The story of Lt. Lester J. Pearsall Jr.

(Originally published for Memorial Day 2005)

BY ANDY TAYLOR

For weeks upon weeks, Lester Pearsall Sr., would buy a daily newspaper and sit in a booth of a downtown Caney, Kan., coffee shop, reading every name of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen who died in recent battles in World War II.

He was searching for the name of his son.

Yet, deep down in his gut, even further than where his coffee settled, the elder Pearsall hoped that the name of Lt. Lester J. Pearsall Jr., would never appear in print.

The reality of war in 1944 was as sharp and biting as the piping-hot coffee that the senior Pearsall was sipping: his son, a promising young officer in the U.S. Army, was a captive in one of Japan’s horrific prisoner of war camps, where the chances of survival was as remote as a snowy day in the South Pacific.

It had been months since Lester Pearsall and his wife, Beatrice, had received any word of their son’s condition. The seven telegrams the Pearsalls received didn’t provide any details, other than he was alive . . . somewhere in a prison camp . . . and far away from his hometown of Caney.

News of those prison camp atrocities were slowly coming back to the United States, and the Pearsalls realized that their son’s chances of survival were scant. Only the hope and faith that the U.S. military would liberate the Philippines kept their hopes alive.

Yet, the daily call of the war dead beckoned Lester Pearsall every morning. And, he continued to scan the names and headlines, sipped coffee, and searched for the name that he knew so well.

* * * *

He was simply known as Junior.

That’s because he was the junior version of his dad.

Lester “Junior” Pearsall spent his entire youth growing up in Caney, a town on the border of Oklahoma, where he played high school football with his younger brother, M.L., and did all of the things that teenagers of the mid-1930s enjoyed.

When the school year ended in late May, summer vacation meant work . . . usually helping at the grain elevator that his father owned on the far end of Caney’s main avenue. Wheat harvest in mid-June meant long hours of sweat and thirst in the stifling bins that stored the golden grain.

And, when not working at the elevator,
he and his brother tinkered with machinery and gadgets of all kinds.
Perhaps that penchant for working with mechanics is what led “Junior” Pearsall to enroll Park College in Parkville, Mo., following his graduation from Caney High School in 1937.

Although he was destined to pursue some kind of mechanical trade as a profession, he knew that his nation would need his talents and labor. The whispers of war were blowing across the continent when “Junior” Pearsall and his brother decided to enlist in the Kansas Army National Guard in 1939. They attended the weekend training and meetings in nearby Coffeyville, however the Pearsall brothers knew that the impending war would require more of their time and attention.

And, just one year before graduation from Park College, “Junior” Pearsall and his younger sibling returned home to Caney to inform their parents of their intent to enlist as full-time soldiers in the U.S. military.

There ensued several nights of family discussions where the two Pearsall boys-turned-men would agree — with their parents’ blessings — to follow their desire to aide their nation should war come to America.

Junior enlisted in the U.S. Air Corps and graduated from the Air Corps’ technical school in Denver, Colo., in June 1941. It was the first class of laboratory commanders to graduate in the United States, and “Junior” Pearsall was ranked second among 52 graduating officers.

Shortly after graduating from the Air Corps school, Pearsall made his last trip to Caney before departing for the Philippines — a chain of islands that was another galaxy away from the scrubby oaks and cattails surrounding the rural Caney haunts that the Pearsall boys would visit as ornery boys.

He arrived at Nichols Field in Manila in late August 1941 and began to instruct a group of Filipino military scouts in the art and strategy of photo reconnaissance. He later hand picked his own group of photographers and set up a photography detachment based at Clark Field in the Philippines.

It was on Dec. 8, 1941 — the day after Japan’s ambush on Pearl Harbor — that Lt. Pearsall got his first taste of war. Japanese forces bombed Clark Field, forcing U.S. and Philippine forces to retreat to a peninsula called Bataan. However, all supply lines leading to the peninsula were cut off by the Japanese navy.

Although the U.S. tried with all of its might to hold Bataan, it finally fell to the hands of Japan. Pearsall and thousands of others were now considered prisoners of the Japanese.

And, thus began the agonizing demise of the once-proud officer from Montgomery County, whose term of service in active duty lasted a little more than three months.

* * * *

The U.S. and Filipino prisoners of war at Bataan were forced to make the long trek to a prison camp at Cabanatuan in early 1942. Already faced with lack of food supplies, the prisoners were nearly famished when they arrived at Cabanatuan. Many concocted slings in which to carry their fellow wounded prisoners. Many who tried to escape the clutches of the unforgiving Japanese either were tortured . . . or killed.

The heat and humidity were as barbaric as the mosquitoes that drained their blood, which led to the spread of malaria.

And, once they arrived at Cabanatuan at the end of the infamous Bataan Death March, their private holocaust began.

Conditions at the camp were beyond horrid: they were hellish. Food wasn’t given in regular rations; it often was not given at all. Dysentery and malaria killed off hundreds of prisoners while starvation finished off many others.

For Lt. Pearsall, two and a half years at Cabanatuan was an eternity in hell. He was nearly starved because of the lack of food. Malnutrition led to beriberi, a tropical disease that can rack the human body with anguishing cramps before leaving the limbs totally worthless.

He also was nearly blind, saved only by the generosity and quick action of a fellow prisoner who also was a medical doctor.

But, during those two and a half years at Cabanatuan, the war’s tide had shifted. The United States methodically gained the strength of the Pacific by hopping from island to island, taking away the once-firm Japanese strongholds.

As Japan noticed the approaching U.S. forces, Hirohito’s government began moving prisoners to the Japanese mainland.

That desperation for food — something that can almost make the most-sane man turn into a rabid animal — led Pearsall to beg prison guards to take him to the Japanese mainland, where a prisoner labor camp would, the prisoners were promised, provide ample food in exchange for hard labor.

In October 1944, Pearsall and more than 2,000 other prisoners were marched to Bilibid Prison in Manila to await eventual transport to Japan.

However, Bilibid was worse than Cabanatuan. The food ration at Bilibid consisted of two canteen cups of watery lugao and one-half cup of miso soup per man per day.

The prisoners’ weakness was more than some could handle, and many prisoners didn’t have enough stamina to fight off the mosquitoes and flies that hovered around the prisoners’ sweaty bodies.

On Dec. 13, 1944, 1,619 emaciated prisoners — many too weak to walk — were forced to walk three hours through the streets of Manila. Their destination: the naval piers in Manila Bay, where tied to Pier 7 was the Oryoku Maru.

Lt. Lester J. Pearsall Jr., was taking his final march.

* * * *

They were nicknamed “hellships” . . . and for good reason.

Conditions on these former luxury liners were far from luxurious. They were pure hell, far worse than the cramped conditions at Cabanatuan and Bilibid.

The Oryoku Maru was intended to only hold several hundred passengers. But stripped of its luxury to expose only bare-metal hulls in several cavernous holds, the boat could hold about 1,500 people.

It was somewhat like the grain elevator bins that Junior Pearsall worked in during those hot summers of the mid-1930s in Kansas. He was used to the conditions, tempered by his able-bodied youth in pouring freshly-harvested wheat kernels into hot bins.

However, this was war, not peaceful Kansas. And, any thought of returning home was quickly dashed by the pain that was unleashed by the Oryoko Maru’s crew.

The Japanese military used bayonets to push and prod the dying and weak prisoners into the large holds. One hold held about 600 men, all of whom had to stand because of no room to sit. Another hold held 250 prisoners. A third hold — hold #5 — held 860 prisoners.

Lack of ventilation made some of the prisoners go crazy, and there were reports of prisoners reacting with sheer terror. Some resorted to biting fellow prisoners, not just in a show of insanity but to gain a few drops of liquid blood to quench their unyielding thirst.

Latrine facilities were nothing more than five-gallon buckets, which overflowed quickly. And, the only way to remove the contents was for the prisoners to pass the sloshing buckets above their heads and drain them through a small porthole.

Suffocation killed 50 prisoners in the first hours of the trip from Manila to Japan.

And, to make matters worse, the Oryoko Maru’s crew were as crazed as some of the food-deprived prisoners. The crew used the butts of their guns to hit prisoners in the head or the testicles. Fresh water was never given to the prisoners, and the crew flaunted food — a crisp apple or a loaf of bread — in front of the prisoners, only to cruelly eat the food and throw the scraps overboard as a show of humiliation and cruelty.

As the Oryoku Maru left Manila and entered Subic Bay, U.S. aircraft carriers were seen on the horizon.

Among them was the USS Hornet.

* * * *

The Hornet spotted the Oryoku Maru as it entered international waters. However, the Oryoku Maru wasn’t marked to indicate it was a prisoner ship. To the U.S. Navy, the Oryoku Maru was no different than the many other former Asian luxury liners: converted into freighters to transport the ammunition and supplies for wartime battle.

So, when the U.S. Navy dive bombers took off from the U.S.S. Hornet with torpedoes firmly affixed and plenty of large-caliber rounds in the airplane’s gunnery system, the Oryoku Maru became nothing more than a sitting duck.

Attacks on the ship occurred throughout the day on Dec. 14, 1944, and the prisoners in the crowded hulls were deafened by the sound of the Oryoku Maru’s gunners, who tried to fend off the American planes.

Finally, one of the dive bombers dropped a torpedo into Subic Bay. The torpedo was aiming right toward hold #5 of the Oryoko Maru, where 860 prisoners were stacked like logs.

When the torpedo exploded into the boat, more than half of the boat’s total prisoners died immediately . . . or eventually drowned in the Subic Bay waters.

The boat began to take on water, and the Oryoku Maru captain ordered all prisoners and ship crew to abandon the ship.

However, the prisoners were so desperate for food and water, that they stormed the ship’s crew deck in search of food. What they found were stolen Red Cross rations intended for the prisoners. The prisoners used whatever strength they could muster to pry open the sacks of crackers and canned milk.

In the cacophony of mayhem that ensued, the Oryoku Maru captain ordered the ship crew to use their rifles to kill any prisoner who was not abandoning the ship.

One crewmen opened the hatch that led to the hold that contained 260 prisoners. The rifle was pointed into the hold, and several dozen rounds were fired at random.

After the smoke cleared, the scene in that ship’s belly proved horrible. Mangled bodies and dead prisoners lined the deck. Only 10 of the 260 prisoners in that ship’s hold survived.

Other prisoners jumped ship, revived not by a sense of freedom but by the refreshing warm water of Subic Bay. Ironically, a strong current in Subic Bay pulled many of the prisoners away from the nearby shore. The ship captain, believing that the fleeing prisoners were bound for oceanic freedom, ordered guns to fire on the prisoners, who were pulled away solely by the tide.

The U.S.S. Hornet’s dive bombers made one final pass over the Oryoku Maru to unleash its lethal blow. However, when the pilot noticed the prisoners bobbing up and down in the waves of Subic Bay, he knew that the Oryoku Maru was a lie. It wasn’t a freighter, except to haul death and despair.

The pilot waved his wings overhead and then headed back to the Hornet.

Of the 1,619 prisoners on the Oryoku Maru, only 300 survived. All of them were captured by the Japanese and placed in another prison camp.

Lt. Lester J. Pearsall was among the 1,300 who perished in the waters of Subic Bay.

News of battle casualties took weeks, sometimes months, to reach home. And, it was not until early spring 1945 that the Pearsall family in Caney was made aware of the death of their son.

It came in the standard form of communication of that era: a Western Union telegram.

It read, “The Secretary of War deeply regrets to inform you that your son, Second Lt. Lester J. Pearsall Jr., was killed in action in the Pacific area 15 December 1944 while being transferred aboard a Japanese vessel. Confirming letter follows.”

Junior Pearsall’s dad would no longer have to buy a morning paper each day to scan the names of the war dead.

The elder Pearsall finally knew that his brave son had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

And, the pain was doubled for the Pearsalls as their other son, Lt. M.L. Pearsall, was recovering from wounds he received in battle in Europe.

With one son dead in the Pacific and another son critically wounded in Europe, the Pearsall family was beset with grief.

Caney resident Polly Pearsall, wife of the late M.L. Pearsall, remembers the somber tone that hung over the Caney community when news of Junior Pearsall’s death reached his hometown.

“It was extremely sad for everyone in the family,” she said. “For the many years after the war, M.L. wouldn’t talk much about Junior, knowing that his death was just so sad.”

Junior Pearsall’s body was never recovered, and Polly Pearsall said she cannot recall any type of memorial service in his honor.

The anguish of waiting on news from overseas was painful enough, she said.

“The information that Junior’s parents got about his condition in prison camp was pretty scarce,” she said. “They knew he had contracted beriberi. And, only after the war were they able to talk to a soldier from Coffeyville who was in the same prison. That soldier said that Junior’s condition was so terrible that he likely would not have lived had he reached Japan.”

Ironically, had Lt. Pearsall not taken that fateful trip from Cabanatuan to Bilibid and eventually to Manila to board the Oryoku Maru, he and many others could have been among the thousands of prisoners who were liberated from Cabanatuan in January 1945.

However, the tragic end to the life Lt. Lester J. Pearsall Jr., is like so many of his fellow soldiers and sailors — thousands upon thousands who gave their life, either in battle or through brutal imprisonment, in defense of their nation.

Today, Lt. Lester J. Pearsall’s name is permanently etched into history as he is among the honored dead at a memorial in Caney’s Veterans Memorial Park. The names of other Caney-area servicemen who died during World War II also are etched into that stone.

However, that stone doesn’t weep, nor does it show a face of war.

Those things can only be seen and felt by the people who were there . . . and the memories they share some 60 years later.

Perhaps the sorrow of the Pearsall family on Memorial Day 1945 was best told in a poem that Beatrice Pearsall wrote for her son. Simply titled “Son,” the poem was printed in the Caney Daily Chronicle when news was reported of Pearsall’s death.

The poem read:

“Son of my heart, the days seem long
since you packed your gun and started on
that journey that led you into woe,
But your spirit was light and you wanted to go.
You seemed such a youth, to march away
to defend your country in such a day
Just yesterday you were in our room,
modeling airplanes and bombs that boomed.
Never dreaming a war so near
that would kill and shatter all that was dear.

“But things have changed, you have gone away,
You slipped from childhood to a man in a day,
You took your place with those Heroes brave,
who fought on Bataan, democracy to save.

“Oh, Men of Bataan, we humbly bow
In silent reverence to you right now.
You gave your youth, your life, your all,
That democracy might rein, not fall.
We pray that all this was not in vain,
that men might see their sin and shame,
And God shall be enthroned at last,
And, His banner flown from every mast.’

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