Pvt. John Francis Burke
| Pvt. John F. Burke
was born on January 21, 1921. He was the second
of seven children born to Peter J. & Evelyn
Burke. He grew up at 1126 South Cherry Street in
Janesville. By the age of sixteen, he was six
feet one inch tall. Neighborhood children
followed him around to see if he would give them rides
on his shoulders or on a pair of stilts that he
built. On Christmas Eve, he would dress up as
Santa Claus and go to the homes of children on his
John attended Janesville High School. While there, he played the tuba in the school band for three years. He had red curly hair which made him the easiest band member to spot when the band was on the field. He also was a member of the Janesville High School football team.
John graduated high school in 1939 and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps with some friends. He did this because jobs were scarce. While in the C.C.C., John planted trees, built dams, and did other conservation jobs.
John joined the Wisconsin National Guard in 1940. Like many young men he knew that with the passage of the new draft law, he would sooner or later be drafted into the army. He was called to federal duty when the tank company from Janesville was federalized in November, 1940.
John trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and took part in maneuvers in Louisiana in the late summer of 1941, It was at Camp Polk, Louisiana, that he and the other members of the battalion learned that they were being sent overseas. John received a leave home to say goodbye to family and friends.
Over different train routes, the companies of the battalion arrived in San Francisco. They were ferried to Angel Island. There, the battalion's doctors gave them physicals and inoculations.
The soldiers boarded the U.S.S. Hugh L. Scott which sailed on Monday, October 27th and arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd at 8:00, and the soldiers received shore leave. The ship sailed on Tuesday, November 4th for Guam. Arriving there, the ship took on water, bananas, vegetables, and coconuts.
Sailing, the ship arrived in Manila Bay the morning of November 20, 1941, at 8:00. The soldiers disembarked the ship about three hours after it docked. Most took buses to a train station and rode a train to Ft. Stotsenburg.
At Ft. Stotsenburg, the soldiers were greeted by Col. Edward King who apologized that they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field. He remained with the battalion until every member had had Thanksgiving dinner. Afterwards, he went to have his own.
On December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Clark Field. John spent the next four months fighting the Japanese as the Filipino and American forces withdrew into the Bataan Peninsula.
John became a Prisoner Of War when Bataan was surrendered to the Japanese. He took part in the death march and was held as a prisoner at Camp O'Donnell. He was also held at Cabanatuan. During his time in the Philippines, John was sent out on a work detail to Baybombong on Luzon.
John was later held at Bilibid Prison and then selected to work the Bachrach Garage Detail. The POWs on this detail repaired mechanical equipment for the Japanese. With him on the detail were the Fay Baldon, the Luther brothers and Maurice Lustig of A Company.
On October 10, 1944, when It became obvious to the Japanese that the Philippines were about to be invaded by American forces, the POWs on the detail were sent to the Port Area of Manila. There, they were scheduled to be boarded onto the Hokusen Maru. Instead, they were boarded onto the Arisan Maru.
The 1803 POWs were packed into a hold that could only hold 200 men. This situation was so bad that five POWs died within the first 24 hours. Some of the POWs figured out how to wire the ventilation system into the lights. Although the bulbs had been removed, the power had not been turned off by the Japanese. The POWs had fresh air for two days. When the Japanese realized what they had done, they turned off the power.
As the POWs grew sicker, the Japanese realized that the death rate would continue to rise unless they did something. The Japanese moved 800 POWs to the forward hold which was half full of coal.
The ship sailed but instead of heading for Japan, it went to a cove off the Island of Palawan. The ship set in the cove for nine days. During this time, the POWs were allowed out of the holds in shifts. At some point, one POW was killed trying to escape.
On October 20th, the Arisan Maru returned to Manila. There, it joined a convoy bound for Formosa. The Arisan Maru sailed again on October 23rd.
The next day, Tuesday, October 24, 1944, around 5:00 P.M., POWs were on deck cooking dinner. The ship was in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea, off the coast of China. Suddenly, the Japanese guards ran to the bow of the ship. The POWs watched as a torpedo passed in front of the ship. Moments later a second torpedo passed behind the stern of the ship. Minutes later, two torpedoes hit the Arisan Maru amidships. The ship shook and came to a stop.
The Japanese guards began firing their guns at the POWs on deck who had been preparing dinner. To avoid being shot, the POWs climbed back into the holds. As soon as they were in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders and covered the holds with their hatch covers. Since the Japanese had already received orders to abandon ship, the covers were never tied down.
After the Japanese had abandoned ship, some POWs in the forward hold managed to climb out. They dropped reattached the rope ladders and dropped them to the other POWs in both holds. When the POWs reached the decks, some attempted to save their lives by finding anything that would float. Others swam to Japanese destroyers that were picking up Japanese survivors. The Japanese pushed the POWs away with poles and hit them with clubs. Those who could not swim ate their last meal by raiding the ship's kitchen and food locker.
According to the survivors, the ship sunk lower and lower in the water. Most of the prisoners were still on deck. At some point, the ship split in two. Of the 1803 men who had boarded the Arisan Maru in Manila, only nine survived the ship's sinking.
Five men who had reached an abandoned life boat recalled that the cries for help slowly subsided. Of the nine men who survived the sinking of the Arisan Maru, eight would survive the war.
Pvt. John F. Burke died in sinking of Arisan Maru on October 24, 1944. Since he was lost at sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside Manila.
On September 14, 1946, John's parents held a memorial service for him at Saint Patrick's Catholic Church in Janesville.