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


Page 4 of 14

SEVEN WEEKS IN HELL

Madness, Murder in Hold Second Night Out; Crazed Yank Shot by Jap Sentry.

Despite Efforts, Discipline Begins to Crack---Fear and Mistrust Rule Prisoners; One Found With His Belly Slit Open.

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

Battered by Yank planes, the Jap hell ship Oryoku Maru, her three airless, stinking holds jammed with some 1600 American prisoners, was aground off Olongapo Point of the island of Luzon. It was December 1944, and the prisoners, heroes of Bataan and Corregidor, were on their way from Bilibid prison in Manila to Japan. Already, as has been told, they had spent more than 24 hours in the holds and many had died of heat, lack of air, or at the hands of men driven insane. They were hungry, thirsty, fouled by their own filth.

With the ship aground the order against going on deck was strictly enforced. For the next three or four hours, until well beyond sunset and fall of gloom into the holds, there was a scraping of chains and spitting of winches as the captain strove to free the Oryoku Maru. Again discipline began to crack.

About 8 p.m. the Oryoku floated free once more, moved in toward the American naval base at Olongapo, and about 10 began to discharge her Japanese passengers.

Now the Japanese, knowing the conditions in the prisoners' holds by the number of dead already stacked on the decks, were fearful that a break for shore would take place. Below decks the sane prisoners were almost equally fearful that the unbalanced would unite against them and rush the ladder. They posted guards there.

There were approximately 16 chaplains in the three holds, and most of them had Bibles or breviaries. A few other men had prayer books or religious works. Some read them aloud.

A Navy Lt. O'Rourke, who had been on the Chinese river patrol, took out his prayer book and read a few words to those around him in the cargo hold in the stern.

Suddenly he stopped and began tearing pages out of the book and scattering them around. Then without warning he made a dash for the vertical iron ladder which supplemented the wooden stairs and began to climb up. A big chief boatswain, Jesse Earl Lee of San Diego, pulled him down before the guard above could draw a bead on him. They tied him to the ladder until he quieted down.

During the first night his fellow pharmacist mates had taken care of Chips Bowlin, who had become unmanageable. They saved him from being forced into the bilges with the miserable wretches whom no one could handle, but this second night he managed to creep away from them, made a furtive dash for the ladder and climbed up it before he was missed.

They heard a sentry scream something, then three shots and finally Bowlin's voice: "The only thing I ask of the Japs is that they give me a decent burial."

They never saw him again.

Attempts at Control.

Comdr. Frank Bridget never left his post on the wooden ladder. His voice was hoarse now, from continual shouting. He was relieved occasionally by an officer of the Fourth Marines, Maj. Andrew J. Mathiesen of Los Angeles. Mathiesen had a cool smile that never came off; even in the darkness, hearing his unruffled voice, the prisoners imagined that they could see that smile.

"Not going to Japan, boys," he would say. "Still right off old Subic. Not going to Japan."

"For God's sake boys," Bridget would rasp, "keep fanning. Don't leave your place. Every move you make generates heat. There are men in the back bays who are going to die unless you sit still and keep fanning."

Some obeyed Bridget and Mathiesen, but not all. Some could hear, or imagined they heard, men plotting against them in the darkness. They unclasped their knives. Chief Pharmacist's Mate D. A. Hensen worked his way across through the foul and steaming aisles to a little cluster of chief warrant officers.

"Look," he said, "I've lost my nerve. The fellows over in my bay are plotting against me. They are going to kill me." His friends allowed him to stay until he felt better, told him he was talking nonsense and that he must follow the general order and go back to his bay.

In an hour he was back again, full of the same fear of death. Again they told him it was a hallucination, and sent him back. In the morning he was found dead, his belly slit open.

There was Lt. Bill Williams, an army engineer, who took the same line in talking aloud as Bridget and Mathiesen; if sunk, they would land on Luzon and the Japs would never again be able to get together enough ships to take them to Manila.

Madmen and Illusions.

But then there were also nuisances like the doctor who kept imagining he had to see someone in the next bay. He spent the whole night crawling back and forth, and could not be dissuaded from him empty errand.

Some who were visited by illusions seem to have been protected rather than harmed by them. One seaman medico says:

"All that second night it seemed to me that I was not on a ship, but in a big hotel. I could hear people talking in the lobby. Right near me was a man who had suffocated, tangled with another who was also gone. Other people kept trying to move them toward the ladder to be carried up. I knew this and saw this and it still seemed to me that I was in a hotel."

Capt. James McMinn of Carlsbad, who was to survive and reach Japan, had the idea that he was still in Bilibid prison and kept visiting a friend and suggesting a game of cards.

After the Oryoku Maru dropped anchor almost no air came down the hatches, which were about 14 by 14 feet. There were no ventilators; animals could not have been shipped under such conditions and lived.

Crowd Poisoning.

Besides thirst and lack of air, the prisoners were suffering from something known to Christmas shoppers in a mild form: crowd poisoning. Crowd poisoning takes two common forms---the body may burst out in excessive heat, causing a swoon, or it may turn to a cold sweat, with dizziness and vomiting.

A medical aid man received a back full of shrapnel on the open deck during the strafing. He had lead in his lungs. "Two fellows began to follow me around in the darkness," he said. "I knew they were out to get me, because I had turned one of them in for selling narcotics in Bilibid.

"I overheard them planning to knock me out with a metal canteen full of urine.

"I began wandering around trying to shake them off. Once I had to relieve myself and could not look for a bucket because they were following me. So I relieved myself right where I was, I felt wild and yet I knew what I was doing. I scooped up the excrement and threw it over the men around me. They raised hell. So just to show them, I scooped up some myself and rubbed it in my hair.

"Then I started fleeing again, trying to shake off my two enemies. When they got near me they would gouge at the wounds in my back. Finally I shook them off. I ended up against a bulkhead that was sweating. I collapsed at the bottom and it was cooler there and I enjoyed the drops from the bulkhead falling on my face."

'We're Going Ashore.'

In the last hours of darkness of the second night the Japanese sent down a new word to Comdr. Portz, the leader of the Americans, and the three commanders of the different holds. In the aft hold Bridget announced it:

"Good news, boys! We're going to be put ashore here. The Japanese civilians who are still alive have all been put ashore, and our turn is next."

What had happened was that the Oryoku Maru's steering gear had been broken by the persistent strafing, and she had become unmanageable.

The Japanese did not forget to make special stipulations before releasing the Americans from the ship where nearly a hundred had already died. The prisoners might take their pants and shirts, but they could not take their haversacks, except for messkit and canteen, and they were to wear no shoes---the Japanese were sure that barefooted Americans could not go far if they attempted to escape.

Mr. Wada, the Jap interpreter, stopped at the middle hold and told Comdr. Maurice Joses to instruct the men there to leave the ship in 25-man groups.

Tomorrow: American planes return to the attack, bombing and strafing the Oryoku Maru, killing Japs and their American prisoners alike; their ship afire, the Japs lower boats to row for shore.

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