Sgt. Lewis Harry Brittan
Sgt. Lewis H. Brittan was born on October 10, 1915, to Max & Fannie
Brittan who were Russian immigrants. He and his brother were
raised in Downers Grove, Illinois, and attended Downers Grove High
School and played basketball. He joined the Illinois National Guard with his best friend
from high school, Albert Cornils.
After high school, he worked as a shipping clerk for a novelty company. His family also had moved to 1844 South Komensky Avenue in Chicago. He enlisted in the Illinois National Guard in August, 1940. As a member of the 33rd Tank Company from Maywood, Illinois, he was called to federal service in November of 1940. He trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
In January, 1941, Lew was reassigned to Headquarters Company of the 192nd Tank Battalion when it was formed. In the late summer of 1941, Lew took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. He next went to Camp Polk where his unit was informed it was being sent for duty overseas.
The 192nd Tank Battalion arrived in the Philippines two weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Additional training, which was promised to the battalion, came in the form of action against the Japanese invasion forces. Lew and the other members of the 192nd were the last American forces to enter the Bataan Peninsula as the rear guard.
On Bataan, HQ Company made sure that the letter companies received the necessary supplies during the Battle of Bataan. Since he was in the rear area, he did not take part in any combat against the Japanese. He did live with the constant strafing and bombings inflicted on the rear area by Japanese planes. On January 13, 1942, he was wounded.
On April 9, 1942, Lew and the other members of his company became Prisoners of War when the Filipino and American Forces were surrendered to the Japanese. Hours before the surrender, the members of his company destroyed their equipment to prevent it from being used by the Japanese. After the surrender, his company remained in their position until receiving orders to move. The orders to move did not come for a couple of days, but when the orders came, the members of his company drove to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan. It was from there, that the death march of 85 miles would begin for them.
The POWs were placed into groups of 100 with three or four guards. The guards assigned to duty on the march were extremely well-armed. Lew recalled that not all the prisoners taken on Bataan made the march. Many prisoners were immediately placed in work details and remained on Bataan.
To the prisoners, it seemed that the Japanese were in a constant rush to move them. Those not moving fast enough were hit with rifle butts or jabbed with bayonets. Those who could not go on and fell were shot. Lew witnessed two incidents where POWs were shot on the march. In one case, a man had to defecate and went to the side of the road. He was told to move by a guard. When he did not move fast enough, he was shot.
To Lew, the heat and lack of water were the two greatest enemies of the prisoners. The Japanese had searched the prisoners before the march and confiscated everything. This meant that they had no canteens to carry water in to drink. Lew recalled that he and the other prisoners were thirsty all the time. This was despite the fact that they were marching through water flowing from artesian wells.
Those prisoners who went to the wells for a drink were shot. It was not until the prisoners made it to San Fernando that they were fed and received water.
Lew never saw any signs of POWs being beheaded, but like all the prisoners, he heard stories of this happening. He was on the main highway and believed that the beheadings were done by the Japanese to the marchers on the side roads. He had also heard a story that one company of Filipino soldiers was totally wiped out by the Japanese, in this manner. The reason was that they were Asians who had fought along side the Americans.
At San Fernando, Lew boarded the train and rode to Capas. From Capas, he marched the last few miles to Camp O'Donnell. When he arrived, he was extremely weak. Unknown to him, he was suffering from malaria. As it turned out, the area around Camp O'Donnell was infested with malaria.
As Lew recalled 50 to 80 men died each day over the next two months. To him, one of the worst things about Camp O'Donnell was the fact that there was one water faucet for 7000 men.
From Camp O' Donnell, Lew was sent to Cabanatuan #3. According to Lew, this camp was for prisoners whom the Japanese felt were ill or dying. Camp #1 was supposedly for the healthier prisoners. At all the camps, the healthier prisoners were sent out on work details. Only the sick and dying prisoners stayed in the camps.
Even at this point in time, the prisoners still believed that they would be repatriated and be home in time for Christmas. While a prisoner at Cabanatuan, Lew was sent to Manila on a work detail for two months. It was while he was working on this detail that he had another attack of malaria and was sent to Bilibid Prison. After recovering from this bout of malaria, he was sent back to Cabanatuan to build runways and then was returned to Bilibid.
On June 13, 1942, the Japanese created a work detail of POWs to work the docks at Manila. Lew was became a member of the detail for almost the entire time he was a POW in the Philippines. On July 15th, Lew and the other 1033 POWs were taken to the docks for transport to Japan. They were boarded onto the Nissyo Maru and remained in the hold for two days before the ship sailed. The ship sailed for Japan on July 17, 1944 and stopped at Takao, Formosa on July 27th. It sailed the next day for Moji, Japan and arrived there on August 3, 1944.
At first, like the other prisoners, Lew viewed this as a means of escape from the life in the camps. He would later regret this belief. He and the other POWs were put into the hold of the ship back to back while standing up. When the hold was full, the Japanese closed the hatches. Lew remembered there was very little water and no sanitary facilities. For the men in the hold, food was not as important as water. Men began going crazy and would attack each other for the smallest reasons.
One time, Lew was attempting to relieve himself in the designated area of the hold. He accidentally bumped into another prisoner. The man responded by attacking Lew. Lew's life was saved by two other POWs who pulled the man off of him.
During the voyage, the prisoners heard a "bang" under the ship. They assumed that it was a torpedo from an American submarine. Another ship in the convoy that was carrying POWs was hit by torpedoes resulting in the deaths of almost 1500 Americans. The trip to Japan took eleven days to complete and resulted in the deaths of fourteen men.
The prisoners were only allowed on deck once a day for about fifteen minutes. For Lew, this journey to Japan was the worst thing that he would experience as a POW.
After a brief stop at Formosa, Lew arrived at Moji, Japan in September 7, 1944, and was sent to Sendai #10 outside of Tokyo. He would remain in this camp for six months and was used as a slave laborer in a steel mill. It was while at this camp that he witnessed the fire bombing of Tokyo. After the raid, as the planes flew over the camp they would dip their wings to show the POWs that they knew they were there.
Lew returned to the United States and was hospitalized for thirteen months with tuberculosis. On May 20, 1946, he was discharged from the army. Lew returned to the Chicago area, married, and raised a family. He attended Roosevelt University in Chicago and earned a Bachelors of Science Degree in Accounting. He would work as an comptroller for a car dealer and later as a tax advisor. The one lasting result of his POW imprisonment was that Lew loved to eat.
On September 23, 1990, Lewis Brittan died from a heart attack while sitting in a chair at home.