NEWS | April 28, 2015

Illinois Guardsman who was first U.S. tank commander to engage enemy forces in World War II dies

By Illinois National Guard

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - The last surviving officer of the National Guard's famed 192nd Tank Battalion, 1st Lt. Benjamin Morin, died at a retirement home for Catholic priests in Michigan.

Morin, 94, was noted as the first U.S. tank commander to engage enemy forces in World War II.

Morin died April 23 of natural causes at the Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Michigan.

After his service in the Philippines and Japan during World War II, Morin returned home to Maywood, Illinois, was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1946 and worked as a missionary in Peru for 38 years.

"Meeting him, I felt completely humbled," said Maj. David Pond of the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team. Pond and five other Soldiers traveled to Michigan in 2012 to present Morin with the Armor Association of the United States Army's Order of Saint George Medallion. "Here's a gentleman that endured unspeakable horrors at the hands of others, but he wouldn't speak a bad word about anyone. The most he would say about his Japanese captors was ‘They were not the nicest people.'"

Morin enlisted into the Illinois National Guard's 33rd Tank Company in 1937. The company was based in his hometown of Maywood. The 33rd Tank Company was called to federal service in the fall of 1940 and re-designated as Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion. The battalion was comprised of National Guard units from Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio and Kentucky. It trained in Kentucky and Louisiana before deployed to the Philippines in 1941.

The battalion arrived in the Philippines on Thanksgiving Day, 1941. On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the battalion was attacked by enemy aircraft. Three days before Christmas, 1941, Morin's tank platoon attacked enemy forces who had landed in the Philippines, making it the first U.S. tank engagement of World War II. With his main gun inoperable, his tank disabled and on fire, the other tanks in his platoon withdrawing, and four enemy tanks bearing down on him and his crew; 2nd Lt. Morin was forced to surrender himself and his Soldiers.

What followed was three and a half years as a prisoner of war under the most appalling conditions imaginable. Morin and his fellow prisoners endured constant beatings, disease, lice, and malnutrition. For more information on 2nd Lt. Morin's experience in World War II, please visit the Proviso East High School's history project on the 192nd Tank Battalion at http://www.proviso.k12.il.us/Bataan%20Web/Morin.htm.

Command Sgt. Maj. Mark Bowman, the Illinois National Guard's Land Component Command Sergeant Major, grew up near Maywood and remembers hearing about the valor of the 192nd Tank Battalion. "Last week, the Illinois Army National Guard lost a hero," he said. "I remember all the time I spent playing on the M3 Stuart Tank by the memorial. I was told the story of the unit's bravery."

"Lt. Morin was a leader. He was a first sergeant as the unit left San Francisco for the Philippines and promoted to second lieutenant after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He and his comrades were all proud tankers. Illinois Army National Guard tankers were the first to make contact with the Japanese."

To those who knew him, Morin was always an optimist.

"The things I remember about Ben was his sense of humor. He had a great wit. There was always a sparkle in his eye. He (was) an extremely kind person," said Jim Opolony, the history teacher at Proviso East High School who led the 192nd Tank Battalion history project.

Maywood has held a ceremony in September honoring the 192nd Tank Battalion for more than 70 years. It was started during World War II by the mothers of the battalion's missing Soldiers. The lineage of the 33rd Tank Company lives today in the Illinois Army National Guard's 2nd Battalion, 106th Cavalry Regiment, 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team.