T/5 James Henry Robertson was born in 1918 in Polk County, Missouri. He was the younger of two sons born to William H. Robertson & Gertrude McCulland-Robertson. He grew up in unincorporated Marion, Missouri.
James was inducted into the U.S. Army and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, for basic training. After basic training, he was assigned to the HQ Company, 194th Tank Battalion.
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 reason for this move was an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a buoy in the water. 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, with a large radio transmitter, hundreds of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plane and flew south to Mariveles and then returned to Clark Field. 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.
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, and an unknown destroyer. 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.
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. 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.
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 4th, the Japanese launched an all-out offensive at 3:00 P.M. and the tanks were sent to various sectors in an attempt to stop the advance. The tank battalion commanders received this order on April 8: “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 8, he sent his staff officers to negotiate surrender terms with the Japanese.
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 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. The Japanese finally acknowledge that they had to do something, so the opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan.
On June 1, 1942, the POWs formed detachments of 100 men each and were marched to Capas. There, they were put in steel boxcars with two Japanese guards. At Calumpit, the train was switched onto another line which took it to Cabanatuan. The POWs disembarked and were taken to a schoolyard where they were fed cooked rice and onion soup. From there, they were marched to Cabanatuan which had been the headquarters of the 91st Philippine Army Division and was formerly known at Camp Pangatian.
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.
At some point, James was sent out on a work detail to Manila that repaired trucks and other equipment for the Japanese. The detail was known as the Bachrach Garage Detail which was the name of a cab company in Manila, and he remained on this detail until October 1944.
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.