2nd Lt. Earl Walter Hill was the born on January 1, 1918, to John J. Hill & Lillian Paavola-Hill in Iron County, Michigan, and with his sister grew up at 424 First Street in Stambaugh, Michigan. When he was in college, he joined the ROTC program at Michigan College of Mining and Technology in Houghton, Michigan.
Earl was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, and became a member of the 19th Ordnance Battalion and learned how to do maintenance on 57 different vehicles used by the Army. He also received training in repairing and maintaining guns. The 19th trained alongside the 192nd Tank Battalion at Ft. Knox. On August 17, 1941, A Company of the battalion was designated the 17th Ordnance Company and received orders to go overseas.
The decision for this move – which had been made on August 15, 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.
While traveling west by train, the company learned they were being sent to the Philippines. They arrived at Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, on Sept ember 5 and were ferried by the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. There, they received physicals and inoculated. Men found to have medical conditions were replaced.
On the island, the company went to work removing the turrets from the tanks. They spray painted the tank’s serial number on the turret so they would be reattached to the turrets to right tanks. The reason this was done was the hold’s ceiling was too low for the tanks to fit with their turrets on them.
On Monday, September 8, 1941, they boarded the U.S.S. Calvin Coolidge. At 9:00 P.M. the same day, the ship sailed for the Philippines. A 7:00 A.M. on Saturday, September 13, the ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, at 7:00 A.M. It sailed the same day at 5:00 P.M. The ship took a southerly route and was joined by the U.S.S. Astoria – and an unknown destroyer – which were its escorts.
On several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon and the Astoria took off to intercept the unknown ship. Each time the ship was from a neutral country.
The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and suddenly, it was Thursday, September 18. The morning of September 26 at 7:00 A.M., the ship entered Manila Bay. The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M. later that day, and 17th Ordnance, with the maintenance section of the 194th Tank Battalion, remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks of the 194th and reattach the turrets. The men took turns sleeping on the ship that night and completed the work by 7:00 A.M. the next day.
For the next few months, the company members familiarized themselves with the M3 Stuart tanks, of the 194th Tank Battalion, and the other vehicles of the tank battalion. The 192nd Tank Battalion, which 19th Ordnance trained with at Ft. Knox, arrived in the Philippines in November.
The morning of December 8, 1941, the members of the company were told of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just hours earlier. The company moved to a bamboo thicket and set up their machine shop trucks and other vehicles. Later in the day, they were ordered to return to Ft. Stotsenburg.
At 12:45, planes appeared over Clark Airfield and bombed the airfield. Japanese Zeros followed and strafed the buildings. The company lost one half-track during the attack. When the attack was over, there were wounded and dead everywhere.
For the next four months, the members of 17th Ordnance worked to keep the tanks of the tank group supplied with ammunition and running. On Bataan, the company set up its operations in the ordnance deport building which had been abandoned since it was empty.
On April 9, 1942, his company became POWs when Bataan was surrendered to the Japanese. He took part in the death march from Mariveles to San Fernando. At Cabcaben, Uhlan and the other POWs were ordered to sit in front of Japanese artillery which was firing on Corregidor. When shells from Corregidor began to land among the POWs, he and the other men attempted to find cover. During the artillery exchange, four of the Japanese guns were knocked out.
At San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars used to haul sugarcane. The cars were known as “forty or eights,” since each car could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese put one hundred men into each car and closed the doors. The men who died remained standing since there was no room for them to fall to the floor. At Capas, the living POWs climbed out of the cars while the bodies of the dead fell to the ground.
Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army Base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942, and they believed the camp could hold 15,000 to 20,000 POWs. When the POWs arrived at the camp, then they were searched and anyone found with Japanese money was separated from the other POWs and sent to the guardhouse. These POWs were accused of looting the bodies of dead Japanese soldiers. Over several days, gunshots were heard coming from southeast of the camp as they were executed.
The Japanese also took away any extra clothing that the POWs carried with them and refused to return it. Since there was no water to wash their clothing, the POWs threw away soiled clothing and stripped the dead of their clothing. Few of the POWs in the camp hospital had clothing.
There was only one water faucet for the entire camp and men stood in line from 2½ to 8 hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guard in charge of the spigot would turn it off, for no reason, and the next man in line would have to wait up to four hours for it to be turned on again. Water for cooking food had to be hauled three miles to the camp. Mess kits could not be cleaned.
Since most of the POWs had dysentery, the slit trenches overflowed which resulted in flies being everywhere in the camp including the camp kitchen and in the food. The camp hospital had no water, soap, or disinfectant which also caused diseases to spread. When the ranking American doctor presented a letter with the medicines and medical supplies they needed to treat the sick, the camp commander, Captain Yoshio Tsuneyoshi, told him never to write another letter. He also said that the only things he wanted to know about the POWs were their names and serial numbers after they died.
The Archbishop of Manila sent a truck full of medical supplies to the camp, but the Japanese refused to let it into the camp. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross told a Japanese lieutenant that they could set up a 150-bed hospital for the POWs, he was slapped in the face by the lieutenant. Medicines sent to the camp by the Red Cross were confiscated by the Japanese for their own use.
The POWs called the hospital “Zero Ward” because most of the men who entered it never came out alive. The Japanese were so afraid of contracting an illness that they put a barbed wire fence up around it. The POWs in the hospital lay elbow to elbow on the floor and operations were performed with knives from mess kits. Only one medic, out of every six assigned to treat the sick, was healthy enough to perform his duties.
Each morning, the POWs walked around the camp and collected the bodies of the dead and placed them under the hospital building. To clean the ground, the POWs moved the bodies, scraped the ground, put down lime to sterilize the ground, moved the bodies back, and repeated the process in the area where the bodies had lain. It took two to three days to bury a man after he died.
Any POW, if he could walk, went out on a work detail for the day such as the one collected wood for the POW kitchen. Some POWs went out on work details which lasted for months to get out of the camp. The worse detail a man could be put on was the burial detail. On this detail, two POWs carried a dead man to the camp cemetery. Once there, they put the body in a grave and held the body down with a pole, since the water table was high, and covered it with dirt. The next morning, when the burials resumed, the dead were often sitting up or had been dug up by wild dogs. The Japanese finally acknowledged that they had to do something to lower the death rate, so they opened a new POW camp.
During May 1942, the families received this letter from the War Department.
“According to War Department records you have been designated as the emergency addressee of 2nd Lt. Earl W. Hill, 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. Hill) is contained in the list of prisoners of war.”
On June 1, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men and were marched to Capas, where they were put into steel boxcars. Each car had two Japanese guards. During the trip at Calumpit, the train was switched onto a track that took it to Cabanatuan. When the POWs left the cars, they were herded into a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onions soup. They were marched to the new camp which was a former Philippine Army Base and had been the home of the 91st Philippine Army Division’s home.
In the camp, the Japanese instituted the “Blood Brother” rule. If one man escaped the other nine men in his group would be executed. POWs caught trying to escape were beaten. Those who did escape and were caught were tortured before being executed. It is not known if any POW successfully escaped from the camp.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. While on these details they 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. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn.
Earl was assigned to Barracks #8, Group 2. It is not known what work details he worked on, but it is known that at some point he was so ill he could not walk. He recovered and was healthy enough that the Japanese sent him to Bilibid Prison for transport to Japan as American forces approached the Philippines.
In July 1942, his parents received a second letter on his POW status. 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, 2nd Lt. Earl M. Hill 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.”
During his time in the camp, his parents received several POW postcards. Only one of the six cards they received had a date on it of May 6, 1944. He said he was, “gardening in my spare time.” two lines of the card were censored.
On December 12, 1944, the POWs heard rumors that a detail was being sent out. The POWs went through what was a farce of an inspection. They were told cigarettes, soap, and salt would be issued. The POWs were also told that they would also receive a meal to eat and one to take with them. The Japanese stated they would leave by 7:00 in the morning, so the lights were left on all night. At 4:00 a.m. the morning of December 13, Earl and the other POWs were awakened.
By 8:00, the POWs were lined up, roll call was taken, and the names of the men selected for transport to Japan were called. The prisoners were allowed to roam the compound until they were told to “fall-in.” The men were fed a meal and then marched to Pier 7 in Manila. During the march down Luzon Boulevard, the POWs saw that the streetcars had stopped running and many things were in disrepair.
At the harbor, they saw that the American bombers were doing a job on the Japanese transports. There were at least forty wrecked ships in the bay. When the POWs reached Pier 7, there were three ships docked. One was an old run-down ship, the other two were large and in good shape. They soon discovered one of the two nicer ships was their ship.
It was at this time that the POWs were allowed to sit down. Many of the POWs slept until 3:45 in the afternoon when they were awakened. The POWs boarded the Oryoku Maru for transport to Japan. The high ranking officers were the first on the ship and put into the ship’s aft hold. Being the first one meant that they would suffer many deaths. Around the perimeter of the hold were two tiers of bunks for the POWs. The heat was so bad that men soon began to pass out. One survivor said, “The fist fights began when men began to pass out. We knew that only the front men in bay would be able to get enough air.” The POWs who were closer to the hold’s hatch used anything they could find to fan air toward those further away from it.
The ship sailed and became a part of a convoy, MATA 37, which moved without lights. The cries for air began as the men lost discipline, so the Japanese threatened to cover the holds and cut off all air. When the Japanese sent down fried rice, cabbage, and fried seaweed, those further back from the opening got nothing.
At 10:00 P.M., the Japanese interpreter threatened to have the guards fire into the holds unless the POWs stopped screaming. Some of the POWs fell silent because they were exhausted, and others because they had died. One major of the 26th Cavalry stated the man next to him had lost his mind. Recalling the conversation he had with the man he said, “Worst was the man who had gone mad but would not sit still. One kept pestering me, pushing a mess kit against my chest, saying, ‘Have some of this chow? It’s good.’ I smelled of it, it was not chow. ‘All right’ he said, ‘If you don’t want it. I’m going to eat it.’ And a little later I heard him eating it, right beside me.”
The Japanese covered the holds and would not allow the slop buckets to be taken out of the holds. Those POWs who were left holding the buckets at first asked for someone else to hold it for a while. When that did not work, they dumped the buckets on the men around them.
As daylight began to enter the hold as morning came, the POWs could see men who were in stupors, men out of their minds, and men who had died. The POWs in the aft hold which also had a sub-hold put the POWs who out of their minds into it.
On the side of the holds, water had condensed on the walls so the POWs tried to scrape it off the wall for a drink. The Japanese did allow men who had passed out to be put on deck, but as soon as they revived they went back into the holds. The Japanese would not allow the bodies of the men who had died to be removed from the holds.
The POWs received their first meal at dawn. Meals on the ship consisted of a little rice, fish, some water, and three-fourths of a cup of water was shared by 20 POWs. It was 8:00 A.M., and the ship was off the coast of Luzon. The POWs had just finished eating breakfast when they heard the sound of guns. At first, they thought the anti-aircraft gun crews were just drilling since they had not heard any planes. It was only when the first bomb hit that they knew it was no drill.
At first, it seemed that most of the planes were attacking the other ships in the convoy. Commander Frank Bridgit had made his way to the top of the ladder into the hold and sat down. He gave the POWs a play by play of the planes attacking, “I can see two planes going for a freighter off our starboard side. Now two more are detached from the formation. I think they may be coming for us.”
The POWs heard the change in the sound or the engines of the planes as they began their drive toward the ships in the convoy. Explosions were taking place all around the ship. Bullets from the planes ricocheted into the hold causing many casualties. After the first raid, the ship was left alone by “playing possum” in the water. The American fighters went after the other ships in the convoy. The POWs believed, from the attacks, that the planes were attempting to take out the anti-aircraft guns on the escort ships.
In the hold, the POWs concluded that the attacking planes were concentrating on the bridge of the ship. They noted that the planes had taken out all the anti-aircraft guns leaving only the 30 caliber machine guns to defend the ship.
The attacks followed the same pattern. Each time, 30 or 50 planes attacked in a wave. The attack lasted for about twenty minutes when the planes broke off the attack. After each attack, there was a twenty to thirty-minute lull before the next wave of planes attacked.
Overall, six bombs hit the ship. At four-thirty in the afternoon, the ship experienced its worse attack. It was hit at least three times, by bombs, on its bridge and stern. Most of the POWs were wounded by ricocheting bullets or shrapnel from explosions. Bombs that exploded near the ship sent turrets of water over it. Bullets from the fighters hit the metal hull plates at an angle that prevent most from penetrating the hull. Somewhere on the ship a fire had started but was put out after several hours. One bomb hit the stern of the ship killing many before the attacks ended when dusk came. The one result of the raid was no evening meal.
Lt. Col. Elvin Barr of the 60th Coast Artillery came up to Maj, John Fowler of the 26th Cavalry on the cargo deck and said, “There’s a hole knocked in the bulkheads down there. Between 30 and 40 men have already died down there.” Barr would never reach Japan. The attack by 30 to 50 planes lasted for about 20 to 30 minutes. When the planes were running out of bombs they strafed. Afterward, the planes flew off, returning to their carrier, and there was a lull of about 20 to 30 minutes before the next squadron of planes appeared over the ships and resumed the attack. This pattern repeated itself over and over during the day.
At 4:30 P.M., the ship went through the worse attack on it. It was hit at least three times by bombs on its bridge and stern. Most of the POWs, who were wounded, were wounded by ricocheting bullets and shrapnel from exploding bombs. During the attack Chaplain William Cummings, a Catholic priest led the POWs in the Our Father. As they prayed, the bombs that exploded near the ship sent torrents of water over the ship.
Bullets from the planes hit the metal plates, of the haul, at an angle that prevented most of them from penetrating the haul. Somewhere on the ship, a fire started, but it was put out after several hours. The POWs lived through seven or eight attacks before sunset. Overall, six bombs hit the ship. One hit the stern of the ship killing many POWs.
At dusk, the ship raised anchor and headed east. It turned south and turned again this time heading west. The next turn it made was north. It headed in this direction for a good amount of time before dropping anchor at about 8:00 P.M. The POWs figured out that they had just sailed in a circle. What had happened is that the ship’s had been hit during the attack and the ship could not be steered.
Sometime after midnight, the POWs heard the sound of the Japanese civilians being evacuated from the ship. During the night, the POW medics were ordered onto the deck to treat the Japanese wounded. One medic recalled that the dead, dying, and wounded were everywhere.
The ship reached Subic Bay at 2:30 in the morning and steamed closer to the beach where its anchor was dropped. At 4:00 A.M., the POWs were told that they would disembark at daybreak at a pier. The moaning and muttering of POWs who were losing their minds kept the POWs up all night. That night 25 POWs died in the hold.
It was December 15 and the POWs sat in the ship’s holds for hours after dawn. The first 35 POWs were taken out of the hold and went into the water. At 8:00 A.M. as the other POWs waited, the sound of A Japanese guard yelled into the hold at the POWs, “All go home; speedo!” He shouted that the wounded would be the first to be evacuated. Suddenly, he looked up and shouted, “Planes, many planes!” As the POWs were abandoning ship the planes returned and continued the attack. The ship bounced in the water from the explosions. Chief Boatswain Clarence M. Taylor who was in the water said, “I saw the whole thing. A bomb fall, hit near the stern hatch, and debris goes flying up in the air.”
In the hold, the POWs crowded together. Chips of rust fell on them from the ceiling. After the raid, they took care of the wounded before the next attack started. In the hold a Catholic priest, Father John Duffy, began to pray, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
The Japanese guards and interpreter had abandoned ship, but the ship’s captain remained on board. He told the POWs -with his limited English – that they needed to get off the ship to safety. The POWs made their way over the side and into the water. As they swam to shore, the Japanese fired at them, with machine guns, to prevent them from escaping.
Four of the planes flew low over the water above the POWs. The POWs waved frantically at the planes so they would not be strafed. The planes banked and flew lower over the POWs. This time the pilots dipped their wings to show that they knew the men in the water were Americans. About a half-hour later, the ship began to really burn and the bodies of the dead could be seen on the decks.
The Japanese sent out a motorboat with a machine gun and snipers on it. The POWs attempting to escape were hunted down and shot. It is believed as many as 30 men died in the water.
There was no real beach, so the POWs climbed up on a seawall and found the Japanese Naval Landing Party had set up a machine gun and had just laid flat to rest when the gun opened fire on them. Those who came ashore were warned to stay in the water but only did so when one man climbed up on the seawall and was wounded. There were also Japanese snipers in wait to shoot anyone who attempted to escape.
The POWs were gathered together and marched to the tennis court at Olongapo Naval Station which was about 500 yards from the beach. There, they were herded onto a tennis court. The Japanese packed 1300 of the POWs on the court with 100 wounded POWs taking up a great amount of room at one end. They could barely sit down and only lay down by lying partially on another man.
It is not known if Lt. Earl W. Hill was killed when the Oryoku Maru was hit by bombs from American planes, or if he was killed swimming to shore trying to escape from the ship. What is known is his date of death is given as December 15, 1944, during the sinking of the ship.
2nd Lt. Earl W. Hill’s name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila.