Pfc. Louis Casmer Zelis
| Pfc. Louis C. Zelis was born on February 13, 1914, and was one of the four sons born
to Mary & John Zelis. Louis was married to Mae and lived on the south side of Chicago at
1528 West Jackson Boulevard. He worked as advertisement distributor
for a dry good company.
Louis was drafted into the Army on January 22, 1941, in Chicago, and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky. At Ft. Knox, he was assigned to Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion. He became a member of the company because the army was attempting to fill vacancies in each of the companies with men from the home states of each company.
Louis trained with the 192nd Tank Battalion at Fort Knox, Kentucky and then took part in the Louisiana maneuvers of 1941. He was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, where the company was given 17 new tanks and other new equipment. It was there the he and the other members of the company learned they were being sent overseas.
In October 1941, Louis, and the other members of the battalion, left for the Philippines from Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. After stops in Hawaii and Guam, the 192nd arrived in the Philippine Islands on Thanksgiving Day, 1941. Two weeks later, Louis found himself involved in some of the first American military action in World War II.
On December 22, 1941, as the driver of 2nd Lt. Ben Morin's tank, Louis and the other members of the crew were sent north, with four other tank crews, to come to the aid of the 26th U. S. Cavalry of Filipino Scouts. The cavalry was engaged in a battle with the Japanese near Damortis and attempting to withdraw.
As the tanks proceeded north, they were bombed by Japanese planes. When the tanks found the 26th Cavalry, the Japanese had deployed along the sides of the road. Louis weaved the tank allowing the other members of the crew to fire their stationary machine guns at the enemy alongside the road.
After the tank took a shell hit to the right side of the hull knocking the door in front of Pvt. John Cahill loose, Louis pulled the tank into a dry rice patty to allow the tank crew to replace the door. It was at this time that a Japanese tank rammed Louis's tank at the left front sprocket causing the track to jam.
When Louis attempted to pull back onto the road, the right track kept pulling the tank off to the left. A second shell hit the tank damaging the door in front of Pvt. Cahill's face further. Another shell pierced the tank's hull entering the battery case and causing a fire. The crew put on their gas masks and Louis turned on the extinguishers putting the fire out.
When four Japanese tanks approached the disabled tank, two Japanese soldiers got out of their tanks and approached the disabled tank. The two men looked into the tank through the shattered hatch. To their surprise the tank's crew was still alive. The soldiers retreated to their tanks.
Lt Morin asked his tank crew if they wanted to shoot it out with the Japanese with their side arms or if they wanted to surrender. The crew decided it would be better to surrender. They hoped that if the did, that they would be exchanged for Japanese POWs.
In Louis's own words, he described what happened:
"The first we knew an anti-tank shell knocked off the window shield of the tank. Five or six tankettes (the Japanese baby tank) rolled up the road. They stopped and a couple of Japanese climbed out and started toward us. They peered through the shattered shell and saw we were still alive. Then they ran back to their tanks. Our lieutenant asked us if we should surrender or try to shoot it out with our pistols. We decided to surrender, hoping we would soon find a way to freedom.
We waved a towel. An English speaking Jap said for us to come out. They tied our hands and put us on the back of the tankettes. We were taken to Tarlec and after Bataan and Corregidor fell they transferred us to Cabanatuan."
Louis and the other members of the crew were now Prisoners of War. As a prisoner, Louis was first held at Agoo and Bauang. The POWs refused to bow to the Japanese which resulted in their being severely beaten. It was after one severe beating the men decided that it was better to bow than die.
On June 12, 1942, Louis and the other tankers were sent to Cabanatuan. There, he recalled that 20 men to 40 men were dying each day. While a prisoner of the Japanese, his weight dropped from 170 pounds to 107 pounds. The daily meal for a POW at Cabanatuan was a half pint of raw rice and two sweet potatoes a day. When they had the time, the prisoners would sit around and talk about the food their mothers use to make back home.
At Cabanatuan, Louis was assigned to a detail commanded by Capt. Arthur Warmuth. One day, the Japanese wanted prisoners with dysentery to clean a dung pile. Capt. Warmuth attempted to ensure that the POWs were treated as ill men and not have to work. He complained to the commanding officer in a tone that got the message across. The officer hit him with a judo chop, and while he was lying on the ground, he was kicked in his head and stomach. Louis recalled how helpless he felt as he stood and watched this being done to a man he had come to respect. Capt. Warmuth was taken unconscious to the camp hospital where he recovered from the injuries.
According to Louis, what kept the prisoners going at Cabanatuan was the grapevine. It was their way of hearing what was going on in the war. As time went on, the prisoners, through the grapevine, heard that the Americans were on their way back to the Philippines. The men thought this was a dream too good to be true. One morning they heard rumbling in the distance. This rumbling, was the sound of the American invasion forces shelling the beaches of Luzon.
During his time as a POW, Louis's family received one card from him. The card was received on January 15, 1945. It was dated May 6, 1944.
Louis was liberated when United States Rangers, supported by Filipino Guerillas and Buffalo Scouts raided Cabanatuan to prevent the Japanese from killing the prisoners. The Rangers then took the POWs through enemy held territory to the American lines.
When his mother, Mary, heard the news, she said, "Thank God for the good news."
Being the first member of B Company liberated, Louis returned to Chicago and told the families what he knew about the other members of Company B. He was discharged from the army on August 18, 1945.
In many papers, a photo appeared of Louis and his wife, Mae, after they were reunited. But, the effect of his years as a POW was that their marriage ended in divorce. He would later marry Helen Migliarini.
Louis Zelis passed away on June 17, 1974, in Chicago. He was buried at Saint Casimir Catholic Cemetery in Chicago.
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