An official website of the United States government
Here's how you know
A .mil website belongs to an official U.S. Department of Defense organization in the United States.
A lock (lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .mil website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

NEWS | April 19, 2024

DPAA Identifies Remains of Illinois Army National Guard Soldier from World War II

By Barbara Wilson, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office

Pfc. Harry Jerele, a member of the 192nd Tank Battalion, died while a Prisoner of War at Cabanatuan POW Camp

Rosemary Dillon, of Chicago, was about five years old when her Uncle Harry, who was serving in the Illinois Army National Guard’s Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, was activated for federal service, arriving in the Philippines just days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the next day, the Philippines.

On Oct. 4, nearly 83 years after the start of World War II, Dillon’s Uncle Harry, Pfc. Harry Jerele, will be buried with full military honors at the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, Elwood.

“This is a miracle,” said Dillon, Jerele’s primary next of kin, about the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency’s (DPAA) accounting for Jerele’s remains. “We’ve been trying for about 10 years to positively identify his remains. It’s been a long time coming. What a joyous occasion it will be when he is finally laid to rest in his home country.”

DPAA announced April 18 that the remains of U.S. Army Pfc. Harry Jerele, 26, of Berkeley, Illinois, were identified Dec. 20, using anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial evidence. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis.

Jerele was an Illinois National Guard Soldier who was deployed to the Philippines with the rest of the Guard’s 192nd Tank Battalion before Pearl Harbor. He was part of the first U.S. Army Soldiers to engage the enemy in tank warfare in World War II. After the unit was forced to surrender several months later, its Soldiers were the longest serving U.S. POWs in World War II and many were part of the Bataan Death March and the Japanese POW Hell Ships.

“On behalf of the State of Illinois, I want to thank all those involved in bringing Harry Jerele home to his family in Illinois,” Governor JB Pritzker said. “The epic tale of Maywood’s B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion lives on thanks to many who have never forgotten what these Illinois Soldiers sacrificed for their nation.”

“The story of the 192nd Tank Battalion is both extraordinarily heroic and horrific. More than 80 years later we continue to draw inspiration from Private First Class Harry Jerele and the rest of the 192nd,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard. “I applaud the continuous efforts of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to identify and return the remains of our heroes. I pray this finally brings some closure to the Jerele family.”

Dillon said she remembers her uncle as a very quiet man whom she saw on weekends.

“He liked to sing and play guitar,” she said. “He was an unassuming man, but he had great friends who joined up with him.”

Dillon said the only thing which makes this homecoming bittersweet is her mother and grandmother, Jerele’s sister and mother, are no longer alive to welcome him home.

“It’s a great feeling to finally accomplish this identification,” Dillon said. “I only wish my mother and grandmother were here to witness his homecoming.”

Dillon says she can’t say enough about DPAA’s important work in identifying remains of missing service members.

“It is of utmost importance their work continues,” she said. “Years ago, DPAA had to rely on little things that were found with the remains, like dog tags, to help with the identification. Oftentimes, it left families with no real ending. Now that DNA is used, it’s amazing. I’m so glad my family and I decided to give DNA samples. It definitely gives us closure.”

In the summer of 1941, Jerele was a member of the Illinois Army National Guard’s Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, when Japanese forces invaded the Philippine Islands in December. Intense fighting continued until the surrender of the Bataan peninsula on April 9, 1942, and of Corregidor Island on May 6, 1942. The 192nd Tank Battalion was made up of Company A from Janesville, Wisconsin, Company B from Maywood, Illinois, Company C from Port Clinton, Ohio, and Company D from Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The unit’s headquarters company was also based in Maywood, Illinois.

Thousands of U.S. and Filipino service members were captured and interned at POW camps. Jerele was among those reported captured when U.S. forces in Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. They were subjected to the 65-mile Bataan Death March and then held at the Cabanatuan POW camp. More than 2,500 POWs perished in this camp during the war.

According to prison camp and other historical records, Jerele died in December 1942, and was buried along with other deceased prisoners in the local Cabanatuan Camp Cemetery in Common Grave 804.

Following the war, American Graves Registration Service (AGRS) personnel exhumed those buried at the Cabanatuan cemetery and relocated the remains to a temporary U.S. military mausoleum near Manila. In 1947, the AGRS examined the remains in an attempt to identify them. Two sets of remains from Common Grave 804 were identified, but the remaining two were declared unidentifiable, including those of Jerele. The unidentified remains were buried at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial (MACM) as Unknowns.

In early 2020, the remains associated with Common Grave 804 were disinterred and sent to the DPAA laboratory for analysis.

Although interred as an Unknown in MACM, Jerele’s grave was meticulously cared for over the past 70 years by the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC).

Jerele was one of seven children born to Leopold Jerle and Mary Flori-Jerele on Feb. 1, 1916, in Clinton, Iowa. After leaving Iowa, his family moved to Maywood, Melrose Park, Bellwood, and finally Berkley, Illinois. Since his father was an employee of the Chicago & North Western Railroad, his family was allowed to live in a house that sat on railroad property at the intersection of St. Charles and Wolf Roads.

Jerele enlisted in the Illinois Army National Guard and became a member of the 33rd Tank Company based in Maywood. The unit was redesignated as Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion on Sept. 1, 1940.

Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, included 104 Soldiers from Illinois. The unit experienced 43 casualties during World War II, including 28 who died from diseases, illnesses, and wounds. Seven were killed when aboard various Japanese POW ships, called “Hell ships” by U.S. troops, which sank. Eight were killed in action, and five were declared missing in action.

Headquarters Company, 192nd Tank Battalion, included 31 Soldiers from the Illinois Army National Guard, of which 19 died due to diseases, illness, and wounds, one died aboard a Japanese ship, and one killed in action.

The men of Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, many from Maywood, were mostly kids from the same high school. In 1940, a federal draft act had passed, and they knew that it was just a matter of time before they would be drafted into the Army. Having heard that the federal government was going to federalize National Guard units for a period of one year of military service, these men decided to join the National Guard to fulfill their military obligation.

Arriving in the Philippine Islands at Manila on Thanksgiving Day, Company B had barely settled in at Clark Field when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor days later. A mere 10 hours after the enemy raid at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese followed with a surprise attack at Clark Field. The attack wiped out the American Army Air Corps, and the first member of the battalion was killed during the attack.

At Lingayen Gulf on Dec. 22, 1941, a platoon of the battalion's tanks engaged enemy tanks for the first time in World War II. Another Soldier died during the engagement and four other Soldier in the battalion became Prisoners of War. A little under two weeks later, another platoon of 192nd tanks would engage and destroy a platoon of Japanese tanks. For the next few weeks, the members of the battalion fell back toward the Bataan Peninsula with the other Filipino and American troops. At Plaridel, the tankers fought a frantic battle against the Japanese. As they fell back, they were constantly strafed and shelled. Since they had no air force, enemy planes could destroy the tanks at will.

The 192nd Tank Battalion was the last American military unit to enter the Bataan Peninsula just moments before the last bridge into the peninsula was blown up by the engineers. There, they fought without food, without adequate supplies, without medicine, and with only the hope of being reinforced.

On April 9, 1942, the order "CRASH" was given. Upon hearing it, most of the tankers destroyed their tanks and other equipment before surrendering to the Japanese. On this date, many of the Soldiers in the battalion became Prisoners of War. Others escaped to the Island of Corregidor to fight on for another month. Three joined the guerillas. Two of the three would be killed by the Japanese, while the surviving man spent the entire war as a guerilla fighting the Japanese. The rest made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan. There, they started what the United States press called the Bataan Death March.

The march was long and hot. The Japanese had not been prepared to handle such large numbers of prisoners, most of whom suffered from varying illnesses. Many of the POWs went days without food or water on the march. Some of the Soldiers in the battalion died of exhaustion or were executed simply because they had dysentery and had tried to relieve themselves. As one member of the battalion said, "We were all sick. It was more of a trudge than a march." It took some of them two weeks to reach San Fernando, completing the march. At times, they stumbled over the bodies of Filipinos and Americans who had died or been executed.

At San Fernando, the men rode in small wooden boxcars known as “40 and eight” (meaning a car could hold 40 men or 8 horses) on a railroad used to haul sugarcane. They were packed in so tightly that those who died remained standing. At Capas when they disembarked, the bodies of the dead fell out of the cars behind them. The POWs walked the last few miles to Camp O'Donnell, an unfinished Filipino Army base which the Japanese pressed into service to use as a prison camp.

Disease and lack of food and medicine took their toll on the weak. One water spigot served the entire camp. An average of 50 men died each day. The burial detachment worked nonstop to bury the dead. To escape the camp, members of the battalion went out on work details to rebuild what they had destroyed weeks earlier as they had retreated. Others worked recovering scrap metal that was sent to Japan.

When a new camp at Cabanatuan opened, the "healthier" POWs were sent there. In this new camp they reunited with other Soldiers from the battalion who had escaped to Corregidor. Most of the POWs who remained at Camp O'Donnell died. For some Soldiers in the battalion, Cabanatuan was where they would spend the remainder of the war. Others ended up in satellite camps in other parts of the Philippines. Still, others were boarded onto cargo ships and sent to Japan or other occupied countries.

As the war went on and American troops got closer to the Philippines, most of the Soldiers in the battalion, were sent to Manila for shipment to Japan to prevent them from being liberated. Many died in the holds of Japanese cargo ships. Some died from the heat, some passed out and suffocated, one was murdered by another American for his canteen. Some died when their ships were torpedoed by American and British submarines since the Japanese refused to mark the ships with "red crosses" which indicated they were carrying Prisoners of War.

After the American armed forces landed in the Philippines, four Soldier’s in the battalion were burnt to death on Palawan Island by the Japanese. They simply did not want the POWs to be liberated by the advancing American Army. The luckier battalion Soldiers were freed when U.S. Army Rangers liberated Cabanatuan on Jan. 30, 1945. Some gained their freedom with the liberation of the Bilibid Prison on Feb. 4, 1945. They were the first to come home and tell their stories of life as Japanese POWs.

Those Soldiers in the battalion who had been sent to Japan, or other Japanese controlled countries, became slave labor. They worked in factories, in condemned coal and copper mines, in steel and copper mills, they loaded and unloaded ships, and hauled hazardous chemicals. They worked for weeks without a day off and very little food. What kept them going were rumors and the planes. The bombings of Japanese cities became more frequent. American planes flew overhead both day and night. One day, a Soldier in the battalion watched an American bomber circle above the shipping docks where he was working. The plane dropped leaflets to the POWs working on the docks of the Japanese port. The leaflets indicated that the Americans knew where the prison camps were located.

The POWs began to sense that it was just a matter of time before the war would be over. The only question they asked themselves, "Would they be alive to see the end of the war?" The men did not believe the interpreters, who told them that Japan had surrendered. Only when the guards vanished from the camps did they know the rumor to be true. American B-29s also confirmed the rumors when the planes appeared over the camps and began dropping food and clothing to the men. Most of the surviving members of the battalion were returned to the Philippines to be "fattened up." The United States government did not want them to be seen until they were healthier looking.

Many of the surviving Illinoisans returned home, married and raised families. They tried to get on with their lives. Some were successful at doing this while others never really recovered from their years as Japanese POWs. Of the 596 soldiers who left the United States in late October 1941, 325 had died. Some in combat, some were executed, but most died from disease or malnutrition while Japanese Prisoners of War. Many also died in the holds of ships that were sunk by Allied submarines.