Sgt. James Philip Bashleben

  Sgt. James Philip Bashleben was born in Chicago in on December 20, 1917.  He was raised there until his family moved to Park Ridge, Illinois.  In Park Ridge, Jim lived at 1719 Glenview Avenue.  He attended Maine Township High School and, after graduation, joined the Illinois National Guard with his high school friends Andrew Hepburn and Willard Von Bergen.  He was employed by the Northern Illinois Public Service Company.

  Jim ended up in the Maywood Tank Company because he and his friends had heard that two units from the Chicago area were being federalized.  A draft act had recently been enacted by Congress which meant that the three would most likely be drafted.  Since Jim and his two friends wanted to get their military obligation completed, they took a ride to Maywood to check out the National Guard tank company.  The other unit was cavalry, and the three agreed that riding in tanks sounded better than riding on horses. 


Upon arriving at the armory in Maywood, the three friends made an agreement not to join the National Guard until they had a chance to talk about it.  When they entered the armory, Jim had his first experience of "divide and conquer".  The entire time the three friends were in the armory, they never saw each other.  It was only when they were driving back to Park Ridge that each one admitted to the others that he had joined the National Guard.

On November 25, 1940, the tank company was called to federal service.  At Fort Knox, Jim was assigned as a motorcycle rider running messages between companies of the 192nd.  One of the most famous war bond posters was a picture of Jim flying through the air on his Harley. This picture was taken at Fort Knox, Kentucky, by a Chicago newspaper photographer. 


In October of 1941, after training at Fort Knox and Camp Polk, Jim was sent to the Philippine Islands with Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion.  While in Hawaii, Ray Mason and Jim stopped into a bar to have a drink. 
There, the two soldiers got into a conversation with a sailor.  The sailor told them that he was going to school to identify enemy planes.  One of the two asked him if he was learning to identify Japanese planes.  The sailor stated no that he was learning to identify German planes.  He then stated the reason was that the Japanese only had paper covered bi-planes.


Two weeks after arriving in the Philippines, and just ten hours after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Philippine Islands were attacked by the Japanese.  Jim witnessed the Japanese destroy almost the entire American Air Force as they bombed and strafed Clark Field.  Ray Mason and Jim were running across the airfield toward their tanks, when one looked at the other and said about the Zeros, "I guess these are the those paper covered bi-planes that sailor was talking about."


For the next four months, the Filipino and American forces would fight gallantly using, in many cases, World War I equipment.  During the Battle of Bataan, Jim's job was that of reconnaissance sergeant.  It was his role to locate the enemy and inform headquarters of their position.  During one withdrawal, the half-track Jim was in could not make it up the bank of a river.  Sgt. Bob Bronge, who was in the last tank, looked back and saw that the half-track was stuck.  He reversed his tank, attached a tow cable to the half-track and pulled Jim and the half-track driver to safety.


Jim took part in the Bataan Death March after the Filipino and American Forces surrendered on April 9, 1942.  The Americans were marched in groups of 100 with guns on them at all times.  Each group was assigned six Japanese guards who would be changed at regular intervals. 
During the 70 mile march, the Americans were seldom allowed to stop and were not fed until the fifth day.  Those who stopped or dropped out were bayoneted or left to die.


For Jim, hearing men who had fallen to the ground beg for help and not being able to help them was one of the hardest things he experienced on the march.  The POWs who continued to march and those who had fallen both knew that to do so meant death for both men. The lack of water and food was extremely hard on Jim and the other prisoners.  Jim felt he was luckier than many of the POWs since he had drunk three cans of condensed milk and eaten a can of corn-beef hash before starting the march.  This food in his opinion helped him make it through the march. 


The first camp Jim was interred  at was Camp O'Donnell.  He was then sent to Bataan to do construction work.  The detail was composed of 75 Prisoners of War whose job it was to rebuild bridges that had been destroyed during the American retreat.  This detail was also under the command of Lt. Col. Ted Wickord the commanding officer of the 192nd Tank Battalion.


Jim first worked at Calaun.  There the POWs were amazed by the concern shown for them by the Filipino people. The townspeople arranged for their doctor and nurses to care for the POWs and give them medication.  They also arranged for the POWs to attend a meal in their honor.


One day, while on a break from bridge building, Jim was sitting on a log with Bob Stewart, of A Company, having a smoke. A Japanese staff car pulled up in front of the two men and stopped.  A Japanese officer, in full dress uniform, got out and sat down next to the two prisoners.


Bob Stewart looked at Jim and asked him if they should offer the officer a smoke.  Jim said to Bob that, "If he wants a cigarette, let him get his own."  At that moment, the officer took out a cigarette and said to them in perfect English that he knew how they felt.  The officer then told them that he had a wife and son in the United States, and that he had returned to Japan because his mother was dying.  After she had died, he tried to leave the country but could not.  The officer preceded to tell Bob and Jim that he had traveled all over the United States and saw the might of American industry.  He stated that he knew it was just a matter of time before the Americans would begin to win the war.  The Japanese officer said his only regret was that he feared that he would never see his family again.  When the officer got up to leave, he looked at Bob and Jim and pulled out a pack of American cigarettes. He threw the cigarettes to them and said, "Smoke something good."  He got back into the staff car and drove off.


Jim was next sent to Batangas to rebuild another bridge.  Again, the Filipino people did all they could to see that the Americans got the food and care they needed.  Somehow the Filipinos convinced the Japanese to allow them to attend a meal to celebrate the completion of the new bridge.


The next bridge Jim and the other POWs were sent to build was in Candelaria.  Once again, the people of the town did what ever they could to help the Americans.  An order of Roman Catholic sisters, who had been recently freed from custody, invited Lt. Col. Wickord and twelve POWs for a dinner.  Jim must have looked like he needed a good meal, because he was one of the twelve men selected by Lt. Col. Wickord.


When the bridge building detail ended, Jim was sent to  "Camp One" at Cabanatuan where he worked on a farm.  At Camp One, the prisoners ate rice and lived in crude huts.  If a prisoner was late or missed a detail, that POW was made to kneel on a ladder with a pole placed behind the knees to cut circulation.  The prisoner stayed like this until he fell over.  At this time the death rate in the camp was 100 POWs a day.  


After coming off a work detail, Jim checked himself into the camp "hospital" at Cabanatuan.  He was suffering from dysentery and also bleeding from his rectum.  He believed it was just a matter of time until he would die.  He entered the hospital ward and the sergeant in charge told him to climb into a top bunk.  Each bunk held five men.  Jim went to the bunk and counted five men in it.  He told the sergeant it was full.  The sergeant and a medic walked up to the bunk and pulled the body of a dead GI from the bunk.  Jim climbed into the bunk and slept the night.


The next morning Jim woke and wanted to get out of the bunk.  He nudged the man next to him and discovered the man was dead.  He then nudged the POW on his other side and discovered that he too was dead.  Climbing over the first dead man, Jim got out of the bunk.  


Jim heard a medic calling his name and answered.  He was told that he had someone at the barbed wire fence that surrounded the hospital ward looking for him.  The Japanese were so afraid of the sick GIs that they had elected a barbed wire fence around the ward.  Jim went outside and saw that the person wanting him was Sgt. Zenon Bardowski of B Company.  "Bud" had seen Jim entering the hospital.


Jim went to the fence and Bud handed him a tinfoil package.  Jim opened it and found two yellow sulfur pills in it.  Bud told him to take the pills.  At that moment Jim knew that Bud was truly his friend because he was offering him pills that possibly could one day save his own life.  Jim took the pills and placed the tinfoil wrapped pills in his waistband.  

    Jim went to sleep that night with the pills still in his waistband.  The next morning, when he awoke, the dysentery and bleeding had stopped.  He had never touched the pills.  When he was released from the hospital, Jim returned the pills to Bud.  Bud would later give them to a member of C Company and save his life.


On July 4, 1944, Jim was boarded onto a ship for shipment to Japan.  He spent 62 days crammed in the hold of the Canadian Inventor.   The ship sailed but returned to Manila.  On July 16th, the ship sailed again.  After stops at Takao and Keelung, Formosa, the ship sailed for Naha, Okinawa before arriving at Moji, Japan.  It arrived there on September 4, 1944.


Jim was imprisoned at Fukuoka Camp #17 and given the number 1165.  At Fukuoka,  the POWs worked in a condemned coal mine.  At the mine, each prisoner was expected to load three cars of coal a day.  The POWs worked 12 hour work days being given only three rations of rice each day.  To supplement their diets, the prisoners also ate dog meat, radishes, potato greens and seaweed.


Life at Fukuoka #17 was hard and there were prisoners who would steal from other prisoners.  To prevent this from happening, the POWs would "buddy up" with each other.  While one man was working in the mine, The POW who was not would watch the possessions of the other man.  Jim's buddy was a Navy seaman who was too sick to work in the mine.  He also told Jim the latest camp news.


One day after working in the mine, Jim's buddy told Jim the latest news.  He told Jim that he could not believe how stupid the Japanese were.  When Jim enquired why he believed this, his buddy said that that morning he saw the greatest explosion he had ever seen in his life.  He concluded that the explosion was caused by a Japanese ammo dump exploding.  


In reality, on August 9, 1945, what the POWs had seen was the atomic bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki.  Shortly after this, the Japanese became more tolerant, which caused the prisoners to hope that liberation was near.  The smoke they had seen   On August 14, 1945, Jim was liberated and sent to the Philippines.  It was at this time that Jim received the rank of sergeant. 
Jim finally returned home to the United States on the USS Dickman


Jim returned to Park Ridge.  He returned to his job at the Northern Illinois Public Service Company.  When the company was split into several utility companies, he became an employee of Northern Illinois Gas. 
He married and with his wife raised two sons.   

Biography Courtesy of Jim Opolony - Webmaster of the Proviso East High School Bataan Commemorative Research Project: History of the 192nd tank Battalion.
 MANY thanks Jim!

                  Jim sent card from POW camp Cabanatuan - it made it home! click here         
          Wrigley Field Honors Jim Bashleben! - click here for photo
              Jim's drawings of POW life - external link 

News Article on Jim December 2007
Remembering 192nd Tank Battalion



Although most Americans are likely to consider the day of the September 11 terrorist attacks as one of the most significant dates in  American history, it hasn't diminished the importance of another tragedy in American history that started America’s involvement in
World War II.  Many people who watched in horror as terrorists crashed two planes into the World Trade Center and another into the Pentagon on 9/11 had not been born when Japanese planes began the relentless torpedo assault on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii Dec 7, 1941.   

It is a day that none of us can afford to forget.  It is a day that is remembered, in part by the speech from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as the Day of Infamy. “We should be thankful that we are free to experience the holiday spirit this month.  But Freedom isn't free,” Col. Richard McMahon, president of the Maywood Bataan Day Organization said as he recalled that infamous day of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Bataan Day in Maywood, the second Sunday in September, serves to honor and pay tribute to soldiers for their service to keep us free, McMahon said.   Each year since 1942, the Maywood Bataan, veterans, family and friends have gathered in the village to pay tribute to the Maywood National Guardsmen who served in the Philippines the beginning of World War II.
“Most don't remember that the soldiers from the Maywood National Guard unit were already in the Philippines before the Pearl Harbor attack and then experienced the attack on Clark Field shortly after Pearl Harbor,” McMahon said.  “The Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, 1941, started a series of events for the Maywood unit soldiers over the next several years that would include, killed in action for some, the Bataan Death March, Japanese POW, and the horrible Hell Ships experience for others”. McMahon recalls three Maywood National Guardsmen who served in war in the Philippines; Andrew Hepburn, James Bashleben and Willard Von Bergen.  The three high school friends enlisted in the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Tank Company in Maywood on November 25, 1940.  In 1942, T/4 Hepburn, and Sergeant’s Von Bergen and Bashleben were captured after the Filipino and American Forces surrendered on April 9, 1942.  Hepburn and Von Bergen died as Japan Prisoners of War (POW).
Bashleben, the only survivor of the three, recently celebrated his 90th birthday Thursday, Dec. 20.   Sixty years later, Bashleben remembers he 70-mile trek through hell that he and 70,000 other GIs were forced to endure.  He remembers his 88 fellow soldiers from the Maywood-based Company B of the 192nd National Guard Tank Battalion.  He also remembers watching nearly half of the group die, weakened by tropical disease and forced to endure the five-day march of defeat in 100-degree-plus tropical heat without food or water. "You can't help thinking about the guy next to you who has fallen in exhaustion to his near death and there is nothing you can do but keep marching or be killed,” said Bashleben.
Bashleben, while under surrender, took part in the Bataan Death March World War II. The Americans were marched in groups of 100 with guns on them at all times.  Each group was assigned six Japanese guards who would be changed at regular intervals.  During the 70 mile march, the Americans were seldom allowed to stop and were not fed until the fifth day.  Those who stopped or dropped out were bayoneted or left to die.
After the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki by the U.S. on Japan, Bashleben was freed as a POW in Aug. 1945.  He returned home to Illinois where he married and had two children, James Jr. and Jerry. McMahon attended the Veterans Day Ceremony this November in Manila, Philippines, as he has over the years, to represent the Maywood Bataan Day Organization to honor those that fought in the Philippine Campaign in World War II.  
Willard Von Bergen and many from the Maywood unit are buried in Manila while others are listed on the Tablets of the Missing there, according to McMahon.

“I am thankful, on this December that marks the observance of the World War II scenario for the soldiers of the Maywood National Guard unit, that we are free…. but freedom came at a price,” McMahon said referring to the unforgotten soldiers who died serving their country.
“So we honor soldiers like Jim on his 90th and for his service to keep us free. In sadness with Jim, we also honor Hepburn and Von Bergen
and all military that died defending our freedom.”

Credit: West Suburban News 12/27/2007

WEST SUBURBAN Journal-News (Oak Park, IL)

Update:Sadly I note the passing of another hero. Click here for Jim's Obituary.

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