Pfc. William Nelson Kinler
Pfc. William N. Kinler was born on June 17, 1912, in Pine River,
Minnesota, to Robert Kinler and Jennie Mae Nelson-Kinler. With his eight sisters and three
brothers, he grew up in Pine River and attended school there. In
1940, he was living with his sister and brother-in-law and working on
their farm in Maple Township, Cass County, Minnesota, .
William was inducted into the U. S. Army in April 1941 and was sent to Fort Lewis, Washington. There, he was assigned to A Company, 194th Tank Battalion which had been a Minnesota National Guard tank company. He would continue training until early September when the battalion was informed that they were being sent overseas.
From San Francisco, the 194th sailed for the Philippine Islands. William and the other members of the 194th arrived in Manila and were taken to Ft. Stotsenburg. They would spend the next two months readying their tanks for use in maneuvers.
The morning of December 8, 1941, the tankers were informed of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They were ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard it against Japanese paratroopers. As they sat in their tanks, the sky was filled with American planes all morning. At 12:15 the planes landed and the pilots went to lunch.
Around 12:45 in the afternoon, planes approached the airfield from the north. The tankers watched and counted the planes believing that that they were American. It was only when bombs began exploding that they knew the planes were Japanese. After the attack, anything that could be used to carry the wounded was used.
For the next four months, William fought to slow the Japanese conquest of the Philippines. A few days before the surrender, William was shot in his foot. At the time it did not seem to be a big deal, he soon found out that it was.
On April 8th, William and the other men received the word that Filipino and American forces on Bataan would surrender to the Japanese the next day. The tankers destroyed their tanks and weapons that the Japanese could use.
It was from Mariveles, at the southern tip of Bataan, that William started what became known as the death march. He recalled that the Japanese ordered the Prisoners of War to march out by fours. When the Japanese counted 100 men, they moved them out of Mariveles.
On the march, the heat was unbearable. In addition, he was attempting to walk on his wounded foot. Doing this was extremely painful and made the march even more difficult.
The Japanese did not feed the Americans or give them water. Men who were having difficulty were beaten and killed. Those who attempted to get water from the artesian wells that flowed across the road were shot or bayoneted. William saw several men beheaded. It took him five days to reach San Fernando.
At San Fernando, the POWs were packed into small wooden boxcars which were used to haul sugarcane. The cars could hold eight horses or forty men. The Japanese packed 100 POWs into each car. The men who died remained standing until the living left the cars at Capas. From this barrio, the POWs walked the last ten miles to Camp O'Donnell.
Camp O'Donnell was an unfinished Filipino Army camp that was pressed into service by the Japanese as a POW camp. There was only one water faucet for 12,000 POWs. Men stood in line for days just to get a drink. Conditions in the camp were so bad that as many as fifty POWs died each day.
The Japanese opened a new POW camp at Cabanatuan to relieve the conditions at Camp O'Donnell. William was sent to the new camp. The POWs were fed rice twice a day. The rice had worms in it. Like the other men, William picked the worms out of the rice. It was only after he realized that the worms were the only protein he would receive, he began to eat them.
At this time it is known that William went out on the Las Pinas work detail. The POWs were used to construct runways at an airfield until late 1944. The first sign that the American forces were returning to the Philippines was a dogfight between American and Japanese planes. As the POWs watched, a Japanese plane was shot down crashing near the camp. The Americans cheered as the plane hit the ground. Within days, the POWs heard the sounds of guns as the American invasion began. It was at this time that the Japanese began transferring large numbers of POWs to Japan or other parts of their empire.
William's name appeared on a list of POWs leaving Las Pinas. They were taken to Bilibid Prison. At 4:00 in the morning on December 12th, the POWs were awakened and fed. They were marched to Pier 7 in Manila. The Japanese boarded civilians onto the ship while the POWs watched. The 1,619 POWs were the last group to board the ship.
The Oryoku Maru set sail for Takao, Formosa, as part of convoy MATA 37 on December 13th. The morning of the 14th, the POWs were being fed breakfast. Suddenly, they heard the sound of planes in the distance. Next, the ship's anti-aircraft guns opened fire. From the change in the sound of the planes' engines, the POWs knew that they were attacking.
Bombs began exploding around the ship. The prisoners still on deck scrambled to get into the ship's holds. As they did, bullets ricocheted around them.
In the holds, William and the other POWs huddled together and shook with each explosion. Dust from the bombs clouded that air, and rust from the holds' ceilings fell on them. Father Duffy, a Catholic priest, prayed, "Father forgive them. They know not what they do."
William and the other POWs lived through seventeen attacks by American planes. Every time a bomb exploded near the ship, it bounced like a toy in the water. By that evening, most of the other ships in the convoy had been sunk or had departed the area.
The night of the December 14th, the POWs were held by Japanese guards in the holds. As the POWs sat in the holds, the buckets for human waste began to overflow. The POWs also heard the sound of the lifeboats being loaded and lowered into the water. They believed that the Japanese intended for them to die in the ship's holds.
On the morning of December 15th, American planes returned to finish off the job of sinking the Oryoku Maru. The Japanese had grounded the ship in Subic Bay a few hundred yards from shore. The ship again was attacked by the planes. The pilots of the planes had no idea that the POWs were on the ship.
The remaining Japanese guards gave the order for the POWs to leave the holds and swim to shore. When the pilots saw the large numbers of men leaving the holds and jumping into the water, they stopped the attack. For the first time, they knew that they had been attacking a POW ship.
The surviving POWs, swam to shore near Olonga, Subic Bay. As they swam, the Japanese shot at them with machine guns. Once on shore, they were herded onto tennis courts. The Japanese took roll call to determine how many POWs were still alive. It was discovered that 329 of the POWs had been killed during the attack
The POWs remained on the tennis courts for several days. A Japanese officer, Lt. Junsaburo Toshio, told the ranking American officer, Lt. Col. E. Carl Engelhart, that those too badly wounded to continue the trip would be returned to Bilibid. Fifteen men were selected and loaded onto a truck. They were taken into the mountains and were never seen again. They were buried in a nearby cemetery.
On December 24th, the remainder of the POWs were boarded onto trains. The widows of the train were kept closed and the heat in the cars was terrible. From December 24th to the 27th, the POWs were held in a school house and later on a beach at San Fernando, La Union. During this time, they were allowed one handful of rice and a canteen of water. The heat from the sun was so bad that men drank seawater. Many of these men died.
The remaining prisoners were taken to a nearby beach were they were boarded onto "Hell Ships" the Enoura Maru and Brazil Maru. William was boarded onto the Enoura Maru, The POWs were held in three different holds. Men who attempted to get fresh air by climbing the ladders were shot by the guards.
The POWs were taken to Formosa. There, on January 9, 1945, William once again came close to death when the ship was bombed by American planes from the U.S.S. Hornet while the it was docked.
William recalled, "The American planes dropped four bombs. Three of them went into our hold. One hit the deck. You could see them coming. You just had to wait to see where they hit." William dove into the water and was later fished out by the Japanese.
On January 14, 1945, William was boarded onto his third "hell ship" the Brazil Maru which left Formosa and arrived in Moji, Japan, on January 29, 1945. Of the original 1619 men that boarded the Oryoku Maru, only 459 of the POWs had survived the trip to Japan.
As a POW in Japan, William was held at Fukuoka #4. He and the other POWs were used as stevedores on the Nagasaki docks. William recalled that one day, his group of POWs had just finished their shift and were being marched back to their camp. About six miles outside of Nagasaki, they saw a bright flash and felt a huge explosion. They had no idea that they had just survived and witnessed the atomic bomb that had bee dropped on Nagasaki. Afterwards, the guards took them back into the city where they were made to look for survivors.
William was liberated in September 1945. He was promoted to corporal and returned to Minnesota. He was discharged on May 12, 1946. William married Bernice Bogart and was the father of two daughters and a son. He worked as a member of a road crew and for fifteen years as a heavy equipment operator at a mine.
William N. Kinler passed away on May 9, 1995, in Mount Vernon, Washington. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.