What is known about PFC William Esco Biddle is that he was born on October 16, 1922, in Vincennes, Indiana. He was the youngest of three children born to Esco W. Biddle & Pearl Walker-Biddle. He grew up Clinton, Indiana, and had a grade school education. He was inducted into the U. S. Army in 1941 and did his basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he qualified as a tank mechanic.
On August 17, 1941, the company was formed from A Company, 19th Ordnance Battalion, and received orders for duty in the Philippines because of an event that happened during the summer. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots, whose plane was lower than the rest, noticed something odd in the water. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and another in the distance. The planes 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 hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter on it. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. By the time the planes landed that evening, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next morning, another squadron was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat which was seen making its way toward shore. Since communication between and Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat was not intercepted. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
In the late summer of 1941, 17th Ordnance received orders that it was being sent overseas. The company traveled west by train to San Francisco. They were taken to Angel Island, on the ferry the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe, where they were inoculated for duty in the Philippine Islands.
The company boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge which sailed at 9:00 P.M., September 8. It arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on September 13th at 7:00 A.M. The soldiers were given passes, but they had to be back onboard the ship before it sailed at 5:00 P.M. and took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was joined by the U.S.S. Astoria and an unknown destroyer. Several times during the voyage, the Astoria took off an intercepted ships when smoke was seen on the horizon. Each time the smoke was from a friendly ship.
The ships arrived at Manila on Friday, September 26. Most of the soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M., but the members of 17th Ordnance remained behind to unload the tanks of the 194th Tank Battalion and reattached the turrets. When the 192nd Tank Battalion arrived at Manila, 17th Ordnance returned to the port area to unload their tanks.
On December 8, 1941, William lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Airfield. He spent the next four months working to supply the tanks of the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions with gasoline and ammunition.
In March 1942, while 17th Ordnance was with the 192nd, William, and other members of 17th Ordnance, were in the area. The 192nd was attacking the Japanese in what was known as Bagac-Orion line and dislodged them from the position. When they moved into the position, they found a dead friend of theirs with a piece of his left thigh cut out. His body was still warm. A little up the road, they found the missing piece of the man’s thigh, which the Japanese had tried to cook. A piece had been chewed off. When they returned with it to the body, it the flesh fit into the thigh perfectly, except for the chewed off piece.
When the surrender came on April 9, 1942, 17th Ordnance made its way to Mariveles. It was from there that Joseph started what the prisoners simply called “the march.” When they started the march at Mariveles, they marched back and forth a number of times because the Japanese didn’t really know what to do with them. Late that evening they marched again, this time they made their way north up the zig-zag road that led out of Mariveles.
Since the first fives miles of the march were uphill, it was midnight before the Prisoners of War reached the highest ground. It was at that time that the guards gave the POWs a rest.
When ordered to move, the column made its way north. At some point, his commanding officer and several other men from his company escaped into the jungle. They would spend the rest of the war as guerrillas, and some would not live to see the end of the war.
The column made its way to Cabcaben. During this part of the march, they saw dead Filipinos lying along the sides of the road. Outside of Cabcaben, the Japanese had set up artillery which was firing on Corregidor which was returning fire. The POWs were ordered to rest in front of the guns because the Japanese believed that if they did, the Americans would stop their fire. They didn’t and knocked out three of the four Japanese guns. After this didn’t work, the Japanese ordered the men to move again.
On the march to Lamao, men were beaten to the ground and bayoneted. If you were caught looking at what was happening the guards came after you. Many of the POWs looked down so they did not become targets for the guards.
Although there were artesian wells flowing across the road, the guards would not let the POWs drink any of the water. Men who broke ranks and ran to the wells were shot. Those who made it back to the ranks and had wet clothing were also shot.
Along the sides of the road were ditches filled with dirty water. Often a dead body was floating in the water. The guards had no problem letting the POWs drink the filthy water which later led to the deaths of many of the POWs.
It was during this part of the march that the guards took the canteens away from the POWs and had them sit in the sun from 10 A.M. until 1 P.M. This was known as “the sun treatment.” Since they had no head protection they became sunburned and many had blisters.
They continued march north and had not eaten in days. It was at this time that they passed sugarcane fields. Men were so hungry that they broke and ran into the field for food. As they ran to get food, the guards shot at them killing some. Those who returned to the march with sugarcane shared it with others.
The detachment reached San Fernando where they were put in a bullpen which had been used by other POWs. It was covered with human waste. In one corner was a slit trench which was live with flies. Once in the pen, they were ordered to sit. They remained there until they were ordered to form 100 men detachments and march to the train station at San Fernando.
The small wooden boxcars were known as “forty or eights” because each car could hold forty men or eight horses. Since the detachments had 100 men in them, the Japanese packed 100 men into each car. Once in the cars, those men who died remained standing since they had no room to fall to the floors. When the living left the cars at Capas, the dead fell to the floor. The POWs marched eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell.
About the march, he said, “Among the tortures and atrocities I witnessed the burial alive of an American soldier who became exhausted and dropped and was apparently dead. However, as our boys attempted to bury him, he became conscious and screamed, but the Japanese guards compelled our boys to strike him with a shovel, knocking him out, and completing the burial. I didn’t know anyone in this group and to add to our predicament, American artillery laid down a barrage that killed about 35 to 50 boys and quite a few Japs.
And of course, during this march that lasted 6 or 7 days, we went without food or water, but the Japs relieved every 20 kilometers and so were allowed to rest and eat.”
Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino training base that was pressed 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 Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, Tsuneyoshi 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.
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 scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area they had been laying was scraped 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.
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 known as Camp Pangatian. The transfer of POWs was completed on June 4.
The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march where held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where those men captured when Corregidor surrendered were taken. In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp. Camp 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1.
Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with. To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers.
The POWs were sent out on work details one was to cut wood for the POW kitchens. The two major details were the farm detail and the airfield detail which lasted for years. A typical day on any detail lasted from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M. The POWs on the farm detail would have to go to a shed each morning to get tools. As they left the shed, the Japanese guards thought it was great fun to hit them over their heads.
The detail was under the command of “Big Speedo” who spoke very little English. When he wanted the POWs to work faster, he told the POWs “speedo.” Although he was known to have a temper, the POWs thought he was fair. Another guard was “Little Speedo” who was smaller and also used the word when he wanted the POWs to work faster. The POWs also felt he was pretty fair in his treatment of them.
“Smiley” was another guard who always had a smile on his face but could not be trusted. He was the meanest of the guards and beat men up for no reason. He liked to hit the POWs with the club. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads.
Other POWs worked in rice paddies. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard to drive their faces deeper into the mud. Returning from a detail the POWs bought or were given, medicine, food, and tobacco, which they somehow managed to get into the camp even though they were searched when they returned.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in a while, they received bread.
The camp hospital consisted of 30 wards that could hold 40 men each, but it was more common for them to have 100 men in them. Each man had approximately an area of 2 feet by 6 feet to lie in. The sickest POWs were put in “Zero Ward,” which was called this because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks.
The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves and would not go into the area. 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.
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 to force them into the mud even deeper. 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.
If a POW was caught attempting to escape he was beaten. Those who successfully escaped and were recaptured were beaten and later shot. Each man had to dig his own grave. It was at this camp the Japanese implanted the “Blood Brother” rule. The POWs were put in groups of 10 men. If one man escaped the other nine would be killed. The justification was that the POWs who slept on the man’s right or left would have been able to stop him.
William and other POWs were transferred from Cabanatuan to Davao in December 1942. The POWs were boarded onto the Interisland Steamer and taken to the Island of Mindanao. He was held at the Davao Penal Colony from December 1942 until October 26, 1943. At that time, William was part of a work detail of POWs sent to Lasang, Mindanao, to build runways at a Japanese airfield. He remained on the detail until August 19, 1944.
Several weeks earlier, the POWs had seen their first American plane in two and one-half years. The plane flew over the airfield they were working at and dropped four bombs at the far end of the runway.
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.
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. 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 shoe-less to the Tabunco Pier and arrived at noon. 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.
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. The next day, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. An American plane flew over the ship. Moments later bombs exploded near 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. Over the next three days, there were several more alerts. Each time the hatch covers were battened down leaving the POWs in darkness.
On August 24, the ship arrived in Zamboanga where it waited for 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.
It should be noted that the United States had intercepted the order from 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.
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 for the ship to be hit.
The ship sailed on September 5 at 2:00 A.M. Before the ship sailed, 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. The POWs were no longer allowed on deck, resulting in their lips and throats being covered with dust from the cement that had previously been hauled by the ship. For the next two days, the ship made good time as it headed north.
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.”
1st Lieutenant Harvey Denson said: “We were so crowded that we could not move, sit or sleep at one time. The hatches were tied down. They even begrudged us air. Men were passing out all around me for lack of air.
“They fed us two handfuls of rice and a canteen of water a day. We were completely dehydrated after the second day in the sweltering heat of the ship’s innards and couldn’t have sweated a drop if we tried.”
It was at this time that the Japanese guards threatened to kill the POWs if the ship came under attack by American planes or submarines. 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.
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 fluffy 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. As they swam, they were fired upon by the same seven Japanese officers.
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.
William and the other Americans in the water saw Americans, who had been picked up by the boats, have their hands tied behind their backs. The Japanese shot each man in the back of the head and threw the bodies into the water. He hid among the wreckage to avoid being killed. At one point he was spotted by the Japanese and fired on with a machine-gun and hit three times resulting in two broken ribs, a broken shoulder, and a broken eardrum.
Of the 750 POWs who were boarded onto the ship, 82 POWs escaped. William was one of these men. After reaching the shore, the POWs were rescued by Filipino Guerillas.
Cutter stated, “We walked all night and shortly after daybreak the next morning we saw a Filipino on horseback. He offered to take me to a hiding place as my foot was pretty sore, and said that he would send a runner for the other men to direct them to the hiding place. He said he already had ‘several of your friends.’
“Arriving at the hiding place the Filipinos said they would send for a doctor to treat the wounded. There were several of us. The doctor arrived days later and gangrene had started in some of our wounds.
“The doctor told us that he had walked for days to get us. He treated our wounds the best he could, but he didn’t have much in the way of medical supplies and had to go home and come back to treat us again.”
The Filipinos were so happy to help the Americans that word spread of their rescue. Wherever they were taken, celebrations were held in their honor. This caused concern among the Americans for their safety.
The guerillas made arrangements for the former POWs to be evacuated by an American submarine.
Clem said of this: “When we had about given up hope, the sub appeared and the Filipinos took us out to the craft…several hundred yards offshore…in small native boats.”
William and the other POWs boarded the U.S.S. Narwhal on October 20, and his family was notified that he had been returned to American Military control on October 26, 1944.
Clem said of boarding the submarine: “There were tears and some of the guys broke down and cried like babies and they were not a darn bit ashamed of it. They gave us sandwiches the first night and the bread tasted like cake. It was the first bread we had in three years. The next morning the 83 of us ate 18 pounds of butter, 36 pounds of sausage, 40 loaves of bread, and eight hotcakes each. The doctor put a stop to that.”
From the Philippines, William was taken to Brisbane, Australia. He was next sent to Ft. McDowell, Angel Island, California, arriving there on November 6, 1944.
William later returned to Indiana. He married and became the father of a son and daughter. He remained in the military and served during the Korean War. At some point, he divorced. He retired from the Army after 21 years of service.
In 1961 William married Johnaleen Brooks and became a step-father. He worked at the Naval Avionics Center in Indianapolis as a clerk. William Biddle died on March 5, 1989, at the Indiana Veterans Home and was buried at the Indiana Soldiers Home Cemetery in West Lafayette, Indiana.