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. 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. The POWs were allowed to sit, and many of them fell asleep. At 2:00 in the afternoon, the POWs were boarded onto the Oryoku Maru and put in one of the ship’s holds. The high-ranking officers were the first put into the ship’s forward hold while most of the other POWs were put in aft hold. Very few POWs were put in the middle 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. Their evening meal was fish and rice. Very little water was given to them and those who did have water drank all of it. The only ventilation was the air blowing in through the open hatch, so the officers attempted to have the men rotate so everyone got air. Those nearer to the hatch used whatever they could find to fan air to the men further back in the hold. Not long after this, these men attacked and killed other men to drink their blood.
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.” It is known that 25 POWs died in the forward hold the first night.
At 3:30 A.M. the ship was bound for Takao, Formosa, as part of MATA-37 a convoy. 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. 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. At 7:00 A.M. the Japanese sent down fried rice, cabbage, and fried seaweed, those POWs further back from the hatch got nothing. Three-fourths of a cup of water was shared by twenty POWs. It was 8:30 A.M. and the convoy was off the coast of Luzon 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 and last 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 men, women, and children 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; most had suffocated.
It was December 15 and the POWs were sitting in the ship’s holds when a Mr. Wada, the translator, shouted that the wounded would be the first to be evacuated. They were told all they could take were their mess kits, canteens, shoes, any clothing they had, and if they were caught carrying anything else they would be shot. 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 the 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. There was a tremendeious explosion when aft hold was hit by a bomb. 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. 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.”
Around 9:30 or 10:00 A.M. as the 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. They also saw on the deck large containers of corned beef, powdered milk, and butter from the Red Cross that was never given to them. 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. Another bomb hit the ship. 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.”
Many of the men, climbed onto the railings and jumped into the water – which was somewhere between 30 feet and 50 feet below them – feet first. Many of the POWs lost their canteens and mess kits when they entered the water which revived them. The better swimmers helped the weaker swimmers get to anything that floated. The stronger swimmers kept an eye out for anyone having problems swimming. 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 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. It was noted that the fire was raging on the ship. As they reached shore and the water was shallow, they were able to walk.
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. If they believed the men were attempting to escape they shot at them. Jack had been on the Proviso swim team and went out several times to help POWs who could not swim. This resulted in him being bayoneted by a guard when he returned to shore. 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. There was a water faucet that the Japanese allowed the POWs to fill their canteens from. As they watched, more Navy planes appeared and bombed the ship which broke in two and sank. 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 278 of the 1,619 POWs who had boarded the ship had died. The Japanese packed 1341 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. The third day on the courts the Japanese issued ragged clothing to the POWs with some men getting pants some getting shirts and the lucky men got both. 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. According to Major James McMinn, the ranking Japanese officer said to Beecher, “Your planes have sunk our ship. You Americans are to blame. You must suffer for this offense of your people. You will receive nothing.” When Beecher 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 20. At about 8:00 AM, 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 the courtyard of the provincial prison. The second group of POWs was housed in a pitch-black movie theater. The Japanese gave the POWs a single box of Red Cross medical supplies to treat the sick and wounded. Since it was dark, the POWs saw it as a dungeon. During the time there, the Japanese ordered the American doctors to select the fifteen sickest or wounded POWs to be sent to a hospital. These men were loaded onto trucks in the middle of the night and taken away. They were never seen again. Each day the POWs received two meals of a canteen cup, camotes, and enough dried fish that each POW received a piece. There was plenty of water and although the Japanese forbade bathing many of the POWs took baths. The POWs heard the explosions of bombs in the distance in what seemed to be an unending attack by American forces. Many concluded from the sound of the bombs that the planes had to be land-based aircraft.
The POWs were formed into a detachment on December 24 and marched to the train station and reunited with the other group of POWs. The railyard was in shambles with damaged train cars and engines everywhere. There, they boarded the same boxcars used on the march from Bataan. The Japanese wanted 80 POWs in each car, but the POWs were only able to get 50 to 59 men into each car, so the remainder of the POWs, mostly the sick and wounded, were tied to the cars and rode on the roofs. The Japanese said that they would be more comfortable on the roofs, but the Americans inside the cars knew – from the bullet holes in the walls of the cars – that this was being done to prevent the cars from being strafed by American planes. The Japanese told the POWs on the roofs to wave to any American plane that they saw. The bullet holes did one good thing, they allowed air to flow through the cars preventing men from suffocating.
The POWs rode the train from noon until 2:00 A.M. on December 25. Several times, during the trip the train stopped and the Filipinos attempted to give the POWs food and were chased away by the guards. When the POWs disembarked the train at 2:00 A.M. they sat on the train station platform until daybreak and then marched to a school on the outskirts of the barrio. There, they were fed a small ball of rice for breakfast and one for dinner with each man receiving a quarter cup of water. At some point that night the POWs were awaked and marched about three and a half to four miles to a beach where they remained the rest of the day. The heat from the sun was so bad that men drank seawater. Many of those men died.
Sometime before dawn on December 27, the POWs were awakened and marched a quarter of a mile to a pier and made to jump 20 feet down into Japanese landing crafts that were bobbing up and down in heavy seas. From the pier, the POWs were taken to the Brazil 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 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 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 rising among the POWs. On January 6, the POWs from the Brazil Maru were moved to the forward hold of the Enoura Maru.
The POWs had just received breakfast on January 9, when the sound of planes was heard followed by the sound of bombs exploding in the water. As they sat in the hold, the explosions got closer and closer to the ship which was anchored in the harbor. During the attack, the POWs watched as three bombs fell toward the ship. All they could do is wait to see where the bombs would hit. One bomb exploded in the hold and the hatch cover and beams fell on the POWs. All together 285 POWs died during the attack. Capt. Jefferson Speck said, “The forward hold was really a horrible mess with blood, brains, and flesh all over the place.”
In an attempt to repair the ship, the Japanese transferred the POWs to the undamaged hold of the ship. The POWs watched as the Japanese attempted to patch the ship. The Japanese left the dead in the hold and the smell was unbelievable. To get the Japanese to do something, the POWs stacked the bodies under the hold’s hatch so that they would be the first thing the Japanese saw and smelled. 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, and a POW detail of twenty men took the corpses close to shore and dragged the bodies onto a beach to be buried in a mass grave on Formosa. Later in the day, the survivors of the forward hold were moved into another hold.
On January 13, the surviving POWs were boarded onto a third “Hell Ship” the Brazil Maru. Barges were used to take the POWs to the ship. The wounded suffered the most pain since some were lowered onto the barges with ropes. When they reached the ship, they were hoisted onto it the same way. The POWs found they had more room in the hold and they were actually issued lifejackets. Since there were no medical facilities fifteen POWs died the first night mostly from wounds. The bodies remained in the hold until 50 POWs died.
The longer the trip went on the more POWs died. As many as 30 POWs died each day. 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.
At one point, the ship also towed one or two other ships that had been damaged. When the ship docked at Moji on January 29, the POWs were walking skeletons. Of the original 1619 men that boarded the Oryoku Maru, only 459 of the POWs had survived the trip to Japan. The Japanese civilians seeing the condition of the men showed shock on their faces. The POWs were shuffled through the streets to the train station.
When the ship docked at Moji, the POWs were walking skeletons. The Japanese civilians seeing the condition of the men showed shock on their faces. The POWs were fed, but there was no water to wash the mess kits or for the men to use to wash themselves. The POWs used their urine on their heads to clean themselves. The Japanese held their noises while the POWs were shuffled through the streets to the train station. One of the reasons they smelled so bad was that during this part of the trip there was no water for them to wash, so they had used their own urine to wash with. Of the original 1619 men that boarded the Oryoku Maru, only 459 of the POWs had survived the trip to Japan.