Voyage on The Ships of Death
Soldiers are killed in wars. Whether through the rage of combat, the explosion of artillery, or the wrath of communicable diseases, men die. What is often too hard to endure is death proximately caused by a total lack of human decency. Sixty years ago today, the last remaining elements of the American bastion at Bataan in the Philippine Islands fell into the hands of the Japanese army. The unspeakable atrocities against Americans, unprecedented in the history of our country, were about to begin. One of those Americans, Lt. Peter Fred Larsen of Dublin, Georgia, was destined to become a mortal victim of one of a series of the most devastating acts of friendly fire in the history of the United States military. However he would not be killed before he and thousands like him suffered through the brutal mistreatment of beatings, malnutrition, and starvation in the prisoner of war camps of the Japanese military in World War II.
Peter Fred Larsen was born in Dublin in 1916, in the same year his father William W. Larsen was first elected to represent the 12th District of Georgia in the Congress of the United States. He attended schools in Dublin until he left for boarding school at Young Harris College in 1928, following the death of his mother Dovie Strange Larsen. After graduation in the mid 1930s, Peter Fred set out to see the world aboard a merchant ship, no doubt from the prodding of his older brother Jens. Jens was an engineering officer aboard a merchant vessel and named his son Peter Fred Larsen, the current Assistant District Attorney of the Dublin Judicial Circuit, for his younger brother. Peter Fred had a passion for aviation, a love not uncommon for young men of his generation and especially among the young men and boys of Dublin in the 1930s.
In 1940, Peter Fred Larsen enlisted in the Army Air Corps. His sights and his dreams were focused in the sky. In May of 1941, he was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant Peter Fred Larsen. After a month of leave, Lt. Larsen shipped off to Manilla via San Francisco. After a brief stint flying planes out of Clark Field, Larsen’s squadron was transferred to Nichols Field, near Manilla. Just as the Japanese Air Force had destroyed the American base at Pearl Harbor, the fields and planes of the American Air Force were virtually wiped out in the first few days of World War II. The Americans retreated to Bataan by the end of the year to make a stand, while waiting on reinforcements. The pilots, flight and ground crews, and even the cooks were re-organized into a front line infantry unit and re-named the Provisional Air Corps Infantry Regiment.
Larsen’s regiment learned combat tactics on the job. The promised supplies and reinforcements never came. First there were half rations. Later, rations were cut in half once again. The men had only what they had carried with them to Bataan. For two months, the unit, the only American unit on the front lines, held Japanese forces to a stalemate. The Japanese, freshly supplied with replacements of men and material, launched a second offensive on Good Friday, April 3, 1942. The defenders held out until April 9th, when the Americans, under the command of General Edward P. King, surrendered to the Japanese. Bataan had fallen. Larsen and thousands of others were taken as prisoners of war.
The conquered troops were sheparded into columns and force marched for sixty five miles to Camp O’Donnell. Thousands died along the way, some from starvation, some from exhaustion, and some were simply killed by their captors. As long as there are those who talk about war, they will always talk about the death and dying known as “The Bataan Death March.” Conditions in Japanese prisoner of war camps were indescribable. As terribly hot as it was in Andersonville, as brutally cold as it was in Elmira, New York, there are not enough words to describe how really bad it really was. Sometimes, there are things worst than death.
By mid 1944, it became readily apparent to Japanese officials that the American forces, under the command of General Douglas McArthur, would retake the Philippines, just as McArthur had promised. American planes and submarines were dominating the skies and the seas. A decision was made to evacuate all of the American prisoners from the islands to the main islands of Japan. On October 24th, the Asian Maru, a transport ship - unmarked to show its cargo of eighteen hundred and two prisoners - was steaming toward Japan when an American submarine attacked the ship, killing all but eight of the American prisoners aboard. Those POWs remaining in the Philippines were herded into Bilibid Prison in Manilla for the next shipment of prisoners.
On December 13, 1944, sixteen hundred and nineteen prisoners, were crammed into the holds of the Oryoku Maru. Deaths from suffocation began almost immediately. It would be the last prison ship to leave Manilla. As the Oryoku Maru was crossing Manila Bay the next day, fighter planes from the U.S.S. Hornet attacked and damaged the ship. Ten days before Christmas, the Hornet’s fighters returned to sink the Oryoku Maru. They succeeded. Peter Fred and those who could make it swam to shore and safety, but not to freedom, their escape foiled by Japanese machine gun positions along the shoreline. Those who made it were corralled into a tennis court, where many died. Slightly more than three hundred men never made it to the court. Fifteen of the sickest men were promised treatment at a hospital. They were put in trucks, taken to a cemetery, and decapitated on the spot.
On Christmas morning, Larsen arrived at Lingayen Gulf. Larsen and more than a thousand others were stuffed into the holds of the Enoura Maru for a short trip to Takao, Formosa, where they arrived on New Year’s Day. Those who died on the way were thrown overboard. All of the remaining prisoners were compacted into the Enoura Maru on January 6th. Three days later as McArthur was returning to the Philippines, attack fighters in advance of the invasion relentlessly attacked any Japanese vessel in sight.
Bombs struck the forward hold of the Enoura Maru. Peter Fred and several hundred others never had a chance. Their bodies were left where they lay. Those who survived were treated with the crudest of first aid supplies, dirty shirts, bloody towels - anything which could be used as a bandage. There were no medicines. It was two days later when the first Japanese corpsmen arrived, only to treat the minor wounds with useless doses of Mercurochrome. Dead bodies were stacked. Survivors were forced to eat their scant meals while sitting on the bodies of their dead comrades. The bodies were stripped of their clothes by the survivors, many of whom had the same clothes they were wearing two years before when they were first captured. The dead were hoisted to boats and buried in a mass grave at Takao, although there is some credible evidence that the dead were cremated. Nine hundred of the original sixteen hundred were still alive, but barely.
Of those 1,619 prisoners aboard the Oryoku Maru, which left Manilla on December 13, 1944, approximately 1,187 were killed or died along the way. Shortly after their arrival in Moji, Japan on January 30, 1945, 161 more died, making a total of 1,348 deaths or eighty-three percent of the original group.
When you ride by the courthouse lawn, stop and get out of your car. Walk up to the monument to those who gave the last full measure of devotion to their country. Look down the list of our heroes for the name of Lt. Peter Fred Larsen. Always remember his story and his voyage on the ships of death.
(Special thanks to Wash Larsen, nephew of Lt. Larsen, for providing the information for this article.)