JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Starvation, disease and death were Ralph Johnson's constant companions as a World War II prisoner of the Japanese.
He survived the Bataan death march, toiled in rice paddies as a slave laborer and then lived through the sinking of a ''hell ship'' loaded with 750 Americans.
Johnson, 80, from Sarasota, and 13 other survivors gathered at Jacksonville Naval Air Station for their last reunion Thursday to remember the horrors of Sept. 7, 1944. On that date, they were among 82 men who survived the sinking of the Shinyo Maru, a Japanese freighter hit by torpedoes fired by an American submarine, the USS Paddle. Two men from California were among those at the reunion.
The Allies were unaware that the ship was being used to move the 750 POWs, many of whom had already survived the infamous Bataan death march at the beginning of the war.
Now, 56 years later, there are 25 left. Six have died since the group's previous reunion two years ago. Organizers said this, their eighth, would be the final reunion.
''We are a group of men who care a great deal for each other,'' said Hayes H. Bolitho, a survivor from Big Sandy, Texas. ''Those who died are in our hearts.''
Others at the reunion were Jessie Bier of Seabrook, N.H.: James Greene of Suwanee, Ga.: Isaac Hagins of Phoenix, Ariz.; Glen E. Kuskie of Weston, Ore., and the Rev. John Morrett of Jacksonville.
Also there were Theodore L. Pflueger of Pacific Grove, Calif.; John Playter of Bolivar, Mo.; Roy D. Russell of Forest Hill, Calif.; Bert Schwarz of Blairsville, Ga.; Morris L. Shoss of San Antonio, Texas; John Stymelski of Jacksonville, and Edward Treski of Columbia, S.C.
Capt. Stephen A. Turcotte, commanding officer of the Jacksonville base, called the 14 survivors, mostly in their 70s and 80s, ''a great bunch of American heroes.''
''They took their spirits, their hearts, their souls, and their minds, left their families and put themselves in harm's way for our country,'' Turcotte said.
The POWs were herded like cattle into the holds of the Shinyo Maru and had no chance to escape when the torpedoes hit. Most were already suffering from starvation and dehydration as a result of many months in disease-ridden prison camps without adequate food, water and medical treatment.
The ship was one of 23 Japanese prison vessels that became known as ''hell ships.'' They were being taken to Japan, China, Manchuria and Korea to work as slave labor for the Japanese war effort.
Five other ''hell ships'' were sunk by Allied ships and planes, resulting in the deaths of about 5,000 POWs.
Johnson, then a young second lieutenant, and three of his buddies were sitting with their backs against a bulkhead when the explosions rocked the ship.
''It took me a few steps to get out of hold,'' Johnson said. ''When I got out, I could see it was going down.''
As the POWs climbed over the rails or escaped through holes made by the torpedoes, many were shot dead by their Japanese captors. One group captured in the water was executed, Johnson said.
Johnson was able to get into the water, but had to frequently dive under to escape Japanese bullets. After hours in the water, he and 81 others reached the shore of Mindanao.
''There was a Japanese ship that had run aground and they opened fire on us,'' said Johnson, who suffered leg wounds in the ordeal.
The survivors were taken into the hills by Philippine guerillas and hidden until another U.S. submarine came and picked them up.
''We drew lots because we didn't think they could take all of us, but the submarine captain took us all,'' Johnson said.