Skip to main content

Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the SS Houston Survivors

POWs of the Burma-Thailand Railway

POWs of the Burma-Thailand Railway

POWs of the Burma-Thailand Railway

Map of Burma-Thailand Railway

Map of Burma-Thailand Railway

The SS Houston

On February 28, 1942, the SS Houston was sunk off the northwest coast of Java. Fierce fighting during the Battle of Sunda Strait with the Japanese ships. Captain Albert Rooks had taken a bullet, mortally wounding him. He was buried at sea and later, after the war, given the Medal of Honor Award posthumously.

Of the 1050 crew members, only 368 survived and became known as the Lost Survivors. Noe one would know of their fate until the war ended and their liberation complete. The Japanese captured the survivors, loaded them onto "hell ships," transporting them to Singapore.

They were first taken to the ChangiJail POW jail, the "Bicycle Camp." It was then their fate was told to them. They would build a bridge from Burma to Thailand. Among the counted slaves and POWs, were 61,000 allied troops and 200,000 Asian natives who would build a 250-mile railway. This massive feat would be between mountains, across rivers, through forests, and without machinery or tools.

Captain Albert Rooks

Captain Albert Rooks

Captain Albert Rooks

Conditions at The Camps

With scant rations, weakened conditions, beaten with rifle butts, or bamboo poles continually, the POWs worked and worked, loaded, and loaded dirt from sunup to sundown. At Kilo Camo #40, a POW named Henri Hekking worked tirelessly, trying to treat his fellow POWs. Henri was a doctor well trained in jungle medicine because his grandmother was a herbalist and had taught him the value of jungle medicine.

Henri knew to treat physical and mind together. He boiled bark from trees to make tannin for diarrhea, used gasoline for alcohol, leaves for bandages.

How was it even possible to work building a railway when the POWs could barely move? They endured, survived and, depended on one another. When they could, they devised ways to impede the Japanese push to build.

Their crude barracks, daily rice rations with maggots, little sanitation, constant beatings, jungle sickness, rotting ulcers were constant reminders they needed to survive.

The two bridges near Tamarkan inspired the film "The Bridges at the River Kwai." Although after seeing the film, survivors believed it did not show the real horrors of the camp and the sacrifices of the men.

The death count included 13,000 allied POWs, 100,000 Asian natives, and 79 survivors of the SS Houston.

WW II ended with the Japanese surrendering and liberation came August 1945 for the POWs after forty-two months of inhumane treatment with thousands dying building the 257 mile-long Burma-Thailand Railway.

Scroll to Continue

Further Reading

After reading the book, I recommend:

Ship of Ghosts

The author has used journals, letters, documents, Japanese War Tribunals and personal interviews of the survivors. He has included Men of the SS HOUSTON and the Lost Battalion Killed in Action or Died in Captivity, 1942-1945.


fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on May 31, 2021:

Fbergen, thank you for your visit and I thank your grandfather for his courageous service. I hope you like the article.

Fbergen on May 30, 2021:

My grandfather James Bergen was a survivor of The Houston and the camp, looking forward to reading this!

Rosina S Khan on April 09, 2020:

It is interesting to note how the POWs of the camp and survivors of the SS Houston got involved in building the Burma-Thailand Railway and how they were finally liberated after WW II when the Japanese were defeated. Wonderfully crafted historical hub, Fran.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on April 09, 2020:

Yes, and unfortunately, it happened in other places. Hopefully, we have learned lessons from tragedies. Thanks for reading.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 09, 2020:

It is shocking to reflect on some terrible events that occurred during World War 2.

Related Articles