The Diary of Brig. Arthur Varley

Arthur Varley, a commander of the 22nd Australian Infantry Brigade, was one of those unfortunates who, almost at the tail end of the war, was loaded on a prison transport ship to be taken who-knows-where, a ship that was, tragically, sunk by a US submarine (The Japanese refused to mark their prisoner transport ships)

Fortunately, he had kept a meticulous diary during his internment and his forced labor on the Burma-Siam railroad and buried it near his camp in Thanbyuzayat, its whereaouts known only to a trusted few. After the war, during the War Crimes trials of the officers who ran the POW camps in Burma, the diary was located and the words of the “welcome speeches” given by certain officers, and in particular the words and actions of a sadistic officer who headed 80-kilo, 100-kilo, 105-kilo and 114-kilo camps, Lt. Colonel Yoshitada Nagatomo, came back to haunt them. Nagatomo, was hung in the jail in Chiangi, the same jail where so many POWS had been kept in isolation and tortured, on Sept. 16, 1947.

Jane Harris, Wife of Lanson

For three years, friends and family of Jane Harris had urged her to accept the inevitable: that her husband had gone down with his ship. She tuned them all out. Hospitalized for a burst appendix, she insisted that the doctors continue to sedate her because the hospital was the first real sleep she had had for years. Then, she insisted they keep her sedated, for three more weeks.

A U.S. newspaper had printed an article “describing how two unnamed USS Houston men had escaped from a Thai prison camp.” Then she received “a Navy Department telegram saying that her husband was safe in American hands.”

She told an interviewer, “I put two and two together with the telegram I got, and I said, well one of those has got to be Lans.”

Sentence of the Day: Christmas Eve, 2021

Gus Forman, imprisoned in Changi, Singapore, where he had served in isolation for three months of what he was told was a six-year sentence (for plotting to escape), suddenly saw the door to his cell open. Sunlight flooded in, blinding him. He was ushered out and reunited with two other survivors of the USS Houston: Capt. Ike Parker and Major Windy Rogers.

They cringed at each other’s stench.

Ship of Ghosts, p. 405

July 25, 1945

In July 1945, two USS Houston survivors, James Huffman and Lanson Harris, managed to escape from their prison camp. Aided by Thai villagers, they were led to a secret camp, hidden deep in the Thai jungle, run by a Major Eben Bartlett. Bartlett, it turned out, was part of OSS, a covert US operation that had established camps all over Southeast Asia. He was amazed when Huffman and Harris told him they were survivors of the USS Houston, and that approximately 300 survivors had been taken prisoner. They also had the names of all the men they knew who had died in captivity, about sixty-odd names.

On July 25, 1945, the world heard for the first time about the fate of the survivors from the sinking, over three years before. By then, Harold Rooks, the eldest son of the USS Houston’s captain, who had been a junior at Harvard when his father’s ship was sunk, had enlisted and was headed for the Pacific War as the plotting officer for the USS San Jacinto.

On July 29, Bartlett used a portable transmitter to begin transmitting the roster of names to his U.S. superiors. The roster of “lost names” filled his “outgoing Morse bandwidth for nearly a week. It was not until August 5 that Major Bartlett’s radioman hand-keyed the last of the dots and dashes representing the 301 names on the list. Two days later, he started sending a shorter list: the name of sixty three of the sixty-seven Houston men who had met their end as prisoners of war.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

80-Kilo Camp, Burma

Four soldiers who survived the sinking of the USS Houston, and survived 20-kilo and 40-kilo camps, finally reached their limit at 80-kilo camp. The cause of death of one man, a sergeant who’d been part of a Marine contingent on the USS Houston, was listed as anorexia nervosa.

It’s amazing any were left to go on. But go on they did, to camps 100-kilo, 105-kilo, and 114-kilo, doing 16-20 hour workdays on starvation rations and no medical care.

40 Kilo Camp, Burma

Eventually, the POW camps in Java are emptied as the prisoners are shipped to Burma to complete a 258-mile-wide gap of the Burma-Thai railroad.

At this point, a little over halfway, Ship of Ghosts becomes a completely different kind of story. Instead of sea battles, we are dealing with jungles and malaria and dysentery.

Self has developed a habit of looking up each new name in the Appendix, to see if that person made it or not. It just occurred to her that of course that person made it; otherwise, they wouldn’t be giving interviews to James D. Hornfischer!

The Appendix was useful in another way, though: to fix the number of POWS who died in Burma. There was a pattern: the dying began in 80 kilo camp, but increased as one got to a higher-numbered camp: 100-kilo camp, 105-kilo camp, and 114-kilo camp (She didn’t see anything higher than 114-kilo camp — so the railroad was still unfinished at the end of the war)

The men at 40-kilo camp were lucky: a Dutch doctor named Henri Hekking volunteered to be sent there. Born in Surabaya to Dutch parents, Hekking’s grandmother was “a committed herbalist and healer, who set him on the path of studying native medicine.” He was captured at the Dutch hospital in Timor and became a POW. He began hearing of the plight of the men building the Burma-Thai railroad and offered to perform medical services on the line. When he showed up at 40-kilo camp, he became the “on-site medical caretaker.” Once there, he began “the most challenging kind of solo practice.”

p. 264:

  • He knew that palmetto mold could be used like penicillin, that pumpkin could be stored in bamboo stalks, femented with wild yeast, and used to treat men suffering from beriberi (it got them pleasantly drunk to boot). Tea brewed from bark contained tannins that constricted the bowels and slowed diarrhea. Wild chili peppers had all sorts of beneficial internal applications.

Another quick look at the Appendix: NO DEATHS in 40-kilo camp! Either there were no American POWs there, or Hekking managed to save them.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Staff Sgt. Roy M. Offerle of the Thirty-Sixth Infantry Division, Texas National Guard

Bicycle Camp, Java:

The survivors of the USS Houston and the Perth all end up being captured and siphoned to different POW camps around Southeast Asia. One day in May 1942, the USS Houston POWs in Bicycle Camp were joined by four-hundred-odd American infantry, who marched into camp “in full dress . . . hauling duffles and all manner of diverse equipment.” So splendid was their appearance that the Houston survivors at first thought they were being rescued. The sad truth came out only later. It turned out that the battalion was ordered to surrender by the Dutch Governor General, who sent a message to the US commander, telling him “It is useless to attempt an escape. There is no way out.” (I tell ya, Hornfischer really makes the Dutch look like out-and-out cowards, at least the ones in Dutch colonial government in Java were)

This Infantry Division was made up entirely of Texans (The Army, unlike the Navy, fostered regionalism: “Each of its batteries was drawn from a single town — D Battery from Wichita Falls, E Battery from Abilene, F Battery from Jacksboro . . . and so on.”) They had a particular brand of Texan humor, too.

Staff Sgt. Roy M. Offerle, p. 202:

  • At a train station, the Americans were presented to a Japanese officer who made a welcoming speech. “I guess that was the first time I’d heard a Jap or heard them speaking . . . He would scream and holler and yell, and then the interpreter would say, ‘The commander says he is very happy to see you.’ Then he would scream and holler like he was threatening to kill us, and then they would say, ‘You will soon go to a camp.’

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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.

Lieutenant Frank Gillan, of the Perth

This man’s odyssey is covered in just three pages of Ship of Ghosts (pp. 158 – 160) but it is so remarkable because of how it began: he was the last man off the Perth, and “rode a series of floating vehicles to survival, each one more seaworthy than the one before: a wooden plank, a Carley float, and finally a lifeboat, where he joined about seventy of his shipmates. An able sailor, Gillan got the mast and sails up, fashioned a tiller out of driftwood, and turned toward Sumatra before adverse headwinds forced him to shape a course back toward Java. Going slowly blind from the bunker oil clotting in his eyes, Gillan turned over the tiller to a sailor named McDonough. When the wind died at nightfall, they had to row. They were soon desperate with exhaustion. One sailor who started vomiting up oil was relieved of rowing but sat there for a time still pulling an invisible oar until someone eased him to the bottom boards, slick with the blood of the injured, to sleep.”

And then they made land. Gillan, who was still blind, found his hand held by a stoker named Bill Hogman who, unasked, “served as his eyes, leading him after the others all that day and far into the night, guiding his steps, explaining what the country looked like.”

Meanwhile, In the Engine Room

The Houston‘s still chugging along at twenty-one knots. The dozen-odd men in the forward engine room have no idea what is going on and find it odd when they hear the bugle tone to abandon ship. A man calls the bridge and asks for verification. What follows is “several minutes of chafing silence.” (You see what self means about Hornfischer’s writing?) Then, a second order to abandon ship is received. The men in the engine room finally commence the shutdown. The process goes like this:

  • Shut down the burners under the boilers.
  • Leave valves open to bleed off the high-pressure steam in the system.
  • Lower life rafts over the side.
  • Get into life rafts.

Unfortunately, “ten-thousand tons’ worth of inertia” meant that the Houston continued to plunge forward even after the life rafts were lowered, meaning the crew had no time to climb into the rafts. Chaos! Fortunately, the chain of command is preserved by a Commander Roberts, “the ship’s senior surviving officer,” who takes charge at 12:29 a.m. and reverses the order to abandon ship.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

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