Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bridge of Death

**This is Part II of the story above:

Growing up, I probably watched The Bridge Over the River Kwai four or five times. The theme music is very recognizable to most of us. In truth, Hollywood depicted something far different, far "prettier" than the actual event. Mr. Holden had to have a hero's role, of course. Little did I know I had a personal connection to the men memorialized in the film; a battalion of American soldiers who would be dubbed "The Lost Battalion" after the war. (Another good site of information is found here.)

As horrible as the Nazi death camps were, the Japanese were equally as barbaric and cruel and their war crimes have been referred to as the Asian Holocaust. Different numbers are bandied about, but it is generally agreed over 100,000 civilians and POWs died during in the construction of the Burma-Siam Railway.

In speaking with Mr. Hubert Griffith last spring (who sadly has now passed away), an American POW who served with Oather Hufstutler, I learned the POWs who worked this "Death Railway" were starved, treated worse than cattle, expected to perform heavy labor under the most extreme depraved conditions, and fed mouldy rice and gruel just enough to keep them alive. He also explained that often their guards were not Japanese, but were Koreans. Frequent beatings were the norm, just to keep moral low among the prisoners. Often, simply because they felt their manhood and status threatened (but probably more to do with hatred for Americans), the Japanese would force the American POWs to walk in a line to the work area on their knees so that the prisoners did not tower over their oppressors.

Better than three years passed before the 131st Artillery men were liberated. Most of the men had been moved to Saigon to work at a refinery. It was about this time the French and the natives were fighting. One day while walking back to the POW camp, a Frenchman rode by on his bicycle and whispered to the men that the war was over.

Eventually, about three weeks after the Frenchman's revelation, the men were shipped out first to Calcutta, India to heal and recuperate before the long flight back to the US.

My mother's second cousin, Oather Hufstutler, returned home to eventually marry. My mother remembers his homecoming well; the family gathered at Uncle Henry and Aunt Della's farm for a big dinner and celebration. Oather was a gaunt, sickened young man who looked more ancient than his own father. Mom was only a teenager, but Oather's appearance remained in her memory forever. She said she doesn't recall him saying much of anything the entire evening, just sat and smiled some, but mostly stared off in the distance.

Oather died in 1965 at the age of 47 - the family said his health was never good after the war, and that he had severe "stomach problems". No doubt.

I am proud to have discovered his history and our family connection. Perhaps another long lost relative will stumble upon this post and I can fill in some missing gaps.

This story been a journey of love for a distant relative I never personally knew.

May he rest in peace.


la peregrina said...

Pattie, You made me tear up.

Rest in well earned peace, Mr. Hufstutler. God bless you, Mr. Griffith, and all the men who endured that hell.

Anonymous said...

How sad for your Cousin Oather and all who were subjected to the cruel conditions of WWII, no matter at whose hands. Horrific!

Although "Bridge Over the River Kwai" didn't exist, when I was a kid, I did grow up listening to (on a 78 rpm record, before vinyl) and/or playing the Colonel Bogey March. It is a stirring piece.
Cop Car

Allen in Wichita Falls said...

My father had orders to go to the Philippines but was pulled off and another Col. was sent in his stead. He was captures and eventually put on a ship for Japan that was sunk by an American sub. The Jap ship was unmarked as a POW ship. Dad spent the war in Europe and was on the New Jersey next to the Big MO on V-J day. A change of orders, a change of many lives. The affect on the children of soldiers is just now being studied.

Cowtown Pattie said...

Cop Car, I was surprised to learn that the music - the march- for the movie was not an original composed just for the film.

Allen - that is an interesting story! How serendipitous things sometimes are...

joared said...

A moving tribute to your family member to commemorate Veteran's Day. The WWII veterans numbers are rapidly dwindling. Whenever I encounter any service person who served in that war I say, "Thank you! If it hadn't been for you and other service people like you our country would not exist as we know it."

What your relative went through was truly horrible. So many of those soldiers had their lives forever altered. Many suffered from PTSD but never received help since such a dignosis wasn't even known then.

K. said...

I read a book recently about the Burma Theatre. It was absolutely brutal. It was not uncommon for fighting to take place while soldiers on both sides had dysentery.

Ironically, the commandant of the camp upin which the story of the bridge is based was as humane as circumstances allowed. The commander of the British POWs actually testified in his behalf at a war crimes trial.

K. said...

My first reaction to the Burma book was that the Powers That Be got us into Vietnam must not have talked to any Burma veterans. If they had, they would have heard that initiating a jungle was was not a good idea.

Ronni Bennett said...

Terrific memoir, Pattie. These are important stories to keep. I enjoyed the history of the bridge too.

Well done!