Wepsiec, Pvt. Mike S.

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Pvt. Mike Stanley Wepsiec was born to Casmir and Catherine Wepsiec on August 7, 1915. His parents were Polish immigrants. He grew up in Chicago, with his four sisters and two brothers, and was raised at 2347 South Homan Avenue. Before joining the Illinois National Guard, he worked for the Illinois Northern Railroad.

When the Selective Service Act took effect on October 16, 1940, and he registered for the draft and named his mother as his contact person. Since he knew he was going to be drafted, Mike and friends Steve Gados and Ed Plodzien decided that they would enlist in the Illinois National Guard at Maywood, Illinois. Their reasoning for doing this was twofold. They believed that enlisting in the National Guard would allow them to quickly complete their one year of military service, and they also believed that if they had to be in the army it was better to ride in a tank than march on foot.

On November 25, 1940, the tank company was federalized as B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. One group of 17 soldiers left Maywood on Wednesday, November 27 at 7:00 A.M. in a convoy of one command car (or jeep), two trucks carrying supplies, and three private cars owned by members of the company. The trip was not easy since for 120 miles the road was covered in ice which cleared up near Indianapolis. They had dinner and spent the night at Ft. Benjamin Harris in Indianapolis. After showering and getting cleaned up, they continued the trip. As they got closer to Ft. Knox. the weather got warmer and the snow disappeared. During the trip one of the main topics was were they going live in tents or barracks. They reached the base late in the day on Thursday and were housed in barracks for the night. The next night they were moved to tents.

Most of the soldiers made the trip to Ft. Knox by train on Thursday, November 28th. From their armory, the soldiers marched west on Madison Street to Fifth Avenue, in Maywood, and then north to the Chicago & Northwestern train station. In B Company’s case, they rode on the same train as A Company from Janesville, Wisconsin. In Chicago, the train switched onto the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad which took them to Ft. Knox. Once at the fort they were met by Army trucks at the station which took them to the fort where they reunited with the men who drove.  The soldiers lived in six-man tents which had stoves for heat since they were assigned to a newly opened area of the fort and their barracks were not finished.

The soldiers spent the first six weeks in primary training. During week 1, the soldiers did infantry drilling; week 2, manual arms and marching to music; week 3, machine gun training; week 4, was pistol usage; week 5, M1 rifle firing; week 6, was training with gas masks, gas attacks, pitching tents, and hikes; weeks 7, 8, and 9 were spent learning the weapons, firing each one, learning the parts of the weapons and their functions, field stripping and caring for weapons, and the cleaning of weapons.

1st/Sgt. Richard Danca – on December 26th – was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed HQ Company. 35 men were picked because they had special training. Many of these men received promotions and because of their rating received higher pay. The men assigned to the company still lived with the B Company since their barracks were unfinished until February.

A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics. At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. The classes lasted for 13 weeks. While at Ft. Knox, he trained as a tank driver and assigned to a tank crew.

At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After they ate they stood in line to wash their mess kits since they had no mess hall. About January 12, 1941, their mess hall opened and they ate off real plates with forks and knives. They also no longer had to wash their own plates since that job fell on the men assigned to Kitchen Police. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played. 

B Company also moved into its barracks in January 1941. Most of the members of B Company were assigned to Barracks 53. The bunks were set up along the walls and alternated so that the head of one bunk was next to the foot of another bunk allowing for more bunks to be placed in the least amount of space. The one problem they had was that the barracks had four, two-way speakers in it. One speaker was in the main room of each floor of the barracks, one was in the sergeant’s office, and one was in the Lt. Donald Hanes’ office. Since by flipping a switch the speaker became a microphone, the men watched what they said.

The area outside the barracks was described as muddy and dusty most of the time. An attempt was made to improve the situation with the building of walkways and roads around the barracks.

It was also at this time that all the companies had 16 operational tanks and the first men from selective service were assigned to the companies. On January 10th, these men took their first tank ride and all of them had the chance to drive the tanks. They would permanently join the companies in March 1941.

During their free time during the week, the men could go to one of the three movie theaters on the outpost. They also sat around and talked. One group of soldiers became known as “The Chess Clique.” As the weather got warmer, the men tried to play baseball as often as possible in the evenings. Volleyball was also often played. At 9:00 P.M., when lights went out, most went to sleep.

On weekends, men with passes frequently went to Louisville which was 35 miles north of the fort, while others went to Elizabethtown sixteen miles south of the fort. Those men still on the base used the dayroom to read since it was open until 11:00 P.M. 

At 7:00 A.M. on Monday, June 16, the battalion was broken into four detachments for a three-day tactical road march. The most important part of this march was to train the soldiers in loading, unloading, and setting up the battalion’s administrative camps. It also prepared them for the Louisiana maneuvers which they were scheduled to take part in during September.

The battalion traveled with 20 tanks, 20 motorcycles, 7 armored scout cars, 5 jeeps, 12 peeps (later called jeeps), 20 large 2½ ton trucks (these carried the battalion’s garages for vehicle repair), 5, 1½ ton trucks (which were the battalion’s kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The battalion traveled through Bardstown and Springfield before arriving at Harrodsburg at 2:30 P.M. where they set up their bivouac at the fairgrounds. The next morning, they moved to Herrington Lake east of Danville, where the men swam, boated, and fished. The battalion returned to Ft. Knox on Wednesday, June 18th through Lebanon, New Haven, and Hodgenville, Kentucky.

From September 1 through 30, Mike took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to remain behind at Camp Polk. None of the members of the battalion had any idea why they were there. On the side of a hill, the members learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, many men had figured out they were being sent to the Philippine Islands.

The reason for this move was an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a buoy in the water. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island, with a large radio transmitter, hundreds of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plane and flew south to Mariveles and then returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.

The next day – when another squadron of planes was sent to the area – the buoys had been picked up – and a fishing boat was seen making its way toward shore carrying the buoys under a tarp. Since communication between the Navy and Air Corps was poor, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.

Over different train routes, the companies were sent to San Francisco, California, where they were ferried, by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, they were given physicals by the battalion’s medical detachment and men found with minor medical conditions were held on the island and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.

The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2, and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.

On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline.

On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country, while two other intercepted ships were Japanese freighters hauling scrap metal to Japan.

When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.

At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward King who apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that had what they needed and that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner – which was stew thrown into their mess kits – before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.

The members of the battalion pitched the ragged World War I tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.

The area was near the end of a runway used by B-17s for takeoffs. The planes flew over the tents at about 100 feet blowing dirt everywhere and the noise from the engines as they flew over was unbelievable. At night, they heard the sounds of planes flying over the airfield which turned out to be Japanese reconnaissance planes. In addition, the khaki uniforms they had been issued also turned out to be a heavy material which made them uncomfortable to wear in the tropical heat. 

The day started at 5:15 with reveille and anyone who washed near a faucet with running water was considered lucky. At 6:00 A.M. they ate breakfast followed by work – on their on the tanks and other equipment – from 7:00 A.M. to 11:30 A.M. Lunch was from 11:30 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. when the soldiers returned to work until 2:30 P.M. The shorter afternoon work period was based on the belief that it was too hot to work in the climate. The term “recreation in the motor pool” meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon.

For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies on the base. They also played horseshoes, softball, badminton, or threw footballs around during their free time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming. Men were given the opportunity to be allowed to go to Manila in small groups. 

At Ft. Stotsenburg, the soldiers were expected to wear their dress uniforms. Since working on the tanks was a dirty job, the battalion members wore coveralls to do the work on the tanks. The 192nd followed the example of the 194th Tank Battalion and wore coveralls in their barracks area to do work on their tanks, but if the soldiers left the battalion’s area, they wore dress uniforms everywhere; including going to the PX.

Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the China Sea. On Monday, December 1, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers. The 194th Tank Battalion guarded the northern portion of the airfield and the 192nd guarded the southern portion. At all times, two members of each tank and half-track remained with their vehicles. Meals were served to the tankers from food trucks.

All morning long on December 8, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, all the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45 planes approached the airfield from the north and the tankers counted 54 planes in formation. When bombs began exploding, the men knew the planes were Japanese.

When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything 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 tents. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed. They lived through two more attacks on December 10 and 13.

Mike was involved in the first tank to tank combat involving American tanks in World War II. His tank platoon had been sent to Lingayen Gulf, on December 21, to knock out Japanese machine gun nests and give cover so that the 26th U. S. Cavalry could withdraw. The problem they faced was that they had never been trained to fight in a jungle.

Since there were rice fields on both sides of the road, they could not use the V-formation to attack. They also found themselves in single-file formation on the main road. It was at this time that Lt. Ben Morin and his crew, which included Mike’s friend Steve Gados, were taken Prisoners of War.

The tankers were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29. On December 31/January 1, the tanks were stationed on both sides of the Calumpit Bridge when they received conflicting orders, from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff, about whose command they were under and to withdraw from the bridge. The defenders were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 which would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders.

Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridges over the Pampanga River, and about half the defenders withdrew. 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 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.

At 2:30 A.M., the night of January 5/6, the Japanese attacked at Remolus in force and using smoke as cover. This attack was an attempt to destroy the tank battalions. At 5:00 A.M., the Japanese withdrew having suffered heavy casualties. Mike recalled getting out of his tank and walking among the Japanese dead.  On the bodies, the tankers found hypodermic needles which meant that they were high when they attacked.  Mike believed this explains why when the Japanese were hit by fire, they kept on running until they were hit a second time.

The night of January 6/7 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 withdraw 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 next day, the battalion was between Culo and Hermosa and assigned a road to enter Bataan on which was worse than having no road. The half-tracks kept throwing their rubber tracks and members of 17th Ordnance assigned to each battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations. After daylight, Japanese artillery fire was landing all around the tanks.

A composite tank company was formed, the next day, under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. The rest of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Abucay-Hacienda Road.

When word came that a bridge was going to be blown up, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company. This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.

The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road. It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance. It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon. The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance. Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400-hour overhauls.

It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver: “Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay.”

The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Hacienda Road on January 25. While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M. One platoon was sent to the front of the column of trucks which 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 Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight. They held the position until the night of January 26/27, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads. When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were supposed to use had been destroyed by enemy fire. To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio, and tanks were still straggling in at noon.

The tank battalions, on January 28, were given the job of protecting the beaches. The 192nd was assigned the coastline from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan’s east coast, while the battalion’s half-tracks were used to patrol the roads. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.

Companies A & C were ordered to the west coast of Bataan while B Company – which was held in reserve – and 17th Ordnance held the southern shore of Bataan. The tankers were awake all night and attempted to sleep under the jungle canopy, during the day, which protected them from being spotted by Japanese reconnaissance planes. During the night, they were kept busy with repeated threats both on and offshore.

On one occasion, a member of the company, who had gotten frustrated by being awakened by the planes, had his half-track pulled out onto the beach and took potshots at the plane. He missed the plane, but twenty minutes later, Japanese planes appeared over the location and dropped bombs that exploded in the treetops. Three members of the company were killed.

The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over the area.

B Company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line. The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket. Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank exited the pocket.

To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used. The first was to have three Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank. As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole. Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually exploded.

The other method used to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole. The driver gave the other track power resulting in the tank going around in a circle and grinding its way down into the foxhole. The tankers slept upwind of their tanks so they would not smell the rotting flesh in the tracks.

In March, 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. At the same time, food rations were cut in half again. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor.

Mike believed that the Japanese reinforcements from Singapore were the reason Bataan fell. These troops were battle-hardened and fierce fighters. On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an all-out 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. 

A counter-attack was launched – on April 7 – 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. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. C Company, 194th, was attached to the 192nd and had only seven tanks left.

It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. Edward P. King decided that further resistance was futile, since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who 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.

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 and the white flag was bedding from A Company.) 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 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.”

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.

Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.

About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would no attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do.

After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col. Collier and Maj. Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit inline 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.

At 6:45 A.M., the tanks received the order “crash” which meant they should destroy their tanks. They circled the tanks and fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of each tank and opened the gasoline cocks in the crew compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. At 7:00 A.M., the officially became Prisoners of War.

Mike and the other members of his company destroyed their vehicles except for two trucks. They planned to ride in these two trucks to the destination that the Japanese selected. Instead, the Japanese took the trucks and Mike found himself walking to Mariveles, where he would begin what became known as the death march.

On the march, Mike recalled that the Japanese killed prisoners for the smallest things. If a POW fell and another attempted to help him, they both were killed. Despite this, Mike believed that he did not see as much brutality as other men witnessed.  Of this, he said, “My strongest memory is seeing a comrade fall and not being able to help him. You’d get shot. It would be your kife and his. It’s hard to live with that.”

According to Mike, a break on the march was stopping and standing in position. Meals were “middling” which was very bitter and hard to eat. He also believed that escaping was the same as suicide because the POW would need a large amount of quinine to survive in the jungle.

He made his way north to San Fernando where the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “forty and eights,” since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. Once at the train station, the Japanese packed 100 POWs into each boxcar and closed the doors. During the trip, those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. From there, they walked the last miles to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino training base that was pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942.

When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.

There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.

There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.

The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. When the Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, Tsuneyoshi refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.

The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.

Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it.

Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day.

Mike was held at Camp O’Donnell for two weeks before he was sent out on a detail. He was sent out to bring damaged American trucks to San Fernando. To do this, the POWs would tie the vehicles together with ropes behind an operating car or truck. The operating car would pull the disabled vehicles. POWs were in each car and drove them to San Fernando. It was at San Fernando that Mike had his first attack of malaria.

It was while he was on this work detail that his family received messages from the War Department.

“Dear Mr. C. Wepsiec:

        “According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Private Mike S. Wepsiec, 20,600,470, 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) 
                                                                                                                                                                       Major General
                                                                                                                                                                   The Adjutant General”
 

In July, they received a second message from the War Department. The follwoing 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 Mike S. Wepsiec 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.”

After the scrap-metal detail ended, Mike was sent to Cabanatuan #1 where he was held for one month before he went out on a work detail, but it is not known what detail he was sent out on. At first, the prisoners worked only half a day because their guards were seasoned troops who had no desire to stand out in the hot Filipino sun in the middle of the day. When these troops were replaced by new recruits, the POWs found themselves working until 8:00 o’clock at night.

Mike believed that what really drove the Japanese crazy was that after working all day the POWs would return to the camp singing songs like “God Bless America.” At this time, Mike developed wet beriberi and his body bloated up to his waist. He was sent to Bilibid Prison where he was given vitamin B pills. He was told to take all the pills, which he did, and they saved his life. After taking them, his body returned to its normal size in a matter of days. When he recovered, he was sent to Cabanatuan.

Food in the prison camps was scarce. Mike remembered a dog that an American major was feeding. He and the other POWs believed that the dog was eating food that should have gone to them, so they slaughtered the dog and ate it.

The POWs also spent endless hours talking about food and how they would prepare it if they could while on work details. These conversations inspired Mike to write a cookbook. To do this, Mike took the bags from the cement that was being used to build the runways and wrote down the recipes. Somehow, Mike managed to keep the cookbook which is pictured at the bottom of this page.

Mike remained at the camp until he was selected to go out on a work detail. In July 1943, on the Las Pinas Work Detail. It was there that he built runways for the Japanese Navy at Nichols Field.

The POWs were housed in the Pasay School in eighteen rooms. Thirty men were assigned to each room and slept on the floor. Each morning they got up and did exercises. When they finished, they were fed breakfast, which was fish and rice, and marched about a mile to the airfield. As they marched, the Filipino civilians expressed their sympathy for the POWs whose clothing had deteriorated to rags.

On this detail, the POWs had nothing but picks and shovels to build the runways. At first, the work was hard but not as hard as it was going to get. About 400 yards from where they began working where hills. The POWs removed these hills with picks and shovels. The dirt was put into wheelbarrows and carried to a swamp and dumped as landfill. This turned out to be inefficient, so the Japanese brought in mining cars and railroad tracks. Two POWs pushed each car to where it was to be dumped. He would remain on this detail for almost seventeen months.

The brutality shown to the POWs was severe. The first Japanese commander of the camp, a Lt. Moto, was called the “White Angel” because he wore a spotless naval uniform. He was the commander of the camp for slightly over thirteen months. One day a POW collapsed while working on the runway. Moto was told about the man and came out and ordered him to get up. When he couldn’t four other Americans were made to carry the man back to the Pasay School.

At the school, the Japanese guards gave the man a shower and straightened his clothes as much as possible. The other Americans were ordered to the school. As they stood there, the White Angel ordered an American captain to follow him behind the school. The POW was marched behind the school and the other Americans heard two shots. The American officer told the men that the POW had said, “Tell them I went down smiling.” There, the White Angel shot the POW as the man smiled at him. As the man lay on the ground, he shot him a second time. The American captain told the other Americans what had happened. The White Angel told them that this was what going to happen to anyone who would not work for the Japanese Empire.

The second commanding officer of the detail was known as “the Wolf.” He was a civilian who wore a Japanese Naval Uniform. Each morning, he would come to the POW barracks and select those POWs who looked the sickest and made them line up. The men were made to put one leg on each side of a trench and then do 50 push-ups. If a man’s arms gave out and he touched the ground, he was beaten with pick handles.

On another occasion, a POW collapsed on the runway. The Wolf had the man taken back to the barracks. When the Wolf came to the barracks that evening and the man was still unconscious, he banged the man’s head into the concrete floor and kicked him in the head. He then took the man to the shower and drowned him in the basin.

A third POW who had tried to walk away from the detail told the guards to shoot him, the guards took him back to the Pasay School and strung him up by his thumbs outside the doorway and placed a bottle of beer and sandwich in front of him. He was dead by evening.

The remains of the POWs who had died on the detail were brought to Bilibid Prison in wooden boxes. The Japanese had death certificates, with the causes of death and signed by an American doctor, sent with the boxes. The Americans from the detail, who accompanied the boxes, would not tell the POWs at Bilibid what had happened. It was only when the sick, from the detail, began to arrive at Bilibid did they learn what the detail was like. These men were sent to Bilibid to die since it would look better when it was reported to the International Red Cross.

In August or early September 1944, Mike and the other POWs were sent to Manila. Before they left for Manila, Mike experienced his first act of kindness by a Japanese soldier. The sergeant in charge of their detail knew they were being sent to Manila, so he purchased a bottle of saki and made sure each prisoner had a drink. This was the sergeant’s going away present to them.

When Mike’s group of POW arrived in Manila, the Japanese were about to send a shipload of prisoners to Japan. The Japanese decided to send Mike’s group instead because they were physically in better shape.

Mike’s POW detachment was sent to the Port Area of Manila. The detachment was scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru, while another POW detachment was scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru. The ship was ready to sail, but it’s POW detachment had not completely arrived at the pier, so the Japanese switched POW detachments so the ship could sail. The Arisan Maru – the ship Mike had been scheduled to sail on – was sunk by an American submarine in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea on October 24, 1944, with only nine of 1775 POWs survived the sinking.

Mike and the other men boarded the Hokusen Maru on October 1, 1944, and the ship moved to the harbor’s breakwater and dropped anchor. They remained in the hold for three days before the ship sailed.

During the three days, the ship was anchored at the breakwater, the temperatures in the hold rose to over 100 degrees causing some men to go crazy. The Japanese threatened to kill the POWs if they didn’t quiet the men. To do this, the sane POWs strangled those out of their minds or hit them with canteens.

As part of a ten-ship convoy, it sailed again on October 4 and stopped at Cabcaban. The next day, it was at San Fernando La Union, where the ships were joined by four more ships and five escorts. The ships stayed close to the shoreline to prevent submarine attacks which failed since, on October 6th, two of the ships were sunk by American submarines.

The ships were informed, on October 9, that American carriers were seen near Formosa and American planes were in the area. The decision was made to send the ships to Hong Kong. During this part of the trip, the ships ran into American submarines which sank two more ships. The Hokusen Maru arrived in Hong Kong on October 11. While it was in port, American planes bombed the harbor on October 16 causing the ship to rock in the water. On October 21, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa, arriving on October 24.

Mike spent 38 days on the ship before reaching Formosa. For Mike, this was probably one of the worst experiences he had as a prisoner. It seemed to him that the youngest prisoners died first. Mike watched as those who were nineteen years old died, next he watched as the twenty-year-old died, he then watched as the twenty-one-year-old POWs died, and so on. As soldiers continued to die and as their ages got closer to his, Mike wondered when his turn to die would come.

On November 8, the POWs disembarked the ship and were taken to a temporary POW camp at Inrin. The Japanese had decided that they were too ill to be sent to Japan. Most of the POWs did light work or gardening. The healthier POWs were used to harvest sugarcane and process it. He would remain there until January 1945.

It was on Formosa that Mike experienced the second act of kindness shown to him by a Japanese soldier. The commanding officer of the camp knew it was Christmas. He had a water buffalo brought into the camp for the prisoners to slaughter. The POWs had steak for Christmas.

In January 1945, Mike and 300 other POWs were selected to be transferred to Japan. On January 25, Mike and the other prisoners were boarded onto the Enoshima Maru and spent twelve days on the hell ship. The reason for this was that the ship made several stops along the coast of China. It was on this trip that the convoy was attacked by an American submarine. One torpedo passed by the stem of the ship and a second torpedo went past the stern and hit a tanker. Mike believed that the Americans knew their ship was carrying POWs.

Arriving in Moji, Japan, Mike, and the other POWs, rode a train north to Sendai, where they were taken to Sendai #3 arriving in the camp on January 28. The POWs in the camp were housed in three barracks and used as slave labor to mine lead and zinc in a mine owned by the Mitsubishi Mining Company.

Although the Japanese received Red Cross packages for the POWs, they were not given to the POWs. Red Cross medicines and medicals supplies that would help the prisoners were not given to them. The camp doctor was known to eat vitamin tablets from the packages in front of the POWs.

The sick POWs were forced to work in the mine when they were physically unable to work. Those who reported for sick call had to line up in the hallway to the Japanese doctor’s office and take off all their clothes before they entered. While in line, they were often slapped in the face. The doctor made the POWs stand at attention, bow, and follow orders given to them. Since this took so much time, most of the POWs were never examined and had to work. Cold weather clothing and blankets from the Red Cross were never given out to the POWs who had to sleep in the poorly heated barracks in the winter.

It was in this camp that Mike was beaten for whistling in the mine. While exhaling, he whistled. The mine worker with him beat him on the head for doing this. The reason was that the Japanese believed that whistling made the “mine gods” happy and would cause them to stop holding up the ceilings, and the mine, in turn, would cave in on the workers.

Lice were one of the big problems facing the POWs. Mike and the other men would take the carbide lamps they used in the mines and run them along the seams of their clothes. As they did the heat popped the lice.

The POWs knew how the war was going because the American planes flying overhead were an indication to them that the United States was winning. It got to the point that they began to bet on dates that the war would end. Mike picked August 7, 1945, because it was his birthday.

On September 12, 1945, the POWs from Sendai #3 arrived at Yokohama and boarded the U.S.S. Rescue. On the ship, they were processed and received a medical exam. It was at that time that the decision was made for Mike to be flown to Okinawa. It is not known if he returned to the Philippine Islands by ship or if he was flown there for medical treatment. September 12th also became the date he was officially considered liberated.

His family received this message from the War Department.

“Mr. and Mrs. C. Wepsiec: The secretary of war has asked me to inform you that your son, Pvt. Mike S. Wepsiec was returned to military control Sept. 12 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”

Mike boarded the U.S.S. Admiral C. F. Hughes, which sailed sometime around September 20th. The arrived in Seattle, Washington, on October 9, 1945. From there, he was hospitalized at Madigan General Hospital at Ft. Lewis, Washington.  He was later transferred to a veteran’s hospital closer to Chicago.

Mike returned to Chicago and was discharged on August 24, 1946. He married, raised four sons and a daughter. Mike went back to work on the railroad he had worked for before enlisting in the National Guard. He retired from the Santa Fe Railroad which had absorbed the short line railroad that he had originally worked for.

Mike Wepsiec passed away on October 15, 2001, and was buried at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois.

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