Mathiston native Stennis was an American hero

By Lavelle McAlpin

Allow me to introduce you to the story of a local man who sacrificed so that we might all enjoy the freedoms we celebrate on Independence Day.

Will Knox Stennis was born on May 22, 1903, in Mathiston. The family didn’t have to go far to fetch a doctor, as Mathiston’s doctor was also the expectant father: James Henry Stennis. Will, sometimes known as Bill, was blessed with a multitude of talents. Once when Mathiston was competing in a field day, Will won a countywide contest in declamation. He was described as witty, athletic and handsome.

Following his schooling at Mathiston, he attended Mississippi A&M (now MSU) and was the starting first baseman for the “Aggies” baseball team. He was a tall, rangy athlete, a “natural,” and these qualities would serve him well.

Rose in Ranks Will served in the ROTC program and decided to make the military his career. His natural leadership abilities soon afforded him the opportunity to rise in the ranks: from lieutenant, to captain, to major and eventually to lieutenant colonel. He, his wife and their two children were living in the Philippines.

Of course, the world changed on Dec. 7, 1941. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States was thrust into a worldwide conflict. Less remembered that day was the joint attack on the Philippines that cost the United States almost half of its aircraft at that location.

The soldiers of the peacetime military, such as Bill Stennis, were soon joined by the ranks of those who volunteered or were drafted into military duty.

The Japanese had distinct advantages: their navy was perhaps the best in the world. The United States was ill-prepared for the fight ahead and the Philippine Islands were right in the enemy’s backyard.

A Lost Cause Commanding the forces in the Philippines at this time was Gen. Douglas MacArthur. By mid-December of 1941, the American and combined Philippine defenses were forced back into defensive positions at Bataan and Corregidor. With the close proximity of the Philippines to Japan, and the numerical and strategic Japanese advantage, the decision was made to remove MacArthur, as well as the civilians, from the Philippines as quickly as possible.

Col. Stennis said goodbye to his young family … unfortunately, it would be their final goodbye. MacArthur initially balked at the order, preferring instead to die alongside his men. He was finally convinced that it would be terrible for American morale for the Japanese to capture a commanding general. Reluctantly, and in a dangerous gamble, he was relocated to Australia to help plan American strategy.

As the soldiers watched the wake from the boat carrying MacArthur away, Cpl. John Perkowski turned to his superior officer, Bill Stennis, and asked, “Colonel, sir, do you think we’re going to get those hundreds of planes and thousands of troops that General MacArthur promised us?” Stennis, fully aware of the military predicament, replied, “Not very soon, I’m afraid.”

Gen. Jonathan Wainwright inherited the unenviable position as commander of the Philippine defenses. For all practical purposes it was a lost cause.

However, the Americans knew that every day they held out was one more day the American home front could produce supplies. It was clear at this point that the war in the Pacific was being lost. The defenders of the Philippines were putting their lives on the line and knew they would probably die to give America the single thing she needed most: time.

Led by Example Bill Stennis, who now had earned the rank of lieutenant colonel, was placed in command of Fort Frank. This was one of four defense forts that overlooked Manila Bay; the other three being Fort Mills, Fort Hughes and Fort Drum. From an oral history interview by Perkowski, soldier under the command of Stennis, we learn quite a bit about Stennis’ character and leadership abilities.

According to Perkowski, when he transferred under Stennis’ command as a corporal, an entrenched sergeant tried to pull rank on him. He took his complaint to Stennis, whose reply was: “I’ll just have a word with that young man.” The incident was never repeated.

As the Japanese continued their attack, a reorganization of military leadership led to a change at Fort Frank. Bill Stennis was assigned as executive officer at the fort. Even though his position was the second-highest rank on duty, he led by example and exhibited extreme bravery.

Perkowski remembered an incident when the Japanese were attacking in wave after wave. He and Stennis were stationed at the observation tower and were under heavy shelling. Stennis told Perkowski to go down below to safety. Perkowski asked to stay to help. Perkowski’s exact response was, “I’d rather be up here than downstairs. If one of those shells comes alongside, I can be buried down there.”

A short while later, a jagged banana-shaped piece of 240mm shell bounced off the wall and hit Stennis in the arm. He received a 4-inch wound on his forearm but refused to leave his post despite the pleas of Perkowski, who used his field first aid kit to bandage Stennis’ arm. In a splendid exercise in leadership by example, he did not seek additional medical aid until the attack was over.

Still, the Japanese advanced like a mighty tidal wave. The American and Philippine defenders were vastly outnumbered, outflanked, and had dwindling supplies and almost no medical care. Food rations were halved and then quartered. Concrete tunnels became the only means of survival, but even these were no safe haven.

Yet they still fought with outdated artillery and equipment. They fought for their country, for each other and for the dim hope that reinforcements would come. On Fort Frank, a 240mm shell crashed through one of the ceilings and exploded in the room below. One hundred Philippine scouts were there getting updated shots in the dispensary. About 30 Philippine Army soldiers died in that room and around 60 were wounded.

Corregidor Falls Corregidor was falling. The Japanese were a whisker away from the underground military hospital. Countless scores of Americans were taken captive. The perimeter forts, including Fort Frank, were the last holdouts. However, on May 6, 1942, the American flag was lowered and the white flag of surrender was hoisted.

One American soldier manning an artillery piece was seen shouting in frustration and banging his helmet against the gun turret. Others stood in stunned silence with tears of disappointment in their eyes as Old Glory began the slow descent down the flagpole.

Lt. Col. Stennis and the rest of the Americans still left alive on the Philippines were now the prisoners of the Imperial Japanese Army. From Perkowski’s account, we are able to piece together some of the details about the survivors of Fort Frank.

The Japanese took a count of all men present, removing any valuables from the soldiers as they went. The soldiers were placed on ships that were bound for Manila Bay. Dropped into neck-deep water, the soldiers were forced to swim to shore. Because of malnutrition, some were forced to discard their gear in order to survive the swim.

After reaching the beaches, they were forced into a mock parade to humiliate them as they were marched into the city of Manila amidst the jeers and taunts of the Japanese. They were then shown a series of railroad cars designed to carry them away from the city. More than 100 men were packed into each small railroad car known as a “40 & 8”; so named because it was designed to haul 40 men or eight horses.

Prison Camp In these cramped, unhealthy conditions they suffered from heat exhaustion, dysentery and dehydration. Already weakened from a lack of food and the punishment from the Japanese, some did not live to see their final destination. Others died on the 10-mile walk from the rail station to their new home, Cabanatuan Prison. Recalling the march to Cabanatuan, survivors spoke of American troops being shot for stepping out of line to drink from a mud-encrusted watering hole used by water buffalo.

Cabanatuan was terrible. The three prison camps there were a breeding ground for malaria, dengue fever and beriberi. Part of the camp had once served as a stable, and the ground was saturated with mud and excrement. Four American soldiers attempted an escape. They were captured, stripped naked, tied to a post without food or water, forced to dig their own graves, beaten and then shot by firing squad while the American soldiers were forced to watch.

The remaining prisoners were placed in groups of 10. Each group was told that individual misbehaviors would result in collective punishment. They were told that if one member attempted escape, the other nine would be executed on the spot.

Maintained Hope According to Perkowski’s account, 40 to 50 soldiers were dying per day in Cabanatuan. The survivors were forced to dig mass graves only three feet deep because of the area water tables. They soon realized the graves were not deep enough to fend off scavenging wild animals and packs of feral dogs.

Despite the horrendous conditions, the soldiers did the best they could to maintain hope. In order to endure, thoughts of pleasant memories occupied their minds.

Benson Guyton, an American prisoner of war who later donated a portion of his diary to the Mississippi State University library, recorded this on Aug. 19, 1942: “Were I at home, Mother would place a little better food before me; such as breakfast: Dad’s biscuits, molasses, ham and eggs, coffee, fruit juice and oatmeal with fresh milk. Dinner would consist of fried chicken, potatoes (boiled, baked, creamed or fried), tomato and lettuce salad, chocolate pie, ice cream. Perhaps a few ripe peaches — a pickled peach, anyway, and blackberry jelly … hot rolls with real butter and a glass of iced tea. I’ll have seconds on the iced tea — also on the chocolate pie and ice cream!”

‘Hell Ships’ Days turned into months and months into years. We can only imagine the physical toll of forced labor and malnutrition or the mental anguish of comrades dying in excessive numbers. The prisoners whispered slogans to one another to provide a ray of hope. “We’ll Be Free in ’43” was the first optimistic slogan. As time dragged on, this initial optimism was replaced with a more solemn slogan: “Tell me more in ’44.”

Virtually unknown to the prisoners, a ray of hope was rising on the horizon. The momentum in the war had swung in the favor of the Americans and her allies. It was the Americans now who outflanked the Japanese. MacArthur and his troops were inching closer and closer to retaking the Philippines.

Because of this, the Japanese decided to move the prisoners to other locations. Stennis was sent to Billibid Prison; a sort of transit point for movement to other locations. Almost every survivor who served in Corregidor was moved to Billibid at one time or the other.

Next, was the removal of prisoners by boat. The goal was to move as many able-bodied prisoners, meaning those still able to stand, to mainland Japan to serve as slave laborers. The ships moving American survivors were given the nickname “Hell Ships,” and with good reason. Stennis was placed on the Orkoyu Maru and was assigned to the first group loaded into the rear holding area.

Brutal Voyage The Orkoyu Maru was a floating paradox. From the air, it resembled a luxury cruiser and, indeed, the ship carried Japanese diplomats and society types in luxury suites. However, the ship’s hulls carried the American prisoners. It was dark, extremely crowded and taxed the prisoners to the extreme limits of human endurance. The date was Dec. 13, 1944. Official reports place the number of prisoners on the Orkoyu Maru at 1,619.

The ensuing voyage was one of uncompromising brutality, violence and shocking indifference to human suffering. The hulls of the ship were too crowded; more and more prisoners were shoved in anyway. Those who entered first were forced into corners with no ventilation.

Shouts of desperation rang out for relief. The Japanese second in command, Shusuke Wada, called down to the men and told them they were disturbing the rest of the Japanese guests in the staterooms … any other such outbursts would result in the hatch being completely closed.

Eventually, desperation led to more cries for help. The hatch, which was the only source of fresh air, was completely battened down. It was said that even before the trip began, the side of the Orkoyu Maru that was facing the sun was too hot to touch with the naked hand. The temperatures inside were above 120 degrees with no food, no water and precious little oxygen.

Some tried to climb up top to breathe. They were shot, bayoneted or beaten back down below. Death came from the crushing weight of bodies, from exhaustion, from asphyxiation, even from a few tortured souls who lost their minds from the ordeal and lashed out at those around them in the hulls.

Cost of Freedom In addition to these atrocities, the Japanese failed to mark the ship as a vessel that carried prisoners of war. The Orkoyu Maru was spotted by Allied reconnaissance and attacked by both torpedoes and aerial bombardment. The horror of American planes and submarines attacking a boat carrying American POWs was now a reality. The rear hold of the ship suffered a direct hit as a result of an air attack.

On Dec. 14, 1944, Lt. Col. Will K. Stennis of the 92nd U.S. Army Coast Artillery Corps paid the ultimate sacrifice for his country. The exact manner of his death is unknown. His accomplishments included a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in the line of fire while defending the Philippines and a Silver Star for gallantry in action against an enemy of the United States.

While his story is one of tragic loss, it is also a reminder of the high cost of freedom. May we be ever grateful that men such as Will K. Stennis lived and may we always remember to honor our veterans.

Postscript: Of the more than 1,600 men who were placed on the Orkoyu Maru, fewer than 400 survived to see the Japanese surrender on Sept. 2, 1945. John Perkowski and Benson Guyton both survived and lived full, productive lives. Perkowski’s grandson is now a U.S. Marine. This article was compiled from official military records and from the personal accounts of two World War II POWs who served with Stennis: Perkowski and Guyton. Editor’s Note: Lavelle McAlpin teaches U.S. history at East Webster High School and serves on the Mathiston Board of Aldermen.