Pvt. Earl Harrison Wheeler
Pvt. Earl Wheeler was born to Louis A. Wheeler & Mabel Dunsworth-Wheeler on February 25, 1915, in Clochester, Illinois. He had a brother and sister. The family moved to Rio Hondo, Texas during the 1920s. In 1940, the family was living at 322 South Carancahua Street in Corpus Christi, and he was working as a warehouse worker for a grocery company.
Earl was drafted into the U.S. Army on March 21, 1941, and inducted at Fort Sam Houston. He did his basic training at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, and trained to be a medic. After basic training, he may have been assigned to the 753rd Tank Battalion and sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana. There, he may have volunteered to replace a medic of the 192nd Tank Battalion who had been released from federal service.
With the 192nd, Earl was sent by train to San Francisco. They were taken to Angel Island by ferry where they were inoculated and given physicals. The battalion sailed for the Philippine Islands in October 31, 1941. One of the two ships arrived in Hawaii on November 4th, after a two day stayover, the 192nd sailed for the Philippine Islands arriving on November 20, 1941. The tankers were taken to Ft. Stotsenburg where they were housed in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield.
The 192nd received word of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was ordered to the southern portion of the main runway at Clark Field. The medical detachment remained in the battalion’s bivouac. At 12:45, the airfield was bombed destroying the Army-Air Corps.
During the Battle for the Philippine Islands, the medics treated the wounded of the tank battalion. It is not known if Earl was assigned to the hospital or one of the companies of the battalion. On April 9, 1942, Bataan was surrendered to the Japanese. Earl took part in the march from Bataan. Upon reaching San Fernando, the POWs were put into small wooden boxcars used for hauling sugarcane. The cars could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese put 100 men into each car. Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. From there, the POWs walked the last miles to Camp O’Donnell.
Camp O'Donnell was deathtrap. As many as 50 POWs died each day. There was only one water faucet for the entire camp. Being a medic, he treated those POWs who were ill and dying. But the doctors and medics did this without medication. This meant there was not much they could do.
Earl was sent to Cabanatuan when the new camp opened. The death rate in the camp dropped when the Japanese issued Red Cross parcels. He remained in the camp until September 1944. The Japanese posted a list of POWs who were going to be transferred to Bilibid Prison on September 24th. The prison was the transfer point for POWs being sent to Japan or another occupied country.
After being transferred to Bilibid, Earl’s name appeared on another list of POWs posted on December 8, 1944. On December 12th, the POWs heard rumors that a detail was being sent out. The POWs went through what was a farce of a physical. They were told cigarettes, soap, and salt would be issued. The POWs were also told that they would also receive a meal to eat and one to take with them. The Japanese stated they would leave by 7:00 in the morning, so the lights were left on all night. At 4:00 A.M. the morning of December 13th, the other POWs were awakened.
By 8:00, the POWs were lined up and roll call was taken of the men who had been selected for transport to Japan. The prisoners were allowed to roam the compound until they were told to "fall-in." The men were fed a meal and then marched to Pier 7 in Manila. During the march down Luzon Boulevard, the POWs saw that the street cars had stopped running and many things were in disrepair. After arriving at Pier 7, the POWs were allowed to sit down. Many fell asleep and slept to around 3:45. About 5:00 P.M., the POWs were boarded onto the Oryoku Maru for transport to Japan.
Which hold Earl was held in is not known, but it is believed it was the rear hold. The sides of the hold had two tiers of bunks that went around the diameter. The POWs near the hatch used anything they could find to fan the air to the POWs further away from it.
The ship remained docked in Manila and did not sail until 3:30 A.M. as part of the Convoy-37. Inside the holds, the temperature was near 100 degrees. The POWs could tell they were in open water from the wave swells. The ship sailed for Subic Bay to pick up Japanese civilians. It reached Subic Bay at 2:30 in the morning.
The POWs received their first meal at about 3:30 that afternoon. Meals of the ship consisted of a little rice, fish, and water. Three fourths of a cup of water was shared by twenty POWs. The prisoners had just eaten when they heard the sounds of guns. At first, they thought the gun crews were just drilling since they had not heard any planes. It was only when the first bomb hit that they knew it was no drill. The waves caused by the explosions caused the ship to rock.
The POWs heard the change in the planes' engines sound as they began their dive toward the ships in the convoy. Explosions were taking place all around the POWs. Bullets from the planes ricocheted in to the hold causing many casualties. In all, the POWs would have to sweat out five air raids.
After the first air raid, the ship was left alone by "playing possum" in the water. The fighters went after the other ships in the convoy. At four-thirty in the afternoon, the ship experienced its worse attack. It was hit at least three times, by bombs, on its bridge and stern.
When the attack resumed, the ship bounced in the water from the explosions. The POWs in the holds lived through seventeen attacks from American planes before sunset. Overall, six bombs hit the ship. One hit the stern of the ship killing many.
Most of the POWs who were wounded by ricocheting bullets or shrapnel from explosions. Bombs that exploded near the ship sent turrets of water over it. Bullets from the fighters hit the metal hull plates at an angle that prevented most from penetrating. Somewhere on the ship a fire had started but was put out after several hours.
Sometime after midnight, the POWs heard noise on deck as women and children were unloaded. During the night, the medics in the ship's hold were ordered out by a Japanese officer to tend to the Japanese wounded. One of the medics recalled that the dead, dying and wounded were everywhere.
The ship steamed in closer to the beach and its anchor was dropped. It had found a suitable landing place. The POWs were told, at 4:00 in the morning, that they would be disembarked after daybreak. The moaning and muttering of men who were losing their minds kept the POWs up all night. That night 25 POWs died in the hold. It was December 15th and the POWs sat in the hold for hours after daybreak when the sound of planes was heard again. They would live through three more attacks. When the U.S. Navy planes resumed their attack, the attacks came in waves. The POWs noted that attack was heavier than the day before.
At 8:00 A.M., a Japanese guard yelled to the POWs, "All go home; Speedo!" He also shouted that the wounded would be the first evacuated. As the POWs were abandoning ship, the planes returned. The pilots of the planes had no idea that the ship was carrying prisoners
In the hold the POWs crowded together. Chips of rust fell on them from the ceiling. After the raid, they took care of the wounded before the next attack started. A Catholic priest, Fr. Duffy, began praying, "Father forgive them. They know not what they do."
About a half hour later, the ship's stern started to really burn. The POWs made their way on deck and went over the side. As they swam to shore near Olongapo, Subic Bay, Luzon, which was about 300 to 400 yards away. Japanese soldiers fired on the POWs to keep them in the water so they would not escape. On shore, they were herded onto a tennis court at Olongapo Naval Station.
While the POWs were at Olongapo, a Japanese officer, Lt. Junsaburo Toshio, told the ranking American officer, Lt. Col. E. Carl Engelhart, that those too badly wounded to continue the trip would be returned to Bilibid. Fifteen men were selected and loaded onto a truck. They were taken into the mountains and never seen again. They were executed and buried at a cemetery. The POWs remained on the tennis court for nine days. During their time of the courts, American planes attacked the area around them. The men watched as the fighter bombers came in vertically releasing bombs as they pulled out of their dives. On several occasions, the planes dove right at the POWs, dropped their bombs, and pulled out. The bombs drifted over the POWs and landed away from them exploding on contact.
Since the POWs had no place to hide, they watched and enjoyed the show. They believed that the pilots knew they were Americans but had no way of knowing if this was true. But what is known is that not one bomb was dropped on them even though they could be seen from the planes.
The evening of December 16th, the Japanese brought 50 kilo bags of rice for the POWs. About half of the rice had fallen out of the bags because of holes. Each POW was given three spoons of raw rice, and a quarter of a spoon of salt.
At about 8:00 AM on the morning of December 22nd, 22 trucks arrived at the tennis court. Rumors flew on where they were going to be taken. At about 4:00 PM, a Taiwanese guard told the POWs, in broken English, "No go Cabanatuan. Go Manila; maybe Bilibid." The guard knew as little as the POWs.
On December 22nd, the POWs were taken by truck to San Fernando, Pampanga, arriving there about four or five in the afternoon. Once there, they were put in a movie theater. Since it was dark, the POWs saw it as a dungeon.
During their time at San Fernando, Pampanga, the POWs lived through several air raids. The reason for the air raids was the barrio was military headquarters for the area. Most of the civilians had been moved out of the barrio. Many of the Americans began to believe they had been taken there so that they would be killed by their own countrymen.
December 23rd, at about 10:00 PM, the Japanese interpreter came and spoke to the ranking American officer about moving the POWs. The Japanese loaded the seriously ill POWs into a truck. Those remaining behind believed they were taken to Bilibid. The remaining POWs were moved to a trade school building in the barrio.
After 10:00 AM on December 24th, the POWs were taken to the train station. The POWs saw that the station had been hit by bombings and that the cars they were to board had bullet holes in them from strafing. 180 to 200 were packed into steel boxcars with four guards also in the cars. The doors of the boxcars were kept closed and the heat in the cars was terrible. Ten to fifteen POWs rode on the roofs of the cars along with two guards. The guards told these POWs that it was okay to wave to the American planes.
On December 25th, the POWs disembarked at San Fernando, La Union, at 2:00 AM and disembarked. They walked two kilometers to a school yard on the southern outskirts of the barrio. From December 25th until the 26th. The POWs were held in a school house. The morning of December 26th, the POWs were marched to a beach. During this time the prisoners were allowed one handful of rice and a canteen of water. The heat from the sun was so bad that men drank seawater. Many of those men died.
The remaining prisoners at San Fernando, La Union, where they boarded onto another "Hell Ship" the Enoura Maru. On this ship, the POWs were held in three different holds. The ship had been used to haul cattle. The POWs were held in the same stalls that the cattle had been held in. In the lower hold, the POWs were lined up in companies 108 men. Each man had four feet of space. Men who attempted to get fresh air by climbing the ladders were shot by the guards.
The Daily routine for the POWs on the ship was to have six men climb out of the hold. Once on deck, they used ropes to pull up the dead and also pull up the human waste in buckets. Afterwards, the men on deck would lower ten buckets containing rice, soup, and tea.
During the night of December 30th, the POWs heard the sound of depth charges exploding in the water. The ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, on December 31st and docked around 11:30 AM. After arriving at Takao, Formosa, each POW received a six inch long, 3/4 inch wide piece hardtack to eat. This was the first bread they had since receiving crackers in their Red Cross packages in 1942.
While in the harbor, the POWs received little water. From January 1st through the 5th, the POWs received one meal and day and very little water. This resulted in the death rate among the POWs to rise. On January 6th, the POWs began to receive two meals a day.
The morning of January 9th the POWs were receiving their first meal of the day, when the sound of ship's machineguns was heard. The explosions of bombs falling closer and closer to the ship were also heard. The waves created from the explosions rocked the ship.
One bomb that hit the ship exploded in the corner of the forward hold killing 285 prisoners. The surviving POWs remained in in the hold for three days with the dead. The stench from the dead filled the air. On January 11th a work detail was formed and about half the dead were removed from the hold.
The dead were unloaded from the ship, and a POW detail took the corpses to a large furnace where they were cremated. These men reported that 150 POWs had been cremated. Their ashes were buried in a large urn.
A few days later, another detail was formed which removed the remaining dead from the hold. The bodies were taken to a beach and buried in a mass grave. After the war, the remains were exhumed and reburied in Hawaii.
In an attempt to repair the ship, the Japanese transferred the POWs to the undamaged hold of the ship. The POWs watched as the Japanese attempted to patch the ship. When the attempt failed, the Japanese put the POWs on a third ship.
On January 13th, the surviving POWs were boarded onto a third "Hell Ship" the Brazil Maru. On the ship, the POWs found they had more room and were actually issued lifejackets. The ship sailed for Japan on January 14th as part of a convoy. During this part of the trip, as many as 30 POWs died each day. The ship also towed one or two other ships which had been damaged. Of the original 1619 men that boarded the Oryoku Maru, only 459 of the POWs had survived the trip to Japan. The ship arrived in Moji, Japan, on January 29, 1945.
In Japan, Earl was sent to Fukuoka #17. The POWs worked in a condemned coal mine. Many of the POWs would intentionally injure themselves so that they would stay out of the mine. Others were ill from the malnourishment. Earl worked to keep these men alive.
On August 6, 1945, the POWs not in the mine witnessed a giant explosion over Nagasaki. They had no idea that they had just witnessed the atomic bomb exploding. Many of the POWs believed the Americans had hit a major Japanese ammunition dump.
The commanding officer informed the POWs that Japan and the United States were now friends. American B-29s flew over the camp dropping 50 gallon drums of food, medicine, and clothing to the men. George Wells - a reporter for the Chicago Daily News - came to the camp and told the former POWs that American troops were on the island. The camp was liberated in September 1945.
Earl was returned to the Philippines and fattened up before being sent home. He was promoted to corporal and returned to the United States. After returning home, he was treated for his ailments from the years as being a POW. Earl was discharged on July 21, 1946.
After the war, Earl married Mary C. Weber on June 25, 1949. He resided in Abilene, Texas. Earl Weber passed away on March 31, 1993, in Abilene. He was buried at Elmwood Memorial Park in Abilene.