to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

33.0 What’s missing ?

To date (JAN 2023), I believe that I have compiled the most comprehensive story of the US POWs who worked the Thai-Burma Railway (TBR). In addition, I have added details of the world situation that led to the need for such a project as well as the saga of other portions of the TBR for context. For the most part, the story of these 1000 men has been pieced together from nearly as many individual accounts.

As noted in the ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Section, I have linked up with a number of individuals and organizations that have provided access to invaluable information and documents. And yet I feel that there are still missing pieces to this story. Unless they are locked away in a forgotten folder in a rusty file cabinet, these organizations do not seem to have any official military documents related to these units. The closest I have come are ship’s rosters from the USS HOUSTON that were scanned by the researchers. I do not believe that I have ever seen an official military roster of the TXNG. The closest is the roster assembled and then annotated by LTC Tharp as to date and time of death of his charges. These lists also include men who were associated with the unit such as the 2 attached USN sailors, the two civilians and a few AAF members. Many other such rosters appear in books written by the survivors but none are ‘official’. One consistent problem with such lists is that they are undated, so shifts of personnel within the unit are hard to track. For example, it is difficult to account for precisely which men were left at Surabaya as part of E Battery.

I had hoped to find some sort of official military records among the thousands of pages of documents collected by Dr. Milner for his unpublished book. [He died before completing more than an early draft.] I saw none.

I have been able to piece together a fairly comprehensive account of the US POWs’ story from a myriad of individual accounts, but these are not ‘grounded’ in military records. Prior to becoming POWs, these men did not travel at whim. Everything they did, every place they went would have been documented in orders to do so. Yet, none seem to have come to light as yet.

Should there not be a series of orders sent to the USS HOUSTON defining its itinerary after it left the PI in DEC 41? Exactly when and by whom (and why?) was it attached to the ABDACOM fleet in those fateful last days of February?

Seemingly, there should be similar orders defining the departure of the Nat’l Guardsmen from Texas and then onto the USAT REPUBLIC en route to PLUM. Later, there is a suggestion that they expected to be off-loaded in Brisbane but found themselves sailing on to Java. Some HQ somewhere issued orders to make these moves.

Admittedly, reading such orders would be akin to listening to one side of a telephone conversation. But I’d suggest that there may be some additional information to be gleaned. Might there not be a series of internal memos that detail how it was decided to re-direct the TXNG to Java instead of PLUM? What factors went into the decision to attach them to BLACKFORCE instead of evacuating them back to Australia? What HQ issued those final orders? Were there any queries made by COL Searle or LTC Tharp regarding those orders?

This all presupposes that there is indeed an ‘Indiana-Jones-style’ warehouse where huge amounts of documents are archived. Would these be under the auspices of Pentagon or perhaps the US Nat’l Archives or the Library of Congress?

It is indeed somewhat surprising to me that no author or book editor ever seems to have searched for such orders, memos, or documents. A colleague once told me that his college (I forget which one) had archival copies of OPERATION DOWNFALL = the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland. I wonder if hidden away in a dusty corner of a library somewhere there are copies of documents related to the TBR?

This also begs the question of Japanese language documents and memoirs that might have escaped translation into English. I am led to believe that post-war, Japan surrendered detailed records that they had amassed on all their Allied POWs. However distressing it might be, it seems that those of the US POWs were later destroyed. England and Australia seemed to have archived theirs. Examples that I have seen contain a combination of English and Japanese language entries, making translation necessary, but they likely contain(ed) a wealth of information.  

The only Japanese-source book that I have seen is the account by Railway Engineer Futamatsu. It provides valuable information and insight into the planning and building of the TBR. Might there not also IJA soldier accounts of their time on the TBR? And yet one wonders what perspective or story such a book would wish to tell. I have also seen a YOUTUBE video that included an interview with the official IJA photographer assigned to the TBR. He was shown clips of films that he shot that he was not aware still existed. The vast majority of photos that we have of the TBR were taken immediately post-war by Australian military personnel. Many of that official IJA photographer’s photos seem to have ended up in their hands and are archived at the Australian War Memorial /Museum. Might there be others in Japan?

I have often described this saga as resembling a jig-saw puzzle. Tiny pieces of information can be meshed to together to get a clearer picture of the overall saga. It seems to me that a whole section of story is as yet undiscovered in terms of these official military records.


No explanation

As far as the saga of the US POWs is concerned, we have a large hole in their information during the first few weeks of 1942 as they were diverted to Java.

I find it interesting that neither COL THARP nor any of his command staff chose to write an account of their experience. Many of the ‘other ranks’ (as the British call them) did so. But they could only relate the saga from a limited perspective. I’d assume that the senior officers would have had more information as to the WHY to the WHAT [1]. This might be less so during the POW time but I’m thinking of the series of decisions that put them into harm’s way.

WHY were they sent to Java so quickly after arriving in Australia? While the USN and AAF had a small presence there early in the war, the 2/131 were among were the first ground troops to arrive there. But within a week they were ordered to Java. Upon arrival, they did not seem to have a purpose. They linked up with the members of the 19th Bomb Group that had evacuated from the PI and began to act as their ground crew. Was this an ad hoc mission or the reason why they were sent there? There seemed to be little in the way of a direct threat to Java in Jan 42 when they arrived. For that matter, what was the assigned mission of the 26th FA Bde? Had the War Dept. actually anticipated an attack on Java two months before it happened? Neither Singapore nor the PI had as yet fallen when these troops arrived on Java.

Next came the decision to attach the 2/131 to BLACK FORCE rather than evacuate them. What was the thinking behind this decision? All the other US troops were evacuated, but not the 2/131. If it made tactical sense to add artillery to the cobbled together BLACK FORCE, why not keep the 26th?

Because of the multitude of memoirs, we know quite a bit about WHAT happened during their POW time, but little about the early days of 1942 when they moved to Java. We also know the WHAT of their time at Malang and Singosari but not the WHY.

It would seem to me that COL Tharp would have wanted to have an explanation for how he and his men were ‘sacrificed’. And yet, he never wrote nor granted interviews about his experience. His descendants do not report any documents left behind to suggest that he queried those decisions. Perhaps this alone tells us something. Did he know what had transpired and simply chose not to make it public?

So that portion of the story may never be revealed.

[1] COL Tharp remained in the Army and retired in 1952; he died in 1954 of diabetes.