PFC Louis Casimer Zelis was born on February 13, 1914, in Chicago, and was one of the four sons born to Mary and John Zelis. He graduated from Kelly High School and worked as the advertisement distributor for a dry goods company. He married and resided at 1528 West Jackson Boulevard in Chicago. The Selective Service Act took effect on October 16, 1940, and he registered for the draft and named his mother as his contact person. Louis was drafted into the Army on January 22, 1941, in Chicago, and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he was assigned to Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion. He became a member of the company because the army was attempting to fill vacancies in each of the companies with men from the home states of each company. The draftees were trained by officers and men of the 192nd.
In late March 1941, the entire battalion was moved to new larger 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.
Most of the men were attending the various schools they were assigned to on January 13th starting in February until May 31st. The tankers went through intensive training at the various classes at the Armored Force School which taught classes in gunnery, radio communications, tank maintenance, vehicle maintenance, tank driving, as well as other classes.
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. 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. 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.
The 192nd Tank Battalion was sent to Louisiana, in the late summer of 1941, to take part in maneuvers. About half of the battalion left Ft. Knox on September 1st in trucks and other wheeled vehicles and spent the night in Clarksville, Tennessee, where they spent the night. By 7:00 A.M. the next morning, the detachment was on the move. On the second day, the soldiers saw their first cotton fields which they found fascinating. They spent the night in Brownsville, Tennessee, and were again on the move the following morning at 7:00 A.M. At noon, the convoy crossed the Mississippi River which they found amazing, and spent the night in Clarksdale, Mississippi. At noon the next day, the convoy crossed the lower part of Arkansas and arrived at Tallulah, Louisiana, where, they washed, relaxed, and played baseball against the locals. It also gave them a break from sitting on wooden benches in the trucks. The remaining soldiers, the tanks, and other equipment were sent by train and left the base on September 3rd. When they arrived at Tremont, Lousiana, the men, and trucks who had driven to Louisiana were waiting for them at the train station.
The battalion was assigned to the Red Army, attached to the Fourth Cavalry, and stationed at Camp Robinson, Arkansas. Two days later it made a two-day move, as a neutral unit, to Ragley, Louisiana, and was assigned to the Blue Army. The battalion’s bivouac was in the Kisatchi Forest where the soldiers dealt with mosquitoes, snakes, wood ticks, snakes, and alligators.
During the maneuvers, 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, in support of infantry, and held defensive positions. Some men felt that the tanks were finally being used like they should be used and not as “mobile pillboxes.” The maneuvers were described by other men as being awakened at 4:30 A.M. and sent to an area to engage an imaginary enemy. After engaging the enemy, the tanks withdrew to another area. The crews had no idea what they were doing most of the time because they were never told anything by the higher-ups. A number of men felt that they just rode around in their tanks a lot.
While training at Ft. Knox, the tankers were taught that they should never attack an anti-tank gun head-on. One day during the maneuvers, their commanding general threw away the entire battalion doing just that. After sitting out a period of time, the battalion resumed the maneuvers. The major problem for the tanks was the sandy soil. On several occasions, tanks were parked and the crews walked away from them. When they returned, the tanks had sunk into the sandy soil up to their hauls. To get them out, other tanks were brought in and attempted to pull them out. If that didn’t work, the tankers brought a tank wrecker from Camp Polk to pull the tank out of the ground.
It was not uncommon for the tankers to receive orders to move at night. On October 1st at 2:30 A.M., they were awakened by the sound of a whistle which meant they had to get the tanks ready to move. Those assigned to other duties loaded trucks with equipment. Once they had assembled into formations, they received the order to move, without headlights, to make a surprise attack on the Red Army. By 5:30 that morning – after traveling 40 miles in 2½ hours from their original bivouac in the dark – they had established a new bivouac and set up their equipment. They camouflaged their tanks and trucks and set up sentries to look for paratroopers or enemy troops. At 11:30, they received orders and 80 tanks and armored vehicles moved out into enemy territory. They engaged the enemy at 2:38 in the afternoon and an umpire with a white flag determined who was awarded points or penalized. At 7:30 P.M., the battle was over and the tanks limped back to the bivouac where they were fueled and oiled for the next day.
The one good thing that came out of the maneuvers was that the tank crews learned how to move at night. At Ft. Knox this was never done. Without knowing it, the night movements were preparing them for what they would do in the Philippines since most of the battalion’s movements there were made at night. The drivers learned how to drive at night and to take instructions from their tank commanders who had a better view from the turret. A number of motorcycle riders from other tank units were killed because they were riding their bikes without headlights on which meant they could not see obstacles in front of their bikes. When they hit something they fell to the ground and the tanks following them went over them. This happened several times before the motorcycle riders were ordered to turn on their headlights.
Snake bites were also a problem and at some point, it seemed that every other man was bitten by a snake. The platoon commanders carried a snake bite kit that was used to create a vacuum to suck the poison out of the bite. The bites were the result of the nights cooling down and snakes crawling under the soldiers’ bedrolls for warmth while the soldiers were sleeping on them. There was one multicolored snake – about eight inches long – that was beautiful to look at, but if it bit a man he was dead. The good thing was that these snakes would not just strike at the man but only struck if the man forced himself on it. When the soldiers woke up in the morning they would carefully pick up their bedrolls to see if there were any snakes under them. To avoid being bitten, men slept on the two and a half-ton trucks or on or in the tanks. Another trick the soldiers learned was to dig a small trench around their tents and lay rope in the trench. The burs on the rope kept the snakes from entering the tents. The snakes were not a problem if the night was warm. They also had a problem with the wild hogs in the area. In the middle of the night while the men were sleeping in their tents they would suddenly hear hogs squealing. The hogs would run into the tents pushing on them until they took them down and dragged them away.
The food was also not very good since the air was always damp which made it hard to get a fire started. Many of their meals were C ration meals of beans or chili that they choked down. Washing clothes was done when the men had a chance. They did this by finding a creek, looking for alligators, and if there were none, taking a bar of soap and scrubbing whatever they were washing. Clothes were usually washed once a week or once every two weeks.
After the maneuvers, the battalion members expected to return to Ft. Knox but received orders to report to Camp Polk, Louisiana. It was on the side of a hill the battalion learned that they had been selected to go overseas. Those men who were married or 29 years old or older were allowed to resign from federal service. They were replaced with men from the 753rd Tank Battalion. Both new and old members of the battalion were given leaves home to say their goodbyes. They returned to Camp Polk and prepared for duty overseas while once again living in tents. They were given M3A1 tanks – from the 753rd and the 3rd Armor Division – to replace their M2A2 tanks and half-tracks to replace their reconnaissance cars.
There are at least two stories on why the battalion was being sent overseas. According to the first story, the decision for this move was made on August 15, 1941, and 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 Taiwan which 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 second story that many of the original members of the battalion believed was that they were selected to be sent overseas because they had performed well during the maneuvers. According to this story, they were personally selected by Gen. George Patton – who had commanded their tanks during the maneuvers – to go overseas. There is no evidence that this was true.
The fact was that the battalion was part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox and operational by June 1941. During the maneuvers, they even fought as part of the First Tank Group. Available information suggests that the tank group had been selected to be sent to the Philippines early in 1941. Besides the 192nd, the group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – both had been medium National Guard tank battalions – at Ft. Meade, Maryland, the 193rd at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 194th at Ft. Lewis, Washington. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been light tank National Guard battalions. It is known that the military presence in the Philippines was being built up at the time, so in all likelihood, the entire tank group had been scheduled to be sent to the Philippines. The buoys being spotted by the pilot may have sped up the transfer of the tank battalions to the Philippines with only the 192nd and 194th reaching the islands. It is known that the 193rd Tank Battalion was on its way to the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the battalion was held there. The 70th and 191st never received orders for the Philippines because the war with Japan had started. It is known at least one heavy tank battalion had been scheduled to be sent, but it appears one had not been selected.
The battalion’s new tanks came from the 753rd and the 3rd Armor Division and were loaded onto flat cars, on different trains. At 8:30 A.M. on October 20, over different train routes, the companies were sent to San Francisco, California. Most of the soldiers of each company rode on one train that was followed by a second train that carried the company’s tanks. At the end of the second train was a boxcar followed by a passenger car that carried some soldiers. The company took the central route along through Northern Texas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. When they arrived in San Francisco, they were ferried, by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. When they got near Alcatraz, a soldier on the boat said to them, “I’d rather be here than going where you all are going.” On the island, they were given physicals by the battalion’s medical detachment. Men found to have minor health issues were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced. The soldiers spent their time putting cosmoline on anything that they thought would rust.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2, and had a four-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, U.S.A.T. 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. At some point, Jim wrote his family a letter. It was mailed in Manila on November 26, 1941, but his family did not receive it until February 26, 1942.
On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country, while two other intercepted ships were Japanese freighters hauling scrap metal to Japan. When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way.
The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. One thing that was different about their arrival was that instead of a band and a welcoming committee waiting at the pier to tell them to enjoy their stay in the Philippines and see as much of the island as they could, a party came aboard the ship – carrying guns – and told the soldiers, “Draw your firearms immediately; we’re under alert. We expect a war with Japan at any moment. Your destination is Fort Stotsenburg, Clark Field.” At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. A Marine was checking off their names as they left the ship. When someone said his name, the Marine responded with, “Hello sucker.” Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks with 17th Ordnance. The rest of the battalion rode a narrow-gauge train to the base.
At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward P. King Jr. who apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He made sure that had what they needed and that they all received Thanksgiving dinner – stew thrown into their mess kits – before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20th was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched 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 were heavy material and uncomfortable to wear in the tropical heat.
The 192nd had a large number of ham radio operators and shortly after arriving at Ft. Stotsenburg, they set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When they were informed it was the 192nd, they gave them frequencies to use. Men were able to send messages home to their families that they had arrived safely.
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,” that they borrowed from the 194th Tank Battalion – meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon.
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.
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.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. 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. It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd’s communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the battalion’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, the CO of the 194th Tank Battalion, read the messages of the attack. The officers of the 192nd were called to the tent and informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to the south end of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. HQ Company remained behind in their bivouac.
During the attack, the tankers watched as American pilots attempted to get their planes off the ground. As they roared down the runway, Japanese fighters strafed the planes causing them to swerve, crash, and burn. Those that did get airborne were barely off the ground when they were hit. The planes exploded and crashed to the ground tumbling down the runways. 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.
On December 22, 1941, as the driver of 2nd Lt. Ben Morin‘s tank, Louis and the other members of the crew were sent north, with four other tank crews, to come to the aid of the 26th U.S. Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. The cavalry was engaged in a battle with the Japanese near Damortis and attempting to withdraw so the tanks were given the job of engaging the Japanese.
As the tanks proceeded north, they were bombed by Japanese planes. When the tanks found the 26th Cavalry, the Japanese had deployed along the sides of the road. Louis weaved the tank allowing the other members of the crew to fire their stationary machine guns at the enemy alongside the road.
After the tank took a shell hit to the right side of the hull knocking the door in front of Pvt. John Cahill loose, Louis pulled the tank into a dry rice patty to allow the tank crew to replace the door. It was at this time that a Japanese tank rammed Louis’s tank at the left front sprocket causing the track to jam.
Of this event, Louis said, “The first we knew, an anti-tank shell knocked off the window shield of my tank. Five or six tankettes (the Japanese baby tank) rolled up the road. They stopped and a couple of Japs climbed out and started toward us. They peered through the shattered shell and saw we were still alive. Then they ran back to their tanks. Our lieutenant asked us if we should surrender or try to shoot it out with our pistols. We decided to surrender, hoping we would soon find a way to freedom.
“We waved a towel. An English speaking Jap said for us to come out. They tied our hands and put us on the back of the tankettes. We were taken to Tarlac and after Bataan fell and Corregidor fell they transferred us to Cabanatuan. My three tank mates (he did not reveal their names) have all been sent to Japan.”
When Louis attempted to pull back onto the road, the right track kept pulling the tank off to the left. A second shell hit the tank damaging the door in front of Pvt. Cahill’s face further. Another shell pierced the tank’s hull entering the battery case and causing a fire. The crew put on their gas masks and Louis turned on the extinguishers putting the fire out.
When four Japanese tanks approached the disabled tank, two Japanese soldiers got out of their tanks and approached the disabled tank. The two men looked into the tank through the shattered hatch. To their surprise, the tank’s crew was still alive. The soldiers retreated to their tanks.
Lt Morin asked his tank crew if they wanted to shoot it out with the Japanese with their sidearms or if they wanted to surrender. The crew decided it would be better to surrender. They hoped that if they did, that they would be exchanged for Japanese POWs.
In Louis’s own words, he described what happened: “The Japs had just landed at Lingayen and we went down to stop them there. We were told they only had small arms and baby tanks our light tank – I was the driver – and two others charged them. The first we knew an anti-tank shell knocked off the window shield of the tank. Five or six tankettes (the Japanese baby tank) rolled up the road. They stopped and a couple of Japanese climbed out and started toward us. They peered through the shattered shell and saw we were still alive. Then they ran back to their tanks. Our lieutenant asked us if we should surrender or try to shoot it out with our pistols. We decided to surrender, hoping we would soon find a way to freedom. We waved a towel. An English speaking Jap said for us to come out. They tied our hands and put us on the back of the tankettes.
“They treated us right well – then. They brought us to a village. A colonel questioned us about our strength. We said we didn’t know. He had us put in the bandstand in the village park and we spent our first night there.
“The next day they questioned us some more and then put us in a store. We stayed there for several days, and they then put us in a truck and brought us to Tarlac. They told us that if one tried to escape all would be killed.
“We worked at a hacienda, getting it ready for the generals and colonels whom the Japanese expected to capture soon. After Bataan and Corregidor fell they transferred us to Cabanatuan. My three tank mates all have been sent to Japan.”
Louis and the other members of the crew were now Prisoners of War. As a prisoner, Louis was first held at Agoo and Bauang. The POWs refused to bow to the Japanese which resulted in their being severely beaten. It was after one severe beating the men decided that it was better to bow than die.
On June 12, 1942, Louis and the other tankers were sent to Cabanatuan which was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march were 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.
In May, while he was on the work detail, his family received a message from the War Department.
“Dear Mrs. M. Zelis:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Private First Class Louis C. Zelis, 36,001,929, 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”
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 detail was under the command of “Big Speedo” who spoke very little English. When he wanted the POWs to work faster, he told the POWs “speedo.” Although he was known to have a temper, the POWs thought he was fair. Another guard was “Little Speedo” who was smaller and also used the word when he wanted the POWs to work faster. The POWs also felt he was pretty fair in his treatment of them.
“Smiley” was another guard who always had a smile on his face but could not be trusted. He was the meanest of the guards and beat men up for no reason. He liked to hit the POWs with the club. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads.
Other POWs worked in rice paddies. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Returning from a detail the POWs bought or were given medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in awhile, they received bread.
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.
He recalled that 20 men to 40 men were dying each day. While a prisoner of the Japanese, his weight dropped from 170 pounds to 107 pounds. The daily meal for a POW at Cabanatuan was a half-pint of raw rice and two sweet potatoes a day. When they had the time, the prisoners would sit around and talk about the food their mothers use to make back home.
At Cabanatuan, Louis was assigned to a detail commanded by Capt. Arthur Warmuth. One day, the Japanese wanted prisoners with dysentery to clean a dung pile. Capt. Warmuth attempted to ensure that the POWs were treated as ill men and not have to work. He complained to the commanding officer in a tone that got the message across. The officer hit him with a judo chop, and while he was lying on the ground, he was kicked in his head and stomach. Louis recalled how helpless he felt as he stood and watched this being done to a man he had come to respect. Capt. Warmuth was taken unconscious to the camp hospital where he recovered from the injuries.
In July 1942, his mother received another 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, Private First Class Louis C. Zelis 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.”
Medical records kept at the camp show that Louis was admitted to the camp hospital on Saturday, October 31, 1942, and was treated for an eye ulcer, but no date of discharge was recorded. The records show that he was readmitted to the hospital on Friday, May 29, 1943. Why he was admitted is not known since it was not recorded. There also was no date of discharge recorded.
According to Louis, what kept the prisoners going at Cabanatuan was the grapevine. It was their way of hearing what was going on in the war. As time went on, the prisoners, through the grapevine, heard that the Americans were on their way back to the Philippines. The men thought this was a dream too good to be true. One morning they heard rumbling in the distance. This rumbling was the sound of the American invasion forces shelling the beaches of Luzon.
Sometime in 1943, his family learned he was a Prisoner of War from the War Department.
“REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON PRIVATE FIRST CLASS LOUIS C ZELIS IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST MARSHALL GENERAL=
ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL=”
Within days of receiving the first message, they received a second message:
“The Provost Marshal General directs me to inform you that you may communicate with your son, postage free, by following the inclosed instructions:
“It is suggested that you address him as follows:
“PFC Louis C. Zelis., U.S. Army
Interned in the Philippine Islands
C/O Japanese Red Cross, Tokyo, Japan
Via New York, New York
“Packages cannot be sent to the Orient at this time. When transportation facilities are available a package permit will be issued you.
“Further information will be forwarded you as soon as it is received.
“Howard F. Bresee
“Chief Information Bureau”
During his time as a POW, Louis’s family received one card from him. The card was received on January 15, 1945, but was dated May 6, 1944.
Medical records kept at Cabanatuan show that Louis was admitted to the Hospital Building 7 on July 18, 1944, from Division I, Building ##1. No reason was given for why he was admitted. The records also show, on July 21st, he was moved to Building 4 and, on July 26, 1944, to Building 12. The Japanese considered to be too ill to be sent to Japan, so he remained at Cabanatuan.
In 1944, the Japanese began sending large numbers of POWs to Japan and other occupied countries. This was done so that the POWs would not be liberated by the advancing American troops.
Life in the camp was monotonous, and the POWs continued to go out on work details. It was on September 21, 1944, that the POWs see their first American planes. Not long after this, 150 guards, who had been at the camp for a long time, left the camp by truck for duty at other places. The POWs heard a rumor from guards Americans were on Mindanao Island. It turned out the rumor was false. The POWs heard and saw the heavy bombing of Clark Field on October 29. The POWs learned from a map in a Japanese paper – on October 30 – that American troops were on southern Luzon. In addition, American planes flew over the camp that night.
The Japanese guards admitted, on November 2, to the POWs that American troops were on Leyte and Mindoro. On November 5, American bombers flew over the camp all day long. To see how close the Americans were, the POWs looked for land-based planes but saw none. The next morning, the POWs watch two planes circle the camp. As they watched, the planes strafed and bombed Cabanatuan Airfield. The airfield was bombed and strafed three times that day twice at 11:00 A.M. and once at 2:00 P.M.
It was at this time that food became an issue in the camp. The POWs brought in food from the farm but it all went to the Japanese while other food was just left in the fields. Meals for the POWs were rice and corn for lunch and supper. Tobacco was a large problem with men suffering from malnutrition trading food for tobacco so they could roll a cigarette. The POWs also caught the tail end of a typhoon which made them wet and cold since there were no doors on the barracks to close. Many put on whatever clothing they had in an attempt to stay warm.
From talking to the guards, the POWs learned that there are only about 1000 American POWs left in the Philippines and that all but 300 sick POWs had left Bilibid. The rest had been sent out on ships for Japan or other parts of the empire. The POWs knew there were 500 POWs at Cabanatuan.– approximately 500 at Cabanatuan so the remainder had to be at Bilibid Prison outside Manila.
By November 13, the POWs no longer excited by American planes flying over the camp. What they wanted to know was where the troops and tanks were. On November 24, a large convoy of Japanese trucks passed the camp at night heading north. The POWs also received mail that was postmarked May and June 1944 which was the fastest they had ever received mail before. During this time the meals got worse and they received less rice and instead of fish, they were given fish powder. The POWs’ breakfast was plain lugao. To supplement their meals they ate dog soup. From November to December food was the main focus of the POWs.
American planes again appeared over the camp on December 14 and bombed to the north and west of the camp. For the first time, the POWs believed the planes were land-based. The next day before dawn, American planes flew over on their way to bomb Clark Field. The POWs heard and saw anti-aircraft fire as the planes attacked Later that day, they saw more planes flyover and bombed the Cabanatuan Airfield twice in one day. The next night, December 16, the POWs were sleeping when explosions from six bombs from an American plane dropped on a Japanese convoy on the road that ran past the camp woke them. At first, the POWs thought the camp was being bombed and took cover. A few days later the POWs heard that 38 Japanese soldiers had been killed and 20 wounded during the attack. That same day at 8:00 P.M., the Japanese moved some tanks, armored trucks, and small artillery pieces into the camp and stored them in old barracks and mess halls that had been abandoned.
The Japanese camouflaged the camp with nets, ropes, wires, and tree branches on December 18, and the next day the POWs heard the news that Americans had landed on Mindoro Island south of Luzon. It was at this time that two truckloads of Japanese troops and equipment entered the camp, as well as, several truckloads of lumber and supplies were brought into the camp. Approximately 100 Japanese troops with full combat gear entered the camp after dark. Food again was an issue, and the POWs noted their food was radish tops and some meat. When they received fish, the dried fish issued to them was mostly scales and bones since worms had eaten the meat.
The POWs watched heavy American bombers attacked by a single Japanese plane on December 22, and one plane crashed. The POWs hoped that it was the Japanese plane. A few days later, on December 24, 21 American bombers flew over the camp on their way to bomb Clark Field. In the distance, the POWs heard the ack-ack fire from the Japanese anti-aircraft guns. As the planes flew over the camp on the way back from the bombing, the POWs counted that all 21 planes had survived the mission.
On Christmas Day, the POW watched American fighter and bombers attack Clark Field. Again, they heard the bombs exploding the fire from the anti-aircraft guns. The next day they heard a rumor that all the POWs at Bilibid had been sent to Japan. Two days later, on December 28, the POWs were awakened by the sound of Japanese tanks and trucks passing the camp. Someone was able to see that the Japanese soldiers were dressed as Filipino civilians.
On the morning of January 7, 1945, the Japanese abandoned the camp and told them they were no longer prisoners of war. Before they left, the camp commander told them that if they stayed in the camp they would be safe but if they went beyond the fence they would be shot. The POWs wondered if the Japanese were going to return to kill them. During this time, the prisoners raided the camp warehouse for food and clothing. Dale had his first new clothes in years. Three days later, the Japanese posted guards at the camp who were soldiers who had been crippled in battle.
The POWs on January 9, heard shelling from American guns in the distance. Many wondered when the troops and tanks would reach them. The next day, Japanese troops returned to the camp and posted guards. They also returned the POWs to the hospital area of the camp. Most of the guards were troops who had been wounded in combat.
The U.S. 6th Rangers left on the mission to liberate the camp on January 28, and at 2:00 P.M. the Rangers crossed into Japanese territory. They reached the camp on January 31, 1945, and by 5:45 P.M. they had taken positions around the camp. At 7:40 P.M. the Rangers opened fired on guardhouses and by 8:15 P.M. the camp was secured and the POWs had been rescued without any POW casualties. Two POWs later died because of health issues. The Filipino guerrilla forces who held the bridge prevented the Japanese from reinforcing Cabanatuan. At 8:40 P.M., the Rangers signaled the guerrillas that all POWs had been rescued. The Rangers and former POWs reached Plateros at 10:00 P.M. and sent a radio message sent that all POWs had been rescued at 11:00 P.M. before leaving at 11:30 P.M. left Plateros for American lines. From this point on, American planes protected the group which successfully reached American lines on February 1, 1945. After reaching American lines, the former POWs saw an American flag in front of a hut; Many of them ran to it to touch it.
When his mother, Mary, heard the news, she said, “Thank God for the good news.” After receiving medical treatment, Louis was flown to Hickam Field in Hawaii and the Hamilton Airfield near San Francisco. Being the first member of B Company liberated, when he returned to Chicago, he told the families what he knew about the other members of Company B. He was discharged from the army on August 18, 1945.
In many papers, a photo appeared of Louis and his wife, Mae, after they were reunited. But, the effect of his years as a POW was that their marriage ended in divorce. He married Stella B. Mack on October 31, 1950, and he would later marry Helen Migliarini, who passed away in 1966. Louis Zelis passed away on June 17, 1974, in Chicago and was buried at Saint Casimir Catholic Cemetery in Chicago.