What is known about 1st Lt. William Lucas Cockrum is that he was born on October 25, 1910, and was the youngest of two sons of William Monroe Cockrum & Mary Jackson-Cockrum. As a child, he lived in Brown, Arkansas.
It is known that William was called up to active duty on July 5, 1941, while working as a salesman. He was assigned to C Company, 194th Tank Battalion as a commander of a tank platoon. This may have taken place as the battalion prepared for duty overseas.
On August 15, 1941, the 194th received orders, from Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for duty in the Philippines 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.
The 194th, minus B Company, was sent to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, and ferried to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island, on the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe, were the members of the battalion were given physicals and inoculated by the battalion’s medical detachment. Those men found to have medical conditions were replaced.
On September 8, 1941, the battalion was boarded onto the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge which sailed at 9:00 P.M. that night. The ship arrived at Hawaii on September 13, remained in port most of the day, and sailed at 5:00 P.M., but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was joined by the heavy cruiser the U.S.S. Astoria and an unknown destroyer which were its escorts.
During the voyage, on several occasions, smoke from unknown ships was seen on the horizon. The cruiser revved up its engines and intercepted the ships. On each occasion, it turned out that the ship belonged a friendly country. On Tuesday, September 16, the ships crossed the International Dateline and the date became Thursday, September 18.
On September 26, they arrived at Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M., but did not reach Manila until later in the morning. The soldiers did not disembark until 3:00 P.M. The maintenance section of the battalion helped 17th Ordnance unload the tanks and reattach the turrets.
William lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field on December 8, 1941. After the attack, he spent the next four months fighting the Japanese. According to the personnel roster of the 194th Tank Battalion and the personnel roster for the 192nd Tank Battalion, William Cockrum was reassigned to C Company, 192nd Tank Battalion, during the Battle of Bataan.
On April 9, 1942, he became a Prisoner of War when Bataan was surrendered to the Japanese. William took part in the death march from Mariveles to San Fernando. There, he and the other POWs were boarded into boxcars and road to Capas, and were packed in so tightly that
The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell which was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942.
When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. 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 the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area they had been laying was scraped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas. There, they were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another line which took it to Cabanatuan. The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup. From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was 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.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. 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. 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 camp hospital was made up of 30 wards. One ward had been missed when the wards were being counted so it was given the name of “Zero Ward.” The ward became the place were POWs who were going to die were sent. The Japanese were so terrified by it, that they put a fence up around it and would not go near the building.
Sometime during William’s imprisonment, he was sent to Bilibid Prison near Manila. How long he was held as a prisoner there. In early December, the Japanese ordered the American medical staff at the prison to put together a list of POWs healthy enough to be sent to Japan.
The morning of December 12, 1944, roll call was taken and the names of the men selected were read to the POWs. William’s name was called. That evening the POWs were allowed to say goodbye to their friends. At 4 a.m., the POWs were waked and fed breakfast. 1,619 POWs were marched to Manila’s Pier 7.
As the POWs stood on the dock, Japanese women and children were boarded onto the ship. In addition, Japanese seamen who had survived the sinking of their ships were boarded. It was not until that evening that POWs were boarded onto the Oryoku Maru. The ship was part of MATA-37 convoy.
The Americans saw that the American bombers were doing a job on the Japanese transports. There were at least forty wrecked ships in the bay. When the POWs reached Pier 7, there were three ships docked. One was an old run-down ship, the other two were large and in good shape. They soon discovered one of the two nicer ships was their ship.
It was at this time the POWs were allowed to sit down. Many fell asleep and slept until 3:45 in the afternoon. About 5:00 PM the POWs boarded the Oryoku Maru for transport to Japan.
The high ranking officers were the first put into the ship’s aft hold. Being the first one meant that they would suffer many deaths. Around the perimeter of the hold were two tiers of bunks for the POWs. The heat was so bad that men soon began to pass out. One survivor said, “The fist fights began when men to pass out. We knew that only the front men in bay would be able to get enough air.” The POWs who were closer to the hold’s hatch used anything they could find to fan air toward those further away from it.
The ship sailed and became a part of a convoy which moved without lights. The cries for air began as the men lost discipline, so the Japanese threatened to cover the holds and cut off all air. When the Japanese sent down fried rice, cabbage, and fried seaweed, those further back from the opening got nothing.
At 10:00 P.M., the Japanese interpreter threatened to have the guards fire into the holds unless the POWs stopped screaming. Some of the POWs fell silent because they were exhausted, and others because they had died.
One major of the 26th Cavalry stated the man next to him had lost his mind. Recalling the conversation he had with the man he said, “Worst was the man who had gone mad but would not sit still. One kept pestering me, pushing a mess kit against my chest, saying, ‘Have some of this chow? It’s good.’ I smelled of it, it was not chow. ‘All right’ he said, ‘If you don’t want it. I’m going to eat it.’ And a little later I heard him eating it, right beside me.”
The Japanese covered the holds and would not allow the slop buckets to be taken out of the holds. Those POWs who were left holding the buckets at first asked for someone else to hold it for a while. When that did not work, they dumped the buckets on the men around them.
As daylight began to enter the hold as morning came, the POWs could see men who were in stupors, men out of their minds, and men who had died. The POWs in the aft hold which also had a sub-hold put the POWs who out of their minds into it.
On the side of the holds, water had condensed on the walls so the POWs tried to scrap it off the wall for a drink. The Japanese did allow men who had passed out to be put on deck, but as soon as they revived they went back into the holds. The Japanese would not allow the bodies of the men who had died to be removed from the holds.
The POWs received their first meal at dawn. Meals on the ship consisted of a little rice, fish, some water, and three-fourths of a cup of water was shared by 20 POWs. It was 8:00 A.M., off the coast of Luzon, and the POWs had just finished eating breakfast when they heard the sound of guns. At first, they thought the gun crews were just drilling, because they had not heard any planes. It was only when the first bomb hit in the water and the ship shook that they knew it was not a drill.
At first, it seemed that most of the planes were attacking the other ships in the convoy. Commander Frank Bridgit had made his way to the top of the ladder into the hold and sat down. He gave the POWs a play by play of the planes attacking, “I can see two planes going for a freighter off our starboard side. Now two more are detached from the formation. I think they may be coming for us.”
The POWs heard the change in the sound of the planes’ engines as they began their dives toward the ships in the convoy. Several more bombs hit the water near the ship causing it to rock Explosions were taking place all around the ship. In an attempt to protect themselves, the POWs piled baggage in front of them. Bullets from the planes were ricocheted in the hold causing many casualties.
Lt. Col. Elvin Barr of the 60th Coast Artillery came up to Maj, John Fowler of the 26th Cavalry on the cargo deck and said, “There’s a hole knocked in the bulkheads down there. Between 30 and 40 men have already died down there.” Barr would never reach Japan. The attack by 30 to 50 planes lasted for about 20 to 30 minutes. When the planes were running out of bombs they strafed. Afterward, the planes flew off, returning to their carrier, and there was a lull of about 20 to 30 minutes before the next squadron of planes appeared over the ships and resumed the attack. This pattern repeated itself over and over during the day.
In the hold, the POWs concluded that the attacking planes were concentrating on the bridge of the ship. They noted that the planes had taken out all the anti-aircraft guns leaving only .30 caliber machine guns to defend the ship.
At 4:30 P.M., the ship went through the worse attack on it. It was hit at least three times by bombs on its bridge and stern. Most of the POWs, who were wounded, were wounded by ricocheting bullets and shrapnel from exploding bombs.
During the attack Chaplain William Cummings, a Catholic priest, led the POWs in the Our Father. As they prayed, the bombs that exploded near the ship sent torrents of water over the ship. Bullets from the planes hit the metal plates, of the haul, at an angle that prevented most of them from penetrating the haul. Somewhere on the ship, a fire started, but it was put out after several hours. The POWs lived through seven or eight attacks before sunset. Overall, six bombs hit the ship. One hit the stern of the ship killing many POWs.
At dusk, the ship raised anchor and headed east. It turned south and turned again this time heading west. The next turn it made was north. It headed in this direction for a good amount of time before dropping anchor at about 8:00 P.M. The POWs figured out that they had just sailed in a circle. What had happened is that the ship’s had been hit during the attack and the ship could not be steered.
Sometime after midnight, the POWs heard the sound of the Japanese civilians being evacuated from the ship. During the night, the POW medics were ordered onto the deck to treat the Japanese wounded. One medic recalled that the dead, dying, and wounded were everywhere.
The ship reached Subic Bay at 2:30 in the morning and steamed closer to the beach where its anchor was dropped. At 4:00 A.M., the POWs were told that they would disembark at daybreak at a pier. The moaning and muttering of POWs who were losing their minds kept the POWs up all night. That night 25 POWs died in the hold.
It was December 15 and the POWs sat in the ship’s holds for hours after dawn. The first 35 POWs were taken out of the hold and went into the water. At 8:00 A.M. as the other POWs waited, the sound of A Japanese guard yelled into the hold at the POWs, “All go home; speedo!” He shouted that the wounded would be the first to be evacuated before looking up and saying, “Planes, many planes!” As the POWs were abandoning ship the planes returned and continued the attack. The ship bounced in the water from the explosions. Chief Boatswain Clarence M. Taylor who was in the water said, “I saw the whole thing. A bomb fell, hit near the stern hatch, and debris goes flying up in the air.”
In the hold, the POWs crowded together. Chips of rust fell on them from the ceiling. After the raid, they took care of the wounded before the next attack started. In the hold another chaplain, Major John Duffy began to pray, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
The Japanese guards and interpreter had abandoned ship, but the ship’s captain remained on board. He told the POWs in his limited
English that they needed to get off the ship to safety. The POWs made their way over the side and into the water. As they swam to shore, the Japanese fired at them, with machine guns, to prevent them from escaping.
Four of the planes flew low over the water above the POWs. The POWs waved frantically at the planes so they would not be strafed. The planes banked and flew lower over the POWs. This time the pilots dipped their wings to show that they knew the men in the water were Americans. About a half-hour later, the ship began to really burn and the bodies of the dead could be seen on the decks.
The Japanese sent out a motorboat with a machine gun and snipers on it. The POWs attempting to escape were hunted down and shot. It is believed as many as 30 men died in the water.
There was no real beach, so the POWs climbed up on a seawall and found the Japanese Naval Landing Party had set up a machine gun and had just laid flat to rest when the gun opened upon them.
Those who came ashore were warned to stay in the water but only did so when one man climbed up on the seawall and was wounded. There were also Japanese snipers in wait to shoot anyone who attempted to escape.
The POWs were gathered together and marched to the tennis court at Olongapo Naval Station which was about 500 yards from the beach. There, they were herded onto a tennis court.
While the POWs were at Olongapo Naval Station, a Japanese officer, Lt. Junsaburo Toshio, told the ranking American officer, Lt. Col. E. Carl Engelhart, that those too badly wounded to continue the trip would be returned to Bilibid. Fifteen men were selected and loaded onto a truck. They were taken into the mountains and never seen again. They were buried at a cemetery nearby. The remainder of the POWs remained on the tennis courts for five or six days. During that time, they were given water but not fed.
The POWs remained on the tennis court for nine days. During their time on the courts, American planes attacked the area around them. The men watched as the fighter bombers came in vertically releasing bombs as they pulled out of the dives. On several occasions, the planes dove right at the POWs, dropped their bombs and pulled out. The bombs drifted over the POWs and landed away from them exploding on contact.
Since the POWs had no place to hide, they watched and enjoyed the show. They believed that the pilots knew they were Americans but had no way of knowing if this was true. But what is known is that not one bomb was dropped on them even though they could be seen from the planes.
The evening of December 16, the Japanese brought 50-kilo bags of rice for the POWs. About half of the rice had fallen out of the bags because of the holes. Each POW was given three spoons of raw rice, and a quarter of a spoon of salt.
At about 8:00 AM on the morning of December 22, 22 trucks arrived at the tennis court. Rumors flew on where they were going to be taken. At about 4:00 PM, a Taiwanese guard told the POWs, in broken English, “No go Cabanatuan. Go Manila; maybe Bilibid.” The guard knew as little as the POWs.
On December 21st, the POWs were taken by truck to San Fernando, Pampanga, arriving there about four or five in the afternoon. Once there, they were put in a movie theater. Since it was dark, the POWs saw as a dungeon.
During their time at San Fernando, Pampanga, the POWs lived through several air raids. The reason for the air raids was the barrio was military headquarters for the area. Most of the civilians had been moved out of the barrio. Many of the Americans began to believe they had been taken there so that they would be killed by their own countrymen.
December 23, at about 10:00 PM, the Japanese interpreter came and spoke to the ranking American officer about moving the POWs. The Japanese loaded the seriously ill POWs into a truck. Those remaining behind believed they were taken to Bilibid. The remaining POWs were moved to a trade school building in the barrio.
After 10:00 AM on December 24, the POWs were taken to the train station. The POWs saw that the station had been hit by bombings and that the cars they were to board had bullet holes in them from strafing. 180 to 200 were packed into steel boxcars with four guards. The doors of the boxcars were kept closed and the heat in the cars was terrible. Ten to fifteen POWs rode on the roofs of the cars along with two guards. The guards told these POWs that it was okay to wave to the American planes.
On December 25, the POWs disembarked at San Fernando, La Union, at 2:00 AM and disembarked. They walked two kilometers to a schoolyard on the southern outskirts of the barrio. From December 25 until the 26. The POWs were held in a schoolhouse. The morning of December 26, the POWs were marched to a beach. During this time the prisoners were allowed one handful of rice and a canteen of water. The heat from the sun was so bad that men drank seawater. Many of those men died.
The remaining prisoners at San Fernando, La Union, where they boarded onto another “Hell Ship” the Brazil Maru.
The daily routine for the POWs on the ship was to have six men climb out of the hold. Once on deck, they would use ropes to pull up the dead and also pull up the human waste in buckets. Afterward, the men on deck would lower ten buckets containing rice, soup, and tea.
During the night of December 30, the POWs heard the sound of depth charges exploding in the water. The ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, on December 31 and docked around 11:30 AM. After arriving at Takao, Formosa, each POW received a six-inch-long, 3/4 inch wide piece hardtack to eat. This was the first bread they had since receiving crackers in their Red Cross packages in 1942. During the time in the harbor, the POWs received little water. From January 1 through the 5, the POWs received one meal and day and very little water. This resulted in the death rate among the POWs to rise. On January 6, the POWs were moved from the Brazil Maru to the forward hold of the Enoura Maru. It was also on this day that they began to receive two meals a day.
The Enoura Maru also came under attack by American planes the morning of January 9. The POWs were receiving their first meal of the day when the sound of ship’s machine guns was heard. The explosions of bombs falling closer and closer to the ship were also heard. The waves created from the explosions rocked the ship.
One bomb hit the ship and exploded outside the corner of the forward hold killing 285 POWs. A second bomb fell through the open cargo hatch and exploded. The surviving POWs remained in the hold for three days with the dead. The stench from the dead filled the air. The survivors soon stacked the bodies of the dead directly below the hatch so that they would be the first thing the Japanese saw when they looked in.
On January 20, the Japanese organized a POW detail to remove the dead to a barge which had been brought alongside the ship. The barge took the bodies to shore, but the POWs were too weak to carry them. Ropes were tied to the legs of the dead and the bodies were dragged to the grave that had been dug and buried in a mass grave on a beach. Afterward, the Japanese finally sent medics into the hold to help with the treatment of the wounded.
On January 13, the POWs were moved to the Brazil Maru. The next day the ship sailed as part of a convoy. On the ship, the POWs found that they had room and were actually issued life jackets. The ship sailed on January 14 as part of a convoy. During the trip, it towed one or two other ships that had been damaged during attacks. As many as 50 POWs died each day before the ship arrived at Moji, Japan, on January 29, 1945. Of the original 1619 POWs who had boarded the ship, only 459 had reached Japan.
Upon arriving in Japan, William was sent to Fukuoka #4 and later Moji Military Hospital. He died at the hospital on February 3, 1945, and his body was cremated and his ashes given to the camp commandant.
After the war, the remains of 1st Lt. William L. Cockrum were reburied at the Corning Cemetery in Corning, Arkansas.