Cross was held at Bilibad Prison by Japanese forces.
Strings were carefully pulled to ensure Barton Cross, the coddled youngest son of a New Jersey family, would return home intact from World War II.
And then the plan unraveled.
Barton instead disappeared into the pits of hell, taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Philippines. His two half-brothers, both distinguished Navy officers, launched a frantic search of the South Pacific for clues of what happened to their mother’s favorite son.
The horrifying truth of Barton’s war is now laid bare in sickening detail in “The Jersey Brothers” — a very personal story to the author, Sally Mott Freeman.
She is Barton’s niece.
Barton, a product of his mom Helen’s happy second marriage, was her beloved. His older half-brothers, Benny and Bill Mott, were schooled early to protect him.
So it was that in 1941, Barton, 23, scored a highly coveted position in the Navy Supply Corps, a near-certain ticket to survival. Bill, who ran President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s command center in the famous White House Map Room, was the agent behind the posting.
The handsome Navy officer left his weeping mother at the family home in Oceanport, N.J. The tears came despite repeated assurances that this was the best place for Barton to land, since Supply Corps never saw a combat.
Barton Cross raises a glass at a NYC bar before he departs for the Phillipines.
He joined his oldest brother, Benny, in the South Pacific, though the elder sibling was directly in harm’s way aboard the legendary USS Enterprise.
Barton served on the USS Otus, a repair ship that fled Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines after the Japanese bombing of Dec. 10, 1941.
The young Garden State scion, wounded by shrapnel in the attack, was left behind in the hospital when his ship departed.
The ultimate betrayal followed with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Dec. 31 orders to evacuate the Army wounded to Australia. No mention was made of the Navy patients.
The small contingent of 30 abandoned Navy wounded remained huddled in the hospital wards. The Japanese soldiers burst through the doors the next morning.
Barton, as an officer, was immediately suspect to the Japanese. He concealed the involvement of his brothers in high-level combat and espionage.
Those connections would not serve him well — and he had already refused to use them before. He asked a hospital nurse to cable his family that all was well before the capture. Barton didn’t want them exerting any undue influence to extract him from the Philippines.
Bill and his wife, Edith Grace.
The captives were immediately subjected to a starvation diet, denied quinine to prevent malaria, and forced on long marches carrying the wounded and dying.
At Cabanatuan City, POWs from fallen Bataan and Corregidor gave the others a foretaste of the cruelty ahead, relating the gruesome details of the Bataan Death March.
Among other horrors, the Japanese drove trucks over the wounded and stuck bayonets into the columns of captives marching past — randomly slicing their throats.
At the Cabanatuan stockades, the Japanese wore masks to throw food over the barbed wire. The undisposed waste and spread of malaria was a toxic brew, killing men off by the hundreds.
In October, Barton was one of the lucky 1,000 relatively able-bodied men chosen for transfer to the Davao Penal on Mindanao. His festering wounds had finally healed.
Brother Benny was simultaneously seeing fierce action aboard the Enterprise. From his privileged position at the White House, Bill was able to ease Helen’s constant concern for Barton with the possibility that her youngest was placed on a rescue ship to Australia.
Both brothers felt they could never do enough in their mandate to bring news of Barton to Helen.
Bill and Benny pose with Barton Cross after his graduation from Christ School.
Bill left the White House for active duty in 1942 with a strong hunch Barton was on Mindanao. Perhaps fortunately for Helen, he was gone before three escapees from Davao detailed the savage abuses at the camps.
Barton had shared barracks with one of the escapees. Along with other prisoners, he was subsequently imprisoned in a grim enclosure of double-decker cages swarming with bedbugs and rats.
The men were released after thirty days spent crouching in feces and returned to the main camp — where the squalor had worsened. In retaliation for the escapes, the prisoners were starved. Loathing for the escapees surged, but Barton wasn’t among the haters.
The sweet young man, once too soft to handle the hazing at Annapolis, had now matured to the point that his overprotective family would hardly recognize him.
Barton made it a point of duty to forge the starving, desperate men into a caring community. They shared even the sparsest rations with the wounded, and rallied around whoever seemed to be slipping into despair.
Over three long years, he relentlessly projected "optimism and cheer," according to his fellow captives, and exacted fairness from increasingly desperate men. They loved him for it.
The three frustrated escapees were barred from exposing the horrors of their captivity at home, although all were convinced a public shaming would force the Japanese to curtail the depravity.
Barton Cross poses at Lilac Hedges, the family home in Oceanport, N.J., with his mother and stepfather, Helen and Arthur Cross.
The tale remained untold until January 1944, when it was revealed in a 14-part newspaper series. Helen couldn’t be stopped from reading it. One of the last entries in her diary told of her total devastation.
"A million bayonets pierce my heart — my dear one, my lad of peace and kindliness — where are you?” she wrote. “I die for you in your pain. No food, no solace in this life until Barton comes! … I will not even call on the name of God again."
By the end of 1944, Barton was back at Bilibad, a fortress prison outside of Manila, where he was one of the 1,160 prisoners forced aboard the Oryoku Maru for transport to Japan.
Hoarded into three holds below deck, without enough oxygen and hydration, many POWs ripped open their own veins — or those of the men standing next to them — to drink blood.
Others beat fellow prisoners to death for no reason, while still more died gasping for air. But there was no escape from the carnage as the hatches remained closed through the long night.
A squadron of Navy Hellcats finally brought the Oryoku Maru to a dead halt 400 yards offshore in Subic Bay in mid-December 1944.
Barton dragged another man to shore, then returned to do the same for POWs who couldn’t swim.
(Victoria Korzec Photography) (Book Cover)
Sally Mott Freeman’s "The Jersey Brothers."
The Americans were recaptured on shore, with more than 300 of the original 1619 prisoners already dead from their time in the hold.
In the winter of 1945, a sympathetic commander freed Bill to search for Barton. He learned that Barton was still alive and the family had reason to hope.
But the news, in the end, was not good.
In his last weeks, Barton was starved to emaciation, left for days sitting in a glaring sun, surviving on only drips of water a day and tossed into the fetid holds of one ship after another.
On Jan. 9, 1945, the Enoura Mara took direct hits, turning its hold into a pit of "ripped flesh, severed limbs, and crushed skulls." Still, Barton survived.
He lived until the Brazil Maru pulled into Moji on Jan. 29. Barton was carried to shore by one his closest friends, joyful at finding him alive. It was on the dock, wrapped in a Japanese soldier’s coat, where Barton took one last breath that he failed to exhale.
Helen Cross — who learned of her son’s death via cable, rather than from a Navy official — harangued the Navy for years over its failure to protect her boy.
When the author visited her uncle’s family Lilac Hedges estate as a child, she noticed there were so many pictures of Barton that it was as if his mother had no other children.
It was the puzzle of what had happened to this mysterious Uncle Barton that led Freeman to sort through official accounts and yellowed letters while conducting many interviews to reassemble the WWII hero’s odyssey of horror.