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The story of the Filipino and American defenders of the Philippine Islands during World War II is a familiar one. A somewhat hastily gathered force of various units from the United States along with their Filipino counterparts faced overwhelming Japanese military superiority beginning in early December 1941. Holding out for months against a fierce, determined, and powerful enemy, all the while enduring a disheartening lack of supplies, food, and reinforcements, the American and Filipino forces finally relented to the military realities and surrendered the Philippines in April 1942 and finally the island fortress of Corregidor the following month. This humiliating defeat at the hands of an enemy most Americans considered inferior set the stage for the grinding war in the Pacific, a war that would only come to an end as it ushered in the nuclear age. [End Page 293]

Another part of this story has become synonymous with the brutality and blatant disregard of human life that came to characterize the Pacific War: the Bataan Death March. In the annals of modern warfare, perhaps no other single event has come to represent the inhumanity that one army inflicted upon its helpless conquered enemy more clearly than the sixty-mile trek from the southern tip of Bataan peninsula to Camp O'Donnell. Over 75,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war (POWs) were forcibly marched along the route, enduring blazing temperatures, a dire lack of food and water, and heinous behavior of Japanese guards, many of whom did not hesitate to beat and even kill prisoners without provocation along the entire forced march. When the march ended, over 650 American and an estimated 11,000 Filipino prisoners were dead. Those who somehow survived the horrors of the Death March then faced a new world of brutality, abuse, and neglect in the Japanese POW camps. Whether in the Philippines, Manchuria, Formosa, or in the Japanese home islands, these camps were uniformly bad: poor food rations, lack of medical care, disease, overwork, physical abuse, and torture were all common hallmarks of the Japanese POW experience, and those who survived this experience considered themselves to be incredibly fortunate.1

A lesser-known part of this story involves sixty-six sons of the commonwealth: the Harrodsburg-based, Thirty-eighth Tank [End Page 294] Company of the Kentucky National Guard. The Harrodsburg Tankers, as they have become known over the years, were part of the doomed Allied force in the Philippines that faced the Japanese in battle and later endured their treatment as prisoners of war. The history of the Harrodsburg Tankers begins in the somewhat sleepy years following World War I. A small and relatively nondescript unit, the Thirty-eighth Tank Company, was made up of young men from the Harrodsburg area. As the Great Depression devastated rural economies and severely affected the financial future of a generation, many of the young Kentuckians chose to join the National Guard as a way to supplement their quite meager income. The National Guard also provided an occasional escape from the often-monotonous daily life in rural Kentucky, as well as a measure of adventure for the young men. It should also be mentioned that the small-town nature of many Guard units meant that many of the young men in the ranks knew each other from childhood and grew up together; it was quite common for brothers to belong to the same unit, and this was certainly the case for the Harrodsburg men.2

Life in the Kentucky Guard was quite typical for the era. Monthly drills at local armories and occasional field-training exercises framed the National Guard experience, and it was during these occasions that the tankers continued to build upon the local ties that would bind them closer during the hellish times of war and captivity. As war clouds loomed on the country's horizon, many National Guard units—including the Thirty-eighth Tank Company—were called into federal service in preparation for a war that...


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