Corporal Cecil R. Van Diver
D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion
Born in Mercer County, Kentucky, Cecil worked on the family farm until joining the Kentucky National Guard in 1939 where he became a member of our famed “Harrodsburg Tankers." As a mechanic and cook in the 38th Tank Company, the unit would go on to train with M2 Stuarts and other “junk” at Fort Knox to become Company D of the new 192nd Tank Battalion in November of 1940. Training for nearly a year with new tactics and equipment, the battalion eventually underwent a month-long journey which found them in the Philippines as part of MacArthur's Army.
In early December the unit was put on alert and sent to defend Clark field from possible air raids. When Cecil and the fellow cooks heard about the Pearl Harbor attack they laughed, they thought the story had been the start of their extended maneuvers which were to soon take place. This belief was upheld until noon on December 8th when the skies became full of aircraft. Thinking these were the reinforcements meant for the airfield, his levity was quickly lost as bombs began falling from the planes above him. He stood in awe watching the attackers before a CO shoved him into cover. Following the initial attack, Cecil recalled how sick he felt. The airfield had been totally destroyed and everyone was trying to save the wounded, many of whom were missing limbs. That night, full of air raids and bombing, would be the last time Cecil slept on a bed until 1945. He recalled the constant retreat into Bataan and the never-ending bombings. At one point an ammo dump was hit right next to his cooking station and it was then he realized the end was near.
Cecil and his company were captured the next day after destroying any and all usable equipment preventing it from capture. He and his fellow Kentuckians were then driven to the Mariveles airfield where they were stripped of any valuables and nearly executed, luckily, a Japanese officer walked by and told the soldiers to lower their guns. Suffering from lack of food and water, the move from Mariveles would begin what became the Bataan Death March. Below is a quote from Cecil:
“Then the death march started, at a little town called Mariveles. We marched all night the first night. We marched on for days, it seemed endless. They would tell us food was at the next stop, but there wasn’t any. My mouth swelled up and my tongue burst open. When we came to water, the Japs would post guards around the water holes and wouldn’t let us have any.”
What made things worse was as they marched, they came across artesian wells and watering holes, but they were denied their request for water. The Japanese would chase the POWs away from the wells. It got to the point that even though the Japanese attempted to keep the prisoners from the water they still went to the wells. This resulted in the deaths of many men who were bayoneted while getting water. Cecil recalled:
“The Filipinos would try to help us. One woman tried to slip us some rice wrapped in a banana leaf. The Japs saw her and knocked her down. She was pregnant. They jumped up and down on top of her until she was dead.”
Other Filipinos believed that the POWs had money and attempted to sell rice to them. One of these vendors had rice in a sock. As Cecil passed him he grabbed the sock. The Filipino yelled at Cecil to give him his money. Cecil told the man that he did not have any which caused the man to pull a gun on Cecil. However, he was so tired that he did not care if the Filipino shot him or not. Cecil looked at the man and told him to shoot. Of the event, he said,
“It was a nightmare. I can’t remember the number of days we walked or anything. Every water hole was a scene of a lot of people killed because we were so thirsty that we would crowd in regardless of the Japanese and they would bayonet us down.”
What little food Cecil and the other POWs got, consisted of burnt rice, tree bark, and green banana shoots. At one point Bland (a friend from home) and Cecil got a hold of half a canteen full of burnt rice. Bland, Pvt. Earl Pratt and Cecil split the rice among them. Cecil even saw a suicide while on the march. A major jumped off a bridge that they were crossing. Before he jumped, he said, “I can’t take it another step!” He leaped off the bridge and sank into the mud of the riverbed up to his shoulders.
At another point on the march, Cecil fell out under a large tree, because he felt that he could not take another step. Bland Moore and another, Pvt. Earl Pratt, of HQ Company, carried Cecil between them so that the Japanese would not kill him. These two did this although they themselves were having a hard time walking. That night Bland gave Cecil some water and a half of a cigarette which seemed to revive him. The next day, Cecil was able to continue on the march alone.
“I fell one day under a fig tree. Bland Moore and another boy from Oklahoma got me up, half dragged me between them until the Japs put us up for the night. It was plain hell. It was death every day, all around us. Each day the Japs would take some boys off; we’d hear a rifle shot and the boys wouldn’t come back.”
After several days, Cecil made it to San Fernando. He was so sick at this point that he laid down in the bullpen they were put in. Bland Moore saw him and told him not to give up. When the order came to form 100-men detachments, Bland picked up Cecil and told him to go. The men were marched to the train station, there, the prisoners were crammed into wooden boxcars that were used to haul sugarcane. The cars were known as “forty or eights,” since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each boxcar and closed the doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly that those who died could not fall to the floors. At Capas, the POWs disembarked and walked the last few miles to Camp O’Donnell.
While I could go on about his terrible experiences at the hands of the Japanese, I will summarize the rest. He went to spend most of the rest of the war here in hellish conditions. Random killings were often, disease was rampant, and over 50 GIs would die every day. One day, Cecil was working the burial detail when he recognized the man he was burying, a friend from Harrodsburg, Edward G. Wills. Cecil did not want his friend to be buried in a mass grave and attempted to bury him alone. When the Japanese guard noticed what Cecil was doing, he pushed Cecil into the grave and had bodies thrown on top of him and began to have the POWs bury Cecil in the grave. Cecil made his way around the trench and found a spot where there was no Japanese guard and climbed out. The guard told Cecil that if he ever tried this again, he would be buried alive.
Stories and experiences like this are found constantly throughout his interviews and records. All I can say is that he went through the closest to living hell that I’ve ever heard. He transferred around Asia, traveling on a Hell Ship where he lost his sight for over a week and ending up working in a gun, cement, and rubber factory in Mukden. While there, Cecil made up a story about training as a blacksmith under his father which gave him the opportunity to work on a glaive turning and rifling gun barrels. He wasn’t about to start helping the Japanese now, however, and would even slightly adjust the machines to make the barrels off just enough to make them unusable. He received lots of punishment for his failed work but saw it as doing his continued part as an American soldier.
One day while working in the factory he was brought large buckets and barrels of scrap metal, noticing an interesting color scheme on pieces of the metal, he and the other prisoners soon realized it was scrap from a shot-down American bomber. Rather than letting it all go back to the Japanese war effort, Cecil snuck away some of the metal and began making jewelry for himself and the other prisoners as symbols of home, hope, and the advancing American army which might soon free them. While many of these rings he gave away to other prisoners, he held on to a singular ring up to his death which he made from the last bits of metal. This ring I now have today.
In late August the men had realized the war was over when American Superfortresses began dropping supplies into their camp. Before long, a Russian armor unit making its way through the area passed nearby. While the Japanese guards had quickly scurried the prisoners and all signs of activity inside the barracks, one soldier in Cecil’s barrack spoke Russian and began shouting out to a passing T34 commander. The Russian looked over at the gaunt American face in shock and immediately turned his tank on a dime, crashing through the camp gate and officially freeing the Americans once and for all. Over the next week or so the American POW team swiftly arrived and began processing the men to go home and Cecil officially became a repatriated soldier on September 1st, 1945.
He returned home, after a long hospital stay in San Francisco recovering from chronic starvation, weakness, and tuberculosis picked up in the coal mines, in 1946 to his long-waiting sweetheart. The couple had two sons and a daughter. He spent the rest of his life in Harrodsburg and remained friends with Earl Pratt for the rest of his life.
In 1983, he and the surviving Harrodsburg Tankers received the Bronze Star for their resistance, fighting spirit, and utmost courage displayed while suffering through some of the worst imprisonment ever recorded. Alongside his Bronze Star, he was earlier awarded the Purple Heart, POW Medal, and PUC with 2 Oak Leaf Clusters for his service. Of the 67 men from Kentucky who began the war with him, only 32 returned home from imprisonment.