LAST BOAT TO BATAAN
Stacked on the pier in front of the cargo ship were about forty heavy packing crates which we were instructed to load aboard before we left. We were about to begin when an air raid alarm sounded and within minutes enemy planes appeared from across the harbor. Everyone on deck and on the dock dropped whatever he was doing and made a mad dash for a trap door that led to a makeshift shelter below the pier. The entrance to the shelter became so plugged with soldiers shoving and pushing that not a single person could get through. The Japanese dive bombers dumped their first load of bombs alongside Carmen. Most bombs landed in the water, but a few did start fires abroad the ship.
The Manila Fire Department arrived after the planes left. I helped firefighters carry a hose aboard the ship, and when they were set I held firmly to the nozzle and waited. When water finally came it did so with such force it was all I could do to hang on to the hose. I looked around for help but everyone had disappeared. They were fleeing the hose that was now out of control. I shouted for assistance and little by little men scrambled one by one out of their hiding places.
The fires out, we were put to work again loading the packing crates aboard Carmen.
But no sooner were the crates aboard than the order came to put them back on the dock. Fires below deck had flared up. It took another half hour to unload the ship while we continued to fight the flames on board. Finally with the fires out, we received further orders to reload the crates. We couldn’t believe it. Whatever the crates , contained, it had to be valuable to risk the lives of the men and the ship. We cursed as we struggled up the narrow gangplank to get the crates back aboard.
We had just sat down on the deck for a well-deserved rest when the air raid siren sounded for the second time. Immediately bombs were falling and men were scrambling for cover. A few men leaped overboard. The Japanese had a clear shot at Carmen yet she took no direct hits. Apparently they did not want to sink her. They were only trying to disable her. Fires broke out again on deck. As soon as the raid was over, we were again ordered to take the crates off the ship. ”What? Aren’t things bad enough?” I heard someone shout, but the order stood firm. By now our cursing extended not only to the Japanese but to the officers in charge, the army, the packing crates and even the narrow gangplank.
After the fires had been put out, the captain determined that Carmen was capable of making the trip. For the last time we reloaded the crates. The men filed aboard and soon every bit of space above and below deck was occupied. Soldiers sat everywhere, atop the piles of cargo, along the rails with their feet hanging over the sides, even on the bridge. Hawsers were cast off and Carmen slowly moved away from the dock. Every last man was dead tired from the endless air raids and from loading and unloading the packing crates.
Japanese planes had been flying sorties over the bay all the morning, dropping bombs on installations and strafing the area, and here we were on the upper deck, wide open to aerial attack, without protection. We were apprehensive, watching for the slightest glare of an approaching enemy plane, but none appeared. The sky remained clear, but our ordeal was far from over. We were faced with another threat which could be even more foreboding than bombs and machine-gun fire. We might all drown in shark-infested water. Carmen’s starboard hull at the waterline had been punctured during the air raids. She had gaping holes in her side and was taking on more water than her pumps could handle. We not only looked for planes now but for sharks as well. Then suddenly, as we were approaching the rocky Bataan shoreline, the vessel made a lung to the starboard, nearly knocking half of us overboard. At full steam the captain now headed Carmen straight for the beach. Before we knew what was happening she struck a sand bar and ran high aground. The captain had saved the day. The ship was safe, for the time being.
Before long a launch appeared, and for last time we unloaded the packing crates from Carmen to the launch. The launch then took us and our precious cargo ashore.
Once ashore we discovered we would have to remain overnight on the beach, but we had no food. The captain remembered that Carmen still had a hefty supply of canned goods aboard. He asked for volunteers and a half dozen of us returned to the ship to get whatever supplies we could find. We climbed aboard and as the captain held a flashlight I descended the ladder into the hold. The captain was right; there were cases of canned food everywhere. I picked out about twenty cases of assorted canned goods, from hams to peaches, which we hauled on deck and then loaded on to the launch. We returned to the beach where a jubilant but hungry bunch of soldiers awaited us. The way we ate and clowned around one would not have thought the Japanese were just across the way. I wished I had my accordion.
We slept on the beach that night and early the next morning a convoy of trucks arrived to take us and our cargo to a command post in the jungle. One driver, obviously with little experience in driving trucks, was having a difficult time with his vehicle. I offered to take over, which he gladly agreed to. The truck was not much different from one I had driven one summer when I hauled frozen fish from Eureka in northern California down to San Francisco. What a contrast this was, from the Redwoods of California to the jungle of Bataan. From frozen fish to god knows what.
The jungle post turned out to be Camp Lamaz, the medical headquarters for the Thirty-first Infantry regiment. Doctors and nurses jumped with excitement when they saw us arrive with the packing crates. We didn’t feel so bad now knowing all our efforts to save the crates were well deserved. The crates, no doubt, contained much needed medical supplies. Two enlisted men hastily broke open several boxes and before they could step back doctors and nurses rushed to the fore to take over. Our happiness turned to anger. The officers searched not for medical supplies but instead for their own personal belongings. We were shocked to see them pull from the crates tennis rackets and golf clubs, tuxedos and evening gowns. The memory of having moved these heavy boxes on and off Carmen, the sweat and labor involved, and the risk of both lives and ship, was fresh in our minds. The feelings we had at that time are unprintable. Later that clay, when we were together and away from the officers, we mused at the thought of the Japanese pilots not wanting to sink Carmen thinking that her cargo was undoubtedly of great valuable to the war effort, and by merely disabling the ship the cargo would eventually be theirs. We imagined their fury had they tore open the crates hoping to find prized booty and found instead tennis rackets and tuxedos.
But the fate of Carmen was sealed. All that day the ship lay helpless on the beach. From deep in the jungle we could hear explosions as Japanese planes pounded her again and again.
On the 27th of December we were quartered beneath some banana trees in front of a little hut in the jungle. “An odd thing is happening here,” I wrote in my diary. “The natives in a barrio have a piano and a little Filipino girl is taking lessons. What a contrast. All the soldiers are ‘standing around watching the lesson. They have a monkey here. The piano teacher is now playing and she is good. Sgt. Sayer played a few songs. We had quite a few air raid alarms but no bombs were dropped here.”
I also reported in my diary that my unit had been broken up. Some of the friends I had been with since Letterman were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, others to the 3rd. “I am sitting under a tree with the monkey sleeping in my lap. I have just set up my bed. It is nice and quiet now.”
I was assigned as a field medic to Headquarters Company, Thirty-first Infantry, the only American infantry regiment in the islands. We took up positions along the front that faced north where the Japanese were certain to come. We knew they were coming.