Sgt. Ralph Arnold Ellis was born January 14, 1916, to George M. Ellis and Isabella Hayes-Ellis. With his two sisters, he lived at 1408 South Sixth Avenue Maywood, Illinois. Ralph attended Garfield Elementary School and Proviso Township High School, where he was in the choir. His hobbies were collecting stamps and classical records, and he was also a member of the Boy Scouts of America.
Ralph joined the Illinois National Guard in September 1940, because he knew that it was just a matter of time before he would be drafted. On November 25, 1940, the company officially became B Company, 192nd Tank Battalion. One group of soldiers left Maywood on Wednesday, November 27th at 7:00 A.M. in a convoy of one command car (or jeep), two trucks carrying supplies, and three private cars owned by members of the company. The trip was not easy since for 120 miles the road was covered in ice which cleared up near Indianapolis. They had dinner and spent the night at Ft. Benjamin Harris in Indianapolis. After showering and getting cleaned up, they continued the trip. As they got closer to Ft. Knox. the weather got warmer and the snow disappeared. During the trip one of the main topics was were they going live in tents or barracks. They reached the base late in the day on Thursday and found they were housed in barracks for the night. The next day they were moved to tents.
Most of the soldiers made the trip to Ft. Knox by train on Thursday, November 28th. They marched west on Madison Street to Fifth Avenue, in Maywood, and then north to the Chicago & Northwestern train station. In B Company’s case, they rode on the same train as A Company From Janesville, Wisconsin. In Chicago, the train was transferred onto the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad which took them to Ft. Knox. Once at the fort they were met by Army trucks at the station which took them to the fort where they reunited with the men who drove. The soldiers lived in six-man tents which had stoves for heat since they were assigned to a newly opened area of the fort and their barracks were not finished.
When they arrived at the base they spent the first six weeks in primary training. During week 1, the soldiers did infantry drilling; week 2, manual arms and marching to music; week 3, machine gun training; week 4, was pistol usage; week 5, M1 rifle firing; week 6, was training with gas masks, gas attacks, pitching tents, and hikes; weeks 7, 8, and 9 were spent learning the weapons, firing each one, learning the parts of the weapons and their functions, field stripping and caring for weapons, and the cleaning of weapons.
1st/Sgt. Richard Danca – on December 26th – was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed HQ Company. 35 men were picked because they had special training. Many of these men received promotions and because of their rating received higher pay. Ralph was one of those assigned to HQ Company and in his case, he was promoted to corporal. HQ Company was divided into a staff platoon, a reconnaissance platoon, a maintenance platoon, a motor platoon, and the usual cooks and clerks which every company had. Men were assigned various jobs which included scouts, radio operators, mechanics, truck drivers, and other duties.
A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics. At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. The classes lasted for 13 weeks.
At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After they ate they stood in line to wash their mess kits since they had no mess hall. About January 12, 1941, their mess hall opened and they ate off real plates with forks and knives. They also no longer had to wash their own plates since that job fell on the men assigned to Kitchen Police. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
B Company moved into its barracks in January 1941. The men assigned to the HQ Company still lived with the B Company since their barracks were unfinished. Most of the members of B Company were assigned to Barracks 53. The bunks were set up along the walls and alternated so that the head of one bunk was next to the foot of another bunk allowing for more bunks to be placed in the least amount of space. The one problem they had was that the barracks had four, two-way speakers in it. One speaker was in the main room of each floor of the barracks, one was in the sergeant’s office, and one was in the Lt. Donald Hanes’ office. Since by flipping a switch the speaker became a microphone, the men watched what they said. The men assigned to HQ Company moved into their own barracks by February.
The area outside the barracks was described as muddy and dusty most of the time. An attempt was made to improve the situation with the building of walkways and roads around the barracks.
During their free time during the week, the men could go to one of the three movie theaters on the outpost. They also sat around and talked. As the weather got warmer, the men tried to play baseball as often as possible in the evenings. At 9:00 P.M., when lights went out, most went to sleep. On weekends, men with passes frequently went to Louisville which was 35 miles north of the fort, while others went to Elizabethtown sixteen miles south of the fort. Those men still on the base used the dayroom to read since it was open until 11:00 P.M.
At 7:00 A.M. on Monday, June 16th, the battalion was broken into four detachments for a three-day tactical road march. The most important part of this march was to train the soldiers in loading, unloading, and setting up the battalion’s administrative camps. It also prepared them for the Louisiana maneuvers which they were scheduled to take part in during September.
The battalion traveled with 20 tanks, 20 motorcycles, 7 armored scout cars, 5 jeeps, 12 peeps (later called jeeps), 20 large 2½ ton trucks (these carried the battalion’s garages for vehicle repair), 5, 1½ ton trucks (which were the battalion’s kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The battalion traveled through Bardstown and Springfield before arriving at Harrodsburg at 2:30 P.M. where they set up their bivouac at the fairgrounds. The next morning, they moved to Herrington Lake east of Danville, before returning to Ft. Knox on Wednesday, June 18th through Lebanon, New Haven and Hodgenville, Kentucky. While at the lake, they swam, boated, and fished.
At Camp Polk, Louisiana, Ralph took part in the maneuvers of 1941 by keeping the tanks of the battalion running. After the maneuvers, the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk instead of returning to Ft. Knox as had been expected. It was on the side of a hill that the 192nd was informed that they were being sent overseas. Ralph received leave to go home and say goodbye to family and friends. It was at this time that he became engaged to, Virginia Vertuno, the sister of Russell Vertuno of B Company.
The decision for this move – which had been made in August 1941 – was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island which was hundreds of miles away. The island had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
Over four different train routed the battalion was sent to San Francisco, California, and ferried to Angel Island on the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe. When they got near Alcatraz, a soldier on the boat said to them, “I’d rather be here then going where you all are going.” Elmer and the other men stayed on Angel Island for two days for physicals and inoculations from the battalion’s medical detachment.
The 192nd boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2 and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline.
On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country. Two other intercepted ships were Japanese freighters carrying scrap metal to Japan.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, the tankers were met by Gen. Edward P. King, who welcomed them and made sure that they had what they needed. He also was apologetic that there were no barracks for the tankers and that they had to live in tents. The fact was he had not learned of their arrival until days before they arrived. He made sure that they had Thanksgiving Dinner – which consisted of stew thrown into their mess kits – before he left to have his own dinner.
The members of the battalion pitched the ragged World War I tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. The tents were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
The area was near the end of a runway used by B-17s for takeoffs. The planes flew over the tents at about 100 feet blowing dirt everywhere and the noise from the engines as they flew over was unbelievable. At night, they heard the sounds of planes flying over the airfield which turned out to be Japanese reconnaissance planes. In addition, the khaki uniforms they had been issued also turned out to be a heavy material which made them uncomfortable to wear in the tropical heat.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons. The grease was put on the weapons to protect them from rust while at sea. They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance. Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the China Sea.
On Monday, December 1, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers. The 194th Tank Battalion guarded the northern half of the airfield, while the 192nd guarded the southern half. At all times, two members of every tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles. Meals were brought to them by food trucks.
At six in the morning on December 8, the officers of the battalion were called to the radio room at the fort. They were ordered to bring their tank platoons up to full strength at the perimeter of the airfield. All morning the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. At 12:45, the tankers were having lunch and watched as 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. As they watched, the saw “raindrops” falling from the planes. When bombs began exploding, the soldiers knew the planes were Japanese.
On December 28, he sent home a telegram that read, “Everyone fine. Season Greetings. Tell Folks. Sgt. Ralph Ellis, 192nd .” From this time on until April 9, he and other members of HQ Company worked to keep the battalion tanks running.
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. On April 7, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. C Company, 194th, was attached to the 192nd and had only seven tanks left.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. Edward P. King decided that further resistance was futile, since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. 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.
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 white flag was bedding from A Company.) 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 this order: “You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word ‘CRASH’, all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished.”
The tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. 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 and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men 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 no attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do.
After a half-hour, 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 inline 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.
The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt. Fred Bruni, HQ’s commanding officer, gave his men the news of the surrender. While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them. As he spoke, his voice choked. He turned away from the men for a moment, and when he turned back he continued. He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks. During the announcement, Bruni emphasized that they all were to surrender together. He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and any supplies that could be used by the Japanese. The only thing they were told not to destroy was the company’s trucks. The men waited in their bivouac until ordered to move. Somehow, Bruni had found enough bread and pineapple juice for what he called, “Our last supper.”
The soldiers proceeded to pile up their guns and ammunition and set the pile on fire. They stayed in their bivouac and waited for orders. At the same time that they were sad, they were also kind of excited and wondered what was going to happen to them.
From Mariveles, the POWs made their way north against the flow of Japanese horse artillery and trucks which were moving south. At times, they would slip on something wet and slippery which were the remains of a man killed by Japanese artillery the day before. When dawn came, the walking became easier but as the sun rose it became hotter and the POWs began to feel the effects of thirst. It was at this time that the POWs saw a group of Filipinos being marched by the Japanese. Looking at them, they realized that they had been hungry, but the Filipinos had been starving.
When the men crossed the Lamao River, they smelled the sweet smell of death. The Japanese had heavily bombed the area causing many casualties and many of the dead lay partially in the river. The air corps POWs in front of them ran to the river and drank. Many would later die from dysentery at Camp O’Donnell.
At Limay on April 11, the officers with the rank of major or above were put into a schoolyard. The officers were told that they would be driven the rest of the march. At 4:00 AM, the officers were put into trucks for an unknown destination. It was there that the lower-ranking officers and the enlisted men joined the main column of POWs being marched out of Bataan. For the first time, they began to witness the abuse of POWs as they walked through Balanga to Orani.
At Orani, the men were put into a bullpen where they were ordered to lay down. In the morning, the POWs realized that they had been lying in the human waste of POWs who had already used the bullpen. At noon, they received their first food.
When they resumed the march they were marched at a faster pace. The guards also seemed to be nervous about something. The POWs made their way to just north of Hermosa. where the road went from gravel to concrete, and the change of surface made the march easier.
When the POWs were allowed to sit down, those who attempted to lay down were jabbed with bayonets. The POWs continued the march and for the first time in months it began to rain which felt great and many men attempted to get drinks. When they arrived at San Fernando, the POWs were put into another bullpen and remained until they were ordered to form detachments of 100 men.
At some point marched the POWs were marched to the train station, where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “forty or eights.” They were called this since each car could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and shut the doors. The heat in the cars was unbearable and many POWs died but could not fall to the floors since there was no room for them to fall. The POWs rode the train to Capas were they disembarked the cars. As they left the cars, the dead fell to the floors. The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell.
Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter.
The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area they had been laying was scrapped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
In May or early June, his parents received a message from the War Department.
“Dear Mr. G. Ellis:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Sergeant Ralph A. Ellis, 20,600,401, 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”
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas. There, they were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another line which took it to Cabanatuan. The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup. From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was formerly known at Camp Pangatian.
To prevent escapes, the POWs set up a detail that patrolled the fence of the camp. The reason this was done was that those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed, while the other POWs were made to watch. It is believed that no POW successfully escaped from the camp. The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. The POWs were forced to work in the fields from 7:00 in the morning until 5:00 in the evening. Most of the food they grew went to the Japanese not them. Other POWs worked in rice paddies.
The POW barracks were built to house 50 POWs, but most held between 60 and 120 men. The POWs slept on bamboo slats without mattresses, covers, or mosquito netting. The result was many became ill.
Each morning, the POWs lined up for roll call. While they stood at attention, it wasn’t uncommon for them to be hit over the tops of their heads. In addition, one guard frequently kicked them in their shins with his hobnailed boots. 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. The name soon meant the place where those who were extremely ill went to die. Each ward had two tiers of bunks and could hold 45 men but often had as many as 100 men in each. Each man had a two-foot-wide by six-foot-long area to lie in. The sickest men slept on the bottom tier since the platforms had holes cut in them so the sick could relieve themselves without having to leave the tier.
Ralph was later sent to Manila and was held at the Bachrach Garage. The POWs on this detail repaired mechanical equipment. On this detail were Roger Heilig, Arthur Van Pelt, Warren Hildebrandt and Daniel Boni of B Company. He apparently became ill and was returned to Cabanatuan.
It is known that in July 1942, his parents received another letter from the War Department. 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, Sergeant Ralph A. Ellis 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.”
On January 28, 1943, his family learned that the Japanese government had listed him as a Prisoner of War. Not too long after this, his family received another letter from the War Department.
1408 South Sixth Avenue
“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:
“Sgt. Ralph A. Ellis, 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”
At some point, Ralph was sent to Clark Field to build runways and revetments. He was a replacement worker for another POW who had been sent to Bilibid Prison due to illness. He remained there until August 17, 1944, when he was sent to Bilibid Prison for health reasons and remained there for several months.
Early on October 2, 1944, Ralph and the other POWs were sent to the Port Area of Manila for processing and shipment to Japan. Ralph’s group of POWs was scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru, which was ready to sail, but the entire detachment had not arrived. Since another group of POWs was ready to sail but their ship, the Arisan Maru, was not ready, the Japanese switched detachments so the Hokusen Maru could sail.
On October 10, almost 1775 POWs were packed into the ship’s number one hold. Along the sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks, but the bunks were so close together that a man could not lift himself up when he used one. Those standing had no room to lie down.
The latrines for the prisoners were eight five-gallon cans, which the POWs could not use since they were packed in the hold so tightly. This resulted in the floor of the hold being covered with human waste.
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.”
The ship sailed the next day, but took a southerly route away from Taiwan and dropped anchor in a cove off Palawan Island. During the first 48 hours off Palawan, five POWs died. The POWs realized that the Japanese had removed the light bulbs from the lighting system, but that they had not turned off the power. They figured out a way to hook the ventilation system into the lights and had fresh air for two days. When the Japanese discovered what had been done, they turned off the power.
The POWs began developing heat blisters, and the Japanese conceded that more POWs would die unless they did something. The Japanese transferred POWs from the first hold to its second hold. This hold was partially filled with coal. During the transfer, one POW attempted to escape and was shot.
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 ship returned to the Manila on October 20, where it joined a convoy. On October 21, after loading bananas and other foods, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea. The Japanese also issued life jackets to the POWs which could float for about two hours. According to survivors, all this did was reinforced in the Americans the fear of being killed by their own countrymen.
The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs. In addition, U.S. Military Intelligence was reading the Japanese messages as fast as the Japanese. To protect this secret, they did not tell the crews, of the submarines, that ships were carrying POWs which made the ships targets for the submarines.
Graef described conditions in the hold. “There were so many (that died ) out of 1800. The condition in that 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 the evening of October 24, about 4:00 P.M., the waves were high after the convoy had gone through a storm in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. The ships were about 200 miles off the coast of China when they came under attack by American submarines. 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., a number of POWs were on deck preparing dinner. About half the POWs on the ship had been fed. Suddenly bells and sirens went off which warned the submarines had been seen. The guards ran to the bow of the ship and watched a torpedo as it passed in front of the ship. The guards ran to the stern of the ship, and 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. The POWs began cheering wildly, but it stopped when 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 said, “When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn’t care a bit–they were tired and weak and sick.” He also said of the incident, “The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn’t break in two. 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 the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the U.S.S. Snook or the U.S.S. Shark.
The guards went after the POWs who cooking dinner and began beating them with their guns to force them into the #2 hold. Once they were in the hold, the guards cut the rope ladders and slammed down the hatch covers, but they did not tie them down.
Cichy recalled, “The Japs closed the hatches and left the ship in lifeboats. They must have forgot about the prisoners on deck who had been cooking. When the Japs were off the boat, the cooks opened the hatches and told us to come up. I was just under the deck, but there were a lot of guys down below. One of them escaped by simply walking into the water from a hole in the bulkhead. He was Lt. Robert S. Overbeck, Baltimore.” Cichy also stated, “The Japs had already evacuated ship. They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their own.”
The POWs made their way onto the deck. 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 also 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 sunk 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. Sgt. Ralph A. Ellis was not one of them.
In 1945, Ralph’s family received this message.
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. Ellis;
“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, Sgt. Ralph A Ellis,
20, 600, 401, 192nd Tank Battalion, was among those lost when that sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on the records of the War Department as Killed in Action 24 October 1944. The evidence of this death was received 16 June 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and accounts will be closed.
“The information available to the war department is that the vessel sailed from Manila on October 11, 1944, with 1775 prisoners of war aboard. On October 24 the vessel was sunk by submarine action in the south China Sea over 200 miles from the Chinese coast which was the nearest land. Five of the prisoners escaped in a small boat and reached the coast. Four others have been reported as picked up by the Japanese by whom all others aboard are reported lost. Absence of detailed information as to what happened to the other individual prisoners and known circumstances of the incident lead to a conclusion that all other prisoners listed by the Japanese as aboard the vessel perished.
“It is with deep regret that I must notify you of this unhappy culmination of the long period of anxiety and suffering you have experienced. You have my heartfelt sympathy.
“J. A. Ulio
“Maj. Gen., The Adjutant General of the Army”
h A. Ellis died on October 24, 1944, in the sinking of the Arisan Maru. He was 28 years old. Since he died at sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.