Thursday, November 11, 2010

A Veteran Remembrance

This is a repeat from 2008:

***Very Sad Update: An old soldier who served with Oather Hufstutler and suffered with him as a POW during World War II, a very gracious and kind gentleman, Mr. Hubert Griffith, passed away in August of this year. I had intended to call him this morning, but sadly he had passed away. Without Mr. Griffith's generous gesture, I would never have known as much about my relative and his war years. So, this tribute is both for my cousin as well as for Hubert W. Griffith. My deepest appreciation and admiration for both of these American heroes.

A little background:

Nearly a year ago I began research on a distant "second cousin once removed" on my mother's side of the family. For years a small yellow newspaper clipping was lost in a stack of papers and pictures left over after the death of my great grandmother. The clipping was a brief announcement about Other (Oather) D. Hufstutler, MIA on the island of Java during World War II. After coming across the clipping again months ago, I vowed to find out about this cousin, and why my great grandmother saw fit to preserve such a memory. This is Oather's story of his years as a Japanese POW as best I know how to tell it. Through a most kind gesture and gift from another vet I have yet to meet in person (though we have talked on the phone), I am able to piece together a timeline and semblance of a first-hand narrative of Oather's experience. Thank you, Hubert Griffith for your most gracious gift of time and memoirs. Hopefully, I can pay a kind and gratitude-filled tribute to your self-same sacrifice during the War.

I never knew Oather though I have met his younger brother, Gale Hufstutler. It will be more difficult to flesh out a character without personal attachment, but somehow I feel it is my duty, my honor to remember an American veteran who is also a blood relative on tomorrow's national holiday for our beloved vets.

Born on May 8, 1917 to Henry Jefferson Hufstutler and Della Lutitia Wicker Hufstutler in the little farming community of Hall Valley, Texas, Oather Douglas Hufstutler was one of six children - all second cousins to my mother. Typical of hard-scrabble dirt farmers, the family was never more than just "barely gettin' by". Fewer than ten percent of Texas tenant farmers owned tractors during the Depression years. These small family farms were separated by dirt roads, made fully impassable with every rain, and Congress wouldn't pass the Rural Electrification Act until 1936. Life on a sharecropper's farm was hard.

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Young Oather, about age 7 or 8 with siblings - second from the left.

In September of 1940, Oather joined the Texas National Guard, perhaps partly due to a wish to escape the confines of a small town and rural farming, but also to serve his country during the War. At Camp Bowie, near Brownwood, Texas, Oather was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery (later to be known as "The Lost Battalion") and in the summer and fall of 1941, his unit was sent to Louisiana on maneuvers and training. The Louisiana Manuevers were the biggest war games in the history of the US Military and the last before the "real war". The "Red" army contained 180,000 men, while the opposing "Blue" army boasted 240,000 - the 131st were with the Blues. The Blues went on to win those war games, and the 131st did themselves proud. Their firing record was so stellar, they were going to be sent to the Texas State Fair as a showpiece for the military. The real war had other plans for them; in little more than than six months time, these men would be Japanese prisoners of war.

In the late fall of that year, the 2nd Battalion was scheduled to go "PLUM" (Phillipines-LUzon-Manilla) - a military code word designating the Phillipine Islands. The troop train pulled out on November 11, 1941 bound for San Franciso, California.

On the 21st of November the battalion boarded the USAT Republic and headed out to sea for Honolulu, Hawaii. In the memoirs of Hubert W. Griffith (to whom I owe an immense debt of gratitude for sharing his memories of his service and of fellow battalion member, Oather Hufstutler), he recalls passing a tiny island in the Pacific with a sign posted on it which read: "Bob's Oil Well, Matador, Texas".

Arriving at Pearl Harbor on November 28th, some of the soldiers secured passes to go into town. The next day, the Republic sailed out of Honolulu escorted by the USS Pensacola, and on December 6th, the ships crossed the equator. To celebrate such an occasion, the Navy had certain traditions, such as being initiated into the "Realm of the Deep". Here is a quote from Hubert Griffith:

We were issued supoenas to appear before a kangaroo court for initiation. I was "charged" with being a newlywed flirting with a blonde mermaid. The "Old Salts" sailors who were already "Shellbacks" began the ordeal. They had canvas tubes that were about three inches in diameter and about three feet in length. This was filled with kapok and were hard from the Shellbacks banging them against things to harden them. They had a canvas tube about thirty feet long and was big enough for a man to crawl through. The Shellbacks would line up on either side of this long tube and with their kapok filled tubes, would beat the Pollywogs ( green newbies crossing the equator for the first time) as they crawled through the tube and emerged at the other end. Then, we were either dunked into a tank filled with water, or we got our hair cut. I think I was dunked.

On December 7th, the crew received word of the bombing of Pearl Harbor - the mood grew more serious. The convoy proceeded onward to Suva, Fiji, arriving on the 14th of December.

After a brief layover in the Fiji Islands, the Republic was suddenly contacted by an Australian cruiser who escorted them to Brisbane, Australia. Once again, after a short stay, they were on the move again and joined by the 26th Field Artillery Brigade. Both field artillaries were moved to a Dutch liner, the "Bloemfontein", originally expected to assist in the defense of Australia against the Japanese.

The Bloemfontein docked at Soerabaja, Java on January 11th, 1942. Batteries "D" and "F" saw numerous skirmishes, and eventually Battery "D" was captured and sent to Japan as POWS. The soldiers in Battery "F" wouldn't see their friends in Battery "D" again until after the war and all had returned to the States.

(A more well-known Japanese-American soldier, Frank "Foo" Fujita, would serve in Battery "D" and later become a POW in Japan. He was the only POW with a Japanese last name and a Texas accent.)

The Dutch surrendered to the Japanese on March 8, 1942 after the Battle of the Sunda Strait. For about three weeks, the battalion was left to their own devices on the island. Soon it became apparent that no rescue was in store for the American soldiers and they were told by the Dutch to lay down their arms and surrender quietly to the Japanese. But these tough Texas boys were reluctant to just give up. They would not go without one last act of defiance. Guns were filled with salt, sights were twisted, tires shot out on the vehicles before they were shoved off mountain cliffs in full throttle.

Upon arrival in Java, the Japanese loaded the American POWs onto small trains for the trip to Batavia some ninety miles away, and eventually they arrived at a concentration camp in a small town called Tandjong, Priok (a port in Batavia). The Americans were housed at this camp with Dutch, British and Australian POWs. Again, the recollections of Private Hubert Griffith:

Oather's family's last contact with him was during his brief stay in Honolulu, and the family feared the worst when that fateful Sunday morning's radio speech of FDR's was heard throughout the homeland. It would be months before they were told of his MIA status in the Java islands. The local paper in Brady ran this announcement:

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My grandmother, Lillie Hufstutler Bartlett, Oather's aunt, would save this clipping in her scrapbook and years later I would inherit this same keepsake after her death. I recall reading the small paragraph and wondering about the distant cousin whose eyes sparkled light blue even though the photograph was in black and white. The face connected with me in a way I cannot describe. For a long time, the yellowed old clipping slept patiently in a dusty shoe box. Then, last year I stumbled across it again.

This time I didn't just return the memento to its resting place among the old family photographs; I sought the Internet to learn what I could about this family member whose face now haunted my sleep.

*Continued: Work on the Burma Railroad
We lived then in old Dutch barracks. Water, thick and brackish, came from an outside faucet. They gave us an old fifty gallon oil drum to cook rice in. Although it had been scrubbed clean, it still reeked of oil. For weeks we tasted oil in our rations of rice. There was no meat to add to the meal, so we found chili peppers to toss in. They were ground on the concrete by rolling a bottle over them. Our first meal as POWs was this mixture of rice, sand gravel, lube oil, and ground chili pepper. Bitter to swallow but when you are hungry, you'll eat just about anything. In time, we got used to it. Night time found us sleeping on hard, rough, gritty concrete. The mosquitoes almost carried us away, and then there were the lice and bed bugs. Come morning, we were awakened by the sound of a loud whistle and fed a rice pap porridge consisting of red rice and water - no salt, no sugar.


K. said...

I look forward to the next installment!

The Rural Electrification Act was Lyndon Johnson's signal accomplishment as a legislator. The Path To Power, the first volume of Robt. Caro's biography, has a marvelous chapter about life in the Hill Country without electricity. Not to be missed.

Pete said...

Well now, your story puts the lie to the title of your blog. This is no trifle!

joared said...

Really interesting well-written story, Pattie. My brother mentioned hazing when he crossed the equator when in the Navy and headed to Australia during WWII.

I'm going to have to share this and your upcoming installments with him as he has been quite engrossed for some years with WWII stories, but especially the Navy and Submarine Service.

ml said...

I just got back from two weeks in Indiana, so only read this just now. I look forward to finding out more. I'm especially interested in the Java area in WWII. Good intrigue you've got going here.

Celia said...

Glad to read this Pattie. Most of the men in our family were in the Navy and made it back but the stories are missing, and the old boys have passed on. You are quite the researcher and tale teller.