THE FATE OF 1619 AMERICAN PRISONERS OF WAR
WHO LEFT BILIBID PRISON CAMP AT MANILA ON 13 DECEMBER 1944 BOUND FOR MANCHURIA ON THE S.S. ORYOKU MARU
NAMED BY THE PRISONERS OF WARS AS THE “HELL SHIP”
AS TAKEN FROM REPORTS OF INTERNED AMERICAN PRISONERS LIAISON & RESEARCH BRANCH AMERICAN PRISONER OF WAR INFORMATION BUREAU
By JOHN M. GIBBS 31 July 1946
A detail of 1,619 American prisoners of war were awakened before dawn on Dec. 13, 1944 by the loud clanging of a gong in Manila's old Bilibid prison. This signal was a summons to this prison detail to prepare to evacuate Bilibid and to embark for a hazardous sea journey to another camp, or camps, in Japan. Coupled with a realization of the probability of bombing attacks by American planes during the voyage, was the hope of a pioneer of other lands held the promise of better conditions than at Bilibid. And so the "hope that springs eternal in the human breast" quieted or over-rode to an extent at least their misgivings. They were not loathe to be on their way-these men who had been prisoners of Japan for nearly 3 years. They had endured the pangs of hunger. They had suffered diseases which followed extreme malnutrition with unbeatable Stoicism. The cruel beatings administered to them by the sadistic Japanese had not put out the light of belief that a day of reckoning would surely come for the persecutors.
Packs on back the long column moved slowly through the prison compound towards the gate. Fellow prisoners who were too sick to make the journey filled the windows and doors of the camp. The fond farewells were the benedictions of the men who could not be beaten down to the earth and remain there. When the column was about half-way out of the compound an air-alarm was sounded. The column was quickly reversed and rushed back to the camp.
Order being restored the column was reformed and at 10:30 a.m. the march to the pier of debarkation was again begun. By this time the sun was bearing down, clothing was soaked and pack straps were cutting into the shoulders of these emaciated men. Some were disposed to discard their packs, but they continued to plod on and to hold onto their possessions, not knowing that a short while later the packs would have to be thrown away as a means of preserving life. The prisoners marched through the streets of Manila in columns of fours, a truck following to pick up the man who could not finish the march, to a pier where the went aboard the Japanese S.S. Oryoku Maru, on which had previously been placed about 700 Japanese nationals from the Philippines, largely women and children bound for Japan.
The prison ship was in a convoy of about 7 vessels, some of which were transports loaded with Japanese troops, guarded by a cruiser and several destroyers.
The prisoners occupied 3 different holds in the ship, all badly crowded. Soon after getting under way, the effects of over-crowding became distressing: During the night between 20 and 30 Americans died of suffocation or by being shot by Japanese guards while trying to climb the ladders in search of fresh air.
Each day of this trip in what was aptly dubbed the Hell Ship, is so fraught with horrible experiences of the prisoners that a chronological recording is made in the belief that the event justifies this action:
14 December 1944. No one was allowed on deck but a small food detail. The hatches had not been battened down. During the forenoon an attack by U.S. Navy planes came over, followed by 16 other raids throughout the day. The men were badly shaken about and were covered with rust chips and bomb dust. Several of the Japanese gun crews stationed at a large anti-aircraft gun were dead or dying. Blood was running freely from the decks into the holds. Many prisoners were wounded. During the night Japanese officers took several American medical officers up on deck to administer medical assistance to their wounded nationals. They had only candle light to work by and no medicine or bandages. The hopelessness of the situation was soon realized and the American officers were returned to their prison quarters, but in this brief interval they discovered that the decks, cabins, dining room and parlor were littered with the dead and the dying Japanese.
15 December 1944. This new day brought with it the certainty of another holocaust. Retribution usually pursues crime. The prisoners were certain that the Navy planes would return to finish the job. Their expectations soon materialized. About nine o'clock a.m. the bombardment was repeated. This time there was no resistance from the Oryoku Maru. The Japanese gun crews had been killed. Following the dropping of the bombs came the spraying of bullets and the consequent explosions and severe concussions. The board floor in one of the holds gave way and dropped the prisoners about 20 feet into the dirty bilge water underneath. Succeeding raids came over dealing death and destruction. Finally a breathing spell came. The American medical corps officers had an opportunity to look to the wounded, some hopelessly pinned under heavy boards at the bottom of the ship. These officers were frustrated and realized their helplessness. Such medical supplies as they brought with them had been used. Aid was administered as far as possible but was entirely inadequate. A mess representative who went above for food reported, upon his return, that all the ships of the convoy had disappeared—probably sunk. While pondering this situation a Japanese guard announced that the prisoners would go ashore. The ship was now in Subic Bay and had been beached about one half mile off shore at Olongapo Naval Station, Philippine Islands. There were no life boats to take the victims to land. In reality this was the time to "sink or swim." When the swimmers reached the shore they were herded together on the beach. Looking out to sea they viewed the Hell Ship gradually disappearing below the sea’s surface, broken in half, and carrying with her the remains of the dead and many hopelessly wounded American prisoners who could not be carried ashore as well as a large number of Japanese nationals who had suffered the same fate. The total casualties among the American prisoners up to the time of going ashore at Olongapo was 278 as was determined by the roster produced by Lt. Col. Curtis T. Beecher, U.S.M.C. the Senior Officer. One of the survivors in telling his experiences after leaving the ship and going ashore at Olongapo said:
“In a few minutes we got our chance to go up the long ladder. I took off my shoes and clothes and discarded them, along with the can of meat that I had been saving for months as an emergency ration. It would be too heavy if I had to swim far. Finally my turn came to go above. The rungs of the ladder hurt my bare feet and I felt really exhausted by the time I reached the deck but this was no time to “poop out.” I was quickly aware of 3 planes directly overhead. I ran across the deck and jumped. My right leg hit the railing of the deck below, spinning me into the air. Just when I thought I would never hit the water it came up and hit me a terrific blow in the back. It knocked the wind out of me, and it seemed I struggled through oceans of green water before I breathed God’s good air again. I struck out for the shore which was about ½ mile off, but had only gone a few yards when my malnourished extremities refused to function. I looked up to check the location of the planes. They were pulling out of their dives but had dropped nothing. They must have recognized us in the water. They circled around, dipped their wings to the waving prisoner and were off toward Manila.
I found a large piece of bamboo floating in the water took it in tow and slowly plodded ashore. I arrived at the seawall near a dental officer friend, and a soldier whom I had never seen before. We helped each other climb up the 6-foot wall and sat down to rest. I looked over my leg, which was badly skinned and bruised.”
We had been seated only a matter of minutes when a diminutive Jap soldier came out of the woods behind us, his bayonet dripping in blood. He fixed his beady brown eyes on us, raised his rifle and fired. The soldier sitting next to me, slumped over, a stream of blood pouring out of his heart. Again the Jap raised his rifle and had it pointed at me. I made the quickest move of my life and jumped back into the water. He raised his rifle and fired rapidly at prisoners swimming ashore. He did not seem to care whom he killed, but was thoroughly imbued with the idea of killing.
Finally, we were invited to go ashore by the guards, each 4 prisoners having to carry a wounded man. We were escorted about a half-mile to an enclosure where we were told to sit down, with threat of being shot if we stood up. The survivors continued to straggle in for several hours. We sat in the sun and dried our scanty clothing and got warm a little. Navy officers told us that we were at the old Olongapo river base in Subic Bay. The later arrivals stated that Lt. Toshino, the Japanese officer in charge of our detail was going about the ship giving mercy shots to the wounded, prisoners and guards alike. We could see the steam of the ship, which was burning rather vigorously.
At 2 and 5 p.m. planes came back and bombed the ship heavily, causing large fires, which spread though the old ship rapidly and caused frequent explosions of stored ammunition.
We immediately segregated the wounded in the enclosure and took care of them the best we could with what little medicine we had. When it began to get dark the guards herded us onto a tennis court counting us as we went through the gate. There were 1,341 survivors of the 1,619 who started the trip. There wasn't enough room for us all to sit down. After sunset it got cold rapidly. We were still in the underwear in which we had swum ashore. We huddled together to keep warm. We were hungry, having had nothing to eat all day and practically nothing the day before. The mosquitoes had a holiday on our bare extremities. We could not sleep, but it was a relief to be off the ill fated Oryoku Maru. The concrete surface became harder and harder.
Finally morning came, and the warmth of the sun made us feel much better we improvised a hospital at one end of the court and moved all the sick and wounded into it. We had nothing to work with. We made bandages from clothing and splints from bamboo. There was nothing to relieve the pain of the wounded. Many of the prisoners who had been in the aft-hold were badly burned. Many were covered with oil which was on the surface of the water about the ship. Beards were poking through the oil-smeared faces to which dirt adhered tenaciously. From dawn until dark we worked among the patients, washing faces and shaving beards, the only comforts these unfortunate patients experienced.
15 December to 20 December, the prisoners were corralled in a tennis court at Olongapo. A small quantity of salvaged Japanese cotton uniforms were made available as many of the prisoners had absolutely no protection from the heat of the day and the cold nights.
On 20 and 21 December 1944 the entire detail of 1,341 American prisoners who survived the Oryoku Maru sinking were started on their way from Olongapo to San Fernando, Pampanga where they remained until the morning of 24 December,1944, when the prisoners were loaded in and on top of freight cars-130 to 180 prisoners per car. The sick and wounded men were tied on the car tops and were told to wave to the American planes if the train of 10 cars and two locomotives were attacked. An air raid was in progress at the time, but the train was not molested.
25 December 1944 the prisoners were detrained at San Fernando, La Union on Lingayen Gulf after 36 hours of travel. The detail was marched to a school house where two inadequate Japanese meals were served with a small quantity of water to each prisoner. After the second meal the prisoners were marched to the beach where they remained through that day and the next.
26 December 1944 on the beach at San Fernando to which the wounded and sick had been taken. Everybody was weak and many had dysentery. The sick and wounded were later moved from the beach to a temporary hospital, which was set up in a school building.
27 December 1944 the detail was marched to a pier from which they counted 14 sunken ships in the bay and from there were carried by Japanese landing boats to two freighters designated by numbers only, namely No. 1 and No. 2 scheduled to sail to Takao, Formosa. To board the landing boats from the pier there was a drop of 20 to 25 feet. The water was extremely rough due to rip currents. The men were reluctant to jump that distance to the pier. If they hesitated they were pushed off the pier by the Japanese soldiers with bayonets. Several of the prisoners were severely injured in jumping. 236 officers and men wnt aboard ship No. 2, (the Brazil Maru). The remainder were assigned to ship No. 1, (the Enoura Maru.) Again they were herded in holds below the main deck. The ships got underway immediately. These ships had been transporting live stock, probably horses, and no attempt had been made by the Japanese to remove the stalls and the manure. The flies were beyond descriptions.
28 December 1944 to 13 January,1945 enroute to Takao, Formosa from San Fernando and no incidents. The ships reached Takao on December 31, and while in the harbor the officers were made to remove the stalls and litter from the holds of vessels. They remained in the harbor of Takao until January 13, 1945. On 8 Jan., the vessels in the convoy were attacked by Navy planes. Prison ships #1 and #2 were not attacked. On this date 500 to 600 prisoners were transferred from one hold in ship #1 to another hold. On 9 Jan. 1945. Ship # 1 along with Japanese freighters and troop ships in the convoy were bombarded by Navy planes. Ship #1 was hit several times and the casualties in one of the hatches were very heavy, about 300 were killed or seriously wounded, and about 250 men were less seriously hurt. On 10 Jan., the Japanese doctors, with some meager first aid equipment came aboard ship #1, but rendered very little service. Details of the strongest men were set to removing bodies of the killed men to the beach. The wounded, with no medical attention, suffered severely and the death rate was extremely high. Dysentery cases were numerous. Several of the American doctors were dead leaving only three on active list, namely Lt. Col. Craig, Maj. Jacobs and Major McWilliams. Small pieces of plank were fashioned into splints and much needed clothing was made into bandages. In one of the holds on ship #1 were mangled Americans, some 300 of them, piled three deep and pinned down by large steel girders and hatch covers. It was really a brutal mess. A few wounded stood or sat motionless at the sides of the hold. During 11 and 12 Jan. 1945 the time was spent in burying the American dead near the beach, about 300, with simple funeral services.
13 to 29 January. On the 13th the survivors, a total of less than 600 out of the detail of 1,619 prisoners that left Manila on December 13, 1944, were transferred to ship #2. On 14 January, in a convoy of six or seven vessels, ship #2 moved out of the harbor on the final leg of the journey for Mojii on the Island of Kyushu. After leaving Formosa this vessel sailed during the day and laid-by at night. Submarine attacks were carried on from time to time. When the men were allowed to go on deck to the latrines they noticed several disabled vessels in the convoy being towed. The weather was very cold and decks were covered with ice and snow. Prison quarters were unbelievably bad. The men were extremely crowded and many were suffering from dysentery and diarrhea. The whole vessel was exceedingly dirty from human excretia, and no attempt was made by the Japanese to assist the prisoners in cleaning up. By January 26 the prisoners were so weak they could barely get the dead up on deck. No funeral rites were said. There were only three or four chaplains left out of 23 and they were all sick. Medical service had really evaporated. At dawn on 29, January, 1945, the ship anchored in the harbor of Moji. The roll call showed that only 497 prisoners were alive, a total loss of 1,122 Americans who had risked and given their lives in defense of America and its ideals.
The 497 prisoners who survived the hardships of this journey were startlingly emaciated (70 to 90 Ibs. below normal weight) weak and themselves sick in mind and body, perhaps bloody but with "heads unbowed" were divided into four groups, and dispersed to prison camps in what is known as the Fukuoka area on the island of Kyushu, Japan.
12 April 1946