Pvt. Abel Flores Ortega was born on August 22, 1919, in El Paso, Texas, and was one of six sons born to Ruben C. and Deborah F. Ortega. As a child, he lived at 505 East 9th Street in Austin, Texas. While young, Abel had two things he loved, one was his ability to draw and the other was history. He registered for Selective Service on October 16, 1940, indicated he was employed by Modern Display, in Austin, and named his mother as his contact person. Abel received his draft notice and was inducted into the army in March 1941. He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training when it was completed, he was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, where he became a member of A Company, 753rd Tank Battalion. It was said that the “draftees” put up with a great deal of verbal abused from the “lifers” in the 753rd.
One day, the commanding officer of the 753rd asked his men if any of them would be interested in going overseas on a tour of duty to the Philippine Islands. Abel’s love of history and desire to visit the Orient resulted in him being the first man to volunteer. Abel was quickly reassigned to Company A, 192nd Tank Battalion, at Camp Polk. The battalion also received that tanks of the 753rd – and from the 3rd Armor Division – as it prepared for duty in the Philippines. The reason for this was that the battalion was made up of mostly National Guardsmen and those men who were married of 29 years old or older had been allowed to resign from federal service. Abel replaced one of these men and found himself living in a tent instead of a barracks. During this time it rained almost daily and he went two weeks without taking a shower since he was always wet.
There were at least two stories on the reason why the battalion was being sent overseas. According to the first story, the decision was made on August 15, 1941, and 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 covering the buoys– 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 original members of the battalion believed that the reason they were sent overseas was that they had performed well on the maneuvers. The story was that they were personally selected by General George S. Patton – who had commanded the battalion during the maneuvers – to go overseas. There is no evidence that this was true.
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 192nd at Ft. Knox, 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 – also a part of the tank group – was at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 194th at Ft. Lewis, Washington. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been National Guard light tank battalions. It is known that the military presence in the Philippines was being built up at the time, so in all likelihood, the entire tank group had been scheduled to be sent to the Philippines.
On August 13, 1941, Congress voted to extend federalized National Guard units’ time in the regular Army by 18 months. Two days later, on August 15, the 194th received its orders to go overseas. 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. It is also known that 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. The 70th and 191st never received orders for the Philippines because of the war. Some military documents from the time show the name of the Provisional Tank Group in the Philippines as the First Provisional Tank Group.
Along with the soldiers, the battalion’s new tanks were loaded onto flat cars, on different trains. The soldiers also put cosmoline on the guns and anything that they thought would rust. At 8:30 A.M. on October 20, over different train routes, the companies were sent to San Francisco, California. Most of the soldiers of each company rode on one train that was followed by a second train that carried the company’s tanks. At the end of the second train was a boxcar followed by a passenger car that carried some soldiers. A Company took the southern route through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Ft. Mason in San Francisco. When they arrived, they were ferried, by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. 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 rejoin the battalion at a later date, while other men, with major medical issues, were simply replaced by men sent to the island as replacements. Those men who passed their physicals believed they were on the island to prevent men from going AWOL.
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 four-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Thursday, November 6, 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, the transport, U.S.A.T. 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. The Louisville also intercepted two Japanese freighters that were hauling scrap metal.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables. Although they were not allowed off the ship, the soldiers were able to mail letters home 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. One thing that was different about their arrival was that instead of a band and a welcoming committee waiting at the pier to tell them to enjoy their stay in the Philippines and see as much of the island as they could, a party came aboard the ship – carrying guns – and told the soldiers, “Draw your firearms immediately; we’re under alert. We expect a war with Japan at any moment. Your destination is Fort Stotsenburg, Clark Field.” At 3:00 P.M., as the enlisted men left the ship, a Marine was checking off their names. When someone said his name, the Marine responded with, “Hello sucker.” Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks. The rest of the battalion rode a train to the base.
At the fort, the tankers were met by Gen. Edward P. King Jr. who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived. He made sure that they had Thanksgiving dinner – stew thrown into their mess kits – before he left to have his own dinner. Abel stated that his dinner was a piece of bread. If the battalion had been slower getting off the ship, they would have had a turkey dinner.
The members of the battalion pitched the ragged World War I 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. The area was near the end of a runway used by B-17s for takeoffs. The planes flew over the tents at about 100 feet blowing dirt everywhere and the noise from the engines as they flew over was unbelievable. At night, they heard the sound of Japanese reconnaissance planes flying over the airfield.
The 192nd arrived in the Philippines with a great deal of radio equipment to set up a radio school to train radiomen for the Philippine Army. The battalion also had a large number of ham radio operators and shortly after arriving at Ft. Stotsenburg, they set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When they were informed it was the 192nd, they gave them frequencies to use. Men were able to send messages home to their families that they had arrived safely.
The day started at 5:15 with reveille and anyone who washed near a faucet with running water was considered lucky. At 6:00 A.M. they ate breakfast followed by work – on their tanks and other equipment – from 7:00 A.M. to 11:30 A.M. Lunch was from 11:30 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. when the soldiers returned to work until 2:30 P.M. The shorter afternoon work period was based on the belief that it was too hot to work in the climate. “Recreation in the motor pool,” a term borrowed from the 194th Tank Battalion, meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon. During this time they took cosmoline off the guns of the tanks and loaded ammunition belts.
At Ft. Stotsenburg, the soldiers were expected to wear their dress uniforms. Since working on the tanks was a dirty job, the battalion members wore coveralls to do the work on the tanks. The 192nd followed the example of the 194th Tank Battalion and wore coveralls in their barracks area to do work on their tanks, but if the soldiers left the battalion’s area, they wore dress uniforms everywhere; including going to the PX. In addition, the khaki uniforms they had been issued were heavy material and uncomfortable to wear in the tropical heat.
For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies on the base. They also played horseshoes, softball, badminton, or threw footballs around during their free time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming. Men were given the opportunity to be allowed to go to Manila in small groups. Many men wrote home and told their families about how hot the weather was, the kind of food they were eating, about the countryside, and about the Filipinos.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. 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 communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the battalion’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, the CO of the 194th Tank Battalion, read the messages of the attack. The officers of the 192nd were called to the tent and informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to the south end of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. The members of the tank group remained behind in their bivouac.
The members of A Company heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor from Capt. Walter Write. Many of the men believed that this was the start of the maneuvers they expected. At 8:30, the planes of the Army Air Corps filled the sky in every direction. At noon, the planes landed, to be refueled, and the pilots went to lunch. During lunch, the “replacements” were ordered to stay with the equipment while the original members of the battalion went to eat. While guarding his half-track, Abel heard the sound of planes approaching Clark Field. The men had enough time to count 54 planes. As he and the other men watched the sky, they felt good about the planes in the sky and the protection they were providing them. With the thunderous explosions of the bombs exploding on the runways, the tankers knew that the planes were Japanese. The smoke and dust from the bombs blotted out the sun and made it impossible for the tankers to see more than a few feet. One bomb hit the mess hall where the pilots were eating.
The first wave of bombers was followed by a second wave of bombers and a third wave of bombers. The bombers were followed by Zeros that strafed the airfield and sounded like angry bees to the tankers as they strafed the airfield. Each attack lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. The one thing the planes did not do is attack the tanks. Abel recalled being on top of his half-track and firing his 50 caliber machine gun at the Japanese planes as they bombed Clark Field. The members of the battalion, who had gone to dinner, came running out of the mess hall and dove under their tanks and half-tracks for protection against the bombs.
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.
While the attack was going on, the Filipinos who were building the 192nd’s barracks took cover. After the attack, they went right back to work on the barracks. This happened several times during the following air raids until the barracks were destroyed by bombs during an air raid. According to the members of the battalion, it appeared the Filipino contractor really wanted to be paid; war or no war.
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, since they did not have any foxholes, the men used an old latrine pit for cover since it was safer in the pit than in their tents. The entire night they were bitten by mosquitoes. Without knowing it, they had slept their last night on a cot or bed, and from this point on, the men slept in blankets on the ground.
The next morning the decision was made to move the battalion into a tree-covered area. Those men not assigned to a tank or half-track walked around Clark Field to look at the damage. As they walked, they saw there were hundreds of dead. Some were pilots who had been caught asleep, because they had flown night missions, in their tents during the first attack. Others were pilots who had been killed attempting to get to their planes. The tanks were still at the southern end of the airfield when a second air raid took place on the 10th. This time the bombs fell among the tanks of the battalion at the southern end of the airfield wounding some men.
The company, on December 12, was sent to the Barrio of Dau so it would be close to a highway and railroad and protect them from sabotage. From there, the company was sent to join the other companies of the 192nd just south of the Agno River. On December 23 and 24, the company was in the area of Urdaneta. The tankers made an end run to get south of Agno River after the main bridge had been destroyed. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening. They successfully crossed 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 tankers lost the company commander, Capt. Walter Write, on December 26, when the landmine he was planting exploded in his hands. Before he died, he asked that roses be placed on his grave, but since there were no roses, the men placed a native red flower on his grave.
The tank battalions were also given the job – on December 26 – of holding the line against enemy armor and major thrusts until 5:00 A.M. on December 27. Maj. Ernest Miller – being the senior officer – was given authority to withdraw both tank battalions before 5:00 A.M. if he felt it was necessary. The tanks held the line but withdrew at 7:30 P.M. before the bridges they needed to cross were blown up at 11:30 P.M. that night. The 192nd and part of the 194th fell back to form a new defensive line the night of December 27 and 28. Arrangements had been made for the tanks to pick up their rations at Tarlac Depot. From there they fell back to the south bank of the BamBan River which they were supposed to hold for as long as possible. The tankers found their tanks being used as “mobile pillboxes.” The tanks were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29 serving as a rear guard against the Japanese.
While supporting the 194th Tank Battalion, on December 30, the company lost 2nd Lt. William Read. On a road east of Zaragoza that night, the company was bivouacked and had posted sentries. The sentries heard a noise on the road and woke the other tankers who grabbed Tommy guns and manned the tanks’ machine guns. As they watched, a Japanese bicycle battalion rode into their bivouac. When the last bicycle passed the tanks, the tankers opened fire on them. When they stopped firing, they had completely wiped out the bicycle battalion. To leave the area, the tankers drove their tanks over the bodies.
At Guagua, A Company, with units from the 11th Division, Philippine Army, attempted to make a counterattack against the Japanese. Somehow, the tanks were mistaken, by the Filipinos to be Japanese. The 11th Division accurately used mortars on them. The result was the loss of three tanks. The company returned to the command of the 192nd.
The tanks were stationed on both sides of the Calumpit Bridge, on December 31 and January 1, keeping the bridge open for the Southern Luzon forces. The defenders were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 which would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw into Bataan. Platoons from B and C Companies saw movement in the distance and opened fire. They later learned that they had knocked out five Japanese tanks. While holding the bridge, they received orders – from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff – about whose command they were under and were told to withdraw from the bridge without Gen Johnathan Wainwright’s knowledge. Because of the order, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces and about half the defenders withdrew. When Gen. Wainwright became aware of the order, he countermanded it. 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 and the Southern Luzon forces escaped into Bataan.
From January 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape. It was also in January 1942, that the food ration was cut in half. It was not too long after this was done that malaria, dysentery, and dengue fever began hitting the soldiers. January that the food rations were cut in half. Not long after this, malaria, dysentery, and dengue fever soon spread among the soldiers. For three days during this time, the only thing the tankers had to eat were coconuts that they climbed trees to get.
A Company, on January 5, was near the Gumain River attached to the 194th Tank Battalion. It was evening and they believed they were in a relatively safe place. Lt. Kenneth Bloomfield told his men to get some sleep. Their sleep was interrupted by the sound of a gunshot. The tankers had no idea that they were about to engage the Japanese who had launched a major offensive. There was a great deal of confusion and the battle lasted until 5:00 A.M. when the Japanese broke off the attack.
The tanks withdrew into Bataan during the night of January 6 with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th could leapfrog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdrawal over the bridge. Col. Wickord waited for A Company to cross the bridge but the company was nowhere in sight. He ordered the engineers – who had mined the bridge and were waiting for the order to destroy it – to wait until he returned. His driver drove him across the bridge and they found the company asleep in their tanks because they had not received an order to cross the bridge. After the company crossed the bridge the engineers blew it up at 6:00 AM. making the company the last American unit to enter Bataan.
The next day, the battalion was between Culo and Hermosa and assigned a road to enter Bataan 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 so they withdrew. It was about this time that the Philippine Scouts had been assigned Self Propelled Mounts and needed drivers for the half-tracks which resulted in a shortage of tank drivers and men in the battalion who had not been in a tank crew were assigned to a tank.
A composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd the next day. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks from attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. They were also to support the 31st Infantry. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. The remainder of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Aubucay-Hacienda Road. While there, the tank crews had their first break from action in nearly a month.
The tanks, which were long overdue for maintenance, were serviced by 17th Ordnance. The men cleaned their guns and themselves, oiled the guns and tanks, loaded ammunition belts, and did whatever work on the tanks that needed to be done. They also got more food than they had had in weeks and caught up on sleep. They also washed their clothes and those who needed to went to the dentist. It was also at this time that tank platoons were reduced to three tanks in each platoon. This was done so that D Company, 192nd, would have tanks.
Sgt. Owen Sandmire of the A Company said that because of the jungle canopy the nights on Bataan were so dark that the tankers could not see after dark. It was at night that the Japanese liked to attack. When the attacks came, if the tankers were lucky they were able to use their tanks’ machine guns on them. They could not use the turret machine guns since the guns could not be aimed at the ground. If the tank commander had attempted to use his pistol standing in the turret, he was an easy target, so the tanks would simply withdraw from the position.
Around this time, drivers were needed for the Self Propelled Mounts, and tank drivers were reassigned to the SPMs. The SPMs had a crew of an American driver, a Filipino Scout sergeant who commanded the SPM, and a gun crew from the Philippine Army. The drivers were replaced by other members of the battalions who could drive tanks.
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.”
It was at the Pilar-Bigac area on January 14, 17th Ordnance had the opportunity to do long overdue tank maintenance. Six carloads of parts, ammunition, and fuel for the tanks had been sent into Bataan in November which allowed the company to replace worn-out tracks and engine parts. The tanks were sent back into action as they became available. The next action the tanks saw was on the 20th when they were sent to relieve the 31st Infantry’s command post. In addition, the tanks received ammunition. On the 24th, the tanks were ordered to the Hacienda Road to support infantry but again could not accomplish their mission because of landmines planted by ordnance.
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 that 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 withdrawal 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 company took part in the Battle of the Points on the west coast of Bataan. The Japanese landed troops but ended up trapped. When they attempted to land reinforcements, they landed in the wrong place. One was the Lapay-Longoskawayan points from January 23 to 29, the Quinauan-Aglaloma points from January 22 to February 8, and the Sililam-Anyasan points from January 27 to February 13. The Japanese had been stopped, but the decision was made by Brigadier General Clinton A. Pierce that tanks were needed to support the 45th Infantry Philippine Scouts. He requested the tanks from the Provisional Tank Group.
It is known that a platoon of A Company tanks was sent to the points to help eliminate the Japanese. On February 2, a platoon of C Company tanks was ordered to Quinauan Point where the Japanese had landed troops. The tanks arrived at about 5:15 P.M. He did a quick reconnaissance of the area, and after meeting with the commanding infantry officer, made the decision to drive tanks into the edge of the Japanese position and spray the area with machine-gun fire. The progress was slow but steady until a Japanese .37 milometer gun was spotted in front of the lead tank, and the tanks withdrew. It turned out that the gun had been disabled by mortar fire, but the tanks did not know this at the time.
The decision was made to resume the attack the next morning, so the 45th Infantry dug in for the night. The next day, the tank platoon did reconnaissance before pulling into the front line. They repeated the maneuver and sprayed the area with machine gunfire. As they moved forward, members of the 45th Infantry followed the tanks. The troops made progress all day long along the left side of the line. The major problem the tanks had to deal with was tree stumps which they had to avoid so they would not get hung up on them. The stumps also made it hard for the tanks to maneuver. Coordinating the attack with the infantry was difficult, so the decision was made to bring in a radio car so that the tanks and infantry could talk with each other.
Only 3 of 23 tanks were being used and without the support of infantry and the trick during the attack through the jungle was to avoid large trees and clear a way for the infantry to attack. This they did by thrusting into the jungle. They only became aware of enemy positions when they were fired on. The tanks were supposed to have support from mortars but the ammunition was believed to be defective. It was found that the mortars were manned by inexperienced air corpsmen converted to infantry who had no idea that the arming pins on the mortar shells had to be pulled before firing them so the shells landed and did not explode.
On February 4, at 8:30 A.M. five tanks and the radio car arrived. The tanks were assigned the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, so each tank commander knew which tank was receiving an order. Each tank also received a walkie-talkie, as well as a radio car and infantry commanders. This was done so that the crews could coordinate the attack with the infantry and so that the tanks could be ordered to where they were needed. The Japanese were pushed back almost to the cliffs when the attack was halted for the night. The attack resumed the next morning and the Japanese were pushed to the cliff line where they hid below the edge of the cliff out of view. It was at that time that the tanks were released to return to the 192nd.
At the same time, 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. While doing this job, B Company noticed that each morning when the PT boats were off the coast they were attacked by Japanese Zeros. The tank crews made arrangements with the PT boats to be at a certain place at a certain time. The Zeros arrived and attacked. This time they were met by fire from the boats but also from the machine guns of the tanks and half-tracks. When the Zeros broke off the attack, they had lost nine of twelve planes.
B Company was 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. The Japanese later told the tankers that their presence on the beach stopped them from attempting landings.
Companies A and 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.
It seemed to the members of A Company that they always seemed to have the job of protecting the 155-millimeter howitzers that the Army used in batteries of six guns. The guns were mobile and could be hooked up to the tanks with a special vehicle and moved to another location. It was recalled that moving them took preparation and setting them up also took preparation. The tankers didn’t like this duty because the guns attracted Japanese fire. Whenever the guns started firing, the Japanese would send up Recon Joe to try to locate them. Shortly after this happened, the dive bombers came in and peppered the hell out of the position. On February 3, near Bambang, Limay, at KM 144, A Company’s bivouac was near a 155-millimeter artillery battery that was attacked by Japanese planes which came in low. During the strafing and bombing, Sgt. Ivan Wilmer was attempting to reach his tank when he was hit by shrapnel from a Japanese bomb killing him instantly.
The tank companies also took part in the Battle of the Pockets in February 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 so they wouldn’t smell 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. 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.
On February 3, 1942, according to Pvt. Abel Ortega, one of the company’s tanks was hit by enemy fire and the members of the crew abandoned the tank. As they made their way toward the other tanks and half-tracks in their platoon, one member of the tank crew, Pvt. Miles Weech was shot in his stomach by a Japanese sniper. Neil McCage, another member of the crew, seeing his friend shot, ran up to Abel and grabbed the Tommy gun that he was holding. McCage ran up the road in the direction of the tree where he believed the sniper to be. As he ran, he fired the gun into the tree. Since there was no more sniper fire, it is believed that McCage killed the sniper. Miles Weech died from his wounds on February 5.
The tankers, from A, B, and C Companies, were able to clear the pockets by February 18. 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. It was for their performance during this battle that the 192nd Tank Battalion would receive one of its Distinguished Unit Citations
The 192nd unlike other units had arrived in the Philippines just before the start of the war, so they did not have the opportunity to stockpile food. 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. During this time the soldiers ate monkeys, snakes, lizards, horses, and mules. 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 the picture of a scantily clad blond on them. They would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been a hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal. The amount of gasoline in March was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. It was during this time that Gen Wainwright wanted to turn the tanks into pillboxes. Gen Weaver pointed out to Wainwright that they did not have enough tanks to effectively do this, and if they did, they soon would have no tanks. Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor, but Wainwright declined.
The company’s last bivouac area was about twelve kilometers north of Marivales 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. 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, was attached to the 192nd and had only seven tanks left.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. Edward P. King Jr. decided that further resistance was futile, since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who were sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day. Companies B and D, 192nd, and A Company, 194th, were preparing for a suicide attack against the Japanese in an attempt to stop the advance. At 6:00 P.M. the 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.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. Phil Parish, a truck driver for A Company realized that he had bedding buried in the back of his truck and searched for it. The bedding became the “white flags” that were flown on the jeeps. At 11:40 P.M., the ammunition dumps were destroyed. At midnight Companies B and D, and A Company, 194th, received an order from Gen. Weaver to stand down. At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The driver was from the tank group.)
Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. It was at about 6:45 A.M. that tank battalion commanders received the order “crash.” The tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
As Gen. King left to negotiate the surrender, he went through the area held by B Company and spoke to the men. He said to them, “Boys. I’m going to get us the best deal I can. When you get home, don’t ever let anyone say to you, you surrendered. I was the one who surrendered.”
He also ordered them to surrender and threatened to court-martial anyone who didn’t. Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Wade R. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would not attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do. After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col. Collier and Maj. Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit in line with the Japanese advance should fly white flags.
After this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived, and King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff who had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get assurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
Unknown to Gen. King, an order attributed to Gen. Masaharu Homma – but in all likelihood from one of his subordinates – had been given. It stated, “Every troop which fought against our army on Bataan should be wiped out thoroughly, whether he surrendered or not, and any American captive who is unable to continue marching all the way to the concentration camp should be put to death in the area of 200 meters off the road.”
On April 9, 1942, at 6:45 A.M., Abel and the other members of the 192nd Tank Battalion were given the word that the Filipino and American Forces on Bataan were about to be surrendered to the Japanese. Abel destroyed his half-track and its equipment so that it could not be used by the Japanese. As he did this, he felt sad because they had fought so hard and lost so many men. When he was finished destroying the equipment, Abel knelt down and prayed to God to keep him alive. He also promised that if God kept him alive, he would help his fellow soldiers in what lay ahead. What lay ahead was simply called “the March” by the men.
Abel was initially shocked by the way the Japanese treated the Filipino and American prisoners on the march. They were marched with no sense of direction, without any food, and without any water. Prisoners who tried to get food or water were shot, bayoneted, or decapitated. If a prisoner fell out of ranks, he was initially mistreated. Some of these men were beaten the entire length of the march. If the man fell out again, he was shot or bayoneted. As he marched, Abel saw many bodies of prisoners lying along the sides of the road.
The guards were assigned to march a certain distance so they often made the POWs march at a faster pace so they could finish their assigned section. Those men who were sick had a hard time keeping up and if they fell out were bayoneted or shot. When the distance was covered, the column was stopped and allowed to rest and the guards were replaced by new guards who also wanted to complete their part of the march as fast as possible.
When the prisoners reached Cabcaban Airfield, they saw that the Japanese had set up guns and were shooting at Corregidor which the marchers had to get past. It was about this time that the American guns on Corregidor began to pinpoint the location of the Japanese guns. Shells were landing on the road that the POWs were marching on. 1st Lt. Kenneth Bloomfield, A Company, ordered the men to double-time it across the area in an attempt to prevent casualties. The only man to die during this incident was Lt. Bloomfield. After he had made it to safety, he simply collapsed and dropped to the ground. Some members of the company stated he had been hit by shrapnel from an exploding shell. Other members of A Company guessed that he had died from either heart failure or heat stroke. The POWs were allowed to bury him on the side of the road next to another member of the tank group.
While on the march, Abel was to witness a number of acts of cruelty by the Japanese. One night, when the prisoners were resting, the Filipino soldier next to Abel tried to build a fire to cook some rice he had come across. A Japanese guard bayoneted the man to death for doing this. In a separate incident, Abel witnessed the Japanese execute four or five Filipinos. The Japanese tied the Filipino prisoners to a haystack and set the stack on fire. Abel remembered the screams of these prisoners as they were burned alive.
The final incident involved an American soldier. As the POWs were marching, one POW fell from the ranks. A Japanese truck ran over the prisoner flattening him into the ground. Abel recalled that the driver of the truck had plenty of time to swerve and avoid the man. The Japanese soldiers did these things, but, to Abel, it seemed that the officers stood back and silently approved of the soldier’s actions.
On the fifth day of the march, Abel received his first food which was a handful of steamed rice. On the sixth and seventh day of the march, Abel received about half a mess kit full of rice. He estimated that the total amount of food he received during the twelve days it took him to complete the march was the equivalent of three filled mess kits.
When the POWs reached San Fernando, they were put into a bullpen and remained there until ordered by the Japanese to form 100 men detachments. After doing this, they were marched to the train station where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “Forty or Eights.” The name referred to the fact that each car could hold forty men or eight horses. Since the detachments had 100 men in them. the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. Those men who died remained standing since they could not fall to the cars’ floors.
The living left the cars at Capas and as they did the dead fell to the floors. The POWs walked the last miles to Camp O’Donnell. Abel arrived at Camp O’Donnell on April 27, 1942, and watched as a great number of the prisoners died from the disease. Abel was never really sure how many men died per day because during his interment there, he was often exhausted, dazed, and unaware of what was going on around him.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino training base that 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 as these POWs were executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line for 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 was often done so the Japanese could bathe and wanted more water. 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. This situation improved when a second faucet was added by the POWs who found the piping and dug the trench for the waterline. When the Japanese turned the water off, the POWs had the ability to turn it back on again without the Japanese knowing.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men but those who did sleep in one slept in a barracks it was with as many as 80 to 120 men. 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 in the POW kitchens and in the food.
The POWs received three meals a day which were mainly rice. For breakfast, they were fed a half cup of soupy rice and occasionally some type of coffee. Lunch each day was a half of a mess kit of steamed rice and a half cup of sweet potato soup. They received the same meal for dinner. All meals were served outside regardless of the weather. By May 1, the food had improved a little with the issuing of a little wheat flour, some native beans, and a small issue of coconut oil. About once every ten days, 3 or 4 small calves were brought into the camp. When meat was given out, there was only enough for one-fourth of the POWs to receive a piece that was an inch square. A native potato, the camote, was given to the POWs, but most were rotten and thrown out. The POWs had to post guards to prevent other POWs from eating them. The camp had a Black Market and POWs who had money could buy a small can of fish from the guards for $5.00.
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. The ranking American officer asked the Japanese for medical supplies, additional food, and materials to repair the roofs because they were leaking. This resulted in his being beaten with a broadsword. When the Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, Tsuneyoshi refused to allow the truck into the camp. The Japanese Red Cross sent a truck of medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use. A second truck was sent by the Red Cross with medical supplies, but it was turned away at the gate of the camp.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one medic – of the six medics 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 bodies were moved to one area and the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it. At one point, the bodies of 80 dead POWs lay under the hospital awaiting burial.
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.
It was at this time, that Abel went out on a work detail to rebuild bridges destroyed during the retreat toward Bataan. The detail was under the command of Japanese Marine Engineers – many of whom had been educated in the United States. The Japanese commanding officer was Captain Wakamori and his second in command was Lt. Miyasato. The ranking American officer on the detail was Lt. Col. Ted Wickord who had commanded the 192nd Tank Battalion. Wickord was given the job of selecting the POWs who went out on the detail and filled it with as many members of the tank group as he could put on it. When the Japanese figured out what he was doing, they stopped him.
The detail left Camp O’Donnell on May 1, and the POWs were taken to Calauan. Many of the men stated that this was their best experience as POWs. The Japanese engineers running the detail treated the POWs better than POWs on other details. They allowed the POWs to roam the barrio without guards but the POWs could not go beyond the boundaries of the barrio. The Japanese also did not stop the Filipinos from giving food to the POWs. The food was good but men still quickly came down with beriberi, dysentery, and yellow jaundice. A Filipino doctor was allowed to treat the sick every day, and the Japanese allowed the POWs to take part in two celebrations in the barrio. During these fiestas, the POWs were asked to sing songs and the Japanese also sang their songs.
The POWs were organized into detachments of 20 men each that rebuilt the destroyed bridges. The work was hard, and one of the hardest jobs on the detail was driving pilings into the river banks. This the men did by hand by cranking up a pile driver that dropped a weight onto the piling. It appears six men worked the pile driver and those men were divided into teams of two men. One team of two men operated the pile driver with each man cranking part of a handle on the winch that lifted a heavy weight 18 to 20 feet above the pile. The weight was released and it fell hitting the piling and driving it into the riverbank. The POWs rotated so they had a rest, but because they were underfed they tired quickly, and by the end of the work day, the POWs were exhausted.
The Japanese pressed into use the Filipinos to help do the work. The Japanese treated them just like they treated the POWs. One reason was that at night something always seemed to happen that slowed down the work on the bridge. Equipment that worked perfectly well the day before would malfunction for no reason or completely break down. The pile drivers were sabotaged so once the weight was in position, it could not be released.
It is known that it was in this barrio that the POWs and Japanese played their first baseball game against each other. The Japanese engineer in charge of the detail played for both teams. No one seemed to recall who won the game, but it was said the POWs cheered for both teams.
While at Calauan, the POWs got word that one of the POWs on the sawmill detail had escaped. The word was that ten men from the detail would be executed. Col. Wickord was sent to the sawmill to witness the execution and warn his men about the consequences. When he returned, he informed his men that the commanding officer had been told to select ten men for execution. The officer had a terrible time doing this and finally chose the five men who slept to the escapee’s right and the five men who slept to his left. The officer surmised that the night the man had escaped one of them must have heard something and could have prevented it.
The “selected” were made to dig their own graves. One pleaded with the ranking American officer to do something. All he could tell the man was that there was nothing he could do. Another regretted that he would never see Denver again. One of the men was the brother of another man on the detail. Even though other POWs volunteered to take his place, the Japanese would not allow it. The men were offered blindfolds but refused them. They were then shot. After falling into their graves, the Japanese shot them again.
On May 15, 1942, the Filipinos began to collect a large amount of food. When the Filipinos had enough food, they held a special meal for the POWs at the local Catholic church on June 1. Just before the POWs were sent to Batangas to rebuild other bridges, an order of Catholic Sisters – who had been recently freed from custody – invited the Japanese commander and Lt. Col. Wickord and twelve POWs for a dinner the last night in the barrio. Wickord picked the twelve sickest-looking POWs he found for the dinner and selected six Protestant POWs and six Catholic POWs to attend the dinner. The Catholic priest walked among the prisoners dropping packs of cigarettes on the floor for them. To signal them about what he was doing, the priest looked down to the ground. The POWs looked down and picked up a pack of cigarettes.
While he was out on the detail, his parents received two communications from the War Department. The first one was received in late May or early June 1942.
In May 1942, his mother received this letter:
Dear Mrs. Ortega:
“The records of the War Department show your son, Private Abel F. Ortega, 38,029,189, Infantry, missing in action in the Philippine Islands since May 7, 1942.
All available information concerning your son has been carefully considered and under the provisions of Public Law 490, 77th Congress, as amended, an official determination has been made continuing him on the records of the War Department in a missing in action status. The law cited provides that pay and allowances are to be credited to the person’s account and payment of allottees are to be considered during the absence of such persons in a missing status.
I fully appreciate your concern and deep interest. You will, without further request on your part, receive immediate notification of any change in your son’s status. I regret that the far-flung operations of the present war, the ebb and flow combat over great distances in isolated areas, and the characteristics of our enemy impose upon some of us this heavy burden of uncertainty with respect to the safety of our loved ones.
Very truly yours,
J. A. ULIO
The Adjutant General
The next bridges the POWs were sent to build were in Batangas. The POWs rode trucks for about 2½ hours to the barrio. Once in Batangas, the POWs went to a two-floor school. The Japanese lived on the first floor and the POWs lived on the second floor. Bernard Fitzpatrick, 194th, stated that the building was clean and the POWs could look out of the windows and see the harbor. He also said that the building had lush lawns around it and the POWs were allowed to sleep outside in good weather. Many of the POWs ended up with dysentery from the water. Once again, the people of the town did whatever they could to help the Americans. An order of Roman Catholic sisters brought the POWs food and clothing that they scrounged up. Because of the work, most of the uniforms of the POWs had disintegrated.
In July 1942, the family received a second letter. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Private Abel F.Ortega had not been reported as a casualty. The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, until definite information to the contrary is received.
“Efforts to secure prisoner of war lists from the Philippines have not been successful to this date due to the lack of communication and the fact that the Japanese Government has not yet given permission for the Swiss representative and the International Red Cross delegates to make visits to prisoner of war camps in the islands. When the lists of prisoners are received, we will clear the name of your son and send you any additional information that we may have.”
When their work was finished on the bridge, the POWs boarded trucks and went to Candelaria to rebuild their final bridges. Unlike the other barrios, the Filipinos kept their distance from the POWs. At this barrio, the POWs slept in a coconut processing mill with a fence around it. During the nights, since they were locked in, the building grew hot. The food at this time also deteriorated in its quality and many of the POWs came down with malaria, scurvy, and pellagra. The Japanese brought the Filipino doctor from Calauan to the work site and he told the Japanese to give the POWs limes. The POWs’ health improved after they received the limes. While the POWs worked, the Filipinos were allowed to bring them food which also resulted in their health improving.
The POWs found themselves repairing a concrete bridge that had been extensively damaged. Instead of replacing it with a wooden bridge, they repaired the existing bridge. The sand and cement were brought to a large flat-bottomed box with wheelbarrows and dumped into the box. Water was dumped into it from buckets that were carried by the POWs to the box. They then mixed it by hand with Japanese shovels which was the hardest part of the job. When the work on this bridge was finished, they built a wooden bridge near the barrio. It was said they built 30 bridges while on the detail.
It is known that the POWs took part in a baseball game there against the Japanese. According to Fitzpatrick, the game ended when a Japanese colonel from Manila arrived for an inspection and decided the POWs were unworthy to play against the Japanese soldiers.
The Japanese held a ceremony commemorating the bridge and the POWs were in the audience. They then were taken to a market in San Pablo where the Japanese guards bought them fruit and sweet cakes that they put into their sacks. They then returned to the warehouse and were given a week off to rest before they boarded the trucks and were taken to Cabanatuan which had opened to replace Camp O’Donnell. When they arrived at Cabanatuan, none of the POWs was searched because their bags had tags on them – issued by the Japanese engineers – that allowed them to be brought into the camp without being searched. Inside the bags, many of the POWs carried food and other items that would have been taken from them if they had been searched.
The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where most of the men who were captured on Bataan and took part in the death march were held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where many of those men captured when Corregidor surrendered were taken and was later consolidated into Camp 1 on October 30, 1942.
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 POWs 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.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” The rice smelled and appeared to have been swept up off the floor. The other problem was that the men assigned to be cooks had no idea of how to prepare the rice since they had no experience in cooking it. During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in a while, the POWs received corn to serve to the prisoners. From the corn, the cooks would make hominy. The prisoners were so hungry that some men would eat the corn cobs. This resulted in many men being taken to the hospital to have the cobs removed because they would not pass through the men’s bowels. Sometimes they received bread, and if they received fish it was rotten and covered with maggots. To supplement their diets, the men would search for grasshoppers, rats, and dogs to eat. The POWs assigned to handing out the food used a sardine can to assure that each man received the same amount. They were closely watched by their fellow prisoners who wanted to make sure that everyone received the same portion and that no one received extra rice.
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.
On September 17, one POW who escaped from the camp on August 7 was recaptured and placed in solitary confinement. During his time there, he was beaten over the head with an iron bar by a Japanese sergeant. The camp commandant, Col. Mori, would parade him around the camp and use the man as an example as he lectured the POWs. The man wore a sign that read, “Example of an Escaped Prisoner.”
Three POWs escaped from the camp on September 12, 1942, and were recaptured on September 21 and brought back to the camp. Their feet were tied together and their hands were crossed behind their backs and tied with ropes. A long rope was tied around their wrists and they were suspended from a rafter with their toes barely touching the ground causing their arms to bear all the weight of their bodies. They were subjected to severe beatings by the Japanese guards while hanging from the rafter. The punishment lasted three days. They were cut from the rafter and they were tied hand and foot and placed in the cooler for 30 days on a diet was rice and water. One of the three POWs was severely beaten by a Japanese lieutenant but was later released.
On September 29, the three POWs were executed by the Japanese after being stopped by American security guards while attempting to escape. The American guards were there to prevent escapes so that the other POWs in their ten men group would not be executed. During the event, the noise made the Japanese aware of the situation and they came to the area and beat the three men who had tried to escape. One so badly that his jaw was broken. After two and a half hours, the three were tied to posts by the main gate and their clothes were torn off them. They also were beaten on and off for the next 48 hours. Anyone passing them was expected to urinate on them. After three days they were cut down and thrown into a truck and taken to a clearing in sight of the camp and shot.
The Japanese announced to the POWs in the camp that on October 14, 1942, the daily food ration for each POW would be 550 grams of rice, 100 grams of meat, 330 grams of vegetables, 20 grams of fat, 20 grams of sugar, 15 grams of salt, and 1 gram of tea. In reality, the POWs noted that the meals were wet rice and rice coffee for breakfast, Pechi green soup and rice for lunch, and Mongo bean soup, Carabao meat, and rice for dinner.
Fr. Bruttenbruck, a German Catholic priest, came to the camp – assisted by Mrs. Escoda – with packages from friends and relatives in Manila on November 12. There was also medicine and books for the POWs. The POWs started a major clean-up of the camp on November 14 and deep latrines, sump holes for water only, and began to bury the camp’s garbage. Pvt. Peeter Lankianuskas was shot attempting to escape on November 16. Two other POWs were put on trial by the Japanese for aiding him. One man received 20 days in solitary confinement while the other man received 30 days in solitary confinement. Pvt. Donald K. Russell, on November 20, was caught trying to reenter the camp at 12:30 A.M. He had left the camp at 8:30 P.M. and secured a bag of canned food by claiming he was a guerrilla. He was executed in the camp cemetery at 12;30 P.M. on November 21. The Japanese gave out a large amount of old clothing – that came from Manila – to the POWs on November 22. On November 23, the Japanese wanted to start a farm and needed 750 POWs to do the initial work on it. It was noted that there were only 603 POWs healthy enough to work.
The Japanese wanted the farm detail started which became one of the largest details in the camp. On November 23, they wanted 750 POWs to start work on the farm. The problem was there were only 603 POWs in the camp who were healthy enough to work. It was also one of the most brutal details. At some point, almost every POW in the camp worked the detail. It is known that Abel was on the detail. The POWs 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 “speedo” when he wanted the POWs to work faster. He punished the POWs by making them kneel on stones. “Smiley” was a Korean 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. 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. This was considered the most abusive of the work details with the POWs receiving the worst beatings.
Fr. Bruttenbruck returned on December 10 without proper authorization from the authorities in Manila so he was turned away. He had brought a truckload of medicine and food for the POWs. It was estimated by the POWs that he spent $300.00 for fuel to make the trip. He returned on December 24 with two truckloads of presents for the men and a gift bag for each. This time he was allowed into the camp. The next day, Christmas, the POWs received 2½ Red Cross boxes. In each box milk in some form, corn beef, fish, stew beef, sugar, meat and vegetable, tea, and chocolate. The POWs also received bulk corn beef, sugar, meat and vegetables, stew, raisins, dried fruit, and cocoa which they believed would last them three months. The POWs also were given four days off from work.
The POWs heard explosions on January 11, 1943, as Japanese dive bombers attacked a target about 30 kilometers from the camp. Several of the explosions were extremely loud. The POWs later heard scuttlebutt that 102 Filipino men, women, and children had been killed during the attack. Two days later, they heard another rumor that half of the barrio of Cabanatuan where the warehouses were located had been burned by the guerrillas.
On January 28, 1943, Abel was transferred to a work camp at Lipa in Batangas Province. The men on this detail built runways for the Japanese. The work was extremely hard and the food was scarce. The average meal was rice and soup. The prisoners were able to work but could not do much beyond this. On this detail, Abel worked with Joseph Lajzer a member of Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, who would remain his friend for the rest of his life.
While a POW at Lipa, Abel was sent out on a work detail. It was on this detail that Abel witnessed a Japanese guard beat an American officer because he did not like him. The guards lined the POWs up at attention and called the officer out. The officer, a 1st. Lt. Hugh E. Wandel was made to get in the “pushup position.” He was then beaten by the guard with a long branch of a tree. Lt. Wandel fell to the ground, but the guard would not stop until he returned to the up position on his hands and toes. In Abel’s estimation, the beating lasted approximately ten minutes. When the guard was satisfied, he allowed Lt. Wandel to rise. The officer was able to walk, but he was very weak and staggered. It was Abel’s belief that had the beating not stopped, the POWs were on the verge of attacking the guards. The Japanese had made them watch the beating but had forgotten to take away their picks and shovels.
Abel was on this detail when his parents still did not know if he was living or dead and his mother made inquiries about his status. It was on May 7, 1943, that his mother received this letter.
“Dear Mrs. Ortega:
“The records of the War Department show your son, Private Abel F. Ortega, 38,029,189, Infantry, missing in action in the Philippine Islands since May 7, 1942.
“All available information concerning your son has been carefully considered and under the provisions of Public Law 490, 77th Congress, as amended, an official determination has been made continuing him on the records of the War Department in a missing status. The law sited provides that pay and allowances are to be credited to the missing person’s account and payment of allotments to authorized allottees are to be continued during the absence of such persons in a missing status.
“I fully appreciate your concern and deep interest. You will, without further request on your part, receive immediate notification of any change in your son’s status. I regret that the far-flung operations of the present war, the ebb and flow of the combat over the great distances in isolated areas, and the characteristics of our enemies impose on us the heavy burden of uncertainty with respect to the safety of our loved ones.
“Very Truly Yours,
“J. A. Ulio
The Adjutant General
On March 26, 1944, Abel was transferred to Camp Murphy which was a work camp where he once again engaged in runway building at Nichols Field. It was there that the “Blood Brother” rule was first enforced. Each group of ten men was responsible for each other. If one man escaped, the other nine would be executed. Abel recalled that a soldier. Pfc. Thomas House escaped from the camp. For whatever reason, the Japanese did not execute the other nine men.
At this camp, the prisoners were frequently beaten with pick handles. It was at this camp that Abel would be punished severely. One morning, Abel and two other POWs were the last men to fall information. The three men were made to stand at attention while a guard walked past them slapping them hard on the left side of their faces with the flat side of a bayonet. After this, the men were made to kneel. A stick, about two inches in diameter cut from a tree with small stubs sticking out of it, was placed behind the knees of each man. This made kneeling extremely painful. As they knelt each man was punched in the face by the guards. The guards also began jumping on the legs of the men so that the sticks would dig into their legs. This beating lasted about twenty minutes.
On September 24, 1944, Abel was transferred to Bilibid Prison in Manila. He remained there only a few days before being sent to the port area of Manila. When the POWs arrived at their ship, the Arisan Maru was not ready to sail. Another ship, the Hokusen Maru was ready to sail, but its entire POW detachment had not arrived, so the Japanese decided to switch detachments so that the Hokusen Maru could sail. The experience of the trip to Japan on this “Hell Ship” was the worse experience Abel had as a POW.
Five hundred prisoners occupied a 45 foot by 30-foothold and were fed once or twice a day. The hold was extremely hot and men suffered from heat prostration. Eight or nine men died and a number of other men went insane. The Japanese threatened to kill the POWs if they didn’t stop the insane from screaming. To do this, the sane POWs strangled those who were out of their minds or hit them with canteens.
It was said by men on the ship that there were 750 prisoners crowded into a hold just a few feet larger than a master bedroom. They also said that their food was a little rice and very little water, that there was no ventilation or sanitary facilities, that many died of suffocation, and that most of the POWs suffered from dysentery and malaria. In the hold, there was no place to lie down, so the POWs rested on top of a pile of coal. The POWs stood and squatted with their knees under their chins, in shifts, all of the 38 days they were in the hold. The only time the men were permitted on the deck was to go to the latrine, and when this was done, only one man was permitted on the deck at a time and only for a few minutes.
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 sailed for Hong Kong when it was informed American planes were in the area. During this part of the trip, the ships ran into American submarines which sank two more ships. The Hokusen Maru arrived in Hong Kong on October 11. While it was in port, American planes bombed the harbor on October 16. On October 21, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa, arriving on October 24.
While at Formosa, Abel remembered that four survivors from a ship were placed in his ship’s hold. They were the survivors of the Arisan Maru which had been sunk in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. This was the ship that Abel had been scheduled to sail on to Japan. The POWs remained in the ship’s hold until November 8th when they disembarked the ship.
On Formosa, Abel was sent to Heito Camp. He did not remain there long and was sent to Toroku Camp which was opened just for them in the classrooms of a school. The POWs did gardening, farming, and clean-up work around the camp and were not treated as harshly as in other camps. Even though the work was not that hard, many of the POWs died of malnutrition. Abel would remain on Formosa from November 1, 1944, until January 25, 1945, when he was sent to Japan on the Melbourne Maru.
The POWs were put in a hold which had hemp in it. They quickly discovered that below the hemp were bags of sugar and canned tomatoes which they helped themselves to. The ship sailed on January 25 and arrived in Moji on January 30. Once on the docks, they were left there all day in the cold. Two POWs would develop pneumonia and later die. The POWs were finally marched to a schoolhouse, but when they arrived, the Japanese made them strip off their clothing in the cold before entering it. This was done because they were infested with lice and were going to be deloused.
The POWs next were marched to the train station and rode the train to Osaka and were sent to Osaka #18-B which was also known as Wakinohama. The camp opened on February 1, and the POWs arrived on the 10th and lived inside a school that was surrounded by factories. It was noted it was the perfect target for American bombers. The POWs were issued straw mats to sleep on when they arrived.
The POWs did numerous jobs and worked in a warehouse on the dock. They also worked in the freight yards, they worked on the loading platforms, and they worked at the Kawasaki Steel Mill. They performed basic labor like unloading scrap metal from train cars onto horse-drawn carts. At the docks, the POWs loaded the scrap metal onto barges. In the warehouse, they stacked sacks of food and stole food by putting it into tobacco sacks tied around their armpits. When they were caught, they were severely beaten. The Japanese guard in charge of detail knew what they were doing and did not turn them into the camp commander.
What is known about what was fed to the POWs was that those assigned to the kitchen were given bones to make soup. The cooks cooked them so they became soft and could be eaten by the POWs. With the soup, the POWs received two small bowls of rice each day. The total amount of food at each meal amounted to 350 grams. The POWs did receive two Red Cross boxes with food while they were at Wakinohama, but the canned milk and medicine which they also needed were removed. The POW medics stated that the Japanese had plenty of medicine, they simply refused to give any to the POWs.
One POW was asked by the camp interpreter to write a poem about what it was like to be a Prisoner of War and was promised extra food if he did so. When he gave the poem to the interpreter, he was taken into the camp commander’s office. The CO was a Sergeant Major who read the poem and stated it was an insult to the Japanese Army. The POW was beaten and taken outside by the interpreter and two guards for additional punishment. As he stood at attention, he was beaten and had water thrown on him since it was cold. He was hit in the face with buckets and the guards also hit him with their rifle butts. The beating lasted for two hours. For a month after the beating, the man could only do light work.
The camp was closed on May 21, 1945, and Abel was sent Osaka #10-B which was also known as Maibara. At this camp, the POWs built canals to drain Lake Biwa to create farmland, while other POWs worked in a train yard loading and unloading train cars. The POWs creating land from the lake bed worked in the mud which meant their feet were always wet.
The food ration given to the POWs doubled and consisted of rice and millet. While working at the lake, the POWs working at the lake were allowed to dig in the mud for mussels. They would take them to two pots of boiling water, cooked them, and ate them. Many of the POWs believed this was because of the Japanese camp commander and the fact that the land was owned by a Japanese civilian who had traveled the world and insisted they be treated better. One Japanese guard who called himself “POW 201” hunted for clams for men too ill to do so for themselves and also bought them cigarettes.
On their way back to the camp, the POWs also would catch chickens that were running around on the road they used to get to the lake and return to the camp. The chickens that tried to run through the POWs were caught, necks were snapped, and when the POWs were in the camp, given to the cooks to add to the meal. One guard referred to himself as POW 201 and bought food for the POWs with his own money. He also gave the POWs his cigarettes.
The POWs were expected to salute the Japanese guards unless the POW did not have a hat and then he was expected to bow. If the Japanese believed the POWs were not working hard enough, they punched and kicked them. The Japanese would use collective punishment if a POW did not admit to breaking a rule or not following orders, so it was understood that the guilty took responsibility so that the other POWs were not punished. The POWs were kicked and punched. Another POW, Pvt. R. B. Carnell of Homedale, Idaho, who was caught stealing food from the Japanese mess, was taken to the guardhouse and beaten. It appeared that most of the camp guards were involved in the beating which lasted almost 24 hours. After the beating, Pvt. Carnell was put on half rations and not allowed to receive his cigarette ration.
According to Abel Ortega, 192nd, who was in the camp, the POWs one morning noticed a pinkish cloud that rolled into itself in the sky. Not long after this, on another morning in August, the POWs awoke and got ready to go to work. The guards told them that they did not have to work that day. This was the first day off in three and a half years as POWs. The POWs also noticed the change in the attitudes of the guards. The guards became friendlier. One morning, the Americans did not see the guards or other military personnel who had disappeared during the night.
On August 19, the train that ran past the camp actually stopped. This was the first time it had ever stopped. As the POWs watched, through the holes in the fence, a man in a khaki uniform got off the train and began to walk toward the camp. He yelled to the guards to open the gate but when they did not move, the POWs opened it. He looked at them and said, “What are you doing? Don’t you know the war is over?” Japan has surrendered.” With that news, the POWs began to cheer. The cloud they saw one morning was from the bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The prisoners decided that they were going to test this information. The guards were standing nearby, but their guns were leaning against a building. The POWs rushed the guns and so did the guards. After a short struggle, the guards let go of the guns and left. To the POW’s this was the first proof that the war was over. When the Japanese gave the POWs beer, they knew the war was over. On August 19, the camp commandant officially told them the war had ended. When American planes appeared and started to drop supplies, the prisoners’ belief was confirmed.
Abel and the other men decided to take the parachutes from the planes and had a Japanese tailor-make the parachutes into the flags of their countries. They next collected instruments and played the national anthems of each of the countries as they raised the flags.
On September 10, 1945, the POWs made contact with American troops. It is believed he and the other POWs were sent to either Tokyo 4 or 5 to await transport to the Philippines. Abel was next sent to Yokohama, Japan, to be deloused, to shower, and to receive new clothes. They then received medical examination on the U.S.N.H.S. Benevolence before he was returned to the Philippines for medical treatment.
It was at this time that his family received another communication from the War Department:
“=MR. AND MRS RUEBEN ORTEGA: THE SECRETARY OF WAR HAS ASKED ME TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON, PRIVATE ABEL F ORTEGA WAS RETURNED TO MILITARY CONTROL SEPT. 10 AND IS BEING RETURNED TO THE UNITED STATES WITHIN THE NEAR FUTURE HE WIIL BE GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOU UPON HIS ARRIVAL IF HE HAS NOT ALREADY DONE SO=
“E. F. WITSELL
“ACTING ADJUTANT GENERAL OF THE ARMY”
He remained there for a few weeks before he was boarded onto the S.S. Simon Bolivar, and returned to the United States on October 21, 1945, in San Francisco. There, he was taken to Letterman General Hospital and received additional medical treatment. He was discharged, from the army, on May 12, 1946, but later reenlisted and served with the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division.
After the war, Abel saw House, the man who had escaped from the camp. He was now a sergeant, standing outside an Army Recruiting Office. When Sgt. House saw Abel he turned away from him and would not acknowledge Abel. Abel presumed that House did not know that the other men were not killed because he had escaped.
On January 21, 1949, the remains of his brother, PFC Daniel F. Ortega, were returned home from Europe. His brother trained as a medic and had gone overseas on August 6, 1944, and was killed in action in France.
Abel was still in the Army in 1950 and served in Korea during the Korean War and was wounded twice. He was sent to Japan and later returned home. When he left the military he resided in San Antonio, Texas, and his fishing buddy was Joseph Lajzer of Company B, who had been a POW with him. Abel also enjoyed giving presentations about his experiences as a POW.
Abel Ortega passed away on August 24, 2009, and was buried in Section 45, Site 508 at Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.