PFC Earl Maurice Conover was the son of Wyatt Conover & Ila Epperson-Conover. He was born on September 17, 1917, in Columbia, Kentucky. With his two sisters, he grew up on Jamestown Street in Columbia, Kentucky. He was a 1935 graduate of Columbia High School.
After high school, Earl opened a jewelry shop where he repaired watches. When Selective Service Registration became law on October 16, 1940, he registered for the draft and named his father as his contact person. He also indicated he was self-employed. Knowing that it was just a matter of time until he was drafted into the army, he enlisted in January 1941. He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky to train with the newly formed 17th Ordnance Company. Ironically, Earl sold his shop to another jeweler who was from Harrodsburg, Kentucky, the hometown of D Company, 192nd Tank Battalion.
During Earl’s training at Ft. Knox, he and the other members of 17th Ordnance trained on the tanks of the 192nd Tank Battalion. In September 1941, Earl with his unit received orders that they were being sent overseas. Arriving, by train, at Ft. Mason in San Francisco, they were taken by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island where they received physicals and inoculations from the battalion’s medical detachment. Those men found with medical conditions were replaced.
The company boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8 at 3:00 P.M. and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands. To get the tanks to fit in the ship’s holds, the turrets had serial numbers spray painted on them and were removed from the tanks. 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 U.S.S. Astoria, a heavy cruiser, and an unknown destroyer. 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 Coolidge entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M., on September 26, and reached Manila several hours later. The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M. and were driven on buses to Clark Field. The maintenance section of the battalion and members of 17th Ordnance remained at the dock to unload the battalion’s tanks and reattach the turrets.
Arriving in the Philippines in late September, Earl with his company prepared to work on the tanks of the newly formed Provisional Tank Group. The tank group was completed in November 1941, with the arrival of the 192nd Tank Battalion.
On December 8, 1941, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Earl and his company watched the Japanese attack on Clark Airfield. Being that his company was a few miles from the airfield, they watched the Japanese planes strafe and bomb the field. As they watched, the Japanese planes would bank and turn around above their position. They would then continue the attack on the airfield.
For the next four months, the members of the company did several things. Since anti-personnel shells had not arrived before the war started, they converted WWI anti-personnel shells for use by the tanks. They set up fuel dumps for the tanks to use during the withdrawal into Bataan, and they manufactured or scavenged spare parts for the tanks.
On February 1, he wrote a letter to his parents which they received in early April 1942.
“No chance to write before. Am in the best of health, although losing sleep and getting two meals a day. Have been both bombed and strafed but only had dirt thrown on me so far. Guess you know more about the war than I do. We hear nothing. At present we are in a hot spot. Jap planes bomb across from us almost every day. Have done lots of shooting with .50 cal. machine gun. Know I’ve hit the planes but haven’t brought any down yet. Will be home when this is over. /s/Earl”
When the surrender came on April 9, 1942, 17th Ordnance made its way to Mariveles. It was from there that Joseph started what the prisoners simply called “the march.” When they started the march at Mariveles, they marched back and forth a number of times because the Japanese didn’t really know what to do with them. Late that evening they marched again, this time they made their way north up the zig-zag road that led out of Mariveles.
Since the first fives miles of the march were uphill, it was midnight before the Prisoners of War reached the highest ground. It was at that time that the guards gave the POWs a rest.
The column made its way north. At some point, his commanding officer and several other men from his company escaped into the jungle. They would spend the rest of the war as guerrillas, and some would not live to see the end of the war.
The column made its way to Cabcaben. During this part of the march, they saw dead Filipinos lying along the sides of the road. Outside of Cabcaben, the Japanese had set up artillery which was firing on Corregidor which was returning fire. The POWs were ordered to rest in front of the guns because the Japanese believed that if they did, the Americans would stop their fire. They didn’t and knocked out three of the four Japanese guns. After this didn’t work, the Japanese ordered the men to move again.
On the march to Lamao, men were beaten to the ground and bayoneted. If you were caught looking at what was happening the guards came after you. Many of the POWs looked down so they did not become targets for the guards.
Although there were artesian wells flowing across the road, the guards would not let the POWs drink any of the water. Men who broke ranks and ran to the wells were shot. Those who made it back to the ranks and had wet clothing were also shot.
Along the sides of the road were ditches filled with dirty water. Often a dead body was floating in the water. The guards had no problem letting the POWs drink the filthy water which later led to the deaths of many of the POWs.
It was during this part of the march that the guards took the canteens away from the POWs and had them sit in the sun from 10 A.M. until 1 P.M. This was known as “the sun treatment.” Since they had no head protection they became sunburned and many had blisters.
They continued march north and had not eaten in days. It was at this time that they passed sugarcane fields. Men were so hungry that they broke and ran into the field for food. As they ran to get food, the guards shot at them killing some. Those who returned to the march with sugarcane shared it with others.
The detachment reached San Fernando where they were put in a bullpen which had been used by other POWs. It was covered with human waste. In one corner was a slit trench which was live with flies. Once in the pen, they were ordered to sit. They remained there until they were ordered to form 100 men detachments and march to the train station at San Fernando.
The small wooden boxcars were known as “forty or eights” because each car could hold forty men or eight horses. Since the detachments had 100 men in them, the Japanese packed 100 men into each car. Once in the cars, those men who died remained standing since they had no room to fall to the floors. When the living left the cars at Capas, the dead fell to the floor. The POWs marched eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base. 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 ranking American officer was beaten with a broadsword after requesting medicine, additional food, and material to repair the POW huts’ roofs.
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 cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it.
After Earl arrived at Camp O’Donnell, Earl was selected to go out on a work detail to rebuild the bridges that the Americans had destroyed during the withdrawal into Bataan. The POWs on the detail were divided into two detachments. One rebuilt the bridges while the other cut the lumber at a sawmill. Earl was sent to the sawmill.
While on the detail, Earl witnessed the execution of ten POWs. One night, a POW escaped into the jungle. The Japanese had instituted “the blood brother rule.” If a POW escaped, the five men who slept to his right and left would be executed. The Japanese were true to their word.
A member of the 192nd Tank Battalion, Ralph Hite, became ill, after eating “Pony Candy” and developed dysentery. He died within four days. The Japanese allowed the POWs to build a coffin for Hite, and Earl was given the job of building the coffin.
When the detail ended, Earl was sent to Cabanatuan – which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division as Camp Pangatian – and assigned to Barracks 2, Group 3.
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 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. It was while a POW there that Bob came down with dysentery and admitted to the camp hospital.
The daily meal for the POWs was 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. Because of the poor diet, the POWs suffered from malnutrition which prevented their bodies from fighting illnesses.
In May 1942, his family received this letter from the War Department.
“According to War Department records you have been designated as the emergency addressee of PFC Earl M. Conover, who according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“We deeply regret that it is impossible for us to give you more information. 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 of other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese government has indicated its intentions of conforming to the terms of the Geneva convention with respects 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 the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is hoped that the Japanese government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At this time you will be notified by this office in the event his name (Earl M. Conover) is contained in the list of prisoners of war.”
In July 1942, the family 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, PFC Earl M. Conover 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.”
In January 1943, his family received notice from the War Department that he was reported as a POW by the Japanese. This was the first time they had heard anything about him in nine months. In August 1943, they received a POW postcard from him.
The family received three postcards from him in December 1943. In one he said:
“Hoping this finds everyone well. Am homesick at times, but time passes fast. I hope Rochelle (his niece) remembers me. Give my regards to all my friends. Do not get too many gray hairs. I’ll be back someday. Have great plans for the future. /s/ Earl M. Conover.”
He was selected for a work detail to Las Pinas. The POWs on the detail built runways at an airfield with picks and shovels. On September 21, 1944, the POWs heard planes approach the airfield. These were the first American planes they had seen in over two years. The planes bombed and strafed the airfield. The Japanese ended the detail the next day.
Earl and the other POWs were sent to Bilibid Prison. There, they were selected for shipment to Japan. The POWs boarded the Hokusen Maru on October 1, 1941, and the ship moved away from the pier but dropped anchor at a buoy. The POWs went three days without water and the temperature in the holds rose to over 100 degrees. Men began going crazy and began screaming. The Japanese threatened to cover the holds unless those screaming stopped. To stop these men from screaming, the POWs killed them by strangling them or beating them to death with canteens.
The ship sailed from the Philippines on the Hokusen Maru on October 4, 1944, and stopped at Cabcaban, the same day, and San Fernando, La Union, on October 5. There it joined a convoy that sailed on October 6 and came under attack by submarines. Two ships were sunk and, on October 7, the decision was made for the ships to attempt to reach Formosa on their own. As the Hokusen Maru made its way to Formosa, on October 9, there was a false air raid warning, so the captain made the decision to go to Hong Kong.
During this part of the trip, the ships heading to Hong Kong ran into a Wolf Pack and two ships were sunk. The ships made it to Hong Kong on October 10. Six days later, it was still in the harbor when American planes bombed the harbor. After the attack, the ship remained at Hong Kong until October 21 when it sailed. After three days at sea, the ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, on October 24.
After arriving at Takao, the Japanese made the decision to disembark the POWs, on November 8, and send them to a POW camp on the island. On Formosa, Earl worked at Inrin Temporary Camp where the POWs did light work. The healthier POWs worked in a sugar mill.
In January 1945, Earl was selected to be sent to Japan. He and other POWs were put on the “Hell Ship” the Melbourne Maru, which sailed on January 14 and arrived at Moji, Japan, on January 25. Next, Earl was boarded onto a train, and after transferring to another train, he arrived at Sendai #3 in February. The POWs in the camp worked in a lead and zinc mine owned by Mitsubishi.
It was also in January 1945, that his parents received another POW postcard from him which had been written while he was still in the Philippines. The next word they received was from the War Department in July 1945, which indicated he had been sent to Japan.
In the camp, the guards carried bamboo clubs which they hit the POWs with on a regular basis for various reasons. When being punished, the POWs were ordered and forced to stand at attention, in the snow, in their inadequate clothing. On several occasions, they were forced to stand at attention with holding buckets of water at arms’ length.
What is known about the camp is that the hospital was a cold wooden barracks and that the medical equipment was poor. Red Cross medicines and medical equipment arrived at the camp but were not issued to the POWs. The result was that fourteen POWs died in the hospital. The camp doctor was known to eat vitamin tablets from the packages in front of the POWs. All the deaths were contributed to lack of clothing against the cold and inadequate heating of the barracks and poor diet. Even though POWs were certified as too sick to work, POWs were forced to work in the mines because a certain number of POWs had work each day.
Those POWs who reported for sick call had to line up in the hallway to the Japanese doctor’s office and take off all their clothes before they entered. While in line, they were often slapped in the face. The doctor made the POWs stand at attention, bow, and follow orders given to them. Since this took so much time, most of the POWs were never examined and had to work. Cold weather clothing and blankets from the Red Cross were never given out to the POWs who had to sleep in the poorly heated barracks in the winter.
Red Cross clothing was stored in a warehouse at the camp and never issued to the POWs. The Japanese used blankets intended for the POWs as cushions for chairs in the camp’s offices. They also wore the shoes and Red Cross clothing meant for the POWs. If Red Cross packages were given to the prisoners, they had been previously opened and cigarettes and chocolate bars were missing. Food also meant for the prisoners was eaten by the Japanese.
The POWs were marched to and from the mine by Japanese civilians. If they fell behind during the march, the guards beat them with their bamboo clubs. While working in the mine, if an “Overseer”, the name given to the civilian supervisors, thought a POW was not working hard enough, the POW received a whack with a bamboo stick.
Earl remained at Sendai #3 until he was liberated on September 12, 1945. The same day, he was taken to Yokohama and boarded the U.S.S. Rescue and was given a medical exam and processed. It was at that time it was determined he should be flown to the Philippines for additional medical treatment. At some point, his family received this message.
“Your son, PFC Earl Conover, has been returned to military control and will be in the United States in the near future. He will be given the opportunity to communicate with you upon arrival.”
His family received this message from him in September 1941:
“Japan, Sept. 14
“In good health. Waiting at Yokohama Airport for plane to Manila. Will write from there. Very homesick but will soon be home. Can’t tell you the words how I feel but maybe you have the same feeling. Love to all. /s/Earl”
After receiving medical clearance in the Philippines, he was boarded onto the U.S.S. General R. L. Howze and sailed, from Manila, on September 23, 1945, and went to San Pedro Bay on Leyte. There, it most likely picked up additional patients. The ship arrived at San Francisco on October 16, 1945, where he was sent to Letterman General Hospital. At a later date, he was sent to Nichols General Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, for further treatment. He returned home and was discharged on January 16, 1946, at Nichols General Hospital.
Earl married Clara Matthews in Columbia on October 9, 1950, and they became the parents of two children. He became a volunteer firefighter and worked in the State of Kentucky’s Fire Marshall’s Office. He retired in 1980.
Earl M. Conover passed away on June 19, 2005, in Columbia, Kentucky, and was buried at Columbia Cemetery.