Smith Elmer

 

Sgt. Elmer Nelson Smith


   Sgt. Elmer N. Smith was born on October 9, 1920, and was the son of Amiel & Dora Smith.  With his two brothers and five sisters, he lived at 117½ West Second Street in Port Clinton, Ohio, and attended Port Clinton schools.  He was a 1938 graduate of Port Clinton High School.  After high school, he worked in a shipyard as a metal worker.  At some point, Elmer joined the Company H Tank Corp of the Ohio National Guard which was headquartered in Port Clinton.  

    Elmer was one of the original Ohio National Guardsmen called to federal service on November 25, 1940.  He trained at Fort Knox, Kentucky, as a member of C Company, 192nd Tank Battalion.  During his training, Elmer took classes in cooking and baking, and after successfully completing the courses, he became the youngest certified mess sergeant in the army from the State of Ohio.

    Elmer participated in maneuvers in Louisiana at the end of August 1941.  After completion of the maneuvers, the battalion was sent to Camp Polk where the members learned that the battalion was being sent overseas. 

    The reason why the 192nd Tank Battalion received orders for duty, in the Philippines, was because of an event that happened during the summer of 1941.  A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd.  He took his plane down and identified a buoy in the water.  He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line, in the direction of an Japanese occupied island.  When the squadron landed he reported what he had seen.  By the time a Navy ship was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up.  It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines. 
He and the other members of the battalion were given furloughs home to say goodbye before returning to Camp Polk for transport to California.

    The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27th.  During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP.   The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd and had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
    On Wednesday, November 5th, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes.  It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. Calvin Coolidge.  Sunday night, November 9th, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th.  During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Date Line.  On Saturday, November 15th, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon.  The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke.  It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
    When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16th, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day.  At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout.  This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm's way.  The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20th, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning.  At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg.  Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
   At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward P. King, who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield.  He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own dinner.  Ironically, November 20th was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
    The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg.  The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent.  There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.

    On November 21, 1941, he wrote in his diary:

 

    "Today we arrived here at Ft. Stotsenburg.  Our sea voyage was not unusual.  Many were seasick.  Many of us never looked out all the time on water."

 

    A few days later on November 23 in another entry  he said:

 

    "Today we were busy getting settled here at Ft. Stotsenburg.  Most of us have found natives to do our laundry for a small sum.  Ft. Stotsenburg is the center of a fascinating romantic tropical beauty.  It lies in a broad, gently rolling valley that reaches north from Manila more than a hundred miles to Lingayen Gulf.  Watery rice fields, sugar cane fields lay everywhere interspersed with clumps of vegetation."

 

    For the next seventeen days the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons which had been greased to protect them from rust while at sea.  They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance., and prepared for maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion.
    On December 1st, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers.  Two members of each tank crew had to remain with the tank at all times and received their meals from food trucks.
    The morning of December 8th, the officers were called to a meeting and informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just hours earlier.  After hearing the news, they returned to their companies and informed the enlisted men of the attack.  His diary entry for the day stated:  

    "It's Dec. 8 here, but Dec. 7 back home in the States. This morning we were up at 6 a.m. Some of us were strolling toward the mess tent when we heard a cook say 'God, the Japs have bombed Pearl Harbor!'  As we went in we heard the radio announcer say, 'flights of Jap planes --- smoke and flames at Pearl Harbor.  Ships reported sunk by bombs,' Breakfast was forgotten.  Our immediate job was to protect Clark Field, our 3 companies of Tanks --- ABC under command of Capt. Sorenson were dispersed around Clark Field at 10:45.  They told us the Japs were nearing Lingayen Gulf.  First bomb fell shortly after 11:45 a.m.  We found ourselves faced down in the ditches.  We hardly knew what happened."  It should be noted the attack started at 12:45 and ended around 1:30.

    For the next four months, Elmer worked to feed the other members of C Company.  As time went on, this became more difficult as the supplies of food dwindled.  Being a mess sergeant, Elmer knew that without food the Filipino and Americans could not hold on forever.  The Japanese lunched a major offense on April 3rd, and when it became apparent that there was no way to win, Gen. King sent his staff officers to negotiate terms of surrender.  On April 8, 1942, Elmer wrote this entry in his diary:

    "Rumors have reached us that tomorrow Gen. Wainwright is going to surrender.  Oh God what there is in store for us.  We have been out here to defend this land against the greatest of all foes, nothing to fight with and the full might of an enemy's military power thrown against us.  Where will we go after the white flags go up?  This is the greatest humility the Stars and Stripes have suffered.  But the U.S. will not let us down.  They're come to free us. But how long will it be?

    Will we be in prison camps for years, will we escape, will we be put to death, or will we be rescued?  Only God knows. I'm not only praying for myself and my buddies, but for the folks back home.  I can still hear the voice of God, as we sat side by side in that foxhole on "Bataan" as he said ----Fear not, I am with thee always."

    When the Philippines were surrendered to the Japanese on April 9. 1942, Elmer became a Prisoner of War and was held at Camp O'Donnell and moved to Cabanatuan Prison Camp when it opened.  He was held there until September 1943.  While there, he did clerical work in the camp’s office.  It was also during this time that his family learned he was a POW on April 2, 1943.

    In September 1943, Elmer was selected for a work detail at Las Pinas. The POWs were held at Las Pinas School and slept 30 men to  a room in eighteen classrooms.  Their food was scraps from the Japanese kitchen.
    At six in the morning, the POWs had reveille and "bongo," or count, at 6:15 in detachments of 100 men and than exercises.  After this came breakfast, which was a fish soup with rice.  After breakfast, there was a second count of all POWs, which included both healthy and sick, before the POWs marched a mile and half to the airfield.   
    The POWs on this detail worked at Nichols Field where the Japanese wanted to build one of the biggest runways in the Philippines.  To do this, the POWs were expected to remove hills with picks and shovels.  The plans for the runway were drawn up before the war by the American Army Air Corps, but unlike the Americans, the Japanese had no plans on using construction equipment.

    When Elmer was sent to the detail, it was already under a new commander.  The second commanding officer of the detail was known as "the Wolf."  He was a civilian who wore a Japanese Naval Uniform.  Each morning, he would come to the POW barracks and select those POWs who looked the sickest and made them line up.  The men were made to put one leg on each side of a trench and then do 50 push-ups.  If a man's arms gave out and he touched the ground, he was beaten with pick handles. 
    On another occasion a POW collapsed on the runway.  The Wolf had the man taken back to the barracks.  When the Wolf came to the barracks that evening and the man was still unconscious, he banged the man's head into the concrete floor and kicked him in the head.  He then took the man to the shower and drowned him in the basin.
    A third POW who had tried to walk away from the detail told the guards to shoot him, the guards took him back to the Pasay School and strung him up by his thumbs outside the doorway and placed a bottle of beer and sandwich in front of him.  He was dead by evening.
    The remains of the POWs who had died on the detail were brought to Bilibid Prison in boxes.  The Japanese had death certificates, with the causes of death and signed by an American doctor, sent with the boxes.  The Americans from the detail, who accompanied the boxes, would not tell the POWs at Bilibid what had happened.  It was only when the sick, from the detail, began to arrive at Bilibid did they learn what the detail was like.  These men were sent to Bilibid to die since it would look better when it was reported to the International Red Cross. 
    On September 21, 1944, American planes appeared over the airfield.  As the planes strafed the airfield, the POWs cheered.  It was immediately after this attack that the POWs were sent to Bilibid Prison. 

    In a series of letters he wrote while at Bilibid from November to December 1944, he described his life as a POW.  Elmer indicated that he knew that Bilibid was the clearing point for Americans being sent to Japan or another Japanese occupied country.  He also described the daily life of the POW.

    "Another day is wearing itself away in slow monotonous, dreary hours...I visit Collins (Capt. Harold Collins of LaCarne, Ohio) now and then...We discussed everything already...nothing new to speak of."

    As if to reinforce this, he wrote on November 7, 1944:

    “Another day begun…Nothing of interest insight so far…two meals each day …One-half portion of Lugoa is our main concern …It’s very weak…Next meal 3:00 p.m. …May be camote soup today…Yesterday and the day before heavy raids.

    “The food is the important item.  What little we do have is issued by our hosts (the Japs) is so highly prized men will do anything to get it.  Scrape it off the ground…grass…peelings, etc.  We all mix water with our food…eat as slow as possible and lick our kits afterwards.”

    In a letter written three days before he was sent to Manila for shipment to Japan, he wrote:

    “Weather rather unsteady…Rained for the past three days…Now and then the sun tries to shine…. Still getting colder…Christmas will be here in three weeks….Christmas…The day will come and go here….and a Merry Christmas will be in order….But the drab environment that surrounds us and the conditions we live in permits us no joys or harmony.”

    One reason for the bad feelings among the prisoners at Bilibid Prison was that the 1100 prisoners lived in extremely crowded conditions.  As if to demonstrate this, Elmer like every prisoner had a 22 inch wide sleeping space.

    In a letter dated, December 9, 1944, Elmer revealed how the items the prisoners received would have been taken for granted at home.  Things which would seem unimportant were extremely important to him.

    “On Dec. 8, each man received one-third bag of tobacco.  That is a great help…it is like getting a package from home.”

    Elmer described the old stone hospital he lived in within the walls of Bilibid Prison.  He wrote of the high walls and electric fences which kept Elmer from seeing or hearing anything of the outside world.  But the one thing that the prison walls could not stop Elmer from seeing were the airplanes.  Above the prison, Elmer could see the American planes on the way to bomb Japanese installations at Manila.  These planes brought him memories and desires for a life he no longer had.  He wrote:

    There, just a few thousand feet above us are free Americans-free!  Free to talk, write home, and sleep without fear.  Free to go back and eat what they want and laugh and smoke.  It makes a fellow wonder if he will appreciate more what he had before.  I know I will.”

    Elmer also wrote of that rumors of the war were what kept the prisoners going.  As his time in the prison went on, he tired of these rumors.  He wrote:

    “There have been no planes for weeks. We get rumors and that is all, but they are started by some moronic officer in his pensive mood or some Tanoan guard wanting a good joke.  If one percent of the rumors had been true that I’ve heard while in prison, I would have been home two years ago.”

    “There’s no sign of Red Cross this year…I’m down to 138 pounds but haven’t given up hope.  Last night (Dec. 11, 1944) we had the best mess since arriving from Rigul.  540 grams of wet, steamed rice and 12 ounces ogree soup with bean meal.”

   In an earlier letter dated December 4, 1944, he commented on the health of the prisoners at Bilibid.  He also indicated knowledge that American forces had returned to the Philippines.

    “We have many cripples, aenemics, and plain cases of starvation here.  Now, we are living in hope that in a few days the Yanks will be here to liberate us.  It’s my prayer it will be soon.”

    “There have been a lot of deaths lately…average one a day in the wards…Only thing now that does it is little chow.”

    He described how he had learned to speak, write and interpret Japanese fairly well.  This allowed him to act as an interpreter for his fellow POWs, a job he had held at Las Pinas.  Elmer wrote of how, at the start of the war, he had wanted to return to the Philippines, because he saw it as a place of endless opportunities to make money.  But, by December, 1944, he just wanted to get out of the prison camp and return home.

    In the notebook, he wrote about his plans for the future when he got home.  Some of his entries were about his plans for a farm.  Another was about staying in the army until he could afford to buy a small restaurant or a bar.  Still, a third entry spoke of his wildest plan of traveling around the world in a sailboat.

    In mid-December, 1944,  Elmer marked an anniversary of a fateful event in his life.  

 

"Three years ago today (Dec. 12, 1941) we received a severe bombing at Fort Stotsenburg,  Pamaanga...They bombed us most of the day...about seven raids...we moved to Barrio Dam after dusk that evening and stayed there until we were sent north to Lingayen Gulf on the 23. (Dec. 23, 1941).

 

    In early December, the Japanese ordered the American medical staff at the prisoner to put together a list of POWs who were healthy enough to be sent to Japan.  On the morning of December 12th, roll was taken and Elmer's name and the names of the other POWs being sent to Japan were read off.   Before he left Bilibid Prison, Elmer gave his letters to Pfc. Garrett Royalty of D Company.  According to Royalty, Elmer said to him, "If I don't get out alive, will you see that my family gets these notes."  

    That night at 4 a.m., the POWs were awakened and fed breakfast.  They were marched to Pier 7 in Manila.  The Japanese boarded Japanese civilians first.  The last group to board the Oryoku Maru were the POWs who boarded that evening.

    The high ranking officers were the first put into the ship's afthold.  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 15th 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.  It was at this time a roll call was taken which showed that 329 of the 1619 POWs who had boarded the ship had died.
    It is not known if Sgt. Elmer N. Smith died during the attack on the ship by the American planes, if he died while swimming to shore, or if he died after reaching land. 
What is known is that Sgt. Elmer N. Smith never realized his dream of liberation and freedom.  He died during the attack on the Oryoku Maru on December 15, 1944.  He was 24 years old.

    After he was liberated at Bilibid Prison at the end of the war.   Garrett Royalty returned home and gave Elmer's letters to his parents.  It was from those letters that the quotations in this biography were taken.


 


 

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