Book tells Bataan, shipwreck
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, 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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
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.