After Bataan, New Mexico soldiers filled the Ship of Hell

May 27, 2019

Santa Fe National Cemetery holds a million stories. The Ship of Hell is one that’s received scant attention in New Mexico.

This is the right day to change that.

The ship in question was the Shinyo Maru, a Japanese freighter. Instead of supplies for the Japanese Army, it carried 750 American and Allied prisoners of war.

Many of them had survived the Bataan Death March. An uncommonly high percentage of these prisoners were from New Mexico.

On Sept. 7, 1944, the fighting in World War II was heavy and fierce as the Shinyo Maru and its human cargo headed from the Philippines toward Japan.

The ship had no special markings. Only the Japanese knew U.S. prisoners were packed inside.

Most never knew what hit them.

An American submarine, the USS Paddle, sighted the ship and blasted it with two torpedoes. The Shinyo Maru sank quickly off Mindanao Island.

Only 82 of the prisoners of war survived. A total of 668 died or were lost when the ship went down.

Fifty-one of the fallen men were from New Mexico. They outnumbered the 47 Japanese who perished on the ship.

Pfc. Glen J. Wiley was one of the New Mexico casualties. Raised in the Albuquerque area during the Great Depression, Wiley had had few opportunities.

His father was a farmer who had retired in Estancia. Wiley had been a laborer before joining the Army. He died at 26.

His gravestone in Santa Fe National Cemetery is in a row with those of three other prisoners of war who were aboard the Ship of Hell.

Cenotaphs carry the names of Lee A. Foster of Albuquerque and Larry Dale Powers of Las Cruces. Both made it through the Bataan Death March, only to be trapped on a sinking ship.

The other soldier memorialized a few feet away is Thomas D. Shock. He was raised in Oklahoma.

Their families didn’t learn of their deaths until six months after the ship sank.

In the chaos of war, it was not immediately clear which American soldiers had been on the Japanese freighter. It’s still not a certainty in some cases.

New Mexico newspapers gave spare treatment to the deaths of those on the Shinyo Maru. These soldiers usually received a paragraph, if they got any mention at all.

“Pfc. Anselmo Arellano of Albuquerque is presumed to have been lost on the Japanese freighter sunk Sept. 7, 1944, off the Philippines, according to word received by his sister,” The New Mexican reported the following March.

Other accounts listed Arellano’s home as Mora County. He looks lean and strong in photos that seem almost to jump off the computer screen.

A wire service story accompanied the item about Arellano. It mentioned two other soldiers on the ship in the same abbreviated style.

Pfc. Bertram O. Sandoval of Chacon “is considered to have died in action, the War Department notified his parents.”

Another Army private, Jose M. Tafoya of Los Lunas, “also is presumed to have died in the sinking,” the story said.

Wartime news accounts of what happened on the Ship of Hell never went any deeper.

Few wanted to focus on the fact that prisoners of war, men who had suffered every indignity, had died so tragically.

It might have been too painful to think about how many would have made it home if torpedoes from their own side hadn’t shattered the ship.

At the national cemetery, where gravestones are uniform in size and style, I always check for the date of death. Each time I see Sept. 7, 1944, I begin a search to see if the soldier was on the Shinyo Maru.

Because of the destruction caused by the torpedoes, not all of the bodies could be located or brought home for burial.

Arellano, for example, is listed as missing in action. He is memorialized at Tablets of the Missing at Manila American Cemetery.

In the aftermath of Bataan, many men herded to prison camps succumbed to starvation, disease, beatings or a broken will.

Those who were jammed into the freighter expected more pain. They thought they would land in another hellish prison camp, this time in Japan.

Instead, most were lost at sea. They should not be lost to history.

Ringside Seat is an opinion column about people, politics and news. Contact Milan Simonich at msimonich@sfnewmexican.com or 505-986-3080.

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