(This story is based on actual events.)
The third day at sea, as daylight’s first rays filtered inside the hold, Art felt his thoughts turning fuzzy. He shook his head back and forth and began rocking to keep awake. Sixty hours I have been awake, he thought to himself.
Eugene watched Art, only a few feet away, as he twitched and rocked his body, presuming he would be next to lose it. But when Art finally sat still and reached for his canteen, Eugene noticed something proving the kid’s sanity. Instead of drinking from straight from the canteen, Art poured a few drops of water into his spoon, and moistened his lips and the inside of his mouth before swallowing. Eugene conserved his own water in a similar manner. Guessing the time of day, Eugene allowed himself a spoonful approximately every hour. Yesterday he’d conserved enough in his canteen for a spoonful after dark.
Eugene startled Art in the middle of his water ritual, “Hey kid, you okay?”
Art looked up from his spoon and nodded. “I haven’t slept,” he said in a raspy voice.
Eugene rose from his too small space and pushed a sleeping prisoner sideways to make room for himself next to Art. “I know what you mean,” he said in an undertone, so others would not hear. “Close your eyes for too long and you may find yourself without a head.”
Art blinked heavily and again, nodded.
“Listen Kid, you close your eyes for a while and I’ll keep watch.”
Something about Eugene seemed trustworthy. A third time Art nodded, and then he closed his tired eyes.
Art didn’t know how long he slept, maybe a few hours, maybe several, but it was dark now and probably the middle of the night. He woke with a jerk when the ship’s force pulled him back against the wall of the hold. A storm, he thought. Then the odor hit him; it was the fusion of vomit, diarrhea, urine, sweat, and rotting flesh.
“Hey kid,” whispered Eugene. “Art. You awake?”
Art whispered back, “Eugene?”
“Listen kid, we need to stick together. Some of these guys are not right in the head. We can take turns sleeping during the day, but at night we both got to stay awake. Turn around and lean on me, back to back.” Eugene turned his back to show Art, and then patted himself on the shoulder to illustrate. “You watch from your side and I’ll watch from mine. Right?”
The remainder of that night, sitting back-to-back in the dark, Art and Eugene talked about everything and nothing, keeping themselves awake. The conversation flowed from Christmases at home to camping trips, to the smell of blossoms in an apple orchard. Art painted a pretty picture as he described his farm home in Pleasant Valley, Minnesota and then being drafted in April of 1941. He recalled the day the Japanese forces invaded Clark Air Force Base, in the Philippines. It was his last day known as Private Arthur Troness, 5th class specialist with the 701st Ordnance Company. He was now Holio Nihkako Ku Ju Nana; Japanese for Captive Two-Nine-Seven.
Art learned Lieutenant Eugene Thiebaud was a fighter pilot from Fort Worth, Texas. He married his sweetheart, Glenys, on the shimmering sands of Hukilau Beach in Oahu, Hawaii, Thanksgiving Day, 1941, merely days before the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor. “Glenys and I attended an officers’ party at the Army’s Wheeler Field in Oahu, that ran to early Sunday,” Eugene said. “Around 8:00 A.M. we were awakened in our quarters by explosions as Japanese planes bombed Battleship Row and nearby airfields.” Eugene chuckled as he recalled, “My old friend, Lieutenant Danny Johnson slept on the couch. When we heard the noise, we threw on our tuxedo pants from the party and dashed into his Cadillac. He sped the whole 10 miles to Haleiwa airfield, where our P-40 fighters were parked. Within minutes, we were in the skies, blazing away with .30-caliber guns.” Eugene stopped short. A minute passed before he spoke again. “I was transferred to Luzon in the Philippines in June of ’42, and captured when the American forces on Bataan surrendered.”
“You marched then?” Art asked.
“If you can call it that. Yes, I ‘marched,’ all one hundred twenty miles in six days. No food, no water. This place is a pleasure cruise compared to –“
“’The Bataan Death March,’” Art said. “That’s what their calling it.”
“You were there?”
“Naw, not me. I only marched the forty miles from Davoa City to Dapecol.” What Art did not relate was that he was barely alive when he arrived in Dapecol. The two men on either side of held him erect for the head count. It was not a good memory, thinking about the consequences his fellow soldiers suffered for saving his life. He erased the scene in his mind.
“I was sent to Cabantuan and then Dapecol,” Eugene continued cynically, “and then here, aboard the ‘Good Ship Hokusen Maru.’”
Art thought of the vessel concealing the two of them, and a thousand other prisoners of war in its belly. “More like Benjo Maru,” he said, dryly. It wasn’t meant to be a joke, but both men laughed at the quip, because it was true.
The benjo, a six-gallon bucket for human waste, was shared by all the men in the hold. Completely inadequate for so many, and only hoisted up and overboard once daily, it was usually overflowing. With the motion of the ship the benjo often sloshed its contents over the edges. In addition, men with dysentery, too weak to make it to the bucket, used the floor. The result was feces everywhere, even smeared on some of the men.
At sunrise on day four at sea, the guards opened the hatch and gave the routine order to hoist dead men out of the hold. As the stiffening bodies passed over Art’s and Eugene’s heads, they reached upward to assist in the effort. Most of the bodies were cold and stiff, but it was the warm, limber ones that were the most difficult to get up the hatch. All were thrown unceremoniously into the ocean.
Next, a water bucket descended on the end of a rope. The largest, strongest men, including an Australian everyone called Kinba, supervised the distribution. All the men received a little water, their days’ ration, in their canteens. A fight broke out near the open hatch when one man bumped into another and spilled his water. The commotion caught the attention of a Japanese guard standing over the hatch, who straightaway shot the two men.
Next, the same bucket, filled with rice, descended. Eugene nudged Art. “Get your cup. Go! I’ll wait.”
Art did not argue. He fumbled for the little tin cup and pushed through the unobservant men around him. His hand shook as he held the cup out to Kinba. Kinba wrapped one giant hand around Art’s two hands to steady the cup and used his other hand to scoop the dirty, weevil infested rice into the cup. Art rushed back to the 2 wooden planks where Eugene waited. “Your turn,” he said to Eugene.
The food line was so long already that Eugene didn’t have to go far to reach the end. Alone now at the shared plank, Art couldn’t wait; he plunged his fingers into the cup and picked up a small cluster, closing his mouth over fingers and all, tasting life again. He tried to eat slowly, but he was simply too hungry. When the cup was empty he licked the insides and his fingers.
Eugene returned with only half as much rice in his cup. Art suddenly felt sick from the guilt of devouring his meal like a hungry dog. He felt worse when Eugene bowed his head, and whispered his thanks to God for his meager meal. Art vowed he would never be so greedy, and so ungrateful again.
When Art’s rice was gone and his cup put away, Art slapped his open palm over the two elevated planks they shared. “Your turn,” he said to Eugene.
Eugene seemed to be asleep and snoring after about 30 seconds, Art guessed. He sat on the end of the planks near Eugene’s feet. He held his knees in front of him with his arms curled around them.
A loud thud, accompanied by shrill screaming and cursing, emerged from a man Art recognized as a British officer. He beat his own head against a large wood beam supporting the deck above, bawling louder with every strike. The other men began to shout and hush him at the same time. Art was first afraid that Eugene’s sleep would be disrupted from the racket, but then, to his horror, he realized the crazed officer was exactly between the hatch and himself. If the guards hadn’t heard the commotion, they were about to, and they would open the hatch door and fire a spray of ammunition in his direction. He too began trying to calm the officer, shushing and politely trying to draw his attention, but he was too far away to be heard.
Then Kinba was there. Art thought it odd that Kinba always carried a block of hard soap, about three inches by three inches, and two feet long, inside a long sock. He often wondered why Kinba was saving that hunk of soap, although he’d seen more unusual treasures other men held on to. Maybe it was a symbol of some kind, or perhaps a special gift from someone. Art was about to learn Kimba’s reason. Kinba pushed his way through to the crazed man, and in one swift motion pitched the hard soap-filled sock squarely at the crazed officer’s head, knocking him out cold. The screaming and cursing quieted and to the relief of all the hatch door remained closed. Kinba and his soap saved more than one life that day. Eugene, still sleeping, missed it all. Art decided to save this story for after dark.
Late in the afternoon while Eugene slept again, Art observed the open sores on his sun-scorched legs and feet. He knew the same sores were on his torso and back. Some of them were as big around as a nickel and half an inch deep, oozing with blood and matter. He hadn’t noticed them before, but today they were painful and full of fire.
A guard above must have felt some mercy toward the prisoners. He opened the hatch for a little while, and a little breeze flowed into the hold. It wasn’t much, but it soothed art’s ulcers, and the fresh salt air somehow reminded him of the Minnesota meadows where he worked and played as a boy. Art closed his eyes and uttered a prayer out loud. He knew it was a going to be a stupid prayer, but he said it anyway. “God in Heaven, please take me out of this hold and put me in a meadow with a little stream running through it. I want to bathe in the cool water, and I want to lay on the clean grass, and drink the water.”
A high, yet soft voice interrupted his prayer.
“My son, it’s good you turn to God in your trying times. But as bad as you have it, others have it worse.” Art opened his eyes. A scraggy little man with a bald head and ribs protruding, looked down on him. The man’s g-string was nearly dissolved and barely hanging on his emaciated hips.
“Who the heck has it worse than I do?” Art asked.
“That boy with the red hair,” he motioned with his chin toward a pale, redheaded boy lying on a similar plank against the hold wall, only a few feet from Art. “He’s dying and I think his back is broken,” said the man. “Pray with me? Perhaps God’s mercy will bring him some comfort.”
Art nodded, not really sure what to do next, but when the man made the sign of the cross Art realized he was a priest.
The little priest kneeled at the boy’s side, inviting Art to kneel next to him. He prayed in almost a whisper asking God to give the boy strength to bear his cross and ease his suffering.
“Amen” Art said, when the prayer ended. He felt something warm inside his chest, rising to his throat.
“Do you have any water?” said the priest.
“I have about two spoonfuls.” Art said. He offered his canteen to the little priest.
“Why don’t you put a little in your spoon and give it to the boy?”
Art found his spoon and opened his canteen, then carefully tipped it until droplets of water filled the spoon to the rim. The little priest held the boy’s head while Art raised the spoon to the boy’s lips. Art waited, watching for a rise and fall in the boy’s neck, and finally, the boy breathed deeply through his nose, and swallowed.
“Do you know the Lord’s Prayer?” the little priest asked.
They knelt again beside the boy and together recited the Lord’s Prayer.
When Art opened his eyes the little priest was already on his way, making his rounds to others in need. Art watched him throughout the evening, realizing this godly little man was giving all his scanty rations of rice and water away.
Eugene rose from his fetal sleeping position on the plank they shared. “Your turn,” Eugene said. As Art lay on his side, curling his body and hugging his knees, he smiled inwardly, thinking about the immense gratitude he felt for two wood planks he called bed; for enough food and water to keep him alive and sane; and for good men like the little priest, Kinba and Eugene. His gratitude formed to words in a silent prayer as he drifted to sleep.
Art dreamt of the day he was captured; a reoccurring nightmare: the young company clerk, Hank, sat under a palm tree reading a Mickey Spilane novel, while the Japanese soldiers invaded the base. Art shouted, “Hank! Hank! Watch out Hank!” but it was too late. A Japanese soldier in full formal military uniform shot out both Hank’s knees, sending him into a frenzy of crying and wailing. This time, however, the wailing grew louder and the screaming cries filled Art’s ears until he thought he might have to shout for Hank to shut up. Art felt a hand on his shoulder, shaking him, and he opened his eyes. The screaming continued, and her realized the sounds in his dream came from the redheaded boy, a few feet away. He thrashed and cried out unrecognizable phrases.
“He’s hallucinating.” Eugene said.
Art sat up on the plank. “Somebody’s got to help him!” He rushed forward, only to be pulled back by Eugene.
“Art! No!” He yelled in a whisper next to Art’s ear. “No one can help him now! They’ll open fire on both of you – and all of us. Just let him be!”
But someone did help him. Kinba, standing over the red haired boy, raised his massive arm in the air equipped with the soap block sock, and aimed for the back of the boy’s head as he bawled and convulsed. It was then that the guards fired. The boy stopped shrieking and Kinba’s sock soap hit the floor. In the fading light, Art watched in seeming slow motion, Kinba dropping to his knees, and falling over the red haired boy, both of them, dead.
Arthur Troness was liberated September 16, 1945, and discharged from service in May of 1946. His stories have been preserved through a written autobiography, and by videos available on Youtube.
For more information on Arthur Troness, Hell Ships, and American prisoners of war in the Philippines and Japan during World War II, follow the links below:
We Were Next To Nothing: An American POW’s Account Of Japanese Prison and Deliverance in World War II by Carl S. Nordin
JAPANESE WWII POW Camp Fukuoka #17 – Omuta
The Bataan Death March, 1942
Bataan Death March