Sgt. Zenon R. Bardowski
Zenon R. Bardowski was born in Gary, Indiana, on October 17, 1914, to
Zenon N. Bardowski & Caroline Lena Kostur-Bardowski. He
grew up at 1601 Jackson Street in Gary, Indiana, and was a 1932 graduate of Froebel High School in Gary.
He operated a grocery and meat market.
Zenon joined the Illinois National Guard because he knew that sooner or later the United States would become involved in World War II. The reason he ended up in the Illinois National Guard instead of the Indiana National Guard was that he was a race car driver and an automobile mechanic. His interest in automobiles, resulted in his wanting to get into tanks on the ground level. Since the closest tank company to Gary was located in Maywood, Illinois, he joined the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Tank Company.
In November of 1940, the 33rd Tank Company was federalized and sent to train at Fort Knox, Kentucky as Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion. During this training, Zenon qualified as a driver of tracked vehicles. He next took part in the Louisiana maneuvers of 1941.
After the maneuvers, the members of the company were informed that they had been selected for duty overseas and that this duty could last from six months up to six years. The battalion was next sent to Camp Polk in Louisiana, where the older men and married men were released from federal service and replaced with men from other battalions. It was there that the battalion received new tanks that they had never been trained to use.
In October of 1941, the 192nd Tank Battalion was sent by train to Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. It was from there that the members sailed for the Philippine Islands. The battalion arrived in Manila on Thanksgiving Day, 1941. A little over two weeks later, they found themselves involved in some of the first action involving American Forces in World War II.
Ten hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Clark Field. It was during this attack that Zenon is credited with being the first member of an American tank crew to shoot down an enemy plane during World War II.
According to other members of the battalion Zenon's halftrack was at the end of the runway. A Japanese plane flew straight at it firing as it approached. Dirt flew in two tracks from the bullets. Bardowski stayed at his gun firing at the plane as it approached until he hit it. The plane fell from the sky with a smoke trail following it.
After the attack, the battalion members found the plane. The pilot was missing both his arms and legs. None of them had any feelings for the pilot. When a chaplain tried to get them to bury the pilot, one man urinated on him to show his contempt. The others simply walked away.
As the battle for the Philippine Islands continued, Zenon was first assigned as a halftrack driver for Tec. 4 Frank Goldstein. It was their job to be in constant communication with every tank of the 192nd. If a tank did not respond, Zenon had to drive Goldstein to find the tank and see what the problem was.
He would later be assigned to the Air Corp until he was reassigned to B Company.
As the battle against the Japanese continued, Zenon rose in rank from private to sergeant and was asked by 2nd Lt. Ed Winger to organize a tank platoon. Zenon was now a tank commander with a crew of Pvt. Carl E. Garr as his tank driver and Pvt. Wallace Marston as his gunner.
During the Battle of the Pockets, Zenon came to the aid of the tank crew of Lt. Ed Winger. Zenon's best friend, Cpl. John Massimino, was in the crew and shouted at him, over the radio, they needed his help. The tankers had knocked out a number of Japanese positions.
As Lt. Winger's tank approached another Japanese position, it was fired upon by Japanese flamethrowers. The crew was blinded and their tank ended up wedged between two trees. The tank was abandoned by it's crew.
Zenon had his tank pull up behind the trapped tank. He dismounted his tank and dragged the towing cables from the bow of his tank to the rear of Lt. Winger's tank. The Japanese managed to shoot the cable away from the hook, so Zenon had to run around to the rear of his tank and set the cable to make the rescue.
Zenon efforts saved Winger's crew. In the process of rescuing the tank crew Zenon's tank had destroyed a .57 mm Japanese trap and flamethrower. Zenon, himself, would be wounded before Bataan was surrendered.
On April 8, after receiving word that the forces on Bataan would be surrendered the next day, Zenon led his tanks to the coast of Bataan in an attempt to escape to Corregidor. When he was told that there was no room for him or his men on the barge, Zenon repositioned his Tommy-gun to make it understood that he intended to make the trip. After abandoning his tanks, Zenon and his men made the trip to Corregidor.
On Corregidor, Zenon was assigned to the D Company of the 4th Marines. He recalled being bombed and shelled daily and was wounded while eating a meal. When the final assault on the island took place, Zenon was bayoneted, in his thigh, when the Japanese overran his position. He would later receive the Bronze Star, a Silver Star, and three Purple Hearts.
Probably the strangest experience during the attack was Zenon was having to fire on his own tank which was now being used by the Japanese. His former tank was the first tank to land on Corregidor. Not disabling the tank was a regret that Zenon had his entire life.
On May 10, 1942, Zenon became a Prisoner of War. As a POW, Zenon was first held at Cabanatuan #1. Zenon left the camp to go out on a work detail. The POWs built runways and built bridges. When the detail ended, he was next sent to Cabanatuan #3. There he was reunited with other members of Company B. As a POW, Zenon worked as a woodcutter and a cook.
During his time as a POW, Zenon was punished for violating a camp rule. He was made to stand in the sun until he passed out. He was then kicked in his ribs and stomach and hit with rifle butts.
He was next sent to Bilibid Prison where he was reunited with Tec 4. Frank Goldstein and Sgt. James Griffin. It was there that Frank Goldstein would save Zenon's life by giving him vitamin pills. Next, Zenon was boarded onto the Nissyo Maru and sent to Japan. The voyage on the hell ship lasted from July 17, 1944 until August 3, 1944. What he remembered about the trip was the smell in the hold and the attacks by American planes.
In Japan, he was sent to Fukuoka #23 outside of Moji, which is located outside of Hiroshima. There, he again worked as a cook, but he also was sent into the coal mine to mine coal. One day while he was outside, he heard a roar and felt a shock wave. Unknown to him, the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and he was experiencing the shockwave. It was not until the guards had disappeared that the POWs knew the war was over. It was September 16, 1945.
Zenon made his way through the rubble of Hiroshima and, on his own, went to Tokyo. Outside of the city, he met up with the 1st U. S. Cavalry. He made contact with American troops on September 25, 1945.
Zenon returned to the United States and was discharged, from the army, on April 12, 1946. He married, Raye Bandanish, and raised a family. In 1946, a few months after being discharged, he qualified to race in the Indianapolis 500. He would later move to Texas where he passed away on April 19, 2000.