PFC Robert S. Ainsworth was born in Columbus, Ohio, in September 1918, and was one of two sons of David W. Ainsworth and Virgie Ainsworth. He lived at 2609 Elliott Avenue in Columbus, graduated from West High School in 1937, and worked as a storage clerk at a mine supply company. Robert was inducted into the U. S. Army at Fort Hayes in Columbus, Ohio, on March 20, 1941.
After completing his basic training, Robert was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, where he became a member of A Company, 753rd Tank Battalion It is not known what specific training Robert received and what duties he performed.
In the fall of 1941, the 192nd Tank Battalion was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers. It was after the maneuvers the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, instead of returning to Ft.Knox. On the side of a hill, the soldiers learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, the soldiers had figured out that PLUM stood for Philippines, Luzon, Manila. It was at this time replacements were sought from the 753rd. Some men volunteered to join the battalion, while others had their names drawn. When he joined the battalion, he was assigned to HQ Company.
The decision for this move – which had been made in August 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 a Japanese occupied island which was hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. 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.
HQ Company took the southern train route through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, and up the west coast to San Francisco, California, where they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, the soldiers were given physicals and inoculated for tropical diseases by the battalion’s medical detachment. Those men with minor health issues were released held back on the island and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Some men were simply replaced. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was 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, the tankers were met by Colonel Edward P. King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived. King remained with the battalion and made sure they received their Thanksgiving Dinner – a stew thrown into their mess kits – afterward, he went to have his own dinner.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons which had been greased to prevent them from rusting during the trip to the Philippines. They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts. The plan was for them, with the 194th Tank Battalion, to take part in maneuvers.
The tankers were put on alert on Monday, December 1, and ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field. At all times, two members of each tank crew remained with their tanks. They received their meals from food trucks. On the morning of December 8, the officers of the tank group were called to the radio room and listened to the reports of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. That morning, all tank crew members were ordered to their tanks.
The company commander, Capt Fred Bruni, told his men to listen up and told them that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, and they were given guns and told to clean them. Most of them didn’t believe him and laughed, since the thought, it was the start of the expected maneuvers. He again told them that what he was saying was the truth. As they did this, they still believed that they had started maneuvers. It was around noon that this belief was blown away.
At 8:00 AM, planes took off to protect the airfield. All morning long, the tankers watched as the sky was filled with American planes flying in every direction. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled, lined up in a straight line outside the mess hall, and the pilots went to lunch.
As the tankers sat at their tanks eating lunch, a formation of 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. At first, the tankers thought they were American until they saw what looked like “raindrops” fall from the planes. It was when bombs began exploding on the runways that they knew the planes were Japanese. Since most of their weapons were not meant to be used against planes, the tankers could do little during the attack.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. Since the battalion’s bivouac was near the main road between the fort and airfield, the soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks and trucks, and almost anything else that could carry the wounded was in use. When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building. Many of these men had their arms and legs missing.
Being a member of HQ Company, Robert’s duties required that he work to get the letter companies of the battalion the supplies they needed to fight the Japanese. He would do this until the Filipino and American defenders of Bataan were surrendered to the Japanese.
The night before the surrender, Capt. Fred Bruni, the commanding officer of HQ Company, called his men together. While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them. As he spoke, his voice choked. He turned away from the men, for a moment, and when he turned back he continued. He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks. During the announcement, he emphasized that they all were to surrender together. The company ate what he called, “Our last Supper.”
For two days, the tankers remained in their bivouac. On April 11, 1942, Robert became a Prisoner of War when the Japanese entered the bivouac and ordered the men out onto the road that ran in front of it. When they reached the road they were ordered to both sides of it and told to kneel with their possessions in front of them. As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers went through American possessions and took what they wanted. After the troops had passed, the new Prisoners of War boarded their trucks and drove to Mariveles.
Once there, the POWs were ordered to Mariveles Airfield where they sat and waited. As they sat and watched, the POWs noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming a line across from them. They soon realized that this was a firing squad and the Japanese were going to kill them
As they sat watching and waiting to see what the Japanese intended to do, a Japanese Naval Officer pulled up in an American car in front of the Japanese soldiers. He got out of the car and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail. The officer got back in the car and drove off. The Japanese sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.
Later in the day, the POWs were moved to a schoolyard in Mariveles. The POWs were left sitting in the sun for hours. The Japanese did not feed them or give them water. When they were ordered to move again they had no idea that they had begun what has become known as the Bataan Death March.
On the march, the POWs had to pass Japanese artillery that was firing at Corregidor and Ft. Drum. The islands had not surrendered and were returning fire. Shells from these two American forts were landing among the POWs killing some of them. One group of POWs tried to hide in a small brick building died when it took a direct hit. The American guns did succeed in knocking out three of the four Japanese guns.
During the march, he received no water and little food. At San Fernando, the POWs were put into small wooden boxcars known as “forty or eights” and taken to Capas. The cars could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars.
The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base. The Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they 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 food.
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. When the ranking American officer asked for additional food, medicine, and materials to repair the leaking hut roofs, he was beaten with a broadsword.
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 to 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 lieutenant.
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 scrapped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain 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.
In May or early June 1943, his parents received a message from the War Department:
“According to War Department records you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Private First Class Robert S. Ainsworth who according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“We deeply regret that it is impossible for us to give you more information. In the last days before the surrender of Bataan, there were casualties which were not reported to the war department. Conceivably, the same is true of the surrender of Corregidor and possibly of other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese government has indicated its intentions of conforming to the terms of the Geneva convention with respects to the interchange of information regarding prisoners of war. At some future date, this government will receive through Geneva a list of persons who have been taken prisoners of war. Until that time the war department cannot give you positive information.
“The war department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as ‘missing in action’ from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is hoped that the Japanese government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At this time you will be notified by this office in the event his name (Robert S. Ainsworth) is contained in the list of prisoners of war.”
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas. There, they 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 Pangatian.
To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard. Returning from a detail the POWs bought or were given, medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned.
The barracks used by the POWs were built to hold 50 POWs, but the Japanese put from 60 to 120 POWs in each one. There no shower facilities and the POWs slept on bamboo strips. In addition, no bedding, covers, or mosquito netting was provided which resulted in many becoming ill.
The camp hospital was made up of 30 wards. One ward had been missed when the wards were being counted so it was given the name of “Zero Ward.” The ward became the place were POWs who were going to die were sent. The Japanese were so terrified by it, that they put a fence up around it and would not go near the building.
In July 1942, the family received a second letter. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Private First Class Robert S. Ainsworth had not been reported as a casualty. The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, until definite information to the contrary is received.
“Efforts to secure prisoner of war lists from the Philippines have not been successful to this date due to the lack of communication and the fact that the Japanese Government has not yet given permission for the Swiss representative and the International Red Cross delegates to make visits to prisoner of war camps in the islands. When the lists of prisoners are received, we will clear the name of your son and send you any additional information that we may have.”
In late 1942, he was sent to Las Pinas to build runways at Nielson Airfield for the Japanese Navy and remained on this detail for almost seventeen months. 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.
At first, the work was hard but not as hard as it was going to get. About 400 yards from where they began working where hills. When they reached the hills, the POWs removed the hills with picks and shovels, and the dirt was put into wheelbarrows and carried to a swamp and dumped as landfill. This turned out to be inefficient, so the Japanese brought in mining cars and railroad tracks. Two POWs pushed each mining car to where it was to be dumped.
The brutality shown to the POWs was severe. The first Japanese commander of the camp, a Lt. Moto, was called the “White Angel” because he wore a spotless naval uniform. He was the commander of the camp for slightly over thirteen months. One day a POW collapsed while working on the runway. Moto was told about the man and came out and ordered him to get up. When he couldn’t get up, four other Americans were made to carry the man back to the Pasay School.
At the school, the Japanese guards gave the man a shower and straightened his clothes as much as possible. The other Americans were ordered to the school. As they stood there, the White Angel ordered an American captain to follow him behind the school. The POW was marched behind the school and the other Americans heard two shots. There, the White Angel shot the POW as the man smiled at him. As the man lay on the ground, he shot him a second time. The American captain told the other Americans what had happened and said that the POW said, “Tell them I went down smiling.” The White Angel told them that this was what going to happen to anyone who would not work for the Japanese Empire.
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 before he 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 welfare of the POWs was of no concern to the Japanese. The 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 selected men who did not display any physical signs of illness or injury. Men suffering from dysentery or pellagra could not get out of work.
In particular, “the Wolf” was hardest to convince that a man was sick. If a man’s arm or leg was bandaged, he would kick the man’s leg, in the spot it was bandaged, to see how the man reacted. If the man showed a great deal of pain, he was not required to work. In one case, a man whose broken wrist was in a splint was twisted by the Wolf while the man trembled in pain.
The remains of the POWs who had died on the detail were brought to Bilibid Prison in wooden 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 that the POWs at the prison learned what the detail was like. The sick had been sent to Bilibid to die since it would look better when it was reported to the International Red Cross.
It appears that Robert became ill while on the detail and sent to Bilibid Prison. It is known that he was also on the work detail at Clark Field. The POWs on the detail built revetments and a runway. Since no rock was available from a gravel pit, the POWs dug the rock out of the ground, with picks and shovels, and screened it. The one thing that was not allowed was the POWs could not talk to each other. Since he had no friends on the detail, he was never beaten for talking.
The POWs slept in the barracks at the airfield which meant that each man had a bed and mattress. They worked long hours starting at 6:00 A.M. working long hours even during the typhoon season. They were fed twice a day but the amount of food was inadequate. The Japanese did not give the POWs any medical supplies, and if they had them it was because the POWs had scrounged them. They were housed in the same barracks that many of them had lived in before the war.
If a POW escaped, the POWs remaining POWs were forced to stand at attention, information, for hours. On one occasion, they stood at attention until 4:00 A.M. Afterwards, they went to work. The Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule since several POWs escaped from the detail. If one man escaped, the other nine men in the group would be executed. Men were often thrown into the metal shack that served as a cellblock that had no windows and had only enough room for the man to squat. They also witnessed the execution of Filipinos who had been caught stealing sheet metal. They were tied to poles and used for bayonet practice.
As they neared the completion of the runway, the rock the POWs used, for the base of the runway, ran out. The Japanese engineers decided that sand would be used for the base on the last part of the runway. After the runway was finished, the first Japanese bomber that landed on it had its landing gear sink into the runway, where the sand had been used, and the plane flipped over on its back. The POWs wanted to cheer but couldn’t.
When it became apparent to the Japanese that it was just a matter of time before American forces would be invading the Philippine Islands, the Japanese began transferring the POWs to other parts of the Japanese Empire. On September 17, 1944, Robert’s name appeared on a list of POWs being sent to Bilibid Prison near Manila.
Robert was held at Bilibid until October 10. With other prisoners, he was marched to the Port Area of Manila. His group was scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru, but since all the POWs had not arrived at the pier and the ship was ready to sail, the POWs from another group were boarded in their place so the ship could leave.
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 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. Each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not turned off the power to the lights. Some of the prisoners were able to hot-wire the ship’s blowers into the light power lines. This allowed fresh air into the hold until the power was disconnected, two days later, when the Japanese discovered what had been done.
After this was done, the POWs began to develop heat blisters. The Japanese 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. At this point, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.
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 freshwater 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.”
The ship returned to Manila on October 20, where it joined a twelve ship convoy. On October 21, 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 making them targets for American submarines. In addition, U.S. military intelligence was reading the Japanese messages as fast as the Japanese. To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine crews that ships were carrying POWs which made the ships targets for the submarines. The POWs in the hold became so desperate that they prayed for the ship to be hit by torpedoes.
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.”
Cichy said, “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, ten 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 submarines to sink the ship.
At about 4:50 P.M., as the POWs watched, the Japanese ran to the bow of the ship and watched a torpedo pass in front of the ship. Moments later, the Japanese ran to the ship’s stern and watched as a second torpedo passed behind the ship. 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, but it still killed some 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 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 sick.” 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 seconds 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. The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned ship. That was about 5:00 P.M. “ It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was the U.S.S. Snook or the U.S.S. Shark.
The Japanese guards took their guns and used them as clubs on the POWs who were on deck. To escape, the POWs dove back into the holds. After they were in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders and put the hatch covers on the holds, but they did not tie them down before abandoning the ship.
Cichy recalled, “The Japs closed the hatches and left the ship in lifeboats. They must have forgotten 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. Overbeck, Baltimore.” Cichy added, “The Japs had already evacuated the ship. They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their own.”
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 helluva 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.”
Overbeck also stated, “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.
“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’ disappeared.” The ship slowly sank lower in the water.
Graef said, “Men without any fear at all, just stayed where they were. They sat down, got water to drink, got rice to eat…they couldn’t swim. The majority went down with the ship.”
According to surviving POWs, the ship stayed afloat for hours but got lower in the water. Some POWs walked back to see the damage caused by the torpedo. The deck was peeled back and water was inside the hold washing back and forth. When a wave went under the ship the stern would wobble up and down and the sound of steel tearing was heard. The stern finally tore off and sunk quickly. After that, the rest of the ship began to take on water quickly.
Oliver recalled, “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, many POWs swam to a nearby Japanese destroyer put were pushed underwater with long 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.”
In the water, he recalled. “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 lifeboat 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 it.”
Men were heard calling the names of other men in the dark. 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.
Of the 1775 men who boarded the Arisan Maru, only nine survived its sinking. Eight of these men survived the war. Pfc. Robert S. Ainsworth was not one of them.
On October 26, 1945, Robert’s family received this message :
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. Ainsworth,
“The International Red Cross has transmitted to this government an official list obtained from the Japanese government, after long delay, of American prisoners of war who were lost while being transported northward from the Philippine islands on a Japanese ship which was sunk on Oct. 24, 1944.
“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son was among those lost when the sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on records of the war department as killed in action Oct. 24, 1944. The evidence of his death was received June 16, 1945.
“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son, PFC. Robert S. Ainsworth, 35,031,373, 192nd Tank Battalion, was among those lost when that sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on the records of the War Department as Killed in Action 24 October 1944. The evidence of this death was received 16 June 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and accounts will be closed.
“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.
“It is with deep regret that I must notify you of this unhappy culmination of the long period of anxiety and suffering you have experienced. You have my heartfelt sympathy.
“J. A. Ulio
“Maj. Gen., The Adjutant General of the Army”
Since he was lost at sea, PFC. Robert S. Ainsworth’s name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.