T/5 James Harry Robertson was born on July 19, 1918, in Bolivar, Missouri. He was the younger of two sons born to William H. Robertson and Gertrude McCulland-Robertson and grew up in unincorporated Marion, Missouri.
When Selective Service Registration became law on October 16, 1940, he registered for the draft and named his father as his contact person. He also indicated he worked on his father’s farm. James was inducted into the U.S. Army and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, for basic training, and was assigned to the Hq Company, 194th Tank Battalion.
A typical day started at 6:00 A.M. with the first call followed at 6:30 with breakfast. During this time the soldiers made their cots, policed the grounds around the barracks, swept the floors of their barracks, and performed other duties. From 7:30 to 11:30 A.M., the men had drill followed by lunch. They again had drill from 1:00 P.M. until 4:30 P.M. Evening retreat was at 5:00 P.M. and dinner was at 5:30 P.M. After this, the men were off duty except for those assigned to the guard detail who worked two hours on and four hours off during the night.
A canteen was located near their barracks and was visited often. There was also a movie theater on the base that they visited. The theater where the tanks were kept was not finished, but when it was, the tankers only had to cross the road to their tanks.
Saturdays the men had off, and many rode a bus 15 miles northeast to Tacoma which was the largest town nearest to the base. They also went to see the Tacoma Narrow Bridge which had collapsed in 1940. On Sundays, many of the men went to church and services were held at different times for the different denominations.
One of the biggest problems for the tankers was that the regular Army seemed to have a problem with them since they were National Guardsmen. After arriving at the fort, they trained in whatever clothing they had. One day, while they were training three officers, on horseback, rode up and asked why they weren’t training in the proper uniforms. It was explained that what they were wearing was what they had. That afternoon, a truck loaded with army clothing showed up at the 194th’s barracks. As it turned out one of the officers was the chief of staff of the camp’s commander, the officer’s name was Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The battalion went on long reconnaissance with trucks and tanks and drove all over reservation following maps. They learned from observation what the land surrounding the fort looked like. The purpose of this training was to collect tank data which they would use later. They often had to live off the land during the training.
On April 30, 1941, the battalion went on an all-day march and ate dinner in woods brought to them by the cooks in the food trucks. The march was two hours one way and covered about 10 miles total. At one point the soldiers stopped in an abandoned apple orchard in bloom.
The battalion’s first motorcycles arrived in May 1941 and all battalion members had to learn to ride them. In early May 1941, the battalion – except men who had been drafted – went on its first overnight bivouac. The reason the new men did not go is that they did not have shelter halves. The battalion left around noon and returned around noon the next day.
Men assigned to jobs requiring special training were sent to Ft. Knox, Kentucky, for training as mechanics, tank mechanics, radiomen, and radio repair for six weeks. During March, Roy and other members of the battalion who were training as tank mechanics were sent to Ft. Knox to attend mechanics’ school. While he was there, someone in the barracks he was in had infantile paralysis and they ended up in quarantine. He did not return to Ft. Lewis until July. Those who remained at Ft. Lewis were given the job of policing the base collecting garbage and distributing coal.
Orders were issued, on August 15, 1941, for duty in the Philippines because of an event that happened during the summer. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island – hundreds of miles away – that had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. By the time the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next morning, another squadron, of planes, was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat that was seen making its way toward shore. Since communication between and Air Corps and Navy was 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 194th was sent to Ft. Mason in San Francisco, California, and ferried on the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. MacDowell on Angel Island where they received physicals and inoculations from the battalion’s medical detachment. Those men with medical conditions were replaced.
The tankers boarded the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge on September 8 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. The enlisted men also slept in the ship’s hold. They arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Saturday, September 13 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 the U.S.S. Astoria, a heavy cruiser, an unknown destroyer, and, the U.S.S. Guadalupe, a replenishment oiler. 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 ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16 and it became Thursday, September 18. They entered Manila Bay, on September 26, 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 took until the next morning.
The battalion rode buses to Fort Stotsenburg and was taken to an area between the fort and Clark Field, where they were housed in tents since General Edward P. King, commanding officer of the fort had learned of their arrival only days earlier. They remained in the tents until November 15th when they moved into their barracks.
The barracks’ outside walls were opened and screened from the floors to three feet up the wall. Above that, there was woven bamboo. This design allowed air to pass through the barracks. Sanitation facilities appeared to have been limited and a lucky man was one who was able to wash by a faucet with running water.
The tankers started working from 7:00 A.M. to 11:30 A.M. Lunch was from 11:30 A.M. to 1:30 P.M. when the soldiers returned to work until 2:30 P.M. The shorter afternoon work period was based on the belief that it was too hot to work. According to members of the battalion the term “recreation in the motor pool” meant they worked until 4:30 in the afternoon.
For recreation, the soldiers spent their free time bowling or going to the movies on the base. They also played horseshoes, softball, badminton, or threw footballs around during their free time. On Wednesday afternoons, they went swimming.
Off the base, the soldiers went to Mt. Aarayat National Park and swam in the swimming pool there that was filled with mountain water. Men were given the opportunity to be 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
At Ft. Stotsenburg, the soldiers were expected to wear their dress uniforms. Since working on the tanks was a dirty job, the battalion members wore coveralls to do the work on the tanks. When they were discovered working in their coveralls by the base’s officers, the soldiers were reprimanded for not wearing dress uniforms while working. The decision was made by Major Ernest Miller to continue wearing coveralls in their barracks area to do their work but if the soldiers left the battalion’s area, they were expected to wear dress uniforms, including going to the PX.
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.
The tankers lived in tents at the fort until their barracks were finished on November 15. During the first week of December 1941, the tank battalions were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against enemy paratroopers. Two tank crew members remained with the tank at all times and received their meals from food trucks.
On the morning of December 8, 1941, the tankers heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just hours earlier. As they sat their tanks, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed, to be refueled, and were lined up in a straight line outside the mess hall. The pilots went to lunch.
The tankers were having lunch, which meant a tank crew member went to the food truck and got food for the other members of the crew. As they sat in their tanks, they watched two formations, of 27 planes each, approaching the airfield from the north. At first, they believed the planes were American, it was only when bombs began exploding on the runways that they knew the planes were Japanese.
During the attack, the members of Hq Company took cover in ditches since they had few weapons that could be used against planes. The attack lasted for about 45 minutes. 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.
The battalion was sent to the barrio of San Joaquin on the Malolos Road and moved to an area just south of San Joaquin near the Calumpit Bridge on December 12. It would receive 15 Bren Gun carriers that were used to test the ground to see if it could support the weight of a tank. The battalion moved again to west and north of Rosario and was operating north of the Agno River on the night of December 22/23.
The tank battalions formed the Santa Ignacia-Gerona-Santo Tomas defensive line the night of December 26/27. They were holding a new line at the Bamban River the night of December 29/30 and were at the Calumpit Bridge the next night.
On January 5, they were at Lyac Junction and dropped back to Remedios were a new defensive line was formed.
The night of January 6/7, the 194th withdrew over a bridge on the Culis Creek covered by the 192nd Tank Battalion and entered Bataan. The 192nd crossed the bridge before it was destroyed and entered Bataan.
The tank battalions were covering the East Coast Road on January 8. It was at this time that the tank platoons were reduced to three tanks each and HQ Company with the 17th Ordnance Company were able to do long overdue maintenance on the tanks.
The tanks continued to cover withdraws for the rest of January and February. In March, HQ Company was recovering two tanks that had been bogged down in the mud when the Japanese entered the area. Lt. Col. Miller ordered the tanks to fire at point-blank range and ran from tank to tank directing the fire.
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. C Company was attached to the 192nd and the company had only seven tanks left.
A counter-attack was launched – on April 6 – by the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts which was supported by tanks. Its objective was to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. Other tanks of C Company tanks were supporting the 2nd Battalion, 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, which was moving east on Trail 8 toward Limay. It was about 5:00 A.M. at the junction of Trails 8 and Trail 6 when the battalion was ambushed by a large number of Japanese. The 1st Platoon of Company C was acting as part of the point when the lead tank was knocked out by anti-tank fire and the following tank was forced off the trail.
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 6:00 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.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. A truck driver for A Company, 192nd, realized that he had bedding buried in the back of his truck and searched for it. The bedding became the “white flags” that were flown on the jeeps. At 11:40 P.M., the ammunition dumps were destroyed.
At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The driver was from the tank group.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. At 6:45 A.M., the order “CRASH” was sent out and the tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps and the jeeps were provided by the tank group and both men managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would no attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do.
After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col Collier and Maj Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit inline with the Japanese advance should fly white flags.
Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived. King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
Sometime between 6:30 A.M. and 6:45 A.M., the tankers received the order “crash” and disabled their tanks so that they could not be used by the Japanese. The company received orders from the Japanese and remained in its bivouac until April 10 when the Japanese arrived and ordered HQ Company to move to the headquarters of the Provisional Tank Group, which was at kilometer marker 168.2. They remained there until 7:00 P.M. on the 10th when the POWs were ordered to march. They made their way from the former command post, and at first, found the walk difficult. When they reached the main road, walking became easier. At 3:00 A.M., they were given an hour break before being ordered to move again at 4:00 A.M. The column reached Lamao at 8:00 A.M., where the POWs were allowed to forage for food before marching again at 9:00.
When the POWs reached Limay, officers with ranks of major or higher were separated from the enlisted men and the lower-ranking officers. The higher-ranking officers were put on trucks and driven to Balanga from where they march north to Orani. The lower-ranking officers and enlisted men reached the barrio later in the day having marched through Abucay and Samal.
At 6:30 in the evening, the POWs were ordered to form detachments of 100 men. Once this was done, they resumed the trip north, but this time they were marched at a faster pace and were given very few breaks. When they did receive a break, they had to sit in the road until they were ordered to move.
When they were north of Hermosa, the POWs reached pavement which made the march easier. At 2:00 A.M., they received an hour break, but any POW who attempted to lay down was jabbed with a bayonet. After the break, they were marched through Layac and Lubao. It was at this time that a heavy shower took place and many of the men opened their mouths in an attempt to get water.
The men were marched until 4:00 P.M. when they reached San Fernando. Once there, they were herded into a bullpen, surrounded by barbwire, and put into groups of 200 men. One POW from each group went to the cooking area which was next to the latrine and received a box of rice that was divided among the men. Water was given out in a similar manner with each group receiving a pottery jar of water to share.
At 4:00 A.M., the Japanese woke the men up and organized them into detachments of 100 men. From the compound, they were marched to the train station, where they were packed into small wooden boxcars known as “forty or eights.” Each boxcar could hold forty men or eight horses, but the Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. The POWs were packed in so tightly that the dead could not fall to the floor. At Capas, as the living left the cars and those who had died – during the trip – fell to the floors of the cars. As they left the cars, the Filipino civilians threw sugarcane and gave the POWs water.
The POWs marched eight kilometers to Camp O’Donnell. The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base. The Japanese pressed the camp into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When they arrived at the camp, the Japanese confiscated any extra clothing that the POWs had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter.
The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies the camp the Japanese took 95% of the supplies for their own use.
The POWs in the camp hospital lay on the floor elbow to elbow and only one of the six medic assigned to care for 50 sick POWs was healthy enough to care for them. When a representative of the Philippine Red Cross stated they could supply a 150-bed hospital for the camp, he was slapped in the face by a Japanese lieutenant.
Each morning, the bodies of the dead were found all over the camp and were carried to the hospital and placed underneath it. The bodies lay there for two or three days before they were buried in the camp cemetery by other POWs who were suffering from dysentery and/or malaria. To clean the ground under the hospital, the ground was scraped and lime was spread over it. The bodies of the dead were placed in the area, and the area they had been laying was scrapped and lime was spread over it.
Work details were sent out on a daily basis. Each day, the American doctors gave a list of names to the Japanese of the POWs who were healthier enough to work. If the quota of POWs needed to work could not be met, the Japanese put those POWs who were sick but could walk, to work. The death rate among the POWs reached 50 men dying a day.
To get out of Camp O’Donnell, he volunteered to go out on a work detail and was selected for the Bachrach Garage Detail which was part of the Caloocan Work Detail. The POWs on this detail were held at the Bachrach Motor Garage on an island off Manila. 150 other POWs on the Caloocan Detail collected disabled vehicles at different places on Luzon. The POWs attempted to get the vehicles running but those that did not run were tied together with rope and to an operating vehicle. A POW sat in each vehicle as they were pulled by the operating vehicle to Caloocan or San Fernando. At either barrio, POWs attempted to get the vehicles running and those scavenged cars or trucks that they got running were sent to the Bachrach Garage for further repairs. Captured tanks that the Japanese believed could be repaired were also sent there. The vehicles that could not be fixed were stripped of usable parts and sent to Japan as scrap. The Caloocan Detail was down to 50 POWs in 1943 since most of the disabled vehicles had been savaged and ended at that time, except for the POWs working at the garage who remained there to repair vehicles for the Japanese.
In early October the detail was ended, and the POWs on October 10, were marched to Pier 7. The detachment was scheduled to sail on the Hokusen Maru which was ready to sail, but the entire detachment assigned to sail on the ship had not arrived. Another POW detachment, which was scheduled to sail on the Arisan Maru had arrived, but the ship was not ready to sail. So the Hokusen Maru could sail, the Japanese switched POW detachments.
On October 11, almost 1775 POWs were packed into the ship’s number one hold. Along the sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks, but the bunks were so close together that a man could not lift himself up when he used one. Those standing had no room to lie down. The latrines for the prisoners were eight five-gallon cans, which the POWs could not use since they were packed in the hold so tightly. This resulted in the floor of the hold being covered with human waste.
Anton Cichy said, “For the first few days, there were 1,800 of us together in one hold. I don’t know how big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down. We were just kind of stuck together.”
Calvin Graef said about the conditions in the hold, “We were packed in so tight most men couldn’t get near the cans. And, of course, it was a physical impossibility for the sick in the back of the hold, the men suffering the tortures of diarrhea and dysentery. We waded in fecal matter. Most of the men went naked. The place was alive with lice, bedbugs, and roaches; the filth and stench were beyond description.”
The ship sailed, but took a southerly route away from Taiwan and dropped anchor in a cove off Palawan Island. During the first 48 hours off Palawan, five POWs died. The POWs realized that the Japanese had removed the light bulbs from the lighting system, but that they had not turned off the power. They figured out a way to hook the ventilation system into the lights and had fresh air for two days. When the Japanese discovered what had been done, they turned off the power.
The POWs began developing heat blisters, and the Japanese conceded that more POWs would die unless they did something. The Japanese transferred POWs from the first hold to its second hold. This hold was partially filled with coal. During the transfer, one POW attempted to escape and was shot.
Of this time, Graef said, “As we moved through the tropical waters, the heat down in the steel-encased hell hole was maddening. We were allowed three ounces of water per man every 24 hours. Quarts were needed under these conditions, to keep a man from dehydrating. While men were dying of thirst, Jap guards–heaping insults on us–would empty five-gallon tins of freshwater into the hold. Men caught the water in pieces of clothing and sucked the cloth dry. Men licked their wet skins. It was hell all right. Men went mad.”
On October 20, the Arisan Maru returned to Manila, where, it joined a twelve ship convoy bound for Taiwan. The convoy sailed on October 21 after all the ships had been loaded. The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs. This made the ships targets for submarines. In addition, U.S. Military Intelligence was reading the Japanese code as fast as the Japanese. To protect this secret, they did not tell the submarine crews which ships were carrying POWs.
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 some of the POWs were on deck preparing dinner for the POWs in the ship’s holds and had fed about half the POWs. 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.
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.”
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. 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 took their rifles and used them as clubs to drive the POWs on deck into the holds. Once in the holds, the Japanese cut the rope ladders into the holds and put the hatch covers over the holds, but they did not tie the hatch covers down.
Cichy recalled, “The Japs closed the hatches and left the ship in lifeboats. They must have forgotten about the prisoners on deck who had been cooking. When the Japs were off the boat, the cooks opened the hatches and told us to come up. I was just under the deck, but there were a lot of guys down below. One of them escaped by simply walking into the water from a hole in the bulkhead. He was Lt. Robert S. Overbeck, Baltimore.”
Cichy also stated, “The Japs had already evacuated ship. They had a destroyer off the side, and they were saving their own.”
POWs in the first hold managed to make their way onto the deck and reattached the rope ladders and dropped them into the holds. The surviving POWs made their way onto the deck. On the ship’s deck an American major spoke to the POWs, he said, “Boys, we’re in a helluva a jam – but we’ve been in jams before. Remember just one thing: We’re American soldiers. Let’s play it that way to the very end of the script.” Right after he spoke, a chaplain said to them, “Oh Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men.”
Overbeck 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 into 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.”
Of being in the water, he 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. T/5 James H. Robertson was not one of them.
Only eight of these POWs would survive the war. In 1945, his family received this message:
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. Robertson:
“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, T/5 James H. Robertson,
37, 006, 096, 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”
T/5 James H. Robertson was not one of them. His name appears on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery at Manila.