Working on the Railway of Death: A POW’s Story (After Surviving a Massive Naval Battle)

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May 3, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: MilitaryTechnologyWeapons WarHistory

Working on the Railway of Death: A POW’s Story (After Surviving a Massive Naval Battle)

American Sailor Howard Brooks survived the Battle of the Sundra Strait only to slave away in the Burmese jungles as a prisoner of the Japanese.

When Howard Brooks joined the United States Navy in 1939, the 20-year-old farm boy from Tennessee had no idea that he was going to experience one of the most harrowing adventures of World War II. In the early months of the war, Brooks and his fellow crewmen aboard USS Houston fought heroically against overwhelming odds, only to have their ship blown out from under them at the Battle of the Sunda Strait in February 1942. But the battle, horrific as it was, marked the beginning, not the end, of their ordeal. Houston survivors were captured by the Japanese and shipped to Burma, where they became slave laborers on the notorious “Railway of Death,” made famous by the Academy Award-winning (if rather inaccurate) 1957 movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Houston (CA 30) was a heavy cruiser that became celebrated in the 1930s as President Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite warship. She was a thing of beauty, sleek and powerful as her graceful prow sliced though the water at speeds upward of 33 knots. Houston hosted Roosevelt four times, carrying him and his staff on long holiday cruises in 1934, 1935, 1938, and 1939. As the president later remarked, “I knew that ship and loved her. Her officers and men were my friends.”

Houston was in many ways a microcosm of the Depression-era Navy. Her crew was highly trained, her officers competent and professional, but the ship’s overall fighting ability was weakened by “penny-wise, pound-foolish” budget cuts imposed by Congress. As the flagship of the Asiatic Fleet in the early 1930s, Houston was a familiar sight in Shanghai and other Far Eastern ports of call. She returned to Asia in March 1941, just as Japan and the United States were teetering on the brink of war.

Houston was in the Philippines when war finally broke out. In January 1942, she became part of a hastily assembled and poorly coordinated combined Allied fleet. She escaped destruction several times, mostly from enemy air attacks, but her luck ran out at the end of February, when the Allies engaged an overwhelmingly powerful Japanese task force in the Battle of the Java Sea.

The battle was an Allied disaster, but Houston and the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth managed to escape the debacle. Ordered to the Indian Ocean, the pair was caught by the Japanese in Sunda Strait. Perth was sunk by torpedoes, leaving Houston to fight alone in an epic, one-sided battle against an entire Japanese task force. After fighting desperately and valiantly, Houston was sunk. Of her roughly 1,100 men, only 360 survived the battle.

Howard Brooks was one such survivor, and eventually he found himself assigned to the infamous Thailand-Burma Railroad, the “Railway of Death.” The 257-mile-long rail line passed though some of the roughest terrain in the world, a nightmare of thick jungles, mountainous ridges, and treacherous streams. The tropical climate was unforgiving, and the half-starved, exhausted prisoners were all too susceptible to cholera, typhoid, malaria, and beriberi. Some 61,000 Allied POWs were slave laborers on the railway, including 30,000 British, 18,000 Dutch, 13,000 Australians, and 700 Americans. Of that number, perhaps 16,000 Allied prisoners died of disease, overwork, and maltreatment by vicious Japanese guards. Another 200,000 native Asian workers also were forced to labor on the line, and 80,000 of them lost their lives as well. Understandably, Brooks has vivid memories of the Railway of Death.

“A heavy cruiser was like a hotel, and I enjoyed it.”

Eric Niderost: Perhaps you could start by giving us some of your background.

Howard Brooks: I was born October 30, 1919, in Greeneville, Tennessee. I grew up on a farm, where we raised mainly tobacco and cows. I was one of eight children, but originally there were three more, two boys and a girl. They died in the great flu epidemic.

EN: Why did you join the U.S. Navy?

HB: One older brother had joined the Navy in 1927, and I was influenced by him. After graduating from high school in June 1938, I stayed on the farm for a time. On September 3, 1939, I went to town and signed up for the Navy. A few days later I got on a bus for the naval training center in Norfolk, Virginia. After boot camp I was sent to San Diego, where I arrived on New Year’s Day, 1940.

EN: Eventually you were sent to Hawaii, where you were given the heavy cruiser USS Houston as your permanent assignment. In time you became a ship’s electrician. What was life like aboard the Houston?

HB: A heavy cruiser was like a hotel, and I enjoyed it. After work or duty hours, a group of friends would chip in and go down to the gedunk [shipboard store] for some pogey bait [snacks], usually Coke and some kind of chips. We’d go to some breezy place topside and all sit down on a wool blanket, and then my best friend, Arnie Arnesen, would play the accordion. Our favorite place was the searchlight station, which was on our mainmast.

EN: How was the daily work routine aboard Houston?

HB: It was all spit and polish. All painted surfaces were kept squeaky clean, and all brass polished almost daily if you were at sea. We had lots of wood decking on the fo’castle quarter deck and fantail, and these would be holystoned first thing daily. Of course, there were a lot of gunnery drills.

EN: In the last months of peace, Houston’s skipper was Captain Albert Brooks, an Annapolis graduate who was known to do things by the book. What were your impressions of him?

HB: A fine man. I never really saw much of him until our first action on February 4, 1942. If we were not at battle stations, he’d come around and say a friendly word.

EN: Admiral Thomas C. Hart ordered most of the Asiatic Fleet to withdraw from China. The Philippines, then a quasi-colonial possession of the United States, would be the fleet’s main base. Houston was a magnificent ship, but her beauty and power hid some flaws. She needed modernization, and her fire control equipment was obsolete.

HB: Yes, and we had faulty antiaircraft ammunition, and we didn’t have the latest radar equipment. Yet, in my 22-year-old mind I felt very confident that we were going to have a short and successful war. We may not have been ready in a material way, but we were ready in a way that counted

“The [500-pound] bomb came though the deck at an angle, then entered the turret barbette and exploded immediately.”

EN: After the war broke out, Houston was mainly employed in convoy escort duties.  But things changed on February 4, 1942, when Houston joined other Allied ships to try and intercept a Japanese force at Makassar Strait, north of Java. But then, formations of Japanese twin-engine bombers appeared. What was your battle station?

HB: I was with the after-damage control party. Our station was on the second deck in the area very close to the barbette of Number Three Turret [one of the eight-inch battery turrets].

EN: It was said that Captain Brooks maneuvered the 600-foot cruiser “like a motorboat,” dodging bomb after bomb. But finally, the Japanese scored a hit.

HB: The [500-pound] bomb came though the deck at an angle, then entered the turret barbette and exploded immediately. Most of the blast was inside the turret, but there was still enough outside to kill all of the damage-control party but two. I was one of them.

American Sailor Howard Brooks survived the Battle of the Sundra Strait only to slave away in the Burmese jungles as a prisoner of the Japanese.
USS Houston, President Franklin Roosevelt’s favorite ship, went down fighting valiantly at Sunda Strait.

EN: How did you survive?

HB: Just a short time before the bomb hit, Boatswain Joseph Bienert, warrant officer and head of our damage party, had been asked to send two electricians to check on a problem on one of the five-inch ammo hoists. He sent me and Larry Wargowsky, and we found that the electrical problem was an overheated ammo hoist motor. But when we were there we heard over the PA system that a bomb had hit Turret Three, so we rushed back to our station. Most of the guys had been killed by concussion, but there was Bienert, sitting with most of his insides lying on his lap. He was conscious, aware, and talking, and when we were trying to put him on a stretcher, he asked us to leave him alone and help someone else.

EN: Houston had 48 dead and 20 wounded from that bomb blast. The light cruiser Marblehead also had been badly damaged in the same air attack.

HB: About the same time that we were hit, Marblehead was hit by one bomb on her fantail. There was damage to her steering gear and rudder, with about 13 killed and two dozen wounded. Houston and Marblehead headed to Tjilajap [Java] by way of Bali Straits. On our way to Tjilajap, a big work party was busy making plain wooden caskets. Twelve were from the damage-control party; the rest were from the turret crew.