Lt. Cdr. P. O. L. “Polo” Owen, Paymaster of the Perth

  • “From the moment the USS Houston and the HMAS Perth sank, hundreds of separate dramas set out on diverging paths.” — Ship of Ghosts, p. 150

The narrative splinters from the moment of sinking, which is a little short of halfway through Ship of Ghosts. Self doesn’t mind the mutliplicity of stories. She adores the way Hornfischer accords each story of survival the same measure of respect, whether that story is told by a boatswain or a commander.

Twenty-two survivors of the Perth managed to make it to a nearby island, Sangiang. There, they found “corn, green papaws, tomatoes, native tobacco, and coconuts.” They were joined later by nineteen American survivors of the USS Houston. The surivors eventually found a boat (built for twenty-five). Forty-one men managed to sail it to Java. Then, disagreement split the group: some wanted to travel by land towards the Allied forces on Tjilatjap, others preferred to travel by sea. Owen led the group that elected to go by land. It turned out to be a very hazardous journey.

Four of Owen’s group decided to split off on their own. They were “ambushed by Javanese hillmen that left three dead and the survivor badly slashed but able to tell the story.” Owen’s group eventually made it to a small fishing village where they saw, floating in the bay, the other survivors who were traveling by coast. Owen still didn’t want to travel by sea, however, so the survivors parted again, some going by land, others going by sea.

The narrative splits again, this time following the group that traveled by sea. These men do make it to their goal, Tjilatjap, only to be turned over to the Japanese by a pair of Dutch officers (The Dutch colonial government had already surrendered, but of course these survivors from the Houston and the Perth had not been told). They spend the next three years as prisoners of war.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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