US POWS by the numbers = who went where
I have recently spent many additional hours delving deeper into the lives, journey and ordeal of the US POWs who were members of units that worked the Thai-Burma Railway (TBR). Here is a numbers-heavy summary of that research. I am after all a trained Epidemiologist!
Let’s begin with an overview of those involved in military units that would eventually be sent to the TBR. These are depicted in TABLE1 1. The primary ARMY unit was the 2nd Battalion 131st Field Artillery Regiment of the Texas National Guard (federalized as part of the 36th Infantry Division). During their time on Java as few men from the 26th Field Artillery Brigade and some member of the Army Air Force fell under that command. The other major unit was the USS HOUSTON, which was sunk in combat on the evening of 27 Feb to 1 MAR 1942. All of the survivors who made it ashore were taken as POWs. These include both Sailor and Marines.
Lastly, the SS Sawolka was sunk by the German raiser Michel on 29 NOV 42 and the survivors were brought to Singapore and turned over to the Japanese. Those POWs include 9 US Navy Reserve personnel and 22 Merchant Marines.
I will also detail the story of the three US Civilians who also became affiliated with units as POWs.
In summary, 131 POWs died while working on the TBR and 2 of POW-related diseases soon thereafter. An additional 21 died as POWs un-related to the TBR. Of 954 US POWS, 682 were sent to the TBR.
US POWs on the TBR:
Of the 682 US POWs who worked the TBR, 193 arrived via the Fitzsimmons advance party and 459 with LTC Tharp’s group that followed a few months later. So that means that 652 worked the TBR in Burma with 29 arriving later with H Force at the Hintok area. FLYING TIGER Charles Mott was in the Non Pladuk- Ban Pong area. In all, there were 990 men affiliated with the groups that worked the TBR; of whom 36 did not become POWs either by leaving the island or by being KIA (TXNG only). That leaves 272 POWs who did not work the TBR. Another 33 men did not become POWs, so there were a total of 954 POWs affiliated with these units; 3 of whom were technically civilian.
These figures correspond well with those reported elsewhere but I have arrived at them independently by adding a line for each man into a spreadsheet and adding them man by man. Roger Mansell did a masterful job of making copies of Japanese records that are readable (for the most part) but not searchable (mostly in PDF format). Those records detail the names of those in various traveling parties as they made their way from Java to Singapore then on to Burma.
The breakdown of the 954 POWs by Branch of Service is: ARMY 535; NAVY 345 (includes 9 USNR from the Sawolka crew); USMC 33; MerMar 29 and AAF 9. Those 9 AAF were left at Surabaja under the auspices of E Batt. There were also 2 true US civilians who were caught up in the fighting on Java and affiliated themselves with the 2/131 plus the member of the Flying Tiger Sqrd. In Section 3: Side Stories there is the tale of two British soldiers who were ‘attached’ to the Tharp Party: John Morgan and Stephen McKenzie. These 2 are not in the 987 count as they are not US POWS. I’ve taken the liberty to add AAF LT Ferrey as the 954th POW even though he is not rostered by LTC Tharp. He was listed as wounded in a strafing attack and left at the Singosari hospital when the AAF departed. He was liberated from the Mukden camp and is on the NARA list as a POW, but was not acknowledged in the Tharp roster as an ‘add-on’ from the AAF.
One of the main issues in accounting for where each man went was that at each point men were shed (mostly due to illness / injury) and they lost contact with their original group as well as the officers who were keeping the records / rosters. In most cases, these ‘shed’ men did not work the TBR, but a few were eventually added to the largely British H-Force group that worked at Hintok. It appears as though three men who had been left in Java – 1LT Ray Teborak, MSG John F. Smith (both AAF) and SM2c Marvin Sizemore – were sent separately to Singapore and then were added to the Fitzsimmons party. They didn’t leave Java until 20 OCT 42 (on the Tacoma Maru) but somehow caught up to the Fitzsimmons group in Burma. In his book, Last Man Out, H.R. Charles lists those in the Fitzsimmons party. He shows 1LT Teborak but not the other two [?]. But he also declares that PVT Wilburn Dickenson died in Burma, which he did not. He was one of the members of the Fitzsimmons group that was trans-shipped to Japan after the TBR. He also lists PFC Stanley Galbraith as being in that group but all other records suggest he was left in Singapore by the Tharp group and remained there through his captivity.
Of the 682 POWs who worked the TBR, 477 were liberated from (or died at) Thailand. The other 205 were shipped on to other places: 144 to Saigon; 36 to Japan; 24 to Singapore (mostly the Hintok Grp =23); and the outlier [PFC Braxton Clark] to Taiwan. It is likely but unverified that Clark was en route to Japan but left in Taiwan when his Hellship stopped there. The single POW liberated from Singapore who had been in the Tharp Party was SM1c Melfred Forsman who had been arrested by the Kempei Tai along with MAJ W. Rogers. That story is detailed in by Eric Lomax in his book The Railway Man.
The two largest groups that did not work the TBR are known as the E Battery and the Zeigler parties. As the invasion loomed, most of the 2/131 FA moved west to support the Australian forces which included the 2/4 Machine Gun and the 2/2 Pioneer Battalions. E Battery was left at Malang and then they moved up to defend the port at Surabaja. US NAVY accounts say that the Zeigler group (65 POWs) was culled out of the larger group while at the Bicycle Camp in Batavia and sent to Japan. However, Mansell’s records seem to indicate that they departed Java as part of the larger Battalion group under LTC Tharp and were separated in Singapore. As often is true, the reality is somewhere in the middle. It seems that the men destine for Japan (Zeigler party) were identified in Batavia, but they boarded the same Hellship as some of Tharp’s group (it took 2 ships to get that large group to Singapore). Then they parted ways again in Singapore; but Zeigler left 9 men there in hospital. Either way we have a clearer accounting of those who the Japanese seemingly identified as having technical skills that they thought would be more useful in Japan.
Of the 109 men who stayed behind in Surabaja affiliated with E Batt, 78 were shipped directly to Japan via Singapore; 3 were left behind in Singapore when the others left for Japan. 28 others were left behind on Java.
Billy Thomas, was one of only seven E Battery members to actually work the TBR at Hintok; he died there of beriberi. He had been left in Singapore then added to the H-Force group bound for Thailand. The other two E Battery members who made it to Thailand after being left in Singapore are the two who self-report as going to Bangkok. This leads me to assume that they actually went to Hintok, but I have yet to find a details record of their Java-Changi-Thailand then back to Singapore journey.
We can look at these groupings another way. A total of 107 men were left behind on Java; 74 from the main group and 28 from the E Battery group (which included a few hospitalized AAF members). Of those, 29 remained on Java the entire time (18 main; 11 E). Of those, 5 from main and 1 from E Batt died on Java. Another 16 of the main and 3 from E Batt died en route to Japan. 25 eventually ended up in Japan (17 main; 8 E). Three of those 17 survived the sinking of the Tamahoko that killed their 16 mates. Twenty-eight others were scattered to Borneo (3), Sumatra (3) and Manchuria (9) and Singapore (13).
The third group of US POWs who are most often forgotten are the survivors of the sinking of the SS Sawolka (38). These included 9 US NAVY Reserve personnel who were sent directly from Singapore where the German Raider Michel had dropped them off to Japan. Seven Merchant Mariners (who were technically civilians) were sent to Hintok; one of whom eventually found himself in Japan, while the other 6 were retro-graded to Changi. One Mariner spent his entire time at Changi while 21 others were sent on to Japan.
Here we encounter one of the hardest issues in tracking these men. Following the completion of the TBR in OCT 43, most of the Allied POWs were consolidated to the huge camp at the bridge location in and around Tamarkan (various spellings apply) Kanchanaburi. From there, many were moved to other camps, some in Thailand, some on to Japan and others back to Changi in Singapore. The simple fact that every TBR POW passed through Changi en route to the TBR –including the Mariners who started there – and that some were returned to Changi makes for possible confusion as to their true status as TBR or non-TBR POWs. So sorting out the POWs’ final destination is occasionally difficult since any records reflecting him in Changi could be on the way to the TBR or after completion. Unfortunately, many of the surviving records fail to clearly note the date of the roster.
Most of those from Hintok were eventually returned to Changi (23) plus the 2 ‘Bangkok’ POWs [another argument for their having been at Hintok]; they had only spent about six months working the TBR. One each from the Fitzsimmons and Tharp parties returned to Singapore – mainly for hospitalization and treatment that was not available in Thailand. Of the Sawolka (7) crew at Hintok, 1 ended up in Japan; 6 in Singapore. A total of 143 TBR POWs were liberated from Vietnam; one (Tanberg) having died there after working the TBR. Some accounts suggest that they had left Kanchanaburi en route to Japan but because the Allied submarine activity was so intense, they were diverted to Saigon and spent the rest of the war working there and a few other places nearby. However, one survivor account (Tilghman OH478) says that they actually went from Kanchanaburi to Phnom Penh (via Bangkok) and then down the Maekong river to Saigon. This would suggest that they were never destine for Japan but always for Vietnam. Eighty-one of these were originally on the Tharp group; 62 of these were from the Fitzsimmons party.
Once again it needs to be emphasized that the Japanese authorities did not seem to care about the branch of service of the POWs. They did seem to have a policy of keeping the various nationalities segregated. Rank didn’t seem to play too much into their treatment or sorting of the POWs either. However, many of the more senior ranking POWs eventually found their way to the POW camp at Mukden Manchuria. For example, Col Albert Searle, who was the senior ranking US officer with the US Forces-Java, was sent directly from Java to Mukden (via Taiwan). In all, 6 others eventually found their way there including 1 from the Tharp group (left at Singapore) and 5 of the E Battery officers who had been left on Java (4) or Singapore (1) and not sent to Japan with the larger E Battery group. There was another rather unique group that Mansell’s records describe as the ‘Senior 8’ group (altho they were by no means the most senior US officers). These were all officers from the HOUSTON including the two most senior Navy officers (CDR Arthur Maher and LCDR William Galbraith) as well as 5 Navy Lieutenants and a Marine 2LT. They were sent directly to the Zentsuji and Rokuroshi camps in Japan. Later, Navy Warrant Officer Earl May who was left in Singapore as he traveled with the Tharp party joined them there.
It is nearly impossible to devise the schemes by which certain individuals were selected to join various groups to various destinations. It would seem that as men were ‘shed’ due to illness then improved, they might rather arbitrarily have been added to whatever Hellship was leaving next. Sometimes there would only be a handful of US POWs traveling with prisoners of other nationalities.
For obvious reasons, the two most common initial destinations were the TBR (682) and Japan (110). Some POWs went directly to Japan and others after working the TBR (36; 1 from Hintok; 21 from Fz and 14 from Tharp). The majority of E Battery (78) went directly to Japan as did 63 of the Zeigler party and 12 others (the Senior 8 grp; 3 from Java, and 1 that Tharp left behind in Singapore). As mentioned, 144 were sent to Saigon by rail via Phnom Penh post-TBR. There were also 19 POWs lost at sea in 1944 when the Hellships Tamahoko (17) and Junyo (2) were sunk en route from Java to Japan. Three US POWs survived those sinkings and were liberated from Japan.
There were two other ‘outlier’ destinations. 3 POWs ended up on Borneo (just north of Java) without any explanation of the reason. Three others went from Java to Sumatra were they worked the lesser known railway project there.
All in, 682 US POWs worked the TBR. Another 272 POWs went elsewhere and 33 of the TXNG complement did not become POWs. Of those, 30 escaped from Java either via the B-17s (20) or were evacuated as part of the US Forces- Java HQ element (10). One of the TXNG was KIA on Java of an accidental gun-shot wound just as the surrender was taking place. It is a true testament to the vagaries of war that three of the TXNG who escaped with the B-17s were eventually KIA – two after making their way to the European Theater of operations in the AAF and another became a POW on Germany! Another 2 were killed in plane crashes (questionable enemy activity) in Australia and New Guinea. This in addition to the two TXNG died while flying on the B-17s on Java before the group was taken prisoner.
Another dilemma that presented itself was whether or not the E Battery group ever reunited with the rest of the Battalion. It seems that it took the E Battery group until OCT or NOV 1942 to make their way from the east end of the island to the Bicycle Camp. By that time, most of the rest of the BN were in Singapore. But it seems that the Tharp group was still at Changi when the E Battery group arrived since they had spent only a few days in Batavia before moving on. But since they were in different traveling parties the two groups never fully met nor integrated. The E Battery group was actually split into two sections. The main group was taken prisoner at Surabaja, but a small number of men, including the E Battery Commander, CPT Dodson, boarded a small boat in that harbor and attempted to escape – hopefully to Australia. They only made it as far as the adjacent island of Madura where they were captured and help. They were eventually sent to the Bicycle Camp in mid-OCT 42 — after almost all of the US contingent had already departed — where most sat out the war. CPT Dodson was eventually sent to Mukden. Interestingly, it seems that the Mukden camp was liberated by Russian troops at the war’s closing.
British POW Bill Haskell provided a vivid description of the hardships and the diseases that ravaged these men at Hintok :
“The long working hours, the intense harassment on the job, the lack of footwear and the starvation diet affected men’s health to a point where they became absolute sitters for all the tropical diseases that were indigenous to the area. Malaria and dysentery were their constant companions. There was little quinine available to control malaria and nothing with which to treat amoebic dysentery. With the monsoonal rain the camp became a quagmire and going to the toilet at night became an almost insuperable problem for debilitated men racked with abdominal pain.
A lack of vitamins in the diet soon brought on all sorts of complaints ranging from Beri-beri to red raw mouths, tongues and throats. Beri-beri caused gross swelling of the limbs and stomach, making walking in itself very difficult, let alone having to get out to the rail trace and work when you got there. Cuts and wounds on the legs and feet generally became infected due to the absence of antiseptics, disinfectants and bandages. Many lesions soon turned into tropical ulcers which often as not became gangrenous. Hundreds of men had limbs amputated as a last resort.
Perhaps the greatest scourge of all was cholera visited on our camp by passing Asian labourers. Cholera claimed many lives in our camp before a still was manufactured from salvaged material, enabling the production of pure distilled water to be turned into a saline solution for intravenous injection into comatose patients. This procedure was marvelously successful resulting in the saving of 60% of all cholera patients.”
Although US survivors recount cholera in or near the camps they were at, no American was recorded as dying or even suffering from cholera. There is one report that CPT Cates may have suffered a mild case that was cured when he ingested burnt rice that was essentially charcoal (OH185). As to amputations, Gunners’ Mate 2c Guy Pye and PVT Samuel Jones are recorded as having died while undergoing that procedure. To date, I have not documented any surviving US POW who lost a limb to Tropical Ulcers although most were stricken by them. On page 94 of A Thousand Cups of Rice, Kyle Thompson mentions an American who had his leg amputated and survived, but fails to provide a name.
In summary then, of the 987 men who were in some way affiliated with the Java POWs, 652 worked the TBR in Burma, 29 at Hintok and the Flying Tiger pilot (Charles Mott) at Nong Pladuk. The rest found themselves scattered across the Pacific Theater in Japan, Java, Singapore, Sumatra, Manchuria and Borneo.
A total of 171 men died. Seven were never POWs, having been KIA before capture or after escaping Java. In 1944, 19 POWs died at sea en route to Japan from Java. 133 died during or after their TBR time and 12 other died in other places (6 on Java; 5 in Japan and 1 on Borneo). It is also of interest to contrast the death toll in the three groups who worked the TBR. Only 4 (14%) of the Hintok group (29) who were on the Thai side of the TBR died. The Fitzsimmons party worked mainly in camps near Thanbyuzayat, where 13 (7%) of 193 died. The Tharp party had the worst outcome of the three. Their work area was at the 80-115 KILO camps in the mountains near the Thai-Burma border. Their work was much more difficult than the Fitzsimmons party and getting supplies to them proved difficult as well. All told, 116 (25%) of the 458 in that group perished. They likely worked on building one of the larger bridges at Apalaine (80 KILO camp. Most if not all of the Tharp Grp spent time at the transit camp at Songkurai (114 KILO) on the Thai side of the border before being moved to KAN. It is uncertain if the Fitzsimmons group was also there.
Other non-TBR US POWs
There is an additional group of 60 US POWs which we can account for but who were never affiliated with the 2 main groups (TXNG and HOUSTON) but who spent time either on Java or at Changi or both. Forty-six of these were Mer Mar from three different ships. The other 14 were AAF members who fell into the hands of the Japanese in various ways.
First I can dispense with a mis-told story about the TBR. According to an AAF website [http://www.usaaf-in-cbi.com/308th_web/msn_19p1.htm]:
“In March 1942, four airmen (308th BG?) reached Tourane (now DaNang), by launch from the Philippines. The four were turned over to the Japanese on the orders of Indochina’s governor general, Vice Admiral Jean Decoux. Four of these men toiled for the rest of the war on the “Railroad of Death” in Thailand made famous by Pierre Boulle’s novel, Bridge Over the River Kwai. [Free French Lieutenant Boulle was himself one of Decoux’s prisoners after he was captured trying to establish a resistance organization in the colony].
Thereafter the Japanese demanded that all allied prisoners captured by Decoux’s forces be surrendered on the spot without the formality of obtaining the admiral’s agreement first. At the end of August 1943, enraged at the beginning of a bombing campaign in Tonkin by the 308th Bombardment Group based in China, Decoux accepted the Japanese demands and issued orders to his administrators and military commanders to surrender all captured non-Asiatics to the Japanese on the spot. Fifteen days later, on September 15, 1943, the 308th conducted its 19th mission after joining the 14th Air Force in China. Its target was a French cement plant in Haiphong.”
We have a roster from the Mansell Collection that lists 6 crewmen from the 308th Bomb Group who were transferred to Changi from Vietnam. I can only assume that they were somehow involved in these raids and were shot down. There is no evidence that any of them ever worked the TBR. One other fighter pilot, COL Harry Melton from the 311th Fighter Sqdn was also transferred to Changi with this group from Vietnam. He died in the sinking of the Hellship Rakuyo on 14 SEP 1944 by the SS-383-Pampanito. The other 6 were liberated from Singapore. COL Melton’s family has worked hard to trace and document his history on ANCESTRY.com. Suffice it to say he had a event-filled career and was the Commander of the 311th Fighter Sdgn of P-51s when he was shot down over Rangoon. He is memorialized at the Fort McKinley monument to the missing in Manila.
On that same Mansell roster, there are three other AAF members who were sent to Changi. Two were documented to be the surviving crew of a 7th Bomb Grp plane shot down over Burma and taken POW by IJA forces there. The third was a member of the 26th Fighter Sqdn who seemingly suffered a similar fate but his story is less well documented as to where he fell into the hands of the IJA.
The majority of the 60 were Merchant Mariners from three different ships who, unlike the SAWOLKA crew who were dropped off in Singapore, were turned over to the Japanese on Java. Thirty-one of them were from the SS AMERICAN LEADER. Four were survivors of the sinking of the SS RICHARD HOVEY and 11 from the SS WILLIAM F HUMPHREY. The latter fell victim to the same German raider that sank the SS SAWOLKA. The SS HOVEY was sunk by a Japanese submarine which, according to one group of survivors, surfaced and demanded that the ship’s Captain identify himself. They then took him and three other MerMar onboard and sailed away leaving many others in lifeboats. They were rescued by a passing tanker, but did not know the fate of their crewmates until after the war. We learn from this Mansell roster that CAPT Thorsen and his three crewmen first taken to Java. He and Engineering Officer Simms and 2nd Officer Turner were liberated from Changi at the end of the war. The fourth Able-Bodied Seaman William Margatko was sent on to Japan.
The crew of the AMERICAN LEADER were not so fortune. Their Captain, Haakan Pedersen, was sent to the Senior Officers camp at Mukden Manchuria. Three others spent their entire POW time on Java. Ten others were sent to Sumatra on two different Hellships. The Chukko Maru delivered 5 safely but one died while working the Sumatra Railway. Of the 5 who boarded the Junyo Maro, all survived its sinking but one died in DEC 44 while working the Railway. Seventeen of that crew were en route to Japan on the Tamahoko when it was sunk off the coast. Only 5 survived to be liberated from various camps in Japan.
Their saga is best told by those who experienced it: CAPT George Duffy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MS_American_Leader