We Honor Veterans: The Story of Cletis Overton
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
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
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.