The Story of the Lost Battalion

The Japanese plan to expand its economic and cultural reign over all of Asia began at the start of the 20th century. Trade with the Far East was bringing new wealth to the continent. Squabbles arose among nations for access to ports and railroads and natural resources. In 1904, war erupted between Japan and Russia over control of Manchuria and Korea. Six years later, Korea was awarded to Japan via a treaty negotiated by President Theodore Roosevelt. This victory reinforced Japan’s belief they were natural leaders for all of Asia. In September 1931, Japan attacked Manchuria, and subdued it within days. A minor engagement near Peking in 1937 resulted in full-blown war with China.

Japan announced the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a plan to unite all Asia under their rules and mores in 1940. Natives in southeast Asia who’d long lived under colonial rule were drawn to it, welcoming the invasions which they mistakenly hoped would lead to their own independence. By the end of the year, French Indochina fell to the Japanese. Malaya, Burma and Singapore would soon follow, toppled like dominoes by force of the huge Imperial Army. It was known that the 1940 Invasion of French Indochina used American war supplies and oil, but was immediately halted in deference to their Allies. Faced with diminishing reserves, Japan set its sights on the oil resources of the Dutch East Indies.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt mobilized the National Guard that same yea, in light of Japan’s increasing aggression. Guardsmen in Texas began leaving their local armories for Camp Bowie, in Brownwood, Texas, where they were reorganized into the Second Battalion. After completion in September 1941 of Third Army Maneuvers in Louisiana --the “Great Sham Battle”--the Second Battalion detached from the 36th Field Artillery Regiment. On November 11, 1941, the twenty-third anniversary of Armistice Day, they headed west by train to San Francisco, California.

The unit sailed to Hawaii, departing American soil November 21, 1941, aboard the USS Republic, a troop transport ship (formerly the USS President Grant). They were not told about their mission, code-named PLUM, but assumed their destination was the Philippine Islands (Philippines/LUzon/Manila). Forty-eight hours before the “Day of Infamy,” the Republic departed Pearl Harbor in Honolulu.

The morning of December 7, 1941, Japanese Imperial Navy forces engaged a surprise military strike on the US navy base at Pearl Harbor. Eighteen ships were damaged or sunk, and 2,400 people were killed. No longer a neutral country, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war against the Land of the Rising Sun the following day. The men on the USS Republic learned of the attack while east of the Gilbert islands, a chain of tiny coral and atoll landmasses, half-way between Hawaii and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, the USS Houston was docked in Panay, an island in the Philippines less than 400 miles south of Manila. With the PLUM plan scratched, both the Houston and the Republic immediately set sail for Australia. Ten hours after the raid on Pearl Harbor, Japan invaded the Philippines.

The USS Houston had been based in the Philippines for most of 1941. Commissioned in 1930, by early 1931 the Houston was designated the flagship of the US Asiatic Fleet. Its classification as a light cruiser (CL30) was upgraded to heavy cruiser (CA30), due to the addition of impressive 8-inch guns and 55-caliber anti-aircraft weapons. Before the war, it participated often in Fleet Problems (a collection of 27 different naval exercises conducted between 1923 and 1940) and maneuvers throughout the Pacific. When not in battle, the Houston had other uses, as President Roosevelt sailed with “The Little White House” for pleasure and business four times between 1933 and 1939.

The men of the 2nd Battalion were still unclear about their mission when the Republic docked in Brisbane on December 21, 1941. They were warmly welcomed by the city, spending Christmas with local families or newfound friends. It was the first of many instances in which the Texans would experience an affinity for the folk from Down Under. On December 28, they boarded the Dutch freighter Bloemfontein and sailed full speed ahead to the Netherlands East Indies. They were part of a large convoy escorted by the USS Houston and other Allied ships, in an ominous display of the strength and firepower of the Australian-British-Dutch-American Command (ABDA).

Five weeks had passed since the United States had joined the global war. On January 11, 1942, the Bloemfontein transporting the 2nd Battalion landed at Surabaya, on Java’s northern coast. The men were the only US ground support unit in the Dutch East Indies, and would soon be among the earliest US troops to experience land-based combat, not long after Japan invaded the Philippines.

Throughout 1942, Japan launched fierce offensives against Burma, Malaysia, Siam, and Singapore. Air attacks increased on the northern coast of Australia and in the waters surrounding the Netherland East Indies. In the “Battle of Makassar Strait” (February 4), the USS Houston shot down four enemy planes, but was hit in the final attack. Forty-eight men were killed, 20 more were injured. It made it to Tilatjap on Java’s southern coast, where the injured received medical care, the ship underwent repairs, and the dead were buried.

It participated next on February 15 in the "Battle of the Java Sea", while sailing between Kalimantan and Sulawesi. Japanese naval reconnaissance “flying boats”, aircraft designed for long-range endurance patrols, spotted the Houston as it navigated with a small convoy to reinforce the garrison on Timor. The Houston demonstrated its speed and might as bombs fell, and suffered no damage in the first attack. In the second attack, the Houston brought down seven of the enemies’ 44 planes, like a “sheet of flame.” Twelve Allied ships were lost in the battle. The only vessels to survive the battle were the Houston and the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth. The Houston’s bravery, victories, and ability to repeatedly outwit the Japanese gained it the nickname “The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast.”

February 15 also saw the British Empire admit defeat and surrender the island nation of Singapore to Japan. Eighty thousand British, Australian, and Indian troops became prisoners of war, the largest surrender ever in Britain’s military history.

The 2nd Battalion on the Javanese north coast was also in battle at this time. The Japanese had captured the outer islands of Dutch East Indies, parts of Celebes and Borneo, and was firmly in control in Sumatra. Java was in its sights. Most of the unit and allies held fast against the advancing assault near Bandong, except for Battery “E” which stayed behind to defend Surabaya and a Dutch airstrip near Malang (Singosari Camp).

On February 27, the Houston and Perth sailed west to Tanjong Priok, a port on Java’s north coast, only to find little fuel, and no ammunition. Believing the waters between Java and Sumatra to be free of enemy ships, the two cruisers headed to Tilatjap for supplies, and sailed right into the “Battle of Sunda Strait.” In the late afternoon, the Perth fired at what it thought was a single Japanese battleship. In fact, there were multiple Japanese warships in the waters, surrounding the two ships. The naval battle lasted for seven hours.  The Perth was hit by a rapid succession of four torpedoes; the Houston by one. Within thirty minutes, the Perth was lost. The lucky survivors swam for their lives to reach the shore.

The shortage of ammunition was not in the Houston's favor, although it continued to fight. It hit three enemy destroyers and sunk a minesweeper before being crippled by torpedoes. Badly listing and losing headway, the Houston became a sitting duck. In the predawn hours of February 28, the ship lay dead in the water. In minutes it, too, sank. Of the more than 1,000 men aboard, only 368 survived, swimming to shore in fiery, oil-soaked waters. The Australian and American survivors of the two doomed cruisers were captured and became prisoners of war.

The Dutch, fearing a slaughter of its civilians, and faced with diminishing odds for victory, gave up the fight and capitulated on March 8. With this action, the men of the 2nd Battalion and their allied comrades immediately became war prisoners of the Japanese.

The Houston and Perth survivors were marched to the Eastern capital city of Batavia. The captives in central Java spent months imprisoned at plantations and airstrips around Surabaya/Singosari, before joining the others at Bicycle Camp, a former headquarters of the Dutch Bicycle Bridge—the first, and maybe most humane, of many concentration camps they would inhabit in the coming years.
The Houston sailors were dispirited to learn their hoped-for, land-based rescuers were now behind barbed wire alongside them. The Bicycle Camp quarters were relatively clean, with reasonable sleeping space, access to medicines, and barely-adequate food. They were put to work with tasks such as clearing rubber groves, chopping wood for cooking fires, or repairing abandoned Allied vehicles that the Japanese didn’t even know how to drive. They got a taste of Japanese sadism as they were subjected to frequent “bashings,” severe beatings for even the slightest misconduct, such as not bowing low enough to an officer or guard.

Burma Railway mapWith more than 250,000 captives, the Japanese had a huge labor pool to help their war effort, but were faced with the monumental task of feeding, clothing, and housing the prisoners. It allowed them to begin construction of a long planned-for railroad that stretched from Thailand to Burma. The land-based system was seen as a safer means of transporting materials, other than shipping on water, as the Allies were constantly bombing enemy convoys in the Malaka Strait and Andaman Sea.

Building a railroad through rivers, harsh jungles, and rock mountains was not a new idea. The British had previously explored such a project, but deemed it too difficult and too unrealistic to undertake. The Japanese also had conducted five explorations for a railway, and now, with the multi-ethnic mass of POWs under their thumb, they proceeded with their goal.

Work on the Thai-Burma Railway likely started around June or July of 1942, and research indicates that some of the survey work commenced as early as March 1942. The raggedy, underfed prisoners were sent to Changi Prison on Singapore, where they waited months and weeks to learn their new assignment. Twenty-six Houston survivors were with the group that went to Thailand to start the southern terminus of the railway. The rest of the Americans were sent further north to the port city Moulmein, Burma, then transported to Thanbyuzayat.

All prisoners who traveled by sea were crowded into the holds of “hellships,” so named because they were packed like sardines in the depths of iron-hulled, dilapidated freighters. The men on the “Dai Nichi Maru” withstood the five-day voyage to Burma in the exceedingly hot, filthy, and smelly hold, shoulder to shoulder in the airless space shared with oblivious horses and men in the throes of dysentery. They were tossed handfuls of rice from above, had no access to water, and were allowed limited use of above-board toilet facilities—which meant doing your business over the deck rails. In spite of Allied bombing raids, most of the prisoners made it to the shore. In addition to human and horse excrement, some passengers died due to the overwhelming conditions on the ships. Their bodies remained in the hold until they reached land.

The railway construction project was to begin at both ends, and meet in the middle. Whereas the Thailand parties moved northward following the mostly flatland banks of the Mae Khlong River (later renamed the Kwae Yae), laborers in Burma were tasked with clearing rocky hillsides to level the ground for ballast and ties. All of them, Australians, British, Dutch, Malayan, Indian, American, and native ‘Romusha’ workers, toiled long hours under unforgivably hot skies.

Clad in rags, loin cloths, some with no shoes or head coverings, the laborers were given simple hand tools. They used picks to break up chunks of rocks for ballast into smaller sizes, and used chunkels, a kind of primitive hoe more suited for backyard gardening, to clear dirt, which was then carted away in buckets slung from bamboo poles (“yo-yos”), balanced over their shoulders. The crews leapfrogged between camps, named for their distance from Thanbyuzayat: 18 Kilo, 80 Kilo, etc.

Food rations were nowhere near the amount needed to fuel the crews. They were given only small balls of rice infested with weevils or other mystery bits, and often had to get their own water wherever they could. Prisoners caught stealing fruit from trees or trading with natives were often tossed into solitary confinement for long periods, or subjected to extreme punishments.

Many of the guards were Koreans, themselves the subject of Japanese Imperialism, and were considered more brutal than their bosses. Anyone out of line (or not) would be severely beaten, given the “water cure” (waterboarding), or ordered to stand or sit in the sun for hours. It was not uncommon to see a prisoner standing with arms outstretched, sharpened bamboo stakes positioned underneath, each hand holding a water-filled bucket. The bamboo poles stood ready to pierce them should they tire and drop their arms.

The absence of any compassion for the captives is attributed to the Bushido code of conduct born in Samurai warrior culture. It is a system of beliefs that values loyalty, honor, obedience and self-sacrifice. The Japanese believed the prisoners were lower than worms because they allowed themselves to be captured, instead of killing themselves to save face, as they would do, according to their cultural traditions.

When people think of the “Bridge over the River Kwai,” much is made of the torture and brutality doled out by the Japanese. But there is no denying the railway construction plan was a brilliant feat of engineering. To build a railway over inhospitable terrain in one year was challenging enough, even more so as time edged closer to May, the start of monsoon season.

Already suffering from malnutrition, exhaustion, tropical disease, and insect stings, the Japanese implemented an insidious regulation known as the Speedo (“hurry”) campaign. The powers that be moved up the deadline by a month to finish the railroad October 1943. They used devious methods to entice the workers to work more rapidly—especially the Americans, who had begun their captivity in much better physical shape than other Allied POW’s. Complete your duties more quickly, they said, and you can go back sooner to rest. Doing what they were told, the guards instead forced them to work even faster, harder, and longer.

Working conditions worsened with the arrival of the monsoons. The rain fell relentlessly, and often for 24 hours a day for weeks. The mud rendered any kind of footwear useless. Minor scratches became full-blown infections. Jungle rot ate up flesh and exposed bones. Many came down with malaria, beri-beri, dengue fever, tropical ulcers, and the always-present dysentery. Rumors arose that 105 Kilo camp was rampant with cholera. Makeshift medical areas were mostly designated huts for those too ill to work but given no medicine or medical care—or even food. Men fortunate to recover and leave reported they saw the loss of hope in the mens’ eyes. Once a prisoner embraced death as the only way to end the misery, he often died within a day. To be told to report to 80-Kilo, which came to known as the “Death Camp,” often meant one would never return.

The monsoon rains continued through September. By the end of this month, it was estimated that at least one American died every day, one for every mile on 64 miles of track. And generally, the captives and natives saw at least one POW death for every ‘sleeper’ (railroad ties, each a few feet apart) on the entire track. The project had rightfully earned the name “Thai-Burma Death Railway.”

The railroad was pronounced completed October 1943. The prisoners were transferred to various camps in Thailand, or sent to China, Malay, French Indochina, or Japan, to put them to work in various industries. They left the camps in a white-knuckled ride on the very railway they built--and that some had deliberately sabotaged, nicknamed “The Bamboo Express.” Morale among the men was non-existent, believing the world had forgotten all about them. They never received the years’ worth of letters from families, friends, and lovers, because the Japanese returned it all to the senders. Cut off from the world, rumors and sketchy information from a secret radio were all they had to gauge the war’s progress.

The interminable days continued. By January 1944, the Japanese were suffering huge losses; the tide began to turn. Barely-alive prisoners spent their days repairing rain-damaged barracks, or digging caves in hillsides to serve as secret attack bunkers. The violent guards appeared to lighten up, allowing them to forage for food in the jungle, or trade with natives for the merest of sustenance like coconuts, fern shoots, and duck eggs. They granted the prisoners entertainment privileges, and laughed alongside them as plays, musicals, and magic shows were performed on makeshift stages. They became curious about America, no doubt dreaming of the day they would conquer the USA and become kings of Hollywood.

The “sleeping giant” of the United States was now fully awake—and winning. Japan vastly underestimated the West’s desire to preserve their lands, and the firepower with which to do it. Japanese military morale was ebbing and their people back home were starving. Additionally, they still had more than 20,000 prisoners to house and allegedly feed. Officials were all too aware of their many violations of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, and Geneva Convention of 1929, regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. They devised a plan, unknown to the rest of the world until well after the war’s end, to execute ALL prisoners by August 27.

Liberation for the captives came in the form of atomic bombs. The USA attacked Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki on August 9. The nuclear explosions destroyed almost 100 percent of Hiroshima, and immediately killed 80,000 people. Tens of thousands more later died of radiation exposure. The second bomb on Nagasaki killed 40,000 people and wiped out the city. On August 15, the Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender on account of the “new and most cruel bomb.” Today, Japan is now one of the USA’s strongest allies.

Unaware of the bombs that decisively ended the war, prisoners in camps scattered from Thailand to Japan realized one day that their captors, including the meanest guards, were gone, leaving behind some of their food and guns. Left to fend for themselves, they experienced a bit of freedom as they searched the wilds for food and the sustenance long denied them. With no resistance to speak of, American/Allied bombers continued to strafe camps and destroy buildings, inadvertently killing some long-imprisoned Americans. The last of the surviving prisoners scrambled to the roofs of their barracks and painted the letters PW. It was the first notice given that many Allies were alive—but still behind barbed wire.

American planes began dropping leaflets informing them deliverance was at hand. Packages with food and medicines descended with more frequency. Weeks would pass before they were reached by Army rescue teams, aghast at the discovery of emaciated but living bodies. The men of the Lost Battalion of Texas were no longer lost, but many were in terrible shape.

They were sent to Allied hospitals everywhere from India to Australia, then flown via Europe for fuel stops before landing on home soil. As they regained their strength, word spread of the terrible conditions they’d endured in those 42 months. Physical and psychological treatment was administered at army hospitals. Re-integration to society would prove a little more elusive.

The men returned to a nation that had dramatically changed during their absence. Many were ‘shell-shocked’, suffering from yet-to-be-named Post Traumatic Distress Syndrome. Despite the physical trauma and mental anxiety they suffered as inmates, a majority of the returnees assimilated easily and went on to live productive lives. Some chose to bury their past and never speak of the atrocities they witnessed. Others wrote books about the experience, or forgave their captors and found peace. Families of the former POWs were ecstatic their loved ones came home; others sadly learned their fathers, brothers, uncles, and friends had died and were buried along the tracks in Burma and Thailand.