Fontes_E

Pfc. Edwin M. Fontes


    What is known about Pfc. Edwin M. Fontes was that he was born on August 28, 1917, in Monterey County, California.  He was the son of Mazel E. Fontes & Nellie L. Lebo-Fontes.  With his brother and sister, he grew up in Alisal, California.  In 1940, his family was living on Cooper Street in Castroville, California.  He worked as a mechanic on his family's ranch.

    Edwin enlisted in the California National Guard's 40th Divisional Tank Company which was headquartered in an armory in Salinas, California.  On February 10, 1941, he was called to federal duty when his tank company was designated as C Company, 194th Tank Battalion and trained at Fort Lewis, Washington.
    The decision for this move - which had been made on August 15, 1941 - was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941.  A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd.  He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance.  He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of an Japanese occupied island which was hundred of miles away.  The island had a large radio transmitter.  The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field.
     When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.  The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat - with a tarp on its deck - which was seen making its way to shore.  Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped.  It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
    In September 1941, the 194th, minus B Company, was ordered to San Francisco, California, for transport to the Philippine Islands.  Arriving, by train, at Ft. Mason in San Francisco, they were taken by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island where they received physicals and inoculations from the battalion's medical detachment.  Those men found with medical conditions were replaced.
    The tankers boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8th at 3:00 P.M. and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands.  To get the tanks to fit in the ship's holds, the turrets had serial numbers spray painted on them and were removed from the tanks.  They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13th at 7:00 A.M., and most of the soldiers were allowed off ship to see the island but had to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M.
    After leaving Hawaii, the ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes.  It was at this time that it was joined by the U.S.S. Astoria, a heavy cruiser and an unknown destroyer, that were its escorts.  During this part of the trip, on several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke.  Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country.
    The Coolidge entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M., on September 26th, and reached Manila several hours later.  The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M., and were driven on buses to Clark Field.  The maintenance section of the battalion and members of 17th Ordnance remained at the dock to unload the battalion's tanks and reattach the turrets.
    The battalion rode buses to Fort Stotsenburg and taken to an area between the fort and Clark Field, where they were housed in tents since the barracks for them had not been completed.  They were met by  General Edward P. King, commanding officer of the fort who made sure they had what they needed.  On November 15th, they moved into their barracks.
    On December 1st, the 194th was ordered to its position at Clark Field.  Their job was to protect the northern half of the airfield from paratroopers.  The 192nd Tank Battalion, which had arrived in November guarded the southern half.  Two crew men remained with the tanks at all times and received their meals from food trucks.

    On December 8th, the members of the tank company were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  The tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers.  All morning, the tankers watched as American planes filled the sky.  At 12:30 the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch.  American B-17 bombers fully loaded with bombs for a planned air raid on Formosa were also left on the runways as the crews went to eat lunch.
    When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield.  The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything that could carry the wounded was in use.  When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building.  Many of these men had their arms and legs missing.
    That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their tents.  They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed.  They lived through two more attacks on December 10th.  The night of the 12th/13th, the battalion was ordered to bivouac south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge.  Attempting to move the battalion at night was a nightmare, and they finally arrived at their new bivouac at 6:00 A.M. on December 13th. 
    It was at this time that C Company was ordered to support forces in southern Luzon.  The company proceeded through Manila.  Since they had no air cover, most of their movements were at night.  As they moved, they noticed lights blinking or flares being shot into the air.  They arrived at the Tagaytay Ridge and spent time their attempting to catch 5th columnists.
    They remained in the area until December 24th, when they moved over the Taal Road to San Tomas and bivouacked near San Paolo and assisted in operations in the Pagbilao-Lucban Area supporting the Philippine Army.  One of the most dangerous things the tanks did was cross bridges with a ten ton weight limit.  Each tank weight 14 tons, so they crossed the bridges one tank at a time.  On the 30th, the company supported the withdrawal of the Philippine Army south of San Fernando on Route 3.  They rejoined the battalion on December 31st. 
    The tanks withdrew through San Fernando at 2:00 A.M. on January 2nd, and fell back to the Lyac Junction.  The two tank battalions were holding a line between Culis and Hermosa. The tanks withdrew from the line the night of the 6th/7th.  While doing this, the maintenance section of the battalions repaired abandoned trucks to use to haul food and the gasoline caches they found and bring it into Bataan.  That night, the 194th crossed the bridge over the Culis Creek, covered by the 192nd, and entered Bataan.
    The company, with A Co., 192nd Tank Battalion, withdrew from the Guagua-Perac Line to Remedio where they established a new defensive line on January 5th.  That afternoon, C Company, supported by four self-propelled mounts stopped a Japanese advance which kept the road open for withdrawing forces.
    The next night, the tanks were holding the line when the Japanese attempted to infiltrate under a bright moon.  The tanks opened fire resulting in the Japanese losing half of their troops.  In an attempt to cover their advance, the Japanese used smoke which blew back on them.  The battle lasted until the Japanese broke off the attack at 3:00 in the morning.  After this, there was a two day lull in the fighting.
    A Composite tank company was formed from the tank battalions and given the job of protecting the East road north to Hermosa.  This was a dangerous job since the tanks were in range of Japanese artillery.  The other tanks were ordered to a bivouac south of the Abubucay-Hacienda Line.
    The tanks formed a new bivouac just south of the Pilar-Bagao Road and had a few days rest.  While they rested, 17th Ordnance and the maintenance sections of the battalion did long overdue work on the tanks.  Also around this time, the tank companies were reduced to ten tanks so that tanks could be given to D Company, 192nd, which had lost its tanks after a bridge had been destroyed before they had crossed it. 
     C Company and D Company, 192nd., were sent to the Cadre Road on the 12th but returned on the 13th because ordnance had planted landmines which made reaching the road impossible.  C Company was sent to Bagac, on the 16th, to reopen the West Highway Road that had been cut by the Japanese, so troops trapped behind the road block could escape.  A platoon of tanks at the Moron Highway and Trail 162 knocked out an anti-tank gun, and with the help of infantry, cleared the roadblock.
    It was also sometime around this time that General Wainwright issued these orders. It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver, "Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal.  If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay."
    Both tank battalions held a line along the Balanga-Cardre Road-Banobano Road, so that other units could withdraw which was completed by midnight.  They held the line until the night of the 26th/27th when they withdrew and formed a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Road.
    At about 9:45 A.M., a Filipino civilian came down the road and warned the tankers that a Japanese force was on its way.  The tanks, with four SPMs opened up on the Japanese when they appeared.  The fighting lasted 45 minutes when the Japanese withdrew having suffered 50 percent casualties.  This action prevented the Japanese from overrunning the new defensive line which was still being formed.
    The tank battalions were given beach duty so that the Japanese could not land troops behind the main line of defense.  The half-tracks of the battalions patrolled the roads.  At 2;50 A.M., a Japanese motorized unit was head coming down the road with its lead vehicle having dimmed headlights.  The 194th had a roadblock in place with guns aimed at various angles.  When they opened up, they caused heavy damage to the Japanese column.
    It was also at this time that the tank battalions, without orders, took on the job of protecting three airfields.  The airfields had been built so a rebuilt Air Corps would have places to land.  About the same time, the fighting on Bataan came to a standstill since the Japanese troops were exhausted and suffering from the same tropical illnesses as the defenders.  To end the stalemate, the Japanese brought in fresh troops from Singapore.
    The Japanese lunched an all out offensive on April 3rd breaking through the line of defense held by II Corps.  The 194th moved its companies to support the defenders along the line from the East Coast Road and to the west.  The tanks repeatedly were sent to areas where the Japanese had broken through which was difficult to do since the roads were clogged with retreating vehicles.
    It was at this time that the tank battalion commanders received this order, "You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word 'CRASH', all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished."
    General Edward King announced at 10:30 that night that further resistance would result in the massacre of 6000 sick and wounded and 40,000 civilians.  He also estimated that less than 25% of his troops were healthy enough to continue to fight and would hold out for one more day.  He ordered his staff officers to negotiate terms of surrender.
    Between 6:30 and 6:45 A.M. on April 9, 1942, the order "CRASH" was issued.  The tankers destroyed their tanks and waited for orders from the Japanese.  The members of the 194th were ordered the next day, to move to the headquarters of the Provisional Tank Group, which was at kilometer marker 168.2.
    At 7:00 P.M. on the 10th, the POWs were ordered to march.  They made their way from the former command post, and at first found the walk difficult.  When they reached the main road, walking became easier.  At 3:00 A.M., they were given an hour break before being ordered to move again at 4:00 A.M.  The column reached Lamao at 8:00 A.M., where the POWs were allowed to forage for food before marching again at 9:00.
    During this part of the march to reach the main road out of Bataan, the POWs noted that they were treated well by the Japanese who were combat hardened troops.   Their guards were surprised that they had surrendered and treated them fairly well.  It was at Limay that the treatment they received would change.
    When the POWs reached Limay, officers with ranks of major or higher, were separated from the enlisted men and the lower ranking officers.  The higher ranking officers were put on trucks and driven to Balanga from where they march north to Orani.  The lower ranking officers and enlisted men reached the barrio later in the day having march through Abucay and Samal.
    At 6:30 in the evening, the POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men.  Once this was done, they resumed the trip north, but this time they were marched at a faster pace and were given few breaks.  When they did receive a break, they had to sit in the road until they were ordered to move.
    When they were north of Hermosa, the POWs reached pavement which made the march easier.  At 2:00 A.M., they received an hour break, but any POW who attempted to lay down was jabbed with a bayonet.  After the break, they were marched through Layac and Lurao.  It was at this time that a heavy shower took place and many of the men opened their mouths in an attempt to get water.
    The men were marched until 4:00 P.M., when they reached San Fernando.  Once there, they were herded into a bull pen, surrounded by barbwire, and put into groups of 200 men.  One POW from each group went to the cooking area which was next to the latrine, and received a box of rice that was divided among the  men.  Water was given out in a similar manner with each group receiving a pottery jar of water to share.
    At 4:00 A.M., the Japanese woke the men up and organized them into detachments of 100 men.  From the compound, they were marched to the train station, where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as, "forty or eights."  Each boxcar could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors.  The POWs were packed in so tightly that the dead could not fall to the floor.  At Capas, as the living left the cars and those who had died - during the trip - fell to the floors of the cars.  As they left the cars, the Filipino civilians threw sugarcane and gave the POWs water.
    The POWs marched eight kilometers to Camp O'Donnell. The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base.  The Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942.  When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them.  They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse.  Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp.  These POWs had been executed for looting.
    There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink.  The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again.  This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
    There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled.  In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed.  The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery.  The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
    The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant.  When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter.
    The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp.  When the Japanese Red Cross sent medical supplies the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
    The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them.  When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150 bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
    Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it.  The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria.  To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it.  The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area they had been laying was scrapped and lime was spread over it.
    Work details were sent out on a daily basis.  Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work.  If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick, but could walk, to work.  The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day.  The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.

    On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas.  There, the were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards.  At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another line which took it to Cabanatuan.  The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup.  From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division.
    In the camp the Japanese instituted the "Blood Brother" rule.  If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed.  POWs caught trying to escape were beaten.  Those who did escape and were caught, were tortured before being executed.  It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
    The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens.  While on these details they bought or were given medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned.  Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn.
   After arriving in the camp, he was put in the "Zero War," the camp's hospital, on June 10, 1942.  The name reflected the fact that most of the POWs sent there died.  According to the records kept by the hospital staff, Edwin was discharged from the hospital on August 18, 1942.  Medical records also show he was readmitted to the hospital on March 23, 1943.  Why he was admitted and when he was released were not indicated.  It is known if he remained in the camp until October 1944.
    In early October 1944, 1775 POWs were marched to the Port Area of Manila.  When his POW group arrived at the pier, the ship they where scheduled to sail on, the Hokusen Maru, was ready to sail, but some of the POWs in the detachment had not arrived at the pier.  Another POW detachment, scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru, had completely arrived, but their ship was not ready to sail.  It was at that time that the Japanese made the decision that they switch POW detachments so the Hokusen Maru could sail.
    On October 10, the POWs boarded the Arisan Maru and 1775 prisoners were crammed into the first hold of the ship which could hold 400 men.  They were packed in so tightly that they could not move.  Those POWs who had lain down in the wooden bunks along the haul could not sit up because the bunks were so close together.  Eight large cans served as the washroom facilities for the POWs.
    Later in the day on October 11, the ship set sail but took a southerly route away from Formosa.  The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days.  The Japanese covered the hatch with a tarp so during the night, the POWs were in total darkness.  Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died.  Being in the cove resulted in the ship missing an air raid by American planes, but the ship was attacked once by American planes while there.
    Each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not turned off the power to the lights.  Some of the prisoners were able to hot-wire the ship's blowers into the light power lines.  This allowed fresh air into the hold, until the power was disconnected, two days later, when the Japanese discovered what had been done.
    After this was done, the POWs began to develop heat blisters.  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 this point, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.
    The Arisan Maru returned to Manila on October 20, where it joined a twelve ship convoy.  On October 21, 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 making them targets for American submarines.  In addition, U.S. military intelligence was reading the Japanese messages as fast as the Japanese.  To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine crews that ships were carrying POWs which made the ships targets for the submarines.  The POWs in the hold became so desperate that they prayed for the ship to be hit by torpedoes.
    According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on Tuesday, October 24, 1944, about 5:00 pm, some of the POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs 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 the holds knew this meant that American submarines had been spotted and began to chant for the submarines to sink the ship.
    The waves were high since a storm had just passed.  At about 5:50 P.M., as the POWs watched, the Japanese ran to the bow of the ship and a torpedo passed in front of the ship.  Moments later, the Japanese ran to the ship's stern and watched as a second torpedo passed behind the ship.  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, but it still killed some POWs.  It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was the U.S.S. Snook.
    The Japanese guards took their guns and used them as clubs on the POWs who were on deck.  To escape, the POWs dove back into the holds.  After they were in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders and put the hatch covers on the holds, but they did not tie them down.  They then abandoned the ship.
    Some of the POWs from the first hold climbed out and reattached the ladders and dropped them to the men in the holds.  The POWs left the holds but made no attempt to abandon ship.  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."  The ship sank lower into the water.
    According to surviving POWs, the ship stayed afloat for hours but got lower in the water.  At one point, the stern of the ship began going under which caused the ship to split in half but the halves remained afloat.  It was about this time that about 35 POWs swam to the nearest Japanese ship.  When the Japanese realized that they were POWs, they pushed them underwater with poles and drowned them or hit them with clubs.  Those POWs who could not swim raided the food lockers for a last meal, because they wanted to die with full stomachs.  Other POWs took to the water with anything that would float.  
    Three POWs found an abandoned life boat and managed to climb in but found it had no oars.  With the rough seas, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs.  According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru and sank sometime after dark on Tuesday, October 24, 1944.  The men in the boat heard cries for help, which became fewer and fewer, until there was silence.  The next day they picked up two more survivors.  Four other men were picked up by a Japanese ship and taken to Formosa.

    Pfc. Edwin M. Fontes 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 these men survived the war.  Since he was lost at sea, Pfc. Edwin M. Fontes's name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.


 


 

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