William L. Ward, PFC, US Army Air Corps, WWII Japanese POW – The Andalusia Star-News

Author’s note: The original article published on January 29, 2022 has been updated with important information not available to the author at the time of writing.

During World War II, the William Moses Ward family had three sons who served in the US Army Air Corps. The Ward family had the unfortunate distinction of having two sons who became prisoners of war: Preston J “PJ” Ward of the Germans and Willie L “Willie” Ward of the Japanese. Marvin I. Ward served in the Army Air Corps in the European theater.

2n/a Lieutenant PJ Ward was the pilot of a B-17 shot down over Germany. His story was told in a previous article. Willie Ward was returned to the Philippines with nearly 85,000 American and Filipino soldiers defending the islands. When he was finally released from a POW camp at the end of the war, Willie had survived the Bataan Death Marchthe Cabanatuan Prisoner of war camp in the Philippines, a trip to mainland Japan aboard the infernal shipTaga MaruOsaka POW camp #12-B in Hirohata and the Nagoya POW camp #9B in Toyama. When Willie Ward was finally released in September 1945, he had been a prisoner of the Japanese for about 41 months. It’s hard to imagine a more amazing survival story than that of PFC Willie Ward.

William Lewis “Willie” Ward was born on October 25, 1918 in the community of Mobley Creek, Covington County, Alabama. His parents were William Moses and Mary Frances Hassel Ward. They lived near the William E. Ward, Sr. family. Both Ward families had several sons who served their country in World War II.

Willie attended area schools and graduated from Andalucia High School before joining the Army Air Corps in early 1940. He married Gladys L. Kay on September 10, 1941. At the time, Willie was a member of the 27and Bombardment group fire stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base near Bossier City, Louisiana. 27and began shipping to the Philippines via Savannah, Georgia in November 1941. Willie Ward was assigned to the Headquarters group, 27and bombardment group and left Savannah for the Philippines at the end of November. He arrived just before the Japanese attack on December 8 [because of the international dateline, that was the same day that Pearl Harbor was attacked].

Willie was a sights technician and part of the ground component of the 27and bombardment group stationed at Fort McKinley, just south of Manila. Their planes did not arrive in the Philippines before the Japanese attack and were redirected to Australia. The support staff of 27and bombardment groupincluding PFC Willie Ward, were trained in the 2n/a Battalion [27th Bombardment Group] Provisional Infantry Regiment [Air Corps]and sent to Bataan on 25 December. They were hastily evacuated from the Manila area and failed to bring adequate food and supplies, which made their defense of the Bataan Peninsula more difficult.

Memorial marker for the 27th Bombardment Group which left Savannah, Georgia, November through December 1941. The marker is located at the Andersonville National Historic Site near Andersonville, Macon County, Georgia. [Photo: Makali Bruton, Dec. 2017]

Willie Ward and the Men of the 27and bombardment group were returned to Bataan on April 9, 1942. They had the distinction of being the only Air Corps unit in history to fight as an infantry unit and be taken prisoner as a unit. After their surrender, they were forced to participate in the Bataan Death March. Of more than 800 airmen taken prisoner, less than half survived captivity. Corregidor and the Philippines were surrendered on May 6, 1942.

In August 1942 Willie’s sister Mrs. Lucille Ward Stephens received a telegram stating that he was “missing in action.” Willie and the captured Americans and Filipinos marched about 85 miles north to two prison camps, O’Donnell and Cabanatuan. Between 200 and 500 American prisoners died during the march. Records show Willie was taken to the Cabanatuan prison camp. Of the approximately 5,000 POWs held in the camp, over 2,764 burials have been recorded. Willie was one of the survivors who was eventually transferred to mainland Japan to be used as forced laborers.

On June 24, 1943, Willie’s sister Lucille received confirmation that Willie was a POW. In a telegram from the provost marshal general, she was informed that the International Red Cross had reported that “Your brother, Pvt. Willie L. Ward is a prisoner of the Japanese government in the Philippine Islands. It was the first information she had received since he had been reported missing in action.

In December 2020, an article was published by the National WW II Museum in New Orleans which described a diary written in pencil by a Cabanatuan Prisoner of war, Charles D. Page. The diary describes the lives of 212 prisoners of war who were members of the 27and bombardment group. The diary lists the men by name, rank, or grade, and indicates whether or not they survived by noting “D or dead. On the two pages reproduced for this article, there are 39 names listed with only 16 surviving.. One of the survivors listed on the front page is PFC Willie Ward.

After the war, Willie told a story to his cousins, Wyley and Richard Ward, about Bataan Death March. He said the Japanese guards would shoot anyone who fell from exhaustion. Willie said he walked with his hands on the shoulders of the man in front of him and took a cat nap as he walked. He was swapping positions with the man in front so he could do the same. That’s how he survived the march.

In May 1942, Japan had begun transferring POWs to mainland Japan by sea. Transport was called hell ships because of the appalling living conditions of the prisoners. They were crammed into holds with little ventilation, little food and water on voyages that could last for weeks. Because these ships carried a mixture of prisoners, Japanese troops, and cargo, they could not be marked as non-combatants and were therefore prime targets for Allied aircraft and submarines. More than 20,000 Allied prisoners of war died at sea when 15 of these transport ships were sunk.

PFC Willie Ward has been moved from Cabanatuan camp on September 20, 1943 and placed on the transport ship, Taga Maru. The journey took about 15 days and 70 of the 850 prisoners did not survive. Willie was taken to Osaka prison camp #12-B in Hirohata.

Captain Sidney Seid was the camp physician of the Hirohata prison camp. His records included PFC Willie Ward on page 34.
Prisoner #255 is PFC Willie Ward. Seid recorded “Buried in sand, April 1945”. [Photo: Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO]

Prisoners taken to Osaka prison camp #12-b in Hirohata were used as slaves at the Nippon Steel factory. Prisoners also worked at nearby shipping docks, loading and unloading ships. In April 1945, Willie was punished by being buried up to his neck in sand, which caused injuries to his chest and spine. The camp doctor, Captain Sidney Seid, took notes on each prisoner and recorded Ward’s injuries on page 34 of his diary. [as shown with this article].

Willie Ward and three other prisoners of war also suffered another form of torture at the Hirohata camp. the stars and stripes reported testimony from a war crimes trial that took place in Yokohama on March 22, 1946. Their March 23 edition included a report titled: “The Japs made the POWs squat 20 minutes in freezing water. An affidavit signed by PVT James W. Jones stated that he, PFC Willie Ward, PVT J. Clark and PFC Jesse M. Gibson were tortured by a Japanese Civil Guard, Shinichi Motoyashiki and another guard.

Jones testified that, “We were forced to undress and squat in this tub. The ice had been broken first. Motoyashiki and another guard forced the prisoner’s head underwater for about 10 seconds. Jones continued, “Gibson passed out. Then we were taken away and beaten with a club. We were frozen. Then we had to stand naked, at attention in the biting wind for about an hour. Another POW testified that the same guard forced prisoners to stand at attention with their arms outstretched for hours.

Records indicate that Willie was again transferred on May 21, 1945 to a prison in the Nagoya Prison Group. There were 14 individual POW camps in the Nagoya district and Willie was transferred to Nippon Express prison #9-B Toyama [Jinzu-Iwase] located in Toyama City, Toyama Prefecture. Willie was among 230 American prisoners and 119 British and Australian prisoners at No. 9-B. Conditions in this camp were better, as evidenced by the fact that only one POW died in the camp before its release in August.

After the camp was liberated, Willie’s family was informed that he had left Manila in September and was on his way home. The Andalusian Star notes in its November 1, 1945 edition that “Willie Lewis Ward had arrived in Andalucia last Friday for a brief visit with his sister, Mrs Harvey Stephens.” We can only imagine the reunion at the Ward house when Willie returned to find his brother, PJ Ward, who had returned home in June after two years in a German POW camp.

It was a great honor to tell the stories of two heroes such as the Ward brothers. The author remembers a line from the film, “The bridges of Toko Ri”, based on the book of the same name by James Michener. Actor Frederic March played the role of Admiral Tarrant, who had just lost one of his best pilots and a rescue helicopter. He exclaimed, “Where do we find such men? » The same could be said of the Ward brothers.

After the war, Willie Ward worked with his stepfather, Elijah Kay, who ran a planing mill near Florala, Alabama. It is possible that the mill was moved to Houston County as that is where Willie died on May 17, 1990. His wife Gladys died on January 20, 1995. They are both buried in Garden of Mercy Cemetery in Kinsey , Alabama. They had no children.

John Vic

Special Note from the Author: This remarkable story of survival against incredible odds is a testament to the courage, fortitude and triumph of one man’s human spirit – PFC. William Lewis “Willie” Ward of Covington County, Alabama. It is an honor and a privilege to tell his story.

[The author thanks Richard and Wyley Donald Ward for their recollections of their cousin, Willie Ward. Thanks also to Patrick Regan, whose grandfather was aboard the Taga Maru with Willie Ward and was also sent to the Hirohata prison camp. Thanks also to Mindy Kotler Smith who corrected some dates and information. She is a Japan analyst and advisor to the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor].

{Sources: Wikipedia; the book, “The unbreakable line by Mary Cathrin May; The National Museum of World War II article, Curator’s Choice, “The Book of the Dead and Dying”, December 9, 2020; National Archives Prologue Magazine item “American prisoners of war on Japanese ships take a trip to hell”, 2003, vol. 35, no. 4; Preliminary list of Japanese POW camps of all known POW camps in Japan, prepared for war crimes court proceedings, SCAP records; Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Historical Report, “American Victims and Graves at Cabanatuan POW Camp”; The Andalusian Star dated article July 1, 1943; The Montgomery Advertiser article from August 30, 1942; The Andalusian Star article from November 1, 1945; the stars and stripesarticle from March 23, 1946; “The Bridges of Toko Ri” by James Michener]

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