to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

7.1 US POW DEATHS

It is generally agreed that 131 US POWs died during the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway. An additional 2 died as POWs in different locations (Saigon & Singapore) soon after the TBR was completed and the TBR POWs were being re-assigned to other duties.

Actually, the first 3 soldiers to die were KIA before the 131 FA Rgt was taken as prisoner. When they arrived on Java in early Jan 1942, they affiliated with a squadron of B-17s at an airport near Malang where they began to assist the AAC crews. These men had evacuated from the Philippines but had had to do so without their ground crews. So the 131 members assumed those duties. The B-17s had access to some bombs and ammunition so they continued to fly recon and interdiction raids of Japanese shipping. The first 2 deaths occurred when one of the B-17s was shot down during the first of many air raids on that airfield. Five additional AAF died of wounds received in such raids.

As the Japanese invasion force landed on Java, the B-17s flew off to Australia taking 23 members of the FA men and 3 others from the US Forces (Java) contingent. It is an interesting side-story that two of these men were KIA and another became a POW in the European Theater.

The USS Houston (CA-30) was sunk in the early morning hours of 1 Mar 1942 with an assigned crew 937 Sailors and 74 Marines. All of the crew members who made it to shore were soon captured by the Japanese who were just beginning their attack on the island of Java (334 Sailors & 33 Marines). The first sailor to die, Lt(jg) Francis Weiler, succumbed to wounds he received in the sinking of the ship but he was officially a POW at the time of his death. A second crewman succumbed to Dysentery on Java in May ‘42.

The Dutch government officially surrendered to the invading Japanese on 8 Mar. The US ARMY contingent evaded capture for a few days to weeks but with no way off the island they too all became POWs. The Army and Navy personnel first met each other when they were moved to the Bicycle Camp near the city of Batavia (modern day Jakarta).

A few months later (OCT 42). the first contingent of POWs was selected based on the Japanese assessment that they possessed ‘special skills’. Under the command of Army CPT Lundy Zeigler they boarded a ship bound for Japan via Singapore. The third, fourth and fifth sailors (in sequence) died of diseases in Japan in Nov-Dec 1942.

The first soldier to die as a POW did so of TB on Java in Feb 43. In October of 1942, the first group of Americans (about 200) under the command of CPT Fitzsimmons departed from Java for an unstated destination. After short stay at the Changi POW camp in Singapore, they were sent to Rangoon and then into the jungle in southern Burma to work the railway. They were part of what came to be called Group 3.

It wasn’t until Jan 1943 that the majority of the US POWs (a mix of soldiers, sailors and marines) along with the command staff of the 131st FA Rgt under LTC Tharp were sent to Burma as Group 5. A small number of the US POWs were left behind on Java, most of whom were too ill to travel. Two sailors died there in Apr 43. The first six deaths while working the TBR were among sailors (3) and marines (3) who died of malaria or dysentery. The first soldier to die in Burma (Jun 43) was killed by an errant bomb as the Allies began attacking the railway bridges.

US Military deaths on the TBR during the height of the construction:

Over the course of the next six months (Jun 43 to Jan 44) 121 US POWs died at one of two camps called 80 Kilo and 100 Kilo where the Tharp Grp 5 spent the bulk of their time in the middle of uncharted jungle in southern Burma. Complications from Tropical ulcers accounted for the majority of these deaths (50) followed by Dysentery (38), Beri-beri (21) and Malaria (4). Interestingly, no US POW was killed by a direct assault by the Japanese and none died of Cholera which ravaged some of the other camps along the TBR. The Americans were never alone. That is, they were always a small part of the total number of prisoners (British, Australian and Dutch) at the southern Burmese camps. Overall, 682 US POWs worked the railway making them roughly 1% of the TBR prisoners.

The TBR was built from both ends at Nong Pladuk Thailand and Thanbyuzayat Burma and the two sections were joined in OCT 1943 marking the completion of the construction phase which had begun about JUN 42 by about 3000 Australian POWs who were moved overland from Changi to Ban Pong.

Following the construction phase, the POWs began to be consolidated, many – including most of the Americans – were moved down the railway to various camps in and around Kanchanaburi where the now famous Bridge over the River Kwai (Bridge #277 according to the Japanese engineers) is located.

Life at these camps became much better than what they had experienced in the jungle camps. Between NOV and MAY 44, only 6 more US POWs (2 ARMY & 4 NAVY) died of either Dysentery or Beri-beri.

For the few dozen POWs left behind on Java, life was nowhere near the ordeal experienced by those in Burma. Only 1 soldier died of Dysentery (in Oct 43). But that was all to change in JUN 44. Fourteen soldiers and two sailors aboard the Hellship Tamahoko Maru[1] died when it was torpedoed while enroute to Japan. Then in SEP 44, the Hellship Junyo met a similar fate, killing 2 soldiers. These 18 deaths accounted for the highest death toll of US POWs from these two main groups.

Following the completion of the railway, the POWs continued to be employed to do maintenance or to repair bomb damage along the course of the railway, but no US POWs died there after MAY 44. Many of those who had worked the railway were reassigned to other places. A fairly large contingent were sent to Saigon where they worked unloading ships and building a railway tunnel. Only one sailor died there of Dysentery. Some of the TBR POWs were sent back to Changi prison camp in Singapore where one TBR veteran died of cancer in MAY 45. A third large group of POWs were sent via Hellships to Japan where they were finally liberated after the war. Here, too, only one soldier who had come from the TBR died of Beri-beri. His death in AUG 45 was the final POW death of this group.

Of the 954 US POWs (including 29 Merchant Marines and 9 USN reserve sailors who were on the SS Sawolka and 1 civilian volunteer to the Flying Tigers Sqn), 792 (83%) were liberated. But the insidious effects of their time as POWs continued to take their toll. Over the ensuing years, as many as 39 former POWs have died of causes that could be attributed to their POW status.

Within three years after the war, TB and the effects of malnutrition caused the deaths of 4 former POWs. In 1958 (14 years after liberation), one of these men died of what his doctor termed Beri-Beri heart disease. Over the years, alcoholism and suicide each claimed the lives of 11 of these men. Two former POWs have died of cancer. Oddly the first was in OCT 45 – just weeks after liberation – in a 31yo sailor. The other died at age 90 (65 years after his liberation), but his daughter (in a private communication) is convinced that that cancer was a result of the years he spent working the coal mines in Japan as a POW.  It is possible, then, in addition to the 3 who were KIA before becoming POWs that 202 US military men died as a direct or indirect result of their POW status. As of this writing (FEB 2021), only 2 (both USN Veterans) of these former POWs are still alive.


[1] Tamahoko Maru sailed on 20 June 1944 with 772 POWs (197 British, 42 American, 258 Australian and 281 Dutch) from Takao for Moji in convoy HO-02. There were also some 500 Japanese soldiers on board. On 24 June 1944 at 11:50 pm, in the Koshiki Straits 40 miles SW of Nagasaki, the Tamahoko Maru was torpedoed by USS Tang and sank in less than 2 minutes. 560 POWs, 35 crewmen and an unknown number of Japanese soldiers were lost. Among the lost were 13 Merchant Marines from the SS AMERICAN LEADER.


Here are the names, dates and causes of death plus what I call “the ordinals” = the order of events as they pertain to their deaths:

POW-Deaths

Also a tribute to those fallen and entombed in the wreck:

https://www.facebook.com/jerry.ranger.9/videos/10220497802627841/

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