Little is known about Capt. Ruben H. Schwass’s early life except that he was born on July 5, 1901. He was the son of Henry & Augusta Schwass and the brother of Chris. With his brother, he grew up in Proviso Township. There is also evidence that his family had a long history of residing in River Forest, Illinois.
Capt. Ruben H. Schwass lived at 1305 West Chicago Avenue in Melrose Park, Illinois, with his wife, Helen, and his daughter, Ruth. He was employed, as a meter inspector, by the Public Service Company of Northern Illinois as a meter tester.
Ruben joined the Illinois National Guard’s Sixty Sixth Brigade, in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 14, 1924, as a private and remained in the unit through maneuvers in August 1940. He rose through the ranks and resigned from the National Guard as a Master Sergeant on November 19, 1940. He reenlisted four days later and was commissioned a 1st Lieutenant on November 23, 1940, he was reassigned to the 33rd Tank Company of the Illinois National Guard in Maywood.
On November 25, Ruben was called to federal service when the tank company was federalized. With this order, the name of the company was changed to Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion. The company traveled by train to Fort Knox, Kentucky. On April 7, 1941, he was promoted to captain and became the battalion’s supply officer.
A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics.
At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating.
At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
In September 1941, the battalion took part in maneuvers in Louisiana from September 1 through 30. It was after these maneuvers, at Camp Polk, the 192nd was informed that their stay in the military had been extended and that they were being sent overseas. Being forty years old, Ruben was given the opportunity to resign from active duty, but he chose to go overseas with the battalion.
The reason for this move was an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf 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 that 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, another squadron was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat that was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
Many of the members of the battalion were given leaves home. When they returned to Camp Polk, the loaded their tanks, which came from the 753rd Tank Battalion on flatcars and traveled west by train to Ft. Mason in San Francisco. Arriving there, they were taken by the ferry, the U.S.A.T. Gen. Frank M. Coxe, to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. At Ft. McDowell, they were given physicals and inoculated by the battalion’s medical detachment. Those men found to have a minor medical condition were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date, while other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd 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 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, they were greeted by Gen. Edward King. The general apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own. The enlisted men’s dinner was described by one member of the battalion as a “slumgullion” (a stew) slung onto their mess kits. Being an officer, he was invited to have dinner with the 194th Tank Battalion. 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. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
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.
During the first week of December, the tanks and half-tracks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers. Two members of each crew remained with their tank or half-track at all times and received their meals from food trucks.
On the morning of December 8, 1941, all the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of the airfield. They had received word of the Japanese attack on Clark Airfield. As they sat in their tanks and half-tracks they watched as American planes filled the sky. At noon, the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, the tankers watched as planes approached the airfield from the north. When bombs began exploding on the runways, they knew the planes were Japanese.
In December 1941, Capt. Ruben Schwass and the other members of 192nd Tank Battalion found themselves involved in some of the first combat action of World War II involving American tank personnel. In March, his wife received a telegram from him. After four months of battling the Japanese invasion forces, he became a Prisoner of War when the Filipino and American Forces on Bataan were surrendered to the Japanese.
As a POW, Ruben took part in the Death March and was first held as a Camp O’Donnell, which was an unfinished Filipino training base that was pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp as the POWs were 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 Japanese 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 scrapped 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 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.
His wife received a message from the War Department on May 2, 1942, which said:
“Dear Mrs. Schwass:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Captain Ruben H. Schwass, O&, 406,637, who, according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“I deeply regret that it is impossible for me to give you more information than is contained in this letter. In the last days before the surrender of Bataan, there were casualties which were not reported to the War Department. Conceivably the same is true of the surrender of Corregidor and possibly other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese Government has indicated its intention of conforming to the terms of the Geneva Convention with respect to the interchange of information regarding prisoners of war. At some future date, this Government will receive through Geneva a list of persons who have been taken prisoners of war. Until that time the War Department cannot give you positive information.
“The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is to be hoped that the Japanese Government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At that time you will be notified by this office in the event that his name is contained in the list of prisoners of war. In the case of persons known to have been present in the Philippines and who are not reported to be prisoners of war by the Japanese Government, the War Department will continue to carry them as “missing in action” in the absence of information to the contrary, until twelve months have expired. At the expiration of twelve months and in the absence of other information the War Department is authorized to make a final determination.
“Recent legislation makes provision to continue the pay and allowances of persons carried in a “missing” status for a period not to exceed twelve months; to continue, for the duration of the war, the pay and allowances of persons known to have been captured by the enemy; to continue allotments made by missing personnel for a period of twelve months and allotments or increase allotments made by persons by the enemy during the time they are so held; to make make new allotments or increase allotments to certain dependents defined in Public Law 490, 77th Congress. The latter dependents generally include the legal wife, dependent children under twenty-one years of age and dependent mother, or such dependents as having been designated in official records. Eligible dependents who can establish a need for financial assistance and are eligible to receive this assistance the amount allotted will be deducted from pay which would otherwise accrue to the credit of the missing individual.
“Very Truly yours
J. A. Ulio (signed)
The Adjutant General”
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 known as Camp Pangatian.
The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march where held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where those men captured when Corregidor surrendered were taken. In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp. Camp 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1.
Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with. To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers.
The POWs were sent out on work details one was to cut wood for the POW kitchens. The two major details were the farm detail and the airfield detail which lasted for years. A typical day on any detail lasted from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. The POWs on the farm detail would have to go to a shed each morning to get tools. As they left the shed, the Japanese guards thought it was great fun to hit them over their heads.
The detail was under the command of “Big Speedo” who spoke very little English. When he wanted the POWs to work faster, he told the POWs “speedo.” Although he was known to have a temper, the POWs thought he was fair. Another guard was “Little Speedo” who was smaller and also used the word when he wanted the POWs to work faster. The POWs also felt he was pretty fair in his treatment of them.
“Smiley” was another guard who always had a smile on his face but could not be trusted. He was the meanest of the guards and beat men up for no reason. He liked to hit the POWs with the club. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads.
Other POWs worked in rice paddies. 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 to drive their faces deeper into the mud. 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.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in awhile, they received bread.
The camp hospital was known as “Zero Ward” because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks. The sickest POWs were sent there to die. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves, and they would not go into the building. 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. Most of those who entered the ward died.
The POWs had the job of burying the dead. To do this, they worked in teams of four men. Each team carried a litter of four to six dead men to the cemetery where they were buried in graves containing 15 to 20 bodies.
In July, his wife received another message from the War Department. The following is an excerpt.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Capt. Ruben H. Schwass 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.”
In November of 1942, Ruben was sent to Japan on the “hell ship” Nagato Maru. When the ship left for Japan, he was already extremely ill. On the ship, were other members of the 192nd Tank Battalion. One of these men was 2nd Lt. Ben Morin.
The ship arrived in Moji, Kyushu, Japan, on November 25, 1942, which was Thanksgiving Day. The POWs disembarked in bitter cold and wind and were next sent by train to Tanagawa which was outside of Osaka. The camp was a “hell hole” infested with lice. It was terribly cold during the winter, and the food was terrible with little or no protein. It was while he was a POW in Japan that his wife finally received word that he was POW on December 10, 1942.
“REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR HUSBAND CAPTAIN RUBEN H. SCHWASS IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST MARSHALL GENERAL=
ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL=”
His wife did not learn he had been transferred to Japan until August 4, 1943.
In maid-January 1943, Ruben and other officers were transferred to Zentsuji POW Camp. Since Ruben was extremely ill with dysentery, he was placed in the “infirmary” section of the camp. The chances of surviving an illness there were not very good since the medics had no medicine.
While Ruben lay ill in bed, his body was covered with lice. 2nd Lt. Ben Morin would visit him and clean him the best he could. In an attempt to delouse Ruben, Lt. Morin would remove Ruben’s shirt and pick the lice from it. Lt. Morin would also wash Ruben’s underwear in ice-cold water and hang them on the barbwire fence in the cold air to shock the lice. By doing this, Lt. Morin could clean the lice from the underwear and guarantee that Ruben had “clean” underwear for another day.
At the age of 42, Capt. Ruben H. Schwass died from dysentery and catarrh pneumonia on April 6, 1943, at 2:30 A.M. near Zentsuji Camp, Japan. According to Lt. Col. Ernest Miller of the 194th Tank Battalion, Schwass’ funeral was held on April 7th at 8:30 AM, with the officers, lined up on both sides of the path. The pallbearers brought the casket, which was covered with a black cloth, out of the bathhouse to benches and a salute was given. Those present sang, “Sleep Comrade Sleep,”
A chaplain said a prayer and next there was a minute of silence. Officers were posted in two lines from the bathhouse to the camp gate. The two chaplains led the procession followed by the pallbearers carrying the casket. At the gate, the pallbearers placed the casket on a galley cart and took his remains to the crematorium. It is known that 2nd Lt. Henry Knox and 2nd Lt. Ben Morin were two of his pallbearers. Both were members of the 192nd.
At 1:00 PM, Chaplain John May, of the Australian Army, Lt. Morin, and Lt. Knox went to the crematorium and picked up Schwass’ ashes. The three men took the ashes to the camp cemetery and buried them. They returned to the camp at 2:30.
On October 8, 1943, six months after his death, his wife received this telegram.
“THE SECRETARY OF WAR DESIRES ME TO EXPRESS HIS DEEPEST REGRET THAT YOUR HUSBAND CAPTAIN RUBEN H. SCHWASS WHO WAS PREVIOUSLY REPORTED A PRISONER OF WAR DIED SIXTH APRIL NINETEEN FORTY THREE IN A JAPANESE PRISONER OF WAR CAMP IN JAPAN AS A RESULT OF DYSENTERY PERIOD THE SECRETARY OF WAR ASKS THAT I EXPRESS HIS DEEP SYMPATHY IN YOUR LOSS AND HIS REGRET THAT THE UNAVOIDABLE CIRCUMSTANCES MADE NECESSARY THE UNUSUAL LAPSE OF TIME IN REPORTING YOUR SONS DEATH TO YOU CONFIRMING LETTER FOLLOWS=
ULIO THE ADJ GEN.
In December 1943, his wife approached the National Jewish Welfare Board for information on him. It was through their efforts that she confirmed his death. A memorial service was held for Capt Ruben Schwass at Saint Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Melrose Park on October 23, 1943.
After the war, his remains were returned to the United States at the request of his family. On August 3, 1949, the remains, of Capt. Ruben H. Schwass, were reburied at Concordia Cemetery in Forest Park, Illinois, next to his wife, Helen, who had passed away in early September 1944.