American Tank Battalions in Defense of Bataan:

The Beginning

The men of the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions were the first American tankers to see action in WWII.

Both Tank Battalions were composed of National Guard Tank Companies that were federalized into Army service in 1940 and 1941. The battalions were equipped with 54 new M-3 Stuart Light Tanks. The 192nd Tank Battalion consisted of four companies, A,B,C and D. Company A, was composed of men from Janesville, Wisconsin, Company B from Maywood, Illinois, Company C from Port Clinton, Ohio and Company D from Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The 194th had three companies; Company A came from Brainerd, Minnesota, Company B from Saint Joseph, Missouri and Company C from Salinas, California.

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M3 Stuarts in training

In 1941, tank operations in the US Army were primitive. To steer their tanks, commanders applied pressure with their foot (if standing in the turret) or hand on the shoulders and head of the driver to give orders to turn or to stop the tank.  Each tank was equipped with a radio but only the tank leader could transmit messages by Morse code with the other tanks only being able to receive. Formations of armor were directed by arm signals and flags from the lead tank, which were often difficult to see.

Even with these deficiencies, the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalion’s performed well during training maneuvers and were requested by General Douglas MacArthur for the defense of the Philippines. The 194th Tank Battalion arrived in Manila on September 26, 1941(less Company B which was sent to Alaska) with the 192nd arriving about a month later on November 20.

Both units were sent to Fort Stotsenburg near Clark Field were they faced severe restrictions on gas and ammunition. The tankers were ordered not to expend any ammunition for target practice. As a result, the first shot some of the men ever fired was during combat in WWII.

The Opening Attack

At 3:30am on December 8, 1941 Philippine local time (December 7 in Hawaii) General Douglas MacArthur, the commanding of American and Philippine Forces heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The pre-war American defensive plan called for the American Far Eastern Air Force based at Clark Field to launch a bombing raid on Japanese airfields in Formosa (modern day Taiwan) but through indecision, MacArthur and his Chief of Staff General Sutherland delayed the attack. At 12:30pm, Japanese planes found the American Air Force arming and re-fueling on the runway of Clark Field. The Japanese flew at 22,000 feet, above the range of American anti-aircraft guns.  Leaving the Americans little choice but to helplessly watch as the enemy bombers released their ordnance.

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An M3 Stuart Tank advances on Luzon (courtesy Albert L. Allen Jr.)

After the high level attack, Japanese fighters came to strafe the field. Sergeant Temon “Bud” Bardowski of B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion and Private Earl G. Smith of C Company 194th Tank Battalion each shot down an enemy plane. The Japanese attack devastated the American Air Force, destroying 18 out of 35 of the American B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers and 53 of 107 P-40 Warhawk fighter aircraft. The raid had cost the Japanese only 9 planes.

At Midnight on December 22, the 192nd Tank Battalion received orders to move three companies to Lingayen to halt the Japanese invasion. Riding at night with blue running lights, the tankers only had outdated maps from the Shell Oil Company to guide them. The tanks ran out of gas when their re-fueling trucks went to the wrong town. Gasoline was siphoned from other vehicles to give a platoon of tanks the fuel necessary to reach the Japanese. Of the 50 American tanks available, only 5 made it to the combat area. The 5 American M3 Stuart’s were greeted by Japanese Type 95 tanks of the 4th Tank Regiment. Although American gunners scored numerous hits, the sloped armor of the Japanese tanks caused many of the shots to bounce off. In the first American tank battle of WWII the 192nd Tank Battalion was forced to withdraw after losing one tank and suffering damage to the other four.

The Fall Back

On December 23rd, realizing his forces were too weak to contain Japanese forces on the beach; MacArthur ordered a hasty retreat to the Bataan Peninsula. In the confusion of the retreat, 24 of the 54 tanks of the 194th Tank Battalion were lost. Most of them due to being stranded on the wrong side of a river after retreating American and Philippine troops had pre-maturely blown the bridge.

tank battalions

An M3 Stuart Tank and motorcycle on Luzon (courtesy Albert L. Allen Jr.)

MacArthur’s plan was to fight delaying actions across a series of defensive lines as his forces retreated to the Bataan Peninsula.  The 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions continuously moved from one ambush position to another, withdrawing and re-locating to where they were most needed. The American motto for the battle was “Stand and fight, then pull back and dynamite”.  Lacking cohesion, the disorganized attacks by American tanks led to confusion among Japanese commanders who overestimated the number of American tanks they were facing.

The American tanks often worked in pairs, manning roadblocks and defending streams and ridges. The tankers camouflaged their tanks and positioned themselves to provide mutual covering fire. They then waited for the Japanese to approach. One tank would open fire to keep the Japanese pinned down while the other tank would hit the Japanese on their flank. When the enemy got too close, the American would disengage and fall back to the next position.

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Japanese soldiers on a captured M3 Stuart in the Philippines

American and Filipino forces inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese with their delaying actions, but months of heavy fighting, lack of supplies, disease and malnutrition had taken a heavy toll on the defenders.  Since January, Allied soldiers were receiving half of their normal food ration; this number would be halved then halved again during the battle as supplies dwindled. The lack of food combined with diseases like Malaria, Dengue fever, amebic dysentery, scurvy and beriberi brought the Allied army close to its breaking point.

On April 3, 1942 after receiving fresh re-enforcements, the Japanese launched their final offensive.  On April 9, Allied forces on Bataan surrendered. The men of the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions destroyed their tanks and equipment.

After the Battle

After the surrender, tankers of the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions joined over 60,000 Filipino and 15,000 American soldiers on the Bataan Death March. It is estimated that 10,000 men died on the 65 mile march. Those who survived spent three and a half years as prisoners of the Japanese, enduring beatings, torture and starvation at the hands of their captors.  Of the 99 men of Company A, 192nd Tank Battalion who were sent to the Philippines, two were killed in action, one died on the death march and 61 died in Japanese captivity. Of the 593 men of the 192nd Tank Battalion, only 265 survived the war and captivity. Losses in the 194th were just as heavy.

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Survivors of Company A, 192nd Tank Battalion. From Janesville, Wisconsin

Although outnumbered and facing great odds, the tankers of the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions made a substantial contribution in delaying the Japanese conquest of the Philippines. The tankers, along with other American and Filipino units bought America enough time to gear up for war and bring about the ultimate defeat of Imperial Japan.

For further reading on the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions at Bataan check out:

Bataan Our Last Ditch



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