True valor: the story of George S. Wiggins
The sacrifice of a Montgomery County military officer who served in the U.S. Army during World War II was recently remembered in a unique way.
The children of George S. Wiggins, a Cherryvale High School football coach during the mid-1930s and later an Independence business owner, have endowed a football scholarship at Kansas State University in Wiggins’ honor. Joan (Wiggins) Goodknight of Independence and her brother Larry Wiggins of Wichita presented the scholarship money to Kansas State University officials in a ceremony on May 10 — which was the observance of Wiggins’ 100th birthday.
The scholarship will be awarded to any undergraduate student who plays football for the KSU Wildcats. Preference will be given to students who are Kansas residents and play the position of fullback or runningback — a pair of offensive backfield positions for which Wiggins played when he donned the leather pads for then-Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science in the early 1930s.
The scholarship ceremony on May 10 was held in the KSU Alumni Center that overlooks the old football stadium where the elder Wiggins carried the pigskin.
“Dad is finally home,” said Larry Wiggins in a telephone interview from his Wichita home. “Over the years, my sister and I always felt it was important to do something to remember our dad. And, our mother, Maxine, who died in 2007, always had a goal of doing something to remember dad’s name by linking it to Kansas State University.”
Something else that was a link between George Wiggins and the university was military training. During his years at Kansas State College of Agriculture and Applied Science, Wiggins was a member of the Scabbard and Blade, a campus organization similar to today’s ROTC program. After graduating from college with officer training under his belt, Wiggins was hired as a history teacher and football coach at Cherryvale High School, where he led the Fighting Cherries on the gridiron throughout the mid-1930s. He left the education profession to join his father and brother in a wholesale goods business in Independence. Wiggins and Sons Wholesale Company sold candy and tobacco products to restaurants, grocery stores and other retail outlets throughout the region.
However, during those pre-war years, something gnawed at Wiggins’ mind and soul to invest more time into the U.S. military, said Larry Wiggins.
“Dad felt he needed to follow through with what he was trained at Kansas State University in the Scabbard and Blade,” he said. “So, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, gained a lieutenant position by virtue of his officer training at KSU, and was told to report to Fort Ord, California, for further training.”
This was 1940 — a full year before the United States would be plunged into the depths of global war.
And, thus begins the story of George Wiggins’ military service, which ultimately would pull him a full galaxy away from the Kansas prairie where he was born, raised, loved and lived.
* * * *
When Capt. George S. Wiggins reported for duty at Fort Ord, Calif., in 1940, he was told that he was preparing for a mission in the Philippines to train Filipino nationals in that Pacific island country.
The Philippines were considered a paradise destination in the 1930s. A U.S. territory since it was ceded from Spain following the Spanish-American War in 1898, the island nation was granted commonwealth status in 1935 with plans for gradual independence by the 1940s.
However, the Japanese empire was encroaching on the islands following Japan’s occupation of nearby French Indochina. Hence, the U.S. military’s presence was required in the Philippines to stall Japanese aggression.
When Wiggins boarded the SS Calvin Coolidge for voyage to the Philippines, he had every intention of eventually moving his family — wife Maxine, son Larry and daughter Joan — to Manilla while Wiggins’ fulfilled his training of the Filipino army.
“We were preparing to move to the Philippines and were living in Monterrey, California, while dad was getting settled in the Philippines,” said Joan Goodknight from her home in Independence. “But, by August 1941, dad wrote back to my mother saying that we should not move to the Philippines. Dad said the situation was getting tough in the Philippines, and he thought we ought to move back to Kansas.”
So, Maxine and her two young children traveled back to the Midwest to take up residence once again in Kansas, first in Lyons, Kan., (which was George’s and Maxine’s hometown) and eventually back to Independence for the duration of the war.
Larry Wiggins remembers the day his father departed the United States.
“I remember seeing dad board the SS Calvin Coolidge, and that’s the last we would ever see him again,” said the younger Wiggins.
* * * *
In the weeks following Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese empire was engulfing the Pacific rim. Islands and nations began falling to the vast Japanese military muscle. On Dec. 23, 1941, the U.S. military began a withdraw from Manilla to an island peninsula called Bataan. Japanese bombs began falling on Manilla just four days later.
By Jan. 7, 1942, the Japanese military was on the verge of consuming the Bataan peninsula, taking all military officers and soldiers captive. George S. Wiggins, just four years removed from his days as a high school football coach in Cherryvale, was in the middle of a guerilla war that was forcing 75,000 American and Filipino soldiers off the island. By April 7, 1942, the Japanese military had fully invaded the final U.S. stronghold in the Philippines in Bataan, taking all U.S. military personnel as prisoners.
Larry Wiggins said his mother knew that George S. Wiggins had been taken captive, just by reading the war reports in the newspaper.
“We learned that Bataan had fallen and that the Phillippines were taken over by the Japanese,” said Larry. “So, we believed that dad was among the prisoners of war. However, we did not get any confirmation of it until toward the end of the war.”
Unbeknownst to the Wiggins family at home in Kansas, George S. Wiggins was surviving one barbaric situation after another. First came the infamous Bataan Death March, where more than 75,000 Allied prisoners of war, including 12,000 Americans, were forced to walk 60 miles under a blazing tropical sun and without food or water. Their march to a new prisoner of war camp resulted in more than 5,000 American deaths.
George S. Wiggins survived the experience.
He was transferred to a prisoner of war camp elsewhere in the Philippines, where, like so many other prison camps, he likely endured not only harsh labor conditions but also stiff brutality inflicted by Japanese prison guards. Malnutrition and starvation were common, not to mention beatings, bodily torture and solitary confinement under the most inhumane conditions.
The year 1942 dragged on to 1943 . . . and on to 1944 . . . before the Wiggins family in Kansas learned of George Wiggins’ whereabouts and condition.
It came in the form of a pink postcard.
* * * *
U.S. soldiers and sailors in the Japanese prisoner camps were allowed one postcard, which was subject to censure by the Japanese military,” said Joan Goodknight. “We received confirmation of Dad’s imprisonment by a pink postcard that showed that he was in a prisoner of war camp, his health condition, and one line of personal information. That’s all we had to go on. Of course, we didn’t know anything about the conditions of the prison camps.”
The postcard was received many months after it was mailed from Japan, Goodknight said, and there was little proof that the information contained in the postcard was accurate.
“You could see the thick black ink where the Japanese military had censured some of the information,” said Larry Wiggins.
So, while a few lines of scant information provided hope for the family back home in the United States, Capt. George S. Wiggins was clinging to every ounce of hope in his imprisonment. Years after the war, the Wiggins family learned that George Wiggins did more than his fair share to boost the spirits of his fellow prisoners. He gave away his daily food rations — which amounted to mere fistfuls of rice and maggot-infested bread — to fellow U.S. prisoners who suffered far worse starvation than he. He was a seamstress (thanks to the days when he had to patch up torn football jerseys and pants in Cherryvale) — a skill that proved to be a life-saving measure in those prison camps.
“From what I was able to learn later, the prisoners bartered their skills,” said Joan Goodknight. “If someone was good at sewing, they would barter that skill for someone who had another skill. And, we learned that Dad would sew old clothes and rags in order to make bandages for the prisoners.”
The skill of tailoring would not be needed on the morning of Dec. 13, 1944. However, the gritty determination instilled into George Wiggins on the Kansas prairie would prove powerful. Likely emaciated, bloodied and bullied by several years of detainment and torture, George S. Wiggins hobbled into the dank, crowded hull of a converted Japanese luxury liner called the Oryoku Maru. It was dubbed a “hellship,” simply because of the hell-like conditions inside that darkened belly of that massive boat, which was also used by the Japanese navy to haul crude oil. Wiggins was with 1,610 other prisoners as they left the Philippines and headed to a prison camp in Japan — a voyage that was scheduled to take more than 40 days.
However, the journey itself proved deadly to many prisoners. Inhaling the fumes from the petroleum that once was carried in that ship’s hull, many U.S. prisoners died of asphyxiation. If the smell of raw petroleum didn’t kill some of the the weakest soldiers, then the human waste likely lead to the deaths of many others. The hull’s floor was covered with human waste as the Japanese guards provided only a couple of buckets for the more than 1,610 prisoners to relieve themselves.
Lack of food, water and fresh air caused some of the disoriented prisoners to go mad — which roused the anger of the Japanese guards. Bayonetting was common whenever a prisoner complained of the conditions . . . or if the prisoners revealed signs of disorientation.
The Japanese would show no mercy on the U.S. prisoners as they roasted in that ship’s hull, where the death and disease flourished in the 110-degree misery.
Unknown to the Japanese military was the presence of a U.S. aircraft carrier hundreds of miles away. On Dec. 15, 1944, torpedo-laden aircraft took off from the USS Hornet bound for the seas between the Philippines and Japan. Pilots had every intention of laying waste to those ships that were believed to be carrying Japanese war supplies.
U.S. prisoners were jolted from their sweltering state of misery by the sound of the anti-aircraft fire from the Oryoku Maru’s artillery. Gunfire from U.S. aircraft split into the metal holds of the ship, causing a near panic among the prisoners. An evacuation order was given by the Japanese guards, but not before many of the guards opened fire wantonly at the escaping U.S. prisoners. Prisoners jumped overboard into the waters of Subic Bay, where the servicemen — summoning what ounces of strength they had left — grabbed floating debris and headed to a nearby shore.
George S. Wiggins was among the survivors, pulled ashore onto a sandy beach where hell was preparing to be unleashed once again.
* * * *
An estimated 1,300 half-starved, wounded and disoriented survivors of the Oryoku Maru were forced to a tennis court where Japanese officials began taking an account of the survivors. The survivors were offered their first sips of clean water in weeks, and they were offered morsels of rice, which, despite its spoiled condition, proved to be life-saving fare. Few pieces of makeshift first aid kits were prepared to bandage the wounded prisoners.
Within one week of confinement on that tennis court, the remaining survivors were mustered onto two more hellships, the Brazil Maru and the Enoura Maru. George S. Wiggins was among the prisoners aboard one of the boats, as it embarked for a prison camp on the island of Formosa, now Taiwan.
Conditions aboard the two ships were no better than the Oryoku Maru. Men were clustered into the ship’s cargo holds like cordwood. Food was scarce, amounting to only a few moldy Japanese rolls per week. Men had no other options but to drink their own urine to keep from dying of thirst.
George S. Wiggins survived the horrific conditions on his second hellship voyage, arriving in Formosa in mid-January 1945.
No one knows for certain what Wiggins observed inside that vessel . . . or that of the Oryoku Maru. However, “The Oryoku Maru Story,” compiled by Charles M. Brown, Lt. Col. (Ret.) and made available at www.oryokumaruonline.org, talks about the conditions of the dead men as they were pulled out of the hull of the hellships when the ships finally reached the docks in Formosa.
If Wiggins witnessed everything that Brown detailed in his book, then Wiggins was lucky to be alive.
“The bodies were removed by placing them into cargo slings and lowered over the side of the ship into barges,” according to Brown’s account. “Some of the dead were removed individually by tying ropes around the legs or arms and hauling them up onto the deck, then lowering them into the barges. The scene in the holds was like a page from Dante’s Inferno: dark, but one could see the wraithlike figures wandering dazedly through a maze of stacked corpses. It was not uncommon prior to the removal of the dead, to sit on the dead and eat meals due to the overcrowded conditions. Items of salvageable clothing that could be removed from the dead were removed. Many of the bodies were in various stages of decomposition when they were finally removed.”
No one also knows what conditions met the weary and beleaguered Wiggins when he was marched to a labor camp in Formosa. However, the years of imprisonment, the brutality in the bellies of two hellships, surviving the sinking of a prisoner ship, lack of food, lack of medicine and simply a lack of strength finally caused Capt. George S. Wiggins of Independence, Kan., to succumb to the conditions of imprisonment.
According to U.S. military records, George S. Wiggins died on Feb. 9, 1945, in a Formosa prison camp. Cause of death was listed as malnutrition. His body was dumped into a mass grave of about 200 other prisoners.
It took more than two months for news of George S. Wiggins’ death to reach the hands of Maxine Wiggins in Montgomery County.
It came in the form of a letter, which arrived on Good Friday 1945.
* * * *
The body of Capt. George S. Wiggins would not be returned to the Wiggins family until 1947. The body was buried in military fashion – with full honors — at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Mo. He was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of any branch of the United States armed forces for valor in the face of the enemy.
And, the flag that draped Wiggins’ coffin eventually would be given to the U.S. Army Reserve unit headquarters in Independence — a facility that would be renamed in Wiggins’ honor.
The Wiggins family moved on with their lives, trying to piece together their shattered souls while slowly hearing bits and pieces of information about conditions in those Japanese prison camps.
News about those conditions came to light when George S. Wiggins’ brother, Don Wiggins, came in contact with a U.S. prisoner who had escaped the prison camp and arrived back in the United States in November 1944.
The soldier, a West Point graduate, informed Don Wiggins about the effect that Captain Wiggins, nicknamed “Wig” by his fellow prisoners, had on the morale of the prisoners during their many months of confinement.
“He knew Wig very well, and the last thing he said was there wasn’t anything that he could say to express the appreciation and gratitude for the things that Wig did for them while they were prisoners,” Don Wiggins wrote about the interview with the escaped officer. “He also said that if anyone deserved a medal it was Wig, for he had done more for the morale of the prisoners than any other one man.”
* * * *
Fast forward more than 65 years later, and the Wiggins family has made its memorial to George S. Wiggins a permanent part of the Kansas landscape. The football scholarship at Kansas State University will do more than help a Wildcat gridder pay his way to college. It will be a lasting legacy to a man who sacrificed his own body to his country and his heart to his countrymen.
“I think about him every day,” said Larry Wiggins, choking back his tears while recalling his father. “I think about a man who went through so many unspeakable and unimaginable things. And, to think that he survived most of them . . . and almost made it to the end of the war. That speaks of an incredible person.”
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