The 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, 36th Division (Texas National Guard), was mobilized in November 1940. One year later, this single Battalion was detached from the Division and sent to Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, to become part of a contingent of troops, who were all en-route to a destination code named “PLUM.” It was generally conjectured that the Philippine Islands was where the Battalion would finally be stationed.
The Unit sailed from the United States on November 21, 1941 aboard the US Army Transport Ship (USAT) Republic. After a refueling stop at Pearl Harbor the convoy crossed the Equator on December 6. Next morning the Unit heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Republic had been in dry-dock just prior to the battalion’s boarding where four 3-inch guns and one 5-inch gun (on the fantail) had been mounted. The Battalion manned these guns from December 7 until their arrival in Australia. The convoy made short stops at Suva, Fiji Islands and then sailed on to Brisbane, Australia, one of the first American units ever to land on Australian soil.
The Battalion spent Christmas 1941 in Brisbane, but before New Year’s Day, it was again on the high seas, aboard the Dutch freighter Bloemfontein, bound for Java in the Netherlands East Indies, via Darwin, Australia, and for part of the journey escorted by the heavy cruiser USS Houston. On January 11, 1942, 35 days after the outbreak of War with Japan, the Battalion finally disembarked in Java, the only U. S. ground combat Unit to reach the Netherland East Indies, before the Allied capitulation to the Japanese.
The battalion had arrived without its armament and all that the Dutch were able to offer were some antiquated WW1 vintage French ‘75’s’. So, when emerging from the warehouses with their ‘equipment’, the men of the 131st were afraid of being suspected to have raided a museum.
There was only a limited number of these ‘antiques’ available so a number of men from the 131st FA transferred to the 19th Bomb Group that had escaped from the Philippines to Java. Until this bomb group evacuated to Australia on March 2, 1942, the 131st F.A. provided it with mechanics, ground crew, aerial gunners and a semblance of anti-aircraft weapons (usually .50 caliber machine guns, salvaged from wrecked B-17s) . Two men of the 131st, serving as crew members were gunned down and killed by Japanese fighters on February 3, 1942 when they parachuted from their stricken B-17.
When the 19th Bomb Group left for Australia on March 2, 1942, amongst those evacuated were twenty-three men of the 131st F.A, the only ones that escaped Japanese captivity.
The officers and men of the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery were forced to play a lonely and hopeless role.
After the Japanese invaded Java on March 1, 1942, the Battalion (minus its “E” Battery), supported the Australian ‘Blackforce’ which had arrived in Java just prior to the Japanese landings. In what the Aussies called “top-hole” artillery fire, the American artillerymen helped to hold up the Japanese advance at Leuwilleng, near the Central Java City of Bandung.
“E” Battery had been sent to the eastern end of Java to guard the airfield at Malang and to support the Dutch troops in the Surabaya area. The battery experienced heavy ground action in the few days prior to the surrender of the Island by the Dutch to the invading Japanese, on March 8, 1942. The Japanese terms of surrender were “unconditional” and all troops were advised that any further resistance would be followed by instant reprisals against the civilian population, including women and children.
Of the 558 men and officers who landed on Java on January 11, 1942, 534 became prisoners of war of the Japanese. Within a few weeks, the Japanese had all of the American prisoners from the 131st F. A. (less “E” Battery) and survivors from USS Houston together in the 10th Battalion Bicycle Camp, a former Dutch installation in Batavia (Jakarta) Java. “E” Battery remained in the Surabaya area until in November and December 1942, they were moved via Batavia and Singapore to Nagasaki and other areas in Japan.
Thus, two Units of the American Armed Forces, consisting of 902 men, seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth. They were sent to work in the steaming jungles and the monsoon seasons of Burma, chopping down jungle trees, hand-building road beds and bridges and laying ties and rails with primitive tools in the construction of the now infamous “Burma-Siam Death Railway”. Of the total 163 men who died in Prisoner of War Camps, 133 died working on the railroad This Army and Navy group of POWs suffered together through 42 months of humiliation, degradation, physical and mental torture, starvation and horrible tropical diseases, with no medication. And during all those months and years, their relatives did not know whether they were dead or alive…