Last of the Oryoku Maru
1300 Men, "Housed" on Tennis Court, Cheered When U.S. Planes Sank Ship
This is the seventh in a series by George Weller of the Chicago Daily News Foreign Service on the "Cruise of Death" taken by some 1600 American prisoners from Manila to Southern Japan. Approximate/v 300 men survived the ordeal. Their stories were gathered in prison camps, rest camps, on hospital ships and at U.S. bases in the Pacific.
By GEORGE WELLER
Nearly 100 of the Americans already were dead from horrible conditions in the shipís three holds, into which they had been jammed. 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 mountain and a distant lighthouse, thinking to reach the beach there and escape into the bush.
Swimmers Hunted Down
A Major 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 he had heard men groaning and believed some were still alive aboard.
The first men to reach shore found there was no true beach at all, but ankle deep water below an eight-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 JNLPís, 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.
Lieutenant Colonel Curtis Beecher of Chicago and Saratoga, Cal., a vigorous, gray-haired Marine, took quick command of the seawall 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; letís help the men who are failing out there."
U.S. Planes Return
It was difficult to persuade the newcomers, once they reached the seawall, to squat down in its cover, in the shallow water. Not having heard the Japanese fire while they were thrashing toward shore, they refused to believe 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 bullet-swept seawall.
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 waggled 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, Major Andrew J. Mathiesen, Los Angeles, and Lieutenant Keene, a graduate of South Carolina Citadel, approached the JNLPís and explained the Americans had been without water for two days. There was a small faucet near the Japanese positions. The Japanese allowed them to go in five-man details to the faucet.
Around noon, after the half-naked men had lain in the open 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 Lieutenant Commander Thomas H. Hayes, 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.
The long line of men straggled along slowly and weakly. Occasionally the Japanese batted them along, but there were no outright beatings. By about three 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.
This court was to be the prison for approximately 1300 hungry, thirsty battle-shocked, and in some cases, wounded men who remained of the approximate 1600 who had left Bilibid.
Senior Officer Wounded
They stacked their dead at the entrance to the court. They moved the tall refereeís 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 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 my own father."
Beecher, sitting aloft in the refereeís chair, had great difficulty establishing quiet and order, even in making himself heard. How could over 1300 men be arranged in a single tennis court? It was the problem of the shipload all over again.
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 manís haunches in the fork of his neighborís legs.
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 planeís target was the Japanese anti-aircraft gun on a knoll beyond the tennis court.
The guns spoke: the plane roared down and silenced the gun, and as it swung up a tinkle of empty 50-caliber cartridge cases came hurtling down and struck the courtís 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
No Sign of Life
The prisoners, standing on 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.
On the 15-foot-wide strip or space beyond one baseline, the prisoners established their "hospital." Commander Thomas H. Hayes, Norfolk, Va., was now exhausted and another doctor, Lieutenant Commander Clyde Welsh, Chicago, took over. His next of rank, with a curiously similar name, Lieutenant Commander Cecil Welch, South Dakota, had disappeared, reportedly suffocated aboard the ship. The other doctors on the Navy side of the "hospital" were Lieutenant Bruce Langdon, North Carolina, and Lieutenant Arthur Barrett, 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 Japanese furnished no medical supplies and naturally the half-clothed Americans had none.