S/Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon Jr.
Joseph J. Wierzchon Jr. was born in Toledo, Ohio,
in 1915 to Joseph J. Wierzchon Sr. & Frances
Wierzchon. He grew up in Toledo and lived at
1421 Pinewood Avenue. He was a member of the
Ohio National Guard from Port Clinton, Ohio.
He was called to federal duty in November,
1940. After training for nearly a year, he
took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. It was
after these maneuvers that he and the other
members of the 192nd Tank Battalion learned that
they were being sent overseas.
On December 8, 1941, Joseph lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field. After the attack, he and the other members of the company were sent to a dam to prevent it from being sabotaged.
While the Filipinos and Americans were falling back toward Bataan,on January 2, 1942, Joseph was hit by shrapnel from a Japanese mortar shell. Capt. Alvin Poweleit, the battalion's surgeon, treated him for his wounds. He received Purple Heart.
When Bataan was surrendered on April 9, 1942, Joseph became a Prison of War. He took part in the death march and was held as a POW at Camp O'Donnell. He was next sent to Cabanatuan. In early 1943, Joseph was sent to the Bachrach Garage in Manila. There, he and the other prisoners repaired equipment for the Japanese.
When it became apparent that it was just a matter of time before the Americans would invade the Philippines, the Japanese began to transport large numbers of POWs to Japan. It was at this time that the Bachrach Garage Detail was disbanded and the POWs were sent to the Port Area of Manila.
In late 1944, when it became apparent to the Japanese that the invasion of the Philippines was near, the POWs on this detail were sent to the Port Area of Manila. The Japanese were attempting to send the healthy POWs to Japan and other countries to work as slave labor and prevent them from being liberated by advancing American forces.
On October 10, 1944, Joseph was boarded onto the Arisan Maru. With him on the ship were the same members of C Company who had been worked with him in Manila. He and 1805 other POWs were packed into the ship's number one hold. Along the sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks. These bunks were so close together that a man could not lift himself up. Those standing had no room to lie down. The latrines for the prisoners were eight five gallon cans. Since the POWs were packed into the hold so tightly, many of the POWs could not get near the cans. The floor of the hold was covered with human waste.
On October 11th, the ship set sail but took a southerly route away from Formosa. Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died. The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days. The Japanese covered the hatch with a tarp. During the night, the POWs were in total darkness. This resulted in the ship missing an air attack by American planes, but the ship was attacked by American planes.
During the time off Palawan, the ship was attacked by American planes. Each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Conditions in the hold were so bad, that the POWs began to develop heat blisters. Although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not cutoff the power. Some of the prisoners were able to wire the ship's blowers into the power lines. This allowed fresh air into the hold. The blowers were disconnected two days later when the Japanese discovered what had been done.
The Japanese realized that if they did not do something many of the POWs would die. To prevent this, they opened the ship's number two hold and transferred 600 POWs into it. At some point, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.
The Arisan Maru returned to 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. The POWs in the hold were so desperate that they prayed that the ship be hit by torpedoes.
According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on Tuesday, October 24, 1944, about 5:00 pm, POWs were on deck preparing the meal for those in the ship's two holds. The ship was, off the coast of China, in the Bashi Channel. Suddenly, sirens and other alarms were heard. The men inside holds knew this meant that American submarines had been spotted and began to chant for the submarines to sink the ship.
The Japanese on deck began running around the ship. As the POWs watched, a torpedo passed the bow of the ship. Moments later, a second torpedo passed the ship's stern. There was a sudden jar and the ship stopped dead in the water. It had been hit by two torpedoes amidships 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 took a machinegun and began firing on the POWs who were on deck. To escape, the POWs dove back into the holds. After they were in, the Japanese put the hatch covers on the holds.
As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope ladders into the ship's two holds, but they did not tie down the hatch covers. Some of the POWs in the second hold were able to climb out and reattached the ladders into the holds. They also dropped ropes down to the POWs in both holds.
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 swam to a nearby Japanese ship, but when the Japanese realized they were POWs, they were pushed away with poles and hit with clubs. The Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as they attempted to reach them.
As the ship got lower in the water, some POWs took to the water. These POWs attempted to escape the ship by clinging to rafts, hatch covers, flotsam and jetsam. 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.
Five of the POWs found a abandoned lifeboat, but since they had no paddles, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs. According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru sank sometime after dark. As the night went on, the cries for help grew fewer until there was silence.
S/Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon 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. Since he was lost at sea, S/Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.