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


Page 6 of 14

SEVEN WEEKS IN HELL

Swimming to Shore from Doomed Ship POWs Sniped, Machine-Gunned By Japs.

Marched to Tennis Court and Packed in Without Food or Medical Attention.

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

The Oryoku Maru, Jap prison ship carrying 1600 Americans from Manila to southern Japan, had been so badly battered by American planes that she was forced to land her passengers on Olongapo Point, Luzon. Nearly 100 of the Americans already were dead from horrible conditions in the ship's three holds. Suffocation, hunger, thirst, madness---and American bombs---had taken their toll.

When the order to leave the ship came the men had plunged into the water and struck out for land. A few had cut loose rafts and planks on the offshore or starboard side, which was high. They set out to swim toward the Zambales mountains and a distant lighthouse, thinking to reach the beach there and escape into the bush.

Sniped by Japs.

The Japanese, however, sent out a motorboat from shore with a machine gun and snipers. One by one the prisoners were hunted down.

Lt. Gerald Darling of Deming, N.M., set forth on a raft with three others; they slipped off into the water and were not seen again. He was picked off by the Japanese.

A Maj. Peterson, who had been in the forward hold and claimed he left it straight through the side of the ship rather than through the hatch, reached the beach. He said that he had heard men groaning and believed that some aboard were still alive.

The first men to reach shore found that there was no true beach at all, but ankle deep water below an 8-foot seawall. A few mounted the seawall to lie exhausted in the sun.

They had hardly fallen flat when a machine gun opened up on them. The shore was in the hands of the well known J.N.L.P.s - the Japanese Naval Landing Party - a kind of shock marines. In a clump of bushes about 200 yards from the seawall they had mounted a machine gun.

Beecher Takes Command.

Lt. Col. Curtis Beecher of Chicago and Saratoga, Cal., a vigorous, gray-haired marine "who looked like Victor McLaglen," as one prisoner said, took quick command of the situation. He ordered the strongest swimmers to plunge in again and help those who were struggling.

He dived in himself and brought in about a half dozen. Each time he would say, "Come on; let's help the men who are failing out there."

Chief Boatswain Taylor and he, clad alike in nothing but shorts, brought in man after man. One or two men had afterthoughts about the wreck, swam all the way out again, filled up on brown sugar, and swam back.

It was difficult to persuade the newcomers, once they reached the seawall, to squat down in the shallow water in the cover of the wall. Not having heard the Japanese fire while they were thrashing toward shore, they refused to believe that there was already a machine gun set up against them.

Several impetuously climbed up anyway, but when one was wounded they floundered back into the water again, and crouched in the lee of the fire-swept seawall.

Waving to U.S. Planes.

The American planes returned again. Beecher gave orders for the strongest men to run up and down in the water, waving their clothes. The leading pilot seemed to get the idea. He wiggled his wings and flew off.

The Japanese set up systematic foxholes in the bushes, with snipers to cover the seawall. The Americans were then allowed, after a parley, to climb up and rest in the sun, under the eyes of the Japanese rifles.

Two Marine officers, Maj. Andrew J. Mathiesen of Los Angeles and a Lt. Keene, a graduate of South Carolina's Citadel, approached the J.N.L.P.s and explained that the Americans had been without water for two days. There was a small faucet near the Japanese positions. The Japanese allowed them to go to the faucet in five-man details.

Around noon, after the half-naked men had lain in the open sun for about two hours, the Japanese gave orders to them to break camp and prepare to move.

The small aid station which had been set up on the seawall by Lt. Comdr. Thomas H. Hayes of Norfolk, Va., was immediately packed into the mess kits and canteens which remained. When the barefooted, sunburned marchers were ready, with two men to help each of the wounded, the Japs formed a line to guide them. With bayoneted rifles and clubs the J.N.L.P.s were placed at intervals of about 30 yards along a crooked line of march about a half-mile long to a tennis court about 500 yards back from the seawall.

Batted Along by Japs.

The long line of men straggled along slowly and weakly. Occasionally the Japanese batted them along, but there were no outright beatings.

By about 3 in the afternoon the last of the bearded and bandaged prisoners were hobbling through the gate of the tennis court which was to be their prison.

It was a concrete court not far from an old Marine barracks, and undoubtedly some of the elder officers had played there in the happy days when service life had been a country club. There was only one court. It was, of course, without shade or shelter of any kind. It had the usual wire strung around, with an unpainted wall about 6 feet high at the bottom. At the side was a tall referee's platform, and a small water faucet.

This court was to be the prison for some 1300 hungry, thirsty, battle-shocked, ill and in some cases wounded men who remained of the 1600 who had left Bilibid.

Dead Stacked at Entry.

They stacked their dead at the entrance to the court. They moved the tall referee's platform to the middle of the court, where it became a kind of lookout and command post.

Commander Warner Portz was still nominally senior officer, but so exhausting had been the experience he underwent in the aft hold that both he and Commander Frank Bridget were depleted as well as wounded. Leadership was passing into the hands of Lt. Col. Curtis Beecher, whose forward hold had suffered greatly, but not so much.

"We saw that Bridget and Portz were fading," says one Army Lieutenant. "Their throats were almost gone from shouting orders. You could hardly hear them. Both had body wounds, and Portz was wounded in the head, too. I had never seen bravery and leadership in my life like that of Bridget when men began dying in the hold. As for Portz, I had come to think of him as I would of my own father."

Beecher, sitting aloft in the referee's chair, had great difficulty establishing quiet and order, even in making himself heard. How could more than 1300 men be arranged in a single tennis court?

Finally it was managed---the Japanese paid no attention to this, leaving each impossible situation they created to the Americans---that the prisoners would be seated in rows of 52 men. This meant a row of 26 men in each court from the service baseline to where the net ordinarily would be, plus 26 in the same line in the opposite court. They sat as they had in the bays or shelves of the Oryoku Maru, with their knees drawn up to their chins. The only variant of this that was possible was sitting spread eagle, with each man's haunches in the fork of his neighbor's legs.

Jap Gun Silenced.

The prisoners had barely got seated when they had reason to jump to their feet. A wave of three American planes came over the court. The prisoners crouched again a moment, not knowing whether they would be strafed, but the first plane's target was the Japanese anti-aircraft gun on the knoll beyond the tennis court.

The guns spoke, the plane roared down and silenced the gun, and as it swung up again a tinkle of empty .50-caliber cartridge cases came hurtling down and struck the court's concrete and a few sunburned shoulders.

The second plane hit the Oryoku Maru, apparently with a bomb, for a flame leaped up, and the third plane dropped another bomb about 1500 feet off.

The prisoners, standing tiptoe, supporting each other, saw it all. The Oryoku Maru, which had lain all day lifeless in the water, negligently smoking, now burst into flames all over. There was no sign of life on her decks.

The ammunition began to go off. She burned and burned, and in two hours, she sank. (At the time of Japan's surrender she was still lying in the same place off Olongapo, with some 15 feet of water over the tip of her mast.)

'Hospital' Established.

On the 15-foot wide strip of space beyond one baseline the prisoners established their "hospital." Commander Thomas H. Hayes of Norfolk. Va., was now exhausted and another doctor, Lt. Commander Clyde Welsh of Chicago took over. His next rank, with a similar name, Lt. Commander Cecil Welch of South Dakota, had disappeared, reportedly suffocated aboard the ship. The other doctors on the Navy side of the "hospital" were Lt. Bruce Langdon of North Carolina and Lt. Arthur Barrett of Louisiana.

The "hospital" consisted of two sheets and a couple of raincoats stretched to give protection from the sun. Otherwise it was no different from the tennis court. The Japs furnished no medical supplies and naturally the half-clothed Americans had none.

The first major operation was the amputation of the arm of a Marine corporal named Specht by Lt. Col. Jack W. Schwartz, the surgeon of the famous Hospital No. 2 on Bataan, who with another Army lieutenant colonel, James McG. Sullivan (sic) [possibly James M. McGrath] of San Francisco, sustained much of the medical burden all the way to Japan. The arm of the Marine corporal was in a poisoned condition. The doctors had neither anesthesia nor scalpel. Finally they cauterized a razor blade and Schwartz amputated the arm without anesthesia. (The Marine lived for five days afterward on the exposed tennis court, fighting sturdily for life, but finally he died when the column moved.)

The overpoweringly prevalent disease was diarrhea and dysentery, and there was no drug to check it, nor even food.

"The Japs tell us," the officers announced from the referee's chair, "that they have no food or clothing for us. We will have to wait until they send to Manila."

TOMORROW: Six days on the tennis court, alternately fried by the sun and frozen at night, two spoonfuls of raw rice per man some days; finally the Americans are moved to Pampanga.

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