George Uzelac was born on April 30th, 1921, in East Moline to Nikola and Margaret Bukovac Uzelac. As evidenced by his later role as an Army interpreter in Belgrade, one or both of Uzelac’s parents was likely Serbian, and raised their children bilingually. Uzelac joined the United States Army as soon as he was of age in 1939, before the United States became involved in the Second World War. This intimates that Uzelac likely enlisted because he sought a career in the military, rather than signing on to combat an immediate threat to the nation.
Uzelac and the 31st Infantry played a vital role in buying time for the US and Philippine troops on the Bataan Peninsula. Just one day after the destruction of the US fleet at Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes destroyed the American aircraft in the Philippines as they sat at the Clark and Iba airfields. Two days later the Japanese advanced forces landed, followed by the full might of the Japanese Fourteenth Army on December 22, 1941. In response, General Douglas MacArthur retreated to Bataan, tasking the 31st with holding the line against the Japanese in order to buy time for his troops to reorganize:
In order to allow the defensive lines time to stabilize, MacArthur ordered five thousand men, including the 31st, to fight a delaying action against elements of the Japanese a few miles south of the destroyed-Layac bridge on 6 January 1942. The 31st incurred heavy casualties by the time it rejoined the main defensive line at Abucay on 9 January. Despite dwindling supplies and mounting losses, the 31st and other units defending Bataan managed to halt the Japanese advance and forced them to withdraw and await reinforcements from China over the next several weeks before renewing their offensive.
As a result of Uzelac and the 31st Infantry’s brave stand, the Japanese conquest of the city of Manila was delayed by 49 days. At the rapid pace of mechanized warfare, this setback for the Japanese Army was a great hurdle in their plans to take Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately, Uzelac and the 31st paid a high toll for bloodying the Japanese Army’s nose at Bataan. Much of the 31st was taken captive, including Uzelac. Despite a brief escape, he would spend the remainder of the war as a prisoner of the Japanese:
He escaped from the Bataan Death March but was retaken prisoner when Corregidor Island fell on May 6 . He remained a prisoner of war for three years, four months, and 21 days, living under the most inhumane conditions. He retreated with the Japanese forces all the way to the Japanese mainland, surviving a voyage in the notorious Japanese ‘Slave Ships.’ When he was liberated by American troops in Northern Japan, where he was forced to work in lead-zinc mines, he weighed 90 pounds (70 pounds lighter than his enlistment weight).
As evidenced by the malnourishment suffered by Uzelac, the Japanese were not kind hosts. One can only begin to imagine the torture and cruelty suffered by Uzelac and his comrades at the hands of sadistic Japanese prison camp officers. Amazingly, Uzelac reenlisted with the US Army after he and his comrades were liberated from Japanese captivity at the war’s end.
The remainder of Uzelac’s career was accomplished and globe-trotting. He served throughout the period of the Korean War, but also served time stateside and in Eastern Europe in a variety of roles: “Among his postwar military duties, he was an interpreter in Belgrade, Yugoslavia; a recruiter in the University of Arizona; was in charge of the construction of the first modern golf course in Korea; and his last assignment as a recruiter at Fort Bragg, Calif. Over his career, he received approximately 15 medals and citations for his service.” He retired from the Army on August 1st, 1959, after twenty years of service to his country.
Uzelac then returned to the Quad Cities, where he and his wife Rose Marie DeDoncker raised their children. He worked as a real estate salesman, Rock Island Arsenal security guard, and pool hall owner throughout the remainder of his life. He was involved in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, and the local POW Chapter. George Uzelac passed away on September 2nd, 2011. He leaves behind a legacy that serves as a reminder of the tall cost paid by those who serve to defend our country in the Armed Forces.