Surviving members of the “Janesville 99,” a Wisconsin National Guard tank company that was sent to Luzon, Philippines as part of a defensive force, reunited for a photo after World War II. Rock County Historical Society photo

Remembering Wisconsin Guard unit in Bataan Death March

by Vaughn R. Larson

Eighty-two years ago, the “Janesville 99” — a Wisconsin National Guard tank company — endured the hellish Bataan Death March in the early days of the United States’ participation in World War II.

The Janesville unit was part of the 32nd “Red Arrow” Division when it was detached in the fall of 1940 and combined with other National Guard tank companies to form the 192nd Tank Battalion. The 32nd Tank Company became Company A, and — equipped with M3 Stuart tanks — arrived with the rest of the battalion in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, on Thanksgiving Day, 1941.

“They were rushed to Fort Stotsenberg and immediately placed on alert,” said Chris Campbell, who composed a historical account of the unit for the Company A, 192nd Tank Battalion Preservation Committee. “On Dec. 1, the tank group moved into battle positions to defend Clark Field.”

Company A learned that the United States had entered the war on Dec. 8. As unit members began preparing for combat, a loud roar prompted one Soldier to scan the skies with field glasses, identifying Japanese fighter planes.

“You could hear the damn bombs come down,” Robert Stewart, a Company A survivor, said in a July 17, 2002 oral history for the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. “It seemed like they must have been coming down end over end because they ‘swoosh-swoosh-swoosh’ through the air.”

That attack resulted in the first combat fatality for the 192nd Tank Battalion, as well as the loss of more than half of the B-17 bombers and many P-40 fighter planes at Clark Field.

A photo from the U.S. National Archives of prisoners along the Bataan death march. The April 9, 1942 surrender of more than 75,000 American and Philippine troops was the largest in U.S. history. An estimated 11,000 American and Philippine troops died along the way of exhaustion or execution. U.S. National Archives photo (NAID: 532548)

Military plans for the defense of the Philippines, then a commonwealth of the United States, initially envisioned that naval reinforcements would arrive to assist U.S. and Philippine forces. But the war in Europe had become the primary emphasis before the U.S. entered World War II, and the successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor significantly impaired U.S. naval strength in the region. The successful defense of the Philippines would have to be achieved by the forces already in place.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, appointed to supreme command of the U.S. Army Forces Far East Command months before the Janesville 99 arrived, saw his plans of aggressively meeting the Japanese fall apart in the weeks after the Dec. 8 attack. Japanese forces were successful in establishing air fields on Luzon. As many as 40,000 Japanese troops arrived at Lingayen Gulf 135 miles north of Manila on Dec. 22, and the following day the Japanese had established air and sea superiority around the Philippines. MacArthur determined his best course of action was to withdraw his forces to the Bataan peninsula to try and deny the Japanese access to Manila Bay. He and his command staff relocated to Corregidor, a small island in the mouth of Manila Bay.

The 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions were ordered to confront and delay the approaching Japanese forces to allow the withdrawal to Bataan. This would be the first American tank battle of World War II.

“Our whole unit went up to Lingayen [Gulf],” Stewart said. “There would be a group of tanks and personnel holding a line, and then the [Japanese] would be coming in and closing in on us, and so the whole line would pick up and move back. And the group that was back of us to begin with was then in the front. We were outnumbered so bad, but that’s how we finally got back to Bataan.”

The battalion fought a pitched battle against the Japanese at Plaridel, a city northwest of Manila, to allow American and Philippine forces time to withdraw to Bataan to the west. Asked to hold the position for six hours, the tank battalion held their ground for three days. They were the last American military unit to enter the Bataan peninsula.

Janesville’s Company A took part in what is referred to as the battle of the points and pockets, referring to where Japanese troops were landing on the southwestern bank of the Bataan peninsula as well as massed positions inland. Four tanks from Company A were part of an attack on an inland Japanese position Feb. 2, 1942.

“Each day the tanks went into the pocket,” said Janesville 99 member Sgt. Forrest Knox, “hub to hub, maybe 10 feet or less between vehicles. The combined fire of all machine guns and cannons was fierce.”

Sgt. Forrest Knox, one of the surviving members of the “Janesville 99,” a Wisconsin National Guard tank company that was sent to Luzon, Philippines as part of a defensive force. Photo courtesy Bataan Project

Supported by an infantry platoon from the 1st Battalion, 45th Infantry, the Company A tanks advanced through the enemy position, losing one tank in the process, but the infantry made only modest gains. By Feb. 4, three of the four Company A tanks had been destroyed.

“It was one of those where during the day we would take positions — that night, the Japanese would take them back,” Knox said.

In later armored attacks against Japanese positions, Igorot troops — indigenous people from northern Luzon — stood atop the advancing tanks and chopped away at the dangling foliage impeding forward progress while directing the tanks onward through the dense growth. These attacks eventually dislodged the Japanese by Feb. 17 — the first American ground victory against the Japanese in the war.

The American and Philippine forces were hampered by shortages in fuel, ammunition and food, and also had to contend with disease and fatigue as they fought the Japanese. MacArthur’s plan to attack invading Japanese forces was a change from the previous plan which called for a strategic retreat. Subsequently, supplies that would have been stored in Bataan for a force of 43,000 were dispersed forward, and those supplies were out of reach when the plan reverted to a retreat. The American and Philippine troops were fighting on half-rations since Jan. 7. Rations were cut back on March 1 and again April 1, at which time troops are lucky if they could eat 1,000 calories a day.

“We held out as long as we could,” Stewart said. “There was nothing to eat, and ammunition wasn’t very plentiful, either.”

MacArthur was ordered to Australia on March 11, 1942. By month’s end, American and Philippine forces had deteriorated to 30 percent fighting capability. Maj. Gen. Edward King, now in command of American and Philippine forces in Luzon, disobeyed orders from MacArthur and surrendered to the Japanese on April 9, 1942. A jeep from Janesville’s Company A carried King’s staff officers to meet with the Japanese for terms of surrender, and extra bedding from Company A was used for white flags.

“When the order to surrender came, it was a great relief to me,” said Pvt. 1st Class John Falconer of the Janesville 99. “We found some abandoned trucks and some food. I had, right then, one of the best meals I have ever had in my life. I had creamed peas on toast.”

The surrender of more than 75,000 American and Philippine troops was the largest in U.S. history, but it nonetheless succeeded in delaying the Japanese advance to Manila Bay.

“The Bataan force went out as it wished, fighting to the end its flickering forlorn hope,” MacArthur said April 10, 1942, one day after the surrender. “No army has ever done so much with so little and nothing became it more than its final hour of trial and agony.”

The “death march” to Camp O’Donnell in central Luzon followed.

“They put us in groups — lined us up a hundred men,” Stewart said. “Then right next to that line, another, and they had four [lines] abreast, and that’s how we marched out of Bataan.”

The American prisoners of war are reported as missing in action and presumed captured to their families, who do not hear much more about their service members for about a year.

Stewart recalled being fed only once, a serving of rice from a table along the 65-mile-long route of march — “You didn’t stop to eat it,” he recalled. Some surviving Company A members referred to the march as a “trudge” as it lasted as long as two weeks for some prisoners. Sometimes the march occurred at night. An estimated 11,000 American and Philippine troops died along the way of exhaustion or execution. Three Soldiers from the 192nd Tank Battalion, including one from Company A, escaped and fought alongside guerillas. The Company A Soldier spent the rest of the war fighting the Japanese as a guerilla.

The end of the march did not bring an end to the misery for American and Philippine troops, as thousands more died at Camp O’Donnell, a training camp for Philippine recruits — in the first 40 days alone, approximately 1,600 Americans and nearly 20,000 Philippine troops perished.

“We weren’t there more than two days or three days when they called for each company to send into headquarters a certain number of men,” Stewart said. “They worked as gravediggers and pallbearers, you might say. The only way to get them to the burial site was lay them on a blanket and then pick the blanket up and tie the two corners together, and then put a bamboo pole through it so it made kind of a cradle.”

There were not enough barracks to house all the prisoners. Stewart recalled sleeping under anything that could provide shade.

“That was the first hellhole,” he said.

The Japanese transferred all American prisoners of war to Camp Cabanatuan due to the high death rate at Camp O’Donnell. From there prisoners were shipped to slave labor camps in Japan, Korea and China.

Prisoners would be assigned to work details in the Philippines and later in Japan, ranging from repairing bombed-out bridges to copper mining. Capt. Fred Bruni, commander of Company A, was among the 123 Americans killed in December 1944 as part of the massacre on the island of Palawan.

When American prisoners of war learned in August 1945 that the war with Japan had finally ended, Stewart compared it to children on Christmas morning.

“We were elated,” Stewart said.

Of the 99 tank company Soldiers from Janesville, only 35 survived the war. Some are buried at the American Cemetery in Manila, including unidentified remains of Soldiers who perished when the unmarked ships carrying them to slave labor camps were torpedoed and sunk. The remains of 21 Company A Soldiers were returned to Janesville for burial.

After returning home from the war, Stewart worked as a rural mail carrier. He and other Bataan death march survivors began speaking about their ordeal in the 1980s. He died in 2003 at the age of 84, and was recognized, along with other survivors, at a May 5 ceremony in Janesville.

“This is an important story,” Christopher Kolakowski, Wisconsin Veterans Museum director, said in a Jan. 10, 2023 PBS Wisconsin University Place presentation. “It marks an important Wisconsin community, and it is a key part of the heritage of the Wisconsin National Guard and service to the country. And we should never forget.”

Chris Campbell contributed to this article.

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