2nd Lt. Harry Ricker Lafon Jr.
| 2nd Lt. Harry
Ricker Lafon Jr. was born in Virginia around 1919
and was the son of Harry R. Lafon Sr. &
Katherine Mallon-Lafon. He later lived in
Harriman, Tennessee, and Harrodsburg,
Kentucky. Harry met Helen Frankie McCamish
while they both were students at Lincoln Memorial
University in Harrogate, Tennessee. They
married on July 5, 1941, in Claiborne County,
It is not known when, but Harry enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard at Harrodsburg. On November 25, 1940, Harry was called to federal duty when his tank company was federalized.
Harry went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, as a corporal. In early 1941, he was assigned to Headquarters Company when the company was formed with men from the four letter companies of the battalion. During this time he rose in rank from corporal to sergeant.
After training for nearly a year, Harry was sent to Louisiana for maneuvers in late 1941. It was after the maneuvers at Camp Polk, that Harry and the rest of the battalion learned that they were being sent overseas. At that time, those men who were 29 years old or older were given the chance to resign from federal service.
Harry was sent to California along the southern
route through New Mexico and Arizona.
He was commissioned a
second lieutenant when one of the officers of D
Company was reassigned to Officer Candidate
School. He was assigned to D Company as a
tank platoon commander. From Angel Island
in San Francisco Bay, Harry left the United
On December 8, 1941, Harry lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field. He and the rest of D Company spent the next four months fighting a delaying action to buy time for the United States to fight the war.
It is known that Harry was thought of being a man of courage. He was also well liked by the enlisted men of D Company. Other members of the company have stated that when he lead his tanks into action, he stood up in the tank's turret and did not close the hatch for protection.
On April 9, 1942, Harry became a Prisoner of War. He took part in the death march and was held at Camp O'Donnell. He was then sent to Cabanatuan when the new camp opened. In October 1942, Harry was selected for transport to the Davao Penal Colony on the Island of Mindanao to work on a labor detail. The POWs on the detail worked in rice patties on a farm. and later built runways at Lasang, Mindanao.
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.
Harry was sent to Davao on February 29, 1944, to work on a runway building detail. He and other POWs joined 100 POWs who were building an airfield south of Davao. One night the POWs heard the sound of a plane. It was the first American plane they had heard in over two years.
On June 6, 1944, some of the POWs were sent to Manila, while the remainder of the men remained on the island, at Lasang, 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 there 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, where it waited for 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. It was 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 military personnel" instead of "750 military prisoners" 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 in the ship's smaller hold while 500 POWs were put into its larger hold. That night, bombs from American planes landed alongside of the ship rocking and 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 ship was now part of a convoy designated as C-076. U.S. submarines began to pick off the ships one at a time.
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. Since the POWs had not heard any air raid alerts, they assumed that they were safe.
At 7:37 p.m., on September 7, 1944, 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. Some POWs were blown out of the hold through the hole during the explosion.
The surviving POWs 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. The ship split in two and sunk into the sea.
Japanese seaplanes dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the American submarine. When they spotted the POWs in the water, they strafed them. They stopped strafing when they realized that there were Japanese in the water too. The good thing about the depth charges was that they kept sharks away from the POWs.
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.
Of the 750 POWs who were boarded onto the ship, 82 POWs survived its sinking. One man died on shore while the remainder were rescued by Filipino guerillas and returned to U.S. Forces in October 1944. 2nd Lt. Harry Lafon Jr. was not one of these men.
It is not known if 2nd Lt. Harry R. Lafon Jr. died when the ship was hit by the two torpedoes, or if he was one of the POWs who was shot by the Japanese while trying to escape from one of the ship's holds, or if he was killed while attempting to swim to shore. What is known is that 2nd Lt. Harry R. LaFon Jr. died on Thursday, September 7, 1944, in the sinking of the Shinyo Maru.
Since 2nd Lt. Harry Lafon Jr. was lost at sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila.