Lt. Col. Thaddeus Elmer Smyth was born on November 14, 1901, in Tavares, Florida, to Thaddeus Smyth and Martha Dykes-Smyth. It is known he had two sisters and one brother. Smyth enlisted in the U.S. Army as a Private on July 20, 1916, and was assigned to Company H, 60th Infantry Division during World War I. On July 18, 1921, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point. He graduated on June 12, 1925, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army. It appears that Smyth was married twice. His first marriage to Eleanor W. Gildart, on July 1, 1926, produced two sons and one daughter. The couple divorced, and on May 13, 1941, he married Jessie M. Thomas and had a child with her.
As a second lieutenant, he was sent to Schofield Barracks, arriving in Hawaii on May 30, 1929, where he was in charge of training boxers for the 19th Infantry. On March 26, 1931, he was promoted to First Lieutenant and on March 31, transferred to Ft. Benning, Georgia, to attend infantry school and sailed from Hawaii on June 9. In 1932, he took an Officers’ Course in tanks and later taught at the school at Ft. Benning.
On April 30, 1933, he was transferred to Ft. Snelling, Minnesota, and assigned to the Sixth Tank Battalion. He was promoted on March 31, 1936, to captain. He was next stationed and transferred to Vancouver Barracks, Washington, on March 12, 1939. On February 10, 1941, he was promoted to major and sent to Fort Lewis, Washington, as an officer with Company G, 7th Infantry Division, until he was transferred to the 194th Tank Battalion because of his experience of teaching engine and chassis at the tank school at Ft. Knox.
On September 4, 1941, the remaining companies of the 194th were sent to Ft. Mason, north of San Francisco, by train and arrived at 7:30 A.M. on the 5th. From there, they were ferried, on the U.S.A.T. General Frank M. Coxe to Ft. MacDowell on Angel Island where they were inoculated and given medical examinations by the battalion’s medical detachment. Men with medical conditions were replaced with men who had been sent there for that purpose. The battalion’s new tanks had their turrets removed to fit them in the ship’s hold. So that the turrets would be put back on the same tanks, the tanks’ serial numbers were painted on the turrets.
The soldiers hiked from their barracks to a ferry and rode it to San Francisco, From the pier, they rode busses to another pier and boarded the U.S.A.T. President Calvin Coolidge. As an officer, he was assigned a suite with a steward. Many of the officers expressed this was the start of what would be a wonderful experience. The ship sailed at 9:00 P.M. for the Philippine Islands on September 8. At first, most of the soldiers were seasick. Once they had recovered, they attended classes, performed KP, did maintenance on the tanks, and painted the ship. The ship arrived at 7:00 A.M. on September 13 in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the soldiers were given four-hour passes ashore.
After leaving Hawaii, the ship took a southerly route away from the main shipping lanes. During this part of the trip, the ship was joined by the heavy cruiser the U.S.S. Astoria, the fleet replenishment oiler the U.S.S. Guadalupe, and an unknown destroyer. During rough weather, the destroyer approached the Coolidge. The soldiers recalled that the destroyer bobbed up and down and from side to side in the water with waves breaking over its deck. When it became apparent that a boat would be crushed if it attempted to transfer someone from one ship to another, a bosun’s chair was rigged and the man was sent from the Coolidge to the destroyer. A few of the tanks in the hold broke loose from their moorings and rolled back and forth slamming into the ship’s hull. They did this until the tankers secured them.
The ships crossed the International Dateline on Tuesday, September 16, and the date became Thursday, September 18. On several occasions, smoke was seen on the horizon, and the Astoria took off in the direction of the smoke. Each time it was found that the smoke was from a ship belonging to a friendly country. At one point, the ships in total blackout passed islands during the night. The ships entered Manila Bay at about 7:00 in the morning of Friday, September 26. The soldiers remained on board and disembarked at 3:00 P.M. and were taken by bus to Fort Stotsenburg. The battalion’s maintenance section, remained behind at the pier, with 17th Ordnance, to unload the tanks and reattach the tanks’ turrets which had been removed so the tanks would fit in the ship’s hold.
Upon arriving at the fort, they were greeted by General Edward P. King Jr. who apologized that they had to live in tents and receive their meals from food trucks until their barracks were completed on November 15. He informed the battalion he had learned of their arrival just days before they arrived. After he was satisfied that they were settled in, he left them. The officers were put in two men tents while the enlisted men were assigned to six men tents. Each man had a cot, cotton pads, white sheets, a wool blanket, and a footlocker for personnel belongings.
After spending three weeks in tents, they moved into their barracks on October 18, the barracks were described as being on stilts with walls that from the floor were five feet of a weaved matting called sawali This allowed the men to dress. Above five feet the walls were open and allowed for breezes to blow through the barracks making them more comfortable than the tents. There were no doors or windows. The wood that was used for the support beams was the best mahogany available. For personal hygiene, a man was lucky if he was near a faucet with running water.
The days were described as hot and humid, but if a man was able to find shade it was always cooler in the shade. The Filipino winter had started when they arrived, and although it was warm when they went to sleep by morning the soldiers needed a blanket. They turned in all their wool uniforms and were issued cotton shirts and trousers which were the regular uniform in the Philippines. They were also scheduled to receive sun helmets.
A typical workday was from 7:00 to 11:30 A.M. with an hour and a half lunch. The afternoon work time was from 1:30 to 2:30 P.M. At that time, it was considered too hot to work, but the battalion continued working and called it, “recreation in the motor pool.” Tank commanders studied books on their tanks and instructed their crews on the 30 and 50 caliber machine guns. The tankers learned to dismantle the guns and put them together. They did it so often that many men could take the guns apart and assemble them while wearing blindfolds. They never fired the guns because Gen. King could not get Gen. MacArthur to release ammunition for them.
For the next several weeks, the tankers spent their time removing the cosmoline from their weapons. They also had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with their M3 tanks. None of them had ever trained in one during their time at Ft. Lewis. In October, the battalion was allowed to travel to Lingayen Gulf. This was done under simulated conditions that enemy troops had landed there. Two months later, enemy troops would land there.
The battalion made one trip to the Lingayen Gulf. Things went well until they turned on a narrow gravel road in the barrio of Lingayen that had a lot of traffic. A bus driver parked his bus in the middle of the road and did not move it even after the tanks turned on their sirens and blew whistles. As they passed the bus, the tanks tore off all of one side of it. The tankers bivouacked about a half-mile from the barrio on a hard sandy beach with beautiful palm trees. The tankers had a swim and got in line for chow at the food trucks. It was then that the battalion’s two doctors told them that they needed to wear earplugs when they swam because the warm water contained bacteria and they could get ear infections that were hard to cure. No one came down with an ear infection. The soldiers went to sleep on the beach in their sleeping bags when they began to hear humming and scratching. When they turned on a flashlight they found their sleeping bags were covered with beetles and other bugs. They quickly moved to an uninfested area.
It is known that they were paid at least once after arriving which was confusing since they were paid in pesos and centavos. Many men at first had to learn how much things cost in a new currency. At the end of the workday, the men had free time. The fort had a bowling alley and movie theaters. The men also played softball, horseshoes, and badminton. Men would also throw footballs around. On Wednesday afternoons, the men went swimming. Once a month, men put their names for the chance to go into Manila. The number of men allowed on these trips was limited. Other men were allowed to go to Aarayat National Park where there was a swimming pool that was filled with mountain water. Other men went canoeing at the Pagsanjan Falls and stated the scenery was beautiful.
The 192nd Tank Battalion arrived in the Philippines on November 20 with four tank companies. The process was begun to transfer D Company from the 192nd to the 194th giving each battalion three tank companies. The 192nd also arrived with a large amount of radio equipment to set up a radio school to train the Philippine Army and had a large number of ham radio operators. Shortly after arriving at Ft. Stotsenburg, they set up a communications tent that was in contact with the United States within hours. 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 them frequencies to use. Men were able to send messages home to their families that they had arrived safely. With the arrival of the 192nd, the Provisional Tank Group was formed and Smyth was transferred to its headquarters.
Ten days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a squadron of American planes on routine patrol spotted Japanese transports milling about – in a large circle – in the South China Sea. On December 1, the two tank battalions were put on full alert and ordered to their positions at Clark Field. Their job was to protect the northern half of the airfield from paratroopers. The 194th guarded the north half of the airfield and the 192nd guarded the southern half. Two crewmen remained with the tanks at all times and received their meals from food trucks. The airfield two runways were shaped like a “V” and the Army Air Corps’ hangers and headquarters were at the point of the “V”. The tankers slept in sleeping bags on the ground under their tanks or palm trees. On December 7, the tanks were issued ammunition and the tankers spent the day loading ammunition belts.
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 192nd’s commanding officer, Gen. James Weaver, commanding officer of the tank group, and Major Ernest Miller, read the messages of the attack. Miller left the tent and informed his officers of the attack. He also ordered his officers to have the half-tracks join the tanks at Clark Field. Their job was to engage Japanese paratroopers. All the members of the tank and half-track crews were ordered to the north end of Clark Field. HQ Company remained behind in their bivouac.
On December 25, 1941, Smyth was transferred to the Provisional Tank Group replacing Lt. Col. Ross B. Smith who functioned as its Executive Officer and assumed his duties. In February 1942, Smyth was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. The Filipino and American troops fought the Japanese slowly losing ground. By March, they had fought to a standstill. It was at this time that the Japanese brought fresh troops into the battle and launched an all-out offensive.
The Japanese brought fresh troops to Bataan since the Americans and Filipinos with the help of tropical illnesses had fought the Japanese to a standstill. On April 3, 1942, the Japanese launched an attack supported by artillery and aircraft. A large force of Japanese troops came over Mount Samat and descended down the south face of the volcano. This attack wiped out two divisions of defenders and left a large area of the defensive line open to the Japanese. On April 7, the 57th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, supported by tanks, attempted to restore the line, but Japanese infiltrators prevented this from happening. During this action, one tank was knocked out but the remaining tanks successfully withdrew. C Company, 194th, was attached to the 192nd and had only seven tanks left.
It was the evening of April 8 that Gen. King decided that further resistance was futile, since approximately 25% of his men were healthy enough to fight, and he estimated they would last one more day. In addition, he had over 6,000 troops who were sick or wounded and 40,000 civilians who he feared would be massacred. His troops were on one-quarter rations, and even at that ration, he had two days of food left. He also believed his troops could fight for one more day. Companies B and D, 192nd, and A Company, 194th, were preparing for a suicide attack against the Japanese in an attempt to stop the advance. At 6:00 P.M. that tank battalion commanders received this order: “You will make plans, to be communicated to company commanders only, and be prepared to destroy within one hour after receipt by radio, or other means, of the word ‘CRASH’, all tanks and combat vehicles, arms, ammunition, gas, and radios: reserving sufficient trucks to close to rear echelons as soon as accomplished.”
It was at 10:00 P.M. that the decision was made to send a jeep – under a white flag – behind enemy lines to negotiate terms of surrender. The problem soon became that no white cloth could be found. A truck driver, for A Co., 192nd, realized that he had bedding buried in the back of his truck and searched for it. The bedding became the “white flags” that were flown on the jeeps. At 11:40 P.M., the ammunition dumps were destroyed. At midnight Companies B and D, and A Company, 194th, received an order from Gen. Weaver to stand down.
At 2:oo A.M. April 9, Gen. King sent a jeep under a white flag carrying Colonel Everett C. Williams, Col. James V. Collier, and Major Marshall Hurt to meet with the Japanese commander about terms of surrender. (The driver was from the tank group.) Shortly after daylight Collier and Hunt returned with word of the appointment. It was at about 6:45 A.M. that tank battalion commanders received the order “crash.” The tank crews circled their tanks. Each tank fired an armor-piercing shell into the engine of the tank in front of it. They also opened the gasoline cocks inside the tank compartments and dropped hand grenades into the tanks. Most of the company waited in their bivouac for the Japanese to make contact, while others attempted to reach Corregidor which had not surrendered.
As Gen. King left to negotiate the surrender, he went through the area held by B Company and spoke to the men. He said to them, “Boys, I’m going to get us the best deal I can. When you get home, don’t ever let anyone say to you, you surrendered. I was the one who surrendered.” Gen. King with his two aides, Maj. Wade R. Cothran and Captain Achille C. Tisdelle Jr. got into a jeep carrying a large white flag. They were followed by another jeep – also flying another large white flag – with Col. Collier and Maj. Hurt in it. As the jeeps made their way north, they were strafed and small bombs were dropped by a Japanese plane. The drivers of both jeeps managed to avoid the bullets. The strafing ended when a Japanese reconnaissance plane ordered the fighter pilot to stop strafing.
About 10:00 A.M. the jeeps reached Lamao where they were received by a Japanese Major General who informed King that he reported his coming to negotiate a surrender and that an officer from Japanese command would arrive to do the negotiations. The Japanese officer also told him that his troops would not attack for thirty minutes while King decided what he would do. After a half-hour, no Japanese officer had arrived from their headquarters and the Japanese attack had resumed. King sent Col. Collier and Maj. Hunt back to his command with instructions that any unit in the line of the Japanese advance should fly white flags. Shortly after this was done a Japanese colonel and interpreter arrived.
King was told the officer was Homma’s Chief of Staff and he had come to discuss King’s surrender. King attempted to get insurances from the Japanese that his men would be treated as prisoners of war, but the Japanese officer – through his interpreter – accused him of declining to surrender unconditionally. At one point King stated he had enough trucks and gasoline to carry his troops out of Bataan. He was told that the Japanese would handle the movement of the prisoners. The two men talked back and forth until the colonel said through the interpreter, “The Imperial Japanese Army are not barbarians.” King found no choice but to accept him at his word.
Unknown to Gen. King, an order attributed to Gen. Masaharu Homma – but in all likelihood from one of his subordinates – had been given. It stated, “Every troop which fought against our army on Bataan should be wiped out thoroughly, whether he surrendered or not, and any American captive who is unable to continue marching all the way to the concentration camp should be put to death in the area of 200 meters off the road.”
On April 10, the Japanese arrived and ordered the HQ personnel onto the road. It was at this time that Smyth witnessed “Japanese Discipline.” If a prisoner fell, he was kicked in his stomach and hit in the head with a rifle butt. If he still did not get up, the Japanese guard determined that the man was exhausted and left him alone.
When the trial ended, the POWs were on reached the main road, the first thing the Japanese did was separated the officers from the enlisted men. The Prisoners of War were then left in the sun for the rest of the day. That night they were ordered north. The march was difficult in the dark since they could not see where they were walking. Whenever they slipped, they knew they had stepped on the remains of a dead soldier. The POWs made their way north against the flow of Japanese troops who were moving south. At Limay on April 11, they were put into a schoolyard and told that the officers would be driven to the POW camp.
At 4:00 AM, the officers were put into trucks for an unknown destination. They were taken to Balanga, disembarked, and ordered to put their field bags in front of them for inspection. During the inspection, one officer was found to have an automatic gun in his bag. As punishment, the POWs were not fed. They set in a paddy all day and were ordered to move near sunset. They were made to march as punishment for the gun being in the bag. They reached Orani on April 12 at three in the morning.
At Orani, the POWs were put in a bullpen and ordered to lay down. In the morning, the POWs realized that they had been lying in the human waste of POWs who had already used the bullpen. At noon, he received his first food. It was a meal of rice and salt. Later in the day, other POWs arrived in Orani. One group was the enlisted members of the tank group. They had walked the entire way to the barrio.
At 6:30 that evening, he resumed the march which was different. The POWs were marched at a faster pace. The guards also seemed to be nervous about something. This time they made the POWs make their way to Hermosa. There, the road went from gravel to concrete. John found that this change of surface made the march easier. When the POWs were allowed to sit down, those who attempted to lay down were jabbed with bayonets. John received one of these jabs.
The POWs continued the march and for the first time in months, it began to rain. At 4:30 PM on April 13, he arrived at San Fernando. The POWs were once again put into a pen. At 4:00 in the morning, the Japanese woke the POWs and marched them to the train station. They were packed into small wooden boxcars and rode the train to Capas arriving there at 9:00 AM. There, they disembarked from the cars and walked the last ten 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 they had and refused to return it to them. They searched the POWs and if a man was found to have Japanese money on them, they were taken to the guardhouse. Over the next several days, gunshots were heard to the southeast of the camp. These POWs had been executed for looting.
There was only one water faucet in the camp, and the prisoners stood in line from two to eight hours waiting for a drink. The Japanese guards at the faucet would turn it off for no reason and the next man in line would stand as long as four hours waiting for it to be turned on again. This situation improved when a second faucet was added.
There was no water for washing clothes, so the POWs would throw out their clothing when it had been soiled. In addition, water for cooking had to be carried three miles from a river to the camp and mess kits could not be washed. The slit trenches in the camp were inadequate and were soon overflowing since most of the POWs had dysentery. The result was that flies were everywhere in the camp including the POW kitchens and in the food.
The camp hospital had no soap, water, or disinfectant. When the ranking American doctor at the camp wrote a letter to the camp commandant, Capt. Yohio Tsuneyoshi, asking for medical supplies, he was told never to write another letter. The Archbishop of Manila sent a truckload of medical supplies to the camp, the Japanese commandant refused to allow the truck into the camp. When the Philippine Red Cross sent medical supplies 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 cleaned area, and the area they had lain in was scraped 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 POW transfer was completed on June 4.
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.
The POWs were sent out on work details to cut wood for the POW kitchens. Meals on a daily basis consisted of 16 ounces of cooked rice, 4 ounces of vegetable oil, and sweet potato or corn. Other POWs worked in rice paddies. 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. 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. 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.
When the Japanese transferred all the generals to Manchuria, Smyth was of the tank group. As it turned out, he would give up the command to Lt. Col. Ernest B, Miller who had been commissioned before him. Smyth was held at Cabanatuan until August 1944 when he was sent to Bilibid Prison where he remained until December 13.
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, push carts, 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.
It was at this time that the POWs were allowed to sit down. Many of the POWs slept until 3:45 in the afternoon. They were awakened at about 5:00 PM and boarded the Oryoku Maru for transport to Japan. The high ranking officers were the first put into the ship’s aft hold. Being the first one into the hold meant that they would suffer many deaths since they had the worse conditions of any of the holds. 500 POWs were put into the forward hold, 600 in the middle hold, and 520 in the aft hold. Around the perimeter of the hold were two tiers of bunks for the POWs. The heat was so bad that men soon began to pass out. One survivor said, “The fist fights began when men began to pass out. We knew that only the front men in bay would be able to get enough air.” The POWs who were closer to the hold’s hatch used anything they could find to fan air toward those further away from it.
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 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 was 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.
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 until about 3:00 A.M. They also heard 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.
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.
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.
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 put in a 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 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 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 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.
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 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 ship’s machineguns 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.
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 the 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.
The ship arrived in Moji, Japan, on January 30, 1945. Once the ship had docked, Smyth was sent to Fukuoka #1. On Monday, March 5, 1945, he was reported to have died from malnutrition and was buried in the camp cemetery. Of the original 1619 men who boarded the Oryoku Maru in the Philippines, under 500 POWs survived to the end of the war.
After the war, the remains of the POWs who died had Fukuoka #1 were returned to the United States. On September 27, 1949, the remains were buried in Plot 82, Site 1B – 1D at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in Saint Louis, Missouri. The reason this was done was that the cemetery was considered the most centrally located burial spot, and the majority of families would have to travel the same distance to get to the grave.
Major Thaddeus Smyth was posthumously awarded the Silver Star.