to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

34.14 Americans

The U S P O W’s who worked the Thai-Burma Railway

Part of the Congressional Charter of the U S Veterans of Foreign Wars organization is “to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead”. In keeping with that mandate, in 1997, members of the V F W from the Post in Bangkok placed a memorial next to the famous Bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi Thailand. Unknown to them at the time, this memorial stands mere yards away from where those P O W’s lived following the completion of the Railway.

But there was a problem.

The memorial is dedicated to the nearly 700 U S P O Ws who worked the Thai-Burma Railway but it goes on to say that 356 of them died in that effort. This latter number is incorrect. It is, however, no reflection on those who designed the plaque. In the mid-nineteen nineties, that was the accepted number. It appears on other memorials of that era. But due to the diligence of the P O W officers, we know the names, dates and cause of death of the 131 men who actually died during this period.

Who were these men?

There were two main groups of Americans in the area at the time. The first to become P O Ws were the survivors of the sinking of the heavy cruiser U S S HOUSTON (designated C A thirty). The larger group were the members of the 2nd Battalion of the 131st Field Artillery Regiment of the Texas National Guard. They would later be joined by some 50 Merchant Mariners whose civilian vessels were sunk in the South Pacific.

First P O Ws

On the night of 28 Feb 1942, the U S S HOUSTON, accompanied by the Australian cruiser H M A S PERTH, inadvertently sailed into the midst of the Japanese invasion force landing on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (today Indonesia). After a valiant but brief and futile battle, both ships were sunk by multiple torpedo hits. Of a crew of just over 1000, only 384 men from the HOUSTON made it ashore to be taken as P O Ws. A similar number survived from the PERTH.

Within weeks, these men found themselves at a large camp in the capitol city of Batavia, known as the Bicycle Camp.

The Army personnel 

The Texas National Guard unit that was to follow as P O Ws had a more convoluted journey. They had been at sea headed for the Philippines when Pearl Harbor was bombed. They were diverted to Australia and then ordered to Java to assist the Dutch in defending the island. As the invasion loomed, Lieutenant Colonel Blucher Tharp, the commanding officer, moved the bulk of his regiment west to join a cobbled together Australian force under the command of Brigadier General BLACK. Tharp left the 100 men of E Battery to defend the port of Surabaya on the eastern end of the island.

Over the course of three days, the artillerymen expended most of their ammunition in support of Australian infantry defending a bridge just south of Batavia. But the Japanese were able to out-flank this group forcing them to withdraw. The Americans followed; awaiting new orders. But on 8 March 1942, the Dutch authorities, wishing to save their army and their capitol city, capitulated. Soon thereafter, the Americans would join thousands of Dutch. Australian and British soldiers as prisoners.

It wasn’t until May 1942 that the Army contingent arrived at the Bicycle Camp. Here they met their fellow P O Ws for the first time. These men were in a pitiful state. As part of the standard practice to abandon ship, they had shed their shoes and heavy dungaree uniform pants. They were, therefore, clad in at most skivvies and a t-shirt. They had no personal gear or possessions. The Guardsmen immediately shared whatever extra items of clothing and gear that they had.

It was standard Imperial Japanese Army policy to segregate their prisoners by nationality, but within those groups they ignored the Branch of Service. So the U S Army, Navy and Marine personnel simply became the Americans. By the time the Army had arrived, most of the Navy officers had been separated and sent to other camps. Many of them were eventually liberated from an officers-only camp in Manchuria; others served they time as prisoners in Japan.

It is a testament to Lieutenant Colonel Tharp’s leadership and skills that he and his officers were able to stay with and in command of the U S personnel.

Early POW life

The men didn’t know it yet but this was a good as things would be! They were housed in former barracks buildings on this Dutch military base. There was more than sufficient room, adequate toilets and showers, as well as drinking water. The food was unfamiliar and unappetizing – consisting mainly of low quality rice – but plentiful. Some officers – under guard – were even allowed to buy additional food like vegetables and fruit at local markets.

Life at the Bicycle camp quickly settled into a routine. To keep up morale, the men organized sports competitions and even a ‘university’ of sorts. There was general freedom of movement among the various nationalities within the camp. They were being guarded by combat troops who rarely ventured into the camp and were happy as long as the prisoners caused no trouble. Men even volunteered for the occasional work parties to relieve the boredom. This also gave them an opportunity to trade with the locals. Medical care was primitive but adequate.

This all changed in August. The combat troops were replaced by designated POW guard units. These consisted of a small Japanese cadre of officers and N C Os and larger numbers of conscripted Korean guards. They immediately imposed their will on the prisoners who they disdained. The P O Ws were forced to bow and defer to even the lowest ranking guards. Men were beaten and slapped for the smallest of perceived infractions. The Allied prisoners were also interviewed about skills and prior work experience. It was the Australians who figured out that they were looking for men with useful skills to send to Japan.

In October, that group of about 200 – including 65 Americans – was told to prepare to depart. They began a horrific journey to Japan via Singapore aboard a series of Hellships – so called because of the terrible conditions they had to endure. These ships could be compared to those 18th century ships that brought African slaves to the Americas.

Almost immediately thereafter another group of Dutch and Australian P O Ws that included about 200 U S personnel under the command of Army Captain Archie Fitzsimmons, were sent to Singapore. After a few days there, they sailed up the Andaman coast to Burma. Here they would begin work on the Thai-Burma Railway.

Within days, the largest group of U S P O Ws would depart Java under the command of LIEUTENANT COLONEL Tharp himself. They, however, would languish in Singapore until January 1944 before boarding ships bound for Burma. [In a later essay we hope to recount that journey.]

A week or so after that last group departed, the men of E Battery arrived at the Bicycle camp from Surabaya. They learned of the fate of their comrades from the few dozen Americans who for various reasons had been left behind – most because they were hospitalized and could not travel. This group were soon on their way to Japan. But they, too, passed through Singapore where they made contact with LIEUTENANT COLONEL Tharp’s men but were never re-united with them.


Meanwhile the families of these men had lost all contact with them; no letters; no phone calls. Since most of the Arm members and even some of the HOUSTON crew were from North Central Texas, the families banded together for mutual support under the heading of the LOST BATALLION. The War Department carried them a Missing in Action with the HOUSTON crew shown as presumed dead. 

Life on the T B R

When the Fitzsimmons’ group arrived in Burma they were sent to a camp 18 kilometers from the start point at Than-bou-za-yat. The camps in Burma had names but the P O Ws usually referred to them by the distance they were from the base camp. At the 18 KILO camp, the 200 Americans did some railway construction but this was a supply point more than a work camp so they spent the majority of their time working as stevedores shifting supplies being sent to the camps farther into Burma. All things considered, they had a rather benign P O W experience and suffered few deaths.

Months later, when the larger Tharp group arrived, they were sent immediately to the 80 KILO camp in the mountainous area close to the Thai border. Here the mountain ranges ran north-south across the path of the Railway. The rivers running in the valleys between these mountains required large bridges. The famous Bridge on the River Kwai in Thailand is the longest bridge on the Railway, but the next four are in this Highlands area of Burma; 3 of them were made of iron as well.

Because of the remoteness and the total lack of roads or other infrastructure in this part of Burma, getting supplies of any kind to the workers was tenuous at best. Construction supplies took priority over food and other necessities. The huge number of Dutch. Australian and American P O Ws as well as thousands of Burmese natives suffered greatly from these shortages. Food was scarce, the work was hard. And then came the seasonal monsoon rains! Their health and morale deteriorated rapidly.

As work to join the two ends of the Railway proceeded, the Fitzsimmons’ group was leap-frogged over the other workers into Thailand to help in the last weeks of the project. The workforce assigned to that area in the Thai Sector had been ravaged by cholera and replacement workers were desperately needed. This became known as the Speedo period where the men worked from ‘dark to dark’ in a push to complete the project within the December deadline. Most of the U S deaths occurred in the Tharp group during this Speedo period.

By mid-October – two months ahead of schedule – the two portions of the line met at a place called KonKoita about 40 kilometers inside of Thailand.

Post-construction consolidation

Trains immediately began shuttling military supplies to the I J A forces in Burma. The returning trains were used to ferry the Allied P O Ws and Asian workers to ‘rest camps’ in Kanchanaburi near the iron Bridge. Soon after the Fitzsimmons’ group arrived there, many of were sent on to Japan or Saigon.    

The Tharp group remained in the jungles of Burma cutting wood for fuel until finally arriving in Thailand in May 1944. As noted before, they were assigned to huts quite near where the V F W memorial stands today. This portion of the ‘rest camp’ was very close to the two bridges. During one of the many Allied raids, bombs fell short killing a number of Dutch prisoners who were housed next to the Americans.

The improved diet and lack of demand for hard labor contributed somewhat to improving the health of the P O Ws but the many maladies that afflicted them continued to claim lives. It wasn’t until the Japanese established a true hospital in the nearby town of Na-korn Pa-thom that actual treatments were made available to the P O Ws; no such comforts were made available to the Asian workers who continued to die by the thousands. 

The Allied P O Ws actually spent more time at these ‘follow-on’ camps than they had working in the jungle.


By August 1945 when the Japanese surrendered, the Allied officers had been sent to separate camps. LIEUTENANT COLONEL Tharp quickly re-established contact with his men and began the process of evacuating them to a U S military hospital in India. By the end of 1945, most were back in the U S A and, if not re-united with their families, were in U S military hospitals close to their homes.

Death Toll

The 131 men who died while building the T B R, were joined by two more; one who had been sent to Saigon and another to Singapore. But the diseases that claimed them were clearly contracted during their time working the Railway. So a total of 133 not 356 of the men who worked the Railway died as a result. That 19% death rate compares favorably to the 20-25% among the other Allied nationalities. But the toll among the 500,000 Asians was likely closer to 40%.

Actually percentage-wise, the worst toll was suffered among the 60 or so men who had been left on Java when the others departed. Late in the war, the Java camp were being emptied. On June 24th  1944, 16 of the U S personnel died when the Hellship they were on was torpedoed off Japan. Fortunately some men survived and they were close enough to the coast that Japanese fishermen rescued many of them. Altogether, 21 Army, 9 Navy and 1 Marine died elsewhere as P O Ws.

Including the crew of the HOUSTON, 606 Navy, 41 Marines, 31 Merchant Mariners and 3 Army were K I A prior to the others being taken prisoners. Miraculously, 551 U S P O Ws  — including one who was technically a civilian since he was a member of the American Volunteer Group also known as the Flying Tigers — survived their ordeal on the Railway. Of the 984 U S personnel associated with this saga, 171 died as a result.

[In future essays, we hope to recount some of the specifics of the ordeals these men suffered through during their time as P O Ws]

We will remember them!