S/Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon Jr. was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1915 to Joseph J. Wierzchon Sr. & Frances Wierzchon. He grew up in Toledo and lived at 1421 Pinewood Avenue and was a member of the Ohio National Guard from Port Clinton, Ohio.
On November 25, 1940, the tank company was called to federal service as C Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. The company boarded a train in Port Clinton on November 29th and its two tanks were loaded onto a flatcar. The company’s 1½ ton truck, one car, and a truck that hauled mess equipment, office equipment, supply room equipment, drove to Ft. Knox.
After arriving, they 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. Andrew Migala – on December 26th – was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed HQ Company. Only three men were picked since a large number of married men had been released from service before the company left Port Clinton. Many of the men picked to be transferred to the company – from all the battalion’s companies – received promotions and because of their ratings received higher pay.
C Company moved into its barracks in January 1941. The barracks were adjacent to the Roosevelt Ridge Training Area. The men assigned to the HQ Company still lived with the C Company since their barracks were unfinished. 25 men lived on each floor of the barracks. 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 allowing for 50 men to sleep on each floor. The first sergeant, staff sergeant, and master sergeant had their own rooms. There was also a supply room, an orderly room – where the cooks could sleep during the day – and a clubroom.
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 first sergeant’s office, and one was in Capt Robert Sorensen‘s office. Since by flipping a switch the speaker became a microphone, the men watched what they said. The men assigned to HQ Company moved into their own barracks by February. The guardsmen were housed away from the regular army troops in the newly built barracks. Newspapers from the time state that the barracks were air-conditioned.
The biggest problem facing the unit was the lack of equipment. Many of the tanks were castoffs from the regular army or pulled from the junkyard at Ft. Knox and rebuilt by the tank companies. The tanks were also restricted in where they could be driven and very little training was done with the infantry. The companies received new trucks and motorcycles in the Spring of 1941.
The men received training under the direction of the 69th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division. This was true for the tank crews and reconnaissance units who trained with the regiment’s tanks and reconnaissance units and later trained with their own companies.
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. All classes they attended were under the command of the 1st Armored Division.
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.
During February, four composite tank detachments made of men from all the companies of the battalion left Ft. Knox – on different dates – on problematic moves at 9:00 A.M. The detachments consisted of three motorcycles, two scout cars, sixteen tanks, one ambulance, and supply, fuel, and kitchen trucks. The route was difficult and chosen so that the men could become acquainted with their equipment. They also had to watch out for simulated enemy planes. Bridges were avoided whenever it was possible to ford the water. They received their rations from a food truck.
It is known that he received a furlough and went to Louisville in March 1941 when he was hit by a motorcycle. He was admitted to City Hospital in Louisville, but it is not known how long he was hospitalized.
In late March 1941, the entire battalion was moved to new barracks at Wilson Road and Seventh Avenue at Ft. Knox. The barracks had bathing and washing facilities in them and a day room. The new kitchens had larger gas ranges, automatic gas heaters, large pantries, and mess halls. One reason for this move was the men from selective service were permanently joining the battalion.
On June 14th and 16th, the battalion was divided into four detachments composed of men from different companies. Available information shows that C and D Companies, part of Hq Company and part of the Medical Detachment left on June 14th, while A and B Companies, and the other halves of Hq Company and the Medical Detachment left the fort on June 16th. These were tactical maneuvers – under the command of the commanders of each of the letter companies. The three-day tactical road marches were to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and back. The purpose of the maneuvers was to give the men practice at loading, unloading, and setting up administrative camps to prepare them for the Louisiana maneuvers.
Each tank company 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 included the companies’ kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The detachments 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 through Lebanon, New Haven, and Hodgenville, Kentucky. At Hodgenville, the men were allowed to visit the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.
In the late summer of 1941, the battalion was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers from September 1 through 30. The entire battalion was loaded onto trucks and sent in a convoy to Louisiana while the tanks and wheeled vehicles were sent by train.
During the maneuvers that tanks held defensive positions and usually were held in reserve by the higher headquarters. For the first time, the tanks were used to counter-attack and in support of infantry. Many of the men felt that the tanks were finally being used like they should be used and not as “mobile pillboxes.”
After the maneuvers, the 192nd Tank Battalion was ordered to report to Camp Polk, Louisiana, without having any idea why. On the side of a hill, the battalion members learned they were being sent overseas. Those men who were married or 29 years old, or older, were given a chance to be released from federal service. They were replaced with men who volunteered or had their names drawn to join the battalion. Many of the men received furloughs home to say their goodbyes to families and friends.
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, 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 a Japanese occupied island that a large radio transmitter. The island was hundreds of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, another squadron was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat that was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
After the companies were brought up to strength with replacements, the battalion was equipped with new tanks and half-tracks with came from the 753rd Tank Battalion. The battalion traveled over different train routes to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, where they were taken by the ferry, the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe to Angel Island. At Ft. McDowell, on the island, they received physicals and inoculations. Men found with minor medical conditions were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd 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 that were hauling scrap metal.
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, the tankers were met by Gen. Edward P. King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived. He made sure that they had Thanksgiving Dinner – which consisted of stew thrown into their mess kits – before he left to have his own dinner.
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” – which came from the 194th Tank Battalion – 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 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.
On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and were fed from food trucks. On the morning of December 8, the officers of the 192nd were called to an office and informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the letter companies were ordered to the south end of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. Hq Company remained behind in their bivouac.
On the morning of December 8, 1941, the tank companies were brought up to full strength at the perimeter of the airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. Early that morning, the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had reached the Philippines. All morning long the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed and were lined up near the pilots’ mess hall to be refueled.
The tankers were eating lunch when they saw 54 planes approaching the airfield from the north. From under the planes, they saw what looked like raindrops falling from the planes. When bombs began exploding on the runways, the tankers knew the planes were Japanese. Most of the tankers could do nothing but watch since their weapons were not meant to fight planes. When the Japanese finished bombing, the fighters came in and strafed the airfield. Although under orders not to fire at the planes, many of the tank crews did.
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.
The tank battalion received orders on December 21 that it was to proceed north to Lingayen Gulf. Because of logistics problems, the B and C Companies soon ran low on gas. When they reached Rosario, there was only enough for one tank platoon, from B Company, to proceed north to support the 26th Cavalry.
On December 23 and 24, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta. The bridge they were going used to cross the Agno River was destroyed and the tankers made an end run to get south of the river. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening. They successfully crossed the river in the Bayambang Province.
On December 25, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27 and fell back toward Santo Tomas.
At Cabu, seven tanks of the company fought a three hour battle with the Japanese. The main Japanese line was south of Saint Rosa Bridge ten miles to the south of the battle. The tanks were hidden in brush as Japanese troops passed them for three hours without knowing that they were there. While the troops passed, Lt. William Gentry was on his radio describing what he was seeing. It was only when a Japanese soldier tried to take a short cut through the brush, that his tank was hidden in, that the tanks were discovered. The tanks turned on their sirens and opened up on the Japanese.
C Company made its way south to Cabanatuan. When the company entered Cabanatuan, it found the barrio filled with Japanese guns and other equipment. For three hours, the tank company destroyed as much of the equipment as it could before proceeding south. They were at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29. While there, the bridge over the Pampanga River was destroyed, they were able to find a crossing over the river.
C Company was re-supplied and withdrew to Baliuag where the tanks encountered Japanese troops and ten tanks. It was at Baliuag that Gentry’s tanks won the first tank victory of World War II against enemy tanks. After this battle, C Company made its way south. When it entered Cabanatuan, it found the barrio filled with Japanese guns and other equipment. The tank company destroyed as much of the equipment as it could before proceeding south.
On December 31, 1941, Company was sent out reconnaissance patrols north of the town of Baluiag. The patrols ran into Japanese patrols, which told the Americans that the Japanese were on their way. Knowing that the railroad bridge was the only way into the town and to cross the river, Lt. Gentry set up his defenses in view of the bridge and the rice patty it crossed.
Early that morning, the Japanese began moving troops across the bridge. The engineers came next and put down planking for tanks. A little before noon Japanese tanks began crossing the bridge.
By the afternoon, the Japanese had assembled a large number of troops in a rice field on the north end of the barrio. One platoon of tanks under the command of 2nd Lt. Marshall Kennady was to the southeast of the bridge. Gentry’s tanks were to the south of the bridge in huts, while the third platoon commanded by Capt Harold Collins was to the south on the road leading out of Baluiag. 2nd Lt. Everett Preston had been sent south to find a bridge to cross to attack the Japanese from behind.
Major John Morley came riding in his jeep into Baluiag. He stopped in front of a hut and was spotted by the Japanese who had lookouts in the town’s church’s steeple. The guard became very excited so Morley, not wanting to give away the tanks positions, got into his jeep and drove off. Bill had told him that his tanks would hold their fire until he was safely out of the village.
When Gentry felt the Morley was out of danger, he ordered his tanks to open up on the Japanese tanks at the end of the bridge. The tanks then came smashing through the huts’ walls and drove the Japanese in the direction of 2nd Lt. Marshall Kennady’s tanks. Kennady had been radioed and was waiting.
Kennady’s platoon held its fire until the Japanese were in view of his platoon and then joined in the hunt. The Americans chased the tanks up and down the streets of the village, through buildings and under them. By the time Bill’s unit was ordered to disengage from the enemy, they had knocked out at least eight enemy tanks.
While the Filipinos and Americans were falling back toward Bataan, on January 2, 1942, Joseph was hit by shrapnel from a Japanese mortar shell. Capt. Alvin Poweleit, the battalion’s surgeon, treated him for his wounds. He received the Purple Heart.
During the withdrawal into the peninsula, the company crossed over the last bridge which was mined and about to be blown. The 192nd held its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leapfrog past it and then cover the 192nd’s withdraw. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan.
In early February, the Japanese attempted to land troops behind the main battle line on Bataan on a small peninsula. The troops were quickly cut off and when they attempted to land reinforcements, they were landed in the wrong place. The fight to wipe out these two pockets became known as the Battle of the Points.
The Japanese had been stopped, but the decision was made by Brigadier General Clinton A. Pierce that tanks were needed to support the 45th Infantry Philippine Scouts. He requested the tanks from the Provisional Tank Group.
On February 2, a platoon of C Company tanks was ordered to Quinan Point where the Japanese had landed troops. The tanks arrived about 5:15 P.M. He did a quick reconnaissance of the area, and after meeting with the commanding infantry officer, made the decision to drive tanks into the edge of the Japanese position and spray the area with machine-gun fire. The progress was slow but steady until a Japanese .37 milometer gun was spotted in front of the lead tank, and the tanks withdrew. It turned out that the gun had been disabled by mortar fire, but the tanks did not know this at the time. The decision was made to resume the attack the next morning, so 45th Infantry dug in for the night.
The next day, the tank platoon did reconnaissance before pulling into the front line. They repeated the maneuver and sprayed the area with machine gunfire. As they moved forward, members of the 45th Infantry followed the tanks. The troops made progress all day long along the left side of the line. The major problem the tanks had to deal with was tree stumps which they had to avoid so they would not get hung up on them. The stumps also made it hard for the tanks to maneuver. Coordinating the attack with the infantry was difficult, so the decision was made to bring in a radio car so that the tanks and infantry could talk with each other.
On February 4, at 8:30 A.M. five tanks and the radio car arrived. The tanks were assigned the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, so each tank commander knew which tank was receiving an order. Each tank also received a walkie-talkie, as well as the radio car and infantry commanders. This was done so that the crews could coordinate the attack with the infantry and send so that the tanks could be ordered to where they were needed. The Japanese were pushed back almost to the cliffs when the attack was halted for the night.
The attack resumed the next morning and the Japanese were pushed to the cliff line where they hid below the edge of the cliff out of view. It was at that time that the tanks were released to return to the 192nd.
C 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.
During some of the actions against the Japanese, the Japanese sent soldiers, carrying gasoline cans, against the tanks. The Japanese would attempt to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the vents on the back of the tanks, and set them on fire. If the tankers could not machine-gun them before they got to the tanks, the crew of another tank would shoot them as they stood on the tanks. The tankers did not like to do this because of what it did to the crews inside the tanks. Since the tanks were riveted, when the turrets were hit by machine-gun fire, the rivets would pop and ricochet inside the tanks.
The rivets sparked when they hit the sides of the crew compartment. This situation was made worse by the loud sound of bullets from machine guns hitting the tank. The biggest danger from the rivets was the possibility that one could hit one of the tankers in the eye.
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, which he declined.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese broke through the east side of the main defensive line on Bataan. C Company was pulled out of its position along the west side of the line. They were ordered to reinforce the eastern portion of the line. Traveling south to Mariveles, the tankers started up the eastern road but were unable to reach their assigned area due to the roads being blocked by retreating Filipino and American forces.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. Edward P. King decided that further resistance was futile, since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who were sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day.
C Company was ordered from the west side of Bataan to the east side. Companies B and D, 192nd, and A Company, 194th, were preparing for a suicide attack on the Japanese in an attempt to stop the advance. At midnight an order came 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 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.
When Bataan was surrendered on April 9, 1942, Joseph became a Prison of War and with the other members of C Company became Prisoners Of War when the Filipino and American forces on Bataan were surrendered. After receiving the order to destroy their tanks, Joe and the other members of C Company made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of the peninsula. It was from there that Joe started what became known as the death march.
Joe with his company made their way to San Fernando. During the march, they were fed only once and given no water. At one point, he and the other POWs had to run through an area where Japanese artillery was exchanging fire with the Island of Corregidor. As they ran, shells landed around them.
When they reached San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars so tightly that those who died remained standing. When the POWs disembarked from the cars, the bodies of the dead fell out. Joe and the other men walked the last few miles to Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army Base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. They believed the camp could hold 15,000 to 20,000 POWs.
When the POWs arrived at the camp, they were searched and anyone found with Japanese money was separated from the other POWs and sent to the guardhouse. These POWs were accused of looting the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers. Over several days, gunshots were heard coming from southeast of the camp as they were executed.
The Japanese also took away any extra clothing that the POWs carried with them and refused to return it. Since there was no water to wash their clothing, the POWs threw away soiled clothing and stripped the dead of their clothing. Few of the POWs in the camp hospital had clothing.
There was only one water faucet for the entire camp and men stood in line from 2½ to 8 hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guard in charge of the spigot would turn it off, for no reason, and the next man in line would have to wait up to four hours for it to be turned on again. Water for cooking food had to be hauled three miles to the camp. Mess kits could not be cleaned.
Since most of the POWs had dysentery, the slit trenches overflowed which resulted in flies being everywhere in the camp including the camp kitchen and in the food. The camp hospital had no water, soap, or disinfectant which also caused diseases to spread. When the ranking American doctor presented a letter with the medicines and medical supplies they needed to treat the sick, the camp commander, Captain Yoshio Tsuneyoshi, told him never to write another letter. He also said that the only things he wanted to know about the POWs were their names and serial numbers after they died. The ranking American officer was beaten with a broadsword after asking for medicine, additional food, and material to patch the huts’ roofs.
The Archbishop of Manila sent a truck full of medical supplies to the camp, but the Japanese refused to let it into the camp. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross told a Japanese lieutenant that they could set up a 150-bed hospital for the POWs, he was slapped in the face by the lieutenant. Medicines sent to the camp by the Red Cross were confiscated by the Japanese for their own use.
Most of the men who entered the camp hospital never came out alive. The Japanese were so afraid of contracting an illness that they put a barbed wire fence up around it. The POWs in the hospital lay elbow to elbow on the floor and operations were performed with knives from mess kits. Only one medic – out of every six medics assigned to treat the sick – was healthy enough to perform his duties.
Each morning, the POWs walked around the camp and collected the bodies of the dead and placed them under the hospital building. To clean the ground, the POWs moved the bodies, scraped the ground, put down lime to sterilize the ground, moved the bodies back to the cleaned area, and repeated the process where the bodies had lain while the first area was cleaned. This was done to stop the spread of disease since it took two to three days to bury a man after he died.
Any POW, if he could walk, went out on a work detail for the day such as the one collected wood for the POW kitchen. Some POWs went out on work details which lasted for months to get out of the camp. The worse detail a man could be put on was the burial detail. On this detail, two POWs carried a dead man to the camp cemetery. Once there, they put the body in a grave and held the body down with a pole, since the water table was high, and covered it with dirt. The next morning, when the burials resumed, the dead were often sitting up or had been dug up by wild dogs.
To get out of Camp O’Donnell, he volunteered to go out on a work detail and was selected for the Bachrach Garage Detail which was part of the Caloocan Work Detail. The POWs on this detail were held at the Bachrach Motor Garage on an island off Manila. 150 other POWs on the Caloocan Detail collected disabled vehicles at different places on Luzon. The POWs attempted to get the vehicles running but those that did not run were tied together with rope and to an operating vehicle. A POW sat in each vehicle as they were pulled by the operating vehicle to Caloocan or San Fernando. At either barrio, POWs attempted to get the vehicles running and those scavenged cars or trucks that they got running were sent to the Bachrach Garage for further repairs. Captured tanks that the Japanese believed could be repaired were also sent there. The vehicles that could not be fixed were stripped of usable parts and sent to Japan as scrap. The Caloocan Detail was down to 50 POWs in 1943 since most of the disabled vehicles had been savaged and ended at that time, except for the POWs working at the garage who remained there to repair vehicles for the Japanese.
While he was on the detail, his parents received two letters from the War Department. The first arrived in May or early June 1942.
“Dear Mrs. F. Wierzchon:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Staff Sergeant Joseph J. Wierzchon Jr., 20,500,738, 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”
In July 1942, his family received a second message from the War Department.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Staff Sergeant Joseph J. Wierzchon 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.”
It is not known if his parents were ever informed that he was a Prisoner of War.
In early October 1944, when it became apparent to the Japanese that the invasion of Luzon was near, the POWs on this detail were sent to the Port Area of Manila. The Japanese were attempting to send healthy POWs to Japan and other countries to work as slave labor and prevent them from being liberated by advancing American forces.
1775 POWs were marched to the Port Area of Manila. When his POW group arrived at the pier, the ship they were scheduled to sail on, the Hokusen Maru, was ready to sail, but some of the POWs scheduled to sail on the ship had not arrived at the pier. Another POW detachment, scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru, had completely arrived, but their ship was not ready to sail. It was at that time that the Japanese made the decision to switch POW detachments so the Hokusen Maru could sail.
On October 10, the POWs boarded the Arisan Maru and 1775 prisoners were crammed into the first hold of the ship which could hold 400 men. They were packed in so tightly that they could not move. Along the sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks, but the bunks were so close together that a man could not lift himself up when he used one. Those standing had no room to lie down. The latrines for the prisoners were eight five-gallon cans, which the POWs could not use since they were packed in the hold so tightly. This resulted in the floor of the hold being covered with human waste.
Anton Cichy said, “For the first few days, there were 1800 of us together in one hold. I don’t know how big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down. We were just kind of stuck together.”
Calvin Graef said, “We were packed in so tight most men couldn’t get near the cans. And, of course, it was a physical impossibility for the sick in the back of the hold, the men suffering the tortures of diarrhea and dysentery. We waded in fecal matter. Most of the men went naked. The place was alive with lice, bedbugs, and roaches; the filth and stench were beyond description.”
The ship sailed the next day, but took a southerly route away from Taiwan and dropped anchor in a cove off Palawan Island. During the first 48 hours off Palawan, five POWs died. The POWs realized that the Japanese had removed the light bulbs from the lighting system, but that they had not turned off the power. They figured out a way to hook the ventilation system into the lights and had fresh air for two days. When the Japanese discovered what had been done, they turned off the power.
The POWs began developing heat blisters, and the Japanese conceded that more POWs would die unless they did something. The Japanese transferred POWs from the first hold to its second hold. This hold was partially filled with coal. During the transfer, one POW attempted to escape and was shot.
Of this time, Graef said, “As we moved through the tropical waters, the heat down in the steel-encased hell hole was maddening. We were allowed three ounces of water per man every 24 hours. Quarts were needed under these conditions, to keep a man from dehydrating. While men were dying of thirst, Jap guards–heaping insults on us–would empty five-gallon tins of fresh water into the hold. Men caught the water in pieces of clothing and sucked the cloth dry. Men licked their wet skins. It was hell all right. Men went mad.”
On October 20, the ship returned to Manila, where, it joined a twelve ship convoy bound for Taiwan. The convoy sailed on October 21 after all the ships had been loaded. The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs. This made the ships targets for submarines. In addition, U.S. Military Intelligence was reading the Japanese code as fast as the Japanese. To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine crews which ships were carrying POWs.
Graef described conditions in the hold. “There were so many (that died ) out of 1800. The condition in that hold…..men were just dying in a continuous stream. Me, holding their bellies in interlocked arms, stood up, screamed and died. You were being starved men were dying at such a pace we had to pile them up. It was like you were choking to death. Burial consisted of two men throwing another overboard.”
Cichy said, “The Japs told us that they’d be in Formosa the next day to pick up some cargo. They had to make room on deck so they tossed a whole bunch of life preservers down into the hold. I held onto one but didn’t think anything about it.”
It was about 4:00 P.M. on October 24, and ten of the POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs in the ship’s holds and had fed about half the POWs. The waves were high since the ship had been through a storm in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. Suddenly, bells and sirens sounded warning of submarines. The POWs in the holds chanted for the submarine to sink the ship.
It was 4:50 P.M. when the Japanese on deck ran to the bow of the ship and watched a torpedo pass in front of the ship. They next ran to the stern of the ship and watched a second torpedo passed behind the ship. The ship shook and came to a stop. It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, killing some of the POWs. Those still alive began cheering wildly, but it stopped when they realized they were facing death.
Cichy recalled, “When the torpedo hit everybody in the hold hollered ‘Hit her again!’ We wanted to get it over with.”
Lt. Robert S. Overbeck said, “When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn’t care a bit–they were tired and weak and sick.“ He also said of the incident, “The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn’t break in two. By then the Nips — 300 of them on deck — were scurrying about, scared as hell. The boilers exploded. I don’t think any of us got hurt in the torpedoing or the explosion. Most of the prisoners were American, with a few British. The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned ship. That was about 5:00 P.M.”
A little while later the cheering stopped when the POWs realized they were facing death. Overbeck also commented on the reaction of the POWs in the holds. “For about five seconds there was panic among us, but there were five or six chaplains who prayed fervently and quieted the men.” It is believed the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the U.S.S. Snook or the U.S.S. Shark.
The guards took their rifles and used them as clubs to drive the POWs on deck into the holds. Once in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders into the holds and put the hatch covers over the holds, but they did not tie the hatch covers down.
Cichy recalled, “The Japs closed the hatches and left the ship in lifeboats. They must have forgotten about the prisoners on deck who had been cooking. When the Japs were off the boat, the cooks opened the hatches and told us to come up. I was just under the deck, but there were a lot of guys down below. One of them escaped by simply walking into the water from a hole in the bulkhead. He was Lt. Robert S. Overbeck, Baltimore.” Cichy also stated, “The Japs had already evacuated ship. They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their own.”
The POWs left the holds but made no attempt to abandon ship. On the ship’s deck an American major spoke to the POWs, he said, “Boys, we’re in a helluva a jam – but we’ve been in jams before. Remember just one thing: We’re American soldiers. Let’s play it that way to the very end of the script.” Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them, “Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men.”
Overbeck stated, “We broke into the ship’s stores to get food, cigarettes, and water — mainly water, we were so thirsty. All of us figured we were going to die anyway. The Japs ships, except for the destroyers, had disappeared. All we had were life belts which the Japanese had fortunately thrown down the hold the day before.
“But as darkness settled and our hopes for life flickered, we felt absolutely no resentment for the Allied submarine that had sent the torpedo crashing in. We knew they could not tell who was aboard the freighter, and as far as the Navy could have known the ship could have been carrying Jap troops. The men were brave and none complained.
“Some slipped off their life preservers and with a cherry ‘so long’ disappeared.” The ship slowly sank lower into the water.
According to surviving POWs, the ship stayed afloat for hours but got lower in the water. At one point, the stern of the ship began going under which caused the ship to split in half but the halves remained afloat. Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking. Some POWs attempted to escape by putting on lifebelts, clinging to hatch covers, rafts, and other flotsam and jetsam. When they reached other Japanese ships, the Japanese pushed them away with poles.
Of this Glenn Oliver said, “They weren’t picking up Americans. A lot of the prisoners were swimming for the destroyer, but the Japanese were pushing them back into the water.”
Oliver recalled, “I could see people still on the ship when it went down. I could see people against the skyline, just standing there.” In the water, he watched as the ship went under. “I kept getting bumped by guys wearing life jackets. Nobody wanted to share my planks. I didn’t ask them.”
Three POWs found an abandoned lifeboat and managed to climb in but found it had no oars. With the rough seas, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs. According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru sank sometime after dark on Tuesday, October 24, 1944. The men in the boat heard cries for help, which became fewer and fewer until there was silence.
The next day they picked up two more survivors. Oliver who was not in the boat stated he heard men using what he called “GI whistles” to contact each other. “They were blowing these GI whistles in the night. This weird moaning sound. I can’t describe it.” The next morning there were just waves. Oliver and three other men were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and taken to Formosa and finally sent to Japan. Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon was not one of them.
In 1945, his family received this message:
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Wierzchon Sr.,
“The International Red Cross has transmitted to this government an official list obtained from the Japanese government, after long delay, of American prisoners of war who were lost while being transported northward from the Philippine islands on a Japanese ship which was sunk on Oct. 24, 1944.
“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son was among those lost when the sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on records of the war department as killed in action Oct. 24, 1944. The evidence of his death was received June 16, 1945.
“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son, S/Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon Jr. 20, 500, 738, 17th Ordnance Company, was among those lost when that sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on the records of the War Department as Killed in Action 24 October 1944. The evidence of this death was received 16 June 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and accounts will be closed.
“The information available to the war department is that the vessel sailed from Manila on October 11, 1944, with 1775 prisoners of war aboard. On October 24 the vessel was sunk by submarine action in the south China Sea over 200 miles from the Chinese coast which was the nearest land. Five of the prisoners escaped in a small boat and reached the coast. Four others have been reported as picked up by the Japanese by whom all others aboard are reported lost. Absence of detailed information as to what happened to the other individual prisoners and known circumstances of the incident lead to a conclusion that all other prisoners listed by the Japanese as aboard the vessel perished.
“It is with deep regret that I must notify you of this unhappy culmination of the long period of anxiety and suffering you have experienced. You have my heartfelt sympathy.
“J. A. Ulio
“Maj. Gen., The Adjutant General of the Army”
Since he was lost at sea, S/Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon’s name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.