Pfc. Leon Foster Atha
| Pfc. Leon
Foster Atha was born on May 20, 1916, in Monterey,
Kentucky. He was the son of Kelly B.
Atha & Amanda Fitzgerald-Atha and raised at
424 Averton in Frankfort, Kentucky, with his three
siblings. In the 1940 census, his occupation
was listed as truck driver.
On January 21, 1941, Leon was inducted into the U. S. Army at Louisville, Kentucky, and did his basic training at Fort Knox. Kentucky, where he was assigned to Headquarters Company of the 192nd Tank Battalion. He attended tank mechanic school and qualified as a tank mechanic. It is known that he married Jeanette Lyons on August 8, 1941, in Frankfort, Kentucky.
In September 1941, Leon took part in maneuvers
in Louisiana. After the maneuvers, the
battalion was ordered to report to Camp Polk,
Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft. Knox as
they had expected. On the side of a hill,
the soldiers learned that the battalion was
being sent overseas. Those men 29 years
old or older were allowed to resign from
military service and were replaced by men from
the 753rd Tank Battalion.
Being that their job was maintenance and
ordnance, the members of HQ company remained in
the battalion's bivouac. Since HQ Company
had no weapons to fight planes, they could do
little more than watch the attack and take
The battalion remained at Clark Field for two weeks until it received orders to the Lingayen Gulf area were the Japanese had landed. The battalion repeatedly dropped back as it fought the Japanese.
On December 23rd and 24th, the battalion was in
the area of Urdaneta and found the bridge they
were going to use to cross the Agno River was
destroyed. The tankers made an end run to
get south of river and ran into Japanese
resistance early in the evening, but they
successfully crossed at the river in the
Bayambang Province. Later on the 24th, the
battalions formed a defensive line along the
southern bank of the Agno River with the 192nd
on the right and 194th on the left.
It is known that his wife received two letters
from him during this time. One letter was
dated January 15, and the second was dated
February 2nd. She received both letters on
March 31st. In one letter he said, "The
Japs are not so tough that they cannot be
licked." He also joked that he would like
it to snow to cool things off.
On April 8, 1942, Capt Fred Bruni told the members of HQ Company of the coming surrender. He told them to destroy their weapons and anything else that the Japanese could use. He gathered his men together and fed them what he referred to as "Their last supper." They then received orders not to destroy their trucks. The next morning they were Prisoners of War.
On April 11th, the first Japanese soldiers appeared at HQ company's encampment. A Japanese officer ordered Leon and the rest of his company, with their possessions, out onto the road that ran in front of their encampment. Once on the road, the soldiers were ordered to kneel along the sides of the road with their possessions in front of them. As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers, who were passing them, went through their possessions and took whatever they wanted from the Americans.
Leon and his company boarded their trucks and drove to Mariveles. From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and sat and waited. As they sat, the POWs noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming across from them. They soon realized that this was a firing squad and the Japanese were going to kill them.
As they sat watching and waiting to see what the Japanese intended to do, a Japanese officer pulled up in a car in front of the Japanese soldiers. He got out of the car and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail. The officer got back in the car and drove off. The Japanese sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.
Later in the day, Leon's group of POWs was moved to a school yard in Mariveles. The POWs were left sitting in the sun for hours. The Japanese did not feed them or give them water. When they were ordered to move again, they had no idea that they had started what has become known as "The Bataan Death March."
When they given a break on the march, the POWs were ordered into a field. Behind the POWs were four Japanese artillery pieces which began firing on Corregidor and Ft. Drum. These two islands had not surrendered. Shells from these two American forts began landing among the POWs. The POWs could do little since they had no place to hide. Some POWs were killed from incoming American shells. One group that tried to hide in a small brick building died when it took a direct hit. The American guns did succeed in knocking out three of the four Japanese guns.
The POWs were ordered to move again by the Japanese. Leon and the other men had no idea that they had started what became known as the death march. At some point Leon dropped out of the march. It is not known when, but he did complete the march.
At San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars that could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese put 100 men into each car. Those who died remained standing since they had no room to fall to the floor. At Capas, the POWs left the cars and walked ten miles to Camp O'Donnell.
Although the exact date is not known, Leon was
selected for a work detail sent to Manila.
The POWs on this detail drove trucks for the
Japanese. Unlike many detils, the POWs
drove the trucks without a Japanese guard being
with them. The POWs were given passes that
allowed them to pass through check points.
When the detail ended, Leon was sent to
Cabanatuan. Not much is known about his
time at Cabanatuan, but medical records kept at
the camp show that he was hospitalized on August
1, 1942, because he was suffering from cysts
that were the result of having malaria.
The records also show that he tested positive
for tuberculosis. How he was treated for
it is not shown and the records do not show when
he was discharged. It is known that he was sent
back to the detail.
In late 1944, when it became apparent to the Japanese that the invasion of the Philippines was near, the Japanese attempted to send the healthy POWs to Japan, and other countries, to work as slave labor. This was also an attempt to prevent them from being liberated by the advancing American forces.
In early October 1944, almost 1800 other POWs were
marched to the Port Area of Manila. When his
POW group arrived at the pier, the ship they where
scheduled to sail on, the Hokusen Maru,
was ready to sail, but some of the POWs in the
detachment had not arrived at the pier.
Another POW detachment, scheduled to sail on the Arisan
Maru, had completely arrived, but their ship
was not ready to sail. It was at that time
that the Japanese made the decision that they
switch POW detachments so the Hokusen Maru
Each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Conditions in the hold were so bad, that the POWs began to develop heat blisters.
The POWs discover that although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not turned off the power to the lights. Some of the prisoners were able to wire the ship's blowers into this electrical system. Doing this allowed fresh air in the hold. The blowers were disconnected two days later when the Japanese discovered what had been done.
The Japanese soon realized that if they did not do something many of the POWs would die. To prevent this, they opened the ship's number two hold and transferred 800 POWs into it. During the transfer, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.
The Arisan Maru returned to Manila on
October 20th, where it joined a twelve ship
convoy. On October 21st, the convoy left
Manila and entered the South China Sea.
The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red
crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs
making them targets for American
submarines. In addition, U.S. military
intelligence was reading the Japanese messages
as fast as the Japanese. To protect this
secret, they did not tell the submarine crews
that ships were carrying POWs which made the
ships targets for the submarines. The POWs
in the hold became so desperate that they prayed
for the ship to be hit by torpedoes.
According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on Tuesday, October 24, 1944, about 5:00 pm, the ship was in the Bashi Channel in the South China Sea, off the coast of China. Some of the POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs in the ship's two holds. Suddenly, sirens and other alarms were heard. The men inside the holds knew this meant that American submarines had been spotted. They began to chant for the submarines to sink the ship.
The Japanese on deck ran to the front of the ship. As the POWs watched, a torpedo passedin front of the bow of the ship. Moments later, the Japanese ran to the ship's stern and watched as a second torpedo passed behind the ship. There was a sudden jar and the ship stopped dead in the water. It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, in its third hold where there were no POWs. It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was the U.S.S Snook.
The Japanese guards took their guns and used
them as clubs on the POWs who were on
deck. To escape, the POWs dove back into
the holds. After they were in the holds,
the Japanese cut the rope ladders and put the
hatch covers on the holds, but they did not tie
them down. They then abandoned the ship.
As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope ladders into the ship's two holds, but since they had not tied down the hatch covers, some of the POWs, in the first hold, were able to climb out and reattached the rope ladders. They climbed out dropped ropes down to the POWs in both holds.
The POWs were able to get onto the deck of the ship but made no attempt to abandon ship. On the ship's deck an American major spoke to the POWs, he said, "Boys, we're in a hellva a jam - but we've been in jams before. Remember just one thing: We're American soldiers. Let's play it that way to the very end of the script." Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them, "Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men." The ship sank lower into the water.
A group of 35 POWs swam to a nearby Japanese ship, but when the Japanese realized they were POWs, they pushed them away with poles and hit them with clubs. The Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as they attempted to reach them.
As the ship got lower in the water, more of the POWs took to the water. These POWs attempted to escape the ship by clinging to rafts, hatch covers, flotsam and jetsam. Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking. At some point, the ship split in two. The exact time of the ship's sinking is not known since it took place after dark.
Three of the POWs found an abandoned lifeboat, but since they had no paddles, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs. According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru sank sometime after dark. As the night went on, the cries for help grew fewer until there was silence. The next morning, two more POWs would be pulled into the boat.
Of the 1803 POWs who had boarded the ship, only nine survived the sinking. Five POWs reached China by boat and were liberated. Four were recaptured and sent to POW camps in Japan. Three of these prisoners lived to see the end of the war.
Pvt. Leon Foster Atha died in the sinking of the Arisan Maru on October 24, 1944. Since he was lost as sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.
It should be mentioned that Leon's wife, Jeanette, never remarried. She passed away on April 8, 2004, and was buried at Glasgow Municipal Cemetery in Glasgow, Kentucky. She had Leon's name placed on the headstone next to her name.