Sunday, January 14, 2024

January 9, 1945 and The Smothers' Brothers

Pacific War historians usually remember January 9th, for General Douglas MacArthur's 1945 return to the main island of the Philippines, Luzon. In October 1944, the liberation of the Japanese-occupied archipelago had begun with the Battle of Leyte. On January 9th, the campaign moved to Luzon's Lingayen Gulf with 60,000 American troops landing to cheering Filipinos.

The last time MacArthur walked on Luzon was January 10, 1942. It was his one and only visit to the front on the Bataan Peninsula from his command center on the island of Corregidor. It is possible that this one day was chosen as the Bataan battlefield would have been relatively safe. Just days before, Japan's experienced 14th Army 48th Division (15,000 men) on Bataan had been transferred to the Dutch East Indies and replaced with the untrained reservists of the IJA's 65th Brigade (6,600 men).

Task Force 38
As MacArthur planned his return, Adm William Halsey's Third Fleet was tasked with disrupting Japanese shipping in the South China Sea, especially the Empire's resupply of the Philippines. Led by Vice Admiral John S McCain (yes, the grandfather of Senator McCain) Task Force 38 attacked Japanese shipping and air fields throughout the region. Historians call the Task Force's January 1945 operations a "rampage" toward Formosa, Luzon, and Indochina. By the time the Task Force exited the shipping lanes of the South China Sea, over 300,000 tons of enemy shipping and dozens of Japanese warships had been sunk. With follow-up air strikes against Japanese harbors and airfields in Formosa and the Ryukyu Islands, the success of the sweep was unprecedented.

This "carrier rampage" had dire consequences for the American POWs. It was on January 9th, that the Enoura Maru, a hell ship carrying 1,070 POWs from the Philippines, was bombed by planes off the USS Hornet (CV-12). The ship carrying mainly the last officers held in the Philippines was docked in Takao Harbor, Formosa and moored next to a tanker. One-third of the POWs onboard were killed or wounded. The survivors were put aboard the Brazil Maru on January 14 and transported north to the port of Moji, Japan. Only 600 or so survived the 16-day trip. MORE ON THE ENOURA MARU

Major Thomas Smothers
One of those survivors in Moji, Japan was Major Thomas Smothers, the father of the Smothers brothers. Major Smothers was CO of the 3rd Battalion of the 45th Infantry Regiment, Philippine Scouts. Major Smothers survived the Battle of Bataan and the Bataan Death March. It is possible he was among a number of 45th Inf. officers to have made the journey to the POW death Camp O'Donnell by truck. He then endured harsh captivity for nearly three years in Cabanatuan, a POW camp in the Philippines.

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 herded 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 off the USS Hornet and USS Cabot sank the Oryoku Maru barely out of Manila near Subic Bay. Nearly 200 POWs died. The survivors were kept for five tortuous days on an abandoned tennis court, exposed to the tropical sun with little water, food or medical care .

On December 27, the men were packed aboard two freighters, the Enoura Maru and Brazil Maru to Formosa. The ship's holds were not cleaned of its previous cargo, horses and other livestock. Men picked through the animal waste looking for oats to eat. Although they arrived in Takao, Formosa on New Year's Day, they were not allowed to disembark, On January 9, planes from the USS Hornet again bombed the hellships. The Enoura Maru with Major Smothers aboard took direct hits. Days passed before the Japanese remove the dead or help the wounded. Four hundred or so were buried in shallow graves near the harbor's shore.

Badly wounded and suffering from the cold, starvation, and lack of medical care, Major Smothers was eventually taken to a Fukuoka #22 POW Camp administered by Sumitomo Mining to provide slave labor for one of its coal mines (the company is now part of Nippon Steel). At the Sumitomo camp medical care was poor or nonexistent during the historically cold winter of 1944/5.

On April 25, 1945, he was transported by stretcher from Fukuoka #22 to the Fukuoka City docks (Moji) for transport to Fusan, Korea [today's Busan, South Korea], and then on to Mukden, China. Some speculate that the Japanese were consolidating the American officers at Mukden to use as hostages. Smothers perished that night on the dock.

According to an oral history by British Lt. Geoffrey Pharoah Adams (available online through the Imperial War Museum. See Reel #11 with the key part of the story beginning at about 10 min 40 sec.), on April 25, 1945, he and a group of POWs were put aboard a ferry, but taken off around midnight after an air raid alarm. Adams and some 15 other comparatively healthy officers were tasked with taking off the ferry the American stretcher cases. Adams and his friend, British Lt. John Vincent Bowen, took an American Major (Smothers) off the ship. They and two of their friends from Fukuoka Camp #17 (Mitsui's Omuta coal mine), Americans Lt. Charles P. Christie, and 2nd Lt John Allen, who were also stretcher bearers, decided to stick together. "We carried the man off who was a Major, so emaciated and thin." Since they were the last off the ship the other prisoners were out of sight.

Those carrying the stretcher cases were told to lay down on the concrete beside the walls of a warehouse. It was very cold. The Major on the stretcher had a blanket over him. Because he said he felt so cold, the four men (Adams, Bowen, Christie, and Allen) laid down all around him, one on either side, one on the top, one across the bottom. "During the course of the night he died." "He just expired from hypothermia, from despair...I don't know, but he died anyway."

The next morning there was a bit of a row, because the man had died and upset the roll call figures. "We were ordered to take the dead man with us." "The Japan Japanese had handed us over to the new Japanese and we had to have the right count aboard the ferry. So we carried the poor Major back on board with us." The ship set sail. "Some of these people who had been sunk and who had had these terrible trials were hysterical." (Col. Ben Skardon, Clemson University alumnus and professor, corroborated this detail about the men being hysterical). After the ferry arrived at Pusan, Korea, "We got off the ship. We still had to take our stretcher with the Major off." Shortly, after roll call, they were told to leave him on the dock. Smothers had been assigned the Mukden POW Camp number of 2006 and appeared on the Mukden death roster with that number. There is no record indicating that his body ever left Fusan, Korea.

USS Hornet (CV-12) was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for the its operations: January 3 – January 22, 1945 — Philippines, Formosa, China Sea, Ryukyu

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You can read more about the Task Force 38 campaign in the new (February 28, 2023) book, South China Sea 1945: Task Force 38's bold carrier rampage in Formosa, Luzon, and Indochina (Air Campaign, 36) by Mark Lardas (Author), Irene Cano Rodríguez 96 pages.

See HERE for an interesting diary account of the USS Hornet during January 1945. An official Navy history is HERE.

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