Pvt. John Avila
Pvt. John Avila was born on
December 8, 1914, in Erath County, Texas. He
was living in Dallas County, Texas, when he was
inducted into the army. He did his basic
training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and was sent to
Camp Polk, Louisiana, to join the 753rd Tank
While his battalion was at the base, the 192nd Tank Battalion received orders to go overseas, John replaced a National Guardsman who was released from federal service and was assigned to B Company. Before this, he had been a member of the 753rd Tank Battalion.
The battalion traveled west by train to
San Francisco. Arriving there,
they were taken by ferry to Angel Island
in San Francisco Bay. At Ft.
McDowell, they were given physicals and
inoculated. Those men found
to have a minor medical condition were
held back and scheduled to rejoin the
battalion at a later date.
During the Battle of Bataan, John took part in the Battle of the Pockets. The tanks of B and C Companies were sent into the pockets to wipeout Japanese troops that had been trapped behind the main battle line. He also took part in the Battle of the Points which wiped out Japanese Marines who had been landed behind the Filipino and American Line.
John and the other members of the company also protected the eastern shoreline of the peninsula against a possible Japanese landing. One night, during this duty, the company got into a fire fight with Japanese barges that were attempting to land troops behind American lines. The Japanese never landed one soldier on the beach.
It is not known if John escaped to Corregidor or became a Prisoner of War when Bataan was surrendered. It is known that he was held as a POW at Cabanatuan.
On October 26, 1942, John was selected for a work detail to be sent to Davao, Mindanao. The POWs were sent by train from Cabanatuan to Manila. They were held in Bilibid Prison for two days before being boarded onto the Erie Maru. The trip to Lasang took 13 days because the ship made stops at Iloilo and Cebu, Mindanao. John arrived on the Island of Mindanao on November 7th. John was one of 650 POWs who built an airfield at Lasang, while 100 POWs built an airfield south of Davao.
At the camp, the POWs were housed in eight barracks that were about 148 feet long and about 16 feet wide. A four foot wide aisle ran down the center of each barracks. In each barracks, were eighteen bays. Twelve POWs shared a bay. 216 POWs lived in each barracks. Four cages were later put in a bay. Each cage held two POWs.
The camp discipline was poor. The American commanding officer changed frequently. The junior officers refused to take orders from the senior officers. Soon, the enlisted men spoke anyway they wanted to, to the officers. The situation improved because all majority of POWs realized that discipline was needed to survive.
At first, the work details were not guarded. The POWs plowed, planted, and harvested the crops. The sick POWs made baskets. In April 1943, the POWs working conditions varied. Those working the rice fields received the worst treatment. They were beaten for not meeting quotas, misunderstandings between the POWs and guards, and a translator who could not be trusted to tell the truth.
One night the POWs heard the sound of a plane. From the sound of the engine, they knew it was American. It was the first American plane they had heard in over two years. As the plane dove on the airfield, it dropped four bombs at the far end of the runway; the POWs celebrated silently. On June 6, 1944, some of the POWs were sent to Manila, while the remainder of the men stayed on the island until August 19, 1944.
Over the next two weeks the atmosphere at the airfield changed. The Japanese posted guards with bayonets on their rifles by the POW barracks as air raids became daily. The Japanese camouflaged the airfield and hid their planes in revetments. The POWs heard rumors that the Americans had landed at Palau.
During this time, the POWs rations were cut to a single cup of rice a day. The POWs were now so hungry that they raided the Japanese garbage pile for remnants of vegetables. Many ate the weeds that grew inside the camp until it was bare.
Air raids soon were nightly events. Japanese planes flying out of the airfield were loaded with bombs and carried extra gasoline tanks. Finally, all work on the airfield was stopped.
On that day, the POWs were lined up by fours. The outside men had rope tied to their wrists to prevent escape. They were marched shoeless to the Tabunco Pier and arrived at noon. They were packed into the two holds of the Erie Maru. 400 POWs were in the first hold while the remaining 350 POWs were put in the second hold. In addition, several tons of Japanese baggage were packed into the hold. Around six that evening, the ship sailed.
As the ship made its way north it swayed in the waves. Many of the prisoners became seasick. They retched when they tried to throw up since there was no food in their stomachs. The next day, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. An American plane flew over the ship. Moments later bombs exploded near the ship. The sound of machinegun fire was heard by the POWs. The Japanese once again tied down the hatch covers cutting off the air. Over the next three days, there were several more alerts. Each time the hatch covers were battened down leaving the POWs in darkness.
The ship arrived in Zamboanga on August 24th and waited ten days until the Shinyo Maru arrived. The POWs were not allowed out of the holds and the conditions in the ship's holds were terrible. The holds were hot and steamy and the floors were covered with human waste. In addition, the longer the POWs were in the holds the stench became worse. During this time, the POWs were allowed on deck and sprayed with salt water.
It should be noted that the United States had intercepted the order from Japanese command sending the Shinyo Maru to Zamboanga. Someone misinterpreted the order as saying the ship would be transporting "750 troops" instead of "750 prisoners of war" to Manila. The U.S.S. Paddle was sent to the area to intercept the ship.
On September 4th, the POWs were transferred onto the Shinyo Maru. 250 POWs were put iu the ship's smaller hold, while the 500 POWs were its larger hold. That night, bombs from American planes landed alongside of the ship rocking an shaking it. The POWs prayed for the ship would be hit.
The ship sailed on September 5th at 2:00 a.m. Before the ship sailed, the hatch covers were secured so that the POWs could not lift them from below. The ship headed north in a zigzag pattern in an attempt to avoid submarines. The POWs were no longer allowed on deck. Their lips and throats were covered with dust from cement that had previously been hauled by the ship. For the next two days the ship made good time. It was at this time that the Japanese guards threatened to kill the POWs if the ship came under attack by American planes. The ship was now part of a convoy designated as C-076. Since the POWs had not heard any air raid alerts, they assumed that they were safe.
At 7:37 p.m. the U.S.S Paddle spotted the convoy off the west coast of Mindanao at Sindangan Point. It fired two torpedoes at the ship. The first torpedo hit the ship in its main hold. Moments later, a second torpedo hit the ship. There was a gapping hole in the ship's side. Those POWs still alive saw the bodies of the dead floating in the water as the hold filled with water.
Those POWs who were still alive found that the hatch cover had been blown off the hold by the explosion. As the water level rose, they were able to climb out. Seven Japanese officers were on the bridge with rifles. As the POWs emerged from the hold, they picked them off. The lucky POWs made it through their fire and dove into the water.
The POWs in the smaller hold were also wounded from the torpedo hits. But, the hold remained dry. Many of these POWs also were able to make it onto the deck and attempted to swim to shore. As they swam, they were fired upon by the same seven Japanese officers.
According to the POWs in the water, the Shinyo Maru began to capsize. There was a tremendous crushing sound and the ship seemed to bend upward in the middle, split in two and sunk into the water.
Japanese seaplanes dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the American submarine. The good thing about the depth charges was that they kept sharks away from the POWs. When they spotted the POWs in the water, they strafed them. They stopped when they realized that there were Japanese in the water too.
A Japanese tanker that had been hit by torpedoes spilled oil and gasoline into the water. The ship ran aground. The Japanese quickly set up machineguns and fired on the POWs. Boats from the other ships in the convoy attempted to hunt down the POWs swimming in the water. If they found a man, they shot him. What saved many lives was that with dusk it became harder for the Japanese to see them.
The Japanese announced to the Americans that if they surrendered that they would be treated with compassion. About 30 men gave up after hearing this. According to one man who escaped after surrendering, the POWs had their hands tied to the ship's rail, and the Japanese shot each POW in the back of the head. They then pushed the bodies overboard.
According to the POWs in the water, the Shinyo Maru began to capsize. There was a tremendous crushing sound and the ship seemed to bend upward in the middle. It then split in two and sank into the water. Of the 750 POWs who were boarded onto the ship, 82 POWs escaped. One man died on shore while the remainder were rescued by Filipino guerillas and returned to U.S. Forces in October 1944. Pvt. John Avila was not one of them.
It is not known if Pvt. John Avila died when the Shinyo Maru sank or if he was shot while attempting to escape. What is known is that Pvt. John Avila died in the sinking of the Shinyo Maru on Thursday, September 7, 1944.
Since Pvt. John Avila was lost at sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside Manila.