USS HOUSTON CA 30
“The galloping Ghost of the
AMERICAN POW’s IN SAIGON
1944 – 1945
Much has been written about the Burma/Thailand "Death Railway", but nothing about the experiences of those Americans who went to Saigon French Indo-China when their torments on the railroad were over.
This booklet reflects my experiences, and others that I
witnessed. I am sure that others who were there would have different
experiences to relate, but these are some of my memories of those days. I would
not like to give the impression that life as a P.O.W. in
I dedicate this booklet to the memory of Jack L. Smith, a Second Class Petty Officer, who assumed the undesirable roll of leadership of the American contingent, when others of superior rank did not. I shall forever remember the exemplary manner in which he carried out these duties, which would normally be the responsibilities of a Commissioned Officer had there been one present.
About the third week in March of 1944 a party of 198 Americans,
105 Army, 85 Navy and 8 Marines, under the command of Ira Fowler, Capt. 131st
F. A, left
We arrived in
After a couple of months in Saigon 150 Australians left to
continue their journey to
We continued to go out on daily work parties from the camp
and we started to become more and more confident about the fact that it seemed
that we were not going to continue on to
On January 1st, 1945 we were alerted by the air raid alarms, and allowed to go out the back of the camp into a marshy rice patty type area where we ended up lying in the low water for some 14 hours while U.S. carrier planes made constant runs, bombing and strafing Saigon, and particularly the docks and oil refineries near where we were.
Except for working on the docks, we were transported to the
worksites in open-bodied trucks, and we would drive through the city in these
trucks on our way to work. This, at times, became a little embarrassing in
that, here we were riding through this modern city
Work on the docks could be extremely strenuous especially when unloading barges loaded with 200 kilo sacks of rice. Two men would lift the sack of rice up onto your shoulder and you walk to the front of the barge, up a plank on to the docks, across the dock then into a warehouse where you would climb a pyramid type mountain of rice sacks, and when you got to the top you dumped your sack and then proceeded back down to the barge for another load. Because I had suffered a fractured back as a child, this work became extremely arduous for me and at times very painful. This was one working party that I did not like
By this time many of the POW'S had become experts at pilfering or looting which could be rather dangerous at times, as well as at times even comical. One of our Marines, James "Pack Rat" McCone, was particularly adept at lifting anything he found laying around, and some things that were not laying around so exposed. One day on a working party at a small Japanese installation, a Japanese officer laid his tunic down at the end of the building that we were working around. The edge of a wallet could be seen sticking out of the inside pocket of the tunic. This was very quickly noticed by our Marine, and before anybody knew it the wallet was in his possession. When the Japanese officer discovered his wallet missing, all hell broke loose. We were lined up and searched in every conceivable manner known to the Japanese. We were separated individually, in ranks of four; they just searched us every way possible but never found the wallet. We, on the other hand, were watching McCone and we noticed that he was digging at piece of ground with his toes. We were all barefooted at that time. He made an indentation in the ground and dropped the wallet in it and stood on it. The situation became tense during this period and we all thought that the wallet was going to be found and probably the entire work party would have a real going over by the Japanese. However, our Marine friend got away with it this time and the wallet was not found.
Another incident occurred one day while working on the docks
totally comical in nature. We were unloading a barge that contained, among
other things, cartons of condensed milk in tins. Now this was a prize for any
POW to have some condensed milk to mix with his rice and make it more
palatable. Before we started unloading the barge a Japanese came into the barge
and had us stop working and face him as he stood near the entrance to the
barge. He then started going into a lecture in Pigeon English and some Japanese
we understood with gestures, to show us just how we looked to the Japanese when
we were pilfering loot. He indicated that we thought the Japanese were dumb,
but they knew just exactly what we were doing and he was going to show us how
we were doing it. He went to the beginning of the barge and looked around
furtively to make sure that nobody was watching him, imitating a POW who was
making sure that the coast was clear. He then went to one of the cartons, took
out a can of condensed milk, set it down and placed his cap on top of the can
of milk and then went back to the beginning of the barge. Then again looking
around, or making believe that he was looking around to see if anybody was
watching. He then came back and put his hand on his cap to grab the can of
milk. Lo and behold, the cap was empty. As I said, the POW'S had become very
adept at this kind of thing for the can of milk had disappeared. Well there is
no need to explain how furious this Japanese became. We were all brought up on
the docks and for hours we were searched in every way possible. It was really
an amazing thing that someone had grabbed that can of milk right out from under
the Japanese nose. Eventually he gave up searching and we went back to work. At
the end of the day as we were marching through the main gate of the docks, this
Japanese was standing at the side watching us. As we passed him, a tin of
condensed milk rolled on the ground to his feet. This was a real great
Another incident that in retrospect could be considered comical concerned myself.
I had no shoes the entire time I was a POW, and one day while working on the docks I came upon cartons of high army type shoes and I took a pair. Realizing that I couldn't wear ac new pair of shoes, I hid them behind the warehouse and each time I went to the docks I would sneak off behind the warehouse and rub dirt and stones into the leather of the shoes. This continued until the time I thought l could finally wear my treasured shoes, but the war ended and I never got to wear them.
Late in the summer of 1945 a small group of we Americans were told to pack our gear
and we were placed aboard a train headed north up the French Indochina coast. At that particular time the Allies had complete supremacy of the air. They could come and go as the pleased without any opposition from Japanese aircraft. The trip by train up the coast turned out to be a cat and mouse game between our train and the American B 24's trying to bomb it. At times we would be racing from one tunnel in the mountains to another, there remaining until there were no planes in the sky. We would then race out of the tunnel to the next one, or proceed on up the coast.
One evening we arrived late in a town, which we were told, was Tuy Hoa. We were offloaded from the train and to a cog railway up a mountainside. The higher we got, the colder it got. At one point we even came across some snow on the ground. Having little or no clothing, we suffered from the cold. We only got relief when we finally came to a camp where we were bedded down, and could get some warmth from our collected bodies.
We discovered that we were in a place named Dalat, which was a resort area for the French. Each morning we were taken out on work parties to a nearby mountainside, where we would dig tunnels into the center of the mountain and there dig a huge room. At that time we had no idea why the Japanese would be building such an installation. It was only after the war that we found out that it was common practice for the Japanese to build these tunnels as fortifications in any area where there might be an invasion.
After we finished digging the tunnels, we once again were taken down to the town Tuy Hoa,
and billeted in an old schoolhouse not far from the railroad tracks. Nearby there was a small railroad bridge, or trestle, and the Americans, not having anything to bomb or strafe, would come over during the day and bomb the bridge. We would go out at night and repair the damage. The following morning the planes would come over and bomb again. All along the railroad at each town there was a little station. At the center of the station leading off the platform there was a doorway. Above the doorway was a clock. On each side of the doorway there was a toilet. Having nothing else to shoot at, the bomber crews would machine-gun the clocks and the toilet doors, so all along the railroad they were shot out and destroyed. At one point I remember that we were sitting on an embankment by the tracks and a B 24 came down along the tracks almost at ground level. We could actually see the crew inside the aircraft stripped down to the waist as they went by us.
It was at this time that I suffered an injury, which eventually would become the cause of me becoming blind in my right eye. One day while driving spikes on the railroad tracks, apiece of steel splintered off and embedded itself in my right eye. We had no doctors or medication of any kind at that time. I was brought into the camp, placed on the ground and they were deciding how to remove this piece of steel that was sticking out of my eye. Someone approached the Japanese and got a bottle of saki from them. They started to feed it to me to the point to where I really became numb. Someone had and old pocket knife which they used to wiggle the piece of steel back and forth until they finally took it out.
Shortly after the beginning of August, one evening a native raced by on his bicycle past the camp, and he sang out in a loud voice chanting, "the war is over, the war is over". That night the Japanese all became drunk and started to burn all the records in their office, so we surmised that the message from that native must have been true, and that the war must be over.
The next day we were boarded on a train south, back toward Saigon. When we arrived there, we were taken to the camp we had left on the docks, and later to a different installation that we were told was a former French Foreign Legion camp. We were again reunited with our main group. At this time we were told that the war was, indeed, over.
The Allies had dropped pamphlets informing the POW'S that the situation in Saigon was volatile between the natives and the Vichy French. We were instructed to remain under the protection of the Japanese until we could be repatriated.
THE GREAT ‘ESCAPE’?
The original plan by the Japanese for prisoners of war to leave Thailand and go to Saigon was that at Saigon they would be boarded onto ships and taken to Japan to be used as labor in Japanese war industries. POW'S were leaving Thailand by the third week in March of 1944, including 198 Americans. By early April they had arrived in Saigon only to find that the American submarines had the area completely blockaded, and no ships were able to get out. After just a couple of months in Saigon, word came from the Japanese Commandant that about 150 Australians would be moved out and sent to Japan. The route they would take would be to retrace their original route up the Mekong River to Phom Phen, Cambodia, and from there by rail down through Thailand, and Malaya to Singapore, there board ships to go to Japan.
Back on the railroad in 1943 I had come down with a number of illnesses, namely malaria, beri-beri, and dysentery. When our American group was to move further up into the jungle, the Dutch doctor, Han Hekking, told me that if I moved up to the new location, I would have no chance of survival. He decided to send me back to the 55-kilo hospital camp, which was known as the death camp. Only the very sickest of the POW'S were sent back to that camp, where the Japanese policy was, if you are too sick to work, you are not entitled to rations
The conditions in that camp were extremely poor and many, many men died. There were no other Americans with me. I was with a group of Australians who had survived sufficiently to be able to go out into the jungle to trade with the natives and bring in much needed food items such as rice and fruits and things. This group of Australians were very kind to me and shared some of the rations that they got from the natives, so I was eventually able to recover some of my health and was able to survive the ordeal.
When the word came that the Australians were being moved out of Saigon and sent to Japan, many of them were friends of mine from Burma, and I decided that I wanted to make the journey with them. I found an Australian who did not want to go on the Japan trip, so he and I decided that we would change identities, change places, and I would go to Japan with the group and he would stay in Saigon. For several nights we got together behind the huts in the dark and exchanged information about each other’s lives. For all intents and purposes I became that Australian and he became me. The night before the draft left to head up to Phnom Penhn, we changed places and the following morning I left with the Australians. On the way up the river to Phnom Pehn, much to my surprise, I found out that there was another man on the boat that had also changed places with someone else. It was a young Australian who had changed places with another Australian. His purpose for changing places was quite a bit different than mine. He had served in Malaya for a considerable time before the war started, and he felt that he knew Malaya very well. He heard that there was a great deal of guerilla activity in northern Malaya, so he thought if he got on that draft and was on the train going down through Malaya, that he could escape from the train and hook up with some of the guerillas and spend the war fighting with them. I, on the other hand, had no intention of escaping. My only reason for swooping places with the Aussie was that I wanted to go with my Australian friends who had been so good to me.
When we arrived in Phnom Pehn the party was halted, and we knew something was wrong. Very shortly after that the Australian Capt. in charge of our party called the young Australian and myself aside and told us that the authorities in Saigon had radioed and telephoned the Japanese that were with us, that they had two men with them that did not belong there. The young Aussie and me were taken to the Japanese office, which was in a rather flimsily wooden building, and we began what was to become several days of interrogation. Both of us were beaten quite severely and we kept maintaining that we were who we purported to be. We knew all the answers and the Japanese were puzzled. They sent us back to the huts with the rest of the Australians. The following day we were again called to the Japanese headquarters, were beaten again, but still knew all the answers and convinced the Japanese that there was a mistake somewhere. On the third day the Australian chaplain who was with our party, called us aside and told us that the people back in Saigon had admitted that we had changed places with them, and there was no need to continue holding out being repeatedly beaten and interrogated. He did tell us that we ought to think of some very, very good reasons why we did what we did.
We were called into Japanese headquarters and interrogated again. I don't know what possessed me, but I finally admitted to the Japanese officer that I was an American and had changed places with an Australian. I told him that I had been very, very sick working on the Burma railroad and had faced death several times during the ordeal. I told him that some of the Japanese guards told me what a wonderful place Japan was. He looked up at me and smiled as I continued laying it on. I told him that the Japanese told me that Japan was very much like it was in my native New Jersey, that it had four seasons, and I felt that if I could get to this wonderful place I would soon recover my health and be able to go home some day. The more I talked, the more he smiled and his chest swelled out and he was quite flattered that I was telling him how wonderful Japan was. The young Australian played the same game, telling the Japanese that he heard about the wonderful climate in Japan, and how there were cherry blossoms all over and how he would love to go to Japan and see the cherry blossoms. We were then released back to the Australians and not beaten any further.
The following day we were called out and put into the back
of a truck, guarded by a Japanese with rifle and bayonet and started the
journey 300 miles back to
The camp commandant was extremely disturbed because we had caused him to loose face. He had us kneeling on the ground in front of his office and he came out and started to scream and holler and then he pulled his sword out of its scabbard. We understood that normally once they drew their sword they would use it, however he came around the back of us screaming and hollering. He layed his sword against the back of our necks as if he was about to behead us. Instead, he raised his sword with a loud scream, and smacked us on the back with the broadside of the blade.
We were then brought over to the side of the American hut and made to stand at attention; given no food or water and all of the POW'S coming and going on working parties were paraded in front of us. Late during the night a Japanese guard came over and asked us if we wanted to use the bathroom. He kept saying, "benjo", the Japanese word for toilet. We kept telling him no. He kept insisting that we go to the bathroom. Eventually we decided that he must have a very good reason for doing this, so we went with him over to the latrines. He sat us down and gave each one of us a cigarette and lit the cigarette for us. He then told us the only reason we are still alive today was because of that story we made up about wanting to go to Japan. They then released to our respective groups, with a warning that if we were ever seen anywhere near the wall of the prison camp we would be shot.
The ironic part of this story is that the draft of Australians we were with, went on to Singapore and boarded a Japanese ship by the name of Oroyku Maru and started for Japan. These ships that they transported prisoners in the south Pacific to Japan were eventually known to historians as Hell Ships. Hell Ships they were, for they jammed hundreds and hundreds of POW'S down into the dirty holds of these little steamships and headed out to Japan. They gave them no food or water or very little food or water, and no toilet facilities, and in that tropical heat the trips soon turned out to be disastrous. In addition to that, American submarine activity at that time was at its peak. Many of those unmarked hellships were sunk by American submarine patrols. The Oroyku Maru made it as far as Formosa, and an American pack of submarines spotted the convoy and the Oroyku Maru was sunk. Almost everybody on the ship was killed, and just a handful of men managed to survive five days and nights floating in the water on pieces of debris, until they were spotted by American submarines, picked up and taken back to submarine bases and eventually sent back to Australia. Only after the war, and hearing the story did I realize what a foolish thing I had done. I had given up my identity and gone off with a group of men on their way to Japan, and the odds were, had I made the trip with them, I probably would not have lived, because there were just a handful of survivors from that ordeal.
OVER THE WALL
It was now August of 1945, we were back in Saigon with the main group and we had been told the war was over. Because the war was over, the working parties ceased, and we had nothing to do but remain in the camp under the guardianship of the Japanese and wait for the day that we could be repatriated. To some of us this became rather boring. One day, while walking along the back wall with a fellow named Joe Chapman from the 131st Field Artillery talking about the fact that here we were prisoners of war even though the war was over. That didn't make any sense. So we decided that we would scale the wall, make our way into town, and try to make contact with some of the Vichy French still free who had never been interned or anything. We made our way into town and met up with a couple of young Vichy French about the same ages as we were. They took us in and completely fitted us out in clothing. We ended up with white shorts, white shirts, white shoes and white socks, and therefore looked like any other Frenchman. We spent a few days of relaxation with these young Frenchmen riding bicycles around the streets of Saigon, until one day when we were out we came across a milling crowd of Vietnamese natives. All of a sudden a cry went up and they started to attack any Frenchman that they saw. That included us. We were chased into a building, up to the second floor where we hid under some desks. The natives charged into the room with pointed weapons and captured us. This was the beginning of the Revolution against the French with the Vietnamese attempting to overthrow the French and take charge of what was then French Indochina, which of course is now Vietnam.
We were dragged through the streets. They took us to a jail where there were hundreds and hundreds of French men, women and children jammed into cells. They crammed us into an area between two cellblocks that had a dead end. Joe and I were the first two in, then they pushed crowds of French civilians behind us. A woman was right next to us with a very small infant, who had trouble breathing. We were attempting to keep the child alive by mouth to mouth resuscitation. There was also a French Priest next to us who overheard us speaking, and he said to us, "You are not French. Who are you?". We responded by telling him that we were Americans from the Japanese prisoner of war camp. He said that obviously we could do them no good being locked up with them. Why didn't we try to have them free us and send us back to the prison camp and maybe get our fellow Americans to come out and help the French escape from the natives. We were pushed up to the front of the crowd. I called over to the guard but he spoke no English and I spoke no Vietnamese or French, so through a series of hand motions, gestures and pigeon English, I convinced him that he should take us into the office to speak to his superiors. Once inside the office we found someone who could understand us and convinced him that we were prisoners of war and they took us back to the prison camp.
IT'S ALL OVER
Word was now known in the camp about the tragic conditions with the French people in town. The leader of the Americans at that time was a watertender 2c by the name of Jack Smith. He approached the Japanese and asked them to give us arms and open up the gates to allow us to go into town and help these French people, many of whom were being slaughtered by the natives. The Japanese became all excited and said, "no no, I cannot do that because as you know I have become responsible for your safety. Tomorrow morning I will open up the gate and let you go into town, but I will not give you any arms". There was quite a large American flag and the next morning groups of men held the flag stretched out in the middle of them and started marching into town. Each time they saw a French family under siege by the natives, they walked through the natives who would not touch us with the American flag. They took the French people into their midst and took them back to the camp. This went on for several days until the point where we must have had several thousand French inside the camp in safe hands. We also escorted into the camp an entire Phillipino orchestra from the large hotel in town. They provided some entertainment after all these French people had been herded into the camp. At one point one of the young Frenchmen who had hosted Joe and I when we went into town, came into the camp. He presented me with some photographs of he and the other young man we were with, and also gave me a beautiful silver cigarette case; the only thing I really did bring home from the prison camps.
Around the beginning of September, I believe about the fifth, an American Capt., I do not know if he was Air Force or Army, came to the main gate and entered the camp and wanted an accounting of the Americans. There were 198 Americans in the camp. The next day we left the camp and we were finally liberated on September 6, 1945, my 22nd birthday. We were taken to the airport where there were 6 C47's, which we boarded, and I had my first airplane ride.
We left Saigon and flew to Karachi, India where we boarded C
54's. From there we were flown to Calcutta to an American Army Hospital. We
remained at the hospital, which was the 142nd General hospital, for a short
period of time. There we were issued uniforms of Army khaki, and were given
$100 advance pay and allowed to go into Calcutta as free men. For the first
time in almost 4 years we were allowed to roam around as free men and do
anything we wanted and buy anything we wanted; what an experience it was for
us. After our short stay at the 142nd