POWs under attack on the hellship Oryoku Maru

A pre war post card of the Japanese liner the Oryoku Maru. The prisoners were packed into the holds of the ship, below decks.

A pre war post card of the Japanese liner the Oryoku Maru. The prisoners were packed into the holds of the ship, below decks.

Aircraft from the USS Hornet sighted the Oryoku Maru on December 14, 1944 as it moved north along the west coast of Bataan Peninsula and attacked it many times that day.  A high level photograph from one of the attacking aircraft taken late in the day.

Aircraft from the USS Hornet sighted the Oryoku Maru on December 14, 1944 as it moved north along the west coast of Bataan Peninsula and attacked it many times that day. A high level photograph from one of the attacking aircraft taken late in the day.

George L. Curtis had been a manager for the Packard company in Manila, Philippines when war broke out. 1942 had seen him taken prisoner by the Japanese along with all surviving US service personnel on the islands. He was to endure the horrors of the Japanese prison camps for the next two years.

Their prospects brightened with US invasion of the Philippines – but their hopes were short lived. On the 13th December hundreds had been packed into the holds of the Oryoku Maru and told their destination was Japan. Below deck conditions were terrible, the men were closely packed in and suffered in the stifling heat. Lack of food and water made conditions worse.

This was only the beginning. As the ship crossed Subic Bay on the 14th it came under attack from fighters from the USS Hornet. Successive waves of fighters harassed the ship all day long, with attacks separated by half hour lulls. Below deck conditions got progressively worse:

I spent the better part of the day on the deck just under the hatch. I tried earlier to get back a little further but the air was so foul and it was so hot that I chose the possibilities of being hit by a stray bullet rather than suffer through the stifling heat back under the hatch bulkhead. About the only way I could be seriously hurt was if a bomb was to enter the compartment where I was, and if one were to enter the hold through the open hatch, even those in the far corners of the compartment wouldn’t be saved.

Most of our casualties of this day’s activity were caused by stray bullets and the fragments of stray bullets ricocheting from the bulkhead that was the upper half of the hold. All day, most of us knew death was very close. One man next to me was praying continuously. During the thick of the bombing, someone started the Lord’s Prayer and all joined in. Somehow after that we felt a great deal better.

They had sent down about four 5-gallon cans which were to be used for feces and urine. During the air raids, we were not allowed to empty them so that they ran over. Feces and urine were everywhere. Most of the men were suffering from dysentery or diarrhea. It goes without saying what an awful mess we were compelled to be in. The Jap guards refused to empty these cans and would not allow us to send a detail to do the job.

Commander Bridget was the officer in charge of our hold and he did an excellent job in trying to keep order and to build up morale to the extent that I don’t think I was ever awake when he wasn’t up on the ladder leading out of the hold doing all that was humanly possible. During the last few bombings, most of us actually wanted the ship to be hit for we knew that now we were close to shore and if we were hit and sunk, some of us could make it to land and out of this awful hell ship.

Being anchored let no air into the hold at all and the men are getting fretful. This was a dreadful night. The lack of food plus no issue of water have some of the men in a deplorable mental and physical condition. The results are beyond the power of imagination. Commander Bridget and several other of the older officers attempted to quiet the men but it was an almost impossible task. All night long the commands of “Quiet, men!” and “At ease!” were repeated over and over again. Men went stark mad. Others resorted to blood sucking. Many men, due to their extreme thirst, would grab canteens that had been used as urinals and drink the contents without thought of the results this would bring on.

Due to the threats of the Jap guards to throw hand grenades into the hold if the men were not quiet, it was necessary to muffle many men who were completely out of their heads and creating the most disturbance. In some instances, this action resulted in the death of the man. The hold can best be described as a sweltering mass of thirsty, fear-stricken, mad human beings.

Chips Bolan, a naval corpsman, was acting up so badly that those selected to keep order were commanded to tie him up to the escape ladder. This seemed to quiet him for awhile but it wasn’t very long before he started in with the most awful yells. On a few occasions, the Jap guard came to quiet us and this time he thrust his rifle over the side of the entrance and we all thought he would empty its contents at random at us lying on the deck.

One of the men went over again to quiet Chips and he got a painful kick in the groin that flattened him. Then the warrant officer put in charge by Commander Bridget had to take over with the result that he had to knock Chips unconscious. Unfortunately, he hit him too hard for the blow killed Chips and he was carried topside.

This was not the only death that occurred at the hands of our men. Another young lad went out of his head and began calling to the Japanese sentry and attempting to get up the ladder to get at him. The gist of his shouts was that he had suffered all that he intended to and that he would kill the dirty bastard or die in the attempt. In order to protect the majority of those of us in the hold from threatened hand grenades, it was necessary to quiet this man; such effort being too great for the blow killed him.

Several stabbings occurred among the men, mostly to get what little water that the victim had held onto. All told I believe seven men were found killed, not to mention the 38 that died from suffocation in this rear hold. Among them were some of the hardest working naval doctors we had aboard and my good friend Calvin Coolidge, and Commander Heddy.

All last night, the dead were passed over our heads as we sat on the deck at the base of the ladder, and we had a hard time of it getting those in the back up front due to the crowded conditions in the hold. So far, we have had no water or food, but maybe we’ll be hit early in the morning and be either killed or make shore; anything, or any place but this stinking hole.

The whole remarkable account, together with more background, can be read at the website of his niece Linda Dahl.

View of the island of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) April 1945. Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters from Fighting Squadron VF-17 Jolly Rogers are visible on deck. April 1945

View of the island of the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) April 1945. Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters from Fighting Squadron VF-17 Jolly Rogers are visible on deck. April 1945

Earlier in the war:

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