A country town paid a great price in WWII

-A A +A

By Tommy Redmon
Special to the news

Many towns and cities in our great nation have sacrificed and paid a great price when it comes to sending their sons off to war, but none has done more than Harrodsburg, Ky.

In October 1941 this little town of less than 5,000 people sent 66 of its young and best men to the Philippines to help General Douglas MacArthur protect the island from the Japanese.

These 66 men were mostly farm boys, who had joined the Kentucky National Guard in the late 1930’s hoping to help their country by staying home, but Pearl Harbor changed that and the 192nd Tank Battalion from Mercer County, Ky was one of the first to be sent overseas.

They had trained with WWI tanks and the entire town would turn out for their parades, not once realizing all these young men would land in the Philippines in October 1941 just two months before Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941. On Dec. 8, the Japanese bombed Clark Air Force Base on Luzon Island in the Philippines and the young men from Harrodsburg were in the middle of the war.

General MacArthur didn’t have enough troops to hold off the surging army of the Rising Sun and President Roosevelt along with high ranking military officials felt the war in Europe took priority in the two-ocean war. MacArthur felt like troops were on their way, but they were not, and although the soldiers fought hard by April 1942 they were defeated.
General Edward King negotiated surrender terms with the Japanese, hoping to have his troops treated in line with the Geneva Convention. He even offered American trucks to transport the prisoners to the camps, which were miles away, but the General was greatly disappointed.

The Japanese were prepared to take in 25,000 to 35,000 prisoners, but they got more than 77,000 counting both American and Filipino soldiers. On April 9, 1942 these 77,000 men would start what was known as the Bataan Death March.

The 66 men from the little town in Central Kentucky were part of the 66-mile march, and after 40 months of imprisonment only 37 would see the United States and Kentucky again. The ones who did return suffered from the physical and mental torture the Japanese had put them through.

Harrodsburg had paid a high price, and the war had barely begun. How did the town’s people feel about the war and 66 of their best being POWs?

Harrodsburg was a perfect picture of military support for the USA. After the capture of the men in Bataan, main street was lined with American flags and a great number of homes raised flags on their lawns as well. Hundreds of photos of Harrodsburg servicemen filled the front windows of the town’s big stores, and not a single man tried to claim an exemption from the war’s draft, although this has proven hard on some farming families who depend on their sons for work.

J.T. Gentry, who owned a 400-acre farm outside of Harrodsburg, knew this all too well. He is the father of two sons; one is among the 66 lost in Bataan; the other left home right after to join an aviation training school.

“But I would not have it any other way,” Gentry said. “I wouldn’t want a slacker in my family, and both boys have behaved the way I would like them to.”

Harrodsburg is a good example of how small town’s in America gave up their young men to fight for our freedom. We all paid a price, but most felt it was worth it in WWII.

Both Time and Life magazines ran articles about the 66 soldiers from Harrodsburg in May 1942. I remember seeing the 8-page spread in Life many years later. The way this little town supported our country even after this great loss sparked my interest in WWII, and still today I love reading about not only how our brave men and women sacrificed to fight for our freedom, but also how communities across our great land supported the war effort.

Every year the town of Harrodsburg has a Memorial Celebration around April 9 to remember the 66 men who were in the Bataan Death March.

Ten thousand men lost their lives during the death march. By 2012 less than 1,000 survivors of the march are alive.
Morgan French, the last survivor from Harrodsburg, passed away on Feb. 24, 2001. He had enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard in 1937. He survived the 66-mile march and 40 months in a POW camp.

What he had to endure is unbelievable. The Japanese, who considered it graceful to surrender, fought till death even against great odds. They took no mercy on POWs and they did not adhere to the Geneva Convention.

Morgan French not only returned home, but also stayed in the Army for 23 years, serving two tours in Korea. He had the fighting spirit that was evident in all the men from Harrodsburg.

Harrodsburg lost many more men in WWII, but the 66 who were involved in the Bataan Death March got most of the headlines.

Several Japanese commandants were sentenced to “Life and hard labor” for their part in the treatment of POWs in war camps. General Masaharu Homma dubbed the “Beast of Bataan” was convicted of command responsibility for the Bataan Death March. He was executed by a firing squad in Los Banos, Philippines on April 3, 1946.

It took Japan a long time to apologize for the Bataan Death March, but on May 30, 2009, the Japanese Ambassador to the United States stood before 73 surviving POWs and apologized for the nation of the Rising Sun.

Hopefully, the world will never again witness the cruelty and savagery that happened in the Philippines from 1942 to 1945.

Rest in peace brave men from Harrodsburg and every small town across America. We still enjoy freedom because of men like you.