The Ship That Couldn't Sink

Serving on the "Concrete Battleship"

By Carolyn Younger
Staff Writer, St. Helena Star.

More than 60 years ago Calistogan Jack Cole served aboard the USS 'No Go' the army's only "battleship" in  the Pacific Theater during World War II or any theater of war for that matter. Known officially as Fort Drum, it was originally a coral island at the entrance to Manila Bay in the Philippines. Called El Fraile, it had Spanish fortifications set up in 1898. Between 1909 and 1919 the island was cut down by Americans forces and covered in a concrete shell made to resemble a ship.

Fort Drum, part of the Army's network of harbor defenses of Manila and Subic bays, was considered impregnable. But with the fall of Bataan and nearby Corregidor on May 6, 1942, Cole, and other members of Battery E 59th Coastal Artillery, learned otherwise. "If we'd had water we could have lasted three or four years --we had the food," Cole said as he recalled the days before he and the 428 men were taken prisoner.

"See all the water that came in was brought on water tenders from Caballo Island. Without water we were done for. We had water all around but none we could drink." 

Cole, 82, a longtime Calistoga hairdresser and antiques dealer, sports three tattoos, two of them nearly 70 years old. He's a little hazy on their origins but he thinks the unicorn was done at a state fair in Indiana when he was just barely in his teens and living with his grandparents. Another, a heart with the word "Mother," stems from the time he ran away to Los Angeles at 13 "to see the wild west." Instead he spent the night playing checkers with the desk sergeant in a Glendale police station before being sent home. The third and newest of the lot is a sentimental depiction of a dark-haired girl in a polka dot scarf, a tattoo he got while stationed in the Philippines. 

And then there are the war memories. He signed up in 1939 and when the U.S. entered the war, he was stationed at Fort Drum, more commonly called "the concrete battleship."

"The first time I got there was at night and you could hear the diesel motors,"  Cole recalled. "You would swear you were on a ship. Everything was designed like on a ship." There was even a 60-foot fire control cage mast used to direct missiles. "I was spotting planes on the middle of it one time with missiles going right past me," Cole said. "I was lucky. A missile dropped on the deck about 30 feet from me and I couldn't hear for about two days." 

The distance of six decades has tempered Cole's wartime memories and added spice to the telling of otherwise horrific adventures.

Fort Drum, 350 feet long, 144 feet wide with a top deck 40 feet above low water, had exterior walls 25 feet to 36 feet thick. It was Cole's home for nearly three years. During the six-month siege, from December 1941 to May 1942, Corregidor whose guns were being used to support Filipino and American forces on Bataan   was hit with more than 16,000 rounds in one 24-hour period before its fall. Enemy guns were also pounding away at Fort Drum, knocking at least 15 feet of concrete off the decks. "Towards the end there, the whole structure would shake," Cole recalled. 

The end came May 6, 1942, at noon. On the commander's order, the concrete battleship was flooded, the guns drained of recoil oil and fired one last time, the colors lowered and burned. Members of the 59th were either killed, missing in action, or taken prisoner. "I heard there were 428 of us taken," Cole said. "As far as I know just 28 of us returned."

Cole and the remaining members of the 59th were taken in fishing boats to the Cavite side of Luzon and from there to Cabanatuan prison camp where men were dying daily from malnutrition, malaria and dysentery.

"People ask me why I didn't try to escape," Cole said. "It was impossible. On one side was a Japanese military installation. On the other, unchartered territory. Even the Japanese wouldn't go in there, so where were you going to go even if you did escape?" 

At Cabanatuan, Cole and other prisoners worked in the fields planting casaba roots and Japanese sweet potatoes. "We ate the vines, they ate the casabas. We'd eat them raw when we got the chance but it was dangerous because they used night soil for fertilizer."  Food was foremost in their thoughts its scarcity, and how and where to get it. Cole remembers eating the branches of papaya trees, trimmed of bark and sliced. And eating python. "Six of us captured a python about 16 feet long," he said. "The Japanese let us take it to camp. So we carried it four or five miles. We ate it. It was good the python tastes more like chicken, and we craved protein." "I'd eat anything that didn't eat me first," Cole explained, "except rats." 

It didn't pay to be squeamish, he said. "Some guys said they wouldn't eat rice because it had rice worms. Now a rice worm is a mournful looking thing, but I ate it all."

After two and a half years, Cole was sent with others on a prison ship to Japan. Three hundred men or more were lined up in the hold with only a bamboo slop bucket for a toilet, he recalled. "They let us out every so many hours and rinsed us off with salt water but the smell was awful. The only issue on the ship was coconuts and garlic and most of us had dysentery. That was something." 

The fort's "cage mast," a tower used to direct shell fire. The top of the mast was approximately 89 feet from the deck Contained various range finders

Cole worked forced labor in a steel mill between Yokohama and Tokyo then was moved to a copper mine near Hondo. He and his fellow prisoners knew the war had ended when Navy planes began flying over and dipping their wings. Later, planes dropped 50-gallon drums of food. The first drum he came across was filled with chocolate bars and fruit cocktail.

"For a long time I hated chocolate," he recalled. "I ate so much I was sicker than a dog ... I hadn't had chocolate for years and the fruit cocktail didn't help."

Looking back, Cole doesn't dwell on why he survived when others didn't. But he does think about the war although he knows that he's losing bits and pieces of those times and sometimes he dreams he is back in the prison camp. "We had to live by our wits," he said. "If I didn't live by my wits I wouldn't have made it.

"But," he added, "I guess my time wasn't up. I always say, 'I'll live 'til I die.


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