Anderson County KYGenWeb

The Great Raid - WW2

As Told by Luther Davenport

It's not a habit of mine to frequent the movie theater, I might go once or twice a year, but recently one preview has caught my attention, and I plan to go just as soon as my busy schedule allows. The "Great Raid" is an epic story of American heroism. It is based on an actual historical event that transpired during the Second World War. Movies like this have always held my interest, and I love to watch and compare how Hollywood's version might differ from the historical record.

If the makers of this presentation have stayed at all close to the true events, I'm sure that you'll see how a detachment of brave volunteers slipped behind enemy lines, marched undetected, and engaged a superior enemy force to liberate hundreds of American prisoners of war. What you might also see is how each soldier that took part in this raid was decorated with a Bronze Star, awarded for bravery above and beyond the call of normal duty, but what I'm certain you won't see is how a small town in Central Kentucky was so greatly impacted by the outcome of this raid, which by the way is still the largest and most successful special operations mission of it's kind in U.S. military history.

Sound interesting? Is your curiosity up?

Imagine for while that your son, and perhaps your brother, and a dozen or so of their closest buddies have all received letters from Uncle Sam. Add to this group a few of your neighbors and co workers, along with a couple of local teachers, a mail carrier, a fireman, maybe a police officer, and a few other young men from your hometown. I'm sure this vision is not too much of a stretch, communities all across the country are currently living this same nightmare, as local guard and reserve units have been activated for service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but for the sake of this story, pretend for a moment that the United States is at peace. No reason to assume that these local patriots won't soon satisfy their obligation, and return home to resume normal lives. But!,..... What if they don't come home at the appointed time? What if suddenly, all hell breaks loose and they are caught in the middle of a life and death struggle against an overwhelming and determined enemy? What if the only news you hear comes by way of disheartening reports from the daily newspapers, and soon even these stop coming? What if over four years pass and still you have no news concerning the fate of your friends and loved ones?

Sixty five years ago, this is exactly what happened in the little town of Harrodsburg, Kentucky. It was the summer of 1940, and Europe and Asia were in the midst of a great war, as the powers of Germany and Japan held designs to expand their empires at the expense of humanity. The United States had chose to remain neutral in this affair, and thus far had managed to do so, but the dark clouds of war settled just over the horizon. This was the situation as the 38th Tank Company of the Kentucky National Guard, stationed at Harrodsburg, was called up for one year of active duty. These men of the 38th reported to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where they were joined by three other guard units. One from Janesville, Wisconsin , one from Maywood, Illinois, and one from Port Clinton, Ohio, Companies A,B,and C, respectfully, and the Harrodsburg boys were assigned Company D. These four companies were blended together to form the 192nd GHQ Light Tank Battalion. At Fort Knox the new 192nd underwent ten months of basic training and grueling tank maneuvers, and in late summer of 1941, they were transferred from Fort Knox to Fort Polk, Louisiana for more advanced training. It was while stationed at Fort Polk, that the men received the bad news that their one year tour of duty would be extended, and that they were going to an unknown station overseas.

After this announcement, any man over the age of twenty nine was allowed the opportunity to resign, and recruits from each home state would be used to bring the units back to full strength. The men were then given a short leave to put their affairs in order and to say goodbye to family. They then boarded trains and were shipped out west to San Francisco, CA., where they were taken by ferry to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. The Equipment and supplies were loaded on to a transport ship, and soon they departed for final deployment to a base somewhere in the South Pacific.

Once at sea they learned that they were bound for the Philippine Islands, and on Thanksgiving Day, 1941 they dropped anchor at Manilla Bay at the Island of Luzon. They were immediately sent to inland bases of Fort Stotsenburg and nearby Clark Air Field, but the barracks at these places were not yet finished, and the men took shelter in tents. At Fort Stotsenburg, they spent the next few days getting used to their new home and adjusting to camp life, while inspecting and preparing their equipment for maneuvers they expected to soon take part in, but for the maneuvers they were about to engage they could never had prepared for.

Less than two weeks after they arrived at the new base, on the early morning of December 7, 1941, the Japanese Navy launched it's surprise attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor. News of this attack soon reached the Americans on Luzon, and the men of the 192nd took up a defensive position around the air strip. Less than ten hours after Pearl Harbor, Japanese bombers attacked Clark Field. The American tanks offered little defense against this assault, and even though some planes were shot down, the squadron of American Air Corps planes based there were completely destroyed. After the attack on Clark, news came of a Japanese invasion force awaiting offshore, General Douglas McArthur ordered the American forces, along with their Filipino allies to engage the invaders at the beaches, but after a gallant effort, they could not stop the enemy from landing. McArthur then ordered a withdraw to the more defendable position on the Bataan Peninsula, where he hoped to hold out until help might arrive, but help would not come. Although many Americans had long feared that we would be drawn into the war, little preparation was made to this end. Troop numbers were well below effective strength, equipment was old and out dated, and munitions stockpiles were WWI surplus. The cost of this inattention would be high, and paid for by the blood of American soldiers now fighting desperately on Bataan and Wake Island, and other U.S. outposts within reach of the Japanese war machine.

Over the next few weeks, the Allies gradually pulled back toward Bataan, reluctantly giving up ground to the advancing Japanese. America needed time to recover from the Pearl Harbor disaster, and the men on the front lines were determined to delay the advance, and make every inch of ground costly to the Japanese in both men and equipment. General McArthur instructed his troops to maintain contact with the enemy, and attack whenever an opportunity for success presented itself. As the withdraw continued, three days before Christmas 1942, the 192nd tankers became entangled with an advance enemy element, and fought the first all tank battle of the war, and two weeks later in a similar action, an entire platoon of enemy tanks were destroyed by them. As the enemy struggled to cross an open marshy field at night the Americans fired incinerary rounds into rice stacks illuminating the entire area and exposing the enemy to a deadly fire. Eventually however, the undermanned American Army proved no match for the Japanese onslaught. Several times American positions would be overrun by Japanese troops, and one instance about 2:30 a.m., the Harrodsburg men of Co "D" found their encampment completely infested by the enemy. They had on hand about 600 WWI era hand grenades which they threw, but as proof of the outdated equipment only half exploded, and a hotly contest battle they were able to stall the advance and narrowly escape.

By the end of the first week of Jan. 1942, The retreat to Bataan was completed, and now the Americans dug in to stubbornly resist the enemy attacks. Over the next few weeks, the Japanese resorted to small recon assaults looking for weak spots in the battle lines. These attacks were always repulsed and occasionally counterattacked, but eventually the overwhelming numbers of enemy troops proved to be too much, and by the end of the month, the noose around Bataan was drawn even tighter. As the end was foreseen, these brave fighters had realized they were expendable, their commander, General McArthur had received a Presidential order to leave his men behind and escape to Australia, as the troops were forced to pull back to a second defensive line.

The Japanese Army was not the only enemy facing the defenders. Food supplies were soon exhausted, and the horses and mules of the cavalry units were sacrificed to feed the troops. Rice stacks were thrashed for loose grains, and the men were soon down to 1/8 rations, but still they fought on. Disease was rampant as outbreaks of malaria and dysentery ravaged through the camps. Medicine for the sick was non existent, ammunition supplies dwindled until finally on April 3rd the Japanese opened up with a massive artillery assault, which lasted all day and into the night. The front line defenses were disintegrated, and as the enemy advanced, the organized resistance collapsed. Most of the troops who manned these forward positions were so weak from malnutrition and illness that they could hardly hold a gun. On April 9th the order "CRASH" came over the radios, and all the military equipment was destroyed as a formal surrender was made. The remaining American and Filipino soldiers along with thousands of civilians, a total of nearly 75,000 men, became prisoners of war.

The Harrodsburg men were taken with the other prisoners to the village of Mariveles, at the southern end of the peninsula. It was here that the infamous "Bataan Death March" was begun. The march was long and hot, most of the men suffered from malnutrition, and malaria. They went days without food or water, and men that fell out of line from these conditions were executed by the guards. Men were shot, and bayoneted and even beheaded by sword wielding officers. At times the marchers would stumble over the bodies of those who had died or been killed.

It would take two weeks for the march to cover the 55 miles between Mariveles and San Fernando, where the survivors were crammed into rail cars so tightly that several died and remained standing for the entire four hour train ride. As the men were unloaded they were again put on a forced march of ten more miles to an unfinished Filipino army camp that the Japanese had pressed into service as a prisoner holding area called Camp O'Donnell. The Death March had been disasterous for the prisoners, under the intense heat their weakened condition only worsened, and the cruelty inflicted by the guards was outragous, of the 75,000 men that were surrendered, 21,000 would die between Mariveles and Camp O'Donnell. At O'Donnell conditions did not improve, there was only 1 water source for the entire camp, men would wait in line for days to get a drink. Food shortages and disease continued to take a huge toll and as many as 50 men died each day, and within the first 40 days over 1500 more Americans were dead. By June of '42, the high death rates had prompted the Japanese to move most of the Americans to Cabanatuan Prison Camp, where over a nine month period another 3000 would perish. Only the very weakest of the prisoners would remain long at Cabanatuan, the strongest were shipped out to various locations to be used as slave labor for the war effort, some were taken to nearby Palawan Island to help construct an airfield there, more were moved to the port of Manilla to work on the docks loading and unloading ships.

Slowly, the tide of war began to shift in favor of the Allies, and in the month of October 1944, the American Army landed in the Philippines, and by January 1945 had reached Luzon. The Japanese defending these islands were not inclined to allow their prisoners to be liberated. At the camp at Palawan, were several of the Harrodsburg boys were held, the prisoners were led into an air raid ditch, sprayed with gasoline and ignited. Fearing this same type of massacre at other camps, a daring plan of rescue was conceived and carried out by the American 6th Ranger Division (The Great Raid). On January 30th 1945, volunteers from this unit would slip behind enemy lines, and march undetected through enemy held territory to Cabanatuan Prisoner Camp, where they surprised the garrison and neutralized them, liberating the over 500 American POW's held there. Some of the 192nd men were among those rescued, and they were quick to report the unfortunate fate of several of the Harrodsburg boys, and through these survivors it was learned that at least seventeen of the Kentuckians had died here. The worst fears of seventeen families became reality, but at least their anxiety of not knowing could finally be put to rest, but for other families it would be a much longer wait before any news would arrive.

The majority of the prisoners, including most of the men of the 192nd, had been sent away from the Islands long before the Cabanatuan raid. These men had been placed on transport ships bound for Japan or other Japanese territories. These boats were rightly called Hell Ships, and they more than lived up to their name. The cargo holds where the prisoners were kept was completely dark, water and food was let down by rope, the men went crazy in the darkness, and several more died. The Japanese had refused to identify these ships as prisoner transports, and some fell victim to Allied submarines and bombers. In Oct. 24,1944 the transport ship Arisan Maru carrying 1790 American prisoners, was sunk during the Battle for Leyte Gulf, only eight men were rescued, three of whom later died. The surviving five told how a Japanese destroyer was nearby, but pushed the men away whenever they came near. On Sept 7, 1944 another hell ship, the Shinyo Maru was sunk with 750 prisoners on board, all perished except for eighty two that were rescued by Filipino guerillas. In December 1944, a third ship the Oryoku Maru was also attacked with over 1600 POW's on board, but luckily 1300 survived. Some ships did get through, and once in Japan the surviving prisoners were sent again into slave labor, working in Japanese factories, condemned coal and copper mines, steel mills, and shipping docks. They continued to labor under these harsh conditions until Sept.1945, when the Japanese sued for a peace to end the war, following the dropping of the Atomic Bombs.

These "Weekend Warriors" of the 192nd Tank Battalion were among the very first American servicemen to engage the Japanese following Pearl Harbor. They had faced the onslaught of an overwhelming enemy with a stout courage equal to the most battle tested veterans. They had endured countless hardships only imagined in the worst nightmares. Of the nearly 500 men of the four companies that made up the 192nd, 328 were dead. The town of Harrodsburg had sent almost 70 of its local guardsmen, along with another 58 Kentucky recruits, for a total of 128 men of Company "D". Of this number only 80 would ever see home again. Only four of the dead were killed in the combat operations on Luzon, the rest had perished as a result of their captivity, from starvation, disease, exposure, and the cruel and atrocious treatment from their captors. Some of these men were brothers, cousins, or otherwise related. Best friends had enlisted together and died together. The ones who survived and returned to Mercer County were never quite the same again. They hardly ever talked about their ordeals. My dad and his family knew several of these men quite well before and after the war. They would often tell about the Harrodsburg heroes, and what they had gone through. On trips through Harrodsburg, he was always quick to point out the green army tank beside the road that serves as a memorial to these men. It's quite a tragedy how quickly people have forgotten the sacrifices made of a previous generation, and it's good to see that even Hollywood makes an occasional effort to keep these stories alive. "Lest we Forget"

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