Major Robert B. Blakeslee
Major Robert B. Blakeslee, 31, of Glens Falls N.Y. was a prisoner of the Japanese from Apr. 10, 1942 when he surrendered his ordnance company on Bataan, until Sept. 7, 1944 when a Japanese prison ship was torpedoed, presumably by an American submarine, off the coast of Mindanao. He was one of 83 known survivors among 750 U.S. officers and men who were aboard the vessel.
A lieutenant in the Army Reserve Corps since his ROTC days at the University of Cincinnati where he received a degree in chemical engineering in 1935, Blakeslee was chief chemist for the wallpaper division of Imperial Paper and Color Corporation, Glens Palls, when- he was called up for active duty Mar. 1, 1941.
After training at the Savannah Army Air Base, he sailed for the Philippines Nov. 1, 1941 as commanding officer (with rank of first lieutenant) of an ordnance company assigned to a bomber group. He and his company arrived in Manila Nov. 20 and were assigned temporarily to Ft. McKinley. They were still there Dec. 7.
They participated in the death march up the Bataan Peninsula to San Fernando. Subsequently, Blakeslee was a prisoner at Camp O'Donnell for three weeks, then spent 9 weeks at bridge-rebuilding detail at Gapan. During that period, 37 of his detail of 200 men died.
From June 29,1942 until Oct. 27, 1942 he was at the Cabanatuan prison camp where the Japs held 7,000 prisoners, including the bulk of the Corrigidor survivors. On the latter date he was one of 750 men who were taken to Manila, loaded aboard a freighter and taken to the notorious No. 2 Prison Camp of the Filipino penal colony near Davao.
Nearly a year and a half later--Mar. 1, 1944-- he was among 650 officers and men taken to Lasang to work on a Japanese airfield. He was there until Aug. 20 when the prisoners were herded aboard freighter to begin the ill-fated voyage that brought death to so many and set Blakeslee and 82 others free...
During the summer we began to hear rumors that we might be shipped to Japan. We heard that the men in No. 2 Camp at Davao had been shipped out early in June. The Japs were getting uneasy and we were pretty sure the Yanks were getting near. We know they had taken over the Solomons and that they were in New Guinea. This field they made us work on was a re-fueling point for planes being ferried southward and it bristled with anti-aircraft guns. Then when we learned of bullet-riddled Jap planes arriving at a nearby Navy air field, we knew for sure the Yanks were not too far away.
Finally, on Aug. 5 they told us to get ready to move. They said we were to be taken to Japan and put aboard an exchange ship to be exchanged for Japanese nationals that were U.S. prisoners. I guess we only half believed that story but in any case Lasang seemed like a good place to be away from. You see, we figured if the Yanks moved in, either one of two things probably would happen: the Japs would shoot all of us or, a lot of us would get killed trying to make a break for freedom.
They gave us back the shoes we had gotten from the Red Cross way back in February, and the last of four packages of food, candy, cigarettes that had arrived at the same time. We had worn those shoes only a month when there was an escape from the camp and they were taken away. From then on we were bare-footed. Incidentally, those shoes upset the Jap soldiers. They had rubber soles and heels. Their officers had told them America didn't have any rubber.
As it turned out, we had our shoes back only for one day. The Japanese major who had been in command moved out, leaving a first lieutenant in command. Also, he cut us down to two meals a day, one of rice and salt and the other a pasty mixture of camotes (they're something like a sweet potato) and squash. We were on that diet for two weeks.
During that time we saw the first Allied planes we had seen since before the fall of Bataan. There were air raid alerts nearly every night, and one night a single multi-motored plane came over and we heard bomb explosions nearby. It was one of the sweetest sounds I've ever heard.
On Aug. 20 they told us for the second time to get ready to move. They roused us at 3 the next morning and after a scanty meal of rice with a little meat and salt in it, they lined us up in of fours with about 175 men in a group. Then they strung a heavy rope around the outside of the group, tying it to all the men on the outside of the column. Anyone who stepped outside the rope would be shot, they said.
Ringed by guards armed with bayoneted rifles and with a truck containing a machine gun detail ahead and behind each group, we marched three miles to the dock. There we were joined by another 100 American prisoners who had been in custody of the Jap navy. They gave us back our shoes but told us not to put them on.
We were loaded in barges and taken out to a freighter of about 5,000 tons that was anchored in Davao gulf. After climbing up rope ladders we were herded into two holds, about 450 men in one and 300 in the other. I was in the larger group.
As soon as we were packed in, they pulled up the ladder and covered up the hatch, all but a strip about two feet wide along each side. Each hatch was guarded by a detail of soldiers armed with a machine gun, rifles and grenades. It was pretty obvious that if anything happened to the ship, they had no intention of letting any of us get out.
There we were, just like rats in a trap, in an area about 50 by 60 feet. The only light and air came from those two strips alongside the hatches. It was about 110 degrees down there and to make things worse, the vessel’s last cargo had been salt which got in the cracks and sores on our feet. There was one small ventilator in the hold, but it didn't work.
We had been given a mess kit of rice before leaving the camp and late in the afternoon they sent down some water. But at that point we weren't very well organized and some got a lot and others got none.
Some of the men had brought native brooms with them and finally we got organized, got the hold swept out and arranged so everyone could lie down. The men lay like sardines, one man's feet alongside another's head.
There were no water facilities for washing nor latrines. They sent down some five-gallon gasoline cans to use for latrines. The task of emptying those became a choice assignment because it gave those who did it a chance to get up in the fresh air for a few minutes.
As the afternoon wore on, it got hotter and hotter. In the evening, one man cracked and began screaming for water. The Japs had told us that if there were any disturbance they would fire on us. We were pretty apprehensive about that but one of the men who spoke a little Japanese succeeded in convincing the guards that the man was delirious and not responsible for his actions. He was still delirious the next day and finally the medical officer in our group gave him drugs from his pitifully small stock to keep him quiet.
The next morning they passed down our first meal-- a small portion of steamed rice and a watery soup made of comotes and a little water. They promised us a canteen of water per man as a daily ration, but we never got that much. Generally the ration was less than a pint. That morning the Japs began practicing air raid alerts. Each time they would cover over the batch completely, cutting off what little air and light there was. In the afternoon there was a real air raid. We heard the plane, then the chattering of machine guns, the boom of anti-aircraft and finally the concussion of bombs. The concussions were near enough so that they nearly caused a panic. Then the chaplain took over. He was a chaplain who had been decorated for valor at Clark Field. Setting an example by his calmness, he urged the men to be quiet--that it was better that way, since there was nothing they could do. Then he said a prayer.
After that, he conducted a vesper service every evening and sometimes, one of the officers, who was a first-rate story teller, would narrate the story of some book he had read.
The men were organized in groups of 25, for the distribution of food and water. That insured everyone getting a share. Because there was, so little air, four, periods a day were set aside for smoking. Then we would all wave towels to get the smoke out of the hold. There were two meals a day, and actually most of our days were taken up waiting in line to be served, or waiting our turn at the gasoline cans that served as latrines.
The first night the vessel had anchored in Davao gulf but about 2 a.m. the second night, it began to move again. The Japs immediately covered over the hatches. By morning, 70 of the men were unconscious. We moved them to the area directly under the hatch where the best air was, and they were there in the morning when the Japs came down to count us. (They counted us twice a day--God only knows why!) I guess, they realized then how bad the air was for after that they opened up the hatch a little more. Some of the men had shelter tent halves, and they built makeshift wind scoops out of them. The Jap guards set them up above the hatch but they didn't work too well.
The second morning, they had let us up on deck in groups of 50 for about ten minutes of calisthenics, but after that air raid, they wouldn't let us up any more. The third morning, as we were steaming out of Davao gulf, we heard explosions like depth charges, but we never did find out whether there had been a sub attack, or if it was just an anti-submarine drill staged by the three naval vessels that were escorting our ship. To tell the truth, we weren't too worried about submarines. We figured that American submarines had been notified when we sailed. The Japs crossed us up, though. I'll come to that in a minute.
By the fourth day, we had become so dehydrated and were suffering so from thirst that we finally prevailed upon the Japs to substitute lugao, that's a gruel-like rice preparation, for the drier boiled rice. I'll never forget how good it tasted. But despite that slight change, men were passing out constantly from heat and thirst. The medical officer and the chaplain spent most of their time attending to them. About all that could be done was to move them to the area beneath the hatch, fan them, and put salt-water compresses on them. They were about the only medical cases those first days. Fortunately, there was no dysentery. That would have been terrible.
And now here's how the Japs crossed us up. They pulled into a harbor; lay there for nine days, then transferred us to another freighter. During that nine days we were on deck three times once for 10 minutes of calisthenics and twice to stand briefly under a salt water hose.
We thought that first freighter was awful, but the once they transferred us, things got even worse. The first carried a cargo of hemp that filled the lower part of the hold. The second had nothing but some rock ballast and we were right down on the keel, about 30 feet below the deck. The hold I was in was about the same size as the previous one, but instead of 450 of us, they jammed in 500. It was so crowded; all of us couldn't lie down at once. We had to sleep in shifts. We couldn't even organize lines to the latrines. Instead, those cans had to be passed through our area from man to man.
The vessel apparently had carried a cargo of cement not too long before, and our movements raised a cloud of cement dust. It filled our nostrils, caked on our perspiring bodies, and went in our hair and beards. As soon as we got down there, they placed boards over the hatch leaving a little space between them for air, and then lashed them down. We were there 24 hours before sailing.
Right after we started, the Japs began having practice alerts. Each time they would throw a tarpaulin over the batch, shutting out the light and most of the air. So actually, the heat, filth and air were worse than on the other ship. And in addition to the exhaustion cases, some of the men had malaria attacks and others developed skin diseases.
About 5:30 on the after-noon of Sept. 7 we heard some small arms fire, then the bugler blowing an alert. We could tell this was the real thing from the way he blew. Can you imagine how a man might blow a bugle with his teeth chattering? Well, that's just the way it sounded. I remember thinking that just before everything went blank. I heard no explosion, no out-cries.
The next thing I remember, it couldn't have been more than a few seconds later, I was fighting salt water. For what seemed minutes, I seemed to be suspended like in mid-air, and then I shot upward. I had barely time to fill my lungs before I was sucked down again. On the way down I grabbed a piece of rope. When I came to the surface again I was near the top of the hold, which was nearly completely submerged. I just swam out and away from the side of the ship, grabbing at various floating objects. It was then that I discovered my right arm was useless. I finally caught the edge of a piece of a life raft and glimpsed eight or ten other prisoners clutching it also. Bullets were hitting the water all around us. They were fired by Japs standing in a lifeboat on the freighter.
Just as they cast off their lifeboat, it capsized and the Japs joined us in the water. Among them was the sadistic lieutenant who had been in charge of us at the airfield after the major left. Looking at him, I remembered the pleasure he seemed to get out of meting out punishment for minor infractions of rules. Once, I recalled, he tortured a group of about 50 men by making them kneel for about 45 minutes with their shins on the sharp flange of a railway rail.
Now he didn't look so brave. If I ever saw a man look afraid, he is the one. Through an interpreter, he told us that if we would not harm the Japanese, he personally would guarantee our safety. As if we didn't know what his guarantee was worth, we saw one of the Jap escort vessels moving toward us, picking up survivors; Jap survivors. They were shooting whatever Americans they saw.
It was obvious there was no safety in numbers on that raft, and some of the men began to swim away. Finally there were three of us left. One of the men and I were constantly bobbing back and forth under the raft trying to keep it between ourselves and the Jap marksmen aboard the naval vessel. The other man was either injured or did not realize the danger, for he merely clung to the raft without making any effort at concealment. Suddenly I looked up and noted there were only two of us. Where the third man had been there was a neat bullet hole in the raft.
The freighter, hit by one torpedo in the bow, apparently right in the hold that I was in, and by a second torpedo just ahead of the aft hold, sank in about ten minutes.
When darkness hid us from the Jap vessel, my companion and. I climbed up on the raft, both of as pretty exhausted. I apparently went to sleep immediately. The moon was up when I awoke. We decided had best try to paddle our piece of raft toward shore. I quickly found there wasn’t much I could do, because is of my useless arm. And every time my companion tried, he would break into a spasm of coughing and would spit blood. Besides, the current was against us.
Through the night we floated aimlessly amid the wreckage. At daylight, we observed we were floating in the approximate area where the prison ship had gone down. Once again we tried to paddle toward shore, but made scant headway. By noon the sun was hot and blistering and we were parched with thirst. We had no food or water.
Suddenly we saw two Filipinos in a banca a short distance away and we hollered to them. They acknowledge our shouts by waving, but would not come near us. In desperation, we began furiously to paddle toward them. The Filipinos packed up their paddles and moved away. Jap planes were passing over from time to time and apparently were afraid they were afraid they would be observed aiding us.
By mid-afternoon we decided we had best abandon the raft in favor of life preservers, several of which were floating around. My companion by this time was getting very weak. I finally spotted a preserver and we swam toward it only to find that it supported a dead Jap. My companion removed the Jap, donned the preserver and started off alone. To my knowledge, that is the last anyone saw him.
After experimenting with some floating boards, I finally elected to stay with the raft another night. I was on the verge of delirium by this time and while I slept some, the night was a horrible experience. Toward dawn however, I slept soundly and awoke refreshed and much stronger. A stiff wind had come up during the night and blown my raft down the coast about 20 miles, I learned later. I was still two or three miles from shore and headed toward the open sea. It was obvious my only chance lay in heading toward shore at once. I struggled all morning, pushing and pulling the raft but made scant progress. I was about to give up in despairs when I heard an American voice behind me.
I looked around. There was a smiling Yank, astride a big bamboo raft, with a smaller one tied behind it. He was Pvt. D.J. Olinger of Denver, Colo. He had found the raft soon after being blown overboard.
We decided to wait until night and then try to paddle the smaller raft toward shore. Late in the afternoon, we saw some bancas close in to shore and two finally appeared behind us. After we convinced them we were Americans, they went for aid. While they were gone some others appeared that had room in their craft and they took us ashore just as darkness fell. That was the evening of Sept. 9.
We were taken inland and fed a mixture of raw eggs and put to bed. The next day we had a virtual banquet; rice, boiled chicken, goats milk, and more eggs. They told us some other survivors had come ashore and in the afternoon some guerrillas came and took us to them. There were six other survivors there, two with compound leg fractures. A Filipino doctor attended a dozen or so lacerations but since he had no anesthetic, he could do nothing for my injured arm.
Within a few days, more survivors arrived until finally there were 83 of us, including 25 officers. Twenty-eight of us, all of whom had been in that forward hold, had broken eardrums. As nearly as we could gather, the torpedo had struck just about midway along the side of the hold.
It was the third night, Oct. 30th, before contact was made with the sub and shortly thereafter we saw its dark outline in the water. Some of its crew came ashore with rubber boats to take the litter case aboard. The others were taken out in bancas. We arrived in New Guinea, where we were feted at a naval base with the most delicious steak I've ever tasted, french fried potatoes, and cold beer from Terre Haute, Indiana.
A short time later, I was flown to Australia for hospitalization. While there, I was promoted to major. I had been promoted to captain a month before the fall of Bataan. Several of us arrived back in the U.S. together Nov. 6 add went to Washington where we were awarded Purple Hearts. I was assigned to Walter Reed Hospital, and it was there that I saw my wife for the first time in more than three years. A couple of weeks later, my son Stephen joined us in Albany. He was 15 months old when I left. Now he is 4 ˝.
I lost everything when the prison ship went down, including my most prized possession. It was a New Testament, bearing a Jap censor's stamp. “Approved reading."
interview conducted in 1945
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