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.
After the German tank divisions rolled through Europe in 1939 and 1940, the Army created the U.S. Armored Forces on July 10, 1940. Included in the force were the National Guard General Headquarters tank battalions. The GHQ battalions which were still considered infantry were called up to create a “buffer” between the armored forces and infantry. This was done to protect the regular army tank battalions from requests from the infantry for tanks and allow them to develop into real fighting forces. If the infantry wanted tanks, the National Guard tank battalions were available to the infantry.
The tank company was scheduled to be called up on November 25th and serve for one year in the regular Army, but the date was postponed until January 6, 1941, because of a lumber strike in Washington State. In December, when it was known the battalion’s barracks would not be completed on time, the date was changed to February 10th. That morning, he 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 18th. Just before midnight on February 19th, 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 at 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, 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 company’s 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 22nd, the train arrived in Tacoma, Washington. From the station, they were taken by truck to Ft. Lewis. As they entered the base, they passed barrack after barrack 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 at the base 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 they only had to walk across the street when it was finished. Since they were off Saturday afternoons on weekends, the men went to Tacoma or Olympia by bus provided by the Army which 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 and held practice every evening.
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.
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 5th, 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 10th, 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 14th. 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 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 Formosa which had a large radio transmitter used by the Japanese military. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day. The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with buoys on its deck covered by a tarp – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and the 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 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 at Ft. Lewis, the group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – the 191st was a National Guard medium tank battalion while the 70th was a regular army tank battalion – at Ft. Meade, Maryland, the 193rd was at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 192nd was at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been National Guard light tank battalions.
On August 13, 1941, Congress voted to extend federalized National Guard units’ time in the regular Army by 18 months. Major Ernest Miller was ordered to Ft. Knox by plane arriving the next day August 14th. That afternoon he received the battalion’s overseas orders. During the meeting, one of General Jacob L. Dever’s staff officers – Dever was the commanding officer of Ft. Knox – let it slip that the battalion was being sent to the Philippines. On August 18th, 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. Miller later flew to Minneapolis and then flew to Ft. Lewis. Different newspapers speculated that the battalion was being sent to the Philippines. The fact there were only three “overseas” locations the tanks could be sent which were Alaska, Hawaii, or the Philippines, and Alaska was already eliminated because B Company was being sent there. Ironically, a week before this, the wife a 194th officer, from St. Joseph, Missouri, wrote him a letter and asked her husband, “Is it true that your unit is going to the Philippines?”
Documents show that the entire First Tank Group was scheduled to be sent to the Philippines. The buoys being spotted by the pilot may have sped up the transfer of the tank battalions to the Philippines with only the 192nd and 194th reaching the islands, but it was not the reason for the battalions going to the Philippines. 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. One of the two medium tank battalions – most likely the 191st – had standby orders for the Philippines, but the orders were canceled on December 10th because the war with Japan had started. Some military documents from the time show the tank group in the Philippines was scheduled to be made up of three light tank battalions and two medium tank battalions. Other documents show the Provisional Tank Group in the Philippines was also called the First Provisional Tank Group. At the same time, the men in the Philippines referred to the tank group as the First Tank Group.
Different newspapers speculated that the battalion was being sent to the Philippines. The reality was there were only three places where 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. Besides the 194th, the tank group was made up of the 70th and 191st medium tank battalions at Ft. Meade, Maryland. The 70th was a regular Army tank battalion 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. One of the two medium tank battalions – most likely the 191st – had received standby orders for the Philippines, but the orders were canceled on December 10th because the war with Japan had started. Some military documents from the time show the name of the Provisional Tank Group in the Philippines as the First Provisional Tank Group.
It was at this time men whose enlistments would end while the battalion was overseas, who were 29 years old or older and/or married with dependents were allowed to be transferred from the battalion. On September 4th, 1941, the 194th, without B Company, was sent to Ft. Mason, north of San Francisco, by train and arrived at 7:30 A.M. on the 5th. From there, they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe to Ft. MacDowell on Angel Island where they were inoculated. Those men with medical conditions were replaced with men who had never trained in tanks.
The battalion’s new tanks 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.
The tanks fit fine in the ship’s first and second hold, but the deckhead in the ship’s third hold was too low, so 19 tanks had to have their turrets removed to fit them in the hold. So that the turrets went on the tanks they came off of, the tanks’ serial numbers were painted on the turrets. The ship’s captain also ordered that all ammunition, fuel, and batteries be removed from the tanks. He stated they would be sent later, but it appears the batteries were sent to the Philippines with the tanks.
The soldiers boarded the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge which sailed at 9 PM. The enlisted men found themselves assigned to bunks in the ship’s holds with the tanks. Those men with lower bunks found them unbearable to sleep in because of the heat and humidity. Soon, most men were sleeping on deck but learned quickly to get up early because the crew hosed down the deck each morning. Many of the men had seasickness during this part of the voyage. The soldiers spent their time attending lectures, playing craps and cards, reading, writing letters, and sunning themselves on deck. Other men did the required work like turning over the tanks’ engines by hand and the clerks caught up on their paperwork. The ship arrived at 7:00 A.M. on September 13th in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the soldiers were given four-hour passes ashore. At 5:00 PM that evening the ship sailed.
The next morning, the members of the battalion were called together and they were informed the battalion was going to the Philippines. On the next leg of the voyage, the ship was joined by the U.S.S. Guadalupe, a replenishment oiler. The heavy cruiser, U.S.S. Astoria, and an unknown destroyer were the ships’ escorts. During rough weather, the destroyer approached the Coolidge for a personnel transfer. The soldiers recalled that the destroyer bobbed up and down and from side to side in the water with waves breaking over its deck as an attempt was made to make the transfer. When it became apparent that a small boat would be crushed if it attempted to transfer someone from one ship to the other, a bosun’s chair was rigged and the man was sent from the Coolidge to the destroyer. A few of the tanks in the hold broke loose from their moorings and rolled back and forth slamming into the ship’s hull. They did this until the tankers secured them.
The ships crossed the International Dateline the night of Tuesday, September 16th, and the date became Thursday, September 18th. A few days past Guam, the soldiers saw the first islands of the Philippines. The ships sailed south along the east coast of Luzon, around the southern end of the island, and up the west coast. On Friday, September 26th, 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 bused to Fort Stotsenburg. The battalion’s maintenance section, remained behind at the pier, with the 17th Ordnance Company, to unload the tanks and reattach the tanks’ turrets.
The maintenance section and 17th Ordnance reinstalled the batteries, but they needed aviation fuel for the tanks’ engines to get them off the docks. 2nd Lt. Russell Swearingen went to the quartermaster and asked him for the fuel. He was told that they did not have any at the port so he would have to go to the Army Air Corps to get it. When he arrived at the Air Corps command, he was informed that they couldn’t give him the aviation fuel without a written order. It took two weeks to get the tanks off the docks. While all this was going on, the battalion’s half-tracks arrived as well as motorcycles. The battalion’s reconnaissance detachment had Harley-Davidsons at Ft. Lewis but the new motorcycles were Indian Motorcycles with all the controls on the opposite side of the bikes. The reconnaissance section also had peeps (later known as jeeps), but many of these were taken by high-ranking officers for their own use since they were new to the Army.
Upon arriving at the fort, they were greeted by General Edward P. King Jr. who apologized that they had to live in tents and receive their meals from food trucks until their barracks were completed on November 15th. 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. On their first night in the tents it rained which flooded many of the tents.
After spending three weeks in tents, they moved into their barracks on October 18th, the barracks were described as being on stilts with walls that from the floor were five feet of a weaved matting called sawali This allowed the men to dress. Above five feet the walls were open and allowed for breezes to blow through the barracks making them more comfortable than the tents. There were no doors or windows. The wood that was used for the support beams was the best mahogany available. For personal hygiene, a man was lucky if he was near a faucet with running water.
The days were described as hot and humid, but if a man was able to find shade it was cooler in the shade. The Filipino winter had started when they arrived, and although it was warm when they went to sleep by morning the soldiers needed a blanket. They turned in all their wool uniforms and were issued cotton shirts and trousers which were the regular uniform in the Philippines. They were also scheduled to receive sun helmets.
A typical workday was from 7:00 to 11:30 A.M. with an hour and a half lunch. The afternoon work time was from 1:30 to 2:30 P.M. At that time, it was considered too hot to work, but the battalion continued working and called it, “recreation in the motor pool.” Tank commanders studied books on their tanks and instructed their crews on the 30 and 50-caliber machine guns. The tankers learned to dismantle the guns and put them together. They did it so often that many men could take the guns apart and assemble them while wearing blindfolds. They never fired the guns because Gen. King could not get Gen. MacArthur to release ammunition for them.
For the next several weeks, the tankers spent their time removing the cosmoline from their weapons. They also had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their M3 tanks. None of them had ever trained in one during their time at Ft. Lewis. In October, the battalion was allowed to travel to Lingayen Gulf. This was done under simulated conditions that enemy troops had landed there. Two months later, enemy troops would land there. It is known that they were paid at least once after arriving which was confusing since they were paid in pesos and centavos. Many men at first had to learn how much things cost in a new currency.
At the end of the workday, the men had free time. The fort had a bowling alley and movie theaters. The men also played softball, horseshoes, and badminton. Men would also throw footballs around. On Wednesday afternoons, the men went swimming. Once a month, men put their names for the chance to go into Manila. The number of men allowed on these trips was limited. Other men were allowed to go to Aarayat National Park where there was a swimming pool that was filled with mountain water. Other men went canoeing at the Pagsanjan Falls and stated the scenery was beautiful.
The 192nd Tank Battalion arrived in the Philippines on November 20th. It was at this time that the process of transferring the battalion’s D Company to the 194th was begun which would give each tank battalion three tank companies. The 192nd was sent to the Philippines with a great deal of radio equipment to set up a radio school to train radio operators for the Philippine Army. The battalion had a large number of ham radio operators and set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours after its arrival. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When it was informed it was the 192nd, they gave the battalion frequencies to use and men were able to send messages home to their families.
With the arrival of the 192nd, the Provisional Tank Group was activated on November 27th. Besides the 194th, the tank group contained the 192nd and the 17th Ordnance Company – which arrived in the Philippines with the 194th – joined on the 29th. Military documents written after the war show the tank group was scheduled to be composed of three light tank battalions and two medium tank battalions. Col. James Weaver who had been put in command of the 192nd in San Francisco left the 192nd and was appointed head of the tank group and promoted to brigadier general.
It is known that during this time the battalions went on at least two practice reconnaissance missions under the guidance of the 194th. They traveled to Baguio on one maneuver and to the Lingayen Gulf on the other maneuver. Gen. Weaver, the tank group commander, was able to get ammunition from the post’s ordnance department on the 30th, but the tank group could not get time at one of the firing ranges at the base.
The tank battalions took part in an alert on November 30th. What was learned during this alert was that moving the tanks to their assigned positions at night would have been a disaster. In particular, the 194th’s position below Watch Hill was among drums of 100-octane fuel and the entire bomb reserve for the airfield. The next day the tanks were ordered back to the airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers after reconnaissance planes reported Japanese transports milling about in a large circle in the South China Sea. The 194th’s position was moved to an area between the two runways below Watch Hill. 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’s communication tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8th. Major Ernest Miller, Major Ted Wickord, CO, 192nd, Captain Richard Kadel, CO, 17th Ordnance Company, and Gen. Weaver read the messages of the attack. Maj. Miller left the tent and informed the officers of the 194th about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank crews were ordered to their tanks which were joined by the battalion’s half-tracks.
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 – near the pilots’ mess hall – in a straight line to be refueled. While the planes were being serviced, the pilots went to lunch. The members of the tank crews received their lunches from the battalion’s food trucks. At 12:45 in the afternoon, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the company 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. It was stated that no sooner had one wave of planes finished bombing and were returning to Formosa than another wave came in and bombed. The second wave was followed by a third wave of bombers.
The bombers were quickly followed by Japanese fighters that sounded like angry bees to the tankers as they strafed the airfield. 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. The Japanese planes were as low as 50 feet above the ground and the pilots would lean out of the cockpits so they could more accurately pick out targets to strafe. The tankers said they saw the pilots’ scarfs flapping in the wind. One tanker stated that a man with a shotgun could have shot a plane down. 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 result of the attack was that the transfer of D Company to the 194th was never completed. The company fought with the 194th but remained part of the 192nd.
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.
The tankers lived through two more attacks on December 10th and 12th. On the night of the 12th, the battalion was ordered to bivouac south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge. Attempting to move the battalion at night was a nightmare, and they finally arrived at their new bivouac at 6:00 A.M. on December 13th. It was also stated the battalion was sent to Batangas in southern Luzon for about two weeks. During this time, little happened, but the tankers were strafed a few times by Japanese planes. The tanks spent much of their time doing reconnaissance and hunting down fifth columnists who used flares at night and mirrors during the day to show Japanese planes where ammunition dumps were located. They were ordered back north to the Agno River. On the 15th, the battalion received 15 Bren gun carriers but turned some over to the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. These were manned by grounded Air Corps men and used to test the ground to see if it could support the weight of tanks.
On December 22nd, A Company and D Company, 192nd, were ordered to the Agno River near Carmen. C Company remained behind at Batangas. The tankers at 2:15 P.M. started the more than 150 mile movement north to meet the Japanese at an area 85 miles northwest of Manila. When they got close to their objective, to protect the battalion from strafing, most of the battalion went to the left on Route 3 toward Tarlec and the river while A Company was sent down Route 5 toward Cabanatuan and San Jose and then along the river until it rejoined the rest of the battalion. When the tanks passed through the barrio of San Jose, they saw the dead bodies of Filipino men, women, and children who had mistaken Japanese Zeros for American planes. When they came out to wave at the planes, they were strafed.
The tank 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 tanks were about five yards apart. It was on the 26th that the Japanese artillery fire began landing near the tanks. The Self-propelled mounts of the Filipino Scout would take positions between the tanks fire several rounds and move to another position. Shells began landing around the tanks, so the crews buttoned themselves in their tanks. The tanks did not have anti-personnel shells to use against infantry, but the tankers used the tanks’ 37 millimeter guns against armored vehicles and their machine guns against infantry. The fire stopped the Japanese advance for a while but the Japanese brought up more artillery and resumed the attack.
Two volunteers were needed to set up machine guns at the far end of the bridge to harass the Japanese. Pvt. Gerald Bell and Pvt. August Bender, who were assistant tank drivers, volunteered to take two antiaircraft machine guns from the tanks to the far end of the bridge and set up machine gun nests. It was stated that Bell and Bender held their position and died after being surrounded. 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 and knocking out three tanks with the support of two divisions of the Philippine Army. According to Capt. John Riley, most of the men had already concluded they would lose the battle for Luzon, but they also made the decision that they would tie up the Japanese as long as possible. Men stated that the U.S. had asked them to hold out for six months.
The two Filipino Army Divisions withdrew leaving the tank battalions alone to face the Japanese. The tankers held up the Japanese as long as possible before withdrawing. The 192nd received the order to withdraw but for some unknown reason, the 194th did not receive the order. The battalion finally was ordered to withdraw and 1st Lt. Harold Costigan informed the members of A Company, and D Company, 192nd, that they would have to fight their way out. The tanks fought their way through Carmen losing two tanks but saving the crews except for Capt. Edward Burke who had been hit by enemy fire. He was presumed dead but had been captured by the Japanese.
As the company’s tanks withdrew, they came to a blown-up bridge. Attempting to find a place to ford the river they drove along the bank. It was at that time that a tank was hit by artillery fire in front and back resulting in a fire in the tank. The driver of the tank, PFC Carl Kramp, could not see the tank ahead of him because of dust, so his tank continued upstream and went right through the Japanese Army. Pvt. Carlson Hopkins, the tank’s bow gunner, used up three belts of bullets killing a large number of Japanese. While this was going on, Pvt. Jim Bogart was fighting the fire in the tank and pulled the cord out of the radio jack ending communications with the other tanks. He did manage to fire on the Japanese with his pistol using the pistol port. The tank would not shift into fourth or fifth gear and the crew believed it had been damaged by the shell that hit the front of the tank. Later, they found a musette bag between the shift lever and the power tunnel. The tank did make it to the defensive line but had enough damage that it had to be repaired by 17th Ordnance, so the members of the tank’s crew joined other crews.
D Company found the bridge they were supposed to cross had been destroyed and abandoned their tanks. The company commander had the crews disable the tanks, but he hoped they would be recovered so he did not have the men make them inoperable. Depending on the source, A Company lost four to seven tanks that were with D Company. The tanks were captured and repaired by the Japanese and put into use in Bataan. One tank commander – who refused to abandon his tank had his handgun pointed at the back of the head of his tank driver – found a place to ford the river a few hundred yards from the bridge. The tank commander received the Silver Star for saving his tank.
That day, the tank battalions were also given the job of holding the line against enemy armor and major thrusts until 5:00 A.M. on December 27th. Col. Ernest Miller – being the senior officer – was given authority to withdraw both tank battalions before 5:00 A.M. if he felt it was necessary. The tanks held the line but withdrew at 7:30 P.M. before the bridges they needed to cross were blown up at 11:30 P.M. that night. The 192nd and part of the 194th fell back to form a new defensive line the night of December 27th and 28th. Arrangements had been made for the tanks to pick up their rations at Tarlac Depot. From there they fell back to the south bank of the BamBan River which they were supposed to hold for as long as possible. The tankers found their tanks being used as “mobile pillboxes.” The tanks were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 28th and 29th serving as a rear guard against the Japanese.
The tank battalions, on the 31st, were holding open two bridges at Calumpit so that the Southern Luzon forces could withdraw toward Bataan. It was noted that convoys of trucks would pass the tanks carrying absolutely nothing. It was then that Lt. Col. Miller sent out detachments of trucks to warehouses and had the men load them with ammunition, food, and high-octane fuel that was used by the tanks. It was stated that one detachment went all the way to Ft. Stotsenburg. The trucks returned carrying 6 tons of canned food and 12,000 gallons of fuel.
The 194th, at 2:00 AM the morning of January 1st, crossed a bridge over the San Fernando River which was destroyed since all Filipino and American units had already crossed. They were now on the main road into Bataan. A defensive line was set up from Guagua to Porac to the swamps along Pampanga Bay. The bridge on a side road that ran from Guagua to Sexmoan and back onto Route 7 was destroyed. At 4:00 AM on January 1, 1942, A Co. dug into new positions. They listened to Japanese troop movements and heard the sound of tanks. They watched 5 Japanese 89A medium tanks come into view in an open field. The tanks stopped because no reconnaissance had been done in the area. Within minutes, there were 5 destroyed Japanese tanks
That same day, 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 and the Southern Luzon forces escaped.
From January 2nd to 4th, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the Southern forces could escape while the 194th held the bridge open. On January 3rd a platoon of C Company tanks were driven back to Guagua from Betis and Guagua began receiving fire from Japanese artillery. The bridge on a side road that ran from Guagua to Sexmoan and back onto Route 7 was destroyed. Holding the roadblock stopped the Japanese from overrunning the new defensive line that was being put in place. When enemy fire became too intense the battalion dropped back. The tanks and Self Propelled Mounts were the only units that held the line against the Japanese south of Guagua on January 5th. That night, the tank battalion was holding a position north of 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 a 500 man Japanese battalion with artillery. 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 and 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. It was estimated they had lost half their troops.
The night of January 6th 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 making the 192nd the last American unit to enter Bataan before the engineers blew up the bridge at 6:00 A.M. It was at this time that the tank companies were reduced to three tanks each. This was done to provide tanks to D Company, while those crews still without tanks were used as replacements. It was on the 7th, that the food ration was cut in half, and not too long after this was done that malaria, dysentery, and dengue fever began hitting the soldiers.
A composite tank company was formed on the 8th 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.
The remainder of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of Aubucay Hacienda Road. While there, the tank crews had their first break from action in nearly a month. The tanks, which were long overdue for maintenance, were serviced by 17th Ordnance. It was also at this time that tank companies were reduced to ten tanks, with three tanks in each platoon. This was done so that D Company would have tanks. It was on January 9th that the Japanese launched a major offensive on what was called the Aubucay Hacienda line that stretched from Aubucay on the east coast of Bataan to the China Sea on the west.
The Japanese attacked through the Aubucay Hacienda Plantation which was the location of most of the fighting took place. The defenders stated that the bodies of the dead Japanese piled up in front of them and actually made it more difficult for the next Japanese troops to advance against the line. One tanker from B Co., 192nd, said that when they walked among the Japanese dead, they found hypodermic needles on them. To him, this explained why they kept coming at the tanks even after they had been hit by machine gun fire. The defenders’ artillery was so accurate that the Japanese later stated the defenders were using artillery pieces like they were rifles. The biggest problem was that the defenders had no air cover so they were bombed and stated constantly and were constantly harassed by snipers. The tanks often had the job of protecting the artillery. None of the tank companies liked doing this job since after the guns fired a few rounds it didn’t take the Japanese long to zero in on where the guns were located. It didn’t take long for the gun crews to learn how to “shoot and scoot.”
On January 12th, Co. D, 192nd, and Co. C, 194th, were sent to Cadre Road in a forward position with little alert time. Land mines were planted on January 13th by ordnance to prevent the Japanese from reaching Cadre Road. C Co., 194th, was sent to Bagac to reopen the Moron Highway which had been cut by the Japanese on January 16. At the junction of Trail 162 and the Moron Highway, the tanks were fired on by an anti-tank gun which was knocked out by the tanks. They cleared the roadblock with the support of infantry.
General Weaver also issued the following orders to the tank battalions around this time: “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.”
During this time, the tanks often found themselves dealing with officers who claimed they were the ranking officer in the area and that they could change the tank company’s orders. Most wanted the tanks to kill snipers or do some other job the infantry had not succeeded at doing. This situation continued until Gen Weaver gave a written order to every tank commander that if an officer attempted to change their orders, they should hand the officer the order. When the officer looked up at the tank commander, the tank commander had his handgun aimed at the officer. Gen Weeaver had ordered the tank commanders to shoot any officer attempting to change their orders. This ended the problem.
On January 20th, A Company was sent to save the command post of the 31st Infantry. On the 24th, they supported the troops along the Hacienda Road, but they could not reach the objective because of landmines that had been planted by ordnance. The battalion held a position a kilometer north of the Pilar-Bagac Road with four self-propelled mounts. At 9:45 A.M., a Filipino warned the tankers that a large force of Japanese was on their way. When they appeared the battalion and self-propelled mounts opened up with everything they had. The Japanese broke off the attack, at 10:30 A.M., after losing 500 of their 1200 men. It was also at this time that the Japanese ended the assault and waited for fresh troops to arrive.
The defenders were ordered to withdraw on the 25th to a new line known as the Pilar-Begac Line. The tanks covered the withdrawal with the 192nd covering the withdrawing troops in the Aubucay area and the 194th covering the troops in the Hacienda area. At 6:00 PM the withdrawal started over the only two roads out of the area which quickly became blocked, and the Japanese could have wiped out the troops but did not take advantage of the situation.
The tank battalions, on January 28th, 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. One night, the Japanese attempted to land troops on a beach guarded by B Co., 192nd. There was a tremendous firefight, but the next morning not one Japanese soldier landed on the beach. The Japanese later told the tankers that the tanks were the reason why they attempted no other landings. While doing this job, the tankers noticed that each morning when the PT boats were off the coast of Bataan they were attacked by Japanese Zeros. The tank crews made arrangements with the PT boats to be at a certain place at a certain time and waited for the Zeros to arrive and attack. This time they were met by machine gun fire from the boats but also from the machine guns of the tanks and half-tracks. When the Zeros broke off the attack, they had lost nine of twelve planes.
The battalions took on the job of guarding the airfields in Bataan in February which had been constructed because of the belief that aid would be coming by air. Throughout the Battle of Bataan, men held the belief that aid would arrive. The Japanese bombed the airfields during the day and at night the engineers would repair them. 50-gallon drums were placed around the airfields to mark the runways, and at night fires could be lit in them to outline the landing strip. The well-camouflaged tanks surrounded the airfield and had several plans on how they would defend the airfields from paratroopers.
The Battle of the Points also took place at this time. The Japanese landed Marines behind the main line of defense in an attempt to cut the supply lines from Mariveles to Baguio. After they had landed they were quickly trapped on a point sticking out into the China Sea. When the Japanese attempted to reinforce the point, they landed on another point, and the second group was quickly trapped. The Army Air Corps men converted to infantry, the 45th and 57th Philippine Scouts. and companies from the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalion were involved in the elimination of the points. When the Japanese attempted to send in a third detachment of reinforcements, the last three P-40s appeared and strafed the barges. The strafing ended the Japanese attempt to reinforce their troops. Through a coordinated attack by the infantry and the tanks, the Japanese were pushed back to the caves below the points before being wiped out.
Tanks parts were now rare and 17th Ordnance made repairs however they were able to make them. Tanks that had damaged main guns often had the barrels cut down – similar to a sawed-off shotgun – to keep them firing. 17th Ordnance also provided anti-personnel by converting WWI shells from the Philippine Ordnance Department so that they could be fired by the tanks. The company also had to deal with the fact the tane tanks’ suspension systems were locking up after being near or in salt water. The information was sent to the War Department which replaced the suspension system on all vehicles using it.
On March 1st, the soldiers had their rations cut in half again and the men were starving since they were only being fed meals that were mostly rice twice a day. It was said that if an animal could be eaten, the defenders of Bataan ate it. Only monkeys were hard to eat since their faces made them look human. The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a picture of 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 and more likely would have surrendered for a good meal. Since the leaflets were printed on tissue paper, they made good toilet paper. 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 except for the tanks. 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.
During this time, two tanks had gotten stuck in the mud, and the crews were working to free them. While they were doing this, a Japanese regiment entered the area. Lt. Colonel Ernest Miller ordered his tanks to fire on the Japanese at point-blank range. He also ran from tank to tank directing the crew’s fire. The Japanese were wiped out. On March 21st, the last major battle was fought by the tanks.
The reality was that the same illnesses that were taking their toll on the Bataan defenders were also taking their toll on the Japanese. American newspapers wrote about the lull in the fighting and the building of defenses against the expected assault that most likely would take place. The soldiers on Bataan also knew that an assault was coming, they just didn’t know when it would take place. Having brought in combat harden troops from Singapore, the Japanese launched a major offensive on April 3rd supported by artillery and aircraft. The artillery barrage started at 10 AM and lasted until noon. Each shell seemed to be followed by another that exploded on top of the previous shell. At the same time, wave after wave of Japanese bombers hit the same area dropping incendiary bombs that set the jungle on fire. The defenders had to choose between staying in their foxholes and being burned to death or seeking safety somewhere else. As the fire approached their foxholes those men who chose to attempt to flee were torn to pieces by shrapnel. It was said that arms, legs, and other body parts hung from tree branches. A large section of the defensive line at Mount Samat was wiped out. The next day a large force of Japanese troops came over Mt. 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.
It was the evening of April 8th that Gen. 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. Companies B and D, 192nd, and A Company, 194th, were preparing for a suicide attack on the Japanese 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. Phil Parish, a truck driver for A Company 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, and A Company, 194th, received an 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. It was at about 6:45 A.M. that tank battalion commanders received the order “crash.” Capt. Arthur Root, the company commander, ordered the crews to destroy their tanks. They cut the gas lines and threw torches into the tanks. Within minutes, the ammunition inside the tanks began exploding. 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. Wade R. 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 managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
At 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 the Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would not attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do. 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 the line of the Japanese advance should fly white flags. After this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived and King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff who had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get assurances 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.”
Col. Miller gathered the members of all the companies together and told them of the surrender. He stated that Gen. King surrendered because he wanted to prevent the needless slaughter of his men. He then instructed them to destroy their tanks and half-tracks. An officer from the finance department showed up and each man received about $15.00 in pesos as partial payment for the last four months, Men gamble it away while others made wisecracks about how they were going to spend it.
At 7:00 A.M. on April 10th, 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 of 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 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. Both 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.
The POWs were awakened at 4:00 A.M. and ordered to form detachments again. They were marched to the train depot in the barrio. where 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 since that was how many men were in each detachment. Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. The POWs marched eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell.
Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. Once in the camp, they were taken into a large field where they were counted and searched and all extra clothing that they had was taken from them and not returned. Blankets, knives, and matches were taken from them. If a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Finally, the camp commandant came out, stood on a box, and told them that they were enemies of Japan and would always be Japan’s enemies. He also told them that they were captives and not prisoners of war and would be treated accordingly. After the speech, the prisoners were allowed to go to their barracks. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp as the POWs who had Japanese items on them were executed for looting.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men and those who did sleep in one slept in one with as many 80 to 120 men. Most of the POWs slept on the ground under the barracks. There was no netting to protect the men from malaria-carrying mosquitos as they slept, so many men soon became ill with malaria. The ranking American officer was slapped after asking for building materials to repair the buildings.
The POWs received three meals a day which were mainly rice. For breakfast, they were fed a half cup of soupy rice and occasionally some type of coffee. Lunch each day was 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 the 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 for 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, but 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 were assigned 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.
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 double-deck bamboo shelves nine feet wide and eight feet long, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many developed sores and became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together and went out on work details together since the Japanese had instituted the “Blood Brothers” 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. It was said that the Japanese guards would attempt to get the POWs assigned to guard the inside of the fence to come outside the perimeter of the fence. If the man did, he was shot and the guards told their commanding officer that the POWs were “trying to escape.”
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.
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.
The day started an hour before dawn when the POWs were awakened. They then lined up and bongo (roll call) was taken. The POWs quickly learned to count off quickly in Japanese because the POWs who were slow to respond were hit with a heavy rod. A half-hour before dawn was breakfast, and at dawn, they went to work. Those working on details near the camp returned to the camp for lunch, a tin of rice, at 11:30 AM and then returned to work. The typical workday lasted 10 hours.
The POWs were sent out on work details near the camp to cut wood for the POW kitchens. 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. The worst detail the POWs worked on was the latrine detail where the POWs cleaned the Japanese latrines with their bare hands. The POWs removed the feces and put it in 55-gallon drums. It is not known what happened to the feces, but it is known it was often used as fertilizer by the Japanese. Returning from the work details in the evening, the POWs – even though they were searched – somehow managed to bring medicine, food, and tobacco into the camp. The POWs ate supper but after they finished there wasn’t much time for them to do anything since dusk was an hour after supper. Later, the POWs had books to read that were sent by the Red Cross.
On August 7th, one POW escaped from the camp and was recaptured on September 17th. 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 12th and were recaptured on September 21st 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 touching 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 was later released.
From September through December, the Japanese began assigning numbers to the POWs. The first men known to receive POW numbers were the men on the Tottori Maru which sailed for Japan on October 8th. It is not known when, but Walter received the number 1-07366 which was his POW no matter where he was sent in the Philippines.
The Japanese announced to the POWs in the camp that on October 14th, 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. Antonio Bruddenbruck, a German Catholic priest, came to the camp – assisted by Mrs. Escoda – with packages from friends and relatives in Manila on November 12th. There was also medicine and books for the POWs. The POWs started a major clean-up of the camp on November 14th and deep latrines, sump holes for water only, and began to bury the camp’s garbage. Pvt. Peter Lankianuskas was shot while attempting to escape on November 16th. 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 he was a guerrilla. He was executed in the camp cemetery at 12;30 P.M. on November 21st. The Japanese gave out a large amount of old clothing – that came from Manila – to the POWs on November 22. The Japanese wanted the farm detail on November 23rd, and 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.
Fr. Bruddenbruck returned on December 10th 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, 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 11th, 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 14th that had to be shared by four POWs. On January 18th, the same area was bombed again by the Japanese. The Japanese issued Red Cross Boxes to the POWs on January 24th which had to be shared by two POWs. 1200 POWs left the camp on a work detail on January 27th.
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 7th. The POWs watched the Marx Brothers’ movie “Room Service” on the 11th and many Japanese propaganda news clips. It was recorded on February 12th 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 3rd, 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 1st, 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, 1943.
“MRS M STRAKA
220 N EIGHT
“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:
“Mrs. Mary Straka
312 Eighth Avenue
“Report has been received that your son, Sergeant Walter B. Straka, 20,700,262, infantry, is now a prisoner of war of the Japanese Government in the Philippine Islands. This will confirm my telegram of April 16, 1943.
“The Provost Marshal General, Prisoner of War Information Bureau, Washington, D. C. the address to which the mail may be sent. Any future correspondence in connection with his status as a prisoner of war should be addressed to that office.
“Very Truly Yours
The Adjutant General”
A third letter arrived a few weeks later.
“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”
The Japanese allowed the POWs, May 30, to hold a memorial service to honor the nearly 2,600 men who had died. (This figure includes all POW deaths at Camp O’Donnell and Cabanatuan.) At 9:00 AM, the POWs marched to the camp cemetery which was slightly over a half-mile from the camp. The services were conducted by Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant chaplains. The Japanese camp commandant presented a wreath. The POWs choir sang a number of hymns, the POWs were called to attention, and taps were blown as they saluted.
Any POW who was healthy worked on the farm detail or the airfield detail. For the farm, the POWs cleared a large area for planting a large garden that they called the farm. 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. Almost every POW in the camp worked on the detail at some point. They grew camotes (sweet potato), cassava, taro, okra (a Filipino version of spinach) sweet potatoes, eggplant, onions, and sesame. Although the Japanese told the POWs what they grew would supplement their meals, they took most of what was grown for themselves. They grew a Filipino version of spinach, okra, sweet potatoes, eggplant, and onions. The POWs ate the tender tips of the sweet potato plants. The POWs had to fertilize the crops and irrigate them. Weeds were removed from the fields by hand, and the POWs were required to bend over and pick them. If a POW was tired and went down to one knee or squatted, he was hit with a club. The hits always were across the spine or on the ribs. Since all work was done by hand they reached an agreement with the Japanese that more would get done if the work day was changed. They worked from 5:30 AM until noon, had a three-hour break in the middle of the day when it was the hottest, and then returned to work from 3:00 PM until 7:00 PM.
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.
Those POWs working the airfield detail built an airstrip for Japanese fighters. To do this the POWs dug dirt and moved it to where the Japanese wanted it with wheelbarrows and small mining cars. A guard the POWs called “Air Raid” was in charge of the detail. It was said that the POWs had to watch him but that he was usually fair. Second in command was a guard the POWs called “Donald Duck” because he talked constantly. He was described as being unpredictable and would beat POWs at a whim. He knew the POWs called him Donald Duck and they told him that Donald Duck was a big American movie star. One day, he saw a Donald Duck cartoon. The POWs stated they stayed out of his way for days. The work days were eight hours long – this did not include walking to and from the airfield – and the POWs worked six days a week and were given Sundays off. Their lunches were put in bento boxes that they took with them. Most meals were rice mixed with daikon (pickle relish) or vegetables from the farm.
Another POW, Conley, escaped from the garden detail on July 11th 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 in July, the names of 500 POWs were posted on the list of POWs being sent to Bilibid Prison. On July 22nd, 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 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 22nd, 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 3rd 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 18th, 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 7th. 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 6th. The POWs received on December 7th, ½ a pound of sugar, 2 cans of soluble coffee, 2 chocolate emergency rations, 1 pound of prunes, and ½ pound of 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 were 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.
Walter 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 of 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 were 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 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 20th, 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 6th, 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 9th, 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 Nagasaki. 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.
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 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.