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Seven Weeks in Jap-Made Hell
Articles graciously contributed by Mr. Jim Erickson


Page 2 of 14

SEVEN WEEKS IN HELL


A Night of Unspeakable Horror in the Afterhold of Jap Death Cruise Ship.

Maddened for Want of Air, American Prisoners Mill and Fight
Too Dark for Captives to Tell Messkit From Slopbucket.

By George Weller
A Correspondent of the Chicago Daily News and Post-Dispatch
(Copyright, 1945)
Second of a Series


As has been told, on Dec.13, 1944, the Japs began herding some 1600 Americans, already weak and ill from nearly three years in Philippine prison camps, into the holds of the hell ship Oryoku Maru in Manila.

The men were to be taken to Japan. They expected the trip to last 10 days. It took seven weeks of fantastic suffering, of madness, starvation and of death that came quickly to the lucky ones.

On that December afternoon 800 men, including most of the high ranking officers, had been jammed into the dark, airless foul-smelling after hold. These men already were face to face with death and the battle for survival.

Meanwhile, the Japanese were herding about 600 others forward to the bow hold. The air here too, was foul. Finally the last party to board, 250 enlisted men and civilians, got the only fully ventilated hold of Oryoku Maru, the second hold forward.

Guards, Interpreter.

About 5 o'clock the Oryoku Maru cast off, and headed down the bay. Now the prisoners discovered into whose hands their lives had been committed. Their guards were mixed, some Japanese but mostly Formosans, or as they were taught to call them "Taiwanis." The whole party was in charge of Lt. Toshino, a Japanese officer of somewhat Western and Prussian aspect, with short clipped hair, spectacles and severe manner.

Though Lt. Toshino was nominally in command, the real control fell, as it often did in Philippine prisons, in the hands of the Interpreter. In the prisons of Luzon and Mindanao, as everywhere from Japan to Java, the treatment depended on the interpreter more than on the commanding officer. Toshino left as much as possible to the interpreter, and his interpreter was a Japanese no survivor will ever forget.

Mr. Wada was a hunchback. He hated the straight-backed world with a cripple's hatred, and all his hatred had turned itself on the Americans. He had been an interpreter at Mindanao, and already laid up for himself an unusual record as spy and stool pigeon.

The blood of the Americans who were to die needlessly between Manila and Moji is on the hands of all Japanese into whose care they were committed. But if you believe what the survivors say, the man whose hands are most ineradicably smeared is Mr. Wada. (There was something about him that made him always be called "Mr." Wada).

Shouts and Groans.

The Oryoku Maru, as it moved down the harbor, became part of a convoy of five merchant ships, protected by a cruiser and several destroyers and lighter craft. They moved without lights, their holds vomiting forth the hoarse shouts of the Americans.

Discipline had begun to slip in the struggling pits of the No. 3 and No. 1 holds. As air grew scarcer, the pleas for air grew louder and more raucous. Before long the Japanese threatened to board down the hatch and cut off all air.

As the cries of struggling men persisted, the Japanese lowered down into the complete darkness of the pit a series of wooden buckets filled with fried rice, cabbage and fried seaweed. In the stifling darkness, filled with the moans and wild shouts, the buckets were handed around.

The officers who had messkits scooped in the buckets; the others simply grabbed blindly in the darkness, palming what they could. Some ate, but those in the rear ranks got as little if conscious as if they had fainted.

Fear was already working its way on the bowels and kidneys of the men. Asked for slop buckets, the Japanese sent them down.

These buckets circulated in the utter darkness far less readily than the similar food buckets. A man could not tell what was being passed to him, food or excrement. In their increasingly crazed condition, men would tell their neighbors that the one bucket was the other, and consider it uproarious if a hand was dipped in the toilet bucket, or the food bucket was befouled by a man who had no way of knowing what he was doing.

Mr. Wada was very dissatisfied with the clamor issuing from the struggling pits of Americans. "You are disturbing the Japanese women and children," he called down from the top of the hatch to Commander Frank Bridget, who was shouting himself hoarse trying to keep order among the suffocating men. "Stop your noise, or the hatches will be closed."

Hatches Closed.

The noise of the crazed men could not be stopped and the hatches were closed. That was about 10 o'clock. Then some of the men crept up the ladder and parted the planks slightly, so that a little air could get through.

Mr. Wada came again to the edge of the pit. "Unless you are quiet I shall give the guards the order to fire down into the hold."

A kind of relative quiet had settled on the hold---the quiet of exhaustion and death. The floor was covered with excrement and urine. Almost all the officers had stripped their bodies, so that the pores would have a chance to breathe what the lungs could not.

Occasionally an American would awaken from a stupor out of his mind. One began calling, around midnight, "Lieut. Toshino, Lieut. Toshino!"

The others, fearful that the hatch would be closed again, shouted "Knife him, knife that son-of-a-bitch!" Someone said, "Denny, you get him!" And there was another struggle.

Then there was foreboding quiet, all who heard wondering what had happened. Men who owned jackknives unclasped the big blade, prepared to fight if they were attacked.

Death in the Dark.

Around midnight the convoy itself ran into difficulties. The American planes were sparing Manila Bay by day, but the submarines were still patrolling by night. The night attack, a specialty of the American underseas fleet, was at its high point of the war. Prisoners who crept up the ladder to open the planks for air reported an enormous floating fire had broken out on the horizon at that point where the Japanese cruiser had been.

The Oryoku Maru crept through the mouth of Manila Bay and turned northward in the darkness, hugging closely the Luzon shore so that the remaining vessels in the convoy could protect her.

Meantime death strode through the fetid, slippery bays, taking impartially soldiers old and new. Major James Bradley of Shanghai's famous Fourth Marines passed away. Lt. Col. John H. Bennett of the Thirty-first Infantry was suffocated. So was Lt. Col. Jasper Brady of the same outfit. The Army Lt. Col. Norman B. Simmonds, who had the curious record of once having been middleweight boxing champion at Annapolis, went down and did not arise.

Major Houston B. Houser, an outstandingly capable figure who had organized M.P.s of a sort to keep order in the darkness, who had busied himself running up the ladder to plead with the Japanese and cleaning up excreta in the darkness, was felled with exhaustion and later took the short way home. He had been Wainwright's adjutant during part of the battle for Bataan. Major Maynard Snell, a veterinarian who had been a professor at Louisiana State University, fell and rose no more.

But in the darkness few knew that these men had died. It is even possible that some of them did not actually pass away till the next evening.

"Once you passed out, you were gone," as an officer says, but only those near you could tell that you were dead. The temperature down there must have been 130 degrees at least, and it took a long time for a body to grow cold.

Major Howard Cavender, Dollar Line representative in Manila and manager of the Manila Hotel, was among those who succumbed but were not recognized till light came.

"The worst thing," according to a major of the 26th Cavalry, "was the men who had gone mad but would not sit still. One kept pestering me, pushing a messkit against my sweaty chest and saying 'have some of this chow? It's good.' I smelled of it and smelled what it was. It was not chow. 'All right,' he said, 'If you don't want it I'm going to eat it.' And a little while later I heard him eating it, right beside me."

There was a tendency on the part of men near the border of madness to get up and wander around, as though to get assurance where they were.

"You would meet one of these men. He would seem to talk perfectly normal, but all the time he would keep putting out his hands, placing them on your shoulders in the darkness, running them up and down your arms in the darkness, as though trying to make sure that you and he were alive, and that you both were real. If you stepped away, he would follow you, pawing and trying to put his face close to yours, to make sure you were there."

After the hatches were closed the Japanese refused to allow any more benjos, or slop buckets to be handed up the ladder.

Overfull as they were, the buckets were still circulated.

A man would be heard saying, "Someone take this thing, for God's sake. I can't hold it and I have no place to put it."

He would be ignored, because nobody would be willing to give up space in order to take the benjo. If angered or irrational, the badgered and weary man might simply overturn the mobile toilet on his neighbors.

First Light of Dawn.

As the first faint light crept down through the parted planks of the hatches, the men in three holds looked about them. Some men were in a stupor, a few were dead, a few were mad. The first step was to get the insane under control.

In the pit of the aft hold, which was the worst affected, there were two decks and a bottom hatch, loading into the bilge. The most violent of those who were mad were lowered into this sub-hold.

It was hot. The labored working of hundreds of lungs had expelled moisture which clung to the sides of the bulkheads in great drops. Men tried to scrape off this moisture and drink it.

Naked, sitting like galley slaves between each other's legs, they looked at their hands. Their fingers seemed long and thin. The ends were wrinkled as though they had been soaked a long time in hot water. But their throats were sandpaper dry. They were in the first stages of weakening through dehydration, aggravated by the loss of body salts, the sparks of energy.

TOMORROW---First day out; the Oryoku Maru, attacked by American planes, heads for Subic Naval Base.

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