Book tells Bataan, shipwreck survivor’s struggle

 

Sgt. Calvin Graef, speaking to the Carlsbad BRO while on his speaking tour throughout New Mexico with Sgt. 'Bill' Horabin. [BRO “National Bulletin”, Jan. 30, 1945]

CARLSBAD, N.M., FEB. 19, 2000 — The horrors of World War II lay unspoken in a Carlsbad man’s heart until the day a full-time sheriff’s deputy and part-time author showed up on his doorstep in 1995.

Almost five years later, Calvin Graef’s story comes to light in a book published by cop-turned-teacher Melissa Simpson.

Simpson, a former Lea County sheriff’s deputy who now teaches English at a junior high school, learned of Graef after reading an Associated Press news story about him in The Hobbs News-Sun.

The Carlsbad man, according to an article published in October of 1995, was one of seven soldiers who survived the bombing of a Japanese prison ship that killed nearly 1,800 men. Graef, who lived through the Bataan Death March and three years in POW camps, had organized a reunion of the wreck’s survivors in Carlsbad.

“I told him I wanted to write a book about his experience and he said, “Come on over,’” said Simpson, who wrote Ride the Waves to Freedom from Graef’s perspective under the pen name Melissa Masterson.

Shortly after meeting her, Graef, then 81 and in failing health, gave her five cassette tapes bound with a rubber band and labeled, “My War Storie, Calvin Graef.”

Even his wife and grown son had never heard about the events he meticulously recorded years earlier when his memory was still fresh.

In 10 hours of tapes, Graef recounted the losing battle to hold the Philippines against Japanese invaders.

A member of the 200th Coast Artillery—whose ranks were mostly made of New Mexico National Guard soldiers—Graef was one of 30,000 American and Filipino soldiers on the infamous Bataan Death March, a 100-mile trek that claimed 500 lives a day.

Of the experience, Simpson wrote: “As we put one foot in front of the other, many of the men broke ranks at the sight of any little puddle of muddy water we came upon. On several occasions men would desperately pull a bloated and distorted body, sometimes animal and sometimes human, out of one of these puddles just to reach the water in which the body had been lying.”

It wasn’t any better in the prisoner-of-war camps, where more soldiers died of malnutrition, malaria, dysentery or torture at the hands of Japanese guards.

“Sometimes a man had just enough strength left in him to crawl under the edge of the barracks before death overcame him. Often, to help a man survive, we had to make him mad. We would cuss at him. We would tell him he was a chicken, gutless, and a baby. If we had to, we would slap him in the face—anything to help give him nerve enough to live. Sometimes the easy part is dying and the hardest part of all is to try and stay alive.”

Graef was one of thousands of prisoners herded onto freighters bound for Japan as the war neared an end.

Termed “hellships,” the boats were packed with thousands of men in locked holds while the Japanese tried to navigate through waters patrolled by enemy boats.

On Oct. 24, 1944, a U.S. submarine torpedoed the Arisan Maru, unaware the freighter was carrying more than 1,800 Americans.

Graef was 50 feet from the blast that tore the ship in half and killed several hundred men outright.

He leaped into the ocean, then watched as other soldiers swam for boats in the Japanese convoy, only to be shoved away.

As day turned to night, Graef floated on a mat in 35-foot waves.

Hours later, he spied another survivor hanging onto a piece of wreckage in the darkness of the South China Sea.

“He just looked at me and said hello, and (said) he didn’t think he would be able to hang on much longer. It was kind of like two strangers passing on a sidewalk, who make some unimportant comment to each other about the weather. I ... suggested he share a piece of my mat and said we might as well try to hang on together. I reached out, our hands clasped and that is how I came to know Don Meyer.”

Graef and Meyer eventually encountered three other men floating in a lifeboat. They found a sail and navigated westward until rescued by Chinese peasants.

Once he’d returned to the United States, Graef was asked to travel the country talking to families of POWs still imprisoned.

“One after another, wives and mothers of men who I knew were dead approached me with hope in their eyes. They implored me to tell them how their relatives were faring. I could not. The War Department had given me strict instructions that this was not permissible.”

His mission complete, Graef moved to Arizona for a short time, then settled in Carlsbad where he owned a furniture store.

“I think he found his peace knowing that God had been with him through the four-year ordeal,” Simpson said. “I think that’s how he came to grips with everything.”

Despite pleas from curators at the Bataan Memorial Museum in Santa Fe, Graef never relayed details of his experience.

Until he turned the tapes over to Simpson.

“At first, he said he was worried about what I would hear,” Simpson said. “I told him that I was a police officer and had probably seen just about as much death as he had. It seemed like after that, it was okay. We clicked.”

Frustrated by publishers who insisted she rework the book’s first-person narrative and tense sequences, Simpson decided to foot the bill to print 600 copies of Ride the Waves to Freedom.

“I wanted to stay true to Calvin’s story,” she said. “This was one of the largest sea tragedies of all time, and nobody knows about it.”

The son of a prisoner who perished on the Arisan Maru filmed a documentary on the event several years ago and Simpson hopes to interest him in the story of the men who survived the torpedo blast.

Graef died in Carlsbad in 1997 at age 84. Simpson wonders if he didn’t see her as a last hope at having his story told.

The last time they spoke, Graef dictated a dedication that appears in the book: “To the veterans, living and dead, of Bataan and Corregidor.” And he directed her to send a copy of the book to his son, now living in Kansas.

 

The New Mexican