Pvt. Steve Kodaj
Pvt. Stephen Kodaj was born on April 3, 1917, to Michael Kodaj & Sophie
Kleich-Kodaj in Chicago, Illinois. He was the oldest of three sons born
to the couple. He was known as "Steve" to his family and friends. His
family moved to Brookfield, Illinois, where he lived at 4029 South Anna
Avenue. He worked in a nursery as a gardener.
On July 16, 1940, he joined the Illinois National Guard because he wanted excitement. His tank company was called to federal service and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky to train. While at Ft. Knox, he trained as a tank driver. In October, 1941, Steve and the other members of the 192nd Tank Battalion were sent overseas. They arrived in the Philippines on Thanksgiving Day, 1941. The battalion was suppose to receive additional training after arriving on Luzon. This training came in the form of actual combat against the Japanese invasion forces.
Steve concluded that the Japanese soldiers were savages because of the way they fought and treated the Filipinos. From December 1941 to April of 1942, Steve with the other members of his company fought to slow the Japanese conquest of the Philippine Islands. This effort on the part of the Bataan defenders bought time for the Allies to reinforce Australia and ruined the Japanese plans of invasion.
When the defenders of Bataan were surrendered to the Japanese, Steve destroyed his tank. Instead of surrendering, he escaped to Corregidor. He was assigned to the 4th Marines and fought on for another month until the Japanese all out attack on the island resulted in the surrender of the American forces there. When Corregidor surrendered, Steve became a Prisoner of War.
As a POW Steve was first imprisoned at Cabanatuan #3. From Cabanatuan, he was sent to Manila. There he was held as a POW at Bachrach Garage. He and the other POWs on this detail repaired equipment for the Japanese. At some point, Steve was considered too sick to work and was sent to Bilibid. When he had recovered, he was given an physical and determined healthy enough to be sent to another occupied country.
On October 5, 1942, Steve and another 1600 POW's were sent to the dock area of Manila, They spent two days housed in a warehouse on the dock before being boarded onto Tottori Maru.
The ship sailed for Takao, Formosa. The prisoners were divided into two groups. One group was placed in the holds while the other group remained on deck. The lucky POWs remained on deck. The conditions on the ship were indescribable, but those in the hold were worse off than those on deck. This situation was made worse by the fact that for the first two weeks of the voyage the prisoners were not fed. Many POWs died during the trip.
Shortly after leaving Manila, the Tottori Maru came under a torpedo attack by an American submarine. The captain of the ship maneuvered it to avoid torpedoes. Woody and the other POWs watched as the two torpedoes fired at the ship missed.
The ship continued its voyage arriving at Takao, Formosa on October 12th. The ship remained at Takao for four days before sailing. It returned to Takao the same day and sailed again on October 18th. When it reached the Pescadores Islands, it dropped anchor. It remained off the islands until October 27th when it returned to Takao. During this stay, the POWs were disembarked and washed down with fire hoses.
The ship sailed again on October 30th. On October 31st, the ship stopped at Makou, Pescadores Islands before continuing its trip to Pusan, Korea. During this trip, the ship was caught in a typhoon which took five days to ride out. It was during this storm that Woody's friend lost the vision in one eye because he was hit the face by salt water spray.
After 31 days on the ship, the Totori Maru docked at Pusan, Korea on November 7th. 1300 POW's got off the ship and sent on a four day train trip north to Mukden, Manchria. There, they worked in a sawmill or a manufacturing plant.
As a POW at Hoton, Steve was sent to Branch Camp #3 which was known as the Shenyang Camp. There he worked in a sawmill producing lumber. Steve delighted in sabotaging the mill to stop its operation. Even though they were in Manchuria, Steve and the other POWs knew how the war was going. During his time at Mukden, the only member of B Company Steve was in touch with was William Kindell.
In September of 1945, Steve and the other POWs were liberated by Russian troops. After he was freed, Steve's family received a letter from him dated August 23, 1945. This was the first news they had received from him since November 1941. A month after liberation, Steve was returned to American authorities. He remained in Asia for one additional month before being returned to the United States. He was finally discharged, from the army, at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, on May 3, 1946, with the rank of sergeant.
Steve returned to Illinois and married. He would retire and move to Wakulla, Florida. Steve Kodaj passed away on March 12, 2005, in Tallahassee, Florida.