Researched and written by Ruth Ann Montgomery
A special group of men from Evansville became prisoners of war during World War II. Some were members of Company A, 192nd Tank Battalion of the Janesville National Guard unit.
Seven Evansville men were among the young recruits, Sgt. Herbert Durner, Sgt. LeRoy Scoville, Sgt. Edward Trebs, Corporal Robert Kubly, Private First Class Kenneth Hatlevig, and Private First Class Robert Hubbard. George McCarthy’s parents lived in Janesville when he left with the group, but later moved to Route 2, Evansville.
Before the United States entered World War II, the seven volunteer soldiers joined a National Guard unit that trained at the Janesville armory on High Street in Janesville. The men left Evansville in November 1940 and trained for a year in the United States, at Fort Knox, Kentucky and Camp Polk, Louisiana. In November 1941, they were shipped out to Fort Stotenberg in the Philippine Islands. One of the soldiers, LeRoy Scoville, made a brief trip to Evansville in January 1941 to attend his grandmother's funeral.
In January 1941, two more Evansville men entered the Coast Artillery. Bill Schuster and Ralph Knappenberg, enlisted in Milwaukee and were sent to the Philippine Islands. They would also become captives of the Japanese.
0n November 27, 1941, the Evansville Review reported that the men of Tank Company A had arrived at the Philippine Islands. Their camp, Fort Stotenberg, was situated on the western side of Luzon Island, near the Bataan penisula and the island of Corregidor. This area saw some of the heaviest fighting in January 1942.
Shortly before the Philippines fell to the Japanese, Edward Trebs was wounded and transferred to a hospital in Australia. He was spared being captured and put in a prison camp.
In April 1942, most of the men of Company A, 192nd Tank Battalion were killed or captured as the Philippine Islands were surrendered to the Japanese. Bill Schuster and Ralph Knappenberger were on the small island of Corrigador, just south of the Bataan peninsula. They were also captured and became prisoners of war.
The men were forced to march in what became known as the Bataan Death March. One survivor described the ordeal: "We were marched up a road and turned and marched back again time and again. The third day after the surrender was the worst of all. We were forced to march 132 steps a minutes while the sun was beating down on us and the sweat rolling down until our clothes were soaking wet. Again we had no food or water." Malaria and chills, dietary deficiencies and hard working conditions were only a few of the difficulties the prisoners faced.
Back home, relatives and friends waited for news from their loved ones. Several months went by before there were letters that had been written before the capture.
In April 1942, the Scovilles and Betty Hyne received letters from LeRoy Scoville. They were dated January 10, 1942, and had been heavily censored. "The letters revealed to a certain extent the horribleness of the current war but expressed faith that it will end soon after more American troops arrive there to help those already fighting."
Herbert Durner’s parents received a letter, also dated January 10, 1942. He wrote about their New Years dinner and the weather. Durner reported that all of the Evansville men were safe, but they had no received mail since arriving at the base in November.
Robert Hubbard also wrote his parents and Jeanette Smith. His letter was dated January 18, but it also did not reach the United States until April 1942.
Two men, George McCarthy and Kenneth Hatlevig were reported as missing. No one could confirm their whereabouts, but none of the messages from the prisoners mentioned their names.
As a means of offering support to each other, a Wives and Mothers club was formed in the spring and summer of 1942. One of the projects was to keep an up-to-date registry of the servicemen and their addresses. Mrs. Robert Hubbard volunteered to help with the project and Herbert Durner’s wife helped with the registration that was held at the Library Hall.
The women also made arrangements for Laufenberg Lumber Company to build a sign listed all of the names of the servicemen and women. The sign was placed on the lawn of the City Hall. Mrs. Earl Gibbs, a local artist, and Mrs. Victor Briggs agreed to decorate the board and paint the 125 names of the men and women of Evansville who were already serving in the Armed Forces in July 1942. The men who were held prisoners by the Japanese were listed in the first row.
During the war years, every November, the date that the unit left the United States was designated "Tank Day". The mothers, wives and sweethearts of the men in Company A went door to door to asking for donations to set up a fund to give aid to the men who were captives. In Evansville, two of the mothers of the soldiers, Mrs. Ray Hubbard and Mrs. A. J. Scoville headed the local fund drive.
After the news that the island had fallen reached the United States, there was a long delay until the War Department could confirm that the men were prisoners. A year after the fall of the Philippines, on January 30, 1943, Mr. and Mrs. A. J. Scoville, Mr. And Mrs. Ray Hubbard, Mrs. John F. Golz, mother of William Schuster, and the Knappenbergers were notified that their sons were prisoners.
Kenneth Hatlevig and Herbert Durner’s parents received no word.
Robert Kubly’s mother had moved to Portage.
A few months later, in May 1943, the War Department informed Robert Hubbard’s parents that he had died of malnutrition in a prison camp on Mukden, Manchuria China, on January 3, 1943. In January 1949, four years after the war ended, Hubbard’s body was returned to the United States for burial in the Maple Hill Cemetery.
Some of the men were moved from the camps in the Philippines, as U.S. troop ships began to arrive to liberate the islands.
Messages from the prisoners came months apart. The prison guards allowed the men to write brief messages on post card size paper. Some of the messages were intended to be read over the radio, as Japanese propaganda.
In February 1945, George McCarthy’s parents received word that he was safe on the Philippines. He had been 18 when he left the United States. His parents had not heard from him since November 1941. George had escape capture and hid in the jungles of the island. He reported to the American troops who liberated the islands in February 1945.
"It was three years of hell and I’ve got a lot to tell, " George wrote to his parents in a letter dated February 18, 1945. "Hope to be home soon. I am now in the hospital and all the fellows here are sure swell, but that’s America. George".
Ralph Knappenberger’s parents received a telegram from the War Department in April 1945. "The following enemy propaganda broadcast from the Japanese government has been intercepted. "Dear Folks, just a few lines to let you know I am well and hope you are the same. I am enjoying good health and my spirits are fine. My best wishes to all. Am sure hoping to see you soon. Love, Ralph W. Knappenger.
In May 1945, Rudolph "Bill" Schuster’s mother received a handwritten letter from her son. "Dearest Mother, Received mail from yourself, Bea, Beth and Brownie. Received your package and sure appreciated it. Candy, cigarettes, and food were all in good condition. Send me more if possible. Have not heard from Doc yet. Herbie, Scoop and Knappie are all doing fine. Give my regards to all the family and tell the gang to write to the "Star". Love Willie".
In late June 1945, Kenneth Hatlevig’s parents received word that he had died. After receiving the news, it was believed that he had died during the battle in 1942. Hatlevig was considered the first Evansville soldier to have been killed in battle.
On August 14, 1945, word arrived in Evansville that the war was ended. The bell in the stone tower at the park was rung for the first time since it had been placed there. Church bells were rung and automobiles and bicycle horns were sounded. Church services were held and there were hours of celebration.
Everyone was glad the war was ended. However, the fate of the prisoners of the battle of Philippines was unknown for another month. In September, 1945, Evansville people began to get word of the fate of the men.
On January 24, 1945, just months before the surrender of the Japanese, LeRoy Scoville was being transferred by a Japanese war ship from the prison camp in the Philippines to a camp in Japan. He died on board the ship and was buried at sea. His parents did not receive word of his death until December 20, 1945 when the U. S. War Department sent a telegram.
One of his fellow prisoners, Jacques V. Merrifield of Urbana, Illinois, wrote to "Scoop" Scoville’s parents: "I was with "Scoop" for over three years, in fact all the time we’ve been in the service. I was on the wood detail, chopping wood for fuel for the stoves (cooking) with Scoop for quite some time. It was one of the choice details in the camp. Scoop and four of us Tank officers had a couple of gardens. We got seeds from here and there and had tomatoes, eggplant, okra, onions, green papaya to cook up various ways to augment our diet."
"Scoop was in the glee club. He was always singing in all the concerts and church doings." "In October 1944 we went from Cubanatuan where we’d lived together for 2 ½ years to Billibid Prison in Manila. We were in different groups but stayed in the same building. We worked things so that we were bed partners again. Then on the 13th of December (’44) we left Manila on the "Oryoku Maru." The story was in the Chicago Daily News starting about Nov. 9th 1945."
"Scoop was not hurt at all in the first bombing on the 15 Dec. ’44. But on January ’45 we were hit again in the harbor of Takao, Formosa. I was in the forward hold and "Scoop" was in the rear one where the bomb had its devastating effects. He was able with some help from a Lt. Walter Scott to come over in our hold. A medic by the name of Stickney from Vermont took care of him and made things as comfortable as possible. I was not with him when he died but I got his wristlet he had made from aluminum and gave it to a Co. "A" man named Boelun. He was buried at sea about the 20 to 22 January 1945."
"He always had that ready smile and hearty laugh of his. His pleasing personality made friends with whomever he came in contact. God be with you in your sorrows." In January 1946, more than 500 people attended the memorial service held at the Methodist Church for LeRoy "Scoop" Scoville.
Walter Scott arranged for Scoville to receive the Purple Heart medal posthumously. His parents accepted the medal, along with the Presidential citation, and service ribbons and stars.
In September 1945, parents and friends began to receive messages that prisoners were being freed. Mr. and Mrs. Earl Knappenberger were the first to receive word that their son Ralph had been liberated.
Mrs. John Golz received a welcome message in October 1945. A war department telegram related that her son, Bill Schuster was alive and "able-bodied". He had been held at Cabanatuan in the Philippines until shortly before the U.S. invasion and then had been transferred to a camp near Tokyo.
Rudolph William "Bill" Schuster wrote his mother a letter after being freed from a Japanese prison. "Dearest Mother, Well a bad penny shows up and here it is again, your son, William. This is a line to let you know that I am in good health and I expect to be home by Thanksgiving and boy, what a feast that will be! There’s very little to say. I will explain all when I get back. I hope you are all fine and give my love to all, your loving son, Bill."
Herbert Durner, who had been a prisoner at Camp Tokyo since the summer of 1944, was released after the surrender in August 1945. He was the first to return to Evansville. In late October, several hundred people gathered at the corner of Main and Madison streets to honor Sgt. Herbert Durner, a Bataan survivor.
Durner and his parents were escorted from the Janesville train depot by Rock County sheriff’s deputies and were met at the Evansville City limits by a local police escort. The local high school band struck up a rousing welcome and crowds of relatives and friends surrounded the car when it reached the intersection of Main and Madison Streets.
He credited his optimistic attitude and luck as the reason he survived the ordeal. "Early in the game I made up my mind to live through it all," he told reporters. He had lost the sight of his right eye for four months, due to dietary deficiencies and he had met Bill Schuster in the Bilibid prison hospital operated by the U.S. Navy.
Robert Kubly’s mother also received confirmation that he had been freed from a Japanese prison. He had also been transferred to a camp in Tokyo.
The war was over, but the men who had lived through the ordeal, the battles
of Bataan and Corregidor, the imprisonment, and the release never forgot. Most
of those who returned had to spend some time in military hospitals, recovering
from their ordeal. They were invited to talk at American Legion programs, and to
other civic groups. They were honored guests at dinners and dances in the months
following their release.