Lt. Col. Curtis Thurston Beecher was born on October 28, 1897, in Chicago, Illinois, to Bryant L. Beecher and Grace Thurston-Beecher. His father worked in the composing room for the Chicago Daily News. With his five sisters, he was raised at 1619 South 8th Avenue in Maywood, Illinois, attended local schools, and graduated from Proviso Township High School in 1915.
On April 27, 1917, Curtis enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, as a private, and did his basic training as a member of Company I, Marine Barracks, Port Royal, South Carolina. A few months later, he was in Europe as a member of the 82nd Company, 6th Regiment, 2nd Division, American Expeditionary Force, at Somme, France. He fought in four major battles with the Sixth Marine Regiment. During this time, he was promoted to sergeant in October 1917, and 2nd Lieutenant on August 1, 1918. When World War I ended, he remained in Europe and returned home on December 8, 1920, at Hoboken, New Jersey.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Beecher had multiple deployments in the United States and overseas and in September 1921, he was promoted to Captain. It was also during this time period that he married Juanita A. Trelease on May 7, 1931. Once again, he had multiple deployments during the 1930s. It was while he was commanding the Marine Detachment, Receiving Ship, Destroyer Base, San Diego, California, that he was promoted to Major on November 26, 1934. On June 29, 1938, he was promoted to Lt. Colonel while deployed at the Marine Barracks, Naval Ammunition Depot, Puget Sound, Washington.
Beecher’s next deployment was with Headquarters Company, First Battalion, Fourth Marines, at Shanghai, China, in October 1941. His time in China was short when the 4th Marines sailed for the Philippine Islands on November 28, 1941, arriving on November 30. From there, the Marines were sent to Olongapo Naval Station, from where they would be moved to Corregidor. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On Corregidor, Beecher was put in command of the eastern beach defenses of the island.
After Bataan fell, the Japanese were able to focus their attack on Corregidor with constant bombing and shelling. On May 5, the Japanese landed on the island and fierce fighting took place. According to Beecher, General Johnathan Wainwright called him into his office and said, “This is the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life.” With ammunition, food, and water almost gone, Wainwright had Beecher send two officers with white flags to attempt to contact the Japanese command to arrange for the surrender of Corregidor on May 6, 1942.
The Japanese moved the new Prisoners of War to a beach were they held for 48 hours, without food, water, or shelter, and with the sun beating down on them during the day. The sick and wounded lay among the POWs without medical care.
He recalled, “We were then dumped ashore to Manila and marched through the streets on exhibition apparently to impress the Philippine people that we were defeated Americans. On the march we what we were to experience many times thereafter. If a man fell out, he was kicked, worked over with a gun butt, then prodded with a bayonet. If the man failed to respond, he was picked up later by a Japanese truck. Many of those picked up were corpses.”
Beecher and the other prisoners from Corregidor were taken to Camp 3 at Cabanatuan. The POWs who had surrendered on Bataan were in Camp 1. Being that they did not experience the same type of march, they were in better shape than the men who had fought on Bataan.
He said, “We were lucky at Camp 3. We had only 30 deaths from June 1942 to January 1943. Camp 1 had 2800. There were 6000 in each camp in quarters built for 2000, but we at Camp 3 hadn’t been kicked around quite so much.”
Beecher believed the situation the Americans found themselves in was the result of the Japanese not being able to adjust to a situation. The Japanese carried out their orders to the letter, but, in his opinion, had no initiative to change a plan. The only way the Americans were able to get concessions was to suggest an idea in such a way that the Japanese believed it was their idea.
As work details went out and fewer men remained at Cabanatuan, Camps 1 and 3 were combined with Beecher as the commanding officer of the camp. He recalled that the Camp 1 POWs were walking skeletons without medical supplies, and at the camp also had a permanent burial detail of 80 men who buried as many as 40 men a day.
In Beecher’s opinion, what made things better for the POWs was a change in the Japanese command that allowed more food to be given to the prisoners and the fact that they received their first Red Cross packages. On that day, no POWs died in the camp. At the same time, in January 1943, his mother died.
During his time as American camp commander, the POWs were allowed to keep gardens, have entertainment, and religious services. He also had more latrines dug, changed the latrines to box latrines, deepened drainage ditches from the latrines to stop the spread of disease, and had wooden walkways added.
Beecher recalled that a hidden radio let the POWs know how the war was going. On one occasion, American planes shot down a Japanese plane near the camp. The Americans cheered but were never punished because the guards had been concerned about their own safety.
In late 1944, Beecher was taken to Bilibid Prison for transport to Japan. On December 12, 1944, the POWs heard rumors that a detail was being sent out. The POWs went through what was a farce of an inspection. They were told cigarettes, soap, and salt would be issued. The POWs were also told that they would also receive a meal to eat and one to take with them. The Japanese stated they would leave by 7:00 in the morning, so the lights were left on all night. At 4:00 a.m. on the morning of December 13, the other POWs were awakened.
By 8:00, the POWs were lined up and roll call was taken and the names of the men selected for transport to Japan were called. 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. During the march down Luzon Boulevard, the POWs saw that the streetcars had stopped running and many things were in disrepair.
The Americans saw that the American bombers were doing a job on the Japanese transports. There were at least forty wrecked ships in the bay. When the POWs reached Pier 7, there were three ships docked. 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. 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 side 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.
The ship moved out of Manila Bay and came under attack from America planes. Beecher said, “I had already seen enough to hope to hope they would hit it.” The ship was damaged from bombs exploding nearby.
The ship reached Subic Bay at 2:30 in the morning and steamed closer to the beach where its anchor was dropped. At 4:00 A.M., the POWs were told that they would disembark at daybreak 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.
The POWs received their first meal at dawn. Meals on the ship consisted of a little rice, fish, some water, and three-fourths of a cup of water that was shared by 20 POWs. It was 8:00 A.M., off the coast of Luzon, and the POWs had just finished eating breakfast when they heard the sound of 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.
At first, it seemed that most of the planes were attacking the other ships in the convoy. Commander Frank Bridgit had 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.”
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.
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. The attack by 30 to 50 planes lasted for about 20 to 30 minutes. When the planes were running 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.
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 30 caliber machine guns to defend the ship.
At 4:30 P.M., the ship went through the worse attack on it. 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. During the attack, Chaplain William Cummings 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 haul, 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.
Sometime after midnight, the POWs heard the sound of the Japanese civilians being evacuated from the ship. 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.
Of this, he said, “That night was the worst night of my life. Nothing could induce me to endure it again. The wounded for whom we could do nothing —the heat…It was beyond description.”
It was December 15 and the POWs sat in the ship’s holds for hours after dawn. The first 35 POWs were taken out of the hold and went into the water. At 8:00 A.M. as the other POWs waited, the sound of A Japanese guard yelled into the hold at the POWs, “All go home; speedo!” He shouted that the wounded would be the first to be evacuated. Suddenly, he looked up and shouted, “Planes, many planes!”
As the POWs were abandoning ship the planes returned and continued the attack. The ship bounced in the water from the explosions. Chief Boatswain Clarence M. Taylor who was in the water said, “I saw the whole thing. A bomb fell, hit near the stern hatch, and debris goes 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 chaplain, Major John Duffy began to pray, “Father forgive them. They know not what they do.”
The Japanese guards and interpreter had abandoned 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. The POWs made their way over the side and into the water. As they swam to shore, the Japanese fired at them, with machine guns, to prevent them from escaping.
One bomb just missed the ship and injured nearly 300 POWs in the water. Beecher said, “You understand that many of the wounded were not badly hit. It was just that they couldn’t supply without medicine and food and in the conditions under which we were forced to treat them.”
Four of the planes flew low over the water above the POWs. The POWs waved frantically at the planes so they would not be strafed. The planes banked and flew lower over the POWs. This time the pilots dipped their wings to show that they knew the men in the water were Americans. About a half-hour later, the ship began to really burn and the bodies of the dead could be seen on the decks.
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 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 up 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.
The POWs were gathered together and marched to the 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.
While the POWs were at Olongapo, a Japanese officer, Lt. Junsaburo Toshio, told the ranking American officer, Lt. Col. E. Carl Engelhart, that those too badly wounded to continue the trip would be returned to Bilibid. Fifteen men were selected and loaded onto a truck. They were taken into the mountains and never seen again. What was learned is that these men were taken to a cemetery and shot. They were 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.
The POWs remained on the tennis courts for nine days. During their time on the tennis courts, American planes attacked the area around them. The POWs watched as the planes came in vertically releasing their bombs as they pulled up from their dives. The POWs watched as the planes went into dives and released their 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 enjoyed the show. They believed that the pilots knew they were Americans but had no way of knowing if this was true. But what is known is that not one bomb was dropped on them even though they could be seen from the planes.
The evening of December 16, 50-kilo bags of rice. About half of the rice had fallen out of the bags because of the holes. Each POW was given three spoons of raw rice, and a quarter of a spoon of salt.
At about 8:00 AM on the morning of December 22, 22 trucks arrived at the tennis court. Rumors flew on where they were going to be taken. At about 4:00 PM, a Taiwanese guard told the POWs, in broken English, “No go Cabanatuan. Go Manila; maybe Bilibid.” The guard knew as little as the POWs.
On December 21, the POWs were taken by truck to San Fernando, Pampanga, arriving there about four or five in the afternoon. Once there, they were put in a movie theater. Since it was dark, the POWs saw as a dungeon.
During their time at in the barrio, 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.
At 10:00 P.M. on December 23, the Japanese interpreter came and spoke to the ranking American officer about moving the POWs. The Japanese loaded the seriously ill POWs into a truck. Those remaining behind believed they were taken to Bilibid. The remaining POWs were moved to a trade school building in the barrio.
The POWs were taken to the train station on December 24 at 10:00 A.M. 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 from the train at San Fernando, La Union, at 2:00 A.M. They walked two kilometers to a schoolyard on the southern outskirts of the barrio. From December 25 until the 26. The POWs were held in a schoolhouse. On the morning of December 26, the POWs were marched to a beach. During this time the prisoners were allowed one handful of rice and a canteen of water. The heat from the sun was so bad that men drank seawater. Many of those men died.
The remaining POWs were boarded onto a second ship, the Enoura Maru, On this ship, the POWs were held in three different holds. The ship had been used to haul cattle. 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 go on deck and pull up the dead by rope. They also pulled up the buckets of human waste. Afterward, the men on deck would lower ten buckets containing rice, soup, and tea that had been prepared by other POWs assigned to cook.
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 docked 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. This resulted in the death rate among the POWs to rise. All the POWs from the Brazil Maru were moved to the forward hold of the Enoura Maru. On January 6, the POWs began to receive two meals a day.
The Enoura Maru was attacked by American planes on the morning of January 9, 1945. The POWs were receiving their first meal of the day when the sound of 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 hit the ship and exploded in the corner of the forward hold killing 285 prisoners. The Japanese would not allow the POWs to remove the dead from the ship’s holds.
One Navy Seaman recalled, “I shall never forget the prayer that Father (Cummings) asked that night after the bombing when the Japs would not let us move the bodies. Before, many men had not paid no attention, but this night the minute he stood up there was absolute silence. I guess it was the first real and complete silence that there had been since we left Manila. Even the deranged fellows were quiet.And I remember what is opening words were. He said, ‘O God — O God please grant that tomorrow that we will be spared from being bombed.’ The last thing he did was to lead us in the Lord’s Prayer. I think every man there, even the unbalanced ones, managed to repeat at least some of the words after him.” The surviving POWs remained in the hold for three days with the dead, and the stench from the dead filled the air.
On January 11 a work detail was formed and about half the dead were removed from the hold. The dead were unloaded from the ship on a barge and taken to shore. The POWs were too weak to carry the bodies, so ropes were tied to the legs and the corpses were dragged ashore and buried in a mass grave on the beach.
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.
Beecher 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 will order done to those men. They may have 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 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.
The surviving POWs were moved to a third ship, the Brazil Maru on Saturday, January 13. The ship sailed at dawn on the 14th as part of a convoy. Sometime after noon, the POWs received their first meal of a quarter cup of red rice for each POW. The POWs found the first night on the ship was extremely cold. What made it worse was that most of the POWs had dysentery. During the trip, the POWs received two meals a day which consisted of each man receiving a third of a cup of rice and eight teaspoons of tea.
During this part of the trip, as many as 30 POWs died each day. The ship also towed one or two other ships that had been damaged. Of the original 1619 men that boarded the Oryoku Maru, only 459 of the POWs had survived the trip to Japan.
Once on shore, the POWs were put into a movie theater. They remained there until they were divided into three detachments and marched to the train station where they boarded a train that took them to the various camps along the line. In Beecher’s case, he was one of 190 POWs sent to Fukuoka #3. By the end of April, 52 of the POWs had died from exposure. It was at this time that the Japanese decided it was time for those that were supposed to go Manchuria to be sent there. He was boarded onto another ship, the Otaro Maru. He stated that there were only 316 POWs from the Oryoku Maru still alive.
According to records, after arriving in Korea and sent to Jinsen POW Camp. Most of the POWs in the camp were officers. He remained there until the end of the war.
After the war, Beecher left Korea on the U.S.S. Noble on September 16, 1945, and returned him to the United States. After liberation, Beecher was promoted to Colonel and Brigadier General effective May 1942.
He retired from the military and moved to Roseburg, Oregon, where he became involved in politics and charitable fundraising. On February 23, 1984, Curtis Beecher passed away in Roseburg, Oregon, and was buried at Roseburg National Cemetery in Roseburg.