Pvt. Michael S. Wepsiec
Michael S. Wepsiec was born on August 7, 1915. He was the son of
Casmir & catherine Wepsiec. His parents were Polish immigrants. He grew up in Chicago,
with his four sisters and two brothers, and was raised at 2347 South Homan
Avenue. Before joining the Illinois National Guard, he worked for
the Illinois Northern Railroad.
When President Franklin Roosevelt signed the draft act into law, Mike and friends Steve Gados and Ed Plodzien decided that they would enlist in the Illinois National Guard at Maywood, Illinois. Their reasoning for doing this was twofold. They believed that enlisting in the National Guard would allow them to quickly complete their one year of military service. They also believed that if they had to be in the army it was better to ride in a tank than march on foot.
In November of 1940, the Maywood Tank Company was called into federal service along with companies from Ohio, Kentucky and Wisconsin. Together, the companies formed the 192nd Tank Battalion. The battalion trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky. It was there that Mike qualified as a halftrack driver. The unit then was sent to Louisiana for one month of maneuvers.
The battalion completed maneuvers and was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana. It was there that Mike and the other men learned that they were not being released from federal service but instead were being sent overseas. Each company then received 17 new tanks and headed west over three different rail routes to San Francisco.
Although it was not suppose to be "officially known" where they were heading, many of the soldiers had concluded it was the Philippine Islands from the code name "PLUM". They left Angel Island, spent four days in Hawaii and shipped out for the Philippines.
Mike was very much aware that the United States would be at war shortly because the transport he was on was being escorted by a cruiser and traveled under blackout conditions. The 192nd Tank Battalion arrived in the Philippines 16 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor.
When war did come, Mike was involved in the first tank to tank combat involving American tanks in World War II. His tank platoon had been sent to Lingayen Gulf to knock out Japanese machine gun nests and give cover so that the 26th U. S. Cavalry could withdraw. The problem they faced was that they had never been trained to fight in a jungle.
Since there were rice fields on both sides of the road, they could not use the V-formation to attack. They also found themselves in single file formation on the main road. It was at this time that Lt. Ben Morin and his crew, which included Mike's friend Steve Gados, were taken Prisoners of War.
Mike believed that the Japanese soldiers attacked with ferocity because they were high on drugs. This belief also seemed to explain why the Japanese soldiers kept attacking even though they were wounded. According to Mike, this belief was confirmed when his company found packages of drugs on the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers.
On Bataan, Mike and the other members of the 192nd ate rice boiled in water in the morning and steamed rice for dinner. As time went on, they also ended up eating the horses of the 26th U. S. Cavalry.
Mike believed that the Japanese reinforcements from Singapore were the reason Bataan fell. These troops were battle hardened and fierce fighters. When the Filipino-American Forces were surrendered, Mike and the other members of his company destroyed their vehicles except for two trucks. They planned to ride in these two trucks to the destination that the Japanese selected. Instead, the Japanese took the trucks and Mike found himself walking to Mariveles. It was from there that Mike would begin what became known as the death march.
On the march, Mike recalled that the Japanese killed prisoners for the smallest things. If a POW fell and another attempted to help him, they both were killed. Despite this, Mike believed that he did not see as much brutality as other men witnessed.
According to Mike, a break on the march was stopping and standing in position. Meals were "middling" which was very bitter and hard to eat. He also believed that escaping was the same as suicide because the POW would need a large amount of quinine to survive in the jungle.
Mike was held at Camp O'Donnell for two weeks before he was sent out on a detail. He was sent out to bring damaged American trucks to San Fernando. The POWs would tie the vehicles together with ropes and drive them to San Fernando. It was at San Fernando that Mike had his first attack of malaria.
After the scrap-metal detail ended, Mike was sent to Cabanatuan #1 where he was held for one month. It is believed that he went out on a work detail, but at this time it is not known which detail. Mike than spent the next two years in the Philippines building runways on the Las Pinas work detail. The only tools that the POWs had were picks and shovels. he remained on the detail until April 1944.
At first, the prisoners worked only half a day because their guards were seasoned troops who had no desire to stand out in the hot Filipino sun in the middle of the day. When these troops were replaced by new recruits, the POWs found themselves working until 8:00 o'clock at night.
Mike believed that what really drove the Japanese crazy was that after working all day the POWs would return to the camp singing songs like "God Bless America". At this time, Mike developed wet beriberi and his body bloated up to his waist. He was sent to Bilibid Prison where he was given vitamin B pills. He was told to take all the pills, which he did. It was these pills that saved his life. After taking them, his body returned to its normal size in a matter of days.
Food in the prison camps was scarce. Mike remembered a dog that an American major was feeding. He and the other POWs believed that the dog was eating food that should have gone to them. So, they slaughtered the dog and ate it.
The POWs also spent endless hours talking about food and how they would prepare it if they could. These conversations inspired Mike to write a cookbook . To do this, Mike took the bags from the cement that was being used to build the runways and wrote down the recipes. Somehow, Mike managed to keep the cookbook which is pictured at the bottom of this page..
In August or early September, 1944, Mike and the other POWs were sent to Manila. Before they left for Manila, Mike experienced his first act of kindness by a Japanese soldier. The sergeant in charge of their detail knew they were being sent to Manila. He purchased a bottle of saki and made sure each prisoner had a drink. This was the sergeant's going away present to them.
When Mike's group of POW arrived in Manila, the Japanese were about to send a ship load of prisoners to Japan. The Japanese decided to send Mike's group instead because they were physically in better shape. Mike and the other men boarded the Hokusen Maru on October 1, 1944. They remained in the hold for two days before the ship sailed.
Mike was on spent 47 days on the ship before reaching Formosa. The ship stopped at Hong Kong for nearly a month. For Mike, this was probably one of the worst experiences he had as a prisoner. It seemed to him that the youngest prisoners died first. Mike watched as nineteen year olds died, then twenty year olds died, next the twenty-one year olds died, and so on. As soldiers continued to die and their ages got closer to his, Mike wondered when his turn to die would come.
After the ship docked in Formosa on November 11th, the POWs disembarked and were taken to a temporary POW camp at Inrin. The POWs were used to harvest sugarcane and process it. He would remain there until January 1945.
It was on Formosa that Mike experienced a second act of kindness shown to him by a Japanese soldier. The commanding officer of the camp knew it was Christmas. He had a water buffalo brought into the camp for the prisoners to slaughter. The POWs had steak for Christmas.
In January, 1945, Mike and 300 other POWs were selected to be transferred to Japan. On January 15th, Mike and the other prisoners were boarded onto the Melbourne Maru and spent twelve days on the hell ship. It was on this trip that the convoy was attacked by an American submarine. One torpedo passed by the stem of the ship and a second torpedo went past the stern and hit a tanker. Mike believed that the Americans knew their ship was carrying POWs.
Arriving in Moji, Japan, Mike and the other POWs rode a train north to Sendai, from there they were taken to Sendai #3 arriving in the camp on January 28th. The POWs in the camp were used as slave labor to mine lead and zinc in a mine owned by the Mitshbishi Mining Company.
It was in this camp that Mike was beaten for whistling in the mine. While exhaling, he whistled. The mine worker with him beat him on the head for doing this. The reason was that the Japanese believed that whistling made the "mine gods" happy and would cause them to stop holding up the ceilings. The mine in turn would cave in on the workers.
Lice were one of the big problems facing the POWs. Mike and the other men would take the carbide lamps they used in the mines and run them along the seems of their clothes. As they did the heat popped the lice.
The POWs knew how the war was going because the American planes flying overhead were an indication to them that the United States was winning. It got to the point that they began to bet on dates that the war would end. Mike picked August 7, 1945 because it was his birthday.
When the war ended, Mike was flown to Okinawa and then returned to the Philippine Islands. He returned to Chicago and was discharged on August 24, 1946. He married, raised four sons and a daughter. Mike went back to work on the railroad he had worked for before enlisting in the National Guard. He retired from the Santa Fe Railroad which had absorbed the short line railroad.
Mike Wepsiec passed away on October 15, 2001. He is buried at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery in Elwood, Illinois.