Robert Charles Pettit Jr.
Major Robert C. Pettit Jr. was born in 1910 in Queens, New York, to Robert
C. Pettit Sr. & Elizabeth Pettit. With his
brother, he grew up at 41 Birch Street in Lynbrook, New
York. He graduated from Saint Francis Xavier High
School and attended Fordham University
with the intention of
becoming a lawyer. He left school and,
in 1930, he was
working as a bank clerk. In 1937, he
joined the Fire Department of
New York as a firefighter with Engine 303 at 104-112
Princeton Street, Jamaica, Queens, New York.
Pettit also enlisted in the New York National Guard on July 2, 1932, and was a member of the Howitzer Company, 107th Infantry Battalion. It is not known, but at some point in entered the regular Army and attended Officer Candidates School and was commissioned an officer in the reserves. In 1940, Robert married Kathrine Kibler, who was from Dayton, Ohio, and became the father of twin sons.
While he was a fireman, he was given the nickname of "The General." The reason was that when he was assigned to the watch desk at the station - from midnight to 8:00 A.M. - he would get out maps and charts and plan tank attacks. He was called to federal service in February 1941, and sent to Fort Benning, Georgia. He told his former fire platoon commander at the station, Lieutenant Otto Lapen, in a letter, that he would like to see the tanks in action.
He was sent to the Philippines, as a captain, and sailed from San Francisco, California, on the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8 at 9:00 P.M. and arrived in Hawaii on Saturday, September 13, in the morning. It remained in port all day before sailing at 5:00 P.M. The ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes and was joined by the U.S.S. Astoria and an unknown destroyer. Several times during the trip smoke was seen on the horizon and the Astoria took off and intercepted the ships. Each time, the ship turned out to be from a neutral country. On Tuesday, September 16, the ships crossed the International Dateline and the date became Thursday, September 18. They arrived at Manila Bay the morning of September 26, and docked later that day.
In the Philippines, he served as Gen. James Weaver's S-1 or adjutant to the general. It is known that he was promoted to the rank of major on December 22, 1941. Being assigned to the Provisional Tank Group Headquarters, he was often out with the tank companies. It is known that on Christmas day he telegram-ed home.
The night of April 8, 1942, Robert heard from Gen. Weaver that Bataan was to be surrendered. He and the other officers went to sleep that night knowing that the next day they would be Prisoners of War.
The next day was uneventful and the soldiers remained in their bivouac. On April 10, the Japanese arrived and ordered the HQ personnel onto the road. In a letter home, John told of how walking on the gravel trail was difficult. Robert witnessed "Japanese Discipline." If a prisoner fell, he was kicked in his stomach and hit in the head with a rifle butt. If he still did not get up, the Japanese guard determined that the man was exhausted.
When the trail the POWs were on reached the main road, the first thing the Japanese did was separated 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 march was difficult in the dark since they could not see where they were walking. Whenever they slipped, they knew they had stepped on the remains of a dead soldier.
Robert and the other POWs passed Filipinos who were even thinner than they were. They made their way north against the flow of Japanese troops who were moving south. At Limay on April 11, they were put into a school yard and told that the officers would be driven to the POW camp.
At 4:00 AM, the officers were put into trucks for an unknown destination. They were taken to Balanga, disembarked, and ordered to put their field bags in front of them for inspection. During the inspection, one officer was found to have an automatic gun in his bag. As punishment the POWs were not fed. They set in a paddy all day and were ordered to move near sunset. They were made to march as punishment for the gun being in the bag. They reached Orani on April 12 at 3:00 A.M.
The POWs were put in a bullpen and ordered to lay down. In the morning, the POWs realized that they were lying in human waste. At noon, they received their first food which was a meal of rice and salt. Later that day, other POWs arrived. This included one group made up of men from the Provisional Tank Group which had walked the entire distance.
At 6:30 in the morning the POWs continued the march. The POWs noticed that they were bring marched at a faster pace. The guards appeared to the POWs to be nervous. The guards also appeared to be nervous about the pace. The POWs made their way Hormosa. There, the road went from gravel to concrete which seemed to make the march easier on the POWs. When the POWs were allowed to sit down on a break, those who attempted to lay down were jabbed with bayonets.
The POWs continued the march. For the first time in months, it began to rain. To the POWs the rain felt great. At 4:30 PM on April 13th, Robert arrived at San Fernando. The POWs were once again put into a bullpen. At 4:00 in the morning, the Japanese woke the POWs and marched them to the train station. They were packed into small wooden boxcars known as "forty or eights," because each car could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car and closed the door. The POWs rode the train to Capas arriving there at 9:00 AM. There, they disembarked from the cars, those who had died fell to the floor. The POWs walked the last miles to Camp O'Donnell.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp and believed the camp could hold 15,000 to 20,000 POWs. When they arrived at the camp, the camp commandant told the Americans that they were not prisoners of war but captives. The Japanese also took away any extra clothing that the POWs carried with them and refused to return it. The POWs were searched and anyone found with Japanese money were separated from the other POWs and sent to the guardhouse. These POWs were accused of looting the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers. Over several days, gunshots were heard coming from southeast of the camp.
There was only one water faucet for the entire camp and men stood in line from 2½ to 8 hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guard in charge of the spigot would turn it off, for no reason, and the next man in line would have to wait up to four hours for it to be turned on again. Water for cooking food had to be hauled three miles to the camp. Mess kits could not be cleaned. Since there was no water to wash their clothing, the POWs threw away soiled clothing and stripped the dead of their clothing. Few of the POWs in the camp hospital had clothing.
Since most of the POWs had dysentery, the slit trenches overflowed which resulted in flies being everywhere in the camp including the camp kitchen and in the food. The camp hospital had no water, soap, or disinfectant which also caused diseases to spread. When the ranking American doctor presented a letter with the medicines and medical supplies they needed to treat the sick, the camp commander, Captain Yoshio Tsuneyoshi, told him never to write another letter. He also said that the only thing he wanted to know about the POWs were their names and serial numbers after they died.
The Archbishop of Manila sent a truck full of medical supplies to the camp, but the Japanese refused to let it into the camp. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross told a Japanese lieutenant that they could set up an 150 bed hospital for the POWs, he was slapped in the face by the lieutenant. Medicines sent to the camp by the Red Cross were confiscated by the Japanese for their own use.
The Japanese were so afraid of contracting an illness that they put a barbed wire fence up around it. The POWs in the hospital lay elbow to elbow on the floor and operations were performed with knives from mess kits. Only one medic, out of every six assigned to treat the sick, was healthy enough to perform his duties.
Each morning, the POWs walked around the camp and collected the bodies of the dead and placed them under the hospital building. To clean the ground, the POWs moved the bodies, scrapped the ground, put down lime to sterilize the ground, moved the bodies back, and repeated the process where the bodies had been. It took two to three days to bury a man after he died.
Any POW, if he could walk, went out on a work detail for the day such as the one collected wood for the POW kitchen. Some POWs went out on work details which lasted for months to get out of the camp. The worse detail a man could be put on was the burial detail. On this detail, two POWs carried a dead man to the camp cemetery. Once there, they put the body in a grave and held the body down with a pole, since the water table was high, and covered it with dirt. The next morning, when the burials resumed, the dead were often sitting up or had been dug up by wild dogs.
It is known that while at Camp O'Donnell, he was assigned to Sub-Group 2 - which later became Sub-Group 3 - as the adjutant to Gen. Weaver. The number of men fluctuated since men went out on work details. It is believed that this group was composed of the members of 17th Ordnance, the 192nd & 194th Tank Battalions. On May 25, Robert left Camp O'Donnell on a work detail. It is not know what detail he was on and on long the detail pasted. When the detail ended, he was sent to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was formerly known at Camp Panagaian. The camp was opened to relieve the conditions at Camp O'Donnell.
Cabanatuan was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the POWs who fought on Bataan and took part in the march were held. Camp 2 was two miles from Camp 1, and was closed because it lacked an adequate water supply. It was later reopened and used for Naval POWs. Camp 3 was six miles from Camp 2 and held the POWs captured on Corregidor and who were hospitalized when Bataan surrendered. It was later closed and the POWs there were sent to Camp 1.
To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught, were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 men, but each barracks held from 60 to 100 men. The men slept on bamboo slats without mattresses, covers, and mosquito netting. Disease spread quickly among the POWs. It is known that Robert was assigned to Barracks 14, Group II.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard. Returning from a detail the POWs 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.
The hospital was comprised of 30 wards, with one additional ward known as "Zero Ward." It was given the name because it had been missed when the wards were bring counted. The name soon meant the place the truly sick POWs were sent to, to die. The Japanese were so afraid of the hospital that they put a fence up around it and would not enter the area.
What is known about his time in the camp was that he was admitted to the camp hospital on February 1, 1943, but no reason why he was admitted or date of discharge was given. According to the dairy kept by 2nd Lt. Ralph Crandell, HQ Company, 194th Tank Battalion, Pettit was beaten up on the farm detail, at the camp, on August 12, 1943. It appears he remained in the camp until October 12, 1944, when he was sent to Bilibid Prison. The POWs were processed for transport to Japan or another occupied country. He remained at Bilibid until December 1944.
On December 12, 1944, the POWs heard rumors that a detail was being sent out. The POWs went through what was a farce of an inspection. They were told cigarettes, soap, and salt would be issued. The POWs were also told that they would also receive a meal to eat and one to take with them. The Japanese stated they would leave by 7:00 in the morning, so the lights were left on all night. At 4:00 A.M. the morning of December 13, the POWs were awakened.
By 8:00, the POWs were lined up and roll call was taken. The names of the men selected for transport to Japan were called. The prisoners were allowed to roam the compound until they were told to "fall-in." The men were fed a meal and then marched to Pier 7 in Manila. During the march down Luzon Boulevard, the POWs saw that the street cars had stopped running and many things were in disrepair.
The Americans saw that the American bombers were doing a job on the Japanese transports. There were at least forty wrecked ships in the bay. When the POWs reached Pier 7, there were three ships docked. One was a old run down ship, the other two were large and in good shape. They soon discovered one of the two nicer ships was their ship.
The high ranking officers were the first put into the ship's aft hold of the Oryoku Maru. Being the first on meant that they would suffer many deaths. Around the perimeter of the hold were two tiers of bunks for the POWs. The heat was so bad that men soon began to pass out. One survivor said, "The fist fights began when men to pass out. We knew that only the front men in bay would be able to get enough air." The POWs who were closer to the hold's hatch used anything they could find to fan air toward those further away from it.
The ship left Manila at 8:00 P.M. but spent most of the night in Manila Bay. At 10:00 P.M., the Japanese interpreter threatened to have the guards fire into the holds unless the POWs stopped screaming. Some of the POWs fell silent because they were exhausted, and others because they had died.
One major of the 26th Cavalry stated the man next to him had lost his mind. Recalling the conversation he had with the man he said, "Worst was the man who had gone mad but would not sit still. One kept pestering me, pushing a mess kit against my chest, saying, 'Have some of this chow? It's good.' I smelled of it, it was not chow. 'All right' he said, 'If you don't want it. I'm going to eat it.' And a little later I heard him eating it , right beside me."
At 3:30 A.M. it sailed as part of the MATA-37 a convoy bound for Takao, Formosa. The ships sailed without any lights out of the bay. By the swells in the water, the POWs could tell that the ship was in open water. The cries for air began as the men lost discipline, so the Japanese threatened to cover the holds and cut off all air. When the Japanese sent down fried rice, cabbage, and fried seaweed, those further back from the opening got nothing.
The Japanese covered the holds and would not allow the slop buckets to be taken out of the holds. Those POWs who were left holding the buckets at first asked for someone else to hold it for awhile. When that did not work, they dumped the buckets on the men around them.
As light began to enter the hold as morning came, the POWs could see men who were in stupors, men out of their minds, and men who had died. The POWs in the aft hold which also had a sub-hold, put the POWs who out of their minds into it.
On the side of the holds, water had condensed on the walls so the POWs tried to scrap it off the wall for a drink. The Japanese did allow men who had passed out to be put on deck, but as soon as they revived they went back into the holds. The Japanese would not allow the bodies of the men who had died to be removed from the holds.
The POWs received their first meal at dawn. Meals on the ship consisted of a little rice, fish, some water, and three fourths of a cup of water was shared by 20 POWs. It was 8:00 A.M., off the coast of Luzon, and the POWs had just finished eating breakfast when they heard the sound of guns. At first, they thought the gun crews were just drilling, because they had not heard any planes. It was only when the first bomb hit in the water and the ship shook that they knew it was not a drill.
At first it seemed that most of the planes were attacking the other ships in the convoy. Commander Frank Bridgit, had made his way to the top of the ladder into the hold and sat down. He gave the POWs a play by play of the planes attacking, "I can see two planes going for a freighter off our starboard side. Now two more are detached from the formation. I think they may be coming for us."
The POWs heard the change in the sound of the planes' engines as they began their dives toward the ships in the convoy. Several more bombs hit the water near the ship causing it to rock Explosions were taking place all around the ship. In an attempt to protect themselves, the POWs piled baggage in front of them. Bullets from the planes were ricocheted in the hold causing many casualties. .
Lt. Col. Elvin Barr of the 60th Coast Artillery came up to Maj, John Fowler of the 26th Cavalry on the cargo deck and said, "There's a hole knocked in the bulkheads down there. Between 30 and 40 men have already died down there." Barr would never reach Japan. The attack by 30 to 50 planes lasted for about 20 to 30 minutes. When the planes were ran out of bombs they strafed. Afterwards, the planes flew off, returning to their carrier, and there was a lull of about 20 to 30 minutes before the next squadron of planes appeared over the ships and resumed the attack. This pattern repeated itself over and over during the day.
In the hold, the POWs concluded that the attacking planes were concentrating on the bridge of the ship. They noted that the planes had taken out all the anti-aircraft guns leaving only .30 caliber machine guns to defend the ship.
At 4:30 P.M., the ship went through the worse attack on it. It was hit at least three times by bombs on its bridge and stern. Most of the POWs, who were wounded, were wounded by ricocheting bullets and shrapnel from exploding bombs. During the attack Chaplain Cummings, a Catholic priest, led the POWs in the Our Father. As they prayed, the bombs that exploded near the ship sent torrents of water over the ship.
Bullets from the planes hit the metal plates, of the haul, at an angle that prevented most of them from penetrating the haul. Somewhere on the ship a fire started, but it was put out after several hours. The POWs lived through seven or eight attacks before sunset. Overall, six bombs hit the ship. One hit the stern of the ship killing many POWs.
At dusk the ship raised anchor and headed east. It turned south and turned again this time heading west. The next turn it made was north. It headed in this direction for a good amount of time before dropping anchor at about 8:00 P.M. The POWs figured out that they had just sailed in a circle. What had happened is that the ship's had been hit during the attack and the ship could not be steered.
Sometime after midnight, the POWs heard the sound of the Japanese civilians being evacuated from the ship. During the night, the POW medics were ordered onto the deck to treat the Japanese wounded. One medic recalled that the dead, dying, and wounded were everywhere.
The ship reached Subic Bay at 2:30 in the morning and steamed closer to the beach where its anchor was dropped. At 4:00 A.M., the POWs were told that they would disembark at daybreak at a pier. The moaning and muttering of POWs who were losing their minds kept the POWs up all night. That night 25 POWs died in the hold.
It was December 15 and the POWs sat in the ship's holds for hours after dawn. The first 35 POWs were taken out of the hold and went into the water. At 8:00 A.M. as the other POWs waited, the sound of A Japanese guard yelled into the hold at the POWs, "All go home; speedo!" He shouted that the wounded would be the first to be evacuated. Suddenly, he looked up and shouted, "Planes, many planes!" As the POWs were abandoning ship the planes returned and continued the attack. The ship bounced in the water from the explosions. Chief Boatswain Clarence M. Taylor who was in the water said, "I saw the whole thing. A bomb fall, hit near the stern hatch, and debris go flying up in the air."
In the hold, the POWs crowded together. Chips of rust fell on them from the ceiling. After the raid, they took care of the wounded before the next attack started. In the hold a Catholic priest, Father Duffy, began to pray, "Father forgive them. They know not what they do."
The Japanese guards and interpreter had abandoned ship, but the ship's captain remained on board. He told the POWs - with his limited English - that they needed to get off the ship to safety. The POWs made their way over the side and into the water. As they swam to shore, the Japanese fired at them, with machine guns, to prevent them from escaping.
Four of the planes flew low over the water above the POWs. The POWs waved frantically at the planes so they would not be strafed. The planes banked and flew lower over the POWs. This time the pilots dipped their wings to show that they knew the men in the water were Americans. About a half hour later, the ship began to really burn and the bodies of the dead could be seen on the decks.
The Japanese sent out a motorboat with a machine gun and snipers on it. The POWs attempting to escape were hunted down and shot. It is believed as many as 30 men died in the water.
There was no real beach, so the POWs climbed up on a seawall and found the the Japanese Naval Landing Party had set up a machine gun and had just laid flat to rest when the gun opened up on them. Those who came ashore were warned to stay in the water, but only did so when one man climbed up on the seawall and was wounded. There were also Japanese snipers in wait to shoot anyone who attempted to escape.
The POWs were gathered together and marched to the tennis court at Olongapo Naval Station which was about 500 yards from the beach. There, they were herded onto a tennis court. The Japanese packed 1300 of the POWs on the court with 100 wounded POWs taking up a great amount of room at one end. They could barely sit down and only lay down by lying partially on another man.
While the POWs were at Olongapo, a Japanese officer, Lt. Junsaburo Toshio, told the ranking American officer, Lt. Col. E. Carl Engelhart, that those too badly wounded to continue the trip would be returned to Bilibid. Fifteen men were selected and loaded onto a truck. They were taken into the mountains and never seen again. What was learned was that these men were taken to a cemetery and shot. They were also buried in the cemetery. The remainder of the POWs remained on the tennis court. During this time, they were given water but not fed.
The POWs remained on the tennis court for nine days. During their time on the courts, American planes attacked the area around them. The men watched as the fighter bombers came in vertically releasing bombs as they pulled out of the dives. On several occasions, the planes dove right at the POWs, dropped their bombs, and pulled out of the dives. The bombs drifted over the POWs and landed away from them exploding on contact.
Since the POWs had no place to hide, they watched and enjoyed the show. They believed that the pilots knew they were Americans but had no way of knowing if this was true. But what is known is that not one bomb was dropped on them even though they could be seen from the planes.
The evening of December 16th, the Japanese brought 50 kilo bags of rice for the POWs to eat. About half the rice had fallen out of the bags because of holes. Each POW was given three spoonfuls of raw rice and a spoonful of salt.
At about 8:00 AM on the morning of December 22nd, 22 trucks arrived at the tennis court. Rumors flew on where they were going to be taken. At about 4:00 PM, a Taiwanese guard told the POWs, in broken English,"No go Cabanatuan. Go Manila; maybe Bilibid." The guard knew as little as the POWs.
On December 22, the POWs were taken by truck to San Fernando, Pampanga, arriving there about four or five in the afternoon. Once there, they were put in a movie theater. Since it was dark, the POWs saw the theater as a dungeon.
During the time at San Fernando, Pampanga, the POWs lived through several air raids. The reason for the air raids was the barrio was military headquarters for the area. Most of the civilians had been moved out of the barrio. Many of the Americans began to believe they had been taken there so that they would be killed by their own countrymen.
On December 23, at about 10:00 P.M., the Japanese interpreter spoke to the ranking American officer about moving the POWs. The Japanese loaded the seriously ill into a truck. The remaining POWs believed that the POWs in the truck were taken to Bilibid Prison. Those remaining were moved to a trade school building in the barrio.
After 10:00 A.M. on December 24th, the POWs were taken to train station. The POWs saw that the station had been hit by bombings and that the cars they were boarding had bullet holes in them from strafing. 180 to 200 were packed into steel boxcars with four guards in each boxcar. The doors of the boxcars were kept closed and the heat in the cars was terrible. Ten to fifteen POWs rode on the roofs of the cars along with two guards. The guards told these POWs that it was okay to wave to the American planes.
On December 25, the POWs disembarked at San Fernando, La Union, at 2:00 AM. They walked two kilometers to a school yard on the southern outskirts of the barrio. From December 25 until the 26, the POWs were held in a school house. The morning of December 26, the POWs were marched to a beach. During this time the prisoners were allowed one handful of rice and a canteen of water. The heat from the sun was so bad that men drank seawater; Many of those men died.
Most of the remaining prisoners where boarded onto the Enoura Maru or Brazil Maru on December 27. The daily routine for the POWs on the ship was to have six men climb out of the hold. Once on deck, they would use ropes to pull up the dead and also pull up the human waste in buckets. Afterwards, the men on deck would lower ten buckets containing rice, soup, and tea.
During the night of December 30, the POWs heard the sound of depth charges exploding in the water. The ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, on December 31 and docked around 11:30 AM. After arriving at Takao, each POW received a six inch long, 3/4 inch wide piece hardtack to eat. This was the first bread they had since receiving crackers in their Red Cross packages in 1942. During the time in the harbor, the POWs received little water. From January 1st through the 5th, the POWs received one meal and day and very little water. This resulted in the death rate among the POWs to rise. On January 6, all the prisoners were moved to the Enoura Maru, and the POWs began to receive two meals a day.
The Enoura Maru also came under attack by American planes the morning of January 9. The POWs were receiving their first meal of the day, when the sound of ship's machine guns was heard. The explosions of bombs falling closer and closer to the ship was also heard. The waves created from the explosions rocked the ship.
Major Robert C. Pettit died on January 9, 1945, at Takao, Formosa, during the attack on the ship by American planes. One bomb exploded outside the hull ripping a hole in it, while another fell through the open hatch and exploded. Both explosions resulted in the deaths of 285 POWs. The Japanese did nothing to remove the dead from the hold, so the POWs piled the dead under the hatch so that they would be the first thing that the Japanese saw when they looked into the hold. The Japanese brought a barge to the ship and the dead were piled on it. The barge took the bodies close to shore where the POWs tied ropes to their legs and dragged the dead to shore, since they were too weak to carry them. The dead were buried in amass grave on a beach.
After the war, his name was placed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila. His remains, and the remains of all those who died on that date were buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. It should be noted that Major Robert Pettit was awarded the Purple Heart and nominated for the Silver Star.
The picture at the top of the page was taken of Robert Pettit when he was a New York City fireman.
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