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 192nd Tank Battalion took part in the Louisiana maneuvers in September 1941. It was then ordered to Camp Polk instead of returning to Ft. Knox as expected. The members of the 192nd were informed that they were being sent overseas. There are at least two stories on the decision to send the battalion overseas, but the decision appeared to have been made in early 1941. It was at this time that men who were married with families, men with dependents, men whose enlistments would end within a year, and men who were 29 years old or older were allowed to transfer out of the battalion. The battalion’s commander, because of his age, was replaced by Major. Theodore Wickord his executive officer. Since the battalion was made of National Guard tank companies, men who were married with dependents, men who had dependents. men who were 29 years old or older, or men whose National Guard enlistments would end while the battalion was overseas, were allowed to resign from federal service.
192nd Tank Battalion had received orders to go overseas. According to the first story, the decision for this move 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, whose plane was flying at a lower altitude than the other planes, noticed something odd and took his plane down to take a look. He identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more flagged 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 but 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 the Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. According to this story, 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 192nd believed they were selected to be sent overseas because they had performed well on the Louisiana maneuvers. The story was that they were personally selected by General George S. Patton – who had commanded their tanks as part of the Blue Army under Patton’s command during the maneuvers – to go overseas. Although Patton praised the 192nd and the 191st Tank Battalion who participated in the maneuvers as the First Tank Group, there is no evidence that he had anything to do with the 192nd being sent to the Philippines.
The reality was that the 192nd was part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox and operational by June 1941. Besides the 192nd, the group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – the 191st had been a medium National Guard tank battalion, while the 70th was a Regular Army tank battalion– at Ft. Meade, Maryland. The tank group also contained the 193rd Tank Battalion at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 194th Tank Battalion 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, and documents show the entire tank group had been scheduled to be sent to the Philippines well before June 1941.
On August 13, 1941, Congress voted to extend federalized National Guard units’ time in the regular Army by 18 months, and on August 14th, 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 was on its way to Hawaii – during its trip to the Philippines – when Pearl Harbor was attacked. When it arrived in Hawaii the battalion was held there. One of the two medium tank battalions – most likely the 191st – was on 48-hour standby orders for the Philippines but the orders were canceled on December 10th because the war with Japan had started.
Many of the members of the battalion were given furloughs home so that they could say goodbye to family and friends but had to be back at Camp Polk by the morning of October 14th. At the base, the men lived in tents, and it was stated that it seemed to rain every day they were there. Some men said they didn’t take showers for days because they were always wet.
The battalion was scheduled to receive new M3 tanks, but none were available for some long-forgotten reason. A large number of the battalion’s new tanks came from the 753rd Tank Battalion and the 3rd Armor Division. The tanks were only new to the 192nd, and in many cases, the tanks were within 5 hours of their 100-hour required maintenance. The battalion also received peeps (later known as jeeps) and half-tracks to replace their scout cars. It is believed the half-tracks were waiting for them on the dock in Manila.
HQ Company left for San Francisco a few days earlier than the rest of the battalion. At 8:30 A.M. on October 20th, over different train routes, the letter companies were sent to San Francisco, California. A Company took the southern route along the Mexican border through Needles, California, and north through Los Angeles to San Francisco. B Company went west through Denver and the Rocky Mountains, C Company went a little further north through the center of the country, and D Company went north and then west along the Canadian border.
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. When they arrived in San Francisco, 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 by the battalion’s medical detachment. Men found to have minor health issues were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date, while other men were simply replaced by men sent to the island as replacements that may have come from the 757th Tank Battalion which was at Ft. Ord, California. To maintain secrecy, the soldiers were not allowed off the island. It was also at this time that Col. James R. N. Weaver joined the 192nd as its commanding officer.
The 192nd boarded the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness and also had a hard time walking on deck until they got their “sea legs.” 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 2nd, and had a four-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island. During this time they visited pineapple ranches, coconut groves, and Waikiki Beach which some said was nothing but stones since it was man-made. Before they left Hawaii, an attempt was made to secure two 37-millimeter guns and ammunition so that the guns could be set up on the ship’s deck and the tank crews could learn how to load them and fire them, but they were unable to acquire the guns.
On Thursday, November 6th, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville, and, another transport, the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9th, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th. During the night, while they slept, the ships crossed the International Dateline.
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 soldiers were also given other jobs to do, such as painting the ship. Each day 500 men reported to the officers and needle-chipped paint off the lifeboats and then painted the boats. By the time they arrived in Manila, every boat had been painted. Other men not assigned to the paint detail for that day attended classes. In addition, there was always KP. On Saturday, November 15th, 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 took off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out that the unknown ship was from a friendly country. Two other intercepted ships were Japanese freighters hauling scrap metal to Japan.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16th, 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 blackout was strictly enforced and men caught smoking on deck after dark spent time in the ship’s brig. Three days after leaving Guam the men spotted the first islands of the Philippines. The ships sailed around the south end of Luzon and then north up the west coast of Luzon toward Manila Bay.
The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20th, 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 an enlisted man 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 Ft. Stotsenberg.
At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward P. King Jr. who apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that had what they needed and that they all received Thanksgiving dinner – beans or stew thrown into their mess kits – before he went to have his own dinner. If they had been slower leaving the ship, they would have had a complete turkey dinner, instead, of the leftovers of the 194th Tank Battalion. Ironically, November 20th was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched their tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents from WW I and pretty ragged. They 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. Their tanks were in a field not far from the tanks. The worst part of being in the tents was that they were near the end of a runway. The B-17s when they took off flew right over the bivouac about 100 feet off the ground. At night, the men heard planes flying over the airfield. Many men believed they were Japanese, but it is known that American pilots flew night missions.
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, the battalion set up a communications tent that was in contact with ham radio operators in 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 the 192nd frequencies to use. Men were able to send messages home to their families that they had arrived safely.
With the arrival of the 192nd, the Provisional Tank Group was activated on November 27th. Besides the 192nd, the tank group contained the 194th Tank Battalion with the 17th Ordnance Company joining the tank group on the 29th. Both units had arrived in the Philippines in September 1941. 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. Weaver left the 192nd, was appointed head of the tank group, and was promoted to brigadier general. Major Theodore Wickord permanently became the commanding officer of the 192nd.
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. The term “recreation in the motor pool,” meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon.
It is known that during this time the battalion went on at least two practice reconnaissance missions under the guidance of the 194th. It 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 firing ranges.
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 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 – which were a heavy material and uncomfortable to wear in the heat – everywhere; including going to the PX.
For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies on the base. They also played horseshoes, softball, and 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.
When the general warning of a possible Japanese attack was sent to overseas commands on November 27th, the Philippine command did not receive it. The reason why this happened is not known and several reasons for this can be given. It is known that the tanks 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 was among drums of 100-octane gas, and the entire bomb reserve for the airfield and the bombs were haphazardly placed. On December 1st, 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 communications tent who were the first to learn – at 2 a.m. – of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8th. Major Ted Wickord, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, 194th, and Capt. Richard Kadel, 17th Ordnance read the messages of the attack. At one point, even Gen. King came to the tent to read the messages. The officers of the 192nd were called to the tent and informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The 192nd’s company commanders were called to the tent and told of the Japanese attack.
After hearing the news, Capt. Write went to his company and informed his men that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. To an extent, the news of the war was no surprise to the men, and many had come to the conclusion it was inevitable. The remaining members of the tank crews, not with their tanks, went to their tanks at the southern end of the Clark Field. The battalion’s half-tracks joined the tanks and took up positions next to them.
It was lunchtime and members of the tank battalion were allowed to go to the mess hall to eat. The men assigned to the tanks and half-tracks were receiving their lunches at food trucks. At 12:45 p.m., as they stood in line to be fed they watched as 54 planes approached the airfield from the northwest. Men commented that the planes must be American Navy planes that was until someone saw Red Dots on the wings. They then saw what looked like “raindrops” falling from the planes and when bombs began exploding on the runways 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. One member of the 192nd, Robert Brooks, D Co., was killed during the attack.
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.
The Coast Artillery had trained with the latest anti-aircraft guns while in the States, but the decision was made to send them to the Philippines with older guns. They also had proximity fuses for the shells and had to use an obsolete method to cut the fuses. This meant that most of their shells exploded harmlessly in the air.
The Zeros strafed the airfield and headed toward and turned around behind Mount Arayat. One tanker stated that the planes were so low that a man with a shotgun could have shot a plane down. It was also stated that the tankers could see the scarfs of the pilots flapping in the wind as they looked for targets to strafe. Having seen what the Japanese were doing, the half-tracks were ordered to the base’s golf course which was at the opposite end of the runways. There they waited for the Zeros to complete their flight pattern. The first six planes that came down the length of the runways were hit by fire from the half-tracks. As they flew over the golf course, flames and smoke were seen trailing behind them. When the other Japanese pilots saw what happened, they pulled up to about 3,000 feet before dropping their small incendiary bombs and leaving. The planes never strafed the airfield again.
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 building 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, and trucks, and anything else that could carry the wounded was in use. Within an hour the hospital had filled to capacity. As the tankers watched the medics placed the wounded under the building. Many of these men had their arms and legs missing. The battalion members set up cots under mango trees for the wounded and even the dentist gave medical aid to the wounded.
After the attack, the tank crews spent much of the time loading bullets by hand from rifle cartridges into machine gun belts since they had gone through most of their ordnance during the attack. 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.
C Company was ordered to the area of Mount Arayat on December 9th. Reports had been received that the Japanese had landed paratroopers in the area. No paratroopers were found, but it was possible that the pilots of damaged Japanese planes may have jumped from them. The battalion’s tanks were still bivouacked among the trees 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.
B Company was sent to the Barrio of Dau on December 12th so it could protect a highway bridge and railroad bridge against sabotage. From there, the company was sent to join the other companies of the 192nd just south of the Agno River. It was at this time that Bill managed to send a telegram home on December 19th, which was the last time his family ever heard from him. This would be the last information his family had about him for three and one-half years.
A platoon of B Company tanks engaged Japanese tanks at Lingayen Gulf on December 22nd. One tank was lost and its crew became Prisoners of War. The other tanks withdrew, were damaged by enemy fire, repaired, and put back into use. From this time on, the tanks served as a rear guard holding roads open until all the other troops withdrew before falling back to another predetermined position to repeat the action.
A Company lost its commander, Capt. Walter Write, on December 26th. According to the story, he saw Sergeant Owen Sandmire placing landmines in the road. The mines were made by Philippine Ordnance from cigar boxes with dynamite. Write took a mine away from Sandmire and told them it looked funny. As he was placing it, it 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 tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27th when the 192nd and part of the 194th fell back to form a new defensive line. From there they fell back to the south bank of the BanBan River which they were supposed to hold for as long as possible. The tanks were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 28th and 29th serving as a rear guard against the Japanese.
The next morning, December 30th, 2nd Lt. William Read’s tank platoon was serving as a rearguard and was in a dry rice paddy when it came under enemy fire by Japanese mortars. Read was riding in a tank when one of the enemy rounds hit one of its tracks knocking it out. After escaping the tank, Read stood in front of it and attempted to free the crew. A second round hit the tank, directly below where he was standing blowing off his legs at the knees and leaving him mortally wounded. The other members of his crew carried Read from the tank and laid him under a bridge. Read would not allow himself to be evacuated since there were other wounded soldiers. He insisted that these men be taken first. He would die in the arms of Pvt. Ray Underwood as the Japanese overran the area.
On December 31st, Gentry sent out reconnaissance patrols north of the town of Baluiag. The patrols ran into Japanese patrols, which told the Americans that the Japanese were on their way. Knowing that the railroad bridge was the only way into the town, Gentry set up his defenses in view of the bridge and the rice patty it crossed. Early on the morning of the 31st, the Japanese began moving troops and across the bridge. The engineers came next and put down planking for tanks. A little before noon Japanese tanks began crossing the bridge. Later that day, the Japanese had assembled a large number of troops in the rice field on the northern edge of the town. One platoon of tanks under the command of Marshall was to the southwest of the bridge. Gentry’s tanks were to the south of the bridge, hidden in huts, while the third platoon commanded by Capt. Harold Collins was to the south on the road leading out of Baluiag. 2nd Lt. Everett Preston and his tank platoon had been sent south to find a bridge to cross to attack the Japanese from behind but got lost.
Major Morley came riding in his jeep into Baluiag and stopped in front of a hut where he was spotted by the Japanese who had lookouts in the town’s church’s steeple. The Japanese lookout became very excited. Morley, not wanting to give away the tanks’ positions, got into his jeep and drove off. Gentry had told him that his tanks would hold their fire until he was safely out of the village. When Gentry felt the Morley was out of danger, he ordered his tanks to open up on the Japanese tanks at the end of the bridge. Gentry’s tanks then came smashing through the huts’ walls and drove the Japanese in the direction of Marshall’s tanks which had been radioed and were waiting. Marshall held his fire until the Japanese were in view of his platoon and then joined in the hunt. The Americans chased the tanks up and down the streets of the barrio through buildings and under them. By the time Gentry’s unit was ordered to disengage from the enemy, they had knocked out at least eight enemy tanks. This was the first American tank battle victory of World War II.
Gentry and the other tankers withdrew to Calumpit Bridge which they discovered had been blown up when they reached it. Finding a crossing the tankers made it to the south side of the river. Knowing that the Japanese were close behind, the Americans took their positions in a harvested rice field and aimed their guns to fire a tracer shell through the harvested rice. This would cause the rice to ignite which would light the enemy troops. Gentry spaced his tanks about 100 yards apart. The Japanese crossing the river knew that the Americans were there because the tankers shouted at each other to make the Japanese believe troops were in front of them. The Japanese were within a few yards of the tanks when the tanks opened fire. Lighting the rice stacks, the Americans opened up with small fire and then used their 37 mm guns. The fighting was such a rout that the tankers were using a 37 mm shell to kill one Japanese soldier. During the fighting, HQ Company was listening to the battle and it was stated they would make comments or cheered as if they were at a football game. The tanks broke off the attack when they ran out of ammunition.
All the defenders had withdrawn except for the tanks and they dropped back and found the Calumpit Bridge had been dynamited, but they were still able to cross it. After crossing it, just north of the bridge, there were dried rice paddies, since the rice had been harvested and was piled in stacks around the field. The tankers believed the Japanese would attack at night, so they aimed their main guns at the rice stacks. The first round they would fire would be a tracer right through the stacks setting them afire. The tanks were about 100 yards apart and to give the appearance of a large defensive force tank crews shouted at each other so the Japanese advance would be slowed.
The Japanese moved troops and equipment across the bridge from dusk to midnight and set up mortars that began firing rounds at the area of the tanks. Shells exploded among the tanks wounding men. The tanks fired and set the rice stacks on fire then opened up with their machine guns. They then used their 37-millimeter guns on the Japanese equipment. It was said that it reached the point where 37-millimeter shells were used to kill individual Japanese soldiers. This continued until they were ordered to pull out and had to San Fernando to be refueled and to pick up ammunition.
On January 1st, conflicting orders, about who was in command, were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 which would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders since they came from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff. Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridge over the Pampanga River with half of the defenders withdrawing. 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 crossed the bridge.
It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver: “Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay.”
From January 2nd to 4th, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the Southern forces could escape. At 2:30 A.M., on January 6th, the Japanese attacked Remedios in force using smoke which was an attempt by the Japanese to destroy the tank battalions. The smoke blew back into the Japanese and since they were wearing white shirts, they were lit by the moonlight. After taking heavy casualties they withdrew. That night, the tank battalions were covering the withdrawal of all troops around Hermosa. The 194th crossed the bridge covered by the 192nd and then covered the 192nd’s crossing of the bridge before it was destroyed by the engineers. The 192nd was the last 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 the members of the 17th Ordnance Company assigned to each battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations. After daylight, Japanese artillery fire was landing all around the tanks.
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.
A Company, on January 5th, 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.
A composite tank company was formed the following day under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. When word came that a bridge was going to be blown, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company. This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
The remainder of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of 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 and the tank crews had two or three days of rest. It was also at this time that tank companies were reduced to ten tanks, with three tanks in each platoon. This was done so that D Company would have tanks. It was on January 9th that the Japanese launched a major offensive on what was called the Aubucay Hacienda line that stretched from Aubucay on the east coast of Bataan to the China Sea on the west.
The Japanese attacked through the Aubucay Hacienda Plantation which was the location of most of the fighting took place. The defenders stated that the bodies of the dead Japanese piled up in front of them and actually made it more difficult for the next Japanese troops to advance against the line. One tanker from B Co., 192nd, said that when they walked among the Japanese dead, they found hypodermic needles on them. To him, this explained why they kept coming at the tanks even after they had been hit by machine gun fire. The defenders’ artillery was so accurate that the Japanese later stated the defenders were using artillery pieces like they were rifles. The biggest problem was that the defenders had no air cover so they were bombed and stated constantly and were constantly harassed by snipers. The tanks often had the job of protecting the artillery. None of the tank companies liked doing this job since after the guns fired a few rounds a Japanese reconnaissance plane would be sent up to locate the guns. It wasn’t long after this that the Japanese would zero in on where the guns were located. The tankers and artillery crews learned how to “shoot and scoot” very quickly.
On January 12th, Co. D, 192nd, and Co. C, 194th, were sent to Cadre Road in a forward position with little alert time. Land mines were planted on January 13th by ordnance to prevent the Japanese from reaching Cadre Road. C Co., 194th, was sent to Bagac to reopen the Moron Highway which had been cut by the Japanese on January 16th. At the junction of Trail 162 and the Moron Highway, the tanks were fired on by an anti-tank gun which was knocked out by the tanks. They cleared the roadblock with the support of infantry.
The tankers stated 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 as the Japanese got close to the tanks. 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.
During this time, the tanks often found themselves dealing with officers who claimed they were the ranking officers in the area and that they could change the tank company’s orders. Most wanted the tanks to kill snipers or do some other job the infantry had not succeeded at doing. This situation continued until Gen Weaver gave a written order to every tank commander that if an officer attempted to change their orders, they should hand the officer the order. When the officer looked up at the tank commander, the tank commander had his handgun aimed at the officer. Gen Weeaver had ordered the tank commanders to shoot any officer attempting to change their orders. This ended the problem.
The defenders were ordered to withdraw on the 25th to a new line known as the Pilar-Begac Line. The tanks were given the job of covering the withdrawal with the 192nd covering the withdrawing troops in the Aubucay area and the 194th covering the troops in the Hacienda area. At 6:00 PM the withdrawal started over the only two roads out of the area which quickly became blocked, and the Japanese could have wiped out the troops but did not take advantage of the situation.
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. During the night, they were kept busy with repeated threats both on and offshore. The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces.
The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Hacienda Road on January 25th. 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 in the day, 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 26th, 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. On the morning of January 27th, a new battle line had been formed and all units were supposed to be beyond it but tanks were still straggling in at noon. The tanks were still holding their position six hours after they were supposed to have withdrawn.
The tank companies also were given the job of protecting the artillery. The guns were mobile and hooked onto the tanks with a special carriage which allowed them to be moved. According to the tankers, it took a lot of preparation to set them up and a lot of preparation to take them down. The tankers didn’t like doing this job because minutes after the guns began firing, the Japanese sent up reconnaissance planes to find the guns. When they did, Zeros would appear and strafe the area. The gun crews quickly learned to “shoot and scoot.” After firing a few rounds the guns were quickly broken down and moved out of the area.
On January 28th, the tank battalions were given beach duty with the 194th assigned the coast from Limay to Cacaben. The half-tracks were used to patrol the roads. The Japanese attempted several landings on Bataan. One night while on this duty, the B 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.
The battalions took on the job of guarding the airfields in Bataan in February which had been constructed because of the belief that aid would be coming by air. Throughout the Battle of Bataan, men held the belief that aid would arrive. The Japanese bombed the airfields during the day and at night the engineers would repair them. 50-gallon drums were placed around the airfields to mark the runways, and at night fires could be lit in them to outline the landing strip. The well-camouflaged tanks surrounded the airfield and had several plans on how they would defend the airfields from paratroopers.
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.
Sgt. Owen Sandmire, 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.
After being up all night on beach duty, B Company – on the morning of February 3rd – was strafed by Japanese planes after one of its members pulled his half-track from under the jungle canopy, onto the beach, took a pot-shot at Recon Con Joe, and missed. Recon Joe was attempting to locate the tanks. Twenty minutes later Japanese planes appeared and dropped bombs on the company that exploded in the tree tops. Two men were killed in the attack and two others later died of their wounds.
Later in the day, according to Abel, 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 the stomach by a Japanese sniper. T/5 Neil McCage, another member of the crew, seeing his friend shot, ran up to Abel and grabbed the Tommy Gun that Abel 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 starting at the base of the trunk and working his way up the trunk. Since there was no more sniper fire, it is believed that McCage killed the sniper. Miles Weech died from his wounds on February 6th.
Still later the same day, A Company’s bivouac was near a 155-millimeter artillery battery near Bambang, Limay, at KM 144. After the artillery fired several rounds the Japanese sent in planes that 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 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 that 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 a 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 of a hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal. The one good thing about the leaflets was that they were printed on tissue paper which was used by the tankers as toilet paper.
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 so Wainwright abandoned the idea. Since the tanks were the only vehicles receiving fuel, they were used to carry 115-millimeter shells to the artillery by attaching them to long poles. Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor, but Wainwright declined.
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 radio. 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
The reality was that the same illnesses that were taking their toll on the Bataan defenders were also taking their toll on the Japanese. American newspapers wrote about the lull in the fighting and the building of defenses against the expected assault that most likely would take place. The soldiers on Bataan also knew that an assault was coming, they just didn’t know when it would take place. Having brought in combat-harden troops from Singapore, the Japanese launched a major offensive on April 3rd supported by artillery and aircraft. The artillery barrage started at 10 AM and lasted until noon and each shell seemed to be followed by another that exploded on top of the previous shell. At the same time, wave after wave of Japanese bombers hit the same area dropping incendiary bombs that set the jungle on fire. The defenders had to choose between staying in their foxholes and being burned to death or seeking safety somewhere else. As the fire approached their foxholes those men who chose to attempt to flee were torn to pieces by shrapnel. It was said that arms, legs, and other body parts hung from tree branches. A large section of the defensive line at Mount Samat was wiped out. The next day a large force of Japanese troops came over Mt. 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.
It was the evening of April 8th that Gen. King 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 on the Japanese in an attempt to stop the advance. At 6:00 P.M. 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.”
That evening, Capt. Fred Bruni, A’Company’s commanding officer, gave his men the news of the surrender. While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them. As he spoke, his voice choked. He turned away from the men for a moment, and when he turned back he continued. He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks. During the announcement, Bruni emphasized that they all were to surrender together. He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and any supplies that could be used by the Japanese. Somehow, Bruni had found enough bread and pineapple juice for what he called, “Our last supper.”
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 white 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. on April 9th, 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.”
As Gen. King left to negotiate the surrender, he went through the area held by B Company and the 17th Ordnance 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.” 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. Another jeep followed them – 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 managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
At about 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed Gen. King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from the 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. 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 the line of 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 the morning of April 9, 1942, the members of A Company destroyed their equipment. They drained the oil out of some of the jeeps and trucks and ran them to burn up the engines. In the case of other vehicles, they poured sand into the motors and ran them. The soldiers piled up their guns and ammunition and set the pile on fire. They also took their guns apart and scattered the pieces so that they would not be found. After all this was done, the men waited in their bivouac until ordered to move.
When the Japanese made contact with them, they were ordered to Mariveles where they were searched and the Japanese took whatever they wanted from the men. Men with rings were told to turn their hands over so that the Japanese could see if it was a wedding ring. If it was, they left the POW alone, if it wasn’t the man was ordered to remove it. Those who could not remove their rings had their fingers cut off.
At Mariveles, members of A Company were mixed in with other Prisoners Of War and began what they called “the Hike” or “the March,” which became known as the Bataan Death March. The Japanese guards were mean for no apparent reason and did things to the POWs because they could do them. Other men stated that if the guards were combat veterans, they treated them better because they viewed the POWs as combat veterans.
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 as fast as possible. Those men who were sick and had a hard time keeping up were bayoneted or shot if they fell. POWs who attempted to help these men were also shot or bayoneted. When the distance was covered, the column was stopped and allowed to rest and the guards were replaced. The new guards also wanted to complete their assigned distance, so the POWs again found themselves moving at a fast pace.
The lack of food and water was also a major issue for the POWs. It was stated that the members of C Company went nine days without water. The POWs were amazed by the courage of the Filipino people who openly defied the Japanese by giving food and water to the POWs. The further north they marched the more bloated dead bodies they saw. The ditches along the road were filled with water, but many also had dead bodies in them. The POWs’ thirst got so bad they drank the water. Many men would later die from dysentery.
On the first day of the march, they were marched until well after sundown. When they were finally given a rest it was already late. After midnight, it began to rain. Although the rain lasted for about one-half hour, the prisoners attempted to catch the rain on their tongues or lick the drops off their lips and hands. Some men stated it felt like the water was being absorbed into their skin. The rain was the first drink the prisoners received on the march.
The column of POWs was often stopped and pushed off the road and made to sit in the sun for hours which was intentional. Men commented that they did most of the march at night. While they sat there, the guards would shake down the POWs and take any possession they had that they liked. When they were ordered to move again, it was not unusual for the Japanese passing by them in trucks to entertain themselves by swinging at the POWs with their guns or with bamboo poles.
When the prisoners reached Cabcaban Airfield, they saw that the Japanese had set up guns and were firing on Corregidor. The marchers had to get past the guns that were firing on Corregidor. As it turned out, this was a dangerous undertaking. 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 so they ran to get away from the battle. Men stated that a Japanese officer was directing a gun crew when there was a flash. After the smoke cleared the Japanese gun and its crew had vanished.
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 they were north of Hermosa, the POWs reached pavement which made the march easier. They received an hour break, but any POW who attempted to lay down was jabbed with a bayonet. After the break, they marched and reached Orani by the time the sun began to rise. There they were herded into a filthy pen that had been used by other prisoners before them and left to bake in the sun for the rest of the day. At the end of each portion of the march, the POWs would be put into another pen. Since his group was not the first to use them, they were filled with human waste. Often there were decaying bodies of American soldiers still inside the pens. The prisoners also had to deal with Blue Bottle flies, mosquitos, and maggots.
When they continued the march, they were marched through Layac and Lubao. It was at this time that a heavy shower took place and many of the men opened their mouths in an attempt to get water. The guards allowed the POWs to lie on the road. The rain revived many of the POWs and gave them the strength to complete the march.
At San Fernando, they were herded into a bullpen, surrounded by barbed wire, and put into groups of 200 men. One POW from each group went to the cooking area which was next to the latrine and got food for the group. Each man received a ball of rice and four or five dried onions. Water was given out with each group receiving a pottery jar of water to share. The area where the POWs sat was covered in human feces from the POWs who had occupied the bullpen before them. How long the man remained in the bullpen varied from hours to days. Some men remained in it for four or five days.
The POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men and marched to the train station. There, they were packed into small wooden boxcars that were used to haul sugarcane. The cars were about thirteen feet long and ten feet wide and known as “forty or eights” since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. Since the detachments had 100 men in them, the Japanese put 100 men into each boxcar and closed the doors. Since the POWs were packed in so tightly, men suffocated from the lack of air but could not fall to the floors since there was no room to fall. At Capas, the living left the boxcars and the dead fell to the floors as they left the boxcars. The POWs walked the eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942.
At Camp O’Donnell, the POWs were taken into a large field where they were counted and searched and all extra clothing that they had was taken from them and not returned. Blankets, knives, and matches were taken from them. If a man was found to have Japanese money or other items on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Finally, the camp commandant came out, stood on the back of a flatbed truck, and told them that they were enemies of Japan and would always be Japan’s enemies. He also told them that they were captives and not prisoners of war and would be treated accordingly. After the speech, the prisoners were allowed to go to their barracks. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp as the POWs who had Japanese items on them were executed for looting.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men and those who did sleep in one slept in one with as many 80 to 120 men. Most of the POWs slept on the ground under the barracks. There was no netting to protect the men from malaria-carrying mosquitos as they slept, so many men soon became ill with malaria. The ranking American officer was slapped after asking for building materials to repair the buildings.
The POWs received three meals, mainly rice, a day. For breakfast, they were fed a half cup of soupy rice and occasionally some type of coffee. Lunch each day was 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 1st, 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 the 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.
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 situation improved when a second faucet was added by the POWs who came up with the pipe, dug the trench, and ran the waterline. Just like the first faucet, the Japanese turned off the water when they wanted water to bathe, but unlike the first water line, the POWs had the ability to turn on the water again without the Japanese knowing it.
There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp, and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies. He was told never to write another letter. The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, but the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use. When a second truck was sent to the camp by the Red Cross, it was turned away.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one medic – out 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.
The Manila Society – which was a branch of the Philippine Red Cross – collected a great quantity of clothing, medicines, powdered milk, marmalade, and oatmeal and delivered it to the Red Cross which was under Japanese control. They were told they could help make juices and packages of sweet coconut for the POWs and did so. When they were finished, the Japanese stated that it was too good for the Americans and that the packages would be given to their soldiers.
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 side, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it. At one point, 80 bodies lay under the hospital awaiting burial.
The dead were carried to the cemetery in litters and placed in a grave with four other POWs. It was not unusual for a POW working this detail to die and be put into the grave with the other dead. Before they were buried, the dead were stripped of their clothing, which was boiled in hot water and then given to another POW who needed clothing.
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. When these men returned to the camp many died. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day.
The Japanese engineers running the detail treated the POWs better than the 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 the local Filipinos into working on the bridge. 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. Six of the POWs were Prostitutes and six were Catholic. During the dinner, the local 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 POWs rode trucks for about 2½ hours to the barrio of Batangas. 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 the school, the POWs found a geography book with world maps in it. The guards pointed to Japan and asked them about the United States. The POWs pointed to North America, including Canada, and said to the guards, “United States.” From the reaction of the guards, the POWs knew that they had gotten the message. When a Japanese sergeant saw what was going on, he took away the book.
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 were 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.
Cabanatuan was actually three camps. Cabanatuan 1 was where most of the men who captured on Bataan and took part in the march were held. Cabantuan 2 had an inadequate water supply and was closed, but it later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Cabanatuan 3 was where most of those men captured when Corregidor surrendered were taken and it was consolidated into Cabanatuan 1 on October 30th.
The POWs were allowed to run the camp and 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.
The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 and 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on double-deck bamboo shelves nine feet wide and eight feet long, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many developed sores and became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together and went out on work details together since the Japanese had instituted the “Blood Brothers” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp. He was assigned to Barracks 5, Group 2. It was said that the Japanese guards would attempt to get the POWs assigned to guard the inside of the fence to come outside the perimeter of the fence. If the man did, he was shot and the guards told their commanding officer that the POWs were “trying to escape.”
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 ensure 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.
In the camp, the prisoners continued to die, but at a slower rate. The camp hospital consisted of 30 wards that could hold 40 men each, but it was more common for them to have 100 men in them. Each man had approximately an area of 2 feet by 6 feet to lie in. The sickest POWs were put in “Zero Ward,” which was called this because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks. There were two rolls of wooden platforms around the perimeter of the building. The sickest POWs were put on the lower platform which had holes cut into it so they could relieve themselves. The platform was covered in feces which was made worse by the excrement from the higher platform dripping down onto it. Most of those who entered the ward died. When a POW died, the POWs stripped him of his clothing, and the man was buried naked. The dead man’s clothing was washed in boiling water and given to a prisoner in need of clothing. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves and would not go into the area.
During June, the first cases of diphtheria appeared in the camp, and by July, it had spread throughout the camp. The Japanese finally gave the American medical staff antibiotics to treat the POWs, but before it took effect, 130 POWs had died from the disease by August. On June 26th, six POWs were executed by the Japanese after they had left the camp to buy food and were caught returning to camp. The POWs were tied to posts in a manner that they could not stand up or sit down. No one was allowed to give them food or water and they were not permitted to give them hats to protect them from the sun. The men were left tied to the posts for 48 hours when their ropes were cut. Four of the POWs were executed on the duty side of the camp and the other two were executed on the hospital side of the camp.
On August 7th, one POW escaped from the camp and was recaptured on September 17th. He was placed in solitary confinement and 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 12th and were recaptured on September 21st 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 29th, 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-man 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, thrown into a truck, driven to a clearing in sight of the camp, and shot.
From September to December, the Japanese began issuing numbers to the POWs. The first men to receive them were those who sailed on the Tottori Mau on October 8th. At this time, Abel became POW 1-08247.
The Japanese announced to the POWs in the camp that on October 14th 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.
The day started an hour before dawn when the POWs were awakened. They then lined up and bongo (roll call) was taken. The POWs quickly learned to count off quickly in Japanese because the POWs who were slow to respond were hit with a heavy rod. A half-hour before dawn was breakfast, and at dawn, they went to work. Those working on details near the camp returned to the camp for lunch, a tin of rice, at 11:30 AM and then returned to work. The typical workday lasted 10 hours.
The POWs were sent out on work details near the camp to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. When working in the rice paddies, the POWs not only planted rice but also massaged the rice. This meant that 50 POWs lined up at the end of a rice paddy in four to six inches of water. Then arm to arm about a foot apart they stoop over and go to the other side. The purpose of this was to work the mud around the plants. The Japanese always stopped the POWs before they got to the other side. The POWs found out there were poisonous water snakes that were black that moved ahead of them as they did this. The guards stopped the POWs so they could kill the snakes and prevent them from being bitten.
Returning from a detail the POWs bought or were given, medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned. The worst detail the POWs worked on was the latrine detail where the POWs cleaned the Japanese latrines with their bare hands. The POWs removed the feces and put it in 55-gallon drums. It is not known what happened to the feces, but it is known it was often used as fertilizer by the Japanese. Returning from the work details in the evening, the POWs – even though they were searched – somehow managed to bring medicine, food, and tobacco into the camp. The POWs ate supper but after they finished there wasn’t much time for them to do anything since dusk was an hour after supper. Later, the POWs had books to read that were sent by the Red Cross.
Fr. Antonio Bruddenbruck, a German Catholic priest, came to the camp – assisted by Mrs. Escoda – with packages from friends and relatives in Manila on November 12th. There was also medicine and books for the POWs. The POWs started a major clean-up of the camp on November 14th and deep latrines, sump holes for water only, and began to bury the camp’s garbage. Pvt. Peter Lankianuskas was shot while attempting to escape on November 16th. 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 20th, 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 21st. The Japanese gave out a large amount of old clothing – that came from Manila – to the POWs on November 22nd. On November 23rd, 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.
Fr. Bruddenbruck returned on December 10th 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. A POW Pvt. Art Self was beaten so badly on December 12th, that he died. Fr. Bruddenbruck returned on December 24th 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 was 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. It should be mentioned that Fr. Buddenbroucke was executed after he was caught snuggling messages to the POWs and from them.
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 3, 1943, the POWs learned that a detachment of 150 men would leave Cabanatuan for a work detail to Lipa, Batangas. The next day at 3 a.m each man received a rice ball to carry with him for his lunch. They left the camp and walked slightly over 6 miles to the Barrio of Cabanatuan where they boarded two box cars for an eight-hour ride to Lipa. Since they had to change trains, they were allowed to stretch before getting on the second train which arrived in Lipa well after dark.
The detachment arrived to find two hundred POWs already in the camp. The entire detail totaled 500 POWs, These POWs told them that they were building an airfield on a plateau in what had been a coconut grove. To do this, the POWs had to cut down the trees which were over thirty feet tall with trunks that were two to three feet wide. The trees were about 20 feet apart and planted in rows. The POWs cut the trees down and dragged them away. They then dug out the roots with picks and shovels so that the ground could be leveled. The POWs on the detail built runways with picks and shovels on a plateau 1200 feet above sea level. It was stated that the POWs were divided into two detachments which rotated every other day with the POWs not working at the airfield working at a farm.
The POWs told them that the work was hard but they were fed better than in the POW camps. The meals were described as plenty of rice and meat once each day. They also were told they would receive sugar. The meals turned out to be rice and soup. If meat was issued, it was usually bad and put into the soup. On one occasion, an American working in the kitchen wrote on the lids of the soup containers, “Bad meat in soup.” When the Japanese figured out what he had done, he was beaten on his back with a spoon. Any fish, sugar, or vegetables they got were also put into the soup without being cleaned. The cook was Japanese and put sugar in everything. The POWs believed it was because the Japanese were not used to having a lot of it.
The chaplain in the camp was a Catholic priest who did his best to raise the spirits of the men. On Sunday, he held two Catholic masses and a Protestant service. He also held a Jewish service on Saturdays.
The POWs built the runway with picks and shovels and drove trucks, steamrollers, and bulldozers. The POWs laid the rebar in the wrong direction so that it would not support the weight of any planes that landed on it. If the Japanese believed a POW was not working hard enough he was beaten. The POWs were also beaten for smuggling food, or because the guard did not like the look the POW gave him.
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
The Japanese imposed the Blood Brother rule on the POWs. The POWs were put into groups of ten men, if one man in the group escaped the other nine would be killed. It was stated that in July one POW escaped and the Japanese were true to their word and shot the other nine men in his group.
It appears that the Japanese realized killing the POWs wasn’t a very smart idea, so when two other POWs escaped, the remaining men in their Blood Brother groups were forced to kneel outside for seven days and nights and could not be given food or water. The rest of the POWs did not receive the Red Cross packages that had been promised.
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. During this time the names of POWs leaving the Philippines were posted and Abel’s name was on the list. The POWs boarded the Hokusen Maru on October 1st but the ship did not sail until October 3rd. The ship sailed but dropped anchor at the harbor’s breakwater. It remained there for three days and the temperatures in the hold rose to over 100 degrees causing some men to go crazy. The Japanese threatened to kill the POWs if they didn’t quiet the men. To do this, the sane POWs strangled those out of their minds or hit them with canteens.
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.
At first, the POWs were allowed on deck to relieve themselves. But this was changed to buckets tied to ropes that were used to haul the excrement from the hold. As they were pulled up, the buckets hit the hold’s walls spilling the waste onto the POWs. At 5:00 P.M., steamed rice was sent down in buckets, but most of the POWs were too sick to eat. Those who could eat ate as much as they could. Water was also sent down in pockets, and it appears that there was simply not enough for all the POWs.
As part of a ten-ship convoy, it sailed again on October 4th 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 6th, two of the ships were sunk. The attacks continued for the next several days and the POWs lived in fear of the ship being sunk. The ships were informed, on October 9th, that American carriers were seen near Formosa and sailed for Hong Kong when it was informed that American planes were in the area. The ships changed course during this part of the trip and attempted to reach Hong Kong. The ships ran into American submarines which sank two more ships.
The Hokusen Maru arrived in Hong Kong on October 11th and 50 PWs at a time were allowed on deck and allowed to wash with seawater. While it was in port on October 16th, 27 B-29s bombed the harbor followed by 8 P-51s. The ship nearest to the Hokusen Maru took several hits and was a wreck. The ship left the dock on October 18th and moved around the harbor. A bomb from a sole plane hit near the ship while it was maneuvering in the harbor.
On October 21st, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa, arriving on October 24th. According to some sources, only three of the ten ships in the convoy reached the island. Two days later, the POWs heard explosions as several ships were hit by torpedos from American submarines. It was said by Capt. Alvin Poweleit, that the ships were sinking before the debris from the explosions hit the water. The ships were close enough to Formosa for the Japanese to send out planes that dropped depth charges. Four survivors of the Arisan Maru were put on the ship on the 29th. One of the men was dying but the other three were in good health. When they were allowed to talk to the other POWs, they told them about the ship’s sinking and how the POWs were left to die.
The POWs remained in the ship’s hold until November 8th. The Japanese had decided they were too ill to be sent to Japan. The POWs were brought up on deck for physicals by Japanese doctors. Some were so weak that they had to be pulled from the holds with ropes. It was at this time that it was estimated that 200 POWs had died during the trip. The POWs were marched down the gang blank, taken ashore that same day, and washed down with saltwater. The POWs formed detachments of 100 men and marched through Takao. The Chinese threw stones at them. Many of the POWs boarded a train and most of them were sent to Inrin Temporary which was specifically opened for them. but the POWs were also sent to other camps.
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, rode the train to Osaka, and were sent to Osaka #18-B which was also known as Wakinohama. The camp opened on February 1st, 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. One of the first things he received was a new POW number of 10-9972.
Osaka 10-B 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, cook them, and eat 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, 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 POWs, 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-made 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 a 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.