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We Honor Veterans: The Story of Cletis Overton

11/9/2015

Veterans Day is a time to honor the service of our men and women in uniform, including those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation. Mr. Cletis Overton, an Arkansas Hospice patient, has a particularly powerful story as a prisoner of war during World War II.

Cletis Overton, a resident of Hot Spring County, was born in 1920 in Willow, Arkansas. Overton’s life, like many growing up during the Great Depression, wasn’t easy. His early years were spent working hard on the family 80-acre farm.

While he didn’t care for farming much, he enjoyed public service and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps where he would work during the summers. During his sophomore year of high school, he helped farmers understand soil conservation by teaching them ways to prevent erosion on their land. The following summer, he worked at Lake Catherine State Park building cabins, which still stand today. During his senior year of high school, he skipped his graduation to fight forest fires in Idaho.

His next job would be cutting pulpwood, but after spending countless hours in the woods in solitude, he needed a change and decided to hitchhike to Little Rock to join the Army Air Corps. He was trained as an aircraft mechanic, and a year later he and his unit, the 27th Bomber group, boarded the USS President Coolidge and were shipped to the Philippines.

Within 18 days of his arrival, he awoke to the sounds of sirens blaring. The air base was attacked by the Japanese from the air just 10 hours after Pearl Harbor. Soon after, United States joined World War II. With the planes at the base being destroyed, Overton was reassigned as a military policeman and an infantry solider.

After months of American forces fighting on the defensive, supplies and morale ran low. By April, the American forces in the Philippines surrendered, and on April 10, 1942, the 65 mile death march from Mariveles, Bataan, to San Fernando, Pampanga, began. Overton, along with thousands of American and Philippine troops, was taken as a prisoner of war in the Bataan Death March. Troops were subjected to horrific abuse -- starvation, torture, and random execution. The exact numbers remain unknown, but hundreds of American and thousands of Filipino troops were killed.

The atrocities didn’t end once the march ended. Instead it continued for three more years in numerous Japanese prison camps where Overton and his fellow troops faced backbreaking labor with little food and medical care. By August 1944, American forces were advancing and Overton, with 600 other prisoners, was moved to a Japanese cargo ship and then transferred to the “hell ship” Shinyo Maru. Hell ships were known for their deplorable conditions and many prisoners died on these ships due to asphyxia, starvation, and dysentery.

On September 7, 1944, the Shinyo Maru was torpedoed by the American submarine USS Paddle. The ship quickly filled with rushing water, and the prisoners clawed over each other using their last bit of energy to reach the top deck. Overton recounts this experience in the book The Lord Is Our Shepherd by Steve and Melissa Brawner, saying:

“Well, I knew that it was my time to go. There just wasn’t any way. I was at life’s end. I promised the Lord that if it was His will that I got out and got back home, that any time I talked about it I’d give my testimony to the Lord. And I’ve kept that promise all these years.”

After 8 hours of swimming, Cletis found four Americans hiding in a cave. They made it to Sindangan Bay and received aid from friendly Filipino guerrillas. Of the 750 allied prisoners, Cletis Overton was one of only 83 Americans who survived the incident.

On November 6, 1944, Cletis finally returned to the United States. He received a Purple Heart, Bronze Star, two battle stars, the Prisoner of War Medal, and the Philippine Liberation Medal. The following year he got to meet actor John Wayne while he was filming the movie, They Were Expendable, about the role American PT boats played in defending the Philippines during the war.  

Cletis sums up his experience on page 251 of The Lord Is Our Shepherd:

“People who haven’t lost their freedom I don’t believe can comprehend really what freedom really means to them. They don’t think about what a blessing it is to live in this country and enjoy all the freedoms we have…It’s just a great life here in this country.”

Now an Arkansas Hospice patient, Cletis Overton is the last known living survivor from the Shinyo Maru incident. He lives in Malvern, Arkansas, with his wife, Adrienne Overton.

 

 

 

 

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