On December 13, 1944, POW Estel Myers was herded aboard the Japanese prison ship, the Oryoku Maru, with more than sixteen hundred other American captives. More than eleven hundred of them would be dead by journey’s end . . .
The son of a Kentucky sharecropper and an enlistee in the navy’s medical corps, Myers arrived in Manila shortly before the bombings of Pearl Harbor and the other six targets of the Imperial Japanese military. While he and his fellow corpsmen tended to the bloody tide of soldiers pouring into their once peaceful naval hospital, the Japanese overwhelmed the Pacific islands, capturing seventy-eight thousand POWs by April 1942. Myers was one of the first captured.
After a brutal three-year encampment, Myers and his fellow POWs were forced onto an enemy hell ship bound for Japan. Suffocation, malnutrition, disease, dehydration, infestation, madness, and complete despair claimed the lives of nearly three quarters of those who boarded “the beast.”
A compelling account of a rarely recorded event in military history, this is more than Myers’s true story—this is an homage to the unfailing courage of men at war, an inspiring chronicle of self-sacrifice and endurance, and a tribute to the power of faith, the strength of the soul, and the triumph of the human spirit.
“An inspiring look at one of World War II’s darkest hours.” —James Bradley, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Flags of our Fathers and Flyboys
“A searing chronicle.” —Kirkus Reviews
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Spring in San Francisco is an uncertain season. Some years, the fog locks the city in for weeks, streetlights glowing yellow twenty-four hours a day. People hurry by on the sidewalks, eagerly seeking shelter from the cold, damp air. Other years, the warm spring sun rises over Oakland Bay, burning off the early morning mist and conferring the promise of another summer on the bay.
The spring of 1941 was a little on the rainy side, but mild for the most part. In Hollywood, Mickey Rooney and Ava Gardner were engaged. Twelve-year-old Shirley Temple was earning $50,000 for her role in Kathleen, the latest picture she had just begun shooting. Bing Crosby and Helen O'Connell were topping the country's record charts. And Glenn Miller's "Chattanooga Choo Choo" could be heard from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Golden Gate.
But despite the sunny, lighthearted optimism, a fog heavier and bleaker than any that had ever been seen before was settling over the city. News from Europe suggested that Hitler was preparing to launch heavy military campaigns, as he had done the previous spring. If these new marches were as successful as the others had been, hundreds of thousands of Europeans would soon be under Nazi control.
Meanwhile, Japan, Hitler's Axis partner in the Pacific, was making it obvious that she, too, was preparing for war. A Japanese army spokesman, Major Kunio Akiyama, was widely quoted for a remark he made on the third of March. Japan, he said, had the heart of a dove, but a snake had just placed its egg in the dove's nest. This snake, he explained, was the combined governments of the United States and Britain. And the egg consisted of three moves the Japanese perceived as offensive: the fortification of Singapore, the arrival of Australian troops in Malaya, and the impending fortification of Guam and Samoa. When a news correspondent asked Akiyama what he thought would hatch from the egg, an ominous answer was forthcoming: "Only God knows. But the dove will protest vigorously."
Nearly every day of Estel Browning Myers' young life had been a struggle. The oldest child of Kentucky sharecroppers, his first home was a rustic, three-room cabin in Kentucky with no running water or electricity. In 1923, his father realized a sharecropper's earnings were insufficient to raise a family. So he moved them by horse and wagon to the big city: Louisville. Estel was three years old at the time.
The Myers' five-room frame house stood two blocks from Churchill Downs racetrack, and Estel eventually became the big brother of four younger siblings. In reality, the family didn't have much, but they never seemed to want for much, either. Their clothing was made from flour sacks, each piece handed down as soon as it was outgrown by its previous owner. Meals were simple and repetitious: biscuits and gravy for breakfast, navy beans and corn bread for lunch, soups and stews for dinner. Entertainment centered on the family's prized possession, a piano. Mother played by ear, church hymns mostly. The Myerses were poor, but so was everybody else they knew, and having nothing for comparison, they lived life without regret.
In 1929, the Great Depression touched everyone, but it grabbed the lower classes by the throat. Businesses closed and factories shut down. Thousands of men and women stood in soup lines and prayed for relief from hunger. Myers' father was let go from his job as a brakeman with the Louisville-Nashville Railroad. There were no prospects for another job in town; he had no choice but to move his family back to the country.
Again they turned to farming. Their cash crop was tobacco, but they also raised truck crops to sell, saving enough to eat for themselves. With chickens, cows, and hogs for slaughter, the Myerses never went to bed hungry. Life rolled along smoothly until, in the fall of 1937, it took an unexpected turn.
Kentucky was flooded by tremendous rains that year, at exactly the moment the year's tobacco crop was to be harvested. The country was still Depression-ravaged, and the Myers' money from the previous year's sales was nearly all spent. Since the flooding had ruined almost all the tobacco, there would be very little left to harvest. A small harvest meant very little money, a $2.37 profit, to be exact. The next year brought the opposite problem: a life-choking drought. The Myers family never recovered from the back-to-back disasters. The bank sold the animals and the farm, and after all the creditors were taken care of, the family was left with nothing.
This time it was Estel, now nineteen, who went to Louisville in search of a job. The United States Navy offered training, a steady paycheck, and more promise than any of his other options.
Like most young people of his time, Myers was only remotely aware of the political and military maneuvering that had been going on in the world around him, particularly in Asia. They'd been taught in school about the great earthquake that struck Japan in September of 1923 and how it had destroyed Tokyo, Yokohama, and surrounding areas. They'd read about the nearly one hundred forty thousand people who had fallen victim to the quake, and about the aid that had flowed to the distraught population from the U.S. and Europe. And he'd heard rumblings about Japan attacking neighboring countries. But the truth of it was he had been too busy just surviving to pay much attention to what a tiny country half a world away was doing.
Japan, on the other hand, was well aware of what was occurring in the United States and elsewhere. The relief sent for earthquake victims assuaged a building tension between East and West, but only briefly. As worldwide depression spread in the late 1920s, Japanese industry was moribund, and the country had made no preparations for such a catastrophe. To keep herself functioning, Japan needed natural resources beyond what was available on the Home Islands. In addition, an endemic distrust of all things Western was creeping throughout the Japanese government and military. They were of a single mind: Japan had to be strong. Japan had to be ready for whatever may come.
The Chinese state of Manchuria possessed the resources Japan needed. It was readily accessible through Korea, which was already a part of the Japanese Empire. Manchuria was in Japanese hands by 1931, and a pattern of aggression and isolation began. In retaliation for the loss of Manchuria, China began a boycott of all Japanese goods in 1932. In turn, Japan moved into Shanghai, inciting riots before withdrawing.
In March of 1933, Japan left the League of Nations. And in 1937, their relationship having festered for decades, China and Japan went to war. Japan did not wish to be drawn into a long conflict, wanting to guard her military resources in the event of an even larger offensive from a more imposing enemy. For her part, China was in no condition to effectively resist the well-trained Japanese armies and was forced to withdraw her troops, although she never surrendered. To celebrate, the victorious Japanese general allowed his troops to slaughter a quarter-million innocent citizens in Nanking. The horrified world had no way of knowing this was only a portent of things to come.
By 1938, in spite of all efforts on the part of the United States to establish at least the probability of world peace, President Franklin Roosevelt recommended to Congress a twenty-percent increase in American naval strength. Congress authorized the increase posthaste.
In turn, the Navy medical department saw an increase in the volume and variety of its work. The usage of medical supplies, both afloat and in hospitals, was studied, and an allowance list of supplies and equipment that would be needed in a national emergency was prepared. In short, plans were made to provide the necessary medical support for the Navy in the event of war.
War did indeed break out in Europe on September 3, 1939, making the escalation of naval medical supplies and personnel a matter of even greater urgency. While the position of the United States was not yet clearly established, it was apparent that the war would affect the country to some degree. When the war started in Europe, the U.S. Navy had 4,267 hospital corpsmen. Estel Myers was one of them.
After five months of training and finishing in the top third of his class, Myers took the corpsman's pledge.
"I solemnly pledge myself before God and these witnesses to practice safely all of my duties as a member of the hospital corps.
"I hold the care of the sick and the injured to be a privilege and a sacred trust and will assist the medical officer with loyalty and honesty. I will not knowingly permit harm to come to any patient.
"I will not partake or administer any unauthorized medication. I will hold all personal matters pertaining to the private lives of the patients in strict confidence. I dedicate my heart, mind, and strength to the work before me. I shall do all within my power to show in myself an example of all that is good and honorable throughout my naval career, so help me God."
A naval corpsman was trained to perform a wide range of services. He was a first aid man, a nurse, and a sanitarian. He assisted physicians and surgeons and assisted in the administration of the station's medical organization. And when no medical officer was available for supervision, he acted in the place of the medical officer.
Myers felt more than adequately prepared for his new career in the hospital corps. And so it was that on April 3, 1941, Hospital Apprentice First Class Estel Myers departed the U.S. Naval Station, Treasure Island, California. The skiff taking him across Oakland Bay headed for Pier 7. Once there, he would board the USS Henderson, and the next chapter of his life would begin.
"Welcome to the Hilton Hotel, gentlemen, and I use the term 'gentlemen' loosely." Six hundred men had boarded the Henderson with Myers and were now divided into groups of one hundred. Each group was assigned to a master at arms, and the one Myers' group followed had the name Hilton stitched on his uniform shirt. Hilton had led them into the ship's berthing quarters and was now giving orders.
"Here's how this works." Hilton pointed to the bunk beds surrounding them, twenty rows of beds stacked five high. "You see those bunks? Each and every one of you gets your very own. No pushing, no shoving. There's a hundred bunks and a hundred of you. It works out real purty," he told them with a sarcastic drawl.
"You see those lockers?" Hilton continued, pointing. "And those? And those? Well, there's one of those for each of you, too. Stow your gear in 'em, except for peacoats. Those'll go in other lockers topside. Pinups and photographs on the inside only. Nothin' on the outside. Pictures make me homesick. When I get homesick, I get agitated, and then it ain't fun around here. We don't want that now, do we?"
Hilton looked around. No one said a word. "You got thirty minutes to get yourselves squared away. Report topside with your peacoats at sixteen hundred hours." Throwing his chest out and turning smartly on his heel, the master at arms strode out.
Myers looked around at the unfamiliar faces. Maybe he'd seen a few before back in Norfolk at Hospital Corps School or at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia. Or maybe they just looked like faces from home.
Navy policy required that everyone serve a year of shore duty performing their chosen job before being assigned to a ship. Sea duty was what they'd all signed up for, but thus far all they knew was that they'd get their shore duty assignment sometime while aboard this ship. A low hum of voices filled the berthing quarters, and the air was electric with anticipation.
Men were already moving toward the rows of bunks, so Myers did the same. He knew he didn't want a top one. It was hot enough where he was standing — the top bunk would be stifling. But for some reason, a bottom bunk wasn't appealing, either: if for some reason the ship took on water, Myers figured it would be better to be farther above the floor. So he threw his blanket and peacoat on the second bunk up and hauled his seabag over toward the lockers.
"You ever see anything like this?" a voice to his right asked him.
"Nope," Myers answered. "Reminds me of the bakery back home. The bunks look like the ovens, and we're the bread."
"Is that so? Where'd you say home was?" the stranger asked.
"I didn't. But it's Kentucky."
"No kidding! Damn, I always wanted to meet a genuine Kentucky Colonel." A seaman first class stuck out his hand. "Name's Rollo T. Brown. But everybody calls me Browny."
"Hello, Browny. Estel Myers." Myers shook the hand Browny proffered. "Where do you call home?"
"The Windy City."
"No kidding? I always wanted to meet a genuine gangster!"
Browny chuckled. "Doc, the closest I ever got to a gangster was in the movie theater. You don't mind if I call you Doc, do ya? It fits, you being a corpsman and all." Browny pointed to the red cross on Myers' shirt.
"Doc" had a nice ring to it. Myers smiled. "Nope." Their seabags were empty by this time, and Myers continued. "Say, there's a bunk over there next to mine, third row, second one up. Why don't you grab it?"
"Done." Browny walked over to the bunk in question and claimed it with his blanket.
After settling in, the men arrived topside to find the late afternoon air clean and fresh. There was just enough of a breeze to gently ripple the flags on the masts above them. Hilton's men fell in, along with the other five units and their respective masters at arms. Below their feet, the Henderson's bathtub-shaped hull bobbed gently as the ship's commander stood on a small deck above to address them.
"Men, your country thanks you for the service you're about to give. If we do indeed see action, chances are the man standing next to you won't be coming home. It's unfortunate, but that's the way war is. Keep your eyes open and your heads up. Good luck."
Myers had always been self-assured, never one to worry about things beyond his control. Paying attention to what was in front of you had always worked for him in the past, and he saw no reason to change now. He looked sideways at each of the men next to him. There was no question in his mind that he would survive any action he saw. But it was a damn shame those other guys weren't going to make it. At 1700 hours, the Henderson weighed anchor. Two hours later, the six hundred men saw the last slice of American soil disappear, along with the evening sun, below the horizon.
Chow that first night wasn't the best, but Myers had had worse. The main course was pork chops, a little dry but otherwise edible. Served with the chops were canned corn and a big helping of navy beans in some kind of thick liquid. When the beans and the pork chops touched, the liquid took on a meat flavor, making it almost like gravy. Dessert was canned peaches and cookies. It wasn't exactly like his mother's cooking, but the meal was filling if not entirely satisfying.
After chow, games of pinochle and acey-deucey sprang up wherever there was enough room for a handful of men to gather. The men talked about sweethearts left behind, and Myers shared stories about the girl he planned to make his wife when he returned from duty.
Lights-out was ordered at 2100 hours, and by 2400 hours the ship had put about a hundred miles behind her. At about that point the Pacific Ocean is affected by a variety of currents, all of which combine to make for sizable waves even in relatively calm conditions. The waves caused any ship to pitch and roll considerably but the Henderson reacted really badly. She had been built to carry cargo, the idea being that when full to capacity, her rounded hull could sink lower in the water. But carrying men instead of cargo made her far too light, and she bobbed up and down in the water like a bottle.
This was nothing out of the ordinary to the ship's crew. But it was startling to the men in their bunks, most of whom were novice sailors. At one point or another that first night, nearly all of them stumbled from the berthing quarters to the head, where they lost their evening chow. By morning the urinals, concave stainless steel troughs, were full to the brim, and each time the ship rolled the urinals' contents sloshed over the side.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Belly of the Beast"
Copyright © 2001 Judith L. Pearson.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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