to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

9.6 N. Tx Oral History

North Texas Univ Oral History Program

Over the course of three decades (1970-2000), Dr. Ronald Marcello conducted interviews with WW 2 veterans in an effort to document they experiences. One subset of these were 66 interviews with members of the LOST BATTALION = the 2 Bn 131 Field Artillery Regiment of the TXNG and the 36th INF DIV.

This group is most noted for their participation in building the Thai-Burma (Death) Railway that includes the famous Bridge on the River Kwai in Kanchanaburi Thailand. These soldiers were joined by survivors of the sinking of the USS HOUSTON, a few of whom were included in the interview group.

As part of my research into these men and their ordeal on the TBR, I was able to gain access to some of these interview transcripts.

My thanks go to the Director and staff of the University of North Texas Oral History Program Denton, Texas for granting me assess to these interviews. What follows here is my summation of their stories. By my count, there were 541 Army, 345 Navy and 33 Marine POWs. Not all, however, worked the TBR. I find it quite interesting, how from the time they landed on Java in Jan 1942, through the end of the war in Aug 1945, the Army group in particular ‘shed’ members along the way. Of course, all of the USS HOUSTON crewmen were taken as POWs as they struggled ashore on 1 Mar 1942. By and large, they stayed together as a group – blended with the 131 members and worked the TBR.

Per the transcripts of the interviews, the experiences of the TXNG members were generally quite the same up until their arrival on Java in JAN 42. They were mostly Texas natives who had joined the TXNG for the extra money. Upon federalization into the 36th INF DIV, they travelled to Camp Bowie TX from their individual hometowns that housed the various Company-sized units of roughly 100 men. Following their participation in the Louisiana Maneuvers, there was a shake-up in the personnel assigned as the 2nd BN was identified for an assignment overseas. Everyone assumed that they were headed for the PI when they boarded the SS REPUBLIC in San Francisco.  

Whereas the ARMY personnel where taken as POWs in two large groups, the HOUSTON survivors were captured as they came ashore, usually in groups of 2-5 men. They were rounded up into larger groups of 10-20. There were two main groups; one who were housed for a while in a schoolhouse and the other at the Serangi city jail. Eventually, they were all consolidated at the Bicycle camp.

Next to arrive at that camp was the largest group still under the command of LTC Tharp. Last was the E Battery group who had been taken as POWs on the east end of the island.

As the Japanese landing forces hit the island of Java in late Feb 1942, the 131 was located on the east end of the island at city of Malang and the adjacent airfield of Singosari. They were co-located with the crews of B-17 bombers (19th Bombardment Group[1]) that had evacuated from the Philippines, but without their ground crews. The artillerymen acted as crews for a number of weeks prior to the Japanese landing. In fact, the first three deaths among the 131 occurred when the planes the men were on acting as gunners were shot down. In the last week of FEB, the planes departed for Australia and the 131 prepared to move to confront the invaders. Here, the first split occurred. The Battalion had 3 firing Batteries (designated D, E & F). E Battery was left behind to assist in the departure of the 19th Bomb Grp and then they moved north to defend the port city of Surabaja on the northeast coast.

The other two Batteries along with their HQ and Service elements, convoyed west to engage the enemy. They established a defensive position on the east side of the Tijanten River[1] just south of the capitol city of Batavia. They were firing in support of the Australian 2/2 Pioneer and the 2/4 Machine Gun Battalions. They were armed with World War I vintage 75mm cannons.

For both the main 131 group and E Battery, this was their first experience in combat. Both efforts were short-lived. Apparently, the Japanese had landed over 80,000 men on Java in three groups; two in the west and one on the north coast about mid-island. It was this latter group that converged on the city of Surabaja and were engaged (however briefly) by E Battery. The larger main force under the command of LTC Blucher Tharp was facing the main landing force near Batavia. Barely, 10 days after the landings, the Dutch government of the island capitulated on 8 March 1942.

Here we pick up some of the individual stories as told by the US POWs. The main body were instructed by their Dutch liaison officers to withdraw into the highlands to a tea plantation and await the arrival of the Japanese. There was obviously some discussion of attempting to escape and evade capture but for such a large group (about 400) that seemed fanciful. Add to this that it became quite evident that the native Javanese were siding with Japanese as “liberators” from their Dutch colonial rulers[2]. A rumor spread rapidly that the USS HOUSTON was en route to the southern coast to evacuate them. They had no way of knowing that the HOUSTON lay on the bottom of the Sunda Strait and that the surviving crewmen were being rounded up at that same time.

It is worth mentioning here that the first group ‘shed’ by the 131 were 2 dozen members who flew out with the Bomber Group. Per one member, the commander (COL Eubank) offered to try to ferry out as many as possible, but LTC Tharp refused stating that the Battalion had a mission to support the defense of the island and was officially under that the command of the Dutch military and they had been ordered west.  The E Battery that he left behind consisted of roughly 100 men.

As their capture was imminent, each of these two groups destroyed and disabled their equipment and vehicles to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Japanese. They retained only their personal weapons and gear. Most of their personal possessions had been send to a warehouse in Surabaja – to be reclaimed later (or not).

The main group under LTC Tharp, were moved to 2-3 places before settling at a camp near Batavia at Tanjong Priok. They were kept there for over a month (until mid-May) before being consolidated at a large camp in Batavia known as the Bicycle Camp. Here is where they met the HOUSTON survivors. This latter group were in sad shape. They had abandoned ship with little more than the clothes on their back and many without much of that. The soldiers spontaneously shared whatever items of clothing and gear they could spare. The members of the three Services integrated easily and were treated by the Japanese as ‘Americans’ disregarding their Service Branch. As always the now 700 or so Americans were in the minority thousands of Dutch, and hundreds of Australians and British at the Bicycle camp. For the most part, however, there was very little interaction among the various nationalities as they were housed and assigned worked by nationality. 

One POW, PFC Cloen Stewart, had one of the most interesting “side stories” at this point in the narrative. He cobbled together two damaged Dutch motorcycles and set off on a ‘scouting mission’ towards the south coast. He relates a tale parallel to that of the GREAT ESCAPE movie, were he rides the m/c south meeting up with stragglers from many nationalities mainly Canadian and British as well a 5 other Americans.  With the assistance of a Dutch farmer, they attempt to build a boat using the roof of a bus as the hull. Needless to say, they were unsuccessful. As he and a British officer were returning to the farm, they bungled into a group of 4 Japanese on horseback. There were 16 Japs in all, and they had taken the entire group captive. They had been ‘on the loose’ looking after themselves for nearly two months. He finally found LTC Tharp month later at Changi but since he was ‘listed’ with the other group, Tharp was unable to affect a transfer before Tharp departed for the TBR. Some of the US POWs with Stewart eventually found their way to the TBR at Hintok (along with US Merchant Marine POWs, but Stewart remained in Singapore until war’s end.

IMHO, Cleon Stewart had the single greatest quote of any POW: In 1946, he re-enlisted in the AAF (soon to be the USAF). When asked by Dr. Marcello why he chose the Air Force, he said: “The Navy carried me to Java, the Army left me there and the Air Force brought me home”!


At both the Tanjong Priok and Bicycle camps, the Americans were sent daily to the nearby docks to load and unload Japanese ships. Military supplies flowed in and ‘loot’ flowed out on those same ships. The Japanese were raping the island of its resources: oil, agricultural products first then later scrap metal of any kind. The interviewees described being assigned to dismantle vehicles and load the metal components on the ships along with girders striped from bridges.

The 100 or so members of E Battery eventually were re-united with the main body, but only partially so. They found each other at the Bicycle Camp in June but they were keep separate and after only a short time there (1 month; Oct to Nov 42) they were sent to camps at Fukouka Japan near Nagasaki.  Also beginning in Oct 1942, the next two groups were split off from the main body. The Japanese identified just under 200 Americans that they thought had ‘technical skills’ and under the command of Army CPT Zeigler, they were sent directly to Japan. They were scattered to a number of POW camps around the country. Soon thereafter, another group of about 200 under the command of ARMY CPT Fitzsimmons, departed for an unknown destination. After a short lay-over in Singapore, they became the advance party of the American TBR group.

One of the POWs, 1SGT M. T. Harrelson describes how he and about 35 other Americans were left on Java as they were too sick to travel; malaria and dysentery were the main culprits. As fate would have it, he and most of that group were later moved to the nearby island of Sumatra and endure their own parallel hell as they worked on the shorter but no less arduous Sumatra Railway that connected an inland coal mine to the coast. Few historians could tell you that there were two different rail projects worked by the Allied POWs.

Added to the 131

A group of unfortunate souls were added to the 131 roster as things heated up on Java. Eighteen soldiers from the 26th Fld Arty Bde who had originally been assigned to the US Forces-Java Command were transferred to the 131. Most of the men assigned to the USF-Java were evacuated to Australia. The senior officer to remain was the COL Albert Searle. He was eventually separated from the 131 contingent at the Bicycle Camp and served most of his time at a Senior Allied Officer’s camp in Mukden, Manchuria. One (PVT William Mattfeldt) of the former 26 Bde artillerymen died in SEP 1943 at the 100 Kilo Camp.

A PFC Harry Gray was a survivor of the sinking of the USAT LIBERTY[1] near Bali and was added to the 131 roster. He was likely rescued by their ship after the sinking of the LIBERTY.

Other “outliers” were 2 USN Signalmen (Benjamin Hopkins[2] from the USS MARBLEHEAD and Daniel Rafalovich from the USS HOUSTON) were attached to the 131 as liaison for naval bombardment support should that possibility arise. Both went to Japan as part of the Zeigler party.

As the 19th Bomber Grp was preparing to evacuate, nine AAF members were left on Java, most due to hospitalization.  Only two of then became part of the TBR main body. Most went to Japan with either the Zeigler or E Battery groups.

Two civilians who were working on Java for American companies and were unable to evacuate joined the soldiers at Singosara. One (Gaylord Buchanan) stayed on Java and the other (David Hicks) went to Japan with E Battery.

E Batt to Japan

One E Battery member, Alfred ‘Pete’ Evans, related an anecdote that provides an insight into why most of E Battery were shipped directly to Japan from Java. He states that early in their captivity they were interrogated (timing is unclear). SSG Roger White lied that he had been a ship builder in Texas. The interrogator’s face lite up and he told White that Japan needed ships and that he’d be sent to Japan to build more. Word spread through the group that if you had an occupation relating to ship building you would go to Japan. Just why the POWs thought that this was a better alternative than Java or other possible (as yet unknown to them) destinations is also unclear. Perhaps it was simply a ploy to try to state together.

Evans goes on to state that due to their complete lack of any ship building skills, none of ships they worked on were ever completed. And that they regularly sabotaged the work in small ways like not fastening the rivets fully.

Near the end of the war the ship-building crew was transferred to the coal mines!

After Java

The main body of about 400 under LTC Tharp followed the Fitzsimmons group first to Singapore then Burma in Jan 1943. This group had one the more harrowing experiences (pre-TBR that is) while en route. One of the primary reasons that the Japanese needed the TBR link was the high loss rate of their ships carrying supplies in the Andaman Sea. While on that route in mid-Jan 1943, the US POWs were aboard the Dai Moji Mauru which was part of a three ship convoy headed for Moulmein Burma. The POWs had no way of knowing, but about a day’s sailing time out of

Benjamin Grover Hopkins was taken from Java to Changi in November 1942. He was then taken to Fukuoka 2B Nagasaki on December 7th. On June 21st 1945 he was transferred to Fukuoka 6B Orio where he was liberated on September 18th.

The POWs had no way of knowing, but about a day’s sailing time out of Moulmein, a flight of three B-24s was sighted. After making a low pass and receiving some anti-aircraft fire from the accompanying destroyer, one of the B-24s came in low from the stern of the warship and all (most?) of it bombs hit the ship; it sank almost immediately. At the same time, the second plane swooped down on the other freighter and its bombs were seen to enter the forward hold. It so happened that held a Battalion of Japanese railway engineers. The ship broke in two and sank. The rear hold housed Dutch POW, many of whom were now in the water; some injured, most not.

The third plane then targeted the ship carrying the US and Dutch POWs. The bombs straddled the ship and caused some damage. They killed a few and injured some of the Dutch, but none of the Americans were harmed.  Miraculously, the three planes then departed. Whether they were out of ordinance or fuel can only be speculated upon. The Dai Moji Mauru spent some time picking up Dutch POWs out of the water then limped into Moulmein the following day with a definite list.

[See the story of AAF COL Sledge in Section 3 of this website]

One year on the TBR

The initial group of Americans under the command of CPT Fitzsimmons had been sent from Thanbyuzayat (Burma) to the 18 Kilo Camp. They spent almost their entire time on the TBR in the 18-40 Kilo area near Thanbyuzayat. The Tharp group was first sent to the 80 Kilo Camp, then jumped closer to the Thai border at the 100 and 110 Kilo Camps and finally to the 195 Kilo Camp. But they spent most of their time in the 80-110 area. Just over 100 of the 131 US POWs who died while working the TBR, died at these camps. The Fitzsimmons group suffered many fewer deaths. After the TBR had passed the 80 Kilo camp, it was converted into a “hospital camp” which was simply a

The initial group of Americans under the command of CPT Fitzsimmons had been sent from Thanbyuzayat (Burma) to the 18 Kilo Camp. They spent almost their entire time on the TBR in the 18-40 Kilo area near Thanbyuzayat. The Tharp group was first sent to the 80 Kilo Camp, then jumped closer to the Thai border at the 100 and 110 Kilo Camps and finally to the 195 Kilo Camp. But they spent most of their time in the 80-110 area. Just over 100 of the 131 US POWs who died while working the TBR, died at these camps. The Fitzsimmons group suffered many fewer deaths. After the TBR had passed the 80 Kilo camp, it was converted into a “hospital camp” which was simply a euphemism for “death camp”. POWs who were too ill to work and were actually expected to die were sent to Kilo 80 from any of the Burmese camps.

The larger Tharp group also known as Group 5, arrived at the TBR in late Jan 1942 and worked the various section of the railway until its completion in Oct 1943. But it wasn’t until Jan 1944 that were consolidated at the Tamarkan Camp at Kanchanaburi. Beginning in Nov 1943, just about all the Allied POWs were transferred to a series of camps next to the Bridge on the River Kwai. It extended about 2.5 Km from just north of the bridge to the site of the CWGC cemetery to the south and was about a half a kilometer wide; from the river to the rail-line to the east. The POWs continued to be housed according to nationalities as had been the practice of the Japanese across the Pacific Theatre.

The Americans say that they were at the northern end of the camp just where the rail-line approaches the bridge. Nearby was the Dutch contingent, with the Commonwealth POWs extending on down to the area of the current cemetery. Later on, the Japanese segregated out the officers of all nationalities into a separate enclosure closer to the walled city of Kanchanaburi. Roughly 10 Km south of the main camp was the Khao Din Railyard. This was a maintenance and storage area that was said to contain a huge stockpile of wood for the steam engines. Ten US POWs spent a good portion of the post-TBR time at this railyard. About halfway between these two places, in the area of Kanchanaburi called Pak Phreak, was a small airfield that the Japanese used occasionally to ferry in troops and supplies (near what is now the Red City Market). In small (and seemingly random) groups, men were sent to other camps such as Petchburi and Ubon.

The Hintok Group[1]

One of the most famous Australian POWs was LTC E. E. “Weary” Dunlop. He was in charge of mainly Australian POWs known a ‘D Force’ joined a British group about MAR 1943. They worked on the TBR just west of the infamous Hellfire Pass close to H-Force. They were tasked with building some of the other quite well-known structures such as the Pack-of-Cards and the Three-tiered trestles.

At some point, they were joined by a small group of Americans. These consisted of about seven Merchant Marines survivors of the SS Sawolka and a few of the original POW group that had been left behind on Java. Eventually, the Bicycle Camp there was closed and the POWs sent first to Singapore and many then onto the TBR at Hintok.

The TBR Ordeal

Not unexpectedly, the accounts of the POWs’ time in Burma are almost carbon copies of each other. They universally recall the obsession over food above everything else. Partially because of the remoteness of the camps in the Burmese highlands and partially because the captors had little regard for the lives of their prisoners, the supplies and quality of the food were never adequate. Low quality rice (much of it was actually animal feed) that was moldy and infested with weevils and other vermin was the staple. It was occasionally augmented with a small salted dried fish the POWs called “white bait”. Many of the men blamed chronic dental problems on this food item because it had grit or sand that wore down their teeth. These desperate men tried to augment their diet mainly in two ways: the Dutch (most of whom were actually native Javanese) showed them which jungle plants were eatable and whenever possible they traded with the local natives for fruit or other food stuffs. Coveted items were snakes and even dogs that found their way into the stew pots. On rare occasions, the guards would purchase a cow or buffalo from a farmer. The guards would get the actual meat and hand off the offal and other unwanted parts (hide) to the POWs. But one cow divided among hundreds of men provided little nourishment. There was even an incident where one of the work elephants broke its leg and drowned in the river. The POWs were allowed to butcher the hind quarters (as much as they could carry) and roast it that evening. Not the most delectable they ever had but for the first time in months they were ‘full’!

For the most part, the POWs were given responsibility for preparing whatever food was provided. Early on, at the Bicycle Camp in particular, they complained that the cooks had little or no idea how to properly cook rice. It was either underdone (hard) or cooked to a mush. Again the Dutch were credited for teaching them the proper way.

Korean Guards

Japan had overrun Korea early in their expansion period (1910). They then began conscripting Korean men into the Japanese Army. But they did not trust them to actually fight for Japan. By and large, across much of the Pacific region, the Koreans were used as POW camp guards. The first encounter the Americans had with the Koreans was after some time at the Bicycle Camp in Batavia. Prison guard units were moved in to replace the front-line combat troops that had been controlling the camps. Their arrival began a period of new rules, strict discipline and beatings for even minor infractions of the rules. As with the entire Japanese culture there was a definite hierarchy among these units. There were a few Japanese officers but most often the camps were controlled by Japanese NCOs. The Korean guards were viewed with disdain by the Japanese because they had allowed their country to be overrun. The only group ‘lower’ than the Koreans were the Allied POWs. So the Koreans took out whatever frustrations they had on the POWs. Whether ordered by the NCOs or instigated but the (rank-less) Koreans, most of the beatings that the POWs received came at the hands of the Koreans. Fortunately, few were severe enough to be debilitating; most were just humiliating. The POWs were made to salute or bow to the Koreans whenever their paths crossed.   

The buddy system

Again the survivor accounts consistently describe how the POWs formed ‘family groups’ using the buddy system to survive. This usually consisted of 3-5 men who acted in the interest of the group. If one was able to buy or trade for food, he’d share it within his ‘family’. If a member was ill, the others would endeavor to bring him extra food or help care for him as needed. Many men ascribe their ultimate survival to these ‘family’ interactions. Often times, one member of a group would endeavor to be assigned to ‘camp duties’ as opposed to railway work. This usually gave him the opportunity to secure food items like fruit or vegetables from the surrounding jungle or by pre-arranged meetings to trade with the locals. 

Medical interventions

While on Java, rudimentary medical care could be provided. For the most part, the Japanese allowed the POWs retain whatever medical supplies and drugs they had at the time of capture. The same was true of kitchenware and food stuffs that the units had on hand. The US POWs has a truck-load of cookware and canned food that found its way to the Bicycle Camp with them. Unfortunately for the largest group, these were monopolized by their officers. Supplies of drugs and other expendables soon ran out and were never replaced. Once they reached the jungles of Burma, there was little the small medical staff could do for most illnesses. At times, raw quinine in the form of tree bark was available to treat malaria, but to a man the POWs describe the horrendous taste they endured to swallow it. Almost nothing could be done for the vitamin deficiency of Beriberi or for the two forms of dysentery (amoebic or bacterial).

The bane of their existence was Tropical Ulcer[1]. Almost any minor cut scrape or wound was subject to this mixed bacterial infection that ate away at one’s flesh, often down to exposing the bone. Feet, ankles and legs were the most prone to these ulcers. Various remedies were tried with varying success. Boiling water would be applied with a bandage or sometimes directly into the wound. Maggots were introduced to consume the dead flesh and cleanse the wound. At times, a sharpened spoon[2] substituted for a scalpel to debride the wound. This usually required 4-5 men to hold down the patient since the pain was excruciating when the living flesh on the wound’s margin was excised. Sometimes the only recourse was amputation of the affected limb. But only a few of the US POWs underwent this procedure.

One of the most devastating losses to the American group came in AUG 1943 when the Battalion Surgeon CPT Samuel Lumpkin succumbed to dysentery. One of the interviewees insists that he died of cholera and not simply dysentery, but this is not found in other records. Forty-eight of the 131 death recorded occurred at the 80 Kilo “death” camp that was ostensibly a hospital, but in reality was were POWs were sent to die.

Drs. Hekking & Epstein: “Refusing to accept that amputation was the only option, Doc Hekking chose instead to debride the ulcers. Lacking proper surgical instruments, he sharpened the bowl of a teaspoon and scraped dead tissue from wounds. Four men would hold down the patient; the only anesthesia was when the man finally passed out from the pain. The remaining infection was treated with Doc’s herb-lore; one trip into the jungle yielded the fruit of the pomelo tree, covered with a gray fungus that his grandmother had taught him about.”

From a POW ‘s daughter: “many men, from the Lost Battalion and the USS Houston, including my father, who credited Dr. Hekking with saving their lives.

Cholera was truly a death sentence to anyone who contracted it. There were simply no drugs nor remedies (IV fluids) available to treat it. Thousands of the indigenous people and Allied POWs died from it, especially on the Burmese portion of the railway. There is even mention the guards shooting POWs suspected of having cholera as a way to prevent it from attacking and devastating a camp. Somehow the US POWs managed to avoid an outbreak in any of the camps they inhabited. Whether it was pure luck or possibly attributed to a (relative) standard of cleanliness and sanitation that the Americans were able to maintain is a matter of speculation.

TBR tasks

The actual work of building the railway consisted of two main tasks: embankments and bridges. Perhaps the hardest though not common task was cutting channels through the limestone that is most prevalent in this region. The most famous of the ‘cuttings’ is undoubtedly Hellfire Pass. Although the Hintok group was nearby, no Americans seem to have been involved in this endeavor. Literally hundreds of small bridges had to be built to span streams, gullies and canals. The most famous bridge is the Bridge on the River Kwai located in Kanchanaburi where first a wood and bamboo bridge was built (it no longer exists) then an iron span was removed from the island of Java and shipped by ship and rail and re-constructed a short way up-stream from the initial bridge. Another even longer span was constructed in Burma but is no longer accessible nor is there a railway crossing it.

Using only rudimentary picks and shovels, hundreds of tons of earth were moved to build embankments to level the right-of-way. Two men would carry a sack or basket  on what they called a yo-yo pole to dump the dirt on the berm. Initially, the day’s goal was set at about one cubic meter per man with work crews numbering about 50 men. Over time, under pressure to complete the railway that daily quota was increased to two cubic meters or more. Of course, as time progressed the POWs were all suffering from malnutrition and multiple tropical illnesses that reduced their efficiency as laborers.

Another task that the prisoners dreaded was laying the actual rails.

These were long iron rails that usually arrived by flat car but had to be carried and dropped into position to be spiked into place. One of the more sought after tasks was wood cutting. Teams would go deep into the jungle to find trees sturdy enough to serve as bridge pilings. After cutting them, elephants would be used to pull them to the building site.

As more and more of the POWs fell victim to the many ailments, it became harder and harder to gather a healthy work crew. The medical staff would try to protect the sick and disabled, but the guards would try to impress them to the work crews. Many men were sent to work that could hardly stand, much less do physical labor. And yet, the 415 Km (258 mile) Railway[2] was completed in just over one year (SEP 42 – OCT 43)—at a cost of about 16,000 POW lives and countless thousands of indigenous laborers. It is said that there was one life lost for every sleeper (tie) on the railway. Thus deriving the name Death Railway. these cuttings involved using iron rods and sledge hammers go drill holes in the limestone. The engineers would then place explosives and blat the rock loose.

US POW deaths

The survivor accounts of the other Allied POWs include multiple incidents of death due to beatings, torture or execution (usually for an attempted escape). But the US POWs managed to avoid any of this. It is now well documented that 131 US POWs died while working the TBR. None of them, however, died at the hands of their captors. All but a few died of tropical diseases. Thanks mainly to meticulous records kept by LTC Tharp and others, we know that Tropical Ulcers killed the most (53); Dysentery (43); Beriberi (21). Malaria was almost a universal infection but was listed as the cause of death for only seven, but malaria took the first 3 POWs soon after their arrival in Burma

The first POW to die was NAVY Lt(jg) Francis Weiler who succumbed on 26 Mar of wounds received during the sinking of the USS HOUSTON. Prior to being taken prisoner, two of the 2/131 members were killed when the B-17 they were flying on as gunners was shot down and one died of an accidental GSW in camp. Only a few died of disease while on Java either prior to their transfer to the TBR or among those left behind. It was actually this group that suffered the greatest percentage of loss. Of the 37 men who for various reasons were left on Java, 19 (50%) perished when the Hellships they were on were sunk en route to Japan in JUN and SEP 1944. Two were on the Hellship Junyo and the rest on the Tamahoko. The overall percentage of deaths on the TBR was 18%.

The vast majority of the US TBR deaths occurred in Burma because that is where the POWs spent their time working the TBR. MAY-SEP 1943, the height of the “Speedo” period saw the vast majority of those 131 deaths. In addition to these 131, 3 more men died at other places (Saigon, Singapore and Japan) where they were sent after the TBR was complete. Their cause of death undoubtedly links back to their TBR period. One other death is noteworthy:  PFC Edwin Wilson was killed when the Allied aircraft bombed the Thanbyuzayat camp in JUN 1943. He was the only non-disease death recorded by LTC Tharp although a handful of men died of what otherwise would have been considered ‘natural causes’ (cancer, cardiac arrest) but undoubtedly exacerbated by the ordeal as POWs.

As the Japanese landing force was approaching Java, about 2 dozen of the 2/131 unit departed as B-17 crewmen. They had been officially transferred to the AAF. Of those, 4 eventually died: 1 near Australia when his plane crashed (questionable combat-related death) and 1 over Papua-New Guinea in a similar circumstance. In a strange twist of fate, after escaping becoming a POW on Java, two were KIA in the European theater and one other became a POW of the Germans!

The final two TBR POWs to die did so at the Nakorn Pathom hospital camp in MAY 1944 (Livorio Herrera and George Bender) both of dysentery.

Of the Zeigler (36 ARMY ‘technicians’[1]) group and the E Battery soldiers (87) who were shipped to Japan, apparently only two died there: SGT Donald Heleman and CPL Nolan Kalich both from E Battery.

Camp Comparisons

The bulk of the US POWs (less the members of E Battery) spent a considerable amount of time at the POW camp in the Java capitol city of Batavia. To a man, they describe this as the best period of their three and a half year ordeal. The Bicycle Camp had been the barracks of the Dutch Regiment that served more as a police force than a military unit and patrolled on bicycles. The barracks were two story brick/cement structures with more than adequate space for the thousands of Allied POWs who were consolidated there.

There was running water in more than adequate amounts for bathing, sanitation and cooking. The food provided was plentiful, if not particularly appetizing to the western palate. While there, the POWs were sent to work loading and unloading ships at the Batavia dock. The work was monotonous but not particularly intense. There were also opportunities for the prisoners to trade for food and other items with the Javanese.

The next stop on their journey was the Changi prison in Singapore. They only transited through there over the course of a few weeks, but the US POWs describe multiple ‘run-ins’ with the mainly British POWs who dominated those camps[2].

[1] This is the count of 131 Reg soldiers only; some USN (39?) and likely a few USMC were included in this group but are hard to define. Of whom 3 died there: Harmon Alderman, Gene Fanghor and Alfred Seidel. We can only infer the Navy men who went with the Zeigler party by the camp that they were liberated from in Japan.

[2] The US POWs describe the British as ‘distant and aloof’ and always insisting that they were ‘in charge’. The Americans identified well with the Australians, viewing them as more closely aligned in their manner and thinking.

Obviously, things went downhill rapidly when they arrived in Burma to begin work on the railway. Disease, malnutrition, and general fatigue took their toll on these men. This was the worst of times. However, the entire situation took a decided turn for the better when they were consolidated at the camps at Kanchanaburi. Food was more plentiful, if still generally unappetizing. They were no longer required to work 10-12 hours per day. By and large, the guards left them alone. At the various post-TBR camps, theaters were constructed and the men were allowed, even encouraged, to put on song and dance shows. What little work was required most often involved repairs to sections of the TBR that the Allied bombers had disrupted.

From the beginning of 1944 to the end of the war, most of the US POWs were interred at Kanchanaburi. Some of them, however, were distributed to other places. The largest number found themselves in Vietnam post-TBR. They had initially been destine for Japan, but due to the heavy losses to Allied bombers and submarines, they were off-loaded in Saigon. Some did, however, reach Japan and many of they worked in coal mines; many at the Kashii-Fukouka camps. Others, especially the officers, were sent to other camps (Nakorn Nayok, Petchburi, Ubon). But none were as content with their post-TBR incarceration as those who stayed at the Kanchanaburi camps.

In early 1945, the Allied Air Forces intensified their attempts to interdict the TBR. The best targets were the many bridges. The two parallel bridges at Kanchanaburi were frequent targets. On one occasion, some of those bombs fell short and hit the POW housing area near the iron bridge. Some Dutch POW were killed by those bombs. Afterward, many if not all of the remaining US POWs were moved a few kilometers down the line to the ChungKai camp.

on the banks of the Kwai Noi river. It I believed that most were there at the end of hostilities and then they returned to Kanchanaburi to be repatriated. The survivor accounts also note that a large hospital was established at Nakorn Pathom, about halfway between Kanchanaburi and Bangkok which provided reasonable levels of medical care. We know that LTC Tharp himself was at Chung Kai in that his diary and records were retrieved from their post-war.


In his Oral Hx interview (OH 818), Navy Coxwain HUFFMAN, JAMES W. “Red” describes how he and AMM1c HARRIS, LANSON H. were contacted by a group of Thais to include a few monks while they were in the process of building the airfield at the Phetchburi camp. This group assisted them to make an escapee about APR 45 in that the Korean guards there were becoming quite lax in their duties. There were approximately 10 other US POWs at that camp at the time. But it appears as if there were no reprisals against them. A massive search by the IJA failed to locate the two escapees and they made their way to a camp deeper in the jungle headed by an OSS Major.

Immediately after the war’s end, Huffman was flown from Thailand directly to WASHDC where he claims to have helped the Navy Personnel Bureau locate some of the TBR camps as well as the location of the USS Houston. Huffman stayed on for a full Navy career retiring as a Senior Chief.


The accounts of how the POWs learned that the war was over are also quite consistent. For the most part there was an announcement (perhaps even the same message) read by the senior camp officer. It said that Japan and the Allies had ‘decided to stop fighting’. IOW, “surrender” was never admitted to! Then the Japanese personnel would simply depart – likely ordered to a central HQ location. This left behind the Korea guards, who for the most part simply stopped interacting with the POWs.

[The following remarks apply mainly to Thailand and Singapore and not Mainland Japan.]

Two things seem to follow almost immediately: 1) the POWs raided the food stores left by the departing Japs cooking and ate everything they could; 2) the local people showed up bearing fruit and other food items. In Thailand, many of the camps still had contingents of engineers who operated the Railway. The POWs describe them as cowering in their barracks hoping that the POWs wouldn’t attack them. But the relationship between the POWs and the engineers (with certain notable exceptions) was reasonably benign. The POWs accepted that they were by and large professionals who simply had a job to do. They had rarely interacted much with the POWs as individuals. So the engineers were left alone.

The next thing astonished everyone. All across Thailand, SOE, OSS and other military officers stepped out of the shadows and approached the POWs and the Japanese alike. They announced that they were taking charge and that there would be serious reprisals if any of the POWs were hurt. It seems that for some time, the Allied command had been worried that if Japan lost the war, they would try to ‘save face’ by executing the POWs that they had so sorely abused. Teams of operators had been parachuted into Thailand with the mission of watching the camps and ultimately protecting the POWs.

One survivor account [RAILWAY of DEATH by British POW John Coast] describes in depth what occurred at the Kanchanaburi camps, but I’m willing to bet that it was repeated across the country. First it needs to be established that the Thai government had an agreement with the Japanese not unlike the French Vichy government. Much of the country-side of Thailand was ‘administered’ by the Thais and the Japanese rarely entered there. Most of the Japanese ‘occupiers’ were in a thin strip in central Thailand from Bangkok west and south along the railway and some extending north into the lower regions of Issan. Few troops were elsewhere. Not only did the Thai government fully cooperate with the Allies to get these team (usually just a pair of men) into the country but they allowed airstrips to be used (sometimes newly cut from the jungle) to land supplies and arms. These teams were augmented by native Thais who had been outside the country in school or business. They were trained by the Allies, to assist in training a militia within this Thai-controlled area. They were collectively known as the Seri Thai. It is suspected that the Thai military airstrip in a post in western Kanchanaburi was used to land large amounts of supplies and ammunition, to include the Jeep described below.

In one case, along the Railway south of Ban Pong (in Petchburi) two of the US Navy POWs were contacted by native Thais and they slipped away (escaped) from their camp. They spent the last four months of the war assisting the US military team in providing facts, figures and names of their fellow POWs.


Coast relates a tale he heard second hand from a fellow British POW that meshes perfectly with the accounts that the US POWs tell of what happened in Kanchanaburi within days of the war’s end. Two US paratroopers, identified only as Hank and Tom, arrived in the various camps driving two Jeeps. The POWs had never even seen a Jeep before since they entered service after their 1942 capture! In turn, they rounded-up the US POWs in the outlying camps and took them to the main camp near the bridge. Soon thereafter, Allied planes (apparently flying out of India) air-dropped crates of food, clothing and cigarettes. The team allowed as to how they had been watching the camps for some time. Coast describes how they had a basecamp a few hours travel into the jungle where they were in the process of training about 300 Thais as the Seri Thai militia force that might have been used to attack the camps had there been any indication that there was a serious attempt to kill the POWs. British accounts from Kanchanaburi also related that an officer arrived who said he had been in London only two weeks before and regaled them with tales of the Blitz and the atomic bombs.

Within days, of liberation the Americans boarded trucks to Bangkok and were flown out to Calcutta (often with a short stop-over in Rangoon) where they were admitted to the 142nd General Hospital for check-ups, treatment and debriefing. The debriefs concentrated on documenting their ordeal and identifying any war crimes that they had witnessed. Apparently, the Allies already had a short-list of Japanese camp personnel that they suspected of war crimes. Because there were only some 400 US POWs left in Thailand – many had gone on to either Japan or Saigon and a few back to Singapore – they were all flown back to the USA (via Europe). Because of their huge numbers, the British and Australian prisoners had to make the journey by ship. So to the US personnel in Japan and elsewhere.

Most of the TBR survivors were back at home by NOV 45 and a few others were in the USA but remained in various hospitals for treatment. Nearly all were home by the end of the year.

John Coast was a British Lieutenant who describes the weeks after liberation while they waited for transportation. He gives us the description of the cowering Engineers and the now disinterested Koreans. He also says that what had been the parade field on the south end of the large Kanchanaburi camp, became a market place every day. Here the Thais offered seemingly endless amounts of exotic (to the POWs) food and local items like cloth and baskets. Since the various air-drops also included money, the POWs could purchase whatever they wanted. He had linked up with the famous Mr. BoonPong and the staff of a paper factory[1] located just outside the walls of the old city of Kanchanaburi. At various places in that area, the British POWs were literally ‘wined and dined’ by these prominent citizens.

[His story is too complicated to relate here, but Mr. BoonPong[2] openly operated a deliver service under contract of the Japanese and within it a thriving black market of food and medicines which the POWs attribute to saving many lives.]

[1] The paper factory buildings exist to this day; although abandoned and derelict.



One dreadful task remained following the liberation of the camps: collection of the remains of the POW dead. This task was largely accomplished by Australian teams. A few of the prisoners volunteered to remain and assist the graves registration personnel of the various nations to return to the jungle to exhume and collect the remains of those buried over the 200+ miles of the Railway.

The British-lead Commonwealth War Graves Commission[1] established cemeteries in which those remains were re-interred. Two of these are in Kanchanaburi and one in Thanbyuzayat Burma.

By 1948, all of the American POW remains had been repatriated to the US reburial in accordance with family wishes.

[1] and plus


When Dr Marcello conducted these interviews he was well prepared and helped to guide the memories of some of these ex-POWs by asking them questions and probing their stories. This is not quite the case with one ex-POW interview conducted by interviewer John Ferguson of Angelo State Univ West Texas Collection on April 1, 1995 with W. F. Matthews. [The complete transcript of this interview was processed in the Department of History at Angelo State University and is available at the Dr. Ralph R. Chase West Texas Collection, Angelo State University, San Angelo, Texas.]

I must admit however that this interview presents Matthews’ rather unique journey better than the book that was written about his POW experience.

That book dedicates barely three pages to his journey from Java to Singapore then to “near Bangkok” and back to Singapore. In the UNTx interview he repeats his claim that he arrived at the Bicycle camp “we stayed up there, I guess, about a year. We worked on docks, and cleaned up bombed out deals, that they had, the Japs had bombed, you know. I guess about ’43 they shipped us to Singapore. We worked on docks there a little while, loaded ships and unloaded ships, and eventually they sent us to Bangkok. We were going to
start on a railroad there. And see the railroad come across all those countries over there .

FERGUSON: Cambodia and Laos . . .
MATTHEWS: Yeah, all of them, and came into Bangkok, that was the end of the road. And we was going to start at Bangkok and go that way.

FERGUSON: When you were moved from Java up to Bangkok, how were you moved?
MATTHEWS: On a ship, to Singapore, then we rode a train, then a boat, and everything else up to Bangkok from Singapore. Went on land [by train]
Well, there was just about twenty-five of us.
that little old railroad, it wouldn’t run half the time, ‘cause when we went to Bangkok we’d walk two days, get on the train and ride two days, then get back on a ship and ride two days, it was kind of like that, you know

This is where Ferguson did not press for more specific information. To my knowledge no POWs — US or otherwise — traveled to or through Bangkok en route to the TBR. Many did in fact go from Kanchanaburi through Bangkok to other destinations after the TBR was completed, but none on the way to work the TBR. When Matthews relates that “Well, there was just about twenty-five of us.”, he is seemingly describing the US group destine for Hintok. Others tell us that they were taken to Ban Pong and then alternately marched and rode first to Kanchanaburi where a few of the men were hospitalized and then on to the Hintok area. None specifically relate being taken from KAN to Hintok by boat but that would be a distinct possibility. There are no accounts that I am aware of that say any Allied POWs were taken by Hellship to the port at Bangkok for shipment to the TBR.

Those who worked the Thai sector of the TBR all came by train from Singapore. Those going to the Burma sector (including all but a few US POWs) were carried their by Hellships via the Andaman Sea; none via the Gulf of Siam. I must also point out that it was Ferguson who interjects “Cambodia and Laos” which had nothing what so ever to do with the TBR!

Matthews continues in the interview: “And we stayed up there about six months, I guess, about the beginning of 1945 And they sent us back to Singapore, 150 of us, English, Dutch, Americans, about fifty Americans. They sent us back to Singapore, and that’s where we was at when the war was over.” Here, again, this would be consistent with the story of the Hintok group. There is one other item that seems to independently confirm Matthews as a Hintok POW. That is a 1945 roster in the Mansell collection that lists him along with other known Hintok POWs as being together at Changi. However, there is one item that speaks against his presence if only by omission. On page 117 of his account of the SS Sawolka crew’s ordeal, Gerald Reminick provides us with a list of those who where known to be at Hintok. This original source document is attributed to USN AOM1c E. A. Bush a HOUSTON survivor and Hintok POW. But he also fails to list other US POWs who were known to be in the H-Force group but who were left behind at the F&H Hospital in KAN as H-Force passed through there en route to Hintok. So Matthews — altho he never mentions being hospitalized in Kanchanaburi may have been one of those who were ‘shed’ as H-Force moved farther west. Overall, Ferguson fails to try to elicit more specific information from Matthews that would have clarified his journey and level of TBR participation. Monday’s book also glosses over this period of time as well.

A bit later in the interview Matthews discusses his time on Java when he answers Ferguson’s question: “Other than the fellows from the U.S.S. Houston, was there any more prisoners that joined you?
MATTHEWS: Yeah, we had some boys come off of a ship, civilians that was on a freighter ship. There was one colored boy, and I guess about twenty, no about fifteen, white boys. The colored boy was a cook, you know.
FERGUSON: They were all civilians?
MATTHEWS: Yeah, they were all civilians. They’d been shot and sunk somewhere else.”

He is obviously describing the Merchant Mariners from the SS AMERICAN LEADER. It is also interesting that he mentions a non-white POW. There were only two POWs documented as non-Caucasian; both were cooks on the AMERICAN LEADER whose survivors were delivered to Java. None of that crew worked the TBR. So the only place Matthews could have encountered this cook was on Java and almost certainly at the Bicycle camp. Matthews correctly describes these Mariners as civilians, since while they were US government employees, they were not in the US NAVY.

At this same point in the interview Ferguson seems to be ignorant of the point that Matthews had been separated from the larger E Battery group. While they were sent to Singapore en route to Japan, Matthews and two dozen or so US POWs were left behind at the Bicycle camp. Matthews had explained earlier that he was separated from the larger E Battery group at Surabaja due to infected shrapnel wounds he sustained in one of the air raids. There is even a suggestion in Monday’s book that he remained in the Surabaja area long after the rest of E Battery had been moved to the Bicycle camp, but this is not well documented.

In short, I have counted W. F. Matthews among the US POWs who worked the TBR even though the strongest evidence of his presence is his own story that does not seem to have been documented by any other POW.

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