Not only were the US POWs a very small part of the enslaved group that worked the TBR, but they spent a relatively short amount of time doing so. Most of their TBR time was at the consolidated camp at Kanchanaburi. They had worked the TBR only on the Burma side of the border and most for a less than a year.
The first group of US and Dutch POWs did not depart JAVA for the TBR until early OCT 1942 and didn’t arrive in Burma until the latter part of the month. The largest group arrived in early 1943. The Railway was completed a year later and by JAN 44 the TBR POWs were consolidated at Kanchanaburi and in fact were already being transshipped to other places.
So the US contingent had a rather long prelude of captivity on JAVA. There are no existing official records of this time. We must rely on survivor accounts and memories of events to document their stay.
Part 1 The Prelude
The survivors of the sinking of the USS HOUSTON (CA-30) were the first to be taken prisoner. They were rounded up as they struggled ashore in the morning of 1 Mar 42. The Japanese invasion force seemingly had no actual plan as to how to deal with Allied POWs. Those men describe being held in various places like schools as they were slowly moved from the far western tip of the island towards Batavia (Jakarta today) on the NW coast. They describe their treat as rather benign although they were often used as beasts of burden. The landing force had small rickshaw-like 2-wheel carts to carry their gear. The POWs would often be harnessed to them in lieu of livestock. Except for an overall dearth of food, they were not overtly mistreated. The first POW death did, however, occur early in that period. Lt(jg) Francis Weiler died of wounds (burns) on 26 MAR. Another Navy LT, Russell Ross died of dysentery in Batavia in May. These were the only 2 POW deaths recorded for 1942. Eventually all the other HOUSTON POWs, about 350, found their way to the Bicycle Camp in Batavia.
For the TXNG group, the journey was a bit more complicated. Again, almost nothing in the way of records exist of their wanderings; only fragmented survivor memories. As the Japanese invasion was imminent, LTC Tharp moved the bulk of his force west to support the defensive effort. He left E Battery to defend the airfield at Surabaja. In the first week of MAR, there were various skirmishes between the advancing Japanese and Australian troops. The 131 FA fired their 75mm guns in support of the Australian force. But resistance was futile. It is estimated that the invasion force on Java alone was 80,000 strong. When word came that the Dutch authorities had capitulated on 8 MAR, Tharp had his men disable their cannons and they withdrew east, away from the Japanese line of advance. Somehow a rumor had started that the USS HOUSTON was en route to the port in SE Java. Some of the men tried to get to the port to find a way off the island; all were eventually capyured. Of course, they had no way of knowing that the HOUSTON lay at the bottom of the Sunda Strait for almost a week.
Tharp took a vote of his men, a contingent of over 500. Should they stay and await capture and take their chances as a unit or should they disperse into the mountains on the east end of the island and fend for themselves, even to the point of waging a guerrilla war on the invaders? In their short time on the island they had come to realize that the Javanese were resentful of their Dutch colonial authorities and were looking at the Japanese as a ‘liberating’ force. How wrong they were! But with that attitude, the Americans did not believe that they could successfully evade the Japanese once they established full control of the island. The locals would more likely turn them in than assist them in hiding. So finally after a week or so, a Japanese unit arrived and LTC Tharp surrendered his unit. They were disarmed but Tharp convinced the Japanese Major to allow them to keep their vehicles and convoy to the POW site. Once again, we suffer from a dearth of records but it seems that the Army group moved slowly west in a series of short hops. Along the way they were relieved of their vehicles which the soldiers say they sabotaged in various way such as draining the oil from the transmissions. They laughed as the drivers struggled to change gears in vehicles that already had a different gear pattern than theirs.
It wasn’t until about 14 MAY that many of the the soldiers arrived at the Bicycle Camp. The Navy guys say they made quite a spectacle of themselves as they marched into the camp singing “The Eyes of Texas are Upon You”. The meeting of the two groups of POWs was quite intense. The soldiers still had most of their military kit and personal items. They had traded off some things to locals to get supplemental food but were carrying their bags and backpacks almost to the point of being burdened. The HOUSTON survivor were a sorry-looking lot by comparison. Many had only partial uniforms and were shoeless. Standard drill has sailors remove their shoes before entering the water to avoid them becoming waterlogged anchors. The soldiers quickly shared any excess items of clothing and kit with their mates.
Not knowing what the future held they all settled to a new life in Batavia. All things considered, the POW accounts describe this time a rather benign. The Bicycle camp was the former barracks of a Dutch military force that acted more like a national police force than a military unit. The rode bicycles on their duty rounds, hence the camp name. Some POWs recall it as a bicycle factory which only emphasizes the problem with using survivor accounts as true sources of information.
But to a man, the POWs describe this time at Batavia as the best of conditions of their long captivity. They were housed in the barracks buildings which they state were old but provided plenty of room and more than adequate shelter. The food is described as adequate if unappetizing and unvaried. There was more than sufficient clean water available for drinking, cooking, cleaning and sanitation. The Japanese did seem to have a policy that applied all across their domain of separating the POWs by nationality but ignoring any branches of service. Hence, the Americans were all housed together but separated from the Aussies, Brits and Dutch in the same camp. They wasn’t however any strict restriction of movement so they could easily co-mingle in small groups.
There also was little for them to do. Soldier describe actually volunteering to go on work parties to the docks where they loaded and unloaded ships. The Japanese were making quick work of looting the rich resources of Java especially oil which was being shipped in barrels. There was also a huge stockpile of sugar in one warehouse that they were made to bag and carry onboard ships. They regale in how they would distract the guards and pour sugar into the oil barrels!
The changing of the guard force was one thing that all remember as a major change in their captivity, albeit small by comparison to what would follow. They were initially under the eye of front-line combat troops. But within weeks, designated POW units arrived. These consisted of Japanese officers and NCOs supervising Korean soldiers. The Koreans had been conscripted into the “service of the Emperor”, but apparently they couldn’t be trusted to actually fight. So most were used to guard POWs all across the Pacific. The Japanese considered the Koreans as an inferior race, although in slightly higher status than the Allied POWs. Caught in the middle, the Koreans’ only outlet for their frustrations were the POW. So they treated them more as animals than men. Throughout their ordeal, the beatings and physical mistreatment of the POWs came mainly at the hands of the Koreans, sometimes ordered by but not administered by the Japanese overseers. Whereas the Japanese combat troops generally avoided interaction with the POWs and were happy as long as they caused no trouble, the Koreans demanded ‘discipline’. The POWs had to stand still if not completely at attention and to bow as a Korean passed by. Any minor infraction of such arbitrary rules resulted in a slap to the face or a thrust of the rifle butt. Obviously, this put a great deal of stain on the POW’s sense of dignity. All of the few altercations that resulted were met with severe beatings of the guilty prisoner.
But again, in spite of the indignity, life at the camp was fairly benign. When the men were ‘off campus’ in work parties they had the opportunity to trade with the locals for supplemental food items; eggs were particularly valued, but vegetables and fruit were more common. Each nationality group was responsible for cooking their own meals. The Japanese provided the basics of rice and the occasional fish and some vegetables but the men could add whatever they could obtain.
Part 2 Movement from Java
In OCT 42 the American contingent began to be removed from Java. Here again, survivor accounts vary as to which was first but a group of about 300 POWs were designated by the Japanese as men with technical skills; this included about 200 Americans. They left Batavia under the command of Army CPT Zeigler and were shipped directly to Japan. They would eventually be dispersed over many camps in Japan. Also in OCT, the first group of about 200 Americans and a like number of Dutch and a few Aussies departed for Singapore lead by ARMY CPT Archie Fitzsimmons. These men would soon be transited to Burma and worked to build the various camps that would house the men who built the railway. It wasn’t until JAN 43 that the remainder of the US POWs under the command of LTC Tharp followed the first group to Burma.
Beginning in Thanbyzayat, the railway was built to the east as the POWs leapfrogged deeper and deeper into the foreboding jungle. The US contingent spent most of their time at camps 100+ Kilometers east of the start-point and not far from the Thai border. That is where the vast majority of the US deaths occurred during JUN-SEP 1943. Ironically, the first ARMY POW to die in Burma was the victim of friendly fire. PFC Ed Wilson was killed during bombing raid in JUN 43 when the bombers apparently mistook the POW camp and hospital for a Japanese outpost. But prior to that a few sailors and marines had succumbed to malaria. Among the early to die was USMC 1stSgt Harley Dupler who succumbed to dysentery in May. Sep 43 took the highest toll with 36 or the 131 deaths in that month. [I find it ironic that the number of US deaths (131) matches the designation of the 131st FA TXNG.]
I have treated this subject in depth in another Section, but it is worthy of repeat that all of the US deaths were due to disease and malnutrition. None were executed or beaten to death as was widely reported by other Allied groups. Likewise, the US contingent managed to avoid the scourge of cholera that devastated some of the Burmese camp sites. Some British accounts say sick POWs were shot by the Korean guards to attempt to control the spread of cholera.
Arrival at the TBR added another layer to the control of the POWs: Japanese Railway Engineers. These were units of professional engineer officers and specially trained NCOs who oversaw the construction of the railway. Their actual interaction with the POWs was generally peripheral and rather benign. The route had been surveyed and well planned. The Engineers would generally state the mission of the day: to build a bridge or an embankment and then step away. High embankments were often needed to level the route through valleys. The engineers would place bamboo stakes in the ground to indicate the day’s goal of moving dirt to cover the stakes. The men worked until that goal was accomplished no matter how long it took. The survivors lament the futility of trying to move dirt (mud) in the monsoon season as the rain simply washed it back off the embankment. The minute to minute oversight still fell to the Korean guards and their IJA NCOs. With a few notable exceptions, the engineers rarely seemed to interact directly with the POWs. One survivor account describes how after the surrender if AUG 45, the IJA officers and NCOs simply disappeared; ostensibly returning to Bangkok. The armed Korean guards were left to fend for themselves and generally remained visible but stopped interacting with the prisoners. He states that the engineers hid in their barracks seemingly afraid that the POWs, who greatly outnumbered them, would seek revenge. But there were no reports of any widespread reprisals even against the Koreans.
The key dates in the story of the US TBR contingent are:
Mar 42 when they were taken prisoner;
Oct 42 when they began to be removed from Java to either Japan or Burma;
JAN 43 when the remainder of the US group left for Burma;
OCT 43 saw the completion of the TBR and the beginning of the shift of all the POWs to Kanchanaburi.
During the period up to the surrender in AUG 45, various subgroups left KAN for Japan or back to Singapore. One group was destine for Japan but due to heavy losses of ships carrying POWs to Japan, they were stopped at Saigon and spent the remainder of the POW time there. Remember that E Battery of the 131 was left at Surabaja. Again, no actual records exist of their journey except that most were shipped directly to Japan and were liberated pretty much as an intact group from Fukuoka Japan.
In summary then, most of the US POWs spent 10 months (MAR 42-JAN 43) on Java. Those who worked the TBR the longest were in Burma from OCT 42 to late 43 when all were consolidated to the huge camp at Kanchanaburi. There most stayed until liberation in AUG 45. Again, addressed in another essay, many of the US groups were moved to the ChungKai sub-camp after some bombs aimed at the bridges fell short and killed a few Dutch POWs who were housed near the Americans.
There is an interesting side-story to their liberation. Apparently without detection by the Japs, US and British agents had been operating in Thailand for many months. These were a mix of British SOE and US OSS agents as well as regular Army troops. They had two missions: one was to arm and train the Seri Thai resistance groups and second to monitor the POW camps. There were very real concerns that as the war was going badly for the Japanese that they might just decide to rid themselves of the burden of the POWs they held, especially those outside of Japan who were not “laboring on behalf of the Emperor”. In small teams, these men parachuted into Thailand and established outposts near the POWs camps – there were many all over the country. They also has some Thais who were in the USA at the time the war started and were recruited and trained as NCOs to train the Thai resistance fighters.
Reportedly, there were two such US paratroopers (identified in survivor accounts only as Bud and Hank) whose job it was to watch over the Kanchanaburi camps. Soon after the surrender was announced, they arrived in jeeps (the US soldiers had never even seen a Jeep before). They brought some basic supplies which were soon augmented by parachute drops of food and uniforms that the watchers had identified as a need. These two seemingly rounded up all the US prisoners from the various sub-camps – late in the period the Japanese had moved the officers into separate camp locations. Once assembled back together, they were quickly moved to Bangkok (many in trucks commandeered from the Japanese Railway Engineers) and flown to India where they were hospitalized for treatment, recuperation and de-briefing.
Once again, I note that the US contingent of POWs from these two groups was under 1000 men, of whom less than 800 worked the TBR. That makes them less than 1% of the Allied TBR POW group. Because of those small numbers, their story can be easily lost to history.
In recognizing these small numbers, we must relate the fate of the men who for various reasons were left behind on Java as the Americans were moved. The 131 deaths among the TBR POWs is a death toll of 18%. But approximately 2 dozen men are listed as being left on Java; mostly in the camp hospital designated as being too ill to travel. Records state that only 2 of these men died of disease there. But in Jun and Sep 1944, 17 were lost at sea when the Hellships they were on were sunk by Allied submarines while they were en route to Japan. These unfortunate souls paid a high price for their earlier illness.
And so ends the saga of what had become known as the LOST BATTALION — to include the USS HOUSTON survivors. It seems that the Japanese military had never reported the names of these men as POWs as they were required to do under Red Cross and Geneva Convention rules. Their families generally had no word of their status until liberation.