I love the internet!! The research that has led to Weber County’s Greatest Generation would not be possible without it. The internet led me to the project and you never know the information you might find when you are researching a story.
Meet Sgt. Lyle G. Knudson, the son of Louis and Nellie Germer Knudson. He was born on June 6, 1920. He grew up in Portage in Box Elder county and graduated from Bear River High School. His father died in 1935 and he lived with his brother’s family on the farm in Portage.
He enlisted in the Army on August 13, 1940 and eventually ended up at Clark Airfield in the Philippines. The Philippines were attacked on the same day as Pearl Harbor (although the attack is listed as December 8th, because of the international date line). The Americans held out until they finally had to surrender on April 9, 1942.
The first I had heard of Sgt. Knudson was a Standard Examiner article from April 18, 1942. Mrs. Nellie Knudson, now living at 2562 Van Buren received a letter from her son advising her that he was safe. It didn’t give the date, but we can assume it was written before the surrender.
After the surrender, the American and Filipino soldiers fighting with them were led on the brutal Bataan Death March and into prison camps. Many did not survive. I assumed that Sgt. Knudson was among them. But I was wrong again. (I need to learn to never assume with these stories.)
In a Google Search I found that Sgt. Knudson had written his account of the war. It is a fascinating first-hand account of what went on. He described the Japanese attack on December 8th and their movements after that. He told of his Christmas dinner, which he described as ‘his last good meal.’ He described how his unit was responsible to refuel and maintain the B-17’s. “When the aircraft departed to their home base (in Australia) the most valuable personnel at the air strip would depart on the plane. Our unit was rapidly shrinking, the command changed until we only had one officer left and the highest ranking NCO was the Mess Sergeant.”
The unit was moved several times, in order to hide from the Japanese. But the conditions were terrible, with little food and no medication to help with the constant malaria. They finally found a spot where food, rations and medicine could be delivered, although supplies were becoming limited and delivery wasn’t dependable. They also received food from the Philippine natives. They visited brining bananas, coconuts, mangoes and papayas, hoping to trade for cigarettes, matches, gum and candy.
One day, he doesn’t say when, two light Japanese planes flew overhead and dropped leaflets. They contained a message signed by General Wainwright, who took charge after MacArthur was moved from the islands to Australia. (Remember the famous “I shall return” speech?) It asked all commanders of American and Filipino units to discontinue fighting and surrender to the Japanese. It stated that Bataan and Corregidor had surrendered. They were being deprived of food and water until all remaining men in the Philippines surrendered. It took 24 hours for them to authenticate the message and receive surrender instructions.
After the surrender the unit was marched all day until they arrived at a Philippine army training camp. He goes on to tell of the brutality of the Japanese soldiers. When several POW’s escaped they placed them into groups of ten. The names were given to the Japanese camp commander. Although the Americans never knew which list they were on, they were told if anyone in their group of ten escaped, the other nine would be immediately executed.
They were moved several times both by land and by water. He talks about bedbugs, cobras (and the time he found one in the outhouse!) dead flies, and men that he met there. He said that hundreds of American service men interned by the Japanese never survived because of the harrowing and severe treatment the prisoners received.
“We were always subject to physical abuse. Sometimes punishment resulted from a minor infraction of stealing some type of food to eat, an item that would be considered undesirable under ordinary circumstances. At other times, we witnessed beatings and punishments of prisoners for no apparent reason other than maybe the mood of the soldier inflicting the punishment.”
The prisoners had no idea of how the war was going. At night they could hear planes and the more experienced Air Corp personnel swore they were American planes. It soon grew to be every night and they stayed awake to hear the welcome sound.
Now, the rest of the story…. One day they were moved to the docks and loaded on an old freighter. They were made to descend a long ladder into the dark cargo space. It was so crowded that there wasn’t enough room to sit down. They made additional room by hanging anything they could on the bolts and they sat between each other’s legs. Then the prisoners too sick to descend the ladder were lowered down in nets. A Chaplain was with the last group of the sick and disabled. The prisoners rearranged again to make room for them in the center of the hold.
The Chaplain immediately took over and issued instructions to help control the situation and try to alleviate some of the problems. He organized the men into groups of 20, and assigned them to the same area. One man was in charge of the group and each group was given a number. There were over 30 groups of 20 established in all. Each day, the small ration of food and water were lowered by ropes and then divided for each group under the direction of the Chaplain. When their number was called the group would pass one container forward and return to the group to divide their portion. Each received one teaspoonful. “I hate to think of the disorder and violence that could have erupted among some prisoners who were starving for food and water without the supervision and organization established by the Chaplain.”
They were moved to another freighter called the Shinyo Maru. That story is harrowing. There were 750 Allied prisoners on the ship. It left for Manilla on September 7, 1944, in a convoy with other Japanese ships. They were attacked by the Paddle, who intelligence had been that the ships were filled with Japanese soldiers. The Shinyo Maru, leading the convoy was struck by two torpedoes, both in the hold. As the prisoners tried to get out of the hold, the guards opened fire with submachine guns. Many fought their way out of the hold and abandoned ship. They were shot in the water. Of the 750 prisoners aboard, only 83 survived.
Sgt. Knudson made it off the ship and back to the island of Mindanao. He and others were rescued by local Filipinos and cared for until they were picked up by a US submarine.
The story is amazing. This is only a brief part of Sgt. Knudson’s story. It really should be a movie.