Pvt. William John Smith
Pvt. William J. Smith was born in 1916 to Matt & Louise Smith. With his sister, he was raised at 309 Quince Street in Brainerd, Minnesota. He was known as "Bill" to his family and friends. On February 10, 1941, his Minnesota National Guard Tank Company was called to federal service as A Company, 194th Tank Battalion.
For the next six months the battalion trained at Fort Lewis, Washington. In September 1941, the battalion received orders for overseas duty. They traveled by train to San Francisco and sailed for the Philippine Islands.
Arriving in the Philippines, the battalion was stationed at Ft. Stotsenburg. Over the next two months, they prepared their tanks for use on maneuvers that were scheduled when the 192nd Tank Battalion arrived.
The morning of December 8, 1941, December 7th in the United States, the members of the 194th were informed by Lt. Col. Ernest Miller that Japan had bombed Pearl harbor ten hours earlier. They were then ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers.
About 12:45 in the afternoon, planes approached the airfield from the north. The soldiers began counting them believing that they were American planes. It was when bombs began exploding on the runways that they knew the planes were Japanese.
Bill spent the next four months fighting to slow the Japanese conquest of the Philippines. On April 9, 1942, the order "crash" was given and the tankers destroyed their tanks. They made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan. It was from this barrio that William started what became known as the death march.
The Prisoners of War made their way to San Fernando. There, they were packed into small wooden boxcars. These cars were used to haul sugarcane. Each car could hold eight horses of forty men, but the Japanese put 100 men in each car. Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at San Fernando.
Bill made his way to Camp O'Donnell which was an
unfinished Filipino army base that the Japanese
pressed into use as a POW camp. The
situation in the camp was so bad that as many as
fifty men died each day. The living often
lay in their own waste because they were too
sick to move. The death rate in the camp
got so bad that the Japanese opened a new camp
in hope of lowing the death rate among the POWs.
Being considered a healthier POW, Bill was sent
to the camp which was near Cabanatuan. Right
after arriving in the camp, he was hospitalized,
June 7, 1942, suffering from malaria and a
hernia. He remained in the hospital for
six months before being discharged on Tuesday,
December 7, 1942. He was hospitalized a
second time on December 15th suffering from
beriberi and malaria. It is not known when
he was discharged.
detail, the POWs were expected to tear down
the side of a mountain to build the largest
runway in the Pacific. They did this
with picks and shovels while other POWs,
teams of two, pushed small hopper cars and
dumped the rubble in a designated area.
The POWs were housed at
the Pasay School which was about a mile
from the airfield. Each morning,
the POWs were expected to get up and do
calisthenics, eat, and march a mile to
the airfield. They removed hills,
to build a runway, with picks and
shovels. The dirt from the hills
were put into mining cars and pushed to
a swamp and used as landfill.
On this detail, the
POWs had nothing but
picks and shovels to
first the work was
hard but not as hard
as it was going to
get. About 400
yards from where
they began working
The POWs removed
these hills with
dirt was put into
wheel barrows and
carried to a swamp
and dumped as
turned out to be
inefficient, so the
Japanese brought in
mining cars and
POWs pushed each car
to where it was to
be dumped. He
would remain on this
detail for almost
shown to the
commander of the
camp, a Lt. Moto, was
because he wore
a spotless naval
He was commander
of the camp for
One day a POW
working on the
Moto was told
about the man
and came out and
ordered him to
When he couldn't
made to carry
the man back to
The welfare of the POWs was of no concern to the Japanese. They only concern they had was getting the runway built. If the number of POWs identified as being sick was too large, the Japanese would simply walk among the POWs, at the school, and select men who did not display any physical signs of illness or injury. Men suffering from dysentery or pellagra could not get out of work.
"the Wolf" was
was hardest to
convince that a
sick. If a
man's arm or leg
was bandaged, he
would kick the
man's leg, in
the spot it was
see how the man
If the man
showed a great
deal of pain, he
was not required
In one case, a
man whose broken
wrist was in a
twisted by the
Wolf while the
man trembled in
On September 21, 1944, while the POWs were working, they saw American diver bombers. This was the first time they had seen American planes since the surrender of Bataan. Watching the planes attack the Japanese caused the POWs to cheer. The next day the detail was ended. Forrest and the other prisoners were sent to Bilibid Prison to prepare for transport to Japan. In his own words, "The Yank planes followed us all the way from the Philippines. Shortly after we left Los Banos in September 1944, the yanks moved in; we got to Formosa and the big fellows came over, and finally they were over Tokyo itself."
When William's group of POWs arrived at the Port Area of Manila on October 10, 1944, they were boarded onto the Arisan Maru. He had been scheduled to be boarded onto the Hokusan Maru, but since ship was ready to sail and one of the POW detachments had not arrived on time to be boarded, the Japanese swapped detachments so the ship could sail. With him on the ship were other members of A Company who also had been selected for transport to Japan.
William and 1805 other POWs were packed into the ship's number one hold. Along the sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks. These bunks were so close together that a man could not lift himself up while lying in one. Those POWs who were standing also had no room to lie down. The latrines for the prisoners were eight five gallon cans. Since the POWs were packed into the hold so tightly, many of the POWs could not get near the cans. The floor of the hold was covered with human waste.
On October 11th, the ship set sail but took a southerly route away from Formosa. Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died. The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days. The Japanese covered the hatch with a tarp. During the night, the POWs were in total darkness. This resulted in the ship missing an air attack by American planes, but the ship was attacked by American planes.
During the time off Palawan, the ship was attacked by American planes. Each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Conditions in the hold were so bad, that the POWs began to develop heat blisters. Although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not cutoff the power. Some of the prisoners were able to wire the ship's ventilation blowers into the lighting system. This allowed fresh air into the hold. The blowers were disconnected two days later when the Japanese discovered what had been done.
The Japanese finally realized that if they did not do something many of the POWs would die. To prevent this, they opened the ship's number two hold and transferred 600 POWs into it. It appears that at this point, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.
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. The POWs in the hold were so desperate that they prayed for the ship to be torpedoed.
According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on Tuesday, October 24, 1944, about 5:00 pm, a group of POWs were on deck preparing the meal for those POWs 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 knew this meant that American submarines had been spotted. The POWs began to chant for the submarines to sink the ship.
The Japanese on deck began running around 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 put the hatch covers on the holds but did not tie them down.
As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope ladders into the ship's two holds, but since they did not tie down the hatch covers, some 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 climb out of the holds and 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 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. Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking. At some point, the ship split in two. 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.
Pvt. William J. Smith lost his life when the Arisan
Maru was torpedoed in the South China
the 1803 POWs on the ship, only nine survived
the sinking. Eight of these men would
survive the war. His family did not
learn of his death until October 24, 1945.
His parents received official conformation
of his death on October 24, 1945.
Since he was lost at sea, Pvt. William J. Smith's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.