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Frackville sailor lost at sea on submarine during WWII

Among World War II’s worst losses of American lives at sea was the sinking of the Japanese hell ship Arisan Maru on Oct. 24,1944, by the US submarine USS Shark (SS-314).

Unknown to Shark was the presence of nearly 1,800 American prisoners of war on the freighter. A total of 1,772 American prisoners of war perished in the sinking.

Adding to the tragedy was the loss of Shark and its crew of 87 sailors to enemy depth charges later that day.

One of them was Thoms Francis Kneib of Frackville.

Volunteers with the nonprofit Stories Behind the Stars have memorialized Kneib and the other seven Pennsylvania sailors who perished on Shark.

Kneib was born on Feb. 18, 1923 in Mahanoy City to Joseph Anthony and Margaret (Walberger) Kneib. The family lived in Frackville the elder Kneib worked as a welder on a coal breaker. Kneib had two brothers and three sisters. His brother Richard also served in the Navy during World War II.

After high school, Kneib enlisted in the Navy on Jan. 24, 1943. He received training at Sampson, New York and attended Submarine School at Sub Base Groton in New London, Connecticut. Kneib reported aboard the USS Shark on Feb. 14, 1944 as a Motor Machinist’s Mate Third Class.

The Shark began its first war patrol in May 1944 west of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Islands. The Shark successfully torpedoed at least four enemy cargo ships. The vessel was put to sea again on July 10 for war patrol off the Volcano Islands, the Bonin Islands and Iwo Jima.

The Shark left Pearl Harbor on Sept. 23, 1944, for Saipan to begin its third war patrol with the Seadragon and Blackfish. The three vessels conducted a coordinated patrol in the vicinity of Luzon Strait.

On Oct. 22, Shark reported having contacted four large enemy vessels. On Oct. 24, Seadragon received a message from Shark that it had made radar contact with a single freighter and was proceeding to attack.

This was the last message received from Shark.

On Nov. 13, 1944, a Navy Command dispatch reported a Japanese ship en route from Manila to Japan, with 1,781 American prisoners of war, had been sunk on Oct. 24 by an American submarine in a torpedo attack. The sunken freighter was the notorious Japanese hell ship Arisan Maru. The vessel carried no markings to indicate that POWs were aboard. Only nine POWs survived the sinking.

Five prisoners who survived and subsequently reached China stated that conditions on the prison ship were so intolerable that the POWs prayed for deliverance from their misery by a torpedo or bomb.

No other submarine reported the attack. All attempts to contact Shark by radio failed. On Nov. 27, 1944, the ship was reported as presumed lost. A Japanese report on anti-submarine attacks received after the war recorded the attack made by Shark on Oct. 24, 1944.

The enemy dropped depth charges 17 times, and reported seeing “bubbles, and heavy oil, clothes, cork, etc.” This attack is considered the most probable cause of Shark’s loss.

The Shark’s 87 crew members, missing since Oct. 24, 1944, were officially declared dead on Nov. 8, 1945.

All Shark crew members were posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. Their names appear on the Tablets of the Missing, Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.

Stories Behind the Stars memorials are accessible online at www.storiesbehindthestars.org. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to honoring all 421,000 fallen Americans from World War II, including 31,000 from Pennsylvania. To volunteer or to get more information, contact Kathy Harmon at kharmon@storiesbehindthestars.org.