A Lucky Man
Leo Carter was in training as a radio operator in the U.S. Army’s 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery when, in August 1941, he was accepted into the Enlisted Pilot program and processed out of the Battalion. On November 20 1941, the balance of his unit departed San Francisco en route to the Philippines via Hawaii, but was diverted to Australia following the attack on Pearl Harbor and, ultimately, made its way to Soerabaja, Java, only to be overrun and captured by the Japanese on March 8 1942.
Below is the memorial history of the fate of the battalion as told by the survivors.
2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery
USS Houston (CA-30) Survivors
HISTORY Of THE LOST BATTALION
the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, 36th Division (Texas National Guard), was mobilized in November 1940. One year later, this one Battalion was detached from the Division and sent to Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, to become part of a contingent of troops, who were all in route to a destination with the code name “PLUM.” It was generally conjectured that the Philippine Islands was where the Battalion would finally be stationed.
The Unit sailed from the United States on November 21, 1941 aboard the Army Transport Ship, USS Republic, and arrived at Pearl Harbor on the 28th of the same month. A day or two prior to reaching Hawaii, it was announced that we were under a “black-out” and “radio silence” and that an attack by the Japanese was expected at any time. After refueling in Hawaii, the ship, accompanied by several other troopships, including the Chaumont, Hallmark, Holbrook, Admiral Halstead, Bloemfontein, Farmer and Gregg, a Corvette and the Cruiser USS Pensacola sailed south, rather than west, as we had expected. Little did we realize that within a week Pearl Harbor would be attacked by the Japanese!
On December 6, the convoy crossed the Equator, and the next morning the Unit was informed of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The USS Republic had been in dry-dock just prior to the Battalion”s boarding and had four 3-inch guns and one 5-inch gun (on the “fan-tail”) mounted on her. The Battalion manned these guns from this time until their arrival in Australia.
The convoy made a short stop at Suva, Fiji Islands and then sailed on to Brisbane, Australia, crossing the International Dateline (180th Meridian) on December 13, 1941. This Unit was among the first American Troops ever to land on Australian soil. The Battalion spent Christmas 1941 in Brisbane, but before New Year’s Day, it was again on the high seas, aboard the Dutch freighter Bloemfontein, bound for the Island of Java in the Netherland East Indies, via Darwin, Australia. Coincindentally, the escort vessel for part of the journey, was the Cruiser USS Houston.
On January 11, 1942, 35 days after the outbreak of War with Japan, the Battalion was on Java, the only U. S. ground combat Unit to reach the Netherland East Indies, before the Dutch capitulated to the Japanese.
A new heavy Cruiser (CA-30), was launched from Newport News, Virginia, on September 7, 1929. That she was christened, USS HOUSTON, came about largely through the efforts of William A. Burnrieder, an assistant to the Mayor of Houston, as well as many other citizens of Houston, including many hundreds of school children, who all wrote letters petitioning the Secretary of the Navy to name the ship for their City. From 1934 to 1939 she was frequently used by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to take vacation cruises. During the four vacations taken aboard the USS Houston, more than 35,000 miles were traveled.
In 1940, she was in the Philippine Islands, serving as the “Flagship” of the Asiatic Fleet. On November 27, 1941, Admiral Hart, CIC of the Asiatic Fleet, had received a warning from the U. S. Navy Department that an attack on the fleet, by the Japanese, could be expected at any time. Admiral Hart immediately ordered the USS Houston to stop repairs that were underway and move from the Cavite Navy Yard (across the bay from Manila) to the Port of Ilo Ilo, on the Island of Panay, where she arrived on the 4th of December, four full days prior to the first air attacks on the City of Manila and the complete destruction of the Cavite Naval Installation.
At Ilo Ilo, the USS Houston fueled, victualed and made ready for action which was felt to be imminent by those in Command. The ship left Ilo Ilo at 6:30 PM on Pearl Harbor day, just before a Japanese bomber attack on that Port. That same evening, the USS Houston was joined by the light cruiser, USS Boise, and on the following day by destroyers USS Stewart and USS Edwards, the seaplane tender, USS Langley and the fleet oilers, USS Pecos and USS Trinity. The convoy, thus formed, turned south and steamed toward Borneo.
The convoy arrived at Balikpapan on the 15th of December. The next day, the USS Houston was ordered to leave the convoy and proceed directly to Soerabaja, Java to prepare for convoy escort duty. The next month was spent doing convoy escort duty between the Netherlands East Indies and Australia. The ship had also become part of an allied fleet operating out of Java.
On the 4th of February 1942, while searching for a Japanese force, consisting of three cruisers and 20 transports, they were attacked by 54 Japanese bombers. A direct hit knocked out the 8 inch gun turret, blew a 12 foot diameter hole in the main deck, killed 48 men and wounded 20 others.
Although the vessel had lost one-third of it’s major firepower, it participated next in the “Battle of the Java Sea”, where 12 Allied ships were lost. These were, Dutch: light cruisers, Java & De Ruyter, destroyers Kortenaer and Witte de With; British, heavy cruiser HMS Exeter, (of Graf Spre fame) destroyers, HMS Jupiter, HMS Encounter and HMS Electra, American destroyers USS John C. Ford, USS Alden, USS Paul Jones and USS John D. Edwards. The only vessels to survive the “Battle of the Java Sea” were the Australian cruiser HMAS Perth and the USS Houston.
On the night following the Java Sea Battle, these two ships attempted to sail to the south end of Java via the Sunda Strait, which Dutch Intelligence Officers reported to be free of enemy ships. The intelligence report was wrong!
A Japanese fleet, consisting of an aircraft carrier, five cruisers, 11 destroyers and several PT boats was in the Strait, covering the landing of Jap troops from 40 transports. When the HMAS Perth and the USS Houston reached the strait late that night (February 28, 1942) they found themselves surrounded by enemy ships. After putting up a tremendous battle, first the HMAS Perth and then the USS Houston were sent to the bottom.
Only 368 of the total complement of 1011 men of the USS Houston managed to reach shore. The remaining 643 shipmates, including their skipper, Captain Rooks, went down with the ship. Within a few days, all the survivors became prisoners of the Japanese.
The 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery had been playing a lonely and hopeless role. A few days after their arrival in Java, the 19th Bombardment Group of the U. S. Army Air Corps, arrived under the Command of Col. (now Maj. General, USAF-Ret) Eubank. They had escaped the Philippines with a few B-170 bombers, pilots, co-pilots and whatever Crew members that managed to get aboard as the planes took off while under attack. Until this group evacuated to Australia on March 2, 1942, the 131st F. A. provided it with mechanics, ground crew, aerial gunners and a semblance of anti-aircraft weapons. Twenty-three men of the 131st F. A. transferred to the 19th Bomb Group and were evacuated with them. Two men were killed when they parachuted and were gunned down by Japanese fighters, from one of the B-17s on February 3, 1942.
When the Japanese invaded Java, the Battalion (less E Battery), used its artillery and 50 caliber machine guns (salvaged from wrecked B-17s) in support of an Australian “Pioneer Infantry” group which had arrived in Java just prior to the Japanese landing. With what the Aussies called “top-hole” artillery fire, they helped hold up the Japanese advance at Leuwilleng, near the Central Java City of Bandoeng.
Battery “E” remained on the eastern end of Java to guard the airfield at Malang and to support the Dutch troops in the Soerabaja area. Heavy ground action was experienced by Battery “E” prior to the surrender of the Island by the Dutch, to the invading Japanese, on March 8, 1942. The Japanese terms of surrender were “unconditional” and all troops were advised that any further resistance would be followed by instant reprisals against the civilian population, including women and children. Of the 558 men and officers who landed on Java on January 11, 1942, 534 became prisoners of war of the Japanese.
Within a few weeks, the Japanese had all of the American prisoners from the USS Houston and the 131st F. A. (less “E” Battery) together in the 10th Battalion Bicycle Camp, a former Dutch installation in Batavia (Jakarta) Java. Battery “E” remained in the Soerabaja area until moved to Nagasaki and other areas in Japan via Batavia and Singapore in November and December 1942. Thus, two Units of the American Armed Forces, consisting of 902 men, seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth (and became one unit), sacrificed in a clearly hopeless effort to save the Netherland East Indies from overwhelming numbers of the enemy.
Now began an unbelievable string of events which, for some, would last three and one-half years and was to weld the “Phantoms” of the USS Houston (CA-30) and the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery together in a Bond closer than blood. This Army and Navy group of POWs suffered together through 42 months of humiliation, degradation, physical and mental torture, starvation and horrible tropical diseases, with no medication. The hardest part was watching friends die slowly, day by day, with the survivors often thinking, fleetingly, that maybe they were the “lucky ones.”
One of the toughest pills to swallow was not being able to communicate with families and loved ones at home. Sharing all this mental and physical anguish together built a special relationship among the survivors and each man knows how the other will react in almost any “chips-down” situation and most are pleased at what they have learned about their fellow survivors. Moving by ship from Java to Singapore and thence to Burma, Thailand or Japan, the men were packed like cattle in the lower holds, taking turns sitting, squatting, standing or laying down while suffering from sea sickness, dysentery, malaria or other tropical diseases, while standing in their own, or their neighbor’s filth, because it was impossible, or not permitted to get to the ship side latrine on the main deck.
Then, the men worked in the steaming jungles and the “monsoon” seasons of Burma chopping down jungle trees, hand building road beds and bridges and laying ties and rails with primitive tools in construction of the now infamous “Burma-Siam Death Railway”. Some of the men were mining coal and/or working on the docks in Japan while living in sub-standard housing, without any heat or sufficient cover during two Japanese winters, where real starvation was a daily companion. Of the 902 men taken Prisoner, 668 were sent to Burma and Thailand and worked on the “Death Railway” (of Bridge on the River Kwaii fame). Of the total 163 men who died in Prisoner of War Camps, 133 died working on the railroad. After completion of the railroad, 236 of the men were disbursed to Japan and other Southeast Asian Countries to work in coal mines, shipyards, docks, etc. and a few remained at “Bicycle Camp” in Java.
Quite a few of the men were killed by American submarines while en-route to Singapore and Japan and more were killed by American bombers. When liberated, the men were scattered throughout locations in Southeast Asia: Java, Singapore, Burma, Thailand, French Indo-China, Japan, China and Manchuria, to name most of them.
The wives of some of the men of the 2nd Battalion 131st F. A. arranged to have a “Welcome Home” celebration in Wichita Falls, Texas on October 23, 1945. The idea “snow-balled” and all survivors that had returned to the U. S. (and could be located) were invited to attend. Such a good time was had at this Reunion, that it was decided to meet every year, on the weekend nearest August 15th. The first Reunion was designed to Honor the 2nd Battalion, 131st F. A. survivors, who had been nicknamed “TEXAS LOST BATTALION,” by the news media of Texas, since that Battalion had disappeared when the Island of Java had surrendered.
No one knew where they were, apparently including the War Department and nothing was heard from them for about three years. Of course, the people who arranged for the first reunion, did not know of the existence of the LISS Houston prisoners, but the oversight was put to right by Battalion personnel, who invited some of their “buddies” to the first Reunion and made them permanent members of the “Lost Battalion Association” at the next reunion and the Survivors of the USS Houston (CA-30) voted to become a part of the Association.
So, each year since 1945, the survivors of the POW “hell” along with their families, meet in August to keep their Bond of Brotherhood inviolate and to remember and pay honor to the 163 who died in Prison Camps and the 504 who have died since liberation and the 646 who died in action, in a futile effort to save Java.