Pvt. John Avila on December 8, 1914, in Erath County, Texas. He was living in Dallas County, Texas when he was inducted into the army. He did his basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, to join the 753rd Tank Battalion. While his battalion was at the fort, the 192nd Tank Battalion received orders to go overseas, and married men or men 29 years old or older were released from service. John replaced a National Guardsman and was assigned to B Company.
The common belief was that the move was the result of 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 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 for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island, with a large radio transmitter, hundreds of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plane and flew south to Mariveles and then returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day. The next day – when another squadron of planes was sent to the area – the buoys had been picked up – and a fishing boat was seen making its way toward shore carrying the buoys under a tarp. Since communication between the Navy and Air Corps was poor, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
In actuality, the battalion was part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox. Besides the 192nd, the group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – both had been medium National Guard tank battalions – at Ft. Meade, Maryland, the 193rd at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 194th at Ft. Lewis, Washington, which had been National Guard light tank battalions. It is known that the military presence in the Philippines was being built up at the time, so in all likelihood, the entire tank group had been scheduled to be sent to the Philippines. The buoys being spotted by the pilot may have sped up the transfer of the tank battalions to the Philippines with only the 192nd and 194th reaching the islands. It is known that the 193rd Tank Battalion was on its way to the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked and was stopped there. The 70th and 191st never received orders for the Philippines because the war with Japan had started. It is known at least one heavy tank battalion had been scheduled to be sent, but it appears one had not been selected.
The battalion’s new tanks came from the 753rd and the 3rd Armor Division and were loaded onto flat cars, on different trains. At 8:30 A.M. on October 20, over different train routes, the companies were sent to San Francisco, California. Most of the soldiers of each company rode on one train that was followed by a second train that carried the company’s tanks. At the end of the second train was a boxcar followed by a passenger car that carried some soldiers. The company took the central route along through Northern Texas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada. When they arrived in San Francisco, they were ferried, by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. When they got near Alcatraz, a soldier on the boat said to them, “I’d rather be here than going where you all are going.” On the island, they were given physicals by the battalion’s medical detachment. Men found to have minor health issues were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced. The soldiers spent their time putting cosmoline on anything that they thought would rust.
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 four-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island. On Thursday, November 6, 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 U.S.A.T. 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, while two other intercepted ships were Japanese freighters hauling scrap metal to Japan. 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. One thing that was different about their arrival was that instead of a band and a welcoming committee waiting at the pier to tell them to enjoy their stay in the Philippines and see as much of the island as they could, a party came aboard the ship – carrying guns – and told the soldiers, “Draw your firearms immediately; we’re under alert. We expect a war with Japan at any moment. Your destination is Fort Stotsenburg, Clark Field.” At 3:00 P.M., as they left the ship, a Marine was checking off their names. When someone said his name, the Marine responded with, “Hello sucker.” Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks with 17th Ordnance. Carl recalled when they got off the ship that there was no one on the dock.
The soldiers took a three to four-hour train ride to Ft. Stotsenburg. At the fort, they were greeted by Gen. Edward P. King Jr. 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 receive dinner – which was a stew thrown into their mess kits – before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20 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 ragged World War I 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. The area was near the end of a runway used by B-17s for takeoffs. The planes flew over the tents at about 100 feet blowing dirt everywhere and the noise from the engines as they flew over was unbelievable. At night, they heard the sounds of planes flying over the airfield which turned out to be Japanese reconnaissance planes. In addition, the khaki uniforms they had been issued were heavy material and uncomfortable to wear in the tropical heat.
The 192nd had a large number of ham radio operators and shortly after arriving at Ft. Stotsenburg, they set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When they were informed it was the 192nd, they gave them frequencies to use. Men were able to send messages home to their families that they had arrived safely.
The day started at 5:15 with reveille and anyone who washed near a faucet with running water was considered lucky. At 6:00 A.M. they ate breakfast followed by work – on their on the tanks and other equipment – from 7:00 A.M. to 11:30 A.M. Lunch was from 11:30 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. when the soldiers returned to work until 2:30 P.M. The shorter afternoon work period was based on the belief that it was too hot to work in the climate. The term “recreation in the motor pool,” a term they borrowed from the 194th Tank Battalion, meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon.
At Ft. Stotsenburg, the soldiers were expected to wear their dress uniforms. Since working on the tanks was a dirty job, the battalion members wore coveralls to do the work on the tanks. The 192nd followed the example of the 194th Tank Battalion and wore coveralls in their barracks area to do work on their tanks, but if the soldiers left the battalion’s area, they wore dress uniforms everywhere; including going to the PX.
For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies on the base. They also played horseshoes, softball, badminton, or threw footballs around during their free time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming. Men were given the opportunity to be allowed to go to Manila in small groups. Members of the company also were known to visit a Filpino barrio where members of the Philippine Army lived.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and were fed from food trucks. It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd’s communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the battalion’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, the CO of the 194th Tank Battalion, read the messages of the attack. The officers of the 192nd were called to the tent and informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to the south end of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. Being a mechanic, he remained in the battalion’s bivouac.
All morning long on December 8th, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. The planes were parked in a straight line outside the pilots’ mess hall. At 12:45, two formations, totaling 54 planes, approached the airfield from the north. When bombs began exploding on the runways, the tankers knew that planes were Japanese. One bomb hit the mess hall where the pilots were eating. Being that their tanks could not fight planes, they watched as the Japanese destroyed the Army Air Corps. When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, the dying, and the wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and 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. One of the results of the attack was that the transfer of D Company, to the 194th, was never completed. The company fought with the 194th but retained its designation of being part of the 192nd. That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their barracks. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed.
The next day, those men not assigned to a tank or half-track walked around Clark Field to look at the damage. As they walked, they saw there were hundreds of dead. Some were pilots who had been caught asleep, because they had flown night missions, in their tents during the first attack. Others were pilots who had been killed attempting to get to their planes.
The tank battalion received orders on December 20th that it was to proceed north to Lingayen Gulf to relieve the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. Because of logistics problems, the B and C Companies soon ran low on gas. When they reached Rosario, there was only enough gas for one tank platoon, from B Company, to proceed north to support the 26th Cavalry. Lt. Ben Morin’s platoon approached Agoo when it ran head-on into a Japanese motorized unit. The Japanese light tanks had no turrets and sloped armor. The shells of the Americans glanced off the tanks. Morin’s tank was knocked out and his crew captured. During this engagement, a member of a tank crew, Pvt. Henry J. Deckert, was killed by enemy fire and was later buried in a churchyard. On December 23rd and 24th, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta. The bridge they were going used to cross the Agno River was destroyed and the tankers made an end run to get south of the river. As they did this, they ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening. They successfully crossed the river in the Bayambang Province.
It was at this time that a platoon of B Company tanks found itself on a road holding up the Japanese advance. Five tanks took a narrow road that led to the Japanese lines. The drivers of the tanks stayed close enough so that they could see the tank in front of their tank when a shell exploded behind one of the tanks. The tanks were trapped since there was no room for them to turn around. At Ft. Knox, they were taught that if you are lost, or trapped, to double your speed. The tanks hurdled down the road running through gun nests and running down Japanese soldiers. The tanks turned around, ran through the Japanese positions again, and escaped. On December 25th, 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 27th. The tankers were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan in the day, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28th and 29th.
On December 31st/January 1st, the tanks were stationed on both sides of the Calumpit Bridge when they received conflicting orders, from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff, about whose command they were under and to withdraw from the bridge. The defenders were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 which would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders. Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridges over the Pampanga River, and about half the defenders withdrew. Due to the efforts of the Self Propelled Mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a frenzied attack by the 192nd Tank Battalion the Japanese were halted.
From January 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape. At 2:30 A.M., the night of January 5/6, the Japanese attacked at Remedios in force and using smoke as cover. This attack was an attempt to destroy the tank battalions. At 5:00 A.M., the Japanese withdrew having suffered heavy casualties. The night of January 6/7 the tanks withdrew into the peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th could leapfrog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdrawal over the bridge. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan before the engineers blew up the bridge at 6:00 A.M.
The next day, the battalion was between Culo and Hermosa and assigned a road to enter Bataan on which was worse than having no road. The half-tracks kept throwing their rubber tracks and members of 17th Ordnance assigned to each battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations. After daylight, Japanese artillery fire was landing all around the tanks. A composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. The rest of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Abucay-Hacienda Road. When word came that a bridge was going to be blown up, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company. This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road. It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance. It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon. The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance. Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400-hour overhauls. It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver: “Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay.”
The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Hacienda Road on January 25. While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M. One platoon was sent to the front of the column of trucks that were loading the troops. The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese. Later that day, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight. They held the position until the night of January 26/27, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads. When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were supposed to use had been destroyed by enemy fire. To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
The tank battalions, on January 28th, were given the job of protecting the beaches. The 192nd was assigned the coastline from Paden Point to Limay along Bataan’s east coast, while the battalion’s half-tracks were used to patrol the roads. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings. B Company was defending a beach, along the east coast of Bataan, where the Japanese could land troops. One night while on this duty, the company engaged the Japanese in a firefight as they attempted to land troops on the beach. When morning came, not one Japanese soldier had successfully landed on the beach. The Japanese later told the tankers that their presence on the beach stopped them from attempting landings. While doing this job, the tankers noticed that each morning when the PT boats were off the coast they were attacked by Japanese Zeros. The tank crews made arrangements with the PT boats to be at a certain place at a certain time. The Zeros arrived and attacked. This time they were met from fire from the boats but also from the machine guns of the tanks and half-tracks. When the Zeros broke off the attack, they had lost nine of twelve planes.
After being up all night on the morning of February 3rd, the tankers attempted to get some sleep. Every morning “Recon Joe” flew over attempting to locate the tanks. The jungle canopy hid the tanks from the plane. Sgt. Walter Cigoi aggravated about being woken up, pulled his half-track onto the beach, and took a “pot shot” at the plane, and missed. Twenty minutes later, Japanese planes appeared and bombed the position. Most of the soldiers took cover under the tanks. When the attack was over, the tankers found Pvt. Richard Graff and Pvt. Clemath Peppers dead. Pvt. Francis McGuire was wounded and Pvt. Charles Heuel was severely wounded with his leg partially blown off. The tankers attempted to put him in a jeep, but his leg kept flopping and got in the way. To get him into the jeep, his leg was cut off by T/4 Frank Goldstein but Heuel died from his wounds.
The battalion took part in the Battle of the Points on the west coast of Bataan. The Japanese landed troops but ended up trapped. When they attempted to land reinforcements, they were landed in the wrong place. One was the Lapay-Longoskawayan points from January 23 to 29, the Quinauan-Aglaloma points from January 22 to February 8, and the Sililam-Anyasan points from January 27 to February 13. 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 gunfire. 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 to bring in a radio car so that the tanks and infantry could talk with each other.
Only 3 of 23 tanks were being used and without the support of infantry and the trick during the attack through the jungle was to avoid large trees and clear a way for the infantry to attack. This they did by thrusting into the jungle. They only became aware of enemy positions when they were fired on. The tanks were supposed to have support from mortars but the ammunition was believed to be defective. It was found that the mortars were manned by inexperienced air corpsmen converted to infantry who had no idea that the arming pins on the mortar shells had to be pulled before firing them so the shells landed and did not explode.
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 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 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 return to the 192nd.
Companies A and C were ordered to the west coast of Bataan while B Company – which was held in reserve – and 17th Ordnance held the southern shore of Bataan. During the night, they were kept busy with repeated threats both on and offshore. The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces.
The tank companies also took part in the Battle of the Pockets in February to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line after a Japanese offensive was stopped and pushed back to the original line of defense. 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. Doing this was so stressful that each tank company was rotated out and replaced by one that was being held in reserve.
The tanks rolled into the pocket with sirens blaring and ran into and knocked down trees with Japanese snipers in them. They wiped out numerous machine gun nests and chased many Japanese soldiers from their foxholes. With B Company tanks, the tankers destroyed a .37 millimeter gun. 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 exploded. Those Japanese who attempted to flee were shot. The other method used to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole. The driver gave the other track power resulting in the tank going around in a circle and grinding its way down into the foxhole. The tankers slept upwind of their tanks so they wouldn’t smell the rotting flesh in the tracks.
While the tanks were doing this job, the Japanese sent soldiers, with cans of gasoline, against the tanks. These Japanese attempted to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the vents on the back of the tanks, and set the tanks on fire. If the tankers could not machine gun the Japanese before they got to a tank, the other tanks would shoot them as they stood on a tank. The tankers did not like to do this because of what it did to the crew inside the tank. When the bullets hit the tank, its rivets would pop and wound the men inside the tank. What made this job of eliminating the Japanese so hard was that they were had dug “spider holes” among the roots of the trees. Because of this situation, the Americans could not get a good shot at the Japanese. Since the stress on the crews was tremendous, the tanks rotated into the pocket one at a time. A tank entered the pocket and the next tank waited for the tank that had been relieved to exit the pocket before it would enter. This was repeated until all the tanks in the pocket were relieved.
The tankers, from A, B, and C Companies, were able to clear the pockets by February 18. But before this was done, one C Company tank which had gone beyond the American perimeter was disabled and the tank just sat there. When the sun came up the next day, the tank was still sitting there. During the night, its crew was buried alive, inside the tank, by the Japanese. When the Japanese had been wiped out, the tank was turned upside down to remove the dirt and recover the bodies of the crew. The tank was put back into use. It was for their performance during this battle that the 192nd Tank Battalion would receive one of its Presidential Unit Citations
The 192nd unlike other units had arrived in the Philippines just before the start of the war, so they did not have the opportunity to stockpile food. The soldiers were hungry and began to eat everything they could get their hands on to eat. The Carabao were tough but if they were cooked long enough they could be eaten. They also began to eat horse meat provided by the 26th U.S. Cavalry. During this time the soldiers ate monkeys, snakes, lizards, horses, and mules. To make things worse, the soldiers’ rations were cut in half again on March 1, 1942. This meant that they only ate two meals a day. The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a scantily clad blond on them. They would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been a hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal. The amount of gasoline in March was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. It was during this time that Gen Wainwright wanted to turn the tanks into pillboxes. Gen Weaver pointed out to Wainwright that they did not have enough tanks to effectively do this, and if they did, they soon would have no tanks. Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor, but Wainwright declined.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese. On April 7, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. C Company, 194th, was attached to the 192nd and had only seven tanks left. At 6:00 P.M. that 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 accomplished.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. Phil Parish, a truck driver for A Company realized that he had bedding buried in the back of his truck and searched for it. The bedding became the “white flags” that were flown on the jeeps. At 11:40 P.M., the soldiers heard a thud and the ammunition dumps went up in flames. At midnight Companies B and D, and A Company, 194th, received an order to stand down. At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. It was at about 6:45 A.M. that tank battalion commanders received the order “crash.” Capt. Robert Sorenson, the company commander, ordered the crews to destroy their tanks. They cut the gas lines and threw torches into the tanks. Within minutes, the ammunition inside the tanks began exploding. After this was done, Sorenson and Major John Morley got into his jeep and made their way to Bayakaguin Point which was the command post for the tank group. Behind them in half-tracks were the tank crews of B Company. After arriving there, a number of men attempted to reach Corregidor.
As Gen. King left to negotiate the surrender, he went through the area held by B Company and spoke to the men. He said to them, “Boys. I’m going to get us the best deal I can. When you get home, don’t ever let anyone say to you, you surrendered. I was the one who surrendered.” Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Wade R. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would no attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do. After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col Collier and Maj Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit in line with the Japanese advance should fly white flags. Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived. King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
The company remained in its bivouac until the Japanese arrived and ordered them to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan, where they were searched and stripped of anything the Japanese could use. He was placed into a detachment of 100 POWs that was guarded by six to eight guards and ordered to march. The first five miles were extremely hard because they were uphill. The beatings and killings started almost at the same time as the march started. One guard would beat a POW while five minutes later another guard would give the POW a cigarette.
As the POWs made their way north, the Filipinos filled containers with water and placed them along the road. The POWs could not stop but many were able to scoop water into their canteens. By doing this the Filipinos saved a great many lives. The POWs also could see them flashing the “V” for victory sign under their folder arms.
The guards were assigned to march a certain distance so they often made the POWs march at a faster pace. Those men who were sick had a hard time keeping up and if they fell out were bayoneted or shot. When the distance was covered, the column was stopped and allowed to rest and the guards were replaced and the new guard also wanted to complete their portion of the march as fast as possible, so the POWs once again found themselves moving at a fast pace.
The further north they marched the more bloated dead bodies they saw. The ditches along the road were filled with water, but many also had dead bodies in them. The POWs’ thirst got so bad they drank the water. Many men would later die from dysentery. The column of POWs was often stopped and pushed off the road and made to sit in the sun for hours. While they at there, the guards would shake down the POWs and take any possession they had that they liked. When the POWs were ordered to move again, the Japanese riding past in trucks entertained themselves by swinging at the POWs with their guns or with bamboo poles.
When they were north of Hermosa, the POWs reached pavement which made the march easier. They received an hour break, but any POW who attempted to lay down was jabbed with a bayonet. After the break, they were marched through Layac and Lubao. It was at this time that a heavy shower took place and many of the men opened their mouths in an attempt to get water. The guards allowed the POWs to lie on the road. The rain revived many of the POWs and gave them the strength to complete the march.
The men were marched until they reached San Fernando. Once there, they were herded into a bullpen, surrounded by barbed wire, and put into groups of 200 men. One POW from each group went to the cooking area which was next to the latrine and got food for the group. Each man received a ball of rice and four or five dried onions. Water was given out with each group receiving a pottery jar of water to share.
The POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men and marched to the train station. There, they were packed into small wooden boxcars that were used to haul sugarcane. The cars were about thirteen feet long and ten feet wide and known as “forty or eights” since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. Since there were 100 POWs in each detachment, the Japanese put 100 men in each car and closed the doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly, men suffocated from the lack of air but could not fall to the floors since there was no room for them to fall. At Capas, the living left the boxcars and the dead fell to the floors as they left the boxcars. The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. They believed the camp could hold 15,000 to 20,000 POWs.
Once in the camp, they were taken into a large field where they were counted and searched and all extra clothing that they had was taken from them and not returned. Blankets, knives, and matches were taken from them. If a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Finally, the camp commandant came out, stood on a box, and told them that they were enemies of Japan and would always be Japan’s enemies. He also told them that they were captives and not prisoners of war and would be treated accordingly. After the speech, the prisoners were allowed to go to their barracks. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp as the POWs who had Japanese items on them were executed for looting.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men and those who did sleep in one slept in one with as many 80 to 120 men. Most of the POWs slept on the ground under the barracks. There was no netting to protect the men from malaria-carrying mosquitos as they slept, so many men soon became ill with malaria. The ranking American officer was slapped after asking for building materials to repair the buildings.
The POWs received three meals, mainly rice, a day. For breakfast, they were fed a half cup of soupy rice and occasionally some type of coffee. Lunch each day was a half of a mess kit of steamed rice and a half cup of sweet potato soup. They received the same meal for dinner. All meals were served outside regardless of the weather. By May 1, the food had improved a little with the issuing of a little wheat flour, some native beans, and a small issue of coconut oil. About once every ten days, 3 or 4 small calves were brought into the camp. When meat was given out, there was only enough for one-fourth of the POWs to receive a piece that was an inch square. A native potato, the camote, was given to the POWs, but most were rotten and thrown out. The POWs had to post guards to prevent other POWs from eating them. The camp had a Black Market and POWs who had money could buy a small can of fish from the guards for $5.00.
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 by the POWs who came up with the pipe, dug the trench, and ran the waterline. Just like the first faucet, the Japanese turned off the water when they wanted water to bathe, but unlike the first water line, the POWs had the ability to turn on the water again without the Japanese knowing it. 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. 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 Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use. When a second truck was sent to the camp by the Red Cross, it was turned away. The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one medic – out of the six medics 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 bodies were moved to one side, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it. At one point, 80 bodies lay under the hospital.
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. Many of these men returned from the work details only to die in the camp. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledged that they had to do something, so they opened a new camp at Cabanatuan.
In May 1942, his family received this message.
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Private John Avila, 38,041,196, who, according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“I deeply regret that it is impossible for me to give you more information than is contained in this letter. 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 other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese Government has indicated its intention of conforming to the terms of the Geneva Convention with respect 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 surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is to be hoped that the Japanese Government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At that time you will be notified by this office in the event that his name is contained in the list of prisoners of war. In the case of persons known to have been present in the Philippines and who are not reported to be prisoners of war by the Japanese Government, the War Department will continue to carry them as “missing in action” in the absence of information to the contrary, until twelve months have expired. At the expiration of twelve months and in the absence of other information the War Department is authorized to make a final determination.
“Recent legislation makes provision to continue the pay and allowances of persons carried in a “missing” status for a period not to exceed twelve months; to continue, for the duration of the war, the pay and allowances of persons known to have been captured by the enemy; to continue allotments made by missing personnel for a period of twelve months and allotments or increase allotments made by persons by the enemy during the time they are so held; to make new allotments or increase allotments to certain dependents defined in Public Law 490, 77th Congress. The latter dependents generally include the legal wife, dependent children under twenty-one years of age and dependent mother, or such dependents as having been designated in official records. Eligible dependents who can establish a need for financial assistance and are eligible to receive this assistance the amount allotted will be deducted from pay which would otherwise accrue to the credit of the missing individual.
“Very Truly yours
J. A. Ulio (signed)
The Adjutant General”
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.
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. In early June, four POWs escaped and were recaptured. They were brought back to the camp and tied to posts and beaten. After three days they were cut loose from the posts and made to dig their own graves. They stood in graves facing a Japanese firing squad and were shot. After they had been shot, a Japanese officer used his pistol and fired a shot into each grave.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” The rice smelled and appeared to have been swept up off the floor. The other problem was that the men assigned to be cooks had no idea of how to prepare the rice since they had no experience in cooking it. During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in a while, the POWs received corn to serve to the prisoners. From the corn, the cooks would make hominy. The prisoners were so hungry that some men would eat the corn cobs. This resulted in many men being taken to the hospital to have the cobs removed because they would not pass through the men’s bowels. Sometimes they received bread, and if they received fish it was rotten and covered with maggots. To supplement their diets, the men would search for grasshoppers, rats, and dogs to eat. The POWs assigned to handing out the food used a sardine can to assure that each man received the same amount. They were closely watched by their fellow prisoners who wanted to make sure that everyone received the same portion and that no one received extra rice.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. Each morning, as the POWs stood at attention and roll call was taken, the Japanese guards hit them across 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 to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Another detail was sent out to work at Cabanatuan Airfield which had been the home of a Philippine Army Air Corps unit and known as Maniquis Airfield. The Japanese had the POWs build runways and revetments. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Returning from a detail the POWs bought or were given, medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned.
During June, the first cases of diphtheria appeared in the camp, and by July, it had spread throughout the camp. The Japanese finally gave the American medical staff anti-biotics to treat the POWs, but before it took effect, 130 POWs had died from the disease by August. On June 26, six POWs were executed by the Japanese after they had left the camp to buy food and were caught returning to camp. The POWs were tied to posts in a manner that they could not stand up or sit down. No one was allowed to give them food or water and they were not permitted to give them hats to protect them from the sun. The men were left tied to the posts for 48 hours when their ropes were cut. Four of the POWs were executed on the duty side of the camp and the other two were executed on the hospital side of the camp.
In July, his parents received a second message from the War Department. 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 John Avila 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.”
It is not known if his parents received word that he was a Prisoner of War.
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 they could relieve themselves. Most of those who entered the ward died.
The POWs had the job of burying the dead. To do this, they worked in teams of four men. Each team carried a litter of four to six dead men to the cemetery where they were buried in graves containing 15 to 20 bodies. Since the water table was high, a POW held the body down in the grave with a pole until it was covered with dirt. The death rate remained 9 POWs a day into November.
On August 7, one POW escaped from the camp and was recaptured on September 17. He was placed in solitary confinement and during his time there, he was beaten over the head with an iron bar by a Japanese sergeant. The camp commandant, Col. Mori, would parade him around the camp and use the man as an example as he lectured the POWs. The man wore a sign that read, “Example of an Escaped Prisoner.”
Three POWs escaped from the camp on September 12, 1942, and were recaptured on September 21 and brought back to the camp. Their feet were tied together and their hands were crossed behind their backs and tied with ropes. A long rope was tied around their wrists and they were suspended from a rafter with their toes barely touched the ground causing their arms to bear all the weight of their bodies. They were subjected to severe beatings by the Japanese guards while hanging from the rafter. The punishment lasted three days. They were cut from the rafter and they were tied hand and foot and placed in the cooler for 30 days on a diet was rice and water. One of the three POWs was severely beaten by a Japanese lieutenant but later released.
On September 29, the three POWs were executed by the Japanese after being stopped by American security guards while attempting to escape. The American guards were there to prevent escapes so that the other POWs in their ten men group would not be executed. During the event, the noise made the Japanese aware of the situation and they came to the area and beat the three men who had tried to escape. One so badly that his jaw was broken. After two and a half hours, the three were tied to posts by the main gate and their clothes were torn off them. They also were beaten on and off for the next 48 hours. Anyone passing them was expected to urinate on them. After three days they were cut down and thrown into a truck and taken to a clearing in sight of the camp and shot.
The Japanese needed 1000 POWs were to go on a work detail to Davao in October 1942. On October 24, the POWs were marched to the barrio of Cabanatuan, loaded onto boxcars, and sent by train to Manila arriving in the afternoon. During the trip, the doors of the boxcars were left open so there was ventilation. When they arrived at Manila, they remained in the boxcars until after dark when they were marched through the empty streets to Bilibid Prison. Once at Bilibid, they were fed mutton soup and rice.
The next day they were assembled in 100 men formations and marched to the Port Area of Manila where they boarded the Erie Maru. The hold was divided into box spaces and twelve men were assigned to each box. There was only enough room in a box for six men to sleep at a time. The POWs quickly became infested with bedbugs and lice. The hold smelled from the gasoline that was being stored in it and quickly was joined by the smell of human excrement.
The next morning the POWs were fed rice and spinach soup. At noon, they received rice and dried fish. For dinner, they had corned beef and rice. The POWs assigned to cooking discovered the Japanese officers had a large stock of captured American pork and slipped it to the men in the holds which resulted in many of the POWs developing dysentery.
The trip to Lasang took thirteen days because the ship made stops at Iloilo, Panay, and Cebu, Mindanao. At Iloilo, they buried one man who had died. The POWs arrived at Lansang on November 7.
When they arrived at the camp, the POWs were in such bad shape that the ranking Japanese officer, Major Mida, ordered them fed. They ate pork and beef, rice cabbage pinch, squash onions, potatoes, and peanuts which were all produced on the farm. From the orchards, they were given fruit which included raw and cooked plantains. The sick were given medical treatment and there was enough water for drinking, bathing, and laundry. When the recuperation took too long, their diet was cut to rice and greens soup.
At the camp, the POWs were housed in eight barracks that were about 148 feet long and about 16 feet wide. A four-foot-wide aisle ran down the center of each barracks. In each barracks, were eighteen bays. Twelve POWs shared a bay which meant that 216 POWs lived in each of the barracks. To prevent escapes, four cages were later put in a bay. Each cage held two POWs.
The camp discipline was poor and the American commanding officer changed frequently. The junior officers refused to take orders from the senior officers. Soon, the enlisted men spoke anyway they wanted to the officers. The situation improved because all the majority of the POWs realized that the discipline was needed to survive.
There were various details. 30 men were assigned to work as carpenters, 25 POWs worked in the orchards, 50 POWs made rope, 20 POWs worked the bodega (storeroom) detail, and for four months the POWs cut and picked coffee. There were smaller details that took from 2 to 35 men that lasted weeks or months, while other details were continuous, such as the farm detail that 250 to 300 POWs worked on plowing fields and harvesting crops.
50 to 100 POWs were sent to a plantation and given the job of building roads. In the opinion of the POWs, they did more damage than good and intentionally kept the roads impassable. The Japanese decided that they were getting nowhere, so they sent the POWs to the ricefields to plant rice.
350 to 750 POWs were used in the rice fields. The number varied because planting and harvesting took more men. Many of the POWs became ill with what John called, “Rice Sickness.” This illness was caused by a POW cutting his foot or leg on a rice stalk. The POW developed a rash and suffered from severe swelling. If a POW bruised himself, the bruise developed into an ulcer. Most, if not all the prisoners, suffered from malaria.
At first, the work details were not guarded as the POWs plowed, planted, and harvested the crops. The sick POWs, who could not do this work, made baskets. In April 1943, the POWs working conditions varied. The treatment the POWs at this time changed. Those POWs working the rice fields received the worst treatment. They were beaten for not meeting quotas, and there were misunderstandings between the POWs and guards. In addition, the translator could not be trusted to tell the truth.
Beatings were common and usually, the guards slapped the POWs in their faces. On occasion, there were severe beatings. This occurred if the Japanese suspected the POWs were planning an escape.
The POWs were still receiving three meals – which were measured down with a sardine tin – a day and received one water buffalo a week but they were being worked harder and longer. At times, after the POWs had slaughtered the water buffalo and had it ready to cook, the Japanese made them bury it. Trees at the experimental farm were loaded with bananas, oranges, and other fruits that fell to the ground and rotted since the POWs were not allowed to eat them.
After the escape of Capt. William Dyess, LTC Melvyn McCoy, Maj. Stephen Mellnik, Maj. Michael Dobervitch, and another POW on April 4, 1943, the 600 remaining POWs from their barracks were moved toa another compound and had their rations reduced, they were confined to quarters, and they were abused. During the day, they were not allowed to sit down. The Japanese commanding officer ordered and allowed collectives punishment on all the POWs. If the POWs were found to have food on them when they returned from work, they were brutally beaten. At night the guards walked through the barracks a poked the sleeping POWs with bamboo poles to disrupt their sleep.
When two other POWs escaped, 22 other POWs were confined to the guardhouse for ten days. They were made to stand at attention all day in the cells. The cells were eight feet long and three and one-half feet wide. Eleven prisoners were put into each cell. At night they were beaten with sticks when they attempted to lie down. They were fed one meal a day of rice with a little salt.
The Japanese ended the detail at the farm and sent the POWs to Lasang on March 2, 1944. The POWs thought that it would not be as bad as the farm; they were wrong. The barracks of the POWs were only 400 yards from the airfield. The POWs believed this was done so if American planes attacked, they would kill their own countrymen.
The POWs either built runways or were sent to a quarry to mine coral for runways. The POWs dug out the coral, broke it up, and loaded it onto trucks that were driven to the airfield. When the POWs slowed the pace of their work down, the Japanese resorted to torture to get them to work.
On June 6, 1944, about half of the POWs were sent to Manila, while the remainder of the men stayed on the island until August 19, 1944. Over the next two weeks, the atmosphere at the airfield changed. The Japanese posted guards with bayonets on their rifles by the POW barracks as air raids became daily. The Japanese camouflaged the airfield and hid their planes in revetments. The POWs heard rumors that the Americans had landed at Palau.
One night at 2:00 A.M. in August, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. From the sound of the engine, they knew it was American. It was the first American plane they had heard in over two years. As the plane dove on the airfield, it dropped four bombs at the far end of the runway; the POWs celebrated silently. For the POWs, this was the first knowledge they had the Americans were getting closer. The planes never returned to the airfield and the POWs believed it was because they recognized the compound as a POW camp, but at night they heard the sound of Japanese ships and other airfields being bombed.
During this time, the POWs rations were cut to a single cup of rice a day. The POWs were now so hungry that they raided the Japanese garbage pile for remnants of vegetables. Many ate the weeds that grew inside the camp until it was bare. Fruit that grew on the trees at the experimental farm fell to the ground and rotted.
Air raids soon were nightly events. Japanese planes flying out of the airfield were loaded with bombs and carried extra gasoline tanks. Finally, all work on the airfield was stopped. On that day, the POWs were lined up by fours. The outside men had a rope tied to their wrists to prevent escape. They were marched shoeless to the Tabunco Pier and arrived at noon. There they were packed into the two holds of the Erie Maru. 400 POWs were in the first hold while the remaining 350 POWs were put in the second hold. In addition, several tons of Japanese baggage were packed into the hold. Around six that evening, the ship sailed.
Once the POWs were in the holds the Japanese put the hatch covers on the hatches. There was no room to move and it was impossible to sit down.
According to Pvt. Walter Alexander: “An hour after the hatch was closed men began to pass out. We started to break out with heat rash. We couldn’t move. We didn’t nearly have enough water.
“The hatch was opened at night but clamped down as soon as daylight came.”
The next day, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. An American plane flew over the ship. The sound of machine-gun fire was heard by the POWs. The Japanese once again tied down the hatch covers cutting off the air.
Alexander said, “We were still off Davao the next morning when the bombers came over. I think they were B-24s. We felt the concussion as the bombs hit near the ship. The boat rocked and the plates rang. We estimated that one bomb missed by maybe 100 feet.”
“The ship pulled out through during the bombing. The next day the escort ships dropped depth charges. We were in the hold three days to Zamboanga. We laid there 12 days still in the hold. A couple of boys went crazy.”
As the ship made its way north it swayed in the waves. Many of the prisoners became seasick. They retched when they tried to throw up since there was no food in their stomachs. Over the next three days, there were several more alerts. Each time the hatch covers were battened down leaving the POWs in darkness.
The ship arrived in Zamboanga on August 24 and waited ten days until the Shinyo Maru arrived. The POWs were not allowed out of the holds and the conditions in the ship’s holds were terrible. The holds were hot and steamy and the floors were covered with human waste. In addition, the longer the POWs were in the holds the stench became worse. During this time, the POWs were allowed on deck and sprayed with saltwater.
On September 4, the POWs were transferred onto the Shinyo Maru. 250 POWs were put in the ship’s smaller hold, while the 500 POWs were put into its larger hold. That night, bombs from American planes landed alongside the ship rocking and shaking it. The POWs prayed that the ship would be hit by a bomb
Of this, Alexander said, “Then we changed ships. They lowered a ladder in the hold and in our condition we had a hard time getting up. A lot of the men were in bad shape and a few had to be helped up.
“The fresh air felt good and the sunshine was blinding. There was another ship tied close by and were transferred to it. In this ship, they put 500 men in one hold and 250 in another. I was with the 500.“
The ship sailed on September 5 at 2:00 A.M. Before sailing, the hatch covers were secured so that the POWs could not lift them from below. The ship headed north in a zigzag pattern in an attempt to avoid submarines, and the POWs were no longer allowed on deck. Their lips and throats were covered with dust from cement that had previously been hauled by the ship. For the next two days, the ship made good time. It was at this time that the Japanese guards threatened to kill the POWs if the ship came under attack by American planes. The ship was now part of a convoy designated as C-076. Since the POWs had not heard any air raid alerts, they assumed that they were safe. In reality, American submarines were picking off ships in the convoy one at a time.
Of this, Alexander said, “This time we were right down in the bottom of the ship. Again there was barely enough room for men to sit down. What was worse, the ship had been carrying cement and we sat on an inch of cement dust. Any movement stirred up cement dust and made it almost impossible to breathe. The stench in this hold was as bad as the other.
“Our officers told us to sit still. We sat still. We sailed the same night and were down there two days.”
It should be noted that the United States had intercepted the order from the Japanese command sending the Shinyo Maru to Zamboanga. Someone misinterpreted the order as saying the ship would be transporting “750 military personnel” instead of “750 military prisoners” to Manila. The U.S.S. Paddle was sent to the area to intercept the ship.
Pfc. Victor Mapes talked about being in the ship’s hold, “I was down in the hold with 750 other Americans. They had us stripped down to G-strings. We’d left 22 days before from the southern Philippines — Davao.”
It was 4:00 P.M. when the convoy was spotted and the attack on the ships started. Pfc. Mapes recalled the event, “The Jap freighter Number 83 — was ripped apart by the Sub’s torpedo.”
Suddenly the Japanese removed the hatch covers. Of the same event, Sgt. Onnie Clem, U.S.M.C. said: “We looked up to see the Japs at both entrances with machine guns pointed at us. They started firing, spraying lead, in among the prisoners. Several hand grenades exploded among us.”
At 4:37 p.m., on September 7, 1944, the U.S.S Paddle spotted the ship off the west coast of Mindanao at Sindangan Point. It fired two torpedoes at the ship. The first torpedo hit the ship in its main hold killing many POWs. Moments later, a second torpedo hit the ship. There was a gaping hole in the ship’s side. Those POWs still alive saw the bodies of the dead floating in the water as the hold filled with water. Some POWs were blown out of the hold through the hole during the explosion.
Sgt. Verle Cutter said, “We were in the hold wondering where they were taking us this time when the hatch was ripped open, we looked up to see Japs at both entrances with machine-guns pointed at us. They started firing, spraying lead, in among the prisoners. Several hand-grenades were thrown down among us exploded. How many of us were killed no one will ever know because then it happened.
“A loud explosion rocked the ship, and in the blackness of the hold, we could hear the vessel cracking up. Then after another explosion sounded in the aft hold of the vessel. We knew the ship had been torpedoed. Those Japs had tried to machine-gun and grenade us to prevent our possible escape.”
Sgt. Onnie Clem, U.S.M.C., recalled what it was like when the torpedoes hit.
“All I could see was orange. The next thing I knew I was floating in the air…I felt like I was among fluffy balls of cotton. (He was floating in the water and the fully balls were the bodies of the dead or other men trying to get out.) I thought, ‘Hell, I’m dead. This is what it’s like when you’re dead.’
The surviving POWs found that the hatch cover had been blown off the hold by the explosion. As the water level rose, they were able to climb out. Seven Japanese officers were on the bridge with rifles. As the POWs emerged from the hold, they picked them off. The lucky POWs made it through their fire and dove into the water.
The POWs in the smaller hold were also wounded from the torpedo hits. But, the hold remained dry. Many of these POWs also were able to make it onto the deck and attempted to swim to shore. It was believed that only 250 POWs made it into the water and that the remaining 500 died on the ship.
According to the POWs in the water, the Shinyo Maru began to capsize. There was a tremendous crushing sound and the ship seemed to bend upward in the middle. The ship split in two and sunk into the sea.
Japanese seaplanes dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the American submarine. When they spotted the POWs in the water, they strafed them. They stopped strafing when they realized that there were Japanese in the water too. The good thing about the depth charges was that they kept sharks away from the POWs.
A Japanese tanker that had been hit by torpedoes spilled oil and gasoline into the water. The ship ran aground. The Japanese quickly set up machine guns and fired on the POWs. Boats from the other ships in the convoy attempted to hunt down the POWs swimming in the water cruising in and out of the debris field hunting and shooting the swimming Americans. If they found a man, they shot him.
One officer recalled seeing a young soldier struggling in the water and asked him if he could swim. The soldier replied, “No sir, not very well.” The officer began to say, ” Don’t worry, we’ll make it somehow,” but before he could finish, a shot rang out the young soldier’s head fell into the water. There was a bullet hole in his head. What saved many lives was that with dusk it became harder for the Japanese to see them.
Pfc. Mapes recalled, “The men began swimming toward shore three miles away — like a herd of sheep. The Japs from the other ships in the convoy were cutting them to pieces. I figured that the only way to survive was to break away from the bunch and swim to the opposite side.”
The Japanese announced to the Americans that if they surrendered that they would be treated with compassion, and about 30 men gave up after hearing this.
Sgt. Denver R. Rose was one of the 30 men. He recalled, “They tied our hands behind us and took us to another prison ship. They roped us together and stood us in a line along the rail. They then started shooting us one at a time.
“Using his sword a Jap cut the rope to lose the first man in line. He was taken to the stern of the boat and shot in the back. He fell into the water.
“Meanwhile, I found the frayed end of a steel cable by feeling with the fingers behind my back and rubbed the ropes across the sharp edges until I got free. I decided I just as soon be shot trying to get away as the other way, so I made a break for it. I ran to the front of the ship and slipped down into the anchor hole After a while, I heard shooting again, so I let myself down into the water.” Rose was the only man, of the 30 POWs, not to be executed.
According to the POWs in the water, the ship began to capsize. There was a tremendous crushing sound and the ship seemed to bend upward in the middle and split in two before it sank into the water. Of the 750 POWs who were boarded onto the ship, 82 POWs escaped. One man died on shore while the remainder were rescued by Filipino guerillas and returned to U.S. Forces in October 1944. Pvt. John Avila was not one of them.
The War Department sent this telegram to the families of men who died in the sinking of the Shinyo Maru:
=THE SECRETARY OF WAR DEEPLY REGRETS TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON PVT JOHN AVILA KILLED IN ACTION IN THE PACIFIC AREA 7 SEPT 44 WHILE BEING TRANSPORTED ABOARD A JAPANESE VESSEL CONFIRMING LETTER TO FOLLOW=
=EDWARD F WITSELL ACTING ADJUTANT GENERAL OF THE ARMY=
In February 1945, the families who lost a son, brother or husband on the Shinyo Maru received the following letter. Note that the letter never indicates that the government knew the names of the survivors.
Dear Mrs. Avila:
The War Department has now received the official list of prisoners of war on the Japanese freighter, which you were previously was sunk on September 7, 1944. It is with deep regret that I must now inform you that your son is among those listed as lost when the sinking occurred. The War Department regrets its inability to entertain a possibility of his survival and must now consider him to have died in action on September 7, 1944. The date of receipt of this final evidence was February 7, 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and his accounts be closed.
The information available to the War Department is that the vessel sailed from Davao, Mindanao, August 20, 1944, with 750 prisoners of war abroad. The vessel was sunk by torpedoes on September 7, 1944, off the western shores of Mindanao. The indications are that relatively few of the prisoners had the opportunity to leave the sinking ship and of those who did many were killed by enemy gunfire. A small number managed to reach shore and a close watch for others was kept for several days. The Japanese government reports all the prisoners as lost, indicating that no survivors are in the hands of that Government. There is no information as to what happened to the individual prisoners but known circumstances lead to the regrettable conclusion that all of the unaccounted for prisoners lost their lives at the time of the sinking,
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 heartfelt sympathy.
R. W. MODERHAK
1st Lt. A.G.D.
The family also received this message from General George Marshall’s office:
“General Marshall extends his deep sympathy in your bereavement. You son fought valiantly in a supreme hour of his county’s need. His memory will live in the grateful heart of our nation.”
It is not known if Pvt. John Avila died in the sinking of the Shinyo Maru or if he was shot while attempting to swim ashore. It is known that he died on Thursday, September 7, 1944. Since he was lost at sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside Manila.