Pvt. William J. Smith
Pvt. William J. Smith was born in 1916 to Matt & Louise Smith. With his sister, he was raised at 309 Quince Street in Brainerd, Minnesota. On February 10, 1941, his Minnesota National Guard Tank Company was called to federal service as A Company, 194th Tank Battalion.
For the next six months the battalion trained at Fort Lewis, Washington. In September 1941, the battalion received orders for overseas duty. They traveled by train to San Francisco and sailed for the Philippine Islands.
Arriving in the Philippines, the battalion was stationed at Ft. Stotsenburg. Over the next two months, they prepared their tanks for use on maneuvers that were scheduled when the 192nd Tank Battalion arrived.
The morning of December 8, 1941, December 7th in the United States, the members of the 194th were informed by Lt. Col. Ernest Miller that Japan had bombed Pearl harbor ten hours earlier. They were then ordered to the perimeter of Clark Airfield to guard against Japanese paratroopers.
About 12:45 in the afternoon, planes approached the airfield from the north. The soldiers began counting them believing that they were American planes. It was when bombs began exploding on the runways that they knew the planes were Japanese.
William spent the next four months fighting to slow the Japanese conquest of the Philippines. On April 9, 1942, the order "crash" was given and the tankers destroyed their tanks. They made their way to Mariveles at the southern tip of Bataan. It was from this barrio that William started what became known as the death march.
William and the other Prisoners of War made their way to San Fernando. There, they were packed into small wooden boxcars. These cars were used to haul sugarcane. Each car could hold eight horses of forty men. The Japanese put 100 men in each car. Those who died remained standing until the living left the cars at San Fernando.
William made his way to Camp O'Donnell. This was an unfinished Filipino army base. The situation in the camp was so bad that as many as fifty men died each day. The living often lay in their own waste because they were too sick to move.
A new camp was opened at Cabanatuan. William and the other POWs were sent there. In William's case, he spent most of his time as a POW in this camp. It is known that William went out on a work detail to Nichols Airfield to build runways.
In late 1944, when it became apparent to the Japanese that the invasion of the Philippines was near, the most of the POWs on this detail were sent to the Port Area of Manila. The Japanese were attempting to send the healthy POWs to Japan and other countries to work as slave labor and prevent them from being liberated by advancing American forces.
When William's group of POWs arrived at the Port Area of Manila on October 10, 1944, they were boarded onto the Arisan Maru. They had been scheduled to be boarded onto the Hokusan Maru, but since one of the POW groups from that group had not arrived on time to be boarded, his group was put on their ship. With him on the ship were other members of A Company who also had been selected for transport to Japan.
William and 1805 other POWs were packed into the ship's number one hold. Along the sides of the hold were shelves that served as bunks. These bunks were so close together that a man could not lift himself up while lying in one. Those POWs who were standing also had no room to lie down. The latrines for the prisoners were eight five gallon cans. Since the POWs were packed into the hold so tightly, many of the POWs could not get near the cans. The floor of the hold was covered with human waste.
On October 11th, the ship set sail but took a southerly route away from Formosa. Within the first 48 hours, five POWs had died. The ship anchored in a cove off Palawan Island where it remained for ten days. The Japanese covered the hatch with a tarp. During the night, the POWs were in total darkness. This resulted in the ship missing an air attack by American planes, but the ship was attacked by American planes.
During the time off Palawan, the ship was attacked by American planes. Each day, each POW was given three ounces of water and two half mess kits of raw rice. Conditions in the hold were so bad, that the POWs began to develop heat blisters. Although the Japanese had removed the lights in the hold, they had not cutoff the power. Some of the prisoners were able to wire the ship's ventilation blowers into the lighting system. This allowed fresh air into the hold. The blowers were disconnected two days later when the Japanese discovered what had been done.
The Japanese finally realized that if they did not do something many of the POWs would die. To prevent this, they opened the ship's number two hold and transferred 600 POWs into it. It appears that at this point, one POW was shot while attempting to escape.
The Arisan Maru returned to Manila on October 20th. There, it joined a convoy. On October 21st, the convoy left Manila and entered the South China Sea. The Japanese refused to mark POW ships with red crosses to indicate they were carrying POWs. This made the ships targets for submarines. The POWs in the hold were so desperate that they prayed for the ship to be torpedoed.
According to the survivors of the Arisan Maru, on October 24, 1944, about 5:00 pm, a group of POWs were on deck preparing the meal for those POWs in the ship's two holds. The ship was near Shoonan, off the coast of China. Suddenly, sirens and other alarms were heard. The men knew this meant that American submarines had been spotted. The POWs began to chant for the submarines to sink the ship.
The Japanese on deck began running around the ship. As the POWs watched, a torpedo passed the bow of the ship. Moments later, a second torpedo passed the ship's stern. There was a sudden jar and the ship stopped dead in the water. It had been hit by two torpedoes, amidships, in its third hold where there were no POWs. It is believed that the submarine that fired the torpedoes was the U.S.S Snook.
One of the Japanese guards took a machinegun and began firing at the POWs who were on deck. To escape, the POWs dove back into the holds. After they were in the holds, the Japanese put the hatch covers on the holds but did not tie them down.
As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope ladders into the ship's two holds, but since they did not tie down the hatch covers, some POWs in the second hold were able to climb out and reattach the ladders. They also dropped ropes down to the POWs in both holds.
The POWs were able climb out of the holds and get on deck. At first, few POWs attempted to escape the ship. A group of 35 swam to a nearby Japanese ship, but when the Japanese realized they were POWs, they were pushed away with poles and hit with clubs. The Japanese destroyers in the convoy deliberately pulled away from the POWs as they attempted to reach them.
As the ship got lower in the water, some POWs took to the water. These POWs attempted to escape the ship by clinging to rafts, hatch covers, flotsam and jetsam. Most of the POWs were still on deck even after it became apparent that the ship was sinking. At some point, the ship split in two. The exact time of the ship's sinking is not known since it took place after dark.
Five of the POWs found an abandoned lifeboat, but since they had no paddles, they could not maneuver it to help other POWs. According to the survivors, the Arisan Maru sank sometime after dark. As the night went on, the cries for help grew fewer until there was silence.
Pvt. William J. Smith lost his life when the Arisan Maru was torpedoed in the South China Sea. Of the 1803 POWs on the ship, only nine survived the sinking. Eight of these men would survive the war. Since he was lost at sea, Pvt. William J. Smith's name is inscribed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Military Cemetery outside of Manila.