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


Page 3 of 14

SEVEN WEEKS IN HELL

Ghastly Picture at Dawn In hold of the Death ship; U.S. Planes Bomb, Strafe.

Filthy Deck Covered With Dead American Prisoners, Some Smothered, Others Murdered---Men Slash Wrists for Blood to Drink.

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

Jammed into the airless, filthy pits of hell that were the three holds of the Jap prison ship Oryoku Maru, 1600 American prisoners fought for life. The heroes of Bataan, Corregidor and the march of death to Camp O'Donnel were face to face with death again.

Some already had failed. They had suffocated, been slain by their fellows or simply had died of weakness from almost three years in prison camps. Some were insane, all were naked or nearly so, and hungry, thirsty, sick. It was December, 1944, and they were on their way from Manila to Japan.

Already they had spent one night in the black, horror-filled holds.

Dawn came slowly and at first almost no light filtered back into the rear bays, or shelves, where most of the dead lay.

Chief Warrant Officer Walter C. Smith of San Diego had found himself a tiny shelf beyond the last tiers of the suffocated. "I was jammed all the way up against the rudder," he said. "I could hardly see daylight at first."

Bridget Takes Charge.

Again the gray-haired, indefatigable Commander Frank Bridget, took charge. He had a fighting build, under medium size, about 150 pounds, with a thin face and marked bow legs.

To the few who were not naked---some had kept on their clothes even in the dripping heat as protection against being pawed by the wandering insane men---he said: "Take off all the clothes you can. Don't move around. You use up extra oxygen that way and you sweat more. Use your shorts to fan each other."

He showed them how the little air that came down the hatch could be fanned with easy motions back into the rear bays. Some of the officers in the rear bays, lying in a stupor between suffocation and life, came slowly alive. Others did not stir.

Doubled Up, Naked, Dead.

The Japanese lowered a little rice. It was distributed by Warrant Officer Clifford E. Sweet of the U.S.S. Tanager. Water there was none.

Warrant Officer Smith looked around his tiny post on the vibrating counter of the ship. In a 10-foot circle around him there were five officers. They sat, doubled up and naked, like white-skinned fakirs praying, but they were cold and dead.

He wondered particularly what had happened to one big man who had kept walking around all night, stepping indifferently on bodies and followed by a train of curses wherever he went. For a time he had stopped by the rudder and insisted on sitting on Smith's stomach. This vagabond kept getting into fights wherever he roamed in the fetid dark. In the faint light Smith could now see the big man, crumpled on the filthy deck, dead.

He recognized another young man whom he knew, went to him, felt his heart and got no answer.

Bridget was a fountain of hope. He climbed to the top of the ladder into the very muzzle of the Formosan guard. He talked to the Japanese and persuaded them to allow three or four of the unconscious elder officers to be carried up the ladder and laid out on the deck. None of the dead were allowed to be removed. As soon as the unconscious men revived they had to go down the ladder again to make way for others.

Lt. Toshino, the Jap in charge of the prisoners, and Mr. Wada, the hunchbacked interpreter, learned what was happening in the pits of the holds.

In the growing light, with the unbalanced men out of the way and the dead no longer taking their share of air, and with everyone sitting down and none wandering around, it was possible for the officers to take cognizance of where they were.

"The whole space in the aft hold," according to Maj. John Fowler of Boston and Los Angeles, a Twenty-sixth Cavalryman taken at Bataan, "looked to me about 100 feet long by about 40 feet wide. There were 13 bays or little compartments on each side, and two across. Each by was double, above and below, and the average was about 8 feet by 11 feet."

U.S. Planes Attack Ship.

The Oryoku Maru coasted slowly and uncertainly along the edge of Luzon. In the morning, summoned perhaps by the submarines which had attacked the convoy during the night, the American planes were overhead. Soon they began their attacks.

Bridget, completely cool, sat at the top of the ladder. Like an announcer in a press box, he called the plays.

"I can see two planes going for a freighter off on our starboard side," he would say. "Now two more are detached from the formation. I think they may be coming for us. They are! They're diving! Duck everybody!"

The Japanese gun crews opened fire, and a wild cacophony of gun dialogue went back and forth.

Thump, went the chock as the bombs hit the water. The bulkheads shook. The naked men lay flat on the filth-smeared planks, trembling.

Lt. Col. Elvin Barr, executive of the Sixtieth Coast Artillery on Corregidor, who had fought his guns magnificently until silenced by the crossfire of Japanese artillery and dive-bombing, stumbled up to Fowler. Fowler was on the cargo deck; Barr had been in the well-deck.

"There's a hole knocked in the bulkheads down there," Barr said. He had a wound in his side that ran from armpit to hip. "Between 30 and 40 majors and lieutenant colonels have already died down where I came from," he added.

Though neither of them then knew it, Barr himself was to die of this wound, disease and neglect before he reached Japan.

Machine Gun Fire.

Out of bombs but not out of gas or bullets, the planes returned and began to strafe the ships.

"It sounded like a riveting machine, running the whole length."

These attacks could not sink the ship, but they raised havoc with its gun crews. First one crew was spattered to death, then another. There was noting wanting in Japanese courage.

An artillery officer says: "They were magnificent. As soon as a crew would be wiped out, another would take its place."

The half darkness that still reigned below decks gave a strange phenomenon. Bridget would announce a dive bomber, "Here comes one now!" and the prisoners would hear the scream of wings.

Then, lying flat but with faces turned sideways, they would hear the crunch of the striking bomb, and suddenly the whole side of the bulkheads would be alive with bluish sparks. The bomb's concussion, causing the plates to scrape together, would throw off the will-o'-the-wisp lights by whose blue glow they could see each others' faces and the dead around them.

More Light and Air.

Though the American flyers brought terror to the prisoners, they also brought two gifts---light and air. In the shock and disorder, the hatch planks had become disarrayed. Each party of United States Medical Corps men, when allowed to take up an officer who had fainted, made use of the confusion to open the planks more.

At length Lt.Toshino and Mr. Wada gave permission for some of the suffocated to be brought up on deck.

Bridget's cool example, plus air and light, brought an improvement in morale and partial recovery of discipline. The situation was not altogether hopeless. If it grew better, they would live; if it grew worse, and the attacks continued, the Japanese could not send them to Japan, and they would be rescued by MacArthur after all.

Ghastly Discoveries.

Bridget and Commander Warner Portz, who as senior officer was nominally in charge of the whole party, took advantage of the slight lift in hope to order a roll call.

Some sobering discoveries were made. The madness induced mainly by lack of air, and partly by lack of water, had caused men to pair off by twos in the night, and go marauding. If they could not have water, they would have blood to drink; if not blood, then urine. There were slashed wrists.

And "Cal" Coolidge, a large fat former Navy petty officer who had been proprietor of the Luzon bar in Manila, was found choked to death. There had been murder then. The prisoners accepted that, too, with what distaste they could muster, but it seemed a natural part of the whole.

A food detail that was allowed to go up the ladder and forward to the galley reported that a big ship was burning in the convoy and that the course was turning back toward Subic Bay.

The Japanese captain sent word that if they were badly stricken in another attack, he would give Bridget and Commander Portz the word when to bring up the prisoners, which side of the ship they should go over, and how far it was to nearest land.

Through Lt. Col. E. Carl Engelhart, the American interpreter, the Japanese sent down this warning: "If anyone other than an officer in charge so much as touches the hatch ladder he will be instantly shot."

Terror and Confusion.

Among the 2000 Japanese civilians there was terror and confusion. From the forward hold, where Lt. Col. Curtis Beecher of Chicago was in charge, the army physicians Lt. Col. William North and Lt. Col. Jack W. Schwartz, along with several doctors and corpsmen, were summoned on deck to take care of the Japanese wounded.

Especially in the aft-hold blood seeped down through the hatch planks and gave the naked, panting men a spotted appearance.

In the middle hold, where 250 men were under Commander Maurice Joses of Santa Monica, there was enough air to maintain discipline and plenty of room. This group even had resourcefulness enough to keep back the wooden buckets that the Japanese sent down with food. By retaining one each time, they were able to accumulate benjos, or toilet buckets, enough for themselves.

By this time, in other holds, men were using their messkits and their hats for benjos, being denied buckets by the Japanese.

Men in hold two who got a peep over their hatch reported seeing "a tall lighthouse" on the shore. "That's Subic," said the navy men with relief.

Between 3 and 4 in the afternoon the Oryoku Maru edged close to shore. The captain sent down word that he was going to disembark all passengers. The American prisoners would be disembarked too, as soon as guards were arranged on shore to keep them from escaping.

TOMORROW --- Madness and murder in the hold on second night out; preparations to land at Subic.

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