Thursday, August 6, 2015

Kenneth Leo Marvin (June 21, 1921-September 15, 2006)

Becky Iverson, Cindy Bajucich & Konnie Serka, 3 of his daughters, standing behind some of their father's war memorabilia

What is it that sparks an interest in something?  Is it something you hear about on a news forecast, or  overheard in a conversation, or did you read a comment on social media?  Who knows?  But whatever it is you suddenly have the need to delve deeper into the subject.  And, that is how this blog came about.

For those living in Gig Harbor, Washington, you probably recognize the name Kenneth Leo Marvin Veterans Memorial Park.  This park was dedicated on May 20, 2009, and given the name in honor of Kenny Marvin, and all the others members of our greater community who have sacrificed their lives or serviced our country in times of conflict.

After Kenny came home from his service in World War II, he married Fern Janice Underwood on January 3, 1946.  He and Fern had five daughters, and according to Scott Turner in an article he wrote in The Kitsap Sun, May 21, 2009, “Early in their lives he numbered them No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 and No. 5, as a way to call all his girls in a hurry.  …he got the idea from the Japanese culture while serving 1,354 days as a prisoner of war …

Kenny served in some of the most cruel Japanese interment camps - Woosung, Osaka (Tsumori 13) and Naoetsu.  He was captured on December 23, 1941 when the Japanese landed on Wake Island and took it from the US Marines.  There were 400 marines and it took 16 days before Japan took possession of Wake.  He recorded a very descriptive, lengthy and informative record of his time and I recommend that you read it here.  

Two other Gig Harbor men recorded an oral history: Drew Foss, a civilian working on Wake Island for Pacific Naval Airbase Contractors, taken as a prisoner of war at the same time; and Don Sehmel who had joined the Marines after Pearl Harbor.  (Foss Tugs had gone to the South Pacific to work on naval construction projects in advance of military action in 1939.)

But this is Kenny’s story.   

Kenny was born in Havre, Montana.  Havre was founded by Simon Pepin in 1863, and as any successful entrepreneur, he convinced James J. Hill to build his locomotive shops on his property in Havre, making the town a major railroad service center for the Great Northern Railroad.  Kenny’s father worked for the railroad, but in 1924 there were labor strikes connected to various railroad unions and effecting the entire country.  So the Marvin family decided to move on, and when they arrived on the Gig Harbor peninsula, the family settled in Glenwood. After attending junior high school in the South Kitsap School District in Port Orchard, he finished 10th, 11th & 12th grades at Union High School  (1921-1959; Goodman Middle School 1959-2004; Harbor Ridge Middle School 2004-present) on Prentice Street at the head of the harbor.  

His great-grandfather, his grandfather, and two great uncles all fought in the Civil War.  His brother joined the Marines in 1935 in preparation should the US be drawn into the war going on it Europe and Asia.  Kenny, like most young men, found the stories about the Civil War and the military fascinating.  A lot of his interest came from the letters his family members wrote home about the war.  

So while Kenny was in Kent visiting his brother, a recruiter for the National Guard talked him into joining.  Of course he was underage (15-16), but they went to Fort Lewis, fibbed a little about his age, and  Kenny joined an artillery unit.  Just like today, they met once a week but Kenny finally had to give it up because of school and the difficulty getting to Tacoma on weekdays.

After graduation Kenny worked on a Gig Harbor fishing boat in Alaska. When he returned at the end of summer, he stayed with his brother in Kent while working on the railroad.  The war had started in England and Kenny knew he didn’t want to be in the National Guard, he wanted to be a marine like his brother.  So when the railroad laid him off he went to Seattle to find the recruiting office and to sign up for the Marines.  The year - 1939.  October 3, 1939!  The same year that he turned 18 in June.
Kenneth Leo Marvin

He had already received his training in the Guard, so he became a member of the 39th platoon and sent to San Diego’s Marine Depot for boot camp.  In 1941, the fleet was transferred to Pearl Harbor.  By August, 1941, they were on their way to Wake Island on a cargo ship.  Kenny describes getting on the cargo ship “…we was passing our sea bags up the gang plank and then I was in charge, I was a corporal you know.  And in those days a corporal was kind of a big shot, self-proclaimed, you know.  I’m the judge of that, so carried the last one up and I…not supposed to be anyone on this gang plank and I run into somebody and I says what the hell are you doing here.  I look down, Christ, white shoes, white pants, and the further up I looked was an officer.  Navy officer.  It was my buddy from school here.  He was an ensign on this cargo ship.  I says Secor what the hell are you doing on this rust bucket.  A couple days later I say hey Secor where the devil we going.  He says Wake Island.  I says don’t mean a thing, but it was really comical.”  {NOTE:  I did not find Secor on the list of POW or an oral history}

Wake Island had previously been used by Pan American Airways as a rest stop, fuel stop, on flights between San Francisco and the Philippines.  But otherwise not much.  The marines were setting up the guns “you know…putting our guns in placement and placing (inaudible) these three inch guns are real…they weight six and a half ton and they got outriggers you know like this and like that.  So had to clear all that we worked…we was just out there to put those in because we were supposed to be relieved before Christmas by the third defense which come out from the states. ….”  “….we were supposed to be back in Pearl Harbor for Christmas but it was four years later we got there.”

They got news of the attack on Pearl Harbor around 11 o’clock on December 8th.  Remember Wake Island is on the other side of the International Date Line.  And although Pearl Harbor was 2200-2300 miles away, the Japanese already had planes in the air over the South Pacific.  As Kenny relates “They had brought a truck load of food and a bunch of us were gathered with out mess kits and here comes these airplanes and the next thing was they were dropping bombs and that’s when they got the Pan American Hotel which wasn’t too far from us.  And actually I could see the pilot in the airplane bomber.  At first we though they at the other end of the island where they saw them they thought they was ours because supposed to have been PBYs come in that morning see and there was a patrol of flight patrol but they was up to 13,000 feet.  Japanese came in at 5-600 feet or 1000 feet under low clouds….I just saw these planes and what the hell are they doing and after we heard the explosions and everything we ran to our guns but they were so low, I think we fired a few rounds, but they were going so fast and so low that it was just wasting ammunition for us. …I never really got scared until the last few days.  We were on these guns, I was on the azimuth.  You know I got a crank in each hand and you’re just matching bugs, you hardly ever look up.  Once in a while I’d look up and I could see those bombs coming down you know, but as long as you can see them you are alright..”

On about the 4th day of the bombing the Japanese came in with their ships and tried to take the island.  It took them 3 or 4 days before they could land.  The marines never left their guns,  and they had to move the guns every 2-3 days to avoid being hit.  The civilians on the island would bring food to the marines “They were real good.  There was 1100 of them there…and you hear a lot about they all ran and hid, but hey there were so damned many that helped us we forgot about the ones that didn’t.”  

At first the marines had 12 fighter planes, F4Fs but 7 were destroyed the first morning.  But the 5 remaining planes did the best job they could.  Population of Wake was 1150 civilians and 400 marines against an unknown number of Japanese pilots and marines.

Well on the second day is when I got hit.  I was ordered to take a tractor and trailer and go to the bridge, there was a bridge across from Wake to Peale and so before I got to that bridge there must have been 50 or 60 civilians filling sand bags for us and.  So I was waiting for this truck to get out of there so I could back this trailer down and get a load of sand bags and so they asked me, let’s see if you can pull it, they couldn’t get the truck out you know so I hooked onto it with this tractor, but before that this Joe Cocachia, he was the civilian in charge of these people, had a string of sand bags you know made a little alley way and so he says run and jump on these things we had then staggered so he hooked me up so I am taking up slack in the line and I look ed back and Jesus everybody is running and so I just turned it off and jumped right over the top of it and I crawled underneath.  And got a pieces of shrapnel in my head.  It glanced off the side of the tractor.  But there were 8 or 9 civilians there that got killed because you know they ran you know.  The ones that stayed in the little sand bags and stuff. …..”  “that’s when they hit the garage and they hit the hospital.  Which was on top of this hospital is a big red cross and everything, but it didn’t mean anything to the Japanese.”

“I just walked back to the…cause I started up this tractor, this caterpillar and Jeez oil was coming-out the sides there was a hole in one of the cylinders bout like that and I says hell I’ll never make it back with this so.  And then me and this Cocachia we went across the bridge to help some of these guys out of the hospital that had been wounded a couple days before, you know.    …. so we get them out of there and there was a big warehouse burning.  I remember this was funny.  This navy officer he comes and he grabbed both and he says I want you to put that fire out.  Shit.  There was no fire trucks or zilch here you know and I started to say something and the civilian he flat told him you know cause he wasn’t he was a civilian, he told damn near to get lost.  He says what the hell you think we can do.”

“They came in at night on the 23rd.  They came in and ran…”

Word came from the higher ups to surrender.  And so they did.  

Again, I want to ask, no beg, you to read Kenny’s complete narrative as I have only reproduced a very small portionleading up to the battle and surrender.  He describes the three camps where he was imprisoned.  

The following are a few debriefing comments about the conditions a Naoetsu:

Japanese Camp officials: 1st Lt Ishigawa camp commander, Sgt Watanabe (the Bird) senior NCO, Sgt Aoki, Sgt Kobiaslu (sp?), interpreter Pvt Kono, Homma civilian mess supervisor. The interpreter was called very cruel and brutal. Watanabe, Aoki, and Kono called "plain, downright inhuman fiends. The worst specimens of mad-men I have ever seen in my life." by the senior American NCO William B Ganci, CPO USN from Canaan, Connecticut. Major David M. Kirk said this, "Sgt Watanabe was the evil genius of this camp...He would have spells when the slightest infraction, imaginary and real, would draw drastic punishment." The interpreter Kono would use "clubs, shovels and the like rather than his fists."..."All this with the smiling consent of Lt. Ishikawa." Watanabe had been at Omori and came to Naoetsu in March 1945 with the POWs transferred there. One of Watanabe's rules was that any POW with dirty shoes had to lick them clean.

Medical care: Japanese sergeant Aoki was in charge of medical care. POW comments about medical care: "(1)Aoki knew nothing about medicine. Nicknamed Gila Monster. (2)Arrogant and very free with blows and punishment. A man had to be almost dead to be excused from work. (3)No medical attention unless you couldn't walk. Our doctors asked for medicine, they would get beaten. Also men with beri beri and other diseases that could hardly walk were beaten (by Sgt Aoki) for asking for a rest pass.(4)The POW population included an American and Australian doctor, American dentist, and about four corpsmen. They were allowed to do almost nothing."

Food: prepared in a galley by POWs under Japanese supervision, carried to barracks in buckets and served there in the individual sections, no tables. POW comments about food: "(1) about 600 grams per day of barley and beans (sometimes). Quantity and quality inadequate. (2)Varied from 500 to 700 grams dry rice daily. A little less than a pint of watery stew with each meal, sometimes dry fish or seaweed substitute. The rice was a mixture of barley and kori usually. Stew could be anything from a few greens to a fair portion of dog or beans or bean curd. (3) One loaf of barley flour bread, no yeast, about 8 oz boiled barley and millet, no seasoning, about two ordinary size soup bowls per day. Boiled kelp and soybean soup. Boiled without seasoning. Lousy, rotten, and tasteless as far as the bread and barley go, but the soup was like sucking your own nose. (4) 300 grams rice, millet, barley mixed/man/day. Small amts. meat (dog, horse, etc) occasionally. Some vegetables mostly daigon or large woody radishes. Bread one meal but flour and water only. Generally all things boiled of necessity but occasionally (1 or 2 a month) fried. Quality was usually poor. Wormy and rotten much of the time." (5) "...we were served an awful red grain-Korean millet, I think-along with dried ferns and seaweed...The seaweed was pulled straight from the ocean and boiled, turning the water into a goop the consistency of snot."

Barracks: One two story wooden building (apparently more barracks were being built at the end of the war) about 40 feet high with apex roof. Approximately 120 feet long by 60 feet wide. Few windows, windows heavily barred. Roof tin or tile, sides covered in tin. POW comments about the barracks: " (1) Just like Granddad's barn. Heavily timbered. (2) concrete 1st floor, tin sides and roof, wooden 2nd floor, few windows and small, beam supports. No double walls, board partitions, each section aisle in middle and double-decked on sides. (3) rough hewn boards for partitions. (4) stalls with small platforms for sleeping. (5) 2 stories of cubicles on each side of aisles upper and lower platforms." Apparently each of the two stories had upper and lower platforms for sleeping.
Latrines: best description from Charles P. Samson, Major USA, from Corvallis, Oregon. (rank may be rank after the war). "Latrines adjacent living quarters, concrete pits at back of barracks. Concrete floor, urinal trough one side, concrete pits other side wooden covered" (typical Japanese straddle type). "Emptied by syphon to river and solid matter hauled out in carts." Heavy rains caused the pits to overflow onto the latrine floor.

Work: officers did administrative work, worked in gardens, odd jobs, on occasion unloaded coal from ship as punishment. Enlisted worked in factories in Naoetsu - steel mill, carbide factory, unloaded ships, barges, trains (usually coal being shipped to factories) POW comments about work: " (1) the worst imaginable conditions, much beating-exceptionally harsh treatment-very hard strenuous work-day and night shifts. (2) conditions were very poor, hard work in rain or snow. Two 12 hour shifts night and day. Very old equipment. (3) dangerous and difficult. Heavy and hot work when undernourished and sick." Some describe 9-10 hour work shift, some 12 hours. POWs worked 7 days a week. Every 5th day they had to change shifts, so one shift worked through two shifts to make that change occur. There was one mention of 2 days off work each month. POWs worked for the Shinetsu Chemical Plant, Nisso Steel Industry, Joetsu Transport Company, and the Naoetsu Bay Transport Company. A POW described unloading coal from ships..."The job was not only dirty but dangerous...when swells came in, the ships rose and fell on the break. We'd approach on heavy barges and have to jump onto rope netting to climb aboard the ship." Next the coal was carried on their backs in wicker baskets up a hill to waiting train cars. The baskets would weigh as much as 100 pounds and they would have to walk on a short wooden plank. People would fall and the drop was about five feet.

Mail: POW comments: "(1) a few, by lot, allowed to write about once a month, mail received once or twice per month. (2) No mail was sent but could be received if the interpreter felt like distributing it. (3) Usually none sent. Small amounts of mail came in but much was not distributed to the men. Some few cards and radiograms sent. (4) I didn't receive any mail while there. I was allowed to write 1 postal card. (5) Very capricious. I sent one, maybe two messages from Naoetsu. One was broadcast and delivered via a recording from a monitor station in USA. Sgt. Watanabe distributed incoming mail to individuals according to his whim. Balance delivered after VJ day. (6) Varied. Later stages could write letter a month. However, it was a farce, since little of it actually was sent."
Treatment: POW comments: "(1) Sadistic, varying with prisoners and guard. (2) We were all beaten on slightest provocation, got little food. (3) Beatings occured every day of individuals and groups. (4) Underfed, continually hazed, physically beaten, occasionally fair but very seldom. (5) Very bad, even worse than in Osaka, which was bad enough. (6) Deplorable, beatings frequent and in general maltreatment. (7) Treated very brutally. Were beat and humiliated on inspection night and morning by Japs. (8) The worst of any camp I had been in. (8) Of all the camps I was in, this was the worst in every respect. Bilibid, Pasay School, Clark Field, and Omori.

© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.


  1. I worked for Kenny Marvin when I was in high school. It was an excellent experience. I wonder if the ensign Secor he mentioned in his oral history was Gordon Blaine Secor, son of Hubert and Marian? He would've been the same age as Kenny at the time.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Thank you for this. My dad was one of the civilians working as a contractor for Morrison Knudson on Wake. He was shipped over from Mare Island, CA. He never would talk to us about his time in the war. I feel as if all the stories I read of the other Wake men, military or not, are his story. Thank you again.