Pvt. James William Sallee was the son of Hez Sallee and Sarah Cunningham-Sallee. He was born on May 18, 1916, in Mercer County, Kentucky. With his four brothers and one sister, he grew up in Harrodsburg, Kentucky.
James and his brother, Heze, joined the Kentucky National Guard’s 38th Division Tank Company in Harrodsburg. The company was federalized on November 25, 1940, and ordered to Fort Knox, Kentucky. The company boarded 10 trucks in Harrodsburg on November 28th and its tanks were loaded onto a flatcar and taken by train to Ft. Knox. The company left Harrodsburg at 12:30 P.M. arriving four hours later at 4:30 P.M.
After arriving, they spent the first six weeks in primary training. During week 1, the soldiers did infantry drilling; week 2, manual arms and marching to music; week 3, machine gun training; week 4, was pistol usage; week 5, M1 rifle firing; week 6, was training with gas masks, gas attacks, pitching tents, and hikes; weeks 7, 8, and 9 were spent learning the weapons, firing each one, learning the parts of the weapons and their functions, field stripping and caring for weapons, and the cleaning of weapons.
The First Sergeant, Edwin Rue – on December 26th – was given the job of picking men to be transferred from the company to the soon to be formed Hq Company. Many of the men picked to be transferred to the company – from all the battalion’s companies – received promotions and because of their ratings received higher pay. It was at that time that James became a member of the company.
The new company was the largest company in the battalion and divided into a staff platoon, a reconnaissance platoon, a maintenance platoon, a motor platoon, and the usual cooks and clerks that every company had. Men were assigned various jobs which included scouts, radio operators, mechanics, truck drivers, and other duties. Men were also sent to specialty schools with training in areas like tank mechanic, radio, automotive mechanic, and small and large arms.
D Company moved into its barracks in December 1940. The barracks were adjacent to the Roosevelt Ridge Training Area. The men assigned to the Hq Company still lived with the D Company since their barracks were unfinished. 25 men lived on each floor of the barracks. The bunks were set up along the walls and alternated so that the head of one bunk was next to the foot of another bunk allowing for more bunks to be placed in the least amount of space allowing for 50 men to sleep on each floor. The first sergeant, staff sergeant, and master sergeant had their own rooms. There was also a supply room, an orderly room – where the cooks could sleep during the day – and a clubroom. The company shared its mess hall with A Company until that company’s mess hall was finished.
The one problem they had was that the barracks had four, two-way speakers in it. One speaker was in the main room of each floor of the barracks, one was in the first sergeant’s office, and one was in the captain’s office. Since by flipping a switch the speaker became a microphone, the men watched what they said. The men assigned to Hq Company moved into their own barracks by February. The guardsmen were housed away from the regular army troops in the newly built barracks. Newspapers from the time state that the barracks were air-conditioned.
The biggest problem facing the unit was the lack of equipment. Many of the tanks were castoffs from the regular army or pulled from the junkyard at Ft. Knox and rebuilt by the tank companies. The tanks were also restricted in where they could be driven and very little training was done with the infantry. The companies received new trucks and motorcycles in the Spring of 1941.
The men received training under the direction of the 69th Armored Regiment, 1st Armored Division. This was true for the tank crews and reconnaissance units who trained with the regiment’s tanks and reconnaissance units and later trained with their own companies.
A typical day for the soldiers started at 6:15 with reveille, but most of the soldiers were up before this since they wanted to wash and dress. Breakfast was from 7:00 to 8:00 A.M., followed by calisthenics from 8:00 to 8:30. Afterward, the tankers went to various schools within the company. The classes consisted of .30 and .50 caliber machine guns, pistol, map reading, care of personal equipment, military courtesy, and training in tactics. At 11:30 the soldiers stopped what they were doing and cleaned up for mess which was from noon to 1:00 P.M. Afterwards, they attended the various schools which they had been assigned to on January 13, such as mechanics, tank driving, radio operating. The classes lasted for 13 weeks. All classes they attended were under the command of the 1st Armored Division.
At 4:30, the soldiers called it a day and returned to their barracks and put on dress uniforms and at five held retreat and followed by dinner at 5:30. After they ate they stood in line to wash their mess kits since they had no mess hall. About January 12, 1941, their mess hall opened and they ate off real plates with forks and knives. They also no longer had to wash their own plates since that job fell on the men assigned to Kitchen Police. After dinner, they were off duty and lights were out at 9:00 P.M., but they did not have to turn in until 10:00 when Taps was played.
During their free time during the week, the men could go to one of the three movie theaters on the outpost. They also sat around and talked. As the weather got warmer, the men tried to play baseball as often as possible in the evenings. At 9:00 P.M., when lights went out, most went to sleep. On weekends, men with passes frequently went to Louisville which was 35 miles north of the fort, while others went to Elizabethtown sixteen miles south of the fort. Those men still on the base used the dayroom to read since it was open until 11:00 P.M.
During February, four composite tank detachments made of men from all the companies of the battalion left Ft. Knox – on different dates – on problematic moves at 9:00 A.M. The detachments consisted of three motorcycles, two scout cars, sixteen tanks, one ambulance, and supply, fuel and kitchen trucks. The route was difficult and chosen so that the men could become acquainted with their equipment. They also had to watch out for simulated enemy planes. Bridges were avoided whenever it was possible to ford the water. They received their rations from a food truck.
In late March 1941, the entire battalion was moved to new barracks at Wilson Road and Seventh Avenue at Ft. Knox. The barracks had bathing and washing facilities in them and a day room. The new kitchens had larger gas ranges, automatic gas heaters, large pantries, and mess halls. One reason for this move was the men from selective service were permanently joining the battalion.
On June 14th and 16th, 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 from September 1 through 30. The entire battalion was loaded onto trucks and sent in a convoy to Louisiana while the tanks and wheeled vehicles were sent by train.
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.” Being a member of Hq Company, he worked to keep the tanks running, supplied, and performed administrative duties, but he did not actively participate in the maneuvers.
It was after the maneuvers that the battalion was ordered to Camp Polk, Louisiana, and without being given a reason why. On the side of a hill, the men learned they were being sent overseas as part of Operation PLUM. Most figured out they were being sent to the Philippines. Those men 29 years old, or older, were given the opportunity to resign from federal service.
The reason for this move was an event that took place in the summer of 1941. A squadron of American fighters was flying over Lingayen Gulf when one of the pilots, who was flying at a lower altitude – noticed something odd. He took his plane down and identified a flagged buoy in the water and saw another in the distance. He came upon more buoys that lined up, in a straight line for 30 miles to the northwest, in the direction of a Japanese occupied island that a large radio transmitter. The island was hundreds of miles away. The squadron continued its flight plan and flew south to Mariveles before returning to Clark Field. When the planes landed, it was too late to do anything that day.
The next day, another squadron was sent to the area and found that the buoys had been picked up by a fishing boat that was seen making its way to shore. Since communication between the Air Corps and Navy was poor, the boat escaped. It was at that time the decision was made to build up the American military presence in the Philippines.
After the companies were brought up to strength with replacements, the battalion was equipped with new tanks and half-tracks with came from the 753rd Tank Battalion. By train, along the Gulf Coast, through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. At Yuma, Arizona the train stopped, and 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. The soldiers arrived at Ft. Mason in San Francisco where they were taken by the ferry, the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe to Angel Island. At Ft. McDowell, on the island, they received physicals and inoculations from the battalion’s medical detachment. Men found with minor medical conditions were held back and scheduled to rejoin the battalion at a later date. Other men were simply replaced.
The 192nd 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. On Sunday night, November 9, the soldiers went to bed and when they awoke the next morning, it was Tuesday, November 11. During the night, while they slept, the ships had crossed the International Dateline. It was about November 11th that they arrived at Wake Island to pick up food and water and drop off B-17 ground crew personnel.
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 intercepted ships were Japanese freighters carrying scrap metal.
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 – which was 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. The tents 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 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 worked to remove cosmoline from their weapons. The grease had been put on the weapons to keep them from rusting while at sea. They also loaded ammunition belts and did tank maintenance and prepared for maneuvers with the 194th Tank Battalion. It was at this time the process was begun to transfer D Company to the 194th Tank Battalion which would give each battalion three tank companies. This process was ever completed and the company kept its 192nd designation.
On Monday, December 1, the tanks were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Field to guard against paratroopers. The 194th Tank Battalion guarded the northern half of the airfield, while the 192nd guarded the southern half. At all times, two members of every tank and half-track crew remained with their vehicles. Meals were brought to them by food trucks.
On the morning of December 8, 1941, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, news of the attack was reported to the tank platoon commanders. All the tankers were ordered the perimeter of the airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers. All morning long as they sat on their tanks and half-tracks, they watched as American planes filled the sky. At noon, the planes landed.
As the tankers were having lunch, 54 planes approached the airfield from the north. When bombs began exploding on the runways, the tankers knew the planes were Japanese. Since they had few weapons that could be used against the Japanese, all they could do is watch.
On December 21, the 192nd was sent to Lingayen Gulf in an attempt to stop the Japanese from landing troops. Lyle, along with the other members of HQ Company worked to keep the tank companies supplied and fueled.
On December 8, 1941, James lived through the Japanese attack on Clark Field just ten hours after Pearl Harbor. That morning all the members of the tank crews were ordered to the perimeter of the airfield. All morning, as they stood guard, and watched as American planes filled the sky. Around 12:15 in the afternoon, the planes landed to be refueled and the pilots went to lunch. B-17’s loaded with bombs to attack Formosa were left sitting on the runway.
Around 12:45, the tankers saw a formation of planes approaching the airfield from the north. At first, they thought the planes were American. It was only when they saw what looked like confetti and saw bombs exploding did they know the planes were Japanese. This attack wiped out the Army Air Corps.
James spent the next four months fighting the Japanese as the Filipino and American forces withdrew into the Bataan Peninsula. He most likely took part in the Battle of the Pockets. This mopping up action completely wiped out Japanese forces trapped in the Tuol Pocket.
The evening of April 8, 1942, Capt. Fred Bruni, HQ Company’s commanding officer, gave his men the news of the surrender. While informing the members of the company of the surrender, he waved his arm toward the tanks and told the men that they would no longer need them. As he spoke, his voice choked. He turned away from the men for a moment, and when he turned back he continued. He next told the sergeants what they should do to disable the tanks.
During the announcement, Bruni emphasized that they all were to surrender together. He told the soldiers to destroy their weapons and any supplies that could be used by the Japanese. The only thing they were told not to destroy was the company’s trucks. The men waited in their bivouac until ordered to move. Somehow, Bruni had found enough bread and pineapple juice for what he called, “Our last supper.”
The soldiers proceeded to pile up their guns and ammunition and set the pile on fire. They stayed in their bivouac and waited for orders. At the same time that they were sad, they were also kind of excited and wondered what was going to happen to them.
On April 9, 1942, James became a Prisoner Of War when the Filipino and American forces on Bataan surrendered to the Japanese. Bill and the other tankers stripped their uniforms of anything that identified them as tankers. They had heard that the Japanese were looking for them for what they had done in the pockets. After getting rid of everything that identified them as tankers, the members of the company remained in their bivouac for two days until a Japanese officer and soldiers appeared. They were then ordered out to the road that ran by their encampment.
Once on the road, the soldiers were ordered to kneel along the sides of the road with their belongings in front of them. While they were kneeling, Japanese soldiers who were passing them took anything they wanted from the Americans. They remained along the sides of the road for hours.
James and his company boarded their trucks and drove to outside of Mariveles and were ordered out of the trucks. From there, they walked to Mariveles Airfield and sat and waited. As they sat and watched, the POWs noticed a line of Japanese soldiers forming across from them. They soon realized that this was a firing squad and the Japanese were going to kill them.
As they sat watching and waiting to see what the Japanese intended to do, a Japanese officer pulled up in a car in front of the soldiers. He got out of the car and spoke to the sergeant in charge of the detail. The officer got back in the car and drove off, while the sergeant ordered the soldiers to lower their guns.
Later in the day, the POWs were moved to a schoolyard in Mariveles. The POWs were left sitting in the sun for hours, and the Japanese did not feed them or give them water. Behind the POWs were four Japanese artillery pieces that began firing on Corregidor and Ft. Drum which had not surrendered. Shells from these two American forts began landing among the POWs. The POWs could do little since they had no place to hide, and some POWs were killed by incoming American shells. One group that tried to hide in a small brick building died when it took a direct hit. The American guns did succeed in knocking out three of the four Japanese guns.
The POWs were ordered to move again and had no idea that they had started what became known as the death march. During the march, they received no water and little food. At San Fernando, they were put into small wooden boxcars which could hold forty men or eight horses. The Japanese packed 100 men into each car and closed the doors. Those who died remained standing, since they could not fall, until the living climbed out of the cars. From Capas, they walked the last miles to Camp O’ Donnell.
The camp was an unfinished Filipino Army Training Base that the Japanese pressed into use as a POW camp on April 1, 1942. When the POWs 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 Japanese Red Cross sent medical supplies to 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 a while, 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. The death rate still was 9 POWs a day into December when the Japanese issued the POWs Red Cross Packages. Doing this and changes made to the camp by the POWs lowered the death rate.
At some point, he went out on a work detail to build runways. It was while he was on this detail that his mother learned he was a POW in June 1943. According to medical records kept at the hospital ward at Bilibid Prison at Manila, the work detail was referred to as the “Army Air Detail.” This information was recorded when James was admitted to the ward, from the detail, suffering from dengue fever. It is not known if he was released and readmitted, but records show he was discharged on August 20, 1944, from the hospital ward, and readmitted the next day. The second discharge date is not known. It should be mentioned that his family learned he was a POW on June 12, 1943.
On October 2, 1944, his POW detachment was taken to the Port Area of Manila. He and the other POWs were scheduled to be boarded onto the Hokusen Maru which was ready to sail, but not all the POWs scheduled to sail on the ship had arrived. So that the ship could sail, the Japanese put another POW detachment – that was ready to sail – on the ship. James and the rest of his POW detachment were boarded onto the Arisan Maru on October 10 and 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 lying down. Those standing had no room to lie down. The latrines for the prisoners were eight five-gallon cans, but the POWs were packed in the hold so tightly, many of the POWs could not get near the cans. Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died.
Anton Cichy said, “For the first few days, there were 1800 of us together in one hold. I don’t know how big the hold was but we had to take turns to sit down. We were just kind of stuck 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 fresh water 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.
Graef described conditions in the hold. “There were so many (that died ) out of 1800. The condition in that hold…..men were just dying in a continuous stream. Men, holding their bellies in interlocked arms, stood up, screamed and died. You were being starved men were dying at such a pace we had to pile them up. It was like you were choking to death. Burial consisted of two men throwing another overboard.”
Cichy said, “The Japs told us that they’d be in Formosa the next day to pick up some cargo. They had to make room on deck so they tossed a whole bunch of life preservers down into the hold. I held onto one but didn’t think anything about it.”
It was about 4:00 P.M. on October 24, and 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.
It was 4:50 P.M. when the Japanese on deck ran to the bow of the ship and watched a torpedo pass in front of the ship. They next ran to the stern of the ship and watched a second torpedo passed behind the ship. The ship shook and came to a stop. It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, killing some of the POWs. Those still alive began cheering wildly, but it stopped when 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 said, “When the torpedoing happened, most of the Americans didn’t care a bit–they were tired and weak and sick.” He also said of the incident, “The third torpedo struck squarely amidships and buckled the vessel but it didn’t break in two. 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 the submarine that fired the torpedoes was either the U.S.S. Snook or the 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 forgot about the prisoners on deck who had been cooking. When the Japs were off the boat, the cooks opened the hatches and told us to come up. I was just under the deck, but there were a lot of 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.”
The POWs were able to get onto the deck of the ship. 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.
Of this 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.”
Oliver stated that while in the water, it was each man for himself. “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 men were picked up by a Japanese destroyer and taken to Formosa and finally sent to Japan. The next day the three men in the boat picked up two more survivors and later made it to China and freedom.
In the end, only nine men out of the nearly 1775 men who boarded the Arisan Maru in Manila survived the sinking. Only eight of the POWs would survive the war. Pvt. James W. Sallee was not one of them.
In 1945, his family received this message:
“Dear Mr. & Mrs. Russell:
“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 24 October 1944.
“It is with deep regret that I inform you that your son, Pvt James W. Sallee,
20, 523, 495, 192nd 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 in the records of the war department as killed in action 24 October 1944. The evidence of his death was received 16 June 1945, the date upon which his pay will be terminated and his accounts 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”
Since he was lost at sea, Pvt. James W. Sallee’s name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.