Veteran of the River Kwai: San Marcos man among survivors in book about lost USS Houston
The old warrior needs a little help these days, slowed by a stroke
two years ago that has left him with staccato speech and dependent on a
But San Marcos resident Lloyd Willey's eyes are still clear and his memory still sharp as he picks up a photo from three years ago that shows him with two other gentlemen.
"Three ... out ... of ... 75," Willey says, holding up three fingers.
Out of 75 Marines aboard the USS Houston, sunk in a battle with a
Japanese fleet on Feb. 28, 1942, only three survive today. Of the 1,064
total crew members aboard the Houston, two-thirds perished.
Those who survived the sinking of the ship would face one of the darkest ordeals of any American prisoners of war in World War II: the construction of a 260-mile railroad between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma.
In popular culture, their story is mostly known from the movie "The Bridge Over the River Kwai," the 1957 film generally regarded as inaccurate by veterans and historians. They have another name for the project: the Burma-Thailand Death Railway.
"The British in the 1800s had surveyed that route and decided it was too dangerous and would take five years," said writer James Hornfischer about the railway.
"The POWs completed it in about a year, with the death of about 16,000 of their number, mainly British, Dutch and Australian. The number of Americans was about 400."
Including native slaves who worked on the railway, the total death toll might have been nearly 200,000 in one year, he said.
Willey, 92, was one of 20 veterans of the USS Houston interviewed by Hornfischer for his book, "Ship of Ghosts" ($26, Bantam). The interview was done before his stroke.
While many people have heard of the railway and the bridge over Kwai, the story of the USS Houston is largely unknown. Hornfischer, a literary agent in Austin, Texas, and author of "The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors," said despite having a vast knowledge of the Pacific theater in World War II, he did not know about the ship himself until a historian friend mentioned it over lunch.
The cruiser, launched in 1929 and a favorite of President Roosevelt, was lost in an epic sea battle, its fate unknown until the war's end. The book's title is taken from a headline that asked, "Where is the crew of the ghost cruiser Houston?"
"That night, the Houston and the Australian cruiser the Perth were trying to get the heck out of Dodge," Hornfischer said.
The ships were part of the Allied fleet that had fought in the Battle of Java Sea the previous night. The Allies had been looking for a Japanese fleet for weeks when the two lone ships had the misfortune of stumbling upon them.
"They went up against an entire amphibious operation in full swing," Hornfischer said. The two ships faced 56 Japanese transport ships escorted by three cruisers and three squadrons of destroyers.
"They met a hero's end that night, going down with guns blazing," he said.
Nobody knew the ships had been sunk, and reports from "Tokyo Rose" about the Houston's sinking were ignored because the Japanese had falsely bragged several times in the past that they had sunk the president's favorite ship.
"They were ghosts for 3 1/2 years," Hornfischer said of the survivors. "Nobody knew whether they were dead or alive."
Survivors were put to work on the railway. Unlike the movie, which showed British laborers taking pride in building the bridge, the actual workers did everything they could to sabotage the railway and were treated much worse by their captors than in the film.
Willey is quoted several times in the book, which shows his memory is so sharp that he recalled the tone of the bugler as he blew the call to abandon ship.
"It would have been absolutely beautiful, if it had been anywhere else but at that time," Willey said in the book.
In the book, Willey also describes how the ship's chaplain repeatedly tried to give his life vest to a younger man. Finally, he convinced him to take it. The chaplain, 59, disappeared into the sea.
Many of the survivors were put to work building the railway through the jungle by hand, using picks and shovels. Working 12 to 16 hours a day, the men were often beaten and starved, and fell prey to jungle diseases.
They also were tormented by the Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police. Willey told Hornfischer about seeing the "Kempeis" take some Indian prisoners into the jungle, bury them up to their necks and douse their heads with sugary syrup to attract carnivorous insects. He also described watching Japanese guards beat an Australian prisoner to death and drag his body by rope through their camp because he had struck a guard.
Hornfischer said Willey was more open than many veterans in telling of the atrocities he witnessed, but it wasn't the stories of torture he remembered from him as much as the poetry Willey wrote as a captive.
"Lloyd really stands apart from the rest of those tough, oversized Marines," Hornfischer said. "Lloyd was the literary voice of the Houston's Marine detachment. I think writing poetry was the way he processed the experience and maybe coped with it, and maybe even transcended it. The fact that he was able to compose poetry under these conditions, I think says a lot about the human spirit."
Among Willey's albums bulging with letters, newspaper clips and commendations is a tattered booklet filled with his handwritten poems. For three years as a POW, Willey hid the book from his captors by burying it, stashing it in the ceiling and even sewing it into the bottom of his barracks bag.
"All through the years ahead of us, we'll give a thought or two
"To the fighting ship we battled on, and to her fighting crew.
"Maybe at conventions, or talking with old friends,
"We'll trace her record from the start, to where her story ends.
"She had a suicidal mission, without adequate air-support,
"And nine deadly eight-inch guns, her main and last resort."
-- Opening stanza to 28-stanza poem "Battle Cruise of the Flagship Houston," written by Willey while a prisoner of war.
"I may be partial, but I think they're excellent," his wife, Dorothy, said about Willey's poems.
Hornfischer said there are 30 Houston survivors left, including the two other Marines, Bob Charles and Ned Gallagher.
Although they have never had large numbers, survivors formed a loyal reunion organization that meets annually in Houston.
"These guys never got over this," Dorothy said. "The reunions they have is the best thing for them."
Another moment of appreciation came recently when Willey lent a hand to 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Scott LaMothe, grandson of one of Willey's neighbors. Willey helped LaMothe tie the perfect military knot in his tie. As thanks for that favor and for the veteran's war service, LaMothe gave Willey his unit's medallion and an American flag flown over Camp Fallujah in Iraq.
The elder Marine also still gets letters, sometimes three a week, from an English friend and fellow POW he sponsored when applying for U.S. citizenship, Dorothy said.
As for the railway Willey and other POWs worked on, it proved to be not particularly helpful for Japan after all, since Burma was lost to the English.
The bridge still stands, however.
"It's now a tourist attraction," Hornfischer said about the railway. "You can ride it for five bucks."
Contact staff writer Gary Warth at (760) 740-5410 or email@example.com.