Sgt. James Francis McComas
| Sgt. James F.
McComas was born on June 6, 1920, to Walter J.
McComas & Elizabeth Koering-McComas.
With his two sisters and three brothers, he grew
up at 201 Third Avenue Northeast in Brainerd,
At some point, he joined the Minnesota National Guard with his best friend from childhood Tom Porwoll. On February 10, 1941, his National Guard tank company was called to federal service as A Company, 194th Tank Battalion. They were sent to Fort Lewis, Washington where they were joined by National Guard units from California and Missouri.
Most of the members
of the battalion spent their entire basic
training at Fort Lewis, while others were sent
to Fort Knox to attend radio school or cook'
school. In Jim's case, he was a member of
a tank crew and a tank commander.
In September 1941, A Company, C Company, and HQ
Company of the 194th were sent to San
Francisco. There they were inoculated and
boarded a transport bound for the Philippine
Islands. B Company of the battalion was
sent to Alaska.
Around February 27th, during the Battle of Bataan, Jim's tank blew one cylinder in its engine. Somehow it continued to run. The tank and crew were sent to the rear echelon to get work done on the tank.
Recalling the event, Russell Swearingan said, "We were on the Agno
River, north of Bataan when it
happened. Shell fire was heavy and
the top cylinder of one of the tank
airplane engines was knocked off.
The pieces laid scattered. But the
tank continued to run. I know mechanics,
but every mechanic knows that one
cylinder out will completely stop the
motor. The tank continued to run,
though, and went several miles into the
back lines before pulling to a
halt. When shut off, the engine
block froze immediately."
In March, the amount of gasoline was reduced to
15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the
tanks. This would later be dropped to ten
gallons a day. At the same time, food
rations were cut in half again. Also at
this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen.
Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to
The tanks became a favorite target of the
Japanese receiving fire on trails and while
hidden in the jungle. and could not fight
back. The situation was so bad that other
troops avoided being near the tanks, and the
26th Cavalry turned down a tank company's offer
of assistance in a counter-attack.
The tankers received the order "crash" sometime
between 6:30 and 6:45, in the morning, on April
9th, and destroyed anything that had military
value for the Japanese. To destroy their
tanks, they circled them, fired an armor
piercing shell into the engine of each tank,
opened the gasoline cocks in the crew
compartments, and dropped hand grenades into
them. Once this was done, they were
ordered to Provisional Tank Group Headquarters
and ordered to remain there.
Camp O'Donnell was an unfinished Filipino training base that the Japanese pressed into service as a POW camp. There was only one water faucet for the entire camp. As many as fifty men died each day from disease. Conditions in the camp were so bad that the Japanese moved the healthier POWs to a new camp at Cabanatuan.
On July 1, 1942, Jim and other POWs were transferred from Cabanatuan to Davao. The POWs were boarded onto the Interisland Steamer and taken to the Island of Mindanao. James was part of a work detail of POWs building runways at a Japanese airfield near Lasang, Mindanao.
On October 26, 1942, the Japanese selected James and other POWs for a work detail to the Island of Mindanao. He and the other POWs were loaded onto the Erie Maru and taken to Davao, Mindanao arriving there on October 28th. When the camp was closed, Jim was in the group of POWs that remained at Davao at the penal colony and worked on a farm growing rice, while the rest of the POWs were sent to Lasang, on November 7th, and spent the next twenty months planting rice.
As American forces approached the Philippines, some of the POWs were sent to Manila on June 6, 1944, while the remainder of the men remained on the island until August 19, 1944. Several weeks earlier, the POWs had seen their first American plane in two and one half years.
Over the next two weeks, the atmosphere at the airfield changed. The Japanese posted guards with bayonets on their rifles by the POW barracks as air raids became daily. The Japanese camouflaged the airfield and hid their planes in revetments. The POWs heard rumors that the Americans had landed at Palau.
During this time, the POWs rations were cut to a single cup of rice a day. The POWs were now so hungry that they raided the Japanese garbage pile for remnants of vegetables. Many ate the weeds that grew inside the camp until it was bare.
Air raids soon were nightly events. Japanese planes flying out of the airfield were loaded with bombs and carried extra gasoline tanks. Finally, all work on the airfield was stopped.
On that day, the POWs were lined up by fours. The outside men had rope tied to their wrists to prevent escape. They were marched shoe-less to the Tabunco Pier and arrived at noon. They were packed into the two holds of the Erie Maru. 400 POWs were in the first hold while the remaining 350 POWs were put in the second hold. In addition, several tons of Japanese baggage were packed into the hold. Around six that evening, the ship sailed.
As the ship made its way north it swayed in the waves. Many of the prisoners became seasick. They retched when they tried to throw up since there was no food in their stomachs. The next day, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. An American plane flew over the ship. Moments later bombs exploded near the ship. The sound of machinegun fire was heard by the POWs. The Japanese once again tied down the hatch covers cutting off the air. Over the next three days, there were several more alerts. Each time the hatch covers were battened down leaving the POWs in darkness.
On August 24th, the ship arrived in Zamboanga where it waited for ten days until the Shinyo Maru arrived. The POWs were not allowed out of the holds and the conditions in the ship's holds were terrible. The holds were hot and steamy and the floors were covered with human waste. In addition, the longer the POWs were in the holds the stench became worse. During this time, the POWs were allowed on deck and sprayed with salt water.
It should be noted that the United States had intercepted the order from Japanese command sending the Shinyo Maru to Zamboanga. Someone misinterpreted the order as saying the ship would be transporting "750 troops" instead of "750 prisoners of war" to Manila. The U.S.S. Paddle was sent to the area to intercept the ship.
On September 4th, the POWs were transferred onto the Shinyo Maru. 250 POWs were put iu the ship's smaller hold, while the 500 POWs were its larger hold. That night, bombs from American planes landed alongside of the ship rocking an shaking it. The POWs prayed for the ship would be hit.
The ship sailed on September 5th at 2:00 a.m. Before the ship sailed, the hatch covers were secured so that the POWs could not lift them from below. The ship headed north in a zigzag pattern in an attempt to avoid submarines. The POWs were no longer allowed on deck. Their lips and throats were covered with dust from cement that had previously been hauled by the ship. For the next two days the ship made good time. It was at this time that the Japanese guards threatened to kill the POWs if the ship came under attack by American planes. The ship was now part of a convoy designated as C-076. Since the POWs had not heard any air raid alerts, they assumed that they were safe.
At 7:37 p.m. the U.S.S Paddle spotted the convoy off the west coast of Mindanao at Sindangan Point. It fired two torpedoes at the ship. The first torpedo hit the ship in its main hold. Moments later, a second torpedo hit the ship. There was a gapping hole in the ship's side. It was this second explosion that blew Jim out of the hold and into the water. Those POWs still alive, in the hold, saw the bodies of the dead floating in the water as the hold filled with water.
The POWs found that the hatch cover had been blown off the hold by the explosion. As the water level rose, they were able to climb out. Seven Japanese officers were on the bridge with rifles. As the POWs emerged from the hold, they picked them off. The lucky POWs made it through their fire and dove into the water.
The POWs in the smaller hold were also wounded from the torpedo hits. But, the hold remained dry. Many of these POWs also were able to make it onto the deck and attempted to swim to shore. As they swam, they were fired upon by the same seven Japanese officers.
According to the POWs in the water, the Shinyo Maru began to capsize. There was a tremendous crushing sound and the ship seemed to bend upward in the middle. It split in two and sunk into the water.
Japanese seaplanes dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the American submarine. The good thing about the depth charges was that they kept sharks away from the POWs. When they spotted the POWs in the water, they strafed them. They stopped when they realized that there were Japanese in the water too.
A Japanese tanker that had been hit by torpedoes spilled oil and gasoline into the water. The ship ran aground. The Japanese quickly set up machineguns and fired on the POWs. Boats from the other ships in the convoy attempted to hunt down the POWs swimming in the water. If they found a man, they shot him. What saved many lives was that with dusk it became harder for the Japanese to see them.
The Japanese announced to the Americans that if they surrendered that they would be treated with compassion. About 30 men gave up after hearing this. According to one man who escaped after surrendering, the POWs had their hands tied to the ship's rail, and the Japanese shot each POW in the back of the head. They then pushed the bodies overboard.
Jim stated that he saw Americans, who had been
picked up by the boats, have their hands tied
behind their backs. The Japanese shot each
man in the back of the head and threw the bodies
into the water. In his own words, "These Japs took their
guns into the lifeboats and cruised around
taking pot shots at our struggling men."
Of the 750 POWs who were boarded onto the ship, 82 POWs escaped. Jim was one of these men. It took him and Joe Lamkin, also of A Company, four hours to reach shore because they spent most of the time dodging the Japanese. After reaching shore they were rescued by Filipino Guerillas. The Filipinos were so happy to help the Americans that word spread of their rescue. This caused concern among the Americans for their safety. This was even more true when a party was thrown in their honor.
The guerillas made arrangements for the former POWs to be evacuated by American submarines. He and the other POWs boarded the U.S.S. Narwhal. On October 20th, Jim boarded the submarine, his family was notified that he had been returned to American Military control on October 26, 1944. From the Philippines, Jim was taken to Brisbane, Australia. He was next sent to Ft. McDowell, California.
Jim was sent to Ft. Snelling, Minnesota and on November 8, 1944, he was given a 30 day furlough home. During his time at home, he was under orders not to talk about his rescue. On November 17th, his furlough was extended another 34 days. During this time he talked to the families of other members of the company. On February 6th, he boarded at train for Hot Springs, Arkansas, and lived at "The Arlington Hotel".
Jim was discharged, from the army, on July 18, 1945, and returned to Brainerd, where he became a police officer, with the Brainerd Police Department, and rose to the rank of captain. He married Eunice Hillyer and became the father of one daughter.
When asked about being a POW in 1962, he said: "It just seems that it was impossible that it could have happened. I used to wake up screaming about the Japs, but I don't do that anymore."
Jim McComas died on September 13, 1971, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Section: L Site: 2266.