ARLINGTON, Va. — When Army 1st Lt. Benjamin Morin, a tank commander with the Illinois Army National Guard's B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion, deployed to the Philippines in late 1941, he had little idea of what he and his fellow Soldiers would soon face.
Within a month of arriving, Morin's unit began fending off the advancing Japanese army along the Bataan Peninsula, giving Morin the distinction of being one of the first U.S. tank commanders to engage enemy forces during World War II.
But the Soldiers of Morin's unit could only hold off for so long against the larger and better equipped Japanese forces. On April 9, 1942 the Bataan Peninsula fell to the Japanese army after four months of fighting. More than 11,000 American and 60,000 Filipino soldiers found themselves prisoners of war and were forced to march the 65 miles under horrific conditions in what is now known as the Bataan Death March.
Many may say Morin was one of the lucky ones. He and his tank crew were captured early in the fighting and were not part of the march itself, though they still endured harsh treatment as prisoners. Other members of his unit, however, did take part, as well as Soldiers with the New Mexico Army Guard's 200th and 515th Coast Artillery Regiments and the 194th Tank Battalion, made up of units from the Minnesota and California Army Guard. Other Army Guard units came from Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri and Wisconsin.
Those who endured the march were subjected to physical abuse, lack of food and water and what many describe as unrelenting beating, torture and brutality. With hot and humid weather conditions, many prisoners succumbed to the physical demands of the march. Those who couldn't keep up were often simply executed on the spot.
Roughly 54,000 service members survived the march, though conditions didn't improve once the prisoners reached their destination. Poor living areas and overcrowding gave rise to diseases such as dysentery. Medical care was virtually non-existent and many who survived the march itself died in the days after reaching the camp.
The prisoners endured continued abuse until the end of the war and were often used as slave labor.
Morin survived and was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1946, working as a missionary in Peru for 38 years. He died in 2016 at age 94 and was the last surviving officer of the 192nd Tank Battalion.
Others survived too, including Chief Master Sgt. Paul Lankford, who served with the Army Air Corps' 27th Bomb Group and was captured by Japanese forces in early 1942. After the war he served in a variety of positions within the Air Force and worked to establish the Air National Guard's noncommissioned officer academy at McGhee-Tyson Air Force Base. He was named the school's first enlisted commandant in 1968. Lankford passed away in 2008 at age 89.