Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things – James E. Plummer

Sgt. James E. Plummer in a post-war photograph.

James E. Plummer was born on October 4, 1921 in upstate New York to Clarence and Bessie Plummer. Shortly after he was born, the family moved to Kansas. He was their only child. He enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps on December 7, 1939 as an airplane mechanic. His intention was to learn aviation and work for an airline after his service was completed.

His military service began at Ft. Riley, Kansas where he trained as a mechanic and a tail gunner on B-17s. In the summer of 1941 he transferred to the 19th Bomb Group at Clark Field, the Philippines and was assigned to the Headquarters Squadron. He was at Clark Field when it was attacked by the Japanese on December 8, 1941. He remained at Clark Field until December 29 when the squadron boarded a steamer for Mindanao arriving there on January 1, 1942.

Photograph taken by James Plummer of American troops evacuating the steamer Mayon in Mindanao after it was attacked by Japanese aircraft on January 1, 1942. (Craig Coleman).

The squadron operated out of Del Monte airfield on Mindanao as part of the Visayas-Mindanao Force. Plummer was assigned to the quartermaster depot at Del Monte. In April 1942, he was transferred to an air corps unit responsible for beach defense. On May 7, 1942, the unit removed to Maramig airfield and surrendered to the Japanese. Five days later, Plummer and his comrades were trucked to Malaybalay Prison. He remained there until September 14, 1942 when he was moved to Bilibid Prison at Manila en route to Karenko Prison on the island of Formosa.

James Plummer’s entry (lower right) on the roster of POWs at Malaybaly Prison in the Philippines. (National Archives).

On September 20, 1942, Plummer and approximately 1,000 other POWs were crammed onto the Buenos Aires Maru, an ocean liner that had been converted to a hospital ship to start a seven day journey to Formosa. In addition to its cargo of prisoners, the ship was carrying Japanese soldiers, ammunition and military equipment. The next day, off the coast of Luzon, it was attacked by an American submarine. The Japanese placed armed sentries at the hatch to fire upon any prisoners who tried to flee in the chaos of the attack. They were not provided life jackets. Thankfully, the ship emerged unscathed. (The Buenos Aires Maru was later sunk by American aircraft while transporting Japanese wounded and medical personnel).

Plummer arrived at Karenko on September 27, 1942. He remained there until moved to Shirakowa, Formosa in June 1943. He was at Shirakowa longer than any other facility leaving there in October 1944. While on Formosa, he reported that he was paid five yen per month in camp scrip that could be spent on goods at a poorly stocked camp store.

On October 9, 1944, he and over a thousand other POWs were crammed into the holds of the hellship, Oryoku Maru. They were packed tight and could only sit or stand. The ship had last hauled cattle and the holds were not cleaned. It was infested with rats and cockroaches.

The Oryoku Maru off the coast of the Philippines in October 1943. (US Navy).

Before the ship could leave Formosa it was attacked twice in two days by American Navy planes. The presence of American ships nearby prevented the Oryoku Maru from leaving port until October 22. It arrived at Moji, Kyushu in the Japanese home islands on October 27. The prisoners remained in the holds for those eighteen days. They were let out onto the dock twice during the entire time to where they were hosed down. What little food they were given was passed down from above and not evenly dispensed. Many of the men died or went mad.

(In December 1944, the Oryoku Maru was sunk by planes from the USS Hornet in the Philippines. There were over 3,500 prisoners on board of which 285 were killed in the attack along with over 500 Japanese military and civilians.)

Promotion certificate for James Plummer advancing him from Private First Class to Staff Sergeant while he was at the Shirakowa Prison Camp on Taiwan. (Craig Coleman).

The prisoners were transported from Fusan to a camp in Chiengchia Tun in southern Manchuria. Plummer remained there until May 21, 1945 when he was transferred to the Hoten camp at Mukden in northern Manchuria. Hoten was liberated by the Red Army on August 20, 1945 thus ending 1,285 days of captivity for Sergeant Plummer.

Plummer reported that the best treatment he received as a prisoner was at the camps in the Philippines which were run by the front line Japanese Army units. Camp conditions and treatment of the prisoners by their captors worsened as time went on and he was moved from camp to camp. He did orderly room work for the Allied officers while in the camps on Formosa. He worked in the kitchens of the camps in Manchuria.

File:Liberation of Mukden POW camp.jpg
Photograph taken in the Mukden Prisoner of War Camp in Manchuria
of the announcement of the end of the war. (Original source unknown).

He tended to gardens on Formosa and in Manchuria. The prisoners grew sweet potatoes and cabbage which was intended for their use but was frequently confiscated by the Japanese and Korean guards. The diet consisted almost exclusively of rice and poor quality vegetables. They had meat occasionally early on but it was served less and less frequently until it disappeared altogether. They were able to fish small minnows out of a pond at Mukden.

Discipline in the camps was harsh. The Japanese punished minor infractions by face-slapping. More serious offenses resulted in beatings. Solitary confinement was not used in the camps he was in. Instead, the Japanese instituted punishment by tens. Each prisoner was part of a group of ten and the same punishment was meted out to all in the group. If a prisoner escaped, the other members of his group were executed. Plummer reported only being punished on one occasion. He and two others captured and slaughtered a chicken that had flown into camp at Mukden. This was a violation of camp rules and a guard caught them while it was being cooked. All three men were in separate punishment groups so thirty men served ten days in the punishment pen for this infraction.

Excerpt of notes taken by James Plummer concerning his fellow prisoners. (Craig Coleman).

Plummer frequently contracted dysentery and had many bouts of malaria. He had one tooth pulled without anesthetic while in the camps. After liberation, he had another tooth pulled and twenty fillings put in. He lost thirty pounds during captivity. He suffered from nervousness and his eyes were failing. He was evacuated to the 204th General Hospital on Guam where he remained for recuperation until early 1946. He was eventually discharged on May 27, 1946.

Letter from fellow prisoner Clifford V. Beckwith commending James Plummer for actions in aid of his comrades while in Japanese captivity. (Craig Coleman).

He returned to Kansas after the war. While he did not see his dream of working in aviation realized, he became a construction project manager for a company that did work all around the world. Ironically, two of the places he worked were Mindanao and Manchuria. He died in Kansas in 1996.

The source for this information was James Plummer himself. He answered a questionnaire about his imprisonment in 1946. He also gave an interview to a sixth grade neighbor in 1985 for a class project. I am indebted to Craig Coleman for providing me copies of these documents as well as other records kept by Sgt. Plummer.

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