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Producers: Erin Milburn-Lowry, Dave Shuffett, Jim Piston
Into the Jungle
The Harrodsburg Tankers
This edition of Kentucky Life is dedicated to World War II stories, and we begin with a tale of courage under fire.
Just hours after bombing Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in December 1941, the Empire of Japan launched an all-out assault on the Philippines, then an American commonwealth anticipating independence in 1946. Among the islands’ defenders were 66 members of a Kentucky National Guard unit based in Harrodsburg. After months of intense fighting and years of brutal treatment as prisoners of the Japanese, only 37 of them would survive to tell their stories.
The 38th Tank Company from Harrodsburg, redesignated as Company D, 192nd Light Tank Battalion when it was federalized into the Army, was made up of small-town and farm boys from Mercer and surrounding counties. Many had joined the National Guard because it promised steady work and decent pay, never imagining the events they would soon be caught up in. But as World War II heated up and American military planners developed strategies for defending territories overseas, the Kentuckians were trained in tank combat at Fort Knox, then went on to participate in maneuvers in Louisiana. Praised for superior performance, they were recommended for overseas duty and were sent to shore up the defense of the Philippines—the first U.S. National Guard unit to be deployed in that effort. The Harrodsburg men arrived in Manila on Thanksgiving Day 1941.
Within weeks, they found themselves official combatants as the U.S. entered World War II and Japan attacked America’s Pacific territories. The surprising swiftness of the Japanese invasion caught the Philippine defense forces off guard, and they fought for months without being reinforced or even resupplied. Though they did considerably delay the Japanese advance (Japanese planners had allotted 50 days for occupying the Philippines), the Americans finally surrendered their last position on the main island of Luzon, the peninsula of Bataan, on April 9, 1942.
Some 70,000 American and Filipino soldiers, including the Harrodsburg tank troops who had survived the fighting, were taken prisoner by the Japanese. They were then forcibly marched some 60 miles, through intense jungle heat, to a prison camp. Already weakened by severe ration shortages over the past months, they were denied food and water, and prisoners who lagged behind were executed. Thousands of men died on the week-long trek, which soon became known as the Bataan Death March.
The Harrodsburg Guardsmen who made it through the battle and the march spent three more years as Japanese prisoners, often under hellish conditions. Many endured marches to other camps. Some died of disease. And others died when the unmarked transport ships used to move them to other Japanese outposts were sunk by Allied naval forces. In the end, nearly half the men never made it home. The death toll among the tankers made Harrodsburg one of the hardest-hit towns of its size in America.
This look back at the men of the 192nd and their experiences features an interview with veteran Cecil VanDiver from the Kentucky Oral History Commission archives. Host Dave Shuffett also speaks with his son, Cecil VanDiver Jr., and with Henry Anness, who served in the unit along with his older brother Elzie. Henry made it back, but Elzie did not.
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For more information: James D. Veatch Camp Breckinridge Museum and Arts Center, 1116 N. Village Road, Morganfield, KY 42437, (270) 389-4420
Producer, videographer, editor: Brandon Wickey
Our next stop memorializes some other prisoners of war, but from a very different perspective: The lessons here are about common humanity.
American troops also took prisoners during World War II—hundreds of thousands of them by the end of the fighting. One of the places chosen to house them was Camp Breckinridge, a training center established during WWII that covered more than 35,000 acres of Henderson, Union, and Webster counties. More than 1,300 German and Italian POWs were sent there, and most returned home at the end of the war without leaving much evidence of their sojourn. But one in particular left a legacy in the form of murals painted on the walls of camp buildings, and the effort to preserve those murals became a community cause and led to the creation of a permanent museum.
Daniel Mayer, a Czechoslovakian soldier, was conscripted into the German army after his country was annexed by Germany. Sent to North Africa, he was captured when Allied forces scattered Field Marshal Rommel’s army. While imprisoned at Camp Breckinridge, the former house painter began creating an impressive set of murals on walls, depicting landmarks from back home to remind his fellow prisoners of where they all hoped to return. Mayer himself didn’t make it; he died at Camp Breckinridge in 1945. But he did live long enough to see Germany defeated and Czechoslovakia an independent nation again.
After the war, the camp was decommissioned, and many of its buildings were torn down. But a former officers’ club with some particularly vivid examples of Mayer’s (and others’) paintings remained. Wanting to preserve both the artwork and the history of the place itself, local Judge Executive James Veatch and Larry Strehle, a WWII veteran who trained at Breckinridge and settled in Morganfield after the war, helped lead a campaign to preserve and restore the building. In April 2000, it was dedicated as the James D. Veatch Camp Breckinridge Museum and Arts Center. Among those in attendance was Daniel Mayer’s daughter, Martha Bolg.
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Producer, editor: Brandon Wickey
A Model Citizen
Rose Will Monroe, aka Rosie the Riveter
As more and more American men went off to World War II, manufacturers found themselves short of workers and hard-pressed to meet the demand for war materiel. So the federal government did something that would have been unthinkable just a few years before: It started a propaganda campaign to encourage women to leave their kitchens and become factory workers. Sleeves rolled up and muscles flexing, a character dubbed Rosie the Riveter confidently announced to her fellow females, “We can do it!”
Of course, many women had already found it necessary to enter the workforce for the first time because of the absence of the family breadwinner. Meanwhile, the war was also causing a massive population migration from Appalachia and the rural South as people from depressed regions sought employment in Northern factories. One woman who represented both of these trends was Rose Will Monroe, a young widow from Somerset (her husband was killed not in combat but in a car accident). With two children to raise on her own, she moved to Michigan and got a job as a riveter at Ford’s Willow Run Aircraft Factory in Ypsilanti.
The original Rosie the Riveter character had been created by an artist. But one fateful day, actor Walter Pidgeon visited the Willow Run plant while on a promotional tour selling war bonds, and there he met Monroe. The existence of a real-life Rosie working as a riveter seemed a perfect promotional opportunity, so he asked her to star in a short film for the cause of war bonds. For the rest of the war, the Pulaski County native enjoyed a few years of fame as the “real Rosie the Riveter.”
For this look back at Monroe’s life during and after the war and the impact of the Rosie the Riveter campaign on American culture, we meet Rose’s granddaughter Beckie Voyles as well as Angela Bartley, an actress who portrays “Rosie” in Kentucky Chautauqua presentations. (You’ll find a profile of Angela in Kentucky Life Program 1403.) And Melenee Roberts and Norine McKinney, who worked as inspectors at Wright’s Aeronauticals, share their memories of life in a wartime factory.
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