Monday, April 27, 2015

In memory Major Thomas Smothers, Jr. - POW of Japan

Wall of the Missing American Cemetery Manila

April 26th is the 70th anniversary of the death Major Thomas Bolyn Smothers, Jr. He was a West Point Graduate and a member of the 45th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts.

He was the father of the Smothers Brothers comedy team.

Major Smothers survived Battle of Bataan and the Bataan Death March. He endured harsh captivity for nearly three years in Cabanatuan, a POW camp on the Philippines. It is the trip to become a hostage, slave laborer for Japan that he did not survive.

On 13 December 1944, he was among 1621 prisoners, the majority officers, who were marched from Bilibid Prison to Pier 7, Manila. At dusk, they were marched aboard the Oryoku Maru, divided into three groups, and forced down into three dark holds.

What followed was probably the most infamous of the Hell Ship voyages. American bombers sunk the Oryoku Maru barely out of port. POW survivors were kept for five tortuous days on an abandoned tennis court, exposed to the tropical sun with little water or food.

On December 27. the men were again packed aboard a freighter, the Enoura Maru to Formosa. This ship's holds were not cleaned of its previous cargo, horses. They arrived in Takao, Formosa on New Year's Day only to be left on board for over a week, where they were again bombed by American planes. The Japanese took days to remove the dead and did little to help the wounded.

Finally on January 13, 1945, the survivors were packed on the Brazil Maru to Moji Japan arriving January 31st. Smothers was judged as one of those in the worst shape and sent along with 109 others to "Moji Hospital" more properly known as Kokura Army Hospital.

After a month he and most of the few survivors of Kokura Army hospital were brought to Fukuoka #22 camp that provided POW slave labor to Sumitomo steel.

Smothers was never well enough to perform any labor at the camp. He was taken from Fukuoka #22 to the Fukuoka city docks (Moji) on April 25th. Either on the dock or at sea on the steamer to Fusan, Korea, Major Smothers died. Some report he was buried at sea, others say his body was carried on to Korea and cremated.

Only 36 of the 110 men brought to Kokura Army hospital survived the war, with Smothers being the last to die. Only 404 of men from the Oryoku Maru--374 Americans, 19 British, and 11 Dutch--survived through to liberation in late August 1945.

Later: Thanks to James Erickson, America's leading expert on Japan's Hellships, for his helpful corrections to this post.


  1. my uncle S1C Waldo Stedam Hale should be listed here, he was killed 14 Dec 1944 at Puerto Princessa, Palawan, Philippines

    1. Very grateful for the service and sacrifice of your uncle. Sorry for his loss.

    2. That event, known as the Palawan Massacre, was detailed in the book "some Survived"by Manny Lawton. My condolences for your uncle.

  2. A few corrections. There were 1621 POWs aboard Oryoku Maru when it left Manila. 404 of them survived the war: 374 Americans, 19 British, and 11 Dutch. The conventional figure of 271 survivors ignores the British and Dutch and most American enlisted survivors. Maj. Smother's remains were brought to Fusan, Korea, but left behind when the survivors entrained for Jinsen, Korea, and Mukden, Manchuria.

  3. My half-brother, Oscar Otero, the son of Cpl. Oscar Otero, has a post war diary of sorts detailing some of the events in which he participated in regarding the sinking of the Oryoku Maru. As he wrote it, Maj. (but I believe he referred to it as Col.) Smothers had given his life jacket to anther soldier who couldn't swim and it was he who drowned instead. He also included various details which were detailed in the book "some Survived" by Manny Lawton. It also details the events of their being on the Brazil Maru, which the US Navy had sunk in Formosa and a third ship, Enora Maru, which eventually made it to Japan.


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