PFC Robert Van Der Most Strasters was born on July 9, 1916, in Salt Lake City, Utah, to William G. Strasters and Antonia Zappey-Strasters, who were Dutch immigrants. With his three sisters and three brothers, he grew up at 470 South Third East, Salt Lake City. When he was nine his mother died. He graduated from West High School in 1934, and the University of Utah in 1938. He registered for Selective Service on October 16, 1940, and named his father as his contact person, and stated he was living at 327 Shelmerdine Court. He was attending medical school when he was drafted into the army on February 26, 1941. He was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, for basic training and assigned to the medical detachment of the 194th Tank Battalion.
The 194th lived in 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. After arriving, 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, but it got so bad they were kept in their barracks and the medical staff came to them. It was noted that the members of the company found the morning temperature hard to deal with since they were used to a warmer climate. The longer they were there, the weather improved.
Once off duty many of the men visited the canteen near their barracks or went to the theater located in the main part of the base. The movies shown were newer but not the latest movies. A theater near their barracks was still being built, but when it was finished they only had to walk across the street. Since they were off Saturday afternoons on weekends, the men went to Tacoma or Olympia by bus that was provided by the Army and cost 25 cents. Tacoma was a little over 11 miles from the base and Olympia was a little over 22 miles from the base. Many of the men went to see the remains of the Narrows Bridge which had collapsed on November 7, 1940. On base, they played football, basketball, and softball. In the summer, they also went to Lake Patterson and swam.
In May, seventeen “selectees” joined the company but lived with Headquarters Company had been condensed down to six weeks under the direction of sergeants from the company. The sergeants lived with them and dealt with all their problems or directed them to someone who could help them. They supervised the selectees’ calisthenics and drill, besides holding classes in all the different subjects they needed to be trained as tank battalion members. The original company members called them “Glamor Boys” and “Refugees.” The battalion’s first motorcycles also arrived in May and all battalion members had to learn to ride them. Still, more men were sent to Ft. Knox for training.
During this time, he received hands-on training as a medic from the battalion’s two doctors. The reason his training was “hands-on” was that at the time the army believed this was the best type of training and there were few if any classes for medics to take.
The battalion during June trained under what was called, “wartime conditions.” On one date, orders they received orders at 2:00 A.M. to move out as soon as possible to the attack position. They found themselves in dense woods in pitch black conditions. For the tanks to move, a soldier guided them with a small green flashlight. The soldiers were expected to have their gas masks with them and had to use them if ordered to do so.
Some sources state that the battalion received twelve additional tanks by May while other sources state that in late July the battalion still had only the eight M2 tanks that came with the companies to Ft. Lewis. It is known that 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 which 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, where they learned they were being sent overseas.
Major Ernest Miller was ordered to Ft. Knox and got there by plane. On August 18, Miller stopped in Brainerd to see his family after receiving the battalion’s orders. When asked, he informed the Brainerd Daily Dispatch that the battalion was being sent overseas, but he did not disclose where they were being sent. He later flew to Minneapolis and then flew to Ft. Lewis. Different newspapers speculated that the battalion was being sent to the Philippines. The fact there were only three “overseas” locations the tanks could be sent which were Alaska, Hawaii, or the Philippines, and Alaska had already been eliminated as a destination.
The story that Col. Ernest Miller, in his book Bataan Uncensored, told was that the decision to send the battalion overseas was made on August 15, 1941, and was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. In the story, a squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of Taiwan which had a large radio transmitter used by the Japanese military. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck covering something – was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
The fact was that the battalion was part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox and operational by June 1941. Available information suggests that the tank group had been selected to be sent to the Philippines early in 1941. Besides the 194th, the group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – the 191st was a National Guard medium tank battalion while the 70th was regular army – at Ft. Meade, Maryland, the 193rd at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 192nd at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been National Guard light tank battalions. It is known that the military presence in the Philippines was being built up at the time, so in all likelihood, the entire tank group had been scheduled to be sent to the Philippines.
On August 13, 1941, Congress voted to extend federalized National Guard units’ time in the regular Army by 18 months. Two days later, on August 15, the 194th received its orders to go overseas. 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. It is also known that the 193rd Tank Battalion had sailed for Hawaii – on its way to the Philippines – when Pearl Harbor was attacked. After it arrived in Hawaii, the battalion was held there. The 70th and 191st never received orders for the Philippines because of the war. Some military documents from the time show the name of the Provisional Tank Group in the Philippines as the First Provisional Tank Group.
The battalion’s new tanks were sent west from Ft. Knox, Kentucky, where they had been requisitioned by an officer of the 192nd Tank Battalion, 2nd Lt. William Gentry, for the battalion. Gentry was given written orders from the War Department giving him authority to take tanks from any unit so the 194th had its full complement of tanks. In some cases, the tanks he took had just arrived at the fort on flatcars and were about to be unloaded when he and his detachment arrived and took the tanks from soldiers waiting to unload them. From Ft. Knox, the tanks were sent west by train and were waiting for the battalion at Ft. Mason.
On September 4, 1941, the remaining companies of the 194th were 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 and given medical examinations by the battalion’s medical detachment. Men with medical conditions were replaced with men who had been sent there for that purpose. The battalion’s new tanks had their turrets removed to fit them in the ship’s hold. So that the turrets would be put back on the same tanks, the tanks’ serial numbers were painted on the turrets.
The battalion members received physicals from the battalion’s new doctors. Men who failed their physicals were replaced with men who had been sent to Angel Island as replacements for men who failed their physicals. It was at this time that he received a physical and was inoculated.
The soldiers hiked from their barracks to a ferry and rode it to San Francisco, From the pier, they rode busses to another pier and boarded the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge. The ship sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands on September 8. At first, most of the soldiers were seasick. Once they had recovered, they attended classes, performed KP, did maintenance on the tanks, and painted the ship. The ship arrived at 7:00 A.M. on September 13 in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the soldiers were given four-hour passes ashore. One of the members of the company had friends stationed at Pearl Harbor, so many of the men went on a tour of Pearl Harbor months before the Japanese attack.
After leaving Hawaii, the ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. During this part of the trip, the ship was joined by the heavy cruiser the U.S.S. Astoria, the fleet replenishment oiler the U.S.S. Guadalupe, and an unknown destroyer. During rough weather, the destroyer approached the Coolidge. The soldiers recalled that the destroyer bobbed up and down and from side to side in the water with waves breaking over its deck. When it became apparent that a boat would be crushed if it attempted to transfer someone from one ship to another, 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 on Tuesday, September 16, and the date became Thursday, September 18. On several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke. Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country. At one point, the ships in total blackout passed islands during the night. The ships entered Manila Bay at about 7:00 in the morning of Friday, September 26. The soldiers remained on board and disembarked at 3:00 P.M. and were taken by bus to Fort Stotsenburg. The battalion’s maintenance section, remained behind at the pier, with 17th Ordnance, to unload the tanks and reattach the tanks’ turrets which had been removed so the tanks would fit in the ship’s hold.
Upon arriving at the fort, they were greeted by General Edward P. King Jr. who apologized that they had to live in tents and receive their meals from food trucks until their barracks were completed on November 15. He informed the battalion he had learned of their arrival just days before they arrived. After he was satisfied that they were settled in, he left them. The officers were put in two men tents while the enlisted men were assigned to six men tents. Each man had a cot, cotton pads, white sheets, a wool blanket, and a footlocker for personnel belongings.
After spending three weeks in tents, they moved into their barracks on October 18, the barracks were described as being on stilts with walls that from the floor were five feet of a weaved matting called sawali This allowed the men to dress. Above five feet the walls were open and allowed for breezes to blow through the barracks making them more comfortable than the tents. There were no doors or windows. The wood that was used for the support beams was the best mahogany available. For personal hygiene, a man was lucky if he was near a faucet with running water.
The days were described as hot and humid, but if a man was able to find shade it was always 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.
The battalion made one trip to the Lingayen Gulf. Things went well until they turned on a narrow gravel road in the barrio of Lingayen that had a lot of traffic. A bus driver parked his bus in the middle of the road and did not move it even after the tanks turned on their sirens and blew whistles. As they passed the bus, the tanks tore off all of one side of it. The tankers bivouacked about a half-mile from the barrio on a hard sandy beach with beautiful palm trees. The tankers had a swim and got in line for chow at the food trucks. It was then that the battalion’s two doctors told them that they needed to wear earplugs when they swam because the warm water contained bacteria and they could get ear infections that were hard to cure. No one came down with an ear infection. The soldiers went to sleep on the beach in their sleeping bags when they began to hear humming and scratching. When they turned on a flashlight they found their sleeping bags were covered with beetles and other bugs. They quickly moved to an uninfested area.
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.
About this time he said after the war, “Most of the time after I landed in the Philippines, Sept. 26, 1941, I wore nothing but short trousers and in spite of this new uniform complete with overcoat, I still can’t get warm. Snow seems almost strange after so long.”
The 192nd Tank Battalion arrived in the Philippines on November 20 with four tank companies. The process was begun to transfer D Company from the 192nd to the 194th giving each battalion three tank companies. The 192nd also arrived with a large amount of radio equipment to set up a radio school to train the Philippine Army and had a large number of ham radio operators. Shortly after arriving at Ft. Stotsenburg, they set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When they were informed it was the 192nd, they gave them frequencies to use. Men were able to send messages home to their families that they had arrived safely.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a squadron of American planes on routine patrol spotted Japanese transports milling about – in a large circle – in the South China Sea. On December 1, the two tank battalions were put on full alert and ordered to their positions at Clark Field. Their job was to protect the northern half of the airfield from paratroopers. The 194th guarded the north half of the airfield and the 192nd guarded the southern half. Two crewmen remained with the tanks at all times and received their meals from food trucks. The airfield two runways were shaped like a “V” and the Army Air Corps’ hangers and headquarters were at the point of the “V”. The tankers slept in sleeping bags on the ground under their tanks or palm trees. On December 7, the tanks were issued ammunition and the tankers spent the day loading ammunition belts and 37-millimeter shells into their tanks. They also were given sidearms.
It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd’s communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the 192nd’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, commanding officer of the tank group, and Major Ernest Miller, read the messages of the attack. Miller left the tent and informed his officers of the attack. He also ordered his officers to have the half-tracks join the tanks at Clark Field. Their job was to engage Japanese paratroopers. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to the north end of Clark Field. HQ Company remained behind in their bivouac.
Around 8:00 A.M., the planes of the Army Air Corps took off and filled the sky. At noon the planes landed and were lined up in a straight line to be refueled near the pilots’ mess hall. While the planes were being worked on, the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45 in the afternoon on December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field. HQ Company was in an open area without much cover. The tankers were eating lunch when planes approached the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American and counted 54 planes in formation. They then saw what looked like raindrops falling from the planes. It was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that the tankers knew the planes were Japanese. The first wave of bombers was followed by a second wave of bombers and a third wave of bombers. Each attack lasted about 15 to 20 minutes. 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 drop the bombs accurately. It was reported that the tankers saw the pilots’ scarfs flapping in the wind.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The medical detachment gave aid to the wounded. 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. That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their barracks. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed. One of the results of the attack was that the transfer of D Company, to the 194th, was never completed. The company fought with the 194th but retained its designation of being part of the 192nd.
The next day, those men not assigned to a tank or half-track walked around Clark Field to look at the damage. As they walked, they saw there were hundreds of dead. Some were pilots who had been caught asleep, because they had flown night missions, in their tents during the first attack while other pilots had been killed attempting to get to their planes. They saw bodies of men with half their heads blown off and others whose intestines were lying on the ground.
The battalion was sent to the barrio of San Joaquin on the Malolos Road and moved to an area just south of San Joaquin near the Calumpit Bridge on December 12. The move was made at night without lights and resulted in two tanks going off the road into ditches, but no major damage was done to either tank. The battalion received 15 Bren Gun carriers that were used to test the ground to see if it could support the weight of a tank. When they left Ft. Stotsenburg, the tankers left all the personal possessions at the fort. It was the last time they saw them. On December 22, they were ordered to the Agno River near Carmen. There, they engaged the Japanese who were attempting to cross the river in several places. The tankers fired on them with their machine guns killing as many as 500 enemy troops. The night of December 22, the battalions were operating north of the Agno River when they found that the bridge they were supposed to use had been bombed. On December 23 and 24, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta and found the bridge they were going to use to cross the Agno River was destroyed. The tankers made an end run to get south of the river and ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening, but they successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province. Later on the 24, the battalions formed a defensive line along the southern bank of the Agno River with the tanks of the 192nd holding the Agno River from Carmen to Tayug, and the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road.
The 192nd received orders to withdraw, but the 194th did not receive the order for some unknown reason. The battalion finally was ordered to withdraw and 1st Lt. Harold Costigan informed the members of A Company, and D Company, 192nd, that they would have to fight their way out. The tanks fought their way through Carmen losing two tanks but saving the crews except for Capt. Edward Burke. He had been hit by enemy fire and presumed dead. The tankers were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29.
On January 1, conflicting orders were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5. Doing this would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders since they came from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff. Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridge, over the Pampanga River, about withdrawing from the bridge and half of the defenders withdrawing. Due to the efforts of the Self Propelled Mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a frenzied attack by the 192nd Tank Battalion the Japanese were halted.
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. The tanks and Self Propelled Mounts were the only units that held the line against the Japanese at Guagua on January 5. It was also in January 1942, that the food ration was cut in half. It was not too long after this was done that malaria, dysentery, and dengue fever began hitting the soldiers. On the night of January 5, the tank battalion was holding a position near Lubao. At 2:30 A.M., the night of January 5th/6th, the battalions’ outposts challenged approaching soldiers. The soldiers turned out to be Japanese. The Japanese sent up flares to show where the American tanks were located. They then charged toward the tanks, through an open field, and were mowed down. When the Japanese disengaged at 3:00 A.M., there were large numbers of Japanese dead and wounded in front of the tanks.
The night of January 6th/7th the tanks withdrew into the Bataan peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th could leapfrog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdrawal over the bridge. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan before the engineers blew up the bridge at 6:00 A.M. The Japanese attacked Remedios in force at 8:00 A.M. with an artillery barrage and used smoke. This attack was an attempt to destroy the tank battalions. At 6:30 P.M. the defensive line broke through the area held by the tanks. Lt. Col. Ernest Miller, 194th, ordered both tank battalions to form on the main road to the east. It was dusk, but the tank drivers somehow managed to get the tanks out of the area to Abucay-Hacienda line which was the new defensive line.
On January 8, a composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. When word came that a bridge was going to be blown up, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company.
The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road. It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance. It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon. The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance. Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400-hour overhauls. It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver, “Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay.”
The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Hacienda Road on January 25. While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M. One platoon was sent to the front of the column of trucks that were loading the troops. The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese. Later on January 25, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Balanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight. They held the position until the night of January 26/27, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads. When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were supposed to use had been destroyed by enemy fire. To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
On January 28, the tanks 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.
Throughout the Battle of Bataan, men held the belief that aid would arrive. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces. The 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 soldiers were hungry and began to eat everything they could get their hands on to eat. If it could be eaten, it soon became scarce on Bataan. The Carabao were tough but if they were cooked long enough they could be eaten. They also began to eat horse meat provided by the 26th U.S. Cavalry. During this time the soldiers ate monkeys, snakes, lizards, horses, and mules. The only animal that most men could not eat was the monkeys. The reason why was the monkeys’ faces made them look too human.
It was during this time that Bob earned his Silver Star. According to the citation, he showed extremely courage while under enemy fire administering first aid to the wounded.
On one occasion, the tankers were moving their tanks to a sugarcane field. They discovered that the field was filled with Japanese soldiers. The tankers opened fired and killed over 300 Japanese soldiers. The Japanese sent raiding parties into the Filipino and American lines at night. They would kill someone and then drop back. To prevent themselves from giving away their positions, the Americans had orders to use bayonets at night and not their guns.
On March 1, the soldiers had their rations cut in half again and the men were starving. This meant that they only ate two meals a day. The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a scantily clad blond on them. They would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been a hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal. The amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over on their way to the Dutch East Indies. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor, but Wainwright declined this suggestion.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese. C Company was attached to the 192nd and the company had only seven tanks left. A counter-attack was launched – on April 6 – by the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts which was supported by tanks. Its objective was to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. Other tanks of C Company tanks were supporting the 2nd Battalion, 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, which was moving east on Trail 8 toward Limay. It was about 5:00 A.M. at the junction of Trails 8 and Trail 6 when the battalion was ambushed by a large number of Japanese. The 1st Platoon of Company C was acting as part of the point when the lead tank was knocked out by anti-tank fire and the following tank was forced off the trail.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. King decided that further resistance was futile, since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who were sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day. B and D Companies, 192nd, and A Company were preparing for a suicide attack in an attempt to stop the advance. At 6:00 P.M. that tank battalion commanders received this order, “You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word ‘CRASH’, all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. A truck driver for A Company, 192nd, realized that he had bedding buried in the back of his truck and searched for it. The bedding became the “white flags” that were flown on the jeeps. At 11:40 P.M., the ammunition dumps were destroyed. At midnight Companies B and D, 192nd and A Company received the order from Gen. Weaver to stand down. At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The driver was from the tank group.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. At 6:45 A.M., the order “CRASH” was sent out and the tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
According to a member of HQ Company, Gen. King spoke to the men and said, “I’m the man who surrendered you, men. It’s not your fault.” He also spoke to the members of B Company, 192nd, and told them something similar. King ordered them to surrender and threatened to court-martial anyone who didn’t. Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would not attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do. After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col Collier and Maj Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit in line with the Japanese advance should fly white flags. Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived. King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
Unknown to Gen. King, an order attributed to Gen. Masaharu Homma – but in all likelihood from one of his subordinates – had been given. It stated, “Every troop which fought against our army on Bataan should be wiped out thoroughly, whether he surrendered or not, and any American captive who is unable to continue marching all the way to the concentration camp should be put to death in the area of 200 meters off the road.”
It is believed that Bob was assigned to C Company as a medic. The company was attached to the 192nd and attempting to stop the Japanese advance. He stated, “I was a medical corpsman with a tank company that was attempting to stop the breach on Bataan when the word came to surrender came. That was the most disappointing thing that ever happened; it was like the bottom of the world had dropped out.”
After receiving word of the surrender, the members of the company divided the rations they had and also the pesos from the company’s treasury. Capt Fred Moffitt had the company march all night to get to Baguio, but they ran into a Japanese patrol. The Japanese came down a small tail and it was noted that several of them had red faces as if they had fevers indicating to the Prisoners, of War, that the Japanese were in as bad shape as they were. When one Japanese soldier fell over, the others beat him until he got up and stood on his own. The Prisoners of War spent the night near a road and formed ranks the next morning. Moffitt handed an American flag to a Japanese officer as a sign of surrender. The Japanese officer responded by throwing it on the ground, stepping on it., and he began slapping Moffit. The enlisted men believed he did this as a sign that surrendering was a disgraceful act.
The members of the company were marched to the main north-south road where they were searched again and stripped of watches, rings, wallets, and anything else the Japanese wanted. This was the first of several searches. The amazing part is that Bob was allowed to keep most of the contents of his medical pouch. He was allowed to keep a surgical kit but certain things were taken from it.
The POWs next were made to form detachments of 100 men and made to march. The POWs marched for three or four kilometers and then were turned around and marched back to where they started. They were ordered to fall out and left sitting in the sun with few trees for shade. They were ordered to fall in and marched 12 kilometers to Cabcaben where they joined other POWs who had already been marched there. It was nearly dusk and more and more detachments of POWs kept arriving. The POWs were put on the airfield and given enough space to lie down for the night.
The POWs were put into detachments the next day, April 11, and marched to a big barn at Mariveles where they remained until the next morning. They ordered out to a road where the Japanese who had no interpreters beat and clubbed the Prisoners of War until they formed ranks. As they stood on the road, a shell from Corregidor hit the barn where they had spent the night. It was at this time that the company began what they called “the march” or “the hike.” As soon as they began marching, they saw and smelled the dead along the sides of the road.
As they made their way north toward the Lamao area of Bataan. They were joined by other POWs coming from side roads and trails. There were many more Filipino POWs than Americans and the two groups mixed together. The road was hard to walk on because of the holes from the shelling and bombings. The POWs were moved to the side of the road whenever a Japanese convoy came by heading south. The Japanese soldiers tried to hit the POWs in their heads with their rifle butts as they passed them.
The guards were assigned a certain distance to cover and wanted to finish it as fast as possible so they moved the POWs at a fast pace which was hard for the POWs in worse shape. If a man fell the guards did not want to stop the column so they shot or bayoneted the man. When the guards finished their assigned part of the march, the POWs were allowed to rest, but when the new guards took over, they also wanted to finish their part of the march as fast as possible, so the POWs once again were moved at a fast pace. They made their way north to Limay where they could see the destruction caused by the shelling and bombing. The jungle had been obliterated. They passed large crows that were eating the bodies of the dead Filipinos, Americans, and Japanese. Some of the crows circled over the POWs as they made their way north.
The Japanese provided no water to the POWs. Since it was dark, men were able to fill their canteen cups at artesian wells since the guards could not see them. At a small barrio, Filipinos appeared with buckets of water for the POWs. The Filipinos were gone by the time the guards arrived to see what was going on among the POWs. Recalling the lack of water, he said, “I gave the men vinegar to moisten their tongues until I could talk a Jap into giving us water.” He also recalled seeing the dead along the road during one part of the march. “There were 60 dead on the left (side of the road) alone.”
The POWs were left in the compound for the day, and there was no cover from the sun that beat down on them. The Japanese gave enough water to the men to wet their tongues. The POWs did not know it, but they were receiving the sun treatment. Some men went out of their heads and drifted into comas. At 6:30 in the evening, the POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men. Once this was done, they resumed the trip north, but this time they were marched at a faster pace and were given very few breaks. When they did receive a break, they had to sit in the road until they were ordered to move.
It was the third day of the march that Bob was pulled from the detachment because he was a medic and put on a detail to care for 31 ill men – mostly from the Air Corps – who had been brought down from a rest camp in the hills. It is not known how long he did this but one day they were told by the guards that they had to leave. So, they made their way to Little Baguio where Hospital #1 was located. Of the march there, he said, “One man who would help a friend in the morning would have to be helped often by the same friend in the afternoon.” When they arrived at the hospital, they were told by the ranking American officer that the Japanese had ordered them to accept only battle casualties. Bob was able to convince the doctor to accept one extremely ill man. The rest of the men made their way toward Camp O’Donnell. The POWs were stopped at one point by Japanese soldiers and Bob treated their feet. When he was done, they allowed them to continue to the camp.
When they were north of Hermosa, the POWs reached pavement which made the march easier. At 2:00 A.M., they received an hour break, but any POW who attempted to lay down was jabbed with a bayonet. After the break, they were marched through Layac to Lubao. Once there, they were herded into a bullpen, surrounded by barbed wire, inside the compound were about 1000 Filipinojs and 550 Americans. They were put into groups of 200 men. One POW from each group went to the cooking area which was next to the latrine and received a box of rice that was divided among the men. Water was given out in a similar manner with each group receiving a pottery jar of water to share.
Of the time in the bull pen he said, “We were headed together with no space for a man to lie down — our treatment on the marches up to this point had been one of strange contrasts, one truckload of Japs would pass us and try to kick us in the face, The next truckload would throw us cigarettes.
“We marched all the next day after reaching Labao and we got considerable rough treatment on that march.”
The POWs were awakened at 4:00 A.M. and ordered to form columns again. They were marched to the train depot in the barrio. At the depot, they were packed into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane. The cars were known as “Forty or Eights” since they could hold forty men or eight horses. Since there were 100 POWs in a detachment, the Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car. Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. The POWs marched eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell. The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base. The Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942.
Once in the camp, they were taken into a large field where they were counted and searched and all extra clothing that they had was taken from them and not returned. Blankets, knives, and matches were taken from them. If a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Finally, the camp commandant came out, stood on a box, and told them that they were enemies of Japan and would always be Japan’s enemies. He also told them that they were captives and not prisoners of war and would be treated accordingly. After the speech, the prisoners were allowed to go to their barracks. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp as the POWs who had Japanese items on them were executed for looting.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men and those who did sleep in one slept in one with as many 80 to 120 men. Most of the POWs slept on the ground under the barracks. There was no netting to protect the men from malaria-carrying mosquitos as they slept, so many men soon became ill with malaria. The ranking American officer was slapped after asking for building materials to repair the buildings.
The POWs received three meals, mainly rice, a day. For breakfast, they were fed a half cup of soupy rice and occasionally some type of coffee. Lunch each day was a half of a mess kit of steamed rice and a half cup of sweet potato soup. They received the same meal for dinner. All meals were served outside regardless of the weather. By May 1, the food had improved a little with the issuing of a little wheat flour, some native beans, and a small issue of coconut oil. About once every ten days, 3 or 4 small calves were brought into the camp. When meat was given out, there was only enough for one-fourth of the POWs to receive a piece that was an inch square. A native potato, the camote, was given to the POWs, but most were rotten and thrown out. The POWs had to post guards to prevent other POWs from eating them. The camp had a Black Market and POWs who had money could buy a small can of fish from the guards for $5.00.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added by the POWs who came up with the pipe, dug the trench, and ran the waterline. Just like the first faucet, the Japanese turned off the water when they wanted water to bathe, but unlike the first water line, the POWs had the ability to turn on the water again without the Japanese knowing it. There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp, and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use. When a second truck was sent to the camp by the Red Cross, it was turned away. The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one medic – out of the six medics assigned to care for 50 sick POWs – was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the bodies were moved to one side, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it. At one point, 80 bodies lay under the hospital awaiting burial.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of POWs healthy 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 from work details only to die. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The POWs on the burial detail often had dysentery and/or malaria. When they buried the dead, the next morning many were found sitting up in their graves or that the dead had been dug up by wild dogs.
A week after arriving at the camp, he volunteered to go out on a work detail back to Bataan. Once there, he and other men found the medicines that had been left behind after the surrender. He recalled, “Even a few Japs would sometimes bring in medicine to us. The medicine was sent back to Camp O’Donnell.” According to Bob, he was given the job of driving Japanese officers as their chauffeur. When the detail ended, much of the medicine went with him to Cabanatuan which had been opened to replace Camp O’Donnell.
In May, his parents received their first letter from the War Department.
“Dear Mr. W. Strasters:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee if Private First Class Robert V. Strasters, 39,676,107, who, according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“I deeply regret that it is impossible for me to give you more information than is contained in this letter. In the last days before the surrender of Bataan, there were casualties which were not reported to the War Department. Conceivably the same is true of the surrender of Corregidor and possibly other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese Government has indicated its intention of conforming to the terms of the Geneva Convention with respect to the interchange of information regarding prisoners of war. At some future date, this Government will receive through Geneva a list of persons who have been taken prisoners of war. Until that time the War Department cannot give you positive information.
“The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is to be hoped that the Japanese Government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At that time you will be notified by this office in the event that his name is contained in the list of prisoners of war. In the case of persons known to have been present in the Philippines and who are not reported to be prisoners of war by the Japanese Government, the War Department will continue to carry them as “missing in action” in the absence of information to the contrary, until twelve months have expired. At the expiration of twelve months and in the absence of other information the War Department is authorized to make a final determination.
“Recent legislation makes provision to continue the pay and allowances of persons carried in a “missing” status for a period not to exceed twelve months; to continue, for the duration of the war, the pay and allowances of persons known to have been captured by the enemy; to continue allotments made by missing personnel for a period of twelve months and allotments or increase allotments made by persons by the enemy during the time they are so held; to make new allotments or increase allotments to certain dependents defined in Public Law 490, 77th Congress. The latter dependents generally include the legal wife, dependent children under twenty-one years of age, and dependent mother, or such dependents as having been designated in official records. Eligible dependents who can establish a need for financial assistance and are eligible to receive this assistance the amount allotted will be deducted from pay which would otherwise accrue to the credit of the missing individual.
“Very Truly yours
J. A. Ulio (signed)
The Adjutant General”
Cabanatuan was actually three camps. Cabanatuan #1 was where most of the men who captured on Bataan and took part in the death march were held. Cabanatuan #2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Cabanatuan #3 was where most of those men captured when Corregidor surrendered were taken. The camp closed on October 30, and the POWs were sent to Cabanatuan #1.
Once in Cabanatuan #1, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with. To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp. The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” The rice smelled and appeared to have been swept up off the floor. The other problem was that the men assigned to be cooks had no idea of how to prepare the rice since they had no experience in cooking it. During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in a while, the POWs received corn to serve to the prisoners. From the corn, the cooks would make hominy. The prisoners were so hungry that some men would eat the corn cobs. This resulted in many men being taken to the hospital to have the cobs removed because they would not pass through the men’s bowels. Sometimes they received bread, and if they received fish it was rotten and covered with maggots. To supplement their diets, the men would search for grasshoppers, rats, and dogs to eat. The POWs assigned to handing out the food used a sardine can to assure that each man received the same amount. They were closely watched by their fellow prisoners who wanted to make sure that everyone received the same portion and that no one received extra rice.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Bob ended up on a detail that cut wood that left the camp each day to collect wood for the camp kitchen. He also worked in the Japanese kitchen.
He recalled, “I got beat up in the kitchen once in a while. The Jap in charge would see me talking to his superior — I’d picked up quite a bit of Japanese — and he’d think I was reporting his stealing; he stole all the time.”
Other POWs worked in rice paddies. Each morning, as the POWs stood at attention and roll call was taken, the Japanese guards hit them across their heads. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Another detail was sent out to work at Cabanatuan Airfield which had been the home of a Philippine Army Air Corps unit and known as Maniquis Airfield. The Japanese had the POWs build runways and revetments. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Returning from a detail the POWs bought or were given, medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned.
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.
Bob stated that the lack of proper food, medical care, and the general mistreatment of the POWs made Cabanatuan a hell hole. During his time in the camp, he had malaria, dengue fever, and dysentery.
In July 1942, the family received a second letter. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Private First Class Robert V. Strasters had not been reported as a casualty. The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, until definite information to the contrary is received.
“Efforts to secure prisoner of war lists from the Philippines have not been successful to this date due to the lack of communication and the fact that the Japanese Government has not yet given permission for the Swiss representative and the International Red Cross delegates to make visits to prisoner of war camps in the islands. When the lists of prisoners are received, we will clear the name of your son and send you any additional information that we may have.”
When the detail ended it appears he was sent to Bilibid Prison and from there he was sent to Cabanatuan on November 22. In the camp, he was assigned to the medical staff in the hospital. One of the things he commented on was that they would manufacture fake sulfathiazole tablets to prevent the Japanese from confiscating the drug from the POWs. To do this, they used anything that resembled the pill in color from flour to plaster. Since he had started medical school, he also served as a surgical technician in the camp. On one occasion he assisted in an operation where a POW’s leg was amputated with a pair of scissors and saved the man’s life.
Fr. Bruttenbruck, a German Catholic priest, came to the camp on December 10 without proper authorization from the authorities in Manila so he was turned away. He had brought a truckload of medicine and food for the POWs. It was estimated by the POWs that he spent $300.00 for fuel to make the trip. A POW Pvt. Art Self was beaten so badly on December 12th, that he died. Fr. Bruttenbruck 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 were milk in some form, corn beef, fish, stew beef, sugar, meat and vegetable, tea, and chocolate. The POWs also received bulk corn beef, sugar, meat and vegetables, stew, raisins, dried fruit, and cocoa which they believed would last them three months. The POWs also were given four days off from work.
Each month on the eighth, the Japanese read the Japanese declaration of war on the United States to the POWs. This usually got them wound up and the POWs knew that the number of beatings they received would increase. On January 11, the POWs watched and heard the explosions as Japanese dive bombers bombed and strafed something about 30 kilometers away. They later heard a barrio was attacked killing 102 men, women, and children and wounding 60. On the 13th, the commissary supplies ended. According to the Japanese, this was because guerrillas had burned down half of Cabanatuan which included the warehouse where the supplies were stored. The Japanese issued toilet kits to the POWs on January 14 that had to be shared by four POWs. On January 18, the same area was bombed again by the Japanese. The Japanese issued Red Cross Boxes to the POWs on January 24 which had to be shared by two POWs. 1200 POWs left the camp on a work detail on January 27.
On January 22, 1943, his father learned he was a prisoner of war.
“=Mr. WILLIAM STRASTERS
113½ REGENT ST SALT LAKE CITY
“REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON ROBERT V STRASTERS 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=”
It was a few days later that his family received another message.
“Mr. William Strasters
Salt Lake City Ut
“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:
“PFC Robert V. Strasters, 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”
Multiple work details left the camp each day and returned each evening. Some details were small while others had 1255 to 1450 POWs on them. The POWs received Christmas telegrams on February 7. The POWs watched the Marx Brothers movie “Room Service” on the 11th and many Japanese propaganda news clips. It was recorded on February 12 that there had not been a death in the camp in eight days. Three POWs died the next day. The Japanese also ordered that the POWs turn in all radios to them. It is not known if they received any. POWs who did not have blankets were issued a blanket by the Japanese on February 22. A program was started to stop the spread of dysentery. For every full milk can of flies the POWs turned in, they received cigarettes in return. It was noted that on March 3, 12 million flies had been turned in and 320 rats had been turned in.
A large POW detachment also started work at the camp cemetery, on April 1, but what they did was not known. Two POWs, PFC Holland Stobach and Pvt. Ernest O. Kelly escaped while working on the water detail outside the camp on the 6th. They had an hour’s start on the Japanese and it appears they were successful at evading the guards. The only punishment given to the other POWs was the show they expected to see was canceled. On the 11th, the workday changed for the POWs. Revelle was at 5:30 A.M. with breakfast now at 6:00 until 7:00 when they left for work and worked until 10:30 A.M. when they returned to the camp for lunch at noon. They returned to work and worked from 1:00 P.M. until 6:00 P.M. Dinner was at 6:30. Roll call was taken at 7:00 P.M. and again at 9:00 P.M. Pvt. John B. Trujillo who was one of the POWs assigned to guard against escapes attempted to escape but was caught. At 9:00 A.M. he was taken to the schoolyard in the barrio of Cabanatuan and executed.
The POWs were also allowed to hold shows for entertainment. They performed comedy skits and other shows. They also formed a band that performed on Wednesday and Saturday nights and had a request portion of the program performing songs the other POWs wanted to hear. On one occasion they performed a song that became popular in the U.S. after they had become POWs. The Japanese realized that they had a radio and searched the camp looking for it. They never did find the radio.
Another POW, Conley, escaped from the garden detail on July 11, 1943, and was captured in a barrio. At about 11:00 PM, there was a lot of noise in the camp. The next morning, at the camp morgue, POWs described what they saw. Conley’s jaw had been crushed as was the top of his skull, his teeth had all been knocked out with a rifle butt, his left leg had been crushed, and he had been bayoneted in the eyes and scrotum. Also during July, the names of 500 POWs were posted on the list of POWs being sent to Bilibid Prison. On July 15, 25 to 30 trucks arrived at camp to transport POWs to Manila. The trucks with the POWs left at 8:00 P.M. and arrived at Bilibid Prison at 2:00 A.M. The only food the POWs received was rotten sweet potatoes. On July 22, the POWs were issued new shoes, a suit of “Philippine Blues” and were 2 cans of corn beef, and 3 cans of milk. 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. Afterward, they were informed they would be taking a 21-day trip. They were taken to the Port Area of Manila and sent to Japan on the Clyde Maru.
In August, the rainy season had started, and that all the extra food was long gone. The Japanese planned to move the hospital to the same area as the healthy POWs to reduce the size of the camp so they could reduce the number of guards. On September 22, the hospital was moved. The POWs also were ordered to stop cooking their own food. For the sick, this was bad news since meals for them were being cooked individually. The POWs adopted a system where a group placed an order for food 24 hours before they wanted the food. The supplies were debited from that group’s supplies.
An order was issued on October 3 that all good khaki garments, hats, rifle belts, and field bags they had must be turned over to the Japanese. The next day, the Japanese sent 1300 POWs to Bongabong in captured U.S. trucks. On one of the front bumpers of a 6 by 6 truck were the markings HQ 192nd. The POWs were back in the camp by 8:00 P.M. and to the surprise of the other POWs, their possessions were returned to them. It turned out that the Japanese were still shooting the movie, and the POWs were used as extras in the movie. Also during the month, the POWs noted that the food they were growing on the camp farm was being sent to Manila. On October 18, 103 telegrams were brought to the camp but only 21 men present in the camp received them. It appeared that other men were out on work details. Four days later, 175 telegrams arrived at the camp, but only 65 were distributed. It was noted that some had been received in Tokyo that same month. A POW Pvt. Julian C. McCord was shot and killed in the camp.
The POWs noticed a change in the running of the camp on November 7. There was only one detachment of guards and only Americans were cooking for the Japanese. The Japanese supply warehouse was broken into and sugar and milk were found to be missing. The POW punishment was that they would not receive their meat ration that day. Later in the day, the order was changed and the POWs received the meat ration. The Japanese explanation was, “We know the Americans did not steal the foods.”
The POWs received on December 7, 1943, ½ a pound of sugar, 2 cans of soluble coffee, 2 chocolate emergency rations, 1 pound of prunes, and a ½ pound cheese. The items were perishable goods that came from the Red Cross Christmas boxes sent to the camp. That night they received a Japanese “news sheet” that told of the terrible American losses in the southwest pacific. According to the sheet, the U.S. had lost most of its navy. It also stated that the U.S. lost 5 carriers, 2 cruisers, and a battleship in the Gilberts, and 37 ships were lost at Bougainville. On the 11th, they received more coffee, two cans of cheese, two chocolate bars, and two boxes of raisins.
On Christmas eve the Japanese gave each man an unopened Red Cross box. Inside the POWs found cigarettes which usually were missing from the boxes. From 9:00 P.M. until midnight on Christmas eve, carolers were all over the camp. Christmas started with midnight mass for the Catholics with Protestant services at 5:30 A.M. Bango was at 7:00 A.M. instead of 6:30. The Japanese also handed out to each man an unopened Red Cross box.
One of the changes that took place in January 1944 was that the POWs on the work details were no longer beaten. The farm detail where the POWs received the worse beatings was considered the best detail to be on. The POWs received in January another Red Cross box around the 19th. Inside was 3 cans of beef, 4 cans of butter, 1 spam, 1 purity loaf, 1 salmon, 1 Pate, 1 canned milk, and jam. In addition, the POWs received packs of cigarettes. Those who received ¼ of sugar on December 7 received ½ a pound of cocoa.
During February, the rumor spread among the POWs that the Marshall Islands and Gibert Islands had been retaken. They also heard that the Marianas Islands had been bombed and that there had been a sea Battle in the Java Sea. They also heard that the Filipino food ration had been cut to 120 grams of rice a day and that no one was allowed to leave Manila. Near the end of the month, another list of POWs being sent to Japan was posted.
In March a list of POWs was posted who were being sent to Japan. The POWs were taken by truck to Bilibid Prison and given medical examinations. Those men – especially those with dysentery – were held at the prison. The rest were taken to the Port Area of Manila and boarded the Taikoku Maru.
As more and more POWs were sent to Manila for shipment to another part of the Japanese empire, the officers were put to work on the camp farm with the enlisted men. In August 1944, the POWs found themselves working to move the hospital to the same area as the POW barracks. The reason was that the Japanese wanted to reduce the size of the camp so they would need fewer guards. The POWs were keeping their own gardens and growing their own food, but the Japanese now insisted that the POWs stop cooking their own food. The POWs adopted a group cooking policy where the POWs in a group placed an order for food 24 hours before they wanted it, and the food was deducted from that group’s food stock. The POWs were also able to purchase coffee. They noticed that the Japanese attitude also had changed and that they wanted the POWs more involved in the running of the camp.
The food situation in the camp also had grown worse during the month and POWs resorted to gutting down papaya trees to eat the trunks which had no nutritional value. What it did do is make the man feel full and the worse effect was some diarrhea or an upset stomach. Cutting down the trees, preparing them for cooking, then eating them gave them something to do and temporary pleasure. Their rations continued to be reduced.
On September 21, 1944, the POWs were finishing work for the day when they heard the sound of planes, but the sound of these planes was different from the sound of Japanese planes. They looked up and saw a formation of 80 planes fly over, but the planes were too high for them to see any insignias. The planes seemed to agitate the Japanese so the POWs whispered to each other that they may be American. After entering the camp, they got their answer as they watched a dogfight directly above the camp. Some of the planes flew low over the camp and on the planes they saw the U.S. Navy insignias. A loud wild cheer came out of the mouths of thousands of POWs. When one of the Japanese planes involved in the dogfight crashed to the ground in flames, another wild cheer went up. As they watched, wave after wave of American planes flew over the camp. Even the hospital patients crawled out of their beds to get a look at the planes. Next, they heard the explosions of anti-aircraft shells over Clark Field. After the attack ended many of the POWs sobbed. Many of the POWs believed this would end the transfer of the POWs to Japan. Not long after this, 150 guards left the camp by truck for duty at other places.
The POWs heard a rumor from the guards that Americans were on Mindanao Island. It turned out the rumor was false. The POWs heard and saw explosions from the heavy bombing of Clark Field on October 29. From a map in a Japanese paper – on October 30 – they learned that American troops were on southern Luzon. In addition, American planes flew over the camp that night. The Japanese guards admitted, on November 2, to the POWs that American troops were on Leyte and Mindoro. On November 5, American bombers flew over the camp all day long. To see how close the Americans were, the POWs looked for land-based planes but saw none. The next day, the POWs watch two planes circle the camp. As they watched, the planes strafed and bombed Cabanatuan Airfield. The airfield was bombed and strafed three times that day.
The POWs learned that there are only about 1000 American POWs left in the Philippines from talking to the guards. The rest had been sent out on ships for Japan or other parts of the empire. The POWs knew there were about 500 POWs at Cabanatuan so the remainder had to be at Bilibid Prison outside Manila. By November 13, the POWs no longer excited by American planes flying over the camp. What they wanted to know was where the troops and tanks were. On November 24, a large convoy of Japanese trucks passed the camp at night heading north. The POWs also received mail that was postmarked May and June 1944 which was the fastest they had ever received mail before. During this time the meals got worse and they received less rice and instead of fish, they were given fish powder. The POWs’ breakfast was plain lugao. To supplement their meals they ate dog soup. From November to December food was the main focus of the POWs.
American planes again appeared over the camp on December 14 and bombed to the north and west of the camp. For the first time, the POWs believed the planes were land-based. The next day before dawn, American planes flew over on their way to bomb Clark Field. The POWs heard and saw anti-aircraft fire as the planes attacked Later that day, they saw more planes fly over on their way to bomb Cabanatuan Airfield twice in one day. The next night, December 16, the POWs were sleeping when they were awakened by explosions from six bombs from an American plane hit a Japanese convoy on the road that ran past the camp. At first, the POWs thought the camp was being bombed and took cover. A few days later the POWs heard that 38 Japanese soldiers had been killed and 20 wounded during the attack. That same day at 8:00 P.M., the Japanese moved some tanks, armored trucks, and small artillery pieces into the camp and stored them in old barracks and mess halls that had been abandoned.
The Japanese camouflaged the camp with nets, ropes, wires, and tree branches on December 18, and the next day the POWs heard the news that Americans had landed on Mindoro Island south of Luzon. It was at this time that two truckloads of Japanese troops and equipment entered the camp, as well as, several truckloads of lumber and supplies were brought into the camp. Approximately 100 Japanese troops with full combat gear entered the camp after dark. Food again was an issue, and the POWs noted their food was radish tops and some meat. When they received fish, the dried fish issued to them was mostly scales and bones since worms had eaten the meat.
The POWs watched heavy American bombers attacked by a single Japanese plane on December 22, and one plane crashed. The POWs hoped that it was the Japanese plane. A few days later, on December 24, 21 American bombers flew over the camp on their way to bomb Clark Field. In the distance, the POWs heard the ack-ack fire from the Japanese anti-aircraft guns. As the planes flew over the camp on the way back from the bombing, the POWs counted that all 21 planes had survived the mission.
On Christmas Day, the POW watched American fighters and bombers attack Clark Field. Again, they heard the bombs exploding the fire from the anti-aircraft guns. The next day they heard a rumor that all the POWs at Bilibid had been sent to Japan. Two days later, on December 28, the POWs were awakened by the sound of Japanese tanks and trucks passing the camp. Someone was able to see that the Japanese soldiers were dressed as Filipino civilians.
On the morning of January 7, 1945, the Japanese abandoned the camp and told the POWs that they were no longer prisoners of war. Before they left, the camp commander told them that if they stayed in the camp they would be safe but if they went beyond the fence they would be shot. The POWs wondered if the Japanese were going to return to kill them. When they did leave, they would not tell the POWs where they were being sent. Before they left the camp, the Japanese told them there were about 30 days of rations in the warehouse and that if they wanted food they must help themselves. They also told them they were no longer prisoners but that they should not leave the camp or they would be shot. The gardens that the Japanese grew their vegetables in were also turned over to the POWs. The prisoners raided the camp warehouse for food and clothing.
Retreating Japanese soldiers spent the nights in the camp but did not bother the POWs. Ironically, they asked the POWs for food. The POWs on January 9, heard shelling from American guns in the distance. Many wondered when the troops and tanks would reach them. The next day, Japanese troops returned to the camp and posted guards who had been wounded in combat. They also returned the POWs to the hospital area of the camp.
The U.S. 6th Rangers left on the mission to liberate the camp on January 27, and at 2:00 P.M. the Rangers crossed into Japanese territory. They stealthily made their way through enemy lines covering 29 miles until they reached an area just north of the camp in the late afternoon of the 29th It was at that time that the Rangers learned that there were 1000 Japanese troops bivouacked in the camp, so the decision was made to wait until the 30th to attack. The next day the Japanese troops pulled out of the camp. The Rangers reached the camp at 5:45 P.M. and broke into two detachments. The first group took nearly two hours to crawl into position behind the camp. The second group crawled for an hour and a half to get into position for a frontal attack on the main gate. The Rangers heard what they thought was a gunshot and believed they had been seen. When nothing happened they continued their mission. It turned out the “shot” was a Japanese truck backfiring as the Japanese attempted to get it running. By 7:30 P.M., all the Rangers were in position.
The initial shot that started the assault was made by the Rangers who had taken positions beneath the rear guard tower. The shot killed the guard in the tower and bedlam broke out. At 7:40 P.M. the Rangers opened fire on the guard tower. Another Ranger was about to shoot the lock off the main gate when his ammunition clip fell to the ground. He reached for his pistol, but the guard at the gate had recovered from his initial shock and knocked it from his hand. The Ranger recovered the gun killed the guard and shot off the lock.
Gunnery Sergeant Harry Arnold, U.S.M.C. said, “We were sitting around batting the breeze when shots rang out thru the camp. We thought the Japs were going to murder every prisoner in the camp.
“Then I raised my head in time to see a big guy come tearing across the yard. Jees, he was tall — he must have stood at least seven feet.
“As he neared us he shouted ‘We’re Yanks!’ All of you Americans get the hell out of here!
“Needless to say, we didn’t waste time clearing out.”
The Rangers poured through the main gate while the second group of Rangers came through the rear gate. The Rangers who came through the main gate came upon a guard tower but didn’t see anyone, so 18 Rangers continued moving. As the last men went past, a guard, in perfect English yelled “Stop,” but he didn’t fire. One Ranger stayed behind. The Rangers reached the Japanese barracks and opened fire. One Japanese soldier came to the door and fell face-first to the ground. They never saw any others. The one Ranger who remained at the guard tower killed the guard. Another Ranger detachment cleared out a pillbox at the corner of the camp with four rockets from a bazooka. 150 Japanese who were leaving the camp in a convoy were killed in a shed when it was hit by bazooka fire. Inside were 150 Japanese soldiers waiting to leave the camp as part of a convoy. They had been held up because they could not get a truck running.
Many of the POWs had just bedded down for the night but quickly woke up believing it was the Japanese returning to kill them. The Rangers shouted, “We’re Yanks!” They also yelled that the POWs should go toward the main gate. Seven minutes after the start of the raid, the first ragged POWs made it through the gate. 15 minutes after the start of the raid all the POWs had made it through the gate, but the Rangers searched the barracks to make sure no one was left behind. By 8:15 P.M. the camp was secured and the POWs had been rescued without any POW casualties. Two POWs later died because of health issues.
Bob recalled that when he left the camp all he had on were the shorts he was wearing. Noting this, a Ranger took him to an area where boots were set up on the ground. He was given a pair of boots to wear from a Ranger who died during the attack. The boots hurt his feet and caused them to blister up to his ankles, but he held on to the boots for the rest of his life.
The Rangers recalled that the freed POWs rushed up to them and kissed them on their cheeks. Of the rescue Pvt. LeRoy Myerhoff of the Rangers stated that a POW said to him, “Don’t leave me for I may need your help.” The Rangers were well supplied with cigarettes and gave them out freely to the rescued men. One Ranger gave a POW a canteen full of coffee which was the first the man had in almost three years. He drank about half the canteen and broke down and cried.
Hearing the commotion, 800 Japanese troops came rushing down the road from Cebu, shouting and firing as they ran. The Filipino guerrillas held their fire until the Japanese were in range, then opened fire resulting in Japanese bodies piling up on the road. It was estimated the guerrillas had killed 400 of the Japanese before Japanese tanks arrived pinning down the guerrillas. It was 8:40 when the signal was given that all the POWs had been rescued and the guerrillas should withdraw. In all, 21 guerrillas and two Rangers were killed. Two other Rangers were wounded.
It was said that the entire operation took 27 minutes. The Rangers carried the sick POWs two miles to 20 carabao carts that were waiting. One Ranger carrying a POW began crossing what he thought was a river when he slipped and fell to his knees. he realized, from the smell, it was the drainage ditch and began to swear. The POW said to him, “Please don’t be angry. I’m a Catholic priest, Lt Hugh Kennedy.” The Ranger asked Kennedy to forgive him for swearing. Kennedy said, “Son, you are forgiven because there is a time and place for everything — and this is the time and place.” The Rangers and former POWs reached Plateros at 10:00 P.M. and a radio message was sent that all POWs had been rescued. The fact was one POW who had hidden during the attack had been left behind.
At 11:30 P.M. the column left Plateros for American lines with the Japanese in pursuit until they reached the Pampanga River where the pursuit ended. The trip was hard because the carabao became tired and had to be driven, pulled, and helped across streams. The former POWs not in the carts were barefooted and the Rangers also had to drive the POWs to keep them moving. Between the column and the Japanese were Filippino guerrillas protecting the column’s flank. The good news was the American line had moved forward by ten miles. During the day, American planes protected the group which successfully reached American lines on February 1, 1945. As the column of Rangers and former POWs neared Sibul they passed through long lanes of American soldiers and Filipino guerrillas who stood at rigid attention presenting their arms. Ambulances were waiting for the former POWs and they were taken to the 92nd Evacuation Hospital. Once behind American lines, the former POWs were given cigarettes, coffee, and a meal of eggs, meat, grapefruit, biscuits, and jam.
Of the rescue, Staff Sgt. Charles W. Brown of the Rangers said, “It was a moot question whether we or the prisoners were the happiest. I know that I was happier than I have ever been before to see those prisoners when they knew they were free at last.”
Bob stayed behind the rest of the group to provide medical treatment to a Ranger doctor. The next day, the group made their way through Japanese lines. On reaching American lines on February 1st, he said, “It was a terrific thrill to reach our lines again. and the equipment the army has now — most of us were speechless at the change.”
The one POW who had been left behind also was rescued. The next morning, he found the camp empty when he went looking for the other POWs. He went back to his barracks and gathered his possessions together and left the camp through the main gate. In the jungle, he was found by Filipino guerrillas who took him to the American lines.
Bob’s father learned he had been liberated on February 7, 1945.
The former POWs received medical treatment before being returned to the United States on the U.S.S. General A. E. Anderson sailed on February 11, 1945, from Tacloban, Leyte, Philippine Islands. The ship had a two-day layover at Hollandia, New Guinea, from February 18 to 20, before it sailed for the U.S. arriving in San Francisco on March 8, 1945. The ship carried between 272 and 274 of the POWs rescued at Cabanatuan. It is believed a large number of the former POWs had been flown home before the ship arrived.
What is known about the arrival in San Francisco is that as the ship approached the Golden Gate Bridge, American planes and Navy Blimps flew over to greet the former POWs. The ship followed a tug boat with a siren blaring and a banner flying behind it that read, “Welcome Home.” 20 WACs boarded the ship and handed out messages and mail to the former POWs. The Anderson tied up to the Embarcadeo Pier where many of the men had family members waiting for them. The crowd pushed against the police line attempting to see their relatives. As they left the ship they were given lapel pins which guaranteed them free rides in cabs and to other things. The last two former POWs to leave the ship were on stretchers. All the former POWs boarded trucks or were put in ambulances and taken to Letterman General Hospital.
At Letterman, he learned his brother, Ted, was being shipped out just before he would arrive home. Knowing this, the army extended his furlough by five days so the two brothers could see each other. Bob arrived in Salt Lake City early in the morning of March 14, 1945, and walked into the father’s kitchen at 4:00 A.M. When he arrived home he was on a 90 day furlough before he had to report for reassignment.
Bob was discharged from the Army on July 7, 1945, at Ft. Douglas, Utah. He married Margaret VanGerven, and they became the parents of a daughter and two sons. He returned to school and earned a Bachelor of Science from the University of Utah, and became a medical technologist. He worked until he was 80 years old when he had a stroke. He passed away on April 8, 2004, in Salt Lake City, Utah.