Sgt. Owen Leonard Sandmire
Owen L. Sandmire was born October 24, 1918, to Leonard and Bessie
Sandmire in Viola, Wisconsin. He was the fourth child of eight children. "Sandy" as he was called by his friends, grew up first in Reedsburg,
Wisconsin, where he graduated from Reedsburg Elementary School.
His family then moved to Lime Ridge, Wisconsin, where he graduated from
Lime Ridge High School in 1938.
On September 16, 1940, Owen enlisted into the Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd Tank Company from Janesville. His reason for doing this was the draft act had recently been passed and he did not want to be drafted into the army. It also had already been announced that the tank company was going to be called to federal duty. Owen and his friend, Bob Stewart, were also not having very good luck finding steady jobs, so being in the army with regular pay sounded good to both of them. Two months later, Owen would be called to federal duty when the 32nd Tank Company was federalized as A Company, 192nd Tank Battalion.
At Fort Knox, Owen was trained as a tank driver. This would be the position he would hold throughout his tour of duty with the 192nd. Since the members of the battalion were trained to do more than one job, he was also trained on a motorcycle as a reconnaissance sergeant.
After almost nine months of training at Fort Knox, the 192nd was sent to Louisiana to take part in the maneuvers of 1941. On route to the maneuvers, on his motorcycle, Owen served as traffic director of the convoy. According to Owen, the worst thing about the maneuvers was the snakes. It was after the completion of the these maneuvers that the 192nd was informed that they had been selected for duty overseas.
Over four different train routes, the 192nd was sent west to Angel Island off the coast of San Francisco, California. Before leaving for the Philippine Islands, the final replacement soldiers joined their new battalion. Owen also was assigned his new tank which only had four or five miles on it. The irony of receiving the tank was that although it was new, it was already obsolete.
After stops in Hawaii and Guam, the 192nd arrived in the Philippine Islands on Thanksgiving Day, 1941. Two weeks later they would find themselves on the front line of battle against the Japanese.
Owen recalled that on December 8, 1941, he and the other soldiers of A Company looked up at the formations of planes over their heads. He recalled how beautiful they looked. When the first bombs exploded, he and the other men ran to take cover. Owen avoided being hit by enemy fire by playing "leap-frog" over a wall. If the Japanese planes came from the side of the wall he was on, he would jump to the other side and use the wall to shield himself from enemy bullets. During the attack, a Filipino woman was hit by enemy fire in the hip. Owen attempted to help her, but she would not allow him to help her.
A few days after the attack, Owen and the other members of the 192nd were sent north to Lingayen Gulf. There, the tanks were spread out about a mile apart. The tanks could not do much to stop the Japanese because of the area each tank was expected to cover and the fact that the Japanese simply had too many troops to stop. Owen remembered that from this time on all the Filipino and American troops did was retreat.
It was in the jungle that the tankers found out how inappropriate the M3 tanks were for use in the Philippines. Off the road, they had to travel with their turrets backwards. If the tankers did not do this, the guns would get stuck in the jungle growth. The tanks were also restricted to the roads since they would get stuck in the mud of the rice fields. The high silhouettes and straight sides of the M3 also made the tanks easy targets for the Japanese.
After the Filipino and American Forces had retreated into Bataan, Owen and the other tanks of A Company were sent to clean out the pockets of Japanese troops that had been landed behind the defensive line. What made this job so hard was that the Japanese dug "spider holes" behind the trees. Because of this situation, the Americans could not get a good shot at the Japanese. With the help of B & C Company tanks, the pocket was cleared. But before this was done, one C Company tank was disabled and its crew buried alive inside the tank by the Japanese. When the Japanese had been wiped out, the tank was turned upside down to remove the dirt and recover the bodies of the crew.
Owen and three other men of the 192nd risked their lives to rescue another member of their battalion who had been wounded. The four went into an area under fire, put the man on a stretcher, and carried him out. Owen could not recall if the man that was rescued survived or if he died of his wounds For this action under enemy fire, Owen received the Silver Star.
It was also during this time that Owen and Albert DuBois accidentally gave a tank crew from B Company a good scare. The two soldiers were on guard duty and found the duty boring. To keep themselves entertained, the two men began tossing a "dummy" hand grenade to see who could throw it the farthest. During one of his tosses, Owen's throw went through the open hatch of a tank. Believing the grenade was live, the crew began digging through the junk on the floor in an attempt to get the grenade out of the tank. When it did not explode, the tank crew members looked out of the turret and found Owen walking alongside of the tank. Owen looked up at the crew and asked, " Did anyone see a practice grenade land around here?" In Owen's opinion, if the crew could have, they would have shot him on the spot.
During the Battle of Bataan, Owen came down with dysentery. While he was ill, his tank was destroyed. This resulted in Owen assuming the role of reconnaissance sergeant for the192nd. To do this duty, he was assigned an Indian Motorcycle. Having trained at Fort Knox on Harley-Davidison motorcycles, Owen found it hard to adjust to the controls of the motorcycle which were just the opposite of a Harley.
Having eaten everything that moved in the jungle, out of food, ammunition and medical supplies, on April 8, 1942, the word came down to Owen and the other tankers that Bataan was going to be surrendered. Owen was ordered to destroy the remaining tanks and make them unusable to the Japanese. He had the tanks placed in a circle and fired a round of armor piercing shells into each tank. Next, a high explosive shell was shot into each tank. When his task was complete, Owen and the other members of A Company marched to Marveles at the southern tip of Bataan. From there, Owen began what would become known as "The Bataan Death March."
On the march, Owen stayed with the members of A Company. For the marchers the worst thing was the heat and lack of water. Those men who fell out were killed. Prisoners became so desperate that they often risked their lives to get a drink of water. The Filipino civilians along the route risked their lives, and often gave their lives, to give the soldiers a drink of water. The soldiers often drank water in the ditches alongside the road. This water was filled with bacteria. Often, the bodies soldiers who were killed by the Japanese were floating in the water. Those who drank this water came down with dysentery.
At San Fernando, Owen and the other Prisoners of War boarded a train and were crammed into boxcars. With the Filipino sun beating down on the roofs of the boxcars, the journey by train was unbearable. The prisoners were packed in so tightly that when a man died, he could not fall down. There were no provisions for water or toilets, so the floors of the boxcars became a sea of diarrhea, vomit and urine. The prisoners disembarked from the train at Capas and marched the final few miles to Camp O'Donnell.
Owen did not stay at Camp O'Donnell for long because he went out on a work detail to Manila. The detail was under the command of Japanese engineers whose job it was to rebuild the bridges, roads and airfields that had been destroyed by the Filipino and American troops as they retreated into Bataan. While working on this detail, the POWs lived in a bowling alley in Manila. With him on this detail were Forrest Knox, Lloyd Richter, Alva Chapman of A Company.
While on this detail, Owen came down with diphtheria. A Japanese doctor took one look at him and said, "No good, no good," and gave Owen two aspirin. This was the only help that Owen ever received as a POW. He laid in his own filth unable to eat or swallow. He lost his eyesight, and his weight dropped to 89 pounds. To this day, Owen has no idea of how he survived this illness.
In June, 1943, when the detail ended, Owen was sent to Cabanatuan. He would remain there for sixteen months until he was sent to the Port Area of Manila. Before he was sent to Japan, an American doctor recommended that he have his tonsils out. This was because he had had diphtheria and was being sent to Japan. While performing the tonsil surgery, the doctor was allowed only one 60 watt bulb for light. The light was allowed to be on only a short time at night. The doctor removed Owen's tonsils with only local anesthetic that was running out about the time the bulb was turned out.
Owen remained in the Philippines until July of 1944. On July 1, he and other POWs were taken to Manila. Owen was boarded onto the Canadian Inventor for shipment to Japan. The prisoners were packed into the hold of the ship so tightly that they had to sleep in shifts. The bathroom for the prisoners was a rack that hung over the side of the ship. To get to it, the POWs had to climb up ladders from the hold. This situation meant that there were always lines of men on the ladders attempting to get to the rack. Since many of the men were suffering from dysentery, vomiting or had diphtheria, they did not always make it out of the hold before they relieved themselves. This was due to the fact that they were so sick and weak that they could not control their bodily functions. The trip to Japan aboard the Hell Ship took two months.
It was in the hold of the ship that Owen was reunited with Ed DeGroot of A Company. The two men somehow got the job of preparing the evening meal for the other POWs. Having this job enabled the two men to get out of the hold of ship.
In Japan, Owen was assigned to Omine Machi POW Camp. There the POWs were used as slave labor in coal mines. Owen mined coal that was blasted loose with dynamite. One day, while the POWs were walking into the mine to their work places, Owen was the last man in line. A big Korean, who was in servitude to the Japanese, was standing in the shadows. Since Owen was extremely tired and had his head down, he did not see the Korean and salute him. The Korean, whose battery was attached to his helmet light by a wire, swung the battery and hit Owen in the back of his head. Knocked unconscious, Owen fell to the ground breaking his left wrist and was left for dead in a ditch. This made mining extremely painful, and his wrist would bother him for the rest of his life.
Owen was able to adapt to any situation and learned to mend his own shoes. When other POWs learned of this, he found himself the proprietor of the prison camp's shoe repair shop. He also believed that his attitude kept him alive. "I saw so many of my friends just lay down and die. I just hung in there and did anything to keep alive."
One day the prisoners did not have roll call and the guards were gone. This was the first sign that the prisoners had that the war was over. Fearing for their lives, the prisoners stayed in the camp for ten days. American B-29s appeared over the camp and dropped 55 gallon drums containing food to the former POWs. What amazed the prisoners was that the Japanese civilians would bring the drums to them without touching anything in them.
The prisoners were finally boarded onto a train for the East Coast of Japan. They were deloused and their clothing burned. After receiving new clothing, the former prisoners were boarded onto a hospital ship. Owen was returned to the Philippines to be "fattened up." He then flew on a DC3 back to the United States. In October, 1945, Owen was reunited with his parents.
Besides the Silver Star, Owen also received the Purple Heart, the POW Medal, the Bronze Star, the Asiatic/Pacific Campaign, the American Defense Medal, World War II Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, the Philippine Defense Medal, and the Combat Infantry Medal. The 192nd Tank Battalion received the Presidential Unit Citation with Two Oak Leaf Clusters. He was discharged, from the army, on May 11, 1946.
The picture of Owen at the bottom of this page was taken while he was a prisoner at Camp Omine Machi in Japan. Owen Sandmire worked for the Oscar Meyer Company in Madison, Wisconsin, and Sherman, Texas, as a power plant supervisor. He retired after 33 years in 1981 and moved to Sarasota, Florida.
Owen Sandmire passed away on March 10, 2004. After his death and following his request, he was cremated.