Cpl. Robert J. Stewart
Cpl. Robert J. Stewart was the son of Robert and Edna Stewart. He
was born on October 8, 1918, in Gettysburg, South Dakota. As a
child, he grew up on a farm west of Baraboo,
Wisconsin. While he
was in high school, he played football. The team he played on went
undefeated and was the first Wisconsin high school team to
finish a season never having been scored on by their
Bob attended college for one year at the University of Wisconsin at Lacrosse. He was forced to leave school when he ran out of money. He then moved to Janesville, Wisconsin, looking for a job.
In 1940, Bob joined the Wisconsin National Guard's 32nd Tank Company headquartered in Janesville. His reason for doing this was because his good friend, Owen Sandmire, had told him about the tank company. Owen and Bob were looking for work but not having much luck. This would give both of them the opportunity to earn some extra money. Owen also explained to Bob that if he joined the tank company, he would fulfill his year of military service.
Since a draft act had been passed by Congress, Bob knew that he was most likely going to be drafted into the army. He decided that riding in a tank was better than walking. On either September 14th or 16th, Bob enlisted into the National Guard.
In November, 1940, the tank company was sent to Fort Knox for training as A Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. It was there that Bob learned the necessary skills of a company clerk and became one of the clerks for A Company. It was his job to distribute the company's mail each day. Almost a year after arriving in Kentucky, his battalion, the 192nd Tank Battalion, was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers.
It was after these maneuvers that Bob and the other members of the battalion received the surprise of their lives. On the side of a hill, the entire battalion learned that they were being sent overseas for further training. Their time in the regular army had been extended from one to six years. Those men 29 or older were given the opportunity to resign from federal service. They were replaced with men from other tank battalions or army units.
The 192nd was sent west to San Francisco and taken to Angel Island by ferry. After receiving inoculations, they left the United States for the Philippine Islands. After a stop at Hawaii, the convoy sailed for Guam. From this time on, the ships zigzagged as they made their way to the Philippines. The ships also were under "total blackout" orders. For Bob, this was a sign that war was coming.
Arriving in the Philippines on Thanksgiving Day, 1941, the battalion was sent to Ft. Stotsenburg. There, they were put into tents on the main road between Ft. Stotsenburg and Clark Field. They spent the next two weeks preparing their equipment for use in the training they were expecting.
On December 8, 1941, the members of A Company were working on their tanks. They were still preparing their equipment and loading ammunition belts but now with more urgency. That morning at reveille, they had heard the news about Pearl Harbor. All morning as they worked, American planes flew overhead. At noon, every plane landed and the pilots went to lunch.
Bob recalled that around 12:45 planes appeared overhead. Everyone at first thought they were American planes. When bombs began exploding around them, they knew differently. To protect himself, Bob dove into a ditch in front of the battalion's headquarters. In Bob's opinion, there was not very much left of use at Clark Field when the attack ended.
Being a clerk, Bob was not involved in action against the Japanese. But, Bob lived through the daily strafing and bombing by Japanese planes. He and the other soldiers would listen to Tokyo Rose on the radio. She told them to surrender and they would be treated well. She also told them that they would be sent home. By what she said, Bob was sure she knew of the food situation. By this time, they were eating anything that moved.
Everyday, "Photo Joe" would fly over in a Piper Cub. When Bob and the other men saw him, they would head for air raid trenches. They knew that it would be just a matter of time until they were hit by enemy planes. Bob believed that the reason the rear area was hit so hard and so often was because the Japanese were attempting to cut the supply lines.
In spite of how hopeless the situation seemed, Bob and the other soldiers always kept their hope that reinforcements were on the way. This was such a strong belief that American soldiers would climb trees to look for American ships.
On April 9, 1942, the word came down of the surrender. The tankers destroyed their tanks, but remained at their bivouac. When the Japanese arrived the next day, they took whatever they wanted from the Prisoners of War. Afterwards, A Company made its way down to Mariveles. There, they were searched again. Bob recalled that the Japanese took what they wanted from what the Americans still had.
It was at Mariveles that Bob and the other members of A Company began the death march. A Company was broken up into different groups. Some men finished the march in days, while others took weeks. Bob and the rest of the company marched up the eastern road. Bob attempted to keep his distance from the guards so he stayed in the center or front of the group.
The Filipino people attempted to help the Americans and dropped sugar cane off trucks as they passed them. When the column of men rushed one truck, the guards stopped them. The result was that no one received any food.
Bob also stated that the Japanese intentionally kept the prisoners from "good" water. They could take all the water they wanted from the ditches along the road. The problem was that floating in the water were the bodies of dead POWs. Those prisoners who refused to drink this water and attempted to get water from the artesian wells that flowed beside the road were bayoneted.
On the march, Bob was with Carl Nickols. The two men had become best friends at Ft. Knox. During the march Bob fell. This was the first of the three times that he fell on the march. As he lay on the ground, he remembered what he had been taught by his high school football coach. His coach had told him what to do when he felt faint. Bob got up on his hands and knees and hung his head down. The blood flowed to his head which allowed him to get on his feet just as a guard was coming up to him to bayonet him.
The second time Bob fell he did the same thing again. Once again the trick of getting on all fours and dropping his head down saved his life.
The third time Bob fell he could not get up. This time Carl Nickols fell with him. The Japanese had guards marching behind the column of prisoners. Their job was to bayonet the prisoners who had fallen out of the column. Bob recalled thinking that Jesus had fallen three times on his way to be crucified. The guard came up to Bob to bayonet him. To Bob's surprise, the guard stuck his bayonet into the ground beside Bob's head just inches from his nose. The guard did this so that the men could lie on the ground until they were strong enough to get up and go on again.
After Bob and Carl regained their strength, they rejoined the column of POWs. The two men came to an artesian well and took water from the well. As they were drinking, a truck loaded with Japanese soldiers pulled up to the well. The Japanese soldiers motioned to them to come to the truck. The Japanese soldiers handed their canteens to Bob and Carl and had them fill the canteens with water. When they returned the canteens, the Japanese gave them hard candy and then drove off.
Bob and Carl ate the candy. Bob said that it was the strangest thing that he ever experienced in his life. The sugar was like receiving a shot. Strength came into their bodies and both soldiers were able to complete the march.
Bob and Carl reached San Fernando. It was there that the two POWs were packed into boxcars with other men. The prisoners were packed in so tightly that those who died remained standing. After disembarking from the cars, the POWs who survived the heat of the boxcars walked the last few miles to Camp O'Donnell.
When he arrived at the camp, Bob and the other prisoners were made to stand at attention and listen to a speech by the camp commandant. He told them that they would not be treated like guests of the emperor, and that those who died on the march were the lucky ones. After the speech, they were shown their quarters.
One of the worse things about Camp O'Donnell was that there was only one water faucet in the entire camp. Bob stated that the water came out of the faucet the thickness of a pencil. Prisoners stood in line for ten hours to get a drink of water. In Bob's own words, "Men would literally die of thirst."
When Bob first arrived at the camp, twenty Americans died each day. This number was nothing when compared to the 150 Filipinos dying each day. In the coming weeks, the number of Americans dying rose to 50 a day, while the number of Filipinos dying rose to almost 500 a day.
During his time at Camp O'Donnell, Bob was selected by the Japanese to be on the burial detail. He and the other POWs would dig twelve foot by twelve foot holes that were four feet deep. Surrounded by death, Bob's memories of home kept him going
While Bob was a prisoner in the camp, three men tried to escape. When they were recaptured, they were "crucified" at the front gate to the camp. Filipinos who passed them were required to hit them. Even the other POWs were expected to defecate on them as they went out on or returned from work details. All three men died after days of suffering.
Wanting to get out of Camp O'Donnell, Bob volunteered to go out on a work detail to rebuild bridges. Food was scarce on the detail, but each man received more food than if they were still in the camp. The food was mostly a watery rice soup with some greens. If a man became sick, his rations were caught in half. These men would almost always die because there was no medicine to treat their illnesses.
Since they were always hungry, the prisoners attempted to supplement their diets. One POW caught a rat and barbecued it. If he hadn't known what it was, Bob probably would have eaten some of it. One night Bob smuggled a bag of rice to his fellow POWs. If he had been caught, he would have been killed by the Japanese.
The detail Bob was on rebuilt bridges that had been destroyed during the withdraw into the Bataan Peninsula by the Filipino and American forces. The work was hard. One of the hardest jobs Bob had on the detail was driving pilings into the river banks. This the men did by hand.
While working with Bernard Fitzpatrick, of the 194th Tank Battalion, driving pilings, the two men were having a hardtime using a Japanese saw and understanding the Japanese officer and interpreter. Fitzpatrick said to Bob, "I wish the bastards would use English." In perfect English they heard a voice say, "It would be much better, wouldn't it." The response came from Lieutenant Miyosato who the POWs liked.
On another occasion on the detail, Bob became friends with Sgt. Jim Bashlenben of B Company. One day, the two men were on their break having a cigarette. As they sat on the log a Japanese Naval Officer pulled up in a jeep. The Japanese officer got out of the jeep and sat down on the log. Bob asked Jim if they should offer the officer a cigarette. Jim told him no. Jim also said that if the officer wanted a cigarette he should smoke one of his own.
Right after Jim said this, the officer pulled out a cigarette and lit it. He looked at Bob and Jim and said in perfect English, " If I were you, I'd be angry too. I returned to Japan to see my mother because she was dying. After she died, I tried to leave the country and couldn't. I have a wife and son in the United States who I'll probably never see again. I lived in the United States and know that the U. S. is going to win this war. When it's over, I just hope that I'm alive."
The officer got up and looked at Bob and Jim. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Camels. He threw the cigarettes to the POWs and said, "Smoke something good." With that, he got back into the jeep and drove away.
When this detail ended, Bob was sent to Cabanatuan. Many things about the camp were similar to Camp O'Donnell, but the one improvement was the availability of water. It was at this camp that the Japanese began to use the POWs as slave labor for their war effort. The camp became a clearinghouse for POWs being sent out on work details to other parts of the Philippine Islands or to Japan.
In September 1943, Bob was selected to go out on a work detail to Las Pinas. On this detail the POWs built runways for an airfield with picks and shovels. Bob remained on the detail until July 1944 when he was sent to Cabanatuan. One reason he was transferred was that the Japanese considered him too ill to continue working. He remained in the camp until August 17, 1944 when he was sent to Bilibid.
Bob remained at Bilibid until August 26 or 27 of 1944, He and the other prisoners received physicals to determine if they were healthy enough to go to Japan or another occupied country.
On August 27, 1944, Bob was boarded onto the "Hell Ship" the Noto Maru which was carrying POWs to Japan. He and 1,033 POWs were packed into the ship's hold which was forty feet long by forty feet wide. The men were placed shoulder to shoulder and back to back so they could not move. As the hatch was closed, the Japanese guard said in perfect English, "Make yourself comfortable."
As the ship made its way to Japan men died of sickness and starvation. With each death, there was more room in the ship's hold. The bodies of the dead were hosted out of the hold by ropes and dumped in the sea. The suction of the ship's propellers pulled the bodies into them and resulted in the bodies being cut up.
Twelve days after leaving Manila and a stop at Formosa, the ship arrived at Moji, Japan on September 4, 1944. Bob was sent to Sendai #6 near Hanawa, Japan. The prisoners in this camp worked in a large copper mine. The shafts ceilings were so low that the POWs had to work bent over. The mine shafts did not have any supports so cave-ins happened on regular basis. When one happened, the POWs stopped working and rescued the men who had been buried.
It was at Sendai #6 that Bob contracted wet beriberi. He recalled that his arm was so full of fluid that he could see through the skin. His condition worsened until he was sent to a hospital. The hospital he was in was known among the POWs as a place where the Japanese performed experiments on American POWs.
It was also at this hospital that Bob saw his first B-29. One day the sky was perfectly blue, Bob saw a large plane being attacked by three Japanese Zeros. The first Zero was hit and a black trail of smoke came out of the plane. He next saw a flash of light, and the second Zero disintegrated. With this, the last Japanese plane took off in the opposite direction.
After seeing this, Bob told the other prisoners that he believed that they would be home by Thanksgiving. Within a matter of months, his statement became a reality with Japan's surrender.
Bob was sent back to Manila for medical treatment. When he was declared healthy, he returned to the United States and returned to Janesville. He was discharged, from the army, on May 19, 1946.
On November 11, 1950, Bob married Dorothy Jones in Madison, Wisconsin. He worked for the U.S. Post Office. His wife and he would raise three children, Katherine, Gary and Sandra. On June 6, 1999, Dorothy passed away.
Robert J. Stewart passed away on January 27, 2003. He is remembered as a kind man who treated people the way he wanted them to treat others. He was buried next to his wife at Milton Lawns Cemetery in Janesville, Wisconsin.