HONOLULU, Hawaii -- The Commanding General of Pacific Ocean Division (POD), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Brig. Gen. Thomas Tickner, helped to honor American and Allied forces, during a memorial stone dedication Aug. 15, who were taken as Prisoners of War (POWs), following the first U.S. battles of World War II, the battle of Bataan and Corregidor in the Philippines.
As a guest speaker during the event, which was held at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as Punchbowl, Tickner spoke about the ultimate sacrifice given in defense of freedom. "They sacrificed not just for nation and ally. Nor did they suffer simply to endure an enemy. They fought and died for a higher devotion. The men we honor today were committed to liberty and democracy, to freedoms of speech, assembly, religion, and movement that were extinguished under Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. This is no small accomplishment," Tickner said at the ceremony.
Tickner also reflected upon historical details of the battle, and how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers played a role in the fight. When Japanese fighters and bombers struck at the Philippines on Dec. 8th, 1941, a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were building airfields, repairing roads, and strengthening fortifications in Bataan and on Corregidor island.
After the Japanese landed, the engineers, who were in the Philippines establishing both military and civilian infrastructure at the time, delayed enemy advances by blocking roads and wrecking bridges they had just built. They also strengthened Philippine defenses by erecting field fortifications, keeping open lines of communication, providing maps and building in rear areas. Toward the end of the battle, the engineers even became infantrymen, however, and could not hold off the enemy forces any longer. The Philippines fell, and the engineers were among the thousands of Americans taken prisoner.
Approximately 1,600 American and Allied POWs were transported to Japan as hostages or slave laborers in the holds of unmarked ships, whose conditions were so abysmal, they were later known as "hell-ships". Of those aboard, during the 49-day journey, 82 were engineers, including a chaplain and civilian volunteers.
About 300 of these servicemen and mariners died January 1945, aboard two Japanese hell-ships, Enoura Maru and Brazil Maru, after American planes from the carrier USS Hornet bombed the freighters, unaware of the Allied POWs aboard. Among those who survived the bombing, about 100 POWs in total soon perished of starvation and disease. These 400 heroes, which included countrymen from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Norway, and what is now the Czech Republic, were buried in a mass grave near the bombing site, in Takao Harbor, Formosa [Taiwan], but later retrieved and sent to the Punchbowl for re-internment in 1946. These servicemen and mariners are now buried as "Unknowns" among 20 graves in the Punchbowl.
"One of those mortally wounded during the bombing…was Lt. Col. Frederick Gilman Saint, of the 14th Engineers, Philippines Scouts. He is credited with cleaning up the sanitation system at the Cabanatuan POW camp. Under his leadership, captive engineers turned the camp from being a plague-ridden cesspool to having functioning latrines and water spigots. He likely saved hundreds of lives," Tickner said during his remarks.
"I mourn the loss of engineers and the other servicemen who perished at that far away Formosan harbor, while also being overcome with a deep sense of gratitude. These Americans gave us a gift upon which our precious freedom and liberties now stand. Their noble sacrifices will never be forgotten," he added.
Hell-ship survivor and 96 year old World War II veteran, Daniel Crowley, who enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940, attended the ceremony. A mere 18 years of age at the time, Crowley boarded a trip transport at the Brooklyn Navy yard and sailed off to the Philippines, later taking part in the tragic battle as part of the Air Corps' basic ground crew, simulated infantry. Crowley, who sat down with Tickner following the ceremony, incidentally recalls the 803 Engineer Battalion (Aviation) as being on the ground in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked, but said he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, becoming a prisoner of war.
"The ceremony was wonderful. They did a great job here today," Crowley said. "I fight hard to make people understand what it's all about," stated Crowley in regards to keeping history alive as well as encouraging citizens to stay attune to relevant current events. He also remarked that the caliber of leaders in the military today is exceptionally high. "They're smart, they're tough, and we are blessed to have men and women who will take the time to serve their country…The greatest generation is sitting next to me," Crowley said, leaning over to Tickner. The commanding general, who thanked Crowley for his service, remarked that the greatest generation may be yet to come, in reference to the Army's ability to continue to adapt and overcome in the midst of an ever changing environment.