sent west from Ft. Knox, Kentucky, where they had been requisitioned by an officer of the 192nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Lt. William Gentry, for the battalion. Gentry was given written orders from the War Department giving him authority to take tanks from any unit so the 194th had its full complement of tanks. In some cases, the tanks he took had just arrived at the fort on flatcars and were about to be unloaded when he and his detachment arrived and took the tanks from soldiers waiting to unload them. From Ft. Knox, the tanks were sent west by train and were waiting for the battalion at Ft. Mason.

The tanks fit fine in the ship’s first and second hold, but the deckhead in the ship’s third hold was too low, so 19 tanks had to have their turrets removed to fit them in the hold. So that the turrets went on the tanks they came off of, the tanks’ serial numbers were painted on the turrets. The ship’s captain also ordered that all ammunition, fuel, and batteries be removed from the tanks. He stated they would be sent later, but it appears the batteries were sent to the Philippines with the tanks. It was stated that the men loading the tanks on the ship learned they were going to the Philippines from the longshoremen who were also loading supplies on the ship.

The soldiers boarded the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge which sailed at 9 PM. The enlisted men found themselves assigned bunks in the ship’s holds with the tanks. Those men with lower bunks found them unbearable to sleep in because of the heat and humidity. Soon, most men were sleeping on deck but they quickly learned to get up early because the crew hosed down the deck each morning. Many of the men had seasickness during this part of the voyage. The soldiers spent their time attending lectures, playing craps and cards, reading, writing letters, and sunning themselves on deck. Other men did the required work like turning over the tanks’ engines by hand and the clerks caught up on their paperwork. The ship arrived at 7:00 A.M. on September 13th in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the soldiers were given four-hour passes ashore. At 5:00 PM that evening the ship sailed.

The next morning, the members of the battalion were called together and they were informed the battalion was going to the Philippines. On the next leg of the voyage, the ship was joined by the U.S.S. Guadalupe, a replenishment oiler. The heavy cruiser, U.S.S. Astoria, and an unknown destroyer were the ships’ escorts. During rough weather, the destroyer approached the Coolidge for a personnel transfer in a small boat. The soldiers recalled that the destroyer bobbed up and down and from side to side in the water with waves breaking over its deck as it attempted the transfer. When it became apparent that a small boat would be crushed if it attempted to transfer someone from one ship to another, a bosun’s chair was rigged and the man was sent from the Coolidge to the destroyer. A few of the tanks in the hold broke loose from their moorings and rolled back and forth slamming into the ship’s hull. They did this until the tankers secured them.

The ships crossed the International Dateline the night of Tuesday, September 16th, and the date became Thursday, September 18th. A few days past Guam, the soldiers saw the first islands of the Philippines. The ships sailed south along the east coast of Luzon, around the southern end of the island, and up the west coast. On Friday, September 26th, the ships entered Manila Bay at about 7:00 in the morning. The soldiers remained on board and disembarked at 3:00 P.M. and were bused to Fort Stotsenburg. The battalion’s maintenance section, remained behind at the pier, with the 17th Ordnance Company, to unload the tanks and reattach the tanks’ turrets.

The battalion’s maintenance section and 17th Ordnance reinstalled the batteries, but they needed aviation fuel for the tanks’ engines to get them off the docks. 2nd Lt. Russell Swearingen went to the quartermaster and asked him for the fuel. He was told that they did not have any at the port so he would have to go to the Army Air Corps to get it. When he arrived at the Air Corps command, he was informed that they couldn’t give him the aviation fuel without a written order. It took two weeks to get the tanks off the docks. While all this was going on, the battalion’s half-tracks arrived as well as motorcycles. The battalion’s reconnaissance detachment had Harley-Davidsons at Ft. Lewis but the new motorcycles were Indian Motorcycles with all the controls on the opposite side of the bikes. The reconnaissance section also had peeps (later known as jeeps), but many of these were taken by high-ranking officers for their own use since they were new to the Army. 

Arriving at the fort, they were greeted by General Edward P. King Jr. who apologized that they had to live in tents and receive their meals from food trucks until their barracks were completed. He informed the battalion he had learned of their arrival just days before they arrived. After he was satisfied that they were settled in, he left them. They lived in six-man tents with dirt floors. It was so humid that their shoes would get moldy if not kept off the ground and cleaned. They received their meals from mess trucks by lining up with their mess kits, canteen, and cup, and taking their food back to the tents to eat.

After spending three weeks in tents, they moved into their barracks on October 18th, the barracks were described as being on stilts with walls that from the floor were five feet of a weaved matting called sawali  This allowed the men to dress. Above five feet the walls were open and allowed for breezes to blow through the barracks making them more comfortable than the tents. There were no doors or windows. The wood that was used for the support beams was the best mahogany available. For personal hygiene, a man was lucky if he was near a faucet with running water.

The days were described as hot and humid, but if a man was able to find shade it was cooler in the shade. The Filipino winter had started when they arrived so when went to bed it was hot but by morning the soldiers needed a blanket. They turned in all their wool uniforms and were issued cotton shirts and trousers which were the regular uniform in the Philippines. They were also scheduled to receive sun helmets.

A typical workday was from 7:00 to 11:30 A.M. with an hour and a half lunch. The afternoon work time was from 1:30 to 2:30 P.M. At that time, it was considered too hot to work, but the battalion continued working and called it, “recreation in the motor pool.” Tank commanders studied books on their tanks and instructed their crews on the 30 and 50-caliber machine guns. The tankers learned to dismantle the guns and put them together. They did it so often that many men could take the guns apart and assemble them while wearing blindfolds. They never fired the guns because Gen. King could not get Gen. MacArthur to release ammunition for them.

For the next several weeks, the tankers spent their time removing the cosmoline from their weapons. They also had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their M3 tanks. None of them had ever trained in one during their time at Ft. Lewis. In October, the battalion was allowed to travel to Lingayen Gulf. This was done under simulated conditions that enemy troops had landed there. Two months later, enemy troops would land there.

At the end of the workday, the men had free time. The fort had a bowling alley and movie theaters. The men also played softball, horseshoes, and badminton. Men would also throw footballs around. On Wednesday afternoons, the men went swimming. Once a month, men put their names for the chance to go into Manila. The number of men allowed on these trips was limited.  Other men were allowed to go to Aarayat National Park where there was a swimming pool that was filled with mountain water. Other men went canoeing at the Pagsanjan Falls and stated the scenery was beautiful. They also liked to go to the local bars and drink beer. It is known that they were paid at least once after arriving which was confusing since they were paid in pesos and centavos.  Many men at first had to learn how much things cost in a new currency.

The 192nd Tank Battalion arrived in the Philippines on November 20th. It was at this time that the process of transferring the battalion’s D Company to the 194th was begun which would give each tank battalion three tank companies. The 192nd was sent to the Philippines with a great deal of radio equipment to set up a radio school to train radio operators for the Philippine Army. The battalion had a large number of ham radio operators and set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours after its arrival. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When it was informed it was the 192nd, they gave the battalion frequencies to use and men were able to send messages home to their families.

With the arrival of the 192nd Tank Battalion, the Provisional Tank Group was activated on November 27th. Besides the 194th, the tank group contained the 192nd Tank Battalion and the 17th Ordnance Company joined on the 29th and arrived in the Philippines with the 194th. Military documents written after the war show the tank group was scheduled to be composed of three light tank battalions and two medium tank battalions. Col. James Weaver who had been put in command of the 192nd in San Francisco left the 192nd and was appointed head of the tank group and promoted to brigadier general.

It is known that during this time the battalions went on at least two practice reconnaissance missions under the guidance of the 194th. They traveled to Baguio on one maneuver and to the Lingayen Gulf on the other maneuver. Gen. Weaver, the tank group commander, was able to get ammunition from the post’s ordnance department on the 30th, but the tank group could not get time at one of the firings ranges at the base.

The tanks also took part in an alert that was scheduled for November 30th. What was learned during this alert was that moving the tanks to their assigned positions at night would be a disaster. In particular, the 194th’s position below Watch Hill was among drums of 100-octane fuel and the entire bomb reserve for the airfield. The next day the tanks were ordered back to the airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers after reconnaissance planes reported Japanese transports milling about in a large circle in the South China Sea. The 194th’s position was moved to an area between the two runways below Watch Hill. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and were fed from food trucks.

It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd’s communication tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ernest Miller, Major Ted Wickord, CO, 192nd,  Captain Richard Kadel, CO, 17th Ordnance Company, and Gen. Weaver read the messages of the attack. Maj. Miller left the tent and informed the officers of the 194th about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank crews were ordered to their tanks which were joined by the battalion’s half-tracks.

Around 8:00 A.M., the planes of the Army Air Corps took off and filled the sky. At noon, the planes landed and were lined up – near the pilots’ mess hall – in a straight line to be refueled. While the planes were being serviced, the pilots went to lunch. The members of the tank crews received their lunches from the battalion’s food trucks. At 12:45 in the afternoon, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the company lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field. The tankers were eating lunch when planes approached the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American and counted 54 planes in formation. They then saw what looked like “raindrops” falling from the planes. It was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that the tankers knew the planes were Japanese. It was stated that no sooner had one wave of planes finished bombing and were returning to Formosa than another wave came in and bombed. The second wave was followed by a third wave of bombers.

The bombers were quickly followed by Japanese fighters that sounded like angry bees to the tankers as they strafed the airfield. The tankers watched as American pilots attempted to get their planes off the ground. As they roared down the runway, Japanese fighters strafed the planes causing them to swerve, crash, and burn. Those that did get airborne were barely off the ground when they were hit. The planes exploded and crashed to the ground tumbling down the runways. The Japanese planes were as low as 50 feet above the ground and the pilots would lean out of the cockpits so they could more accurately pick out targets to strafe. The tankers said they saw the pilots’ scarfs flapping in the wind. One tanker stated that a man with a shotgun could have shot a plane down. When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, the dying, and the wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything else, 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. One result of the attack was that the transfer of D Company to the 194th was never completed. The company fought with the 194th but remained part of the 192nd. 

The tankers lived through two more attacks on December 10th and 12th. On the night of the 12th, the battalion was ordered to bivouac south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge. Attempting to move the battalion at night was a nightmare, and they finally arrived at their new bivouac at 6:00 A.M. on December 13th. 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 the Lucena-Pagbilao-Lucban area.

The battalion received orders to move its bivouac to an area near Bilibid Prison near the barrio of Muntinlupa. The battalion’s six half-tracks were given the job of guarding Batangas Bay for a possible invasion. During this time, little happened, but the tankers were strafed a few times by Japanese planes. The tanks spent much of their time doing reconnaissance and hunting down fifth columnists who used flares at night and mirrors during the day to show Japanese planes where ammunition dumps were located.

On one occasion, a C Company tank crew saw someone signaling with a flashlight from a building. The tank commander spotted a blinking light on the second floor of a house and said to two of his tank crew to put out the light. The two men left the tank about 50 yards from the house and went to the house. One man took the front door and the other the back door. The first man broke down the front door, heard something behind him, and whirled around and saw the other tanker.  The two men made their way upstairs and heard someone run across a room. They found the light, but the fifth columnist was gone. He had apparently jumped out the window to escape. After, this they had no more problems with fifth columnists. On the 15th, the battalion received 15 Bren gun carriers but turned some over to the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. These were manned by grounded Air Corps men and used to test the ground to see if it could support the weight of tanks.  

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 that 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 in 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.

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