What is known about Sgt. Willard Russell was that he was from Russell County, Kentucky. He
was born in 1919 and enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky. He was assigned to the
19th Ordnance Battalion. A Company of the battalion was later reorganized as the 17th Ordnance Company.
In the late summer of 1941, 17th Ordnance received orders for duty in the Philippine Islands.
The decision for this move - which had been made on August 15, 1941 - 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
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.
On September 1, 1941, the company rode a train to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, on
September 5, and were ferried, by the
U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. It was there the soldiers received
physicals and inoculations and those men found with medical conditions were replaced.
The soldiers spent three days preparing their equipment and the equipment of the 194th Tank
Battalion for shipment to the Philippine Islands. The turrets of the tanks were removed and the tank's serial
number was sprayed on each one so that it could be reattached to the right tank.
The men boarded the
S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8 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 13 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, and an unknown destroyer that were its escorts. 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 ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and the date changed to
Thursday, September 18. The ships entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M., on September 26, 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 which wasn't finished until the next morning.
On December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Willard
lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Airfield. He spent the next four months servicing the tanks of the the
On April 9, 1942, Willard became a Prisoner of War when Bataan was surrendered
to the Japanese. He took part in the death march from Mariveles to San Fernando. There, the POWs were
boarded onto small wooden boxcars that could hold forty men. One hundred men were packed into each car and the
doors were closed. The dead remained standing until the living left the cars. He then walked the last ten
miles to Camp O'Donnell.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese
pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When the POWs 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.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight
hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in
line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a
second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had
been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits
could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the
POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor
at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told
never to write another letter.
The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese
commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Japanese Red Cross sent medical supplies the camp
the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic
assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine
Red Cross stated they could supply a 150 bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the
hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp
cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital,
the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area
they had been laying was scrapped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list
of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could
not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick, but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs
reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new
POW camp at Cabanatuan.
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas.
There, the were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another
line which took it to Cabanatuan. The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked
rice and onion soup. From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st
Philippine Army Division and was formerly known at Camp Panagaian.
The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and
taken part in the death march where held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It
later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where those men captured when Corregidor surrender were
taken. In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the
camp. Camp 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1.
Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if
they had an issue they wanted to deal with. 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.
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the "Blood Brother" rule. If one man escaped the
other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did
escape and were caught, were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from
The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in
them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became
ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together, went out on
work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers.
The POWs were sent out on work details one was to cut wood for the POW kitchens. The two
major details were the farm detail and the airfield detail which lasted for years. A typical day on any detail
lasted from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. The POWs on the farm detail would have to go to a shed each morning
to get tools. As they left the shed, the Japanese guards thought it was great fun to hit them over their heads.
The detail was under the command of "Big Speedo" who spoke very little English. When he
wanted the POWs to work faster, he told the POWs
"speedo." Although he was known to have a temper, the POWs thought he was fair. Another
guard was "Little Speedo" who was smaller and also used
when he wanted the POWs to work faster. The POWs also felt he was pretty fair in his treatment of
them. "Smiley" was another guard who always had a smile on his face but could not be trusted. He was the
meanest of the guards and beat men up for no reason. He liked to hit the POWs with the club. Any prisoner
who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Any prisoner who he believed was not
working hard enough got knocked over with it. 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.
Other POWs worked in rice paddies. 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 to drive
their faces deeper into the mud. 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.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as "lugow" which meant "wet rice."
During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in awhile, they received
The camp hospital was known as "Zero Ward" because it was missed by the Japanese when they
counted barracks. The sickest POWs were sent there to die. The Japanese put a fence up around the building
to protect themselves, and they would not go into the building. There were two rolls of wooden platforms around
the perimeter of the building. The sickest POWs were put on the lower platform which had holes cut into it so the
they could relieve themselves. Most of those who entered the ward died.
The POWs had the job of burying the dead. To do this, they worked in teams of four
men. Each team carried a litter of four to six dead men to the cemetery where they were buried in graves
containing 15 to 20 bodies. The death rate still was 9 POWs a day into December when the Japanese issued the POWs
Red Cross Packages. Doing this and changes made to the camp by the POWs lowered the death rate.
Willard was selected to go out on a work detail to Manila that was known as
the Bachrach Garage Detail. The POWs repaired trucks and other equipment for the Japanese. He remained on
this detail until it was disbanded and the POWs were sent to Port Area of Manila for transport to Japan.
In early October 1944, 1775 POWs were marched to the Port Area of Manila. When his POW
group arrived at the pier, the ship they were scheduled to sail on, the
, was ready to sail, but some of the POWs in the detachment had not arrived at the pier. Another POW
detachment, scheduled to sail on the
, had completely arrived, but their ship was not ready to sail. It was at that time that the Japanese made the
decision to switch POW detachments so the
On October 11, almost 1775 POWs were packed into the ship's number one hold. Along the
sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks, but the bunks were so close together that a man could not lift
himself up when he used one. Those standing had no room to lie down. The latrines for the prisoners were
eight five gallon cans, which the POWs could not use since they were packed in the hold so tightly. This resulted
in the floor of the hold being covered with human waste. Anton Cichy said
, "For the first few days there were 1,800 of us together in one hold. I don't know how
big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down. We were just kind of stuck together."
Calvin Graef said about the conditions in the hold
, "We were packed in so tight most men couldn't get near the cans. And, of course, it was a physical
impossibility for the sick in the back of the hold, the men suffering the tortures of diarrhea and dysentery.
We waded in fecal matter. Most of the men went naked. The place was alive with lice, bedbugs and
roaches; the filth and stench were beyond description."
The ship sailed, but took a southerly route away from Taiwan and dropped anchor in a cove off
Palawan Island. During the first 48 hours off Palawan, five POWs died. The POWs realized that the Japanese
had removed the light bulbs from the lighting system, but that they had not turned off the power. They figured
out a way to hook the ventilation system into the lights and had fresh air for two days. When the Japanese
discovered what had been done, they turned off the power
The POWs began developing heat blisters, and the Japanese conceded that more POWs would die
unless they did something. The Japanese transferred POWs from the first hold to its second hold. This hold
was partially filled with coal. During the transfer, one POW attempted to escape and was shot.
Of this time, Graef said
, "As we moved through the tropical waters, the heat down in the steel-encased hell hole was maddening. We
were allowed three ounces of water per man every 24 hours. Quarts were needed under these conditions, to keep a
man from dehydrating.
"While men were dying of thirst, Jap guards--heaping insults on us--would empty five gallon tins
of fresh water into the hold. Men caught the water in pieces of clothing and sucked the cloth dry. Men
licked their wet skins. It was hell all right. Men went mad. Most of the men went naked. The
place was alive with lice, bedbugs and roaches; the filth and stench were beyond description."
On October 20, the
returned to Manila, where, it joined a twelve ship convoy bound for Taiwan. The convoy sailed on October 21
after all the ships had been loaded. The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they
were carrying POWs. This made the ships targets for submarines. In addition, U.S. Military Intelligence,
was reading the Japanese code as fast as the Japanese. To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine
crews which ships were carrying POWs.
Graef described conditions in the hold.
"There were so many (that died ) out of 1800. The condition in that hold.....men were just dying in a
continuous stream. Men, holding their bellies in interlocked arms, stood up, screamed and died. You were
being starved men were dying at such a pace we had to pile them up. It was like you were choking to
death. Burial consisted of two men throwing another overboard."
, "The Japs told us that they'd be in Formosa the next day to pick up some cargo. They
had to make room on deck so they tossed a whole bunch of life preservers down into the hold. I held onto one but
didn't think anything about it."
It was about
4:00 P.M. on October 24, and some of the POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs
in the ship's holds and had fed about half the POWs. The waves were high since the ship had been through a storm
in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. Suddenly, bells and sirens sounded warning of submarines. The
POWs in the holds chanted for the submarine to sink the ship.
4:50 P.M. when the Japanese on deck ran to the bow of the ship and watched a torpedo pass
in front of the ship. They next ran to the stern of the ship and watched a second torpedo pass behind the
ship. The ship shook and came to a stop. It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, killing some of the
POWs. Those still alive began cheering wildly, but it stopped when they realized they were facing death.
, "When the torpedo hit everybody in the hold hollered 'Hit her again!' We wanted to get it over with."
Lt. Robert S. Overbeck said
, "When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn't care a bit--they were tired and weak and
He also said of the incident
, "The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn't break in two. For about
five second there was panic among us, but there were five or six chaplains who prayed fervently and quieted the
men. By then the Nips -- 300 of them on deck -- were scurrying about, scared as hell. The boilers
exploded. I don't think any of us got hurt in the torpedoing or the explosion. Most of the prisoners were
American, with a few British. That was about 5:00 P.M."
It is believed the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the
The guards took their rifles and used them as clubs to drive the POWs on deck into the
holds. Once in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders into the holds and put the hatch covers over the
holds, but they did not tie the hatch covers down. Cichy recalled
, "The Japs closed the hatches and left the ship in lifeboats. They must have forgot
about the prisoners on deck who had been cooking. When the Japs were off the boat, the cooks opened the
hatches and told us to come up. I was just under the deck, but there were a lot of guys down below. One
of them escaped by simply walking into the water from a hole in the bulkhead. He was Lt. Robert S. Overback,
Cichy also stated
, "The Japs had already evacuated ship. They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their
The POWs left the holds but made no attempt to abandon ship. On the ship's deck an American
major spoke to the POWs, he said
, "Boys, we're in a hellva a jam - but we've been in jams before. Remember just one thing: We're American
soldiers. Let's play it that way to the very end of the script.
Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them
, "Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men."
, "We broke into the ship's stores to get food, cigarettes, and water -- mainly water, we
were so thirsty. All of us figured we were going to die anyway. The Japs ships, except for the
destroyers, had disappeared. All we had were life belts which the Japanese had fortunately thrown down the
hold the day before."
The ship slowly sank lower into the water.
According to surviving POWs, the ship stayed afloat for hours but got lower in the water.
At one point, the stern of the ship began going under which caused the ship to split in half but the halves remained
afloat. Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking. Some
POWs attempted to escape by putting on lifebelts, clinging to hatch covers, rafts, and other flotsam and
jetsam. When they reached other Japanese ships, the Japanese pushed them away with poles. Of this Glenn
, "They weren't picking up Americans. A lot of the prisoners were swimming for the destroyer, but the
Japanese were pushing them back into the water."
, "I could see people still on the ship when it went down. I could see people against the skyline, just
standing there." In the water he watched as the ship went under. "I kept getting bumped by guys wearing
life jackets. Nobody wanted to share my planks. I didn't ask them."
Three POWs found an abandoned life boat and managed to climb in but found it had no
oars. With the rough seas, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs. According to the survivors, the
Arisan Maru and sank sometime after dark on Tuesday, October 24, 1944. Oliver - who was not in the boat -
stated he heard men using what he called "GI whistles" to contact each other.
"They were blowing these GI whistles in the night. This weird moaning sound. I can't describe
The next morning there were just waves. Oliver and three other men were picked up by a
Japanese destroyer and taken to Formosa and finally sent to Japan. The next day the three men in the boat
picked up two more survivors and later made it to China and freedom. Sgt. Willard Russell was not one of
In 1945, his family received this message:
"The information available to the war department is that the vessel sailed from Manila on October 11, 1944, with
1775 prisoners of war aboard. On October 24 the vessel was sunk by submarine action in the south China Sea over
200 miles from the Chinese coast which was the nearest land. Five of the prisoners escaped in a small boat and
reached the coast. Four others have been reported as picked up by the Japanese by whom all others aboard are
reported lost. Absence of detailed information as to what happened to the other individual prisoners and known
circumstances of the incident lead to a conclusion that all other prisoners listed by the Japanese as aboard
the vessel perished."
Posthumously, Willard was awarded the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Unit Citation with Oak Leaves, the Victory
Medal, the Silver Star, the Foreign Service and the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Ribbons. Since he died at sea, Sgt.
Willard Russell's name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila