S/Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon Jr. was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1915 to Joseph J. Wierzchon
Sr. & Frances Wierzchon. He grew up in Toledo and lived at 1421 Pinewood Avenue and was a member of the
Ohio National Guard from Port Clinton, Ohio. He was called to federal duty in November, 1940.
The battalion lived in tents when they arrived at the fort because their barracks were not
finished. In January 1941, Lyle was transferred to HQ Company after the company was created with men from the
letter companies. It is not known what his exact duties with the company were.
A typical day for the soldiers started in 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers
were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by
calisthenics at 8:00 to 8:30. Afterwards, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The
classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military
courtesy, and training in tactics.
At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from
noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January
13, such as: mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to
their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After
dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps
It is known that he received a leave in Louisville in March 1941 when he was hit by a
motorcycle. He was admitted to City Hospital in Louisville, but it is not known how long he was hospitalized.
In the late summer of 1941, the battalion was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers
from September 1 through 30. HQ Company supplied the tanks and half-tracks with supplies and fuel. They
also did maintenance work on the vehicles but did not actively take part in the maneuvers.
After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana. On the side
of a hill, the soldiers learned they were being sent overseas. Men who were married or 29 years old, or
older, were allowed to resign from federal service. Most of the remaining soldiers were given leaves home to
say their goodbyes.
The reason for this move was an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A
squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf 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 that a large radio transmitter. The island was
hundred of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to
Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, another squadron was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been
picked up by a fishing boat that was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps
and Navy was poor, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American
military presence in the Philippines.
After the companies were brought up to strength with replacements, the battalion was
equipped with new tanks and half-tracks with came from the 753rd Tank Battalion. The battalion traveled over
different train routes to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, where they were taken by the ferry, the
U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe to Angel Island. At Ft. McDowell, on the island, they received
physicals and inoculations. Men found with minor medical conditions were held back and scheduled to rejoin
the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd boarded onto the
U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. 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 2 and
had a two day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5, 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. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke
the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the
International Dateline. On Saturday, November 15, 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 16, 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 20, 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 Gen. Edward King. The general apologized that the
men had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they all
received Thanksgiving Dinner before he went to have his own. Ironically, November 20th was the date that the
National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
For the next seventeen days the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their
weapons. The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea. They also loaded
ammunition belts and did tank maintenance.
The tanks were ordered to the perimeter of the Clark Field to guard against Japanese
paratroopers on December 1st to guard against paratroopers. Two members of each tank remained with their tank
at all times. On December 8, 1941, Joseph lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field. After the attack
the dead and wounded were everywhere.
The tank battalion received orders on December 21st that it was to proceed north to
Lingayen Gulf. Because of logistics problems, the B and C Companies soon ran low on gas. When
they reached Rosario, there was only enough for one tank platoon, from B Company, to proceed north to support the
On December 23 and 24, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta. The bridge
they were going to use to cross the Agno River was destroyed and the tankers made an end run to get south of
river. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening. They successfully
crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
On December 25, the tanks of the battalion held the southern bank of the Agno River from
Carmen to Tayung, with the tanks of the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held
the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27.
The tankers were fell back toward Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27, and December
were at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29. While there, the bridge over the Pampanga River
was destroyed, they were able find a crossing over the river.
At Cebu, seven tanks of the company fought a three hour battle with the Japanese.
The main Japanese line was south of Santa Rosa Bridge ten miles to the south of the battle. The tanks
were hidden in brush as Japanese troops passed them for three hours without knowing that they were there.
While the troops passed, Lt. William Gentry was on his radio describing what he was seeing. It was only when
a Japanese soldier tried take a short cut through the brush, that his tank was hidden in, that the tanks were
discovered. The tanks turned on their sirens and opened up on the Japanese. They then fell back to
C Company was re-supplied and withdrew to Baluiag where the tanks encountered Japanese
troops and ten tanks. It was at Baluiag that Gentry's tanks won the first tank victory of World War II
against enemy tanks.
After this battle, C Company made its way south. When it entered Cabanatuan, it found
the barrio filled with Japanese guns and other equipment. The tank company destroyed as much of the equipment
as it could before proceeding south.
On December 31, 1941, Company was sent out reconnaissance patrols north of the
town of Baluiag. The patrols ran into Japanese patrols, which told the Americans that the Japanese were
on their way. Knowing that the railroad bridge was the only way into the town and to cross the river, Lt.
Gentry set up his defenses in view of the bridge and the rice patty it crossed.
Early on the morning of the 31st, the Japanese began moving troops and across the
bridge. The engineers came next and put down planking for tanks. A little before noon Japanese tanks
began crossing the bridge.
By the afternoon, the Japanese had assembled a large number of troops in a rice field on
the north end of the barrio. One platoon of tanks under the command of 2nd Lt. Marshall Kennady were to the
southeast of the bridge. Gentry's tanks were to the south of the bridge in huts, while third platoon
commanded by Capt Harold Collins was to the south on the road leading out of Baluiag
2nd Lt. Everett Preston had been sent south to find a bridge to cross to attack the Japanese from
Major Morley came riding in his jeep into Baluiag. He stopped in front of a hut and was
spotted by the Japanese who had lookouts in the town's church's steeple. The guard became very
excited so Morley, not wanting to give away the tanks positions, got into his jeep and drove off. Bill had
told him that his tanks would hold their fire until he was safely out of the
When Gentry felt the Morley was out of danger, he ordered his tanks to open up on the
Japanese tanks at the end of the bridge. The tanks then came smashing through the huts' walls and drove
the Japanese in the direction of Lt. Marshall Kennady's tanks. Kennady had been radioed and was waiting.
Kennady's platoon held its fire until the Japanese were in view of his platoon and
then joined in the hunt. The Americans chased the tanks up and down the streets of the village, through
buildings and under them. By the time Bill's unit was ordered to disengage from the enemy, they had
knocked out at least eight enemy tanks.
While the Filipinos and Americans were falling back toward Bataan,on
January 2, 1942, Joseph was hit by shrapnel from a Japanese mortar shell. Capt. Alvin Poweleit, the
battalion's surgeon, treated him for his wounds. He received Purple Heart.
During the withdraw into the peninsula, the company crossed over the last bridge which was
mined and about to be blown. The 192nd held its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leap frog
past it and then cover the 192nd's withdraw. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan.
In early February, the Japanese attempted to land troops behind the main battle line on
Bataan on a small peninsula. The troops were quickly cut off and when they attempted to land
reinforcements, they were landed in the wrong place. The fight to wipe out these two pockets became known
as the Battle of the Points.
The Japanese had been stopped, but the decision was made by Brigadier General Clinton A.
Pierce that tanks were needed to support the 45th Infantry Philippine Scouts. He requested the tanks from
the Provisional Tank Group.
On February 2, a platoon of C Company tanks was ordered to Quinan Point where the
Japanese had landed troops. The tanks arrived about 5:15 P.M. He did a quick reconnaissance of the
area, and after meeting with the commanding infantry officer, made the decision to drive tanks into the edge of
the Japanese position and spray the area with machine-gun fire. The progress was slow but steady until a
Japanese .37 milometer gun was spotted in front of the lead tank, and the tanks withdrew. It turned out
that the gun had been disabled by mortar fire, but the tanks did not know this at the time. The decision
was made to resume the attack the next morning, so 45th Infantry dug in for the night.
The next day, the tank platoon did reconnaissance before pulling into the front
line. They repeated the maneuver and sprayed the area with machine gun fire. As they moved forward,
members of the 45th Infantry followed the tanks. The troops made progress all day long along the left side
of the line. The major problem the tanks had to deal with was tree stumps which they had to avoid so they
would not get hung up on them. The stumps also made it hard for the tanks to maneuver. Coordinating
the attack with the infantry was difficult, so the decision was made by to bring in a radio car so that the tanks
and infantry could talk with each other.
On February 4, at 8:30 A.M. five tanks and the radio car arrived. The tanks were
assigned the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, so each tank commander knew which tank was receiving an order. Each
tank also received a walkie-talkie, as well as the radio car and infantry commanders. This was done so that
the crews could coordinate the attack with the infantry and send so that the tanks could be ordered to where they
were needed. The Japanese were pushed back almost to the cliffs when the attack was halted for the night.
The attack resumed the next morning the next morning and the Japanese were pushed to the
cliff line where they hid below the edge of the cliff out of view. It was at that time that the tanks were
released to returned to the 192nd.
C Company also took part in the Battle of the Pockets to wipe out Japanese soldiers who
had been trapped behind the main defensive line. The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace
a tank in the pocket. Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank exited the pocket.
During some of the actions against the Japanese, the Japanese sent soldiers, carrying
gasoline cans, against the tanks. The Japanese would attempt to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the
vents on the back of the tanks and set them on fire. If the tankers could not machine gun them before they
got to the tanks, the crew of another tank would shoot them as they stood on the tanks. The tankers did not
like to do this because of what it did to the crews inside the tanks.
Since the tanks were riveted, when the turrets were hit by machine gun fire, the rivets
would pop and ricochet inside the tanks. The rivets sparked when when they hit the sides of the crew
compartment. This situation was made worse by the loud sound of bullets from machine guns hitting the
tank. The biggest danger from the rivets was the possibility that one could hit one of the tankers in
To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used. The first was to have three
Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank. As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos
dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole. Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually
The other method to use to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the
foxhole. The driver gave the other track power resulting with the tank spinning around and grinding its way
down into the foxhole. The tankers slept upwind of their tanks.
In March, the amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except
the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. At the same time, food rations were cut
in half again. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent
to Corregidor, which he declined.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese broke through the east side of the main defensive line on
Bataan. C Company was pulled out of their position along the west side of the line. They were ordered
to reinforce the eastern portion of the line. Traveling south to Mariveles, the tankers started up the
eastern road but were unable to reach their assigned area due to the roads being blocked by retreating Filipino
and American forces.
The evening of April 8, Gen. Edward P. King decided that further resistance was futile,
since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more
day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be
massacred. At 10:30 that night, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms.
Tank battalion commanders received this order
"You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within
one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word 'CRASH', all tanks and combat vehicles,
arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as
When Bataan was surrendered on April 9, 1942, Joseph became a Prison of War and with the
other members of C Company became Prisoners Of War when the Filipino and American forces on Bataan were
surrendered. After receiving the order to destroy their tanks, Joe and the other members of C Company made
their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of the peninsula. It was from there that Joe started what became
known as the death march.
Joe with his company made their way to San Fernando. During the march they were fed
only once and given no water. At one point, he and the other POWs had to run through an area where Japanese
artillery was exchanging fire with the Island of Corregidor. As they ran, shells landed around them.
When they reached San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars so tightly
that those who died remained standing. When the POWs disembarked from the cars, the bodies of the dead fell
out. Joe and the other men walked the last few miles to Camp O'Donnellwas an unfinished Filipino Army
Base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. They believed the camp could hold 15,000
to 20,000 POWs. When the POWs arrived at the camp, they 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 as they
The Japanese also took away any extra clothing that the POWs carried with them and refused
to return it. 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.
There was only one water faucet for the entire camp and men stood in line from 2Â½ 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 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 POWs called the hospital "Zero Ward" because most of the men who entered it
never came out alive. The Japanese were so afarid 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. The Japanese finally acknowledged that they had to do
something to lower the death rate, so they opened a new POW camp.
On June 1, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men and were marched to Capas, where they
were put into steel boxcars. Each car had two Japanese guards. During the trip at Calumpit, the train
was switched onto a track that took it to Cabanatuan. When the POWs left the cars, they were herded into a
schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onions soup. They were marched to the new camp which was a
former Philippine Army Base and had been the home of the 91st Philippine Army Division's home.
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 camp.
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
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 the word 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
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 bread.
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.
At some point he was sent to Manila to repair trucks, cars, and other vehicles for the
Japanese. The detail was housed in a garage on an island.
When it became apparent that it was just a matter of time before the Americans would invade the
Philippines, the Japanese began to transport large numbers of POWs to Japan. It was at this time that the
Detail was disbanded and the POWs were sent to the Port Area of Manila.
In late 1944, when it became apparent to the Japanese that the invasion
of the Philippines was near, the POWs on this detail were sent to the Port Area of Manila. The Japanese
were attempting to send the healthy POWs to Japan and other countries to work as slave labor and prevent them
from being liberated by advancing American forces.
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 where scheduled to sail on, the
Hokusen Maru, 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
Arisan Maru, had completely arrived, but their ship was not ready to sail. It was at that time that
the Japanese made the decision that they switch POW detachments so the
Hokusen Maru could sail.
On October 10, the POWs boarded the Arisan Maru and 1775 prisoners were crammed into the
first hold of the ship which could hold 400 men. They were packed in so tightly that they could not
move. 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
, "For the first few days, there were 1800 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
, "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 the next day, 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."
On October 20, the Arisan Maru 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. Me, 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 ten 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.
It was 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. Cichy recalled
, "When the torpedo hit everybody in the hold hollered 'Hit her again!' We wanted to get it
Lt. Robert S. Overbeck said
, "When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn't care a bit--they were tired and weak
He also said of the incident
, "The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn't break in
two. 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. The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned
ship. That was about 5:00 P.M. "
A little while later the cheering stopped when the POWs realized they were facing
death. Overbeck also commented on the reaction of the POWs in the holds.
"For about five second there was panic among us, but there were five or six chaplains who prayed
fervently and quieted the men."
It is believed the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the
U.S.S. Snook or 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
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
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
"But as darkness settled and our hopes for life flickered, we felt absolutely no
resentment for the Allied submarine that had sent the torpedo crashing in. We knew they could not tell
who was aboard the freighter, and as far as the Navy could have known the ship could have been carrying Jap
troops. The men were brave and none complained.
"Some slipped off their life preservers and with a cherry 'so long'
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 Oliver said
, "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 sank sometime after dark on Tuesday, October 24, 1944. The men in the boat heard cries for
help, which became fewer and fewer, until there was silence. The next day they picked up two more
survivors. 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 it."
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. Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon 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."
Since he was lost at sea, S/Sgt. Joseph J. Wierzchon's name is inscribed on the
Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.