Wepsiec

Pvt. Michael S. Wepsiec


     Pvt. Michael S. Wepsiec was born on August 7, 1915.  He was the son of Casmir and Catherine Wepsiec.  His parents were Polish immigrants.  He grew up in Chicago, with his four sisters and two brothers, and was raised at 2347 South Homan Avenue.  Before joining the Illinois National Guard, he worked for the Illinois Northern Railroad.

     When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the draft act into law, Mike and friends Steve Gados and Ed Plodzien decided that they would enlist in the Illinois National Guard at Maywood, Illinois.  Their reasoning for doing this was twofold.  They believed that enlisting in the National Guard would allow them to quickly complete their one year of military service.  They also believed that if they had to be in the army it was better to ride in a tank than march on foot.

     In November of 1940, the Maywood Tank Company was called into federal service along with companies from Ohio, Kentucky and Wisconsin.  Together, the companies formed the 192nd Tank Battalion.  The battalion trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky. It was there that Mike qualified as a half-track driver. 

    In the late summer of 1941, Mike took part in maneuvers in Louisiana.  After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to remain behind at Camp Polk.  None of the members of the battalion had any idea why they were there.  On the side of a hill, the members learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM.  Within hours, many men had figured out they were being sent to the Philippine Islands. 
    From Camp Polk, the battalion traveled west over four different train routes.  Arriving in San Francisco, the soldiers were ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island.  On the island, the soldiers were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases. Those with health issues were released from service and replaced.
    The battalion sailed from San Francisco on Monday, October 27th for Hawaii as part of a three ship convoy.  They arrived in Hawaii on Sunday, November 2nd, and had a layover.  The soldiers received passes and allowed to explore the islands.  They sailed again on October 29th for Guam. 
According to Mike, he was very much aware that the United States would be at war shortly because the transport he was on was being escorted by a cruiser and traveled under blackout conditions.
    When the ships arrived at Guam, they took on bananas, vegetables, coconuts, and water.  The soldiers remained on ship since the convoy was sailing the next day. About 8:00 in the morning on November 20th, the ships arrived at Manila Bay.  After arriving at Manila, it was three or four hours before they disembarked.  Most of the battalion boarded trucks and rode to Ft. Stotsenburg north of Manila.
    At the fort, the tankers were met by General Edward King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed.  He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to love in tents.  The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived.  He stayed with the tankers until they had their Thanksgiving dinner before he went for his dinner.
    For the next seventeen days the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons.  They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts.  The plan was for them, with the 194th Tank Battalion, to take part in maneuvers.
    On December 1st, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field.  Two members of each tank crew remained with their tanks at all times.  The morning of December 8th, the officers of the battalions met and were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hours earlier.  The tankers returned to the perimeter of Clark Airfield. 
    All morning long, the sky was filled with American planes.  At noon, all the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch.  At 12:45 planes approached the airfield from the north.  The tankers on duty at the airfield counted 54 planes.  When bombs began exploding, the men knew the planes were Japanese.  After the attack the 192nd remained at Ft. Stotsenburg for almost two weeks.  They were than sent to the Lingayen Gulf area where the Japanese had landed.


     Mike was involved in the first tank to tank combat involving American tanks in World War II.  His tank platoon had been sent to Lingayen Gulf, on December 21st, to knock out Japanese machine gun nests and give cover so that the 26th U. S. Cavalry could withdraw.  The problem they faced was that they had never been trained to fight in a jungle.  

    Since there were rice fields on both sides of the road, they could not use the V-formation to attack.  They also found themselves in single file formation on the main road.  It was at this time that Lt. Ben Morin and his crew, which included Mike's friend Steve Gados, were taken Prisoners of War.  

    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.

    Mike believed that the Japanese soldiers attacked with ferocity because they were high on drugs.  This belief also seemed to explain why the Japanese soldiers kept attacking even though they were wounded.  According to Mike, this was confirmed when his company found packets of drugs on the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers. 
    The tankers were fell back toward Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27th, and December were at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28th and 29th.  While there, the bridge over the Pampanga River was destroyed, they were able find a crossing over the river.
   
During the withdraw into the peninsula, the company crossed over the last bridge which was mined and about to be blown.  The 192nd held its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leap frog past it and then cover the 192nd's withdraw. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan.

    On Bataan, Mike and the other members of the 192nd ate rice boiled in water in the morning and steamed rice for dinner.  As time went on, they also ended up eating the horses of the 26th U. S. Cavalry.
    Over the next several months, the battalion fought battle after battle with tanks that were not designed for jungle warfare.  The tank battalions , on January 28th, 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.  
    
B Company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets to wipe out Japanese soldiers 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 exited 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.  The driver gave the other track power resulting with the tank spinning around and grinding its way down into the foxhole.  The tankers slept upwind of their tanks.

     Mike believed that the Japanese reinforcements from Singapore were the reason Bataan fell.  These troops were battle hardened and fierce fighters.  When the Filipino-American Forces were surrendered, Mike and the other members of his company destroyed their vehicles except for two trucks.  They planned to ride in these two trucks to the destination that the Japanese selected.  Instead, the Japanese took the trucks and Mike found himself walking to Mariveles.  It was from there that Mike would begin what became known as the death march.

     On the march, Mike recalled that the Japanese killed prisoners for the smallest things.  If a POW fell and another attempted to help him, they both were killed.  Despite this, Mike believed that he did not see as much brutality as other men witnessed.

    According to Mike, a break on the march was stopping and standing in position.  Meals were "middling" which was very bitter and hard to eat.  He also believed that escaping was the same as suicide because the POW would need a large amount of quinine to survive in the jungle.  

     Mike was held at Camp O'Donnell for two weeks before he was sent out on a detail.  He was sent out  to bring damaged American trucks to San Fernando.  The POWs would tie the vehicles together with ropes and drive them to San Fernando.  It was at San Fernando that Mike had his first attack of malaria.  

    After the scrap-metal detail ended, Mike was sent to Cabanatuan #1 where he was held for one month.  It is believed that he went out on a work detail, but at this time it is not known which detail. 

    At first, the prisoners worked only half a day because their guards were seasoned troops who had no desire to stand out in the hot Filipino sun in the middle of the day.  When these troops were replaced by new recruits, the POWs found themselves working until 8:00 o'clock at night.  

    Mike believed that what really drove the Japanese crazy was that after working all day the POWs would return to the camp singing songs like "God Bless America".  At this time, Mike developed wet beriberi and his body bloated up to his waist.  He was sent to Bilibid Prison where he was given vitamin B pills.  He was told to take all the pills, which he did.  It was these pills that saved his life.  After taking them, his body returned to its normal size in a matter of days.   When he recovered, he was sent to Cabanatuan.

    Food in the prison camps was scarce.  Mike remembered a dog that an American major was feeding.  He and the other POWs believed that the dog was eating food that should have gone to them.  So, they slaughtered the dog and ate it.  

    The POWs also spent endless hours talking about food and how they would prepare it if they could.  These conversations inspired Mike to write a cookbook .  To do this, Mike took the bags from the cement that was being used to build the runways and wrote down the recipes. Somehow, Mike managed to keep the cookbook which is pictured at the bottom of this page.

    Mike remained at the camp until he was selected to go out on a work detail.  In July 1943, he was sent to Lipa, Batangas, on the Las Pinas Work Detail.  It was there that he built runways at Camp Murphy and worked on a farm. 
    The POWs were housed in the Pasay School in eighteen rooms.  Thirty men were assigned to each room and slept on the floor.  Each morning they got up and did exercises.  When they finished, they were fed breakfast, which was fish and rice, and marched about a mile to the airfield.  As they marched, the Filipino civilians expressed their sympathy for the POWs whose clothing had deteriorated to rags.  
    On this detail, the POWs had nothing but picks and shovels to build the runways.  At first the work was hard but not as hard as it was going to get.  About 400 yards from where they began working where hills.  The POWs removed these hills with picks and shovels.  The dirt was put into wheel barrows and carried to a swamp and dumped as landfill.  This turned out to be inefficient, so the Japanese brought in mining cars and railroad track.  Two POWs pushed each car to where it was to be dumped.  He would remain on this detail for almost seventeen months.
 

    The brutality shown to the POWs was severe.  The first Japanese commander of the camp, a Lt. Moto, was called the "White Angel" because he wore a spotless naval uniform.  He was commander of the camp for slightly over thirteen months.  One day a POW collapsed while working on the runway.  Moto was told about the man and came out and ordered him to get up.  When he couldn't four other Americans were made to carry the man back to the Pasay School. 
    At the school, the Japanese guards gave the man a shower and straightened his clothes as much as possible.  The other Americans were ordered to the school.  As they stood there, the White Angel ordered an American captain to follow him behind the school.  The POW was marched behind the school and the other Americans heard two shots.  The American officer told the men that the POW had said, "Tell them I went down smiling." There, the White Angel shot the POW as the man smiled at him.   As the man lay on the ground, he shot him a second time.  The American captain told the other Americans what had happened.  The White Angel told them that this was what going to happen to anyone who would not work for the Japanese Empire.
    The second commanding officer of the detail was known as "the Wolf."  He was a civilian who wore a Japanese Naval Uniform.  Each morning, he would come to the POW barracks and select those POWs who looked the sickest and made them line up.  The men were made to put one leg on each side of a trench and then do 50 push-ups.  If a man's arms gave out and he touched the ground, he was beaten with pick handles.
    On another occasion a POW collapsed on the runway.  The Wolf had the man taken back to the barracks.  When the Wolf came to the barracks that evening and the man was still unconscious, he banged the man's head into the concrete floor and kicked him in the head.  He then took the man to the shower and drowned him in the basin.
    A third POW who had tried to walk away from the detail told the guards to shoot him, the guards took him back to the Pasay School and strung him up by his thumbs outside the doorway and placed a bottle of beer and sandwich in front of him.  He was dead by evening.
    The remains of the POWs who had died on the detail were brought to Bilibid Prison in boxes.  The Japanese had death certificates, with the causes of death and signed by an American doctor, sent with the boxes.  The Americans from the detail, who accompanied the boxes, would not tell the POWs at Bilibid what had happened.  It was only when the sick, from the detail, began to arrive at Bilibid did they learn what the detail was like.  These men were sent to Bilibid to die since it would look better when it was reported to the International Red Cross.
   

    In August or early September, 1944, Mike and the other POWs were sent to Manila.   Before they left for Manila, Mike experienced his first act of kindness by a Japanese soldier.  The sergeant in charge of their detail knew they were being sent to Manila.  He purchased a bottle of saki and made sure each prisoner had a drink.  This was the sergeant's going away present to them.  

    When Mike's group of POW arrived in Manila, the Japanese were about to send a ship load of prisoners to Japan.  The Japanese decided to send Mike's group instead because they were physically in better shape. 

    Mike's POW detachment was sent to the Port Area of Manila.  The detachment was scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru.  Another POW detachment was scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru.  The ship was ready to sail, but it's POW detachment had not completely arrived at the pier.  The Japanese switched POW detachments so the ship could sail.  The Arisan Maru was sunk by an American submarine in the

    Mike and the other men boarded the Hokusen Maru on October 1, 1944.  They remained in the hold for two days before the ship sailed.  It took the ship nine days to reach Hong Kong.  It remained there for ten more days.

    Mike spent 38 days on the ship before reaching Formosa.  For Mike, this was probably one of the worst experiences he had as a prisoner.  It seemed to him that the youngest prisoners died first.  Mike watched as nineteen year olds died,  then twenty year olds died, next the twenty-one year olds died, and so on.  As soldiers continued to die and their ages got closer to his, Mike wondered when his turn to die would come.  

     After the ship docked in Formosa on November 11th, the POWs disembarked and were taken to a temporary POW camp at Inrin.  The POWs were used to harvest sugarcane and process it.  He would remain there until January 1945.  

    It was on Formosa that Mike experienced a second act of kindness shown to him by a Japanese soldier.  The commanding officer of the camp knew it was Christmas.  He had a water buffalo brought into the camp for the prisoners to slaughter.  The POWs had steak for Christmas.

     In January, 1945, Mike and 300 other POWs were selected to be transferred to Japan.  On January 25th, Mike and the other prisoners were boarded onto the Enoshima Maru and spent twelve days on the hell ship.   The reason for this was that the ship made several stops along the coast of China.  It was on this trip that the convoy was attacked by an American submarine.  One torpedo passed by the stem of the ship and a second torpedo went past the stern and hit a tanker.  Mike believed that the Americans knew their ship was carrying POWs.  

    Arriving in Moji, Japan, Mike and the other POWs rode a train north to Sendai, from there they were taken to Sendai #3 arriving in the camp on January 28th.  The POWs in the camp were housed in three barracks and used as slave labor to mine lead and zinc in a mine owned by the Mitshbishi Mining Company.  

    It was in this camp that Mike was beaten for whistling in the mine.  While exhaling, he whistled.  The mine worker with him beat him on the head for doing this.  The reason was that the Japanese believed that whistling made the "mine gods" happy and would cause them to stop holding up the ceilings.  The mine in turn would cave in on the workers. 

    Lice were one of the big problems facing the POWs.  Mike and the other men would take the carbide lamps they used in the mines and run them along the seems of their clothes. As they did the heat popped the lice.  

   The POWs knew how the war was going because the American planes flying overhead were an indication to them that the United States was winning.  It got to the point that they began to bet on dates that the war would end.  Mike picked August 7, 1945 because it was his birthday.

    When the war ended, Mike was flown to Okinawa and then returned to the Philippine Islands for medical treatment.  Boarding the U.S.S. Admiral C. F. Hughes, he arrived at Seattle, Washington, on October 9, 1945.  From there, he was hospitalized at Madigan General Hospital at Ft. Lewis, Washington.
    Mike returned to Chicago and was discharged on August 24, 1946.  He married, raised four sons and a daughter.  Mike went back to work on the railroad he had worked for before enlisting in the National Guard.  He retired from the Santa Fe Railroad which had absorbed the short line railroad.

    Mike Wepsiec passed away on October 15, 2001, and was buried at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois.



 


Return to B Company

Mike Wepsiec's Interview

Next