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 and Pearl Walker-Biddle. He grew up Clinton, Indiana, and had a grade school education. When Selective Service Registration became law on October 16, 1940, he registered for the draft and was inducted into the U. S. Army in 1941 and did his basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky.
The first six weeks was the primary training. During Week 1, the soldiers did infantry drilling; Week 2 was manual arms and marching to music; Week 3 was machine gun training; Week 4 was pistol training; Week 5 was training with the M1 rifle; Week 6 was field week – training with gas masks, gas attacks, pitching tents, and hikes; Weeks 7,8,9 was spent learning weapons, firing each one, learning the parts of the weapons and their functions, field stripping and caring for weapons, and the cleaning of weapons. After basic training, he was assigned to the 19th Ordnance Battalion.
After this, the classroom courses that lasted three months. In his case, he went to the tank mechanic’s school and qualified as a mechanic. He also learned his job by working on the tanks of the 192nd Tank Battalion. Weapons were also given to the soldiers and those assigned to ordnance were issued a pistol, and/or possibly a machine gun or submachine gun.
In August, as a member of A Company, he was taking part in maneuvers in Arkansas, when the company was ordered back to Ft. Knox. There, it was inactivated and activated as the 17th Ordnance Company and received orders for overseas duty on August 17 because of an event that happened during the summer that happened in the Philippines.
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.
The company traveled west by train to San Francisco and learned they were being sent to the Philippines. On the train with them were the M3 tanks assigned to the 194th Tank Battalion. After arriving in San Francisco, the company spent the next three days removing the turrets of the tanks so they would fit in the ship’s hold. After removing the turrets, they painted the serial number of the tank it came off so that it would be put back on the same tank.
The members of the company were given physicals, and those men with medical conditions were replaced. 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 on board 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, an unknown destroyer, and the U.S.S. Guadalupe a replenishment oiler. Several times during the voyage, the Astoria took off an intercepted several ships when smoke was seen on the horizon. Each time the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country.
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. The soldiers worked in shifts and slept on the ship completing the job by 9:00 A.M. the next morning.
At the fort, the company found itself living in tents since their barracks were not finished. The area the tents were pitched in was low, so the first night when there was heavy rain, the tents flooded. On November 15, they moved into their barracks. Since they worked with the 194th, they had the same workday. The soldiers’ day started at 5:15 with reveille. After washing, breakfast was at 6:00 A.M. The soldiers worked from 7:00 A.M. to 11:30 A.M. Lunch was at noon. They went back to work at 1:30 P.M. and worked until 2:30 P.M. The shorter afternoon work period was based on the belief that it was too hot to work. According to members of the battalion the term “recreation in the motor pool” meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon. At 5:10, they ate dinner and were free afterward.
The soldiers were expected to wear their dress uniforms on base. Since working on the tanks was a dirty job, the battalion members wore fatigues to do the work. When they were discovered working in their fatigues, the soldiers were reprimanded for not wearing dress uniforms while working. The decision was made by Major Ernest Miller, 194th Tank Battalion, for his men to continue wearing fatigues in their barracks area to do their work, but if the soldiers left the battalion’s area, they were expected to wear dress uniforms. This included going to the PX. The members of 17th Ordnance did the same.
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. Off the base, the soldiers went to Mt. Aarayat National Park and swam in the swimming pool there that was filled with mountain water. Men were given the opportunity to be allowed to go to Manila in small groups. They also went to canoeing at Pagsanjan Falls in their swimsuits and described the country was described as being beautiful.
On December 8, 1941, he lived the bombing of Clark Field. The soldiers were putting down stone for sidewalks when their commanding officer, Major Richard Kadel, told them of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The company moved to a bamboo thicket and set up its trucks. Later that morning the alert was canceled and the company was ordered back to Clark Field. The cooks had just finished preparing lunch so they remained in the thicket. While they were eating lunch, at 12:45 the Japanese bombed the airfield. When the attack began sauerkraut and hot dogs went flying everywhere. The Zeros that followed strafed the airfield and banked and turned over the thicket to straf the airfield again. They were ordered not to fire because some of the machines they had to manufacture tank parts were the only ones in the Philippines.
For the next four months, the members of the company did several things. Since anti-personnel shells had not arrived before the war started, they converted WWI anti-personnel shells for use by the tanks. They set up fuel dumps for the tanks to use during the withdrawal into Bataan, and they manufactured or scavenged spare parts for the tank. They also often made tank repairs on the front lines under combat conditions.
On Bataan, the company set up its headquarters in an empty ordnance depot which was surrounded by ammunition dumps. There they continued repairing damaged tanks and manufacturing tank parts. They also set up fuel dumps for the tanks to use as they fell back.
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. 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. The Japanese would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal.
In March, the amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. At the same time, food rations were cut in half again. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor.
It was at this time that he was with the 192nd which 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, the flesh fit into the thigh perfectly, except for the chewed off piece.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an attack with troops brought in from Singapore 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.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. Edward P. King decided that further resistance was futile, since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day.
At 6;30 P.M. order went out. “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.”
17th Ordnance at 11:00 P.M. was given a half-hour to vacate the ordnance building before the ammunition dumps around it were blown up at 11:40 P.M. 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. (The driver was from the tank group and the white flag was bedding from A Company.) 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.” The tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. The company destroyed any equipment that would be useful to the Japanese.
As King left to negotiate the surrender, he went through the tank group and spoke to them. He told them he was going to get them the best deal he could get. He also said, “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 inline 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.
Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered. When the Japanese made contact with them on April 10, 17th Ordnance was ordered to Mariveles. It was from there that he 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 five 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 that 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, but the Japanese never had a shortage of water. 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 POWs received three meals 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 of cup of sweet potato soup. They received the same meal for dinner. All meals were served outside regardless of the weather.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men but those did sleep in one slept in a barracks it was with as many 80 to 120 men.
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. A second truck with medical supplies sent by the Red Cross to the camp was turned away at the gate.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one medic – of the six medics assigned to care for 50 sick POWs in the hospital – 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. In an attempt to stop the spread of disease, the dead were moved to one area, and the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain 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 less sick from the hospital were required to dig latrines and were given a canteen of water that was expected to last three days. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
In May, his family received a letter from the War Department
“Dear Mrs. P. Biddle:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee if Private First Class William E. Biddle, 15,061,445, 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 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. Four POWs attempted to escape in early June and were caught. The men dug their own graves and stood in them facing a firing squad. After they had been shot, a Japanese officer took his pistol and fired one shot into each grave. 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. It appears no 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. He liked to punish the POWs by making them kneel on stones.
“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. The death rate was still nine men a day into December and dropped once Red Cross Packages were given out at Christmas.
On June 26, 1942, six POWs were executed by the Japanese since they had left the camp to buy food and were caught returning to camp. The men 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 hats to protect them from the sun. They were left tied to posts for 48 hours until the ropes were cut. Four of the POWs were executed on the duty side of the camp, while the other two were executed on the hospital side of the camp.
In June the first POWs came down with diphtheria. By July, it was a full-blown pandemic and 130 POWs died before the Japanese released anti-toxin to the medical staff sometime in late August.
In July, a second letter was sent to the families of men captured on Bataan and Corregidor. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Private First Class William E. Biddle 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.”
Three POWs escaped from the camp on September 12, 1942, and 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.
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. 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.
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 to go on a 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. 216 POWs lived in each barracks. 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, to the officers. The situation improved because the majority of POWs realized that 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 and were responsible for planting 1600 acres of rice. The POWs attempted to grow as little rice as possible and would drop the rice stalks in the mud and “unintentionally” step on them. The number varied because planting and harvesting took more men. Many of the POWs became ill with what was 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.
When harvesting the rice, the POWs would “miss” the collection baskets spilling the rice onto the ground. At the threshing machine, the POWs made sure that as much of the rice as possible was blown away with the chaff. They would also “forget” to push the rice carts into the warehouse when it rained which caused the rice to get moldy. Although they did these things, most of the rice still made it to the warehouse. Once piled inside, the prisoners often poked holes into the roof directly above the rice. When it rained, the rice would get wet and moldy.
The one good thing that happened to the POWs on this detail was that they were given Red Cross packages. The medicine in the packages also helped to bring the number of cases of malaria and dysentery under control.
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.
Some POWs were sent to a plantation and given the job of building a road. In the opinion of the POWs, they did more damage than good and intentionally kept the roads impassable. Other men worked in a quarry that contained a great deal of coral that cut their feet. What they dug out went to build the road. The Japanese decided that they were getting nowhere, so they sent the POWs to the ricefields to plant rice.
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. From October 1, 1942, until March 1, 1944, rations were reduced often as a punishment.
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 to 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 he was sent the POWs to Lasang in October 1943. 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. 550 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.
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 salt water.
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.
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. In July 1945, he was discharged from the Army and on July 26, he registered with Selective Service since he had not done so on October 16, 1940. On his registration, it stated he had been discharged from the military.
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.