Pvt. Edward George Wills Jr. was the son of Edward G. Wills Sr. & Susan Bell Mattingly-Wills. He was born in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, on March 8, 1918, and was one of the couple’s nine children.
Little is known about his life in Harrodsburg. What is known is that he was called, “E.G.” by his family and friends and that one of his sisters died when he was 20 years old. He was working as a house painter when he joined the Kentucky National Guard in Harrodsburg on August 1, 1940. The reason he did this was the draft act had been passed, and he knew he was going to be drafted. The tank company was scheduled to be federalized for one year of military service in the fall of 1940.
On November 25, 1940, the 38th Divisional Tank Company of the Kentucky National Guard was designated D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky. There, Edward trained with D Company until he was transferred to Headquarters Company when the company was created in January 1941.
A typical day for the soldiers started in 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. 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 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.
After taking part in maneuvers in Louisiana, Edward and the other members of the 192nd learned that they were being sent overseas. Their mission was to train the Philippine Army in tank usage.
The decision for this move – which had been made in August 1941 – was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island which was hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
The battalion traveled west by train to San Francisco, California, and was taken by ferry to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island on the ferry the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe. At Ft. McDowell, they were given physicals and inoculated for overseas duty. Those men found to have a minor medical condition were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date, while 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 5th, 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.
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 Gen. Edward P. 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 they had what they needed and that they had Thanksgiving Dinner 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.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons. The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea. They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance as they prepared for maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion.
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 half of the airfield, while the 192nd guarded the southern half. At all times, two members of every tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles. Meals were brought to them by food trucks.
When they were told of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor they laughed. Having been in the Philippines for eighteen days, they believed that this was the start of the extended maneuvers. The company commander, Capt Fred Bruni, told his men to listen up because what he was telling them the truth. He again told them that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and they each were given guns and told to clean them. As they did this, they still believed that they had started maneuvers. It was around noon that this belief was blown away.
At 12: 45, a formation of 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. The men had enough to count the number of planes in the formation. It was when bombs began exploding on the runways that they knew the planes were Japanese. Since the members of the company had few weapons to fight planes with, they dove into a dry latrine during the attack.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. Since the company’s bivouac was near the main road between the fort and airfield, The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks and trucks. The fact was that 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, there was one air raid after another. Since they did not have any foxholes, the men used the old latrine pit for cover. Since it was safer in the pit than in their tents, the men slept in the pit. The entire night they were bitten by mosquitoes. The next morning the decision was made to move the company into a tree-covered area. Without knowing it, the soldiers had slept their last night on a cot. From this point on, they slept in blankets on the ground.
The coming month was a constant, slow, falling back toward the Bataan Peninsula. As they withdrew, supplies and food – that could have aided in the fight against the Japanese – were often left behind.
The Japanese launched an all-out attack on April 4 against the defenders. The tanks became a favorite target of the Japanese receiving fire on trails and while hidden in the jungle. and could not fight back. The situation was so bad that other troops avoided being near the tanks, and the 26th Cavalry turned down a tank company’s offer of assistance in a counter-attack.
On April 7, 1942, the Japanese broke through the east side of the main defensive line on Bataan. 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. At 10:30 that night, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms.
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.”
During this time, the soldiers were bombed and strafed. The morning before the surrender the Japanese bombed the ammunition dumps which were close to where HQ was bivouacked. That night the sky was lit by the fire of the burning ammunition dumps.
Word reached HQ Company that the order had been given to surrender the morning of April 9, 1942. The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt. Fred Bruni gave his men the news of the surrender. While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them. As he spoke, his voice choked. He turned away from the men for a moment, and when he turned back he continued.
He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks. During the announcement, Bruni emphasized that they all were to surrender together. He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and any supplies that could be used by the Japanese. The only thing they were told not to destroy were the company’s trucks. He also told them that from this point on, it was each man for himself. The men waited in their bivouac until ordered to move. Somehow, Bruni had found enough bread and pineapple juice for what he called, “Our last supper.”
Edward and the other men took their ammunition and weapons and put them in piles in the last tank and half-track they had. They poured gasoline into the tank and on the half track. Both were set both on fire.
The next morning they were supposed to join up with other troops and surrender together. When they attempted to do so, they were strafed by a Japanese plane, so they returned to their bivouac.
Two days after the official surrender, a Japanese officer and soldiers entered HQ Company’s bivouac. The Americans were ordered out onto the road that ran past their encampment. Once on the road, the Prisoners of War were ordered to kneel along the shoulders of the road with their possessions in front of them. As they knelt, Japanese soldiers passing them took what they wanted from the Americans.
HQ Company made its way to Mariveles in their trucks. At Mariveles Airfield, the POWs were herded and lined up for an inspection. The Japanese took the prisoners’ jewelry and other items that had any meaning to them.
As the soldiers stood facing the Japanese guards, it appeared that the Japanese were going to execute the prisoners. Out of the car climbed a Japanese officer, the officer gave orders to the soldiers that they were not to kill the POWs. After doing this, he got back into the car and it drove off.
Edward and the other POWs were ordered to move to a schoolyard where they were made to kneel in the sun without food or water. They soon realized that behind them were Japanese artillery firing on Corregidor. The American guns on the island began returning fire. Shells from the American guns began landing around the POWs. The men had no place to hide and several were killed. Three of the four Japanese guns were also destroyed.
It was from Mariveles late in the afternoon that Edward began what would later become known as the death march. The first night the POWs were marched all night. What made things worse for Edward and the other prisoners was as they marched, they came across artesian wells and watering holes, but they were denied their request for water. The Japanese would chase the POWs away from the wells. It got to the point that even though the Japanese attempted to keep the prisoners from the water the POWS still went to the wells. This resulted in the deaths of many men who were bayoneted while getting water.
At San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane. The boxcars were small and could hold eight horses or forty men. The Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly, that the dead remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas.
The camp 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 Japanese 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 in 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. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas. There, they were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another line which took it to Cabanatuan. The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup. From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was known as Camp Pangatian.
The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march where held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where those men captured when Corregidor surrendered were taken. In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp. Camp 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1.
Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with. To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers.
After arriving at Cabanatuan, Edward came down with dysentery. Medical records from the camp show that he was admitted to the camp hospital and put in Barracks 3, but no date was given. On Friday, July 3, 1942, at approximately 3:00 in the morning, Edward died and was buried in the camp’s cemetery in a mass grave with other POWs who died on that date. His family did not learn of his death until August 1945.
On February 17, 1950, the remains of Pvt. Edward G. Wills Jr. were returned to the United States. Since they could not be positively identified, he was buried Section 78, Graves 1004, 1005, and 1006, with seven other POWs at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Saint. Louis, Missouri. Cpl. Raymond J. Graham and Tec 5 Kent W. Hughes Jr, who share the grave, were members of the 192nd Tank Battalion. The cemetery was selected since the majority of families would have approximately the same distance to drive to the grave.
In memory of Edward, his parents had a headstone placed at the Berea Christian Church Cemetery, off the Mackville Road, about four miles southwest of Harrodsburg.
It should be mentioned, that Edward’s sister, Mary Lyle, flew two flags in front of her house in memory of her baby brother. She flew the flags both day and night, summer and winter. After she died in 1974, her family sold the house. The last thing to come down, from in front of the house, were the flags.
The photo at the top of the page is of Edward Wills and his nephew.