Sgt. James Francis McComas was born on June 6, 1920, in Brained, Minnesota, to Walter J. McComas & Elizabeth Koering-McComas. With his two sisters and three brothers, he grew up at 201 Third Avenue Northeast in Brainerd.
At some point, he joined the Minnesota National Guard with his best friend from childhood, Kenneth Porwoll. On February 10, 1941, his National Guard tank company was called to federal service as A Company, 194th Tank Battalion. They were sent to Fort Lewis, Washington where they were joined by National Guard units from California and Missouri.
Most of the members of the battalion spent their entire basic training at Fort Lewis, while others were sent to Fort Knox to attend radio school or cook’ school. In Jim’s case, he was a member of a tank crew and a tank commander.
In September 1941, A Company, C Company, and Hq Company of the 194th were sent to San Francisco. There they were inoculated and boarded a transport bound for the Philippine Islands. B Company of the battalion was sent to Alaska.
The tankers boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8th at 3:00 P.M. and sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands. To get the tanks to fit in the ship’s holds, the turrets had serial numbers spray painted on them and were removed from the tanks. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13th at 7:00 A.M., and most of the soldiers were allowed off the ship to see the island but had to be back on board before the ship sailed at 5:00 P.M.
After leaving Hawaii, the ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time that it was joined by a heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Astoria, an unknown destroyer, and the U.S.S. Guadalupe – a replenishment oiler – that were its escorts. During this part of the trip, on several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke. Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country.
The Coolidge entered Manila Bay at 7:00 A.M. and reached Manila several hours later. The soldiers disembarked at 3:00 P.M. and were driven on buses to Clark Field. The maintenance section of the battalion and members of 17th Ordnance remained at the dock to unload the battalion’s tanks and reattach the turrets which they did by the next morning.
Since the commanding officer of the installation, General Edward King, had not received advanced warning of the arrival of the units, the tankers found themselves living in tents along the main road between Ft. Stotsenburg and Clark Airfield. 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. They did not move into their barracks until November 15.
The description of the barracks was that from the floor, the barrack’s walls were open with screening going up three feet from the bottom of the outside walls. Above that, the walls were woven bamboo that allowed the air to pass through them. Bathroom facilities appeared to be limited and a man was considered lucky if he washed by a faucet with running water.
The workday was from 7:00 to 11:30 A.M. and from 1:30 to 2:30 P.M. The belief was it was too hot to work after that time. After 2:30, the tankers took part in “recreation in the motor pool” which meant they worked to 4:30. Tank commanders studied books on their tanks and instructed their crews on the 30 and 50 caliber machine guns. The tankers learned to dismantle the guns and put them together. Did it’s often many men could take the guns apart and assemble them with blindfolds on. They never fired the guns because Gen. King could not get Gen. MacArthur to release ammunition for them.
For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies at the base theater. They also played horseshoes, softball, badminton, or threw a football around to pass the time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming.
Activities off base were available and they also went to Mt. Aarayat National Park and swam in the swimming pool there that was filled with mountain water. The men were allowed to go to Manila in small groups. They also went to canoeing at Pagsanjan Falls in their swimsuits and described the country was described as being beautiful.
On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. Two members of each tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles at all times and received their meals from food trucks. It is known he was in the same tank crew as Joseph Bernardo, August Bender, and Gerald Bell.
On the morning of December 8, 1941, at 8:30, the planes of the Army Air Corps took off and filled the sky. At noon the planes landed to be refueled, line up in a straight line, and the pilots went to lunch in the mess hall. At 12:45 in the afternoon, just ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Danny lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Airfield.
When the Japanese were finished, there was not much left of the airfield. The soldiers watched as the dead, dying, and wounded were hauled to the hospital on bomb racks, trucks, and anything 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. They lived through two more attacks on December 10. On the night of December 12/13, the battalion was ordered to bivouac south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge. Attempting to move the battalion at night was a nightmare, and they finally arrived at their new bivouac at 6:00 A.M. on December 13.
The battalion received 15 Bren Gun carriers on the 15th, and gave some to the 26th Cavalry, Philippine Scouts. They used the carriers to test the ground to see if it was solid enough to support tanks. They next were ordered to support the 71st Division in the area of Rosario on the 22, but the division’s commanding officer ordered them out of the area since he believed they would interfere with operations.
On the night of December 22/23, the battalions were operating north of the Agno River when they found that the bridge they were supposed to use had been bombed. On December 23 and 24, the battalion was in the area of Urdaneta and found the bridge they were going used to cross the Agno River was destroyed. The tankers made an end run to get south of the river and ran into Japanese resistance early in the evening, but they successfully crossed at the river in the Bayambang Province.
Later on the 24, the battalions formed a defensive line along the southern bank of the Agno River with the tanks of the 192nd holding the Agno River from Carmen to Tayong, and the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. Lt. Costigan – on December 25 – told the tankers that they were behind enemy lines and would have to fight their way back to American lines. During the withdrawal, they lost two tanks.
At some point, Jim’s tank blew one cylinder in its engine. Somehow it continued to run. The tank and crew were sent to the rear echelon to get work done on the tank.
Recalling the event, Russell Swearingen said, “We were on the Agno River, north of Bataan when it happened. Shellfire was heavy and the top cylinder of one of the tank airplane engines was knocked off. The pieces laid scattered. But the tank continued to run. I know mechanics, but every mechanic knows that one cylinder out will completely stop the motor. The tank continued to run, though, and went several miles into the back lines before pulling to a halt. When shut off, the engine block froze immediately.”
The tanks were near Santo Tomas and Cabanatuan on the 28 and 29. The tank battalions next covered the withdrawal of the Philippine Army at the Pampanga River. The battalion’s tanks were on both sides of the on December 31 at the Calumpit Bridge.
On January 1, conflicting orders, about who was in command, were received by the defenders who were attempting to stop the Japanese advance down Route 5 and allowing 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 bridge over the Pampanga River about withdrawing from the bridge with half of the defenders withdrawing. 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 2 to 4, the 192nd held the road open from San Fernando to Dinalupihan so the southern forces could escape.
At 2:30 A.M., on January 6, the Japanese attacked at Remedios in force using smoke which was an attempt by the Japanese to destroy the tank battalions. That night the tanks withdrew into the peninsula with the 192nd holding its position so that the 194th Tank Battalion could leapfrog past it, cross the bridge, and then cover the 192nd’s withdrawal over the bridge. The 192nd was the last American unit to enter Bataan.
On the night of January 7, the tank battalions were covering the withdrawal of all troops around Hermosa. Around 6:00 A.M., before the bridge had been destroyed by the engineers, the 192nd crossed the bridge.
The next day, the battalion was between Culo and Hermosa and assigned a road to enter Bataan on which was worse than having no road. The half-tracks kept throwing their rubber tracks and members of 17th Ordnance assigned to each battalion had to re-track them in dangerous situations. After daylight, Japanese artillery fire was landing all around the tanks.
The next day, a composite tank company was formed under the command of Capt. Donald Hanes, B Co., 192nd. Its job was to protect the East Coast Road north of Hermosa open and to stop Japanese tanks attempting to use it to overrun the next defensive line that was forming. While in this position, the tanks were under constant enemy artillery fire. The rest of the tanks were ordered to bivouac south of the Abucay-Hacienda Road.
When word came that a bridge was going to be blown, all the tanks were ordered out of the area, which included the composite company. This could have resulted in a catastrophe, but the Japanese did not take advantage of the situation.
The tanks bivouacked south of the Pilar-Bagac Road and about two kilometers from the East Coast Road. It had almost been one month since the tank crews had a rest and the tanks had maintenance work done on them by 17th Ordnance. It was also on this day that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks per tank platoon. The men rested and the tanks received the required maintenance. Most of the tank tracks had worn down to bare metal and the radial engines long past their 400-hour overhauls.
It was at this time the tank battalions received these orders which came from Gen. Weaver: “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.”
The battalions were sent to cover the junctions of the Back Road and East Road with the Abucay-Hacienda Road on January 25. While holding the position, the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, fought its way to the position at 3:00 A.M. One platoon was sent to the front of the column of trucks which were loading the troops. The tanks provided heavy fire so that the infantry could withdraw and inflicted heavy losses on the Japanese.
Later on January 25, both the 192nd and 194th held a defensive line on the Bakanga-Cardre-BaniBani Roads until the withdraw was completed at midnight. They held the position until the night of January 26/27, when they dropped back to a new defensive line roughly along the Pilar-Bagac Roads. When ordered to withdraw to the new line, the 192nd found that the bridge at Balanga, that they were supposed to use had been destroyed by enemy fire. To withdraw, they had to use secondary roads to get around the barrio and tanks were still straggling in at noon.
The tank battalions, on January 28, were given the job of protecting the beaches, while the battalion’s half-tracks were used to patrol the roads. The Japanese later admitted that the tanks guarding the beaches prevented them from attempting landings.
The tank battalions, on their own, took up the job of protecting the airfields at Cabcaban, Bataan, and Mariveles, since Japanese paratroopers were known to be available. The tanks and half-tracks were well hidden in the jungle around the airfields and different plans were in place to be used against Japanese forces. There was only one major alert in March when 73 Japanese planes came over.
Jim spoke about how a tank was going down a trail when a Japanese soldier planted magnetic thermite on the tank deck along with the turret. The bomb burned through the steel deck and dropped into the ammunition tray. With shells exploding, the tank continued on its way for a short distance out of town and then stopped. The crew members piled out and no one was injured although the ammunition had completely exploded.
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.
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 about 6:30 P.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.”
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.
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 tankers received the order “crash” sometime between 6:30 and 6:45, in the morning, on April 9th, and destroyed anything that had military value for the Japanese. To destroy their tanks, they circled them, fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of each tank, opened the gasoline cocks in the crew compartments, and dropped hand grenades into them. Once this was done, they were ordered to Provisional Tank Group Headquarters and ordered to remain there.
The Japanese arrived on the morning of April 10 and ordered the Prisoners of War to the trail that ran near the headquarters. 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. The Prisoners of War were then left in the sun for the rest of the day. That night they were ordered north. The members of the 194th did receive orders to march until around 7:00 P.M. and were marched until 3:00 in the morning. At that time, the marchers were given a one hour break. At 4:00 A.M., they began to march again. They reached the barrio of Lamao at around 8:00 A.M. on the morning of April 11. There the POWs were allowed to try to find food, but little was found.
The POWs again were ordered to move at 9:00 A.M. and reached Limay at noon. It was at this time the Japanese put officers, with the rank of major and higher, in trucks and drove them to Balanga. These officers were then marched to Orani. For the lower-ranking officers and enlisted men, Limay was where they really started the death march. Up to this time, the guards, regular combat soldiers, had shown a great deal of respect for them. As they got further north, and the guards were changed, the treatment got worse.
They marched north through Orani and arrived there on the 12. There, at 6:30 P.M., the higher ranking officers rejoined the march. The men noticed they were being marched at a faster pace and that the guards seemed nervous.
The POWs made their way north to Hermosa, where the road went from gravel to pavement. The change in the surface made the march easier on the men. When they were allowed to sit, those who attempted to lay down were jabbed with bayonets.
They resumed the march and at some point, it began to rain. Many of the POWs attempted to get drinks from the rain. About 4:00 P.M., the POWs reached San Fernando and were herded into a bullpen. The ground was covered in human waste from previous POWs. They next made their way to the train station. At 4:00 in the morning, the Japanese woke the POWs and marched them to the train station and packed into boxcars that could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car and closed the doors. The POWs rode the train to Capas arriving there at 9:00 A.M. They disembarked from the cars and walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell.
Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army Base that the Japanese put into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. They believed the camp could hold 15,000 to 20,000 POWs. When the POWs arrived at the camp, 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 Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies to the camp and the Japanese confiscated them for their own use. 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 Japanese were so afraid of contracting an illness that they put a barbed wire fence up around the camp hospital. 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 medics 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 and stop the spread of disease, the POWs moved the bodies to one area, scraped the ground, put down lime to sterilize the ground, and moved the bodies back to the area. They then repeated the process where the bodies had been. 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 work 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.
Sometime in May or in early June, his wife received a message from the War Department on his status:
“Dear Mrs. E. McComas:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Sergeant James F. McComas, 20, 700, 201, 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, 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.
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 when Corregidor surrendered were taken. In addition, men from Bataan who had been hospitalized when the surrender came were sent to the camp. Camp 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 one was 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. The POWs on the farm detail would have to go to a shed each morning to get tools. As they left the shed, the Japanese guards thought it was great fun to hit them over their heads.
The detail was under the command of “Big Speedo” who spoke very little English. When he wanted the POWs to work faster, he told the POWs “speedo.” Although he was known to have a temper, the POWs thought he was fair. Another guard was “Little Speedo” who was smaller and also used “speedo” when he wanted the POWs to work faster. The POWs also felt he was pretty fair in his treatment of them.
“Smiley” was another guard who always had a smile on his face but could not be trusted. He was the meanest of the guards and beat men up for no reason. He liked to hit the POWs with the club. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Any prisoner who he believed was not working hard enough got knocked over with it. Each morning, after arriving at the farm, the POWs went into a tool shed to get their tools. As they left the shed, the guards hit them on their heads.
Other POWs worked in rice paddies. 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 to drive their faces deeper into the mud. 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.
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.
On July 1, 1942, Jim and other POWs were transferred from Cabanatuan to Davao. The POWs were boarded onto the Interisland Steamer and taken to the Island of Mindanao. James was part of a work detail of POWs building runways at a Japanese airfield near Lasang, Mindanao.
During July, his family received another message 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 James F. McComas 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 to go on a 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. 216 POWs lived in each barracks. 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, to the officers. The situation improved because the majority of POWs realized that discipline was needed to survive.
At first, the work details were not guarded at the farm. The POWs plowed, planted, and harvested the crops, while the sick POWs made baskets. In April 1943, the POWs working conditions varied with those working the rice fields receiving the worst treatment. They were beaten for not meeting quotas, there were misunderstandings between the POWs and guards because of a translator who could not be trusted to tell the truth.
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.
Many of the POWs became ill with what was called, “Rice Sickness.” Since they worked barefooted, this illness was caused by the POWs cutting their feet or legs 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.
During this time, the POWs worked on a rice farm where the prisoners were responsible for planting 1600 acres of rice. The POWs attempted to grow as little rice as possible and would drop the rice stalks in the mud and “unintentionally” step on them.
When harvesting the rice, the POWs would “miss” the collection baskets spilling the rice onto the ground. At the threshing machine, the POWs made sure that as much of the rice as possible was blown away with the chaff. They would also “forget” to push the rice carts into the warehouse when it rained which caused the rice to get moldy.
Although they did these things, most of the rice still made it to the warehouse. Once piled inside, the prisoners often poked holes into the roof directly above the rice. When it rained, the rice would get wet and moldy.
The one good thing that happened to the POWs on this detail was that they were given Red Cross packages. The medicine in the packages also helped to bring the number of cases of malaria and dysentery under control.
Some POWs were sent to a plantation and given the job of building a road. In the opinion of the POWs, they did more damage than good and intentionally kept the roads impassable. Other men worked in a quarry that contained a great deal of coral that cut their feet. What they dug out went to build the road. The Japanese decided that they were getting nowhere, so they sent the POWs to the ricefields to plant rice.
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.
At some point, in 1943, his parents received the news that Jim was a Prisoner of War.
201 Third Avenue
“The Provost Marshal General directs me to inform you that you may communicate with your son Sgt James F. McComas, postage free, by following the inclosed instructions:
“It is suggested that you address him as follows:
“Sgt. James F. McComas, 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”
During his time as a POW, his parents received five postcards from him.
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. From October 1, 1942, until March 1, 1944, rations were reduced often as a punishment.
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.
On June 6, 1944, about half 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 the 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.
Jim stated that he saw Americans, who had been picked up by the boats, have their hands tied behind their backs. The Japanese shot each man in the back of the head and threw the bodies into the water. In his own words, “These Japs took their guns into the lifeboats and cruised around taking potshots at our struggling men.”
Of the 750 POWs who were boarded onto the ship, 82 POWs escaped. Jim was one of these men. It took him and Joe Lamkin, also of A Company, four hours to reach shore because they spent most of the time dodging the Japanese. After reaching the shore they were rescued by Filipino Guerillas.
Cutter stated, “We walked all night and shortly after daybreak the next morning we saw a Filipino on horseback. He offered to take me to a hiding place as my foot was pretty sore, and said that he would send a runner for the other men to direct them to the hiding place. He said he already had ‘several of your friends.’
“Arriving at the hiding place the Filipinos said they would send for a doctor to treat the wounded. There were several of us. The doctor arrived days later and gangrene had started in some of our wounds.
“The doctor told us that he had walked for days to get us. He treated our wounds the best he could, but he didn’t have much in the way of medical supplies and had to go home and come back to treat us again.”
The Filipinos were so happy to help the Americans that word spread of their rescue. This caused concern among the Americans for their safety. This was even truer when a party was thrown in their honor.
The guerillas made arrangements for the former POWs to be evacuated by an American submarine.
Clem said of this: “When we had about given up hope, the sub appeared and the Filipinos took us out to the craft…several hundred yards offshore…in small native boats.”
Jim and the other POWs boarded the U.S.S. Narwhal on October 20. His family was notified that he had been returned to American Military control on October 26, 1944.
Clem said of boarding the submarine: “There were tears and some of the guys broke down and cried like babies and they were not a darn bit ashamed of it. They gave us sandwiches the first night and the bread tasted like cake. It was the first bread we had in three years. The next morning the 83 of us ate 18 pounds of butter, 36 pounds of sausage, 40 loaves of bread, and eight hotcakes each. The doctor put a stop to that.”
From the Philippines, Jim was taken to Brisbane, Australia, but it appears he did not remain there long. He was returned to the U.S. and hospitalized in San Francisco where he wrote to his parents. The letter – which they received on October 23rd – was the first word they received that he was free. On October 30, 1944, his parents learned he had escaped the Japanese in the official letter they received from Gen. Robert H. Dunlop. When they received it, he was convalescing in the 42nd General Hospital in San Francisco. From there, he was sent to Ft. McDowell, California.
Jim was sent to Ft. Snelling, Minnesota and on November 8, 1944, he was given a 30-day furlough home. During his time at home, he was under orders not to talk about his rescue. On November 17, his furlough was extended another 34 days. During this time he talked to the families of other members of the company. On February 6, he boarded a train for Hot Springs, Arkansas, and lived at The Arlington Hotel.
Jim was discharged, from the army, on July 18, 1945, and on July 20, he registered with Selective Service since had not done so before the war. His registration indicated that he was a discharged veteran. He returned to Brainerd, where he became a police officer, with the Brainerd Police Department, and rose to the rank of captain. He married Eunice Hillyer and became the father of one daughter.
When asked about being a POW in 1962, he said: “It just seems that it was impossible that it could have happened. I used to wake up screaming about the Japs, but I don’t do that anymore.”
Jim McComas died on September 13, 1971, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and was buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery in Section: L Site: 2266.