Monument to region’s POWs funded for Pysht site

PYSHT — This West End logging town and recreation spot is getting a new attraction.

Jonathan Smith, a civilian researcher from Suquamish, is spearheading an effort to build a prisoner of war memorial in Pysht, on state Highway 112 about 30 miles west of Port Angeles.

The memorial, which has not been formally named, will honor the sacrifices of all the Olympic and Kitsap peninsulas’ POWs — by his count between 60 and 100 by birth or residency since World War I.

The monument is still in its infancy. Smith, 49, hopes to have it open in six months, a year at the latest.

“It’s a place to memorialize these names,” Smith said. “We want to honor these guys.”

Funding for the Pysht memorial has been secured by the Prisoners of the Far East International Memorial Foundation, based in Silverdale. Smith is a senior researcher for the foundation.

Bainbridge Island-based Emerald Land and Pond volunteered to build the memorial, Smith said.

Rainey Daze, who once owned the Rain Bear Studio on Eighth Street in Port Angeles and who now lives near Silverdale, is designing the memorial. Daze specializes in Native American art.

“She does amazing work,” Smith said.

Although the memorial’s final design has yet to be determined, Smith said it could be a “fairly elaborate” 10-foot by 24-foot concrete and marble monument, or something simple like a piece of granite with names of POWs etched in stone.

Why Pysht?

Smith drew the inspiration to build the memorial in Pysht from the story of James Merrill McGrath.

McGrath was born in a Merrill and Ring Timber Co. logging camp in Pysht on Dec. 22, 1913.

He kept a clandestine diary during his time in Japanese POW camps during three of the worst atrocities committed against allied POWs in World War II — the Bataan Death March, Hell Ships and Camp O’Donnell.

“A lot of people ask ‘Why Pysht?'” Smith said. “Why not Pysht? McGrath started this thing for me.

“It’s a place I envision, and the foundation envisions, where loved ones can honor the sacrifice of these veterans.”

McGrath survived the war and died in Morro Bay, Calif., in 1982.

“It’s a hugely historical document,” Smith said of the diary, which he pieced together from a box of books and other mementos he found five years ago in a garage sale in Hansville in Kitsap County.

“It took a year before I even knew what I had,” Smith recalled.

Among the first treasures he found were three oil-soaked one dollar bills, one of which had “U.S.S. Calhoun 8/29/1942” written on it.

McGrath served aboard the USS Calhoun before he was captured in the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in April of 1942.

During his investigation, Smith tracked down members of McGrath’s extended family, and won their support for his research and the POW memorial.

McGrath was one of 70,000 POWs in the infamous Bataan Death March. He was sent to Camp O’Donnell, where 1,600 Americans died within 40 days.

In December of 1944, McGrath was placed aboard the Oryoku Maru, one of the “Hell Ships” the Japanese used to transfer POWs while absorbing allied fire. McGrath survived the journey to Hoten, a POW camp in Manchuria, China.

McGrath wrote or etched his journal entries on anything he could find. He stashed notes that were later uncovered.

He did so at considerable risk. He likely would have been executed if he had been caught keeping the diary, Smith said.

Smith found one entry in the detailed diary that included precise amounts of water and the exact number of grains of rice he was fed.

“He [McGrath] is a local boy, and that’s part of it too,” Smith said.

“He’s one of us. This [memorial] will be something to honor his service, of course, but also to honor his friends.

“We want to reinforce the fact that they were not alone and they were never, ever forgotten.”

The Pysht memorial will include names of POWs who have ties to the Olympic or Kitsap peninsulas, whether by birth or residence.

Branching out

After Smith spent close to three years to build a POW museum in Bremerton with an extensive collection of war artifacts, the project fell through in favor of a Navy machinist’s museum.

These day, Smith is branching out his efforts, pursing publishing rights, military film making and permanent tattoos for prosthetics.

“I think it was my mistake to put so much energy and time into one project,” Smith said.

Diary excerpts

Three entries from the James McGrath diary found on the Web site

• December 13, 1944 — Started to leave Bilibid prison shortly after 0800. Turned back because of air raids.

Left 10:30 Saturday at pier 7 most of the afternoon while Jap. civilians and troops were getting aboard — many women and children. Port area much damaged by previous bombings. Boarded Oryoku Maru — 1619 officers and enlisted men including some British and Dutch [one Dutch officer].

• December 14, 1944 — Bombed all day between Manila Bay and Subic Bay by US planes (0900 to 11 dusk). During bombings guards emptied on us in holds. Very little to eat. No water at all since yesterday and not a breath of air stirring whatsoever.

• December 15th, 1944 – Ship sunk off Olongapo. 1,000 to 1,400 guards continuously firing into hold of POWs.

Men fired at while in water swimming ashore. Major A.C. Peterson was wounded in the head. No food, arrived ashore in g-string as did most of the others. Major Nurdlinger was one of the killed.

US planes did not fire after recognizing American Captain Wylie Litte Ord. Officer, headed for opposite shore.

Capt. Don Hanes, 192 Tank Btn. deceased. Major Peterson’s head wound assisted by Major Glassburn.


Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-417-3537 or at [email protected]

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