Defenders of the Philippines

picture of captivity and picture of release from captivity

Ken Ray Wheeler

 Picture of Ken Wheeler

Ken Wheeler was born on June 13, 1918 near Huntsville, Arkansas in the Ozark Mountains. His family moved to a town near Olinda, California when Ken was still at a young age, and then to Fullerton, California. Upon graduating from high school in 1935, Ken attended the University of California at Berkeley, where he joined the Naval ROTC unit. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1939, along with a commission as Ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve. He was sent to the Naval Finance and Supply School in Philadelphia in August 1939 and was then assigned to the 16th Naval District Command at Manila in July 1940.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, Ken was stationed at the Cavite Naval Shipyard. He was ordered to Mariveles, Bataan upon destruction of the Shipyard, and he was reassigned to the USS Canopus Provisional Infantry Battalion Naval detachment. Serving as the Supply Officer and Company Commander, he soon witnessed combat action when a Japanese force landed at Longaskawayan Point. Ken's battalion fought for six days in what became known as the Battle of the Points until they were relieved by the U.S. 57th Infantry Battalion of Philippine Scouts, who were able to drive back the Japanese.

Ken was then transferred to Fort Mills on Corregidor in March 1942 and assigned to the 16th Naval District Staff. After the fall of Bataan, the Japanese began firing on Corregidor, which subsequently fell on May 6, 1942. Ken became a prisoner of war, taken first to the 92nd Garage area. He was assigned to a work detail at Topside, gathering ammunition. After about two weeks, Ken was taken to Manila, where he spent one month at Bilibid as part of a work detail renovating the prison into a hospital.

Ken was next sent to Cabanatuan. In October 1942, Ken volunteered for a transfer group and went to Davao Penal Colony. For a short time he was in the kang-kong gathering detail, but then he was assigned to the rice fields, although he did volunteer for a temporary carpenter detail. Later, Ken also volunteered to work on a run-down Philippine diesel tug. While on this detail, he helped a guard named Hiyasi, who afterward treated the men with a measure of kindness.

In June 1944, Ken was among those taken back to Cabanatuan; approximately six months later, in November, they were transferred to Bilibid, and in December they boarded the Oryoku Maru. When it was bombed by American aircraft, Ken and a buddy, Bill Elliot, swam to shore; Ken then made several trips back to the ship to save more men. Those who made it to shore were kept on tennis courts for five days before being loaded onto convoy trucks and transported to a jail in San Fernando, Pampanga.

From there, on December 25, 1944, Ken and the other men were taken to San Fernando, La Union and placed aboard the Enoura Maru, which landed at Takao, Formosa one week later. While in harbor, American anti-aircraft struck the Enoura. Ken volunteered for burial detail to tend to the several hundred men killed by the attack. On January 15, 1945, the surviving men were transferred to the Brazil Maru, where Ken again came into contact with Hiyashi, who on several occasions gave Ken extra food.

When the Brazil finally reached Moji, Japan on January 30, the men were taken to Fukuoka Camp No. 1. In April, Ken and a group of others were transported to Jinsen Camp in Inchon, Korea, where they worked on a sewing detail mending buttonholes on Japanese uniforms.

The Seventh Fleet and Seventh U.S. Army liberated Ken in October 1945. In early November, after receiving medical treatment, Ken was flown to a Naval Hospital in Hawaii, where his sister-in-law's sister and her husband picked him up. He was soon joined by his family and transferred to a Naval Hospital in Corona, California.

On December 30, 1945, Ken married Marilyn Benningsdorf and moved to Arlington, Virginia. Shortly thereafter he was diagnosed with and underwent treatment for schistosomiasis, a blood parasite he had contracted working in the rice detail at Davao.

Ken was the recipient of the Bronze Star Medal in the autumn of 1946 and, a few months later, of a Gold Star. Ken remained in full active duty until retiring as a vice admiral in October 1974. He and Marilyn had two daughters, Sandy and Chrissy, and one son, Elliot Ray.

For Ken's entire biography, read "...For My Children"