By Colonel Wibb E. Cooper, Medical Corps (Formerly Surgeon, United States Forces in the Philippines)
Office of the Surgeon General

23 APR 1946

The Death Cruise from Manila to Japan
pp. 125 - 133

On the afternoon of December 13, 1944, 1,619 officers and men, many of whom had survived the death march and all of whom had survived Japanese imprisonment from the surrender of Bataan and Corregidor, were packed into the holds of the Japanese transport Oryoku Maru and started on their way to Japan. There was no excuse for moving these prisoners at this late date and the senior American officer present had written a letter to the Japanese officer in charge at Bilibid protesting the risks that would be involved, but the Japanese reply was that there was no danger involved or they would not consider moving us. Preparations for this move had been underway for some time. Most of the group had been moved from Cabanatuan to Bilibid some six weeks before and were issued wool clothing to be used upon the arrival in a colder climate. Eighty cases of American Red Cross medical supplies were set aside to be loaded on our ship and six other cases were prepared especially for our use during the voyage.

Having witnessed the bombing of Manila Bay area by our own dive-bombers for the preceding six weeks, it was with considerable misgivings that we embarked from Pier #7. There were the hulls of three sunken ships alongside the pier and an estimated forty-five other ships wrecked and resting on the bottom of the bay, the results of our dive-bomber action. Pier #7 was almost completely destroyed but could still be used as a dock for loading and unloading by hand labor. All machinery and mechanical cranes had been destroyed.

The first night out was spent in getting through the minefields and out of the bay and by eight o'clock the following morning we were under attack by American planes. It was not a surprise but rather what we had expected and feared. Men had been packed so tightly in the holds of the ship that there was not room to lie down or even sit down in most cases. In the forward and after holds conditions were most crowded. The writer was in the second hold forward and fared better than those who were in the other holds.

The bombing raids came at frequent intervals during the 14th and the ship spent most of the day zigzagging not far off the coast of Bataan. Several hits were sustained and there was considerable damage to the superstructure of the ship and many casualties were incurred among the prisoners in the hold from strafing and fragments of bombs, but no direct hit was made in either hold during the first day's raids. Late in the afternoon, however, the ship had become so badly crippled that she dropped anchor not far from shore where she remained until almost dark that night. After the attacks had ceased she again got underway and pulled into Subic Bay and anchored, where all Japanese nationals who had occupied the upper decks and all Japanese wounded were removed. According to stories brought back in the hold by American doctors who had been called up on deck to help take care of Japanese wounded, their casualties were several hundred. There was no effort made to remove the prisoners and it was during this second night out that twenty-four Americans died of suffocation in the hold of this ship. After the Japanese nationals and wounded were removed, the ship again got underway and pulled out into the channel of the bay and dropped anchor again. During this move the Japanese interpreter called down instructions into our hold and said that we would be taken ashore at daybreak and that we could take only the clothing we would be able to wear ashore and that we could not wear shoes but would be allowed to carry them with us. With this preparation made well before daybreak, everyone settled down to wait for the big moment when we would be going ashore. Many men carried emergency dressings and varying amounts of medicines that they had accumulated through packages received from home. There they were digging out of their bundles and getting them cached away in their clothing in preparation for smuggling them ashore. Daylight came and everyone was ready and waiting to be taken ashore but no move was made on the part of the Japanese until about two hours after daybreak, when the first American planes appeared overhead. These did not attack us and were apparently reconnaissance planes. However, as soon as these planes disappeared, we were given instructions to send up twenty-five men and to send the wounded up first. This order was complied with and the first load of twenty-five men were in a small boat headed for shore when the first bombers appeared for the attack that finally sank the ship. The small boat was destroyed, killing most of its occupants, but one or two of them got safely ashore. The second wave of bombers came in after a brief interval and in this raid a bomb scored a direct hit in the after hold, killing some 250 to 300 prisoners. After this attack the interpreter again called into the hold and said, "Everybody out!" All wounded in this hold had been removed just preceding the attack and although there were several new casualties since the raids started, it is believed that they were all removed from this hold and most of them were able to get ashore. When the prisoners came on deck, the ship was burning furiously at the stern and ammunition was beginning to explode. There were no lifeboats available and the ship was some 300 yards off shore, which made it necessary for most men, in their already weakened condition, to strip off their clothing before attempting to swim ashore. the writer barely made it with only his dog tags to hinder him. By the time the first group of swimmers reached the shore the planes were returning for a third raid upon the ship and someone called out for everyone to wave his extended arms in the fashion that airplanes wag their wings in expressing recognition and everyone who had his feet on the sand did so. The emotion that swept through the crowd when the leader of that group of planes returned our signal and led his bombers away without attacking would be difficult to understand. He was the first free American with whom we had been in communication for almost three years.

Most of the not too seriously wounded got ashore or were brought ashore on improvised rafts, but a total of approximately 300 were lost with the ship. We were then taken to an open tennis court, wounded and sick along with the well. Most of us had no clothing and had lost our blankets and personal belongings on the ship. The Japs, disregarding this, kept up on that tennis court without food and clothing day and night for a period of five days. the only attempt at feeding us was to issue a few bags of raw rice the last two days and this amounted to only a mess kit spoonful per man twice daily. Nothing was provided in the way of medical supplies, but as soon as we were ashore someone handed me a bottle of iodine that he had been able to salvage and by the time that we were all settled on the tennis court, enough supplies had been collected to start another of our now famous improvised aid stations. Wounds were dressed with whatever materials could be provided by the patient or by his friends, and one end of the tennis court was set aside as a hospital for the wounded and it turned out to be the only hospital to which they were ever taken. To give an impression of the conditions encountered here, the following example will suffice:

An officer who had received a moderately severe wound in the left shoulder developed a gangrene of his arm, which had to be removed without anesthesia and with only a pair of tissue scissors and a hemostat and a razor blade for surgical equipment. The results were, of course, self-evident, but the patient wanted it removed.

Before leaving the tennis court we were re-outfitted with clothing. This time, however, instead of equipping us with woolen uniform and blankets, we were given only a cotton undershirt and a pair of cotton Japanese drawers. Men who had gotten ashore with their clothing on were indeed fortunate, for it was with this wardrobe of clothing that we were to finish our voyage to Japan. There was much speculation over this before we finally realized that our voyage was to be continued. During our stay on the tennis court we had quite a number of dead to dispose of. They were buried in bomb craters made by American bombs dropped in the vicinity.

On the 20th of December a convoy of Japanese trucks came and moved approximately half of the group to San Fernando, Pampanga, and the following day returned to pick up the remainder. We were kept in an old theater building there until December 24th. Here we received ten boxes of American Red Cross medical supplies which had been sent up from Bilibid Prison in Manila by train. Upon receiving these supplies, a sick call was held immediately and all of the wounded were dressed. This was the first time that aseptic dressing had been available since the sinking on December 15th. Many men were ill with acute dysentery by this time and an effort was made to clear them up with sulphathiazole but many cases either did not report for treatment or were treated inadequately because many cases were observed when our journey resumed.

Limited facilities for cooking rice were provided at the theater building and several small meals of cooked rice and seaweed were prepared and served by our own personnel during the two days that we were held in San Fernando, Pampanga. A majority of the group had lost their mess kits and it was a common sight to see men eating rice from a dirty piece of paper, an old rag of clothing, or a piece of tin or bamboo that had been picked up around the premises. Their only utensils were dirty fingers or a split section of bamboo.

On the evening of December 23rd, the Japanese interpreter came and told us to be prepared to send a truckload of out most seriously wounded back to Bilibid that night. This order was complied with and fifteen wounded were loaded into a truck. They have never been heard of since that night. I have checked personally with Medical officers left behind at Bilibid Prison and at Cabanatuan. What fate befell them remains to this date a mystery.

On the morning of December 24, 1944, we were marched to the depot at San Fernando, which had been partially destroyed by bombing and while a dogfight was in progress overhead between American and Japanese planes, entrained for San Fernando, La Union. This time we were not restricted to 100 men per boxcar but were packed in so tightly that up to 175 men rode in and on top of a single car. We were cautioned not to make any attempt to escape but were told that those riding on top might wave to American planes in the event we were attacked. This trip proved to be an almost maddening experience because of lack of ventilation and water, but so far as I know no one died of suffocation or thirst en route. Several died at San Fernando the next day, probably as a direct result of the trip.

December 25th was spent in the schoolyard at San Fernando, La Union. A dispensary was set up inside the building and the floor was immediately turned into a hospital for the seriously ill. Our Red Cross medical supplies were brought along in the train and were made available to us during our stay at the schoolhouse but that night we were moved down to the beach and did not have access to them from that point on. Two nights were spent on this sandy beach and on the morning of December 27th, we were loaded on landing barges from which Japanese troops had just come ashore and taken to the two Japanese transports in which we continued our voyage to Formosa.

Two small meals of cooked rice were issued while at San Fernando, La Union, one at the schoolhouse and one while on the beach. In addition, another spoonful of raw rice was issued on the evening of December 28th.

Water was plentiful at San Fernando but we were allowed to carry only a few bucketsful from a sump nearby. Each man received about eight mess kit spoonfuls during the day on the beach. Many had been able to fill their canteens while at the school and this served to tide them over.

For this leg of the voyage -- San Fernando, La Union to Takao, Formosa -- we were divided into two groups. I was with the smaller group, 165 men in the hold of #2 ship in the convoy, and the larger group occupied the hold of #1 ship in the convoy. There was no overcrowding in #2, but as the ship followed its course to the north, the fall in temperature began to have its effect and by the time we reached Formosa we were already miserable from the cold. This voyage ended at Takao on New Year's Eve and was uneventful except for an attack by submarines during our last night at sea. No hits were made on either ship but there was considerable excitement and many depth charges were dropped by our escorting vessels.

The same crises developed during this voyage that always seemed to come up when moved by the Japanese, viz. lack of water and food. If my memory serves me correctly, we were given our first drop of water by the Japanese on this ship late in the afternoon of December 30th and this amounted to not more than one-fourth of a canteen cupful per man. The American interpreters aboard begged constantly for water, but were refused.

Three meals, consisting of about one-third of a canteen cupful of rice per man, were given during this voyage which lasted from the morning of the 27th to the evening of the 31st of December, 1944. It was after we were tied up at the pier at Takao, on the morning of January 1, 1945, that we received our first big meal, viz. four and one-half pieces of terro-pan, the Japanese version of hardtack.

We remained in the hold of this ship until about the 7th of January, when we were taken by barge to the #1 ship, which was riding at anchor out in the bay. During this week while tied up at the pier, we were still refused an adequate supply of water and were given practically no food. I would estimate that the daily average water issue did not exceed three ounces per man.

The number of deaths among this small group was not high and as I recall did not exceed eight or ten deaths up to the time we rejoined the others.

Conditions on this second ship were much worse than we had encountered on the first. The hold we were placed in had been used for transporting animals and the ammonia fumes coming up from the bilge were at times stifling. Flies were breeding by the millions and dysentery was again running riot.

The food and water situation was somewhat better in that rice was served regularly twice a day, one canteen cupful to four men, and a cabbage soup was served with at least one of these meals daily. The soup was not nutritious but did add to the fluid intake and helped to make up for the scant water ration.

The day after we joined this group, 500 men were moved out of the lower level of this hold and into a forward hold which had just been cleared of coal. It was in this forward hold that a bomb was dropped in an attack by American dive-bombers on January 9, 1945. Several other bomb hits were made toward the stern of the ship and she was so badly damaged that she could not be moved but did not sink. Whether she was resting on the bottom I am unable to say, but at any rate we were not removed from this ship until January 13, 1945.

The casualties from this bombing were higher than they had been in the bombing of the Oryoku Maru, but the number killed was approximately the same. Of the 500 men in the forward hold, almost exactly 50% were killed, but the number of wounded in both holds was greater and the nature of the wounds was, in general, most serious. Only about twenty were killed in the second hold but many fractures of a more serious nature resulted from falling "I"-beams and heavy timbers from the hatch covers above. About fifty of these involved fractures of the long bones and several fractured vertebrae. In addition to these more serious fractures, there were hundreds of minor injuries from bomb fragments and steel splinters from the ship's hull and from the bulkhead which separated the two holds.

The medical problem created by this second bombing would have exceeded our capacity to work had we been furnished with everything needed from the standpoint of medical supply and equipment. As it turned out we were able to do very little.

In the first place many of the seriously wounded were in the forward hold where the bomb struck. I had a glimpse into that hold through an opening in the bulkhead where a fragment had pierced it, and even that was in violation of Japanese orders. For two days the living and wounded in this hold were left with the dead and mangled, and in spite of every effort on the part of the Americans in charge, were denied any help that we might have been able to give them. The wounded in the second hold were given whatever treatment could be improvised; hemorrhages were controlled and wounds were dressed with dirty undershirts taken from the dead. Fractures were splinted where pieces of timber could be found to use as splints, but many were only laid in as comfortable spot as could be found and their only treatment was to carry them food and water when it became available. There was no morphine to ease their pain and in fact no medical supplies except what could be collected from individuals.

On the second day after the bombing, two Japanese enlisted men of their Medical Department came aboard with some dressings and although they would not go into the forward hold, they did come down into the second hold and ordered that all minor wounded line up and come by for dressings. When they stopped operating, the line was still forming and they refused to do any work on our seriously wounded. When they left the ship, they sent down a few boards for splints, about a dozen roller bandages, a bottle of iodine, a bottle of mercurochrome, three triangular bandages, and less than a pound of cotton. These were to be our medical supplies for the rest of our journey.

The next day a barge came alongside to remove the dead. These were taken from both holds and were taken ashore for burial. I would estimate about 300 men were buried in Formosa.

On the 13th of January, all remaining personnel were loaded on barges and transferred to another ship. (this happened to be the same ship on which the smaller group had come up from San Fernando, La Union.) The wounded were loaded by lowering a cargo net and hoisting them out of the hold onto the barge and then transferring to the deck of the other ship. From that point on it was our problem to get them down into the hold. Again we were to carry our wounded with us until they died and had to be thrown overboard.

There were left roughly a thousand men, including the wounded who started on this third phase of the voyage. The entire group was placed in a small hold near the stern of the ship. Space was again a problem. Double-deck sleeping bays had been installed leaving the hatch cover leading to the hold below as the only space in the hold. This was set aside for the hospital section where most of the fracture patients and many of the seriously ill were placed in order that they could be cared for by Medical personnel more advantageously. These were patients who were unable to get in and out of the sleeping bays and food and water would have to be carried to them by the corpsmen. There was only a narrow passageway surrounding this hatch cover where others could pass to reach the entrance to the sleeping bays and where wooden buckets could be placed to serve as latrines. this passage also had to be used in getting food and water back to the sleeping bays for there was not sufficient space to allow men to get out of these bays once they were in them.

On the morning of January 14, 1945, this ship pulled out of Takao Harbor and headed on toward the north. The route that it followed could not be determined but soon we were far enough to the north that snow flurries were encountered. There was no heat in this hold and no blankets or extra clothing had been provided, and now in addition to our usual run of worries, we were faced with the problem of how to keep from freezing to death -- a problem which a large number failed to solve.

The ration for the rest of this journey was fixed at one canteen cupful of cooked rice for four men twice a day, and was methodically reduced to keep it at that level as the daily dead were thrown overboard.

The water ration averaged about one canteen cupful for eight men twice a day and for several days of the voyage tasted so strongly of salt water that it was almost impossible to drink it.

At the beginning of this trip the Japanese interpreter announced that anyone caught stealing from the ship's cargo would be severely punished and shot to death. This must have been the most encouraging remark that he could have made to the prisoners on that ship, because it resulted in an immediate search for a way to get into the hold below, and within a short time men could be seen eating sugar on the sly in almost every bay. Not only did they steal sugar to eat, but many of them ripped open sacks and dumped the sugar out and used the sacks for cover to keep from freezing to death. Fortunately, the Japs were afraid to come into the filth of this hold and this violation was not discovered.

Sanitation in this ship became the worst that had been encountered. Latrine buckets could be emptied only as the Japanese would authorize it and this bore no relation to the time at which they became full; consequently, everyone aboard who did not have dysentery in the beginning either developed it right away or was immune to the infection. No water was provided for personal hygiene, and for six weeks men had to go without so much as washing their hands and face. Salt water was requested for this purpose and was refused. Mess kits could not be washed and soiled clothing salvaged from the dead could not be washed but was put on and worn by others in spite of this, and so the filth increased as the trip progressed.

Morbidity was almost 100% in addition to sickness from starvation, and disease wounds that would under normal conditions have been trivial resulted in infection and deep abscesses which had to be drained with only a razor blade or a pair of tissue scissors for surgical equipment. Dressings ran out and men broke into the life-preserver room and stole life preservers for the kapok stuffing to use as surgical dressings. To keep from freezing to death, they stuffed kapok into the legs of the Japanese drawers they had on and those who had socks or shoes stuffed them with kapok also. The hold became littered with feces and kapok.

The mortality on this third and final ship was the highest. As our total decreased, the deaths increased until by the time this ship reached Moji in Japan on January 30, 1945, less than 500 men were alive and of that number over 200 more were in such a debilitated state that they died within the next few weeks. Of the total of 1,619 men who had left Manila, December 13, 1944, less than 300 survived to see the end of the war.

Page 1 INDEX