McComasJ

 

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, Minnesota.

    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.
    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, that was its escort.  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. 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.
    On December 1st, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers.  Two members of each tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles at all times and received their meals from food trucks. 
It is known he was in the same tank crew as Joseph BernardoGerald Bender and August Bell
    The morning of December 8, 1941, at 8:30, the planes of the the Army Air Corps took off and filled the sky.  At noon the planes landed to be refueled, line up in a straight line, and the pilots went to lunch in the mess hall.  At 12:45 in the afternoon, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Danny lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Airfield.
    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.
    The battalion received 15 Bren Gun carriers on the 15th, and gave some to the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts.  They used the carriers to test the ground to see if it was solid enough to support tanks.  They next were ordered to support the 71st Division in the area of Rosario on the 22nd, but the division's commanding officer ordered them out of the area, since he believed they would interfere with operations.
    The night of the 22nd/23rd, the battalions were operating north of the Agno River when it they found that the bridge they were suppose to use had been bombed.  On December 23rd and 24th, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta and found the bridge they were going to use to cross the Agno River was destroyed.  The tankers made an end run to get south of river and ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening, but they successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
    Later on the 24th, the battalions formed a defensive line along the southern bank of the Agno River with the tanks of the 192nd holding the Agno River from Carmen to Tayung, and the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road.  The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27th when they withdrew, following the Philippine Army, to the Tarlec-Cabanatuan Line and was near Santo Tomas and Cabanatuan on the 28th and 29th.
    The tank battalions next covered the withdrawal of the Philippine Army at the Pampanga River.  The battalion's tanks were on both sides of the on December 31st at the Calumpit Bridge.
    On January 1st, conflicting orders, about who was in command, were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 and allowing the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan.  General Wainwright was unaware of the orders, since they came from Gen. MacArthur's chief of staff.
    Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridge over the Pampanga River about withdrawing from the bridge with half of the defenders withdrawing.  Due to the efforts of the Self Propelled Mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a frenzied attack by the 192nd Tank Battalion the Japanese were halted.  From January 2nd to 4th, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.
    At 2:30 A.M., on January 6th, the Japanese attacked at Remlus in force using smoke which was an attempt by the Japanese to destroy the tank battalions. That night the tanks withdrew into the peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leap frog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd's withdraw over the bridge.  The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan.
    The night of January 7th, the tank battalions were covering the withdrawal of all troops around Hermosa.  Around 6:00 A.M., before the bridge had been destroyed by the engineers, the 192nd crossed the bridge.
    The next day, the battalion was between Culo and Hermosa and assigned a road to enter Bataan on which was worse than having no road.  The half-tracks kept throwing their rubber tracks and members of 17th Ordnance assigned to each battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations.  After daylight, Japanese artillery fire was landing all around the tanks.
    The next day, a composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Haines, B Co., 192nd.  Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire.  The rest of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Abucay-Hacienda Road.
    When word came that a bridge was going to be blow, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company.  This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
    The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road.  It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance.  It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon.  The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance.  Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400 hour overhauls.
    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."
    The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Heicienda Road on January 25th.  While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M.  One platoon was sent to the front of the the column of trucks which were loading the troops.  The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese.
    Later on January 25th, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight.  They held the position until the night of January 26th/27th, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads.  When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were suppose to use had been destroyed by enemy fire.  To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
    The tank battalions, on January 28th, were given the job of protecting the beaches, while the battalion's half-tracks were used to patrol the roads.  The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
    The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available.  The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces.  There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over.

    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."
    Jim spoke also told how a tank was going down a trail when a Japanese soldier planted a magnetic thermite on tank deck along the turret.  The bomb burnt through the steel deck and dropped into the ammunition tray.  With shells exploding, the tank continued on its way for a short distance out of town and then stopped.  The crew members piled out and .... and no one was injured although the ammunition had completely exploded. 

    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 Corregidor.
    The Japanese lunched an all out attack on April 3rd.  On April 7th, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening.  During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew.  C Company, 194th, which was attached to the 192nd, had only seven tanks left.

    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 tank battalion commanders received this order on April 8th, "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."
    When it became apparent to Gen. Edward King that the situation was hopeless and he wanted to prevent a massacre since he only 25% of his troops were healthy enough to fight, while approximately 6,000 troops were hospitalized from wounds or disease.  In addition, there were approximately 40,000 civilians who had fled the Japanese.  The night of April 8th, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms with the Japanese. 

   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.
    The Japanese arrived the morning of April 10th and ordered the Prisoners of War to the trail that ran near the headquarters.  The trial the POWs were on ended when they reached the main road.   The first thing the Japanese did was to 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 members of the 194th did receive orders to march until around 7:00 P.M. and were marched until 3:00 in the morning.  At that time, the marchers were given an one hour break.  At 4:00 A.M., they began to march again.  They reached the barrio of Lamao at around 8:00 A.M. the morning of April 11th. There the POWs were allowed to try to find food, but little was found.
    The POWs again were ordered to move at 9:00 A.M. and reached Limay at noon.  It was at this time the Japanese put officers, with the rank of major and higher, in trucks and drove them to to Balanga.  These officers were than marched to Orani.   For the lower ranking officers and enlisted men, Limay was where they really started the death march.  Up to this time, the guards, regular combat soldiers, had shown a great deal of respect for them.  As they got further north, and the guards were changed, the treatment got worse.
    They marched north through Orani and arrived there on the 12th.  There, at 6:30 P.M., the higher ranking officers rejoined the march.  The men noticed they were being marched at a faster pace and that the guards seemed nervous.
    The POWs made their way north to Hermosa, where the road went from gravel to pavement.  The change in surface made the march easier on the men.  When they were allowed to sit, those who attempted to lay down were jabbed with bayonets.
    They resumed the march and at some point it began to rain.  Many of the POWs attempted to get drinks from the rain.  About 4:00 P.M., the POWs reached San Fernando amd were herded into a bullpen.  The ground was covered in human waste from previous POWs.  They next made their way to the train station.  At 4:00 in the morning, the Japanese woke the POWs and marched them to the train station and packed into boxcars that could hold forty men or eight horses.  The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car and closed the doors.  The POWs rode the train to Capas arriving there at 9:00 A.M.  They disembarked from the cars and walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O'Donnell.

   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.


 

 

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