Pvt. Walter Bernard Straka was born October 24, 1919, in Brainerd, Minnesota, to Frank and Mary Straka. With his two sisters and four brothers, he grew up at 220 North Eighth Street in Brainerd. He was known as “Jake” to his family and friends. Walter joined the Minnesota National Guard in 1936 when he was 16 years old. When his father found out, he went to Captain Ernest Miller to have him discharged. Miller was friends with Walter’s father and convinced him to let Walter stay in the National Guard.
In September 1940, the tank company received word it was going to be called to federal service in November, but because of a lumber strike, the company was not called to federal service until February. The strike prevented the company’s barracks from being built. On February 10, 1941, Walter was given a physical that he passed and signed the papers that transferred him from the Minnesota National Guard to the regular army with the rank of Corporal. 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 company’s 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. Walter commented on leaving Brainerd, “I can never remember seeing such a crowd. It was almost as though they had a premonition that something would happen.”
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. Walter was in charge of the softball 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. 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. At some point, Walter was promoted to sergeant. 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.
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 soldiers speculated why they were 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. The boat – with the buoys on its deck covered by a tarp – 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 rode a train to Ft. Mason, and from there it was ferried to Angel Island on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe. During this time the tanks’ guns and other weapons had cosmoline put on them to prevent rust. During this time, special permission was given for families to travel to Angel Island and visit with the members of the battalion. The original sailing date was September 5, but the ship had to be put in drydock for repairs. The soldiers boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge at 3:00 P.M. on September 8 and at 9:00 P.M. it sailed. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, at 7:00 A.M. on Saturday, September 13. The soldiers were allowed off the ship, but they needed to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M. After it sailed, it took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes where it was joined by the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Astoria, an unknown destroyer, and the U.S.S. Guadalupe a replenishment oiler. Several times during this part of the voyage smoke was seen on the horizon. Each time, the cruiser revved its engines and took off in the direction of the smoke. All the ships it intercepted belonged to friendly countries.
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. 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.
The tankers lived in tents – and received their meals from food trucks – until their barracks were completed on November 15. The barracks were described as having walls with a three-foot area – at the top – that was open. The bottom of the wall was a woven bamboo from the bottom up the sides for five feet. The design allowed for breezes to blow through the barracks which made them more comfortable than the tents. For personal hygiene, a man was lucky if he was near a faucet with running water.
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.
Afterward, 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. At some point, it appears that William was involved in an incident which resulted in him being court-martialed and being reduced in rank from sergeant to private. It appears that it was during this time that Walter did something – with a few other members of the company – that resulted in him being busted from sergeant to private. One of those involved appears to have been Pvt. William J. Smith.
On December 1, the 194th was ordered to its position at Clark Field. Their job was to protect the northern half of the airfield from paratroopers. The 192nd Tank Battalion, which had arrived in November guarded the southern half. Two crewmen remained with the tanks at all times and received their meals from food trucks.
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.
Of the attack, he said, “The Japanese came in low and fast, bombing and strafing, and they got almost all of them.”
During the attack, his tank driver, Pvt. Arvid Danielson, was hit by shrapnel in his posterior and was bleeding so badly that Walter used his t-shirt to stop the bleeding. Doing this saved Danielson’s life.
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 the 194th did not receive the order for some unknown reason. 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.
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.
The tanks repeated the same process during every withdrawal. They held their position until all troops had passed and then fell back to a predetermined point and establish a new line. Of the withdrawal, he said, “This meant that, as the units withdrew, all would clear through us, after which we would put ourselves between them and the Japanese.”
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. 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, 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.
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.
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.
Walter – on the second day on the march – found himself with Jim McComas, Ken Porwoll, Sidney Saign, and Byron Veillette. They all agreed to keep an eye out for each other and help any one of them who needed help. Not long after this, Jim McComas had an attack of malaria and shook with the chills. The other four men took turns helping him walk which tired them since he was 200 pounds and 6′ 3″.
After 2½ to 3 hours, the four men had a talk. They were exhausted and could not continue to carry him. Jim even suggested that they drop him off in a ditch. The men refused to do this because they had already seen other POWs bayoneted and shot. Jim insisted that they leave him behind. The other men finally agreed with him that if they continued to try to carry him, they would all die. He said to them, “You must let me pick the spot.” When he called it, they dropped him in the ditch. After they dropped him, the four men did not look back or talk to each other for the rest of the day.
On the fifth day, the four men approached a Japanese bivouac on the left side of the road. As they approached the bivouac, a Japanese soldier blew a whistle and they all stopped. The Japanese held an evening ceremony and all faced east and bowed to the emperor and said a verse. While they were doing this, Porwoll walked up to a kettle that was over a fire and using the sleeve of his shirt removed it from the fire and walked off with it. As he rejoined the column, he saw that the Japanese had returned to the fire and appeared to be accusing each other of losing the kettle. It turned out that the kettle was full of tea and not stew. The pot was passed around and men with canteens filled them but Walter and Saign refused the tea. When they were finished the pot was thrown into the tall grass along the road.
As for food on the march, in Straka’s own words, “All the food they gave us could have been put in a quart bucket.” He also said pointing to a coffee cup, “A cup full of rice like that and that’s all I got on the entire march…..I got out of line once to get some water at an artesian well, and I got a rifle butt right in the back. It still bothers me to this day where I got hit.”
It took the company about eight days to reach San Fernando and found themselves in a bullpen surrounded by barbed wire. After arriving they went to sleep. Porwoll woke up the next morning, he found himself staring into the eyes of Jim McComas who was laying beside him. He asked McComas how he got there and McComas said he walked. It turned out that when he was dropped into the ditch there was a culvert in the spot he had picked and he crawled into it and went to sleep for the night and half the next day. When his malaria attack was over, he resumed the march with the next detachment of POWs as they passed the culvert.
The two were joined by Saign, Straka, and Veillette who were just as surprised to see McComas still alive. Saign was hungry and desperate for food. The five men planned to steal the food from the Japanese guards at noon when only two guards were on duty. Inside the guards’ area was a barracks bag full of food. The plan was for Veillette to start a fight to distract the guards. Ken’s job was to take out the first guard so Straka and Saign could enter the area and empty the food from the bag. Having played football in high school, Ken took the first guard down and rowed over and took down the second guard who landed on the first guard. Bothe guards lost their guns. Porwoll got up and pushed other POWs on the guards until Saign and Straka had emptied the bag. The four men met up at a pre-determined spot and divided up the food. Porwoll tried to give some to McComas, who was suffering from another bout of malaria. McComas told Porwoll he didn’t want the stolen food. so he stuffed it in McComas’ shirt. When McComas objected, Porwoll told him to shut up or he’d call the guards and tell them he stole it. When the Japanese finally did a search for the food, they failed to find out who had stolen it. It appears no one was punished.
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. It took Water 10 days to complete the march.
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. He said, “It was four days before I got a drink.”
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 awaiting burial. He recalled, “There were about 30 days at the beginning where we couldn’t bury any bodies until Corregidor surrendered. There was nothing to do but place the hundreds that had died in neat rows and wait.” Since they could not bury the dead, they placed them in neat rows and waited.
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. Many of these men returned to the camp after working only to die. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day.
To get out of the camp, Walter went out on the bridge building detail. He was sent to Manila where the POWs drove assigned to trucks to drive. The POWs were given passes in Japanese that stated that the man was on a work detail and should not be stopped. He apparently came down with cerebral malaria and was so sick that he had no idea how he got to Cabanatuan
In May, his parents received a message from the War Department
“Dear Mr. F. Straka:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Private Walter B. Straka, 20, 700, 262, 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)
Cabanatuan was three camps. Cabanatuan 1 was where most of the POWs captured on Bataan were held. Camp 2 was closed because of an inadequate water supply but was later reopened for Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where the POWs from Corregidor were held and was later consolidated into Cabanatuan 1 on October 30, 1941.
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.
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 POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. Each morning, as the POWs stood at attention and roll call was taken, the Japanese guards hit them across their heads. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Another detail was sent out to work at Cabanatuan Airfield which had been the home of a Philippine Army Air Corps unit and known as Maniquis Airfield. The Japanese had the POWs build runways and revetments. 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. Returning from details 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.
In the camp, the prisoners continued to die, but at a slower rate. 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. 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. When a POW died, the POWs stripped him of his clothing, and the man was buried naked. The dead man’s clothing was washed in boiling water and given to a prisoner in need of clothing. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves and would not go into the area.
It is known that Walter was hospitalized with malaria on June 19, 1942. In his own words, “The only thing different about it (the hospital) was that we didn’t have to work. But then are rations were cut in half too. We knew about how many were in the hospital and counted the rate they were dying. We had it figured out just about how long we could live.”
Of his time in the camp, he said, “When I went to sleep at night I prayed that I would not wake up. Because of my religion, I would not kill myself, but there seemed no hope.
“We knew about how many were in the hospital and we counted the rate at which they were dying. We had figured out just about how long we could live.”
One day when Walter attempted to go to the trench that was used as the latrine, he collapsed and passed out in the sun. Henry Peck found him and rolled him under a building into the shade. Peck believed that had Walter been left in the sun, he would have died. Walter was discharged from the hospital on Monday, February 1, 1943.
In July 1942, his parents received a second 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, Private Walter B. Straka 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. 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. Peeter 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. 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.
On January 11, the POWs watched and heard the explosions as Japanese dive bombers bombed and strafed something about 30 kilometers away. They later heard a barrio was attacked killing 102 men, women, and children and wounding 60. On the 13th, the commissary supplies ended. According to the Japanese, this was because guerrillas had burned down half of Cabanatuan which included the warehouse where the supplies were stored. The Japanese issued toilet kits to the POWs on January 14 that had to be shared by four POWs. On January 18, the same area was bombed again by the Japanese. The Japanese issued Red Cross Boxes to the POWs on January 24 which had to be shared by two POWs. 1200 POWs left the camp on a work detail on January 27.
Multiple work details left the camp each day and returned each evening. Some details were small while others had 1255 to 1450 POWs on them. The POWs received Christmas telegrams on February 7. The POWs watched the Marx Brothers movie “Room Service” on the 11th and many Japanese propaganda news clips. It was recorded on February 12 that there had not been a death in the camp in eight days. Three POWs died the next day. The Japanese also ordered that the POWs turn in all radios to them. It is not known if they received any. POWs who did not have blankets were issued a blanket by the Japanese on February 22. A program was started to stop the spread of dysentery. For every full milk can of flies the POWs turned in, they received cigarettes in return. It was noted that on March 3, 12 million flies had been turned in and 320 rats had been turned in.
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. It is known Walter was sent to the hos[ital side of the camp and tested for entamoeba histolytica which caused amebic dysentery. It appears he tested positive and was admitted to Ward 31 on April 21, 1943. When he was discharged is not known.
His parents learned he was a POW on April 16.
“REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON PRIVATE WALTER B STRAKA 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:
“Mr. Frank B. Straka
220 Eighth Street
“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:
“Pvt. Walter B. Straka, 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”
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.
In August, the rainy season had started, and that 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.”
Walter’s parents received a postcard from him on December 6. 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.
In May, his parents received another postcard from him. In it, he asked for them to send pictures.
During this time, he was selected to be sent to Japan. On July 15, 1944, he was one of the POWs who boarded between 25 to 30 trucks for Bilibid Prison. The POWs left the camp at 8:00 P.M. and arrived at Bilibid at 2:00 in the morning.
At 7:00 A.M. on July 17, the POWs were marched to Pier 5 in the Port Area and boarded the Nissyo Maru which appeared to be barely seaworthy to the POWs. Besides the POWs, the ship carried Japanese women and children who were being evacuated from the Philippines. The POWs went to the rear of the ship and removed their shoes and dropped their bags through a hatch into hold number three. They then went down a narrow, wooden stairway that led into the dark hold. There were three sets of wooden tiers that lined the hold. One was 4 feet high and 10 feet wide. The guards packed the POWs into the tiers. The tiers filled but the guards kept shoving in more men. Those who could move their arms twirled their shirts above their heads to stir the air. The heat was oppressive and the POWs still on deck could feel it as they entered the hold. The guards beat POWs who refused to go into the hold. Inside the hold, fights broke out among the POWs for space and air. The guards finally admitted that all the POWs would not fit in the hold, so they opened the number two hold which was just forward of the bridge. About 900 POWs were put into the forward hold. The POWs were moved to it in groups of 50 men and each group was allocated a part of the hold. Since they were still crowded, no one could lie down. Each man sat on the floor with his knees drawn up in front of him. Another POW would sit between his knees with his head resting on the first man’s chest. This left about 700 men in number three hold which could comfortably hold one hundred men.
The ship was moved to the breakwater and remained outside the breakwater from July 18th until July 23rd while the Japanese attempted to form Convoy H168. Around 9 p.m. that evening, large wooden buckets of steamed rice were lowered into the hold. There was no organized system of distribution, so the sick POWs did not eat. Many POWs could not swallow the rice since their mouths were too dry. They did not receive their first ration of water until 30 hours after entering the hold with each man being allowed one pint of water a day. It was stated that each day they were fed rice and vegetables that had been cooked together and received two canteen cups of water. Some of the POWs dried to get water from the condensation that had formed on the walls of the holds. Still, others continue to drink urine while others cut the throats of men and drank blood.
The possessions of the POWs had been thrown below them onto coal in the lower part of the hold. In the possessions of the men who had worked on the Port Area Detail was food from their Red Cross boxes. In the evening, POWs would go down to the luggage and raid it in an attempt to find any food hidden in it. The Japanese ended the stealing when those caught reading the baggage were made to sit on the deck of the ship in the sun with their hands tied behind their backs. They were not fed for three days.
The convoy of 21 ships left Manila on July 24 at 8:00 A.M. and headed north by northeast for Formosa. The ships hugged the coast to avoid submarines, but the subs had a good idea where the convoy was located. At 2:00 A.M. July 26, the USS Flasher surfaced, made contact with the convoy, and radioed its position to the two other subs in its wolf-pack. At 3:00 in the morning, there was an explosion, flames flew over the open hatches of the holds where the POWs were, and lit the hold. The Otari Yama Maru, an oil tanker, had been hit by a torpedo from the U.S.S. Flasher. As the ship sunk, the POWs said they heard a hissing sound as its hull which was red hot went under. Other torpedos were fired at the ship, but because it was so high in the water, they passed harmlessly under the ship and hit other ships. When the POWs realized they could die they began to panic in the holds, so the guards pointed machine guns down at them and threatened to shoot unless they quieted down. Maj. John L. Curran, a Catholic chaplain, said, “Now, there’s nothing we can do about this. So let’s go ahead and start praying.“He led the POWs in prayer. According to men on the ship, the wolf pack hunted the convoy for three days.
The POWs were fed each day ¼ cup of potato, barley, greens, and an onion soup, which were cooked together. After four days, the POWs no longer received the soup. They also received one cup of water each day and attempted to catch rain in their mouths. POWs fainted and those who fell to the floor were trampled. The POWs passed the unconscious men above their heads forward to the hatch and up the stairs onto the deck. The POWs in the hold panicked and many were heard praying. Others cursed and their screams echoed off the steel walls of the hold. Those who were lucky enough to have water drank it to prevent their canteens from being stolen. Some men were so desperate that they drank their own urine.
During this time, the Japanese lowered what was called “benjo buckets” into the holds to be used as toilets. The buckets were lowered into the holds in the morning, but they soon were overflowing, and when they were removed from the holds in the evening, the feces in them fell onto the POWs below. In addition, many of the POWs had dysentery and could not even reach the buckets. The floor was soon covered in human waste as deep as the POWs’ ankles. The POWs finally organized lines to use the buckets since an aisle to reach them was available.
On July 27, the POWs held a boat drill where the POWs went to lifeboats. It was noted by them that the Japanese were jumpy after the sinking of the tanker. The next day the ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, docked at 9:00 A.M., and was loaded with food while the POWs remained in the holds with the hatch covers on them. The ship sailed at 7:00 P.M. the same day and continued its northward trip for the next two days. On July 30, the ship ran into a storm which finally passed by August 2.
The death of a second POW was recorded on August 2, clothing was issued to the POWs on August 3, and the ship arrived at Moji on August 4 at midnight. The entire voyage to Japan took seventeen days because the convoy was attempting to avoid American submarines. At 8:00 in the morning, the POWs disembarked the ship and were taken to a theater and held in it all day. That night they were put into detachments of 200 men and taken to the train station. From there, the POWs boarded different trains. The detachment Walter was in took a two-day trip to Omuta, Kyushu, Japan. From there, the POWs were taken to Fukuoka #3-B which was near Nakanaru, Kokura City on the Tobata Line of the West Railroad Company.
The camp commander made it clear to the POWs that they were in a work camp. There were ten barracks of flimsy construction that could hold 150 POWs with each POW having a three-foot by six-foot living space, with a straw mat and three thin blankets for warmth, to sleep in. There were no stoves for heat but each had a charcoal pit for heat but no fuel was given to the POWs to use them. If they had used them, there were no flues to vent the smoke. Each building had two platforms for sleeping on both sides of the barracks running the length of the building. The lower tier was six inches off the ground and the upper tier was six feet from the ground and was reached by ladders. There were also shelves above each tier for the POWs to store their possessions. The floors were concrete and the roofs were tiled. Lighting was provided by meager light bulbs. The barracks were infested with lice, bedbugs, and fleas. The Japanese refused to give the POWs any supplies to kill the pests. At the end of the barracks were latrines with 6 wooden stalls, 1 urinal, and 4 sinks. The POWs were given one gallon of lime for use in each of the latrines.
It is known that Walter’s parents received a POW postcard from him on August 21, 1944. They received two more postcards from him on January 24, 1945, that he had been written while he was a POW at Cabanatuan. On one of them, he wrote that he had received no mail from them. On May 29, 1945, his parents received another postcard from him. When they received it, it was the first time they had heard he had been sent to Japan.
Food for the POWs consisted of a main dish of rice, wheat, wheat flour, corn, and, Kaoliang, a millet. The POWs carried their lunches, which were millet, to work in small bento boxes. It was estimated that each POW received about 150 grams of rice and barley and 200 grams of bread each day. It was said, those working received 750 grams a day and 550 grams for non-workers. They also received a soup made from seaweed that was pretty much hot water and seaweed. To supplement their diets, the POWs in the camp would hunt rats at night for meat. There was a camp garden, but the Japanese took all the vegetables and left the POWs with the leaves and stalks. On the two occasions, the POWs had meat, the meat that was given to them was rotten shark, whale, or fish. The POWs went to the garbage dump to look for food. The unsanitary conditions in the kitchen resulted in many POWs having diarrhea. For Christmas, each POW received a tangerine, and they ate the fruit but also the peels.
The hospital had steam pipes installed, but the building was heated only part of the night during the winter, so the patients had to wear heavy overcoats during the day to keep reasonably warm. This building was always overcrowded and understaffed. A second hospital was built but the POWs were denied its use, and it remained unoccupied until Oct. 1944. The sick lay in bunks with straw mats. The original hospital could hold from 50 to 60 patients but usually, there were 120 patients. The rear of each barracks contained a washroom equipped with concrete sinks and contaminated running cold water. The men were warned against drinking this water.
When they arrived they were issued one set of “seaweed” clothe resembling heavy mosquito netting. Clothing was handed out by a Japanese supply sergeant who would hold clothing inspections on the POWs’ day off. It was during these inspections that the POWs were supposed to present their worn-out clothing to him for new clothing. Before he would issue new clothing to the POWs he would beat them with a club and hit them with his fists. The POWs went without clothing to avoid the beatings which resulted in men developing pneumonia and dying. On January 1, 1945, each POW received an overcoat. After the war, 1500 work uniforms were found in a warehouse. In addition, the POWs went barefoot in the winter instead of receiving new shoes. The CO of the camp claimed they didn’t have any shoes for the POWs. The Japanese stated that they issued 3,000 to 4,000 working suits, 700 pairs of rubber-soled footwear, 3,000 pairs of gloves, 500 pairs of socks, and 1,500 towels. It is known the POWs received towels. After the war in the camp’s warehouse was found, 100 pairs of Japanese leather shoes, 250 pounds of shoe repair leather sent by the Red Cross, 500 pairs of socks, and 1300 work uniforms.
On a few occasions, the POWs did receive Red Cross boxes. It was noted that the canned meat and other food were missing from the boxes. On several occasions, the POWs saw the Japanese guards eating stew that came from the cans. One POW stated that if 100 Red Cross boxes arrived at the camp, the POWs got 75 of them. Some of the guards were seen wearing Red Cross clothing sent to the camp for the POWs and smoking American cigarettes. One guard during one winter was seen wearing fourteen different pairs of Red Cross shoes.
Each day after work, the sick call was held. The POW doctors would diagnose cases and determine what medicine was needed to treat the POW. A Japanese doctor or orderly was always present to tell the POW doctor if the POW would be allowed to be treated. To meet quotas for workers, the sick POWs were required to work even if it meant they could possibly die from doing it. The Japanese camp doctor made the sick stand out in the cold for hours. He also beat them and allowed the guards to beat them. He also withheld the medicine that the POW doctors requested for the sick. Although medical supplies for the POWs were sent to the camp by the Red Cross, the Japanese commandant would not give the American medical staff the medicine that was in the packages. Any surgery in the camp had to be performed with hacksaw blades and crude medical tools even though the Red Cross had sent the proper surgical tools to the camp. The first Japanese doctor was replaced by a second doctor who liked to make the POWs, who were shivering from fevers, stand outside and pour water on them. The hospital was built for 50 POWs, but on an average day, there were 200 POWs in it. If POWs were allowed to stay in the camp, they had to police the grounds or work in the camp garden. It appears pneumonia was one of the major killers in the camp. One Japanese orderly was known to say when a POW died, “he was not worth a damn anyway.” It was noted by the British POWs that the Americans were already malnourished when they arrived at the camp. Records show 65 Americans, 13 British, 49 Dutch, 25 Indian, and 6 POWs of other nationalities died in the camp.
The POWs could not understand the interpreter which resulted in them being beaten for failing to follow orders. The POWs were beaten daily with fists and sticks for violating camp rules, and the guards often required them to stand at attention, in the cold, while standing water. The camp commander was said to carry a stick that he used to hit the POWs across the top of their heads. In one incident an entire barracks was slapped in the face, by the guards, because some POWs had smoked in the barracks. During the winter, POWs who were being punished often had water thrown on them. A group of about 60 POWs was made to crawl on their hands and knees, while carrying other POWs, on their backs. As they crawled, they were hit with bamboo sticks, belts, and rifle butts. There were two brigs in the camp which had as many as 20 POWs in them at a time. All POWs who died were reported to have died in the camp hospital. Another incident involved an American soldier who traded with the Japanese. The war was almost over and Japan was about to surrender. The soldier traded for roasted beans. As it turned out, the beans had been tainted with arsenic. The soldier died the next day. After going through all he had suffered, the soldier died when freedom was almost his. If a POW attempted to escape, he dug his own grave and was shot.
One POW stated, “The men were beaten with sticks, clubs, rifle butts for no reason at all. This was a daily affair. In some cases, men were beaten for violating camp orders; such as getting caught smoking out of hours. The guard would take the men up to the guardhouse beat them up with their fists, stripped them of their clothes, and then threw them outside in a water tank. This usually happened in the wintertime. After about two or three hours of this kind of torture, they would be sent back to the barracks the men would most always be given some form of punishment; such as in being unable to get the next issue of cigarettes.”
The POWs worked in a steel mill that had been built by an American company before the war. They worked seven days a week and had one day off a month that was used for house cleaning and inspection. After that, these things were done they had a half-day off. Each man was issued a towel for the purpose of wiping off the sweat while working. Their workdays started at 5 A.M. when they woke. They had breakfast and fell out for work call at 6:30. They worked from 7:00 A.M. until 6:00 P.M. and received a half-hour lunch. Other documents indicated they worked from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM with a half-hour lunch and two ten-minute breaks; one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It also stated they received three days off each month. The POWs stated that during the winter, they never saw daylight.
To get to the mill, the POWs walked downhill through the town and rode a train to the mill which was about 18 miles from the camp. They rode in flat cars with low sides which were on hinges. Sometimes these sides would be fastened in place by only one pin, but despite the fact that prisoners were so crowded into them that they were forced to press against the sides; there was no instance in which the sides gave way. Sometimes they sat in cars with a heavy layer of soot on the floor and also in cars containing glowing clinkers. Being open, the cars offered no protection against the weather, and many times I was compelled to sit out in the rain or snow for long periods before the cars were moved.
Some of the prisoners worked in the nearby steel mills of Tabata, while the rest worked in the Seitetsu Steel Mills at Yawata. The POWs loaded and unloaded ships, worked in the pipe shops, worked in machine shops, worked at brick making, worked in the motor car repair shop, worked at tool making, and some had to chip cast iron with hammers. Much of the POW work was to shovel iron ore and rebuild the ovens. They were sent into the ovens to clean out the debris while the ovens were hot because the Japanese would not let them cool off. To get out of the ovens fast, the POWs worked fast. Hand grenades and shell casings from the mill helped the Japanese war effort.
There was a second interpreter at the mill who the POWs liked. He had been to the States and could speak English fluently. He was never known to have abused a POW. When he saw a POW being beaten, he would attempt to help the POWs and find out what the problem was, and he made the guard stop hitting the POWs if he found that there was no reason for the abuse. The POWs believed he tried to help them as much as he could.
On August 20, 1944, the second air raid in the area took place. The first took place in July before the POWs arrived. During the air raid, the POWs kept working in the mill and were forbidden to stop working. After four or five air raids, the Japanese allowed the POWs to take cover. When an air raid took place while the POWs were at the mill, they were put into railway cars and the train was pulled into a tunnel. Those POWs further from the tunnel took cover in two air raid shelters. Those POWs too far away from the train or shelters simply had to ride out the air raid. On one occasion, the POWs were put into shelters, but when the Japanese realized it was a major air raid, they made the POWs run a mile and a half to the tunnel. Air raids began occurring as many as five times a day and they began to take place at night. It was indicated that at the camp there were adequate air raid shelters for the POWs.
A POW recalled, “During Allied air raids on the steel mill, prisoners were allowed to go to the safety of a nearby railway tunnel, while guards with fixed bayonets chased and beat us all the way.” When the air raids took place while the POWs were in the camp, he said, “During night raids at the prison compound, there was the ha;f-shelter of bamboo and dirt huts, with bamboo poles covering the top to prevent American prisoners from cheering the American bombers that flew overhead. We were warned we would be executed if we even looked up at the planes while going to nearby shelters.”
The majority of POW officers in the camp were sent to Korea in April 1945. The beatings of the POWs also seemed to increase and they were beaten for playing cards, failing to salute, or failing to follow a camp rule. Collective beatings also seemed to increase when the Japanese suffered another military defeat. One POW guessed that of the 1200 POWs in the camp, at most there were only 50 POWs in camp who had never been beaten.
POWs stated that on August 6, the POWs heard the sound of planes. The Japanese fled and took cover in the air raid shelters and bombs from the planes began exploding around the POWs so they took cover. As they hid, bombs from the second wave of bombers hit the mill. After the attack, the POWs returned to the camp.
On the morning of August 9, it was overcast and raining when the POWs at the steel mill heard the sound of a single B-29 approaching. To their amazement, the Japanese fled and took cover in the air raid shelters while they continued to work. It was stated that the plane flew over several times before flying off in the direction of Nagaski. As it turned out, the Yawata Steel Mill was the primary target for the second atomic bomb, but since the sky was extremely overcast, the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. George Garman, C Co., 192nd who was in the camp stated, “I saw the bomb go off 60 miles away. The blast filled the sky with dust all day, and the dust swirled around in the sky like a giant hurricane.”
Within days of the bombing, the POWs saw Japanese workers facing the direction of radio speakers with their heads bowed. The Americans thought that the emperor had passed away but the Japanese were listening to the emperor announcing Japan’s surrender. An American ensign, who could read and speak Japanese, saw a newspaper with the announcement of the surrender. He was the first person to inform his fellow POWs that the war was over. They were then told the same news by a Japanese officer. The camp was officially turned over to the POWs on August 20, 1945. It was at that time the POWs found 350 large Red Cross boxes with four smaller boxes in each one. The camp was officially turned over to the POWs on August 20, 1945.
An American recovery team arrived at the camp, and on September 17, 1945, they were taken to the Demanji Docks at Nagasaki. He recalled that everything was in ruins. Once on the docks, the POWs were deloused and they were told to strip. Once this was done, the clothing was burnt and they were issued new clothing. They were taken aboard a hospital ship and given physicals. Some men were kept on the ship for additional medical treatment while others were cleared to be returned to the Philippines.
He and the other POWs were flown to Okinawa. It was while he was there, that he learned that the steel mill he had worked at was the original target of the atomic bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki from one of the navigators of one of the three B-29s involved in the bombing. He told Walter that they had flown over the mill twice attempting to drop the bomb but moved to the secondary target because of the cloud cover.
Walter was flown back to the Philippines and his family learned he was liberated on October 6, 1945.
“=MR F STRAKA: THE SECRETARY OF WAR HAS ASKED ME TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON, PVT. WALTER B STRAKA WAS RETURNED TO MILITARY CONTROL SEPT 17 AND IS BEING RETURNED TO THE UNITED STATES WITHIN THE NEAR FUTURE HE WILL BE GIVEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO COMMUNICATE WITH YOU UPON HIS ARRIVAL IF HE HAS NOT ALREADY DONE SO=
“E. F. WITSELL
“ACTING ADJUTANT GENERAL OF THE ARMY”
After spending about a month in the Philippines, Walter boarded the transport U.S.S. Marine Shark which sailed on October 10, 1945, from Manila arriving at Honolulu, Hawaii, on October 22nd. The next day the ship sailed for San Francisco but during this part of the voyage, the ship broke down, east of Hawaii, and drifted for two days while repairs were made. It finally arrived in San Francisco on October 27th.
When he disembarked, he was taken to Letterman General Hospital for further treatment. He sent a telegram home on November 2nd to his family. From Letterman, he was transferred to Schick General Hospital in Clinton, Iowa. It was during this time, he learned that his father had died in March 1945.
While he was receiving treatment, he was promoted to corporal and then to sergeant. He was finally discharged in November 1945 at Ft. Sheridan, Illinois, but he still had bouts of dysentery. When he returned home, one of his biggest fears was that when he was got home he would have to tell the families of the men who died how they had died.
Since he had not registered for Selective Service before the war, on January 10, 1947, he registered and named his mother as his contact person. He also was required to have blood taken from him on a regular basis. He later learned that this was being done to see if he had radiation poisoning.
Walter married Cleta Marie Sylvester and became the father of four daughters and three sons. He owned a used car dealership in Brainerd to support his family.
Walter Straka was the last surviving National Guard member of A Company, and possibly the last living member of the 194th Tank Battalion and the Provisional Tank Group. He passed away on July 4, 2021, in Brainerd, Minnesota, and his funeral was held at St. Francis Catholic Church in Brainerd, on July 12, 2021. He was buried at the Minnesota State Veterans Cemetery in Little Falls, Minnesota.