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. It would be this love of history that would result in his becoming a member of the 192nd Tank Battalion.
In October 1940, Abel received his draft notice and was inducted into the army in March 1941. He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for basic training and sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, where he became a member of A Company, 753rd Tank Battalion. One day, the commanding officer of the 753rd asked his men if any of them would be interested in going overseas on a tour of duty to the Philippine Islands. Abel’s love of history and desire to visit the Orient resulted in him being the first man to volunteer.
Abel was quickly reassigned to Company A, 192nd Tank Battalion, at Camp Polk. The battalion also received that tanks of the 753rd as it prepared for duty in the Philippines.
The decision to send the 192nd overseas – which had been made during August 1941 – was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island which was hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field.
When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day. The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
The battalion, over different train routes, traveled to San Francisco, California, and were ferried, on the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, they received inoculations and physicals, and those men found to have treatable medical conditions remained behind on the island and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Some men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2 and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline.
On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward P. King, who apologized that they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner. It should be mentioned that Thanksgiving Dinner was a watery stew slung into their mess kits. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons. The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea. They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance as they readied their tanks to take part in maneuvers. It was also at this time that the battalions received half-tracks that replaced their scout-cars that had been left behind at Camp Polk.
On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members, or half-track crew members, remained with each vehicle at all times and received their meals from food trucks.
On December 8, 1941, December 7 in the United States, the members of A Company heard the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Many of the men believed that this was the start of the maneuvers they expected. At 8:30, the planes of the Army Air Corps filled the sky in every direction. At noon, the planes landed, to be refueled, and the pilots went to lunch.
During lunch, the “replacements” were ordered to stay with the equipment while the original members of the battalion went to eat. While guarding his half-track, Abel heard the sound of planes approaching Clark Field. As he and the other men watched the sky, they felt good about the planes in the sky and the protection they were providing them. It was only when they heard the sound of bombs falling did they realize that the planes were Japanese.
Abel recalled being on top of his half-track and firing his 50 caliber machine gun at the Japanese planes as they bombed Clark Field. The members of the battalion, who had gone to dinner, came running out of the mess hall and dove under their tanks and half-tracks for protection against the bombs.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything that could carry the wounded was in use. When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building. Many of these men had their arms and legs missing. That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their tents. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed for the next three and one-half years.
On December 12, the company was sent to the Barrio of Dau so it would be close to a highway and railroad from sabotage. On December 21, they were ordered to rejoin the 192nd which had been ordered to the Lingayen Gulf to relieve the 26th U.S. Cavalry, Philippine Scouts.
During the battle for the Philippine Islands, Abel was the half-track driver for the communications command half-track of Company A. As a member of this crew, he worked with PFC Joseph McCrea, Capt. Walter Write, 2nd Lt. Henry Knox and Sgt. Dale Lawton.
On December 23 and 24, the company was in the area of Urdaneta, where the tankers lost the company commander, Capt. Walter Write. After he was buried, the tankers made an end run to get south of Agno River after the main bridge had been destroyed. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening but successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
On December 25, the tanks of the battalion dropped back down Route 5 and held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks were asked to hold the position for six hours; they held it until 5:30 in the morning on December 27.
The 192nd and part of the 194th fell back to form a new defensive line the night of December 27 and 28. From there they fell back to the south bank of the BamBan River which they were supposed to hold for as long as possible. The tanks were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29 serving as a rear guard against the Japanese.
A Company was sent, in support of the 194th, to an area east of Pampanga. It was there that they lost a tank platoon commander, Lt. William Read. On a road east of Zaragoza, on December 30, the company was bivouacked for the night and posted sentries. The sentries heard a noise on the road and woke the other tankers who grabbed Tommy-guns and manned the tanks’ machine guns. As they watched, a Japanese bicycle battalion rode into their bivouac. When the last bicycle passed the tanks, the tankers opened fire on them. When they stopped firing, they had completely wiped out the bicycle battalion. To leave the area, the tankers drove their tanks over the bodies.
As the Filipino and American forces fell back toward Bataan, A Company took up a position near the south bank of the Gumain River the night of December 31 and January 1. Believing that the Filipino Army was in front of them allowed the tankers to get some sleep. It was that night that the Japanese launched an attack to cross the river.
As the Japanese attempted to advance they were cut down by the tankers. The tankers created gaping holes in their ranks. To lower their losses, the Japanese tried to cover their advance with a smokescreen. Since the wind was blowing against them, the smoke blew into the Japanese line. When the Japanese broke off the attack, they had lost about half their men.
At Guagua, A Company, with units from the 11th Division, Philippine Army, attempted to make a counterattack against the Japanese. Somehow, the tanks were mistaken, by the Filipinos to be Japanese. The 11th Division accurately used mortars on them. The result was the loss of three tanks.
On January 1, the tanks of the 194th were holding the Calumpit Bridge allowing the Southern Luzon Forces to cross the bridge toward Bataan. General Wainwright was attempting to hold the main Japanese force coming down Route 5 to prevent the troops from being cut off. General MacArthur’s chief of staff gave conflicting orders involving whose command the defenders were under which caused confusion. Gen. Wainwright was not aware these orders had been given.
Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridges over the Pampanga River. 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.
From January 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape. It was also in January 1942, that the food ration was cut in half. It was not too long after this was done that malaria, dysentery, and dengue fever began hitting the soldiers.
On January 5, while attached to the 194th Tank Battalion, A Company withdrew from the line. 1st Lt. Kenneth Bloomfield received orders to launch a counter-attack against the Japanese on a tail picked by Provisional Tank Group command. Bloomfield, while attempting to attack, radioed the tank group that the trail did not exist.
It was evening and the tankers believed they were in a relatively safe place near Lubao along a dried-up creek bed. Bloomfield told his men to get some sleep. Their sleep was interrupted by the sound of a gunshot at about 1:50 A.M. The tankers had no idea that they were about to engage the Japanese who had launched a major offensive across an open field wearing white shirts which made them easy targets. There was a great deal of confusion and the battle lasted until 3:00 A.M. when the Japanese broke off the attack. Within days of this action, the company returned to the command of the 192nd.
The tanks often were the last units to disengage from the enemy and form a new defensive line as Americans and Filipino forces withdrew toward Bataan. The night of January 7, the A Company was awaiting orders to cross the last bridge into Bataan over the Culis Creek. The engineers were ready to blow up the bridge, but the battalion’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Ted Wickord, ordered the engineers to wait until he had looked to see if they were anywhere in sight. He found the company, asleep in their tanks because they had not received the order to withdraw across the bridge. After they had crossed, the bridge was destroyed. The next day the tanks received maintenance. It was the first rest that the two tank battalions had since December 24.
While American and Filipino forces were withdrawing from the Pilar-Bigac Line, the battalion prevented the Japanese from overrunning the position and cutting off the withdrawing troops. The morning of January 27, a new battle line had been formed and all units were supposedly beyond it. That morning, the tanks were still holding their position six hours after they were should have withdrawn. While holding the position, the tanks, with self-propelled mounts, ambushed, at point-blank range, three Japanese units causing 50 percent casualties.
On January 28, the tank battalions were given the job of protecting the beaches. The 192nd was assigned the coastline from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan’s east coast. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
The company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets – from January 23 to February 17 – to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line after a Japanese offensive was stopped and pushed back to the original line of defense. The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket. Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank exited the pocket. Doing this was so stressful that each tank company was rotated out and replaced by one that was being held in reserve.
To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used. The first was to have three Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank. As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole. Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually exploded.
The other method used to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole. The driver gave the other track power resulting in the tank going around in a circle dragging the unpowered track and grinding its way down into the foxhole. The tankers slept upwind of their tanks.
While the tanks were doing this job, the Japanese sent soldiers, with cans of gasoline, against the tanks. These Japanese attempted to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the vents on the back of the tanks, and set the tanks on fire. If the tankers could not machine gun the Japanese before they got to a tank, the other tanks would shoot them as they stood on a tank. The tankers did not like to do this because of what it did to the crew inside the tank. When the bullets hit the tank, its rivets would pop and wound the men inside the tank. It was for their performance during this battle that the 192nd Tank Battalion would receive one of its Distinguished Unit Citations.
Since the stress on the crews was tremendous, the tanks rotated into the pocket one at a time. A tank entered the pocket and the next tank waited for the tank that had been relieved to exit the pocket before it would enter. This was repeated until all the tanks in the pocket were relieved.
What made this job so hard was that the Japanese dug “spider holes” among the roots the trees. Because of this situation, the Americans could not get a good shot at the Japanese.
The tankers from A, B, and C Companies were able to clear the pockets. But before this was done, one C Company tank which had gone beyond the American perimeter was disabled and the tank just sat there. When the sun came up the next day, the tank was still sitting there. During the night, its crew was buried alive, inside the tank, by the Japanese. When the Japanese had been wiped out, the tank was turned upside down to remove the dirt and recover the bodies of the crew. The tank was put back into use.
At the same time, the tanks were also used to clear out the Japanese in what was called “The Battle of the Points.” The Japanese had attempted to land troops behind the main defensive line and ended up with troops trapped on two different points on the peninsula.
The Japanese Marines were driven to the cliffs and hid in the caves below the cliff lines. They used the caves for protection and would climb down the cliffs to enter them or leave them. The tankers fired into the caves repeatedly until the Japanese were dead or came out of the caves.
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. 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 scantily clad blond on them. The Japanese would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal.
The company’s last bivouac area was about twelve kilometers north of Marivales and looking out on the China Sea. By this point, the tankers knew that there was no help on the way. Many had listened to Secretary of War Harry L. Stimson on short wave. When asked about the Philippines, he said, “There are times when men must die.” The soldiers cursed in response because they knew that the Philippines had already been lost.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese.
The Japanese broke through the east side of the main defensive line on Bataan on April 7. The tanks were pulled out of their position along the west side of the line and ordered to reinforce the eastern portion of the line. Traveling south to Mariveles, the tankers started up the eastern road but were unable to reach their assigned area due to the roads being blocked by retreating Filipino and American forces.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. Edward P. 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 sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. At 10:30 that night, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms.
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.”
On April 9, 1942, at 6:45 A.M., Abel and the other members of the 192nd Tank Battalion were given the word that the Filipino and American Forces on Bataan were about to be surrendered to the Japanese. Abel destroyed his half-track and its equipment so that it could not be used by the Japanese. As he did this, he felt sad because they had fought so hard and lost so many men. When he was finished destroying the equipment, Abel knelt down and prayed to God to keep him alive. He also promised that if God kept him alive, he would help his fellow soldiers in what lay ahead. What lay ahead would become known as “The Bataan Death March.”
Abel was initially shocked by the way the Japanese treated the Filipino and American prisoners on the march. They were marched with no sense of direction, without any food, and without any water. Prisoners who tried to get food or water were shot, bayoneted or decapitated. If a prisoner fell out of ranks, he was initially mistreated. Some of these men were beaten the entire length of the march. If the man fell out again, he was shot or bayoneted. As he marched, Abel saw many bodies of prisoners lying along the sides of the road.
When the prisoners reached Cabcaban Airfield, they saw that the Japanese had set up guns and were shooting at Corregidor which the marchers had to get past. It was about this time that the American guns on Corregidor began to pinpoint the location of the Japanese guns. Shells were landing on the road that the POWs were marching on. 1st Lt. Kenneth Bloomfield, A Company, ordered the men to double-time it across the area in an attempt to prevent casualties. The only man to die during this incident was Lt. Bloomfield. After he had made it to safety, he simply dropped to the ground. The members of A Company guessed that he had died from either heart failure or heat stroke. The POWs were allowed to bury him on the side of the road.
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 a half a mess kit full of rice. He estimated that the total amount of food he received during the twelve days it took him to complete the march was the equivalent of three filled mess kits.
When the POWs reached San Fernando, they were put into a bullpen and remained there until ordered by the Japanese to form 100 men detachments. After doing this, they were marched to the train station where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “Forty or Eights.” The name referred to the fact that each car could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. Those men who died remained standing since they could not fall to the cars’ floors.
The living left the cars at Capas and as they did the dead fell to the floors. The POWs walked the last miles to Camp O’Donnell. Abel arrived at Camp O’Donnell on April 27, 1942, and watched as a great number of the prisoners died from the disease. Abel was never really sure how many men died per day because during his interment there, he was often exhausted, dazed, and unaware of what was going on around him.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino training base which the Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. When the Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, Tsuneyoshi refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain in was scraped and lime was spread over it.
On May 10, 1942, Abel was transferred to another camp near Calauan under the command of Captain Wakamori. The American commanding officer was Lt. Col. Ted Wickord who had been the commander of the 192nd. Wickord had tried to fill the detail with as many men from the tank group that he could. The men in this camp received good treatment when compared to the other camps, and the food in the camp was good and adequate. The men were fed rice and soup each day. The prisoners on this detail were given the duty of repairing the bridges and roads destroyed during the Battle of Bataan.
The detachment was next sent to Batangas to rebuild another bridge on June 16, 1942. Again, the Filipino people did all they could to see that the Americans got the food and care they needed. Somehow the Filipinos convinced the Japanese to allow them to attend a meal to celebrate the completion of the new bridge. When the work was completed, the POWs were once again moved.
The next bridge Abel and the other POWs were sent to build was in Candelaria where they were sent on August 1st. Once again, the people of the town did whatever they could to help the Americans. An order of Roman Catholic sisters, who had been recently freed from custody, invited Lt. Col. Wickord and twelve POWs for a dinner. Wickord picked the twelve sickest looking POWs to attend the meal. On September 8, 1942, the detail ended and the POWs were sent to Cabanatuan.
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 love ones.
Very truly yours,
J. A. ULIO
The Adjutant General
In July 1942, the family received a second letter. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Pvt. Abel F. Ortega had not been reported as a casualty. The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, until definite information to the contrary is received. “Efforts to secure prisoner of war lists from the Philippines have not been successful to this date due to the lack of communication and the fact that the Japanese Government has not yet given permission for the Swiss representative and the International Red Cross delegates to make visits to prisoner of war camps in the islands. When the lists of prisoners are received, we will clear the name of your son and send you any additional information that we may have.”
As a prisoner at Cabanatuan, Abel worked in the camp farm. On January 28, 1943, Abel was transferred to a work camp at Lipa in Batangas Province. The men on this detail built runways for the Japanese. The work was extremely hard and the food was scarce. The average meal was rice and soup. The prisoners were able to work but could not do much beyond this. On this detail, Abel worked with Joseph Lajzer a member of Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, who would remain his friend for the rest of his life.
While a POW at Lipa, Abel was sent out on a work detail. It was on this detail that Abel witnessed a Japanese guard beat an American officer because he did not like him. The guards lined the POW’s 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 POW’s 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.
While Abel was on this detail his parents still did not know if he was living or dead and his mother made inquiries about his status. It was on May 7, 1943, that his mother received this letter.
“Dear Mrs. Ortega:
“The records of the War Department show your son, Private Abel F. Ortega, 38,029,189, Infantry, missing in action in the Philippine Islands since May 7, 1942.
“All available information concerning your son has been carefully considered and under the provisions of Public Law 490, 77th Congress, as amended, an official determination has been made continuing him on the records of the War Department in a missing status. The law sited provides that pay and allowances are to be credited to the missing person’s account and payment of allotments to authorized allottees are to be continued during the absence of such persons in a missing status.
“I fully appreciate your concern and deep interest. You will, without further request on your part, receive immediate notification of any change in your son’s status. I regret that the far-flung operations of the present war, the ebb and flow of the combat over the great distances in isolated areas, and the characteristics of our enemies impose on us the heavy burden of uncertainty with respect to the safety of our loved ones.
“Very Truly Yours,
“J. A. Ulio
The Adjutant General
On March 26, 1944, Abel was transferred to Camp Murphy which was a work camp where he once again engaged in runway building at Nichols Field. It was there that the “Blood Brother” rule was first enforced. Each group of ten men was responsible for each other. If one man escaped, the other nine would be executed. Abel recalled that a soldier. Pfc. Thomas House escaped from the camp. For whatever reason, the Japanese did not execute the other nine men.
At this camp, the prisoners were frequently beaten with pick handles. It was at this camp that Abel would be punished severely. One morning, Abel and two other POW’s were the last men to fall information. The three men were made to stand at attention while a guard walked past them slapping them hard on the left side of their faces with the flat side of a bayonet. After this, the men were made to kneel. A stick, about two inches in diameter cut from a tree with small stubs sticking out of it, was placed behind the knees of each man. This made kneeling extremely painful. As they knelt each man was punched in the face by the guards. The guards also began jumping on the legs of the men so that the sticks would dig into their legs. This beating lasted about twenty minutes.
On September 24, 1944, Abel was transferred to Bilibid Prison in Manila. He remained there only a few days before being sent to the port area of Manila. When the POWs arrived their ship, the Arisan Maru was not ready to sail. Another ship, the Hokusen Maru was ready to sail, but it’s entire POW detachment had not arrived, so the Japanese decided to switch detachments so that the Hokusen Maru could sail. The experience of the trip to Japan on this “Hell Ship” was the worse experience Abel had as a POW.
Five hundred prisoners occupied a 45 foot by 30-foothold and were fed once or twice a day. The hold was extremely hot and men suffered from heat prostration. Eight or nine men died and a number of other men went insane. The Japanese threatened to kill the POWs if they didn’t stop the insane from screaming. To do this, the sane POWs strangled those who were out of their minds or hit them with canteens.
As part of a ten-ship convoy, it sailed again on October 4 and stopped at Cabcaban. The next day, it was at San Fernando, La Union, where the ships were joined by four more ships and five escorts. The ships stayed close to the shoreline to prevent submarine attacks which failed, since, on October 6, two of the ships were sunk.
In the hold there was no room to sit down, so the men stayed in a half-sitting position most of the time. The only time the men were permitted on the deck was to go to the latrine. When this was done, only one man was permitted on the deck at a time and only for a few minutes.
The ships were informed, on October 9, that American carriers were seen near Formosa and sailed for Hong Kong when it received word American planes were in the area. During this part of the trip, the ships ran into American submarines which sank two more ships. The Hokusen Maru arrived in Hong Kong on October 11 and remained there until October 21. During the stay, the ship was attacked by fighter planes from an American carrier which dropped bombs, but none of the bombs hit Abel’s ship. The Hokusen Maru next went to Formosa.
The Hokusen Maru arrived at Takao, Formosa, on October 24. While at Formosa, Abel remembered that four survivors from a ship were placed in his ship’s hold. They were the survivors of the Arisan Maru which had been sunk in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. This was the ship that Abel had been scheduled to sail on to Japan. The POWs remained in the ship’s hold until November 8th when they disembarked the ship.
On Formosa, Abel was sent to Heito Camp. He did not remain there long and was sent to Toroku Camp which was opened just for them in the classrooms of a school. The POWs did gardening, farming, and clean up work around the camp and were not treated as harshly as in other camps. Even though the work was not that hard, many of the POW’s died of malnutrition. Abel would remain on Formosa from November 1, 1944, until January 25, 1945, when he was sent to Japan on the Enoshima Maru.
The POWs were put in a hold which had hemp in it. They quickly discovered that below the hemp was bags of sugar and canned tomatoes which they helped themselves to. After arriving at Moji on January 30, the POWs were marched to a schoolhouse, but when they arrived, the Japanese made them strip off their clothing in the cold before entering it. This was done because they were infested with lice and were going to be deloused.
The POWs next were marched to the train station and rode the train to Osaka. On February 1, the Japanese opened a new camp Osaka #18-B. At the camp, the POWs were housed in a two-story schoolhouse and put to work as stevedores in the port for the Kamiguni Company. Abel recalled that the prisoners were still beaten; but, by this time, they were so used to it that it did not bother them.
On May 20, 1945, Abel and the other POWs were sent to Maibara 10-B, in the interior of Japan, when the camp was closed. There, he worked building canals and draining lakes. They also worked at a steel mill and in warehouses outside of a railroad yard. 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. During his time in the camp, the treatment improved with the arrival of a new commandant.
The treatment given the POWs improved when a new commandant took over the camp. As the end of the war neared, the POWs received shoes and Japanese military uniforms, until finally, they were told they did not have to work.
Meals were primarily rice and mallet, but once in a while, the POWs working on the land reclamation were allowed to hunt for clams on the bottom of the lake. While they hunted, they boiled water to cook them. 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.
One day a train stopped outside the camp and a man, who was not Japanese, wearing a khaki uniform walked up to the gate and asked to be let in. He entered the camp and told the men that the war was over.
The guards were standing nearby, but their guns were leaning against a building. The POWs rushed the guns and so did the guards. After a short struggle, the guards let go of the guns and left. To the POW’s this was the first proof that the war was over. When the Japanese gave the POWs beer, they knew the war was over. On August 19, the camp commandant officially told them the war had ended. When American planes appeared and started to drop them supplies, the prisoners’ belief was confirmed.
Abel and the other men decided to take the parachutes from the planes and had a Japanese tailor-make the 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 POW’s 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 to be deloused, to shower, and to receive new clothes before he 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 Simon Bolivar, and returned to the United States on October 21, 1945, at 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.