2nd Lt. Harry Ricker Lafon Jr. was born in Virginia around 1919 and was the son of Harry R. Lafon Sr. and Katherine Mallon-Lafon. He later lived in Harriman, Tennessee, and Harrodsburg, Kentucky. Harry met Helen Frankie McCamish while they both were students at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, Tennessee. They married on July 5, 1941, in Claiborne County, Tennessee.
It is not known when, but Harry enlisted in the Kentucky National Guard at Harrodsburg. On November 25, 1940, Harry was called to federal duty when his tank company was federalized and traveled to the fort on November 28.
Harry went to Fort Knox, Kentucky, as a corporal. The First Sergeant, Edwin Rue, – on December 26th – was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed Hq Company. Many of the men picked to be transferred to the company – from all the battalion’s companies – received promotions and because of their ratings received higher pay. It was at that time that During this time he rose in rank from corporal to sergeant.
After arriving, 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.
D Company moved into its barracks in December 1940. The barracks were adjacent to the Roosevelt Ridge Training Area. The men assigned to the Hq Company still lived with the D Company since their barracks were unfinished. 25 men lived on each floor of the barracks. 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 allowing for 50 men to sleep on each floor. The first sergeant, staff sergeant, and master sergeant had their own rooms. There was also a supply room, an orderly room – where the cooks could sleep during the day – and a clubroom. The company shared its mess hall with A Company until that company’s mess hall was finished.
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 first sergeant’s office, and one was in the captain’s 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 guardsmen were housed away from the regular army troops in the newly built barracks. Newspapers from the time state that the barracks were air-conditioned.
The biggest problem facing the unit was the lack of equipment. Many of the tanks were castoffs from the regular army or pulled from the junkyard at Ft. Knox and rebuilt by the tank companies. The tanks were also restricted in where they could be driven and very little training was done with the infantry. The companies received new trucks and motorcycles in the Spring of 1941.
The men received training under the direction of the 69th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division. This was true for the tank crews and reconnaissance units who trained with the regiment’s tanks and reconnaissance units and later trained with their own companies.
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. All classes they attended were under the command of the 1st Armored Division.
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.
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.
During February, four composite tank detachments made of men from all the companies of the battalion left Ft. Knox – on different dates – on problematic moves at 9:00 A.M. The detachments consisted of three motorcycles, two scout cars, sixteen tanks, one ambulance, and supply, fuel and kitchen trucks. The route was difficult and chosen so that the men could become acquainted with their equipment. They also had to watch out for simulated enemy planes. Bridges were avoided whenever it was possible to ford the water. They received their rations from a food truck.
In late March 1941, the entire battalion was moved to new barracks at Wilson Road and Seventh Avenue at Ft. Knox. The barracks had bathing and washing facilities in them and a day room. The new kitchens had larger gas ranges, automatic gas heaters, large pantries, and mess halls. One reason for this move was the men from selective service were permanently joining the battalion.
On June 14th and 16th, the battalion was divided into four detachments composed of men from different companies. Available information shows that C and D Companies, part of Hq Company and part of the Medical Detachment left on June 14th, while A and B Companies, and the other halves of Hq Company and the Medical Detachment left the fort on June 16th. These were tactical maneuvers – under the command of the commanders of each of the letter companies. The three-day tactical road marches were to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and back. The purpose of the maneuvers was to give the men practice at loading, unloading, and setting up administrative camps to prepare them for the Louisiana maneuvers.
Each tank company 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 included the companies’ kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The detachments 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, where the men swam, boated and fished. The battalion returned to Ft. Knox through Lebanon, New Haven, and Hodgenville, Kentucky. At Hodgenville, the men were allowed to visit the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.
After training for nearly a year, on August 27, 1941, the battalion was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers from September 1 through 30. It was after the maneuvers, at Camp Polk, that Harry and the rest of the battalion learned that they were being sent overseas. At that time, those men who were 29 years old or older were given the chance to resign from federal service and replacements came from the 753rd Tank Battalion. The 192nd also received the M3 “Stuart” Tanks from the 753rd.
The reason for this move was an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a buoy, with a flag, in the water. 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, with a large radio transmitter, hundreds of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plane and flew south to Mariveles and then returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day – when planes were sent to the area – the buoys had been picked up and a fishing boat was seen making its way toward shore. Since communication between the planes and the Navy was poor, nothing was done to intercept the boat. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
On October 18, 1941, Harry was sent to San Francisco, California, along the southern route through New Mexico and Arizona. Arriving there on October 24, the battalion was ferried to Camp McDowell on Angel Island by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe. The tankers received physicals and inoculations from the battalion’s medical detachment. Men with minor medical conditions were held back on the island and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Some men were simply replaced. It was at this time that Harry resigned as an enlisted man and was commissioned a second lieutenant when one of the officers, of D Company, was reassigned to Officer Candidate School. Harry was assigned to D Company as a tank platoon commander.
The 192nd was 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. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2nd, 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, the transport, 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. The Louisville repeated this action several times.
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 20th, 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 General 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 before he left to have his own dinner.
D Company was scheduled to be transferred to the 194th Tank Battalion so when they arrived at the fort, they moved into their nearly finished barracks. Harry was reassigned to C Company of the 194th.
The day started at 5:15 with reveille and anyone who washed near a faucet with running water was considered lucky. At 6:00 A.M. they ate breakfast followed by work – on their on the tanks and other equipment – from 7:00 A.M. to 11:30 A.M. Lunch was from 11:30 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. when the soldiers returned to work until 2:30 P.M. The shorter afternoon work period was based on the belief that it was too hot to work in the climate. The term “recreation in the motor pool,” meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon.
For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies on the base. They also played horseshoes, softball, badminton, or threw footballs around during their free time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming. Men were given the opportunity to be allowed to go to Manila in small groups.
At Ft. Stotsenburg, the soldiers were expected to wear their dress uniforms. Since working on the tanks was a dirty job, the battalion members wore coveralls to do the work on the tanks. The tankers followed the example of the 194th Tank Battalion and wore coveralls in their barracks area to do work on their tanks, but if the soldiers left the battalion’s area, they wore dress uniforms everywhere; including going to the PX.
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 portion of the airfield and the 192nd guarded the southern portion. At all times, two members of each tank and half-track remained with their vehicles. Meals were served to the tankers from food trucks.
After arriving in the Philippines, the process was begun to transfer D Company to the 194th Tank Battalion, which had left for the Philippines minus one company. B Company of the battalion was sent to Alaska while the remaining companies, of the battalion, were sent to the Philippines. The medical clerk for the192nd spent weeks organizing records to be handed over to the 194th.
On December 1, the tank battalions were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. The 194th, with D Company, was assigned northern part of the airfield and the 192nd guarded the southern half of the airfield. Two members of each tank crew remained with the tanks at all times and received their meals from food trucks.
On the morning of December 8, 1941, just hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the company was brought up to full strength at the perimeter of Clark Field. All morning long, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. The planes were parked in a straight line outside the pilots’ mess hall.
At 12:45, two formations, totaling 54 planes, approached the airfield from the north. When bombs began exploding on the runways, the tankers knew that planes were Japanese. Being that their tanks could not fight planes, they watched as the Japanese destroyed the Army Air Corps.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, the dying, and the wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything else, that could carry the wounded, was in use. When the hospital filled, they watched the medics place the wounded under the building. Many of these men had their arms and legs missing.
That night, most men slept under their tanks since it was safer than sleeping in their tents. They had no idea that they had slept their last night in a bed.
One of the results of the attack was that the transfer of D Company, to the 194th, was never suspended indefinitely and Harry transfer to C Company, 194th, was never completed. The company retained its designation of being part of the 192nd for both the Battle of Luzon and the Battle of Bataan.
It is known that Harry was thought of being a man of courage. He was also well-liked by the enlisted men of D Company. Other members of the company have stated that when he led his tanks into action, he stood up in the tank’s turret and did not close the hatch for protection.
The 194th, with D Company, was moved, the night of the 12th, to an area south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge arriving there at 6:00 A.M. On December 13th, the tankers were moved 80 kilometers from Clark Field to do reconnaissance and to guard beaches. On the 15th, the battalion received 15 Bren gun carriers but turned some over to the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. These were used to test the ground to see if it could support tanks.
The tank battalions were sent to the area around the Lingayen Gulf. The company was near a mountain, so many of the tankers climber to the top. On the mountain, they found troops, ammunition, guns but were just sitting there watching the Japanese ships in the gulf. They had received orders not to fire.
The tankers walked down the mountain and waited. They received orders to drop back from the mountain and let the Japanese occupy it. They watched as the Japanese brought their equipment to the top of the mountain. The Americans finally received orders to launch a counterattack which failed.
On December 22, the companies were operating north of the Agno River and after the main bridge was bombed, on December 24/25, it made an end run to get south of the river and not be trapped by the Japanese. The tanks held the south bank of the river from west of Carmen to the Carmen-Akcaka-Bautista Road with the 192nd holding the bank east of Carmen to Tayug to the northeast of San Quintin.
Christmas Day, the tankers spent in the night in a coconut grove. As it turned out, the coconuts were all they had to eat. From Christmas to January 15, 1942, both day and night, all the tanks did was cover retreats of different infantry units. The tanks were constantly bombed, shelled, and strafed.
The tanks formed a new defensive held the Santa Ignacia-Gerona-Santo Tomas- San Jose line on December 26. When they dropped back from the line, all the platoons withdrew, except one which provided cover, as the other platoons from the area. One tank went across the line receiving fire and firing on the Japanese.
At Bayambang, Lt. Weeden Petree’s platoon lost a tank. It was at this time that D Company, 192nd, lost all their tanks, except one, because the bridge they were supposed to cross had been destroyed. The company commander, Capt. Jack Altman, could not bring himself to totally destroy the tanks, and the Japanese repaired them and used them on Bataan. The sergeant of the one tank, that had not abandoned, found a place to ford the river a few hundred yards from the bridge.
The tankers were at Santo Tomas near Cabanatuan on December 27, and at San Isidro south of Cabanatuan on December 28th and 29th. On January 1st, conflicting orders were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5. Doing this would allow the Southern Luzon Forces to withdraw toward Bataan. General Wainwright was unaware of the orders since they came from Gen. MacArthur’s chief of staff.
Because of the orders, there was confusion among the Filipinos and American forces defending the bridges over the Pampanga River. Due to the efforts of the Self Propelled Mounts, the 71st Field Artillery, and a frenzied attack by the 192nd Tank Battalion the Japanese were halted. From January 2nd to 4th, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.
At Gumain River, on January 5, D Company and C Company, 194th, were given the job to hold the south riverbank so that the other units could withdraw. The tank companies formed a defensive line along the bank of the river. At 2:30 A.M., the night of January 5/6, the Japanese attacked at Remedios in force and using smoke as cover. But since they were wearing white t-shirts they were east to see in the dark. This attack was an attempt to destroy the tank battalions. At 5:00 A.M., the Japanese withdrew having suffered heavy casualties.
The night of January 6/7 the 194th, covered by the 192nd, crossed the bridge over the Culis Creek and entered Bataan. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan before the engineers blew up the bridge at 6:00 A.M. This was the beginning of the Battle of Bataan. At this time, the food rations were cut in half. It was at this time that the tank companies were reduced to three tanks each. This was done to provide tanks to D Company, while those crews still without tanks were used as replacements.
General Weaver also issued the following orders to the tank battalions around this time: “Tanks will execute maximum delay, staying in position and firing at visible enemy until further delay will jeopardize withdrawal. If a tank is immobilized, it will be fought until the close approach of the enemy, then destroyed; the crew previously taking positions outside and continuing to fight with the salvaged and personal weapons. Considerations of personal safety and expediency will not interfere with accomplishing the greatest possible delay.”
A composite tank company was created on January 8 under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Company, 192nd, and sent to defend the Wast Coast Road north of Hermosa. Its job was to keep the north road open and prevent the Japanese from driving down the road before a new battle line had been formed. The Japanese never launched an attack allowing the defensive line to be formed. The tanks withdrew after they began receiving artillery fire.
The remainder of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Aubucay-Hacienda Road. While there, the tank crews had their first break from action in nearly a month. The tanks, which were long overdue for maintenance, were serviced by 17th Ordnance. It was also at this time that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks in each. This was done so that D Company, 192nd, would have tanks.
The 194th was sent to reopen the Moron Road so that General Segunda’s forces, which were trapped behind enemy lines, could withdraw. While attempting to do this, two tanks were knocked out by landmines planted by ordnance but were recovered, and a Japanese anti-tank gun was destroyed. The mission was abandoned the next day. Gen. Segunda’s forces escaped but lost their heavy equipment.
The next action the tanks saw was on the 20th when they were sent to relieve the 31st Infantry’s command post. On the 24th, the tanks were ordered to the Hacienda Road to support infantry but again could not accomplish their mission because of landmines planted by ordnance.
The 194th was holding a position a kilometer north of the Pilar-Bagac Road on January 26 with four self-propelled mounts. At 9:45 A.M., a Filipino came down the road and warned the battalion that a large Japanese force was coming down the road. When they appeared the tanks opened fire on them. At 10:30, the Japanese withdrew having lost 500 of 1200 men. This action prevented the new line of defense from being breached.
On January 28, the tank battalions were given the job of guarding the beaches so that the Japanese couldn’t land troops. The 194th guarded the coastline against Japanese landings from Limay to Cabcaban. During the day, the tanks hid under the jungle canopy. At night they were pulled out onto the beaches. The battalion’s half-tracks had the job of patrolling the roads. At all times, the tanks were in contact with on-shore and off-shore patrols.
In March, the amount of gasoline was reduced to 15 gallons a day for all vehicles except the tanks. This would later be dropped to ten gallons a day. At the same time, food rations were cut in half again. Also at this time, Gen. Weaver suggested to Gen. Wainwright that a platoon of tanks be sent to Corregidor.
For most of March, the situation Bataan was relatively quiet and the Japanese had been fought to a standstill. The newspapers in the States reported both sides were strengthening their lines in expectation of an all-out attack. The reports stated that the Japanese did not have the air support because their planes had been shifted south in the assault on Java. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over. During this time, two tanks had gotten stuck in the mud, and the crews were working to free them. While they were doing this, a Japanese regiment entered the area. Lt. Colonel Ernest Miller ordered his tanks to fire on the Japanese at point-blank range. He also ran from tank to tank directing the crew’s fire. The Japanese were wiped out. On March 21st, the last major battle was fought by the tanks.
Having brought in combat harden troops from Singapore, the Japanese launched a major offensive on April 3 supported by planes and artillery. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mt. Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese. The tanks were sent to various sectors in an attempt to stop the advance. On the 6th, four tanks were sent to support the 45th Philippine Infantry, Philippine Scouts. One tank was knocked out from anti-tank fire at the junctions of Trails 6 & 8, and the other tanks withdrew. On April 8, the 192nd was fighting on the East Coast Road at Cabcaban.
A counter-attack was launched – on April 7 – by the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts which was supported by tanks. Its objective was 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 driver was from the tank group and the white flag was bedding from A Company, 192nd.) 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.
When Bataan surrendered to the Japanese, the tankers became a Prisoners of War. The POWs were ordered to the bivouac of the Provisional Tank Group. It was from there that they were marched to join the main column of POWs on the march out of Bataan.
On April 10, the Japanese arrived and ordered the Prisoners of War onto the road. They quickly stripped the POWs of their watches, pens, and sunglasses. The POWs were taken to a trail and found that walking on the gravel trail was difficult. They immediately witnessed “Japanese Discipline” toward their own troops. The Japanese apparently were marching for hours, and when a man fell, he was kicked in his stomach and hit in the head with a rifle butt. If he still did not get up, the Japanese determined that the man was exhausted and left him alone.
The trial the POWs were on ended when they reached the main road. The first thing the Japanese did was to separate the officers from the enlisted men and counted them. The POWs were left in the sun for the rest of the day wondering what was going to happen. That night they were ordered north which was difficult, on the rocky road, in the dark, since they could not see where they were walking.
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.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino training base which the Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp, and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The 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. When the Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, Tsuneyoshi 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 bodies were moved to one side, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies were placed in the cleaned area, and the area they had lain was scraped and lime was spread over it.
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.
His parents received two letters from the War Department. The first arrived in May 1942.
“Dear Mrs. H. Lafon:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee if Second Lieutenant Harry R. Lafon Jr., O,415,583, 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.
The camp was actually three camps. Camp 1 was where the men who captured on Bataan and taken part in the death march where held. Camp 2 did not have an adequate water supply and was closed. It later reopened and housed Naval POWs. Camp 3 was where those men captured on Corregidor were taken. In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp. Camps 3 was later consolidated into Camp 1.
Once in the camp, the POWs were allowed to run the camp. The Japanese only entered if they had an issue they wanted to deal with. 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.
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 barracks in the camp were built to house 50 POWs, but most had between 60 to 120 POWs in them. The POWs slept on bamboo slats, without mattresses, bedding, or mosquito netting. Many quickly became ill. The POWs were assigned to barracks which meant that the members of their group lived together, went out on work details together, and would be executed together since they were Blood Brothers.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. The two major details were the farm detail and the airfield detail which lasted for years. A typical day on any detail lasted from 7:00 A.M. until 5:00 P.M.
Rice was the main food given to the POWs fed to them as “lugow” which meant “wet rice.” During their time in the camp, they received few vegetables and almost no fruit. Once in awhile, they received bread.
The camp hospital was known as “Zero Ward” because it was missed by the Japanese when they counted barracks. The sickest POWs were sent there to die. The Japanese put a fence up around the building to protect themselves, and they would not go into the building. There were two rolls of wooden platforms around the perimeter of the building. The sickest POWs were put on the lower platform which had holes cut into it so they could relieve themselves. Most of those who entered the ward died.
The POWs had the job of burying the dead. To do this, they worked in teams of four men. Each team carried a litter of four to six dead men to the cemetery where they were buried in graves containing 15 to 20 bodies.
In July 1942, the family received a second letter. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Second Lieutenant Harry R. Lafon Jr. 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.”
The Japanese needed 1000 POWs were to go on a work detail to Davao in October 1942. On October 24, the POWs were marched to the barrio of Cabanatuan, loaded onto boxcars, and sent by train to Manila arriving in the afternoon. During the trip, the doors of the boxcars were left open so there was ventilation. When they arrived at Manila, they remained in the boxcars until after dark when they were marched through the empty streets to Bilibid Prison. Once at Bilibid, they were fed mutton soup and rice.
The next day they were assembled in 100 men formations and marched to the Port Area of Manila where they boarded the Erie Maru. The hold was divided into box spaces and twelve men were assigned to each box. There was only enough room in a box for six men to sleep at a time. The POWs quickly became infested with bedbugs and lice. The hold smelled from the gasoline that was being stored in it and quickly was joined by the smell of human excrement.
The next morning the POWs were fed rice and spinach soup. At noon, they received rice and dried fish. For dinner, they had corned beef and rice. The POWs assigned to cooking discovered the Japanese officers had a large stock of captured American pork and slipped it to the men in the holds which resulted in many of the POWs developing dysentery.
The trip to Lasang took thirteen days because the ship made stops at Iloilo, Panay, and Cebu, Mindanao. At Iloilo, they buried one man who had died. The POWs arrived at Lansang on November 7.
When they arrived at the camp, the POWs were in such bad shape that the ranking Japanese officer, Major Mida, ordered them fed. They ate pork and beef, rice cabbage pinch, squash onions, potatoes, and peanuts which were all produced on the farm. From the orchards, they were given fruit which included raw and cooked plantains. The sick were given medical treatment and there was enough water for drinking, bathing, and laundry. When the recuperation took too long, their diet was cut to rice and greens soup.
At the camp, the POWs were housed in eight barracks that were about 148 feet long and about 16 feet wide. A four-foot-wide aisle ran down the center of each barracks. In each barracks, were eighteen bays. Twelve POWs shared a bay which meant that 216 POWs lived in each of the barracks. To prevent escapes, four cages were later put in a bay. Each cage held two POWs.
The camp discipline was poor and the American commanding officer changed frequently. The junior officers refused to take orders from the senior officers. Soon, the enlisted men spoke anyway they wanted to the officers. The situation improved because all the majority of the POWs realized that the discipline was needed to survive.
There were various details and the officers worked with the enlisted men. 30 men were assigned to work as carpenters, 25 POWs worked in the orchards, 50 POWs made rope, 20 POWs worked the bodega (storeroom) detail, and for four months the POWs cut and picked coffee. There were smaller details that took from 2 to 35 men that lasted weeks or months, while other details were continuous, such as the farm detail that 250 to 300 POWs worked on plowing fields and harvesting crops.
50 to 100 POWs were sent to a plantation and given the job of building roads. In the opinion of the POWs, they did more damage than good and intentionally kept the roads impassable. The Japanese decided that they were getting nowhere, so they sent the POWs to the ricefields to plant rice.
350 to 750 POWs were used in the rice fields. The number varied because planting and harvesting took more men. Many of the POWs became ill with what John called, “Rice Sickness.” This illness was caused by a POW cutting his foot or leg on a rice stalk. The POW developed a rash and suffered from severe swelling. If a POW bruised himself, the bruise developed into an ulcer. Most, if not all the prisoners, suffered from malaria.
At first, the work details were not guarded as the POWs plowed, planted, and harvested the crops. The sick POWs, who could not do this work, made baskets. In April 1943, the POWs working conditions varied. The treatment the POWs at this time changed. Those POWs working the rice fields received the worst treatment. They were beaten for not meeting quotas, and there were misunderstandings between the POWs and guards. In addition, the translator could not be trusted to tell the truth.
Beatings were common and usually, the guards slapped the POWs in their faces. On occasion, there were severe beatings. This occurred if the Japanese suspected the POWs were planning an escape.
The POWs were still receiving three meals – which were measured down with a sardine tin – a day and received one water buffalo a week but they were being worked harder and longer. At times, after the POWs had slaughtered the water buffalo and had it ready to cook, the Japanese made them bury it. Trees at the experimental farm were loaded with bananas, oranges, and other fruits that fell to the ground and rotted since the POWs were not allowed to eat them.
On May 15, 1943, the War Department released a list of names of men known to be Japanese Prisoners of War in the Philippines, Harry’s name was on the list. His family had learned he was a POW weeks earlier.
REPORT JUST RECEIVED THROUGH THE INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS STATES THAT YOUR HUSBAND SECOND LIEUTENANT HARRY R LAFON JR IS A PRISONER OF WAR OF THE JAPANESE GOVERNMENT IN THE PHILIPPINE ISLANDS LETTER OF INFORMATION FOLLOWS FROM THE PROVOST
ULIO THE ADJUTANT GENERAL.
Within days of receiving the first message, his family received the following letter:
“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:
“2nd Lt. Harry R. Lafon, 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”
His wife also received a POW postcard from him at this time that indicated that he was being held at Davao.
The Japanese ended the detail at the farm and sent the POWs to Lasang on March 2, 1944. The POWs thought that it would not be as bad as the farm; they were wrong. The barracks of the POWs were only 400 yards from the airfield. The POWs believed this was done so if American planes attacked, they would kill their own countrymen.
The POWs either built runways or were sent to a quarry to mine coral for runways. The POWs dug out the coral, broke it up, and loaded it onto trucks that were driven to the airfield. When the POWs slowed the pace of their work down, the Japanese resorted to torture to get them to work.
After the escape of Capt. William Dyess, LTC Melvyn McCoy, Maj. Stephen Mellnik, Maj. Michael Dobervitch, and another POW on April 4, 1943, the 600 remaining POWs from their barracks were moved toa another compound and had their rations reduced, they were confined to quarters, and they were abused. During the day, they were not allowed to sit down. The Japanese commanding officer ordered and allowed collectives punishment on all the POWs. If the POWs were found to have food on them when they returned from work, they were brutally beaten. At night the guards walked through the barracks a poked the sleeping POWs with bamboo poles to disrupt their sleep.
When two other POWs escaped, 22 other POWs were confined to the guardhouse for ten days. They were made to stand at attention all day in the cells. The cells were eight feet long and three and one-half feet wide. Eleven prisoners were put into each cell. At night they were beaten with sticks when they attempted to lie down. They were fed one meal a day of rice with a little salt.
One night, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. From the sound of its engine, they knew it was an American plane. This was the first American plane they had seen in over two years. The plane dove on the runway and dropped four bombs at the far end of the runway. The POWs could not openly show their joy, so they cheered silently.
On June 6, 1944, some of the POWs were sent to Manila, while the remainder of the men stayed on the island until August 19, 1944. Over the next two weeks, the atmosphere at the airfield changed. The Japanese posted guards with bayonets on their rifles by the POW barracks as air raids became daily. The Japanese camouflaged the airfield and hid their planes in revetments. The POWs heard rumors that the Americans had landed at Palau.
One night at 2:00 A.M. in August, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. From the sound of the engine, they knew it was American. It was the first American plane they had heard in over two years. As the plane dove on the airfield, it dropped four bombs at the far end of the runway; the POWs celebrated silently. For the POWs, this was the first knowledge they had the Americans were getting closer. The planes never returned to the airfield and the POWs believed it was because they recognized the compound as a POW camp, but at night they heard the sound of Japanese ships and other airfields being bombed.
During this time, the POWs rations were cut to a single cup of rice a day. The POWs were now so hungry that they raided the Japanese garbage pile for remnants of vegetables. Many ate the weeds that grew inside the camp until it was bare. Fruit that grew on the trees at the experimental farm fell to the ground and rotted.
Air raids soon were nightly events. Japanese planes flying out of the airfield were loaded with bombs and carried extra gasoline tanks. Finally, all work on the airfield was stopped. On that day, the POWs were lined up by fours. The outside men had a rope tied to their wrists to prevent escape. They were marched shoeless to the Tabunco Pier and arrived at noon. There they were packed into the two holds of the Erie Maru. 400 POWs were in the first hold while the remaining 350 POWs were put in the second hold. In addition, several tons of Japanese baggage were packed into the hold. Around six that evening, the ship sailed.
Once the POWs were in the holds the Japanese put the hatch covers on the hatches. There was no room to move and it was impossible to sit down.
According to Pvt. Walter Alexander: “An hour after the hatch was closed men began to pass out. We started to break out with heat rash. We couldn’t move. We didn’t nearly have enough water.
“The hatch was opened at night but clamped down as soon as daylight came.”
The next day, the POWs heard the sound of a plane. An American plane flew over the ship. The sound of machine-gun fire was heard by the POWs. The Japanese once again tied down the hatch covers cutting off the air.
Alexander said, “We were still off Davao the next morning when the bombers came over. I think they were B-24s. We felt the concussion as the bombs hit near the ship. The boat rocked and the plates rang. We estimated that one bomb missed by maybe 100 feet.
“The ship pulled out during the bombing. The next day the escort ships dropped depth charges. We were in the hold three days to Zamboanga. We laid there 12 days still in the hold. A couple of boys went crazy.”
As the ship made its way north it swayed in the waves. Many of the prisoners became seasick. They retched when they tried to throw up since there was no food in their stomachs. Over the next three days, there were several more alerts. Each time the hatch covers were battened down leaving the POWs in darkness.
The ship arrived in Zamboanga on August 24 and waited ten days until the Shinyo Maru arrived. The POWs were not allowed out of the holds and the conditions in the ship’s holds were terrible. The holds were hot and steamy and the floors were covered with human waste. In addition, the longer the POWs were in the holds the stench became worse. During this time, the POWs were allowed on deck and sprayed with saltwater.
On September 4, the POWs were transferred onto the Shinyo Maru. 250 POWs were put in the ship’s smaller hold, while the 500 POWs were put into its larger hold. That night, bombs from American planes landed alongside the ship rocking and shaking it. The POWs prayed that the ship would be hit by a bomb
Of this, Alexander said, “Then we changed ships. They lowered a ladder in the hold and in our condition we had a hard time getting up. A lot of the men were in bad shape and a few had to be helped up.
“The fresh air felt good and the sunshine was blinding. There was another ship tied close by and were transferred to it. In this ship, they put 500 men in one hold and 250 in another. I was with the 500.”
The ship sailed on September 5 at 2:00 A.M. Before sailing, the hatch covers were secured so that the POWs could not lift them from below. The ship headed north in a zigzag pattern in an attempt to avoid submarines, and the POWs were no longer allowed on deck. Their lips and throats were covered with dust from cement that had previously been hauled by the ship. For the next two days, the ship made good time. It was at this time that the Japanese guards threatened to kill the POWs if the ship came under attack by American planes. The ship was now part of a convoy designated as C-076. Since the POWs had not heard any air raid alerts, they assumed that they were safe. In reality, American submarines were picking off ships in the convoy one at a time.
Alexander said, “This time we were right down in the bottom of the ship. Again there was barely enough room for men to sit down. What was worse, the ship had been carrying cement and we sat on an inch of cement dust. Any movement stirred up cement dust and made it almost impossible to breathe. The stench in this hold was as bad as the other.
“Our officers told us to sit still. We sat still. We sailed the same night and were down there two days.”
It should be noted that the United States had intercepted the order from Japanese command sending the Shinyo Maru to Zamboanga. Someone misinterpreted the order as saying the ship would be transporting “750 military personnel” instead of “750 military prisoners” to Manila. The U.S.S. Paddle was sent to the area to intercept the ship.
Pfc. Victor Mapes talked about being in the ship’s hold, “I was down in the hold with 750 other Americans. They had us stripped down to G-strings. We’d left 22 days before from the southern Philippines — Davao.”
It was 4:00 P.M. when the convoy was spotted and the attack on the ships started. Pfc. Mapes recalled the event, “The Jap freighter Number 83 — was ripped apart by the Sub’s torpedo.”
Suddenly the Japanese removed the hatch covers. Of the same event, Sgt. Onnie Clem, U.S.M.C. said: “We looked up to see the Japs at both entrances with machine guns pointed at us. They started firing, spraying lead, in among the prisoners. Several hand grenades exploded among us.”
Sgt. Verle Cutter said, “We were in the hold wondering where they were taking us this time when the hatch was ripped open, we looked up to see Japs at both entrances with machine-guns pointed at us. They started firing, spraying lead, in among the prisoners. Several hand-grenades were thrown down among us exploded. How many of us were killed no one will ever know because then it happened.
“A loud explosion rocked the ship, and in the blackness of the hold, we could hear the vessel cracking up. Then after another explosion sounded in the aft hold of the vessel. We knew the ship had been torpedoed. Those Japs had tried to machine-gun and grenade us to prevent our possible escape.”
It was at 4:37 P.M. on Thursday, September 7, 1944, the U.S.S Paddle spotted the convoy off the west coast of Mindanao at Sindangan Point. It fired two torpedoes at the Shinyo Maru. The first torpedo hit the ship in its main hold. Moments later, a second torpedo hit the ship. There was a gaping hole in the ship’s side. The explosion blew some POWs out of the hold, through the hole, and into the water. Those POWs in the hold, who were still alive, saw the bodies of the dead floating in the water as the hold filled with water.
Sgt. Onnie Clem, U.S.M.C., recalled what it was like when the torpedoes hit.
“All I could see was orange. The next thing I knew I was floating in the air…I felt like I was among fluffy balls of cotton. (He was floating in the water and the fully balls were the bodies of the dead or other men trying to get out.) I thought, ‘Hell, I’m dead. This is what it’s like when you’re dead.”
The surviving POWs found that the hatch cover had been blown off the hold by the explosion. As the water level rose, they were able to climb out. Seven Japanese officers were on the bridge with rifles. As the POWs emerged from the hold, they picked them off. The lucky POWs made it through their fire and dove into the water.
The POWs in the smaller hold were also wounded from the torpedo hits. But, the hold remained dry. Many of these POWs also were able to make it onto the deck and attempted to swim to shore. It was believed that only 250 POWs made it into the water and that the remaining 500 died on the ship.
According to the POWs in the water, the Shinyo Maru began to capsize. There was a tremendous crushing sound and the ship seemed to bend upward in the middle. The ship split in two and sunk into the sea.
Japanese seaplanes dropped depth charges in an attempt to sink the American submarine. When they spotted the POWs in the water, they strafed them. They stopped strafing when they realized that there were Japanese in the water too. The good thing about the depth charges was that they kept sharks away from the POWs.
A Japanese tanker that had been hit by torpedoes spilled oil and gasoline into the water. The ship ran aground. The Japanese quickly set up machine guns and fired on the POWs. Boats from the other ships in the convoy attempted to hunt down the POWs swimming in the water cruising in and out of the debris field hunting and shooting the swimming Americans. If they found a man, they shot him.
One officer recalled seeing a young soldier struggling in the water and asked him if he could swim. The soldier replied, “No sir, not very well.” The officer began to say, “Don’t worry, we’ll make it somehow,” but before he could finish, a shot rang out the young soldier’s head fell into the water. There was a bullet hole in his head. What saved many lives was that with dusk it became harder for the Japanese to see them.
PFC Mapes recalled, “The men began swimming toward shore three miles away — like a herd of sheep. The Japs from the other ships in the convoy were cutting them to pieces. I figured that the only way to survive was to break away from the bunch and swim to the opposite side.”
The Japanese announced to the Americans that if they surrendered that they would be treated with compassion, and about 30 men gave up after hearing this.
Sgt. Denver R. Rose was one of the 30 men. He recalled, “They tied our hands behind us and took us to another prison ship. They roped us together and stood us in a line along the rail. They then started shooting us one at a time.
“Using his sword a Jap cut the rope to lose the first man in line. He was taken to the stern of the boat and shot in the back. He fell into the water.
“Meanwhile, I found the frayed end of a steel cable by feeling with the fingers behind my back and rubbed the ropes across the sharp edges until I got free. I decided I just as soon be shot trying to get away as the other way, so I made a break for it. I ran to the front of the ship and slipped down into the anchor hole After a while, I heard shooting again, so I let myself down into the water.”
Rose was the only man, of the 30 POWs, not to be executed.
Of the 750 POWs who were boarded onto the ship, 82 POWs survived its sinking. One man died on shore while the remainder were rescued by Filipino guerillas and returned to U.S. Forces in October 1944. 2nd Lt. Harry Lafon Jr. was not one of these men.
It is not known if 2nd Lt. Harry R. Lafon Jr. died when the ship was hit by the two torpedoes, or if he was one of the POWs who was shot by the Japanese while trying to escape from one of the ship’s holds, or if he was killed while attempting to swim to shore. What is known is that 2nd Lt. Harry R. LaFon Jr. died on Thursday, September 7, 1944, in the sinking of the Shinyo Maru.
In February 1945, the families who lost a son on the Shinyo Maru received the following letter. Note that the letter never indicates that the government knew the names of the survivors.
Dear Mrs. Lafon:
The War Department has now received the official list of prisoners of war on the Japanese freighter, which you were previously was sunk on September 7, 1944. It is with deep regret that I must now inform you that your husband is among those listed as lost when the sinking occurred. The War Department regrets its inability to entertain a possibility of his survival and must now consider him to have died in action on September 7, 1944. The date of receipt of this final evidence was February 7, 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and his accounts be closed.
The information available to the War Department is that the vessel sailed from Davao, Mindanao, August 20, 1944, with 750 prisoners of war abroad. The vessel was sunk by torpedoes on September 7, 1944, off the western shores of Mindanao. The indications are that relatively few of the prisoners had the opportunity to leave the sinking ship and of those who did many were killed by enemy gunfire. A small number managed to reach shore and a close watch for others was kept for several days. The Japanese government reports all the prisoners as lost, indicating that no survivors are in the hands of that Government. There is no information as to what happened to the individual prisoners but known circumstances lead to the regrettable conclusion that all of the unaccounted for prisoners lost their lives at the time of the sinking,
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 heartfelt sympathy.
R. W. MODERHAK
1st Lt. A.G.D.
Bureau of Public Relations
J. A. Ulio
The Adjutant General
The family also received this message from General George Marshall’s office:
“General Marshall extends his deep sympathy in your bereavement. Your husband fought valiantly in a supreme hour of his county’s need. His memory will live in the grateful heart of our nation.”
Since 2nd Lt. Harry Lafon Jr. was lost at sea, his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila. It should be mentioned that after his name it shows “194th Tank Battalion.” Although D Company fought with the 194th Tank Battalion, the company was never transferred to the battalion and remained part of the 192nd Tank Battalion.