Arriving in the Philippines
I was graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1940. My parents were poor immigrants from Russia. I was extremely proud to be a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army!
I suspected that we would be forced into a war with Japan. The only logical place for Japan to attack, in my opinion, was the Philippines. Since this was so obvious to me, I felt that it must be so obvious to everyone else that we would have the most and the best of everything—equipment, supplies, etc.—there.
I arrived in Manila aboard the old US ARMY Transport, U.S. Grant in January 1941. We were greeted with a fly by of our Far East Army Air Corps flying planes that were obsolete in the States--P-26, O-46. B-10. My close friend, classmate, and roommate who chose the Philippines for the same reasons as I was standing beside me on the deck of the Grant. I can remember turning to him and saying, "Murph, we've been had!"
Fall of Bataan
It was very late at night on 8 April that I was told by my battalion commander that Bataan was being surrendered effective at 0600 the next day. We were to destroy all our weapons and equipment except our vehicles because we would need them in which to ride out of Bataan to wherever the Japanese would be taking us. I destroyed all our weapons and equipment and left our vehicles. At 0600, from our position on a trail, I could still hear the Japanese shooting on the main road. I went up to make a personal reconnaissance. I saw Japanese tanks on the road shooting at Americans.
About 0900 I went back to the main road. Then I saw Americans in their trucks coming up the road with large white sheets that they were waving. The Japanese halted them made them get out of the trucks, loaded the trucks with Japanese soldiers, turned them around and headed back south. I went quietly back to my battery and poured sugar in all the gas tanks. We then formed as a battery and marched up the trail to the main road where we turned in to a Japanese captain. He sent us up the road to a large open field already crowded with American and Filipino troops. The Japanese immediately separated the Filipinos from the Americans.
My introduction to the Japanese came soon when I saw an American soldier squat at a huge latrine pit to defecate. A Japanese guard ran his bayonet through this man's chest for no reason but for fun. When the bayonet did not immediately come out, the guard with his foot shoved the American off the bayonet and into the latrine pit where he disappeared into the feces. Another Japanese guard nearby was laughing during this whole episode.
The next morning the Japanese started us walking north on the main road and marched my group for 65 miles in four days with no food or water in severe tropical temperatures. None was allowed to help anyone. If anyone could not make it on his own, he was bayoneted, shot, beheaded or clubbed to death. Even Filipino civilians who tried to pass food or water to us were immediately beheaded as an example to other Filipino civilians. This became known as the BATAAN Death March. By the time it was over, the route was littered with hundreds of American dead and thousands of Filipino dead.
Camp O’Donnell was a temporary camp built for a mobilization division of the Philippine Army—some 10,000 men. It was not completed-lacking enough water and sanitary facilities for the 10,000 men. Now, suddenly, some 55,000 men –starved, exhausted, malaria and dysentery-ridden—descend on the camp.
Our doctors were in the same shape we were—yet they tried to establish a “hospital”. There was a “zero” ward—so named because that was your chance of survival if you were ever in there. I walked out of there when I realized I could only get more diseases than I already had. We dug slit trenches for latrines, and people slept by them. The Japanese kept the Americans there from whatever day in April 1942 that we finished the “Death March” (April 14th for me) until the first week in June 1942. They then moved the Americans to Camp Cabanatuan. During the less than two months we were there, we buried some 1500 Americans there. The Japanese kept the Filipinos another two months before releasing most of them on their parole. . During the less than four months they were there, there were buried at Camp O’Donnell 26,000 Filipinos.
On December 13, 1944, 1,619 of us were put aboard the Oryoku Maru in Manila Harbor. The ship had three holds about 30' by 50'. I was in hold #1. Over 600 men crowded in a metal hold with no ventilation other than one hatch. There were NO sanitary facilities. We did use some empty food buckets, but they were soon overflowing.
Next morning, the unmarked Oryoku Maru was attacked by US Navy dive-bombers. By nightfall the hold was pitch black, and men went mad from lack of water and food. They were completely crazed and were drinking urine. Although I did not personally see any, I believe there were murders and drinking of blood. The conditions in the hold and of the people were beyond belief.
Next morning, 15 December, the planes came back and resumed their attacks. The Japanese abandoned the ship and us. Those of still alive decided it was preferable to be machine-gunned coming up out of the hold to going down in a burning sinking ship, so those of us who could climbed the ladder out of the hold. I saw no live Japanese, a lot of dead Japanese, but no water. I went over the side. We were about a half mile from shore. I still recall how wonderful and how refreshing that water felt! I was raised in Gloucester, Massachusetts and could swim before I could walk. Several of us helped those who could not swim to get aboard hatch covers, etc that were floating around the ship, and we pushed them to the shore.
The Japanese rounded us up and kept us on the tennis court at the Olongapo Naval Station where we came ashore. In fact, the beach where I swam ashore was where I used to take Army nurses on picnics before the war. The Japanese kept the surviving Americans on the blistering hot tennis court for three days without food and only a trickle of water. Then they gave each of us one and a half teaspoons of RAW rice per day for the next two days. We were eventually moved to LINGAYEN GULF.
On December 27, we were loaded aboard the Enoura Maru after a hold full of horses were off loaded. The hold was filthy with manure all around. The food and water was still scarce to. Again, there were no sanitary facilities. Many men had dysentery, and soon there were feces and urine all over the hold. Since there was not even enough water to drink, certainly none could wash. This only led to more dysentery.
We arrived in Takao Harbor, Formosa on January 1, 1945. On January 9, US Navy dive-bombers found us again. I had a squad of ten officers at the rear of the hold. When it came our turn to draw water, I had another officer come with me to the distribution point. Although our ration for our whole squad was only one canteen cup, I wanted each of us to get a half so if one tripped or otherwise dropped the cup, we would not lose all of our ration. Just as we got our water, the anti-aircraft guns on deck opened up. I can remember yelling, "It's only a drill. Don't drop the water!"
When I came to, the hold was a shamble with dead and wounded all over. I looked back at my squad. A huge beam overhead had dropped on them—they were all dead. I was bleeding from fragment wounds in my right side and right ankle. The Japanese kept us in the hold with our dead and dying for some 48 hours, and then lowered nets into which we piled the many corpses. By the time we left the Enoura Maru, we had lost some 200 men.
We were put on a third ship, the Brazil Maru. We sailed from Takao on January 14. The daily death rate on the Brazil Maru escalated from about 20 to 40. Now we were sailing in the East China Sea with snow coming in our open hatch. Men froze to death, died of starvation, died of thirst, and died of a myriad of diseases. I had managed to keep my West Point class ring hidden, but now traded it to a Japanese guard for half a canteen of oily water. Again there were no sanitary facilities, and so the hold was ankle deep in feces, urine, and vomit.
Of the 1,619 that left Manila on the Oryoku Maru, some 400 of us reached Moji, Japan somewhat alive on January 28, 1945. As the Japanese took the survivors off the ship, they weighed some of us. I was weighed at exactly 40 kilos (88 pounds). My normal weight should have been about 155.
When I was liberated, I was in a Japanese POW camp in what the Japanese called Jinsen, but the Koreans called Inchon, Korea. Since few Americans had ever heard of Korea before 1950, our forces did not realize where we were. As a consequence, we did not even know the war was over American planes found us on about August 28, and American troops came in September 8. Words cannot describe the exhilaration and pride of learning that we had won the war! After that a feeling of immense relief that we had survived--that we had made it!
I stayed on active duty in the Army until December 1970. I married in 1947 and have two wonderful children. I attended the Army's Command and General Staff College and was on its faculty for four years. I attended the Army War College. I earned an MA from GWU. My last assignment was in a MG slot. Before that, I commanded a group of some 14,500 people in Korea. I have had some pretty terrific assignments with few, if any, regrets.
It was a war, after all and what I was trained for, but we had every right to assume we would be treated humanely and in accordance with international law. War or not, we could never imagine the racism, the cruelty, the torture, the brutality, the savagery we would and did experience.
A Letter from a Japanese Researcher
Dear Col. Melvin H. Rosen:
As a Japanese, I felt deep pain when I read your memoir.
I have been researching on Allied POWs for the past seven years. It was the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Yokohama, where I live close to, that awoke my interest in this topic. Here, about 1700 British Commonwealth officers and soldiers, who had died in POW camps in Japan, were buried. (This is about a half of all POWs who died in Japan with remains of other half, mostly American and Dutch POWs, were brought back to their home countries.) Very few Japanese people know that this is a cemetery for POWs, or how they suffered during their captivity. I myself did not know until seven years ago when I first learned about this fact and was really struck by their tragic fate. I thought that I must tell more Japanese people about this story and started to work on the research on POWs.
Although those who are buried in the cemetery were mostly from British Commonwealth countries, there are also ashes of 48 American and 21 Dutch POWs. For a long time, it was not known why they were placed here, but a surprising fact has been revealed recently. Most of these American POWs were those who had put on the Oryoku Maru. Indeed, it was the very ship on which you were aboard. I learned that you survived the voyage of the Oryoku Maru, the Enoura Maru and the Brazil Maru, interned in a Japanese POW camp in Jinsen, Korea before being finally liberated. But those who sleep in this cemetery did not make it beyond Moji. So many are said to have died there that their remains could not be identified to be brought back home and they were placed together in this memorial shrine in Yokohama.
I learned from various archival data how horrendously POWs suffered on board the Oryoku Maru, but reading your memoir has deepened my sorrow. It was a major crime that Japan treated POWs in such an inhumane way. I am always thinking about what we should do to make sure that we will never repeat the same crime.
I think that the first step must be knowing the facts and then communicating them to many more Japanese people. This past summer, I published a book entitled, Epitaph of Allied POWs. It chronicled experiences of many POWs and the story of the Oryoku Maru was also included.
Together with members of the “POW Research Network Japan,” which was established two years ago, I have been working on several other projects. One of them is to create a complete roster for some 3000 POWs who died in Japan, a project we expect to finish soon. It contains dates of each POW’s death, locations of deaths and cause of the deaths, all of which help to tell how each individual POW was treated. We consider these to be very important historical documents and plan to post them on our website for the world to see. I understand that there are families who do not know where and how their POW fathers or grandfathers died, and hope that they find this list to be of help.
We are pleased that we have already heard from those who have seen our partial list that they learned for the first time the circumstances surrounding the death of their loved ones. It is our sincere hope that our humble efforts will promote reconciliation and mutual understanding and that they help prevent the folly of a war and its terrible effects from being repeated.
POW Research Network Japan website address: http://homepage3.nifty.com/pow-j/