1st Sgt. Roger James Heilig
1st Sergeant Roger J. Heilig was one of the three children of Oscar
A. Helig and Viola Strenging-Heilig. He was born on March 8,
1921, in Oak Park, Illinois, and lived at 2116 South 16th Avenue in
Maywood, Illinois. He attended Roosevelt Grade School in
Broadview and Proviso Township High School. He was a member of
the graduating class of 1938 from Proviso. After high school,
he worked as a shipping clerk for the Jefferson Electric Company.
In 1937, Roger joined the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Tank Company from Maywood. To do this, he had to get his parents to sign a consent form since he was only sixteen years old. On April 8, 1940, he was honorably discharged, but he reenlisted a month later in May of 1940.
On November 24, 1940, Roger went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, when the company was federalized and made part of the 192nd Tank Battalion. He continued his training in Louisiana and took part in the maneuvers of 1941. From Louisiana, Company B was sent to San Francisco where they departed for the Philippine Islands, from Angel Island, in October of 1941. On Thanksgiving Day, 1941, the company arrived in the Philippines two weeks before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
When war came, Roger took part in the first tank action of World War II involving American tanks. During the withdrawal into the Bataan Peninsula, Roger demonstrated his personal courage. He was standing on a dyke along the south bank of the Agno River with his tank behind him. As he stood there, he noticed men coming across the river in the distance. At first, he dismissed these men as Filipino soldiers and began walking back to the tank. Suddenly, he stopped and turned. He realized that the last Filipino troops had already crossed the river.
Roger ran to his tank, grabbed his Tommy-gun, ran back to the dyke and threw himself on the ground. He opened fire on the men in the river and on the north bank. The Japanese on the north bank returned fire and shelled his position with mortars; but Roger held his position. In the ensuing battle, Roger killed over thirty enemy soldiers as they attempted to cross the river. He held his position on the dyke until he was reinforced.
On April 9, 1942, when Filipino and American forces were surrendered to the Japanese, Roger escaped to Corregidor. He became a Prisoner of War when the island was surrendered to Japanese on May 6, 1942. As a POW, he was sent to Cabanatuan. It should be mentioned that his parents did not learn that he was a POW until May, 1943.
Sometime in late 1942 or early 1943, Roger was selected for a work detail in Manila. The detail occupied the Bachrach Garage and repaired trucks, cars and other equipment for the Japanese. With him were Clyde Ehrhardt, Arthur Van Pelt, Warren Hildebrandt, Daniel Boni, and Ralph Ellis of B Company. He remained on this detail until October 1944 when the detail was disbanded and the POWs were sent to Pier 7 in Manila.
Roger and the other POWs were boarded onto the Arisan Maru. The ship sailed on October 11th to avoid attacks by American planes. The ship returned to Manila to join the convoy. For the next twelve days as the ship waited, the POWs remained in the holds until the ship sailed a second time.
According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on October 24, 1944, near dinner time, POWs were on deck preparing the meal for those in the ship's two holds. The ship was near Shoonan, off the coast of China. There was a sudden jar which was caused by the ship being hit by two torpedoes. The ship stopped dead in the water. It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was the U. S. S Snook.
As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope ladders into the ship's two holds. Some of the POWs in the second hold were able to climb out and lowered a ladder to those in the first hold. They also dropped ropes down to the POWs in both holds.
Many of the POWs attempted to escape the ship by clinging to rafts, hatch covers, flotsam and jetsam. Most of the POWs survived the attack but died because the Japanese refused to rescue them. The Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as they attempted to reach them.
Sgt. Roger Heilig lost his life when the Arisan Maru was torpedoed in the South China Sea. Of the 1800 POWs on the ship, only nine survived the sinking. Since he was lost at sea, Sgt. Roger Heilig's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.
After the war, 1st Sgt. Roger Helig's family had a memorial dedicated to him at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.