PFC Aaron Arnold Combs was born on July 1, 1919, in Bloomfield, Indiana, to Homer Combs and Grace Quillen-Combs, and with his sister and two brothers grew up in Bloomfield. He enlisted in the U.S. Army on January 15, 1938, in Cambridge, Ohio. It is not known where he did his basic training, but it is known that he was a welder and stationed at Raritan Arsenal, Raritan County, New Jersey in 1940. It appears at some point he picked up the nickname of Curly.
What is known is that while taking part in the maneuvers in Arkansas, A Company of the battalion received orders to return to Ft. Knox. Once there, the company was inactivated and activated the next day, August 17, 1941, as the 17th Ordnance Company and received orders to go overseas. He may have joined the company at this time as a replacement. The reason the 17th Ordnance Company was created appears to be tied to the First Tank Group, and there are at least two stories of how the tank group ended up in the Philippines.
In the first story, told by Col. Ernest Miller of the 194th Tank Battalion, the decision to send the tank group overseas was the result of an event that happened earlier in 1941. According to this story, 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, 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 Taiwan which had a large radio transmitter that the Japanese military used to communicate with its troops. 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, another squadron was sent to the area and found the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck covering what appeared to be the buoys – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. According to this story, it was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
In the second story, the 192nd Tank Battalion members believed that the reason they were selected to be sent overseas was that they had performed well on the Louisiana maneuvers in September 1941. The story was that they were personally selected by Gen. George Patton – who had commanded their tanks as part of the Blue Army during the maneuvers – to go overseas. There is no evidence that this was true.
The fact was that both battalions were part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox and operational by June 1941. Available information suggests that the tank group had been selected to be sent to the Philippines early in 1941. The group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – the 191st had been a medium National Guard tank battalion while the 70th was regular army – at Ft. Meade, Maryland. The tank group also contained the 192nd, at Ft. Knox, the 193rd at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 194th at Ft. Lewis, Washington. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been light tank National Guard battalions.
It is known that the military presence in the Philippines was being built up at the time, so in all likelihood, the entire tank group had been scheduled to be sent to the Philippines. The buoys being spotted by the pilot may have sped up the transfer of the tank battalions to the Philippines with only the 192nd and 194th reaching the islands. The 193rd Tank Battalion was on its way to the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the battalion was held there. The 70th and 191st never received orders for the Philippines because the war with Japan had started. It is possible that the 19th Ordnance Battalion was part of the tank group, but nothing has been found to confirm this. Creating the 17th Ordnance Company allowed the tanks of the two battalions to receive support without sending the entire battalion to the Philippines.
Traveling west the company was assigned to a train that was also carrying the M3 tanks that were assigned to the 194th Tank Battalion. The company arrived at Ft. Mason north of San Francisco, California, and was ferried by the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. On the island, the company received medical examinations from its medical detachment. Men found to have medical conditions were replaced.
The members of the company spent the next several days preparing the tanks and weapons for transport overseas. This meant that all weapons had cosmoline put on them to prevent them from rusting. Since – in some areas – the hold of the ship was not tall enough to fit some of the tanks in with their turrets on, the turrets were removed. To ensure that the turret went on the tank it came off of, the tank’s serial number was painted on the turret.
The men boarded the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge around 3:00 P.M. on September 8, and the ship sailed at 9:00 P.M. that night. The enlisted men were quartered in the hold with the tanks. During this part of the trip, the seas were rough and many of the soldiers were seasick. One tank broke free from its moorings and rolled back and forth in the hold slamming into the side of the ship’s hull until it was tied down again.
They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13 at 7:00 A.M., and most of the soldiers were allowed off the ship to see the island but had to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M. After leaving Hawaii, the ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time that it was joined by the replenishment oiler the U.S.S. Guadalupe. The U.S.S. Astoria, a heavy cruiser, and an unknown destroyer were the two ships’ escorts. During this part of the trip, on several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke. Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country.
The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and the date changed to Thursday, September 18. They entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M. and reached Manila several hours later. The 194th’s soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M. and rode a train to Clark Field. 17th Ordnance remained at the dock to unload the battalion’s tanks and reattach the turrets. To do this, they worked all night sleeping in shifts.
The company rode a train to Fort Stotsenburg and was taken to an area between the fort and Clark Field, where they were housed in tents since General Edward P. King, commanding officer of the fort had learned of their arrival only days earlier. After he was satisfied that they were settled in, he left them. The officers were put in two men tents while the enlisted men were assigned to six men tents. Each man had a cot, cotton pads, white sheets, a wool blanket, and a footlocker for personnel belongings. During the first night in the tents, there was heavy rain that caused his footlocker to float out of the tent.
After spending three weeks in tents, they moved into their barracks on October 18, the barracks were described as being on stilts with walls that from the floor were five feet of a weaved matting called sawali; this allowed the men to dress. Above five feet the walls were open and allowed for breezes to blow through the barracks making them more comfortable than the tents. There were no doors or windows. The wood that was used for the support beams was the best mahogany available. For personal hygiene, a man was lucky if he was near a faucet with running water.
The days were described as hot and humid, but if a man was able to find shade it was always cooler in the shade. The Filipino winter had started when they arrived, and although it was warm when they went to sleep by morning the soldiers needed a blanket. They turned in all their wool uniforms and were issued cotton shirts and trousers which were the regular uniform in the Philippines. They were also scheduled to receive sun helmets.
Since the job of ordnance was to service the tanks, they followed the workday used by the 194th Tank Battalion. A typical workday was from 7:00 to 11:30 A.M. with an hour and a half lunch. The afternoon work time was from 1:30 to 2:30 P.M. At that time, it was considered too hot to work, but the battalion continued working and called it, “recreation in the motor pool.” It is not known what precisely the members of the company did at this time.
For the next several weeks, they spent their time removing the cosmoline from the weapons. They also had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their M3 tanks. Many of them had never trained on one during their time at Ft. Knox. In October, the 194th was allowed to travel to Lingayen Gulf, since 17th Ordnance’s job was to keep the tanks running they went with the battalion. This was done under simulated conditions that enemy troops had landed there. Two months later, enemy troops would land there.
Things went well until they turned on a narrow gravel road in the barrio of Lingayen that had a lot of traffic. A bus driver parked his bus in the middle of the road and did not move it even after the tanks turned on their sirens and blew whistles. As they passed the bus, the tanks tore off all of one side of it. The company bivouacked about a half-mile from the barrio on a hard sandy beach with beautiful palm trees. The men swam and got in line for chow at the food trucks. It was then that the doctors told them that they needed to wear earplugs when they swam because the warm water contained bacteria and they could get ear infections that were hard to cure. No one came down with an ear infection. The soldiers went to sleep on the beach in their sleeping bags.
When the 192nd Tank Battalion arrived in the Philippines on November 20th which was Thanksgiving, the members of the company were waiting at the pier to unload the battalion’s tanks. To do this, they slept in shifts and worked all night with the battalion’s maintenance section. The one good thing is that they had a real turkey dinner on the ship.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a squadron of planes on routine patrol spotted Japanese transports milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. On December 1, the two tank battalions were put on full alert and ordered to their positions at Clark Field. Their job was to protect the northern half of the airfield from paratroopers. The 194th guarded the north half of the airfield and the 192nd guarded the southern half. Two crewmen remained with the tanks at all times and received their meals from food trucks. The airfield two runways were shaped like a “V” and the Army Air Corps’ hangers and headquarters were at the point of the “V”. The tankers slept in sleeping bags on the ground under their tanks or palm trees. On December 7, the tanks were issued ammunition and the tankers spent the day loading ammunition belts.
Some members of the company were in the mess hall when they heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the radio. They ate breakfast and then went to their trucks and other vehicles. Other enlisted members of the company were putting down stones for sidewalks when they were told of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. On a map, one of the officers saw a thicket that the company could use for cover so they moved there.
The company moved to a bamboo thicket and set up its trucks. Later that morning the alert was canceled and the company was ordered back to Clark Field. The cooks had just finished preparing lunch so they remained in the thicket. The members of the company watched as B-17s were loaded with bombs but remained on the ground because they could not get the order to bomb Taiwan. They received permission to fly there but not to bomb.
While they were eating lunch, at 12:45 the Japanese planes approached the airfield from the north, The men had time to count 54 planes in the formation. As they watched, what looked like raindrops fell from under the planes, when the bombs began exploding on the runways, they knew the planes were Japanese. The Zeros that followed strafed the airfield and banked and turned over the thicket the company was located in. The planes banked and returned to straf the airfield again. The members of the company were ordered not to fire because some of the machines they had to manufacture tank parts were the only ones of their type in the Philippines.
After the attack, the company remained at Clark Field until the 192nd was ordered north to Lingayen Gulf. From this time on, wherever the tank battalions were sent the members of 17th Ordnance. The company members often made repairs to tanks on the frontlines and under enemy fire. They repaired tanks damaged by Japanese fire and those damaged by the tankers. To make the repairs they manufactured many of the parts themselves.
From the Lingayen Gulf, the tanks were sent to the Urdaneta area, they were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28 and 29. Every move the tanks made, 17th Ordnance moved with them. The tanks were next at Culo and Hermosa and the half-tracks kept throwing their rubber tracks and members of 17th Ordnance assigned to each tank battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations. The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road in mid-January. It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had long overdue maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance. Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines were long past their 400-hour overhauls. The company also took over 1000 rounds of World War I anti-personnel ammunition and converted it for use by the tanks.
The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Hacienda Road on January 25. While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M. One platoon was sent to the front of the column of trucks that were loading the troops. The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese. Later on January 25, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdrawal was completed at midnight. They held the position until the night of January 26/27, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads. When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were supposed to use had been destroyed by enemy fire. To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
The tanks took part in the Battle of the Pockets in February to wipe out Japanese soldiers who had been trapped behind the main defensive line after a Japanese offensive was stopped and pushed back to the original line of defense. The tanks would enter the pocket one at a time to replace a tank in the pocket. Another tank did not enter the pocket until a tank exited the pocket. Doing this was so stressful that each tank company was rotated out and replaced by one that was being held in reserve.
To exterminate the Japanese, two methods were used. The first was to have three Filipino soldiers ride on the back of the tank. As the tank went over a Japanese foxhole, the Filipinos dropped three hand grenades into the foxhole. Since the grenades were from WWI, one out of three usually exploded. The other method used to kill the Japanese was to park a tank with one track over the foxhole. The driver gave the other track power resulting in the tank going around in a circle and grinding its way down into the foxhole. The tankers slept upwind of their tanks so they wouldn’t smell the rotting flesh in the tracks.
While the tanks were doing this job, the Japanese sent soldiers, with cans of gasoline, against the tanks. These Japanese attempted to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the vents on the back of the tanks, and set the tanks on fire. If the tankers could not machine gun the Japanese before they got to a tank, the other tanks would shoot them as they stood on a tank. The tankers did not like to do this because of what it did to the crew inside the tank. When the bullets hit the tank, its rivets would pop and wound the men inside the tank.
What made this job of eliminating the Japanese so hard was that they were had dug “spider holes” among the roots of the trees. Because of this situation, the Americans could not get a good shot at the Japanese. Since the stress on the crews was tremendous, the tanks rotated into the pocket one at a time. A tank entered the pocket and the next tank waited for the tank that had been relieved to exit the pocket before it would enter. This was repeated until all the tanks in the pocket were relieved.
The tankers, from A, B, and C Companies, 192nd, were able to clear the pockets by February 18. But before this was done, one tank which had gone beyond the American perimeter was disabled and the tank just sat there. When the sun came up the next day, the tank was still sitting there. During the night, its crew had attempted to escape the tank, and the Japanese seemed to have expected this move. It appears that most of the crew was killed with grenades as they attempted to escape through the turret. One man apparently was still alive when the Japanese filled the crew compartment with dirt and was buried alive inside the tank. When the Japanese had been wiped out, 17th Ordnance helped with the recovery of the tank and put the tank on its side to remove the dirt and recover the bodies of the crew. The tank was put back into use after repairs were made.
It is known that the company set up its operations in a large ordnance building on Bataan which had been emptied of all its ordnance. The company remained in the building throughout the Battle of Bataan. Companies A and C, 192nd, were ordered to the west coast of Bataan while B Co. 192nd – which was held in reserve – and 17th Ordnance held the southern shore of Bataan. During the night, they were kept busy with repeated threats both on and offshore. The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces.
In January, food rations for the soldiers had been caught in half. This resulted in illnesses spreading among them. The soldiers were hungry and began to eat everything they could get their hands on to eat. The Carabao were tough but if they were cooked long enough they could be eaten. They also began to eat horse meat provided by the 26th U.S. Cavalry. During this time the soldiers ate monkeys, snakes, lizards, horses, and mules. To make things worse, the soldiers’ rations were cut in half again on March 1, 1942. This meant that they only ate two meals a day. The Japanese also were dropping surrender leaflets with a scantily clad blond on them. They would have been more successful at getting the Americans to surrender if the picture had been a hamburger since the men were so hungry that they most likely would have surrendered for a good meal. The amount of gasoline in March was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. It was during this time that Gen Wainwright wanted to turn the tanks into pillboxes. Gen Weaver pointed out to Wainwright that they did not have enough tanks to effectively do this, and if they did, they soon would have no tanks. Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor, but Wainwright declined.
On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese. The Japanese broke through the east side of the main defensive line on Bataan on April 7. The tanks were pulled out of their position along the west side of the line and ordered to reinforce the eastern portion of the line. Traveling south to Mariveles, the tankers started up the eastern road but were unable to reach their assigned area due to the roads being blocked by retreating Filipino and American forces.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. 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 were sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day. Companies B and D, 192nd, and A Company, 194th, were preparing for a suicide attack on the Japanese in an attempt to stop the advance. At 6:00 P.M. that 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.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. Phil Parish, a truck driver for A Co., 192nd, realized that he had bedding buried in the back of his truck and searched for it. The bedding became the “white flags” that were flown on the jeeps. At 11:00 P.M. the company was told it had 30 minutes to evacuate the ordnance building before the ammunition dumps on both sides of the building were destroyed. It was 11:40 P.M. when the ammunition dumps went up in flames. At midnight Companies B and D, 192nd, and A Company, 194th, received an order from Gen. Weaver to stand down. At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The driver was from the tank group.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. It was at about 6:45 A.M. that tank battalion commanders received the order “crash.” The tank crews destroyed their tanks by cutting the gas lines and throwing torches into the tanks. Within minutes, the ammunition inside the tanks began exploding.
As Gen. King left to negotiate the surrender, he went through the area held by B Company and spoke to the men from the company and men from 17th Ordnance. He said to them, “Boys. I’m going to get us the best deal I can. When you get home, don’t ever let anyone say to you, you surrendered. I was the one who surrendered.” Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Wade R. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north, they were strafed. and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would not attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do. No Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col. Collier and Maj. Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit in line with the Japanese advance should fly white flags.
Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived. King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
Unknown to Gen. King, an order attributed to Gen. Masaharu Homma – but in all likelihood from one of his subordinates – had been given. It stated, “Every troop which fought against our army on Bataan should be wiped out thoroughly, whether he surrendered or not, and any American captive who is unable to continue marching all the way to the concentration camp should be put to death in the area of 200 meters off the road.”
On April 9, 1942, his company received the news of the surrender from Major Richard Kadel their commanding officer. The next day, the Japanese entered their bivouac at kilometer 181 and ordered them to Mariveles. The members of the company made their way south to Mariveles. At Mariveles, they were ordered to form ranks of 100 men. As they stood there, the Japanese took their watches and rings. If a man couldn’t remove a ring, they cut his finger off. The Prisoners of War formed 100 men detachments that were guarded by six to eight guards After this was done, they started what they simply called “the march.” Members of the company recalled that when they started the march in 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.
The first five miles were extremely hard since the POWs were weak from lack of food and because they were uphill. At one point, they came to the airfield that had been built during the battle. They were given a rest there but behind them was Japanese artillery that was firing on Corregidor. When shells began landing around them from Corregidor, they quickly concluded that they did not want to stay there long and moved. The beatings and killings started almost at the same time as the march started. One guard would beat a POW while five minutes later another guard would give the same POW a cigarette.
During the battle, Bataan Airfield had been built by the defenders. Not long after starting the march, when the POWs reached the airfield, the Japanese sat them down in front of Japanese artillery firing on Corregidor, and the American artillery on the island was returning fire and a number of the POWs were killed. One group had hidden in a small brick building that took a direct hit. The POWs recalled that a Japanese officer was directing the fire of one gun and waving his sword while doing it. There was a flash and explosion and when the smoke cleared the officer and gun were gone.
The guards were assigned to march a certain distance so they often made the POWs march at a faster pace. Those men who were sick had a hard time keeping up and if they fell out were bayoneted or shot simply because the guards did not want to stop for them. When the distance was covered, the column was stopped and allowed to rest and the guards were replaced. The new guards also had a certain distance to cover, so they too wanted the POWs to move as fast as possible.
As the POWs made their way north, the Filipinos filled containers with water and placed them along the road. The POWs could not stop but many were able to scoop water into their canteens. By doing this the Filipinos saved a great many lives. The POWs also could see them flashing the “V” for victory sign under their folder arms. Other Filipinos in the barrios would take rice and form baseball size balls with it and throw it to the POWs. Members of the company witnessed a Japanese soldier walk up to a Filipino holding a baby in his hands when a guard walked up to him and fired his rifle under the baby’s chin.
The further north they marched the more bloated dead bodies they saw. The ditches along the road were filled with water, but many also had dead bodies in them. The POWs’ thirst got so bad they drank the water. Many men would later die from dysentery. The column of POWs was often stopped and pushed off the road and made to sit in the sun for hours. While they sat there, the guards would shake down the POWs and take any possession they had that they liked. When they were ordered to move again, it was not unusual for the Japanese riding past them in trucks to entertain themselves by swinging at the POWs with their guns or with bamboo poles.
When they were north of Hermosa, the POWs reached pavement which made the march easier. They received an hour break, but any POW who attempted to lay down was jabbed with a bayonet. After the break, they marched through Layac and Lubao. It was at this time that a heavy shower took place and many of the men opened their mouths in an attempt to get water. The guards allowed the POWs to lie on the road. The rain revived many of the POWs and gave them the strength to complete the march. The first food they received was just before they reached San Fernando.
The men were marched until they reached San Fernando. Once there, they were herded into a bullpen, surrounded by barbed wire, and put into groups of 200 men. One POW from each group went to the cooking area which was next to the latrine and got food for the group. Each man received a ball of rice and four or five dried onions. Water was given out with each group receiving a pottery jar of water to share.
The POWs were organized into detachments of 100 men and were marched to the train station, where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “forty or eights.” Each boxcar could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car because there were 100 men in each detachment and closed the doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly that the dead could not fall to the floor. At Capas, as the living left the cars and those who had died – during the trip – fell to the floors of the cars. As they left the cars, the Filipino civilians threw bananas, mangos, rice cakes, and sugarcane at the POWs and gave the POWs water. The guards did not stop them. The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell. The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942.
Once in the camp, they were taken into a large field where they were counted and searched and all extra clothing that they had was taken from them and not returned. Blankets, knives, and matches were taken from them. If a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Finally, the camp commandant came out, stood on a box, and told them that they were enemies of Japan and would always be Japan’s enemies. He also told them that they were captives and not prisoners of war and would be treated accordingly. He told them those who tried to escape would be shot and they were Japan’s eternal enemy. After the speech, the prisoners were allowed to go to their barracks. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp as the POWs who had Japanese items on them were executed for looting.
There was not enough housing for the POWs and most slept under buildings or on the ground. The barracks were designed for 40 men and those who did sleep in one slept in one with as many 80 to 120 men. Most of the POWs slept on the ground under the barracks. There was no netting to protect the men from malaria-carrying mosquitos as they slept, so many men soon became ill with malaria. The ranking American officer was slapped after asking for building materials to repair the buildings.
The POWs received three meals, mainly rice, a day. For breakfast, they were fed a half cup of soupy rice and occasionally some type of coffee. Lunch each day was a half of a mess kit of steamed rice and a half cup of sweet potato soup. They received the same meal for dinner. All meals were served outside regardless of the weather. By May 1, the food had improved a little with the issuing of a little wheat flour, some native beans, and a small issue of coconut oil. About once every ten days, 3 or 4 small calves were brought into the camp. When meat was given out, there was only enough for one-fourth of the POWs to receive a piece that was an inch square. A native potato, the camote, was given to the POWs, but most were rotten and thrown out. The POWs had to post guards to prevent other POWs from eating them. The camp had a Black Market and POWs who had money could buy a small can of fish from the guards for $5.00.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line for 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 by the POWs who came up with the pipe, dug the trench and ran the waterline. Just like the first faucet, the Japanese turned off the water when they wanted water to bathe, but unlike the first water line, the POWs had the ability to turn on the water again without the Japanese knowing it. 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 in 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, but 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. When a second truck was sent to the camp by the Red Cross, it was turned away. The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one medic – out of the six medics 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 bodies were moved to one side, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it. At one point, 80 bodies lay under the hospital.
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. Many of these men returned from the work details only to die in the camp. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day.
What is known is that Curly went out on work detail to Manila which supposedly had 10 POWs on it. On May 18, 1942, his family received a letter from the War Department.
“Dear Mrs. G. Combs:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee if Private First Class Aaron A. Combs, 06,665,525, 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”
It is known that Aaron went out on a work detail to Manila. From different sources, the POWs on the detail appear to have delivered supplies to the various details rebuilding bridges on Bataan. The ten POWs drove trucks without a guard with them. Each man had an armband written in Japanese that told the sentries at the checkpoints that the POWs were delivering supplies and were not to be molested. While working on this detail, the POWs lived in a bowling alley in Manila. With him on this detail were other members of the tank group. One was Sgt. Owen Sandmire of A Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. It appears that Aaron and Sandmire worked together.
In July 1942, the father received a second letter. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Private First Class Aaron A. Combs 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.”
According to Sandmire, Aaron, other POWs, and himself were sent by boat to get lumber for some unknown reason. Six tug boats – about 20 feet long – were tied together and made a giant raft. and went up the Pasig River to Laguna De Lac Bay – the largest lake in the Philippines — to a sawmill. After loading the lumber on the tugboats, they made their way back to Manila. The trip was about 30 miles and the tugs could only do ½ mile an hour and began breaking down. One of the tugs in the back broke down and Aaron jumped into the water to fix it. The prop from a tug chopped into him starting at his hip and down his leg.
When they arrived in Manila, Aaron was taken to the Naval Hospital at Bilibid Prison. It is not known how long he remained there. From there he was sent to Cabanatuan which opened to replace Camp O’Donnell, but when he returned is not known.
Multiple work details left the camp each day and returned each evening. Some details were small while others had 1255 to 1450 POWs on them. The POWs received Christmas telegrams on February 7. The POWs watched the Marx Brothers movie “Room Service” on the 11th and many Japanese propaganda news clips. It was recorded on February 12 that there had not been a death in the camp in eight days. Three POWs died the next day. The Japanese also ordered that the POWs turn in all radios to them. It is not known if they received any. POWs who did not have blankets were issued a blanket by the Japanese on February 22. A program was started to stop the spread of dysentery. For every full milk can of flies the POWs turned in, they received cigarettes in return. It was noted that on March 3, 12 million flies had been turned in and 320 rats had been turned in.
A large POW detachment also started work at the camp cemetery, on April 1, but what they did was not known. Two POWs, PFC Holland Stobach and Pvt. Ernest O. Kelly escaped while working on the water detail outside the camp on the 6th. They had an hour’s start on the Japanese and it appears they were successful at evading the guards. The only punishment given to the other POWs was the show they expected to see was canceled. On the 11th, the workday changed for the POWs. Revelle was at 5:30 A.M. with breakfast now at 6:00 until 7:00 when they left for work and worked until 10:30 A.M. when they returned to the camp for lunch at noon. They returned to work and worked from 1:00 P.M. until 6:00 P.M. Dinner was at 6:30. Roll call was taken at 7:00 P.M. and again at 9:00 P.M. Pvt. John B. Trujillo who was one of the POWs assigned to guard against escapes attempted to escape but was caught. At 9:00 A.M. he was taken to the schoolyard in the barrio of Cabanatuan and executed.
The POWs were also allowed to hold shows for entertainment. They performed comedy skits and other shows. They also formed a band that performed on Wednesday and Saturday nights and had a request portion of the program performing songs the other POWs wanted to hear. On one occasion they performed a song that became popular in the U.S. after they had become POWs. The Japanese realized that they had a radio and searched the camp looking for it, but they never did find the radio. It is known that he was hospitalized on April 11, 1943, but no reason for the hospitalization has been found and neither has a date of discharge been found.
On May 31, 1943, his parents received another letter from the War Department which simply told them that he was still missing in action and he would be continued to be carried on the department’s records as being MIA.
It was on June 28, 1943, that his parents received word from the War Department that he was a Prisoner of War.
REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH THE INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR SON PFC AARON A COMBS IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST
ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL.
Within days of receiving the first message, his father received the following letter:
541 Lewis St.
“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 Aaron A. Combs, U.S. Army
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”
It is known that he was sent to Las Pinas Detail as a replacement on the work detail there, but it is not known when he was sent there. The POWs on the detail were worked to death building a runway.
At six in the morning, the POWs had reveille and “bongo” or count at 6:15 in detachments of 100 men. After this came breakfast which was a fish soup with rice. After breakfast, there was a second count of all POWs, which included both healthy and sick, before the POWs marched a mile and a half to the airfield. After arriving at the airfield, the POWs were counted again. They went to a tool shed and received their tools; once again they were counted. The plans for this expansion came from the American Army which had drawn them up before the war. The Japanese wanted a runway 500 yards wide and a mile long going through hills and a swamp. Unlike the Americans, the Japanese had no plans on using construction equipment. Instead, they intended the POWs to do the work with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. The work was easy until the extension reached the hills some of which were 80 feet high. The POWs flattened the hills by hand. The Japanese replaced the wheel barrows with mining cars that two POWs pushed to the swamp and dumped as land-fill. As the work became harder and the POWs weaker, less work got done. At the end of the workday, the POWs were counted again, and when they arrived back at the school, they were counted again. Then, they would rush to the showers, since there were only six showers and toilets for over 500 POWs. They were fed dinner, they were counted one final time. Lights were turned out at 9:00 P.M.
The POWs worked under the supervision of the 103rd Construction Unit by order of the Southern Third Fleet. The brutality shown to the POWs was severe. The first Japanese commander of the camp, a Lt. Moto, was called the “White Angel” because he wore a spotless naval uniform. He was the commander of the camp for slightly over thirteen months. One day a POW collapsed while working on the runway. Moto was told about the man and came out and ordered him to get up. When he couldn’t four other Americans were made to carry the man back to the Pasay School.
The second commanding officer of the detail was known as “the Wolf.” He was a civilian who wore a Japanese Naval Uniform. Each morning, he would come to the POW barracks and select those POWs who looked the sickest and made them line up. The men were made to put one leg on each side of a trench and then do 50 push-ups. If a man’s arms gave out and he touched the ground, he was beaten with pick handles.
On another occasion, a POW collapsed on the runway. The Wolf had the man taken back to the barracks. When the Wolf came to the barracks that evening and the man was still unconscious, he banged the man’s head into the concrete floor and kicked him in the head. He then took the man to the shower and drowned him in the basin. A third POW who had tried to walk away from the detail told the guards to shoot him, the guards took him back to the Pasay School and strung him up by his thumbs outside the doorway, and placed a bottle of beer and sandwich in front of him. He was dead by evening.
The remains of the POWs who had died on the detail were brought to Bilibid Prison in wooden boxes. The Japanese had death certificates, with the causes of death and signed by an American doctor, sent with the boxes. The Americans from the detail, who accompanied the boxes, would not tell the POWs at Bilibid what had happened. It was only when the sick, from the detail, began to arrive at Bilibid did they learn what the detail was like. These men were sent to Bilibid to die since it would look better when it was reported to the International Red Cross.
The medical treatment of the POWs was poor. The Japanese issued little of the Red Cross medical supplies that came into the camp. The POW doctors said there was not enough medicine to cure an ailment but just enough to prolong the ailment. Many of the POWs had malaria but there was a lack of quinine and carborine, and there was no emetine to cure amoebic dysentery. The doctors’ requests for medicines were repeatedly turned down by the Japanese commanding officer. If they performed surgery, the operations were performed without anesthetics or proper medical equipment. The Japanese only allowed 80 POWs to be on sick call each day, and the Japanese determined which men were sick enough not to work.
The bodies of those who died on the detail were sent in boxes to Bilibid Prison. Once there, the POW doctors were expected to issue death certificates with causes of death dictated by the Japanese. The sick POWs who arrived from the detail were described as skeletons. POWs who arrived told of how other POWs were killed by the Japanese.
It was September 21, 1944, at the end of the workday when a large formation of planes approached the airfield. At first, the POWs thought they were Japanese. It was only when the planes began bombing and strafing the airfield that they knew the planes were American. The next day the Japanese ended the detail the other POWs were sent to Manila. There, they were held at Bilibid Prison. This former Spanish prison was used by the Japanese as a clearinghouse for POWs being sent to another part of the Japanese Empire. At the prison, he was reunited with other C Company members. Life for the men was monotonous since the prison was surrounded by high walls and the POWs could see nothing.
Not long after arriving at the prison, a list of POWs who were being sent to Japan was posted. Manuel’s name was on it. The POWs were taken to Pier 7 in Manila on October 1, 1944, and the detachment of POWs boarded the Hokusen Maru. The ship sailed but dropped anchor at the harbor’s breakwater where it remained for three days. The hold soon became a latrine and smelled like one. At first, the POOWs were allowed on deck to relieve themselves. But this was changed to buckets tied to ropes that were used to haul the excrement from the hold. As they were pulled up, the buckets hit the hold’s walls spilling the waste onto the POWs. At 5:00 P.M., steamed rice was sent down in buckets, but most of the POWs were too sick to eat. Those who could eat ate as much as they could. Water was also sent down in pockets, and it appears that each POW received about a pint of water. The temperatures in the hold rose to over 100 degrees causing some men to go crazy. The Japanese threatened to kill the POWs if they didn’t quiet the men. To do this, the sane POWs strangled those out of their minds or hit them with canteens.
It was said by men on the ship that there were 750 prisoners crowded into a hold just a few feet larger than a master bedroom. They also said that their food was a little rice and very little water, that there was no ventilation or sanitary facilities, that many died of suffocation, and that most of the POWs suffered from dysentery and malaria. In the hold, there was no place to lie down, so the POWs rested on top of a pile of coal. The POWs stood and squatted with their knees under their chins, in shifts, all of the 38 days they were in the hold.
As part of a ten-ship convoy, it sailed again on October 4 and stopped at Cabcaban. The next day, it was at San Fernando La Union, where the ships were joined by four more ships and five escorts. The ships stayed close to the shoreline to prevent submarine attacks which failed since, on October 6, two of the ships were sunk. The ships were informed, on October 9, that American carriers were seen near Formosa and sailed for Hong Kong when it was informed American planes were in the area. The ships changed course during this part of the trip and attempted to reach Hong Kong. The ships ran into American submarines which sank two more ships.
The Hokusen Maru arrived in Hong Kong on October 11 and the POWs were allowed on deck 50 at a time. Some of the POWs were allowed to wash with seawater. While it was in port on October 16, 27 B-29s bombed the harbor followed by 8 P-51s. The ship nearest to the Hokusen Maru took several hits and was a wreck. The ship left the dock on October 18 and moved around the harbor. A bomb from a sole plane hit near the ship while it was maneuvering in the harbor. On October 21, the ship sailed for Takao, Formosa. Two days later, the POWs heard explosions as several ships were hit by torpedos from American submarines. It was said by Capt. Alvin Poweleit, that the ships were sinking before the debris from the explosions hit the water. The ships were close enough to Taiwan for the Japanese to send out planes that dropped depth charges.
The ship sailed through a storm and the hatches were covered. During this time several POWs died. On October 29, four survivors of the Arisan Maru were put on the ship. One of the men was dying but the other three were in good health. When they were allowed to talk to the other POWs, they told them about the ships sinking and how the POWs were left to die.
According to some sources, only three of the ten ships in the convoy reached Takao, Formosa, on November 5. The POWs were brought up on deck for physicals by Japanese doctors. Some were so weak that they had to be pulled from the holds with ropes. It was at this time that it was estimated that 200 POWs had died during the trip. The POWs were marched down the gang blank and taken ashore that same day. The POWs formed detachments of 100 men and marched through Takao. The Chinese threw stones at them. The POWs were sent to Inrin Temporary which was specifically opened for them. Those who were really weak only did light work. The healthier POWs were sent to a sugar mill where they worked pretty hard.
On January 24, 1945, 563 POWs took a train to Shirakawa where they boarded the Enoshima Maru the next day. The ship sailed and took five days to reach Moji, Japan.
After disembarking the ship, he was taken by train to Sendai #8-B arriving on January 29, 1945. The POWs lived in wooden barracks that were 40 feet long and 20 feet wide that were infested with lice, bedbugs, and rats. To heat the barracks, the POWs received three pieces of wood each day for heat. The POWs who were caught smuggling coal or wood into the camp were beaten. When Capt. Thomas W. Davis asked for additional wood for the barracks and was beaten. The POW meals were inadequate and the POWs were underfed and smuggled food into the camp. If they were caught they were beaten.
Clothing for the POWs was Japanese summer uniforms which were inadequate for the cold winters. Although the Red Cross had sent, food, blankets, clothing, shoes, and medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese did not issue it to the POWs. Instead, they used the supplies themselves. When medical supplies arrived at the camp in Red Cross boxes, they were withheld from POWs. They also were not given the medical instruments that came in the boxes. The POWs who reported for the sick call were beaten and forced to go to work. The Japanese misappropriated food, clothing, shoes, medicines, medical supplies, and medical equipment meant for POWs.
Collective punishment was common and the POWs were frequently slapped, hit with iron pipes, and sheaths of swords. The POWs were made to stand in cold for hours, and on one occasion 5 POWs being punished stood in the cold nude for 1½ hours. The POWs also were made to crawl or take painful positions for long periods of time. In March 1945, one POW, PFC William Lamm, stole a blanket and cut it up. The Japanese made all the POWs stand at attention until he confessed. He was beaten by the Japanese, then all the POWs had to walk past him and slap him in the face. This lasted for ten minutes. Those POWs who did not slap him hard enough were slapped across their faces twice. Afterward, he was taken to the guardhouse and spent two days.
The POWs worked at Fujita-Gumi Construction Company – under civilian overseers – mining and smelting copper. The civilian employees were allowed to beat POWs for not working hard enough. One civilian supervisor, Fukuji Takahashi, was known for beating the POWs working at the machine and blacksmith shops. It appears that most if not all the POWs assigned to the shops received beatings at some point.
The POWs heard rumors that the war was over, but had no proof of it. They convinced their commanding officer, Capt. Davis to approach the Japanese camp commander and ask. He did, and the Japanese officer offered his hand to shake hands. It was when the two men shook hands that the prisoners knew the war was over. The guards had also leaned their rifles along the side of a building. The POWs made a break for them. They got to the guns before the Japanese.
The POWs were amazed that the Americans found the camp at the end of the war since it was at the northern end of the island. But planes appeared over the camp and dropped notes to the POWs telling them that B-29s were on their way to drop food, clothing, and other supplies for them. An American plane flew over the camp and dropped a note that told the POWs to put one man in the middle of the camp for every 100 POWs that were in the camp. The POWs put four men in the camp’s center. The next day B-29s appeared over the camp and began to drop 55-gallon drums. One drum hit the camp kitchen. To stop this from happening again, the POWs drew a circle for a drop zone. There was no more damage after this was done.
Since there was such a large number of POWs in Japan, his camp did not officially get liberated until September 11, 1945, when they were taken by ship to Tokyo Bay arriving there on September 12. They were deloused and the clothing that had been dropped to them was burned. On the U.S.S. Rescue, they received medical examinations and were taken to an airfield to be flown to Okinawa. During the trip to the airfield, they saw that much of Tokyo was a burnt-out shell from the firebombing.
He was returned to the Philippine Islands where he received medical treatment. During this time, his family received this telegram:
“Pvt Aaron Arnold Combs has been returned to military control as of September 12, 1945, and will be back in the United States in the near future. He will be given an opportunity to communicate with you. Report condition is fair.”
He also sent this message home: “I am well, hope to be home soon.”
Aaron left the Philippines on U.S.S. Simon Bolivar and arrived in the United States at San Francisco on October 21, 1945. From the docks, he was taken to Letterman General Hospital for additional medical treatment. At some point, he was sent to a hospital closer to home. During this time, he was promoted to Corporal and Sergeant. He was discharged from the Army but reenlisted on January 23, 1946.
While he was stationed at Ft. Knox, he married Barbara Lois Thomas on July 13, 1946, and they became the parents of three daughters. The marriage ended in divorce. He remained in the Army and the last base he was stationed at was Ft. Sills, Lawton, Oklahoma. He retired from the Army as a Staff Sergeant on October 30, 1968, and lived in Lawton, Oklahoma. He passed away on April 14, 1984, in Lawton, and was buried at the Fort Sill Post Cemetery.