Working On the Railway of Death  

By Eric Niderost


The USS Houston was an American heavy cruiser that fought heroically against impossible odds at the Battle of Sunda Strait early in the war.  The ship was sunk, and its survivors found themselves POWs of the Japanese.  Howard Brooks was one of those survivors, and he was shipped to Southeast Asia to work as a slave laborer on the infamous Burma Railway of Death, the same one made famous by the 1957 movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.

USS Houston went down fighting valiantly at Sunda Strait

In the course of my historical research I have gotten to know Howard and other POW vets, and count them as my friends. I would also want to mention Donald Versaw, Warren Jorgenson, and Ralph Holewinski, all members of the United States Marines. It is an honor a privilege to know them.

These men and others like them endured terrible hardships and sadistic brutality at the hands of their Japanese captors. Rabid nationalism perverted Japanese culture and society, warping morals, and causing the Japanese military to abandon basic human decency and substitute murder, rape, and torture. Brutality was encouraged, even celebrated.

Howard and the others harbor no ill will towards today’s Japanese nation, but they do hope to have some acknowledgement of their suffering by the Japanese government.  Japan refuses to fully acknowledge war crimes, or compensate victims like the comfort women sex slaves.  Atrocities are downplayed, or even dismissed out of hand.   I was recently shocked to see anti-Chinese demonstrations at the Yakusuni Shrine, and some were dressed up as WWII Japanese soldiers. And this on the 70th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese war of 1937-1945! The insensitivity was incredible.

The POWs and other victims are in their twilight years. I hope they can live to see if the Japanese government has a sense of honor and justice. 

Excerpts From "Working On the Railway of Death"
from the October issue of Military Heritage

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 diseases, overwork, and maltreatment by vicious Japanese guards. Another 200,000 native Asian workers 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. 

Eventually you were shipped to Burma [January 1943] to begin work as slave laborers on the “Railway of Death.”

We learned that we were to build a railway from Moulmein down to near Bangkok. We were put in a camp that had a boundary marked with a string attached to small sticks. There were strict orders not to go beyond that boundary. One evening some of us were standing near the boundary, and a guard accused us of trying to escape. Our punishment was to kneel with a three-inch-diameter piece of bamboo behind the knees. Soon your legs became numb and you could tolerate it better. I don’t remember how long they had us stay there, but when they let us go, we could not walk. We were also slapped many times—the officers did that to their own soldiers, too.

                                                 Sailor Howard Brooks in Hawaii in 1939
                                                                                             courtesy of Mr. Brooks

The Death Railway was done almost completely by hand under primitive and horrible conditions.

It was very brutal work. Our first work was digging dirt and pilling it on the railroad bed. A bamboo pole would be put through the loops of a burlap bag, a POW on each end of the pole. We’d walk to the digging area and lower the bag, where a digging guy would shovel soil into it. We’d then walk over to the railroad area and dump it. There was always a long line of POWs constantly filling the bags and dumping the dirt. Ants had nothing over us.

What was the next step?

After a section of railroad was filled to its proper level, the next step would be to add a surface of crushed stone. They would find outcroppings of stone as near as possible to the railroad, then use dynamite to loosen it. We would sit with a small hammer and break up the stone into smaller pieces, about the size of an egg, then carry it over to the leveled fill.

What were the next steps in construction?

A POW crew would lay ties down on the stone. These ties would have to be carried one by one, and they were not light. Many times we saw that the ties were made of beautiful teak or mahogany. The steel rails were next. The first ones were carried in a railroad flatcar. Later on, as we continued building, there was what looked like a truck, but had railroad wheels instead of tires, and it would push the rail flatcar along the newly completed sections of railroad.

The terrain and climate must have been horrible, especially for abused, ill-fed men not used to the tropics.

The construction process sounds simple, maybe easy, but there were many hills and valleys, and many of the hills contained solid stone that had to be dynamited and dug. This meant long, dreary, hard work days. To make holes for a Japanese engineer to put dynamite in, one POW would hold a long chisel and another would pound it with a 10-pound sledgehammer. During this process, little flakes of stone would fly around and, if it hit you, the wound would be the beginning of a tropical ulcer. Such ulcers were the cause of many lives lost.

The famous1957 film, The Bridge on the River Kwai makes railroad construction a paradise by comparison. What do you think of the David Lean movie?

It was shameful to all POWs, and glamorized by Hollywood to make money. I’ve talked with Aussie and Brit POWs, and they of course agree wholeheartedly. The Japanese government has had an ironclad position on their treatment of POWs, downplaying the barbarity, and I don’t think they will ever change. PBS has aired, and continues to air, a documentary on the Death Railroad that features an elderly Japanese who was an army engineer who worked on the building of the road. In the film he denies any harsh treatment of POWs.  [Brooks was also featured in the documentary.]

How long did you work on the railroad?

Two and a half years. The food was absolutely terrible. That’s one of the reasons why so many of us died. The only time you’d see the food was at the midday meal. The other times It was too dark. We would eat in the morning, before it was daylight, midday, and then after sunset. At midday we’d get rice and “stew,” but the stew was mostly water and a few vegetables. Sometimes there were maggots in the stew, but if you couldn’t see them, you ate them.

You had little or no medicine, and “hospitals” were really dumping places where the Japanese placed men too sick to work. It was a place to die.

The worst thing about the experience was to see shipmates die of starvation. When one of us got sick, or was so malnourished they couldn’t walk, we knew it was the end. And if you got a tropical ulcer, it would eat you away.

How were you liberated?

Near the end of 1944, I was taken with a group of about one hundred men and sent to Saigon, then part of French Indo-China. On August 15, 1945, a Japanese officer came and gave a speech that the war was over and that we’d go home. But we found out from some French residents about the A-bomb and what really ended the war. Then we saw three big four-engine American planes flying over Saigon. We later learned they were C-47s.

It was then you realized liberation was at hand.

A jeep came into camp, and in it were two American Army officers. “Are you ready to go home in the morning?” they said. They gave us candy and cigarettes, and then had us parade by the jeep and give them our name, service rank or rate, and our home address and telephone number. I don’t think many of the guys got to sleep at all that night.

The next morning you were driven to an airfield, where C-47s were waiting.

These pilots looked not a day older than 19 or 20, but what a sight for our poor eyes! Needless to say, many of us were shedding a few tears. It just seemed too good to be true. We stopped in Bangkok and Rangoon for fuel. Late in the PM we landed in India, where we were trucked to the Forty-Second Army Hospital, Calcutta. We were all given new clothes, and in the dinning room we all wanted to take pictures of the food. Some guys did.

What happened next?

That night we slept on snow-white sheets, and the next day we were given a quickie medical exam. After about two weeks we were off for home in a C-54. We stayed overnight at Cairo, Egypt, and at Casablanca, and also stayed at a base in Newfoundland before arriving in the United States. We did get to call our homes soon after arrival from Calcutta.

It must have been quite a homecoming.

I shall never forget meeting my parents, brothers, and sisters, and also our neighbors.

Besides the obvious trauma, how did your experiences as a POW affect your life?

You have a great appreciation for the simpler things in life. You don’t have to be rich to be happy and satisfied.

   Mr. Brooks (left) with his fellow Japanese POW Mr. John W. Ranger in 1993

*Mr. Eric Niderost is an instructor of history at Chabot College in Hayward, California.
A freelance author, he has published nearly 300 articles on American and European history. 

                                                                                                posted on Oct. 14, 2007