Capt. Alvin Charles Poweleit, M. D.
Captain Alvin C. Poweleit was born June 8, 1908, to August Poweleit & Caroline Yutze-Poweleit. His mother died and his father remarried. He had two sisters and one brother, a half-sister, and a half-brother. Alvin married, Loretta Catherine Thesing, on June 28, 1930, and attended the University of Louisville. He graduated from the university’s medical school in 1936. After residency, he had a general medical practice in Newport, Kentucky. With his wife, he lived at 327 East Park Avenue in Newport, Kentucky.
While in school, Alvin enlisted in the U. S. Army Reserve and was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He was trained in infantry tactics during the summers.
In January 1941, Alvin was called to federal duty. Reporting to Fort Knox, he was assigned to the newly formed medical detachment of the 192nd Tank Battalion. During this time, Alvin and the other members of the detachment trained to operate the battalion’s trucks, motorcycles, reconnaissance cars, and tanks. They also learned to fire every gun used by the battalion. Alvin, in his own opinion, was pretty good on the .50 machine gun.
In the late summer of 1941, Alvin and the medical detachment traveled to Camp Polk, Louisiana for maneuvers. The medical detachment did not take part in the maneuvers, but they did treat the members of the battalion for injuries and snake bites.
After the maneuvers, the battalion members were ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft. Knox as was expected. At the fort, they learned that their battalion was being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. The soldiers received furloughs home to say their goodbyes before they returned to Camp Polk.
The reason for this move was because of an event that happened during the summer. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a buoy in the water. 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, hundreds of miles away, with a large radio transmitter on it. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. By the time the planes landed that evening, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next morning, another squadron was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat which was seen making its way toward shore. Since communication between and Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat was not intercepted. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
The battalion’s new tanks came from the 753rd Tank Battalion which were loaded onto flat cars in different trains. The soldiers also cosmolined anything that they thought would rust. Over different train routes, the companies were sent to San Francisco, California, where 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 by the battalion’s medical detachment and men found with minor medical conditions were held on the island and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other 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. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd 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, the transport, 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 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline. On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
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, the tankers were met by Gen. Edward P. King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived. He made sure that they had Thanksgiving Dinner before he left to have his own dinner.
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 spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons. Alvin and Ardell Schei, the company clerk, worked to organize the military records of the battalion. Part of the reason this was done was because D Company was going to be reassigned to the 194th Tank Battalion. This transfer would never take place.
On December 8, 1941, Alvin and the other members learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At 12:45 pm, just after lunch, bombs began to fall on Clark Field. Since the 192nd Tank Battalion were assigned to tents along the main road to Fort Stotsenburg, Alvin drove to the airfield to see if he could aid the wounded and dying.
As he was doing this, Japanese fighters came in to strafe the airfield. To avoid being hit, Alvin hid in a bomb crater. He recalled that the dead were everywhere. After the attack, Alvin continued to give first aid to the wounded.
Since the American Army Air Corps was destroyed, Alvin and the other members of the medical detachment lived with strafing and bombing during the withdrawal into the Bataan Peninsula. Alvin and the other members of the battalion worked to provide adequate medical care for the letter companies of the battalion.
On December 21, Alvin was with B Company when one platoon of its tanks was sent north to Lingayen Gulf where the Japanese were landing troops. Alvin stated that Gen. Wainwright was advised, by Lt. Col. Wickord, that the tanks should not be sent into the area without reconnaissance. According to Alvin, Wainwright demanded the tanks be sent into the area. The result was that the tank platoon was lost.
One day while doing this job, Alvin, Sgt. Howard Massey, and Cpl. John Reynolds encountered a Japanese patrol. The three soldiers were in a stream bed when they heard a twig snap. Carefully, they made their way back to their truck and hid in the brush.
As they watched, a Japanese patrol made its way down the bed of the stream. Each of the medical detachment men aimed their guns at a specific member of the patrol. They opened fire and continued to fire until the patrol was wiped out.
According to Alvin, the reason Bataan held out for four months was because Gen. James Weaver was a good tactician. Weaver, by moving the tanks around, convinced the Japanese that the Americans had a greater number of tanks than they actually did. A Japanese officer, on Formosa, would later confirm this belief in a conversation with Alvin while he was a POW there.
On April 9, 1942, the medical detachment was given their order to surrender. They remained in their bivouac for two days until they received orders from the Japanese to report to Mariveles.
At Mariveles, the soldiers were searched. It was from this barrio at the southern tip of Bataan that Alvin started what became known as the death march.
As he marched, Alvin saw bodies of the dead lying along the road. He believed there were ten bodies for every mile. The bodies were bloated from lying in the sun and had maggots crawling on them. Alvin also witnessed three Filipinos have their heads cut off for giving rice to the Prisoners of War.
All these things built up in Alvin until he snapped. When a Japanese guard approached to hit a POW, Alvin grabbed him and snapped his neck. He and other POWs hid the guard’s body and a gun in the undergrowth. As he continued the march, he heard the guards call the missing guards name. As far as Alvin knew, the guard’s body was never found.
At San Fernando, Alvin and the other prisoners were crammed into boxcars. They rode in the cars until they reached Capas. There, they disembarked from the cars and walked the last six miles to Camp O’Donnell.
The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which 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 Japanese 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 area, and the area they had been laying was scrapped 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. Alvin remained to administer medical aid to the sick at Camp O’Donnell who were too ill to be moved.
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. Alvin did not arrive at the camp until January 1 , 1943.
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. Alvin did not remain in the camp long, because he was sent to Bongabon on February 7, 1943, and remained there until October 1943, when he was returned to Cabanatuan.
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.
The camp hospital was made up of 30 wards. Zero ward had been missed when the wards were being counted so it was given the name of “Zero Ward.” The ward became the place were POWs who were going to die were sent. The Japanese were so terrified by it, that they put a fence up around it and would not go near the building. It is known that Alvin was the surgeon for Ward 10, and he also held the jobs of sanitary officer and utility officer after he returned to the camp.
In September 1944, Alvin and many of the other POWs were sent to Manila and held at Bilibid Prison. After receiving a physical, it was determined that he was healthy enough to be sent to Japan.
The POW detachment Alvin was in was marched to the Port Area of Manila. Once there, the POW detachment waited to be boarded onto the Arisan Maru which was not ready to sail. Another ship, the Hokusen Maru was ready to sail, so the Japanese switched the POW detachments. Alvin’s detachment of POWs was boarded onto the ship on October 1.
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.
As part of a ten-ship convoy, it sailed again on October 4 and stopped at Cabcaban. The next day, it was at San Fernando La Union, where the ships were joined by four more ships and five escorts. The ships stayed close to the shoreline to prevent submarine attacks which failed since, on October 6, two of the ships were sunk.
The ships were informed, on October 9, that American carriers were seen near Formosa and sailed for Hong Kong when it was informed American planes were in the area. 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 at Hong Kong on October 11. While it was in port, American planes bombed the harbor on October 16. On October 21, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa, arriving on October 24.
The POWs were in such bad shape that the Japanese took them ashore, on November 8, and sent them to Inrin Temporary. The camp was specifically opened for them and they only did light work and grew vegetables to supplement their diets. Many of the men recovered while in the camp.
On Formosa, Alvin was held at Shirakawa and Taihoku POW camps. He would remain there until the end of the war. He and the other POWs learned of the end of the war on August 10, 1945. Returning to the Philippines, he received medical treatment and boarded the U.S.S. Marine Shark and arrived at Seattle on November 1, 1945.
Alvin returned to Kentucky and was discharged, from the army, on September 9, 1946. He went back to school and became a specialist in eye, ear and throat medicine. He opened a practice in Covington, Kentucky, from which he retired.
He became known for his aggressiveness in fighting cancer through surgical procedures that were considered risky in the 1950s. He was viewed as someone who took this type of surgery from primitive medicine to modern medicine.
On July 13, 1997, Dr. Alvin C. Poweleit died of injuries he received from a car accident. He was 89 years old. He is buried at Saint Stephen’s Cemetery in Ft. Thomas, Kentucky.
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