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Brown, PFC Charles R.

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PFC Charles R. Brown was born on December 16, 1922, in New Martinsville, West Virginia. By 1930, he was living with his grandparents, Josiah & Maud McVaney in Upshur County, West Virginia.

On January 7, 1941, he enlisted into the U.S. Army at Fort Hayes, Ohio. He was sent to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for basic training and assigned to A Company, 19th Ordnance Battalion. A Company of the battalion was designated 17th Ordnance Company, on September 17, and received orders to go overseas the same day.

The reason for this decision was because of an event earlier in the year. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots – who was flying at a lower altitude – noticed something odd in the water. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy and saw another one in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island which was hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron returned to its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field.

When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day. The next day, when another squadron of planes was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.

U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, and taken to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. They received physicals and those men with medical conditions were replaced. They spent two days preparing tanks and other equipment for transport overseas.

The company boarded S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8, 1941, and sailed at 9:00 P.M. It arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, at 7:00 A.M. on September 13. While in port, the soldiers were given shore leave for the day and had to report back before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M. The ship took a southern route away from the main shipping lanes and was joined by the U.S.S. Astoria and unknown destroyer.

During this part of the trip, on several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon. Each time the Astoria intercepted the ship, and it turned out to be from a friendly country. On Tuesday, September 16, the ships crossed the International Dateline and the date changed to Thursday, September 18.

On September 26, the ships reached Manila and the Coolidge docked. The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M. The members of the ordnance company remained behind at the port area to unload the tanks and reattach the turrets of the tanks. To do this, the soldiers worked in shifts and slept on the ship. They finished the job the next morning.

It is not known exactly what the members of the company did after arriving in the Philippines.  When the 192nd Tank Battalion arrived in Manila in November, 17th Ordnance helped the battalion unload its tanks.

On December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Charles lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Airfield. 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 tanks.

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.

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.

Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army Camp which the Japanese pressed into service as a POW Camp. As many as fifty men died each day. There was only one water faucet for the entire camp. On June 1, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men and were marched to Capas, where they were put into steel boxcars. Each car had two Japanese guards. During the trip at Calumpit, the train was switched onto a track that took it to Cabanatuan.

When the POWs left the cars, they were herded into a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onions soup. They were marched to the new camp which was a former Philippine Army Base and had been the home of the 91st Philippine Army Division’s home. He was assigned to Barracks 2, Group 2.

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 POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. While on these details they 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. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn.

While a POW at the camp, he was admitted to the camp hospital on January 15, 1943. It is not known why he was admitted or when he was discharged. At some point, Charles was sent out on a work detail to Clark Field. Since his name is not on the original roster of POWs sent to the airfield, it is believed he was a replacement for a POW who was too ill to continue working.

The POWs were housed in the same barracks many had lived in before the war. Each man had a bunk and mattress to sleep on. They worked long hours starting at 6:00 A.M. working long hours even during the typhoon season. They were fed twice a day but the amount of food was inadequate. The Japanese did not give the POWs any medical supplies, and if they had them it was because the POWs had scrounged them.

If a POW escaped, the POWs remaining POWs were forced to stand at attention, information, for hours. On one occasion, they stood at attention until 4:00 A.M. Afterwards, they went to work. The Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule since several POWs escaped from the detail. If one man escaped, the other nine men in the group would be executed. Men were often thrown into the metal shack that served as a cellblock that had no windows and had only enough room for the man to squat. They also witnessed the execution of Filipinos who had been caught stealing sheet metal. They were tied to poles and used for bayonet practice.

Medical records show that he developed dysentery and was sent to Bilibid Prison outside Manila. According to records kept by the medical staff, Charles was admitted to the hospital ward on August 17, 1944, but no discharge date is shown, so it is believed he remained at the prison.

On October 10, the POWs boarded the Arisan Maru and 1775 prisoners were crammed into the first hold of the Arisan Maru which could hold 400 men. They were packed in so tightly that they could not move. Those POWs who had lain down in the wooden bunks along the haul could not sit up because the bunks were so close together. Eight large cans served as the latrines for the POWs.

Anton Cichy stated, “For the first few days there were 1 800 of us together in one hold. I don’t know how big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down. We were just kind of stuck there.”

Calvin Graef said, “We were packed in so tight most men couldn’t get near the cans. And, of course, it was a physical impossibility for the sick in the back of the hold, the men suffering the tortures of diarrhea and dysentery. We waded in fecal matter. Most of the men went naked. The place was alive with lice, bedbugs, and roaches; the filth and stench were beyond description.”

Later in the day on October 11, the ship set sail but took a southerly route away from Taiwan. The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days. The Japanese covered the hatch with a tarp so, during the night, the POWs were in total darkness. Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died. Being in the cove resulted in the ship missing an air raid by American planes, but the ship was attacked once by American planes returning from a bombing raid on the airfield on the island.

Although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not turned off the power to the lights. Some of the prisoners were able to hot-wire the ship’s blowers into the light power lines. This allowed fresh air into the hold until the power was disconnected, two days later, when the Japanese discovered what had been done.

After this was done, the POWs began to develop heat blisters. The Japanese realized that if they did not do something many of the POWs would die. To prevent this, they opened the ship’s number two hold and transferred 600 POWs into it. At this point, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.

Of this time, Graef said, “As we moved through the tropical waters, the heat down in the steel-encased hell hole was maddening. We were allowed three ounces of water per man every 24 hours. Quarts were needed under these conditions, to keep a man from dehydrating.

“While men were dying of thirst, Jap guards–heaping insults on us–would empty five-gallon tins of freshwater into the hold. Men caught the water in pieces of clothing and sucked the cloth dry. Men licked their wet skins. It was hell all right. Men went mad.”

Each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not turned off the power to the lights. Some of the prisoners were able to hot-wire the ship’s blowers into the light power lines. This allowed fresh air into the hold until the power was disconnected, two days later, when the Japanese discovered what had been done.

After this was done, the POWs began to develop heat blisters. The Japanese realized that if they did not do something many of the POWs would die. To prevent this, they opened the ship’s number two hold and transferred 600 POWs into it. At this point, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.

The ship returned to Manila on October 20, where it joined a twelve ship convoy. On October 21, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea. The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs making them targets for American submarines. In addition, U.S. military intelligence was reading the Japanese messages as fast as the Japanese. To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine crews that ships were carrying POWs which made the ships targets for the submarines. The POWs in the hold became so desperate that they prayed for the ship to be hit by torpedoes.

Graef described the deaths of the POWs hold. “There were so many (that died) out 1800. The conditions in the hold…..men were just dying in a continuous stream. Men, holding their bellies in interlocked arms, stood up, screamed and died. You were being starved, men were dying at such a pace we had to pile them up. It was like you were choking to death. Burial consisted of two men throwing another overboard.”

Cichy said, “The Japs told us that they’d be in Formosa the next day to pick up some cargo. They had to make room on deck so they tossed a whole bunch of life preservers down into the hold. I held onto one but didn’t think anything about it.”

It was about 4:00 P.M. on October 24, and each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Ten POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs in the ship’s holds. The waves were high since the ship had been through a storm in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. Suddenly, bells and sirens sounded warning of submarines. The POWs in the holds chanted for the submarine to sink the ship.

At about 4:50 P.M., about half the POWs had been fed. As the POWs, on deck, watched, the Japanese ran to the bow of the ship and watched as a torpedo passed in front of it. Moments later, the Japanese ran to the ship’s stern and watched as a second torpedo passed behind the ship. There was a sudden jar and the ship stopped dead in the water. It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, in its third hold where there were no POWs.

At first, the POWs cheered wildly until they realized they were facing death. Cichy recalled, “When the torpedo hit everybody in the hold hollered ‘Hit her again!’ We wanted to get it over with.”

Lt. Robert S. Overbeck recalled, “When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn’t care a bit–they were tired and weak and sick.” He also said, “The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn’t break in two.” Overbeck also commented on the reaction of the POWs in the holds. “For about five seconds there was panic among us, but there were five or six chaplains who prayed fervently and quieted the men. By then the Nips–300 of them on deck–were scurrying about, scared as hell. The boilers exploded. I don’t think any of us got hurt in the torpedoing or the explosion. Most of the prisoners were American, with a few British. The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned ship. The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned ship. That was about 5:00 P.M.” It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the U.S.S. Snook or U.S.S. Shark.

The guards began to beat the POWs on deck with their guns to chase them back into the holds. Once they had, they put the hatch covers on the hatches, but because they had been ordered to abandon ship, never tied them down.

Cichy said, “The Japs closed the hatched and left the ship in lifeboats. They must of forgot about the prisoners on deck who had been cooking. When the Japs were off the boat, the cooks opened the hatches and told us to come up. I was just under the deck, but there were a lot of the guys down below. One of them escaped by simply walking into the water from a hole in the bulkhead. He was Lt. Robert S. Overbeck, Baltimore.” Cichy added, “The Japs had already evacuated ship. They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their own.”

The POWs left the holds but made no attempt to abandon ship. On the ship’s deck an American major spoke to the POWs, he said, “Boys, we’re in a helluva a jam – but we’ve been in jams before. Remember just one thing: We’re American soldiers. Let’s play it that way to the very end of the script.” Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them, “Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men.”

Overbeck also stated, “We broke into the ship’s stores to get food, cigarettes, and water — mainly water, we were so thirsty. All of us figured we were going to die anyway. The Japs ships, except for the destroyers, had disappeared. All we had were life belts which the Japanese had fortunately thrown down the hold the day before.

“But as darkness settled and our hopes for life flickered, we felt absolutely no resentment for the Allied submarine that had sent the torpedo crashing in. We knew they could not tell who was aboard the freighter, and as far as the Navy could have known the ship could have been carrying Jap troops. The men were brave and none complained.

“Some slipped off their life preservers and with a cherry ‘so long’ disappeared.” The ship slowly sank lower in the water.

Graef said, “Men without any fear at all, just stayed where they were. They sat down, got water to drink, got rice to eat…they couldn’t swim. The majority went down with the ship.”

According to surviving POWs, the ship stayed afloat for hours but got lower in the water. Some POWs walked back to see the damage caused by the torpedo. The deck was peeled back and water was inside the hold washing back and forth. When a wave went under the ship the stern would wobble up and down and the sound of steel tearing was heard. The stern finally tore off and sunk quickly. After that, the rest of the ship began to take on water quickly.

Oliver recalled, “I could see people still on the ship when it went down. I could see people against the skyline, just standing there.”

In the water, many POWs swam to a nearby Japanese destroyer put were pushed underwater with long poles. Of this, Glenn Oliver said, “They weren’t picking up Americans. A lot of the prisoners were swimming for the destroyer, but the Japanese were pushing them back into the water.”

In the water, he recalled. “I kept getting bumped by guys wearing life jackets. Nobody wanted to share my planks. I didn’t ask them.”

Three POWs found an abandoned lifeboat and managed to climb in but found it had no oars. With the rough seas, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs. According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru and sank sometime after dark on Tuesday, October 24, 1944. Oliver – who was not in the boat – stated he heard men using what he called “GI whistles” to contact each other. “They were blowing these GI whistles in the night. This weird moaning sound. I can’t describe it.”

Men were heard calling the names of other men in the dark. The next morning there were just waves. Oliver and three other men were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and taken to Formosa and finally sent to Japan. The next day the three men in the boat picked up two more survivors and later made it to China and freedom.

Of the 1775 men who boarded the Arisan Maru, only nine survived its sinking and only eight of these men survived the war. PFC. Charles R. Brown was not one of them.

His family received this message in the summer of 1945: 

“Dear Mr. & Mrs. McVaney;

“The International Red Cross has transmitted to this government an official list obtained from the Japanese government, after long delay, of American prisoners of war who were lost while being transported northward from the Philippine islands on a Japanese ship which was sunk on Oct. 24, 1944.

“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son was among those lost when the sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on records of the war department as killed in action Oct. 24, 1944. The evidence of his death was received June 16, 1945.

“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son, PFC. Charles R. Brown, 15, 016, 398, 17th Ordnance Company, was among those lost when that sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on the records of the War Department as Killed in Action 24 October 1944. The evidence of this death was received 16 June 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and accounts will be closed.

“The information available to the war department is that the vessel sailed from Manila on October 11, 1944, with 1775 prisoners of war aboard. On October 24 the vessel was sunk by submarine action in the south China Sea over 200 miles from the Chinese coast which was the nearest land. Five of the prisoners escaped in a small boat and reached the coast. Four others have been reported as picked up by the Japanese by whom all others aboard are reported lost. Absence of detailed information as to what happened to the other individual prisoners and known circumstances of the incident lead to a conclusion that all other prisoners listed by the Japanese as aboard the vessel perished.

“It is with deep regret that I must notify you of this unhappy culmination of the long period of anxiety and suffering you have experienced. You have my heartfelt sympathy.

“Sincerely yours,

“J. A. Ulio
“Maj. Gen., The Adjutant General of the Army”

PFC. Charles R. Brown died in the sinking of the Arisan Maru. Posthumously, Charles was awarded the Purple Heart, the Distinguished Unit Citation with Oak Leaves, the Victory Medal, the Foreign Service and the Asiatic Pacific Campaign Ribbons.

Since he died at sea, PFC. Charles R. Brown’s name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila. In addition, his family had a headstone placed at Otterbein Cemetery in Glenville, West Virginia, in his memory.

BrownCRG

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