Early Life

A Marine on the USS Houston (CA-30)

Captured at the Battle of Sunda Strait

Prisoner of War

Deaths, Labor, and Liberation

Building the Burma Railway

Postwar

Annotation

Howard Robert Charles was born in Picher, Oklahoma. With environmental issues there, the mines were closed. His father died from lead poisoning from the mines. During the Great Depression [Annotator's Note: the Great Depression was a global economic depression that lasted from 1929 through 1939 in the United States], funds that had been inherited from his paternal grandparents were lost in the New York Stock Market crash of 1929. All stocks were sold, and the limited revenue was expended in two years from the meager gains. His father was a carpenter and found little work available. Charles' grandfather had been a steamboat captain in Arkansas. Because he knew the river, the family went there and dug mussel shells to sell to a button manufacturing factory. There were minimum rations of food every day. Charles often felt half starved. When he was 14 years of age, his mother married her third husband who was a landed man of means in Kansas. Even though his stepfather did not want any children around, Charles' mother offered her son as an unpaid hired hand. With 5,500 acres, Charles' stepfather raised wheat and cattle. He did not like his new stepson from the beginning and expressed that to Vinnie, Charles' mother. Charles tried his hardest to please his stepfather but never personally received recognition from him. Later, Charles found out that his stepfather told his neighbors that his stepson was actually the best worker he ever had. Charles eventually ran away from home to join the Marine Corps. Before the Corps, he went to a foster home of a high school teacher. The teacher thought Charles should continue his education. A second foster home sent Charles to college for one and a half years before his entry into the Marine Corps in June 1940. He could not afford to advance his education beyond junior college, so he opted for the Corps. Seeing advantages in becoming a Marine, particularly the nice blue uniform, he enlisted. Before induction, he decided to become baptized in a private ceremony. He was 16 years old. Subsequently, during action in the war, he felt he had someone looking over him. He has always been a Christian.

Annotation

Howard Robert Charles was inducted into the Marine Corps [Annotator's Note: in June 1940] in San Diego [Annotator's Note: San Diego, California]. Immediately after boot camp, he was assigned to Marine Corps Battalion Intelligence. Refusing a commission opportunity, Charles wanted to join the Marine contingency in Shanghai [Annotator's Note: Shanghai, China]. While he was in route there, the Marines were evacuated due to the approach of the Japanese invasion. Consequently, Charles was sent to the heavy cruiser USS Houston [Annotator's Note: USS Houston (CA-30)] in Manila [Annotator's Note: Manila, Philippines]. He was assigned to the forward mast number two machine gun. He served with Sergeant Lusk [Annotator's Note: US Marine Corps Sergeant Joe M. T. Lusk]. He was shown the ship by Jimmy Gee [Annotator's Note: US Marine Corps Private 1st Class James C. "Jimmy" Gee]. Charles manned that gun position throughout his combat action. The ship was eventually bottled up and sunk in the strait between Java and Sumatra [Annotator's Note: during the Battle of Sunda Strait, 1 March 1942]. The first action was in February [Annotator's Note: 1942] when the number three turret was blown off. Charles was transporting ammunition to his position when he observed the terrible wounds that had been suffered by some of Houston's crew. That convinced him what war was all about. The enemy was doing a good job of killing his shipmates. A fear set in that stayed with him throughout the war. His initiation to combat was at Makassar Strait. The ship was bombed 12 or 14 times, but Captain Rooks [Annotator's Note: US Navy Captain Albert Harold Rooks] maneuvered the ship to avoid the explosions. Charles served part-time as the captain's orderly and often reminded him to don his helmet. The officer would remove his helmet to watch the incoming bombs circumvent damage to his cruiser. The Houston led the Asiatic Fleet comprised of the Marblehead [Annotator's Note: USS Marblehead (CL-12)] and six destroyers. The ships were picked off one by one with the heavily damaged Marblehead having to return to the United States for repair. The Houston dangerously operated solo for a period of time. Under Dutch Admiral Doorman [Annotator's Note: Royal Netherlands Navy Admiral Karel Willem Frederik Marie Doorman], there were language problems between the Dutch commander and his English-speaking subordinates. Charles did not view the Dutch as much in terms of fighters. They preferred to let the Javanese do the fighting for them, but the latter would shed their uniforms and disappear into the jungle on contact with the Japanese. Charles remembers the islands near the fighting. The Battle of the Java Sea [Annotator's Note: 27 February 1942] was the greatest sea battle since Jutland [Annotator's Note: Battle of Jutland, 31 May to 1 June 1916 in the North Sea near Denmark] in World War 1. Charles saw numerous Japanese ships approaching from his battle station position in the mast. The 14 or 15 Allied forces were heavily outnumbered. All the propaganda about the lack of enemy fighting skills proved false. The Japanese fired first and missed their target. The Houston returned fired. She was not hit. A destroyer was hit and collapsed like a "V" when it sunk. Survivors on the sinking ship waved their comrades to sail on. All ABDA [Annotator's Note: American-British-Dutch-Australian Command] ships were sunk in the battle except the Houston and the HMAS Perth [Annotator's Note: HMAS Perth (D-29)] which was an Australian cruiser. During the night battle, the opposing ships fired star shells [Annotator's Note: artillery used to illuminate the battlefield] to light the darkness to better see the Allied opponents. Neither the Houston nor the Perth could see the enemy, but they could see the torpedoes running parallel to their ship. It was a close call, but the two surviving ships managed to extricate themselves from the engagement. It was the middle of February [Annotator's Note: 1942].

Annotation

Howard Robert Charles participated in the Battle of Sunda Strait [Annotator's Note: as a machine gunner aboard the USS Houston (CA-30) in late February 1942]. As the Houston was sinking, enemy destroyers came upon her survivors and strafed them. Charles continued to man his machine gun with its remaining ammunition. He aimed his gun at the enemy ships and raked their decks. He could observe the damage being done by the .50 caliber shells striking enemy sailors. The weapon was powerful and could penetrate steel. As the Houston sank, Sergeant Standish [Annotator's Note: US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Walter Standish] admonished Charles to abandon ship but added that he was too old to try to save himself. The gunnery officer came down from above and ordered the men to get off the ship, but Standish remained. Charles went down the mast and crossed the decks observing bodies all over the place. He jumped overboard and started to swim toward Java, a big piece of ground. It was a nightmare but nothing in comparison to what he would witness in prison camp. Some of the survivors were sucked under as the ship sank. The ship's rescue rubber rafts were overloaded so Charles continued to swim in his Mae West [Annotator's Note: a personal floatation life vest] toward land. Charles attempted to rescue a man while he was swimming until the individual turned into total dead weight. Turning the man over, Charles saw that half the man's chest was blown out. He turned loose of the dead man and swam on without him. When daylight came, Charles could see the Japanese that were invading Java. One of the enemy troops sailing by asked him in English how it felt to lose the war. Charles replied that it felt bad [Annotator's Note: he laughs]. The enemy soldier said he had been educated in America. Charles thought he was joking. Charles never lost faith that the United States would win the war. He reached land but was captured by the enemy immediately thereafter.

Annotation

Howard Robert Charles became a prisoner of war [Annotator's Note: after the sinking of the USS Houston (CA-30) in February 1942]. He was lined up with the other oil covered survivors of the ship. Until then, Charles did not realize that he was also covered in the ship's oil [Annotator's Note: he laughs]. The captors took the prisoners' valuables and then interrogated them. Charles mentioned only that he was a machine gunner. He did not reveal that he had received Marine Corps intelligence training. He was made a slave. The Bushido belief [Annotator's Note: code of honor and morals developed by the Japanese samurai] was that prisoners were no better than cattle. Beatings were random and often unprovoked. Charles lost count of how times he was beaten. There was little food. Prisoners would risk their life for food. Charles' group was used as a utility group to fill in for other groups that had been decimated. He wrote a book about his experiences [Annotator's Note: "Last Man Out" about his experiences between June 1942 and October 1943]. Otto Swartz [Annotator's Note: phonetic spelling] and another prisoner kept account of the dates despite that being grounds for beheading. Charles' group entered a camp where cholera [Annotator's Note: infectious, often fatal, disease of the small intestine] had killed everyone. Where skulls were still exposed, rats ran in and out of the eyeballs. Doctor Hekking [Annotator's Note: Dutch Dr. Henri H. Hekking] told the men not to eat the rats for fear of disease transmission. Up to that time, the prisoners ate anything which provided some sort of protein. If it flew, oozed, or crawled, it was subject to consumption by the malnourished captives. The prisoners main work involved the railroad, now referred to as the Death Railroad [Annotator's Note: also called the Death Railway, the Siam-Burma Railway, the Thai-Burma Railway, between Ban Pong, Thailand and Thanbyuzayat, Burma (now Myanmar) from 1940 to 1943]. It ran 272 miles from the middle of Burma to Bangkok, Siam [Annotator's Note: now Bangkok, Thailand] through the worst jungles on the earth. It was horrible. Charles always felt disoriented. An escape plan could not be devised. Death in the jungle would have been assured had escape been attempted. The prisoners were too weak to try to get away. The captives would sneak out at night to try to find a "shindega" which was like a round, sugar loaf the size of a brick wrapped in leaves. They sought any kind of oil which would provide protein. When Charles was brought before a firing squad accused of trading with the natives, he was rescued by a brave Army Lieutenant from Texas named Barrett [Annotator's Note: phonetic spelling] who stood up for him. After being knocked down by the Jap [Annotator's Note: a period derogatory term for Japanese] accuser several times, the officer picked himself up and finally managed through his bravado to save Charles. Charles walked away but could just feel the bullets going through his shoulder blades. Later, the Army Lieutenant told Charles that he did not have to thank him. The officer said that Charles would have done the same for his friend. Charles questioned whether he would have had the guts to do so. The captors did not have enough food for themselves let alone their prisoners. Charles had diarrhea [Annotator's Note: loose, watery, and frequent bowel movements] but not dysentery [Annotator's Note: infection of the intestines] which was usually fatal. One particular type of malaria [Annotator's Note: mosquito-borne disease caused by a parasite] would kill a man in three days. One man died in Charles' arms from that disease thought to have been transmitted by chimpanzees eaten in the camp. The loss was not traumatic to Charles as he anticipated soon dying. Several other guys died from the sickness. Charles had light cases of Beriberi [Annotator's Note: Severe, chronic Thiamine deficiency; Wet beriberi affects the cardiovascular system; Dry beriberi affects the nervous system] and malaria. He was lucky to survive. It was a bad situation for him when his wife of 60 years died [Annotator's Note: after the war]. The size of each prison camp varied. Most held about 150 men in rectangular, bamboo shacks covered with broad leaves. The sides were open from waist high but upper portion could be lowered to try to prevent water from coming in. Rainy season brought on mud between the shelves inside the shack. There were about 50 to 60 men in each building. The prisoners would sleep directly on bamboo poles leaving imprints on them the next morning.

Annotation

Howard Robert Charles [Annotator's Note: a prisoner of war] and the other prisoners soon found their clothes were wearing out. When other prisoners died, the clothing and footwear was stripped from the body before burial and used by the living. Two bamboo poles with two empty rice bags were used to transport the corpse to the burial site by two prisoners. Some locations were so rocky that the body had to be placed under separated rocks and then covered. The deceased name would be burned into a cross to identify the dead man. Some went back after the war to recover the dead. Charles did not have the strength to do so. It was a dreadful time. All branches of the service were represented in the camps as well as various nationalities. Different nationalities generally stayed to themselves. Navy officers were sent to Japan but not Army officers. They were not forced to work and felt guilty as a result. After 14 months on the railroad [Annotator's Note: also called the Death Railway, the Siam-Burma Railway, the Thai-Burma Railway, between Ban Pong, Thailand and Thanbyuzayat, Burma (now Myanmar) from 1940 to 1943], Charles was sent to Saigon [Annotator's Note: Saigon, French Indochina, now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam]. Some POWs [Annotator's Note: prisoners of war] were kept back to maintain the railroad. For Charles, the food in Saigon was a little better. The hazard came from friendly bombers. It was the scare of his life [Annotator's Note: he laughs]. The men were sent to clean up a tobacco warehouse that was hit so everyone had plenty to smoke for a time. The job for the POWs entailed loading and unloading ships coming in from Japan. As America got the upper hand in the war, the arriving ships were fewer and fewer. In September 1945, the skies were filled with British bombers. Behind the aircraft, OSS—Officers of Strategic Services - came into the camp to notify the inmates that the war was over. Leaflets had previously been dropped but they had missed the camp. The word got to the captives as well as the Japs [Annotator's Note: a period derogatory term for Japanese]. Instructions were given not to eat anything uncooked or drink any water not boiled. The enemy was not to be antagonized. There was no celebration largely because the POWs were in disbelief. At dawn, British bombers flew over. The enemy fired on them, but British combat veterans arrived and cleaned their weapons and moved on. The OSS men arrived thereafter. They had some of the inmates climb to the top of a Saigon hotel and radio for C-46s and C-47s [Annotator's Note: Curtiss C-46 Commando and Douglas C-47 Skytrain transport aircrafts, respectively] to take the survivors from the camp. Now, it was time to celebrate [Annotator's Note: he laughs]. Flown to Calcutta [Annotator's Note: now Kolkata], India, he was sent to the 142nd Army General Hospital. After staying there, he was flown home. When the war was over, the Japanese overseers began to disappear. A mean Jap guard was nearly killed by a Marine called Shanghai Grice [Annotator's Note: US Marine Corps Private 1st Class Walter "Shanghai" Grice]. Charles and others talked him out of it. Grice was told that it would lay on his conscience later in life. Grice thanked Charles for pulling him off the enemy. The guard was sadistic and wanted the POWs to be subservient and yell for mercy. Charles learned to never look the guards in the eyes. The beatings were regularly perpetrated on the inmates. Punishment was inflicted if the POWs tried to get food from the natives, but the hungry prisoners were so desperate that the risk was seemingly worth it [Annotator's Note: he laughs]. There was quite a lot of trading especially for "shindega" [Annotator's Note: a type of edible vegetation found in the jungle] for oil and protein. Charles was a POW for 14 months in the jungle and 18 months in Saigon. Talking with the locals was done through sign language. The Japanese treated the natives as harshly as they treated the POWs. The natives treated the POWs with respect and tried to help them. They threw fruit to the POWs when they were paraded through Batavia [Annotator's Note: Batavia, Dutch East Indies, now Jakarta, Indonesia]. The angry Japanese beat the pro-Allied natives. The Japanese attempt at negative propaganda against the Allied soldiers did not work with the natives. Some Burmese would turn in escaped Allies, but others were pro-American.

Annotation

Howard Robert Charles was part of the prisoner of war force that worked 14 months on building the Burma Railroad from Moulmein, Burma to the bridge over the River Kwai [Annotator's Note: in what is today Thailand]. The British worked on the Kwai River bridge itself. American bombers hit the bridge while Charles was in a camp outside the area of the river. The bombardier named Hennessey [Annotator's Note: phonetic spelling] who destroyed the wooden bridge, and his bomber were shot down. He later wrote a book about the raid. All the crewmembers survived except the pilot. There were two bridges. One was wooden, and the other was steel. The author, Pierre Boulle, based his book [Annotator's Note: "The Bridge Over the River Kwai", published in 1952] on facts and fiction. The steel bridge was left standing. Charles kept going during this period because of his faith that the United States would eventually rescue them. Additionally, he had faith in God that guardian angels would somehow get him out of there.

Annotation

Following his liberation [Annotator's Note: from a Japanese prisoner of war camp], Howard Robert Charles arrived by air in Washington, D.C. He had spent time in Calcutta, India [Annotator's Note: now Kolkata, India] regaining weight. When he was strong enough to go home, he accepted the option of flying home to get there as soon as possible. He flew over a lit-up Statue of Liberty at night. Upon landing, he had a sumptuous meal placed in front of him, but he could not eat it. He was kept in a hospital for a while. He was diagnosed with what is now called PTSD [Annotator's Note: posttraumatic stress disorder]. He had nightmares for four years following the war. He met his wife at Northwestern University [Annotator's Note: in Evanston, Illinois] and married her prior to graduation. He went on to receive a master's degree in journalism. His wife was charming and beautiful. She helped him in many things. He woke up one night with his hands around her throat. Until then, he had never told her about his nightmares. He lived on Alka-Seltzer [Annotator's Note: a brand of aspirin] and beer during those years at Northwestern. It was a tough school. World War 2 changed his life a lot. At first, he had self-confidence and successful jobs in publishing, advertising, and other fields of writing. By 40 years of age, things were going well for him. His wife entered real estate and earned as much as he did. She became a financial advisor and stockbroker. Charles' dreams always involved Japs [Annotator's Note: a period derogatory term for Japanese] following him. He sure had the nightmares. The Second World War made America the leading power of the world. Churchill [Annotator's Note: Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill; Prime Minister, United Kingdom, 1940 to 1945] lowered the boom on Hitler's [Annotator's Note: German dictator Adolf Hitler] plans. China is now coming up. It will be the next big problem. The world has a bad attitude toward the United States at this time. Any president in office has a fight with the opposition party. The Republicans and the Democrats fight each other. They need to work together on foreign policy. Putin in Russia [Annotator's Note: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, president of Russia] is up to something as he becomes more like Stalin [Annotator's Note: Joseph Stalin; General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union]. He has a KGB [Annotator's Note: Russian secret police] background and will name a KGB veteran as his successor. If Russia and China ever get together, God help us. The National WWII Museum [Annotator's Note: The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana] helps us know our past so we can use that for our future.

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