Pvt. Willard Rue Yeast was born on June 27, 1915, in Mercer County, Kentucky, to John Yeast and Cordia Gerling-Yeast. With his three sisters and six brothers, he grew up on Calvary Road in Mercer County and worked on the family’s farm.
Willard joined the Kentucky National Guard’s tank company, on October 7, 1940, in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. His reason for doing this is the company was about to be federalized as D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion, and Willard knew it was a matter of time before he would be drafted into the Army. The tank company was scheduled to report to Fort Knox, Kentucky on November 28, 1940. His younger brother, Claude, was also a member of the tank company.
At Ft. Knox, the soldiers attended armor schools and trained in tank tactics and maintenance. In early January 1941, Willard was transferred to Headquarters Company when it was created. It is not known what specific duties he did with the company.
In the late summer of 1941, the tank battalion was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers from September 1st through 30th. HQ company did not actively take part in the maneuvers but made sure the letter companies had the supplies they needed and that the tanks kept running. It was after the maneuvers that the battalion was ordered to remain behind at Camp Polk instead of returning to Ft. Knox. None of the soldiers had any idea why they were remaining at the base.
On the side of a hill, the battalion was informed that their time in the Army had been extended from one to five years. They also learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, most had figured out that PLUM stood for Philippines, Luzon, Manila. Men 29 years old, or older, were given the opportunity to resign from military service. The tankers worked to cosmoline their equipment to keep it from rusting.
The decision to send the 192nd overseas – which had been made during 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.
Traveling west over the southern train route through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and up the west coast, the company arrived in San Francisco, California, and was ferried, by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, the tankers were immunized and given physicals. Men found to have treatable medical conditions were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date.
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. They 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, the transport, 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, the tankers were met by Colonel 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 before he left to have his own dinner.
The members of the battalion pitched the 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.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons. They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts. The plan was for them, with the 194th Tank Battalion, to take part in maneuvers.
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.
On December 1, the tank battalions were sent to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. The 194th was given the northern part of the airfield to defend and the 192nd had the southern half to protect. At all times, each tank or half-track had to be manned by two members of its crew. Those on duty were fed by food trucks.
The morning of December 8, HQ Company remained behind in the battalion’s bivouac. 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. Capt Fred Bruni, the company commander, told them to listen up because what he was saying was the truth. He again told them that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and they were given guns and told to clean them. As they did this, they still believed that they had started maneuvers. It was early afternoon when this belief was blown away.
All morning long, American planes filled the sky. At noon, every plane landed, to be refueled, and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. recalled looking up and seeing a lot of planes approaching. Having heard the rumor that Clark Field was going to be reinforced the soldiers thought nothing about the planes approaching the airfield. The men got up and began counting the planes. The tankers believed the planes were American until what they described as “raindrops” appear to fall from the planes. When bombs began exploding around them, the tankers knew the planes were Japanese.
The men dove into a ditch that was near their bivouac and took cover and remained there for the entire 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.
For the next four months, HQ Company worked to keep the tank companies operational. 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.” It was at this time that Bruni told them that it was every man for themselves.
The 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.
The first contact HQ Company had with the Japanese was when a Japanese officer and soldiers entered their bivouac. They ordered the Americans to go to the road that ran past their encampment, and once on the road, they were made to kneel on both sides of the road with their possessions in front of them. As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers passing them took whatever they wanted from the Americans. The POWs remained along the sides of the road for half a day.
When the soldiers were ordered to move, they boarded trucks and drove to Mariveles. They were stopped outside the barrio and from there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and sat and waited. As they sat and watched, the POWs noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming across from them. They soon realized that this was a firing squad and the Japanese were going to kill them.
Sitting, watching, and waiting the POWs wondered what the Japanese intended to do. It was at that time that a Japanese officer pulled up in a car in front of the soldiers, got out, and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail. The officer got back in the car and drove off. While he was driving away, the sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns. Later in the day, the POWs was moved to a schoolyard in Mariveles and left sitting in the sun for hours without food or water.
Behind the POWs were four Japanese artillery pieces which began firing on Corregidor and Ft. Drum which had not surrendered. Shells from these two American forts began landing among the POWs who could do little since they had no place to hide. Some POWs were killed by incoming American shells. One group that tried to hide in a small brick building died when it took a direct hit. The American guns did succeed in knocking out three of the four Japanese guns.
The POWs were ordered to move again and had no idea that they had started what became known as the death march. During the march, the POWs received no water and little food. It took the members of HQ Company six days to reach San Fernando. Once there, the POWs were put into a bullpen that had a fence around it. In one corner was a slit trench to be used as a toilet by the POWs. The surface of the trench moved since it was covered in maggots. The POWs had enough room to sit, but they could not lie down.
During their time in the bullpen, the POWs watched the Japanese bury three POWs. Two of the men were still alive. When one of the men attempted to climb out of the grave, he was hit in the head with a shovel and buried. At some point, the Japanese ordered the POWs to form ranks. They were marched in detachments of 100 men to the train station.
At the train station, the POWs were put into small wooden boxcars known as “forty or eights,” because they could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. Those who died remained standing until the living climbed out of the car since they could fall to the floors. From Capas, Grover 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 been laying 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 acknowledged 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 transfer of POWs was completed on June 4.
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.
The POWs were sent out on work details one was to cut wood for the POW kitchens. The two major details were the farm detail and the airfield detail which lasted for years. A typical day on any detail lasted from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. The POWs on the farm detail would have to go to a shed each morning to get tools. As they left the shed, the Japanese guards thought it was great fun to hit them over their heads.
The camp hospital consisted of 30 wards that could hold 40 men each, but it was more common for them to have 100 men in them. Each man had approximately an area of 2 feet by 6 feet to lie in. The sickest POWs were put in “Zero Ward,” which was called this because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks.
The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves and would not go into the area. There were two rolls of wooden platforms around the perimeter of the building. The sickest POWs were put on the lower platform which had holes cut into it so they could relieve themselves. Most of those who entered the ward died. It is known from medical records kept at the camp, that Willard was hospitalized on August 21, 1942. The records do not indicate what his illness was or when he was discharged.
Willard went out on a work detail to Lipa, Batangas, on December 12, 1942, to build runways at Camp Murphy. The work was hard but got harder when they reached the hills about 400 yards from where they began. The Japanese expected the POWs to remove the hills by hand. Apparently, he was returned to Cabanatuan due to illness, since medical records show he was again hospitalized on March 23, 1943, but no illness or date of discharge was recorded.
During July 1943, two POWs escaped from the camp and were recaptured by the Japanese Secret Police which was known as the Kempei-Tai. The men were beaten with clubs and swords and had judo used on them. The Japanese put the men on a truck which made its way toward a beach. According to Filipino civilians, they heard four shots. Later, some of the POWs saw the men’s graves.
On October 3rd, seven POWs were punished by the Japanese. They were beaten, clubbed and hit with swords, and had judo used on them before they were suspended above the ground and beaten again.
At some point, Willard was sent to Palawan as a replacement for another POW who could no longer work. The work detail was to build an airfield with picks and shovels. He would remain at Palawan for over a year. In July 1944, about half the POWs were returned to Cabanatuan since most of the work on the airfield was done.
On October 19, 1944, the POWs saw their first American planes in over two years. Seventeen B-24s raided the airfield. The planes returned on October 28 and strafed and bombed the airfield again. The Japanese air force squadron that was based at the airfield was moved out at that time, and the POWs were ordered to fill in craters on the runways from the bombings. Although the Japanese should have returned the POWs to Manila, no orders came to remove them from the island.
After the second air raid, the POWs were ordered to dig three air raid trenches. The trenches were five feet deep and four feet wide. Each trench could hold 50 men. The officers had a smaller trench. The Japanese believed that Palawan would be invaded somewhere during mid- December, and on December 12, a convoy was seen heading toward the island. The fact was the convoy was heading to Island of Mindoro just south of Luzon. The POWs were unaware that the Japanese command at the airfield had received this message the evening of December 13. “At the time of the enemy landing, if the prisoners of war are harboring an enemy feeling, dispose of them at the appropriate time.”
At some point, an American convoy was spotted approaching Palawan, and the Japanese believed this was an invasion force heading to the island. On December 13, two Japanese officers told the POWs that they were going to work early the next day. They went to work, but at noon they were returned to the POW compound.
On December 14, the POWs knew something was going on. During lunch, there were two air raid warnings and the POWs went into the trenches. As they entered into the trenches, they noticed that extra guards had been placed around the compound.
Around 2:00 P.M., another air raid warning was given. Since they had been through two false alarms that day, the POWs did not go into the trenches until forced to do so by the Japanese. Once the POWs were in the trenches, the Japanese armed their guns.
The Japanese approached the first trench, threw lit torches into it and one or two buckets of gasoline. which set the POWs on fire. Those who ran from the shelter were shot. Those who begged to be shot in the head were shot or bayoneted in the stomach. The Japanese laughed at the POWs as they killed them. The guards also fired into the other trenches and threw hand grenades into them.
The POWs who escaped were hunted down. Men who attempted to swim to safety were shot in the water by Japanese soldiers in boats. Those who hid in the crevices in the cliffs were killed when the Japanese dynamited them. The POWs who did survive manage to make the swim to another island at night. On the island, they were protected by Filipinos until rescued by American forces.
When American forces landed on Palawan Island, on February 28, 1945, they found personal items in the POW compound. The graves of the murdered POWs were exhumed between March 15 and 23. In all, the remains of 123 were found. Many of the skulls had bullet holes in them.
Willard’s family did not receive official word of his death until September 11, 1945. At that time, they received this communique or a similar one.
“Pvt. Willard R. Yeast was in the brutal massacre of 150 members of the U.S. army, navy, and marine corps in a gigantic gasoline bonfire on December 14, 1944, at Puerto Princess prison camp, Palawan, in the Philippine Islands.
“This group of prisoners was attacked without warning by their Japanese guards who attempted to massacre the prisoners to the last man. Ten prisoners succeeded in escaping and these were the only survivors. It had now been officially established by reports received by the war department that all the remaining prisoners perished as a result of this ruthless attack.
“Edward F. Witsell, acting adjutant general of the army“
After the war, at the request of the families, some of the remains of men who could be identified were returned to the families and buried at the cemeteries of their choice. The remains of the remaining POWs – including Pvt. Willard R. Yeast – were reburied at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Saint Louis, Missouri, on February 14, 1952, in Section 85, Site 14 – 66.