Friday, June 18, 2010

Mr. John Franklin Ross & Bataan

For those of us who took physics in 1962-63, Mr. Ross (1915-2004) was our physics teacher. He had a reputation for being difficult to understand and for a 17-year old the notion of taking a physics course presented by a man who was difficult to understand was a bit daunting.

I recall him as a medium-sized, quiet spoken man, not given to making small talk, and owing to either a speech impediment or a regional accent…difficult to understand. In those days there were some things we didn’t ask our elders and questions about their war service was one of those things.

There was a persistent rumor circulating that he had been in the Army during WWII and had been on the infamous Bataan Death March. I don’t recall anyone asking him that question nor do I recall him ever mentioning a word about the subject. The truth is that most of us wouldn’t have known how to frame the questions even if we were so inclined.

In 2004, the Proviso East High School of Maywood, Illinois, produced the Bataan Commemorative Research Project telling the story of the men of Company B, 192nd Tank Battalion. Their project won the top prize for excellence from the Illinois State Board of Education. For us, their project revealed the remarkable story of one of our former teachers and answers the questions we didn’t ask.

As you read it, imagine what Mr. Ross must have been thinking as some of us worked our adolescent magic in his presence. Everything that follows is copyrighted material.

Pvt. John Franklin Ross (submitted by son Steve)
Pvt. John Franklin Ross was the son of Casper & Katie Ross. He was born on June 10, 1915 in Wills Point, Texas. He attended local schools in Wills Point.
On March 19, 1941, John was inducted into the U. S. Army at Dallas, Texas. He was sent to Fort Knox, Kentucky for basic training. There, he became a member of the 753rd Tank Battalion.

During his training, it was found that he could operate the radio, so he was trained to be a radio operator. He was later assigned to a command tank of one of the platoons of C Company.
In the late summer of 1941, John and the rest of the 753rd were sent to Camp Polk, Louisiana. Although at Camp Polk, the 753rd did not take part in the maneuvers. The one thing that John remembered about the maneuvers is that he and the other draftees put up verbal abuse from the "lifers" who resented them.
After the maneuvers ended, the 192nd Tank Battalion received orders that it was being sent overseas. According to John, replacements for members of the 192nd who were considered "too old" to go overseas were being sought. John took the place of a man who did not want to go to the Philippine Islands. The man was afraid that if he was sent to the Philippines, he would be killed by the Japanese. John not having any family obligations volunteered to take his place.
John, with the rest of his new tank battalion, was sent west by train to San Francisco. After being inoculated, they boarded ships and sailed for Hawaii. He recalled that both ships were crowded and men got into fights over who would sleep in the bottom bunks. During the trip, John liked to go topside all the way to the bow of the ship to watch the ship go up and down in the water. Being topside also helped him get over his seasickness.
After a stop at Guam, the ship arrived at Manila. John and the other soldiers were taken to Ft. Stotsenburg. They spent the next two weeks readying their tanks for use in maneuvers.
The morning of December 8, 1941, the Japanese attacked Clark Field. John found himself in a war with Japan. For the next four months, John fought to slow the Japanese conquest of the Philippines.
In John's opinion, the tanks were well armed with machine guns. Japanese troops on foot were no match for the tanks, but every one of the Japanese would shoot at the tanks when they saw them.
In the first engagements with the Japanese, John believed that the tanks did a lot of damage to the Japanese troops. The Japanese liked to dig foxholes to hide in and fight from. To clear out the Japanese, the tankers would stop with one of their tank's tracks over the foxhole. The driver would then pivot the tank on that track to make it borrow into the ground. Eventually, the Japanese soldier inside the foxhole was crushed.
After some of the heaviest engagements, John stated that the tankers slept upwind of their tanks. The reason the tankers did this was they didn't want to smell the stench from the flesh and hair caught in the tracks of the tanks.
John recalled that during some of the engagements with the Japanese that the Japanese sent soldiers against the tanks carrying cans of gasoline. The Japanese would attempt to jump onto the tanks, pour gasoline into the vents on the back of the tanks, and attempt to set them on fire. If the tankers could not machinegun them before they got to the tanks, they would shoot them as they stood on the tanks. The tankers did not like to do this because of what it did to the crews inside the tanks.
Since the tanks were riveted, when the turrets were hit by machinegun fire, the rivets would pop and ricochet inside the tanks. The rivets sparked when when they hit the sides of the crew compartment. This situation was made worse by the loud sound of bullets from machine guns hitting the tank. The biggest danger from the rivets was the possibility that one could hit one of the tankers in the eye.
On one occasion John remembered that his tank platoon was moving through a Filipino barrio. The town square had a statue in the middle of it. Suddenly, a Japanese tank appeared in the other side of the town square. His tank got off the first shot, but the gunner rushed the shot and hit the statue. The Japanese tank fired but also missed. The shot came so close to his tank that the crew saw the fireball go by the turret of their tank. By this time, they had reloaded and the gunner had time to place his second shot. This time he made a direct hit on the Japanese tank.
Fighting in the jungle created many problems. John stated that the Japanese liked to use the large roots of the trees for cover. Attempting to clear the Japanese out was a problem. If the tree was hit by an artillery shell, it would cut down the tree but not hurt the Japanese soldier and he would survive.
In one such incident, John told how a Japanese soldier was hiding in foxhole between the roots of a tree. The Americans fired at the soldier hitting the tree. Woodchips from the bullets fell into the foxhole slowly filling it up leaving less room for the soldier. After awhile, John and the other tankers could see his backpack. When he had been pushed up high enough, he was killed by the American soldiers.
During the retreat into Bataan, the tanks were moved at night to prevent them from being strafed by Japanese planes. In the jungle it was very dark. John was in the command tank as the tank was crossing a narrow bridge when one of the tank's tracks slipped off the side. The tank fell off the bridge and landed upside down in the bed of a stream. When the tank hit the ground, John fell against the side of the tank. A bolt sticking through the armor hit him in the temple and went deep into his head.  

Afterwards, John bled a lot from the wound and suffered from headaches. After he became a Prisoner of War, John crossed the same bridge repeatedly. Each time, he would look down and see the tank still sitting upside down in the stream.
After the Filipinos and Americans had withdrawn into the Bataan Peninsula, the tankers found themselves under attack from Japanese planes. To protect themselves from the planes, the tanks were hidden, during the day, in the jungle where the canopy from the trees was so thick that no direct sunlight came through. As a result, he and the other soldiers were very pale. To get a tan, when no planes were around, the soldiers sunned themselves in what little direct sunlight they found.
It was at this time that John had an incident with a Japanese rifle. The tanks were bivouacked, and he was walking along the far edge of their position. As he walked, he spotted a Japanese rifle on the ground. John wondered if he could hit anything with the gun, so he tied a string to the gun and moved it with the string to see if it was booby-trapped. After determining that it wasn't, John picked the gun up, racked a round into the chamber and fired at a tree. This was a big mistake! Everyone knew the sound that a Japanese rifle made. The entire camp came alive with the shot being so close. John received a royal chewing out for firing the gun.
During this time, everyone was expected to volunteer for dangerous (suicide) missions to gather intelligence on the Japanese or to destroy something. In his own words, "It was a thing you had to do." Being from the country, John believed that he had an advantage over the Japanese soldiers who most likely had grownup in the city. John had grownup shooting guns at game. He thought that most of the Japanese had never touched a gun before joining the military. So after a few shots, John would settle down and feel that his odds were better than theirs.
One of the greatest dangers facing the tankers at this time were snipers. The snipers would tie themselves onto trees and sit in them among the branches for days. One sniper had been taking shots at the tankers for days, so John crawled forward with a M-1 while using a log as cover. After the sniper took a shot and racked the rifle bolt, John determined that the sniper was in a particular tree. John began firing on the lower branches of the tree where they were attached to the trunk and worked his way up.
John believed that he must have been getting closer because while he was firing, the sniper took a shot at him. Finally, the sniper got so close to hitting John in the head that John backed off. The Americans brought a machinegun forward and raked the tree with fire where John thought the sniper was. They hit him and he fell from the branches. He jerked to a stop and hung from his belt which he had used to tie himself to a branch. An officer wanted the Japanese brought down, so John shot the belt until it snapped and the soldier fell to the ground.
John and the other members of his tank crew were assigned guard duty. Their job was to prevent Japanese infiltrators. The tankers set up a road block along a gravel road and stopped and searched everyone coming down the road. John recalled that a Filipino man with his head down who was peddling fast approached them on a bicycle. John ordered the man to stop, but he kept on coming. John stood in the middle of the road and hollered for him to halt, but the man kept on coming and rode past John. John's orders were not to let anyone through without being searched. As the man road off, John pulled his .45 pistol and aimed it right at the man's butt. When he fired, the bullet hit the back tire near the road and threw gravel everywhere. The Filipino threw his feet straight into the air and tumbled off the bicycle. John and the other soldiers ran over to the man and inspected what he was carrying but found nothing that was of danger to the soldiers. The Filipino was skinned up pretty badly, but he took off the back tire from the rim and road off. John never knew why the man never stopped.
The morning of April 9, 1942, John and the other members of C Company received the word of the surrender from one of the battalion's officers. They were instructed to destroy their equipment and then meet the Japanese at Mariveles on the southern tip of Bataan. John recalled that they drained the oil out of some of the jeeps and trucks and ran them to burn up the engines. For others, they poured sand into the motors and ran them. They also took their guns apart and scattered the pieces so that they would not be found.
At first, the soldiers had been ordered to travel without arms, but John wanted to keep his tommy gun to protect the soldiers from bandits or Japanese soldiers. The commanding officer of C Company, William Gentry, spoke to Headquarters over the radio and after some debate, got permission for John to keep his gun. Before they left to meet the Japanese, John and the other men removed all tanker insignia from their uniforms since the tanks had done a lot of damage to the Japanese. All during the time that he was a POW in the Philippines, Japanese guards would ask, "You tanker?" Anyone found with a tanker insignia or admitting to be a member of a tank battalion disappeared or were killed.
On the way to the meeting place, John and the other soldiers saw a bus full a Filipinos with men riding on the roof. They stopped the bus and the driver told them to get on the roof. The first man up the ladder had his hand stomped on by a Filipino soldier who also pushed him off the ladder. John climbed up the ladder and when the Filipino went to stomp on his hand, he stuck the tommy gun in the man's face and made him back away. John made the other Filipinos make room for the tankers and they rode until they were closer to Mariveles.
When the Americans met up with the Japanese, they took John's tommy-gun and searched everyone. The Japanese took what they wanted and looked for unit identification or insignia. Seeing what the Japanese were doing, John dug a hole with the heal of his boot and slipped the photo he had of his aunt into it without being observed.
From Mariveles, John, with the other members of C Company, started what became known as the death march. On the march, John went without food and had little water. He also witnessed atrocities committed by the Japanese. The worst thing that he saw happened when a Japanese soldier started yelling at an officer for moving too slow.  Without warning, the guard shot the officer in the stomach. The man fell to the ground in agony to the ground. As he lay there, he kicked, rolled and screamed. The guard did not allow any of the other Americans help the officer. So, he slowly died.
At San Fernando, John and the other POWs were packed into small steel freight cars. They were packed in so tightly that the men who died remained standing. When the survivors climbed off the cars at Capas, the bodies of the dead fell out of the cars. From there, John walked the last few miles to Camp O'Donnell.
During John's time at Camp O'Donnell, he went out on work details. He did this regardless of how sick or starved he was. On these details he cut down trees, drove supply trucks, built roads and did farm work.
Of all the details that John worked, the worst was the burial detail. He first worked this detail at Camp O'Donnell and continued working it at Cabanatuan after the new camp opened. He recalled that at Camp O'Donnell the bodies were put into a metal shed until they could be buried. The bodies stacked up faster than they could bury them. The POWs on the detail worked in teams. They would carry the body in a sling on a pole. The pole rested on their shoulders.
When selecting a body, John would climb the pile and select the smallest and least ripe body that he could find. Some of the dead had had wet beriberi and were swollen and very heavy, so he did not chose those. If the body had been dead for awhile, the skin would come off in the hands of the two men while they picked it up. To get the skin off their hands, the POWs would rub their hands together and roll the skin into balls. They would then put the body into the sling and attempt to standup at the same time.
John stated that if he had a good partner, they would stand up at the same time. The two men then would walk in a rhythm with the bounce of the sling. Some men couldn't or wouldn't do this right. So when working with these men, John would get up quicker and put the weight of the lift on the other man. The one lasting effect from working this detail on John was that he never liked to handle peaches because their peals felt too much like the skin of a corpse.
On December 12, 1942, John was selected to go on a work detail to build runways at Camp Murphy. This detail was known as the Las Pinas Detail. John was only on this detail a short time when he was returned to Cabanatuan. Not that long after returning to Cabanatuan, John was selected for shipment to Japan.
On September 18, 1943, John with other POWs left Cabanatuan for the Port Area of Manila. On Pier #7, they were boarded onto the Taga Maru. The ship sailed on September 20, 1943. What John remembers about the ship was that it was too small for the ocean. The Japanese also would not allow the POWs out of the hold even though many of the POWs were seasick. Those who had to vomit vomited into a steel trough in the hold. This same trough was used as the POWs' toilet. As the ship was tossed around, all that was in the trough sloshed back and forth and sprayed those POWs standing near the trough.

The Taga Maru arrived at Moji, Japan on October 2, 1943. John was taken to Sendai #5-B in the northern part of Japan. The POWs in the camp worked at a steel mill owned by Nippon Steel. Conditions for the POWs were not very good. Although the climate was cold, the POWs' barracks had little or no heat. He recalled that one day the Japanese announced that the POWs were to take a bath. The POWs removed their clothes and bathed in groups in a large vat filled with hot water. John recalled that it was the only time he had been warm while in Japan. When they got out, the Japanese sprayed the POWs with cold water. Some men refused to let the Japanese do this. Within a few weeks, they had died of pneumonia.
During his time at Sendai #5, John worked as a stevedore unloading and loading ships. He also did other jobs at the steel mill. He and the other POWs had no idea of how the war was going. All they had to go on were rumors. In John's opinion, those men who placed their hope on the belief that they would be rescued by a certain date often gave up hope and died after the date came and went without anything happening.
On September 15, 1945, John was liberated by American forces. He returned to Texas and married Edna Lewis Mickey. Together, they raised four children. John went to college on the GI Bill and became a high school science teacher at Eastern Hills High School in Fort Worth, Texas. He taught physics, biology and chemistry.
John F. Ross passed away on January 16, 2004.



Connie Miller said...

Mr.Ross was my biology teacher. I have very fond memories of him, and still think of him. He was one of my favorite teachers.

Many thanks to whoever found this article and published it.

Connie Miller
EHHS 1966

Bruce Butler said...

I had always known that Mr. Ross had been in the Bataan Death March. I don't know how I obtained that information. I found the article very interesting and being a Vietnam veteran I can’t visualize how someone can live through those experiences and still maintain your sanity.

Looking at the report card I know it was not mine

Bruce Butler
Class of ‘63

texian said...

The record of Mr. Ross's Army Service and surviving as a Prisoner of War attest to this man's greatness . Those of us who studied under him had a rare opportunity to have a real world connection to WW II . He was my Biology teacher at EHHS . I will always remember his soft-spoken manner and ways . May he rest in peace .
Johnny Gilmartin
EHHS Class of 1966
P.S. Mr. Ross was born in Wills Point, not Willis Point, in Van Zandt County, East of Dallas .