Memorial honors POWs who died on infamous Japanese ‘hellships’ of WWII
NATIONAL MEMORIAL CEMETERY OF THE PACIFIC, Hawaii — At 101 years old, Ben Skardon still has vivid memories of the deprivation and cruelty he experienced as a prisoner of war of the Japanese in the Philippines during World War II.
But of all those dark moments in the more than three years of captivity, it was time aboard the “hellships” that was bleakest.
The freighter Enoura Maru had been used to transport horses before the wretched POWs were crammed into the same manure-filled bottom hold of the ship. The horses had been fed oats, and the starve-crazed men scratched through the droppings in search of single, undigested grains to eat.
On Wednesday, a stone was dedicated at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific memorializing the roughly 400 men who died while POWs aboard a single journey from the Philippines to Japan on three separate hellships in 1945.
The remains of many of the men who died on the ships rest in 20 graves marked “Unknown” at the Honolulu cemetery, also called the Punchbowl.
A series of ships — the Oryoku Maru, Enoura Maru and Brazil Maru — transported what began as a group of 1,600 POWs to mainland Japan to be used as slave labor. The ships were unmarked as carrying prisoners.
U.S. Navy aircraft bombed and sank the Oryoku before it left the Philippines. The survivors were transferred to the Enoura, which was bombed while docked in Takao Harbor, Formosa – now Kaohsiung Harbor, Taiwan — on Jan. 9, 1945.
The survivors were then loaded onto the Brazil. Only 548 of the original 1,600 were alive by the time the ship reached Japan. Only 403 survived to liberation in September 1945.
“For the handful of survivors, like my father, the experience was so horrific, so indescribable, that it was easier, safer, to say nothing and to keep their memories to themselves and unknown to the rest,” said Jan Thompson, president of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor Memorial Society, which spearheaded the effort to memorialize the men in the 20 graves.
“Today, we’re going to change all this,” she said. “From officer to enlisted, from chaplain to corpsman, from Merchant Marine to civilian, all are to be recognized, all are to be remembered and none will ever again be unknown.”
Skardon, who lives in Clemson, S.C., is one of only two living survivors of the Oryoku, Enoura and Brazil; he was unable to attend Wednesday’s ceremony but sent a letter that was read aloud.
The only former POW to attend was Daniel Crowley, a 96-year-old who defended Corregidor and was eventually sent by hellship to work in copper mines in Japan.
‘Mind-altering tortures’ Among those who perished on the Enoura was Clarence White, a death that came after a long ordeal of captivity, said his daughter, Nancy Kragh, a member of the memorial society.
A doctor and major in the Army’s 31st Infantry Medical Corps, White had been posted in the Philippines with his wife and young daughter Nancy in 1939. With a U.S.-Japan conflict looking ever more likely, military families were evacuated out of the Philippines in early 1941.
White was among the thousands of U.S. troops surrendered to Japanese forces at Bataan on April 9, 1942, then forced into the infamous death march to a crowded prison camp.
The Japanese began routinely shipping prisoners back to mainland Japan to be used as slave labor in mines and factories. As the tide of war turned against Imperial Japan, its ships became easier targets for Allied submarines and carrier-launched aircraft.
Inexplicably, the Japanese did not mark most ships as carrying POWs, even though doing so would have protected their own troops aboard from enemy attack.
With the U.S. invasion of the Philippines in October 1944, the Japanese took even less care in how POWs were transported.
In December 1944, White was among the 1,600 prisoners loaded into the lower holds of the Oryoku in Manila Bay.
Author Sally Mott Freeman, whose uncle Barton Cross was also aboard the Oryoku, describes “the sharp descent into the most terrifying night in the lives of those who survived” the journey in her book, “The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family’s Quest to Bring Him Home.”
With the closing of the hatch that provided the men with their sole source of ventilation, “they experienced the converging mind-altering tortures of extreme thirst and acute oxygen deprivation,” she wrote. “The lucky ones suffocated to death before sunrise. Others, increasingly weak and dehydrated, went out of their minds.”
Some drank their own urine; others slit open their own veins or the veins of others to suck blood.
“Still others became violent in the hellish dark, beating to death those near them with fists or empty canteens for real or imagined transgressions,” Freeman wrote.
Shortly before dawn the ship had made it north only to Subic Bay when it was bombed and strafed by Navy planes. Several hundred POWs died in the attack, while others swam ashore from the sinking ship.
Most were recaptured, including White, and were then loaded into the Enoura.
On Jan. 9, 1945, the ship — unmarked as carrying prisoners — was attacked by Navy bombers while at Formosa.
“About 300 men died in the bombing,” Kragh told Stars and Stripes. “My dad was one of them.” He bled to death over the course of two days from shrapnel wounds.
The corpses of those dead, as well as another 100 who died of starvation and disease, “were loaded into cargo nets, taken ashore and dumped into a mass grave,” she said.
Sense of absence The bodies were exhumed in 1946-47, she said, and 27 of the men were identified. But without DNA technology, the rest were unidentifiable. They were buried in 1949 at the Punchbowl as unknowns, their gravestones carrying the date of the Jan. 9 bombing.
“The families of those men were never told about what happened, about being exhumed, about being put in Punchbowl, because they were not able to positively identify the remains,” Kragh said.
The Defense POW-MIA Accounting Agency in Hawaii did not respond to queries from Stars and Stripes about whether it plans to exhume and identify the remains in the 20 gravesites.
Barton Cross survived the Enoura but was forced onto the third ship, Brazil Maru, on which he died.
His name is listed in a columbarium at the Yokohama War Cemetery in Japan by an urn that holds the commingled cremated remains of 333 POWs from America, Great Britain and the Netherlands.
Freeman told Stars and Stripes she can’t be sure her uncle’s remains ended up in that urn, and so, despite 10 years of exhaustive research into the subject, doubts nag – as they do for many families of those unrecovered from war.
“These wars recede into the past, but for any family member of a missing soldier in a previous foreign war, they don’t get closure,” she said. “And when they don’t get the closure the angst doesn’t go away. It festers.”
The memorial stone is perhaps one step toward rectifying the sense of absence.
“They sacrificed not just for nation and ally,” Brig. Gen. Thomas Tickner, commander of the Pacific Ocean division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said at the ceremony. “Nor did they suffer simply to endure an enemy. They fought and died for a higher devotion.”