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DiBenedetti, Pvt. Edmund N.

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Pvt. Edmund N. DiBenedetti was born in 1920, in France, to Frank DiBenedetti & Alexandrine Morello-DiBenedetti. At some point, his family immigrated to the United States where his brother was born. The family resided at 843 South Main Street in Salinas, and he attended Salinas High School and worked as a bookkeeper at the Salinas National Bank.

Ed enlisted in the California National Guard at Salinas in early 1941. A little over a month later he was inducted into federal service on February 10, 1941, at Salinas Army Air Base. With his company, now designated C Company, 194th Tank Battalion he traveled to Fort Lewis in Washington state. Three months later, he was sent to Ft. Knox, Kentucky to attend radio school.

On August 15, 1941, the decision was made, at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, that the 194th would be sent to the Philippines because of an event that happened during the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over the Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots, who was flying lower than the other planes, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more flagged buoys that lined up – in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island – hundreds of miles away – that had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.

The next day – when another squadron was sent to the area – the buoys had been picked up, and a fishing boat was seen heading toward shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat was not stopped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.

In September 1941, the battalion was ordered to San Francisco, California, for transport to the Philippine Islands. Arriving by train at Ft. Masin in San Francisco, the company was ferried, on 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 who failed the physical were replaced.

On September 8, 1941, the battalion was boarded onto the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. The ship sailed the same day. The battalion arrived at Hawaii on September 13, remained in port most of the day, and sailed later in the day, but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes, where it was joined by the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Astoria, and an unknown destroyer.

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.

The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and the date changed to Thursday, September 18. On September 26th, 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 which took until the next morning.

The battalion rode buses to Fort Stotsenburg and taken to an area between the fort and Clark Field, where they were housed in tents since the barracks for them had not been completed. They were met by Gen. Edward P. King, commanding officer of the fort who made sure they had what they needed. On November 15, they moved into their barracks.

The battalion rode buses to Fort Stotsenburg and taken to an area between the fort and Clark Field, where they were housed in tents since the barracks for them had not been completed. They were met by Gen. Edward P. King, commanding officer of the fort who made sure they had what they needed. On November 15, they moved into their barracks.

Being assigned to HQ, he remained behind in Manila, with the company, to unload the tanks. Because the hold was not very high, the turrets of the tanks had been removed so they would fit into the hold. This job was not completed until 9:00 A.M. the next day.

The M-3 tanks that the battalion had were new to them. The fact they arrived in the Philippines, in late September, allowed the tank crews to learn about their tanks. What also helped was 17th Ordnance had worked on the tanks while training at Ft. Knox. The tank battalion was still training at Ft. Stotsenburg the first week of December 1941.

On December 1, the 194th was ordered to its position at Clark Field. Their job was to protect the northern half of the airfield from paratroopers. The 192nd Tank Battalion, which had arrived in November, guarded the southern half. Two crewmen remained with the tanks at all times and received their meals from food trucks.

The morning of December 8, 1941, ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the tanks of the Provisional Tank Group were ordered to the perimeter of the airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. All morning long, the sky was filled with American planes. At 12:30 the planes landed and their pilots went to lunch.

Around 12:45 in the afternoon, the tankers watched as planes approached the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American. It was only when bombs began exploding on the runway did the tankers know the planes were Japanese.

The tanks of the 194th were ordered to Mabalacat. They remained there until December 12, when A Company was sent north to the Agno River area. C Company was sent south of Manila to southern Luzon.

On December 25, the five tanks of the tank platoon of 2nd Lt. Robert Needham were sent to an area on the east coast of Luzon near Lucban. The Japanese had landed troops in the area, and the American Command wanted to see what the strength of the enemy was in the area.

The tanks were ordered by a major to proceed, without reconnaissance, down a narrow trail. Since the area was mountainous, the tanks had a hard time maneuvering. As they went down the trail, the tanks attempted to keep their spacing so that the driver of each tank could each see the tank in front of him. At one point in the trail, the tanks found that the trail made a sharp turn. the impact from the shell.

Believing they were safe, the member’s of Ed’s crew began to celebrate their luck. Suddenly, the tank took a direct hit from another anti-tank gun which knocked off one of the tank’s tracks. The tank veered off the road and went over an earthen embankment and came to a stop in a rice paddy. Ed ended up with a rivet in his neck. The tank crew had no idea that their little rec reconnaissance mission had taken them into the main Japanese staging area.

The tankers button down their tank and remained in it for hours. Japanese soldiers tapped on the tank and said, “Are you in there, Joe?” The crew played dead for the remainder of the day and night. The next morning they exited the tank and with the help of a Filipino, they made their way through Japanese lines. Ed was left at a Catholic hospital at Manila. He became a Prisoner of War when Manila was occupied by the Japanese.

After the fall of Bataan, Ed was reunited with the other members of his tank company at Cabanatuan. The camp had been a Filipino training base that was converted into a POW camp. 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 was actually three camps. Camp 1 housed the POWs who had been captured on Bataan and held at Camp O’Donnell. Camp 2 was two miles from Camp 1 and was closed because it lacked an adequate water supply. It was later reopened and held Naval POWs. Camp 3 was eight miles from Camp 1 and six miles from Camp 2. It housed the POWs from Corregidor and those men who had been hospitalized when Bataan surrendered. The camp was later closed and the POWs were sent to Camp 1.

The Camp 1 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.

It is not known if Ed went out on any work details while a POW in the camp. Medical records from the camp show that Ed was admitted into the camp hospital on April 22, 1943. The records do not indicate why he was admitted or when he was discharged.

On December 13, 1943, his parents received a POW postcard from him while he was at Cabanatuan. In it, he said:

“Dear mother, father, and Frank: Hello, how are you all? I am in good health and very happy. I feel that you are thinking of me all the time. I go to mass every Sunday and pray that we can all be together before long. Love to everyone.”

It is known that Ed went out on a work detail to build runways in what was referred to as the Army Air Group. According to records kept by the medical staff at Bilibid Prison, Ed was admitted to the hospital ward on August 4, 1944, and donated blood. The records also indicate that he was discharged on August 6 and returned to the detail.

In early October 1944, 1775 POWs were marched to the Port Area of Manila. When his POW group arrived at the pier, the ship they were scheduled to sail on, the Hokusen Maru, was ready to sail, but some of the POWs in the detachment had not arrived at the pier. Another POW detachment, scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru, had completely arrived, but their ship was not ready to sail. It was at that time that the Japanese made the decision that they switch POW detachments so the Hokusen Maru could sail.

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

Anton Cichy said, “For the first few days there were 1800 of us together in one hold. I don’t know how big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down. We were just kind of stuck together.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At first, the POWs cheered wildly until they realized they were facing death. Cichy recalled, “When the torpedo hit everybody in the hold hollered ‘Hit her again!’ We wanted to get it over with.” Lt. Robert S. Overbeck recalled, “When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn’t care a bit–they were tired and weak and sick.” He also said, “The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn’t break in two.”

Overbeck also commented on the reaction of the POWs in the holds. “For about five seconds there was panic among us, but there were five or six chaplains who prayed fervently and quieted the men. By then the Nips–300 of them on deck–were scurrying about, scared as hell. The boilers exploded. I don’t think any of us got hurt in the torpedoing or the explosion. Most of the prisoners were American, with a few British. The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned ship. That was about 5:00 P.M.” It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the U.S.S. Snook or U.S.S. Shark.

The guards took their rifles and used them as clubs to drive the POWs on deck into the holds. Once in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders into the holds and put the hatch covers over the holds, but they did not tie the hatch covers down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of the nearly 1775 men who boarded the Arisan Maru, only nine survived its sinking. Eight of these men survived the war. Pvt. Edmund N. DiBenedetti was not one of them.

His family received this message: 

“Dear Mr. & Mrs. DiBenedetti;

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

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

“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son, Pvt. Edmund N. DiBenedetti, 20, 900, 674, 194th Tank Battalion, was among those lost when that sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on the records of the War Department as Killed in Action 24 October 1944. The evidence of this death was received 16 June 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and accounts will be closed.

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

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

“Sincerely yours,

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

Since he was lost at sea, Pvt. Edmund N. DiBenedetti’s name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila. He was awarded the Silver Star post-humorously.

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