Sgt. Vernon Harold Bussell

    Sgt. Vernon H. Bussell was born on July 1, 1921, in Harlan County, Kentucky, to James D. Bussell & Clara Mae Peace-Bussell.  He was one of the couple's three sons.  His family lived outside of Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where he worked on the family farm.  He enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard's 38th Tank Company which was headquartered in Harrodsburg..

    On November 25, 1940, Vernon's tank company was called to federal service and designated D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion.  He trained for nearly a year at Fort Knox, Kentucky.  In early 1941, Vernon was transferred Headquarters Company when it was formed with men from the four letter companies.  During his time at Ft. Knox, he attended radio school and qualified as a radioman.

    In the late summer of 1941, the 192nd took part in maneuvers in Louisiana.  It was after these maneuvers at Camp Polk that Vernon and the other members of the 192nd learned they were being sent overseas.

    The reason for this move was an event that took place in the summer of 1941.  A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd.  He took his plane down and identified a buoy, with a flag, in the water.  He came upon more flagged buoys that lined up - in a straight line - for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of an Japanese occupied island, with a large radio transmitter, hundred of miles away.  The squadron continued its flight plane and flew south to Mariveles and then returned to Clark Field.  When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day, so the next day - when a when planes were sent to the area - the buoys had been picked up and a fishing boat was seen making its way toward shore.  Since communication between the planes and Navy was poor, nothing was done to intercept the boat.  It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
    The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th.  During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP.   The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd and had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
    On Wednesday, November 5th, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes.  It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. Calvin Coolidge.  Sunday night, November 9th, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th.  During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Date Line.  On Saturday, November 15th, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon.  The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke.  It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
    When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16th, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day.  At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout.  This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way.  The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20th, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning.  At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg.  Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
   At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward P. King, who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield.  He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner.  Ironically, November 20th was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
    The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg.  The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent.  There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
For the next seventeen days the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons.  The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea.  They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance.

    It is not known exactly when, but what is known is that Vernon was reassigned to the Headquarters Company of the Provisional Tank Group.  This detachment consisted of ten enlisted men.  It is known that they had two half-tracks.  After two weeks of readying for maneuvers, the tank group received the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  It was around 12:45 in the afternoon that Vernon and the other soldiers were having lunch when they saw planes approaching Clark Airfield.  It was only when bombs began exploding that the soldiers knew the planes were Japanese.

    During the attack Vernon could do little but hide.  After the attack he saw the devastation done by the Japanese.  The wounded and dead were everywhere.

    For the next four months, Vernon performed his duties for the tank group.  On April 10th, the Japanese arrived and ordered the HQ personnel onto the road.  When the POWs were ordered to move, they found walking on the gravel trail difficult.  When the trial ended, the POWs and the POWs were on the main road, the first thing the Japanese did was separate the officers from the enlisted men.
   The Prisoners of War were then left in the sun for the rest of the day.  That night they were ordered north.  The march was difficult in the dark since they could not see where they were walking.  Whenever they slipped, they knew they had stepped on the remains of a dead soldier. The POWs made their way north, against the flow of Japanese troops, who were moving south.  At Limay on April 11th, they were put into a schoolyard until ordered to move.
    They made their way north to Balanga and arrived in Orani on April 12th, where they were reunited with the officers of the tank group.  At 6:30 that evening, the POWs resumed the march and were marched at a faster pace.  The guards also seemed to be nervous about something.  This time they made the POWs make their way to Hormosa.  There, the road went from gravel to concrete.  This change of surface made the march easier.  When the POWs were allowed to sit down, those who attempted to lay down were jabbed with bayonets.
    The POWs continued the march and for the first time in months it began to rain which felt great.  At 4:30 PM on April 13th, they arrived at San Fernando, where they were once again put into a pen which was already occupied by Filipino soldiers.  The POWs were put into groups of 200 men to be fed.  A couple of the POWs would get the food which was distributed to each member of the group.  Water was given out in a similar fashion.  That night not all the POWs could lie down to sleep.  At 4:00 A.M., the Japanese woke the POWs, formed detachments of 100 men, and marched them to the train station.        
At the train station, the POWs were put into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane.  The cars were known as "Forty or Eights," since each car could hold forty men or eight horses.  The Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors.  The POWs were packed in so tightly that those who died remained standing until the living climbed out of the cars at Capas.  From Capas, the POWs walked the last ten miles to Camp O' Donnell.

    Camp O'Donnell was a death trap with as many as 50 POWs dying each day.  It is very likely that Vernon went out on a work detail to get out of the camp, but at this time it is not known which detail he was a member of.  It is known that Vernon was held at Cabanatuan which was opened to relieve the conditions at Camp O'Donnell.

    After arriving in the camp, Vernon got out of the camp by going out on the scrap metal detail that was sent back into Bataan.  The POWs would tie together vehicles that were inoperable, and drive them behind a operating vehicle,  When the detail ended, he was sent to the new POW camp at Cabanatuan.

    In the late fall of 1942 or early 1943, Vernon was selected for the Bachrach Garage Detail in Manila.  The POWs were held at a garage which had been owned by a Manila cab company.  On the detail, the POWs repaired trucks and other vehicles used by the Japanese.  It was at this time, on December 1, 1943, that his family officially received word he was a POW.  It should be mentioned that this detail had multiple names.

    On October 11, 1944, the Bachrach Garage Detail was disbanded and the POWs were marched to Pier 7.  Vernon's company of POWs was scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru.  The ship was ready to sail, but not all the POWs had arrived.  The Japanese switched Vernon' POW company with another company of POWs so that ship could sail.  Once his entire company of POWs had arrived, they were boarded onto the Arisan Maru.   With him, on the ship, were the other members of the 192nd who had worked with in Manila.  The ship set sail and took a southerly route away from Formosa.  It arrived at a cove off Palawan Island where it dropped anchor.  This resulted in the ship missing an air attack by American planes. 

    During the time in the cove, the situation for the POWs in the hold became desperate.  The POWs discovered that the Japanese had removed the light bulbs from the hold, but that they had not turned off the power to the light system.  Some of POWs managed to "hot wire" the hold's ventilation system into the lighting system.  For two days, the POWs had fresh air until the Japanese discovered what they had done and turned off the power to the hold.

    The death rate among the POWs began to rise and the Japanese realized that if they did not do anything, they would have a "death ship" on their hands.  To improve the situation, they transferred POWs from the first hold to the second hold.  During the transfer, one POW attempted to escape and was killed.

    The Arisan Maru returned to the Manila on October 20th.  There, it became part of a twelve ship convoy for Formosa.  On October 21st, after loading bananas and other foods, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea.  The Japanese also issued life jackets to the POWs which could float for about two hours.  According to survivors, all this did was reinforced the Americans fear of being killed by their own countrymen.  The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with "red crosses" indicating they were carrying POWs.  This made the ships targets for submarines.  In addition, AMerican Military Intelligence was reading Japanese communications as fast as the Japanese were reading it.  They knew that POWs were on ships in the convoy, but did tell tell the submarines.  This was done to protect the fact they had broken the Japanese code.

     According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on Tuesday, October 24, 1944, around 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.  As the POWs watched the Japanese guards ran to the bow of the ship and watched as a torpedo, from an American submarine, barely miss the ship.  The Japanese next ran to the stern of the ship and watched a second torpedo pass behind the ship. 
     The Japanese guards began hitting the POWs on deck with their guns to drive them into the holds.  After they were in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders and put the hatch covers on the holds.  The Japanese did not tie the hatch covers down. 

   There was a sudden jar which was caused by the ship being hit by two torpedoes amidships killing many POWs.  Those still alive cheered wildly. The ship shook and stopped dead in the water.  It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was the U.S.S. Snook.  It was at that time that the Japanese abandoned the ship.

     Some of the POWs in the first hold were able to climb out and attached and lowered the rope ladders to those in the first hold.  They also dropped rope ladders down to the POWs in second hold.  The POWs made their way onto the deck.
    On the ship's deck an American major spoke to the POWs, he said, "Boys, we're in a hellva a jam - but we've been in jams before.  Remember just one thing: We're American soldiers.  Let's play it that way to the very end of the script."  Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them, "Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men."
    Many of the POWs attempted to escape the ship by clinging to rafts, hatch covers, flotsam and jetsam.  Others stuffed themselves with what was their last meal.  Most of the POWs survived the attack but died because the Japanese refused to rescue  them.  The Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as they attempted to reach them.  Other Japanese crews pushed the POWs underwater to drown them with long poles.  Those who attempted to climb onto the ships were beaten with clubs.

    According to the three POWs who had reached an abandoned lifeboat, the Arisan Maru sank slowly into the water.  It was at this time that those POWs still on deck attempted to escape.  Since they had no oars for the lifeboat, they could not maneuver the boat. 

    At some point, the ship broke in two where it had been struck by the torpedoes.  The exact time of the ship's sinking was not known since it occurred at night.  The survivors told how the cries for help slowly ceased until there was silence.   The next morning the men in the boat rescued two more POWs.

     Sgt. Vernon H. Bussell lost his life when the Arisan Maru was torpedoed in the South China Sea.  Of the 1803 POWs on the ship, only nine survived the sinking.  Eight of the men survived the war.  Since he was lost at sea, Sgt. Vernon H. Bussell's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.



Return to D Company