Robert E. Mitchell
| All that is known
about the early life of Pfc. Robert E. Mitchell is that he
was born in 1914 in Kentucky and was divorced and living
in Houston, Texas, in 1940. He returned to Christian
County and was working as a farmer when he entered the
Robert trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and became a member of the 19th Ordnance Battalion and learned how to maintain the 57 different vehicles used by the Army. He also learned how to repair the weapons used by tank battalions.
In August, as a member of A Company, he was taking part in maneuvers in Arkansas, when the company was ordered back to Ft. Knox. There, it was designated the 17th Ordnance Company and received orders for overseas duty.
The decision for this move - which had been made on August 15, 1941, at Ft. Knox, Kentucky - 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 company was ordered to San Francisco, California, for
transport to the Philippine Islands. Arriving by
train, the company was ferried, on 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. 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.
On December 8, 1941, Robert lived the bombing of Clark Field. He and his company spent the next for months servicing tanks during the withdraw into the Bataan Peninsula. On April 9, 1942, his company received the news of the surrender.
17th Ordnance made their way south to Mariveles. From there, they started what became known as the death march. Robert and the other Prisoners of War made their way to San Fernando. Once there, they were boarded into wooden boxcars. The cars could hold forty men or eight horses, the Japanese packed 100 men into each car. At Capas, the dead fell out of the cars when the disembarked.
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.
After arriving in the
camp, Robert was selected to go out on a work
detail. The POWs in the camp built runways
and revetments at Nichols Field. It is known that
1944 that the POWs built
runways and revetments with picks and shovels.
They literally remove a mountain by hand to build
the runway. Meals consisted of leftover
fish guts from the Japanese kitchen. It
is known that he was still there in early October 1944.
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 their time in the cove, the POWs discovered that although the Japanese had removed the lights from the hold the Japanese did not turnoff the power. With a little work, the POWs manage to wire the ventilation system into the lighting system. For two days, they had fresh air until the Japanese discovered what they had done. They then turned off the power. The heat in the hold got so bad that the POWs began developing heat blisters.
The Japanese finally acknowledged that they had to do something to improve the situation and transferred POWs to the ship's first hold. This hold was partially filled with coal. During this transfer, one POW was shot and killed while attempting to escape.
The food situation was not much better. Each day, each POW was allowed three ounces of water and a meal of rice. 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, some POWs were on deck preparing the meal for those in the ship's two holds. The ship was, in the Bashi Channel, off the coast of China. 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 ran to the bow of 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 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 began firing at 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 the covers down. The Japanese abandoned ship.
Some of the POWs in the second hold were able to climb out and reattach the ladders. They also dropped ropes down to the POWs in both holds. The POWs were able to get on deck.
At first, few POWs attempted to escape the ship. A group of 35 swam to a nearby Japanese ship, but when the Japanese realized they were POWs, they were pushed 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 them.
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. Other POWs raided the ship's food lockers. Since they could not swim, they wanted to die with full stomachs. Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking. The exact time of the ship's sinking is not known since it took place after dark.
Five of the POWs found an 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. Robert E. Mitchell 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. Robert E. Mitchell's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.
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