Diary entries on cigar box lids told the story of the thief in the night.
Kevin Wagner came across this primary source material stored in the archives of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Middlesex Township.
A history teacher at Carlisle High School, he needed every bit of information to piece together the life and death of Lt. Col. Charles Benjamin Leinbach.
“He was trying to keep his men alive,” Wagner said of the career Army officer who risked his life to steal food from the Japanese to feed fellow prisoners suffering in Camp Cabanatuan.
The inmate who kept the diary mentioned Leinbach by name, writing that the Pottsville-area native only took the bare minimum of supplies to go unnoticed by the enemy.
Time and again, the ploy worked and lives were saved at least in the short-term as U.S. forces edged ever closer into the heart of the Empire of Japan.
Wagner spent the first half of 2017 researching Leinbach as part of the Understanding Sacrifice program. This Veterans Day, his eulogy for the fallen officer will be published on the award-winning website ABMCeducation.org.
The Understanding Sacrifice program is a partnership among National History Day, the American Battle Monuments Commission, the National Cemetery Administration and the Roy Rosezweig Center for History and New Media.
Wagner was one of 18 teachers selected from across the nation to participate in a yearlong professional development program that focuses on the fallen heroes of the Pacific Theater buried in cemeteries in San Francisco, Hawaii and Manila, Phillippines.
Using research gathered from the study of their World War II veteran, each teacher had to create a lesson plan designed to reinvigorate the study of the conflict in American classrooms.
“By telling individual stories, it gets to the heart of the emotion,” Wagner said. “It’s no longer a political, economic or military issue. It’s an issue of humanity.”
He said that in many ways, the Pacific Theater has been downplayed in school curriculum nationwide, with much of the World War II instruction focused instead on the defeat of Nazi Germany in Europe.
Part of this is because most Americans could identify more with the culture and ethnicity of an enemy in Europe than an enemy in Japan, Wagner said. But he learned through his research that the Pacific War was in many ways more horrific than what GIs faced in their march across France into the Third Reich.
The Japanese code of Bushido looked down on those who surrendered as cowards without honor. As a result, atrocities were committed against American and Allied prisoners-of-war.
In late 1944, as U.S. forces closed in, the Japanese loaded POWs onto freighters converted into prison vessels bound for Korea, Taiwan or the Japanese home islands. The luckless passengers were to become slave laborers for the empire’s war machine.
Conditions on these vessels were so horrible, they became known as Hell ships. On Jan. 6, 1945, Leinbach was on the Enoura Maru at anchor in Takeo, Taiwan, when the ship was bombed and disabled by U.S. carrier planes.
The Japanese tended to not mark prison ships with the Red Cross symbol. American pilots thought they were attacking enemy merchant vessels hauling supplies to hostile forces. As a result, many American POWs died at the hands of their own countrymen. Leinbach was among those killed on the Enoura Maru, Wagner said.
His remains were buried in a mass grave in Taiwan that was discovered by the Grave Registration Service in spring 1946. The body was shipped to Honolulu where Leinbach was identified through a combination of hair samples and dental records provided by his wife, Pearl, who worked in San Francisco as a part-time dental hygienist.
Long before he stepped onto a Hell ship, Leinbach climbed up the steeple of an old stone church in the town of Abucay on the Bataan peninsula. It was Jan. 16, 1942, and Japanese forces were overrunning the island of Luzon in the Philippines.
The church was serving as a battalion headquarters when enemy artillery honed in. An officer with experience as a forward observer, Leinbach knew he had to man a high point to direct counter-artillery fire onto the enemy battery. At great risk to his safety, he climbed the steeple to spot the Japanese artillery and kept the shells coming in until those guns were silenced.
This action earned Leinbach a Silver Star for bravery, which was awarded posthumously to his widow, Wagner said. “These were ordinary Americans who did extraordinary things when they were asked to.
“The question for us is would we possess that same capability if the same type of call comes to us today,” he said. “The same intangible patriotism, sense of duty and honor that we talk so highly about.”
There is a gap in the record between Jan. 16, when Leinbach climbed the steeple, and May 7, 1942, when the Red Cross notified Pearl that her husband was a prisoner of Japan. Wagner has no idea what happened to the lieutenant colonel during that 16-week period.
American and Filipino forces stationed on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese on April 9, 1942. While it is possible Leinbach was among the POWs who suffered through the Bataan Death March, there are documents proving he was involved.
There is evidence to suggest he was not only a prisoner of Camp Cabanatuan, but a high-ranking “vice commander” among the inmates. Leinbach was born in 1892 and would have been almost 50 at the time of the surrender.
Instead of a lesson plan, Wagner used his research on Leinbach to develop an entire unit to walk classroom teachers through the process of using official records and other archival material to learn how to research a fallen veteran.
The unit is broken down into five steps or lessons plans teachers can use to pass that information on to their students, Wagner said. The work included the development of classroom handouts and worksheets.
Wagner serves as the social studies department chair for the Carlisle Area School District. For more information, visit abmceducation.org/understandingsacrifice/soldier/charles-leinbach.