Memorial Day: Remembering WWII hero Harry C. Agro

Harry C. Agro was an extraordinary person. At age 18, he joined the U.S. Navy right after Pearl Harbor and was assigned as a gunnery mate to a cargo ship. He had two of those vessels sunk underneath him. He also survived nearly three years of inhuman treatment in a Japanese’s POW camp. Agro died on Jan. 13, 2006, at the age of 81. His captures could beat him, but they never could break him. Agro, a hero, had an unconquerable spirit.

Ago died in a hospital, not far from his boyhood home. He was one of my personal heroes–the kind of guy who was a straight shooter. I first met him when I was involved in politics in South Baltimore, before most of that once-working-class area became yuppified. After the weekly meetings of the now defunct Stonewall Democratic Club, (this was in the ‘70s), Agro and I would occasionally share a beer or two together. He would sometimes start reminiscing about his WWII days. Back then, I was a lawyer working in City Hall [in the City Solicitor’s Office.] I had no idea that I would one day be composing a lot of essays and publishing four books on a variety of topics. Neither, of course, did Agro! After I left City Hall, I began writing a column for the City Paper, when Russ Smith was its editor. I remembered Agro’s compelling narrative and got together with him to write about his extraordinary WWII experiences. [1]

The following is the article that appeared in the City Paper:

On February 3, 1943, The Baltimore News-Post (the predecessor to the Baltimore News American newspaper, also now defunct) ran a photograph and short paragraph on U.S. Navy Seaman First Class Harry Agro of 706 W. Barre St., Baltimore, Maryland. The concise notice simply said that the son of John Agro was “Missing in Action.” No other information was permitted to be given out at that time. It would take almost another three years for the full tale of the World War II odyssey of Southsider Harry Agro to become known.

The story really begins on April 20, 1942, in downtown Baltimore, at the main Post Office, at its former location at Calvert and Fayette Streets. In the wave of patriotic fervor that followed Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Agro decided to do his part in his country’s defense — he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. One of eight children of immigrant Sicilian parents, Agro was then a husky, hardy 200 pounds, built on a solid six-foot frame. At that time, he had been working making piston rings in a plant in Southwest Baltimore. He was also very restless — ready to see some action.

“I took my basic training at Newport, Rhode Island and had my gunnery training at New Creek, Virginia,” Agro explained, while sitting in his comfortable living room in his home in the Baltimore Highlands, just south of the Baltimore City line. “I was then assigned as a gunnery mate in the Merchant Marine on a cargo ship, the “SS Paul Luckenbach.’ “The Liberty Ship,” as it was then commonly called, “carried a cargo, valued at $8 million, of 18 tanks, ten B-25 planes, and other machinery and military wares bound for the Russian port city of Murmansk.[2] It sailed from Brooklyn’s Navy Yard in New York harbor and met up in the North Atlantic with a convoy of close to 300 ships. The “Luckenbach” left the convoy in the North Atlantic and headed south rounding the Cape of Good Hope, off Africa’s southern coast, and continued its journey alone into the Indian Ocean.

“It was September 22, 1942, just as night was starting to fall,” Agro recalled. “I was in the galley helping one of the cooks, a black man named, ‘Muscles,’ with the dishes when the first torpedo struck. Muscles and I quickly ran to the back of the ship to attempt to man the aft gun. Just then two more torpedoes hit their mark, and the ship began to list badly. As we began to run forward, I got stuck in the ship’s rigging used to tie down the deck’s cargo, but Muscles pulled me out, and we both got over the side to one of the ship’s lifeboats.”

All 59 crewmembers of the “Luckenbach” made it safely into the lifeboats. The educated speculation was that the ship was hit by torpedoes from a German submarine, since the Indian Ocean was in the Third Reich’s sphere of wartime operation.[3] After 26 days in a lifeboat with 14 other men, traveling 1200 miles, being stalked by sharks, living off of ship’s rations and rain water, surviving a two-day storm that almost sank their craft, Agro and his mates reached the Indian port city of Malabar. He credited the instructions given by the Luckenbach’s captain to “steer northeast no matter what,” as Agro recalled, for his survival.

After a short respite in India, Agro was transferred to what was then the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to take the position of gunnery mate on yet another American cargo vessel, the “SS Sawokia,” which was carrying a full cargo of jute. It was headed for the United States. Agro, it appeared, was finally headed home.

Only nine days out of Ceylon, however, the Sawokia was spotted by a German raider vessel, the “HK Michel.” Camouflaged as a cargo vessel, the “Michel” was actually a fierce man-of-war and heavily armed with torpedoes, artillery and machine guns, and even had a small plane for scouting purposes. On November 29, 1942, the Michel sank the Sawokia in less than 15 minutes of combat. Not one trace of the Sawokia remained. At the time, the “Sawokia” was located about 400 miles northwest of the island of Madagascar. Only 19 of the 62 crewmembers survived.

All of the men caught below deck when the ship was first attacked died. By a stroke of sheer luck, Agro happened to be on deck when the first bomb hit. Despite serious wounds to his head and leg, he managed to get off the dying ship, and after spending the night in the water, was picked up the next day by the crew of the Michel. [4]

“The Germans treated us good, right as sailors. They never beat us,” Agro noted, “We were on that ship for three months. It also sank a Greek and British freighter, so that there were about 85 survivors from the three vessels on the Michel. The Germans ended up taking us to Singapore and turning us over to the Japanese.”

It was during the two years and nine months of Japanese confinement as a prisoner of war that Agro’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. (Think film, Unbroken!)

“We were herded like cattle on board a Japanese ship, it must have been 400 prisoners, all nationalities. It seemed like it took forever for us to reach their northernmost island of Hokkaido, where the prison camp town of Hakodate was located,” Agro said. In the camp, Agro was forced to work 18 hours a day, for 14 days straight with only one day off. He labored most of the time loading coal ships and barges, where he was personally required to load tons of coal each day, carrying 90 kilos on two baskets balanced on a pole, walking up a plank and onto the vessel. He also worked in the mines, and was once forced to help build an airfield. [5]

“They would beat you for nothing, for no reason at all. They would slap you with their fist, hit you with a stick, even with their rifle butt. Once they beat me over the head with a coal shovel,” Agro recalled. “You always had to bow to them, and if you were slow getting up from your straw mat, where you slept at night in the barracks, they would hit you. The food was never enough. It was mainly rice, fish heads, fish bones and sometimes a soup out of seaweed. The last five months of the war things started getting better. We got some Red Cross parcels, and that really saved us,” Agro said.

At the war’s end, Agro weighed 125 pounds. “What was also really bad was that we never got any news from the outside world, not all the time we were there,” he added. “And the biggest problem was every 14 days, they would change the guards, bring in a new set of guards, who would just start beating up on us all over again.”

“They once caught an Englishman stealing some food,” Agro continued, “and they stood the poor man up outside against a pole from 5 A.M. To 5 P.M., in the snow for two weeks until he died. They then put his body in a barrel and took him up the hill, where they cremated him, and brought his remains back in a jug. Of the 900 prisoners in that camp, I think only about 390 of us ever came home. The rest went up that hill in a barrel.

“The Japs always told us the war was going to last 50 or 100 years. Towards the end of the war, however, things started to change in the camp. They stopped beating us! We wondered, ‘Why?’ ”

On Agro’s birthday, August 6, 1945, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on the City of Hiroshima. It killed 92,000 people. On August 9, 1945, another atomic bomb was dropped on the City of Nagasaki, where 40,000 people were killed and equal numbers injured. The devastation wrought from both blasts was so widespread and intense that, to this day, the U.S. government has never relinquished the official films of the aftermath of the fiery holocausts. Japan surrendered on Aug. 14, 1945. [6]

Agro was a plumber by trade. Asked how he was able to withstand the tortuous ordeal of the prison camp, he underscored his “will to live.” He said, “You always had it in your mind, that you would never let those people bury you there. I never wanted to be buried on that soil. That is why I kept going. I was also young and that helped me. The older guys had a more difficult time. But once you get something in your head, that you want to live — no matter how bad the conditions — I wanted to get back home and that kept me going.”

And, on that note, I bid one of Baltimore’s finest sons, and my old buddy from the Stonewall Democratic Club, Harry C. Agro, a very fond — farewell.

[1]. Baltimore’s “City Paper,” Sept. 21, 1984. This article was later reprinted, in 2002, in my book, “Baltimore Iconoclast.”
[2]. Although Agro was told, in New York, that the convoy was going “to Murmansk,” his ship, the “Paul Luckenbach,” was routed into the Indian Ocean. The best speculation is that it was headed into the Persian Gulf Corridor, to discharge its military cargo at a port, with further shipment, via Iran and a land route, to the Soviet Union. See,
[3]. Additional research also indicates that the “Paul Luckenbach,” a freighter, and not a Liberty ship, and was actually sunk by a Japanese submarine, “I-29, (Juichi Izu).” When it was sunk, it was about 800 miles off the coast of India. See,
[6]. Since my 09/21/84 article, the casualty figures are still in dispute from the two A-bombings and are much higher than the ones originally given out by the U.S. government.