Cummins

Pfc. John Lewis Cummins


    Pfc. John L. Cummins' family resided in Kentucky since the late 1700's.  He was born on January 31, 1921, in Mercer County, the oldest of the four children born to Jack Cummins and Mary Bell Dennis-Cummins. He was known as "Lewis" to his family.

    As a child John attended school in McAfee, Kentucky, near the family farm.  Like many young men of his time, he attended high school but did not finish.  After he left school, he worked as a grocery store clerk.

    John joined the Kentucky National Guard's 38th Tank Company headquartered in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.  On November 25, 1940, John's tank company was federalized as D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion.  A few days later, they traveled to Fort Knox, Kentucky, for one year of federal service.

    In January 1941, John was reassigned to Headquarters Company when the company was formed with men from the four letter companies of the battalion.  John was assigned to the tank maintenance section of the company.

    In the late summer of 1941, the battalion took part in maneuvers in Louisiana.  After the maneuvers, on the side of a hill at Camp Polk, John and the other members of the battalion learned they were not being released from federal service.  Instead, they were being sent overseas.  Each man was given leave home to say goodbye to family and friends.  In the photo at the top of the page, John holds his nephew, James, while on leave home.

    John returned to Camp Polk where equipment was loaded onto flat cars.  Over the southern train route through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, HQ Company traveled to San Francisco, California and were ferried to Ft.McDowell on Angel Island.  There they received physicals and inoculations.  Those men found to have minor medical issues were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date.  Some men were simply replaced. 
    The soldiers
were boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott ]which sailed on Monday, October 27th, as part of a three ship convoy that arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd.  The ships had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.  On Wednesday, November 5th, the ships sailed for Guam
but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes.  During this part of the voyage, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon.  The cruiser, that was escorting the two transports, revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it took off in the direction of the smoke.  It turned out that the unknown ship was from a friendly country.     
   
When they arrived at Guam, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables for Manila.  At one point, the ships passed an island at night.  While they passed the island, they 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 in the day.  At 3:00 P.M., the soldiers disembarked and were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg.  Those assigned to trucks drove them to the fort, while John and the others assigned to the maintenance section remained at the pier to unload the tanks.
    At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward King, who apologized that the men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Field.  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.
   
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.
    On Monday, December 1st, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers.  The 194th Tank Battalion guarded the northern half of the airfield, while the 192nd guarded the southern half.  At all times, two members of every tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles.  Meals were brought to them by food trucks.  

    When John reported for morning mess on December 8, 1941, he and the other men heard the news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor just hours earlier.  All the members of the tank crews were ordered to the perimeter of the airfield while John and the other HQ members were ordered to prepare supplies for the tankers.

    Around 12:45 in the afternoon, planes appeared over the airfield.  John, like the other men, thought the planes were American.  It was only when bombs began exploding and the strafing began that they knew the planes were Japanese.  Since he had no weapon to sight back with, John attempted to take cover and stay out of harms way.

    That evening, most of the tank companies lived through another attack.  It was now HQ's job to keep them supplied with gasoline and ammunition.  It was in this role that John fought the Japanese.

    The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt. Fred Bruni, HQ's commanding officer, gave his men the news of the surrender.  While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them.  As he spoke, his voice choked.  He turned away from the men for a moment, and when he turned back he continued.  He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks.  During the announcement, Bruni emphasized that they all were to surrender together.   He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and any supplies that could be used by the Japanese.  The only thing they were told not to destroy were the company's trucks.  The men waited in their bivouac until ordered to move.  Somehow, Bruni had found enough bread and pineapple juice for what he called, "Their last supper."
    On April 11th, the first Japanese soldiers appeared at HQ company's encampment.  Donald was now a Prisoner of War.  A Japanese officer ordered the company, with their possessions, out onto the road that ran in front of their encampment.  Once on the road, the soldiers were ordered to kneel along the sides of the road with their possessions in front of them.  As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers, who were passing them, went through their possessions and took whatever they wanted from the Americans.  They remained along the sides of the road for hours.

    HQ Company boarded trucks and drove to Mariveles.  From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and sat and waited.  As they sat, John and the other Prisoners of War noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming across from them.  They soon realized that this was a firing squad and the Japanese were going to kill them.

    As they sat watching and waiting to see what the Japanese intended to do, a Japanese officer pulled up in a car, got out, and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail.  The officer got back in the car and drove off, while the sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns. 

    Later in the day, John was moved to a school yard in Mariveles.  In the school yard, they found themselves between Japanese artillery and guns firing from Corregidor and Ft. Drum.  Shells began landing among the POWs who had no place to hide.  Some of the POWs were killed from incoming shells.

     The POWs were ordered to move again by the Japanese and had no idea that they had started what became known as the death march.  During the march, John received no water and little food.  At San Fernando, he was put into a wooden boxcar and taken to Capas.  From Capas, John walked the last few miles to Camp O' Donnell.

    When the Japanese wanted POWs to go out on a work detail, John, with Grover Brummett, volunteered to go out on the detail.  The POWs on the detail were under the command of Col. Ted Wickord who had been commanding officer of the 192nd.  During his time on the detail, John rebuilt bridges that had been destroyed by the retreating American forces weeks earlier.

    John first worked at Calaun.  There the POWs were amazed by the concern shown for them by the Filipino people. The townspeople arranged for their doctor and nurses to care for the POWs and give them medication.  They also arranged for the POWs to attend a meal in their honor.

    John was next sent to Batangas to rebuild another bridge.  Again, the Filipino people did all they could to see that the Americans got the food and care they needed.  Somehow the Filipinos convinced the Japanese to allow them to attend a meal to celebrate the completion of the new bridge.

    The next bridge John and the other POWs were sent to rebuild was in Candelaria.  Once again, the people of the town did what ever they could to help the Americans.  An order of Roman Catholic sisters, who had been recently freed from custody, invited Lt. Col. Wickord and twelve POWs for a dinner.

    When the detail ended, John was sent to Cabanatuan sometime after the new camp opened.  The healthier POWs were used as labor in the camp farm.  Most of what was grown on the farm went to feed the Japanese not the prisoners growing it.  On July 17, 1942, John was admitted to the camp hospital suffering from diphtheria.  According to records kept by the camp's medical staff, he remained in the hospital until August 21, 1942, when he was returned to duty.

    During his time in captivity, John and his good friend, Grover Brummett, stayed together.  When the Japanese began sending POWs to Japan in large numbers in late 1942, Grover attempted to get John to volunteer to be sent to Japan with him.  John refused to do this hoping to remain at Cabanatuan long enough to be rescued by advancing American forces.  John remained behind when his best friend was sent to Japan.
    In January 1943, John went out on a work detail to Lipa to build runways Lipa Airfield.  The POWs built runways and, every other day, worked on a farm.  On October 7, 1943, John was sent to the hospital ward at Bilibid Prison suffering from malnutrition and was still hospitalized in early 1944.
    From medical records kept by the medical staff at the hospital ward at Bilibid Prison, John was returned to Bilibid and admitted on June 17, 1944, suffering from benign tertian malaria.  How long he remained hospitalized is not known.

    When it became apparent to the Japanese that the invasion of the Luzon was near, the Japanese began to send POWs to Manila for transport to Japan.  The Japanese did this to prevent the prisoners from being liberated by advancing American forces.  It was at this time that John was sent to Bilibid Prison.  Two groups of 250 men each were sent to Bilibid from Cabanatuan.

    On October 11, 1944, John was marched to Pier 7 in the Port Area of Manila.  Upon arrival at the pier, the POWs were boarded onto the Arisan Maru instead of the Hokusen Maru.  The reason this was done was that all the POWs scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru had not arrived at the pier.  1803 POWs were packed into a hold that could hold 400 men.  Bunks lined the walls of the hold that were so close together that a person lying in one could not sit up in it.  With him were Robert Cloyd, Ancel Crick, James Sallee, John Babb and William Jardot.  All had been members of D Company at Ft. Knox.  The conditions were so bad that five men died during the first 48 hours.

    The Arisan Maru sailed but took a southerly route away from Formosa and dropped anchor in a cove off the Island of Palawan.  This resulted in the ship missing an air attack by American planes on Manila, but  the ship was later attacked by American planes and escaped damage. 

    For eleven days, John and the other prisoners were held in the ship's holds while the Japanese formed a convoy.  By this time, the men began to pray that the ship would be sunk by an American submarine.  To relieve the situation, some resourceful prisoners hooked up the blowers in the hold to an electrical line.  Doing this brought fresh air into the hold.  Two days later, the Japanese discovered what had been done and cut the power.  Conditions in the hold were so bad that the POWs developed heat blisters.  The Japanese finally acknowledge the conditions and opened the ship's second hold.  Six hundred POWs were transferred to it.  This hold was partially filled with coal which meant the men sat on it. 

    The ship returned to Manila on October 20th were it joined a twelve ship convoy.  On October 23rd, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea.  American Submarines had no idea what the cargo of the ships was since the Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs.

    According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on October 24, 1944, near dinner time, some POWs were on deck preparing the meal for those in the ship's two holds.  The waves were high because a storm had just passed.  The ship was near Shoonan, off the coast of China.  The POWs on deck heard the sounds of alarms and watched as the Japanese guards ran to the bow of the ship.  A torpedo missed the bow passing in front of the ship.  A few moments later the guards ran to the stern of the ship and watched a second torpedo past behind the ship.  There was a sudden jar caused by the ship being hit amidships by two torpedoes.  The ship shook and stopped dead in the water.

    As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope ladders into the holds.  They covered the holds with the hatch covers but did not tie the covers down.  Some of the POWs in the first hold were able to climb out and reattach and lower  rope ladders to those in the hold.  They also dropped rope ladders to the POWs in the second hold.
    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.  Those who could not swim, raided the ship's kitchen and ate 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.  Those POWs who reached ships were beaten with clubs to keep them off the ships.

    According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru slowly sunk lower into the water after splitting in tow.  The ship sunk sometime after dark.  Cries for help could be heard for hours until there was silence.  Only nine POWs survived the sinking; eight survived to the end of the war.

    Pfc. John L. Cummins 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, the name of Pfc. John L. Cummins is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.  He was awarded the Purple Heart.


 

 

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