Friday, September 15 marked this year’s POW/MIA Recognition Day. In observance, volunteers with the non-profit Stories Behind the Stars (www.storiesbehindthestars.org) recognized the American POWs lost in the September 7, 1944 sinking of the Japanese hell ship Shinyo Maru. They have written memorials about each of the thirty-four PA POWs who perished in the tragedy, including PVT Irvin R. Reber from Berks County.
Irvin R. Reber was born in Reading, Berks County, PA on August 3,1921 to Arthur H. and Ida M. (Boltz) Reber. He was the youngest of his brothers Wayne, Earl, and Elmer. Arthur was a crane operator for the railroad and Ida had worked since the age of 16 as a servant, then as a laborer in an underwear factory.
After attending Reading High School, Reber joined the Army Air Forces on February 14, 1940 and was sent to Fort Slocum, New York. He was eventually assigned to the 28th Bombardment Squadron, 19th Bombardment Group (Heavy) of the parent Group V Bomber Command in the Philippines. The 19th Bomb Group (H) moved to the Philippine Islands between September and November 1941.
After the Japanese invasion of December 8, 1941 wiped out Clark Field and the B-17 heavy bombers, Reber and his squadron became infantrymen in the defense of the Bataan Peninsula. The resistance to the Japanese assault persisted for four months amidst critical shortages of food, medical supplies, and ammunition. On April 9,1942, all Allied troops surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army at Bataan and became Prisoners of War. Reber was one of these men, became a POW, and endured the Bataan Death March.
The Shinyo Maru was a merchant cargo ship that the Imperial Japanese Army impounded in 1941. It was converted into a hell ship for use to transport POWs. The vessel was labeled a hell ship due to the inhumane and unsanitary conditions amounting to torture. Japanese merchant sailors crewed the hell ship and soldiers of the Imperial Army manned the machine gun and guarded the 750 POWs aboard. The Shinyo Maru was one of dozens of hell ships used by the Japanese in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Many of those involved in the program were convicted of war crimes and were imprisoned or executed.
Of the 750 Allied prisoners, all but five were Americans and nearly 300 had survived the Bataan Death March. All had been forced labor on Japanese airfields before they were forced to march shoeless and in loincloths into the hold of a ship for a five-day transit to Zamboanga. The POWs waited ten more days in the fetid, overcrowded cargo hold before being transferred to the Shinyo Maru on September 4, 1944.
American intelligence intercepted several Japanese naval messages and learned Shinyo Maru was in a convoy of two torpedo boats, two tankers, and three other cargo ships to transport 750 troops from Cebu to Manila. There was no indica@on that the troops aboard were POWs. The American submarine USS Paddle (SS-263) – on its fifth patrol – was ordered to sink the ship. On September 7, 1944, the USS Paddle located the convoy off the west coast of Mindanao and identified the Shinyo Maru. The USS Paddle fired a spread of four torpedoes. Two detonated in Shinyo Maru’s hold.
Aboard the Shinyo Maru there was a terrific explosion followed by a second one. The POWs had heavy obstacles falling on them from above. Many were lying with their bodies shaGered and bleeding. Some were able to go above due to the damage to the hatch doors and witnessed many Japanese lying dead on the deck. Imperial Japanese guards opened fire on the prisoners using captured Thompson submachine guns. Over 100 men were able to fight their way through the guards and abandon ship. Fifteen to twenty were recaptured by torpedo boats and executed as punishment. Documents indicated they were tied to the railings of the boat and shot behind the head. While others continued swim and distance themselves from the ship, there was the loud sound of something cracking. The swimming POWs could see the Shinyo Maru breaking apart and sinking under the surface of the water.
A total of 668 POWs were killed. Among the Japanese, 47 of the 52 perished. Filipino guerrillas and the Volunteer Guard rescued 83 Americans on Sindangan Bay shore. One POW died the following day and one remained with the guerillas to fight the Japanese. The rest of the freed POWs were later evacuated by the American submarine USS Narwhal. The crew of USS Paddle (SS-263) were not told of the Allied soldiers on board the Shinyo Maru until after the war.
Reber was memorialized on the Tablets of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in Manila, Philippines. Reber was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Prisoner of War medal.
Stories Behind the Stars memorials are accessible for free on the internet and via smart phone app at gravesites and cenotaphs. The non-profit organization is dedicated to honoring all 421,000 fallen Americans from World War II, including 31,000 from Pennsylvania. To volunteer or to get more information, contact Kathy Harmon at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.storiesbehindthestars.org.