Sgt. John C. Spornitz was born in 1916 in North Dakota to Walter E. Spornitz and Nancy Elizabeth Cockran-Spornitz. He grew up in Jenkins, Minnesota, and worked as a carpenter in building construction. At some point, he joined the Minnesota National Guard in Brainerd.
In 1940, the tank company was notified it was being called to federal service in November 1940 as A Company, 194th Tank Battalion. Due to a lumber industry strike in Washington State, the barracks for the 194th would not be finished, so the induction of the tank company into the regular army was postponed until February 10, 1941. On that day he signed papers that transferred him from the Minnesota National Guard to the regular army with the rank of Private First Class. After this was done, the men were issued clothing, field equipment, and barracks baggage. They also were issued tick bags, to be filled with straw and serve as mattresses, on the bunks. Bunks were set up in the armory on the main drill floor, the stage, and the second floor of the armory. Their first meal as members of the army was pork and beans, boiled potatoes, bread and butter, cabbage salad, cheese, apple pie, and coffee. Sgt. Russell Swearingen had the job of inspecting the company’s tanks and other equipment which was being shipped to Ft. Lewis, Washington, ahead of the company.
The soldiers’ second day of living in the armory was spent preparing for the trip to Washington State. Their first meal of the day was breakfast which was: stewed prunes, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, bacon, sweet rolls, milk, butter, and coffee. For lunch, they were fed boiled pork sausages, boiled potatoes, spinach, head lettuce, bread and butter, pie, and coffee. This was followed by a dinner of stewed chicken, mashed potatoes, celery and radishes, bread and butter, ice cream for dessert, and coffee.
The company’s two tanks, six trucks, reconnaissance car, tents, and tent stoves were sent to Ft. Lewis on a freight train on February 18. Just before midnight on February 19, the soldiers arrived at the Northern Pacific Railway Station led by the Brainerd Ladies Drum and Bugle Corps. Although it was 20 degrees below zero, the platform was jammed with families and friends wishing them well on their trip to Fort Lewis, Washington. It was said that many teary-eyed mothers and soldiers could be seen in the crowd. The train was scheduled to leave at 12:19, but it was 15 minutes late and left about 12:35. After it arrived the men got on and attempted to find their sleeping berths. The company had three sleeping cars, one kitchen baggage car, and a baggage car assigned to it. One man was too tall for his berth, so he spent the night sleeping in a chair. Another man couldn’t be found because he got tired of trying to find his berth and went to sleep in an empty one.
At 6:45 the next morning, the soldiers were awakened and had to attempt to get dressed in their berths. Their first breakfast on the train was oatmeal, bacon, bread, oranges, and coffee, and served to them in tubs that ran down the center of three train cars and had been cooked in the baggage car’s kitchen. They were served it in their mess kits and ate it in their mess kits on their laps as the train swayed side to side. One soldier, Pvt. Robert Swanson, lost his meal when the train suddenly jerked and his mess kit went flying off his lap onto the floor.
At Staples, Minnesota, the train cars were transferred to the Alaskan and the company had a six-hour delay because of a train wreck 25 miles outside of Fargo, North Dakota. The train was rerouted to Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and from there was routed to Fargo. The train made a stop at Moorhead, Minnesota, and two of the companies sergeants – who had orders to buy an ax – got off the train. Both men believed they had stopped at Fargo where the train had a ten-minute stop. As they got to the station, they saw the train pulling away. A truck driver drove them the short distance to Fargo, where they rejoined the company. The train reached Mandan, North Dakota, at 5:15 that evening and had a 15 minute stop. To stretch their legs, the men got off the train to look around. It was there that PFCs Kenneth and Ernest Gorden received a telegram that their father had died and they were allowed to board another train to return to Brainerd. They rejoined the company after the funeral.
The next morning the train arrived at Livingston, Montana, and had a 15-minute stop. Again the soldiers left the train to see what they could see. It was there the train had to be held because Pvt. Arthur Thomas and Pvt. Raymond Fox had roamed too far from the depot – while looking for a present for someone – and did not get back to the station on time. Cpl. Kenneth Porwoll was caught by the men with KP and ended up on the crew cleaning up after the meal.
At 12:30 P.M. on February 22, the train arrived in Tacoma, Washington. From the station, they were taken by truck to Ft. Lewis. As they entered the base, they passed barracks after barracks and kept going. Many of the men wondered where they were being taken. When the trucks stopped, they found themselves in front of an area known as Area 12 with 200 brand new barracks that were built among the fir trees. It was referred to as being scenic since they had a view of Mount Rainier to the east 70 miles away. The barracks were located at the south end of Gray Army Air Field. Their twelve two-story wooden barracks and recreational and supply houses were on both sides of the road and covered an area of four city blocks.
The barracks were long and low and could sleep, 65 men. The buildings had forced air heating, but two soldiers in each one had to take turns at night to feed the coal furnaces. The barracks had electricity and adequate showers and washrooms for the men. There was a battalion mess hall that allowed 250 men to be fed at one time. Located across the street from the barracks was a branch of the post exchange.
Their first lunch at the base was waiting for them and had been prepared by C Company, who had arrived at the fort ahead of them. They had to wait to eat for about an hour because their mess kits had not arrived from the train depot. After they ate, they got to work fixing their cots in their barracks. Each man was issued two sheets, a mattress, a comforter, and a pillow and pillow cover.
Sunday morning the men got up and many went to church. The church was described as very beautiful for an army base. Catholic services were at 9:00 followed by Protestant services at 10:45. After church, the men spent much of their day working in their barracks. One of the major jobs was cleaning stickers off the window panes.
The weather was described as being constantly rainy. This resulted in many of the men being put in the base hospital to stop the spread of colds. Meals, at first, were somewhat improvised because both company cooks were in the hospital with colds. It was noted by the members of the company that the members of the other two companies found the morning temperature hard to deal with while it was warm to them. The longer they were there, the weather improved.
Once off duty many of the men visited the canteen near their barracks or went to the theater located in the main part of the base. The movies shown were newer but not the latest movies. A theater near their barracks was still being built, but when it was finished they only had to walk across the street. Since they were off Saturday afternoons on weekends, the men went to Tacoma or Olympia by bus that was provided by the Army and cost 25 cents. Tacoma was a little over 11 miles from the base and Olympia was a little over 22 miles from the base. Many of the men went to see the remains of the Narrows Bridge which had collapsed on November 7, 1940. On base, they played football, basketball, and softball. Cpl. Walter Straka who was in charge of the team held practice every evening.
At the end of February, the first detachment of men was sent to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for training as radio operators for 13 weeks. On March 5, the soldiers were paid for the first time receiving pay for 18 days of service. It is known that a second detachment of men was sent to Ft. Knox the second week of March. Another detachment of men was sent to mechanics school and gunnery school at Ft. Knox the last week in March. It is believed he was one of the men. On March 10, the company took a 3-mile hike with backpacks. When they returned they had to pitch their tents and there was an inspection. They took an 8-mile road march through the fir trees on March 14. The next day they had a field inspection.
For the next six months, the battalion trained at Fort Lewis, Washington. A typical day started at 6:00 AM with the first call. At 6:30 they had breakfast. When they finished they policed the grounds of their barracks and cleaned the barracks. This was followed by drill from 7:30 until 9:30 AM. During the drill, the men did calisthenics and marched around the parade grounds. At 9:30, they went to the barracks day rooms and took classes until 11:30 when they had lunch. The soldiers were free so many took naps until 1:00 PM when they drilled again or received training in chemical warfare. They often took part in work details during this time. At 4:30 PM, they returned to their barracks to get cleaned up before retreat at 5:00 PM. At 5:30 they had dinner and were free afterward. During this time many played baseball or cards while other men wrote home. The lights out were at 9:00 PM. but men could go to the dayroom.
The uniforms they wore were a collection of various uniforms with some men wearing WWI uniforms, others denim work uniforms, while still others had the latest issue. One day three officers on horseback rode up to one of the companies and asked the sergeant in charge why the men were dressed the way they were. The sergeant explained they were a federalized National Guard tank battalion and what they were wearing is what they had. After this conversation, the three officers rode away. That afternoon, two trucks with new coveralls pulled up to the battalion’s barracks and each man was issued a pair. Since they were the best clothing they had, many of the men wore them as their dress uniform. As it turned out, one of the three officers who had talked to the sergeant was Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower who had overseen tank training for the army at one time.
The battalion at one point had more men at Ft. Knox than at Ft. Lewis, so they were given the job of garbage collection and distributing coal to buildings for the coal-fired furnaces. To train with their tanks, Major Ernest Miller, the commanding officer of the battalion had those still on the base train on the weekends. A Company reported for its weekly field inspection on April 20, and there were only 20 men left in the company. A few days later, seven more men were sent to Ft. Knox, and those left behind wondered how they would be able to get all the jobs expected of the company done.
The entire battalion on April 23 went on an all-day march, having dinner out in the woods, brought to them by cooks in trucks. It was a two-hour march each way and covered about 10 miles total. They stopped at noon in a beautiful spot in a valley where there was an old deserted apple orchard in bloom, the blossoms were like small yellow sweetpeas and it was just a mass of yellow. The other hill in the back of the valley was thickly covered with woods, many of the trees were the flowering dogwood and the many other flowers and strange plants made the soldiers conscious of the fact they weren’t in Minnesota. The company also received twelve motorcycles and every man in the company had to learn to ride them. The entire battalion on April 30, except ‘the selectees,’ who didn’t have shelter halves, went on their first overnight bivouac together. They left at noon and returned before noon the next day. Part of the reason they did this was to practice pitching tents and for the cooks, it gave them the chance to supply food to the men out in the field.
In May, seventeen “selectees” joined the company but lived with Headquarters Company. Their basic training was condensed down to six weeks under the direction of Sgts. Nelson, Hyatt, Goodrich, and Paine. The sergeants lived with them and dealt with all their problems or directed them to someone who could help them. They supervised the selectees’ calisthenics and drill, besides holding classes in all the different subjects they needed to be trained as tank battalion members.
The battalion during June trained under what was called, “wartime conditions.” On one date, orders they received orders at 2:00 A.M. to move out as soon as possible to the attack position. They found themselves in dense woods in pitch black conditions. For the tanks to move, a soldier guided them with a small green flashlight. The soldiers were expected to have their gas masks with them and had to use them if ordered to do so.
The company on June 10, celebrated the fifth anniversary of its being mustered into the Minnesota National Guard. The soldiers had a large banquet dinner with a few cases of beer to make the celebration more festive. Major Ernest Miller gave a talk about the company’s history since it was formed in Brainerd. Many felt this was done for the benefit of the men from selective service. After dinner, they went to the theater that was located by their barracks and watched the official training film of the University of Minnesota football team. Ironically, the Golden Gophers’ official photographer’s son was in C Company.
The battalion, in July, still had only the eight M2 tanks that came with the companies to Ft. Lewis. It received some single turret tanks in late July that had been built in 1937, and a few beeps (later known as “jeeps”). It was the only unit at the base with them. On August 1st, the battalion was told it was losing B Company. The company was detached from the battalion and issued orders to Alaska. The rest of the battalion took part in what was called the Pacific maneuvers. During the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered back to Ft. Lewis and learned it was being sent overseas.
The story that Col. Ernest Miller, in his book Bataan Uncensored, told was that the decision to send the battalion overseas was made on August 15, 1941, and was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. In the story, 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 Taiwan which had a large radio transmitter used by the Japanese military. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with buoys covered on its deck covered by a tarp – 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 fact was that on August 13, 1941, Congress voted to extend federalized National Guard units’ time in the regular Army by 18 months. That same day, Major Miller was ordered to fly to Ft. Knox. The next day after he arrived, he was told the 194th was being sent overseas. On August 18, Miller stopped in Brainerd to see his family after receiving the battalion’s orders. When asked, he informed the Brainerd Daily Dispatch that the battalion was being sent overseas, but he did not disclose where they were being sent. He later flew to Minneapolis and then flew to Ft. Lewis.
Different newspapers speculated that the battalion was being sent to the Philippines. The reality was there were only three places that the tanks could be sent; Alaska, Hawaii, or the Philippines. Alaska was already eliminated since B Company was being sent there. The fact was that the battalion was part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox and operational by June 1941. Available information suggests that the tank group had been selected to be sent to the Philippines early in 1941. Besides the 194th, the tank group was made up of the 70th and 191st medium tank battalions at Ft. Meade, Maryland. The 70th was regular Army while the 191st had been a National Guard tank battalion. The 193rd at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 192nd at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, were also part of the tank group. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been National Guard light tank battalions. It is also known that the 193rd Tank Battalion had sailed for Hawaii – on its way to the Philippines – when Pearl Harbor was attacked. After it arrived in Hawaii, the battalion was held there. The 70th and 191st never received orders for the Philippines because of the war. Some military documents from the time show the name of the Provisional Tank Group in the Philippines as the First Provisional Tank Group.
The battalion’s new tanks were sent west from Ft. Knox, Kentucky, where they had been requisitioned by an officer of the 192nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Lt. William Gentry, for the battalion. Gentry was given written orders from the War Department giving him authority to take tanks from any unit so the 194th had its full complement of tanks. In some cases, the tanks he took had just arrived at the fort on flatcars and were about to be unloaded when he and his detachment arrived and took the tanks from soldiers waiting to unload them. From Ft. Knox, the tanks were sent west by train and were waiting for the battalion at Ft. Mason.
It was at this time men who were 29 years old or older and/or married were allowed to be transferred from the battalion. On September 4, 1941, the 194th, without B Company, was sent to Ft. Mason, north of San Francisco, by train and arrived at 7:30 A.M. on the 5th. From there, they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe to Ft. MacDowell on Angel Island where they were inoculated. Those men with medical conditions were replaced with men who had never trained in tanks.
The battalion’s new tanks had to have their turrets removed to fit them in the ship’s hold. So that the turrets went on the tanks they came off of, the tanks’ serial numbers were painted on the turrets. The soldiers boarded the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands on September 8th. The ship arrived at 7:00 A.M. on September 13 in Honolulu, Hawaii. The soldiers were given four-hour passes ashore. At 5:00 this part of the trip that it was joined by the heavy cruiser the U.S.S. Astoria and, the U.S.S. Guadalupe, a replenishment oiler. The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and the date became Thursday, September 18. On Friday, September 26, the ships entered Manila Bay at about 7:00 in the morning. The soldiers remained on board and disembarked at 3:00 P.M. and were taken by bus to Fort Stotsenburg. The battalion’s maintenance section, remained behind at the pier, with 17th Ordnance, to unload the tanks and reattach the tanks’ turrets which had been removed so the tanks would fit in the ship’s hold.
Upon arriving at the fort, they were greeted by General Edward P. King Jr. who apologized that they had to live in tents and receive their meals from food trucks until their barracks were completed on November 15. He informed the battalion he had learned of their arrival just days before they arrived. After he was satisfied that they were settled in, he left them. After spending three weeks in tents, they moved into their barracks on October 18, the barracks were described as being on stilts with walls that from the floor were five feet of a weaved matting called sawali This allowed the men to dress. Above five feet the walls were open and allowed for breezes to blow through the barracks making them more comfortable than the tents. There were no doors or windows. The wood that was used for the support beams was the best mahogany available. For personal hygiene, a man was lucky if he was near a faucet with running water.
The days were described as hot and humid, but if a man was able to find shade it was cooler in the shade. The Filipino winter had started when they arrived and it was hot when they went to sleep but by morning the soldiers needed a blanket. They turned in all their wool uniforms and were issued cotton shirts and trousers which were the regular uniform in the Philippines. They were also scheduled to receive sun helmets.
A typical workday was from 7:00 to 11:30 A.M. with an hour and a half lunch. The afternoon work time was from 1:30 to 2:30 P.M. At that time, it was considered too hot to work, but the battalion continued working and called it, “recreation in the motor pool.” Tank commanders studied books on their tanks and instructed their crews on the 30 and 50 caliber machine guns. The tankers learned to dismantle the guns and put them together. They did it so often that many men could take the guns apart and assemble them while wearing blindfolds. They never fired the guns because Gen. King could not get Gen. MacArthur to release ammunition for them.
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 during their time at Ft. Lewis. 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.
It is known that they were paid at least once after arriving which was confusing since they were paid in pesos and centavos. Many men at first at to learn how much things cost in a new currency.
At the end of the workday, the men had free time. The fort had a bowling alley and movie theaters. The men also played softball, horseshoes, and badminton. Men would also throw footballs around. On Wednesday afternoons, the men went swimming. Once a month, men put their names for the chance to go into Manila. The number of men allowed on these trips was limited. Other men were allowed to go to Aarayat National Park where there was a swimming pool that was filled with mountain water. Other men went canoeing at the Pagsanjan Falls and stated the scenery was beautiful.
The 192nd Tank Battalion arrived in the Philippines on November 20. With its arrival, the Headquarters for the Provisional Tank Group was formed. It was at this time that the process of transferring the battalion’s D Company to the 194th was begun. Doing this gave each tank battalion three companies of tanks.
The 192nd was sent to the Philippines with a great deal of radio equipment. It had been given the job of setting up a radio school to train the radio operators for the Philippine Army. The battalion had a large number of ham radio operators and set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours after the battalion’s arrival. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When it was informed it was the 192nd, they gave the battalion frequencies to use. Men were able to send messages home to their families.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and were fed from food trucks. It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd Tank Battalion’s communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the 192nd’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, the CO of the 194th, read the messages of the attack. Miller left the tent and informed his officers of the attack. He also ordered his officers to have the half-tracks join the tanks at Clark Field. Their job was to engage Japanese paratroopers. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to the north end of Clark Field. HQ Company remained behind in their bivouac.
Around 8:00 A.M., the planes of the Army Air Corps took off and filled the sky. At noon the planes landed and were lined up in a straight line to be refueled near the pilots’ mess hall. While the planes were being worked on, the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45 in the afternoon on December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field. The tankers were eating lunch when planes approached the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American and counted 54 planes in formation. They then saw what looked like raindrops falling from the planes. It was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that the tankers knew the planes were Japanese. The tankers watched as American pilots attempted to get their planes off the ground. As they roared down the runway, Japanese fighters strafed the planes causing them to swerve, crash, and burn. Those that did get airborne were barely off the ground when they were hit. The planes exploded and crashed to the ground tumbling down the runways.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, the dying, and the wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything else, 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. One of the results of the attack was that the transfer of D Company, to the 194th, was never completed. The company fought with the 194th but retained its designation of being part of the 192nd. That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their barracks. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed.
The next day, those men not assigned to a tank or half-track walked around Clark Field to look at the damage. As they walked, they saw there were hundreds of dead. Some were pilots who had been caught asleep, because they had flown night missions, in their tents during the first attack. Others were pilots who had been killed attempting to get to their planes.
On December 22, they were ordered to the Agno River near Carmen. There, they engaged the Japanese. The Japanese 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 night of December 22, the battalions were operating north of the Agno River when they found that the bridge they were supposed to use had been bombed. On December 23 and 24, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta and found the bridge they were going to use to cross the Agno River was destroyed. The tankers made an end run to get south of the river and ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening, but they successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province. Later on the 24, the battalions formed a defensive line along the southern bank of the Agno River with the tanks of the 192nd holding the Agno River from Carmen to Tayug, and the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road.
The 192nd received orders to withdraw, but for some unknown reason, the 194th did not receive the order. The battalion finally was ordered to withdraw and 1st Lt. Harold Costigan informed the members of A Company, and D Company, 192nd, that they would have to fight their way out. The tanks fought their way through Carmen losing two tanks but saving the crews except for Capt. Edward Burke. He had been hit by enemy fire and presumed dead.
D Company found the bridge they were supposed to cross had been destroyed and abandoned their tanks. The company commander had them disable the tanks, but he hoped they would be recovered, but they were captured and put into use by the Japanese. One tank commander found a crossing and – at gunpoint – got his driver to take the tank across the river. The tank commander received the Silver Star.
The tankers were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29. On January 1, conflicting orders were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5. Doing this would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders since they came from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff. Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridge, over the Pampanga River, about withdrawing from the bridge and half of the defenders withdrawing. Due to the efforts of the Self Propelled Mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a frenzied attack by the 192nd Tank Battalion the Japanese were halted allowing the Southern Luzon forces to reach Bataan.
From January 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape while the 194th held the bridge open. It was at this time that he sent a telegram home that said, “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.” His parents received it on January 2nd. The tanks and Self Propelled Mounts were the only units that held the line against the Japanese at Guagua on January 5. 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 the night of January 5, the tank battalion was holding a position near Lubao. It was about 2:00 in the morning when one of the battalion’s outposts challenged approaching soldiers. The soldiers turned out to be Japanese. When they attacked, the Japanese were mowed down by the guns of the tanks. The Japanese sent up flares to show where the American tanks were located. They then charged toward the tanks, through an open field, and were mowed down. When the Japanese disengaged at 3:00 A.M., there were large numbers of Japanese dead and wounded in front of the tanks.
At 2:30 A.M., on January 6, the Japanese attacked Remedios in force using smoke which was an attempt by the Japanese to destroy the tank battalions. That night the tanks withdrew into the peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leapfrog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdrawal over the bridge. Once the 192nd crossed the bridge, the engineers destroyed it ending the Battle of Luzon.
January 8, a composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. The rest of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Abucay-Hacienda Road. When word came that a bridge was going to be blown up, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company. This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
On January 12, Co. D, 192nd, and Co. C, 194th, were sent to Cadre Road a forward position with little alert time. Land mines were planted on January 13 by ordnance to prevent the Japanese from reaching Cadre Road. C Co., 194th, was sent to Bagac to reopen the Moron Highway which had been cut by the Japanese on January 16. At the junction of Trail 162 and the Moron Highway, the tanks were fired on by an anti-tank gun which was knocked out by the tanks. They cleared the roadblock with the support of infantry. The 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.
It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver, “Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay.”
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 that 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 Balanga-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. 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. The soldiers were hungry and began to eat everything they could get their hands on to eat. The Carabao were tough but if they were cooked long enough they could be eaten. They also began to eat horse meat provided by the 26th U.S. Cavalry. During this time the soldiers ate monkeys, snakes, lizards, horses, and mules.
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 February, the tanks had the job of protecting beaches so that the Japanese could not land troops on them. At the same time, the tank battalions took it upon themselves to protect three airfields from Japanese paratroopers.
The tank battalions, on January 28, were given the job of protecting the beaches. 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. The soldiers were hungry and began to eat everything they could get their hands on to eat. The Carabao were tough but if they were cooked long enough they could be eaten. They also began to eat horse meat provided by the 26th U.S. Cavalry. During this time the soldiers ate monkeys, snakes, lizards, horses, and mules.
On March 1, the soldiers had their rations cut in half again and the men were starving. This meant that they only ate two meals a day. The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a scantily clad blond on them. They would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been a hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal. 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. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over on their way to the Dutch East Indies. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor, but Wainwright declined this suggestion.
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. C Company was attached to the 192nd and the company had only seven tanks left. A counter-attack was launched – on April 6 – by the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts which was supported by tanks. Its objective was to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. Other tanks of C Company tanks were supporting the 2nd Battalion, 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, which was moving east on Trail 8 toward Limay. It was about 5:00 A.M. at the junction of Trails 8 and Trail 6 when the battalion was ambushed by a large number of Japanese. The 1st Platoon of Company C was acting as part of the point when the lead tank was knocked out by anti-tank fire and the following tank was forced off the trail.
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 were sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day. B and D Companies, 192nd, and A Company were preparing for a suicide attack in an attempt to stop the advance. At 6:00 P.M. that 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.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. A truck driver for A Company, 192nd, realized that he had bedding buried in the back of his truck and searched for it. The bedding became the “white flags” that were flown on the jeeps. At 11:40 P.M., the ammunition dumps were destroyed. At midnight Companies B and D, 192nd and A Company received the order from Gen. Weaver to stand down. At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The driver was from the tank group.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. At 6:45 A.M., the order “CRASH” was sent out and the tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
According to a member of HQ Company, Gen. King spoke to the men and said, “I’m the man who surrendered you men. It’s not your fault.” He also spoke to the members of B Company, 192nd, and told them something similar. King ordered them to surrender and threatened to court-martial anyone who didn’t. Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would no attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do. After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col Collier and Maj Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit in line with the Japanese advance should fly white flags. Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived. King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
Unknown to Gen. King, an order attributed to Gen. Masaharu Homma – but in all likelihood from one of his subordinates – had been given. It stated, “Every troop which fought against our army on Bataan should be wiped out thoroughly, whether he surrendered or not, and any American captive who is unable to continue marching all the way to the concentration camp should be put to death in the area of 200 meters off the road.”
At 7:00 A.M. on April 10, the Japanese made contact with the 194th which had gathered at the Provisional Tank Group’s headquarters. They were now Prisoners of War. At 7:00 P.M., the POWs were ordered to go out on the road near their bivouac. The members of the battalion were marched from 7:00 P.M until 3:00 A.M. when they were allowed to rest. At 4:00 A.M., they started the march again.
For the members of the battalion, the first part of the march was actually not bad. The Japanese soldiers were combat veterans and viewed the Americans as combat veterans. Many actually asked them why they had surrendered and believed they should have continued fighting.
The POWs reached Lamao at 8:00 A.M. on April 11 and were allowed to look for food. They again started marching at 9:00 A.M. and made their way to Limay by noon. It was at this barrio that anyone with the rank of major, or higher, was separated from the enlisted men. Once this was done, these officers were driven, in trucks, to Orani, where they were put in a bullpen on April 12, which they could smell the enclosure before they got to it. Once inside of it, they were ordered to sit. They had no idea that they were sitting in human waste. In the corner of the enclosure was a trench for the POWs to use as a washroom. It was at this barrio that the lower-ranking officers and enlisted men would be reunited with the high-ranking officers.
The march for the members of the 194th really started at Limay. When they arrived there, the Japanese changed guards. These new guards were not combat-harden troops, and they also expected the POWs to move at a faster pace and did not care about their physical condition. The guards were assigned a certain distance to cover and wanted to finish it as fast as possible so they moved the POWs at a fast pace which was hard for the POWs in worse shape. If a man fell the guards did not want to stop the column so they shot or bayoneted the man. When the guards finished their assigned part of the march, the POWs were allowed to rest, but when the new guards took over, they also wanted to finish their part of the march as fast as possible, so the POWs once again were moved at a fast pace.
The night of April 11 the POWs were marching again. The Japanese provided no water to the POWs. Since it was dark, men were able to fill their canteen cups at artesian wells since the guards could not see them. At a small barrio, Filipinos appeared with buckets of water for the POWs. The Filipinos were gone by the time the guards arrived to see what was going on among the POWs. The POWs were left in the compound for the day, and there was no cover from the sun that beat down on them. The Japanese gave enough water to the men to wet their tongues. The POWs did not know it, but they were receiving the sun treatment. Some men went out of their heads and drifted into comas.
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 very 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.
The POWs were awakened at 4:00 A.M. and ordered to form columns again. They were marched to the train depot in the barrio. At the depot, they were packed into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane. The cars were known as “Forty or Eights” since they could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car. Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. 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.
Once in the camp, they were taken into a large field where they were counted and searched and all extra clothing that they had was taken from them and not returned. Blankets, knives, and matches were taken from them. If a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Finally, the camp commandant came out, stood on a box, and told them that they were enemies of Japan and would always be Japan’s enemies. He also told them that they were captives and not prisoners of war and would be treated accordingly. After the speech, the prisoners were allowed to go to their barracks. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp as the POWs who had Japanese items on them were executed for looting.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men and those who did sleep in one slept in one with as many 80 to 120 men. Most of the POWs slept on the ground under the barracks. There was no netting to protect the men from malaria-carrying mosquitos as they slept, so many men soon became ill with malaria. The ranking American officer was slapped after asking for building materials to repair the buildings.
The POWs received three meals a day which were mainly rice. For breakfast, they were fed a half cup of soupy rice and occasionally some type of coffee. Lunch each day was a half of a mess kit of steamed rice and a half cup of sweet potato soup. They received the same meal for dinner. All meals were served outside regardless of the weather. By May 1, the food had improved a little when the Japanese began issuing a little wheat flour, some native beans, and a small issue of coconut oil. About once every ten days, 3 or 4 small calves were brought into the camp. When meat was given out, there was only enough for one-fourth of the POWs to receive a piece that was an inch square. A native potato, the camote, was given to the POWs, but most were rotten and thrown out. The POWs had to post guards to prevent other POWs from eating them. The camp had a Black Market and POWs who had money could buy a small can of fish from the guards for $5.00.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line 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 by the POWs who came up with the pipe, dug the trench, and ran the waterline. Just like the first faucet, the Japanese turned off the water when they wanted water to bathe, but unlike the first water line, the POWs had the ability to turn on the water again without the Japanese knowing it. There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp, and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use. When a second truck was sent to the camp by the Red Cross, it was turned away. The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one medic – out of the six medics assigned to care for 50 sick POWs – was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the bodies were moved to one side, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it. At one point, 80 bodies lay under the hospital.
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 they opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
It was in May that his parents received a message from the War Department.
“Dear Mrs. E. Spornitz:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Sergeant John C. Spornitz, 20, 700, 261, 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 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 the morning of June 1, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men and marched out of the camp to Capas. As the POWs marched, the Filipinos gave them small bundles of food. The Japanese guards did not stop the Filipinos. At Capas, the POWs were put in steel boxcars and rode the train to Calumpit, where it was switched to the track to Cabanatuan.
The POWs disembarked the train and were put into a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup. Afterward, they marched to Cabanatuan POW Camp. The new camp had been the home of the 91st Philippine Army and was previously known as Camp Pangatian. The transfer of POWs to the camp ended on June 4.
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. I
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” The rice smelled and appeared to have been swept up off the floor. The other problem was that the men assigned to be cooks had no idea of how to prepare the rice since they had no experience in cooking it. During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in a while, the POWs received corn to serve to the prisoners. From the corn, the cooks would make hominy. The prisoners were so hungry that some men would eat the corn cobs. This resulted in many men being taken to the hospital to have the cobs removed because they would not pass through the men’s bowels. Sometimes they received bread, and if they received fish it was rotten and covered with maggots. To supplement their diets, the men would search for grasshoppers, rats, and dogs to eat. The POWs assigned to handing out the food used a sardine can to assure that each man received the same amount. They were closely watched by their fellow prisoners who wanted to make sure that everyone received the same portion and that no one received extra rice.
The camp hospital consisted of 30 wards that could hold 40 men each, but it was more common for them to have 100 men in them. Each man had approximately an area of 2 feet by 6 feet to lie in. The sickest POWs were put in “Zero Ward,” which was called this because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves and would not go into the area. 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.
It was during this time that his parents received another message from the War Department. 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, Sergeant John C. Spornitz 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.”
On August 7, one POW escaped from the camp and was recaptured on September 17. He was placed in solitary confinement and during his time there, he was beaten over the head with an iron bar by a Japanese sergeant. The camp commandant, Col. Mori, would parade him around the camp and use the man as an example as he lectured the POWs. The man wore a sign that read, “Example of an Escaped Prisoner.”
Three POWs escaped from the camp on September 12, 1942, and were recaptured on September 21 and brought back to the camp. Their feet were tied together and their hands were crossed behind their backs and tied with ropes. A long rope was tied around their wrists and they were suspended from a rafter with their toes barely touched the ground causing their arms to bear all the weight of their bodies. They were subjected to severe beatings by the Japanese guards while hanging from the rafter. The punishment lasted three days. They were cut from the rafter and they were tied hand and foot and placed in the cooler for 30 days on a diet was rice and water. One of the three POWs was severely beaten by a Japanese lieutenant but later released.
On September 29, the three POWs were executed by the Japanese after being stopped by American security guards while attempting to escape. The American guards were there to prevent escapes so that the other POWs in their ten men group would not be executed. During the event, the noise made the Japanese aware of the situation and they came to the area and beat the three men who had tried to escape. One so badly that his jaw was broken. After two and a half hours, the three were tied to posts by the main gate and their clothes were torn off them. They also were beaten on and off for the next 48 hours. Anyone passing them was expected to urinate on them. After three days they were cut down and thrown into a truck and taken to a clearing in sight of the camp and shot.
The Japanese announced to the POWs in the camp that on October 14, 1942, the daily food ration for each POW would be 550 grams of rice, 100 grams of meat, 330 grams of vegetables, 20 grams of fat, 20 grams of sugar, 15 grams of salt, and 1 gram of tea. At some point, 50 grams of mongo beans replaced some of the rice. In addition, sick POWs also received an additional 50 grams of meat. In reality, the POWs noted that the meals were wet rice and rice coffee for breakfast, Pechi green soup and rice for lunch, and Mongo bean soup, Carabao meat, and rice for dinner.
Fr. Bruttenbruck, a German Catholic priest, came to the camp – assisted by Mrs. Escoda – with packages from friends and relatives in Manila on November 12. There was also medicine and books for the POWs. The POWs started a major clean-up of the camp on November 14 and deep latrines, sump holes for water only, and began to bury the camp’s garbage. Pvt. Peter Lankianuskas was shot attempting to escape on November 16. Two other POWs were put on trial by the Japanese for aiding him. One man received 20 days in solitary confinement while the other man received 30 days in solitary confinement. The POWs were organized in groups on November 11. Group I was made up of all the enlisted men who had been captured on Bataan. Group II was the POWs who had come from Camp 3, and Group III was composed of all Naval and Marine personnel from both Camps 1 and 3 and any civilians in the camp. It was also at this time that an attempt was made to stop the spread of disease. The POWs dug deep drainage ditches, sump holes for only water, and the garbage began to be buried, and the grass in the camp was cut. 100 POWs worked on Sunday, November 15 digging latrines and sump holes. Since Sunday was a day off, Lt. Col. Curtis Beecher, U.S.M.C., made sure each man received 5 cigarettes. On November 16, a Pvt. Peter Lanianuskas was shot trying to escape. Two other POWs were tried by the Japanese for being involved in the escape attempt. One man received 20 days in solitary confinement and the other 30 days.
Pvt. Donald K. Russell, on November 20, was caught trying to reenter the camp at 12:30 A.M. He had left the camp at 8:30 P.M. and secured a bag of canned food by claiming is he was a guerrilla. He was executed in the camp cemetery at 12;30 P.M. on November 21. The Japanese gave out a large amount of old clothing – that came from Manila – to the POWs on November 22. On November 23, the Japanese wanted to start a farm and needed 750 POWs to do the initial work on it. It was noted that there were only 603 POWs healthy enough to work.
The Japanese wanted the farm detail started which became one of the largest details in the camp. On November 23, they wanted 750 POWs to start work on the farm. The problem was there were only 603 POWs in the camp who were healthy enough to work. It was also one of the most brutal details. At some point, almost every POW in the camp worked the detail. The POWs 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 “speedo” when he wanted the POWs to work faster. He punished the POWs by making them kneel on stones. “Smiley” was a Korean 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. 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. This was considered the most abusive of the work details with the POWs receiving the worst beatings.
Fr. Bruttenbruck returned on December 10 without proper authorization from the authorities in Manila so he was turned away. He had brought a truckload of medicine and food for the POWs. It was estimated by the POWs that he spent $300.00 for fuel to make the trip. He returned on December 24 with two truckloads of presents for the men and a gift bag for each. This time he was allowed into the camp. The next day, Christmas, the POWs received 2½ Red Cross boxes. In each box milk in some form, corn beef, fish, stew beef, sugar, meat and vegetable, tea, and chocolate. The POWs also received bulk corn beef, sugar, meat and vegetables, stew, raisins, dried fruit, and cocoa which they believed would last them three months. The POWs also were given four days off from work.
His parents learned he was a POW on January 2, 1943, when they received another message from the War Department.
“REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON SERGEANT JOHN C SPORNITZ 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=”
Within days of receiving the first message, they received a second message:
“The Provost Marshal General directs me to inform you that you may communicate with your son, postage free, by following the inclosed instructions:
“It is suggested that you address him as follows:
“Sgt. John C. Spornitz, U.S. Army
Interned in the Philippine Islands
C/O Japanese Red Cross, Tokyo, Japan
Via New York, New York
“Packages cannot be sent to the Orient at this time. When transportation facilities are available a package permit will be issued you.
“Further information will be forwarded you as soon as it is received.
Howard F. Bresee
Chief Information Bureau”
The POWs heard explosions on January 11, 1943, as Japanese dive bombers attacked a target about 30 kilometers from the camp. Several of the explosions were extremely loud. The POWs later heard scuttlebutt that 102 Filipino men, women, and children had been killed during the attack. Two days later, they heard another rumor that half of the barrio of Cabanatuan where the warehouses were located had been burned by the guerrillas.
The Japanese installed a radio so the POWs in the hospital could hear their version of the war. During February they heard that the Russians were driving the Germans from Russia but Japan would continue to fight on its own. They also heard the Allies were winning the European War and that there had been a battle in the Marshall Islands. It also during this time that the fly problem decreased because of the change from slit trenches to box toilets. This slowed the spread of dysentery.
A large POW detachment also started work at the camp cemetery, on April 1, but what they did was not known. Two POWs, PFC Holland Stobach and Pvt. Ernest O. Kelly escaped while working on the water detail outside the camp on the 6th. They had an hour’s start on the Japanese and it appears they were successful at evading the guards. The only punishment given to the other POWs was the show they expected to see was canceled. On the 11th, the workday changed for the POWs. Revelle was at 5:30 A.M. with breakfast now at 6:00 until 7:00 when they left for work and worked until 10:30 A.M. when they returned to the camp for lunch at noon. They returned to work and worked from 1:00 P.M. until 6:00 P.M. Dinner was at 6:30. Roll call was taken at 7:00 P.M. and again at 9:00 P.M. Pvt. John B. Trujillo who was one of the POWs assigned to guard against escapes attempted to escape but was caught. At 9:00 A.M. he was taken to the schoolyard in the barrio of Cabanatuan and executed.
Another POW, Conley, escaped from the garden detail on July 11, 1943, and was captured in a barrio. At about 11:00 PM, there was a lot of noise in the camp. The next morning, at the camp morgue, POWs described what they saw. Conley’s jaw had been crushed as was the top of his skull, his teeth had all been knocked out with a rifle butt, his left leg had been crushed, and he had been bayoneted in the eyes and scrotum. Also during July, the names of 500 POWs were posted on the list of POWs being sent to Bilibid Prison. On July 22, the POWs were issued new shoes, a suit of “Philippine Blues” and were 2 cans of corn beef, and 3 cans of milk. They were informed they would be taking a 21-day trip. The detachment left the camp that night. As it turned out, when they arrived in Manila, they were used in The Dawn of Freedom, a Japanese propaganda film, to show how cruel the Americans were to the Filipinos. After this, they were sent to Bilibid Prison and to Japan the next day.
On August 13, 1943, they received a POW postcard saying he was a POW at Cabanatuan #1. In it, he said he was in good health and not under medical treatment. His parents received another postcard from him on August 27 and again indicated he was in good health.
In August, the rainy season had started, and all the extra food was long gone. The Japanese planned to move the hospital to the same area as the healthy POWs to reduce the size of the camp so they could reduce the number of guards. On September 22, the hospital was moved. The POWs also were ordered to stop cooking their own food. For the sick, this was bad news since meals for them were being cooked individually. The POWs adopted a system where a group placed an order for food 24 hours before they wanted the food. The supplies were debited from that group’s supplies.
An order was issued on October 3 that all good khaki garments, hats, rifle belts, and field bags they had must be turned over to the Japanese. The next day, the Japanese sent 1300 POWs to Bongabong in captured U.S. trucks. On one of the front bumpers of a 6 by 6 truck were the markings HQ 192nd. The POWs were back in the camp by 8:00 P.M. and to the surprise of the other POWs, their possessions were returned to them. It turned out that the Japanese were still shooting the movie, and the POWs were used as extras in the movie. Also during the month, the POWs noted that the food they were growing on the camp farm was being sent to Manila. On October 18, 103 telegrams were brought to the camp but only 21 men present in the camp received them. It appeared that other men were out on work details. Four days later, 175 telegrams arrived at the camp, but only 65 were distributed. It was noted that some had been received in Tokyo that same month.
The POWs noticed a change in the running of the camp on November 7. There was only one detachment of guards and only Americans were cooking for the Japanese. The Japanese supply warehouse was broken into and sugar and milk were found to be missing. The POW punishment was that they would not receive their meat ration that day. Later in the day, the order was changed and the POWs received the meat ration. The Japanese explanation was, “We know the Americans did not steal the foods.”
The POWs received on December 7, 1943, ½ a pound of sugar, 2 cans of soluble coffee, 2 chocolate emergency rations, 1 pound of prunes, and a ½ pound cheese. The items were perishable goods that came from the Red Cross Christmas boxes sent to the camp. That night they received a Japanese “news sheet” that told of the terrible American losses in the southwest pacific. According to the sheet, the U.S. had lost most of its navy. It also stated that the U.S. lost 5 carriers, 2 cruisers, and a battleship in the Gilberts, and 37 ships were lost at Bougainville. On the 11th, they received more coffee, two cans of cheese, two chocolate bars, and two boxes of raisins.
On Christmas eve the Japanese gave each man an unopened Red Cross box. Inside the POWs found cigarettes which usually were missing from the boxes. From 9:00 P.M. until midnight on Christmas eve, carolers were all over the camp. Christmas started with midnight mass for the Catholics with Protestant services at 5:30 A.M. Bango was at 7:00 A.M. instead of 6:30. The Japanese also handed out to each man an unopened Red Cross box.
One of the changes that took place in January 1944 was that the POWs on the work details were no longer beaten. The farm detail where the POWs received the worse beatings was considered the best detail to be on. The POWs received in January another Red Cross box around the 19th. Inside was 3 cans of beef, 4 cans of butter, 1 spam, 1 purity loaf, 1 salmon, 1 Pate, 1 canned milk, and jam. In addition, the POWs received packs of cigarettes. Those who received ¼ of sugar on December 7 received ½ a pound of cocoa.
During February, the rumor spread among the POWs that the Marshall Islands and Gibert Islands had been retaken. They also heard that the Marianas Islands had been bombed and that there had been a sea Battle in the Java Sea. They also heard that the Filipino food ration had been cut to 120 grams of rice a day and that no one was allowed to leave Manila.
As more and more POWs were sent to Manila for shipment to another part of the Japanese empire, the officers were put to work on the camp farm with the enlisted men. In August 1944, the POWs found themselves working to move the hospital to the same area as the POW barracks. The reason was that the Japanese wanted to reduce the size of the camp so they would need fewer guards. The POWs were keeping their own gardens and growing their own food, but the Japanese now insisted that the POWs stop cooking their own food. The POWs adopted a group cooking policy where the POWs in a group placed an order for food 24 hours before they wanted it, and the food was deducted from that group’s food stock. The POWs were also able to purchase coffee. They noticed that the Japanese attitude also had changed and that they wanted the POWs more involved in the running of the camp.
The food situation in the camp also had grown worse during the month and POWs resorted to gutting down papaya trees to eat the trunks which had no nutritional value. What it did do is make the man feel full and the worse effect was some diarrhea or an upset stomach. Cutting down the trees, preparing them for cooking, then eating them gave them something to do and temporary pleasure. Their rations continued to be reduced.
It was September 21, 1944, when Manila experienced its first American air raid when a formation of 80 planes bombed the city. Shortly after the air raid, the Japanese ended the detail and sent the POWs to Bilibid Prison. When the POWs arrived they had no idea what the Japanese intended to do with them. Some POWs believed the attack would stop the Japanese from sending them to Japan. Around October 2, a list of names of POWs being sent to Japan was posted and his name was on it. The POWs were taken to Pier 7 in the Port Area of Manila. The POWs were boarding the ship at 4:00 P.M. on the 11th when they heard air raid sirens. Nothing on the ship showed that it was carrying POWs but the Japanese kept putting the POWs into the ship’s hold. All but 200 of the POWs were put into hold #2 so they went into the forward hold. Along the sides of hold #2 were shelves that served as bunks, but the bunks were so close together that a man could not lift himself up when he used one. Those standing had no room to lie down. The latrines for the prisoners were eight five-gallon cans, which the POWs could not use since they were packed in the hold so tightly. This resulted in the floor of the hold being covered with human waste.
Anton Cichy said, “For the first few days there were 1800 of us together in one hold. I don’t know how big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down. We were just kind of stuck together.”
Calvin Graef said about the conditions in the hold, “We were packed in so tight most men couldn’t get near the cans. And, of course, it was a physical impossibility for the sick in the back of the hold, the men suffering the tortures of diarrhea and dysentery. We waded in fecal matter. Most of the men went naked. The place was alive with lice, bedbugs, and roaches; the filth and stench were beyond description.”
The ship sailed, but took a southerly route away from Taiwan and dropped anchor in a cove off Palawan Island. During the first 48 hours off Palawan, five POWs died. The POWs realized that the Japanese had removed the light bulbs from the lighting system, but that they had not turned off the power. They figured out a way to hook the ventilation system into the lights and had fresh air for two days. When the Japanese discovered what had been done, they turned off the power.
The POWs began developing heat blisters, and the Japanese conceded that more POWs would die unless they did something. The Japanese transferred POWs from the first hold to its second hold. This hold was partially filled with coal. During the transfer, one POW attempted to escape and was shot.
Of this time, Graef said, “As we moved through the tropical waters, the heat down in the steel-encased hell hole was maddening. We were allowed three ounces of water per man every 24 hours. Quarts were needed under these conditions, to keep a man from dehydrating. While men were dying of thirst, Jap guards–heaping insults on us–would empty five-gallon tins of freshwater into the hold. Men caught the water in pieces of clothing and sucked the cloth dry. Men licked their wet skins. It was hell all right. Men went mad.”
On October 20, the Arisan Maru returned to Manila, where, it joined a twelve ship convoy bound for Taiwan. The convoy sailed on October 21 after all the ships had been loaded. The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs. This made the ships targets for submarines. In addition, U.S. Military Intelligence was reading the Japanese code as fast as the Japanese. To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine crews which ships were carrying POWs.
Graef described the deaths of the POWs hold. “There were so many (that died) out 1800. The conditions in the hold…..men were just dying in a continuous stream. Men, holding their bellies in interlocked arms, stood up, screamed, and died. You were being starved, men were dying at such a pace we had to pile them up. It was like you were choking to death. Burial consisted of two men throwing another overboard.”
Cichy said, “The Japs told us that they’d be in Formosa the next day to pick up some cargo. They had to make room on deck so they tossed a whole bunch of life preservers down into the hold. I held onto one but didn’t think anything about it.”
It was about 4:00 P.M. on October 24, and each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Ten POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs in the ship’s holds. The waves were high since the ship had been through a storm in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. Suddenly, bells and sirens sounded warning of submarines. The POWs in the holds chanted for the submarine to sink the ship.
At about 4:50 P.M., about half the POWs had been fed. As the POWs, on deck, watched, the Japanese ran to the bow of the ship and watched as a torpedo passed in front of it. Moments later, the Japanese ran to the ship’s stern and watched as a second torpedo passed behind the ship. There was a sudden jar and the ship stopped dead in the water. It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, in its third hold where there were no POWs.
At first, the POWs cheered wildly until they realized they were facing death. Cichy recalled, “When the torpedo hit everybody in the hold hollered ‘Hit her again!’ We wanted to get it over with.”
Lt. Robert S. Overbeck recalled, “When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn’t care a bit–they were tired and weak and sick.” He also said, “The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn’t break in two.” Overbeck also commented on the reaction of the POWs in the holds. “For about five seconds there was panic among us, but there were five or six chaplains who prayed fervently and quieted the men. By then the Nips–300 of them on deck–were scurrying about, scared as hell. The boilers exploded. I don’t think any of us got hurt in the torpedoing or the explosion. Most of the prisoners were American, with a few British. The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned ship. That was about 5:00 P.M.” It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the U.S.S. Snook or U.S.S. Shark.
The guards took their rifles and used them as clubs to drive the POWs on deck into the holds. Once in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders into the holds and put the hatch covers over the holds, but they did not tie the hatch covers down. Cichy recalled, “The Japs closed the hatches and left the ship in lifeboats. They must have forgotten about the prisoners on deck who had been cooking. When the Japs were off the boat, the cooks opened the hatches and told us to come up. I was just under the deck, but there were a lot of guys down below. One of them escaped by simply walking into the water from a hole in the bulkhead. He was Lt. Robert S. Overbeck, Baltimore.” Cichy also stated, “The Japs had already evacuated ship. They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their own.”
The POWs left the holds but made no attempt to abandon ship. On the ship’s deck an American major spoke to the POWs, he said, “Boys, we’re in a helluva a jam – but we’ve been in jams before. Remember just one thing: We’re American soldiers. Let’s play it that way to the very end of the script.” Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them, “Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men.”
Overbeck stated, “We broke into the ship’s stores to get food, cigarettes, and water — mainly water, we were so thirsty. All of us figured we were going to die anyway. The Japs ships, except for the destroyers, had disappeared. All we had were life belts which the Japanese had fortunately thrown down the hold the day before.
“But as darkness settled and our hopes for life flickered, we felt absolutely no resentment for the Allied submarine that had sent the torpedo crashing in. We knew they could not tell who was aboard the freighter, and as far as the Navy could have known the ship could have been carrying Jap troops.
“The men were brave and none complained. Some slipped off their life preservers and with a cherry ‘so long’ disappeared.” The ship slowly sank lower into the water.
Cpl. Glenn Oliver recalled that he was on the port side and walked back to see the damage caused by the torpedo. The deck was peeled back and he could see water inside the hold washing back and forth. When a wave went under the ship the stern would wobble up and down and he heard the steel tearing. Shortly after this, the stern tore off and sunk; the rest of the ship began to take on water quickly. Many on deck tried to find something that floated while others sat calmly on the deck.
Graef said, “Men without any fear at all, just stayed where they were. They sat down, got water to drink, got rice to eat…they couldn’t swim. The majority went down with the ship.”
Oliver recalled, “I could see people still on the ship when it went down. I could see people against the skyline, just standing there.”
Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking. Some POWs attempted to escape by putting on lifebelts, clinging to hatch covers, rafts, and other flotsam and jetsam. When they reached other Japanese ships, the Japanese pushed them away with poles.
Oliver said, “They weren’t picking up Americans. A lot of the prisoners were swimming for the destroyer, but the Japanese were pushing them back into the water.”
In the water, he watched as the ship went under. “I kept getting bumped by guys wearing life jackets. Nobody wanted to share my planks. I didn’t ask them.”
Three POWs found an abandoned lifeboat and managed to climb in but found it had no oars. With the rough seas, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs. According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru and sank sometime after dark on Tuesday, October 24, 1944. Oliver, who was not in the boat, stated he heard men using what he called “GI whistles” to contact each other. “They were blowing these GI whistles in the night. This weird moaning sound. I can’t describe it.”
The next morning there were just waves. Oliver and three other POWs were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and taken to Formosa. They later were sent by ship to Japan. The men in the boat picked up two more survivors and later made it to China and freedom.
On January 30, 1945, his parents received a POW postcard from him which was written at Cabanatuan. In it, he said, “I am in good health and hope all is well at home. Give my regards to all.”
When his parents received the card, they had no idea that their son had been dead for over three months. Later, in 1945, his family received this message:
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. Spornitz:
“The International Red Cross has transmitted to this government an official list obtained from the Japanese government, after long delay, of American prisoners of war who were lost while being transported northward from the Philippine islands on a Japanese ship which was sunk on Oct. 24, 1944.
“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son, Sgt. John C. Spornitz 20, 700, 261, 194th Tank Battalion, was among those lost when that sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on the records of the War Department as Killed in Action 24 October 1944. The evidence of this death was received 16 June 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and accounts will be closed.
“The information available to the war department is that the vessel sailed from Manila on October 11, 1944, with 1775 prisoners of war aboard. On October 24 the vessel was sunk by submarine action in the south China Sea over 200 miles from the Chinese coast which was the nearest land. Five of the prisoners escaped in a small boat and reached the coast. Four others have been reported as picked up by the Japanese by whom all others aboard are reported lost. Absence of detailed information as to what happened to the other individual prisoners and known circumstances of the incident lead to a conclusion that all other prisoners listed by the Japanese as aboard the vessel perished.
“It is with deep regret that I must notify you of this unhappy culmination of the long period of anxiety and suffering you have experienced. You have my heartfelt sympathy.
“J. A. Ulio
“Maj. Gen., The Adjutant General of the Army”
His parents held a memorial service for Sgt. John C. Spotnitz on July 1. 1945, at the Union Church in Brainerd. His name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.