Janesville families still eager to learn about heroes of Bataan
JANESVILLE—Janesville mothers gathered on Sundays during World War II to share news about what happened to their sons after the Japanese invaded the main Philippine island of Luzon.
Almost 74 years later, Janesville families still thirst to know about the local men who endured the Bataan Death March halfway around the world.
Historian Jim Opolony will share his insight Sunday, March 13, when he talks in Janesville about the hellish trek by U.S. soldiers to a Japanese prisoner of war camp in 1942.
The fundraiser will support Army ROTC cadets running in the annual Bataan Memorial Death March in the high desert of the White Sands Missile Range.
People from all over the world take part in the grueling New Mexico trek to honor the heroes of Bataan.
Chris Campbell with Employer Support of the Wisconsin National Guard and Reserve, in cooperation with the UW Army ROTC unit, is organizing the event.
The Janesville man has a personal reason to be involved.
His uncle John F. Campbell of Janesville and his uncle's cousin were members of Company A, one of four companies that made up the 192nd Tank Battalion, which fought on Luzon.
John died a prisoner of war.
“I always heard the family story about Uncle Johnny,” Campbell said. “I wanted to know more about it, so I connected with Jim Opolony.”
Opolony of Maywood, Illinios, has ensured that the men of the 192nd Tank Battalion will long be remembered.
The Proviso East High School teacher has led an online research project to honor the soldiers since 1999.
Originally, the project was designed to remember only the soldiers of Company B, who called Maywood home.
After the website went online, Opolony received requests to learn about other men in the tank battalion.
Eventually, the project identified soldiers from the three other companies, including Janesville's Company A.
Known as the “Janesville 99,” soldiers of Company A were sent to the Philippine islands in the fall of 1941. They fought hard with other Americans and Filipinos, who were desperate for food because Japanese air power prevented Allied troops from bringing supplies.
By early January 1942, U.S. and Filipino soldiers retreated to a slim defensive position on Luzon's western Bataan Peninsula. They fought from an untenable position before surrendering to the Japanese on April 9.
The Japanese marched some 76,000 prisoners, including the sick and weak, up the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula to a prison camp. Exhausted prisoners who fell out of the march were bayoneted or shot, and prisoners stumbled over the bodies of those who had been executed or died.
For more than two years, members of the Janesville 99 endured thirst, starvation, disease and the brutality of their captors.
When Japan surrendered in August 1945, the Janesville survivors—about a third of the original 99 members—were set free and went home.
Campbell's grandmother did not know of her son's death until two surviving members of Company A returned home and told her.
All these years later, people remain interested in what happened on Bataan.
Campbell is among them.
Decades after the war, he recalled an emotional meeting with an aging Bataan veteran.
“He told me he would not be here today if it had not been for my Uncle John,” Campbell said. “He said he had fallen, and the Japanese beat him on the legs so badly that he had to be carried by my uncle and other Janesville boys on the Bataan Death March.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.