Pfc. John Lewis Cummins
| Pfc. John L.
Cummins' family resided in Kentucky since the late
1700's. He was born on January 31, 1921, in
Mercer County, the oldest of the four children born
to Jack Cummins and Mary Bell
Dennis-Cummins. He was known as "Lewis" to his
As a child John attended school in McAfee,
Kentucky, near the family farm. Like many
young men of his time, he attended high school but
did not finish. After he left school, he
worked as a grocery store clerk.
John joined the Kentucky National Guard's 38th Tank Company headquartered in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. On November 25, 1940, John's tank company was federalized as D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. A few days later, they traveled to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for one year of federal service.
In January 1941, John was reassigned to
Headquarters Company when the company was formed
with men from the four letter companies of the
battalion. John was assigned to the tank
maintenance section of the company.
In the late summer of 1941, the battalion took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. After the maneuvers, on the side of a hill at Camp Polk, John and the other members of the battalion learned they were not being released from federal service. Instead, they were being sent overseas. Each man was given leave home to say goodbye to family and friends. In the photo at the top of the page, John holds his nephew, James, while on leave home.
John returned to Camp Polk where equipment was
loaded onto flat cars. Over the
southern train route through Texas, New
Mexico, and Arizona, HQ Company traveled to
San Francisco, California and were ferried to
Ft.McDowell on Angel Island. There they
received physicals and inoculations.
Those men found to have minor medical issues
were held back and scheduled to rejoin the
battalion at a later date. Some men were
When John reported for morning mess on December 8, 1941, he and the other men heard the news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor just hours earlier. All the members of the tank crews were ordered to the perimeter of the airfield while John and the other HQ members were ordered to prepare supplies for the tankers.
Around 12:45 in the afternoon, planes appeared over the airfield. John, like the other men, thought the planes were American. It was only when bombs began exploding and the strafing began that they knew the planes were Japanese. Since he had no weapon to sight back with, John attempted to take cover and stay out of harms way.
That evening, most of the tank companies lived through another attack. It was now HQ's job to keep them supplied with gasoline and ammunition. It was in this role that John fought the Japanese.
The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt.
his men the
news of the
surrender. While informing the members
of the company
waved his arm
tanks and told
the men that
they would no
he spoke, his
He turned away
from the men
for a moment,
and when he
turned back he
He next told
should do to
that they all
He told the
that could be
used by the
The only thing
they were told
not to destroy
The men waited
juice for what
he called, "Their last supper."
HQ Company boarded trucks and drove to Mariveles. From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and sat and waited. As they sat, John and the other Prisoners of War 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, got out, and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail. The officer got back in the car and drove off, while the sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.
Later in the day, John was moved to a school yard in Mariveles. In the school yard, they found themselves between Japanese artillery and guns firing from Corregidor and Ft. Drum. Shells began landing among the POWs who had no place to hide. Some of the POWs were killed from incoming shells.
The POWs were ordered to move again by the Japanese and had no idea that they had started what became known as the death march. During the march, John received no water and little food. At San Fernando, he was put into a wooden boxcar and taken to Capas. From Capas, John walked the last few miles to Camp O' Donnell.
When the Japanese wanted POWs to go out on a work detail, John, with Grover Brummett, volunteered to go out on the detail. The POWs on the detail were under the command of Col. Ted Wickord who had been commanding officer of the 192nd. During his time on the detail, John rebuilt bridges that had been destroyed by the retreating American forces weeks earlier.
John first worked at Calaun. There the POWs were amazed by the concern shown for them by the Filipino people. The townspeople arranged for their doctor and nurses to care for the POWs and give them medication. They also arranged for the POWs to attend a meal in their honor.
John was next sent to Batangas to rebuild another bridge. Again, the Filipino people did all they could to see that the Americans got the food and care they needed. Somehow the Filipinos convinced the Japanese to allow them to attend a meal to celebrate the completion of the new bridge.
The next bridge John and the other POWs were sent to rebuild was in Candelaria. Once again, the people of the town did what ever they could to help the Americans. An order of Roman Catholic sisters, who had been recently freed from custody, invited Lt. Col. Wickord and twelve POWs for a dinner.
When the detail ended, John was sent to Cabanatuan
sometime after the new camp opened. The
healthier POWs were used as labor in the camp
farm. Most of what was grown on the farm
went to feed the Japanese not the prisoners
growing it. On July 17, 1942, John was
admitted to the camp hospital suffering from
diphtheria. According to records kept by the
camp's medical staff, he remained in the hospital
until August 21, 1942, when he was returned to
During his time in captivity, John and his good
friend, Grover Brummett, stayed together.
When the Japanese began sending POWs to Japan in
large numbers in late 1942, Grover attempted to
get John to volunteer to be sent to Japan with
him. John refused to do this hoping to
remain at Cabanatuan long enough to be rescued by
advancing American forces. John remained
behind when his best friend was sent to Japan.
When it became apparent to the Japanese that the invasion of the Luzon was near, the Japanese began to send POWs to Manila for transport to Japan. The Japanese did this to prevent the prisoners from being liberated by advancing American forces. It was at this time that John was sent to Bilibid Prison. Two groups of 250 men each were sent to Bilibid from Cabanatuan.
On October 11, 1944, John was marched to Pier 7 in the Port Area of Manila. Upon arrival at the pier, the POWs were boarded onto the Arisan Maru instead of the Hokusen Maru. The reason this was done was that all the POWs scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru had not arrived at the pier. 1803 POWs were packed into a hold that could hold 400 men. Bunks lined the walls of the hold that were so close together that a person lying in one could not sit up in it. With him were Robert Cloyd, Ancel Crick, James Sallee, John Babb and William Jardot. All had been members of D Company at Ft. Knox. The conditions were so bad that five men died during the first 48 hours.
The Arisan Maru sailed but took a
southerly route away from Formosa and dropped
anchor in a cove off the Island of Palawan.
This resulted in the ship missing an air attack by
American planes on Manila, but the ship was
later attacked by American planes and escaped
For eleven days, John and the other prisoners were held in the ship's holds while the Japanese formed a convoy. By this time, the men began to pray that the ship would be sunk by an American submarine. To relieve the situation, some resourceful prisoners hooked up the blowers in the hold to an electrical line. Doing this brought fresh air into the hold. Two days later, the Japanese discovered what had been done and cut the power. Conditions in the hold were so bad that the POWs developed heat blisters. The Japanese finally acknowledge the conditions and opened the ship's second hold. Six hundred POWs were transferred to it. This hold was partially filled with coal which meant the men sat on it.
The ship returned to Manila on October 20th were it joined a twelve ship convoy. On October 23rd, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea. American Submarines had no idea what the cargo of the ships was since the Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs.
According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on October 24, 1944, near dinner time, some POWs were on deck preparing the meal for those in the ship's two holds. The waves were high because a storm had just passed. The ship was near Shoonan, off the coast of China. The POWs on deck heard the sounds of alarms and watched as the Japanese guards ran to the bow of the ship. A torpedo missed the bow passing in front of the ship. A few moments later the guards ran to the stern of the ship and watched a second torpedo past behind the ship. There was a sudden jar caused by the ship being hit amidships by two torpedoes. The ship shook and stopped dead in the water.
As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope
ladders into the holds. They covered the
holds with the hatch covers but did not tie the
covers down. Some of the POWs in the first
hold were able to climb out and reattach and
lower rope ladders to those in the
hold. They also dropped rope ladders to the
POWs in the second hold.
Many of the POWs attempted to escape the ship by clinging to rafts, hatch covers, flotsam and jetsam. Those who could not swim, raided the ship's kitchen and ate their last meal. Most of the POWs survived the attack but died because the Japanese refused to rescue them. The Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as they attempted to reach them. Those POWs who reached ships were beaten with clubs to keep them off the ships.
According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru slowly sunk lower into the water after splitting in tow. The ship sunk sometime after dark. Cries for help could be heard for hours until there was silence. Only nine POWs survived the sinking; eight survived to the end of the war.
Pfc. John L. Cummins lost his life when the Arisan Maru was torpedoed in the South China Sea. Of the 1800 POWs on the ship, only nine survived the sinking. Since he was lost at sea, the name of Pfc. John L. Cummins is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila. He was awarded the Purple Heart.