PFC Roy Marion Nordstrom was born in May 1909 in Fargo, North Dakota, to Arvid Nordstrom and Caroline Anderson-Nordstrom. He was one of six sons and a daughter born to the couple. The family moved to Minneapolis and resided at 4351 Knox Avenue in Minneapolis.
Roy completed two years of high school and left to work as a truck driver for a glass company. His family later resided at 317 South First Street in Brainerd, and it is known that, at some point, his mother and sister passed away. He worked as a truck driver for a department store. At some point, he joined the National Guard in Brainerd. It is known that he married and his wife’s name was Guinevere. She resided at 2609 Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
At Fort Snelling, Minnesota, on February 10, 1941, he was inducted into the U.S. Army and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, for basic training. He qualified as a machine gunner and half-track driver while at Ft. Lewis.
On August 15, 1941, the 194th received orders, from Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for duty in the Philippines. 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 – who was flying at a lower altitude – noticed something odd in the water. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island, hundreds of miles away, that had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plane and flew south to Mariveles and then returned to Clark Field. By the time the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
By the time another squadron was sent to the area the next day, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat that was seen making its way toward shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy were poor, the boat was not intercepted. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
In September 1941, the battalion, minus B Company, traveled by train to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California. From there, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, they were ferried to Fort McDowell on Angel Island and given physicals and inoculated. Men who had medical conditions were held back and replaced.
On September 8, they were boarded onto the U.S.S. President Calvin Coolidge and sailed at 9:00 P.M. the same night. The morning of Saturday, September 13, the ship arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii. The soldiers were allowed to go ashore but had to back on the ship before it 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 the U.S.S. Astoria , a heavy cruiser, and an unknown destroyer 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.
At the fort, the soldiers were greeted by General Edward King who apologized that they had to live in tents. He made sure that they were settled in his bivouac before he left. The soldiers spent the next few months taking part in maneuvers and maintaining their weapons.
On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard the field against Japanese paratroopers. At all times, to members of each tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicle and received their meals from food trucks. The morning of December 8, the battalion was ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. At around 2:00 AM, the news had been received of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just ten hours earlier.
The morning of December 8, 1941, ten hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the tanks of the Provisional Tank Group were ordered to the perimeter of the airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. Around 12:45 in the afternoon, the tankers watched as planes approached the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American. It was only when bombs began exploding on the runway did the tankers know the planes were Japanese. C Company was sent to southern Luzon where the Japanese were landing troops.
After the attack, the battalion was sent three kilometers north of Clark Field. From there, HQ Company, A Company, and D Company, 192nd, were sent to the Barrio of San Joaquin on the Manolos Road.
The companies were moved again on the 12th to the south of San Fernando near the Calumpit Bridge arriving there at 6:00 A.M. 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.
On December 22, the companies were operating north of the Agno River and after the main bridge was bombed, on December 24/25, 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 (northeast of San Quintin).
Later on the 24th, 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 Tayung, and the 194th holding the line on the Carmen-Alcala-Bautista Road. The tanks held the position until 5:30 in the morning on December 27th when they withdrew, following the Philippine Army, to the Tarlec-Cabanatuan Line and were near Santo Tomas and Cabanatuan on the 28th and 29th.
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 31st 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.
On January 5, C Company and A Company, 192nd, which was attached to the 194th, withdrew and formed a new defensive line between Sexmoan and Lubao. At 1:50 the night of the 5th/6th, the Japanese attempted to infiltrate the area but were easily spotted because of the bright moonlight and the tanks opened fire. In an attempted to cover their advance, the Japanese laid down a smokescreen which blew back into them. The Japanese broke off the attack at 3:00 A.M. having suffered 50 percent casualties. The tanks dropped back to Remedios and established a line along a dried creek.
The night of January 6/7, the 194th, covered by the 192nd, crossed the bridge over the Culis Creek and entered Bataan. This was the beginning of the Battle of Bataan. At this time, the food rations were cut in half.
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 8th 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 tank platoons were reduced to three tanks 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. Attempting to do this two tanks were knocked out by landmines planted by ordnance but 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.
On January 26, 1942, the battalion was on the Bani Bani Road providing security. Roy was assigned to a half-track as its machine gunner. As they watched the road to the north, a Japanese officer and non-commissioned man walked out onto the road. Roy opened up on them killing both. Immediately, from the west, the Japanese fired on the battalion. In return, the tankers returned fire.
In February, the tanks had the job of protecting beaches so that the Japanese could not land troops on them. At the same time, the tank battalions took it upon themselves to protect three airfields from Japanese paratroopers.
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.
The Japanese launched an all-out attack on April 3. 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, which was attached to the 192nd, had only seven tanks left.
The tanks became a favorite target of the Japanese receiving fire on trails and while hidden in the jungle. and could not fight back. The situation was so bad that other troops avoided being near the tanks, and the 26th Cavalry turned down a tank company’s offer of assistance in a counter-attack.
It was at this time that the 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.”
When it became apparent to Gen. Edward King that the situation was hopeless and he wanted to prevent a massacre since he only 25% of his troops were healthy enough to fight, while approximately 6,000 troops were hospitalized from wounds or disease. In addition, there were approximately 40,000 civilians. The night of April 8th, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms with the Japanese.
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.”
When Bataan was surrendered to the Japanese, Roy became a Prisoner 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 HQ personnel onto the road. They quickly stripped the POWs of their watches, pens, and sunglasses. They 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 if 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 Prisoners of War were then 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. Whenever they slipped, they knew they had stepped on the remains of a dead soldier.
The POWs made their way north against the flow of Japanese horse artillery and trucks that 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 then that the POWs saw a group of Filipinos being marched by the Japanese. 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 lieutenant colonel 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. They were taken to Balanga, disembarked, and ordered to put their field bags in front of them for inspection. During the inspection, one officer was found to have an automatic gun in his bag. As punishment, the POWs were not fed. They set in a paddy all day and were ordered to move near sunset as punishment for the gun being in the bag. They reached Orani on April 12 at three in the morning.
At Orani, the officers 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. It was a meal of rice and salt. Later in the day, other enlisted POWs arrived in Orani. One group was the enlisted members of the tank group who had walked the entire way to the barrio.
At 6:30 or 7:00 that evening, they resumed the march and were marched at a faster pace. The guards also seemed to be nervous about something. This time they made the POWs make their way to Hermosa. There, 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. At 4:30 PM on April 13, they arrived at San Fernando. The POWs put into a pen and remained there for the rest of the day.
At 4:00 in the morning, the Japanese woke the POWs and marched them to the train station. 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. The Japanese packed 100 men into each car and shut the doors. The heat in the cars was unbearable and many POWs died. They could not fall to the floors since there was no room for them to fall. The POWs rode the train to Capas arriving there at 9:00 AM. There, the living disembarked from the cars and the dead fell to the floors. The POWs walked the last eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell.
Camp O’Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army 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 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 Philippine Red Cross were confiscated by the Japanese for their own use.
The POWs called the hospital “Zero Ward” because most of the men who entered it never came out alive. The Japanese were so afraid of contracting an illness that they put a barbed wire fence up around it. The POWs in the hospital lay elbow to elbow on the floor and operations were performed with knives from mess kits. Only one medic, out of every six assigned to treat the sick, was healthy enough to perform his duties.
Each morning, the POWs walked around the camp and collected the bodies of the dead and placed them under the hospital building. To clean the ground, the POWs moved the bodies, scrapped the ground, put down lime to sterilize the ground, moved the bodies back, and 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 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.
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.
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. Those who did escape and were caught and tortured before being executed. It is known that no POW successfully escaped from the camp.
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 the word 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.
Medical records from the camp indicate that William was hospitalized on July 15, 1942. According to the records, he had “Ascaris lumbricoides” which meant that he had roundworms. This was a result of the unsanitary conditions in the camp. The records do not show when he was released from the hospital.
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. The death rate at the camp was still 9 POWs a day into November 1942, which dropped in December when the Japanese issued Red Cross Packages for Christmas. In addition, other changes were made that lowered the number of deaths.
It is known that Roy was held at Cabanatuan and went out on a work detail to San Fernando. The POWs on the detail collected scrap metal. They would tie disabled vehicles together with rope and to an operating car or truck. As the vehicles were pulled to San Fernando, a POW in each car would drive the car to San Fernando. As some point he became ill. According to records kept by the medical staff at Bilibid Prison, Roy was admitted to the hospital ward suffering from malaria on October 10, 1942. In mid-August 1943, his parents learned he was a POW when they received a POW postcard from him.
He was readmitted for optical neuritis brought on by beriberi and was discharged from the ward on June 15, 1944, and sent to Cabanatuan. In early October 1944, Roy’s name appeared on a list of POWs to be sent to Japan. He and the other POWs on the list were sent to the Port Area of Manila.
In early October 1944, 1775 POWs were marched to the Port Area of Manila. When his POW group arrived at the pier, the ship they were scheduled to sail on, the Hokusen Maru, was ready to sail, but some of the POWs in the detachment had not arrived at the pier. Another POW detachment, scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru, had completely arrived, but their ship was not ready to sail. It was at that time that the Japanese made the decision that they switch POW detachments so the Hokusen Maru could sail.
On October 10, the POWs boarded the Arisan Maru and 1775 prisoners were crammed into the first hold of the Arisan Maru which could hold 400 men. They were packed in so tightly that they could not move. Those POWs who had lain down in the wooden bunks along the haul could not sit up because the bunks were so close together. Eight large cans served as the latrines for the POWs.
Anton Cichy stated, “For the first few days there were 1800 of us together in one hold. I don’t know how big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down. We were just kind of stuck there.”
Calvin Graef said, “We were packed in so tight most men couldn’t get near the cans. And, of course, it was a physical impossibility for the sick in the back of the hold, the men suffering the tortures of diarrhea and dysentery. We waded in fecal matter. Most of the men went naked. The place was alive with lice, bedbugs, and roaches; the filth and stench were beyond description.”
On October 11, the ship set sail but took a southerly route away from Formosa. The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days. The Japanese covered the hatch with a tarp so, during the night, the POWs were in total darkness. Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died. Being in the cove resulted in the ship missing an air raid by American planes on Manila, but the ship was attacked once by American planes which were returning from an air raid on the airfield on Palawan.
Although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not turned off the power to the lights. Some of the prisoners were able to hot-wire the ship’s blowers into the light power lines. This allowed fresh air into the hold until the power was disconnected, two days later, when the Japanese discovered what had been done.
After this was done, the POWs began to develop heat blisters. The Japanese realized that if they did not do something many of the POWs would die. To prevent this, they opened the ship’s number two hold and transferred 600 POWs into it. At this point, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.
Of this time, Graef said, “As we moved through the tropical waters, the heat down in the steel-encased hell hole was maddening. We were allowed three ounces of water per man every 24 hours. Quarts were needed under these conditions, to keep a man from dehydrating. While men were dying of thirst, Jap guards–heaping insults on us–would empty five-gallon tins of freshwater into the hold. Men caught the water in pieces of clothing and sucked the cloth dry. Men licked their wet skins. It was hell all right. Men went mad.”
The Arisan Maru returned to Manila on October 20, where it joined a twelve ship convoy. On October 21, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea. The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs making them targets for American submarines. In addition, U.S. Military Intelligence was reading the Japanese messages as fast as the Japanese. To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine crews that ships were carrying POWs which made the ships targets for the submarines. The POWs in the hold became so desperate that they prayed for the ship to be hit by torpedoes.
Graef described the deaths of the POWs hold. “There were so many (that died) out 1800. The conditions in the hold…..men were just dying in a continuous stream. Men, holding their bellies in interlocked arms, stood up, screamed and died. You were being starved, men were dying at such a pace we had to pile them up. It was like you were choking to death. Burial consisted of two men throwing another overboard.”
Cichy said, “The Japs told us that they’d be in Formosa the next day to pick up some cargo. They had to make room on deck so they tossed a whole bunch of life preservers down into the hold. I held onto one but didn’t think anything about it.”
It was about 4:00 P.M. on October 24, and each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Ten POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs in the ship’s holds. The waves were high since the ship had been through a storm in the Bashi Channel of the South China Sea. Suddenly, bells and sirens sounded warning of submarines. The POWs in the holds chanted for the submarine to sink the ship.
At about 4:50 P.M., about half the POWs had been fed. As the POWs, on deck, watched, the Japanese ran to the bow of the ship and watched as a torpedo passed in front of it. Moments later, the Japanese ran to the ship’s stern and watched as a second torpedo passed behind the ship. There was a sudden jar and the ship stopped dead in the water. It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, in its third hold where there were no POWs.
At first, the POWs cheered wildly until they realized they were facing death. Cichy recalled, “When the torpedo hit everybody in the hold hollered ‘Hit her again!’ We wanted to get it over with.”
Lt. Robert S. Overbeck recalled, “When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn’t care a bit–they were tired and weak and sick.” He also said, “The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn’t break in two.”
Overbeck also commented on the reaction of the POWs in the holds. “For about five seconds there was panic among us, but there were five or six chaplains who prayed fervently and quieted the men. By then the Nips–300 of them on deck–were scurrying about, scared as hell. The boilers exploded. I don’t think any of us got hurt in the torpedoing or the explosion. Most of the prisoners were American, with a few British. The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned ship. The Japs took the two lifeboats aboard as all 300 abandoned ship. That was about 5:00 P.M.” It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the U.S.S. Snook or U.S.S. Shark.
The guards began to beat the POWs on deck with their guns to chase them back into the holds. Once they had, they put the hatch covers on the hatches, but because they had been ordered to abandon ship, never tied them down. Cichy said, “The Japs closed the hatched and left the ship in lifeboats. They must have forgot about the prisoners on deck who had been cooking. When the Japs were off the boat, the cooks opened the hatches and told us to come up. I was just under the deck, but there were a lot of the guys down below. One of them escaped by simply walking into the water from a hole in the bulkhead. He was Lt. Robert S. Overbeck, Baltimore.” Cichy added, “The Japs had already evacuated ship. They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their own.”
The POWs left the holds but made no attempt to abandon ship. On the ship’s deck an American major spoke to the POWs, he said, “Boys, we’re in a helluva a jam – but we’ve been in jams before. Remember just one thing: We’re American soldiers. Let’s play it that way to the very end of the script.” Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them, “Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men.”
Overbeck also stated, “We broke into the ship’s stores to get food, cigarettes, and water — mainly water, we were so thirsty. All of us figured we were going to die anyway. The Japs ships, except for the destroyers, had disappeared. All we had were life belts which the Japanese had fortunately thrown down the hold the day before.
“But as darkness settled and our hopes for life flickered, we felt absolutely no resentment for the Allied submarine that had sent the torpedo crashing in. We knew they could not tell who was aboard the freighter, and as far as the Navy could have known the ship could have been carrying Jap troops. The men were brave and none complained.
“Some slipped off their life preservers and with a cherry ‘so long’ disappeared.” The ship slowly sank lower in the water.
Cpl. Glenn Oliver recalled that he was on the port side and walked back to see the damage caused by the torpedo. The deck was peeled back and he could see water inside the hold washing back and forth. When a wave went under the ship the stern would wobble up and down and he heard the steel tearing. Shortly after this, the stern tore off and sunk; the rest of the ship began to take on water quickly. Many on deck tried to find something that floated while others sat calmly on the deck.
Graef said, “Men without any fear at all, just stayed where they were. They sat down, got water to drink, got rice to eat…they couldn’t swim. The majority went down with the ship.”
Oliver recalled, “I could see people still on the ship when it went down. I could see people against the skyline, just standing there.”
Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking. Some POWs attempted to escape by putting on lifebelts, clinging to hatch covers, rafts, and other flotsam and jetsam. When they reached other Japanese ships, the Japanese pushed them away with poles.
Glenn Oliver said, “They weren’t picking up Americans. A lot of the prisoners were swimming for the destroyer, but the Japanese were pushing them back into the water.”
In the water, the POWs attempted to survive, Oliver said. “I kept getting bumped by guys wearing life jackets. Nobody wanted to share my planks. I didn’t ask them.”
Three POWs found an abandoned lifeboat and managed to climb in but found it had no oars. With the rough seas, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs. According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru and sank sometime after dark on Tuesday, October 24, 1944. Oliver, who was not in the boat, stated he heard men using what he called “GI whistles” to contact each other. “They were blowing these GI whistles in the night. This weird moaning sound. I can’t describe it.”
The next morning there were just waves. Oliver and three other POWs were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and taken to Formosa. They later were sent by ship to Japan. The men in the boat picked up two more survivors and later made it to China and freedom. PFC Roy M. Nordstrom was not one of them.
PFC Roy M. Nordstrom lost his life in the sinking of the Arisan Maru and his name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila. His father received official word of his death on August 11, 1945, the same day one year earlier that his brother, S/Sgt. Eugene F. Nordstrom, a member of a bomber crew, had been reported Missing in Action.
On August 11, 1945, his family received this message:
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. Nordstrom:
“The International Red Cross has transmitted to this government an official list obtained from the Japanese government, after long delay, of American prisoners of war who were lost while being transported northward from the Philippine islands on a Japanese ship which was sunk on Oct. 24, 1944.
“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son was among those lost when the sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on records of the war department as killed in action Oct. 24, 1944. The evidence of his death was received June 16, 1945.
“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son, PFC Roy M. Nordstrom, 20, 700, 249, 194th Tank Battalion, was among those lost when that sinking occurred and, in the absence of any probability of survival, must be considered to have lost his life. He will be carried on the records of the War Department as Killed in Action 24 October 1944. The evidence of this death was received 16 June 1945, the date upon which his pay will terminate and accounts will be closed.
“The information available to the war department is that the vessel sailed from Manila on October 11, 1944, with 1775 prisoners of war aboard. On October 24 the vessel was sunk by submarine action in the south China Sea over 200 miles from the Chinese coast which was the nearest land. Five of the prisoners escaped in a small boat and reached the coast. Four others have been reported as picked up by the Japanese by whom all others aboard are reported lost. Absence of detailed information as to what happened to the other individual prisoners and known circumstances of the incident lead to a conclusion that all other prisoners listed by the Japanese as aboard the vessel perished.
“It is with deep regret that I must notify you of this unhappy culmination of the long period of anxiety and suffering you have experienced. You have my heartfelt sympathy.
“J. A. Ulio
“Maj. Gen., The Adjutant General of the Army”
His name appears on the Tablets of the Missing below his brother’s name.