Orel Pierson and the SS President Harrison

SS

SS “President Harrison”

TWO EYE-WITNESS ACCOUNTS

The SS President Harrison was a part of the American President Lines which was chartered by the US Navy on a day-to-day basis; when they could serve their country.  In the words that follow of Master Orel A. Pierson, they were under the orders of Admiral Hart and “on the drum” of the Cavite Naval Radio.  This meant, they were in constant contact, on a specified frequency and had a secret call letter.

Master Orel Pierson

Master Orel Pierson

“At the Torres Straits, here we were informed that we would proceed to Hong Kong as a transport and proceed to Shanghai together with the SS President Madison to evacuate the US 4th Marines.  On 3 December, we made a rendezvous off Formosa with 4 US submarines and with their guns mounted ready for instant action.  We proceeded to Olongapoo, Philippines.  At this time, it was apparent to all that war was imminent.  We noted and reported that Japanese Naval units and transports were steaming south in large numbers.

“We left Manila on the morning of 4 December 1941 with a crew of 154… On arrival at Chingwangtao, we were to pick up around 300 Marines of the Peking & Trintsin Legation Guard and some 1400 tons of equipment and return to Manila.

“Tension was mounting… The destination of the Harrison, [supposed to be secret], was the talk of every hotel and bar room in Manila… I was later informed by the captain of a Japanese destroyer that ‘they knew all about our movements.'”

Port of Shanghai bides the 4th Marines a fond farewell.

Port of Shanghai bids the 4th Marines a fond farewell.

The SS President Harrison was ultimately captured along with the largest group of merchant seamen.  The cargo supposedly included the fossils known as “Peking Man” whose whereabouts remains a mystery today is open to various speculations.  The ship was turned into the Kakka Maru and then the name was changed to Kachidoki Maru, which was torpedoed by the submarine, USS Pampanito.  It is now restored and a museum ship in San Francisco, California.

Orel Pierson was taken prisoner and spent most of his three years and 9 month confinement at Zentsuji War Prison Camp on Shikoko Island.  He was transferred 23 June 1945 to Nokoroshu Camp in western Honshu, Japan until liberated 2 September.

China coast

China coast

“The story of my years in prison camps closely parallels that of any American held by the Japanese, with all the heartaches, abuses, uncertainties and slow starvation accorded to them in the military prisons.  I lost 85 pounds, need I say more.”

This story was taken and condensed from the SS President Harrison Master’s Report, US Naval History.

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The

The “Harrison” as the “Kachidoki Maru.”

Also aboard the SS President Harrison was Hank Behren, a college student who took a year off school for a little adventure and to earn money for his next term – he became a Merchant seaman.  Once back home, he finished school, bought a home and married. (Once freed, merchant seamen were not entitled to G.I. benefits).  In 1981, Hank returned to China and found the old prison camp.  His guide was an elderly Japanese man and Behren asked the man where he was during WWII.  It turned out, he was the captain of a gunboat that patrolled the Whanpoo River.  Hank couldn’t believe it!  From his POW camp  he had watched the boat patrol up and down the river while he enjoyed the old Japanese folk songs the guards played on their gramophone.

When Hank returned home, the old captain sent a cassette of the folk songs to him and the two men corresponded until Hank passed away.  Two years before he died, the U.S. presented Hank with a military discharge and a POW medal.

Hank Behren’s story was found in “The Greatest Generation Speaks” by Tom Brokaw and condensed.

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Dr. Seuss continued to dig with his political cartoons______

seuss_war1

Click images to enlarge.

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Farewell Salutes – 

Peter Bennish – Norvet, PA; US Army Air Corps, WWII, HQ Co/187th Regiment

Robert Carlson – Elgin, IL; US Navy, Korea

courtesy: Cora from 'A Fresh Start'

courtesy: Cora from ‘A Fresh Start’

Ralph Federson – Mesa, AZ; US Navy, WWII

Hector Hotte – Ottawa, Can; RC Army, WWII

Richard Lowe – Des Moines, IA; US Navy, WWII, gunner’s mate

Mary McGovern – Portland, ME; WWII, civilian employee , stenographer/Military Intelligence Service

Richard Siedel – Alamogordo, NM; USMC, WWII, 91st Chemical Mortar Co/6th Marine Division

Vernon Staum – Winder, GA; US Army, Lt. to Lt.Col., Korea and Vietnam

William Throp – Napier, NZ; Service # 288446, WWII

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Loss of a fellow blogger – I discovered yesterday from Tina Blackledge, that Ajay Mody, better know to us as, Ajaytoa, passed away 10 August.  May he rest in peace.

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About GP Cox

Everett Smith served with the Headquarters Company, 187th Regiment, 11th A/B Division during WWII. This site is in tribute to my father, "Smitty." GPCox is a member of the 11th Airborne Association. Member # 4511 and extremely proud of that fact!

Posted on August 19, 2014, in WWII and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 53 Comments.

  1. Great storys, dont understand the treatment of Merchant seaman who became trapped in the war and receiving no benefits, yet Hank Behren was awarded a POW medal and military discharge, yet no benefits.
    Ian

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  2. Great storys, dont understand the treatment of Merchant seaman who became trapped in the war and receiving no benefits, yet Hank Behren was awarded a

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  3. Great stuff as usual.

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  4. Amazing facts you’ve dug up, gpcox. Indeed, what caught my eye was Pierson’s personal conclusion that tension was up (war drums on the near horizon). Certainly, if he sensed that, FDR should have KNOWN. His ship’s future parallels a ship my father crossed the Pacific on in April 1937 back to Seattle. It was confiscated by the IJN and was eventually sunk. It is the largest hulk at the bottom of Iron Bottom Sound.

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    • What a great story, Koji (well, not a good story for your dad) to share with us. Since the US cut off Japan’s supply of scrap metal, I suppose they figured it was easier to adapt other ships as their own. And – you know I agree, FDR should have known and it would take an awful lot to convince me he didn’t. Do you have any idea just how many ships might be at the bottom of Iron Botom Sound?

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      • You’ll have to pardon me, gpcox. I guess the Ambien was taking effect on me when I was typing it. I meant to say Truk Lagoon, not Iron Bottom Sound… Geez… The ship dad sailed on to come back to Seattle for good was called the Heian Maru and was taken by the IJN for troop transport.

        There was a sister ship, the Hikawa Maru. My aunt and newly born cousin Bobby took the sister ship to Japan before the war to introduce baby Bobby to his grandparents. Incidentally, Bobby died in the Minidoka prison/internment camp in 1944 from lack of medical care (blood poisoning).

        The Hikawa Maru survived the war as it was converted into a Japanese hospital ship.

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  5. 85 pounds is a lot of weight for a soldier to lose. This post is a vivid reminder of how rough it was for the prisoners of war.

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    • Yes it is, Sheryl and I appreciate you taking the time to read it. While speaking about war, I’m afraid the topic will come up again. All we can do now is try to remember.

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  6. Enjoyed your post as always, especially the reconnection of the Merchant Marine with the captain of the gunboat. Do wonder what happened to the fossils of the Peking Man?

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  7. Fascinating information. I’ve read so many books about the lost Peking Man fossils. Paloanthropologists looked long and hard for those, hoping they’d show up. This is one more little piece for the story.

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    • When I went to double check on this, I found numerous suppositions of what happened to those fossils afterward. I suspect some poor soul opened the box they were in, saw the bones, freaked out and threw them overboard (One more supposition to add to the pile!). Thanks for reading, Jacqui!

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  8. Another interesting story, GP! I think Dr. Seuss’ cartoon message is timeless. Our nap time is over…..

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  9. What a wonderful story! Both Hank Behren and his pal were wise old man who survived the War none of them started. I have never heard from my Dad a single word of hate against German people and soldiers. He just mentioned once that German soldiers were in mortal fear of the SS Schutzstaffel corps, and they just had to do what they were commanded to do for the safety of their families. Wars do teach lessons, but not a lesson of hatred.

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  10. Quite a story and can only imagine what they went through in those prisoner camps. Losing 85 lbs. Was also surprised that once they got married they lost benefits.

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  11. Another post with a point to it. Hank Behren was very lucky to meet the captain and to become his friend. Alas, too many good men were to succumb in Japanese prison camps. My own dad never went to the Far East but he still steadfastly refused to have any Japanese electronics in the house. Very difficult, but he managed it!

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    • Yes, that must have been difficult being as the Japanese developed so much in electronics and technology once they got going! Some men just couldn’t get over the horror of the atrocities.

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  12. I’ve been on the USS Pampanito at San Francisco . You’ve just widened my horizons .

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  13. gp, What a story, again, unknown to so many of us!!!!!!!!!!!!! Kudos! Phil

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    • Thank you, Phil. It is great to continue reading the books I acquire and then following up with the research – you never know what you’ll find – sort of like a box of chocolates! I continue to learn as well.

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  14. The headline of this piques my curiosity because SS President Harrison was one of the ships my grandfather built, but in checking it was the third ship titled by that name and it was post war.

    I love Hank’s story and I am impressed that he was man enough to forgive the enemy and become his friend…not an easy thing to do.

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    • It was amazing how many stories like Hank’s are around. Reunions especially during the Korean War as the Japanese worked on our side. Thank you for reading and discussing your grandfather, Mrs P.

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  15. One of my late acquaintances spent his war years in the merchant marines on a ship in the European theatre. Some of their missions involved delivery of marteriel to the Soviet Union to support their efforts against the Nazis. Several years later, he was presented with the USSR’s highest medal, the Gold Star Medal of the Hero of the Soviet Union. I haven’t thought about this fellow until you posted this article. I’ve been searching the Norfolk Daily News for the short blurb they published several years ago. So far, no luck.

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  16. Jackie Saulmon Ramirez

    I had remembered the name Orel Pierson but had forgotten the details. Very interesting. 😉

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  17. Great stories. Merchant Navy Day is celebrated on 3 September http://www.eventfinder.co.nz/2014/merchant-navy-day-service/auckland Merchant seamen have not really been lauded as they should have been.

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  18. We watched Midway last night. It was brutal.

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  19. Strange that men on vessels pressed into service, captured and held as prisoner were not entitled to benefits. I’m glad to see that his recognition finally came to him. Love the Suess, a side of him I never knew until you posted one a few weeks ago.

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  20. Interesting– I had no idea that’s what happened to Peking Man!

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