Defenders of the Philippines

picture of captivity and picture of release from captivity

Joseph A. Sterner III

Photo of Joseph Sterner IIIJoseph A. Sterner III was born on June 9, 1923. At age 17, he was sworn into the Army. He was only 19, serving as a 50-caliber machine gunner with the 60th Coastal Artillery anti-aircraft Company on Corregidor, when World War II began. He saw the bombings of Clark and Nichols Fields from one of the towers. Then, on December 31, 1941, Japanese planes dropped bombs and support aircraft took out the anti-aircraft batteries. Gun batteries from Bataan were firing and shell fragments were falling on Corregidor; one of these became lodged into Sterner's right wrist and the heel of his hand, which a medic bandaged before he was sent back out.

The men in the Philippines were supposed to hold back the Japanese for six weeks to allow a supply vessel  from Australia to bring supplies, but it never arrived, and Bataan fell on April 9, 1942. Sterner became a prisoner of war when Corregidor raised the white flag of surrender, and he and the others were taken to the 92nd Garage, a galvanized iron building which had served as the garage for an Army coast artillery unit. Provided with no food or water, they were expected to join work details formed for the gathering and burying of their fellow fallen soldiers. To stave off increasing dehydration, they drained the radiators of dilapidated vehicles and drank the fluid. After about two weeks, the prisoners were taken via ships to Manila and marched along Dewey Boulevard to Bilibid Prison as part of a Japanese Victory Parade. They were taken in railcars to Cabanatuan the next day, and Sterner was put to work in the kitchen, fixing soup from insubstantial ingredients.

Sterner was carried to Cabanatuan Camp No. 1 on a stretcher in late September. He had cerebral malaria and dysentery as well as various other ailments and was sent to Ward Three before being transferred to Zero Ward a few days afterward. Miraculously, he survived his three-month stay there despite being given only a tablespoon of vegetables for meals, and he performed farming tasks at Cabanatuan until he was sent on an ore detail
in September 1943, unloading ships and railcars in Hirohata, Japan.

Sterner was then selected for a work detail near Toyama Bay in May 1945. He and the others in the detail unloaded and reloaded sacks for 12 hours at a time, seven days a week, until August 15, when the Japanese gathered them together and informed them that the war was over. The Japanese guards then left the camp, and a week later, the men were told to paint "PW" and the number of prisoners on the barracks roof. They then received medicine and food, which were dropped from American planes.

Sterner and his fellow ex-prisoners were sent to Manila. He was repatriated as a corporal and re-enlisted for 18 months. He married and raised five children, although he suffered from a nervous condition brought on by his POW experience. On September 19, 1997, Sterner was presented with the medals he earned during the war, including the Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster, Purple Heart, Prisoner of War medals, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

A short biographical sketch by Joseph Sterner III:

Following a hitch in the CCCs in Colorado at the end of 1940, I was denied entrance in the Navy and Marine Corps. They doubted my ability to complete Basic Training. I went to Texas and joined the Army in Brownsville at the beginning of 1941. Shortly after, I requested a transfer to anti-aircraft in the Philippines. I was told at the time we would be getting into the war and that would be one of the first places hit.

I was assigned to "I" Battery, 60th Coast Artillery (AA) on Corregidor. My combat position was on the 50 cal. guns on Morrison Hill protecting "C" Battery (a 3 inch AA unit). We were in continuous combat from December 8 1941 thru May 6, 1942, at which time General Wainwright signed the surrender.

For the next 40 months I was in the following camps:- Cabanatuan #3, Cabanatuan #1, Hirohata (a steel mill [Nippon Seitetsu] designated Osaka POW Camp No. 12), and stevedoring at one of the camps surrounding Toyoma Bay.

I lacked two years of public education, however I made up for it since. I had 5 years of college (combined at Georgia Southwestern, Americus, GA and George Peabody College for Teachers, Nashville, TN). I taught high school for a short time. I took independent study in accounting and taxation and was a practicing accountant and tax specialist for 2 decades. In the late 70's I studied music for 4 years (combined at Bergen Community College, Paramus, NJ and the Newark (NJ) Campus of Rutgers University.

At present [ca. 1999] I am not employed. I spend as much time as possible talking to public schools as well as business groups and private, social organizations. With the help of the AXPOW Reach Out material as my basis, I let the present generation know a little of what our generation did to defend their freedoms.