The Voyage of a Death Ship

"We Want You to Die." Prisoners Were Told When They Asked Japs for Relief

This is the eleventh 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. Approximately 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.

Chicago Daily News Foreign Service

After Days of bombings hunger, thirst, all the horror and indignities to which men can be subjected, two groups of American prisoners were now definitely on their way to Japan.

They were being taken away from the Philippines -- away from the last hope of rescue by General MacArthur’s advancing forces.

About 1000 of the men were aboard a freighter known only as " No. 2". The remainder, 234, were aboard "No. 1." Again their quarters were airless holds of stench, disease and terror. It was December 27, 1944.

Again death was moving quietly among them. Of dehydration or diarrhea, or old wounds, a man died almost every hour. From the Japanese galley they procured rice sacks for shrouds. When a man died his body was stripped of usable clothing, placed in a sack, and hoisted up.

Disposal of the Dead

Tying up the bodies was the job of boatswains like Jesse E. Lee of San Diego. "The trouble was that the second day we already ran out of sacks," he said. "I would tie a running bowline around the feet of the corpse and a half hitch around his head, and then say: `All right, take him away.’ Then he would rise up out of the hold, and his friends could see him for the last time against the sky, swinging back and forth against the side of the hatch as he went out of sight."

Most of the chaplains were by this time beyond doing any duties, but a Catholic Army Lieutenant, Father William "Bill" Cummings of San Francisco and Ossining, N.Y., who in a sermon on Bataan had first uttered the words "There are no atheists in foxholes," often managed to say a few words of blessing as a body rose through the hatch.

A Navy chief carpenter named 0’Brien, for example, who had been stricken on the beach with nutritional diarrhea which not even food could check, passed on his final moments eased by Cummings. A sergeant of the Air Force named Brown who jumped overboard off Northern Luzon at night, however was followed only by the scattered shots of the Taiwani (Formosan) guards. Captain John F. Presnell, a graduate of the University of Maine, tried to climb the iron ladder to the deck and was shot dead by the guards.

As the ships drew away from the Luzon coast it began to grow cold. The men who had broiled now shivered night and day.\

One Teaspoon of Rice

And as the deaths increased the Japanese made a rule that bodies could no longer be hoisted out of the hold immediately after death. They had to lie out on the bottom of the hold, so as to be in full sight of Lieutenant Toshino, Jap officer in charge, or Mr. Wada, his interpreter, when they glanced into the pit.

When there were six or eight bodies, Mr. Wada would give permission for a general hoisting of corpses.

The horse troughs around the hold (the ship had carried horses to Luzon) had now been turned into latrines. "You could watch a single fly go from the latrines to the bodies, and then from the bodies to your rice," says a prisoner. Captain Jack Clark, a Marine, kept the death roll for Lieutenant Colonel Curtis Beecher of Chicago.

The 234 men on "No. 1" were in a way worse off than those on "No. 2" because they were committed into the hands of their Formosan guards. For the first two days they got nothing at all, except that the guards diverted themselves by dropping cigarettes through the hatch to watch the Americans scramble.

Lieutenant Colonel "Johnny" Johnson, one of the few hard working officers who came through, took firm hold and saw that every scrap of food on hand was rationed. Their first food was the leavings from the guards, and a Japanese guard does not leave very much. It amounted to a teaspoon of rice per man.

Johnson took a teaspoonful to the commander of the guard. He said: "If we must go on like this, my men will all die." The commander replied: "We want you to die. Your submarines are sinking our ships. We want you to die."

The Japanese crewmen sold a kind of cheap rock candy to the prisoners for rings and fountain pens. All sense of disorder and fight was now gone from the men. Johnson had set them off in groups of 20, by areas. Bearded, dirty, shoeless and sunburned, they lay in their areas waiting death in the throbbing holds.

"No. 2," though it was the newer and larger ship, broke its steering gear two days from the Philippines and had to be towed most of the rest of the way.

"Safe" Arrival

The convoy reached the harbor of Takao, Formosa, on New Year’s Day. In celebration of safe arrival the prisoners aboard "No. 1" received five pieces of hardtack each, their New Year’s feast.

About a dozen men had died on "No. 1" and a somewhat larger number on "No. 2"."

Older men like P.D. Rogers, who once had been General John J. Pershing’s secretary and also served as Governor of Jolo, passes away of general weakness, while young men like Captain Alfonso Melendez and Captain James Sadler, both of Santa Fe, died of dysentery and exhaustion. Major Reginald H. Ridgely, Jr., Beecher’s Marine mess officer, kept up a ceaseless chant of "Take it easy, boys, at ease, now" in his deep voice.

After three or four days in Takao harbor, the Japanese decided to put two parties together again aboard "No. 2." The smaller party spent a day and night, in between, aboard a still smaller freighter with a bad list, apparently from bombing. After 24 hours without food or water they were moved on January 4 to "No. 2" and jammed down into the midships hold already occupied by about 1000 men. The next day the Japanese decided to open a forward hold, where about 450 men under Captain (now Major) Arthur Wermuth of Chicago, the "one-man army", were transferred.

The prisoners knew that they were now within range of more bombers; The American Air Force in China. Their alarm was increased when a light warship approached and tied itself to "No. 2," making an inviting double target.

"No. 2," had already taken aboard 200 sacks of sugar, which were placed in the lower part of the crowded hold amidships. The prisoners sensed the moment for departing for Japan was at hand. The 37 British prisoners who had been with them from Manila were ordered ashore, joining their compatriots in Formosa’s camps.

Tomorrow: Wholesale Death From The Air