Pvt. Robert James Ryan the son of Michael and 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. He registered for the draft on October 16, 1940, and named his mother as his contact person. He indicated on his registration that he had been temporary laid off from his job at Prentiss Wabers Stove Company in Wisconsin Rapids. 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 14, while A and B Companies, and the other half of HQ Company and the Medical Detachment left the fort on June 16. 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.
After training at Ft. Knox, Marvin went with the battalion on maneuvers in Louisiana. The entire battalion rode trucks to Louisiana while the tanks and other wheeled vehicles were loaded onto trains. During the maneuvers, the medical detachment treated, injuries, snakebites, and other ailments. During the maneuvers that tanks held defensive positions and usually were held in reserve by the higher headquarters. For the first time, the tanks were used to counter-attack and in support of infantry. Many of the men felt that the tanks were finally being used like they should be used and not as “mobile pillboxes.”
One of the major problems was snake bites. It appeared that every other man was bitten at some point by a snake. The platoon commanders carried a snakebit kit that was used to create a vacuum to suck the poison out of the bite. The bites were the result of the nights cooling down and snakes crawling under the soldiers’ bedrolls for warmth while the soldiers were sleeping on them. There was one multicolored snake – about eight inches long – that was beautiful to look at, but if it bit a man he was dead. The good thing was that these snakes would not just strike at the man but only struck if the man forced himself on it. When the soldiers woke up in the morning they would carefully pick up their bedrolls to see if there were any snakes under them. To avoid being bitten, men slept on the two and a half-ton trucks or on or in the tanks. Another trick the soldiers learned was to dig a small trench around their tents and lay rope in the trench. The burs on the rope kept the snakes from entering the tents. The snakes were not a problem if the night was warm. They also had a problem with the wild hogs in the area. In the middle of the night while the men were sleeping in their tents they would suddenly hear hogs squealing. The hogs would run into the tents pushing on them until they took them down and dragged them away.
The food was also not very good since the air was always damp which made it hard to get a fire started. Many of their meals were C ration meals of beans or chili that they choked down. Washing clothes was done when the men had a chance. They did this by finding a creek, looking for alligators, and if there were none, taking a bar of soap and scrubbing whatever they were washing. Clothes were usually washed once a week or once every two weeks.
The maneuvers were described by some men as being awakened at 4:30 A.M. and sent to an area to engage an imaginary enemy. After engaging the enemy, the tanks withdrew to another area. The crews had no idea what they were doing most of the time because they were never told anything by the higher-ups. Some felt that they just rode around in their tanks a lot. The medics assigned to the tank companies traveled with the companies in the half-tracks.
During their training at Ft. Knox, the tankers were taught that they should never attack an anti-tank gun head-on. One day during the maneuvers, their commanding general threw away the entire battalion doing just that. After sitting out a period of time, the battalion resumed the maneuvers. At some point, the battalion also went from fighting in the Red Army to fighting for the Blue Army.
The major problem for the tanks was the sandy soil. On several occasions, tanks were parked and the crews walked away from them. When they returned, the tanks had sunk into the sandy soil up to their hauls. To get them out, other tanks were brought in and attempted to pull them out. If that didn’t work, the tankers brought in a tank wrecker from Camp Polk to pull the tank out.
The one good thing that came out of the maneuvers was that the tank crews learned how to move at night. At Ft. Knox this was never done. Without knowing it, the night movements were preparing them for what they would do in the Philippines since most of the battalion’s movements there were made at night. The drivers learned how to drive at night and to take instructions from their tank commanders who had a better view from the turret. A number of motorcycle riders from other tank units were killed because they were riding their bikes without headlights on which meant they could not see obstacles in front of their bikes. When they hit something they fell to the ground and the tanks following them went over them. This happened several times before the motorcycle riders were ordered to turn on their headlights.
It was after the maneuvers that the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk instead of returning to Ft. Knox as had been expected. On the side of a hill, the soldiers learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Within hours most had believed that PLUM stood for Philippines, Luzon, Manila. There is no evidence the word meant this. Those men 29 years old or older were given the opportunity to resign from federal service. Replacements came from the 753rd Tank Battalion who volunteered or had their names pulled from a hat.
There are at least two stories on the decision to send the battalion overseas, but the decision appeared to have been made well before the maneuvers. According to one story, the decision for this move was the result of an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf, in the Philippines, when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude, 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 Taiwan which had a large radio transmitter. The squadron continued its flight plan south to Mariveles and returned to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day. The next day, when another squadron was sent to the area, the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat – with a tarp on its deck – which was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was difficult, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
Many of the men believed that the reason they were selected to be sent overseas was that they had performed well on the maneuvers. The story was that they were personally selected by Gen. George Patton – who had commanded the tanks of the Blue Army – to go overseas. There is no evidence that this was true.
The reality was that the battalion was part of the First Tank Group which was headquartered at Ft. Knox and operational by June 1941. Besides the 192nd, the group was made up of the 70th and 191st Tank Battalions – the 191st had been a medium National Guard tank battalion, but the 70th was Regular Army – at Ft. Meade, Maryland. The tank group also contained the 193rd Tank Battalion at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and the 194th Tank Battalion at Ft. Lewis, Washington. The 192nd, 193rd, and 194th had been National Guard light tank battalions. It is known that the military presence in the Philippines was being built up at the time, so in all likelihood, the entire tank group had been scheduled to be sent to the Philippines well before June 1941.
On August 13, 1941, Congress voted to extend federalized National Guard units’ time in the regular Army by 18 months. On August 15, the 194th received its orders to go overseas. The buoys being spotted by the pilot may have sped up the transfer of the tank battalions to the Philippines with only the 192nd and 194th reaching the islands, but it was not the reason for the battalions going to the Philippines. It is also known that the 193rd Tank Battalion was on its way to Hawaii – during its trip to the Philippines – when Pearl Harbor was attacked. When it arrived at Hawaii the battalion was held there. The 70th and 191st never received orders for the Philippines because the war with Japan had started.
Many of the members of the battalion were given furloughs home from October 6 to 14 to say goodbye to family and friends, but they had to be back at Camp Polk by the morning of October 14. While at home, they found themselves being repeatedly asked where they believed they were being sent. A number of local newspapers stated that their destination was the Philippines. A large number of the battalion’s new tanks came from the 753rd Tank Battalion and the 3rd Armor Division, while a detachment of men from the battalion acquired other tanks using written orders from the War Department that gave them the authority to take the tanks from other units. In some cases, the tanks had just arrived on flat cars and were about to be unloaded from the flat cars when they presented the paperwork taking the tank from the unit.
At 8:30 A.M. on October 20, over different train routes, the companies were sent to San Francisco, California. Most of the soldiers of each company rode on one train that was followed by a second train that carried the company’s tanks. At the end of the second train was a boxcar followed by a passenger car that carried soldiers. The company took the southern route along the Gulf Coast through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. At Yuma, Arizona the train stopped and the Native Americans entered the train cars and sold beads to the soldiers. The soldiers knocked each other over attempting to buy the beads. After the train pulled out of the station, someone noticed that the genuine Native American beads were made in Japan. When they arrived in San Francisco, they were ferried, by the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe, to Ft. McDowell on Angel Island. When they got near Alcatraz, a soldier on the boat said to them, “I’d rather be here than go where you all are going.” Cecil believed he and the other men stayed on Angel Island for two days. On the island, they were given physicals by the battalion’s medical detachment. Men found to have minor health issues were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced. The soldiers spent their time putting cosmoline on anything that they thought would rust.
The 192nd was boarded onto the U.S.A.T. Gen. 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.
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. One thing that was different about their arrival was that instead of a band and a welcoming committee waiting at the pier to tell them to enjoy their stay in the Philippines and see as much of the island as they could, a party came aboard the ship – carrying guns – and told the soldiers, “Draw your firearms immediately; we’re under alert. We expect a war with Japan at any moment. Your destination is Fort Stotsenburg, Clark Field.” At 3:00 P.M., as they left the ship, a Marine was checking off their names. When someone said his name, the Marine responded with, “Hello sucker.” 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 Gen. 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 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 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.
Before the battalion had been sent overseas, it was issued a great deal of radio equipment. This was done because part of its job in the Philippines was to set up a radio school to train radio operators for the Philippine Army. Shortly after arriving at Ft. Stotsenburg, the battalion set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours since the battalion had a large number of ham radio operators. Men were able to send messages home to their families that they had arrived safely. The communications monitoring station in Manila went crazy attempting to figure out where all these new radio messages were coming from. When they were informed it was the 192nd, they gave the battalion frequencies to use.
The day started at 5:15 with reveille and anyone who washed near a faucet with running water was considered lucky. At 6:00 A.M. they ate breakfast followed by work – on their on the tanks and other equipment – 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 in the climate. The term “recreation in the motor pool” meant they actually worked until 4:30 in the afternoon. The medics again received training from the battalion’s doctors
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. The 192nd followed the example of the 194th Tank Battalion and wore coveralls in their barracks area to do work on their tanks, but if the soldiers left the battalion’s area, they wore dress uniforms everywhere; including going to the PX. 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. Men were given the opportunity to be allowed to go to Manila in small groups.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the reconnaissance pilots reported that Japanese transports were milling around in a large circle in the South China Sea. On December 1, the tankers were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. From this time on, two tank crew members remained with each tank at all times and were fed from food trucks. It was the men manning the radios in the 192nd’s communications tent who were the first to learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 8. Major Ted Wickord, the battalion’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, and Major Ernest Miller, the CO of the 194th Tank Battalion, read the messages of the attack. The officers of the 192nd were called to the tent and informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to the south end of Clark Field to guard against Japanese paratroopers. The medical detachment remained behind in their bivouac.
All morning long on December 8, the sky was filled with American planes. At noon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. The planes were parked in a straight line outside the pilots’ mess hall. At 12:45, two formations, totaling 54 planes, approached the airfield from the north. When bombs began exploding on the runways, the tankers knew that planes were Japanese. One bomb hit the mess hall where the pilots were eating. Being that their tanks could not fight planes, they watched as the Japanese destroyed the Army Air Corps. 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. Capt. Alvin Poweleit and an unknown number of medics drove to the airfield to see if they could aid the wounded and dying. When they got there, the hangers and barracks were destroyed, and that the B-17s also were totally wrecked. As they were doing this, Japanese fighters began strafing the airfield. To avoid being hit, they hid in a bomb crater. After the planes were gone, the medics treated Filipino Lavenderos (women who did laundry) and a number of houseboys. They also treated officers and enlisted men. They also saw the dead, men with half their heads torn off, men with their intestines lying on the ground, and men with their backs blown out.
The battalion remained at the fort for the next few weeks. They lived through several more attacks including attacks on December 10 and 12. The second bombing destroyed the battalion’s barracks that were still being built by the Filipino contractor. During this time, the medical detachment treated soldiers suffering from gonorrhea and syphilis. They also checked to make sure that the medics assigned to each tank company had what they needed. On the 20th, the soldiers had the chance to send telegrams home.
On December 21, B, C, and HQ Companies and the medical detachment were ordered to the Lingayen Gulf area where the Japanese were landing. During the trip, they went through an area where the Philippine Scouts had fought the Japanese. The men remembered that body parts and discarded equipment were everywhere. When they arrived at the gulf, they counted 54 ships in the gulf and watched the troops landing. Since they were on a ridge, the tanks wanted to engage the Japanese. Instead, the battalion was ordered to withdraw. One platoon was sent north to engage the Japanese so that the Scouts could disengage. They did this without reconnaissance and the lead tank with the platoon’s commander was lost. The other tanks withdrew but were later damaged.
As they made their way north, the battalion was shelled by Japanese guns. Bob and Pvt. Robert Nank were seen diving into a ditch and then never seen again by the other members of the medical detachment. As the 192nd withdrew from the area, the members of the detachment stopped where they were last seen and called their names but stopped when they reached Rosario. The two men made their way through the mountains and joined the guerrillas of Col. J. P. Horan. Bob spent four months with the guerrillas and 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.”
In May, his parents received a letter from the War Department.
“Dear Mrs. M. Ryan:
“According to War Department records, you have been designated as the emergency addressee of Private Robert J. Ryan, 36,206,232, who, according to the latest information available, was serving in the Philippine Islands at the time of the final surrender.
“I deeply regret that it is impossible for me to give you more information than is contained in this letter. In the last days before the surrender of Bataan, there were casualties which were not reported to the War Department. Conceivably the same is true of the surrender of Corregidor and possibly other islands of the Philippines. The Japanese Government has indicated its intention of conforming to the terms of the Geneva Convention with respect to the interchange of information regarding prisoners of war. At some future date, this Government will receive through Geneva a list of persons who have been taken prisoners of war. Until that time the War Department cannot give you positive information.
“The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of surrender of Corregidor, May 7, 1942, until definite information to the contrary is received. It is to be hoped that the Japanese Government will communicate a list of prisoners of war at an early date. At that time you will be notified by this office in the event that his name is contained in the list of prisoners of war. In the case of persons known to have been present in the Philippines and who are not reported to be prisoners of war by the Japanese Government, the War Department will continue to carry them as “missing in action” in the absence of information to the contrary, until twelve months have expired. At the expiration of twelve months and in the absence of other information the War Department is authorized to make a final determination.
“Recent legislation makes provision to continue the pay and allowances of persons carried in a “missing” status for a period not to exceed twelve months; to continue, for the duration of the war, the pay and allowances of persons known to have been captured by the enemy; to continue allotments made by missing personnel for a period of twelve months and allotments or increase allotments made by persons by the enemy during the time they are so held; to make new allotments or increase allotments to certain dependents defined in Public Law 490, 77th Congress. The latter dependents generally include the legal wife, dependent children under twenty-one years of age, and dependent mother, or such dependents as having been designated in official records. Eligible dependents who can establish a need for financial assistance and are eligible to receive this assistance the amount allotted will be deducted from pay which would otherwise accrue to the credit of the missing individual.
“Very Truly yours
J. A. Ulio (signed)
The Adjutant General”
In July 1942, his parents received a second message from the War Department. The following is an excerpt from it.
“The last report of casualties received by the War Department from the Philippines arrived early in the morning of May 6. Through this date, Private Robert J. Ryan had not been reported as a casualty. The War Department will consider the persons serving in the Philippine Islands as “missing in action” from the date of the surrender of Corregidor, May 7, until definite information to the contrary is received.
“Efforts to secure prisoner of war lists from the Philippines have not been successful to this date due to the lack of communication and the fact that the Japanese Government has not yet given permission for the Swiss representative and the International Red Cross delegates to make visits to prisoner of war camps in the islands. When the lists of prisoners are received, we will clear the name of your son and send you any additional information that we may have.”
It is not known when and if his parents learned he was a Prisoner of War. 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 the POW camps, 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 to Japan. 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 13, the other POWs were awakened. By 7:00, the POWs were lined up and roll call was taken of the men selected for transport to Japan. As it turned out, it took until 9:00 to finish this task. The prisoners were allowed to roam the compound until they were told to “fall-in.” The men were fed a meal and then marched to Pier 7 in Manila.
At 11:30 A.M., they were ordered to form detachments of 100 men, fed, and marched to Pier 7 in Manila which was two miles away. During the march down Luzon Boulevard, the POWs saw that the streetcars had stopped running and many things were in disrepair. The Filipinos lined up along the street and gave the“V” for victory sign to the Americans when they thought the Japanese wouldn’t see them. They noticed there were bicycles, pushcarts, carts pulled by men or animals, and some Japanese cars and trucks on the street. Japanese soldiers seemed to be everywhere. They also noticed that grass along the street was now full of weeds and the street was also in terrible shape. They also saw the results of American bombings on the city. The Bachrach Garage where a POW detachment had worked for almost over two years was now partially destroyed. When the POWs reached Pier 7, they saw almost 40 Japanese ships sunk in the bay. There were three ships docked at the pier. One was an old run-down ship, the other two were large and in good shape. They soon discovered one of the two nicer ships was their ship.
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 at 8:00 P.M. but spent most of the night in Manila Bay. At 10:00 P.M., the Japanese interpreter threatened to have the guards fire into the holds unless the POWs stopped screaming. Some of the POWs fell silent because they were exhausted, and others because they had died. One major of the 26th Cavalry stated the man next to him had lost his mind. Recalling the conversation he had with the man he said, “Worst was the man who had gone mad but would not sit still. One kept pestering me, pushing a mess kit against my chest, saying, ‘Have some of this chow? It’s good.’ I smelled of it, it was not chow. ‘All right’ he said, ‘If you don’t want it. I’m going to eat it.’ And a little later I heard him eating it, right beside me.”
At 3:30 A.M. it sailed as part of the MATA-37 a convoy bound for Takao, Formosa. The ships sailed without any lights out of the bay. By the swells in the water, the POWs could tell that the ship was in open water. The cries for air began as the men lost discipline, so the Japanese threatened to cover the holds and cut off all air. When the Japanese sent down fried rice, cabbage, and fried seaweed, those further back from the opening got nothing. The Japanese covered the holds and would not allow the slop buckets to be taken out of the holds. Those POWs who were left holding the buckets at first asked for someone else to hold it for a while. When that did not work, they dumped the buckets on the men around them.
As daylight began to enter the hold as morning came, the POWs could see men who were in stupors, men out of their minds, and men who had died. The POWs in the aft hold which also had a sub-hold put the POWs who were out of their minds into it. On the walls of the holds, water had condensed on the walls so the POWs tried to scrape it off the wall for a drink. The Japanese did allow men who had passed out to be put on deck, but as soon as they revived they went back into the holds. The Japanese would not allow the bodies of the men who had died to be removed from the holds.
It was noted that one American plane flew over the ships at 6:00 A.M. The POWs received their first meal which consisted of a little rice, fish, and water at dawn. Three-fourths of a cup of water were shared by twenty POWs. It was 7:00 A.M., off the coast of Luzon, and the POWs had just finished eating breakfast when they heard the sound of anti-aircraft guns. At first, they thought the gun crews were just drilling, because they had not heard any planes. It was only when the first bomb hit in the water and the ship shook that they knew it was not a drill. To the POWs, it seemed that most of the planes were attacking the other ships in the convoy. Commander Frank Bridgit made his way to the top of the ladder into the hold and sat down. He gave the POWs a play-by-play of the planes attacking, “I can see two planes going for a freighter off our starboard side. Now two more are detached from the formation. I think they may be coming for us. They are! They’re diving! Duck everybody!”
The POWs heard the change in the sound of the planes’ engines as they began their dives toward the ships in the convoy. Several more bombs hit the water near the ship causing it to rock. Explosions were taking place all around the ship. In an attempt to protect themselves, the POWs piled baggage in front of them. Bullets from the planes were ricocheted in the hold causing many casualties. The attack by 30 to 50 planes lasted for about 20 to 30 minutes. When the planes ran out of bombs they strafed. Afterward, the planes flew off, returning to their carrier, and there was a lull of about 20 to 30 minutes before the next squadron of planes appeared over the ships and resumed the attack. This pattern repeated itself over and over during the day. Lt. Col. Elvin Barr of the 60th Coast Artillery came up to Maj, John Fowler of the 26th Cavalry on the cargo deck and said, “There’s a hole knocked in the bulkheads down there. Between 30 and 40 men have already died down there.” Barr would never reach Japan.
In the hold, the POWs concluded that the attacking planes were concentrating on the bridge of the ship. They noted that the planes had taken out all the anti-aircraft guns leaving only its 30 caliber machine guns to defend the ship. At 4:30 P.M., the ship went through the worse attack on it. The POWs felt the ship shake as it was hit at least three times by bombs on its bridge and stern. Most of the POWs, who were wounded, were wounded by ricocheting bullets and shrapnel from exploding bombs that came through the hatch. Some bombs exploded near the ship throwing water spouts over the ship. The POWs actually rooted for the bombs to hit the ship. During the attack Chaplain William Cummings – a Catholic priest – led the POWs in the Our Father. As they prayed, the bombs that exploded near the ship sent torrents of water over the ship. Bullets from the planes hit the metal plates, of the hull, at an angle that prevented most of them from penetrating the haul. Somewhere on the ship, a fire started, but it was put out after several hours. The POWs lived through seven or eight attacks before sunset. Overall, six bombs hit the ship. One hit the stern of the ship killing many POWs.
Ryan said, “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.”
At dusk, the ship raised anchor and headed east. It turned south and turned again this time heading west. The next turn it made was north. It headed in this direction for a good amount of time before dropping anchor at about 8:00 P.M. The POWs figured out that they had just sailed in a circle. What had happened is that the ship’s rudder had been hit during the attack and the ship could not be steered. Sometime after midnight, the POWs heard the sound of the Japanese civilians being evacuated from the ship. They could hear boats being rowed, people shouting and the sound of children and babies crying. They also hold the voices of the men in the forward hold shouting and the words “quiet” and “at ease men” over and over. During the night, the POW medics were ordered onto the deck to treat the Japanese wounded. One medic recalled that the dead, dying, and wounded were everywhere. The ship steamed closer to the beach at Subic Bay and at 4:00 A.M., the POWs were told that they would disembark in one or two hours at a pier. The moaning and muttering of POWs who were losing their minds kept the POWs up all night. That night 25 POWs died in the hold.
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.”
He also stated, “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.”
It was December 15 and the POWs were sitting in the ship’s holds when a guard shouted that the wounded would be the first to be evacuated. The POWs selected 35 wounded and sick to be evacuated when planes appeared at 8:00 A.M. The POWs took cover but the planes circled around and did not attack. Since there was no ack-ack fire from the ship, and no movement on deck, the POWs guessed that the pilots believed the ship had been abandoned. Three men who tried to go up the ladder without permission were shot and killed. About a half-hour later, they were ordered to send up the wounded. Ten minutes later a guard shouted that the next 25 men should be sent up. As the POWs were coming up, the guard suddenly looked up and motioned to them to get back into the hold. He shouted, “Planes, many planes!” As the POWs were abandoning ship the planes returned and continued the attack.
The POWs quickly realized that this attack was different. From the explosions, they could tell the bombs were heavier and all aimed at the ship which bounced in the water from the explosions. The POWs felt the ship shake every time a bomb hit it. Small holes appeared in the hull and when a bomb fell near the ship water came into the holds through the holes. The stem of the ship was hit by a bomb which also allowed water to enter the holds. Chief Boatswain Clarence M. Taylor who was in the water said, “I saw the whole thing. A bomb fall, hit near the stern hatch, and debris go flying up in the air.” 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. In the hold a Catholic priest, Chaplain John Duffy began to pray, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
As the other POWs waited a Japanese guard who had been at Cabanatuan yelled into the hold at the POWs, “All go home; speedo!” The POWs made their way over the side and into the water. The POWs scrambled up the ladders and stairway. As they left the holds they knew that there was a good chance they would have to swim to shore. When they got on deck they found that the ship was parallel to the shore and about 400 to 500 yards away from it. The Japanese guards and interpreter had abandoned the ship, but the ship’s captain remained on board. He told the POWs – with his limited English – that they needed to get off the ship to safety. They also found that it was a sunny day and the sky and water were blue. The water toward shore was filled with swimming Americans and Japanese all headed toward shore while Japanese machine guns fired on the POWs to prevent them from escaping. The ship was still floating okay, except the stern was sitting lower in the water and was listing.
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.”
The POWs in the water shouted to those on deck to get off the ship because it only had about 2 to 3 minutes more before it went under. Many of the men, climbed onto the railings and jumped into the water – which was 30 feet below them – feet first. The better swimmers helped the weaker swimmers get to anything that floated. As they swam away from the ship, for the first time they saw how badly it had been damaged. An entire section of the stern had been blown away and the ship looked like a pile of scrap metal. The entire ship was pitted, bent by bullets, or twisted or bent. The stronger swimmers kept an eye out for anyone having problems swimming.
Four of the planes flew low over the water above the POWs. The POWs waved frantically and shouted at the planes so they would not be strafed. One of the planes banked and flew lower over the POWs. This time the pilot dipped his wings to show that he knew the men in the water were Americans. About a half-hour later, the ship’s stern began to really burn and the bodies of the dead could be seen on the decks. The stronger swimmers returned to the ship and encouraged the poor and non-swimmers to jump into the water. Once in the water, they made sure they had a plank to float on and make it to shore. The Japanese sent out a motorboat with a machine gun and snipers on it. The POWs attempting to escape were hunted down and shot. It is believed that as many as 30 men died in the water.
There was no real beach, so the POWs climbed up on a seawall and found the Japanese Naval Landing Party had set up a machine gun and had just laid flat to rest when the gun opened fire on them. Those who came ashore were warned to stay in the water but only did so when one man climbed up on the seawall and was wounded. There were also Japanese snipers in wait to shoot anyone who attempted to escape. When they looked at the water, it was full of dead fish of many sizes killed by the bombs. The men ate salted beans that were in a tub that had been looted from the ship.
The POWs were gathered together and marched to a grove of shady trees about 200 yards from the beach where they sat down and dried out the few possessions they had left. That afternoon they were moved to a single tennis court at Olongapo Naval Station which was about 500 yards from the beach. There, they were herded onto a tennis court and roll call was taken. It was discovered 329 of the 1,619 POWs who had boarded the ship had died. The Japanese packed 1300 of the POWs on the court with 100 wounded POWs taking up a great amount of room at one end. They could barely sit down and only lay down by lying partially on another man. No sooner had they occupied the tennis court than American planes came over and began to make a strafing run. The men on the tennis courts waved their shirts and arms in an attempt to identify themselves as Americans. The lead plane’s pilot apparently realized they were Americans and flew over them to the Oryoku Maru and started bombing the ship which caused it to catch fire and sink.
While the POWs were at Olongapo Naval Station, 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 shot and buried at a cemetery nearby. The remainder of the POWs remained on the tennis courts for five or six days. During that time, they were given water but not fed until the 17th when the Japanese brought a 50-kilo bag of rice. About half of the rice had fallen out of the bags because of the holes. Instead of giving it out that night, Lt. Col. Curtis Beecher, U.S.M.C. said they should feed the men in the morning. The next day each man received 3 tablespoons of rice and a quarter spoon of salt. The POWs received the same amount of raw rice two more times while they were on the tennis court. The Japanese excuse for not giving the POWs cooked food was they were going to be moved soon, but the guards were seen eating cooked food on several occasions.
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.”
Beecher had several arguments with the Japanese over food and treatment of the wounded. When he told the Japanese interpreter, “For God’s sake! Hospitalize these wounded men or they are all going to die!” The interpreter said, “All Americans are going to die anyway.”
The POWs remained on the tennis court for six days. During their time on the court, 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 dropped their bombs, and pulled out. The bombs drifted over the POWs and landed away from them exploding on contact. 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 first 500 POWs left Olongapo on December 21, and arrived at San Fernando Pampanga, at 3:00 P. M. and were put in prison. 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. A Taiwanese guard told the POWs, in broken English, “No go Cabanatuan. Go Manila; maybe Bilibid.” The guard knew as little as the POWs. The POWs were taken by truck to San Fernando, Pampanga, arriving there about 6:00 P.M. Once there, they were put in a movie theater. Since it was dark, the POWs saw it 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. 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 but the fact was they were beheaded and buried at the Campo Santo de San Fernando Cemetery. 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. The POWs 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 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 and 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 and died.
The remaining prisoners boarded onto the Brazil Maru and were held in three different holds. The ship had been used to haul cattle and 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 of 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.
The daily routine for the POWs on the ship 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.
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.
The ship arrived at Takao, Formosa, on December 31 and dropped anchor around 11:30 AM. After arriving at Takao, Formosa, each POW received a six-inch-long, 3/4 inch wide piece hardtack to eat. This was the first bread they had since receiving crackers in their Red Cross packages in 1942. During the time in the harbor, the POWs received little water. From January 1 through the 5, the POWs received one meal and day and very little water resulting in the death rate among the POWs to begin to rise. It was at this time that the POWs from the Brazil Maru were transferred onto the Enoura Maru and put in the forward hold. 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 the ship’s machine guns was heard. The explosions of bombs falling closer and closer to the ship were also heard. The waves created from the explosions rocked the ship. One bomb exploded outside the haul of the forward hold and another fell through the open hatch exploding in the hold. Together they killed 285 prisoners. The surviving POWs remained in the hold for three days with the dead. The stench from the dead filled the air. Since the Japanese did nothing to remove the dead from the hold, the POWs stacked the corpses under the hatch so they would be the first thing that the Japanese saw when they looked into the hold.
On January 11 a work detail was formed and about half the dead were removed from the hold. The dead were unloaded onto a barge, and the bodies were taken to shore. A POW detail of twenty men dragged the corpses to the beach by tying ropes to the legs and dragging them to the grave on the beach. Later in the day, the survivors of the forward hold were moved into another hold on the ship. After a couple of days, the Japanese sent medics into the ship to give aid to the POWs who had been wounded. If the wounds were too bad, they did not treat the man. At the same time, the Japanese organized another detail to remove the remaining bodies which were taken to a beach and buried.
The living were left on the ship and began to steal sugar from the middle hold of the ship. The Japanese officer, Lt. Toshino, wanted those stealing sugar turned into in and threatened to starve the POWs. Lt. Col. Curtis Beecher, U.S.M.C. called the officers together and said, “We’ve got to have two men who are willing to go up and offer themselves as hostages for all the others. I don’t have any idea what Toshino and Wada ordered done to those men. They may have had them shot. I just don’t know.
“The only thing I can promise is this if they survive whatever the Japs do to them, I will see to it that they are taken care of and don’t go without food the rest of the trip.”
An English sergeant and a husky medic volunteered and were sent on deck. Each man was repeatedly beaten and if he passed out, he was slapped until he regained consciousness. When the Japanese were finished, the men were thrown back into the hold. Both men survived but would later die in Japan.
On January 13, the surviving POWs were boarded onto a third “Hell Ship” the Brazil Maru. Barges were used to take the POWs to the ship. The wounded suffered the most pain since some were lowered onto the barges with ropes. When they reached the ship, they were hoisted onto it the same way. The POWs found they had more room in the hold and they were actually issued lifejackets.
Since there were no medical facilities fifteen POWs died the first night. During this part of the trip, as many as 30 POWs died each day, and the bodies remained in hold until 50 POWs had died. One area of the hold was called the hospital area where the wounded and sick laid in feces. Men who were not in the area – and had shown no signs of illness – were found dead the next day. Usually, the men had frozen to death. This became so common that the medics as they made their rounds in the hold shouted, “roll out your dead.” Two chaplains died. One from giving all his food and water to others and the other died from becoming overtaxed from helping others. There was no water to wash the mess kits or for the men to use. The POWs used their urine on their heads to clean themselves.
At one point, the ship also towed one or two other ships that had been damaged. When the ship docked at Moji on January 29, the POWs were walking skeletons. Of the original 1619 men that boarded the Oryoku Maru, only 459 of the POWs had survived the trip to Japan. The Japanese civilians seeing the condition of the men showed shock on their faces. The POWs were shuffled through the streets to the train station.
While Bob was in Japan, his parents received a letter from him. It was written while he was a POW at Cabanatuan.
“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.
The housing in the camp consisted of six barracks 15 feet wide and 75 feet long and divided into five sections. Each section had sliding windows along the back wall. The barracks were in rows and all were separated by 30 feet. There was a covered boardwalk that ran between all the buildings in the camp. The three latrines were 15 feet by 15 feet and with concrete decks. located near to the barracks and were the straddle type. There was also a small 10-foot by 10-foot latrine behind the hospital. Each latrine contained a urinal about 12 feet by 6 feet. The bathhouse was a separate building with two concrete tubs that were 15 feet by 15 feet with plenty of heartwater. There was also a small tub with hot water for washing clothes.
The mess hall was a wooden building that was 24 feet wide by 60 feet long with concrete floors. There were four long tables for the enlisted POWs to eat at and three small tables for the officers. The sick received their meals in the camp hospital. The kitchen was at the end of the mess hall and equipped with cauldrons for cooking. The kitchen was staffed by Australian POWs supervised by Japanese guards.
POWs in the camp who worked in the mine received 705 grams of rice, maintenance workers received 500 grams of rice, and hospitalized POWs received 400 grams of rice. The POWs every evening received a watery vegetable soup and a little fish once a week which in many cases was rotting. The food was said to be of good quality but the problem was the POWs were never given enough of it.
The camp hospital had steam heat but was always cold in the winter. It was a wooden structure 24 feet wide and 50 feet long and could hold 25 sick POWs in beds which were actually platforms with two-inch-thick mattresses. Three or four POWs occupied a space that was the same in area as one bed. A Japanese doctor oversaw the hospital and visit twice a week. There was also a Dutch and American doctor assigned to the hospital. All medicine and medical supplies came from the Japanese and were given out in small amounts. Beriberi and dysentery were the two illnesses affecting the majority of POWs.
Red Cross boxes were sent to the camp, but like in other camps, they were stored in a warehouse justified by the excuse that they were being saved for an emergency. In April 1945, 125 Red Cross boxes were received in the camp, but none of them were given to the POWs. It is known that the Australian POW shared some of their Red Cross supplies with the Americans. No mail was ever sent from the camp or received at the camp.
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 where 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.