Ortega

Pvt. Abel Flores Ortega


     Pvt. Abel F. Ortega was was born on August 22, 1919, in El Paso, Texas.   He was one of six sons born to Ruben C. and Deborah F. Ortega.  As a child, he lived at 505 East 9th Street in Austin, Texas.  While young, Abel had two things he loved, one was his ability to draw and the other was history.  It would be this love of history that would result in his becoming a member of the 192nd Tank Battalion.

    In October, 1940, Abel received his draft notice and was inducted into the army in March of 1941.  He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training and became a member of the 753rd Tank Battalion.  He was then sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana.  One day, the commanding officer of the 753rd asked his men if any of them would be interested in going overseas on a tour of duty to the Philippine Islands.  Abel's love of history and desire to visit the Orient resulted in him being the first man to volunteer. 

    Abel was quickly reassigned to  Company A of the 192nd Tank Battalion at Camp Polk, Louisiana.  The battalion was receiving new equipment as it prepared for duty in the Philippines. 
    The battalion traveled, by train, to San Francisco.  Upon arriving they were ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island.  On the island, they received inoculations and physicals.  Those members of the battalion who were found to have treatable medical conditions remained behind on the island.  They were scheduled to join the battalion at a later date.
   
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.S. Hugh L. Scott and sailed from San Francisco on Monday, October 27th, for Hawaii as part of a three ship convoy.  They arrived at Honolulu on Sunday, November 2nd.  The soldiers were given leaves so they could see the island.  On November 5th, the ships sailed for Guam.   At one point, the ships passed an island at night.  While they passed the island, they did so in total blackout.  This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way.  When they arrived at Guam, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables.  The ships sailed the same day for Manila and entered Manila Bay on Thursday, November 20th.  They docked at Pier 7 and the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. 
    At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward King, who apologized that they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield.  He made sure that they all received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own. 
Ironically, November 20th was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
   
For the next seventeen days the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons.  The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea.  They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance as they readied their tanks to take part in maneuvers.

    On December 8, 1941, December 7th in the United States, Abel and the other members of his battalion were in the process of preparing their equipment for use when they received the news about Pearl Harbor.  With this news, the battalion was ordered to scatter its tanks and half-tracks around the perimeter of Clark Field. 

    When lunch time came, the "replacements" were ordered to stay with the equipment while the original members of the battalion went to eat.  While guarding his half-track, Abel heard the sound of planes approaching Clark Field.  As he and the other men watched the sky, they felt good about the planes in the sky and the protection they were providing them.  It was only when they heard the sound of bombs falling did he and the other men realize that the planes were Japanese. 
     Abel recalled being on top of his half-track and firing his 50 caliber machine gun at the Japanese planes as they bombed Clark Field.  The members of the battalion, who had gone to dinner, came running out of the mess hall and dove under their tanks and half-tracks for protection against the bombs.  The members of Company A were now in a battle to buy time for the United States and its allies so that they could reinforce Australia.

    During the battle for the Philippine Islands, Abel was the half-track driver for the communications command half-track of Company A.  As a member of this crew, he worked with Pvt. Joseph McCrea, Capt. Walter Write, 2nd Lt. Henry Knox and Sgt. Dale Lawton.  
    About a week after the attack on Clark Field, the company was sent to the Barrio of Dau so it would be close to a highway and railroad.  From there, the company was sent to join the other companies of the 192nd just south of the Agno River.  There, the tanks, with A Company, 194th held the position. 
    On December 23rd and 24th, the company was in the area of Urdaneta.  It was there, that the tankers lost the company commander, Capt. Walter Write.  After he was buried, the tankers made an end run to get south of Agno River after the main bridge had been destroyed.  As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening. They successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
    On December 25th, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27th.

    A Company was sent, in support of the 194th, to an area east of Pampanga.  It was there that they lost a tank platoon commander, Lt. William Reed.  The company returned to the 192nd on January 8, 1942.
    On January 28th, the tank battalions were given the job of protecting the beaches.  The 192nd was assigned the coast line from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan's east coast.  The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
    A Company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets to wipe out Japanese Marines who had been trapped behind the main defensive line.  The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket.  Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank had left the pocket.
    To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used.  The first was to have three Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank.  As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole.  Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually exploded.
    The other method to use to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole. Driver gave the other track power resulting with the tank spinning around and grinding its way down into the foxhole.  
It was for their performance during this battle that the 192nd Tank Battalion would receive one of its Distinguished Unit Citations.      

    On April 8, 1942, Abel and the other members of the 192nd Tank Battalion were given the word by an officer that the Filipino and American Forces on Bataan were about to be surrendered to the Japanese.  Abel destroyed his half-track and its equipment so that it could not be used by the Japanese.  As he did this, he felt sad because they had fought so hard and lost so many men.  When he was finished destroying the equipment, Abel knelt down and prayed to God to keep him alive.  He also promised that if God kept him alive, he would help his fellow soldiers in what lay ahead.  What lay ahead would become known as "The Bataan Death March."

    Abel was initially shocked by the way the Japanese treated the Filipino and American prisoners on the march.  They were marched with no sense of direction, without any food, and without any water.  Prisoners who tried to get food or water were shot, bayoneted or decapitated.  If a prisoner fell out of ranks, he was initially mistreated.  Some of these men were beaten the entire length of the march.  If the man fell out again, he was shot or bayoneted.  As he marched, Abel saw many bodies of prisoners lying along the sides of the road.

    While on the march, Abel was to witness a number of acts of cruelty by the Japanese. One night, when the prisoners were resting, the Filipino soldier next to Abel tried to build a fire to cook some rice he had come across.  A Japanese guard bayoneted the man to death for doing this.  In a separate incident, Abel witnessed the Japanese execute four or five Filipinos.  The Japanese tied the Filipino prisoners to a hay stack and set the stack on fire.  Abel remembered the screams of the these prisoners as they were burned alive.

    The final incident involved an American soldier.  As the POWs were marching, one POW fell from the ranks. A Japanese truck ran over the prisoner flattening him into the ground.  Abel recalled that the driver of the truck had plenty of time to swerve and avoid the man.  The Japanese soldiers did these things, but, to Abel, it seemed that the officers stood back and silently approved of the soldier's actions.

    On the fifth day of the march Abel received his first food.  It was a handful of steamed rice.  On the sixth and seventh day of the march, Abel received about a half a mess kit full of rice.  He estimated that the total amount of food he received during the twelve days it took him to complete the march was the equivalent of three filled mess kits.

    Abel arrived at Camp O'Donnell on April 27, 1942, and watched as a great number of the prisoners died from disease.  Abel was never really sure how many men died per day because during his interment there, Abel was often exhausted, dazed and unaware of what was going on around him.

    On May 7, 1942, Abel was transferred to another camp near Calauan under the command of Captain Wakamori.  The men in this camp received good treatment when compared to the other camps, and the food in the camp was good and adequate.  The men were fed rice and soup each day.  The prisoners on this detail were given the duty of repairing the bridges and roads destroyed during the Battle of Bataan.

    On September 8, 1942, Abel and the other Prisoners Of War were sent to Cabanatuan.  As a prisoner here, Abel worked in the camp farm.  It was at Nielsen Airfield that the "Blood Brother" rule was first enforced.  Each group of ten men were responsible for each other.  If one man escaped, the other nine would be executed.   Abel recalled that a soldier. Pfc. Thomas House escaped from the camp.  For whatever reason, the Japanese did not execute the other nine men.

    On January 28, 1943, Abel was transferred to a work camp at Lipa in Batangas Province.  The men on this detail built runways for the Japanese.  The work was extremely hard and the food was scarce.  The average meal was rice and soup.  The prisoners were able to work but could not do much beyond this.  On this detail, Abel worked with Joseph Lajzer a member of  Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, who would remain his friend the rest of his life.

    While a POW at Lipa, Abel was sent out on a work detail. It was on this detail that Abel witnessed a Japanese guard beat an American officer because he did not like him.  The guards lined the POW's up at attention and called the officer out.  The officer, a Lt. Wandell was made to get in the "pushup position."  He was then beaten by the guard with a long branch of a tree.  Lt. Wendell fell to the ground, but the guard would not stop until he returned to the up position on his hands and toes.  In Abel's estimation, the beating lasted approximately ten minutes.  When the guard was satisfied, he allowed Lt. Wendell to rise.  The officer was able to walk, but he was very weak and staggered.

    It was Abel's belief that had the beating not stopped,  the POW's were on the verge of attacking the guards.  The Japanese had made them watch the beating but had forgotten to take away their picks and shovels.

    On March 26, 1944, Abel was transferred to Camp Murphy which was a work camp where he once again engaged in airport building.  At this camp the prisoners were frequently beaten with pick handles.  It was at this camp that Abel would be punished severely.

    One morning, Abel and two other POW's were the last men to fall in formation.  The three men were made to stand at attention while a guard walked past them slapping them hard on the left side of their faces with the flat side of a bayonet.  After this the men were made to kneel.  A stick, about two inches in diameter cut from a tree with small stubs sticking out of it, was placed behind the knees of each man.  This made kneeling extremely painful.  As they knelt each man was punched in the face by the guards.  The guards also began jumping on the legs of the men so that the sticks would dig into their legs.  This beating lasted about twenty minutes.

    On September 24, 1944, Abel was transferred to Bilibid Prison in Manila.  He remained here only a few days before being put on the Japanese freighter, Hokusen Maru, that was bound for Formosa.  The experience of the trip to Japan on this "Hell Ship" was the worse experience Abel had as a POW.  Although he and the other POWs had been packed into the ship's hold, the ship did not sail until October 3rd.  Five hundred prisoners occupied a 45 foot by 30 foot hold and were fed once or twice a day.  The hold was extremely hot and  men suffered from heat prostration.  Eight or nine men died and a number of other men went insane.

    Since there was no room to sit down, the men stayed in a half-sitting position most of the time.  The only times the men were permitted on the deck was to go to the latrine.  When this was done, only one man was permitted on the deck at a time and only for a few minutes.  The ship arrived at Hong Kong on October 11th and remained there until October 21st.  During the stay, the ship was attacked by fighter planes from an American carrier.   None of the bombs hit Abel's ship.  The Hokusen Maru next went to Formosa.

    During the voyage to Formosa the convoy that Abel's ship was in was attacked by American submarines.  A number of the ships were sunk before the surviving ships arrived at Takao, Formosa on October 24th.  While at Formosa, Abel remembered that four survivors from the ship were placed in his ship's hold.  They were the survivors of the Arisan Maru which had been sunk in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. This was the ship that Abel had been scheduled to sail on to Japan.   The POWs remained in the ship's hold until November 8th when they disembarked the ship.

    On Formosa, Abel was sent to a work camp and out on work details.   Even though the work was not that hard, many of the POW's died of malnutrition.  Abel would remain on Formosa from November 1, 1944 until January 14, 1945, when he was sent to Japan on the Enoshima Maru.

    Abel arrived in Japan on the 30th of January and was sent to Osaka.  On February 10th, the Japanese opened a new camp Wakinohama.   At the camp, the POWs were housed in a two story school house.  The POW worked as stevedore in the port for the Kamiguni Company.  Abel recalled that the prisoners were still beaten; but, by this time, they were so used to it that it did not bother them.

    On May 20, 1945, Abel and the other POWs were sent to Maibara 10-B when the camp was closed.  This was somewhere in the interior of Japan.  There he worked building canals and draining lakes.  This was near the end of the war so the treatment the POW's received had gotten better.

    One day a British POW entered the camp and told the men that the war was over.  The prisoners decided that they were going to test this information.  The guards were standing nearby, but their guns were leaning against a building.  The POW's rushed the guns and so did the guards.  After a short struggle, the guards let go of the guns and left.  To the POW's this was the first proof that the war was over.  When American planes appeared and started to drop them supplies, the prisoners' belief was confirmed.

    Abel and the other men decided to take the parachutes from the planes and had a Japanese tailor make the flags of their countries.  They then collected instruments and played the national anthems of each of the countries as they raised the flags.

    On September 10, 1945, the POW's made contact with American troops.  Abel was sent to Yokohoma, Japan to to be deloused, to shower and to receive new clothes.  He returned to the Philippines for medical treatment.  On the Simon Bolivar, he returned to the United States on October 21, 1945, at San Francisco, and received additional medical treatment.  He was discharged, from the army, on May 12, 1946.

    After the war, Abel saw House, who was now a sergeant, standing outside a Army Recruiting Office.  When Sgt. House saw Abel he turned away from him and would not acknowledge Abel.  Abel presumed that House did not know that the other men were not killed because he had escaped.

    Abel resided in San Antonio, Texas, and his fishing buddy was Joseph Lajzer of Company B, who had been a POW with him.  Abel also enjoyed giving presentations about his experiences as a POW.

    Abel Ortega passed away on August 24, 2009.  He was buried in Section 45, Site 508 at Sam Houston National Cemetery in San Antonio, Texas.

 


 

 


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