Sgt. Elmer Nelson Smith
Sgt. Elmer N. Smith was born on October 9, 1920. He was the son of Amiel & Dora Smith. With his two brothers and five sisters, he lived at 117½ West Second Street in Port Clinton, Ohio, and attended Port Clinton schools. He was a 1938 graduate of Port Clinton High School. While he was still in high school in 1938. After high school, he worked in a shipyard as a metal worker. Elmer joined the Company H Tank Corp of the Ohio National Guard which was headquartered in Port Clinton.
Elmer was one of the original Ohio National Guardsmen called to federal service on November 25, 1940. He trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, as a member of C Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. During his training, Elmer took classes in cooking and baking. After successfully completing the courses, he became the youngest certified mess sergeant in the army from the State of Ohio.
Elmer participated in maneuvers in Louisiana at the end of August, 1941. After completion of the maneuvers, he learned that his battalion was being sent overseas. He and the other members of the battalion were given furloughs home to say goodbye before returning to Camp Polk, Louisiana for transport to California.
From Angel Island, Elmer and Elmer's battalion sailed to the Philippine Islands. He was assigned to Fort Stotsenburg where he spent the next two weeks preparing meals for his company. Since the barracks assigend to the 192nd were unfinished, he and the other men lived in tents between the fort and Clark Air Field.
On November 21, 1941, he wrote in his diary:
"Today we arrived here at Ft. Stotsenburg. Our sea voyage was not unusual. Many were seasick. Many of us never looked out all the time on water."
A few days later on November 23 in another entry he said:
"Today we were busy getting settled here at Ft. Stotsenburg. Most of us have found natives to do our laundry for a small sum. Ft. Stotsenburg is the center of a fascinating romantic tropical beauty. It lies in a broad, gently rolling valley that reaches north from Manila more than a hundred miles to Lingayen Gulf. Watery rice fields, sugar cane fields lay everywhere interspersed with clumps of vegetation."
Less than two weeks later, Elmer lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field in the Philippine Islands on December 8, 1941, which was December 7th in the United States. That night, with the rest of C Company, he was sent to Barrio Dam where the company guarded the dam against sabotage and Japanese attack. His diary entry for the day stated:
"It's Dec. 8 here, but Dec. 7 back home in the States. This morning we were up at 6 a.m. Some of us were strolling toward the mess tent when we heard a cook say 'God, the Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor!' As we went in we heard the radio announcer say, 'flights of Jap planes --- smoke and flames at Pearl Harbor. Ships reported sunk by bombs,' Breakfast was forgotten. Our immediate job was to protect Clark Field, our 3 companies of Tanks --- ABC under command of Capt. Sorenson were dispersed around Clark Field at 10:45. They told us the Japs were nearing Lingayen Gulf. First bomb fell shortly after 11:45 a.m. We found ourselves faced down in the ditches. We hardly knew what happened."
For the next four months, Elmer worked to feed the other members of C Company. As time went on, this became more difficult as the supplies of food dwindled. Being a mess sergeant, Elmer knew that without food the Filipino and Americans could not hold on forever. On April 8, 1942, Elmer wrote this entry in his diary:
"Rumors have reached us that tomorrow Gen. Wainwright is going to surrender. Oh God what there is in store for us. We have been out here to defend this land against the greatest of all foes, nothing to fight with and the full might of an enemy's military power thrown against us. Where will we go after the white flags go up? This is the greatest humility the Stars and Stripes have suffered. But the U.S. will not let us down. They're come to free us. But how long will it be?
Will we be in prison camps for years, will we escape, will we be put to death, or will we be rescued? Only God knows. I'm not only praying for myself and my buddies, but for the folks back home. I can still hear the voice of God, as we sat side by side in that foxhole on "Bataan" as he said ----Fear not, I am with thee always."
When the Philippines were surrendered to
the Japanese on April 9. 1942, Elmer became a
Prisoner of War.
He was held at Camp O'Donnell and moved
to Cabanatuan Prison Camp until September 1943. While
there, he did clerical work in the camp’s
was also during this time that his family
learned he was a POW on April 2, 1943.
In September 1943, Elmer was selected for a work detail at Las Pinas. There, he and the other POWs worked to build an airfield for the Japanese. On September 21, 1944, American planes appeared over the airfield. As the planes strafed the airfield, the POWs cheered. It was immediately after this attack that the POWs were sent to Bilibid Prison.
In a series of letters he wrote while at
Bilibid from November to December, 1944, he
described his life as a POW. Elmer
indicated that he knew that Bilibid was the
clearing point for Americans being sent to Japan
or another Japanese occupied country. He also
described the daily life of the POW.
“Miklo, Collins, and Burholdt (all from Port Clinton) are here with me…All the rest went to Japan or China. I came from Las Pinas Oct. 18 (1944) where I worked for 13 months after getting out of the hospital.”
"Another day is wearing itself away in slow monotonous, dreary hours...I visit Collins (Capt. Harold Collins of LaCarne, Ohio) now and then...We discussed everything already...nothing new to speak of."
As if to reinforce this, he wrote on November 7, 1944:
“Another day begun…Nothing of interest insight
so far…two meals each day …One-half portion of
Lugoa is our main concern …It’s very weak…Next
meal 3:00 p.m. …May be camote soup
today…Yesterday and the day before heavy raids.
food is the important item. What
little we do have is issued by our hosts (the
Japs) is so highly prized men will do anything
to get it.
Scrape it off the ground…grass…peelings,
all mix water with our food…eat as slow as
possible and lick our kits afterwards.”
In a letter written three days before he was sent to Manila for shipment to Japan, he wrote:
“Weather rather unsteady…Rained for the past
three days…Now and then the sun tries to shine….
Still getting colder…Christmas will be here in
three weeks….Christmas…The day will come and go
here….and a Merry Christmas will be in
order….But the drab environment that surrounds
us and the conditions we live in permits us no
joys or harmony.”
One reason for the bad feelings among the prisoners at Bilibid Prison was that the 1100 prisoners lived in extremely crowded conditions. As if to demonstrate this, Elmer like every prisoner had a 22 inch wide sleeping space.
In a letter dated, December 9, 1944,
Elmer revealed how the items the prisoners
received would have been taken for granted at
home. Things which would seem unimportant
were extremely important to him.
Dec. 8, each man received one-third bag of
is a great help…it is like getting a package
Elmer described the old stone hospital he lived in within the walls of Bilibid Prison. He wrote of the high walls and electric fences which kept Elmer from seeing or hearing anything of the outside world. But the one thing that the prison walls could not stop Elmer from seeing were the airplanes. Above the prison, Elmer could see the American planes on the way to bomb Japanese installations at Manila. These planes brought him memories and desires for a life he no longer had. He wrote:
a few thousand feet above us are free
Free to talk, write home, and sleep
Free to go back and eat what they want
and laugh and smoke. It makes a fellow wonder
if he will appreciate more what he had before. I
know I will.”
Elmer also wrote of that rumors of the war were what kept the prisoners going. As his time in the prison went on, he tired of these rumors. He wrote:
have been no planes for weeks. We get rumors and
that is all, but they are started by some
moronic officer in his pensive mood or some
Tanoan guard wanting a good joke. If
one percent of the rumors had been true that
I’ve heard while in prison, I would have been
home two years ago.”
“There’s no sign of Red Cross this year…I’m down to 138 pounds but haven’t given up hope. Last night (Dec. 11, 1944) we had the best mess since arriving from Rigul. 540 grams of wet, steamed rice and 12 ounces ogree soup with bean meal.”
In an earlier letter dated December 4, 1944, he commented on the health of the prisoners at Bilibid. He also indicated knowledge that American forces had returned to the Philippines.
many cripples, aenemics, and plain cases of
Now, we are
have been a lot of deaths lately…average one a
day in the wards…Only thing now that does it is
He described how he had learned to speak, write and interpret Japanese fairly well. This allowed him to act as an interpreter for his fellow POWs, a job he had held at Las Pinas. Elmer wrote of how, at the start of the war, he had wanted to return to the Philippines, because he saw it as a place of endless opportunities to make money. But, by December, 1944, he just wanted to get out of the prison camp and return home.
In the notebook, he wrote about his plans for the future when he got home. Some of his entries were about his plans for a farm. Another was about staying in the army until he could afford to buy a small restaurant or a bar. Still, a third entry spoke of his wildest plan of traveling around the world in a sailboat.
mid-December, 1944, Elmer marked an
anniversary of a fateful event in his life.
"Three years ago today (Dec. 12, 1941) we received a severe bombing at Fort Stotsenburg, Pamaanga...They bombed us most of the day...about seven raids...we moved to Barrio Dam after dusk that evening and stayed there until we were sent north to Lingayen Gulf on the 23. (Dec. 23, 1941).
In early December, the Japanese ordered the American medical staff at the prisoner to put together a list of POWs who were healthy enough to be sent to Japan. On the morning of December 12th, roll was taken and Elmer's name and the names of the other POWs being sent to Japan were read off. Before he left Bilibid Prison, Elmer gave his letters to Pfc. Garrett Royalty of D Company. According to Royalty, Elmer said to him, "If I don't get out alive, will you see that my family gets these notes."
That night at 4 a.m., the POWs were awakened and fed breakfast. They were marched to Pier 7 in Manila. The Japanese boarded Japanese civilians first. The last group to board the Oryoku Maru were the POWs who boarded that evening.
The Oryoku Maru set sail for for Takao, Formosa as part of convoy MATA - 37 on December 13th. The morning of December 14th, the POWs were receiving their breakfast. Suddenly the sound of planes could be heard in the distance. The ship's antiaircraft guns began firing. From the change in the sound of the planes' engines, the prisoners knew that they were attacking.
Bombs began exploding around the ship. Those prisoners still on deck scrambled to get into the ship's holds. As they did, bullets ricocheted around them.
In the holds, Elmer and the other prisoners huddled together and shook with each explosion. Dust from the bombs clouded the air, and rust from the holds' ceilings fell on them. During the attack, the POWs suddenly heard one of the chaplains, Father Duffy, praying, "Father forgive them. They know not what they do."
The POWs lived through seventeen attacks by the American planes. Every time a bomb exploded close to the ship, it bounced like a toy in the water. By that evening, most of the other ships in the convoy had been sunk or departed the area.
That night the POWs were held in the ship's holds. The buckets for human waste were overflowing. As they sat in the hold, they could hear the sound of lifeboats being loaded and lowered. The POWs knew that the Japanese intended for them to die in the ship's holds.
On the morning of Friday, December 15, 1944, at Subic Bay, the American planes returned to finish the attack. A Japanese guard shouted into the holds that the prisoners should abandon ship. Oryoku Maru again came under attack by American planes. The pilots had no idea that the ship was carrying prisoners until they saw the prisoners climbing out of the ship’s holds in an attempt to escape the bombing. Upon seeing the prisoners, the planes stopped the attack.
As the POWs swam to shore, Japanese machine guns fired at them. It is not known if Sgt. Elmer N. Smith died during the attack on the ship by the American planes; if he was killed by enemy fire while swimming to shore; or if he died after reaching land.
What is known is that Sgt. Elmer N. Smith never realized his dream of liberation and freedom. He died during the attack on the Oryoku Maru. He was 24 years old.
After he was liberated at Bilibid Prison, Garrett Royalty gave Elmer's letters to his parents. It was from those letters that the quotations in this biography were taken.