By: Randy Tucker
Friendly fire is one of the most disturbing aspects of warfare. The idea of attacking, wounding, or killing your own people is a repugnant, yet constant factor in battle.
Nine Wyoming prisoners of war (POWs) met their fate in a friendly fire incident 75 years ago in the South China Sea.
The USS Shark was the second boat to bear the name in World War II. The first Shark, a Porpoise-class submarine launched in May 1935, was sunk by the Japanese destroyer Yamakaze in Indonesian waters on February 11, 1942.
The second Shark, a Balao-class sub, launched October 1943 and met its fate a year later in the Luzon Strait in the Pacific.
The Shark was on its third and final voyage when it picked up a lone Japanese freighter. Working with sister submarines, the USS Seadragon and the USS Blackfish, they approached and dispersed a larger Japanese convoy on October 22, 1944.
The Shark II made radar contact with a single Japanese freighter, the Arisan Maru at 5 p.m. in the Bashi Straits of the South China Sea. The Arisan Maru carried no markings to indicate its cargo, but clearly met the profile of a Japanese merchant vessel designed to haul coal, wood, and other raw materials.
The Shark put a torpedo just aft of midship and broke the Arisan Maru in two.
The crew of the Shark had no idea the cargo inside the Japanese ship was 1,773 American POWs.
The torpedo hit the Japanese crew quarters and amazingly did not kill any Americans. As the Japanese abandoned ship, they cut the rope ladders used by the POWs to enter and exit the holds where they were jailed.
The Americans quickly repaired the ropes, climbed out and jumped into the sea as the Arisan Maru began to sink.
The Shark dived below attack depth, but was picked up on SONAR by the Harukaze, a Japanese destroyer. The Harukaze dropped 17 depth charges on the submerged Shark, and the 87-man crew was never heard from again. The Japanese reported heavy oil, bubbles, clothing, and cork rising to the surface after the depth charges were dropped.
The nearly 1,800 American POWs were now in the water and tried to swim to Japanese ships that were looking for Japanese survivors. As the Americans approached, they were pushed away with long poles or beaten with bats as they tried to crawl aboard.
Almost every POW drowned within a few hours in the shark-infested waters. Nine Americans survived, with five making a harrowing escape to the Chinese coast where they were rescued by Chinese sailors in a Junk and transported across China to Kunming, an American Army Air Force base, made famous as the earlier home of Clair Chennault and the Flying Tigers.
Four more were recaptured by the Japanese and taken to Formosa where one died in captivity and the others served out the war in work camps in Japan.
The nine men from Wyoming entering the hold of the doomed “Hell Ship,” as these horrendously cruel Japanese POW ships were called, each came with a different battlefield experience.
Army private William Schilling, uncle of Linda Simon and his namesake Willie Schilling, both of Riverton, grew up in the Douglas – Glendo area on the family farm, the eighth of 11 children of an immigrant family from White Russia.
“They were farm kids on the Platte River Ranch,” Schilling said. “They broke horses, hired out to other farmers for work, doing about anything to make ends meet. The Depression was a tough time.”
Five sons of Johanas and Carolina Mintz Schilling served in the military during World War II.
John Schilling, father of Linda and Willie, served with 39th Infantry Regiment 9th Division of General George Patton’s 3rd Army and saw action in North Africa, at Utah Beach on D-Day, and in Belgium.
Gus Schilling had to have permission to join the U.S Navy at 17 and served in the Pacific on a destroyer. Danny Schilling was a Marine, battling the Japanese at each step of the way on the road to Tokyo. Archie Schilling served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific.
“Four of the five made it home,” Simon said.
The story of the five Schilling boys was much like that of many large families. The military kept the men in separate units after the tragic sinking of the light cruiser the USS Juneau off Guadalcanal on November 13, 1942 that killed the five Sullivan brothers.
William Schilling was born on June 19, 1918 and was a member of the Army National Guard and joined the 192nd Tank Battalion when it was federalized under orders of General George C. Marshall in 1941.
Working with the newly designed M3 Stuart light tank, the 192nd and 194th Tank Battalions were combined to form the Provisional Tank Corp and sent to the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines in November 1941. Companies A, B, C, and D were formed from reserve units in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Kentucky, with a few outside those states like Schilling joining the effort.
The tanks of the Provisional Corp saw the first mechanized action of the war in trying to stop the Japanese invasion of the Philippines beginning in December 1941. The M3 was a gasoline powered light tank with a 37mm cannon, almost identical to a diesel tank designed by the Japanese. The Americans quickly ran out of fuel and the tanks sat idly, unable to move. The U.S. Army under General Wainwright eventually surrendered.
Schilling and the rest of the men imprisoned on the Arisan Maru first endured the horrors and brutality of their Japanese captors on the infamous Bataan Death March where thousands of American and Filipino troops were savagely killed as they were marched to work camps.
Schilling survived amidst the disease, starvation, and cruelty of Japanese POW camps until the United States invaded the Philippines in 1944. Prisoners were quickly loaded onto ships for transport to camps on Formosa or mainland Japan.
Schilling was loaded on the Arisan Maru in the harbor at Manila destined for Takao on the southern Formosan coast when the convoy of 13 ships dispersed upon learning of American submarines nearby. The Arisan Maru was a tub of a ship, with a top speed of only seven knots, a sitting duck in submariner’s terms. The ship was an easy target for the crew of the Shark II.
Another prisoner on board the Arisan Maru was Lt. Donald B. Fullmor of Nebraska, Dr. Kent Stockton of Riverton’s uncle. Fullmor was an artillery officer with the 59th Coastal Artillery Corp defending the harbor at Manila and Subic Bay when the Japanese invaded in late 1941. Fullmor was on Battery G one of 10 shore batteries that engaged the Imperial Japanese Navy during the invasion. Battery G had a wide range of ordinance firing 3” guns, 155 mm howitzers, and monstrous 14” shore guns that reached out 10 miles into the approaching Japanese fleet.
Colonel Paul Bunker surrendered the 59th on May 6, 1942 inside the fortress of Corregidor.
Fullmor and the other survivors endured the Bataan Death March and met their fate two years later in the South China Sea.
The other eight Wyoming men aboard the Arisan Maru all had their stories as well.
Oscar L. Brevdy of Cheyenne was an Army Air Force sergeant in the 440th Ordnance Company of the Far East Air Force (FEAF), a unit organized on November 16, 1941 in the Philippines. Most of the B-17s, P-40 Warhawks, and Seversky P-35s were destroyed on the ground during a Japanese surprise attack the day after Pearl Harbor, with the 14 remaining B-17s sent to Darwin, Australia.
Brevdy and most of the other non-flight personnel were captured by the Japanese in February 1942 and endured the same horrors of Bataan, work camps, and Hell Ships.
Private Rolland E. Chenoweth of Worland was also a member of the FEAF assigned to the 24th Pursuit Group, a unit of P-35 and P-40 fighter aircraft. Low on fuel, food, ammunition and just about everything else, his unit surrendered with the remainder of the FEAF by May 1942. The same POW fate awaited Chenoweth over the next two years.
Private Martin Giachino, born in Alladin in 1914, whose family still lives in Crook County, was an enlisted man in the 194th Tank Battalion. Like Pvt. Schilling, Giachino worked with the M3 Stuart Light Tank. The 194th worked alongside the US 26th Cavalry, the last active cavalry unit of the American Army to use horses and mules in combat. The last mules were eaten by starving American troops just before the fall of Corregidor and the final Philippine surrender in May 1942.
Postcards to and from Giachino in the Japanese POW camp offer brief, terse messages back and forth to Wyoming before that fateful day in October.
Carl J. Keller grew up in rural Big Horn County and was a corporal in the 59th Coastal Artillery Corp. The 59th was highly effective against the attempted Japanese invasion of Manila and Subic Bay. Their tractor pulled five-inch guns, and larger stationary shore guns kept the Japanese fleet from landing troops; only the fall of Corregidor and the subsequent surrender forced the starving, beleaguered gunners of the 59th to stop fighting.
Private Raymond P. Livingston, of Sheridan, manned K Battery, one of the 10 coastal batteries of the 59th CAC. His battery fired highly accurate three-inch guns capable of pinpoint hits on approaching Japanese warships 10,000 yards away. Livingston surrendered with the remainder of the shore batteries of the 59th in May 1942.
Pharmacist Mate Second Class Maxwell A. Mariette, from tiny Fox Park, was a medic assigned to the U.S. Naval Hospital at Canacao, Philippines. The hospital and surrounding area were heavily bombed by the Japanese on December 10, 1941, with the staff and patients moved from the location on the peninsula at Sangley Point to the nearby City of Manila. The patients and staff of the hospital suffered the same deprivation at the hands of a brutal, callous enemy as the soldiers, sailors, and Marines fighting nearby.
Captain James S. McDonald of Powell was the only officer among the nine Wyoming men to be held aboard the Arisan Maru. McDonald was a company commander with the 41st Philippine Division. The 41st was the first unit to engage the Japanese in December 1941 and was effective against the invasion troops fighting from cover and occasional ambush against the overwhelming numbers of Imperial Japanese troops. McDonald was one of only a handful of soldiers in the 41st to live until the surrender in May. The Japanese were often even more brutal to captured officers than to enlisted men.
Sgt. Fremen J. Spence of Casper was in the headquarters squadron of the FEAF. Serving in the headquarters squadron, Spence was nearby when Major General Louis Brereton was denied permission to speak with General MacArthur by MacArthur’s aide, Brigadier General Richard Sutherland, when he sought permission to strike the Japanese Air Force on Formosa. A day later, 172 twin-engine Japanese bombers destroyed most of the FEAF’s B-17s on the ground at Clark Field.
The surviving B-17s and air crews were flown to Darwin, Australia on Christmas Eve, leaving the remaining ground crews to fend for themselves against the invading Japanese. Spence was one of those left behind and was later captured, ending up that fateful afternoon in the hold of the Arisan Maru.
The nine Wyoming men who fought the Japanese, fought deprivation, disease, and imprisonment before drowning in the Western Pacific were honored at a ceremony at Veterans Park in Riverton with their names inscribed on a monument on the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Arisan Maru. The USS Shark is memorialized on the reverse of the monument.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.