The Ship - All Hands - Decorations - Remembrance
On March 4, 1942, Scouting Six pilot LT(jg) H. Dale Hilton and his gunner/radio-man, ARM 2/c Jack Leaming, were shot down during the Marcus Island raid and taken prisoner of war by the Japanese on the island. This excerpt from Jack Leaming's memoir, "From 6-S-7", recounts their capture and first days in the enemy's hands. It begins as Leaming is rowing a rubber raft with injured pilot Hilton towards Marcus Island.
I tried to row westward. Again, all I could do was row in circles. Dale reminded me again, "Jack, keep that cloud behind us steady behind us and you will row in a straight line."
As we came nearer, we could see that the waves were breaking rather roughly on the east side of the island and a sentry was pacing atop what appeared to be a breakwater. Dale said he thought there was coral on the east side of the island and that we should try for the southern side so we would not be cut to pieces by the coral.
As we rounded the southeast tip of the island, we were discovered. As we went further and came closer more people joined the sentry and the first group that had discovered us. They followed us along the shoreline as I rowed.
The tides and the Japanese finally resolved the dilemma and the conjectures of what would happen and could happen in a rubber boat thousands of miles from friendly land. They had sighted us, we heard a motor stutter and come to life. They were coming out after us and launched a boat to take us prisoner.
Ye Gods, what a boat they had! It was about thirty foot long with a small wheelhouse amidships and a small funnel aft of the wheelhouse that belched smoke rings into the air. With its chug-chug motor, it pulled alongside our rubber boat as we were forced to throw up our hands in surrender. What a moment! Strangers, the foe! A strange language. Is it torture, starvation, death? What are they going to do with us, to us?
Would they shoot us now? Or wait? What could we expect? What did they want to know? What could we tell them or should we tell them? What tortures would be inflicted upon us? In quick succession these thoughts passed and could not be answered except by the passage of time. The transition from being a free agressor, and free, to the loss of freedom and subjected to those you had rained death upon moments before is a very, very, unenviable position.
When they came alongside our rubber boat, two of them reached down to help us aboard their boat. Neither of us could understand what they were saying to us. Never having been exposed to any foreign language but three years of Spanish that I had taken in high school, the Japanese language was very, very strange.
To be ordered to do something in an unlearned language by a man with a rifle with a fixed bayonet, inches from your belly, is not a pleasant feeling. Staring at death is a sensation that is extremely difficult to accept because you are looking into eyes that are looking into yours, that seem to reflect the same feelings you are experiencing. Anger. Confusion. Consternation. Perplexity. It is different than being helpless in a burning man-made contrivance. I did not want to accept it, but to avoid death obeyed and did my best to interpret what was being demanded as the bayonet moved back and forth and up and down, prodding me in the direction I was being told to go in a language I could not understand. Their orders must have been to take us prisoner and not kill us.
Immediately, we were placed under heavy guard and blindfolded. Five Japanese marines with fixed bayonets were assigned to each of us. The rolling and the pitching of the boat did not make it easy to do as they instructed.
They took Dale aft, and me to the bow. I was told to sit and lean against the king post to which I was tied. Why they tied me, I never could understand. The boat chug-chugged the short trip back to the island.
The long journey had begun. It was supposed to end three and a half years later by destiny's clock ... but it never has. The things that happened are still happening, the wounds are too deep and there is not enough time for them to heal. They heal when time stops for those who were wounded. As long as you can think, as long as you can feel, and as long as you can forget, you remember.
The way those fellows brought the boat in to the beach, through the waves, so we could jump ashore, was quite an accomplishment and it was well done. The coxswain of that boat was good and so were the crew. They refuted all I had thought about the Japanese.
As soon as we jumped ashore, they led us to a truck, threw our helmet, goggles, flight jackets, life vest and rubber boat in and off we went over a bumpy and shell covered road. After lengthy minutes of bouncing and asking myself where and what now, the truck came to a halt and we dismounted.
Our clothing was still wet as they sat us down in the sand, legs crossed, and removed our blindfolds. We were facing a raised platform occupied by several officers. Behind us stood a squad of armed sailors or marines with fixed bayonets. To say this was scary would be an understatement because we did not know what was coming next.
It became clear in a moment. An officer that acted as the Captain of the island's interpreter, Mr. Kabota, spoke in very poor English. It was difficult to understand him. After the Captain of the island addressed us in Japanese, Mr. Kobota spoke to us, "If you do not answer my questions truthfully, I will kill you."
Because I was an enlisted man and they probably assumed I would be more cooperative most of the questions were directed to me, initially.
"What ship were you on?"
"How many ships?"
They undoubtedly knew, because of the remoteness of Marcus, we had to be from a carrier. Which one could be important to them. The last I knew the USS Yorktown was in the Atlantic. So, that would be the carrier from whence we came. I just was not going to tell these SOBs the truth. The hell with them!
They also knew that a carrier would not be sent out on an attack without a cordon of protecting ships. They were aware also that they had inflicted much damage at Pearl Harbor. Consequently, such a small attacking force would be in keeping with our smaller Navy as a result of their attack on Pearl Harbor.
When I told them there were three ships that was the truth. However, I also thought that by the time they sent out a counterattack force to do battle with three ships that the Big E, Northampton, and Salt Lake City would have rejoined the destroyers and oil tanker. Then, the attack force would meet with greater opposition than they planned and they would be defeated.
The questioning was brief. Upon completion, we were blindfolded again and placed in the truck. We were taken to our quarters. How elite! A room about eight foot square, cement floor with one half of it about four inches higher than the remainder, walls half cement and half wood. No door knob on the inside and damp as hell. A piece of canvas, a tarp, was spread over a wooden pallet ... our bed. No chairs. It must have been the Japanese Navy's version of the brig. They took all our belongings and gave us dry clothing. A white jumpsuit, typical Japanese sailor work clothing.
We were given the same meals as the men, I believe. The change in culture also brought about a change in the diet. Most difficult to savor was the seaweed, kelp, preserved in soy sauce. They also had small fish about two or three inches long preserved in soy sauce. The rice was bland. The eating utensils given to us were wooden chop sticks. Neither of us could use them. This added to our dislike of the meal.
The meal was strange to us. It was difficult to savor. We were hungry, but not starved ... yet. We succeeded in inveigling some sugar and so had condensed milk from our rations and sugar on the rice. We opened the brown bread and baked beans. They were not too tasty. But, they were palatable and not too strange.
The men who had brought the meal watched us. They were offended initially. We tried to explain to them and gradually they understood. To assuage their anger, we offered them some beans and brown bread. They did not like our baked beans but the brown bread appealed to them. So, we gave them both cans. Neither Dale or I liked them.
Hunger had not yet become our predominent concern. Our predominant thoughts centered around what the future held for us. Especially, the next few hours. Death was still an ever present end. Upon completion of the meal, the men left.
As the day wore on, it became obvious to the Japanese there would be no more attacks. When they relaxed, some men on the Island were free to satisfy their curiosity.
There was a small window in the door that provided the frequent and curious visitors the opportunity to see their American attackers. The door could be opened from the outside but not from the inside. The guards that we had were very friendly. They brought us candy and cigarettes and talked with us most of the time. It seemed strange that they wanted to be so friendly after what we had done.
Typical conversations centered around our personal life; where we were from and our families. None of the questions they asked were of a military nature. If we did not have a visitor once a day we felt slighted. They had a Japanese-English book. With it and signs, we understood each other well.
In retrospect and the future questioning we received, it was a set-up. We were naturally suspicious and cautious. These visits also served to pass the time. They had not been abusive.
Because they were enlisted personnel and there was not any pressure or threats, they succeeded in exacting some personal information. I believe this information was later used in my questioning in Yokohama. Obviously, they were questioned by their superiors after their visits with us. There must have been some reason to allow them to do as they did. I do not believe it would have occurred if the situation were reversed.
We were allowed to scrub our clothes and were permitted to take a bath every day that the sun shone. Better described as pouring water over our heads and bodies. We joked about the fate that had overtaken us and had as much of a good time as we could to allay the fears that were ever present in the dark recesses of our minds. To our Japanese guards, it appeared, we were prize pets, curiosities, toys.
They proved to be regular fellows and these episodes lessened the immediate anxiety. They made each day interesting. We would have missed them if they did not come around to joke and talk with us and inform us of the great military fete that Dai Nippon had just accomplished.
Each morning at sunrise, they would come for us and take us out to participate in their morning physical exercises, "tyso". These were unique. Once the exercise started, there was no stopping. One routine merged immediately into the next. It was a morning ballet to music. Some of their routines were the same as ours, but several were very different. We never did achieve complete knowledge of their exercise by the time we left the island.
On the second or third day, they came and took Dale away. I was very disturbed over this. They were going to question him. I waited. The minutes became hours. Dale was gone for two or three hours. When he returned, he was very upset. He had been hit several times and did not want to talk too much about the episode. I honored his feelings. We were questioned twice while we were at Marcus.
It seemed to me to be a shame that these fellows had to be called enemies. But, I suppose all of us took it for granted that this war was no fault of ours and personally there were no grudges. A swell lot of fellows. Takahashi Tatasumi, Molita Taro (Tokyo's Gary Cooper, he said), Hosh Boom Pe, Saburo Ichigaya, Hosoda, and Masao Sakisaka. All different personalities, but good ones. Always full of life. Interesting, never a dull moment. They insisted that when the war was over that they would show us Tokyo and visit us someday in the United States. They asked us to exchange addresses with them. I have theirs in their handwriting to this day.
Excerpt reprinted with kind permission of Jack Leaming. Jack Leaming's full memoir, "From 6-S-7", can be ordered from the author.