War was near in November 1941. The men of the Second Battalion of the 131st Field Artillery of the Texas National Guard prepared for the worst as they sailed to Hawaii. These men had come together from North-Central Texas to serve their country, and hailed from Abilene, Decatur, Lubbock and the Wichita Falls area. Their capture three months later and the fate of what became the “Lost Battalion” became one of the most harrowing stories of Texas troops during World War II.
Their initial voyage in late 1941 proceeded with little incident. They docked briefly at Pearl Harbor in late November and were sent on to Australia to bolster Allied forces in anticipation of Japanese action. The troops heard the news of the attack on Hawaii while on the high seas. Army officials briefly considered recalling them to Hawaii, but the decision was made to send them onward. After spending Christmas 1941 in Australia, the men were then ordered to assist Australian, British and Dutch troops in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia) against Japan.
Though only a small contingent of troops, the Second Battalion prepared to defend the large island of Java. Japan invaded on February 27, 1942. Pressure from Japanese forces mounted, and the Allies fell back into smaller and steadily less defensible corners. The USS Houston was sunk, with the loss of 700 American sailors. More than 300 survivors reached Allied lines. Cohesion soon broke down, and it was every force for itself. The Americans were cut off in the mix, unable to rally and unable to communicate with other units. On March 8, Java fell to Japan and the Texans were captured, along with more than 32,000 other Allied troops.
The news stunned America, but the War Department had no idea what had happened to the troops of the Second Battalion or the Houston survivors. Communications simply ceased. Families and neighbors grieved, worried and prayed, not knowing what fates awaited their loved ones half a world away. The 534 captured of the Second Battalion, along with the Houston, became known as the Lost Battalion and suffered in Japanese prison camps throughout the war.
The Geneva Convention of 1929 specified that prisoners were to be given proper shelter and medical care and not to be tortured. Nations were also supposed to inform each other of captives. Japan refused to ratify the treaty, and during the war resorted to a medieval mentality that surrender was disgraceful and prisoners deserved the worst. And the worst they delivered, many later answering for their war crimes.
One group separated during the battle for Java, Battery E, was eventually sent to Japan to work as slave labor in the shipyards and coal mines until they were freed in 1945. Eight of these 99 men died in captivity.
Most of the remainder of the Lost Battalion were held for seven months in Java before put to work in their own slave labor camps building the Burma Railway for Japan. For nearly a year, more than 66,000 Allied prisoners along with more than 230,000 Southeast Asian civilians were forced to build a 258-mile rail line from Burma to Thailand across treacherous mountain passes and unrelenting jungles. The overworked men had little food or water, no medical care and were beaten or murdered by guards. Seventy thousand men died building the railroad.
After completion of the “Death Railway” in 1943, the men were sent back to prison camps in the Dutch East Indies. Over the next two years, they were sent to various places across Southeast Asia to serve Japanese whims. They suffered from poor health, poor nutrition and beatings. In all, 163 men from the Lost Battalion died in Japanese camps.
In September 1944, American submarines on routine war patrols came across Japanese merchant ships carrying hundreds of Allied prisoners. Once safely back in Allied hands, the POWs began telling how they had worked with survivors of the Second Battalion in Burma. News that some of the men were still alive was relayed to waiting families. They now had renewed hope, but these hopes were tempered by the knowledge of what the prison camps were like.
It would be nearly another year of hard fighting before the Lost Battalion could be rescued. In August 1945, Japan surrendered. By this time, most of the imprisoned Second Battalion were in camps in Java and Thailand. Two American C-54 transports were brought in to bring them to a hospital in Calcutta, India, before returning home.
After some time back in Texas, families organized a welcome home celebration in October 1945. The men formed the Lost Battalion Association and met regularly in the ensuing years. In a brutal chapter from a war full of brutality, the men may have been lost for a time but were never forgotten.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org