Pfc. Wilbur F. Russell Jr.
| Pfc. Wilbur F.
Russell, Jr. was born on February 27, 1918, to Wilbur
F. Russell Sr. & Charlotte Pannier-Russell in
Youngstown, Ohio. He was known as "Bill" or
"Red". With his sister, Marjorie, he grew up at
916 E. Pasadena Avenue. The family later lived
at 250 Falls Avenue.
As a child he attended Taft Elementary School and later Bennett Elementary School. He then attended South High School and graduated in January 1938. During Bill's time in high school, he had an orchestra in which he played the cornet and trumpet at school programs and for different music teachers. The orchestra was known as the "Red Russell Orchestra." After high school, he worked as a crane operator at Youngstown Sheet & Tube.
Bill was inducted into the U. S. Army on March 23, 1941 in Cleveland. He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training. It was there he was assigned to C Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. During his time at Ft. Knox, he qualified as a tank driver. With the 192nd, he took part in the Louisiana maneuvers in the late summer of 1941. After the maneuvers, he learned that he was being sent overseas with his battalion. He received a leave home to say goodbye to his family and friends.
Bill traveled west with C Company to Angel Island. There, he received the inoculations required for duty in the Philippine Islands. The battalion sailed, on the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott, from San Francisco on Monday, October 27th for Hawaii as part of a three ship convoy. They arrived in Hawaii on Sunday, November 2nd, and had a layover. The soldiers received passes and allowed to explore the islands. They sailed again on Tuesday, November 4th, for Guam.
When the ships arrived at Guam, they took on bananas, vegetables, coconuts, and water. The soldiers remained on ship since the convoy was sailing the next day. About 8:00 in the morning on November 20th, the ships arrived at Manila Bay. After arriving at Manila, it was three or four hours before they disembarked. Most of the battalion boarded trucks and rode to Ft. Stotsenburg north of Manila.
At the fort, the tankers were met by General Edward King. King welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to love in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived.
For the next seventeen days the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons. They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts. The plan was for them, with the 194th Tank Battalion, to take part in maneuvers.
On December 8, 1941, Bill lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field. That morning the tankers were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Their tanks were ordered to the perimeter of the airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. All morning, as they stood guard, they watched as American planes filled the sky. Around 12:15 in the afternoon, the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch. B-17's loaded with bombs to attack Formosa were left sitting on the runway.
Around 12:45, the tankers saw a formation of planes approaching the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American. It was only when they saw what looked like confetti and heard bombs exploding did they know the planes were Japanese. This attack wiped out the Army-Air Corps.
Bill spent the next four months fighting the Japanese as the Filipino and American forces withdrew into the Bataan Peninsula. During this time, it is known that he served as a driver for the officers of the 192nd and the Provisional Tank Group. Major John Morley spoke of Bill driving him in his jeep. On April 8th, Wilbur was driving Morley and Gen. Jonathan Wainwright who were attempting to determine what was going on after the Japanese had lunched their major offensive. Bill pulled over at one point, built a fire, and made the two officers and himself cups of soup.
On April 9, 1942, Bill became a Prisoner Of War when the Filipino and American forces on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. Bill and the other tankers stripped their uniforms of anything that identified them as tankers. They had heard that the Japanese were looking for them for what they had done at the pockets.
Bill with his fellow POWs made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan. There, they started what became know as the death march. Because of their poor diets, most of the POWs were already sick. After they started the march, they went days without food and water. This resulted with the deaths of hundreds of POWs. When the POWs reached San Fernando, they were herded into a bull-pin. They spent the night sleeping in the human waste of the previous POWs who had been held there before them.
The next morning, Bill and the others were packed into small wooden boxcars for the trip to San Fernando. The cars could hold four horses or forty men. The Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. The temperature in the cars was over 100 degrees. Men suffocated from lack of air. Those who died during the trip remained standing. At Capas, the POWs left the cars. As they did, the bodies of the dead fell to the ground. Bill walked the last ten miles to Camp O'Donnell.
Camp O'Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army base. There was only one water faucet for 12,000 POWs. Men literally died of thirst while waiting in line for a drink. As many as 50 POWs died each day. The conditions in the camp were so bad, that the Japanese opened a new camp at Cabanatuan.
It is not known if Bill went out on a work detail while at Cabanatuan. What is known is that he was assigned to Barracks #8 in the camp. With him in the barracks was Pfc. John Robinette and Pvt. Joseph Pevey of C Company. In early 1943, Bill was sent on the Bachrach Garage Detail in Manila. The POWs on this detail repaired trucks and other equipment for the Japanese.
According to Bill's family, after the war another liberated POW told them that it was during this detail that he became an aide to a Japanese doctor. At various times, the Japanese attempted to transfer Bill to Bilibid Prison so that he could be sent to Japan, but the doctor intervened on his behalf preventing his transfer. Ironically, the doctor's kindness would lead to Bill's death.
In early October 1944, the Japanese, knowing that it was just a matter of time before the American forces would invade the Philippines, began sending large numbers of POWs to Japan or other occupied countries. This time, the Japanese ignored the doctor's requests to keep Bill.
On October 10, 1944, Bill was sent to Pier 7 in Manila. The POW detachment he was in was scheduled to be sent to Japan on the Hokusan Maru. Another detachment of POWs were scheduled to be boarded onto the Arisan Maru. Since the second group was missing a large number of POWs, the Japanese boarded Wilbur's detachment onto the Arisan Maru. With him, were the same members of the 192nd who had worked with him at the Bachrach Garage Detail in Manila.
On October 11th, the ship sailed but took a southerly route away from Formosa. The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days. During this time, the POWs discovered that the Japanese had removed the light bulbs from the lighting system, but they had not turned off the power. Some of the POWs hotwired the ship's ventilation system into the lighting system. This allowed fresh air into the holds. When the Japanese discovered what had been done, they cut the power to the the hold.
The stay in the cove resulted in the ship missing an air raid by American planes on ships in the Manila Bay. It is known that the Arisan Maru was attacked once by American planes while in the cove. The Arisan Maru returned to the Manila on October 20th. There, it joined a 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. This made the ships targets for submarines.
According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on Tuesday, October 24, 1944, at 5:00 pm, some POWs were on deck preparing dinner for those POWs in the ship's two holds. The ship was, off the coast of China, in the Bashi Channel. Suddenly, the POWs watched as the guards ran to the bow of the ship. As guards watched as a torpedo went wide of the ship. A few moments later, the guards ran to the stern of the ship. Again, they watched as another torpedo went wide of the ship. There was a sudden jar which was caused by the ship being hit by two torpedoes amidship. The ship stopped dead in the water. Two torpedoes had hit the ship 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.
One of the Japanese guards aimed his machinegun and began at the POWs on deck and began firing. The POWs dove back into the holds. After they were in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders into the holds and put the hatch covers on the holds. The Japanese were ordered to abandon ship before they had the time to tie down the hatch covers.
After the Japanese had abandoned ship, some of the POWs, in the second hold, were able to climb out and reattach the ladders into the holds. They also dropped ropes down to the POWs in both holds.
All of the POWs were able to get onto the deck of the ship. At first, few POWs attempted to escape the ship. A group of 35 men swam to a nearby Japanese ship, but when the Japanese realized they were POWs, they were pushed away with poles and hit them with clubs. Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as the POWs attempted to reach them.
As the ship got lower in the water, more POWs took to the water. Those POWs too weak to swim raided the ship's food lockers. They wanted to die with full stomachs. Many POWs attempted to escape the ship by clinging to rafts, hatch covers, flotsam and jetsam. Five swam to an abandoned lifeboat floating in the ocean. The boat could not be maneuvered since it had no oars. These men stated that most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking.
The exact time of the ship's sinking is not known since it took place after dark. It is known that the ship split in two before it sank. According to the surviving POWs, as evening became night, the cries for help became fewer and fewer until there was silence.
On June 20, 1945, Bill's family received a typed letter signed by General J. A. Ulio. The letter contained the news of Bill's death.
Pvt. Wilbur F. Russell Jr. 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. Eight of these men would survive the war. Since he was lost at sea, Pvt. Wilbur F. Russell's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.
After the war, Wilbur's family had a memorial dedicated in his memory at the Boardman Zion Cemetery in Boardman, Ohio.