All From San Francisco Chronicle, November, 1945

Voyage of the Death Ship Manila to Japan

This is the story of the cruise of death. It is the story of 49 days of savagery and tragedy unequaled in the war in the Pacific, of a Jap-made hell from which approximately 300 Americans from more than 1600 emerged alive.

This historical document was prepared from stories of the survivors by George Weller of the Chicago Daily News Foreign Service.

They were interviewed in prison camps and rest camps in Japan, on hospital ships and at U.S. bases in the Pacific.

It is the story of a twisting torturous journey on prison ships from Manila to Southern Japan during which men died from Jap bullets, American bombs, suffocation, disease, starvation and murder. Some went insane.

An official record cannot be prepared for many weeks. Absolutely reliable list of living and dead are unobtainable in the Pacific at present.

In spelling names some phonetic methods had to be used because of the uncertainty of the survivors. Otherwise its accuracy is undoubted.

The story begins in Manila, December 13, 1944.

By GEORGE WELLER (Escaped from Java NEI in 1942 with Bill Dunn as described in "PACIFIC MICROPHONE").
Chicago Daily News Foreign Service

Thin from nearly three years’ confinement, guarded by Japanese armed with bayonets, a column of American prisoners numbering somewhere above 1600 men shuffled in ranks of four through Manila’s dusty streets on the morning of December 13, 1944, on their way from Bilibid Prison to what in pre-war days had been know as "the million dollar pier."

They shuffled rather than marched because the sun was hot and many of them were ill. The ragged street boys of Manila made them furtive " V-for victory" signs. In the lace curtained parlors of the poor Philippine homes the cheap radios were turned on full blast as they approached, then turned down after they left: an indirect salute of the underground.

Nearly all of the prisoners were veterans of the defense of Bataan, Corregidor and Mindanao. About half were officers. They represented about 90 percent of the field, staff and medical officers who had sustained the defense of the Philippines for six months totally without help from the United States. The officers ranked from Navy Commanders and Lieutenant Colonels of the Army and Marines down through Lieutenants and Ensigns. Some were civilians who had been commissioned hastily after Japan struck south. Others were civilians who had helped in the defense of the Bataan and Corregidor without ever having formally entered the Armed Forces. There were also 37 British prisoners.

Hope of Rescue Ends

The 1600 prisoners (the exact number is given by various survivors as 1615, 1619, and 1635) marched slowly through Manila not only because of the heat and illness, but because rumor had already spread that they were being sent to Japan. If true, this report meant that their long-sustained hope of being rescued and freed by MacArthur’s forces was ended.

The prisoners anticipated that their journey by sea to Japan might take as much as a week or 10 days. Had they realized what lay ahead of them---that some would die or suffocation before even the next dawn---many undoubtedly would have chosen immediate death on the bayonets of the Japanese guards who flanked them.

Many of the prisoners were survivors of the death march from Bataan to Camp O’Donnell, where the willful denial of water and food by the Japanese cost the lives of hundreds of Americans. These men, including everything from highly trained West Point and Annapolis graduates to hastily unregistered missionary chaplains, had no inkling that they were setting forth on a journey of no less cruel and far more extended than the death march to Camp O’Donnell.

Instead of lasting 10 days, as the prisoners expected, their journey to Japan would last seven weeks. Instead of going the whole distance on the ship waiting for them at the million dollar pier, the prisoners would use four ships, besides motor trucks, railroad freight cars and their own bare feet, and instead of arriving in Japan with 1600 survivors, they would reach there with slightly over 400 still alive, most of whom would be so far sunken that more than a hundred would die soon after being turned over to prison authorities ashore.

About 1880 prisoners were crammed into Bilibid Military prison in downtown Manila when the Japanese decided to move them to Japan. Many, like Commander Warner Portz, sharp nosed, kindly former senior officer of the Davao prison camp, and Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth S. Olson who had been commandant there, had been moved northward to Manila on June 6, leaving Mindanao a residue of 175 officers of junior grade and about 600 enlisted men in the camps at Davao and nearby Lasang. The fate of these men is only partly know today, and the reported finding of large caches of American skeletons in Mindanao leaves it still un-clarified.

Starvation Diet of Rice

The prisoners were thin and weak. Their sustaining dish in Bilibid was lugao. Lugao is watered rice made into a thin, gluey substance. So unnourishing is lugao that many prisoners descending from the second floor of the Bilibid Prison for their morning dishful on the ground floor found themselves soon too weak to climb the stairs to their pallets again. They would remain in the prison yard to await the evening bowlful in order to husband the strength for the evening ascent of the single flight of stairs.

Against this liability of their own weakness the column of prisoners had an asset: a dedicated group of doctors, both Army and Nary, poor in medicine but rich in spirit. In one of the camps --- Cabanatuan --- there had existed a group of irresponsible men who lived in part by manufacturing spurious sulfathiozole tablets, stamped with a mold made from a cartridge, and selling them to the Japanese guards. But the Bilibid doctors were superior. From May 30, 1942, three weeks after the fall of Corregidor, to October 1943, the naval medical unit at Bilibid had been under Commander LB. Sartin of Mississippi, who was then succeeded by Commander Thomas H. Hayes of Norfolk. Hayes was marching through the Manila streets now with the column, marching toward the death that was waiting for him in Formosa.

The Japanese had made plans for evacuating the Americans sooner, but Manila was under almost constant air bombardment. They had not dared to bring in ships large enough tonnage to carry so many men. From the upper levels of Bilibid the Americans had watched the American carrier planes dive bombing the harbor. Their hopes rose that the American dive bombers would he able to keep the harbor clear of shipping long enough so that the Japanese would not attempt to evacuate them.

Divided by Rank

For some reason, however, the American air attacks stopped suddenly on November 28, giving the Japanese their chance to sneak their freighters into Manila. As with dragging feet the prisoners marched their last miles on American soil, they feared that for them MacArthur would come too late.

Sympathetic Filipinos were often rapped back by rifle butts for getting too close to the prisoners. The column reached the million dollar pier about 2 p.m. The pier was crowded with hundreds of Japanese civilians, all well dressed, with wives, babies, luggage and often large casks of sugar to take with them. At the pier was the Oryoku Maru, a passenger and freight ship of 9,000 - 10,000 tons, built in Nagasaki in 1939.

On hand to supervise the prisoners were several Japanese whom the prisoners knew. There was General Koa, who was in charge of all prisoners in the Philippines, and also, Lt. N. Nogi, director of the Bilibid hospital, a former Seattle psychiatrist who in general had been kind to the Americans. The prisoners mounted by single file the gangplank to the ship. The Japanese sentries all had narugis or clubs. The Americans were already showing signs of straggling from weakness and frequently had to he touched up with a blow of the narugi.

The Japanese elected to fill the aft hold first, and to put aboard the highest ranking officers before the others. It was this circumstance which was to make the death roll the heaviest the first night among the top officers, men who had commanded regiments and battalions in the hopeless struggle for Bataan and Corregidor. The aft hold’s hatch was cut off from free circulation of air by bulkheads fore and aft of it. A long slanting wooden staircase extended some 35 feet down through the hatch, down which the prisoners weakly crept,

No Air, No Light

When the first officers reached the bottom of the ladder they were met by a Sergeant Dau, well know at Davao, who wore a sword and had several privates under him, armed with brooms. Dau used the sword to direct the privates, and the privates used their brooms to beat the American officers back as far as possible into the dim bays of the hold.
"We had to scamper back in there," one officer describes it, "or get a crack from the brooms of Dau’s sword. There was a platform about 5 ft. high built over the hatch above, and so the little light that came down in mid-afternoon was deflected. Long before the hold was filled the air was foul and breathing was difficult. But the Japanese kept driving more men down the ladder from the deck, and Dau and his men kept pushing the first comers farther back into the airless dark."

This hold’s dimensions none of the prisoners could then estimate, because it was already too dark, at 3 in the afternoon, to see its limits. The loading alone in this hold took 1½ hours. The first officers who had descended were sitting down in the bays, a double tier system of wooden stalls something like a Pullman car. The lower bays were 3 ft. high. A man could neither stand up nor extend his legs sitting down in them.

Each bay was about 9 ft. from passageway to rear wall. The Japanese insisted that the Americans could sit in rows four deep, each man’s back against his neighbor’s knees, in this 9 ft. depth. The elder officers who were forced back in the rear almost immediately began to faint. Instead of making more space in the center under the fading light of the hatch, the Japanese insisted that the men in the center should not even sit down, but should be left standing, packed together vertically.

When the Japanese on deck looked down through the hatch they saw a pit of living men, staring upward, their chests and shoulders heaving as they struggled for air and wriggled for better space. " The first fights," says one officer, "began when men began to pass out. We knew then that only the front men in each hay would be able to get enough air."

(Continue tomorrow)