Sgt. Calvin Graef's story was copied off Prodigy's primier Veterans BB about 10 years ago.
Sgt. Calvin Graef, of Silver City, New Mexico, wrote this story, “We prayed to die”. It was printed in the Cosmopolitan Magazine in early 1950 and that magazine has granted permission to Ray Thompson to publish it in his unit's newsletter and here on Prodigy Vet’s BB.
Since the burnished dawn we had wallowed knee-deep in the muck of the rice paddy. Barefooted, naked save for G-strings, our half-starved and emaciated bodies exposed to the blazing Philippine sun, we bent low, sticking the rice shoots into the ooze until it seemed our spines would disintegrate into splinters. The rainy season was over and we were planting. Stones at the bottom of the slime had cut our feet. Our legs slashed by the hellish cogon grass which cuts like a knife. Resultant infection covered our feet and legs with angry tropical ulcers. Insolent *** guards, their bayonets glistening, squatted or strutted in the paths separating the paddies. They smoked cigarettes, gloated, prodded us and unwittingly illustrated the inferiority complex of all Japs in the presence of white men by swaggering and heaping insults upon us American soldiers doing the dirty work of rice-paddy coolies. Pointing to us, they would shout: "Hitotsu ikura desu ka?" (How much for one?") "Issen," a *** soldier would answer, and issen means one sen, the very smallest of Japanese copper coins. Then, all laughing, the guards would Yell in unison: "Mo-sukoski yasui no wa arimasen ka?" Which means, "Haven't you one a little cheaper?" This particular day was September 21, 1944--a day never to be forgotten. I was now well into my third year of what the Japs called "not honorable prisoner of war but enemy of Japan." I was doing my second stretch as a slave in the filth of the notorious prison camp of Cabanatuan, some seventy miles north of Manila. I was back after the "Death March" from Bataan, which had taken me to Camp O’Donnell, to Cabanatuan, Davao, Bilibid Prison, and back to Cabanatuan. It seemed I had lived a lifetime of unspeakable atrocities, tortures, thirst and near starvation. Yet I knew I was better off than thousands of my comrades who had been shot, beheaded, tortured or starved to death, now sleeping in shallow graves, unmarked. I was alive. Hope was not quite dead. It was near this particular day's end when out of the north came the sound of distant planes, roaring nearer. The motors of *** planes were nothing new to our ears, but somehow, perhaps because we had hoped, prayed and watched for the coming of our own planes, this noise seemed different. We gazed skyward, then at one another, as a formation of some eighty planes roared over Cabanatuan. They were too high; we could see no insignia. But the Japs, visibly agitated, ordered us back to camp, as we limped back, we whispered: "Have THEY come at last?" "We can hope." "And pray too." A few minutes after we entered our compound we KNEW! There was a dogfight directly overhead. Some ships zoomed low and we recognized the insignia of the United States Navy! They had come! A wild cheer burst from the throats of several thousand Americans in the two camps. A moment later our buddies upstairs presented us with a two-motored Son of Heaven plane, which crashed in flames near the camp, which brought another wild cheer. As far as the eye could reach, wave after wave of American planes swarmed the skies. This was IT! Naked and near-naked men yelled, hugged, beat one another. Hospital patients crawled out of bed for a last dying look. A big skeleton of a guy, naked and covered with paddy mud, leaped to some steps and began singing in a deep voice: "Mine eyes have seen the glory----" He was drowned out by the shouting. Stunned *** guards did nothing. Then within minutes we began to hear the BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! from the south and the southwest. We knew that at long last bombs were falling on Manila and old Clark Field. Again we cheered. As the last detonation echoed through the palms and bamboo thickets, reaction set in. It was bound to. When you've been waiting for something for nearly three years--and it comes--well, there are lumps in your throat you just can't swallow. Hundreds of men sobbed like children. It was good for all of us. There was gaiety that night. We improvised a variation of that malicious old song about Bataan and we sang: "We WERE the orphans of Bataan BUT now we got a mama, NOW we got a papa AND Uncle Sam." That night we agreed this first big raid on Luzon (Editorial Note: the September 21st raid, P.I.. Time, was the first raid "in force" on Luzon by the carrier-based planes of Admiral William Halsey's third Fleet. Manila docks, Clark Field and other Luzon installations were badly damaged and 205 *** planes were destroyed) would put an end to our daily dread of further movements of American prisoners to the Japanese home Islands which had been going on for many months. We were all satisfied that with American planes swarming the Philippines, further transport would be impossible. But we were soon to learn how wrong we were. Coming in from the rice paddies on the evening of October seventh, we learned that a draft of 250 of us was being organized for transfer to Japan. It was heartbreaking. We figured the Army would get to the Philippines first and that transfer to Japan meant much longer confinement. The detail was formed that same night. I missed it. The 250 men left early the next morning. The next day there was another order for an additional draft of 250. The lists were posted in the barracks. I looked down the A,B,C,D,E, F, and my heart pounded as I came to G--and saw that I had missed. I wasn't going to Japan! I was damned happy. I went about telling my friends from New Mexico I had missed. All my friends from my home state--who were still alive--were still in Cabanatuan. I went back to my own barracks and learned that because of illnesses my name had been added to the list of draftees! I was stunned. Off for Japan! This would put me closer to home by hundreds of miles, yes, but farther away by months, perhaps years. The news spread. Boys from Silver City, my hometown, came in to joke, speak of a happy reunion in New Mexico, shake hands and wish me luck. Tears welled in many an eye. One by one they drifted to their bunks until I was alone with my best Silver City buddy, Captain Clyde E. Ely. In husky voices we spoke of our wives, Bobbie and Ruthie. I spoke of my little son, Calvin Junior, born three days after the fall of Bataan, about whom I had first heard in March 1944, in my first letter from home. At last we stood up and gripped hands, and Clyde said, "Cal, maybe you'll get home sometime. I don't know. If you do, and I don't make it, tell Ruthie it wasn't too bad - that I thought of her a lot." "Maybe you'll get there and I won't. If you do--tell Bobbie the same thing." God, I hope he makes it! The truck convoy, with 250 of us, pulled out at dawn. We were not tied or blindfolded as was customary, but a *** guard was posted in each truck. We drove into Manila a city of the dead. Shops were closed but a few old men peddled mangoes, papayas and other fruits in the filthy streets. Our friends the Filipinos, who had seen their fellows murdered by the Japs for a mere sign of friendliness to American soldiers, remained inside. But we saw many a surreptitious V sign made by hands slipped out of curtained windows and quickly withdrawn. We were unloaded at Bilibid, the Old Spanish prison, where armless, legless, blind, hopelessly sick and dying soldiers heroes of Bataan and Corregidor--were "hospitalized." We were given watery rice and jammed into quarters. The next morning our long-missing shoes were returned and we were issued heavy *** army clothing. You can imagine what big husky Americans looked like in those *** monkey suits. Thank God, we could laugh at ourselves. In the afternoon our group, with other drafts, were marched through the city to Legaspi Landing, the port area. We totaled 1,805 men. As the Japs gibed, we were herded into a pier shed from which we could see the dirty little *** freighter, which was to transport us to Japan. Twenty-five of us were detailed to remove the tarpaulins and hatch covers from the No. 2 hold. As we cleared the covers a horrible stench came from the hold. Recovering from my nausea, I gazed down into it and realized with satisfaction it would accommodate only about 200, which to me meant that a lot of us would have to sleep topside. But I was wrong again. At four P.M., the air-raid warning sirens hooted and as our *** guards screamed and cursed we were herded down the makeshift wooden steps, which led to the bottom of Hold No. 2. That's where 1,805 men went. The ship shoved off. There was nothing to identify it as a Japanese prisoner-of-war vessel. You've read of hell ships. Well, this little tramp was the No. 1 hell ship of all time. The No. 2 hold into which 1,805 Americans had been crammed wasn't big enough for 200 men. Bunks, in tiers of three, had been hammered together against the walls. These were mere shelves, pieces of short, narrow, uncovered planks. Spaces between the shelves were so narrow a man could not raise his knees, and so short he Page 3 - could not stretch out. Nor was there room to sit on the floor, much less lie down. The Japs gave us eight five-gallon cans for latrines. These could be emptied only in the daytime. We were packed so tight most men couldn't get near the cans. And, of course, it was a physical impossibility for the sick in the back of the hold, the men suffering the tortures of diarrhea and dysentery. We waded in fecal matter. Most of the men went naked. The place was alive with lice, bedbugs and roaches;
the filth and stench were beyond description.
As we moved through tropical waters, the heat down in that steel-encased hellhole was maddening. We were allowed three ounces of water per man every twenty-four hours. Quarts were needed, under these conditions, to keep a man from dehydrating. While men were dying of thirst, *** guards --heaping insults upon us--would empty five-gallon tins of fresh water into the hold. Men caught the water in pieces of clothing and sucked the cloth dry. Men licked their wet skins. It was hell, all right. Men went mad. Five men died in the first forty-eight hours. We had difficulty in obtaining permission to take the first three bodies topside for burial. The Japs forced us to keep the two other bodies in the hold for a full day. Burial in the civilized sense was not permitted. There were no slabs, no weights, no prayers, no flags, no rifle fire, no sounding of taps. The only ceremony was our last sad, silent salutes as the burial detail committed the bodies to the sea. I never learned the total number of those who died of thirst, hunger and disease, but it was high. After a time the Japs realized they were operating a funeral ship. Six hundred men were transferred from No. 2 hold to the coalhole. They had to climb down rope ladders to get into it. There was almost no air space. The six hundred crawled around on tip of the coal and slept on it. Every time the ship rolled in a rough sea, men were buried under the coal. What were we fed? Rice, and not enough of it to keep a man alive very long. Twice each twenty-four hours we were fed half a mess kit of dry rice. However, several of us were fortunate. During our tours of the *** prison camps we had learned to steam rice. We were picked as rice cooks for both holds. We were given two eighty-five-gallons steam vats, topside. This enabled us to drink a little
more water, breathe fresh air, and pick off the lice. Disease was rampant in the No. 2 hold. Men, holding their bellies in interlocked arms, stood up, screamed and died. Medical personnel tried to set up a hospital in the far end of the hold, but even with Six hundred fewer prisoners, it was impossible. Most of the men were covered with heat blisters. The bodies of some of them looked like raw hamburger. The Japs covered the hold with tarps and at night we were in complete darkness. The hold was wired but the lamps had been removed. Some smart boys discovered two big electric circulating blowers in the hold, and tracing the electric light lines, hooked the power to the blowers and put them in operation. After two days of fresh air, the Japs discovered what had been done and shut off the power. On the eleventh day men began to pray the ship would be attacked. They really prayed. "Listen, you electrically minded bastards," one chap howled. "If you're so good at hooking up blowers, why don't you make a short-wave set and tell the U.S. Navy where this goddamned hell ship can be located and sunk?" Chatter echoed throughout the hold. "If the Navy would sink us we'd----" "Who the hell wants to go to Japan?" "Come on, Navy!" We didn't have to wait long for action! At 4:30 P.M., the next day, October twenty-fourth, sirens sounded battle stations. The alert continued for an hour, but nothing happened. It was different the next day. We rice cooks were topside. It was five P.M. and half the men were fed. The China Sea was rough. Suddenly *** sailors and soldier guards began running forward like sprinters in the 100-yard dash. I took a look-see and discovered a big torpedo cascading toward our stern. The fish missed. It just missed. Within seconds, the *** track team started an obstacle race for the stern. Another big torpedo missed the bow by inches. By this time the sirens were screaming like frightened crows. Hysterical *** guards began to beat all of us cooks with rifles, forcing us into the No. 2 hold. "What gives?" the gang bellowed. "Submarines. School of fish." The hold echoed the wild cheer. "C'mon, NAVY!" they screamed. The five-inch gun on deck began sounding off. BANG! BANG! BANG! "Duck, Navy--for God's sake, duck!" "Sink us, Navy!" "Please God, don't let 'em miss!" Men cheered until they were hoarse. Then KOWPOW -— -EEEE! The torpedo caught us amidships. Men died in that moment as other men cheered wildly. The Japs hastily slammed the hatch covers on the No. 2 hold so we would drown like rats. They cut the rope ladders leading into the coalhole. But thank God, they did not have time to batten down the covers, and (as we later learned) kids in the coalhole shinnied up the stanchions and repaired the rope ladders. Down in No. 2 hold a thousand men who had prayed we would be blasted were now solemn-faced. The cheering was over; we were now shaking hands with the old guy, with the harvester. A red-haired major, who had been desperately ill for three fourths of the journey, mounted the steps and said: "Boys, we're in a helluva jam-but we've been in jams before. Remember just one thing: We're American soldiers. Let's play it that way to the very end of the script. The major was cheered! An Army chaplain took the major's spot on the stairs. "0 Lord, if it be thy will to take us now, give us the strength to be men... Then someone yelled, "Let's get the hell outta this stinking hole!" With what little of our strength was left, we forced the hatch covers. The sick and the dying were carried on deck. The fantail of the dirty little tramp was already under water. The bow was upped. She'd sink any minute and nobody gave a damn. The Japs were gone. They had taken to the lifeboats and were headed for a *** destroyer now visible on the skyline. Their frantic S O S had brought it to the scene. It was tossing depth charges every few feet. Someone shouted, "Come look what I found!" It was "Snookie"! Snookie was one of the *** guards who had emptied water upon us while we were dying of thirst in the hold. He had been too late for a lifeboat; he crouched on the platform of the sea gangway. "Snookie!" we yelled. "Snookie! Dozo-o-kake," which means, "Please sit down." Snookie sat. We took excellent care of him. Our courtesy consisted of dropping a hatch cover on him. Squash! No more Snookie. The Japs had given us 1,000 kapok life preservers, good for about two hours in the water. A lot of kids who couldn't swim in a bathtub--knowing old Davy was waiting for them-- jumped overboard and began looting the wreckage. Never in all my life have I heard such kidding. "Want a bite of this papaya? They got vitamins and everything." "Come on over." "I can't swim." "What the hell--neither can I." "We'll water-wing it out together. Just a few hundred miles to China." "How long do these kapoks last?" "Months and months, I've been told. But the Lowdown is two hours." "It was good seeing you." "Swell. See you later downstairs." Five...six...eight...ten minutes passed. One kid dressed in the tropical whites of the skipper. The pants hit him just below the knees and he couldn't button the coat. I started for the kitchen to get my canteen. The boilers exploded and the stern sank a little deeper. I decided this was a good time to take off and went over the side. A bunch of us started swimming toward the *** destroyer. As we reached the port side of the destroyer twenty-five or thirty Gl's were trying to board her. *** sailors and soldiers, armed with long poles, lined the rail of the destroyer. Laughing and chattering hysterically, they were using the poles to force the Yanks under water. They'd get the end of the pole between a guy's shoulders, force him under and hold him down until he drowned. They didn't have to waste ammunition on us. One Nip, aiming his pole at my shoulders, tore off a piece of my left ear. I dived deep and swam away from the destroyer. I joined a group of twenty- five who were hanging onto wreckage. "Hi Kid," they yelled, "did you bring your rice pots?" The kids were hanging onto boxes, spars, crates, oilcans, and boards - a conglomeration of just about anything. We started making a raft of the wreckage, tying the stuff together with belts, pieces of clothing and wire ripped from the crates. Bit by bit we put together the doggonedest ramshackle raft ever assembled in an ocean. Just at sundown I saw two big bamboo poles. I retrieved them and started swimming back to the wreckage. But night fell rapidly, as it does out there, and I was lost and alone in the darkness. I never saw those kids again. The water was rough and a bitter wind was blowing as I hung onto the two poles. About two hours after dark, three boys floated by, hanging onto a pole. As they added the pole to mine one kid raised his hand in a last salute . "Sorry, there ain't much room and I'm tired." He slipped out of sight. We grabbed wreckage as it floated by and started assembling another polyglot raft. We fished out a big straw mat and put it over us for warmth. Then a big wave turned us over and I lost the mat, half of the wreckage, and my new companions. It was a bitter night. In the hours before dawn I lived an eternity. Clinging to my precious bamboo poles, I thought of my boyhood, my school days, my marriage to lovely Bobbie, my enlistment, Bataan, the son I had never seen. Everything came back, to pass in review on the gray waves. I could see us--the 515th and the 200th Coast Artillery—as we formed the last line of defense from Cabcaben to the Mariveles Mountains. Men fought like demons because behind us were between 50,000 and 100,000 women and children. Then came April 9, 1942. Men and materiel were exhausted; Most of our gun barrels were burned out. We destroyed all guns in firing order and surrendered. The Japs used 2,000 of us in front of their guns as a shield while firing on Corregidor. The fort returned the fire and a number of our men were killed. Then the infamous Death March from Bataan to San Fernando, much of it was just a blur - I couldn't remember the number of days we were on the road-but I could remember thirst, and how a *** had stopped me and deliberately emptied my canteen. Japs smashed the water bottles carried in any kind of container. We drank now and then out of stagnant streams full of swollen bodies. Can a man remember? Can a woman describe her labor pains? There was a bowl of rice for each survivor at San Fernando. There we were loaded into iron boxcars--125 men to a car.
Doors were closed and death stalked. It was torture. After eight hours a door was opened--and we learned what the Filipinos thought of us. At the risk of their lives—with which many paid--they tossed food to us. We were taken to
Camp O'Donnell. As wind and waves tossed me about the ocean, I closed my eyes and once more reviewed the Filipino "funeral parade" at Camp O'Donnell. For an hour and a half the Filipinos, walking zombies, passed by with their dead slung to poles--two men and a body to a pole. There were hundreds of
bodies, brave men who had died of thirst, starvation, malaria, dysentery. Thousands of Americans died too. After a month we were transferred to Cabanatuan, where the barracks were ramshackle but reasonably ample. I worked in the fields, from dawn to sundown, living on rice, an occasional cassava root, soup made of camote (yam) tops and, on rare occasions, an eggplant. Because of a diet deficiency, I was losing vision control and feared I was going blind. Then I was included in a detail of 100 to open a new camp in Davao. On the freighter I met an American doctor who gave me cod liver oil-God knows where he got it--and this plus the better diet on the voyage, cured me. It was at Davao that ten officers and men escaped. The Japs had issued an order warning that for every man who escaped ten of his fellows would be executed. But the ten took a chance--and made it. Following this, 600 men, not 100, were isolated in a small compound. They expected every day to be their last on earth. They were given ninety days of this mental torture and finally returned to their barracks. Out there in the cold water, I took heart, as I recalled that night at Davao when three hundred boys, wet and cold, with cut feet and swollen legs, were brought back from fourteen hours in the rice paddies. As they neared the house of the *** major in command of the prison they broke into song: "God bless America! Land that I love Stand beside her, and guide her----"
*** guards dashed among them, enforcing orders for silence with gun butts. Now the song came louder and louder: "From the mountains to the valleys, To the ocean white with foam---"
Then they thundered, and it echoed: "GOD BLESS AMERICA, MY HOME SWEET HOME".
In June, 1944, 1,200 of us were picked for transfer to Japan. We were loaded forty to a truck, forced to kneel, and then were blindfolded, roped together, and tied to the truck. We were so crowded we could scarcely breathe. The great toe of my left foot caught in something, and slowly, torturously, the nail was pulled from the flesh. We were loaded into the hot stinking hold of a small hell ship. I won't go into the details of the suffering. At Cebu, we were transferred to a bigger ship and continued on to Manila. Now, out there alone in the China Sea, I knew the only reason I wasn't a slave laborer in a *** factory was that between Cebu and Manila I had passed out. For seven days I had been kept alive on narcotics and Page 6 – when the ship arrived in Manila I had been transferred to old Bilibid Prison and later to Cabanatuan, from which I started the second journey for Japan. Now, too, as dawn was breaking, I realized another day in the water would finish me. But I didn't want to quit. "Good God," I told myself, "you're only twenty-eight! You gotta get out of this mess. Bobbie, Cal, your mother, your father and your friends are waiting for you." I stuck my legs around the bamboo poles, pulled myself up, yelled, "Whoopee!" and looked around. I saw a lifeboat! With the last of my strength I paddled my poles toward it. As I neared it I shouted, "Hey, boat! Anybody there?" Four heads popped up,, "You're damned right!' one head shouted. They pulled me into the boat. "I'm Cal," I said, "I’m Tony"---"I'm Bob"---"I'm Abe"--"I'm Don." The boys’s who introduced themselves were Corporal Anton E. Cichi, of New York Mills, Minnesota, Robert S. Overbeck, of Baltimore, Maryland, connected with the United States Engineering Department: Sergeant Avery E. Wilbur, of Navarion, Wisconsin, and Corporal Don E. Meyer, of Wilmington, Calif. So far as we know, we five are the sole survivors out of 1,805 Americans who took off from Manila. There was some fresh water and some *** hard tack in the lifeboat, which had been stripped of sails and oars. Bob Overbeck had found it adrift after he had been poled away from the destroyer. The other kids had floated by on wreckage during the night and were pulled in. A box had bumped into the boat. Bob had grabbed it. The water was too rough to get the box aboard, but Bob had retrieved a sail. It was not only a sail, but a Sail made for the life boat. We got the sail up after five hours of hard labor. "Where's China?" one kid asked, "West," another answered, and we set sail for the China coast. We sailed for two days and night with a wolfs head of a wind behind us. On the third morning we came upon two Chinese fishing junks. They gave us fish, rice, tobacco, buckets of warm water, towels. They wrecked our *** boat, using it for firewood.
We put into a tiny village in Free China and were royally entertained. We attended one banquet in our underwear and the Chinese, apologizing for a small eight-course dinner, fitted us out with Chinese clothing. We traveled through town after town, banquet after banquet, in sedan chairs, afoot, on bicycles and in trucks. We "dom-beyed" (drank) many a grand host under the table. Then at last we saw an American flag flying from a mast. We cried like babies, The CO broke out a bottle of whiskey he was saving for Christmas. We reached an American airport, got GI clothing and good coffee and were flown over the "Hump" and HOME in four days. The lights of New York! God! -------------------
This article reproduced by Ray H Thompson as authorized by Cosmopolitan Magazine and furnished by Sue Benson, one of their staff members. Cosmopolitan Magazine has granted Ray the permission to reproduce this story on Prodigy’s and other Veterans Bulletin Boards.
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