Defenders of the Philippines

picture of captivity and picture of release from captivity

Captain Edmund Zbikowski



CAPTAIN EDMUND PETER ZBIKOWSKI
803rd ENG.
AMERICAN DEFENDER OF THE PHILIPPINES
By JOHN J. DENEHY JR.

Shortly after noon on December 8, 1941, Japanese bombers and fighters from bases on the island of Formosa swooped down upon American airfields in the Philippine Islands. despite an early morning alert that the expected hostilities between Japan and the United States had commenced at Pearl Harbor, over half of General MacArthur's growing, but meager, air force was caught on the ground and destroyed. The reason why the Army Air Force was, once again, taken by surprise nine hours after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, remains a controversial mystery to this day. The devastation dealt to American airpower by the Japanese on the first day of the war would doom the archipelago to almost certain defeat in the months ahead.

Among the 31,000 American military personnel stationed in the Philippines on December 8, 1941, was a thirty-year-old reserve engineer officer from Bristol, Connecticut, First Lieutenant Edmund P. Zbikowski. Zbikowski, a former teacher of science at the Bristol Freshman High School, had arrived in the Philippines on October 23, 1941. He was a member of the newly-organized 803rd Aviation Engineer Battalion which had been formed at Westover Field, Massachusetts in early 1941. He commanded company A, which, with the rest of the battalion, went immediately to work setting up a tent city at
Clark Field's Fort Stotsenburgh.

Within a few days the battalion was split up and Company A was assigned the task of building a new airfield at Camp O'Donnell on a jungle plateau located approximately twenty miles north of Clark Field. All of the 803d's companies were busy building airfields to accommodate the expected arrival of many new B-17 bombers and P-40 fighters which would be ostensibly arriving in the coming weeks from the U.S. mainland. General MacArthur was, at last, going to get the men and material which he felt he would need to thwart any possible Japanese attempt to invade the Philippine Islands. Defense preparations were expected to be completed by the late spring of 1942. Unfortunately, the Japanese had other plans and they were not going to wait.

Edmund Peter Zbikowski was bom October 31, 1910 in Terryville, Connecticut to Julian and Veronica (Chelchowski) Zbikowski who were immigrants from Poland. Ed attended grammar school in Terryville and then moved with his parents and sisters Mae, Gertrude, and Doris to nearby Bristol in 1924. Ed attended Bristol High School where he consistently obtained top grades and also participated on the school track team. He had a passion for learning anything, but he was particularly fond of science and mathematics. He enjoyed working with his hands and he had an insatiable curiosity about anything mechanical. He built a glider in his father 's cellar, a working camera out of a shoe box, and a beautiful book case and blanket chest out of wood which his sister, Mae, still treasures. He could take apart and fix just about any gadget.

Ed graduated from high school in 1928 and entered New York University in the fall. He majored in aeronautical engineering. Ed's parents ran a small neighborhood grocery store and helped with Ed's college expenses as much as their modest income would permit. For the most part, Ed worked his way through college by holding down a host of part-time jobs after classes and during the summers. For his senior thesis, Ed completely designed a flyable biplane which he called the Burak. Burak means "beet" in Polish. Ed also participated in the Army ROTC, and he was commissioned a second lieutenant in the
Army Reserve upon graduation in 1932.

In the fall of 1932, Ed took a job as a teacher of science at the Freshman High School in his home town of Bristol. He would have preferred a job as an aeronautical engineer, but because of the depression, teaching was one of the few jobs open for a young, college graduate. Industry's loss would be the gain of many freshman science students whose lives Ed would touch in the next seven years.

Ed was totally devoted to his pupils and his profession. He was strict, but fair. Being extremely proud of his Polish heritage, he would write his name on the board for his classes at the beginning of each school year. He would then pronounce his name correctly for his pupils so that no one would have an excuse for misspelling or mispronouncing "Zbikowski." He expected one hundred percent effort from his students; he gave as much in return. He often spent many hours after school working with interested students on projects and research. In order to have his classes better understand power mechanics, Ed, and some of his students, pulled an engine from a junk car and reassembled it to working condition in the science lab.

Dr. Henry Zatunewicz of Bristol, who recently retired as the Dean of Medicine at Saint George University, Grenada, remembers Edmund Zbikowski with great fondness. "He was the landmark in my own scientific education. He encouraged me, and others, to follow through with our scientific curiosities and ideas. He individualized his teaching to our varied mterests in all phases of science. He was a great inspiration to me and I will never forget him."

Ed's interests outside the classroom were many. He enjoyed tennis, and golf was his favorite sport. He loved the outdoors, particularly hiking and camping. He hiked the Long Trail from the Connecticut-Massachusetts border to Stratton Pond, Vermont with a group of teachers and students in 1936. Harvey Grocock remembers Ed as a physical specimen who many in the group could barely keep up with on the trail. "I would get up at dawn before Ed and the others and get myself a head start. Before too long, along would come 'Zib' wearing his thirty-five pound pack. With his long legs flying, he would pass by me like I was standing still. Up trail, he would wait patiently for me to catch up."

Ken Clark was another member of the hiking group who also soldiered with Ed in the reserve. "There were several reserve officers in the Bristol area that were quite active. Ed was right at the top. Part of our group was interested in horseback riding. We rode once a month at a cavalry armory in Hartford. 'Zib' and I never missed an opportunity to ride. We did a little low hurdles." Like Ed, Ken Clark also was called from teaching into active duty for World War II. Ken stayed on to retire as a full colonel.

Ed's other interests included literature and good music. An informal family snapshot shows Ed, long legs thrown over the arm of an easy chair, alone and deep into the thoughts of a book, completely unaware of the camera. He frequently played chess and bridge and he enjoyed learning to play a Mozart selection on the recorder with his neighbor, and fellow teacher, Charles Demarest.

In April, 1937, Ed married an attractive Bristol girl by the name of Helen Wozenski. Ed had courted Helen since his college days. In June, 1940, Helen gave birth to a baby girl whom Ed named Pola in honor of their parents' native land, Poland. Only a few months before, the nation had been ruthlessly invaded and conquered by the armies of Hitler and Stalin. The tragedy of Poland greatly influenced the new father's choice of a name for his daughter.

Ed was called into active duty in November of 1940. Several pupils at the Freshman High School began to circulate a petition in an effort to keep him home where they felt he was needed more than he was needed in the army. When he became aware of the petition, he discouraged their efforts. He strongly felt that he had a patriotic duty to answer his country's call. In a letter to his sister Mae, written while enroute to the Philippines, Ed asked her to help look after Helen and Pola. "Some people will find it hard to understand why I am leaving them at this time, but I also have this obligation."

On September 24, 1941, the 803d left Westover Field for Fort McDowel, California. Helen, with baby Pola in her arms, was there to see her husband and his unit depart on a troop train. The poignant farewell would be their last. By October 4, the 803d was aboard the former President liner, Cleveland which had been renamed the Holbreck. While sailing in convoy across the Pacific, the ships travelled after dark with no lights and smoking was not permitted on deck, even though the United States was still officially at peace. Many of the men were not aware of their final destination. The little convoy arrived in Manila on October 23, 1941. So it was that peacetime soldiers, like Edmund Zbikowski, would find themselves preparing the Philippine Islands for a war that would come all too soon.

While constructing the airstrip at Camp O'Donnell, the engineers found it necessary to drain several large rice paddies. Filipino laborers were employed by the army to help the engineers. Ed wrote of their friendliness and he mentioned how they referred to the Americans as "Joe." Ed found the oppressive heat and humidity of Luzon extremely uncomfortable. As a man who was always busy and active, he expressed concern that the sultry climate might make him become too indolent. He was fascinated by the sights of the Orient and while on a military journey to the cool, mountain resort town of Baguio with his friend Lt. Robert Montgomery, Ed wrote of how he was overwhelmed by the wild and primitive beauty of the tropical landscape.

Approximately a week before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the officers of the 803d were passed information that war in the Far East was imminent. The whole command was put on a 24-hour alert and some slit trenches were dug in anticipation of air attacks. The men of company A worked with even greater determination to finish the air field. Sadly, most of the airstrips being constructed by the 803d would end up being utilized by Japanese, rather than the American aircraft which never came.

Following the attack on Clark Field, the Japanese made some landings at Aparri, Vigan, and Legaspi between 10 and 12 December. These were only small detachments which were charged with the job of establishing advance air fields. On December 22, as anticipated by General MacArthur, the main Japanese invasion of the Philippines took place at Lingayan Gulf, approximately 120 miles north of the capital, Manila. Embarking from eighty-five troop transports were forty-three thousand troops of Lt. General Masaharu Homma's crack 14th Army. They waded ashore at dawn. Contrary to glowing reports of a great American victory, Filipino-American opposition to the landing was confused and ineffective. Two days later, another force of seven thousand Japanese troops landed in the south at Lamon Bay and began pushing northward towards Manila.

Opposing the Japanese in the north was the Northern Luzon Force under the command of Maj. General Jonathan Wainwright. Although the Filipino-American force outnumbered the Japanese invaders, many of the Filipinos were ill-equipped, raw conscripts with little, if any, military knowledge or experience. Despite the heroic performance of some of Wainwright's units, especially the 26th Cavalry-Filipino Scouts, many of the green Filipinos broke and ran when exposed to Japanese tank and artillery fire for the first time. Hundreds more deserted Wainwright's force and returned to their barrios. It quickly became evident that any attempt to force the Japanese invaders into the sea would now be impossible. MacArthur reverted to "War Plan Orange III" which called for the withdrawal of his army to the Bataan Peninsula. Once on Bataan, MacArthur could concentrate his forces for a determined stand. By December 26, Manila was declared an open city and evacuated by the military.

Both the North and South Luzon Forces, through a series of brilliant and courageous delaying actions, withdrew step by step into Bataan. Lt. Zbikowski's Company A was ordered to evacuate Camp O'Donnell on December 21. The airstrip was left seventy-five percent complete.

The next stop was at Dinalupihan, a short distance north of Bataan where Company A, aided by Headquarters company, built three emergency airstrips in three days.

While at Dinalupihan, Ed wrote a letter to his parents. The letter, dated December 28,1941, was not received until April 3, 1942, the day after Ed died on Corregidor. In his eternally optimistic manner, he consistently emphasized that he was perfectly all right and that his only worry was that his family would worry about him. Ironically, Ed's father had also fought the Japanese in the Russo-Japan War and Ed mentioned it in his letter. "I think of how Pop fought the Japs back in 1905 and how he used to tell us about it. I wish sometimes that I could have him here with me for a couple of weeks. . . what a kick he would get out of it. This is the time I'd like to write him a long, detailed letter full of descriptions so that he could tell his friends about it. It is difficult to find time to write. Every hour of the day is full of action and necessary work." However, he was also prophetically aware of his part in the frantic, yet significant activity taking place around him on an island so far removed from Bristol, Connecticut. "I hope Helen is saving all the Time magazines she can of this whole thing so that I can read about what the world thought was happening while I was really here in the middle of history." He expressed complete confidence in his men. "We are not new soldiers. All of us have had a lot of training and military seasoning. We can take good care of ourselves at any time, no matter what."

On December 29, Company A and Headquarters Company moved south into Bataan and built another air strip at Orani. It was here that Ed's company would suffer its first battle casualties. Joseph Vater recalls, "We were bombed and strafed about 10:00 a.m. on January 1. Again, about noon, while in the chow line, the Japs dropped some bombs and strafed the area and we had five or six men injured. One man lost his leg." The unit was bombed for the third time in the afternoon. One bomb landed within a shovel-length from Vater and six others. It was a dud. This scenario would repeat itself again and again in
the months ahead with deadly effect.

By the 4th of January, 1942, the 803d had moved deeply into Bataan. The peninsula, a strip of jungle-covered terrain which measures twenty-five miles long, and twenty miles wide, contains a series of steep mountains which run down the center. The geography of Bataan would provide the defenders with a better opportunity to fend off the invaders and help to offset the Japanese superiority in airpower, tanks, and artillery. Here the "Battling Bastards of Bataan" could hold on and await the mile-long convoy which they believed was on the way. No such convoy ever came.

Bataan was traversed by a series of primitive roads, jungle trails, and rampaging rivers. Improving, constructing, and repairing the roads and bridges, in order to keep the infantry supplied, would be the responsibility of the engineers. Company A was assigned the West Road of Bataan. They worked on the road right up to the front lines. Often they worked at night and slept during the day, if possible, to avoid Japanese air attacks. Joe Vater remembers that the company built spare parts for every bridge in the area. If a bridge was bombed, all or part of it could be quickly replaced. Other responsibilities included building an eight-inch gun emplacement, clearing fields of fire, and stringing barbed wire. During this time Ed was promoted to the rank of captain.

The overworked engineers of Bataan endured incredible physical and emotional hardships. Sleep was always a rare luxury. In addition to confronting a cruel and cunning enemy, the men of Bataan faced serious food shortages. Immediately after arriving on Bataan, the command was placed on half rations. The one main meal of the day consisted of boiled rice and canned fish. Within time, the meat of the cavalry horse, water buffalo, monkey, and python, when available, would provide the protein for the slowing starving Americans and Filipinos. Most men were victims of tropical diseases of one type or
another. Malaria, dysentery, beriberi, and dengue fever were putting badly needed men into the overcrowded jungle hospitals at an alarming rate. Helen recalls a letter from Ed which indicated a lack of medicines and food. "He mentioned our own bacon and egg breakfasts - indicating hunger. A picture taken at this point showed him thinner than his usual, slim self."

Altogether, Helen would receive a total of six letters from Ed which were written after the start of the war. A constant note of optimism prevailed in his writing. He asked his loved ones to keep their chins up, and he frequently, and poignantly, referred to his daughter. Ed considered it to be an honor to be one of the first Bristol boys to be called to his country's defense and " to be right in the thick of it."

Ed Zbikowski and his entire company would indeed find themselves right "in the thick of it" during the early morning hours of January 25, 1942 at a place called Quinauan Point where the Agloloma River runs into Agloloma Bay. The region of high sea cliffs and almost impenetrable jungle along Bataan's west coast was the site of a major Japanese landing by 600 men of Colonel Tsunchiro's 2d Battalion, 20th Infantry. The Japanese plan was to land at three points behind I Corps' front and then push inland and cut off Wainwright's front line troops.

The beach area was guarded by the 34th Pursuit Squadron, but the airmen had failed to make proper provision for security. The landing force was not detected until the invaders were all ashore and well into the jungle and on their way to cut off the West Road. Early in the morning of January 25, A Company, being bivouacked only a few miles north of Agloloma, was quickly ordered to help repulse the landing party. Other units involved were the 21st and 34th Pursuit Squadrons and the 1st Philippine Constabulary.
None of the units was experienced in infantry tactics. Company A was equipped with Springfield rifles, World War I and home-made grenades, and two .30 caliber, water-cooled machine guns.

Former Sergeant Floyd Niday remembers the battle well. "The Captain met with an Air Corps major who told him that about forty Japs had landed. We were to help annihilate them. Not being combat soldiers, we did the best we knew how. We lined up as skirmishers and started across the peninsula shooting at every tree that looked like it might have a sniper in it. We made so much noise coming through the jungle that I bet the J aps thought there were about a thousand men instead of our one hundred fifty. I can
still remember Captain 'Zibby' with his chin thrust forward and telling us to follow him. He did not have one cowardly bone in his body. We could see the tracers coming over our heads and we got pinned down. . . we had them pushed back to the water's edge." Floyd Niday recalled that during the frrst night it was so dark in the jungle that the men actually held hands and, in single file, followed a path along a cliff above the coast. With no smoking or talking allowed, they spent the night right over a Jap command post which
was located about 200 feet below. On the third day, Company A was met by fierce resistance from the now dug in Japanese. Captain Ed Dyess in his book, The Dyess Story, mentioned the battle. "We had no entrenching tools and were forced to lie on top of the ground and fire from behind trees. Our casualties ran high." Dyess commanded the 21st Pursuit Squadron which was on A Company's flank. Company A suffered almost fifty percent casualties. The unit regrouped and fell back. Out of the company's ninety
engineers, nine were killed and thirty-eight were wounded, some seriously, but they had contained the invaders. Captain Zbikowski angrily blamed some of the casualties on the old grenades which often failed to explode. Another failure was the homemade "Casey Cookie" grenade which was named in honor of General Hugh Casey, who commanded all the Philippine engineers. The device was made from a hollow joint of bamboo which was six inches long and three inches in diameter. It was filled with a half-stick of dynamite, two and one half inches of nails, broken glass and/or sharp stones, and sealed with concrete with a three inch fuse. Most turned out to be duds.

The engineers and airmen were relieved by the 3rd Battalion, 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, which was led by Major Dudley G. Strickler. This excellent unit was later reinforced by Company B of the 57th Infantry and five tanks from the 192d Tank Battalion. The battle against the fanatical Japanese, who were now holed up in cliffside caves, raged until February the 8th when the last of the landing party were finally wiped out. Six hundred Japanese were killed and one was taken prisoner. To finish the job, it had taken almost a battalion of infantry supported by artillery, tanks, and several small navy gunships.

On the 29th of January, Company A prepared to embark for Corregidor Island, better known as "The Rock." On February 2, the unit arrived on the island and set up camp near North Point, below the airfield on the Bataan side. The main task assigned to Zbikowski's company was to construct a 2,600-foot by 100-foot runway, with revetments, at Kindley Field.

Handicapped by the loss of good men while on Bataan, the lack of adequate construction equipment, and frequent interruptions by shellings and air raids, A Company was still able to extend the runway fifty feet wide and fifty feet longer and complete all five aircraft revetments. They also managed to dig a well, which provided the best water on Corregidor construct and set up the 8 inch gun which they brought over from Bataan, and string barbed wire for beach defenses. "Nobody worked harder or longer than the 803d," wrote Joe Vater with pride.

On March 24, 1942, General Homma began a massive air offensive to soften up American-Filipino positions on Bataan. This would be followed by an alI-out ground attack which he hoped would finally overcome the battered defenders. Corregidor, only five miles off the southern tip of Bataan, would also be bombed.

The bombing on Corregidor began at 0924 when air raid alarm number 77 sounded. Army and Navy bombers from Clark Field, escorted by Zero fighters, bombed Corregidor on nine different occasions throughout the day and night of the 24th. Twice during the afternoon, Kindley Field was the target and it was then that Captain Zbikowski was seriously wounded. Chuck Agostinelli was also wounded. "While the Captain and I were discussing grade changes on the airfield, Jap Zero fighters caught us by surprise with a strafing and dive bombing raid. We were both wounded pretty badly and, while enroute to the Fort Mills Hospital on the Rock, he assured me that everything would be O.K. and that both of us would be back with our outfit in no time at all."

Ed was taken to the hospital lateral in Malinta Tunnel where he underwent surgery for a massive back wound. During the last week of March, there were sixty air raids on Corregidor lasting 74 hours. Concussions from the bombings could be felt in the hospital which was deep in the tunnel. Bottles, dishes, and loose objects would rattle on the shelves, lights would flicker, and the stale air would fill with dust.

For nine days, amid the overpowering odor of disinfectants, ether, and draining wounds, Edmund Zbikowski fought the last great battle of his short life. Pneumonia set in. On April 2, 1942, Good Friday eve, Ed died. Chuck Agostinelli heard of his C.O.'s death from a medical corpsman who was keeping him informed about Ed's condition. "I saw the Captain as a man of integrity - a good leader - a fair, but firm man - and a fine gentleman." A week later Bataan fell. A month later, so did Corregidor. For the survivors of the 803d, and for thousands of other gallant Americans and Filipinos, a horrible ordeal of imprisonment in filthy, disease-ridden Japanese concentration camps awaited. A large percentage of the men would not survive.

Word of Edmund Zbikowski's death was received by his wife on April 7, 1942. World War II had come to Bristol. The entire community was saddened. Ed was the first man from Bristol to give his life in World War II. When approached by a reporter from the Bristol Press, Helen pointed to twenty-two month old Pola Louise and said. "That young lady has a big, big heritage to live up to. She and I will have to be good soldiers and carry on." Ed's memorial mass was celebrated at his church, Saint Stanislaus. The largest crowd ever to attend a church service in Bristol gathered to mourn and to pray for his
soul.

A special assembly was called at Ed's school and he was eulogized by his principal, Anthony Towle. "One could seldom pass Ed's class without seeing interested students gathered around their teacher to talk about science, or any subject. Even after freshmen became sophomores, they would return to continue a lasting friendship with the man they saw as an ideal science teacher."

Helen Zbikowski carried on and ran for the State Legislature in the fall of 1942. She was elected by a large plurality and became the first woman from Bristol to be elected to a seat in the General Assembly. On April 19, 1943, Helen was chosen by her fellow lawmakers to escort Mrs. Jonathan Wainwright into the chamber of the House to receive the State Legislature's resolution praising General Wainwright, his men, and the Filipino people. She also had the honor to meet President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon and his family who accompanied Mrs. Wainwright. In 1945, Helen married Doctor Walter
Nawrocki and she now makes her home in Wenatchee, Washington.

Pola became the first girl to be accepted at Stanford University from the city of Wenatchee. She inherited her father's intellectual bent for science and mathematics and further pursued her studies at the University of Washington, the University of Marburg, Germany, and the Goethe Institute of Languages in Berlin. She is now a doctor of medicine at Phillips University Hospital, West Germany. According to her mother, "She
has an imposing height and bears a striking resemblance to her father."

In remembrance of Edmund Zbikowski, a housing development on Lake Avenue in Bristol bears his name. Zbikowski Post No.2 -- Polish Legion of American Veterans, located on North Main Street, also proudly carries Ed's name.

On the third floor of the Memorial Boulevard School formerly Bristol High School, is a plaque on the wall in the science department. The inscription reads:

IN MEMORY OF
CAPTAIN EDMUND P. ZBIKOWSKI
SCIENCE TEACHER
AT FRESHMAN HIGH SCHOOL
WHO DIED IN THE SERVICE OF
HIS COUNTRY AT CORREGlDOR
APRIL 2, 1942
HE LOVED YOUNG PEOPLE
HE LOVED TO SERVE THEM
HE GAVE HIS ALL FOR THEM