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


Page 5 of 14

SEVEN WEEKS IN HELL

Flyers Bomb and Machine-Gun Battered
Death Cruise Ship During Debarkation At Subic

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

The Oryoku Maru with its cargo of American war prisoners in the hold was almost dead in the water about 300 yards off Olongapo point. At order, Chief Boatswain Clarence M. Taylor of Cloverdale, Va., and Long Beach, Calif., took the first 25 men up past the Japanese guns and out of the hold. He lined them up at the accommodation ladder over the side. The Japanese signed that the American prisoners were to be used as oarsmen.

Taylor took six men and himself as the first boat crew, and ordered the other 19 prisoners to follow as crews in the next lifeboats. There were eight Japs in the first boat with him.

"As we got in," says Taylor, "I heard the sound of airplane motors. I looked up and saw 12, all fighter-bombers, in four flights of three each. They were American and they were circling for their dive."

Ship Begins to List.

Lt. Toshino, the Jap in charge of the prisoners, signaled the boat from the rail to shove off. Taylor did so. The first wave of planes dived and dropped their bombs, small ones. The Oryoku Maru began to list.

She still had four lifeboats swinging at her davits on her starboard side, but the list was to port, and she was so far heeled over that the lifeboats, if released, would have bottomed on her deck, rather than in the water.

Another plane came around and selected Taylor's lifeboat for a strafing job.

"What happened was the most lace-edged example of selective strafing I ever saw," says Taylor. "Of the eight Japs, six were killed. We looked straight into the faces of those machine guns, firing just 18 inches apart. And as I sat in the stern the Jap on my right was hit in the face and his whole head simply disintegrated, and the Jap on my left was hit in the chest and body and died instantly. Some day I'm going to find out who that pilot was and tell him he did the fanciest trick shooting since Wild Bill Hickok."

The oarsmen, who included three pharmacist's mates 2nd class, John T. Istock of Pittsburgh, Lester R. Tappy of Niagara, Wis., and Roy E. Lynch of Waynesboro, Tenn., were unharmed, but the lifeboat had turned over and two of the Americans were non-swimmers.

The Japanese had provided life belts for themselves but none for their prisoners. The prisoners therefore stripped the dead Japs in the water and put their life belts on the non-swimmers.

Another Blasting.

As Taylor lay on his back, striving to rest before starting for shore, the next wave of American planes dived on their target.

"I saw the whole thing, a bomb fall, hit near the stern hatch, and the debris go flying up into the air. It looked as though it would fall in the water near us. I dived below the surface as far as I could go."

This bomb caught the aft hold just when the bodies of those who had suffocated in the second night were being removed. They included the Lt. O'Rourke who had tried to escape from the hold earlier; Lt. Commander Adolph Hede, a former executive officer of the U.S.S. Canopus; and a Navy Lt. Williams, former executive of the Mindanao in the Chinese river patrol.

The bomb, striking barely aft of the hatch, rained splinters into the hold full of naked men. The iron girder supporting the hatch planks blew into the hold, felling and braining several men. There was a wild, uncontrollable rush for the ladder.

"I saw the first man get it," says Maj. F. Langwith Berry of Burlingame, Calif., taken on Bataan with the Eighty-sixth Field Artillery. "He had just put his feet on the bottom of the ladder. If he had not been there, I would have got it. He fell back dead in my arms. I did not know who he was. I put him down and jumped back into the dark bays, out of reach of the Japanese fire. There I reached out and touched the two men on each side of me, who seemed to be asleep. They were cold. Both were suffocated."

The deck above the prisoners was perforated with many holes; light was plentiful now. But suddenly a yellowish haze began to appear in the bays, and a smell of smoke. "She's on fire," yelled someone. "The coal dust down here has caught. Let us out of here! We'd rather be shot than suffocate!"

"I was standing right under the hatch," says Chief Boatswain Jesse E. Lee, San Diego, "and I saw the plane go into its dive. I had been talking to an Army Lieutenant, and he was saying how thirsty he was. Then the bomb hit.

"I was hit by one of the hatch planks, but I got up. I remember the big yellow flash and the hot blast of the explosion. I looked for the lieutenant. He was so full of holes that he looked like a pepper shaker, and he was quite dead.

"I'll never forget the way the hold looked. There were at least a dozen people lying under planks. The benjo buckets we had not yet had time to empty were burst and there was human slop all over the bodies."

In the aft hold under the hatch was always the most favored position, being the lightest and airiest, and some of the healthiest men had been gathered there.

Capt. Charles Brown of Deming, N.M., was one of the few who survived, and he was bleeding at nose and mouth from concussion.

Wild Rush for Ladder.

Seeing him, another member of the 200th Coast Artillery, Capt. Ted Parker of Albuquerque, made a wild rush for the ladder, which was now sagging and splintered. A sentry shot him from above three times, twice through the body and once through the head.

Another 200th officer, Capt. Gerald B. Greeman of Deming, who had been sitting at the foot of the ladder, was sought by his brother officers Capt. James McMinn of Carlsbad and Lt. Russell Hutchison of Albuquerque.

They could find no trace of him. In Hutchison's words: "We looked up and saw that after they shot Capt. Parker the Japanese sentries had gone away from the edge of the hatch.

"Everywhere around us were bodies, bodies with faces blackened and lips purple. The guns had stopped and there was a kind of terrible silence. We took hold of the shaky ladder and climbed up through the smoke. We found the deck covered with Japanese and American bodies.

Our men were scooping up sugar from the luggage and eating what they could of it before they jumped over.

"We had a hard time finding life belts. Only when we got over the side, in that clean cool water, we felt better. There were bloody men hanging to timbers, but they seemed encouraged. Their bodies were taking in water through their pores, and they felt cool as they struck out for the beach."

Sees Friend Shot.

The last American shot by the Japanese while still on the decks of the Oryoku Maru, according to George L. Curtis, 53-year-old native of New Bedford, Mass., from Portsmouth, Ohio, who had been the Packard agent in Manila, was his friend Scotty Lees, a Philippine mining engineer whose wife was a school teacher in Freeport, Ill.

"When I got on deck and felt the boat sinking, I saw Scotty a little way off," says Curtis. "I was just starting to go toward him, and turned away for a moment to see something. When I turned back he was staggering and I saw that he was shot, for he was bleeding heavily in front."

Dazed from being struck by the hatchway's beams, Curtis barely made his way ashore.

Some 57 civilians were in the party when it left as prisoners, and less than a dozen are believed to have arrived. More civilians perished from the bomb in the stern of the Oryoku Maru than any other cause.

Somehow one of the lifeboats had been lowered and Lt. Toshino, in full formal uniform, and Mr. Wada had made their way ashore. The water was full of swimming men, but the Japanese captain still remained at his post on the bridge. He knew a few limping words of English, and warned the last prisoners to leave quickly.

Ammunition Afire.

There were small fires breaking out in various places. The increasing list had put out the coal dust fire in the hold and the yellow smoke ceased pouring through the hatches. But suddenly, beside the stern anti-aircraft gun littered with the bodies of the crews killed by strafing United States planes, and with the suffocated American dead piled nearby, the ammunition boxes caught fire. They began to explode.

Abruptly the looting of the decks ceased and all scattered. Some prisoners ran forward to look for life preservers in the cabins of the dead Japanese passengers. All the Japanese except the captain's immediate circle---passengers, crew, soldiers---were gone by lifeboat.

The prisoners pushed open the stateroom doors. Looking in, they saw that theirs were not the only dead. Huddled together thickly as they huddle in foxholes and cities, the Japanese had died in their staterooms and been left there during the night by those who were already safe on shore.

Chief Boatswain Walter C. Smith of San Diego saw his friend James Terry, a Navy machinist also of San Diego, lying under a ladder with his chest torn open, quiet in death. A hand touched him. It was Navy Paymaster O. A. (Mike) Carmichael, another friend and San Diegan.

His Recipe Collection.

"I cant see," said Carmichael. "I seem to be blind."

Smith tried to lead him toward the ladder, but Carmichael refused to go until he got his jacket. He said his collection of recipes was in the pocket of the jacket. (As an escape from talking about food, the prisoners in the Japanese camps often made collections of imaginary recipes, which they swapped and shared like boys trading postage stamps. The recipe book was the prison camp's equivalent of theaters, concerts and museums.)

Smith persuaded Carmichael to mount the ladder, told him he was going to find drinking water and a lifejacket, and left him leaning blindly against the rail. He came back with a lifejacket, put it on Carmichael, and told him to remain while he went away to find water.

All the water taps on the ship had stopped functioning, but in a tiny, secluded tearoom he found a leaky tap. He filled the canteen and started back for his friend. Carmichael had disappeared. "I searched everywhere from bow to stern, but Mike was nowhere," he said.

He never saw him again.

The ammunition ceased exploding. There were now only a dozen or so wounded men alive on the decks. A man in the water yelled, "Hey throw us down some shoes." Smith threw him down four pairs, which the swimmer tied around his neck before setting off for the beach. For himself he found another pair of shoes, an officer's cap, two spoons, a canteen and some Japanese cigarettes. He filled himself up on water, put the cigarettes in the empty canteen, and went to the rail.

Planes Come Back.

The planes began to come back, and for a moment he thought that the men in the water were going to be strafed, but they waved energetically to the planes. The pilots came down low, throttled back to see who it was in the water. They must have seen that it was Americans, for they swooped up over the small party that was gathering on the Olongapo beach, and they did not strafe the shore.

Smith let himself down over the side and struck out for the beach.

Possibly as many as 30 men may have died reaching shore. There would have been many more but for the fact that cool water followed by a footing on land, with the ever-reviving hope that they would not go to Japan, brought up the morale of the prisoners with a bound. Men began to help each other.

Lt. Col. William R. Craig was far gone from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Lt. Col. William North tied him to a board and swam him ashore. Naval warrant officer Jeremiah V. Crews of San Diego, a big man and a good swimmer, went into the water with a life jacket strapped on over his shoulders.

A last effort had been made by the men who left the aft hold, including Major John Fowler of Los Angeles, to pile the bodies in rice sacks, two to a sack. As the Oryoku Maru began to burn, the bodies on deck could still be seen. Some men who were wounded got a shot of morphine before they went over the rail from Lt. Commander Clyde Welsh of Chicago.

TOMORROW --- Americans swimming ashore sniped and machine-gunned by Japs; marched to tennis court and packed in without food or medical attention.

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