Nightmare of the hellship Oryoku Maru continues

On the morning of December 15, 1944, aircraft from the USS Hornet again attacked the Oryoku Maru as it was moving across Subic Bay toward Olongapo Point.  This time one bomb made a direct hit on the hatch of the aft cargo hold killing about 250 POWs. Later that morning the surviving POWs were allowed to jump off and swim to shore.

On the morning of December 15, 1944, aircraft from the USS Hornet again attacked the Oryoku Maru as it was moving across Subic Bay toward Olongapo Point. This time one bomb made a direct hit on the hatch of the aft cargo hold killing about 250 POWs. Later that morning the surviving POWs were allowed to jump off and swim to shore.

The Japanese liner Oryoku Maru, setting out for Japan from the Philippines, had come under repeated attack from US aircraft on the 14th December. The 1600 POWs who were crammed into the stifling heat of the holds had suffered horrific conditions during that day and the following night.

On the morning of the 15th it was realised that the damage to the Oryoku Maru was so great that she could not continue. As the Japanese prepared to abandon ship the POWs were asked to get into groups of 25. They would then be released in these groups and allowed to swim to the nearby shore.

After his ordeal of the previous day it might seem that things could not get worse for George L. Curtis. He was watching from below the deck cover, as planes from the USS Hornet returned, this time with bombs:

It was evident that this attack was different than any we had gone through before. The bombs seemed to be heavier and the concentration seemed to be on this ship we were on. I saw one of the boys peel off and it seemed he was headed directly for this particular hatch. His machine guns were spurting flame and I could follow the tracer bullets. They were leaving my vision to land forward. At about some 1500 feet, he pulled out of his dive.

I saw the two bombs leave his plane, wobble a minute, then head for the ship. I followed the flight of the missile, fascinated, and it seemed that it was heading right for this hold. It didn’t, though. It landed so close that it knocked the planks loose that were partially covering the hatch along with three I-beams.

I must have passed out for awhile, and when I came to I couldn’t move. The hold was practically clear of men and I was pinned down so that I couldn’t move. Men were over me removing a beam that was laying across my legs and they felt numb. Another piece of debris was across my back and that, too, felt as though something was wrong. After a bit, I was liberated and I found that at least no bones were broken but I could hardly move my left leg.

The hold by now was full of smoke and there was a definite list to the ship toward the port side. There were many dead and wounded men under the debris, how many I don’t know. I was able to aid a little in clearing some of the wreckage from the men pinned under the hatch covers and the I-beams and I am sure that there was no living person in the hold when I started to make it to the ladder to get out. My leg still bothered quite a bit, but my head was clearing.

When I reached the deck, very few remained on board. I still had my belt on with the two empty canteens attached to my belt, but I started to look around for a life preserver as there were many scattered on the deck. Dead were everywhere, mostly Jap soldiers, and the decks were littered with personal belongings of both American prisoners and Japanese.

[After evading Japanese guards who were shooting at men in the water Curtis managed to jump off the ship]…

I kept swimming rather slowly, conserving my strength. My leg started to act up a bit, so I kicked along with my right leg and scanned the water looking for any more weak swimmers that I might come upon. Planes came flying over again but terribly high up, but I was hoping that I would be on shore should they start another run to sink the ship.

I didn’t want to be in the water if they started bombing again for I was not sure what effect a bomb landing in the water would have on a swimmer. When I was half way to the shore, four planes came from nowhere flying no more than a few hundred feet above the water which was filled with frantically shouting and waving Americans.

One peeled off, came still lower and definitely dipped his wings in recognition of us. After that, I felt sure that there would be no more bombing for the time being at least, and I again leisurely swam on. Again I looked back at the ship and now it was really afire. Smoke was belching from many parts and I thought I saw flames emerging from an area about where the entrance to our former hold was situated. Most smoke seemed to come from the stern.

As I arrived near shore, I began to feel chilled and very tired. I had been in the water for nearly half an hour and, for the moment, I didn’t think I’d make the short remaining distance, but I managed. As my feet touched bottom, a Navy officer helped drag me to dry land on the beach.

I tried to stand but couldn’t make it. I was completely exhausted; my leg was swelling badly and a large black and blue spot covered the area from the knee to my waistline. It wasn’t broken, though. I remained where I had been aided on the beach, trying to get up enough strength to carry on to follow the rest of the men that seemed to be heading in the brush through an opening off the beach.

A Jap guard came over to where I lay and started to prod me on with his bayonet. I didn’t move fast enough to suit him so he jabbed a little harder. The bayonet entered my bad leg in two places. I didn’t feel it though, but as soon as I was on my feet and laboriously making my way to follow the line of men in front of me, my leg started bleeding profusely, running down my leg and leaving a small pool of blood with each step I took.

Just as I was to turn off the beach and head through the brush, Commander Joses took me by the arm and sat me down at a place the prisoner doctors had set up to take care of those too sick or wounded to walk further. He had the bayonet wound treated in no time and I was started on my way with the rest of the men, barefooted, and so tired and weary.

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

Detail from the picture above showing the splashes in the water as the POWs were swimming to shore.

Detail from the picture above showing the splashes in the water as the POWs were swimming to shore.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert Derner December 5, 2017 at 3:22 pm

Joe Bero was also my uncle. After finding out how he was treated along with the rest of the pow’s
I can only have a greater respect for the men who endured these horrible conditions.

Richard S Biro August 30, 2016 at 9:36 pm

My Uncle Joseph Bero was aboard that ship and was never heard from again. He was an Army Air Corp mechanic captured . He was supposed to be coming home as his enlistment was up from what I understand. I have service numbers and much information about him if anyone needs it to give him a proper place on the memorial made to honor these men.

Thank you, Richard Biro

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