By GEORGE WELLER
A Correspondent of the Chicago Daily News and Post-Dispatch
Thin from nearly three years' confinement, guarded by Japanese with bayonets, a column of American prisoners numbering somewhere above 1600 men shuffled in ranks of four through Manila's dusty streets on the morning of Dec.18, 1944, on their way from Bilibid prison to what in pre-war days had been known as "The Million Dollar Pier."
They shuffled rather than marched because the sun was hot and many of them were ill.
The ragged street boys of Manila made them furtive V-for-Victory signs. In the lace curtained parlors of the poor Philippine homes the cheap radios were turned on full blast as they approached, then tuned down after they left: an indirect salute of the underground.
Officers, Men, Civilians.
Nearly all the prisoners were veterans of the defense of Bataan, Corregidor and Mindanao. About half were officers. They represented about 90 per cent of the field, staff and medical officers who had sustained the defense of the Philippines for six months totally without help from the United States.
The officers ranked from Navy commanders and lieutenant colonels of the Army and Marines down through lieutenants and ensigns. Some were civilians who had been commissioned hastily after Japan struck south. Others were civilians who had helped in the defense of Bataan and Corregidor without ever having formally entered the armed forces. There were also 37 British prisoners.
The 1600 prisoners---the exact number is given by various survivors as 1619 and 1633 --- marched slowly through Manila not only because of heat and illness, but because rumor had already spread that they were being sent to Japan. If true, this report meant that their long-sustained hope of being rescued and freed by Gen. MacArthur's forces was ended.
The prisoners thought their journey by sea to Japan might take as much as a week or 10 days. Had they realized what lay ahead of them---that some would die of suffocation before even the next dawn---many undoubtedly would have chosen immediate death on the bayonets of the Japanese guards who flanked them.
Many of the prisoners were survivors of the death march from Bataan to Camp O'Donnel, where the willful denial of water and food by the Japanese cost the lives of hundreds of Americans.
These men, including everything from highly trained West Point and Annapolis graduates to hastily registered missionary chaplains, had no inkling that they were setting forth on a journey no less cruel and far more extended than the death march to Camp O'Donnell, a trip which for deliberate butchery and needless sacrifice would take its place with the Alamo and the Boston Massacre.
Instead of lasting 10 days, as the prisoners expected, their journey to Japan would last seven weeks. Instead of going the whole distance on the ship waiting for them at the pier, the prisoners would use four ships, besides motor trucks, railroad freight cars and their own naked feet. Instead of arriving in Japan with 1600 survivors, they would reach there with a few more than 400 still alive, most of whom would be so far gone that more than a hundred would die soon after being turned over to prison authorities ashore.
About 1880 prisoners were crammed into Bilibid military prison in downtown Manila when the Japanese decided to move them to Japan. Many, like Commander Warner Portz, sharpnosed, kindly former senior officer of the Davao prison camp, and Lt. Col. Kenneth S. Olson who had been commandant there, had been moved northward to Manila on June 6, leaving in Mindanao a residue of 175 officers of junior grade and about 600 enlisted men in the camps at Davao and nearby Lasang.
Even now the fate of these men is only partly known, and the reported finding of large caches of American skeletons in Mindanao leaves it still unclarified.
All Thin and Weak.
The prisoners were thin and weak. Their sustaining dish in Bilibid was lugau---watered rice made into a thin, gluey substance. So unnourishing is lugau that many prisoners descending from the second floor of the Bilibid prison for their morning dishful on the ground floor found themselves still too weak to climb the stairs to their pallets again. They would remain in the prison yard to await the evening bowlful in order to husband their strength for the evening ascent of the single flight of stairs.
Against this liability of their own weakness the column of prisoners had an asset: a dedicated group of doctors, both army and navy, poor in medicine but rich in spirit.
In one of the camps, Cabanatuan, there had existed a group of irresponsible men who lived in part by manufacturing spurious sulfathiozole tablets, stamped with a mold made from a cartridge, and selling them to the Japanese guards. The Bilibid doctors were not that kind. From May 30, 1942, three weeks after the fall of Corregidor, to October, 1943, the naval medical unit at Bilibid had been under Comdr. L. B. Sartin of Mississippi, who was then succeeded by Comdr. Thomas H. Hayes of Norfolk. Hayes was marching through the Manila streets now with the column, marching toward the death that was waiting for him in Formosa.
Under Air Bombardment.
The Japanese had made plans for evacuating the Americans sooner, but Manila was under almost constant air bombardment. They had not dared to bring in ships of large enough tonnage to carry so many men.
From the upper levels of Bilibid the Americans had watched the American carrier planes dive bombing the harbor. Their hopes rose that the American dive bombers would be able to keep the harbor clear of shipping long enough so that the Japanese would not attempt to evacuate them.
For some reason, however, the American air attacks stopped suddenly on Nov. 28, giving the Japanese their chance to sneak their freighters into Manila. As with dragging feet the prisoners marched their last miles on American soil, they feared that for them Mac Arthur would come too late.
The Japanese had divided them into three groups. Group one, which numbered about 500 superior officers, included ranks from Navy commander and Army or Marine lieutenant colonels down through major and navy senior lieutenant. Group two had a few majors, all the rest of the junior officers, and some Navy medical corpsmen attached to their respective doctors, and numbered about 600. Group three included all non-commissioned officers and enlisted men, a few medical officers, about 50 American civilians and 37 British prisoners.
This last group, comprising some 520 men was in charge of Chief Boatswain Clarence Taylor of Cloverdale, Va., and Long Beach, Calif., who had been executive of the naval receiving station at Cavite.
March to the Pier.
In marching toward the pier the prisoners were further divided into sections of 200 men, and had been provided with a small ration of soap and some toilet paper.
Sympathetic Filipinos were often rapped back with rifle butts for getting too close to the prisoners.
The column reached the "Million Dollar Pier" about 2 p.m. The pier was crowded with Japanese civilians, hundreds of them, all well dressed, with wives, babies, luggage and often large casks of sugar to take with them. At the pier was Oryoku Maru, a passenger and freight ship of 9,000-10,000 tons, built in Nagasaki in 1939.
On hand to supervise the prisoners were several Japanese whom the prisoners knew.
There was Gen. Koa, who was in charge of all prisoners in the Philippines, also Lt. N. Nogi, director of the Bilibid hospital, a former Seattle physician who, in general, had been kind to Americans.
The prisoners mounted by single file the gangplank to the ship. The Japanese sentries all had "narugis" or clubs. The Americans were already showing signs of straggling from weakness and frequently had to be touched up with a narugi.
Filling the Aft Hold.
The Japanese elected to fill the aft hold first, and to put aboard the higher ranking officers before the others.
It was this circumstance which was to make the death toll the heaviest the first night among the top officers, men who had commmanded regiments and battalions in the hopeless struggle for Bataan and Corregidor.
The aft hold's hatch was cut off from free circulation of air by bulkheads fore and aft of it. A long slanting wooden staircase extended some 35 feet down through the hatch, down which the prisoners weakly crept.
When the first officers reached the bottom of the ladder they were met by a Sgt. Dau, well known at Davao, who wore a sword and had several privates under him armed with brooms.
Dau used the sword to direct the privates, and the privates used their brooms to beat the American officers back as far as possible into the dim bays of the hold.
"We had to scamper back in there," one officer describes it, "or get a crack from the brooms or Dau's sword. There was a platform about five feet high build over the hatch above, and so the little light that came down in mid-afternoon was deflected. Long before the hold was filled the air was foul and breathing was difficult, but the Japanese kept driving more men down the ladder from the deck, and Dau and his men kept pushing the first-comers farther back into the airless dark."
Struggling for Air.
This hold's dimensions none of the prisoners could then estimate, because it was already too dark, at 3 in the afternoon, to see its limits. The loading in this hold alone took 1 ½ hours.
The first officers who had descended were sitting down in bays, a double tier system of wooden stalls something like a Pullman car. The lower bays were three feet high. A man could neither stand up nor extend his legs sitting down in them.
Each bay was about nine feet from passageway to rear wall. The Japanese insisted that the Americans could sit in rows four deep, each men's back against his neighbor's knees, in the nine-foot depth.
The elder officers who were forced back in the rear almost immediately began to faint.
Instead of making more space in the center under the fading light of the hatch, the Japanese insisted that the men in the center should not even sit down, but should be left standing, packed together vertically.
When the Japanese on deck looked down through the hatch they saw a pit of living men, staring upward, their chests and shoulders heaving as they struggled for air and wriggled for better space.
"The first fights," says one officer, "began when men began to pass out. We knew then that only the front men in each bay would be able to get enough air."