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The Hayes Bolitho Japanese POW Story continues...

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A terrifying route to freedom
Everyone was sick of Lasang - the work, the food, the beatings, the Japanese officers and the lousy barracks. We knew, too, that if the American Air Corp heavily bombed the airstrip our compound would undoubtedly be hit. Furthermore, the Japanese refused to allow us to dig any foxholes to protect ourselves.
At 3:30 a.m. August 20th we were awake and our few belongings were packed, and before dawn we had had breakfast. The orders were to be ready to leave at 6:00 a.m. When the time came, the Japanese lined us up in companies and they tied heavy hemp rope around the waist of each man and linked him to the man in front and the man in back. We were literally all tied together. There was a reinforcement of guards, two to every four prisoners. Machine guns were mounted on trucks front and rear of the column and all guards were carrying automatic riffles. Any thought of escape was out of the question.
As we walked barefooted through the coconut groves, a few Filipino bystanders watched our column without any expression on their faces. We walked to Tabuaco, the pier for the lumber mill. There our shoes were given back to us but we were told not to put them on until we were aboard the ship. As we were sitting on the pier waiting for the boat to take us to the freighter, the Eric Maru, the one-hundred?man detail from the Davao airfield arrived. These prisoners had their shoes on and were holding their final Red Cross box and were very nervous. They told us their airfield had been bombed and some of the bombs were too close for comfort.
Around noon small boats took us, to the side of the freighter. We were forced to climb up the side of the ship on wide lattice rope to the deck. Four hundred men were crowded into one hold and three hundred fifty into another. We descended into the holds on ladders. As we went lower the temperature rose so the bottom was like a furnace. A guard was down there with his rifle and bayonet crowding us together so we obviously were not going to have room to sit after all were down.
Everyone tried to shift around to make room for sitting space but still some had to stand. It was clear we would have to take turns standing as we settled in. The heat was terrible and in a very short time we were covered with sweat. In this heat a dirty body would bring on a skin rash that would open up into sores. To make matters worse, the Japanese had piled sacks of vegetables on the hatch covers above us limiting the amount of air coming down into the hold. At first there was no provision made for toilet purposes. Eventually three five?gallon cans were sent down through the hatch and were put in the middle of the hold. Any elimination had to be done in full view.
Soon after everyone had entered the holds our cooks were called up on deck to prepare our food. That evening buckets of food were lowered into the hold, each of us received a half mess kit of nice and about a third of a canteen cup of soup made from sweet potato and squash peelings. Fortunately most of us had saved what we could of our Red Cross food and that helped.
That evening, the ship moved in an unknown direction but we guessed not out of the gulf. I had a pretty good place in the hold where I could see through the cracks and look at the full moon. It gave me comfort even though we were literally human cargoes at its worst, trapped in the hold of a dirty freighter. I could reminisce about moonlight in my earlier years, but in our situation, fear of the unknown discouraged anything other than prayer. That was about the only thing that our captors couldn't keep us from doing.
The next morning buckets of food were sent down through an open hatch. We had just started eating when we heard the sound of an airplane. Through the open hatch I could see a four?engine plane with American markings. Then we heard the swish of a bomb falling followed by and explosion in the water. It had missed us but it was a close call. Immediately I heard the clatter of machine gun fire on deck and the banging of hatch covers going on the open holes. The hob?nailed shoes of the guards running on the steel deck made a terrible noise. Some of the men jumped from the center of the hold to get underneath the super structure of the ship for protection in case the ship was hit.
We sweated it for three hours with no fresh air and no circulation. Some got sick and many passed out from lack of oxygen. When the hatch covers were opened again, there wasn't a sound; we were all too weak to say anything. Then we saw Lt. Hashimoto took down in our hold. Possibly as many as one hundred fifty to two hundred men passed out in both holds and two men simply went berserk and had to be tied down. Several men stood up and made speeches and condemned their neighbors. As their voices grew louder they had to be silenced and tied down. In several hours we were fed again and now everyone in the hold was quiet and subdued. It had been an exhausting and frightening day.
Col. Rodgers made a strong protest to Hashimoto, whose only response was they had to put the hatch covers on because of what happened on a previous ship to Manila ? two men had jumped over board. We later found out it was Lt. Col. John McGee who went over the side at Zamboanga and Lt. Willis just west of Zamboanga both on the same day. There was firing the next morning and the hatch covers went back on again. We were dehydrated for the second time. Two hours later the hatch covers were removed. On the evening of August 22d we were shut up completely with tarpaulins covering the hatch cover for ten hours. The next morning everyone was in terrible condition.
Many men were close to death by the time the hatch covers and tarp were removed. Revival was slow. Some thought they were dying and asked for the last rites which were given to them by Father LaFleur, one of our chaplains. Many were desperate for water. Once a day the Japs would lower two five?gallon cans of water into the hold. We organized ourselves into groups of ten. Each group could fill one canteen. From that canteen each member of the group got eight GI spoonfuls of water. Some fought over who got the last spoonful or licked the last drop from the canteen. At the time that the water was lowered into the holds the Japanese dispensed our daily dab of rice. All of us were terribly dehydrated ? those who had dysentery were in worse shape. Many were so weak they tried crawling to the latrine cans but just couldn't make it; they just wallowed in their own filth. We urinated only once in a great while and with excruciating pain!
The stench in the holds finally got so bad the Japanese took a number of us up on deck at a time and hosed us down with salt water. They then sent us back down into the slimy, filthy holds. Some of the men were completely out of it, making speeches and threatening their neighbors. Another fellow went crazy and kept yelling "Get thee behind me Satan". The men around the poor fellow feared the Japs would fire down into us, as they had threatened, if we didn't keep quiet. The man's companions tied him up and every time he began "Get thee" ? you could hear a whack, a blow from a canteen would cut him short.
On August 24, 1944 we finally docked. For days the ship had moved so slowly and spasmodically that no one could even guess where we were. We could hear sounds from other ships and then the Japanese demanded some volunteers to bring the latrine cans out of the hold and dump them over the, side ? the Japs had neglected doing so for so long that they didn't want to face the foul smell themselves.
Some Navy men were chosen to handle the chore believing they might recognize where we were. It turned out to be Zamboanga, a good size city at the extreme southwest comer of Mindanao. We were all filthy with bad rashes and open sores. Under heavy guard, we were permitted to climb out of the holds and get a salt water hosing down, not a cleaning but a refreshing change. We were immediately returned to the holds.
On September 4"', after being in the harbor for ten days we were ordered, in the middle of the night, to move to another ship. The guards motioned us, with their guns, to cross the gangplank to the ship alongside ? named the Shinyo Maru. Immediately it was into the holds again, five hundred into the large central hold, down to the very bottom of the ship below the water level and apparently more crowded than ever. In the rear hold two hundred fifty of us were at the first level below the top deck. At night we could hear air raids on Zamboanga that meant the covering of the hatches and the miserable conditions that it brought on.
The following morning, September 5, the two hundred fifty of us were transferred to a rear hold to make room for more Japanese luggage. When we made this transfer I could see we were in a convoy of seven or eight ships. By 11:00 a.m. we were under way. About 4:00 p.m. we heard a loud commotion going on above us. Through a small opening where the hatch cover fitted loosely, I could see an elderly Japanese, with only a towel wrapped around him, ordering the guard to remove the hatch covers, presumably so we could get more air. We were fairly certain he was the captain of the ship, who realized the deplorable condition we were in. That night the guards left the covers off. What a relief.
On the seventh day of September, Lt. Hashimoto rearranged the hatch covers, allowing several inches of air space between them. We could see that the covers were lashed down with ropes so they couldn't be lifted from the inside and again sacks of rice and vegetables were stacked on top. Since we left Zamboanga we had not been allowed on deck to empty the latrine cans. Instead we had to pass them up to the guards; indifference about handling the cans created added difficulties. There was now every indication that we were not going to get out of the hold alive. We talked a lot about our chances of survival if we were attacked. The chances looked slim or none. All around me were men so weak and so sick that they couldn't even stand to receive their meager bit of rice. How were they going to get out?
About 4:15 p.m., the sudden sounds of a bugle and rifle fire on deck shattered the silence. Through the spaces, between the hatch covers, I could see the bugler and Jap soldiers running. Then I heard a loud explosion followed by another, and then everything was quiet. The first torpedo had entered the forward hold containing five hundred men. Since they were below the water line, the hold was instantly filled with water. The only ones that were able to get out were those in the center, as the water level floated them out.
The second torpedo hit the stem where two hundred fifty of us were crowded together. The steel decking above us was blown off and a large portion of the ship's side was folded back towards the bow. All men directly above where the explosion occurred were mangled beyond recognition. Those on either side, close to the explosion, were killed as well as most of those in the middle of the hold. I must have been knocked unconscious, because the next thing I noticed was a kind of fog in the hold and gradually the realization came that the hold was filled with fine dust and vapor. All the hatch covers and the steel beams that held them were on the men in the center of the hold. Men were lying all around me in mangled positions. There was a lot of moaning and weak cries for help from those in shock and those who were mortally injured.
I tried to get up but found there was debris and bodies holding me down ? pushing this aside; I was able to free myself. I was aware the Japanese were throwing hand grenades and firing guns into the hold at anyone moving and realized my best way out was through the hole made by the torpedo. That meant I had to get on the opposite side of the hold from where I was, avoiding the opening where the guards were firing and staying under the super structure. As I moved forward I had to duck under metal spars, move hatch covers, step over parts of bodies and push some of each out of the way. By the time I reached the hole the ship had listed and the water was above my waist and I was having trouble keeping my footing. I managed to grab a piece of the damaged hull that was bent outward, and by bracing my feet against this I was able to get through the hole.
I came to the surface like a cork and the next thing I knew the water threw me against the side of the ship and up on deck. I walked across the deck that was strewn with mangled Jap bodies and moved night behind the guards who were firing into the hold. Some other guards were so close to me I could have touched them but they were in a state of shock and confusion. I could see land in the distance. The ship's whistle was blowing shrilly and sounded like a wounded animal. I reached the side of the railing, climbed over it and jumped into the water, barely clearing the side of the listing ship. Thirty feet or so from where I had I jumped into the water were several guards up against the railing firing at prisoners in the water. I moved further away from them towards two Jap guards who were wearing life preservers with the hope I could create some protection by being near them. Another prisoner named Browning, with the same idea joined me. Both Japs were panicky ? one kept waving a bayonet and jabbing it towards us, the other had a small rounded piece of wood about two feet long just like a small baseball bat and he was swinging this around. Browning asked me if I could grab the bat and he'd try to get the bayonet and then we would take their life preservers.
The next time the bat was swung I grabbed it. The one with the bayonet made a swipe at me and I lost a six?inch strip of flesh about one inch wide on my side before Browning could get the weapon. The two Japs quickly moved away from us ? we didn't get the life preservers. We moved away from the ship as fast as we could and on the way we found apiece of hatch cover and clung to this. There were three Japanese planes overhead dropping depth charges. After they had dropped their load they kept flying low over the water firing their machine guns at all of us who were trying to make it to shore. Hearing a loud crackling sound, we turned our heads toward the doomed ship. The ship, with its whistle still blowing, went up on its stem and down into the deep water. Japanese in powerboats, kept swinging back and forth through the water firing at every prisoner they could spot.
Browning found another piece of lumber and for safety's sake we decided to split up, thinking we would make a smaller target and have a better chance. Other Japanese ships in the convoy were circling the area picking up survivors, including thirty Americans who were executed off the end of one of the vessels. They were shot in the head, their hands tied behind their backs and then pushed overboard. One man escaped to tell the story. I could see the green trees on the shore about two to two and half miles in the distance. There was no doubt I could make it providing I was not shot while swimming. I knew my jaw was broken and this concerned me because I would probably have to live off the land. I had another problem, my right arm pained badly and I didn't have the control that I normally had. I couldn't use it to swim so I put it over the hatch cover and paddled with my left.
In the distance I could faintly hear a voice calling "help ? help7' and as time went on the voice kept getting louder. About an hour later, I again heard "help ? help" only this time the man was close enough that I recognized him. "What's the matter Ray?" I shouted. He shouted back "I can't swim'. He passed me and beat me to shore. The tide was going in and carrying me towards a tanker that had been beached. Machine guns were set on the stem and the Japs were firing at any swimmers within range. I had headed as far away from this ship as possible but found when I reached the sharp coral rocks at the shore's edge I was closer than I intended to be. After a brief rest lying in the water, I made a dash across the beach, at the same time the guns opened up at others further down the beach. Out of the comer of my eye I could see the Tracers heading toward me.
I reached a mound on the edge of the jungle and went over this headfirst and immediately rolled to my left. The gunner tore the top off the mound and I was hit in the left hand and right foot. I had rolled behind a tree seven or eight inches in diameter and the gunner tore that tree apart but I was in a slight indentation in the ground and the Jap gunner couldn't reach me. He tried, but since I didn't move he probably thought he had gotten me. I rested for a short time and then crawled into the jungle until I knew I couldn't be seen and then checked my foot and hand. They were so bloodied and dirty it was impossible to tell how badly I was wounded. I had no idea where I was but assumed it was still the Philippines, and I didn't know if I would find friend or enemy. I was free and terribly thirsty and I had to get further into the jungle away from the beach ? the Japs were too close.
I headed down a trail and ran into Paul Snowden, a man I had met in Dapecol. He was headed toward the beach to get his bearings. When I told him of my experience with the tanker he changed his mind. Since I was completely naked, Paul who had on an old pair of shorts over a G?string took off the G?string and handed it to me. Now I was not quite so self?conscious. We followed the trail for about fifteen minutes and came upon a young Filipino boy of seven or eight, who could speak some English. He took us further down the trail to talk with his father. First we asked for some water ? it was wet, warm and delicious. Then we were given some nice with chicken. The elder Filipino smiled to know he had pleased us and asked how he could help. We told him through his son, we wanted to get into the hills. We were taken down another trail and in ten or fifteen minutes we met two big husky Filipino men who said "Filipino Guerrilla, Filipino Guerrilla7'. I hugged one and Paul hugged the other. They were out looking for more American survivors and were taking them to a central location.
Suddenly I could go no further ? I hurt all over. The one Filipino helped me climb on the back of the other, who then dog trotted further into the interior to a schoolhouse, where there were 30 to 40 other survivors. I found I had a broken arm as well as a broken jaw, three broken ribs, and the bayonet wound and was shot in the hand and the foot, but I was free and I didn't have to listen to some little Jap bastard scream "speedo".

© Copyright 2001 Hayes Bolitho.
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