Honoring The Sacrifice Of The Harrodsburg Tankers

Editor’s Note: On April 9, 1942, U.S. and allied forces in the Philippines were forced to surrender to the Japanese. Approximately 75,000 American and Filipino troops—including members of Company D, 192nd Light Tank Battalion, better known as the Harrodsburg Tankers—were forced to march 65 miles to prisoner of war camps. Thousands perished in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Of the 66 Harrodsburg Tankers, only 37 survived the war. This deeply researched story by Kandie Adkinson originally appeared in Mercer Magazine in 2018. It is reprinted in its entirety to honor the Tankers’ sacrifice.

The Whittinghill brothers were representative of Mercer County families who sent multiple sons into combat. Pictured left to right are: Grover Whittinghill, one of the 66 Harrodsburg tankers at Bataan; mother Lillian Hendren Whittinghill, who taught at Dean School and Cornishville Grade School for decades; James Whittinghill and Robert Whittinghill, who also served in World War II. (Photo submitted.)

By Kandie P. Adkinson

Contributing Writer

I remember that Sunday morning at Cornishville Christian Church so well. The summer weather was sunny and extremely hot. The sanctuary wasn’t air conditioned at the time so the two screened front doors and all of the windows were propped open. My father, Marcus Prather, was preaching with a louder voice that day.

As fate would have it, I needed to go outside to the car for something during the sermon. A man was sitting on the front steps listening…just listening. I spoke to him and invited him inside to worship with us. He nodded his head and remained on the steps.

At Sunday dinner I told my parents about Grover Whittinghill being outside during the sermon. My dad told me he was there quite often. (That explained the louder voice from the pulpit.) My mother said we would never understand the tortures Mr. Whittinghill and the other men suffered on the Bataan Death March. Since then, I have made it my mission to learn more about our friends and neighbors who served, and those who continue to serve, in the military.

To say Mercer County responds to the call to bear arms in defense of our country every time the call is issued is a massive understatement. By Feb. 25, 1944, over 1,100 Mercer County men and women were in military service. To put that number in perspective, the population of Mercer County in 1940 according to the U.S. Census Bureau was 14,629 men, women, and children. The unofficial population for Harrodsburg was estimated at 4,673. Not only were families impacted when their sons and daughters put their business affairs in order, laced their boots, packed their duffel bags, and went to war, other aspects of Mercer County’s demographics were also affected, such as high school enrollment, management and staffing of businesses, farm life and the local economy.

The next time you are at the courthouse on Main Street, Harrodsburg, take a moment to stop by the monument honoring those from our community who died in military service and read the names. You may not have known any of the soldiers personally but you will know their families or, at the very least, you will recognize their surnames.

There are many resources and oral histories in libraries, online, and on television for those who are seeking information about the 66 men from Harrodsburg who endured the Bataan Death March. On Sept. 6, 2009, Kentucky Educational Television first aired a program entitled “Bataan: The Harrodsburg Tankers.” Check the KET schedule for the next airing of the program or view it online. The program includes interviews with several of the veterans.

Military Historian John Trowbridge researched and developed a website for the Kentucky National Guard entitled “Harrodsburg Tankers” that includes the history of the 38th Tank Company with links to the Proviso (Illinois) East High School Bataan Commemorative Research Project and the booklet “Commemorating the Sixty-Sixth Anniversary of the Sixty-Six Harrodsburg Tankers” compiled in 2008 by Trowbridge and Jason M. LeMay.

The Proviso (Illinois) East High School Bataan Commemorative Research Project includes video clips, pictures, biographies and quotations by the Bataan veterans during oral history interviews. The Bataan Commemorative Research Project website was the 2003-2004 winner of the Team Award for Educational Excellence given by the Illinois State Board of Education. We thank Jim Opolony, Coordinator for the Bataan Research Project, for granting permission to use information from the bataanproject.com website in this article.

The Kentucky Oral History Commission conducted interviews with the following veterans of the 192nd Tank Battalion of the Kentucky National Guard in Harrodsburg several decades ago: Maurice “Jack” Wilson, Claude Yeast, William Gentry, Cecil VanDiver, Edwin Rue, Lawrence Martin, Grover Whittinghill, Kenneth Hourigan, Joe Anness, Earl Fowler, Charles Reed, Marcus Lawson, Ralph Stein and John Elmore Sadler. Many of the veterans are no longer with us but we can hear their voices describing their firsthand experiences on the Bataan Death March.

Wars and “conflicts” are now identified by the primary location of their battlefields—Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, to name a few.

World War II was different; the battlefields were global. Those who served were willing to be deployed and face life-changing injuries, or death, in places they probably couldn’t spell, or had never visited or studied in school. They had to eat food they would never eat at home and to do whatever was necessary to survive the harshest conditions man could ever imagine to fight for people they had never met.

Research indicates the Harrodsburg Tankers, known as the 38th Tank Company, were a Kentucky National Guard unit that met every Monday night in an upstairs area over a store building on Main Street in Harrodsburg prior to being called to active duty during World War II. After training and drill, some of the men played a few rounds of poker or dice; they formed a bond that would help them survive what was facing them in the near future. Many had enlisted for the money; others had enlisted to do something other than farming. Since they expected to be drafted, some enlisted in the tank company to fulfill their “year and a day” of military service.

Sgt. William Clinton Alford began his training for the 192nd tank battalion in Fort Knox in the early 1940s and was assigned to the Battalion Headquarters reconnaissance platoon. (Photo submitted.)

The Harrodsburg Tank Company was formed in 1932 and several of the men in the original unit were still serving in 1940. At that time, there were 83 enlisted men and five officers in the 38th Tank Company with Capt. Bacon R. Moore in command. Their tank company used two M2T2 light tanks with twin turrets for training purposes. These tanks were affectionately known as “Mae Wests.” 

There was an interesting announcement in the newspaper in August 1940 that seemed to place our country in a defensive posture. The chairman of the Kentucky Defense Commission announced the hydroelectric plant at Dix Dam and six subsidiary stations in Kentucky and one in Virginia were closed to visitors until state and national defense agencies saw fit to lift the regulation. The order affected all units of the utilities company, which, at that time, served approximately 400 communities and 250 coal mines including mines under control of steel and automobile concerns. Recreation facilities at Herrington Lake were not affected except for a small area adjacent to the dam across Dix River. The restrictions were put into place by Kentucky and other states to protect their hydroelectric plants from saboteurs.

Also in August 1940, the 38th Tank Unit spent one month in Wisconsin undergoing war maneuver training. They were with troops from the Fifth and Sixth Corps area who were battling “on a real war basis.” In a letter to his wife, Capt. Bacon Moore said “All the boys in the 38th Tank Unit are well and making a good showing in duties assigned them.”

On Sept. 19, 1940, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson announced plans to mobilize 37,000 additional National Guardsmen in November, bringing the total to 133,000 Guardsmen on active duty. Shortly after they returned from training in Wisconsin in September 1940, the 38th Tank Unit was federalized and designated as Company D, 192nd Light Tank Battalion.

Among the units to be activated for training in November was the 192nd Tank Battalion (Kentucky, Illinois, Ohio and Wisconsin). Actually, they were the first Kentucky National Guard unit to be called-up for training. Company D was now known as the “Panzer Unit of the Kentucky National Guard.”

According to an article in the Harrodsburg Herald published Oct. 4, 1940: “The men are cheerfully making their preparation for long absence from business, home, family, and school for several of the Guardsmen are high school students. A number are married, but they and their families are facing the twelve months separation with the comforting thought that preparedness is the best course, and the period of training will make them better defenders of their homes and firesides.”

On Monday evening, Nov. 25, 1940, the Mercer Board of Trade, with B.F. Norfleet as president, sponsored a mass meeting in the Harrodsburg High School auditorium to honor the community’s first men to enter selective military training, the volunteers, and the members of the 192nd Tank Battalion. The large crowd in attendance gave the servicemen a round of applause as each of them were introduced.

One of the features of the program was the “splendidly drilled” Safety Patrol of the school led by Capt. Brent Cull. They carried the colors to the platform and led the audience in the Salute to the Flag. Speakers were City Manager E.H. Davis, Capt. Charles T. Corn (County Judge), and Capt. Bacon R. Moore. The patriotic music for the evening included “God Bless America,” “There’ll Always Be An England” and “America.” There was “Fun Making” by the WLAP Entertainers. “Taps” was played at the close of the program.

On Thursday, Nov. 28, 1940, 76 soldiers and five officers from Company D, 192nd Tank Battalion, left for Fort Knox for training. The youngest men in Company D were 18 years old. Cpl. Marcus Lawson was a junior at Harrodsburg High School. Pvt. Willard E. Foster was a farmer in Rose Hill who was glad the activation would occur after the corn had been cut and his tobacco was hanging in the barn. Pvt. Clyde H. “Lefty” Demaree, 19, was a junior at Harrodsburg High School where he played tackle on the football team when he left for training at Fort Knox in November 1940.

From the Harrodsburg Herald, Nov. 29, 1940: “Packing up the military trunks was one job. Carrying the trunks up the street to the trucks and stowing them away was another. And it seemed the supply of varied articles that go along with soldiers was endless, and every item was strictly in accordance with the rules as we understand it. They were a robust and cheerful body of soldiery as they headed for the big fort, and their trucks slid out of town so easily that comparatively few people knew they were on their way.”

From the bataanproject.com website: “The company traveled to Fort Knox for one year of active duty. The unit trained at the base for nearly a year before being sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers from Sept. 1-30, 1941. At the end of the maneuvers, the tankers were ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, without being given a reason. They had expected to return to Fort Knox.” They were also told their tour of duty had been increased from one year to five years. (So much for “a year and a day.”) “On the side of a hill at Camp Polk, the battalion also learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, many of the soldiers had figured out that PLUM was an acronym for Philippines, Luzon, Manila. It was at this time, men 29 years or older or those with health problems or family obligations were given the opportunity to resign from federal service. Those who resigned were replaced with men from the 753rd Tank Battalion that had just been transferred from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Camp Polk, Louisiana. The M3 “Stuart” tanks from the 753rd were also given to the 192nd.”

Research indicates the reason for increasing American’s tank battalions was an event that took place in the summer of 1941—months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed flagged buoys had been placed in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest in the direction of a Japanese occupied island with a large radio transmitter hundreds of miles away. The next day an American ship picked up the buoys and the decision was made to increase the American military presence in the Philippines.

According to bataanproject.com, Company D of the 192nd Tank Battalion was now commanded by Capt. Edwin W. “Skip” Rue. Although he was over 29 years of age at the time, he decided to remain with his company and go overseas. Other soldiers in the Headquarters of the Provisional Tank Group were Sgt. Vernon H. Bussell, Cpl. Elmer J. Bensing Jr., Cpl. Edward P. Serpell and Pvt. Daniel H. Nugent. First Lt. George A. Vanarsdall was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 192nd Tank Battalion. Second Lt. Everett R. Preston led Company A. First Lt. William H. Gentry led Company C. Second Lt. Harry R. Lafon Jr. and Second Lt. Archibald B. Rue were assigned to Company D.

Company A was comprised of men from Janesville, Wisconsin; Company B from Maywood, Illinois; Company C from Port Clinton, Ohio, and Company D from Harrodsburg, Kentucky.

There were six sets of brothers in Company D of the 192nd Tank Battalion: Staff Sgt. Joe R. Anness Jr., and Pvt. Elzie E. Anness; Sgt. Edward T. French and Sgt. Morgan R. French; Capt. Edwin W. “Skip” Rue and 2nd Lt. Archibald B. Rue; Sgt. John E. Sadler and Pvt. Campbell K. Sadler; Sgt. Heze Sallee and Pvt. James W. Sallee; Cpl. Claude L. Yeast and Pvt. Willard R. Yeast.

At the end of September 1941, when their training and maneuvers were complete, it was time for the troops and equipment in the 192nd Tank Battalion to move. From the bataanproject.com website: “The battalion’s new tanks were loaded onto flat cars on different trains. The soldiers cosmolined anything they thought would rust.”

As the secrecy of their mission was critical to its success, the soldiers traveled across the United States over different train routes with their ultimate destination being San Francisco, California. From there they were ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island for physical examinations.

The 192nd then boarded the USAT Gen. Hugh L. Scott and set sail on Monday, Oct. 27, 1941. They had a brief layover in Hawaii then they sailed westward with a stopover at Guam where they took on bananas, vegetables, coconuts and water. From Guam to Manila they sailed, in some instances, in complete blackout.

On Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 20, 1941, the 192nd Light Tank Battalion, including Company D from Harrodsburg, landed at Manila Bay in the Philippine Islands. They docked at pier 7.

The soldiers drove their trucks or were bussed to Fort Stotsenburg where they were welcomed by Col. Edward P. King. He apologized for assigning them to tents since there were no available barracks at the facility. He made sure they were served their Thanksgiving dinner before he ate his meal.

The members of the 192nd pitched tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. There were two rows of tents with five men assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks.

The soldiers spent their time removing the cosmoline from their weapons and loading ammunition belts.

It was at this time that Company D, comprised of Mercer County soldiers, was attached to, but not officially transferred to, the 194th Tank Battalion. The two battalions participated in joint maneuvers.

On Dec. 1, 1941, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against enemy paratroopers. The plan was for the 192nd to guard the southern half of Clark Field while the 194th guarded the northern half. At all times, two members of every tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles. Once again, meals were brought to them by food trucks.

When Japan bombed the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, early Sunday morning on Dec. 7, 1941, the scope of the battles fought in Europe and North Africa turned worldwide. The fight for control of the South Pacific—the western entrance into the United States—had truly begun. Japan had declared war on the United States and the British Empire.

On Dec. 8, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered the now famous “Infamy Speech” before a joint session of the United States Congress. Within an hour, congress passed a formal declaration of war against Japan.

Pfc. Cecil J. Sims enlisted in the Harrodsburg National Guard unit some time before the unit was activated in November 1940. (Photo submitted.)

Also on the morning of Dec. 8, the Tanker units at Fort Stotsenburg watched American planes as they filled the sky overhead. At noon the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the 192nd and the 194th Light Tank Battalions were at full strength at Clark Field. They watched, helplessly, as 54 Japanese planes, flying in two formations from the north, destroyed the American Army Air Corps planes and the bivouac where the pilots were eating. Clark Field was decimated in the surprise attack. At first, the soldiers thought “raindrops” were falling from the planes flying overhead. The raindrops were bombs.

“I had a pork chop sandwich in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other when they came over the base,” Grover Whittinghill recalled. “They caught everything we had on the ground, except the tanks, which were off to the side, hidden by bushes. The raid lasted for about an hour.”

“Major Nelson, an old World War I soldier, saved my life the first day of the war,” Cecil VanDiver recalled. “We were being bombed and strafed and I jumped up to see a plane crashing down to earth. When I jumped up, Major Nelson pulled me down and said ‘Soldier, you stay down.’ I guess he was right because the bark of the tree I was leaning against fell down my neck. That was the first day of the war.”

The men of the tank units watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks and trucks—whatever was available. When the hospital was filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building.

That night, there was one air raid after another. As it was safer than sleeping inside the tents, and there was no time to dig foxholes, most men slept under their tanks or in latrine pits where they were bitten by mosquitoes. The next morning they moved to a tree covered area. For the next three and a half years, the men slept in blankets on the ground. No beds. No cots. Three and a half years.

From Dec. 8, 1941, to Jan. 6, 1942, the Filipinos and the Americans defended bridges as the tank units were constantly bombed, shelled, and strafed.

On Dec. 31, 1941, 1st Lt. William H. Gentry of Harrodsburg led the first tank battle for the United States against the Japanese. Ten U.S. tanks knocked out six Japanese tanks in a Filipino village.

On the evening of Jan. 6, 1942, the 194th, covered by the 192nd, crossed the bridge over Culis Creek and entered Bataan. This was the beginning of what is known as the Battle of Bataan. Food rations were cut in half.

Around this time, Brig. Gen. James R.N. Weaver, commander of the Provisional Tank Group, issued the following orders to the tank battalions: “Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay.”

Capt. Edwin W. “Skip” Rue of Harrodsburg was assigned to headquarters as the liaison officer for Gen. Weaver.

The last major battle fought by the tanks was on March 21, 1942. The Japanese launched a major offensive on the Philippines on April 4.  On April 8, knowing the situation was hopeless, Major Gen. Edward P. King sent officers to negotiate the surrender of Bataan. He said, “I have done all that could have been done to hold Bataan, but starved men without air and with inadequate field artillery support cannot endure the terrific aerial and artillery bombardment that my troops were subjected to.”

At the order “CRASH,” the tankers would destroy their tanks and other equipment before surrendering to the Japanese. The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt. Fred Bruni gave his men the news of the surrender and told the sergeants how to disable the tanks. During the announcement, Capt. Bruni said they would all surrender together. He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and anything else the Japanese could use against them—except the company’s trucks. Somehow Bruni found enough bread and pineapple juice to serve the men what he called, “their last supper.”

One group of tankers was reluctant to destroy their tank; perhaps the soldiers felt they could use the tank later. After the tank was confiscated by the Japanese, the tank was, in fact, used later…against American soldiers.

On the morning of April 9, 1942, most of the men in the tank battalions became prisoners of war. Twenty men escaped to Corregidor to fight for another month; three joined the guerillas.

When Bataan fell on April 9, the Japanese captured 36,853 U.S. and Filipino troops. The captors were not prepared to feed, clothe and house that many prisoners. Living conditions were bound to be horrible for everyone but especially the POWs.

According to bataanproject.com: “The morning of April 11, a Japanese officer and troops arrived and ordered the soldiers out onto the road that ran just past the bivouac. Once there, they were ordered to kneel along the sides of the road and place their possessions in front of them. The Japanese soldiers, who were passing by, took whatever they wanted from the Americans.”

This may have been the time when a Japanese guard asked Pvt. Grover D. Whittinghill, a 1938 graduate of Cornishville High School, to give him his class ring and Pvt. Whittinghill refused. The request was repeated. Whittinghill refused again. Here is where there are conflicting stories. According to one account, Whittinghill removed the ring and tossed it into a nearby body of water. According to a second, and more likely, account and Whittinghill’s statements in a tobacco barn near Cornishville decades later, when he refused to give the guard the ring, the Japanese soldier pulled out a weapon capable of chopping off Whittinghill’s hand so he gave the Japanese soldier the ring. Whittinghill said “Somewhere out there, someone is wearing my class ring” or words to that effect.

When the soldiers were finally ordered to move, they boarded trucks and drove to a point near Mariveles at the southern tip of the Bataan peninsula. They were then ordered to walk to Mariveles Airfield to sit and wait for the next command. As they sat, they noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming a firing squad across from them. A Japanese officer pulled up in a car and spoke to the sergeant assembling the firing squad. After the officer got back in his car, the sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.

The POWs were then moved to a schoolyard where they sat in the sun for hours without food or water. Four Japanese artillery pieces behind them began firing on Corregidor and Ft. Drum, which had not yet surrendered. Some POWs were killed by Americans during the return fire and the bombing of a small brick building that took a direct hit. Three of the four Japanese guns were destroyed by the Americans.

It was from that schoolyard in Mariveles where the members of Company D from Harrodsburg, and other POWs, started what is now known as the Bataan Death March. It took the members of HQ Company of the 192nd six days to reach San Fernando. Many of the enlisted men, who were greater in number, were already sick. Because they had gone without food or water, they died of exhaustion or dysentery or they were executed, beaten to death or decapitated along the way. It took the enlisted men with the weaker prisoners several weeks to march from Mariveles to San Fernando. When they arrived, they were confined in fenced bullpens large enough for the men to stand but not lie down. In one corner was a maggot-covered slit trench that was used as a toilet by the POWs.

From there, they marched to the local railroad station where 100 men were crammed into small wooden boxcars designed to hold 40 men or eight horses. Since there was no room for the dying and dead soldiers to lie down, they were propped in a standing position by the other men.

At Capas they deboarded. When the doors of the boxcars opened, the dead fell to the ground as those who were still alive stepped from the train. The POWs then walked the last few miles to Camp O’Donnell, an unfinished Filipino Army training base that was being used by the Japanese as a makeshift Prisoner of War facility. There was one water spigot for the entire camp. Men stood in line for a drink of water for days with some dying while in line. As many as 50 men died each day at Camp O’Donnell.

Pvt. Willard Emmal Foster was one of the members of Company D who died at Camp O’Donnell while he was a prisoner of war in the Philippines. The cause of death was dysentery; he died June 1 or 2, 1942, and was buried in the cemetery at Camp O’Donnell. After the war, his remains were positively identified and reburied at the new American Military Cemetery at Manila.

According to research, none of the 66 men from Harrodsburg were killed in action. The cause of death for the 29 who did not survive Bataan and the Death March was starvation or diseases associated with POW camps.

On May 5, 1942, Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright sent the following message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “There is a limit of human endurance and that point has long been passed.” Col. Howard burned the 4th Marine Regiment’s flag as well as the American flag to prevent their capture. In a tunnel, Wainwright surrendered the Corregidor garrison on May 6, 1942. The prisoners were stripped of their valuables and marched to a big concrete yard. They were held there for three days and nights; they were given no food or water. Their only nourishment was from scraps of food discarded by Japanese soldiers. They were not forced to walk the 90 miles to Camp O’Donnell. They were taken by train. Sgt. Marcus Lawson was one of the members of Company D who was at the surrender of Corregidor.

Photo submitted.

As Red Cross packages started to arrive for the Bataan POWs, the death rate dropped significantly. There were, however, instances in which the captors kept the items in the packages for themselves.

When a new camp at Cabanatuan opened, the “healthier” POWs were sent there to be held captive. They were joined by the battalion members who had escaped to Corregidor but had been taken captive. Most of the POWs who remained at Camp O’Donnell died.

For some, Cabanatuan was where they would spend the remainder of the war. Other battalion members were sent to satellite camps in other parts of the Philippines. Others were boarded onto cargo ships and sent to Japan or another occupied country

As the war continued and American troops drew closer to the Philippines, many of the members of the battalion who were still in the area, were sent to Manila for shipment to Japan to prevent them from being liberated. The Japanese transport ships were not marked with red crosses indicating they were carrying prisoners of war; many of the ships were torpedoed by American and British submarines. Members of the tank battalions also died in the holds of Japanese cargo ships from heat or sickness.

After the American armed forces landed in the Philippines, four members of the tank battalions were burned to death by the enemy soldiers on Palawan Island along with other POWs. The luckier battalion members were freed when American Rangers liberated Cabanatuan on Jan. 30, 1945. Some were freed when Bilibid Prison was liberated on Feb. 4, 1945.

Those members of the tank battalions who were sent to Japan were used as slave labor. They worked in factories and in lead, copper or zinc mines; they worked as stevedores loading and unloading ships; and they hauled hazardous chemicals. One day, a member of the 192nd watched an American bomber circle above the shipping docks where he was working. The plane dropped leaflets to the POWs working on the docks. They knew it was just a matter of time before the war would be over. We can be certain they prayed they would still be alive to see that day.

On May 7, 1945, Adolph Hitler’s successor, Admiral Donitz, offered Germany’s unconditional surrender to the allies, including the United States. Victory in Europe was celebrated on May 8, 1945.

On Aug.14, 1945, the Japanese unconditionally surrendered to the allies after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6 and a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki on Aug. 9. On Sept. 2, 1945, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s surrender, thus formally ending the Second World War.

“I was working 2,000 feet into the mountain in a lead mine (near Hiroshima) the day the atomic bomb struck and thought nothing of the reverberation,” recalled Cpl. Claude Len Yeast of Harrodsburg. “The next day the Japanese said it was a holiday. The rumors starting flying that the war was over. The Japanese handed over their guns and walked out of camp. We ate two horses in two weeks.”

The former POWs were taken to Yokohama where they boarded a hospital ship. After he was liberated, Cpl. Claude Len Yeast learned that his brother, Pvt. Willard R. Yeast, was one of the POWs who was burned to death on Palawan Island.

According to the bataanproject.com website, “Of the 596 soldiers of the 192nd Tank Battalion who left the United States in late Oct. 1941, 325 had died. Some in combat, some were executed, but most died from disease or malnutrition while Japanese prisoners of war. Many died in the holds of ships that were sunk by Allied submarines.”

Of the 66 men from Mercer County in Company D, 192nd G.H.Q. Tank Battalion, 29 men (44-percent of the company), perished. There are estimates that up to 18,000 Filipinos also died in the death march. On April 3, 1946, Gen. Masaharu Homma, the commander of the Japanese 14th Army who orchestrated the Bataan Death March, was executed by an Allied firing squad for crimes against humanity.

The former POWs at Bataan did not return to the States in one collective body so there was no homecoming celebration. They returned home one by one as American doctors determined they could withstand the trip back to the states. (Some veterans felt they were being “fattened up” by the U.S. military so their families and friends couldn’t see the shape they were in.)

Over the years, various programs, celebrations and parades have been held to honor Mercer County’s soldiers. The Bataan War Memorial and World War II tank, located on U.S. 127 North inside Harrodsburg city limits, continue to remind us of the sacrifices made by our soldiers and their families every day.

On Nov. 10, 2018, the National Guard and our community paid tribute to those 66 brave men from Mercer County who served in Company D of the 192nd Tank Battalion and were prisoners of war at Bataan during World War II.

I can think of no other conflict that encapsulates the horrors of war—and its after effects—into one tiny spot on the globe than the Battle of Bataan in the Philippine Islands and the Bataan Death March.

1 Comment

  1. LT. Frank Thayer Russo, U.S. Navy (Ret.) on November 12, 2020 at 10:09 pm

    I just read of the heroic stand of 1st Lt. William Gentry on Bataan. Truly inspirational. He represents one of the many Citizen-soldiers who responded to the call before WW2 began. May God bless him wherever he may be.

    Frank T. Russo
    LT, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
    100% Disabled Navy Veteran

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