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
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. He trained at Fort Lewis, Washington and sailed for the Philippine Islands during September 1941. In the Philippines, he was stationed at Fort Stotsenburg. There, the soldiers prepared for maneuvers which were going to take place.
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.
For the next four months, Edwin fought to slow the Japanese conquest of the Philippines. On April 9, 1942, he became a Prisoner of War when Bataan was surrendered to the Japanese. He took part in the death march from Mariveles to San Fernando. At this barrio, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane. The cars could hold forty men, the Japanese packed 100 men into each car.
At Capas, the POWs who survived the trip climbed out of the cars. The bodies of the dead fell out of the cars. Edwin and the other POWs walked the last ten miles to Camp O'Donnell. This unfinished Filipino training camp been pressed into service by the Japanese as a prison camp.
Conditions in Camp O'Donnell were so bad that as many as fifty men died each day. The burial detail worked day and night to bury the dead. For the 12,000 POWs in the camp there was only one water faucet.
The Japanese seeing that unless they did something to end this situation that most of the POWs would die, opened a new camp at Cabanatuan. Edwin with the other healthy prisoners was sent to this camp. 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, but it was at that time that he was taken to Manila for transport to Japan.
On October 10, 1944, Edwin was taken to the Port Area of Manila. His POW detachment was scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru. The ship was ready to sail but not all the POWs in Edwin's detachment had arrived at the dock. As it turned out, another detachment of POWs were ready for transport, so the Japanese switched the two detachments.
The POWs were boarded onto the Arisan Maru. Edwin was one of 1803 POWs who was packed into the ship's number two 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 if lying down. 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. The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days. This resulted in the ship missing an air attack by American planes, but the ship was attacked by American planes. During this time, one POW was shot and killed while attempting to escape. Each day, each POW was allowed three ounces of water.
During this time, the POWs discovered that the Japanese had taken the light bulbs out of the holds, but that they had not turned off the power to the light system. The POWs managed to "hot-wire" the hold's ventilation system into the lighting system. For two days the POWs had fresh air. When the Japanese discovered what the POWs had done, they turned off the power.
With the number of POWs dying increasing each day, the Japanese decided that they had to do something. To lower the number of deaths the Japanese moved POWs into the ship's other hold.
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.
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 explosion; 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 fired 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. Those POWs who could not swim raided the ship's food lockers. They wanted to die with full stomachs. One group of 35 POWs swam to a nearby Japanese ship, but when the Japanese realized the men were POWs, they pushed them away with poles and hit them with clubs. The Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as they attempted to reach the ships.
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. At some point the ship split into two pieces. 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.
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.