to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

7.2 US POW DEATH Details

One of the mandates of the Veterans of Foreign Wars is to “perpetuate the memory and history of our dead”. It is with is in mind that I enumerate and detail the names and circumstances of many of these men who were POWs of the Japanese.

It is generally agreed that 171 (17%) of the 987 men affiliated with these units died during this period. Of those 131 (18% of 682) died during their time on the TBR and 2 died of TBR-related illnesses soon after their transfer onward (1 Singapore and 1 Saigon). Four of those who died were never POWs; they had transferred to the AAF. Two were KIA in the European Theater (1 also became a POW in Germany) and two were KIA in the South Pacific in plane crashes that did not seem to involve enemy activity. Another 21 POWs died in other ways and places during their period of captivity.

The first two 2/131 men who died were KIA when the B-17 they were assisting as gunners was shot down [PVT Don Barnes & PFC John Bingham] during the first air raid at Singosari airfield. A third [PVT Bruce Rhodes] died of an accidental gunshot wound on 5 MAR during the defense of Java. PFC Gordon Griffin was the first TXNG man to die of disease (of dysentery at the Bicycle Camp on 4 MAY) on Java. However, he was preceded in death by Lt(jg) Francis Weiler who died of wounds on 26 MAR.

In OCT 1943, the US prisoners began their journey to the TBR in two main groups. The expeditionary party (aka Grp 3) was led by CPT Archie Fitzsimmons. They were soon followed by the main group (aka Grp 5) led by the Battalion Commander LTC Blucher Tharp. At the same time, a group of men were selected as having technical skills that the Japanese thought they could use in Japan. This group was led by CPT Lundy Zeigler. They were apparently loaded onto the same Hellship Tofuku as the Tharp group for their trip to Japan via Singapore. Chief Radioman Harmon Alderman died en route on 26 NOV of colitis. Overall, the Zeigler Party fared very well in various camps in Japan. That group only lost two other members both from the USS Houston: EM2c Alfred Seidel and GM3c Gene Fanghor who were reported to have died on the same day (12 DEC) of Bronchitis and Diphtheria, respectively, both at the same camp at Sendi-Ohashi.

Both of the groups who departed Java for the TBR spent some time in Singapore before moving onward. The Fitzsimmons Group arrived in Burma in mid-OCT and by the end of the month were at the 18 KILO Camp working the TBR. The first man in that group to die was SM2c James Musto who succumbed to dysentery at the 30 KILO Camp on 17 JUL 43. Since that group had been working the TBR since OCT 42, they had an amazing record of survival. Actually, that group only lost two other men: Army PVT Arthur Pfeil who died at the 39 KILO Camp on 22 AUG 43 of dysentery and USMC Pvt James Wilson who succumbed to Malaria on 17 Nov 43 at the 114 KILO Camp. Wilson was the fifth and last Marine to die. Of the other 4 Marines, Pvt Donald Hill died of dysentery on 8 APR 43 having been left behind at the Bicycle Camp. The other three Marines all died while working the TBR. First was Sgt Joe Lusk who succumbed to malaria on 22 MAR at the 80 KILO Camp as part of the Tharp Party. Next, and senior among them, was 1Sgt Harley Dupler who died in the Thanbyuzayat camp hospital on 14 MAY of dysentery. Then Cpl Frank Holsinger died as result of a Tropical Ulcer on 18 SEP also at the 80 KILO Camp as part of the Tharp Party. In all then, five of the 33 Marines who survived the sinking died as POWs; 4 on the TBR.

Tropical Ulcers accounted for the majority of the TBR POW deaths. Fifty-one died while working the TBR in Burma and 2 more during their time at the POW Camp in Kanchanaburi. Since a total of 133 POWs died as a result of their time on the TBR (131 while working the TBR and 1 in Saigon and another in Singapore where they had moved after the TBR), Ulcers accounted for 40% of all the TBR-related deaths. Next in order were Dysentery (44, 33%) and Beri-beri (21, 16%). Malaria killed surprisingly few: 7 or 5%. Seemingly, only two POWs were subjected to a leg amputation as a result of an ulcer: PVT Samuel Jones (Tharp party) who died 11 SEP 43 at the 80 KILO camp. At the Hintok / Tarsoa camp. Crayton Gordon relates that PFC Glen “Cy” Moore had a leg amputated before he died of dysentery at the F&H hospital on 10 OCT 43.

Five other TBR POWS were lost to what would otherwise be called ‘natural cases’ although these were undoubtedly exacerbated by the TBR ordeal. Two died of cardio-vascular disease; both in Burma while working the TBR. One, SM2c Forerst Ebaugh, died of Epilepsy (which he had had before becoming a POW) on 19 SEP at the 100 KILO Camp. Another, Army PFC Lavern Staver, died in Singapore in May 45 (his story is detailed below). Only one of four POWs who died of Tuberculosis died during the time on the TBR: Army PVT Ward Simpson (a member of the Fitzsimmons Group) who was sent to the F & H Force hospital due to that condition where he died on 30 JAN 44. The others who died of TB had been left in Java although one—SM1c Harold Johnson — had subsequently been transferred to Borneo where he died on 10 OCT 44. One of those left on Java was actually the first member of the E Battery Group to die, PVT Abileno Hernandez succumbed to his TB at the Surabaja Jail on 23 FEB 43. TM1c Irving Felix died of his infection at the Dutch hospital in the Bicycle Camp on 18 APR 43.

One of two others whose cause of death would possibly be called ‘natural’ was the aforementioned PVT Staver who was in fact the final member of the E Battery Group to die. He died in Singapore after he had been left by the Battery Group. He is thought to have died at Changi while undergoing an operation form a brain tumor. Finally, there is Army CPL Nolan Kalich. He was also in the E Battery group and was the first member of that group to die in Japan of meningitis on 3 DEC 43.

For the obvious fact that the Tharp (461) and Fitzsimmons (192) Groups underwent their most arduous time on the TBR working in Burma, the vast majority of the POW deaths took place there and most of those during the “Speedo” Period. But those two US groups had vastly different experiences. The Speedo period lasted from about MAY 43 until the TBR’s completion in OCT. During that period, 88 men died 77% of the 115 TBR deaths that occurred in 1943. Of course, the effects of this added deprivation and labor demand carried over after the OCT completion and 21 more men succumbed in NOV and DEC as the Tharp and Fitzsimmons groups were moved from Burma to Kanchanaburi. In actuality, The Fitzsimmons Party had not lost a man until James Musto’s death in JUL. In 1943, the Fitzsimmons Party only lost 6 men compared to 106 from the Tharp Group and 4 total in the Hintok Group. Overall, Tharp lost a total of 116 (25% of 461) while Fitzsimmons lost 13 (7% of 191) on the TBR. This huge disparity in the death toll was due to the region of the TBR that these two groups worked. The Fitzsimmons group worked the area close to Thanbyuzayat while the Tharp group worked in the highlands in the 80-115 Kilo region closer to the Thai border. Somewhat surprisingly, all but 2 (SM2c James Musto and PVT Stanley Pfeil) of the Fz Grp 13 deaths occurred after TBR completion. After the rail work was done, the Fz Group spent a few months at the 114 KILO area (Nikki/Songkurai) where 7 of the 13 deaths occurred. In early JAN 44, three more died at the Thamakam camp or KAN area hospitals; I’m guessing that the sickest men were moved first and these died over just a few days after arriving at KAN. The final Fz death was SM2c George Bender of dysentery in May 44 at the Nakorn Pathom hospital.

In all, 113 (86% of the 131 who died while working the railway) died at the various camps in Burma. After the railway was completed in mid-OCT 43, the POWs from all along its 415 km length were consolidated into camps near the famous bridge in Kanchanaburi. Oddly enough, only 1 US POW is recorded as having died in Thailand during the time the railway was under construction. Chief Boatsman’s Mate Kenneth Blair, a member of the Tharp Party was evacuated to the Thamakam hospital where he died of Beri-beri on 23 MAR 43. He was actually only the second US NAVY man to die on the TBR. He was preceded in death by SM1c Kenneth Young of the Tharp Party who died of Ber-beri at the 100 KILO Camp on 22 Jan 43 very soon after the Tharp Party arrived in Burma. The second Tharp death was USMC Sgt Joe Lusk (as above). The death of PVT James Drake (Tropical Ulcer) and SM2c James Musto (Fz party) of dysentery on 17 Jul were the first of the majority of the deaths as the POWs entered the rainy season and what is known as the ‘Speedo’ time.

The official start of the TBR is set by the Japanese at 5 JUL 42 at Non Pladuc. As the months progressed and even as thousands upon thousands of POWs and native workers (aka romushas) were imported and the second start point at Thanbyuzayat was opened, at about May 43 the Railway Engineers realized that they were falling behind in their effort to complete the entire TBR in one year. They decided to press the workers even harder in an effort to not ‘lose face’ in the eyes of their superiors. First the minimum day’s work for moving dirt to make a fill was increased from 1 cubic meter per man to 1 and half then two; some reports say it was pushed to a nearly impossible 3m3/man by some supervisors. All of this coincided with the onset of the annual monsoon season of 1943. From their arrival in JAN 43 through MAY prior to the Speedo period, only 6 US POWs had died. USMC 1SG Harley Dupler was the last of these.

One other death stands out against the rest. CPL Edwin Wilson of the Tharp Party was KIA during an Allied bombing raid at the Thanbyuzayat camp on 12 JUN 43, while technically during the Speedo period, his is the only non-disease loss. Also in the interest of completeness, 2 other loses are noteworthy: PFC Harry Gray (originally of the 1314th Med Detachment in the PI) is a TBR side-story in himself that will be discussed elsewhere. Suffice it to say that he was one of the Speedo deaths from dysentery in SEP. The other non-TXNG death occurred in a member of the 26th FA Bde who had been transferred to the 131 as hostilities began. PFC Edward Kalous died of Tropical Ulcer complications on 17 SEP just one day after PFC Gray.

In all, 41 (31% of the 133) deaths occurred after the completion of the TBR when the POWs were no longer subjected to the horrendous work conditions and deprivation that occurred while they were in the jungle camps. The US POWs were primarily located at the top end of the Kanchanaburi camp, next to the two bridges. Throughout the entire war, the Japanese military had a consistent policy to keep the various nationalities housed together. The area where the US POWs were consolidated to is generally referred to as Thamakam. In addition to PFC Staver discussed above, Bkr3c Albert Tanberg died of dysentery in Saigon on 2 NOV 44 as one of the 144 POWs who were transferred there after working the TBR and was the final USS Houston crewman to die as a POW. Dysentery was the primary cause of these 41 post-TBR deaths with 13 (including Tanberg) succumbing. Beri-Beri claimed 10 and Tropical Ulcer complications another 11. Most of these deaths still occurred in Burma (24, 58% of the 41) since the movement of POWS from that area took longer than shifting those within Thailand. All but one of the remainder, 14 (34%) took place at the camps in Kanchanaburi. That one was E Battery’s PVT Billy Thomas whose Beri-beri death on 28 OCT at F & H hospital was actually after the official mid-OCT completion date. The Fitzsimmons Group suffered four losses in this time period. Two were caused by malaria SM1c Frank Brothers (8 NOV 43) and Marine Pvt James Wilson (17 NOV 43); plus Army PVT William Mattfeldt of cardiac arrest on 16 NOV 43 and PVT Ward Simpson who died of TB on 30 Jan 44. The last man to die in Thailand was SM1c David Williams of the Tharp Party on 4 NOV 44 of dysentery reportedly at the ChungKai Hospital. In terms of ordinal occurrences, the actual last POW to die was SGT Donald Heleman of E Battery of Beri-Beri in the Omata Camp in Japan—mere days from liberation. But there is always an outlier. Of the 987 total, the final death was not recorded until Dec 1945 when PFC William Fraser who had been transferred to the AAF was KIA when his plane crashed in New Guinea. He was preceded by PVT Byron West who died in a similar (no enemy activity known) plane crash in Australia on 1 JUL 42. Just to complete the record, two of the non-POWs who transferred to the AAF and found their way to the European Theater: PVTs Ray Baldwin and J.W. Bartee were KIA there in Nov 43 and MAR 44, respectively.

The Tharp Group lost one of its officers to malaria on 13 NOV 43 post-TBR but still at the Burma 80 KILO Camp: 1LT Lemuel Boren; and also Army CPL Howard Eastwood from general malnutrition on 24 Jan 44. Although somewhat older that the average soldier or sailor, the officers fared rather well. Of the 64 total officers in these units, all but one was taken as a POW. Of those, 36 eventually worked the TBR; of whom only 3 died. In addition, there were two who died on Java: LT(jg) Francis Weiler died of wounds received in the sinking of the Houston and LT Russell Ross died of dysentery 1 MAY 42. He was actually the first NAVY man to die of disease barely a month after Weiler died of wounds.

The three TBR officer deaths were all in members of the Tharp Party: 1LT Robert Hampton 31 JUL 43 and CPT Samuel Lumpkin 1 AUG 43 both of dysentery; and 1LT Boren as above. Unfortunately for the Tharp group as a whole, CPT Lumpkin was their Battalion Medical Officer and although he had little to work with, he is credited with saving the lives of many. On the up-side, Navy CDR William Epstein was the surviving Medical Officer from the Houston and he too was assigned to the Tharp Party and was liberated from a Kanchanaburi camp, so he spent his entire TBR time with those same men. It needs to be emphasized once again that although the Japanese system tended to keep the various nationalities segregated, they paid no attention to the Branch of Service. So once they were together at the Bicycle Camp, the bulk of the Artillerymen and the Houston crew of sailor and marines blended into one unit with the senior ranking officer at the specific time and place ‘in charge’ regardless of his Branch.  

The group at Hintok who were part of largely British H-Force fared very well given that the nearby F-Force had one of the highest POW death rates when their camps were stricken with cholera. Part of the H-Force also worked the infamous Hellfire Pass, but the US contingent seemingly worked only the 3-Tiered Bridge (trestle) and nearby cuttings and smaller bridges. Those who died while working at Hintok were SM1c Lyle Rozelle (dysentery 29 AUG 43) a member of the Tharp group that had been left in Singapore. In OCT, PFC Glenn Moore also died of dysentery (apparently following a leg amputation) and PVT Billy Thomas (formerly of E Battery) of Beri-Beri. The fourth death attributed to this group was the aforementioned PVT Staver who died of brain cancer after his transfer back to Singapore.

The POWs who never worked the TBR fall into two main categories: those who were left on Java (52) and those sent directly to Japan or Manchuria (177). Twenty-seven POWs spent their entire term on Java of whom 6 died there. The greatest percentage loss came when 19 men on two different Hellships (17 Tamahoko & 2 Junyo) perished when those ships were sunk en route from Java on 24 JUN and 18 SEP respectively. Only 3 US POWs on those ships survived those sinkings. Six POWs died on Java after the bulk of their compatriots had departed and one died in Borneo of TB. Three were transferred from Java to Sumatra where they worked the lesser known Sumatra Railway, but all survived. The Zeigler (technicians) Group and E Battery accounted for the main groups of men sent to Japan (169) of whom 5 died in captivity.

Oddly enough, only 1 died of a POW-specific disease, that was the aforementioned final man to die, SGT Donald Heleman. One other member of the E Battery died of meningitis on 3 DEC 43: CPL Nolan Kalich. Nine days later, two of the Zeigler Party died of diphtheria GM3c Gene Fanghor and bronchitis EM2c Alfred Seidel. The first member of that group to die actually died en route to Japan: Chief Radioman Harmon Alderman died of colitis in NOV 42 aboard the Hellship Tofuku.

After the war, Graves Registration units of many nations arrived in Thailand to recover the remains of those POWs who were buried up and down the length of the TBR. Some of the POWs volunteered to stay behind to assist in those recoveries. The officers had taken great pains to record the names, dates and places of the many deaths and to draw maps and identify the positions of the various graves.

At first, the US remains were collected and reburied in the SE corner of what would become the main CWGC Cemetery in Kanchanaburi – in the place where the cemetery admin offices are today. But the decision was made to repatriate those remains so they were first removed to India and then as families were notified and identified a place for final burial, they were relocated to the USA. By 1948, this task was completed. Amazingly enough, other than those who were lost at sea, all but two sets of remains were located. Marine Pvt Donald Hill who died at the Bicycle camp in APR 43 and Lt(jg) Francis Weiler who had died of wounds in MAR 42 remain somewhere on Java. Their remains were never located and they are memorialized on the Wall of the Missing at the Manila American Cemetery at Fort McKinley. The other two whose remains were never recovered were PFCs Barnes and Bingham who were KIA in the first air raid of the Singosari airfield.

One additional POW needs special mention: ENS John Bell Stivers was a member of the Tharp Party. He was hospitalized at the Nakorn Pathom hospital camp with a diagnosis of a brain tumor at the time of liberation. By AUG 18th, he was evacuated to the Bangkok Nursing Home hospital and then to Calcutta by the end of the month. He was quickly evacuated back to the USA but died of a Glioblastoma at St. Albans Naval Hospital in Queens, NY on 7 OCT 45, barely 2 months after the end of the war. He was obviously the first ex-POW to die. He is buried in his hometown of Montrose, CA.

I’ll close this “memory and history of our dead” with what is known as the Kohima Epitaph attributed to British Major John Etry-Leal after the Battle of Kohima India (1944):

When you go home

 tell them of us,

and say

‘For your to-morrows

we gave our to-day’

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