“The galloping Ghost of the Java Coast


Robert Lee Dethloff


He was born on May 22, 1922 in Moss Point, Mississippi.  He was the son of Captain Frank Albert Dethloff and Lou Agnes Fry Dethloff.  He joined the Navy in June 4, 1940 and was assigned to the USS Houston.  He joined the Navy to see the world.  After finishing boot camp in Norfolk, VA he was assigned to the USS Houston.  Robert’s brother, Frank, requested that he be assigned to the Houston so that he could look out for him.  Robert was nickname Swampy II.  He was assigned to the engine room.  On the morning of the day the ship went down that night in the Sundra Strait, the crew on the Houston cut holes in the deck from the engine room to the top deck.  They tied a rope ladder and dropped it through the hole because the engine room crew knew that would be the only way to escape if the ship was sunk.  Little did they know quickly those fears would become reality.  A young Robert, as many others, escaped the engine room and survived because of that rope ladder installed that very day.  Once on deck, Robert jumped from the ship.  He and a Marine on board swam together toward shore.  They found a life vest floating in the water so they took turns wearing it as they swam.  They swam about five miles and when they decided they could not swim any further, when they realized they could stand up.  They made it to shore during the darkness of night but the Japanese picked them up the next morning.  They were now Prisoners of War (POWs) and would remain prisoners for 42 months and six days.   The story of the Houston and the survivors of the Houston have documented the criminal acts the Japanese guards committed in mistreating the prisoners.  Robert had malaria 25 times while a POW.  Fortunately, Corpsman, Douglas Griffin, took care of him and saved him from dying.   Some of the camps Robert was held while prisoner include the Bicycle Camp (Java), Chaughi (Singapore), Camp 5 Kilo  (Burma), Camp 18 Kilo, Camp 80 Kilo, Camp 100 Kilo, Camp 105 Kilo, Kanchanaburi (Thailand), and Saigon. After the POWs were liberated, Robert was sent to Calcutta, India for medical treatment and to recuperate.   He was sent next to Washington DC where a Wave helped him call his mother.  He took a bus from Washington DC to Moss Point, Mississippi.  No one knew when he was to arrive home so when he got off the bus he began to walk home when he was spotted by his sister Dorothy.  She ran to greet him.  She then drove him home.  Upon arriving it did not take long for word to spread through the town that he was back.  His mother’s house and yard were filled with family and friends. 

He was discharged on September 6, 1945. 


Submitted by Julie Roy (Her Grandfather)