The last letter River Forest residents Fred and Anna Jannisch received from their son, Corporal Fred Jannisch, indicated that he was feeling “pretty good.” Writing from the Philippines, he complimented the Army cooks for making rice somewhat palatable three times a day but complained about the exorbitant cost of cigarettes.
“I don’t know how long I’m going to be here, nor does anyone else for that matter, but we all do know that it can’t last forever and we’re bound to be home sometime and you can bet your life that we’ll all be looking forward to that day,” he wrote.
The Jannisches received the letter, which was written on Feb. 24, 1942, in August, 1942, after an American submarine retrieved a mailbag floating in the Pacific Ocean. Six weeks after writing that letter, Fred was taken captive by the Japanese and forced to endure the infamous Bataan Death March. He survived the march but died on Oct. 14 in a prisoner-of-war camp, 11 days before his 20th birthday. His parents didn’t learn of his death until June 29, 1943.
According to Susie Crichlow, Fred’s niece, her grandmother took to her bed after learning of her son’s death and didn’t leave for six weeks. Her grandfather rarely discussed the circumstances of his son’s death.
“My mother, Dot, Uncle Freddie’s sister, told me that she and her brother and sister were very close. She talked about Uncle Freddie frequently and was proud of his service. She said he was always looking out for his little sisters and was devoted to others as well. She created a framed display of all his medals, including a Bronze Star. Freddie had a short life but he had a large impact on his family,” Crichlow said.
Fred A. Jannisch was born in River Forest on Oct. 25, 1922. His father, Fred J., was a River Forest firefighter and the family lived at 333 Park Ave., just blocks from the fire house. An enthusiastic member of local Boy Scout Troop 15 and a carrier for the Oak Leaves newspaper, Fred left Oak Park and River Forest High School early, with his father’s permission, to join the Illinois National Guard. Inducted into the U.S. Army on Nov. 25, 1940, Fred enlisted with the 192nd Tank Battalion out of Maywood and was engaged in intensive training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, where he became one of the youngest corporals in the Army.
Fred was sent to Louisiana in the summer of 1941 for specialized training. His tank crew engaged in night maneuvers, not knowing that they were being prepared for a build-up of American military forces in the Philippines. In October, the battalion traveled by train to San Francisco and set sail on the U.S.A.T Gen. Hugh L. Scott to Guam, landing in Honolulu, Hawaii on Nov. 2. They docked in Manila, Philippines on Nov. 20 and transferred to Fort Stotsenburg, Clark Field.
On the morning of Dec. 8, men staffing radios in the 192nd Battalion’s communications tent learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Fred and his tank crew were ordered to the south end of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers.
According to a comprehensive article in the Bataan Project (bataanproject.com), a site dedicated to the men of Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion, the Japanese bombed and strafed the airfield that afternoon with 54 planes, destroying American planes and killing hundreds of soldiers. They attacked again on Dec. 10 and 13.
After many months of battle, with few supplies and only 25% of his soldiers healthy enough to continue fighting, General Edward P. King made the agonizing decision to surrender to the Japanese on April 9, 1942. The soldiers were told to destroy their remaining weapons and supplies and the tank crews were ordered to use armor-piercing shells to destroy their tanks.
On April 11, the surviving soldiers, including Fred, were ordered by the Japanese to begin the 65-mile Bataan Death March, from Mariveles, at the southern tip of Bataan, to San Fernando. The men who couldn’t keep up were shot or bayoneted. Ten thousand men — 1,000 Americans and 9,000 Filipinos — died during the march. At the POW camp, food was scarce and conditions were extraordinarily brutal.
Of the 593 men in the 192nd Tank Battalion who went to the Philippines in October 1941, 328 did not survive. After the war, the American military tribunal tried Lt. General Masaharu Homma, commander of the Japanese invasion forces in the Philippines, and held him responsible for the Bataan Death March — a war crime. He was executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.
According to war records, Fred was admitted on Aug. 2 to the prisoner camp hospital, suffering from dysentery and malaria, and died on Oct. 14, 1942. Fred’s family held a memorial service for him on July 24, 1943 at River Forest Methodist Church. At his parents’ request, Fred’s remains were interred in 1950 at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines, the site of 16,859 soldiers who lost their lives in New Guinea and the Philippines.
“The thing that haunts me is the part in one of his letters where Uncle Freddie writes that he lost and then found the ring that his parents gave him,” Crichlow said. “He wrote that the ring was going to stay on his hand no matter what and that ‘the fellow that tries to take it off will have to cut my finger first’.”
According to Crichlow, before he died, Fred offered a Japanese medic the ring in exchange for medication. He never received the medication — or the return of his ring.
Fred Jannisch’s life and tragic death resonated with Lt. John Carter of the River Forest Fire Department. He was behind the village’s approval of a resolution honoring Fred’s service and designating the 7900 block of Central Avenue in River Forest as ‘Honorary Cpl. Fred A. Jannisch Jr. Way.”
Carter has done an extraordinary amount of work to discover details of Fred’s life and service, through research and by tracking down his surviving family members.
“Fred’s father’s photo has been hanging on the firehouse walls forever and I heard stories about his son,” said Carter. “My father was in the Korean War and my son was in the Marine Corps. I just felt it was the right thing to do — to honor this man’s ultimate sacrifice.”