T/5 Robert E. Overstreet was born on September 9, 1922, in California to Claude C. Overstreet & Grace Houston-Overstreet. With his two sisters and brother, he grew up at 27 Magnolia Street in Santa Cruz, California. While growing up, he delivered newspapers and worked at the Miller hot dog stand on the beach boardwalk. He graduated from Santa Cruz High School and went to Salinas Junior College for one semester.
In September 1940, the 40th Tank Company of the California National Guard, from Salinas, was federalized as C Company, 194th Tank Battalion. Knowing this, and wanting to get his military obligation done, Frank joined the National Guard Company. On February 10, 1941, the company traveled to Fort Lewis, Washington, for training. Since he later held the rank of Technician Fourth Class, he received special training. Anyone with the rank was referred to as sergeant.
On August 15, 1941, the decision was made, at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, that the 194th would be sent to the Philippines because of an event that happened during the summer. The reason for this move was an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over the Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots, whose plane was lower than the rest, noticed something odd in the water. He took his plane down and 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 a Japanese occupied island with a large radio transmitter. The island was hundreds of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day – when a squadron was sent to the area – the buoys had been picked up, and a fishing boat was seen heading toward shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat was not stopped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
On September 7, 1941, the 194th, minus B Company, rode a train to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, for transport to the Philippine Islands. They were ferried to Ft. McDowell, Angel Island by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, and received physicals and inoculations from the battalion’s medical detachment.
The tankers boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge, on September 8, at 3:00 P.M. and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands. To get the tanks to fit in the ship’s holds, the turrets had serial numbers spray painted on them and were removed from the tanks. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13 at 7:00 A.M., and most of the soldiers were allowed off the ship to see the island but had to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M.
After leaving Hawaii, the ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time that it was joined by the U.S.S. Astoria, a heavy cruiser, and an unknown destroyer, that were its escorts. During this part of the trip, on several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke. Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country. The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and the date changed to Thursday, September 18.
The Coolidge entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M., on September 26, and reached Manila several hours later. The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M., and were driven on buses to Clark Field. The maintenance section of the battalion and members of 17th Ordnance remained at the dock to unload the battalion’s tanks and reattach the turrets. The job was completed at 9:00 A.M. the next day.
The battalion rode buses to Fort Stotsenburg and taken to an area between the fort and Clark Field, where they were housed in tents since the barracks for them had not been completed. They were met by Colonel Edward P. King, commanding officer of the fort who made sure they had what they needed. On November 15, they moved into their barracks.
For the next several weeks, the tankers spent their time removing the cosmoline from their weapons. They also had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their M3 tanks. None of them had ever trained in one. In October, the battalion was allowed to travel to Lingayen Gulf. This was done under simulated conditions that enemy troops had landed there. Two months later, enemy troops would land there.
The 194th, with the 192nd Tank Battalion, were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field on December 1. They remained there for the next week. At all times, two tank crew members of half-track crew members remained with their vehicles. The morning of December 8, 1941, the battalion was brought up to full strength at the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. Just hours early, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. As the tankers guarded the airfield, they watched American planes flying in every direction. At noon the planes landed, to be refueled, and the pilots went to lunch. It was 12:45, and as the tankers watched, a formation of 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. When bombs began exploding on the runways, the tankers knew the planes were Japanese.
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.
On December 8, the 194th was ordered to three kilometers north of Clark Field to the barrio of San Joaquin on the Malolos Road. They were sent to Mabakut on the 10th, and moved, on the 12th, to a bivouac south of San Fernando. They moved again, on the 14th, south of Muntinlupa. The next day the battalion received 15 Bren gun carriers and gave some to the Philippine Scouts. The Bren gun carriers were used to test ground to see if it was safe for tanks. On December 21, they were ordered to the Agno River near Carmen where they held the south bank from for 24 hours. There, they engaged the Japanese, who attempted to cross the river in several places. The tankers fired on them with their machine guns killing as many as 500 enemy troops.
The battalions were sent to an area west and north of Rosario, on the 22nd, to cover the withdraw of troops. When they arrived they were ordered out of the area by the commanding officer of the 71st Infantry Division, Philippine Army, who felt they would get in the way of operations of the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. This belief of officers that they were the “immediate commanders” of the tanks ended when General Weaver gave orders, to the tank crews, that they would only take orders from the Provisional Tank Group Headquarters.
The night of December 23 and the next day, the battalion, with the 192nd Tank Battalion, was operating north of the Agno River. The tanks were ordered to withdraw the night of December 24 but found that the bridge they were supposed to cross had been destroyed. The tanks made an end run to find a crossing and ran into Japanese resistance, but they successfully crossed the river.
The tank battalions formed a new line of defense on the south bank of the Agno River the night of December 25, with the 192nd holding the line from Route 3 near Carmen to Tayug. The 194th held the line from west of Carmen to the Alcala-Bautista Road and were only in radio contact with each other. They held the line until the night of December 26, when they were ordered to withdraw and form a line from Santa Ignacia-Gerona-Santo Tomas- San Jose.
During the same night, D Company, 192nd, attached to the 194th, arrived at the Agno River to find the bridge already destroyed by the engineers. All but one of the tanks of the company were disabled and abandoned. The tank commander of one tank found a place to ford the river several hundred yards from the bridge. The rest of the 194th, that night, withdrew down Route 3 while the 192nd withdrew down Route 5. Later, during the Battle of Bataan, the tanks abandoned by D Company were used by the Japanese.
The tank battalions held the Tarlac-Cabanatuan line on the 27th and the night of the 28/29, the tank battalions formed a new defensive line on the south bank of the Bamban River. The tanks were told to hold the line until ordered to withdraw. It is believed that it was at this time that they received these orders 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.” After the tank battalions withdrawal, they formed a new line at Tarlac which they held until the night of the 29th.
The two tank battalions, from December 30 to January 1, covered the withdraw of troops. The 192nd covered the withdrawal of the Philippine Army divisions east and west of the Pampanga River, while the 194th covered the withdrawal of the Philippine divisions south on Route 3 toward San Fernando and Bataan. It was at this time on the 31st, that C Company rejoined the 194th.
The tank battalions were ordered to cover the withdrawal of all American-Filippino troops across the Pampanga River at the Calumpit Bridge on January 2. While doing this, orders were received from General MacArthur’s chief of staff telling the units, at the bridge, to withdraw from the bridge. About half the units withdrew.
When Gen. Wainwright became aware of what had happened, he ordered an all-out attack by the self-propelled mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a wild attack by the 192nd. This attack stopped the Japanese advance and kept the road open and allowed the southern Luzon troops to cross into Bataan.
The battalions held the bridge until the night of January 6/7, when the 192nd covered the 194th’s withdrawal over the bridge before crossing the bridge itself. The engineers destroyed the bridge ending the Battle of Luzon. From this point on, the tanks were used to plug holes in the main battle line whenever possible.
It was at this time, on the 6th, that rations were cut which quickly resulted in the number of men reporting themselves sick. In addition, the tank companies were reduced from 17 tanks to 10, with D Company receiving tanks from the other companies.
On January 8, a composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd., to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa while the rest of the tanks fell back to a bivouac south of the Pilar-Baggio Road. It was there that the tank crews had their first rest, in nearly a month, and tanks received long overdue maintenance work by 17th Ordnance.
The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road. It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance. It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon. The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance. Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400-hour overhauls.
The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Hacienda Road on January 25. While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M. One platoon was sent to the front of the column of trucks which were loading the troops. The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese.
Later on January 25, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight. They held the position until the night of January 26/27, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads. When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were supposed to use had been destroyed by enemy fire. To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
The tank battalions, on January 28, were given the job of protecting the beaches, while the battalion’s half-tracks were used to patrol the roads. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
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. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over.
In March, the amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. At the same time, food rations were cut in half again. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor.
The Japanese launched an all-out attack on April 3. On April 7, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. C Company, 194th, which was attached to the 192nd, had only seven tanks left.
The tanks became a favorite target of the Japanese receiving fire on trails and while hidden in the jungle. and could not fight back. The situation was so bad that other troops avoided being near the tanks, and the 26th Cavalry turned down a tank company’s offer of assistance in a counter-attack.
When it became apparent to Gen. Edward King that the situation was hopeless, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms with the Japanese. The tankers received the order “crash,” sometime between 6:30 and 6:45 on April 9th, and destroyed anything that had military value for the Japanese. To destroy their tanks, they circled them, fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of each tank, opened the gasoline cocks in the crew compartments, and dropped hand grenades into them. Once this was done, they were ordered to Provisional Tank Group Headquarters and ordered to remain there.
The company remained in its bivouac until April 10 when the Japanese arrived. Ben now was officially a Prisoner of War. HQ Company was ordered the next day, to move to the headquarters of the Provisional Tank Group, which was at kilometer marker 168.2. At 7:00 P.M. on the 10th, the POWs were ordered to march. They made their way from the former command post, and at first, found the walk difficult. When they reached the main road, walking became easier. At 3:00 A.M., they were given an hour break before being ordered to move again at 4:00 A.M. The column reached Lamao at 8:00 A.M., where the POWs were allowed to forage for food before marching again at 9:00.
When the POWs reached Limay, officers with ranks of major or higher were separated from the enlisted men and the lower-ranking officers. The higher-ranking officers were put on trucks and driven to Balanga from where they march north to Orani. The lower-ranking officers and enlisted men reached the barrio later in the day having marched through Abucay and Samal.
At 6:30 in the evening, the POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men. Once this was done, they resumed the trip north, but this time they were marched at a faster pace and were given few breaks. When they did receive a break, they had to sit in the road until they were ordered to move.
When they were north of Hermosa, the POWs reached pavement which made the march easier. At 2:00 A.M., they received an hour break, but any POW who attempted to lay down was jabbed with a bayonet. After the break, 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 men were marched until 4:00 P.M. when they reached San Fernando. Once there, they were herded into a bullpen, surrounded by barbwire, and put into groups of 200 men. One POW from each group went to the cooking area which was next to the latrine and received a box of rice that was divided among the men. Water was given out in a similar manner with each group receiving a pottery jar of water to share.
At 4:00 A.M., the Japanese woke the men up and organized them into detachments of 100 men. From the compound, they were marched to the train station, where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “forty or eights.” Each boxcar could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly that the dead could not fall to the floor. At Capas, as the living left the cars and those who had died – during the trip – fell to the floors of the cars. As they left the cars, the Filipino civilians threw sugarcane and gave the POWs water.
The POWs marched eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell. The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base. 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. The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies 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 was scraped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas. There, they were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another line which took it to Cabanatuan. The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup. From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was formerly known at Camp Pangatian.
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 POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard. 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.
According to medical records kept by the camp’s medical staff, Robert was admitted to the camp hospital on June 18, 1942, suffering from diphtheria. He was assigned to Barracks 0.1.
The death records kept in the camp by the medical staff show that Tec 5 Robert E. Overstreet died of diphtheria on Wednesday, August 5, 1942, at approximately 6:00 A.M. and was buried in the camp cemetery. He was 19 years old when he died.
After the war, the U.S. Recovery Team identified the remains of Tec 5 Robert E. Overstreet. At his parents’ request, they were returned to California and buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery at San Bruno, California, in Section N, Site 525.