Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the SS Houston Survivors
POWs of the Burma-Thailand Railway
The SS Houston
On February 28, 1942, the SS Houston was sunk off the northwest coast of Java. Fierce fighting during the Battle of Sunda Strait with the Japanese ships. Captain Albert Rooks had taken a bullet, mortally wounding him. He was buried at sea and later, after the war, given the Medal of Honor Award posthumously.
Of the 1050 crew members, only 368 survived and became known as the Lost Survivors. Noe one would know of their fate until the war ended and their liberation complete. The Japanese captured the survivors, loaded them onto "hell ships," transporting them to Singapore.
They were first taken to the ChangiJail POW jail, the "Bicycle Camp." It was then their fate was told to them. They would build a bridge from Burma to Thailand. Among the counted slaves and POWs, were 61,000 allied troops and 200,000 Asian natives who would build a 250-mile railway. This massive feat would be between mountains, across rivers, through forests, and without machinery or tools.
Captain Albert Rooks
Conditions at The Camps
With scant rations, weakened conditions, beaten with rifle butts, or bamboo poles continually, the POWs worked and worked, loaded, and loaded dirt from sunup to sundown. At Kilo Camo #40, a POW named Henri Hekking worked tirelessly, trying to treat his fellow POWs. Henri was a doctor well trained in jungle medicine because his grandmother was a herbalist and had taught him the value of jungle medicine.
Henri knew to treat physical and mind together. He boiled bark from trees to make tannin for diarrhea, used gasoline for alcohol, leaves for bandages.
How was it even possible to work building a railway when the POWs could barely move? They endured, survived and, depended on one another. When they could, they devised ways to impede the Japanese push to build.
Their crude barracks, daily rice rations with maggots, little sanitation, constant beatings, jungle sickness, rotting ulcers were constant reminders they needed to survive.
The two bridges near Tamarkan inspired the film "The Bridges at the River Kwai." Although after seeing the film, survivors believed it did not show the real horrors of the camp and the sacrifices of the men.
The death count included 13,000 allied POWs, 100,000 Asian natives, and 79 survivors of the SS Houston.
WW II ended with the Japanese surrendering and liberation came August 1945 for the POWs after forty-two months of inhumane treatment with thousands dying building the 257 mile-long Burma-Thailand Railway.