USS Houston and the Weber County Connection – February, 1942

George Dewitt Stoddard

I remember as a young girl, my mom told me about a cousin that had been a Japanese POW during World War II. She remembered that after the war, he came to an England family reunion and had shown the family the scars from being beaten on his back. I had forgotten about it until I started this project.

George Dewitt Stoddard was born, the only son of Dewitt Talmage and Lillian England Stodard on January 16, 1922, in Weber County.    His mother died on May 28, 1925 and he was raised by his paternal grandparents.  (Lillian England was my mother’s aunt.)  I am not sure when he joined the Navy, but he was assigned to the USS Houston.

Houston (right) off the coast of Darwin Australia, February , 1942

According to the US Naval Institute website, an article published in February, 1949:

“On he night of February 28, 1942, the USS Houston, vanished without a trace somewhere off the north coast of Java.  The mystery remained complete until the war ended and small groups of survivors were discovered in Japs POW camps, scattered from the island of Java, through the Malay Peninsula, the jungles of Burma and Thailand, and northward to the islands of Japan.”

Previously, on February 26th, the Houston was ordered to set sail, along with the HMAS Perth, HNLMS De Ruyter, HMS Exeter, HNMLA Java and ten destroyers.  From the World Ward 2 database:   “During the battle the Houston was sunk by overwhelming Japanese forces, but not before hitting three enemy destroyers and sinking one minesweeper.  The full story of the Houston was actually not known by the world for almost 9 months. “

Of the 1,068 crew, 291 survived, but they were picked up by the Japanese.  Incredibly enough, you can hear the rest of the story by Seaman Stoddard himself.  It is the story of his captivity and release. (Please be aware there may be racially offensive language.)

The ladder to the main deck was missing, so we went out on the port plane catapult. We were just starting to climb from the catapult on to the flight deck, when a shell hit a metal ammunition “ready box” near a 5 inch gun about ten feet away. A fire broke out near the “ready box” and shrapnel was sprayed through the air, killing one man near the box instantly. Shrapnel hit me in the right forearm and left elbow, but I hardly noticed it then. The fire prevented us from going any further, so we had to jump about 60 feet to the water. I was in a daze from the events of the past few minutes and that mad scramble, but the water snapped me out of it. I didn’t come to the surface and suddenly realized I was still holding on to the decoding machines. I dropped them and came right up to find myself alone. There was about two inches of oil on the water near the ship, and I began swimming to get away before it caught fire. A hundred yards from the ship, I ran into a Marine private, Walter Grice from Kentwood, Louisiana, and the two of us swam away from the ship for about an hour. The Houston was afire and was rolling to the starboard, and although we had ceased firing and men were still abandoning ship, the Japs continued to fire for half an hour. Each time a shell would miss the ship and hit the water, the concussion felt like someone hitting you hard in the stomach with his fist. It made everyone in the water sick to his stomach and vomit. After the firing stopped, everything was very quiet and then, after about an hour, it suddenly began to pour and kept up for half an hour. Fortunately, the sea was warm, and the salt water stopped the bleeding from my wounds, so they didn’t hurt too much.

Grice and I began to swim again and, after awhile, ran into a Seaman 2nd Class named Black, who was badly wounded. There was a hole the size of a fist in his shoulder, but the salt water had stopped the bleeding. We helped him along and, about an hour and a half after jumping, we heard the breakers roaring on the Java coast. Because of Black, we couldn’t swim ashore, and the tide changed and carried us back out into the Straits again.

The morning of March 1, 1942, dawned clear and bright, and we estimated we were about 80 kilometers south of Batavia. Around 7:00 a.m., a Jap landing barge that was used to haul horses sighted us and stood by to pick us up. They loaded Grice and myself in, but weren’t going to pick up the badly wounded seaman because he would be of no use to them. When we saw this, Grice and I jumped back in, and they agreed to pick all three of us up. The crew broke out some red beans and tea for us and treated us pretty well. We were dumped on a beach, which the Nips held, and Grice and I were put to work, along with 50 other men off the Houston, unloading landing barges.

We started first unloading ammunition and guns, but one of our officers objected, so they put us to work unloading rice, fish, and other foods. We worked steady unloading from 9:00 a.m. that morning to 2:00 a.m. the next morning, without rest or food. Then, after three hours of sleep, we loaded two wheel carts with rice and horseshoes. Four men were put to pull each cart, and we started out for Serang, 20 kilometers away, barefooted and dressed in only G-strings or shorts.

From 9:00 a.m. on March 2, to 1:00 a.m. that night, we walked on hot asphalt pavements. The sun beat down fiercely and the only water to drink was from water buffalo wallows or old abandoned wells. We’d gulp a little water wherever we could, but the procession did not stop often or rest. The men held up fairly well. The soldiers in charge didn’t treat us too badly and there were no beatings. At 1:00 a.m. that night, after 16 hours on the road, we stopped for a two hour rest. While walking, blisters didn’t raise on our feet, but when we stopped and laid down, there was no pressure to keep the fluid back so huge blisters, some as big as tea cups, formed on the bottoms of some of the men’s feet. The worst was yet to come, because after resting, the Japs made us walk another quarter of a mile along a gravel road to the Serang prison. It was torture for everyone; the gravel cut the blisters, and some of the men’s feet became so raw we had to carry them.

Our next stop was a well built Javanese prison, located in the middle of the Town of Serang. Forty men were crowded into cells intended for twenty. We had marble slabs to sleep on, but every man was so dead tired, we dropped down and went to sleep without any food. The next morning, the Japs gave us a pan of rice and half a hard-boiled egg each. After breakfast, I began looking around for familiar faces. There were Black, Grice, and about 200 other men from the Houston. There were also 40 Dutchmen and 10 Dutch women in the camp. I later heard that, of the 1550 men on the Houston when she started through the Sunda Straits, only 360 ever reached shore. Of the men in the director, Ensign Rogers got off, was later with me at the Batavia camp, and was then sent to Malay to work on the railroad. I don’t know if he is still alive. Iwaniki went down with the ship as far as I know. Mahlandt got off and was sent to Malaya, S.D. Woody and Netter also escaped the ship and survived 3 years in Malaya.

Two days after we arrived at Serang, a Jap doctor and an orderly came outside the cells and asked if any man was injured. Some of the men had large shrapnel wounds, but the salt water had evidently kept them from festering, and even Seaman Black’s shoulder wound was in pretty good shape. When my turn came, I stuck my arm with the shrapnel in it out through the cell bars and the orderly grabbed hold of it tightly. The Doc took a wire probe and, after digging for a few minutes, located the shrapnel; then, with a pair of forceps, he enlarged the wound and removed a piece of jagged metal. Man! By that time I was sweating. He poured some iodine into the wound, dressed it, and I never had any more trouble with it.

We spent the next 60 days at Serang. For reasons unknown, they took only the men under 21 and put us to work stacking bombs and rolling gasoline drums on the beach. None of the men minded working because it meant a little more to eat. Two men died of dysentery in the prison, but otherwise we stayed pretty healthy.

In the middle of April 1942, they moved us all by truck to the Bicycle Camp in Batavia, about 80 kilometers away. The Japs insisted that this was an “accommodation” camp, and would get mad when anyone called it a prison camp. It abided by Red Cross regulations and was the best run camp of all those we were in, and very few men got beaten up there. A man didn’t have to work if he didn’t want to, but the work wasn’t hard, and it was better to work than to sit around and dream about home. The Camp Commandant was a good man and would not stand for any monkeyshines by the soldiers. If there was any beating to be done, he did it.

We had to construct our own bunks or sleep on the floor. Most of the men made cots by knocking together some boards and stretching gunnysacks across them, making a pretty comfortable bed until the bed bugs got into them. Man, those bugs were big, and could they bite! Every month or two, we would clean them out by taking a lighted piece of rubber and running it along the cracks; the critters would be smoked out and burned.

A little female fox terrier that had belonged to a Dutch Captain made its home under my bunk. All the men took a liking to her because she hated the Japs so. The Japs had kicked her several times and one of them had stuck her in the leg with a bayonet. Every time a Jap came near the compound, she would bark and put us on alert. She was eating better than we were as everyone saved a little food for her. After being with us three months, she had 5 pups about 2:00 a.m. one morning, the whole compound turned out to see them. The whole litter grew up under my bed and inherited the same hatred for the Japs that their mother had.

Twice in the four months we were at the Batavia camp, we got half days off work and had “Smokers” those evenings. The Nips furnished cigars and cigarettes, and we’d be entertained by boxing matches between the Australians and the Americans. An American named Goldie Pistole was the middle weight camp of the Asiatic Fleet and would win every time. He was later sent to work on the Burma Thailand railroad and died there of disease.

We had a whole arsenal buried in the garden. Forty fives were covered with oil, wrapped up in our slickers and then buried with sweet potatoes planted over them. The Australians had two machine guns hidden in their barracks, and we were all ready to protect ourselves from the Japs, and to be of some use in case of Allied landings. Some of the men had a battery radio set they had stolen out of a Jap car, so we kept up pretty well with events in the outside world. Australia and San Francisco came in best. One man kept it in his barracks bag and when we moved from camp to camp, he would tear it apart and each man would carry a piece. The Nips never did find out we had it.

Toward the last of September 1942, the Japs transferred us from Bicycle Camp to the Changie prison camp near Singapore. Twelve hundred men were loaded into the hold of a small merchant ship, and we spent two very cramped weeks on the ocean. Food and sanitation weren’t too bad, and we didn’t lose anybody. We didn’t see much of Singapore as they shot us right through to Changie, which is on the ocean about 20 miles from Singapore. At Changie, we were separated into what the Japs called Technicians and non Technicians. This division was made on the basis of previous mechanical experience. I had done quite a bit of work on tractors and cars at the ranch before joining the Navy, so I told them I was an auto mechanic and was put in the Technician group. I didn’t realize then how fortunate I was to be in that division, as the non Technicians were sent to Burma to work on the Burma Thailand railroad. About 200 men from the Houston were sent to that hell hole, and a good many of them died of dysentery, malaria, yellow fever, tropical ulcers, and overwork.

The Technicians were sent to Japan. Again, about 1200 men, including Americans, Australians, and Dutchmen, were put in the hold of an old merchant ship that had been bought from England. It was so crowded that all the men couldn’t lie down at once. The trip to Japan took 30 days, and we lost on the average one man each day, most of the deaths being due to dysentery. Only one man from the Houston, a Chief Radioman named Alderman, died. He suffocated from a tonsillar abscess. Each man that died was put in a sack with some iron ore and, after a brief ceremony, was put over the side. Sanitation on the boat was very bad. There were four toilets for the 1200 men, and in order to get a bath, a man would have to stoke coal for four hours. I took four baths on the way, and really earned them. The Jap merchant seamen were pretty good eggs and wouldn’t knock us around, and most of them spoke good English. The Jap Boss was from Bremerton, Washington, and had gone to college in Washington.

We ran into one bad storm and some of the seams of the vessel were sprung, but were quickly repaired. Once the vessel rolled about 45 degrees to the starboard, and all the men in the hold slid to that side. It was a madhouse, men were piled two and three deep, and the Dutchmen, who were sure the ship was sinking, fought to get up the hatch. The ship righted and no one was hurt. The men in the hold received a tea cup of rice and some hard tack soaked in salt water three times a day. The stokers fared much better and were fed the regular ship chow.

The remainder of the trip was uneventful and we docked at Noji, on the Island of Kyushu, at 6:00 p.m. on November 1, 1942, where the wind was blowing a gale and there were flurries of snow. Most of the men were in shorts and skivvie shirts. The Nips lined us up on the dock and shook us down for any contraband, but missed a .45 caliber revolver one of the men had tied to his leg. We shivered on the dock a half hour, then they marched us over to a big hall where all hands received an issue of an old Japanese Army uniform and a small box of cold cooked rice. The uniforms weren’t fancy, but they were corduroy lined, and therefore were very welcome. Then they crowded us into a train and we started off across the island about 10:00 p.m. that night. It took four days and three nights to travel across Kyushu and through a tube on to the Island of Honshu, and then to Tokyo. There, the English were separated and sent with some Dutchmen to the Island of Hokkaido to work as stevedores on the docks and as pipe benders. The Americans, Australians, and the rest of the Dutch were shipped by train to Camanushi, and there we were put on a narrow gauge train and sent up in the mountains to the iron mines at Kamaishi.

By this time, most of the men were in bad shape. We all looked like a bunch of skeletons. A good many of the men were down with pneumonia, dysentery, and beriberi. Two days after we arrived, two Dutchmen who had been wasting away died of dysentery, and a few of the men began developing swollen legs from beriberi. We had to cremate the dead to prevent disease. 

In March 1943, they really put us to work, some in the iron mines and others in a limestone quarry. I ran a pneumatic drill in the iron mines, drilling holes for dynamite. The prisoners’ shift was from three in the afternoon to 11 o’clock at night and, in spite of two to three feet of snow outside, the mines were warm during the winter.

The guards and the Commander at Kamaishi were pretty human at first. Jap army sergeants were running the camp because the Commander was in love with a neighboring Japanese girl and had his head in the clouds most of the time. One day on the parade grounds, the guards tried to make us sing some Japanese songs, but none of us would sing, which made the Japs boiling mad. The guards grabbed one Australian as he walked away and beat him up in front of the men, with their hands and a rake handle, then locked him up on half rations for five days.

After five months at Kamaishi, the regular Army guards were replaced by older Army men who had fought in China and had been shot up. Most of them were dope addicts and had to have their shots regularly. Some would get wild if they didn’t get more opium when their last shot had worn off. At first, these men were mean and cruel, but their officers soon put them in their place and later they were pretty good to us. The food and sanitary facilities in this camp were better than most. There was hot and cold running water, and near the barracks was a bath house that had a big tub about 14 feet square. When we’d get out of the mines at midnight, 50 to 75 men would crowd into the tub, but the water was so hot a man couldn’t stand it very long. We had little wooden boxes with which to pour the water over our heads. There was no “singing in the bathtub,” mainly because the men were dead tired after working, and the Nips would only let us sing on rest days. Staying in that hot water too long took all the sap out of a man, and several men fainted while in the tub, and one man nearly drowned.

The high point in our lonely, homesick lives came one memorable day in March 1943, when each man received one English Red Cross parcel. Some of the men tore into the boxes, others opened them cautiously, disbelievingly, shaking and smelling first. The boxes contained a can of syrup, condensed cream, tomatoes, meat and vegetables, corned beef, apple pudding, a candy bar, and a bar of soap. Many of the men finished up the box in two days, others dragged out the box for a month.

In August 1943, I developed a severe, crampy pain in the lower right side of my abdomen. The medical orderly, thinking it was constipation, gave me a dose of salts, which promptly came up and made the pain worse. An American doctor in the Naval Medical Corps came in and examined me, diagnosed Appendicitis, and put me in the company hospital. The Doc had to wait three days to operate while cat gut and instruments were sent up from a nearby town. Then I was operated on in the finest style, with new cat gut instead of boiled string, which was often all the medics had. Two American and two Japanese medical orderlies helped Lt. Eppley, while a Jap doctor stood by and watched. They gave me a spinal anesthetic and the Doc took out a large gangrenous appendix. Later, they gave me intravenous glucose. I was a lot luckier than men in other camps who needed surgery and had it done without anesthetics and with a butcher knife for a scalpel. In the next couple of weeks, I lost 16 pounds, so the Camp Commandant put me in the galleys to gain it back. I worked there for a month, and then was put to work in the mill repairing machinery.

On November 14, 1943, 36 prisoners, mostly Americans skilled in auto mechanics, were transferred to Yata (pronounced Ya ha ta), on the Island of Kyushu. Yata is on the most southern tip of the island; the prison camp being situated about a quarter of a mile from the Shimoneseki Straits, and it consists of ten prisoners’ barracks, a guard house, and a galley. The prisoners from Yata were being made to work in the huge steel mills in Yawata, a fair sized town ten miles from camp. This was against the regulations of the International Red Cross, which prohibit prisoners from working in any place considered a military objective.

Two fellows from the Houston, Ray Goodson from Pontiac, Michigan, and Arthur DuBain from Carlstadt, New Jersey, were sent to Yata with me. We were buddies and felt lucky that all of us were still together. Most of the prisoners in camp were American civilians, captured on Wake Island. They had been at Yata about 18 months and were still in pretty good shape.

It was snowing at Yata in November, and as we had only our thin Prisoner of War uniforms and the barracks were built of very thin boards, we spent most of the time shivering. It was windy there, too, as we were so close to the ocean. After a two day rest, we got a taste of our life for the next two years. Each day started at 5:00 a.m. by one of the Nip guards yelling, “Show”, which means “Get up” in Japanese. After dressing, muster or “tinkle” is held inside the barracks. In our barracks were 35 men, all transfers from Kamaishi. The American section leader would yell Ki oato-kay attention then “Bongo”, which means “Count off”. We’d count off to 35 in Japanese, and woe befell the poor guy who didn’t know his number; he’d get clipped in the face by a Jap guard. I was number 8. At Kamaishi, number 7 was “stitchi”, but at Yata the Japs used “nana” because the word “stitchi” had something to do with their dead and its use is considered disrespectful. When we counted off that first morning, I was waiting for number 7 to sing out stitchi, but instead he said nana. I was a little slow in saying my number, so a Nip guard hit me with a stick across the side of the head.

Breakfast was served in the barracks at 5:30 a.m. and consisted of a small bowl of rice and thin cucumber soup. After breakfast, we were marched to an electric train that took us right into the steel works at Yawata. The first morning, we were lined up and a Jap “pusher” took us to a building, where we were assigned to work on steel rollers. After a short demonstration by some Jap workers on how to lift the 60 pound plates and throw them on the rollers, we went right to work. We quickly learned that it paid to do things right the first time, as a couple of fellows who made a mistake that morning were worked over by a Nip guard.

The work was hard. Everything was red hot and heavy, and our day went from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., with an hour off for lunch. Our “pusher” turned out to be a good guy. He was a big Jap, over 6 feet tall and all muscle, and for good reason, we called him “Horseface.” His job was to keep our group of 25 in line and keep us busy. If any disciplinary problems came up, it was his job to work us over, but on several occasions he helped the prisoners, when he could have had them shot. Once, three of us were caught taking some bran from a warehouse, and it was Horseface’s job to work us over in front of the prisoners and guards. He swung from the floor on me, but stopped just short of my chin, so it looked like I got an awful wallop. He beat on us for ten minutes, but none of us were hurt at all.

A man had to do a little dealing on the black market if he didn’t want to lose too much weight, because the rations issued us were not enough to keep a person alive doing the heavy work that we were doing. The Jap civilians working in the mills were worse off for clothes than we were and would trade us soy beans and rice for pieces of clothing. Everything had to be done on the quiet because if they were caught, they’d get beaten up, too. One pair of old pants would get about two pounds of beans, which were very tasty when roasted in the steel ovens and then eaten like peanuts. To get the beans back into camp, we’d put them in little bags and tie them to our legs or put them in the hollow of our backs, then walk casually past the guards, who would look only in our lunch boxes and pockets. Occasionally a good shakedown would occur, a man would get beaten up, put in the brig, and kept on half rations, but everyone had to take those chances if he wanted to live. Those beans were worth money. A small boxful would bring a yen, or could be traded for rice and cigarettes. In all the prison camps the men who survived were those who were willing to take almost any chance to get food of any sort.

At Kamaishi, the prisoners didn’t have to deal to live, but at Yata every man had to have some sort of enterprise or starve. There was a premium on bran, which tasted good and satisfied that empty feeling. Two of us were able to get some sacks of bran from a warehouse at the steel mill, which we hid in out of the-way places, and each day would fill little sacks to smuggle back to camp. I didn’t have any trouble getting the bran into camp, but after I’d sell a cupful for half a yen, the Nips would sometimes catch the fellow eating it and beat him up until he told from whom he had bought it. The Americans would seldom tell, but the Dutchmen’s and Indians’ tongues loosened easily. Practically every prisoner was involved in some kind of dealing, so it was to a man’s advantage not to squeal on anybody else.

One Lieutenant was caught in a shakedown one day, after he had bought some bran from me and was selling it to higher officers in the camp. The Nips caught him with all of it and threatened to beat him up if he didn’t tell where he got it. He was awfully weak, sick, and scared, and a beating would probably have killed him. My number, unfortunately, was an easy one to remember and he gave it to them. The Nip guards immediately hauled me before the Camp Commandant, who wanted to know where the 10 yen was that I had been paid. As I only had a few yen left, I told him I had given part of it to some prisoner to buy cigarettes with, but actually, I had bought rice with it, which was against the rules. The Commandant wasn’t a bad egg, and he always pouted and acted like a child when a prisoner got in trouble. He looked at me and said, “Domei domei domei”, meaning bad, bad, bad. Then he asked me why I did it, and I replied, “Because I was hungry.” He said, “That’s no good; you are getting to be like everyone else.

Next, my work record came under scrutiny and, fortunately, I was on the “Joto ching goto” (good worker list) for that month. The verdict was that “he would let me off lightly this time and only give me five days in the brig because of my good work record. I thought I had gotten off pretty easy, but the brig was freezing cold, as it was January and there was snow on the ground. That night I wrapped up on one thin blanket and huddled shivering in the corner until a guard took pity on me and brought another blanket and an overcoat. During my stay in the brig I received half rations and had to go to work each morning. Usually, I could find some soybeans at work and would cook them up on the back of the furnace.

When the Army Lieutenant went into the barracks that day, the men threw shoes at him and told him to “get out; they didn’t want squealers in the barracks.” I didn’t hold any grudge against the man as I knew he was sick. After we were liberated, he came up to me on Okinawa, said he was sorry and hoped there were no hard feelings.

In September 1944, about 700 men captured on Corregidor were transferred to our camp from the Philippines. I’ve never seen men in such bad shape. Most of them had beriberi and dysentery, and all were thin and sickly. We were forbidden from visiting them for fear of spreading disease, but we went anyway and gave them what we could. The Nips gave them extra food and let them rest, but about 40 of them died the first week and were cremated in a Jap Crematorium. The ashes were put in little boxes and given to the officer in charge of the camp, who had them all shipped back to the States after we were liberated.

The English were more susceptible to diseases and lack of food than we were, while it was the cold to which the Americans were most vulnerable. We’d been in the camp about a year when malnutrition began to take its toll. The English were hit first; most of them got “water beriberi,” in which their hands and feet would swell up. One American puffed up to where he weighed 60 pounds more than usual. The Japs gave him a lot of extra fish and he recovered. Another man developed a great deal of fluid in his abdomen and chest and had to be tapped twice a week by a doctor so that he could breathe. Many fellows will be disables the rest of their lives because beriberi affected their hearts.

There were eight doctors in camp, seven Americans and one Dutchman. Lt. Markovich was the only Navy doctor in camp. He was a very courageous man and often went before the Jap Commandant attempting to get extra food and drugs for the men; he was frequently slapped by the guards while trying to get sick men excused from work. We had an Ear, Nose, and Throat and a Bone and Joint specialist in camp, but they were hampered by lack of instruments. Markovich once had to amputate a soldier’s arm with a razor and hacksaw, and did a good job at that.

Sanitary facilities were fair in camp, but at the mill they were bad, and to make matters worse, the women working in the plant used the same latrine as the Americans. At first the men were embarrassed about it, but not the Jap women.

There were a few lighter moments in camp. We were allowed three rest days a month, but had to work hard in camp that day. In the evening we’d have a concert. There was an accordion, violin and guitar in camp, given to us by the Red Cross. The men would all gather out on the road by camp at dusk, and there would be community singing mostly old songs like “Roll Out the Barrel,” and “There’s a Troopship Leaving Bombay.” A big heavy set, humorous English medico named Williams, from Southmapton, would sing, dance, and put on skits, which always gave the Japs a big laugh, even if they weren’t funny. There were some hot jitterbugs in camp. One of them made a blond wig out of straw with big bows on it. Somewhere he found a short silk dress and silk panties, and with some lipstick that one of his buddies had stolen from a Japanese girl’s purse, he made quite a show. The men went crazy when he and his partner danced. Among the other considerable talent in camp were two Dutchmen, who were whizzes on the guitar and played and sang Dutch and Hawaiian song. After liberation they played a couple of tunes on the dock at Nagasaki, and the bandleader there to welcome us, said it was some of the best guitar playing he had ever heard. The evening entertainments were about the only thing we had to boost our morale and helped us to realize there was a better and happier life to look forward to.

During the three and a-half years in prison camp, we didn’t receive an entire American Red Cross box. The Japs would split one box among six or seven men, keeping part for themselves, and the only packages we did receive didn’t come until six months before the end of the war. I received one package and a dozen letters from home while I was there, several packages never reached me. Whenever we received a letter, the guards would stand around while we opened it and take away all the pictures. I hid some pictures of Grandpa and the family, but they found them on me in a shakedown one day, for which the guard clipped me several times and took the pictures and left them in a pile on the Commandant’s porch. Later I went down and snitched them back when nobody was looking.

The Jap Sergeants in camp had the racket of opening up our packages from home. When mine came a Sergeant opened it, took out some cigarettes, candy, and socks while I stood unhappily by, but I got mad when he started to take a razor and told him he couldn’t have it. He wanted me to present it to him and each time I’d refuse, he’d politely crack me on the face with the back of his hand. Finally, he let me have it after he had hit me six times.

The Jap guards were all individualists and were quickly named according to their sadistic traits. The “Water Snake” was a sly little Jap who sneaked around, spied from behind corners, and then beat the hell out of you if you even looked suspicious. The “Glove” had a white glove on his artificial hand and was known for the wicked blows he dealt out liberally with that hand. Another big Jap, with big ham like hands who slunk along half bent over, was called the “Gorilla.” One guard with some of his fingers shot off was appropriately called the “Three-Fingered Bandit,” because he charged above black market prices for stolen food and goods. One poor little Jap guard we called “Liver Lip” was an exception, and was always in trouble and getting beaten up by his officers. Whenever he’d try to work a deal that the other guards would have succeeded with, we’d squeal on him and he’d get another working over.

On August 8, 1944, the Yawata steel mills were bombed steadily for two hours for the first time by American planes, using incendiary and demolition bombs. Everybody streaked for the shelters, which weren’t too satisfactory, and were really just holes in the ground. Fortunately, none of the prisoners were hurt, but a lot of damage was done to the steel mill. The rollers where I worked were destroyed, but the Nips put us right back to work, shoveling coal and rebuilding. The mills never got back to full production, and by the end of the war, they were operating at only one quarter of normal production.

It was a full year before we were bombed again, mainly because the Americans were concentrating on the main shipping ports. On the clear, hot morning of August 8, 1945, we were bombed, but this time the sirens didn’t blow and, the first thing we knew, incendiary bombs were coming through the roof. I was working on the rollers, and it was like the Fourth of July to see the incendiaries eating through the roof and piles of tin plate. This time, most everybody ran for the open fields, while B 29s dropped the bombs from ahigh and P 51s strafed. Everything that would burn, burned to the ground that day.

One incendiary came through the roof of the mill and hit an American soldier, killing him immediately. Another piece of red hot incendiary tore off the upper part of another man’s arm in the mill. He ran around looking for help, but some Japs nearby just laughed at him. He had the presence of mind to put a belt around his upper arm, which stopped the bleeding, and finally he found some Americans who laid him on a door and got him on a train back to camp, where Lt. Markovich amputated his arm.

The next three days, the Nips were actually nice to us and didn’t push us around as much as usual, which led us to suspect the war was over. We were sure of it when the American planes flying over the countryside stopped strafing. Official word came from a big Jap Colonel, who lined us up and said, “Japan has surrendered to America, and only to America.” All the guards lit out as soon as they heard the news, and for good reason; the men were out to get those who had mistreated us. They beat up one guard, and caught and strung up one of the meanest. The American officers who were prisoners took over the camp, gave the Jap Commandant ten days’ rations, and told him to get out. Then on three different flagpoles, we ran up the Dutch, English, and American flags with a prisoner tailor we had made from parachutes. It was a whole month after surrender before liberation parties came. In the meantime, we foraged the country, buying potatoes and chickens from the Japs. If they wouldn’t sell, we’d take them. On the whole, the Japanese civilians were swell to us, and a lot of Jap soldiers moving through to be demobilized didn’t give us any trouble.

All the men put on a little weight that month, as every other day a B 29 would fly over and drop parachutes loaded with food. We were not lacking for beverages, either, as a bunch of us commandeered an electric train (made in New York) that ran by a brewery in Moji, about 40 miles away. We walked in, asked the proprietor for 40 cases of beer, signed a chit, and loaded it on the train. We had a beer bust in camp that night, every man getting two bottles.

A month after the end of the war, a team of Navy Corpsmen arrived in camp to look after any wounded and get the sick out. A week later, we boarded trains to Nagasaki, a hundred miles away, where two months before the atom bomb had reduced the city to a mass of ruins and rubble. Emergency shelters had been set up and all hands had a shower, new clothes, and some sandwiches and chocolate. The five survivors of the Houston in our group, were invited aboard the U.S.S. Wichita to have a talk with our old skipper, Captain Olendorf. We learned that of 1552 men on the Houston when she was sunk three years before, in the Sunda Straits, only 360 managed to reach shore, and of these about 270 survived the prison camps in Burma Thailand and Japan.

All the POW’s from our camp went by destroyer to Okinawa, then to Guam on a hospital ship. It was an indescribable feeling to be free men again and know that we were headed home after all those years. During our two weeks in Guam, we had physical examinations, blood tests, and chest X rays, and surprisingly, most of us were in good shape, except that practically everybody had worms. Only one man suffered from overeating on the way home, although everyone was tucking away three big meals and several milkshakes daily he ate 28 hardboiled eggs and had to have his stomach pumped out.

We left Guam on October 5, 1945, on an APA (Army Personnel Attack). I was assigned to work in the diet kitchen, where I managed to put on a few more pounds. When liberated, I weighed 100 pounds, by the time we left Guam I was up to 125, and 145 when we arrived home. I’m now back to a normal 160 pounds, and still gaining. The trip home was uneventful except that three of us caught infectious jaundice and couldn’t eat for a few days.

At dusk on October 19, 1945, we sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge, Statue of Liberty of the Pacific. The lights were twinkling on in San Francisco, and everybody was at the rails hollering and cheering. It didn’t seem possible we were back.


After the war, he moved to California where he married Irene Creel.  He died on June 30, 2005.