Pvt. Robert James Ryan the son of Michael & Marie Ryan was born on September 12, 1916, in Marshfield, Wisconsin. With his two sisters and brother, he grew up at 641 Ninth Street South in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. He was known as “Bob” to his family and friends and worked in a nursery.
Bob was inducted into the U.S. Army on April 7, 1941, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where he did his basic training. His basic training was finished in three weeks when he was assigned to the 192nd Tank Battalion’s medical detachment and started his medical training. His training as a medic was under the direction of the 192nd’s doctors since the Army believed that the best type of medical training was hands-on.
On June 14 and 16, the battalion was divided into four detachments composed of men from different companies. Available information shows that C and D Companies, part of Hq Company and part of the Medical Detachment left on June 14th, while A and B Companies, and the other halves of Hq Company and the Medical Detachment left the fort on June 16th. These were tactical maneuvers – under the command of the commanders of each of the letter companies. The three-day tactical road marches were to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, and back. The purpose of the maneuvers was to give the men practice at loading, unloading, and setting up administrative camps to prepare them for the Louisiana maneuvers.
Each tank company traveled with 20 tanks, 20 motorcycles, 7 armored scout cars, 5 jeeps, 12 peeps (later called jeeps), 20 large 2½ ton trucks (these carried the battalion’s garages for vehicle repair), 5, 1½ ton trucks (which included the companies’ kitchens), and 1 ambulance. The detachments traveled through Bardstown and Springfield before arriving at Harrodsburg at 2:30 P.M. where they set up their bivouac at the fairgrounds. The next morning, they moved to Herrington Lake east of Danville, where the men swam, boated and fished. The battalion returned to Ft. Knox through Lebanon, New Haven and Hodgenville, Kentucky. At Hodgenville, the men were allowed to visit the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln.
In the late summer of 1941, the 192nd was sent to Louisiana to take part in maneuvers. The medical detachment did not take part in the maneuvers, but they did treat members of the battalion for snake bites and other injuries. It was on the side of a hill that the battalion learned that they were being sent overseas.
In the late summer of 1941, the 192nd took part in maneuvers in Louisiana. During the maneuvers, the medical detachment took care of injuries and snake bites the members of the battalion suffered while taking part in the maneuvers. It was after the maneuvers that the battalion was informed they were being sent overseas.
The reason the battalion was being sent overseas was because of an event that happened during 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, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island. When the squadron landed he reported what he had seen. By the time a Navy ship was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
Traveling west over different train routes, the battalion arrived in San Francisco, California, where they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T General Frank M. Coxe, to Angel Island and given physicals and inoculations. The members of the medical detachment administered the physicals to the soldiers of the tank companies. Men with minor medical conditions were held on the island and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Hugh L. Scott and sailed on Monday, October 27. During this part of the trip, many tankers had seasickness, but once they recovered they spent much of the time training in breaking down machine guns, cleaning weapons, and doing KP. The ship arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Sunday, November 2 and had a two-day layover, so the soldiers were given shore leave so they could see the island.
On Wednesday, November 5, the ship sailed for Guam but took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. It was at this time it was joined by, the heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Louisville and, another transport, the S.S. President Calvin Coolidge. Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11th. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline. It was also at this time the convoy stopped at Wake Island so the B-17 ground crews could disembark.
On Saturday, November 15, smoke from an unknown ship was seen on the horizon. The Louisville revved up its engines, its bow came out of the water, and it shot off in the direction of the smoke. It turned out the smoke was from a ship that belonged to a friendly country, but two other ships intercepted by the Louisville were Japanese freighters that were hauling scrap metal to Japan.
When they arrived at Guam on Sunday, November 16, the ships took on water, bananas, coconuts, and vegetables before sailing for Manila the next day. At one point, the ships passed an island at night and did so in total blackout. This for many of the soldiers was a sign that they were being sent into harm’s way. The ships entered Manila Bay, at 8:00 A.M., on Thursday, November 20, and docked at Pier 7 later that morning. At 3:00 P.M., most of the soldiers were taken by bus to Ft. Stotsenburg. Those who drove trucks drove them to the fort, while the maintenance section remained behind at the pier to unload the tanks.
At the fort, they were greeted by Colonel Edward P. King, who apologized they had to live in tents along the main road between the fort and Clark Airfield. He made sure that they had what they needed and received Thanksgiving Dinner – a stew thrown into their mess kits – before he went to have his own dinner. Ironically, November 20 was the date that the National Guard members of the battalion had expected to be released from federal service.
The members of the battalion pitched the ragged World War I tents in an open field halfway between the Clark Field Administration Building and Fort Stotsenburg. They were set up in two rows and five men were assigned to each tent. There were two supply tents and meals were provided by food trucks stationed at the end of the rows of tents.
The area was near the end of a runway used by B-17s for takeoffs. The planes flew over the tents at about 100 feet blowing dirt everywhere and the noise from the engines was unbelievable. At night, they heard the sounds of planes flying over the airfield which turned out to be Japanese reconnaissance planes. In addition, the khaki uniforms they had been issued also turned out to be a heavy material which made them uncomfortable to wear in the tropical heat.
For the next seventeen days, the tankers spent much of their time removing cosmoline from their weapons which had the grease put on them to prevent them from rusting at sea. They also spent a large amount of time loading ammunition belts as they prepared to take part in maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion.
On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and received their meals from food trucks.
During the morning of December 8, there was talk of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The tankers were positioned around Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. The medics did not go but stayed in the bivouac during the attack on Clark Field. The tank companies of the battalion were sent north toward Lingayen Gulf. The medic detachment went with them. Bob and Pvt Robert Nank were cut off from the rest of the battalion when the area they were in was shelled by the Japanese. They made their way through the mountains and joined the guerrillas of Col. J. P. Horan. He spent four months with the guerrillas. During this time he was involved in ambushes of Japanese patrols.
The meals of the guerrillas consisted of rice and fish. In his own words: “However we managed to escape and join the guerrilla forces under Col. J. P. Horan. Three of us hit for the jungles. It took us four days to cross the mountains and we were feeding on whatever we could get, along with the help of some of the natives. We lived in the hills for several weeks and vain;y to reach our troops. In the meantime, we would strike the at the Jap patrols and withdraw.”
On April 9, 1942, Bataan was surrendered, but Bob and other guerrillas did not. On May 6, 1942, Corregidor surrendered and the guerrillas received orders from General Wainwright to surrender.
“When Bataan fell, the Japs came in after us and we kept dodging around from one place to another, eating mostly fish and rice. Finally, after the Nips forced General Wainwright to give in, we were ordered to surrender. It took us five days to come out of the jungles so as you can see we were pretty far in.”
At first, the Japanese treated the former guerrillas pretty well to get other guerrillas to surrender. When this did not work, the Japanese got rough on the former guerrillas.
“They began to cuff us around for no reason at all. and I’d like to bring that out of 1619 who started out as prisoners, only 230 survived. The rest died of starvation, thirst, mistreatment, lack of medical treatment, or were just plain murdered. When I look back on all this, I wonder if I actually lived through it, it was so unreal.”
It is known that Bob was held at some unknown location before he was sent to Cabanatuan. According to records from the camp, Bob was in Barracks #7, Group II. On January 20, 1943, he was admitted to the camp hospital, and when he was discharged on February 6, he was assigned to the camp hospital as a medic. On Wednesday, June 3, 1943, he was readmitted to the hospital.
Again no reason or date of discharge was given. Recalling Cabanatuan, he said: “The first camp we were taken to, the flies were so thick that the guards made us kill 500 before we were allowed to eat. On average, we never received more than a handful of rice to eat each day all the time I was a prisoner. When we were taken to Cabanatuan prison, the main camp, I began seeing my first atrocities. My first experience with the many men I was to watch die came when we were led to into Cabanatuan camp. They were burying some of the dead. They’d dig a big hole and just toss the bodies into it. It made my blood run cold. Little did I know that I was to witness many scenes much worse than this. I noticed the bodies they were burying were nothing but skin and bone and couldn’t weigh more than 70 pounds. Later I was to realize why they were in this condition. With sanitary conditions practically unknown and very little food, I’m surprised that as many of us survived that did. I didn’t see a piece of meat until December 1942, and it may sound impossible but I actually got 30 to 40 bites out of the meat they gave me which was about a half-inch square. Needless to say, many of us got sick, and the only difference with being taken to what they called a hospital was that you didn’t have to work.”
On October 23, 1943, he was transferred from the medical staff to Group II at the camp. Bob also recalled the first American planes the POWs saw in two years, “On September 21, 1944, we saw the first American planes, and although we were warned against demonstrations, we did let ourselves go some. We did get to see some dog fights and always the Americans were victors.”
Bob was held in the camp until October 14, 1944, when his name was on a list of POWs being transferred to Bilibid Prison. He was held at Bilibid until December 1944. On December 7th, the Japanese ordered the medics to perform physicals on POWs being sent to Japan or another occupied country.
On December 12, 1944, the POWs heard rumors that a detail was being sent out. The POWs went through what was a farce of an inspection. They were told cigarettes, soap, and salt would be issued. The POWs were also told that they would also receive a meal to eat and one to take with them. The Japanese stated they would leave by 7:00 in the morning, so the lights were left on all night. At 4:00 a.m. on the morning of December 13th, the other POWs were awakened.
By 8:00, the POWs were lined up and roll call was taken of the men who had been selected for transport to Japan. The prisoners were allowed to roam the compound until they were told to “fall-in.” At 11:30, the men were fed a meal and then formed detachments of 100 men. They were marched the two miles to Pier 7 in Manila. During the march down Luzon Boulevard, the POWs saw that the streetcars had stopped running and many things were in disrepair.
At the harbor, the POWs saw that American bombers were doing a job on the Japanese transports. There were at least forty wrecked ships in the bay. When the POWs reached Pier 7, it too showed damage from being bombed. Some men were amazed it was still being used. At the pier there were three ships docked, one was a run-down ship, the other two were large and in good shape. They soon discovered that one of the two nicer ships was theirs.
The POWs were allowed to sit down on the pier. Many fell asleep and slept to around 3:45. About 5:00 P.M., the POWs were boarded onto the Oryoku Maru for transport to Japan. It is not known in which hold Bob was held in, but the sides of the hold had two tiers of bunks that went around the diameter. The POWs near the hatch used anything they could find to fan the air to the POWs further away from it.
Bob recalled, “On December 13th they got us onto a ship. It was supposed to be one of their best, the Oryoku Maru. They loaded 1619 in three holds below deck. Inside five minutes men were suffocating and dying.”
The ship left Manila on December 14, at about 3:30 AM, as part of the MATA-37 a convoy bound for Takao, Formosa. By the swells in the water, the POWs could tell that the ship was in open water. The POWs received their first meal at dawn. Meals of the ship consisted of a little rice, fish, and water. Three-fourths of a cup of water was shared by twenty POWs. The prisoners had just eaten when they heard the sound of the ship’s anti-aircraft guns. At first, they thought the gun crews were just drilling since they had not heard any planes. It was only when the first bomb hit that they knew it was no drill. The waves caused by the explosions caused the ship to rock.
“When the American dive-bombers came over they blasted the ship killing over half the Japs on deck. They gave us no food or water and several men died the first night.”
The POWs heard the change in the sound of planes’ engines as they began their dive toward the ships in the convoy. Explosions were taking place all around the POWs. Bullets from the planes ricocheted into the hold causing many casualties. In all, the POWs would have to sweat out five air raids during this time. The one result of the raid was no evening meal. The POWs in the holds lived through seventeen attacks from American planes before sunset. Overall, six bombs hit the ship. One hit the stern of the ship killing many. The worse of these attacks came at 4:30 in the afternoon. The ship was hit by at least three bombs on its bridge and stern. Most of the POWs who were wounded were hit by ricocheting bullets or shrapnel from the explosions.
Bombs that exploded near the ship sent turrets of water over it. Bullets from the fighters hit the metal hull plates at an angle that prevented most from penetrating. Somewhere on the ship a fire had started but was put out after several hours. In the hold, the POWs crowded together. Chips of rust fell on them from the ceiling. After the raid, they took care of the wounded before the next attack started. A Catholic chaplain, Fr. William Duffy, began praying, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
As night fell, the attacks ended. The moaning and muttering of men who were losing their minds kept the POWs up all night. That night many POWs died in the holds. The ship steamed close to shore to find a suitable landing place.
Bob said, “The second night we were still were laying in Subic Bay as the ship was disabled. During the night about 40 more died. Everyone was half crazy with thirst and hunger Even though we knew we might be killed, we were glad our bombers were giving them hell.”
Sometime after midnight, the POWs heard a noise on deck as women and children were unloaded. During the night, the medics in the ship’s hold were ordered out by a Japanese officer to tend to the Japanese wounded. One of the medics recalled that the dead, dying and wounded were everywhere.
“The next night was dark and everyone was gasping for air, food, and water, and we began fighting among ourselves and doing things I cannot repeat. There was blood and a sickening stench all over. When the bombers came over again, one bomb hit the hold where many officers were confined. Half of them were killed and the other half was wounded. As the wounded didn’t receive treatment, they died before we reached Japan.”
The POWs were told, at 4:00 in the morning, that they would be disembarked after daybreak. It was on December 15. The POWs sat in the hold for hours after daybreak when the sound of planes was heard. They would live through several more attacks. When the U.S. Navy planes resumed their attack, the attacks came in waves. The POWs noted that attack was heavier than the attacks of the day before. The planes attacked in waves of 30 to 50 planes with the attacks lasting from twenty minutes to a half-hour. After an attack, there was a lull that lasted about 30 minutes before the next attack took place.
At 8:00 AM, a Japanese guard yelled to the POWs, “All go home; Speedo!” He also shouted that the wounded would be the first evacuated. As the POWs were abandoning ship, the planes returned. The pilots of the planes had no idea that the ship was carrying prisoners
When the attack resumed, the ship bounced in the water from the explosions. About a half-hour later, the ship’s stern started to really burn. The POWs made their way on deck and went over the side. As they swam to shore near Olongapo, Subic Bay, Luzon, which was about 300 to 400 yards away. Japanese soldiers fired on the POWs to keep them in the water so they would not escape. Bob recalled: “When we were told to come out of the holds and swim for shore, some of the guards fired into us with machine guns, killing and maiming many. Jap marines shot and killed any that looked like they were escaping or floating away.”
At the same time, American planes flew low over them. The POWs waved frantically at them so that they would not be strafed. One of the planes banked and flew even lower over the POWs. This time he dipped his wings to show that they knew that they were Americans.
When the POWs came ashore, they were herded onto a tennis court at the Olongapo Naval Station. While the POWs were there, a Japanese officer, Lt. Junsaburo Toshio, told the ranking American officer, Lt. Col. E. Carl Engelhart, that those too badly wounded to continue the trip would be returned to Bilibid. Fifteen men were selected and loaded onto a truck. They were taken into the mountains and never seen again. Later, it was learned that these POWs were shot and were buried at a cemetery nearby. The remainder of the POWs remained on the tennis courts for nine days. During that time, they were given water but not fed.
Bob recalled his time on the tennis court, “We were herded into the tennis court, the 1,250 of us who remained. There we sat for three more days with nothing to eat or drink. While we were there, we saw a man get his arm cut off because gangrene had set in. There were no medicines, Fortunately, the poor fellow died shortly after and saved himself a lot of suffering. On the fourth day, we got one sack of rice, about 100 pounds for 1,250 of us. We each got a level tablespoonful and chewed it raw. Meanwhile, we were eating leaves, grass, and weeds, and anything within our grasp.”
During the POWs’ time on the tennis courts, American planes attacked the area around them. The men watched as the fighter bombers came in vertically releasing bombs as they pulled out of their dives. On several occasions, the planes dove right at the POWs and dropped their bombs before pulling up. The bombs drifted over the POWs and landed away from them exploding on contact. While waiting on the court, several POWs died and were buried in a bomb crater on the beach near the tennis court.
Since the POWs had no place to hide, they watched and enjoyed the show. They believed that the pilots knew they were Americans but had no way of knowing if this was true. But what is known is that not one bomb was dropped on them even though they could be seen from the planes.
The evening of December 16, the Japanese brought 50-kilo bags of rice for the POWs. About half of the rice had fallen out of the bags because of the holes. Each POW was given three spoons of raw rice and a quarter of a spoon of salt. At about 8:00 AM on the morning of December 22, 22 trucks arrived at the tennis court. Rumors flew on where they were going to be taken. At about 4:00 PM, a Taiwanese guard told the POWs, in broken English, “No go Cabanatuan. Go Manila; maybe Bilibid.” The guard knew as little as the POWs.
Later that day, the POWs were taken by truck to San Fernando, Pampanga, arriving there about four or five in the afternoon. Once there, they were put in a movie theater. Since it was dark, the POWs viewed the theater as a dungeon.
During their time at San Fernando, Pampanga, the POWs lived through several air raids. The reason for the air raids was the barrio was military headquarters for the area. Most of the civilians had been moved out of the barrio. Many of the Americans began to believe they had been taken there so that they would be killed by their own countrymen.
On December 23, at about 10:00 PM, the Japanese interpreter came and spoke to the ranking American officer about moving the POWs. The Japanese loaded the seriously ill POWs into a truck. Those remaining behind believed they were taken to Bilibid. The remaining POWs were moved to a trade school building in the barrio.
After 10:00 AM on December 24, the POWs were taken to the train station. They saw that the station had been hit by bombings and that the cars they were to board had bullet holes in them from strafing. 180 to 200 men were packed into steel boxcars with four guards. The doors of the boxcars were kept closed and the heat in the cars was terrible. Ten to fifteen POWs rode on the roofs of the cars along with two guards. The guards told these POWs that it was okay to wave to the American planes.
On December 25, the POWs disembarked at San Fernando, La Union, at 2:00 AM. They walked two kilometers to a schoolyard on the southern outskirts of the barrio. From December 25 until the 26, the POWs were held in a schoolhouse. On the morning of December 26, the POWs were marched to a beach. During this time, the prisoners were allowed one handful of rice and a canteen of water. The heat from the sun was so bad that men drank seawater. Many of those men died.
The remaining prisoners were boarded onto another “Hell Ship” the Enoura Maru. On this ship, the POWs were held in three different holds. The ship had been used to haul cattle, so the POWs were held in the same stalls that the cattle had been held in. In the lower hold, the POWs were lined up in companies 108 men. Each man had four feet of space. Men who attempted to get fresh air by climbing the ladders were shot by the guards.
Bob recalled his time on the ship: “When no food was forthcoming, we stole bags of horse feed and ate that. Men were dying on an average of four to five a day on this ship. People would just wouldn’t believe some of the things that happened. The Japs piled the bodies of the dead on the deck like cordwood, as they were afraid to throw them overboard for fear of submarines detecting their course. When they assigned me to another hold, I took a chance and sneaked back to another that wasn’t as crowded. Good fortune was with me, apparently. Because when American bombers again attacked, the hold was hit by a bomb. However, I was wounded slightly by shrapnel from another one shortly after. gain, for days we were without food or water. The death rate increased rapidly. Only 900 of the group of 1,250 remained now. We counted 40 or 50 dying each day.”
The daily routine for the POWs was to have six men climb out of the hold. Once on deck, they used ropes to pull up the dead and also pull up the human waste in buckets. Afterward, the men on deck would lower ten buckets containing rice, soup, and tea. During the night of December 30, the POWs heard the sound of depth charges exploding in the water. The ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, on December 31st and docked around 11:30 AM. After arriving, each POW received a 6-inch long by 3/4 inch wide piece hardtack to eat. This was the first bread they had eaten since receiving crackers in their Red Cross packages in 1942. The POWs received little water during this time.
From January 1 through the 5, the POWs received one meal and day and with a little water. This resulted in the death rate among the POWs to rise. On January 6, the POWs began to receive two meals a day.
The Enoura Maru also came under attack by American planes on the morning of January 9. The POWs were receiving their first meal of the day when the sound of ship’s anti-aircraft guns was heard. At first, the POWs thought the gun crews were practicing. It was only when they heard the first bomb explode that they knew it wasn’t a drill. The explosions of bombs began falling closer and closer to the ship and the waves created by the explosions rocked the ship.
One bomb exploded outside the bow haul and another fell through the open hatch and exploded killing 285 prisoners. The surviving POWs remained in the hold for three days with the dead and stench from the dead filled the air. The POWs pilled the dead under the hatch so that the bodies were the first thing that the Japanese saw when they looked into the hold.
The Japanese organized a detail on January 11 to remove the remaining bodies and the bodies of those who had died since the ship was attacked. The bodies were loaded on a barge that had been brought aside the ship. The dead were stacked on it and taken to shore. Since the POWs were too weak to carry the corpses, ropes were tied to the legs and they were dragged to shore and buried in a mass grave, on a beach, at Takao. After the war, the remains were exhumed and buried in Hawaii.
On January 13, the surviving POWs were boarded onto a third “Hell Ship” the Brazil Maru. On the ship, the POWs found they had more room and were actually issued life-jackets. The ship sailed for Japan on January 14th as part of a convoy and arrived in Moji, Japan, on January 29, 1945. During this part of the trip, as many as 30 POWs died each day. The ship also towed one or two other ships which had been damaged. Of the original
While Bob was in Japan, his parents received a letter from him. It said: “Dear Mother and Dad – Am feeling fine. Hope you are in good health and Edward is fine. Tell Jimmie and Mary Ann and I hope to see them all and you soon. Really miss you all. Don’t worry. Write. Love to Ellen, Kathryn, Lala, you and all. Regards to friends. Robert”
In Japan, Bob was sent to Fukuoka #3. It is not known how long he was held there, but he was transferred to Fukuoka #22, which was located at Moji. This was done since he originally was scheduled to go to Manchuria.
Bob and the other survivors of the Oryoku Maru and Enoura Maru were boarded on a series of intercostal steamers. The final ship arrived at Pusan, Korea, on April 25. In Korea, he was held at Jinsen Camp. After the surrender, it was learned that the guards had received orders, four days after the surrender, to kill all the POWs.
Bob returned to the United States and was sent to Mayo Hospital in Galesburg, Illinois. He was discharged on May 30, 1946, and returned to Wisconsin Rapids. He was elected Wood County Recorder of Deeds six months after being discharged. Bob married Mary E. Ryan and spent the rest of his life in Wisconsin Rapids. He resigned as County Recorder of deeds in 1968.
Robert J. Ryan passed away on August 23, 1987, and was cremated. His ashes were interred at Forest Hill Cemetery in Wisconsin Rapids.