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The subsequent exploits of U.S. armored forces during World War II have overshadowed the first action involving American tankers.

The United States’ first World War II tank versus tank engagement was no grand, dashing maneuver on the open plains of Europe, but an unexpected encounter between green National Guard troops and their veteran Japanese counterparts. The presence of the citizen-soldiers in the Philippines was unique for the time. While most of their National Guard brethren were continuing the training in the States they had begun following federalization in 1940, these men had been sent to America’s distant colonial outpost to bolster the islands’ defenses.

Having barely survived Congressional parsimony and the determination of more tradition-minded officers to preserve their beloved horse cavalry, as the war in Europe and Asia expanded, America’s armored forces had grown considerably as the U.S. Army worked tirelessly to make up for the time frittered away during the peace. As part of this expansion, in early 1940 the Army authorized the organization of four separate tank battalions from the hodgepodge of independent tank companies that had been maintained by the National Guard in various states since the 1920s.

On November 25, the first of those battalions, the 192nd, was inducted into federal service at Fort Knox, Ky. While 65 percent of the unit’s men had participated in maneuvers and had some idea of the hurly-burly of armored operations, none had taken their tanks into combat.

In August 1941, Lt. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the newly formed U.S. Armed Forces Far East (USAFFE), requested an armored division to bolster his forces in the Philippines. Unwilling to send any Regular armored units, which were needed to train the thousands of men who would be used to build the divisions destined for Europe should the United States enter the war, the Army decided instead to send the Guardsmen.

On September 26, the 194th Tank Battalion (Light) and the 17th Ordnance Company (Armored) arrived in the Philippines with their brand-new 27,000-pound M3 light tanks, issued immediately prior to departure. Gunners had not had an opportunity to fire their tanks’ 37mm main armament or their .30-caliber machine guns, and mechanics and drivers were shocked to discover that a gasoline-powered airplane engine propelled the tank rather than the expected diesel engine. It had radial cylinders and a big fan looking every bit like a propeller. So haphazard had been the new tanks’ arrival that in the haste of their departure, the bewildered and frustrated tankers made the disastrous mistake of removing the right sponson-mounted machine gun to make room for communications equipment and then spot-welded a plate over the open gun port. Not only did this deprive the tanks of additional firepower, it also left them with a soft spot on their frontal armor.

Following shortly after the 194th, the 192nd was in about the same state of unpreparedness. When newly appointed commander Colonel Theodore F. Wickford and his battalion tied up at the dock in Manila on November 20, 1941, they were greeted by an armed port detachment under Colonel E.V. Miller of the 194th. The air was electric. “Draw your firearms immediately,” Miller barked. “We are under full alert. We expect war with Japan at any moment. Your destination is Fort Stotsenburg and Clark Field.”

The next day, as the weary men of the 192nd settled into their new quarters after a 23-day ocean journey, General MacArthur made a series of organizational decisions that would have far-reaching consequences for the tankers. First, the 192nd and 194th were linked together in a larger organization that the USAFFE commander dubbed the Provisional Tank Group (PTG), USAFFE. Next, he appointed Brig. Gen. James R.N. Weaver to command the unit. A 1911 West Point graduate, Weaver had spent the majority of his career as an infantryman. Then, rather than place the PTG under the direct authority of Maj. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, the commander of the Northern Luzon Force (NLF), MacArthur retained control of the recently arrived tank battalions, making it a separate tactical command answering directly to him.

The first indication that such a command arrangement might pose a problem came a week after the 192nd had arrived in the Philippines. On November 27, every American and Filipino soldier, sailor, airman or Marine on the islands was put on full alert—everyone that is except for the PTG. Enmeshed in a confusing command arrangement, and with a skeletal staff whose members barely knew one another, word of the alert never reached the group. As a result, what little time remained to prepare for the coming confrontation was lost.

It was 0300 hours on December 8 (December 7 in Hawaii) when news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reached the men of the PTG in their tanks at Clark Field. They had taken up positions around the Far East Air Force’s principal base after one of the Army Air Forces’ officers on the scene, a Major Daley, had been ordered by higher headquarters to conduct alerts at the airfield. One of those alerts brought the PTG to Clark Field just in time to be in position when the Japanese attacked later that day.

“We were immediately ordered to scatter our tanks in the brush outside the Clark [Field] perimeter,” Sergeant Forrest Knox of Company A, 192nd Tank Battalion, later wrote. “We realized we didn’t have any ammo loaded, and when they couldn’t find our machine gun belt loader they told us to load the damn stuff by hand. I avoided that duty for a while and instead was told to clean the cannons. ‘Christ,’ I said, ‘you have 54 tanks and only one rammer staff. Besides I don’t even know where the staff is!’ They said, ‘Clean them damn cannons!’

“‘OK, OK,’ I said and went and cut a piece of bamboo and wired a chunk of burlap to the end.

“An absolute no-no in the Army—one thing you never do is wash a barrel with gasoline, because it removes the oil, permitting the barrel to rust. By God, I cleaned 17 cannons that morning. Just zip, zip with a bucket of gasoline and my piece of burlap. Each tank commander yelled at me, but I told them I was cleaning out the Cosmoline so they could fire the cannons. It was up to those jackasses to put the oil back in so they wouldn’t rust.”

At 0830, word was passed that the Philippines would be attacked next and that Japanese planes could be expected within 40 minutes. American aircraft went aloft to oppose the threat, but no attack came. Fog at Formosa, a staging area for the Japanese, had delayed the intended strike.

By 1145, the U.S. pilots were ordered to land and refuel. Their planes were parked in neat rows, as ordered, and were being tended by ground crews when the first wave of Japanese aircraft began bombing from 20,000 feet—just out of range of anti-aircraft fire. It was not until Mitsubishi A6M2 Zero fighters came in low to complete the devastation that the tankers could bring their guns into play. Technical Sgt. Temon “Bud” Bardowski, B Company, 192nd, was the most accurate, and he was credited with the first enemy plane downed by U.S. armor in World War II. Bardowski’s victory was Pyrrhic. Within minutes, the Japanese had blasted MacArthur’s air forces to a pulp.

In the days following the Clark Field debacle, General Weaver’s tanks were redeployed to provide defensive coverage against additional air attacks and the expected enemy troop landings. The tanks were supported from the start by horse-mounted 26th Cavalry troopers patrolling areas too difficult for tanks to traverse. By the end of the day on December 10, the Japanese had landed at Aparri and Vigan in northern Luzon, and the emperor’s soldiers were soon on their way to the beaches of Lingayen Gulf, which would be the primary landing area for Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma’s forces.

To stop this advance and defend an area about 625 miles long and 125 miles wide, Wainwright had only three poorly trained Philippine army divisions, a handful of artillery pieces, a battalion of infantry from the Philippine Scouts and his highly prized 26th Cavalry. Despite its best efforts, this meager force could do little to stop the Japanese pincer movement on the crucial Lingayen beaches. By December 20, Brig. Gen. William Brougher’s 11th Philippine Infantry Division and a few 105mm howitzers were all that Wainwright could spare to defend the beaches, which were being threatened by the Japanese columns pushing down the island.

The situation soon deteriorated even further. In the first few hours of December 22, General Homma’s well-equipped 48th Infantry Division landed between Damortis and Dagupan. Along with more than 20,000 men, the general brought tanks of his own. Rather than waiting to be crushed between the two advancing forces, Wainwright chose to counterattack. He hoped to use Brig. Gen. Clyde Selleck’s 71st Philippine Infantry Division to upset the landings before the beachhead could be consolidated. Supporting the 71st would be the 26th Cavalry. Unfortunately for Wainwright, time was not on his side. The 11th Division was crumbling under the blows delivered by the Japanese at Lingayen, and the American commander was having difficulty trying to coordinate the defense while planning a counterattack. News from the front was sketchy at best, and communications with higher headquarters were almost nonexistent.

By about 0700 hours, Wainwright could stand no more of the waiting, reviewing useless maps and trying to discern something meaningful from the ragged flow of disconnected information. “Let’s get the hell out of here and take a look for ourselves at what’s going on,” he barked at the members of his staff. Leaving his chief of staff, Colonel William F. Maher, to tend shop, Wainwright and his G-3 (operations officer), Colonel Frank Nelson, piled into the general’s battered 1936 Packard and set off to the front. Their first stop was Selleck’s headquarters at Urdanetta, where the NLF commander called a conference with the 71st’s commander to discuss his counterattack plans.

As they spoke, the generals were joined by Weaver, who had set up his own command post nearby. The PTG commander told them he was on his way to confer with Colonel Wickford. As soon as the conference was finished, Wainwright told Weaver to join him, and the two traveled together to Brougher’s HQ and the nearby PTG bivouac.

Along the way, Wainwright stressed to Weaver his dire need for armored support and pleaded that since the tanks were still under USAFFE command in Manila, the closest possible cooperation between the two field commanders was critical.

At Manaoag, Weaver left Wainwright, who continued on to meet with Brougher. The news from the front was all bad. Brougher’s division was crumbling, and the NLF’s Lingayen beach defenses were in danger of being cut off completely. Wainwright’s counterattack plans were evaporating quickly. He had no choice but to ask Colonel Clinton Pierce and his 26th cavalrymen to do the impossible—hold a line along the coast road and the intersecting Route 3, which led to the key junction town of Rosario, about seven miles inland. Circumstances had dictated that one small, understrength cavalry regiment would be the linchpin for the NLF’s entire northern flank. Now more than ever, Wainwright needed Weaver’s tanks.

He would have to ask MacArthur. As incredible as it seems, his only means of doing so was to find a working public telephone! Borrowing a nickel, Wainwright frantically tried to get through to his chief. The closest he could get was the general’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Richard Sutherland. In no mood for Sutherland’s usual pompous and condescending tone, Wainwright cut straight to the point. “Brougher’s being cut to pieces, and I need a tank battalion now,” he screamed into the phone. “Give it to me or the Japs are going to be serving tea in Manila before you can spit. All I’ve got is Pierce and his 26th Cavalry to hold them long enough to get my people off the beaches. I can’t give Weaver the order—he’s still under your direct command. I need armor now!”

“I am unable to authorize that,” Sutherland answered. “At present, we are committed to defend every inch of our sacred soil in the Philippines, and we cannot carelessly expend our reserves.”

Now near apoplexy, Wainwright shot back: “I’m the goddamned corps commander, and if you don’t let me fight the way I see it from here in the field, those little bastards will be in your lap in hours. Until then, for God’s sake, give me permission to utilize these forces up here as I see fit.”

Nonplused, Sutherland replied coolly, “I will ask the general,” and abruptly hung up. Shortly after, a call came in on Brougher’s main communications line for Wainwright. “This is Sutherland,” said the flat voice. “The general has already instructed General Weaver to dispatch a company of tanks from the 192nd to the Rosario-Damortis vicinity to support your defenses.”

“A company!” exploded Wainwright. “I’m facing maybe two entire Jap divisions, maybe more, with one depleted regiment of horse cavalry!”

“I’m sorry, General Wainwright, but that is all we can commit to you at present.”

Meanwhile, B Company, 192nd, under the command of Captain Donald L. Hanes, was racing to Rosario to rendezvous with the 26th Cavalry and reinforce Wainwright. He had left the barrio of Dau outside Clark Field at noon on December 21 with orders to refuel en route at Gerona. There was no fuel there to meet the M3’s requirements, so the company proceeded on to Manaoag and joined other elements of its battalion.

The winding road from Rosario to Damortis that the 26th had to hold was about six miles long. As the cavalrymen readied themselves, the few tanks provided to Wainwright were making their way to the threatened point. Lieutenant Ben Morin, a platoon commander in Company B, 192nd, was perched in the open turret of his M3, dividing his attention between watching the road and casting a wary eye skyward for signs of enemy aircraft. His little column of five tanks was traveling at about 25 mph, keeping intervals of 50 to 75 yards between each tank. In Morin’s M3 were his gunner, Corporal James Cahill; driver, Pfc L. Zelis; and loader-machine gunner, Pfc Steve Gados. Following his tank were M3s commanded by Morin’s platoon sergeant, Staff Sgt. Al Edwards, a Chicago policeman; and Sergeants Willard von Bergen, Lawrence Jordan and Ray Vandenbroucke.

Roughly halfway to Damortis, a pair of dive bombers spotted the column and attacked. Morin dropped into the belly of his tank and slammed the hatch behind him, shouting: “Weave, dammit Zelis! Weave!” As Zelis responded to his lieutenant’s orders, the concussion from a bomb hit rocked the crew pit. The men could hear the sharp bang of shrapnel hammering the armor. Although it did not penetrate, the force of the blast had caused rivets to pop from the bulkheads and whiz around the interior of the crew compartment.

When the aircraft had flown away, Morin ventured topside again. He shouted at Zelis to watch out for shell holes and pick up speed. Having narrowly escaped destruction, Morin fretted more than usual about losing a tread, something the vehicles were prone to do.

The column reached the little coastal town of Damortis at about 1025 and found no sign of friendly troops. Morin then told the tankers to head north up the coast road toward Agoo as General Weaver had ordered. What he did not know was that he had only just missed the 192nd’s reconnaissance group, which had been sent out to find him.

Just outside of town, Morin spotted a 26th Cavalry scout car under a big tree by the side of the road and signaled a halt. A tall, handsome cavalry officer was peering through his field glasses down the road. He asked the cavalryman what was up ahead. “About half a mile ahead you’ll come to a bridge over a big creek,” the cavalryman answered. “That’s where my scout cars have a roadblock set up. After that, you’re definitely in Indian country, Lieutenant.”

Morin saluted and motioned his column forward. A little farther along, he reached Sergeant Domingo DeMesa, who was in charge of a roadblock. The troopers, manning machine guns, waved silently as the tankers passed through their position at the bridge. Morin felt his stomach tighten as they clanked over the bodies of Japanese soldiers who had been killed during an unsuccessful attempt to drive off DeMesa and his comrades.

The tankers’ combat debut was near at hand. Zelis slowed the M3 to 15 mph, and Cahill pulled and released the retractor handle of the bow machine gun. Morin was tense, poised to drop into the turret, where Pfc Gados crouched ready to load the 37mm main gun as soon as his commander fired the first round. Morin saw the first enemy tanks at about 500 yards. They were low silhouetted with sloping sides and at first appeared to have no turrets. They were unlike anything that Morin had ever seen before.

The Americans were about to face Type 97 medium tanks of the 4th Tank Regiment that were equipped with 47mm cannons. Believing he would face American armor, Homma had been able to get about 50 tanks ashore the morning of his landing, and they were now moving down on the vulnerable 26th Cavalry. Supporting this mixed force of Type 95 light tanks and Type 97s were several additional 47mm guns that had been mounted on low-slung, tracked, self-propelled gun carriers.

Morin decided to fire a trial shot straight down the road. Taking about four seconds to train the cross hairs on his target, he pulled the trigger for the lanyard. A crack slashed into his ears as his brand-new cannon fired its first—and last—shot. “The gun jammed in recoil, evidently locked out of battery, and it stayed jammed,” remembered Morin. No amount of fiddling, banging, cursing or cajoling could get the gun operable, and the lieutenant was now left with just his machine guns. New to their equipment, the crews had forgotten, or never learned, the importance of ensuring that there was sufficient hydraulic fluid in the gun’s recoil mechanism.

Morin and his crew could now see that the Japanese infantry were deploying off the road like ants from a kicked-over hill. “They were hitting the dirt very, very fast,” he recalled. Zelis sent the tank into a weaving motion in an attempt to achieve maximum coverage from the roadside ditches for his remaining guns. Over the sound of his own machine guns, Morin tried to tell Zelis to sound the tank’s emergency battle siren to alert the rest of the tanks in his column. Corporal Cahill, meanwhile, fired the tank’s bow gun as fast as he could while coping with repeated jams. Feeding the machine guns through all of this was Gados. Soon the M3’s interior was a suffocating hell of smoking, acrid cordite and oven-like heat.

Morin was now operating the turret machine gun almost entirely manually. The cover latch and belt-holding device began to malfunction, which forced him to extract ruptured cartridges by hand in the midst of his fusillade. Ultimately he was forced to pull the bolt by hand for each shot.

The four M3 crews behind him could hear the gunfire, however, and moved forward. Surprised by the sudden appearance of American tanks to their front, the Japanese initially fell back. The sharp cracks of the 37mm guns that still were working dominated the initial sounds of the fight with a comforting racket, and long white fingers of machine gun tracers arced out, only to suddenly dance straight upward as they ricocheted off enemy armor. It was heady stuff for the Americans at first, but about two kilometers south of Morin’s objective, Agoo, the Japanese tankers struck back.

Morin’s M3 took a hit on the right side of the hull that knocked the hatch door loose from Cahill’s bow gun position. Within seconds, another direct hit tore the door away and left it dangling over the front slope plate of the hull. “The gunfire of the enemy was awfully accurate,” Morin recalls. “I signaled Zelis to pull off the road to the right and out of the line of fire. I wanted to put the door back in position in front of Cahill’s face before continuing the attack.”

With his tank immobilized in a ditch, Morin and his crew tried to repair the exposed hatch. As they were working, a Japanese tank burst out of the high cogon grass and charged down on the hapless GIs. As Morin and his men dove to their stations, the enemy tank slammed into the M3, striking it full on the left bow, dead center in the driving sprocket. It then reversed itself in an effort to gain firing room. Zelis scrambled at the controls of his tank to get it back on the road again. When he tried to go for ward, the M3’s drive sprocket sprang out of line and jammed in the track. He could now only lurch to the left. Having already lost their main gun, the Americans now had to contend with the damaged track and the fact that the tank had stopped dead in a rice paddy at the very moment that a superior enemy force was moving in for the kill.

They did not have much time to contemplate their fate before shells from the Japanese tank began to crash into the right side of the helpless M3’s hull and rear. When a third shell pierced the armor and entered the battery case, the tank’s engines abruptly stopped, and the radio and forward guns went dead. Smoke began to curl into the fighting compartment as the engine caught fire.

This was not something the Guardsmen had encountered in training. Mistaking the stench for gas, Morin ordered his crew to put on their gas masks. Zelis climbed out of his bucket seat and turned on the fire extinguishers. Within a few minutes, the heat and fumes became almost unbearable.

Meanwhile, the other four American tanks were experiencing their own frustrations. Time and time again, the gunners observed, with a growing feeling of impotence, that most of their shots were ricocheting off the enemy’s sloping armor. The new Japanese tanks, even at close range, seemed impervious to the Americans’ 37mm shells.

After his own gun jammed, Sergeant Edwards looked up to see that Morin’s tank was in serious trouble. Sergeant Vandenbroucke could see this as well and, with one of only two guns still operating, ordered his driver to maneuver close enough to get a shot at the Japanese tank nearest to Morin. With one of the few effective hits of the day, Vandenbroucke succeeded in disabling the enemy tank’s turret. Just behind, Sergeant Willard von Bergen’s M3 disabled the 97’s left track. The other two American tanks, though their cannons were jammed, advanced with their machine guns blazing.

The attempt to reach the stricken Morin staggered to a halt, however, when the four American tanks ran into a deluge of Japanese cannon fire. Edwards felt his tank shudder. When he looked down into the crew compartment below, he was overcome with nausea. His assistant driver, Private Henry Deckert, had been decapitated by a direct hit.

Morin watched in horror as his rescuers were beaten back. “Through the smoke I could see four tanks of my platoon retiring to the south,” Morin said later. “That was not encouraging. I had hoped Edwards could have broken through the Nip guns on the road and that the Second Platoon [which was then still in Rosario waiting for fuel] would be overrunning the landing area at Agoo.”

An ominous quiet descended on the field. “Within a few minutes,” Morin remembered, “the engine was smothered with foamite extinguisher, and the fire died out. The tank was heavily damaged. The doors on our right side above the bow gun had been torn off. The engine, radio and fixed guns were out of commission. Both the bow gun and the turret machine guns were sluggish. Worst of all, the 37mm main gun was useless. Enemy firing had ceased. After about 15 minutes, a platoon of four Japanese light tanks came into view on the road. My tank was about 50 to 75 yards off the road in a dry, hard packed rice paddy. I saw the enemy tanks as they cleared the last clump of trees and scrub brush which lined the road very thickly on both sides. As they came abreast of our open patch of ground, their tank column pivoted to the right and approached our M3 in line abreast. As yet, they did not open fire, but I figured it was only a matter of when they chose to.”

With no other option available to him, Morin climbed out of the turret and, with raised hands clutching a dirty white handkerchief, surrendered. Four bedraggled young National Guardsmen in grimy, sweat-drenched coveralls found themselves standing helpless in a rice paddy covered by the cannons and machine guns of four Japanese tanks and a large number of approaching infantrymen. While the first shots fired by an American tank during World War II had not dramatically altered the course of events in the Philippines—or even destroyed any enemy tanks for that matter—Morin had done what so many of his comrades would do in the weeks ahead: sacrifice themselves in order to slow the Japanese and buy time for the rest of the American and Filipino forces.

Morin’s remaining four tanks limped back through the roadblock they had moved through so confidently earlier in the morning. Colonel Wickford took the return of the four battered tanks to organize a grisly demonstration for some of his other men. The 192nd’s commander ordered a Captain Hanes from B Company to form his men into a line and have them climb one by one into Edwards’ tank to see the bloody interior of the turret and the decapitated remains of the unfortunate Private Deckert.

In the months that would follow, Wickford’s men, and the other tankers, would have ample opportunity to witness horrors of their own. Constantly in the fight against Japanese tanks and infantry, the Guardsmen of the PTG squeezed every possible ounce of use they could out of their slowly dwindling numbers of tanks. Although the Guardsmen had been green to combat at the start of the war, by the inevitable end of the struggle on Luzon in April 1942, Japanese troops had come to be terrified by the sound of the M3s’ big engines, knowing that the stalwart American tankers would soon be upon them. Locked away in Japanese prison camps for the rest of the war, men like Morin, Edwards, Wickford and the other veterans of the PTG who survived the fighting on Luzon had no idea that they had provided a fitting example for all of the men who would wear the blue, red and yellow patch of the armored forces in the years to come.


Raymond Woolfe Jr. is preparing a book-length study of America’s armored forces in the Philippines. For further reading, see Death March, by Donald Knox.

Originally published in the May 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here