Saturday, October 26, 2019

75th Anniversary of the Arisan Maru Tragedy

A ship similar to the Arisan Maru
October 24th is the 75th Anniversary of the sinking of the hellship Arisan Maru in the Bashi Channel between Formosa and Luzon.

It was the largest naval disaster in American history. In comparison, more than 1,500 perished on the RMS Titanic.

Seven hundred miles south raged the Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 23–27, 1944) to liberate the Philippines.

The Arisan Maru went down with 1,774 mostly American POWs of Japan. It was torpedoed by either the submarines USS Shark (SS-314) or the USS Snook (SS-279). The Shark was attacked and destroyed at the same time, adding 87 more Americans to the missing. The Snook was lost six months in the Luzon Strait later on April 8, 1945 with 60 onboard.

t is said that nearly all the POWs were able to make it into the water. Wearing life belts and clinging to rafts, hatch boards, and any other flotsam and jetsam, the POWs struggled through the night in the rough, cold waters of the South China Sea. The Japanese ships nearby refused to rescue them. By morning, all but nine were dead.

Memorial at the National Pacific War Museum
Dedicated October 24, 1999
Of the nine POWs that survived, four were eventually rescued by the Japanese and taken to Formosa. And five managed to find a life raft, a sail, food, and water. They navigated by the stars 200 miles to the Chinese coast where they were rescued by friendly Chinese and taken to an American base hundreds of miles inland.

Of the four taken to Taiwan, Texan Army Pvt. Charles W. Hughes, a member of the Coast Artillery assigned to the 31st Infantry HQ, died November 9, 1944 at the Shirakawa POW camp on Formosa. 

The remaining three were moved to various camps on Formosa. US Army Air Corps medic and Bataan Death March survivor SSgt. Philip Brodsky was moved among four camps on the Island. Chief Boatswain Martin Binder USN assigned to the USS Pigeon (ASR-6) spent the rest of the war at the Toroku POW Camp. On January 19, 1945, Cpl. Glenn Oliver, who was with the 194th Tank Battalion on Bataan was sent to Japan aboard the Melbourne Maru. He spent the remainder of the war working as a stevedore at Osaka POW Camp #10-B Maibara near Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. 

The story of the survival of the five who sailed to China, is nothing less than mythic. Much of their accomplishment was due to Baltimore native Robert S. Overbeck, who must have been a son of Neptune. Overbeck, a Columbia University graduate, was working as a mine foreman and mine superintendent in the Philippines when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He joined the Army that day.

He participated in the defense of Bataan and survived the Bataan Death March, Camp O'Donnell, Cabanatuan POW Camp, and Bilibid Prison. After U.S. aerial attacks on Manila September 21-22, 1944 (Overbeck says early October), men were boarded on the Arisan Maru on October 10th. They were kept in the sweltering holds for ten days as the hellship inched toward Palawan and then returned to Manila after more Allied air raids. On October 21, the Arisan Maru departed Manila for the final time, joining convoy MATA-30 heading for Takao, Formosa (Taiwan).

American torpedoes hit the hellship on October 24th breaking it in half. As Overbeck tells the story, he was oddly prepared. He had changed to shorts and had a life vest before he made his way into the water. After being refused rescue by a Japanese destroyer, he spied a life boat and threw off his life vest to swim to it. During the night he acquired four passengers. By morning they could no longer see anyone in the water.

Overbeck found a box with a sail floating near the life boat. Later, a keg of water was found and some hard tack ration was on board. 

1st Sgt. Calvin R. Graef, a member of 200th Coast Artillery from Silver City, New Mexico had, like Overbeck survived battle on Bataan and the Bataan Death March.

Pvt. Avery E. Wilber,  a member of the 60th Coast Artillery (AA), Battery A from Maine had also survived battle on Bataan and the Bataan Death March. 

Cpl. Donald E. Meyer, a member of the US Army Air Corp, 693 Aviation Ordnance Company, 24th Pursuit Group from California had been at Nichols Field when Japan attacked. He had suffered a depressed skull fracture and a dislocated hip during the fighting on Corregidor. Doctors at Bilibid Prison were able to repair both. [looking for links]

Pvt. Anton E. Cichy, a member of H Company of 194th Tank Battalion from Minnesota, had also survived battle on Bataan and the Bataan Death March. 

Overbeck, more civilian than Army, was the only one with sailing experience and automatically took over command. Knowing roughly where they were at the time of the sinking, being able to visualize the coast of China as running approximately north northeast in these latitudes and having a good idea of the wind direction from the rising sun, he thought it "was easy to decide" on a rough course which would take us to China.

They made it the 250 miles in two and one-half days by following the stars. A Chinese junk rescued the and first took them to Kitchioh [Jieshi] a town in  Lufeng, Shanwei Municipality, Guangdong midway between Hong Kong and Shantou [Swatow] and then up the coast to Hoifung.

The journey then continued to the interior to Hingning-a refugee town right out of a Star Wars movie. The former POWs were treated like royalty by the Chinese in every village they entered. For 12 days the five survivors were transported about 600 miles by foot, truck, bicycle and plane to Kunming airfield, base of the 14th Air Force and the former Flying Tigers. On November 28, 1944 they started their flight aboard a C47 back to the USA. 

Arisan Maru: America's Worst Naval Tragedy - Paperback – March 18, 2019 by Don Treichler
The Last Voyage of the Arisan Maru - Paperback - June 30, 2008 by Dale Wilber
Ride the Waves to Freedom: Calvin Graef's Survival Story of the Bataan Death March and His Escape From a Sinking Hellship  - Paperback - 1999 by Melissa Masterson


  1. My grandfather was a United States Army officer and Japanese POW in the Philippines for over 2 1/2 years. He died on the Hellship, Enoura Maru in January 1945. Thank you for keeping these important stories alive.

  2. My grandfather, Capt. Gordon Hugh Peck, was on the Arisan Maru when it was torpedoed on October 24, 1944. I have heard stories about him from before his capture in the Philippines and to how he ended up on the Arisan Maru. He apparently switched places with a sick soldier. He was definitely a hero as well as all those who served at that time.


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