USS HOUSTON CA 30
“The galloping Ghost of the
"I remember every face. They all come back to me. I can see everything. It's all in my mind."
Stanley Woody didn't talk much about his time as a prisoner of war.
Maybe he didn't want to bring anyone down, or maybe he didn't want to seem like he thought he deserved something for what he endured. Those explanations make sense to friends and relatives, who say he was endlessly humble and upbeat.
Or maybe the answer is simpler: Maybe he just didn't want to think about it. After all, his treatment by the Japanese during World War II has been described as among the cruelest in modern history.
Woody, who died last week at age 88, was one of the last
remaining survivors of the sinking of the Navy cruiser Houston. After the ship
went down in the
At his funeral in
"I always liked to say that he was living history," said his oldest child, Betty Rover. "But he was also just a really great guy and a really great father. He was so loving, and he had so much character."
Born in 1922, Woody learned early about hardship and
loss. After his parents died, he was sent as a small boy to an orphanage in
Boot camp brought him to
Woody jumped overboard as the
"It was chaos - just chaos," he told The Virginian-Pilot in an interview in 2008. "The Japanese were machine-gunning the lifeboats. I was glad I wasn't in one."
He treaded water through the night, repeatedly ducking under the surface for as long as he could hold his breath, hoping to avoid Japanese gunfire. At first light, he spotted the mountains of Java in the distance. By sunset, he was dragging himself ashore, where scores of Japanese soldiers stood waiting.
The grueling physical labor began almost immediately. First, Woody was put to work unloading supply barges. Then he was forced to push cartloads of weapons for miles.
After that, he spent more than a month locked with 40
others in a small room without toilets or space to move. Next, he was herded
onto a ship, where thousands of POWs were packed into a dark, filthy hold for
the weeks-long journey to
Once there, he and other prisoners were put to work
building a 250-mile rail line over rivers, through jungles and into
For those who managed to stay alive, there were beatings, starvation and nights spent on the hard ground under blankets of mosquitoes.
Woody's weight dropped to 90 pounds. He said in 2008 that his youthful spirit is what kept him alive. "Every day, I've thought of something from that three and a half years. I remember every face. They all come back to me."
He was freed in
August 1945, the morning after the
"He survived what so many others didn't," said a friend and veterans advocate, Donna House.
A slight man with a bright smile, Woody remained in the Navy after his rescue and married in 1948. He and his wife, Mary Lou, raised five children, three of whom still live in Hampton Roads.
In all, he served 22 years in the military. After
retiring as a master chief petty officer, he spent three decades as a civilian
employee with the
For years, he participated in World War II POW and
veterans groups, including one that meets monthly for breakfast at Bunny's
With Woody's death, the group is down to just two members.
One of them, 92-year-old
"You'd seldom meet him when he didn't have one for you," Turner said. "As much as anybody I've ever known, he just loved talking to people."
Woody's children said it was that love of socializing that prompted him to take a part-time job in 1969 as a bartender at the Norfolk Yacht & Country Club. He stayed until he was 84.
"He probably would have kept going if his knees hadn't given out," Rover said. "Everybody there knew him, and he was everybody's favorite."
After his wife died in 2001, Woody continued to reside in the same house they bought together in Wards Corner in 1956. He welcomed the births of three grandsons and a great-granddaughter and lived independently until this January, when he was hospitalized with kidney and heart problems.
He died in his sleep June 1 at the Hampton VA Medical Center, his children said.
Sailors from the
amphibious assault ship Bataan carried his flag-draped coffin to the Albert G.
Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery in
Corinne Reilly, (757) 446-2949, firstname.lastname@example.org