The Bridge at Villasis
Location of Tank Battle
First Tank Battle Of WWII
Lieut. Emmett F. Gibson and the men of the old Maywood Tank Company landed in the Philippines on Thanksgiving Day, 1941 and within a few days were plunged into the inferno of war. They were bombed at Fort Stotsenburg, saw the aircraft at Clark Field virtually destroyed, were hurled head-on against Jap shock troops, but they learned to jest at bombers. Now go on with the story:
The second tank in line, as Lieut. Ben Morin led his platoon into the inferno of the first clash between Maywood’s old tank company and the enemy, was commanded by Staff Sergt. Albert Edwards, 1202 Broadway, Melrose Park.
A member of his crew was Henry Deckert, 23, of 140 S. Twelfth av., Maywood. Deckert was rated as a cook, but he hated that noncombatant post. He went after a job with the tanks, and he kept at it until he got one, as assistant driver to Edwards.
As Edwards’ tank rolled behind Morin’s, a nest of Japs, entrenched in a ditch which commanded the road, became troublesome. Shells were pounding and rocking the tank, but Deckert stuck by his gun. His steady aim cleared the ditch — killed every Jap in it.
Sergt. Edwards saw Morin’s tank, blocked by an enemy tank, turn from the road in an effort to get around the Jap, and continued the advance.
Shells Rip Tank, but Fight Goes On
He saw the enemy artillery and antitank guns get the range. He saw Morin’s tank knocked first one way and then another by the terrific pounding it was taking. And he saw it going on — its guns still spitting death.
Edwards tried to follow Morin. But he was having trouble of his own. His tank was ripped by shells. A fragment went through his motor, which was coughing and sputtering. The air was acrid with cordite; fumes gagged and choked him and his crew, made their eyes water until they were almost blinded.
Deckert grunted and slumped at his gun. Edwards’ tank was almost a total wreck. It seemed nothing but a miracle that kept its engine turning over. It was a physical impossibility for him to follow Morin into the field.
Edwards turned back, with the tanks behind him. No one can ever understand how he hated to do that. Every fighting inch of his body spurred him on, every cell in his brain was shouting:
“Go. Go on!”
Gallant Crew Vanishes in Action
But there was no going on. Gasoline, steel and human flesh had reached the limit of their endurance, and inside the shifting heat of the tank Edwards at last surrendered to the inevitable.
He looked once more toward Morin’s tank. He could scarcely see it through the smoke of exploding shells, the dirt and dust and the flashes of gun fire. He could make out, in fitful glimpses, bursts of fire from Morin’s guns.
And that was all. No one saw Morin or his crew again. I cannot recall the names of all Morin’s crew. But one of those with him was Corp. John Cahill, 4126 1/2 Sheridan road, whose brother James was killed in action a month later. Morin and those with him in the tank were listed in action, But it does not seem possible they survived the flood of death that engulfed them.
As he retired, Edwards felt something wet at his neck. He put his hand up, drew it away — and found it covered in blood. He had been wounded in the neck at the height of the action, But had not noticed it at the time.
When he reached safety at a little town of Rosario, some miles from the battle at Agoo, Edwards, despite the blood pumping from his neck, carried Deckert’s body from the tank.
He and the others found a Catholic priest at the chapel at Rosario, and they buried Pvt. Deckert — in the little churchyard of the native church. It was a simple burial — for the men of Maywood were at war, and there was no time for sentiment.
Morin’s platoon had been badly knocked about. But it had accomplished its mission. The Twenty-sixth Philippine Cavalry had been extricated from a critical predicament, and with the aid of B Company, made good its retreat to Rosario.
Maywood’s men had met the enemy. They had proved they were his equal in courage, in fighting heart — in everything But numbers. Sheer weight of fire power had driven them back. The Jap had every advantage — he even owned the air, since our own air forces, as we have seen, were virtually exterminated.
There began then, the long, heartbreaking withdrawal down the valley — a withdrawal in which every inch of ground was stubbornly contested, in which the tanks fought by the day, retreated by night — in which men slept when, where and as they could.
There were no tents, no cots for the men in the combat lines. In intervals of comparative rest, Two men of the crew would remain on the alert, while the others grabbed fitful sleep — on the ground, on the top of the tank, or perched uncomfortable on their seats inside it.
Baths were forgotten luxuries, cool pleasures that belonged some time far in an almost forgotten past that had existed before the war began.
“A” company went forward in support of B company on the 20th; and on the 21st C company was hurled into the battle. By the 23d, the fight had rolled back to the line of the Agno River, where the bridges were loaded with dynamite, ready for demolition as soon as our forces had crossed.
Destroyed Bridge Rebuilt, Then Razed
For three days, the Japs had been trying to bomb the bridge at Villasis without success. The accuracy of their bombers varied enormously. They had been amazingly deadly at Clark Field — yet their showing at the Villasis Bridge was miserable.
At last a Jap flew low down the line of the road, dropped his bomb — and struck the south end of the bridge, destroying it. Gen. Wainwright ordered the bridge repaired in twenty-four hours — for it was a vital link in our line of retreat.
Large units of our forces, it appeared, might be cut off on the wrong side of the river unless the bridge was repaired immediately. And the engineers went to work. They performed their prodigies of labor; working in air that had the atmosphere of a Turkish bath; fighting off mosquitos, snakes and exhaustion; making their repairs through the boiling sun and the muggy tropic night.
They finished their task in the incredible time of twenty-five hours.
Two trucks rolled across the completed bridge.
And orders came to dynamite it!
Other units, it appeared, had sought detours about the bridge. Its usefulness had passed — and it had suddenly become a menace to our position.
And so the engineers, cursing and sweating, placed new charges of dynamites in the bridge they had worked so hard to commission, and saw twenty-five hours hard work go smashing skyward in a few seconds.
By Emmett F. Gibson, 1st Lt., 192nd Tank Bat.
As Told to David Camelon
(Originally published in the Chicago Herald-American, July 11, 1942)
(This presentation (c) 2000, Stephen Gibson)
July 11, 1942