Sgt. Morgan R. French
Morgan R. French was born on August 21, 1919, in Boyle County to Clifton
& Mary Alice Smith-French. He had two brothers and six sisters. He
joined the Kentucky National Guard in 1937 to, in his own words,
"get a break from farming." He was called
to federal duty from Harrodsburg, Kentucky, on November 25, 1940. With him in the National
Guard Company was his brother, Edward.
At Fort Knox, Kentucky, his tank company was designated D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. Morgan spent nearly a year there training. He would become the crew chief of the maintenance section of the company.
In the late summer of 1941, the battalion was sent to Louisiana for maneuvers. It was after these maneuvers that the battalion learned that they were being sent overseas.
From Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, the battalion sailed for the Philippine Islands. During the voyage, Morgan recalled that nearly two-thirds of the soldiers were seasick at one time or another. After stops in Hawaii and Guam, the battalion arrived at Manila. There, they were boarded onto a train and taken to Ft. Stotsenburg.
The soldiers spent the next eighteen days becoming familiar with the tanks. It was at this time that D Company was attached to the 194th Tank Battalion. The official transfer of the company to the 194th Tank Battalion would never take place.
The tankers heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the morning of December 8, 1941, while working on their tanks. They began getting the tanks ready for combat. He and the other soldiers knew that something was going to happen, they just didn't know what it would be.
The tanks were sent to the perimeter of the airfield when they saw planes approaching. Morgan and the other soldiers heard a strange hissing and whistling sound. Bombs began exploding all around them. It was the first time that Morgan had heard a bomb dropping.
Morgan believed the Japanese had two objectives in their attack. One was to destroy the air corps; the other was to destroy the tanks.
Morgan found himself standing alone. He jumped on a motorcycle and rode off. As he rode, Japanese Zeros came after him. He decided to dive into a ditch. There, he put on a gas mask because of the dust and odor. As he lay there, he shot at the planes with his .45 caliber handgun.
The attack lasted three or four hours. At one point, an old Filipino who was drunk passed Morgan. He looked at Morgan and said, "Oh! War games!" Morgan responded with, "These aren't games!" Morgan told the man to get down, but the Filipino just kept walking.
After the attack, Morgan found the body of Robert Brooks who had been killed during the attack. Brooks had been hit by shrapnel which took off half of his head and part of his shoulder.
From that day on, the Japanese flew over daily. Morgan watched as they strafed and bombed. He recalled that there were bombs all over the airfield that had not exploded. Written on the side of the bombs were the words, "Rock Island Arsenal". The United States sold the bombs to Japan before the war, and they were now being used on them.
Morgan recalled that the 192nd moved north to Lingayen Gulf. The tanks lined up along the shore where the Japanese were attempting to land troops. The tanks killed hundreds of soldiers. He recalled that they killed so many Japanese that they could walk the length of the beach on them.
During the withdraw into Bataan, Morgan stated that the tanks fought for two or three miles at a time. They would then withdraw from each engagement. Morgan's job, being maintenance crew chief, was to keep the tanks running.
Since there was no air cover, the tanks moved at night and hid during the day. They quickly learned to remove anything that glittered to prevent the Japanese from spotting them. Meals for the tankers were held before dawn or after dusk to prevent the mess kits from reflecting lights.
On one occasion, the tankers were moving their tanks to a sugarcane field. They discovered that the field was filled with Japanese soldiers. The tankers opened fired and killed over 300 Japanese soldiers.
Morgan stated that the Japanese would send raiding parties into the Filipino and American lines at night. They would kill someone and then drop back. To prevent themselves from giving away their positions, the Americans had orders to use bayonets at night and not their guns.
The morning of April 8, 1942, Morgan and the other tankers were informed that General King had gone to meet with the Japanese to negotiate a surrender. They received orders to destroy their tanks. After doing so, Morgan and other members of D Company decided that they would try to escape instead of surrendering. Morgan attempted to find his brother, Edward, but couldn't. He assumed that Edward had already escaped. With Maurice Wilson, Morgan reached Corregidor on a boat they found in a cave.
After arriving on the island, Morgan heard that his brother, Edward, had been wounded and was in a hospital on Bataan. He had been hit in the neck and had both eardrums broken.
Morgan recalled that they were ragged, dirty and tired. They had not eaten in two or three days and had not shaved for two or three weeks. He had not bathed in a month.
While on Corregidor, Morgan stayed in the Middleside Barracks. He and the other men hid under the pool table when the island was bombed by the Japanese. Deciding that this was not the place he wanted to be, Morgan and Jack Wilson volunteered to go to Ft. Drum. They were taken to the island on a barge.
The fort was built over a coral reef and seemed to be invincible. In Morgan's opinion, the soldiers in the fort could have held out forever.
When Morgan arrived at Ft. Drum, he noticed that the soldier's stationed there did not even have sunburns. Being dirty, the first thing that he and the other volunteers did was to take showers, shave and get new clothes. During his time at Ft. Drum, he ate and slept well.
Sometime while Morgan was at Ft. Drum, he came down with malaria. Another American got him through the attack. As it turned out, this man would later be executed as a prisoner of war. Morgan was witnessed the execution and could not do anything to help him.
While on Ft. Drum, Morgan watched as the Japanese shelled Corregidor. He also lived through the shelling of Ft. Drum. On one occasion, the Americans at the fort returned fire. Morgan later learned that one of their shells landed short of its target and hit the hospital that his brother was being held in. Morgan would later learn that fragments from the shell killed his brother and 25 other Americans.
On May 6, 1942, Morgan and the other soldiers at Ft. Drum learned of Corregidor's surrender. They too were ordered to surrender. He and the other men didn't expect the Japanese to take prisoners. They destroyed their equipment and waited until May 10th before the Japanese arrived to take control of the island.
The Japanese arrived on the island and set up machine guns. Morgan and the other men believed that they were going to be shot. The Japanese lined the prisoners up and took what they wanted from the men. They also were beaten. It was the worse day of Morgan's life up to the time.
Morgan and the other Prisoners of War were put on small boats and taken to an area near Manila. There, they were held in sugarcane warehouse. Around 4:00 in the afternoon, they were lined up and put on a work detail. The POWs passed rocks all night, all day and night again. As they worked, the Japanese guarding them drank from buckets of water but made no effort to give any to the POWs.
After three days, Morgan and the other men were returned to the warehouse. They received food and water and then were loaded onto ships. They were taken to Manila, disembarked, and marched ten miles to Bilibid Prison. Anyone who fell out was left behind.
During the march, Morgan saw Filipino's flash him and the other Americans the "V" for victory. Other Filipinos tried to give them coconuts. Those who were caught were beaten by the Japanese.
Morgan was held at Bilibid Prison for a short time and then taken to Cabanatuan. While there, he became extremely ill. He was so ill that he dug his own grave. Knowing that Morgan was ill, another POW gave Morgan pills to take. He took two or three of them. The pills saved his life.
Morgan did not remain too long in the Philippines. He was on one of the first transports to Japan. On November 7, 1942, Morgan, Marcus Lawson, Doc Sparrow and Elzie Anness were boarded onto the Nagato Maru for transport to Japan. The trip took 27 days. When he arrived there, it was snowing. By this time, his clothes had deteriorated and were nothing more than rags.
The POWs were fed and loaded into boxcars. They traveled all day. When the train stopped, they marched ten miles to a camp that had been built for them. The prisoners in the camp were used to build a dry-dock.
Morgan and the other men worked seven days a week. They were given one day off in warm weather. It was so cold in the winter, that the water remained frozen from December 1942 until March 1944. He and the other men worked this detail for two years until the Japanese ended it after discovering that the dry-dock was too short. They were next sent to graphite mine.
Morgan recalled that everything was black even the urine of the POWs. The graphite got into the POWs skin and water and soap could not get it out. Some of the POWs killed themselves because the conditions in the mine were so bad.
While he was a POW at Tanagawa, Elze Aness became extremely ill. When Elzie died, Morgan volunteered to work the burial detail. The POWs took Elzie's body to a crematorium and watched as Elzie's remains were reduced to ash. Morgan attempted to get Marcus Lawson, who had been Elzie's best friend since grade school, to volunteer for the detail, but Marcus could not bare to watch the cremation.
The prisoners were once again transferred to Tsuruga Camp. This time, Morgan and the others were used as stevedores. The POWs stole as much food as they could as they they worked.
Since the Japanese saw the prisoners as slaves, they attempted to get them to unload bombs. The POWs went on strike instead of doing this. In an attempt to break the strike, the Japanese made the men stand at attention for 24 hours. The POWs realized that the Japanese were not going to give in, so they decided that they would unload the bombs, but attempt to damage them. They were able to do this since the Japanese were afraid to go near the bombs. They had no idea that the bombs were not armed.
As he war went on, American planes began to appear in the sky. On one occasion, the planes bombed the camp Morgan was at with incendiary bombs. The reason for this was that the Japanese had identified the camp as a factory. What kept the camp from burning down was it was raining.
Morgan noted that after the rain, the Japanese guards left the camp to look for their families. The town near the camp was destroyed in the air raid.
It was Morgan's belief that the atomic bomb was saved him and the other POWs from being killed by the Japanese. One day while Morgan was outside he saw a mushroom cloud. He did not know it, but he had witnessed the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
The ranking American officer was told by the Japanese camp commander that had American troops landed on Honshu, he had orders to kill his prisoners. In Morgan's opinion the Japanese had never let killing the prisoners bother them before, so why would this order bother them.
Morgan knew that the war was over when American planes appeared over the camp and began dropping pamphlets saying so. The POWs also were instructed to put out a banner saying what they needed. The planes reappeared and dropped fifty gallon drums of food and clothes. Morgan ate so many Hershey bars that he became ill.
The former prisoners took the guns away from the guards who surrendered them without a fight. The men remained in the camp because they were unsure how safe they would be outside of it.
On September 9, 1945, Morgan and the other men took a train to Yokohama. The next day, they were officially liberated. It was at this time that Morgan saw a nurse and could not believe that women were in the army. The nurse asked him where he was from. When he said Harrodsburg, Kentucky, she hugged him. It turned out that she was from Somerset, Kentucky.
Morgan and the other men were disinfected, shaved and given new clothes. They were processed and returned to the Philippines. In Manila, they were given anything that they wanted.
About a month later, Morgan was boarded onto a transport for the trip back to the United States. He arrived in San Francisco four years after he had sailed for the Philippines. After arriving there, he was sent to a hospital in San Francisco.
One night, he and several other former POWs snuck out of the hospital. They made their way to a local bar. When the patrons of the bar learned that they had been Japanese POWs for almost four years, they bought them round after round of drinks.
Morgan returned to Harrodsburg. He remained in the army and did two tour of duties in Korea. After he returned home, he married, Maxine Milby, in 1954, and raised a family. He retired from the Army in 1962 and went to work as a civilian tank instructor at Ft. Knox until he retired in 1984.
Morgan French passed away on February 24, 2012, in Plano, Texas. He was the last surviving National Guard member of D Company and was buried at North Hardin Memorial Cemetery in Radcliff, Kentucky.
On October 12, 2012, at Fort Knox, Kentucky, the U.S. Army named its new barracks for the Warrior Transition Unit after Morgan French. As far as it is known, he was the last surviving National Guard member of D Company.