What Happened in Bataan?
Arthur Wermuth crawled through the mud of the Philippine jungle. He paused to let a squad of Japanese soldiers march past. Once he was in the clear, Wermuth continued to stealthily make his way through enemy territory. He spotted a small hill that overlooked an enemy camp.
Wermuth made his way to the ridge line and took aim at the Japanese soldiers below, then unleashed a rain of lead from his Thompson submachine gun. The confused soldiers shouted, “how did American troops get behind us?” What they didn’t know was that the Americans causing so much chaos and destruction, was actually only one man. A man who would later be called the One-Man Army of Bataan.
The making of a One-man Army
Arthur Wermuth was assigned to Company D of the 57th Infantry during World War II. What made this squad unique was that it consisted of mostly Filipino soldiers. A small group of American soldiers, including Wermuth, was attached to the 57th infantry. The squad itself was nicknamed the Filipino Scouts, as their main mission was reconnaissance and infiltration behind enemy lines. Sent to the Philippines in 1941, it didn’t take long before Wermuth was promoted to the rank of Captain of the Filipino Scouts.
As the much larger Japanese force pressed forward, Wermuth and his men repelled attack after attack. They were heavily outnumbered and outgunned, but with Wermuth’s leadership, they caused numerous setbacks for the Japanese army. In January of 1942 the Japanese launched an offensive against the Allied forces. It seemed that the American and Filipino soldiers would be overrun and the islands would be lost, but Wermuth had other plans.
He grabbed his Thompson submachine gun, two .45 caliber pistols, and as many grenades as he could carry. He covered his skin in dirt and camouflaged his helmet with foliage. Wermuth snuck across enemy lines and hid in the dense jungle. He waited for a Japanese patrol to pass by.
A master of disguise
Eventually, a heavily armed squad crossed his path. He was so well hidden that one of the soldiers almost stepped on him. The enemy squad was heading towards the Allied lines. Wermuth knew that if he stayed with the squad, he would be able to surprise them from behind once they were engaged with the Allied forces. As the last Japanese soldier passed, Wermuth stepped into the end of the line and followed the Japanese soldiers as if he were one of their own.
They proceeded miles through the dark jungle, the Japanese unaware that Wermuth had infiltrated their ranks. When the soldier in front of him made too much noise, Wermuth “shushed” him. The Japanese squad neared the fortified position of the Philippine Scouts. Wermuth did not want to get caught in the crossfire from his own soldiers, so he decided it was time to get away, but not before causing a little chaos.
Sold them out
Wermuth purposefully stumbled into the soldier directly in front of him. As he pretended to grab onto the man for support he handed him a live grenade. Wermuth gave the enemy soldier a shove and then dove into the protection of the jungle. The Philippine Scouts could hear screams from in front of them. All of a sudden, the grenade went off, taking enemy soldiers with it.
More importantly, the explosion gave away the position of the Japanese squad. The Philippine Scouts, with the help of Wermuth from behind, made quick work of the enemy troops. It was acts of courage and destruction like this that earned Wermuth the Japanese title, the Ghost of Bataan. A name that he rightfully deserved, as each one of his adventures behind enemy lines got crazier and crazier.
The larger-than-life sidekick
Although Wermuth was a one man army, and could cause mayhem by himself, he often worked with his close friend, and brother in arms, Jock. Jock was a massive six foot four, 220 pound, Filipino soldier. As they fought together, they quickly became friends who always had each other’s backs. Wermuth liked working alone, but Jock was adamant he go with his captain as backup whenever Wermuth volunteered for a dangerous mission.
Jock saved Wermuth’s life on more than one occasion. The most notable time this happened was on a mission to uncover a Japanese tap into the Allied communication systems. This mission was so astounding, that a portrayal of it would end up in wartime gum packages back in the United States.
It had become obvious that the Japanese were able to tap into the Allied communication lines. They seemed to know too much about Allied movements and plans. The commanders asked for volunteers to scout the wires along the front lines to find, and disrupt the Japanese wiretap. Wermuth was the first to volunteer, Jock immediately stepped forward to join his captain. They set out together to locate and dismantle the deadly problem.
The two men made their way through the damp jungle. They had to dodge poisonous snakes, deadly spiders, and the watchful eyes of Japanese snipers. They searched and searched for the wiretap, but came up empty handed. Wermuth and Jock started to make their way back to the Allied defensive position. On their return journey Wermuth got tangled in what seemed like a vine at first. He tripped and landed in the mud. As he went to cut the vine, he noticed that it wasn’t a vine at all, it was a wire.
When the one-man army needed help
Wermuth and Jock followed the wire. Suddenly, Wermuth fell into a camouflage ditch, landing directly on top of a shocked Japanese soldier who was tapped into Allied transmissions. Wermuth pushed off the enemy soldier and drew his pistol like a cowboy in an old Western movie.
He fired and killed the Japanese soldier who was too slow to the draw. Wermuth slowly made his way to the recording equipment, to get a better look at how the Japanese had tapped into the Allied communication system. He was so fascinated by the technology that he did not notice two other Japanese soldiers who had crept up on him from behind.
The sound of a branch snapping behind him caught his attention. Wermuth spun around, but this time he drew his gun too slowly. One of the Japanese soldiers plunged a bayonet into his arm. The rusty metal scraped along his bone and pinned him to the wall.
Wermuth knew he was in big trouble. There was only one person who could save him. He called out for Jock. “Japanese! Two more down here!” he yelled. Jock raced to where his captain had fallen into the ditch. Without hesitating Jock jumped into the hole.
He landed hard on the ground below. When Jock looked up, Wermuth was struggling in hand to hand combat with the Japanese soldiers. Jock pushed off the ground and launched his huge body towards the assailants. He used the butt of his rifle to bludgeon one enemy unconscious. Jock next turned to the second enemy; he shoved him away from Wermuth and shot the remaining Japanese soldier.
After neutralizing the threat, Jock ran over to Wermuth to tend to his wounds. His captain had nearly passed out from the pain in his arm and loss of blood. Jock carefully removed the bayonet and bandaged the wound. He threw Wermuth across his shoulders and carried him back to the safety of the Allied base. If it weren’t for Jock, the One-Man Army of Bataan may have died in that Japanese ditch.
A hero is born
This story and the exploits of Wermuth made it back to the United States. He was seen as a living war hero. The successful mission of finding and dismantling the Japanese wiretap by Wermuth and Jock made headlines. It was so well known, that a drawing of the mission was placed in the wrappers of wartime gum to help fund the war effort
Wermuth spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital. He would get patched up, and even before the doctor gave him the all clear, he would ask to be sent back to his squad. His next exploit was so insane, you won’t believe how he managed to get out of it alive. Allied headquarters had determined that the only way to disrupt the Japanese advance was to destroy a bridge that allowed them easy access into the area surrounding Manila.
There was only one bridge in the area, but it was deep behind enemy lines. Someone needed to sneak far into Japanese held territory and blow up the bridge, otherwise the Allied forces would quickly be overwhelmed. Arthur Wermuth volunteered for the job.
The impossible mission
He set out just before dawn when the sun was low in the sky. Most of the Japanese soldiers were still asleep at this time. Wermuth carried two five-gallon drums of gasoline with him to create a distraction before he blew up the bridge. He made his way into the town of Kalaguiman, which was where the bridge was located. He stuck to the shadows of alley ways to keep out of sight of enemy snipers and guards. Hundreds of Japanese soldiers inhabited the town, as it was a main hub for transporting supplies.
The plan was that once Wermuth set fire to the town, the Allied artillery would unleash a barrage of shells on Kalaguiman. This would serve as a distraction, so that Wermuth could make his way to the bridge and detonate TNT to destroy it. He snuck to the far end of the town and began spraying gasoline onto the walls of the thatched roof buildings.
He struck a match, set the buildings ablaze, and waited for chaos to ensue. Japanese soldiers ran out of the burning buildings, on fire, and screaming. They rolled on the dirt ground to put out the flames as artillery shells began falling from the sky. Wermuth made his way to the bridge.
He tried his best to stay in the shadows, but he was running out of time. He made a break for the bridge running up one of the main streets. Wermuth was spotted by enemy soldiers who began shooting at him. He dodged fire in the streets, ducked under flying bullets, and dove for cover.
He caught his breath and began running towards the bridge again. He was almost there when a stray bullet ripped through his leg. The pain was immense, but Wermuth ignored it and sprinted to his target. He placed the charges while providing his own cover using his Thompson submachine gun.
He blew up the bridge successfully, and disappeared into the jungle. Upon returning to the Allied headquarters, he was debriefed and sent to the hospital where the bullet was removed from his calf. This was when Wermuth received his first of several Purple Hearts.
How Wermuth cemented his legacy
After the surgery, Wermuth had no choice but to wait in the hospital until his leg healed. However, as soon as he felt strong enough, he discharged himself and returned to the front lines to join his squad. He continued to lead his men with bravery until March of 1942, when Wermuth and his Philippine Scouts were ordered to recapture Mount Pucat from the Japanese.
This was a suicide mission, but Wermuth was not going to disobey orders, and he would do everything he could to take the high ground. It would be an uphill battle that would nearly cost the One-Man Army of Bataan his life.
As the squad moved up through the jungle they were ambushed. One of the enemy soldiers rushed towards Wermuth trying to stab him with his bayonet. Wermuth dodged the attack and wrestled the Japanese soldier to the ground. He pulled his knife and plunged it into the enemy. The Philippine Scouts fought off ambush after ambush, losing men in the process. They dealt heavy losses to the Japanese forces as they pushed forward, but the cost was great.
As they fought up the mountain, bullets ripped through the jungle trees and into the squad. There was a Japanese machine gun dug-in across a stream. There was no way for Wermuth and the Philippine Scouts to move forward without destroying the machine gun first. Wermuth mustered his bravery and led the squad in a daring counter attack. He pulled the safety ring out of a grenade and tossed it at the machine gunner.
As the grenade left his hand, Wermuth was struck in the chest by a bullet. The bullet chipped a rib before passing through his lung. Members of his squad grabbed their captain and pulled him to safety; they retreated back to base to get Wermuth to a hospital.
His undying will to fight on
This wound was the worst one yet. The doctors told Wermuth he was done fighting and needed to stay in the hospital, but Wermuth knew his brothers were still out there trying to take the high ground. He would not abandon them. Wermuth was in the hospital for about a week until he could wait no longer. Against doctors’ orders, and with pus oozing out of his wound, he made his way back to the Philippine Scouts, but it was too late.
The Japanese forces were pushing the squad back. Wermuth was too weak to sneak behind enemy lines and ambush them like he had done so many times before. He called for a retreat. As the squad made their way down the mountain, Wermuth slipped and tumbled down a ravine, slamming his head on a jagged rock below. He was knocked unconscious and had to be carried back to the hospital by his squad mates.
Wermuth Survives the extraordinary the Bataan memorial death march
This would be the end of the reign of the One-Man Army of Bataan. While in the hospital, the Japanese defeated the Allied forces in the area and took all who remained captive. But his fight to survive was not yet over. Wermuth was so wounded that he was unable to be sent into the Bataan Death March, where around 70,000 American and Filipino prisoners of war were marched 70 miles to a POW camp. Thousands of soldiers were forced on the trek and died enroute to the prison.
Once he recovered, Wermuth was sent to work on building a runway for Japanese aircraft to land. He and the other men working on the project sabotaged it, so the runway buckled under the weight of landing bombers and damaged them. He was then put on the “hell ship,” Oryoku Maru, as one of 1,620 prisoners. This ship was bombed on December 15, 1944 by aircraft from the USS Hornet. The American ship thought the Oryoku Maru was carrying enemy troops, not prisoners of war. This mistake cost the lives of several hundred POWs, but Wermuth survived this ordeal as well.
A national hero
Eventually Wermuth was prisoned in Mukden, Korea where his prison camp was finally liberated by Soviet forces in August 1945. When he was returned to the American military, he weighed almost 80 pounds lighter than at the beginning of the war. Wermuth was finally going home where he would receive the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions in the Philippines. He had become a household name in the United States as a veteran war hero, affectionately called the “One-Man Army of Bataan” by newspapers and civilians alike. Arthur Wermuth was credited with over 116 kills, received the Silver Star, and three Purple Heart medals.