Saturday, May 29, 2010

Eugene Arthur Gammon- World War II

There is a small memorial marker standing silent vigil at the Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, Colorado. There is no body buried beneath the marker. Sadly, this sailor was never brought home to his family. His mother was never able to lay her son to rest in the family cemetery. It is certain that Eugene A. Gammon died 24 October 1944 when the Arisan Maru (P.O.W. hell ship) was sunk off the coast of Formosa. Yet, Eugene Arthur Gammon is one of thousands still listed as Missing in Action from World War II.

Eugene was born 3 January 1915 in Ramah, a small town located about 38 miles from Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was the son of Eugene and Gertrude Dunning Gammon. His father was a proud cattle rancher. He was the oldest of two boys. Growing up the Gammon boys were taught to love their land and love their country. Since they had been “knee high” Eugene and his brother, James, were often told of their great great grandfather fighting in the Revolutionary War along side George Rogers Clark. Since before this country was founded the Gammons and Robinsons have been intertwined in her history. When called on, they have always served her needs.

Eugene was different from his younger brother. James wanted to spend his life on the family ranch in Ramah. Eugene, he loved Colorado but since visiting his cousin in California he longed to see the world, long to see what laid beyond the Pacific. Eugene enlisted in the United States Navy hoping this would allow him to see the world. In August 1940 he reported for duty on the U.S.S. Canopus stationed in Manila. In his letters home Eugene wrote about his life on the“Old Lady”, the beauty of the beaches and people, the unbearable heat compared to the gentle summers in Colorado. He wrote to his mom that his ship was called the “Mama-san” because the Canopus repaired and serviced the subs of the pacific. Eugene missed home but loved his new adventure. He was hoping soon he would be able to visit other exotic places.

Eugene’s dreams of seeing the world changed December 7, 1941. His horrific fate was sealed that Sunday in the Cavite Naval Yard. Hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began bombing Manila. Soon the men of the Canopus were working day and night repairing the ships that were damaged by the daily air raids. On Christmas day, as his family attended church praying for Eugene’s safe return, the Canopus sailed into Mariveles Bay at the tip of Bataan. All other ships were ordered out of Philippines, the U.S.S. Canopus would be serving alone. On December 27 the “Old Lady” took a direct hit, which penetrated all decks and exploded in the alley shaft killing 6 sailors and igniting her powder magazines. The Japanese were not successful in sinking her, the crew worked gallantly saving what seemed to be impossible. That night the first of her crew were buried at sea. Once again on January 6, the Canopus suffered a direct hit. Eugene wrote home he was not sure how much longer they would be able to hold on. They worked under the cover of darkness to repair their ship. At the same time the crew were converting her launches into gunboats to support the Marines off Corregidor. During her short service in World War II, the U.S.S. Canopus received only one battle star, but the battle lasted a long 4 months. Eugene and his fellow sailors fought heroically never giving up even in the face of overwhelming Japanese forces.

9 April 1942, starving, out of ammunition, and out of supplies, the crew was ordered to scuttle the U.S.S. Canopus. On 10 April 1942, her crew did what the Japanese had tried to do for four and a half months they laid the “Old Lady” to rest at bottom of Mariveles Bay with 13 of her crew. As she slowly disappeared into the bay, the reality of what laid ahead for Eugene and the rest of the crew must have been overwhelming. 11 April 1942 Eugene and the rest of the Canopus crew became part of the 4th Marine Division defending Corregidor.

Eugene A. Gammon, service number 96600 USN became a Prisoner of War. After the fall of Corregidor, his journey into hell began at the hands of the Japanese. For three weeks the prisoners were held in Corregidor they faced machine guns, random killings by the Japanese, starvation and disease. The United States Navy lists Eugene's capture after the fall of Corregidor, but in the Greeley Daily Tribune dated 28 February 1944 his mother stated that she clearly saw her son Eugene in some of the photos of the Bataan Death March which if true, meant he had been captured after the fall of Bataan almost a month earlier. She later wrote she fell to her knees crying when she first saw Eugene in the photos. Her handsome son who could wrangle a steer singularly had whittled away to mere skin and bones. For days his mother, Gertrude, could not sleep or eat, she was happy to see her son, yet horrified at how he appeared. Eugene is listed in Japanese records as a prisoner in Bilibid prison beginning in June of 1942. For the next three weeks, Eugene slept on concrete floors, lived on rice balls. The daily enemies at Bilibid were starvation, disease, abuse and boredom.

Eugene was transferred to Cabanatuan Prison in July of 1942. Cabanatuan was made famous by the 2005 film, “The Great Raid.” The story of the rangers rescuing the POWs before the Japanese tried to killed them. Sadly Eugene would never see rescue, never find freedom. For the next two and half years Eugene was a resident of camp 1, Cabanatuan. During the first 8 months Cabanatuan prison over 2,400 prisoners died from starvation or disease. Eugene was listed on burial detail. 30 to 50 prisoners were buried each day. July 1942 85 % of the men who died were under the age of 30. Several men attempted escape in the first few weeks of Cabanatuan, they were unsuccessful. To prevent further escapes the Japanese instituted groups of 10 named “Blood Brothers” or “Shooting Squads’. If anyone of the group escaped the other 9 would be executed. To protect the lives of all the prisoners, the American officers instituted a no escape policy. Men were made to sign an agreement not to attempt escape. They were told if they escaped and survived they would be court martialed after the war for the deaths of the other 9 in the group. It was a common practice by the japanese, before a man was executed he would be forced to dig his own grave as the other prisoners looked on. He would then most likely beheaded. There was later testimony at the War Crimes trial that on numerous instances, the guards would place the head of the decapitated POW on a pole and march it around the camp for all the prisoners to see. Food, water and sanitation were almost non-existent. Most of the food and water the prisoners received was smuggled in by brave civilians. Lugao, a thin watery soup became the main staple of every prisoner. Rice balls and worms were a luxurious dinner. Each morning the dying were removed from the barracks and taken to “zero ward”. Aptly named because those taken there had zero chance of surviving.

May 1943. almost a year after Eugene’s capture, the family received official notification from the Navy that their son, Eugene Arthur Gammon, was a prisoner of war at Cabanatuan. Eugene was promoted in absence to the rank of Boatswain, W.O. July 1943. For 2 years, 5 months Eugene would rot/waste away at the hands of the Japanese. During this time his mother would receive only two “form cards” from her son. When Gertrude died, she was buried with the cards, the last remaining items she had that her son’s hands had touched.

Late summer of 1944 the Japanese were aware of the approaching American forces. In August 1944 the Japanese issued a “Kill All” Policy. The Americans were not to find the prisoners. As MacArthur prepared to attack Leyte, Eugene and 1784 other prisoners of Cabanatuan were loaded on the Arisan Maru for transport to Japan. They were crammed like sardines into dark black hulls. . Later in war records these hulls were named hold 1 and 2. There was no sanitation, no fresh air to breath in the holds. The stench and heat were unbearable. The ship was part of a merchant convoy and was not marked as a POW transport ship. For two weeks the men in the holds suffered from heat and continued starvation. It was just before dinner on October 24 when two torpedoes struck the Arisan Maru. The ship stopped instantly and began taking on water. The Japanese issued abandoned ship orders. Before evacuating the ship, the Japanese cut the rope ladder leading to hold 1 and closed the hatches on hold one and two. Trapping the POWs below, guaranteed to cause certain death.. Gathered from surviving testimony, men in hold two though they suffered years of starvation, their will to live prevailed, they escaped their hold and lowered a rope down to the men in hold one. The prisoners jumped from the Arisan Maru and swam to the other Japanese ships who were part of the merchant convoy only to be beaten away, left to drown in the Pacific. Eugene and the other prisoners watched as the merchant ships left them floating in waves of salt water. The men grabbed onto anything that floated, wreckage left by the Arisan Maru. Some men drown quickly, others lasted for hours, days waiting for rescue. As they languished in the pacific they could hear the cries and prayers of those around them. The men watched in agony as their fellow POWs slipped into the depths of the ocean, knowing that eventually that would be their fate. They prayed for a miracle, a ship to find them, but the sub who sank the Arisan Maru was unaware the ship carried prisoners. It went about its mission patrolling the pacific. Out of the 1795 prisoners on the Arisan Maru, only 7 survived, Eugene was not one of them. The Pacific Ocean whom Eugene had fallen in love with on his trip to California, swallowed his body, took Eugene to his watery grave.

Several years after the war ended a fellow POW from camp 1 at Cabanatuan visited the Gammon family in Colorado. He tried his best to answer Eugene's mother’s questions, fill in the blanks of the last part of Eugene’s life. Although beaten and starved Eugene never lost his faith, he prayed every night. During the blistering heat of the Philippines he often told of the soft first snowfalls of Colorado. Before the war, he longed to see the world, at Cabanatuan all he dreamed about was his home in Colorado. Eugene often told his fellow prisoners after the war, they had to visit Colorado, it was the most beautiful place on earth. To cheer men up Eugene would often tell stories of chasing lost cattle in the pass between the mountains. He told of his childhood adventures in Colorado. Eugene often spoke of his mother. He worried most about her, on more than one occasion he said the pain his mother was feeling had to be much worse than what he was going through. He wished/prayed he could hug his mom just once, tell her he was okay. He was coming home one day.

The sinking of the Arisan Maru is the worst Naval disaster in U.S. history. 1780 POWs lost their life after suffering for years at the hands of the Japanese.

There is no definitive answer on when Eugene Arthur Gammon died. Did he die within hours of the sinking of the Arisan Maru or did he linger for days praying for a miracle? I have often wondered, before his death as he closed his eyes was he able to see one last time his home nestled in the foothills of the Rockies?

On Corregidor there sits a memorial to all those who died in the Pacific during World War II. The inscription along the rim of the alter reads;

Sleep, my sons,
Your destiny done,
For freedom’s light has come;
Sleep in the depths of the sea,
Or in your hallow sod,
Until you hear at dawn,
The low reveille of God

Rest in Peace Eugene Arthur Gammon and all those who died serving in the Pacific.

No comments:

Post a Comment