PFC Melvin Emil Buggs was the son of Emil W. Buggs and Helen Ohi-Buggs and was born on September 11, 1919. Along with his brothers Harold and Lester, he was raised at 618 South Academy Street in Janesville, Wisconsin.
In April 1940, Melvin and his brother, Lester, joined the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Tank Company housed in an armory in Janesville. Their cousin, Wayne, was also a member of the tank company. Six months later, Melvin and the other members of the company were called to federal service as members of A Company, 192nd Tank Battalion.
The next day, November 28th, between 4:00 and 5:00 P.M., Dannie was part of the main detachment of soldiers that marched from the armory to the Milwaukee Road train station in Janesville where they boarded special cars that had been added to the Marquette to Chicago train. One was a flatcar with the company’s two tanks on it. At some point, the train cars were uncoupled from the train and switched onto the Chicago & Northwestern line that went into Maywood, Illinois. There, the members of B Company boarded the train and their equipment – including their two tanks – was loaded onto the train. In Chicago, the train cars were switched onto the Illinois Central Railroad and taken to Ft. Knox arriving around 8:00 A.M. When they arrived, trucks were waiting at the station to take them to the fort. Their first housing were six men tents since their barracks were not finished. The battalion had a total of eight tanks.
After arriving, they spent the first six weeks in primary training. During week 1, the soldiers did infantry drilling; week 2, manual arms and marching to music; week 3, machine gun training; week 4, was pistol usage; week 5, M1 rifle firing; week 6, was training with gas masks, gas attacks, pitching tents, and hikes; weeks 7, 8, and 9 were spent learning the weapons, firing each one, learning the parts of the weapons and their functions, field stripping and caring for weapons, and the cleaning of weapons.
It is known that he was one of the soldiers from Janesville who went home for Christmas. The soldiers left Ft. Knox at about 1:00 P.M. on Saturday, December 21st – by chartered bus – and arrived in Janesville at about 3:00 A.M. on Sunday, December 22nd. They remained in Janesville until the afternoon of Christmas Day when they boarded the chartered bus for the return trip to Ft. Knox.
1st Sgt. Dale Lawton – on December 26th – was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed HQ Company. Men were picked for the company because they had special training. Many of these men received promotions and because of their rating received higher pay. It was at this time that Melvin was transferred to the newly created company.
A Company moved into its barracks in December 1941. The men assigned to the HQ Company still lived with the A Company since their barracks were unfinished. 25 men lived on each floor of the barracks. The bunks were set up along the walls and alternated so that the head of one bunk was next to the foot of another bunk allowing for more bunks to be placed in the least amount of space allowing for 50 men to sleep on each floor. The first sergeant, staff sergeant, and master sergeant had their own rooms. There was also a supply room, an orderly room – where the cooks could sleep during the day – and a clubroom.
The one problem they had was that the barracks had four, two-way speakers in it. One speaker was in the main room of each floor of the barracks, one was in the first sergeant’s office, and one was in the Capt. Walter Write’s office. Since by flipping a switch the speaker became a microphone, the men watched what they said. The men assigned to HQ Company moved into their own barracks by February. The guardsmen were housed away from the regular army troops in the newly built barracks. Newspapers from the time state that the barracks were air-conditioned. Although the barracks were finished, A Company shared D Company’s mess hall until the company’s mess hall opened.
The area outside the barracks was described as muddy and dusty most of the time. An attempt was made to improve the situation with the building of walkways and roads around the barracks.
A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics. At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. The classes lasted for 13 weeks.
At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After they ate they stood in line to wash their mess kits since they had no mess hall. At first, A Company’s meals were served in D Company’s mess hall until heir mess hall was finished in December. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
It was also at this time that all the battalion had 16 operational tanks and the first men from selective service were assigned to the company. On January 10th, these men took their first tank ride and all of them had the chance to drive the tanks. They would permanently join the company in March 1941.
During their free time during the week, the men could go to one of the three movie theaters on the outpost. They also sat around and talked. As the weather got warmer, the men tried to play baseball as often as possible in the evenings. At 9:00 P.M., when lights went out, most went to sleep. On weekends, men with passes frequently went to Louisville which was 35 miles north of the fort, while others went to Elizabethtown sixteen miles south of the fort. Those men still on the base used the dayroom to read since it was open until 11:00 P.M.
Capt Walter Write, during February, commanded a composite tank company made of men from all the companies of the battalion. The company left Ft. Knox on a problematic move at 9:00 A.M. The company consisted of three motorcycles, two scout cars, sixteen tanks, one ambulance, and supply, fuel and kitchen trucks. The route was difficult and chosen so that the men could become acquainted with their equipment. They also had to watch out for simulated enemy planes. Bridges were avoided whenever it was possible to ford the water.
At noon, the column stopped for a short rest and a lunch that did not materialize. A guide had failed to stay at one of the crossings until the kitchen truck arrived there, so instead of turning into the woods, the truck went straight. After the break, Capt. Write ordered the men back to Ft. Knox without having been fed.
In late March 1941, the entire battalion was moved to new barracks at Wilson Road and Seventh Avenue at Ft. Knox. The barracks had bathing and washing facilities in them and a day room. The new kitchens had larger gas ranges, automatic gas heaters, large pantries, and mess halls. One reason for this move was the men from selective service were permanently joining the battalion.
At 7:00 A.M. on Monday, June 16th, the battalion was broken into four detachments for a three-day tactical road march. The most important part of this march was to train the soldiers in loading, unloading, and setting up the battalion’s administrative camps. It also prepared them for the Louisiana maneuvers which they were scheduled to take part in during September.
The battalion traveled with 20 tanks, 20 motorcycles, 7 armored scout cars, 5 jeeps, 12 peeps (later called jeeps), 20 large 2½ ton trucks (these carried the battalion’s garages for vehicle repair), 5, 1½ ton trucks (which were the battalion’s kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The battalion traveled through Bardstown and Springfield before arriving at Harrodsburg at 2:30 P.M. where they set up their bivouac at the fairgrounds. The next morning, they moved to Herrington Lake east of Danville, where the men swam, boated and fished. The battalion returned to Ft. Knox on Wednesday, June 18th through Lebanon, New Haven and Hodgenville, Kentucky.
The battalion next was sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana, where they took part in the Louisiana maneuvers of 1941. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to remain behind at Camp Polk. None of the members of the battalion had any idea why they were there. On the side of a hill, the members learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours, many men had figured out they were being sent to the Philippine Islands.
The decision for this move – which had been made in August 1941 – was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island which was hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
Melvin and his brother returned home to say their goodbyes to friends and family. Returning to Camp Polk, the battalion was sent over different train routes to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, where they were transported by the ferry, the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. While on the island, the soldiers received physicals and were inoculated for tropical diseases from the battalion’s medical detachment. Men with minor medical conditions were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Some men were simply replaced. It was from this army base that the 192nd left the United States for the Philippine Islands.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2 and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline.
On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way.
The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, the tankers were met by Colonel Edward P. King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents, but the fact was that he had not learned of their arrival until the day before their ship docked. He made sure the soldiers had Thanksgiving Dinner before he left them to have his own dinner.
The members of the battalion pitched the tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons. They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts. The plan was for them, with the 194th Tank Battalion, to take part in maneuvers.
On Monday, December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard it against paratroopers. The 194th Tank Battalion was assigned the northern half of the airfield while the 192nd protected the southern half. At all times, two crew members had to remain with their tank or half-track and received their meals from food trucks. While at the perimeter of the airfield, Japanese planes flew reconnaissance flights over the airfield.
On the morning of December 8 at 6:00 A.M., the officers of the battalions were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hours earlier. All morning long, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, all the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, planes approached the airfield from the north. The tankers, who were having lunch, counted formations totaling to 54 planes. When bombs began exploding, the men knew the planes were Japanese.
Since HQ Company did not have the proper weapons to fight planes, they could do little more than watch the Japanese attack. Most took cover to protect themselves during the attack and saw the damage the Japanese had done during the attack.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything that could carry the wounded was in use. When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building. Many of these men had their arms and legs missing.
The Japanese launched an all-out attack on April 3. On April 7, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. C Company, 194th, which was attached to the 192nd, had only seven tanks left.
The tanks became a favorite target of the Japanese receiving fire on trails and while hidden in the jungle. and could not fight back. The situation was so bad that other troops avoided being near the tanks, and the 26th Cavalry turned down a tank company’s offer of assistance in a counter-attack.
It was at this time 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. At 10:30 that night, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms.
Tank battalion commanders received this order: “You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word ‘CRASH’, all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished.”
The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt. Fred Bruni, HQ’s commanding officer, gave his men the news of the surrender. While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them. As he spoke, his voice choked. He turned away from the men for a moment, and when he turned back he continued. He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks.
During the announcement, Bruni emphasized that they all were to surrender together. He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and any supplies that could be used by the Japanese. The only thing they were told not to destroy was the company’s trucks. The men waited in their bivouac until ordered to move. Somehow, Bruni had found enough bread and pineapple juice for what he called, “Our last supper.”
On April 11, the first Japanese soldiers appeared at the company’s encampment. Melvin was now a Prisoner of War. A Japanese officer ordered the company, with their possessions, out onto the road that ran in front of their encampment. Once on the road, the soldiers were ordered to kneel along the sides of the road with their possessions in front of them. As they knelt, the Japanese soldiers, who were passing them, went through their possessions and took whatever they wanted from the Americans. They remained along the sides of the road for hours.
The POWs finally boarded HQ Company’s trucks and drove to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan. Once there, they were ordered out of the trucks and into a schoolyard. They remained there until they were ordered to move. When they reached a second clearing, they were told to sit. Behind them were Japanese artillery.
The Japanese began to fire on the American guns on Corregidor and Fort Drum. It was a matter of minutes before the American guns began to return fire. Shells began landing among the POWs. Some POWs attempted to hide in a shed in the field and died when it took a direct hit from American guns. The Americans did knock out three of the four Japanese guns.
The POWs were ordered to move again and had no idea that they had begun what became known as the death march. During the march the heat and lack of water became unbearable. Even though he knew that he could be killed for trying to get water from one of the artesian wells, Melvin attempted to get water. While he was attempting to do this, a Japanese guard came up to him and bayoneted him. The guard did not try to kill him. He stuck the bayonet in far enough to make it painful for Melvin to continue the march.
The POWs were ordered to move and had no idea that they had started what became known as the death march. During the march, they received no water and little food. At San Fernando, they were put in a bullpen, ordered to sit, and left sitting in the sun.
Later, they were ordered to form detachments of 100 men and marched to the train station where they were put into small wooden boxcars known as “Forty and Eights” because they could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each boxcar so tightly that those men who died could not fall to the floors of the cars. At Capas, the living disembarked those who had died fell to the floors of the boxcars.
The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. 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. The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
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 cleaned 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.
To get out of the camp, he went out on the bridge building detail under the command of Col. Ted Wickord of the 192nd. With him on the detail was his brother and cousin, Wayne. When the detail ended, he was sent to Cabanatuan which had opened to lower the death rate among the POWs.
While Melvin was on the detail, a new camp was opened at Cabanatuan. The POWs who were at Camp O’Donnell were sent to Camp One, while two miles away was Camp Two. The camp was quickly closed because it did not have an adequate water supply. Later it was used for Naval POWs. Camp Three was six miles from Camp Two and held the POWs captured on Corregidor, and the POWs who were hospitalized when Bataan surrendered. It was later closed and the POWs were transferred to Camp One.
Dear Mrs. H. Buggs:
According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee if Private First Class Melvin E. Buggs, 20,645,254, 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
In Melvin’s case, he was sent to Cabanatuan One which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was formerly known at Camp Pangatian. To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. Since the POWs were underfed, many became ill and died of malnutrition.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads. While working in the fields, the favorite punishment given to the men in the rice paddies was to have their faces pushed into the mud and stepped on by a guard 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.
The barracks used by the POWs were built to hold 50 POWs, but the Japanese put from 60 to 120 POWs in each one. There no shower facilities and the POWs slept on bamboo strips. In addition, no bedding, covers, or mosquito netting was provided which resulted in many becoming ill.
The camp hospital was composed of 30 wards. The ward for the sickest POWs was known as “Zero Ward,” which got its name because it had been missed when the wards were counted. Each ward had two tiers of bunks and could hold 45 men but often had as many as 100 men in each. The sickest men slept on the bottom tier. Most of those who died from the diseases their bodies could not fight since they were malnourished.
In July, his parents received a second message from the War Department.
The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, PFC Melvin E. Buggs 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.
What is known about his time at Cabanatuan is that he was hospitalized on August 9, 1942, suffering from an unknown illness. No date of discharge was given in the report.
After he was discharged, Melvin was sent out to a work detail at San Fernando. The POWs on the detail collected scrap metal. Medical records from Bilibid Prison show that he was admitted, with malaria, on October 10, 1942, and discharged on December 8 to Building #18 at the prison. Medical records also show he was readmitted on to the hospital on December 10 due to a relapse.
In January 1943, Melvin went out on a work detail to Lipa, Batangas. The POWs worked at Lipa Airfield building runways and revetments. Every other day, the POWs worked on a local farm. The POWs remained on the detail into 1944 until the majority were sent to Cabanatuan in March 1944. The remaining POWs were sent to Bilibid Prison in September 1944.
While he was on the work detail in April or May 1943, his family was notified that he was a Prisoner of War.
HELEN BUGGS=618 ACADEMY STREET JANESVILLE WIS
REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH THE INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON PFC MELVIN E BUGGS IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST
ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL.
This was followed by another letter from the War Department.
The Provost Marshal General directs me to inform you that you may communicate with your son, postage free, by following the inclosed instructions:
It is suggested that you address him as follows:
PFC Melvin E. Buggs
Interned in the Philippine Islands
C/O Japanese Red Cross, Tokyo, Japan
Via New York, New York
Packages cannot be sent to the Orient at this time. When transportation facilities are available a package permit will be issued you.
Further information will be forwarded you as soon as it is received.
Howard F. Bresee
Chief Information Bureau
In October 1944, Melvin and other prisoners were taken to the dock area of Manila. The POWs were scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru, but since not, all the POWs scheduled to sail on the ship had arrived, the Japanese POW detachments so the Hokusen Maru could sail.
On October 10, his detachment was boarded onto the Arisan Maru where the 1775 POWs were packed into Hold #1 of the ship which was large enough to hold four hundred men. The ship sailed, but instead of heading to Formosa it headed south. Off the Island of Palawan, the ship dropped anchor in a cove. Within the first 48 hours, five men had died.
Anton Cichy said, “For the first few days, there were 1,800 of us together in one hold. I don’t know how big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down. We were just kind of stuck together.”
Calvin Graef said about the conditions in the hold, “We were packed in so tight most men couldn’t get near the cans. And, of course, it was a physical impossibility for the sick in the back of the hold, the men suffering the tortures of diarrhea and dysentery. We waded in fecal matter. Most of the men went naked. The place was alive with lice, bedbugs, and roaches; the filth and stench were beyond description.”
The Japanese had removed the lights in the hold but had not turned off the system’s power. Some of the POWs managed to wire the hold’s ventilation system into the lighting system. This provided fresh air to the POWs for two days. When the Japanese discovered what had been done, they turned off the power.
After this, the prisoners began to develop heat blisters. The Japanese soon realized that if they did not do something, the ship would be a death ship. To relieve the situation in the hold, they transferred 600 of the POWs to the ship’s first hold which was partially filled with coal. During the move, one of the POWs was shot and killed while attempting to escape. During this time, the POWs, each day, were allowed three ounces of water and two rations of rice.
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 fresh water 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.”
While the ship was anchored off Palawan it was attacked once by American planes which were returning to their carrier from a raid on the airfield on Palawan. The ship returned to the Manila on October 20, where it joined a convoy. On October 21, after loading bananas and other foods, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea. The Japanese also issued life jackets to the POWs which could float for about two hours. According to survivors, all this did was reinforced in the Americans the fear of being killed by their own countrymen.
The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs. In addition, U.S. Military Intelligence was reading the Japanese codes as fast as the Japanese. To protect this secret, they did not tell the crews, of the submarines, that ships were carrying POWs which made the ships targets for the submarines.
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 some of the POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs in the ship’s holds and had fed about half the POWs. The waves were high since the ship had been through a storm in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. Suddenly, bells and sirens sounded warning of submarines. The POWs in the holds chanted for the 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. 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 took their rifles and used them as clubs to drive the POWs on deck into the holds. Once in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders into the holds and put the hatch covers over the holds, but they did not tie the hatch covers down.
Cichy recalled, “The Japs closed the hatches and left the ship in lifeboats. They must have 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 guys down below. One of them escaped by simply walking into the water from a hole in the bulkhead. He was Lt. Robert S. Overbeck, Baltimore.” Cichy added, “The Japs had already evacuated the ship. They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their own.”
Some of the POWs from the first hold climbed out and reattached the ladders and dropped them to the men in the holds. 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 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 into 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. Melvin E. Buggs was not one of them.
His family received this message in the summer of 1945:
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. Buggs,
“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. Melvin E. Buggs, 20, 645, 254, 192nd Tank Battalion, was among those lost when that sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on the records of the War Department as Killed in Action 24 October 1944. The evidence of this death was received 16 June 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and accounts will be closed.
“The information available to the war department is that the vessel sailed from Manila on October 11, 1944, with 1775 prisoners of war aboard. On October 24 the vessel was sunk by submarine action in the south China Sea over 200 miles from the Chinese coast which was the nearest land. Five of the prisoners escaped in a small boat and reached the coast. Four others have been reported as picked up by the Japanese by whom all others aboard are reported lost. Absence of detailed information as to what happened to the other individual prisoners and known circumstances of the incident lead to a conclusion that all other prisoners listed by the Japanese as aboard the vessel perished.
“It is with deep regret that I must notify you of this unhappy culmination of the long period of anxiety and suffering you have experienced. You have my heartfelt sympathy.
“J. A. Ulio
“Maj. Gen., The Adjutant General of the Army”
Pfc. Melvin E. Buggs died on October 24, 1944, when the Arisan Maru was sunk in the South China Sea. Since he died at sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.