Defenders of the Philippines

picture of captivity and picture of release from captivity

Joseph Leon Szczepanski

Picture of Joseph Szczepanski

Joseph Leon Szczepanski was born in Plymouth Township, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania on August 20, 1918 to Michael and Anastasia Szczepanski. At age 16, Joe lied about his age so that he could join the National Guard, and a year later he graduated from Nanticoke High School and went to work in a silk mill. Then in 1938 he joined the Army and spent time in Hawaii, serving in a chemical warfare battalion and sidelining as a boxer.

He transferred to the Army Air Corps in mid-1940 and was sent to Luzon in the Philippines, where he served as a clerk with the 20th Air Base Group at the Nichols Field air base near Manila. Joe was on Bataan when the Japanese forces overwhelmed the American and Filipino troops, leading to the April 9, 1942 surrender. Joe became a prisoner of war on April 10 and was on the Death March to Camp O'Donnell, arriving on April 22.

Approximately two months later, on June 1, Joe was sent to Cabanatuan Camp 1. Then, on July 23, 1943, he was taken by ship to Kyushu, Japan to Fukuoka Camp 17. During his internment there, he performed slave labor for a coal mining company, suffering from various medical ailments due to a lack of proper nutrition. When the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, Joe and other prisoners witnessed the mushroom cloud.

Joe was finally released from Fukuoka on September 12, 1945. It took him a year and a half to recover from the effects of his experience, although the emotional toll was much more long-term. He married Catherine Wardzel in June 1946 and they had two sons, Thomas and Richard. Joe remained with what was now the Army Air Force, working in aerial photography until retiring as a tech sergeant in 1959. Joe then taught Spanish at Bethlehem Catholic High School for a decade following his studies at King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.

Joe died of lung cancer at the Veteran's Administration Nursing Facility in Wilkes-Barre on July 30, 2005 at the age of 86.