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Monday, October 24, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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He Survived -- 1,800 Fellow Prisoners Aboard Japanese `Hell Ship' Died 50 Years Ago Today

As the tide of World War II began to turn against Japan in 1943, military leaders raced to get their Allied prisoners of war out of labor camps scattered about the Pacific and into Japan.

They crammed prisoners into the holds of unmarked ships, many of them unseaworthy, for the trip across the South China Sea. Thousands died along the way from lack of food and water, unsanitary conditions and brutal treatment by their guards. Thousands more died when American forces attacked, not knowing the ships carried POWs.

Japanese war records indicate some 25 ships carrying 19,000 POWs were sunk by American submarines or bombers. About 11,000 Americans are thought to have died in the attacks.

Glenn Oliver doesn't know to this day how he survived.

He recalls so many of the boys who went to World War II with him who didn't. He remembers the men who fought the Japanese beside him who didn't. He recollects the ones who surrendered and suffered with him in the Japanese war camps who didn't. And he remembers the Arisan Maru and the 1,800 souls who rode that "hell ship" with him who didn't.

Maybe he lived because he was "a good Minnesota boy" who went into the war fit from eating lots of farm vegetables and drinking his milk, Oliver offers. Maybe it was the survival tips he'd learned as a Boy Scout. Maybe it was the thoughts of Esther, his wife, waiting back home.

Probably it was all that and luck.

Fifty years ago today, the Arisan Maru, an unmarked Japanese ship transporting American war prisoners to Japan, was torpedoed by American submarines. Only eight Americans - including Oliver, now 75 and living in Tacoma - are known to have survived.

Oliver was sent to the Philippines Sept. 8, 1941, along with about 100 other National Guardsmen from Brainerd, Minn., near where he grew up. He was 22, and he and Esther had been married shortly before. The Minnesota guard unit became the Army's 192nd and 194th Tank Battalion, and Oliver a private, third class.

The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor three months later, and moved swiftly to capture the Philippines. By April 9, 1942, the American and Filipino forces were overwhelmed; some 10,000 Americans, including Oliver, surrendered.

"We were just overrun," Oliver says. "Our lines wouldn't hold and we were down to nothing in rations and food."

The next day, the Japanese added Oliver's unit to the thousands who already were marching in what became known as the Bataan Death March through the Bataan Peninsula to prison camps scattered around the island of Luzon.

They spent more than three years of imprisonment in the worst conditions imaginable. Thousands died from malnutrition, disease, vicious beatings and just giving up hope.

Beriberi and lost weight

Oliver, who normally weighed 145 pounds, dropped 20. He had beriberi that sometimes caused his body to fill with fluids, but he was relatively healthy. He says it's because he always went thirsty rather than drink the dirty water. He always took the quinine he was given to prevent malaria - a prophylactic with side effects as bad as the disease. And he always traded what tobacco he came across for food.

Among his few possessions were a Bible, a contraband pocketknife, a vest sewn from a woolen Army blanket and the class ring Esther had given him when he left. He hid the knife and the ring inside a seam of the vest.

Oliver was allowed to send a few postcards home through the Red Cross, a few dictated words and brief answers to pre-printed questions. On the line printed "Give my regards to -----," he once dictated, "Uncle Sam." The censors let it go.

Oliver was helping to rebuild an airfield near Manila when his name came up for transport to Japan. Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his American forces were coming to reclaim the Philippines, and the Japanese were trying to get as many prisoners off the island as possible.

"I can't remember how we got to the docks," Oliver says. "I have spots where I can't remember, and this is one of them. I suppose it was by truck or march."

He does remember that he boarded the Arisan Maru Oct. 10, 1944, and as he did, he heard a Japanese officer tell an American officer there were to be 1,869 prisoners aboard.

The Arisan Maru and other ships evacuated Manila Harbor the next day, just ahead of American bombers. When the attack was over, the Arisan Maru headed back to Manila, loaded some supplies and took off again with a convoy headed north.

The ship wasn't marked with the white crosses that signified a prison ship - historians say few ships making these convoys were.

Praying for an attack

The prisoners were not allowed to leave the ship's hold. They were given a few sips of water a day and a little rice. There was no more than 3 feet of head space in the dark, putrid hold, Oliver says, and no air circulated there. Those who died were hoisted up though the hatches and tossed overboard. Those who lived sometimes prayed aloud for an American attack.

The torpedo hit as Oliver was waiting for his mid-day meal. He remembers two loud bangs, although some accounts say there were more.

The survivors reported later that the crew locked the hatches and cut the rope ladders that led to the holds. Then they abandoned ship, many of them swimming for a Japanese destroyer that had heard their mayday calls.

When the prisoners finally broke through the hatches and began climbing out of the holds, they found the ship in two pieces. No one knows how many of them had been killed in the attack, but hundreds crawled out of the wreckage.

Oliver decided not to jump overboard. "They weren't picking up Americans," he says. "A lot of the prisoners were swimming for the destroyer, but the Japanese were pushing them back into the water."

There was no panic on the ship. The prisoners looted the galley, dividing the half-cooked rice that was supposed to have been their mid-day meal and filling canteens with water. Someone gave Oliver a bottle of catsup, which he drank. Later, in the water, he was sorry.

POWs `just standing there'

When the wreckage sank to within 6 feet of the waves, Oliver slipped over the side. Many of the prisoners didn't.

"I could see people still on the ship when it went down," he says. "I could see people against the skyline, just standing there."

He treaded water and grabbed onto wreckage. "I kept getting bumped by guys wearing life jackets. Nobody wanted to share my planks. I didn't ask them."

When it got dark, he could hear men trying to contact each other. "They were blowing these GI whistles," he says, choking back tears. "In the night. This weird moaning sound. I can't describe it."

When daylight came there were no sounds but the waves. The historical accounts say the water was rough and cold. Oliver doesn't remember.

He does remember a Japanese destroyer nosing up to his wreckage the next day. One sailor had been eating an orange and tossed it into the water near Oliver. Others on deck simply stared at him, their hands resting on their sidearms.

"I figured if I made the wrong move they'd start target practice. I wanted to say, `Which way to America?' but I figured that might trigger the wrong response."

The destroyer turned away, and as it steamed out of sight, Oliver heard a holler: "Can I come over?"

"Sure."

As Oliver and Philip Brodsky, now of Cherry Hill, N.J., worked to improve their float, they made a pact. They wouldn't kill and eat each other, no matter how long they were out there.

It's apparent the two weren't fond of each other. Brodsky's accounts say Oliver seemed uninterested in helping him with survival, even though Brodsky had broken a hand and was having a hard time. Oliver says Brodsky was just off a work detail and in pretty good shape, but he was suffering from malnutrition. He weighed only 85 pounds after rescue.

In four days, the men shared two tiny fish that washed up on the raft. They had no water. But they held Brodsky's shirt up during a rain shower and sucked what water they could from it.

Finally, rescue at sea

After four days at sea, Oliver and Brodsky were picked up by another Japanese destroyer and taken to Takao, Formosa, for questioning and reassignment to another prisoner ship. There they met another Arisan Maru survivor, Charles Binder, who has since died.

Brodsky's tongue had swollen from thirst during their time in the water, and he could barely swallow. Oliver had rolled a bit of found bandage into a little ball and kept it under his tongue. It was something they'd taught him in Boy Scouts - a pebble in your mouth will help saliva flow if you have no water.

Oliver and the others didn't know that five men, even luckier than they, also had lived through the ordeal. They had come upon a life raft and sailed it to China and, eventually, freedom.

Oliver was taken to Osaka, Japan; he never saw Brodsky again. The war ended in August, 1945, and the prisoners were repatriated in September. Oliver had lost his Bible, pocketknife and vest, but he still had Esther's ring.

What kept him alive? The question brings more tears to Oliver's eyes and chokes off his answer.

"He wanted to come home to me," Esther says for him.

After the war Oliver spent nine months in veteran's hospitals. While he was there, someone stole Esther's class ring.

------------------- Other sea tragedies -------------------

The sinking of the Arisan Maru, 50 years ago today, is little known outside of military history. Yet it was the country's worst such naval disaster.

The death toll - about 1,800 American prisoners of war - was greater than these other, more famous, sinkings:

-- The Maine, an American battleship, was sunk Feb. 15, 1898 in Havana Harbor, helping to spark the Spanish-American War and killing 260 crew.

-- The Lusitania, a British passenger ship, was torpedoed by a German submarine May 7, 1918, during World War II, killing 1,198.

-- The Titanic, a British steamer considered unsinkable, struck an iceberg and sank April 14-15, 1912, during its first trip from England to New York City, killing about 1,500.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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