Suffering and defiance as prisoners of the Japanese

The U.S. Navy Clemson-class destroyer USS Pope (DD-225) in January 1924, sunk by Japanese dive bombers on the 1st March 1942.

From Hong Kong to Singapore and throughout the Indonesian islands that were now under Japanese control tens of thousands of men were now discovering the grim reality of becoming a prisoner of war of the Japanese. There are very few photographs to illustrate this aspect of the war.

One camp that was to become notorious for the brutality of the prison guards was on Macassar, where the survivors of the second Battle of the Java Sea were held, the men from HMS Exeter and HMS Encounter were joined by those from USS Pope, which had also been sunk that day. At the beginning of April 1942 George Cooper found himself the senior British Officer after his Captain and other colleagues were transferred to camps in Japan.

Conditions were far from good.

For the first month all we were given to eat was a round bun for breakfast, and for supper a ball of cooked rice with a little green watercress or smelly dried fish. That was all. We made small paper hats or envelopes to hold the rice in as there were no plates.

To allay their hunger men started trading over the fence with the natives, strictly against Japanese rules; and this led to much trouble with the guards and a certain amount of physical violence and judo-throwing.

In the barracks, men were crowded four, sometimes five, to a cubicle eight feet by six without a vestige of bedding or furniture. It was very hot, and you could almost boil water by putting a pan in the sun under a piece of glass.

The general discomfort was aggravated by sleeplessness and the lack of clothing resulted in mosquito bites which often went septic.

George T. Cooper’s experiences at the hands of the Japanese are reflected in the title of his memoir: George T. Cooper: Never Forget, Nor Forgive.

There was a fine line to be drawn between standing up to the Japanese and provoking worse treatment from them. The Executive officer of the USS Pope had survived injury during the bombing of his ship and three days in the Java Sea alongside his men before they were picked up. Now Lieutenant Richard Antrim won the Medal of Honor for his actions in Macassar camp:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while interned as a prisoner of war of the enemy Japanese in the city of Makassar, Celebes, Netherlands East Indies, in April 1942.

Acting instantly on behalf of a naval officer who was subjected to a vicious clubbing by a frenzied Japanese guard venting his insane wrath upon the helpless prisoner, Comdr. (then Lt.) Antrim boldly intervened, attempting to quiet the guard and finally persuading him to discuss the charges against the officer. With the entire Japanese force assembled and making extraordinary preparations for the threatened beating, and with the tension heightened by 2,700 Allied prisoners rapidly closing in, Comdr. Antrim courageously appealed to the fanatic enemy, risking his own life in a desperate effort to mitigate the punishment.

When the other had been beaten unconscious by 15 blows of a hawser and was repeatedly kicked by 3 soldiers to a point beyond which he could not survive, Comdr. Antrim gallantly stepped forward and indicated to the perplexed guards that he would take the remainder of the punishment, throwing the Japanese completely off balance in their amazement and eliciting a roar of acclaim from the suddenly inspired Allied prisoners.

By his fearless leadership and valiant concern for the welfare of another, he not only saved the life of a fellow officer and stunned the Japanese into sparing his own life but also brought about a new respect for American officers and men and a great improvement in camp living conditions.

His heroic conduct throughout reflects the highest credit upon Comdr. Antrim and the U.S. Naval Service.

Richard Antrim won the Medal of Honor for his actions in Macassar camp, pictured after the war as a Captain in the USN.

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