|Following torturous days in the infamous Bataan Death March, Captain Wermuth was held prisoner of the Japanese, who despite the fact that their most hated enemy was now under their control, feared the One Man Army. Elliott Junior Smelser, a fellow POW recalled in 1993 of his own captivity: "The first year of my captivity I worked on building an airfield for the Japanese. Life was not bad because they were afraid of the Major in Charge. His name was Major Wermuth and the Japanese called him 'Wermuth the Lion'."
After spending time at Cabanatuan, Lipa, Bilibid, and then back to Cabanatuan, in December 1944, Major Arthur Wermuth joined 1,618 of his fellow prisoners aboard the unmarked Japanese prison ship Oryoku Maru, for a voyage to prison labor camps in Japan. On the night of December 14, American airplanes bombed the Oryoku Maru, little realizing more than 1,500 Allied prisoners were aboard. The Japanese beached the vessel, leaving the prisoners and only a few guards on board despite the fact that all of them knew Allied planes would return soon.
The American planes from the U.S.S. Hornet did indeed return the following morning, and, still unaware that the ship contained Allied prisoners, the pilots unleashed a torrent of bombs that killed 300 POWs. Following the attack, the Japanese guard at last allowed the prisoners to abandon ship and swim to shore. Many never made it. Those who did created the pattern of white spots seen on the water in this photograph that was taken from an American airplane from the Hornet shortly after the attack.
Major Wermuth was among the survivors of the first Hell Ship, swimming ashore at Olongapo. All the prisoners were quickly rounded up by their captors, and transported to San Fernando in box cars. Two days after Christmas the Brazil Maru and Enoura Maru crammed more than 1,000 prisoners into their small and filthy holds. The Brazil's most recent cargo had been horses, and the hold was still soiled with un-removed manure. Wermuth was among those that suffered hell in the belly of Enoura Maru, the hold of which was filled with dust and residue from its recent cargo of coal. On December 31 the two ships reached the Formosan harbor of Takao. The Japanese held up there to celebrate the New Year, leaving the prisoners cramped below with little food or water, and no medical treatment, though nearly all prisoners were sick and many had already died.
The Enoura Maru was still at Takao on January 9, 1945, when aircraft from the U.S.S. Hornet again attacked an unmarked Japanese ship, unaware that the bombs they dropped into the front hold immediately killed one half of the 500 Americans crammed into that space. Nearly every man who wasn't killed, including Major Wermuth, were wounded by flying shrapnel. It was friendly fire that netted Wermuth his FOURTH Purple Heart.
For three days the Japanese left the bodies of the American dead where they fell, littering a hold still crammed with wounded and bleeding American prisoners. Finally, on January 12, the dead were carried out and the surviving 890 prisoners were transferred to the Brazil Maru for the final leg of their journey to Japan. By the time the prisoners reached Moji, Japan, there were fewer than 500 survivors from among the 1,691 POWs who had boarded the Oryoku Maru less than a month before. Within three months, another 100 prisoners died of disease and/or wounds received on that tragic journey from prison camps in the Philippines to labor camps in Japan. Fewer than 400 survived the war.
Early in 1945 the U.S. Army changed the status of Major Wermuth from Prisoner of War to Killed in Action, believing the man who had become legendary as the One Man Army of Bataan three years earlier was now a casualty of Japanese brutality. .
Five days after the Japanese surrendered, an American officer stood before a large group of sick, starving, and often still-wounded but now free prisoners. Slowly the names of soldiers long missing in action, or known to have been prisoners of war, were called out. Occasionally a feeble voice would answer "HERE!" Far more often, there was no response at all. "Major Arthur Wermuth," an officer called out loudly, experience having already prepared him only for silence.
"HERE!" came a weak voice from among the throng of prisoners. Arthur Wermuth, the Ghost of Bataan, stepped slowly forward. His 103-pound body was thin, emaciated, and scarred by four combat wounds, as well as the emotional scars that could not be seen, or understood by more than a few who had, like him endured so much. But Arthur Wermuth was still very alive.