A Bridge Across the Kwai

By Richard Salzberg © 2013  

BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, THEA recent viewing of David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” recalled a conversation in 2002 with a small, pleasant-faced man known to all as Woody. It occurred at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, in the sparest of its meeting rooms, a large, bright space with chairs and folding tables that could easily be moved to convert the area into dressing rooms for those who rent the museum for weddings. The conversation became a short piece published in Port Folio Weekly that year for Memorial Day entitled “Of Patriots and Quiet Men.”      


An engaging old fellow named Woody may have served you a drink once. As a bartender at the Norfolk Yacht and Country Club for 30 years, if he did serve you a drink it was a good one, and he probably told you a joke in his quick, quiet Southern-accented voice with an experienced twinkle in his eye. Woody is good at his job because he likes it. What he likes best: “Meeting people and swapping sea stories.”

The last part is a little joke because, although he would never say so, Woody can swap better sea stories than anyone he has ever served. As a teenager just out of high school in Chattanooga, Stanley Woody joined the Navy in 1940. Asked why, the answer is simple: “Employment.” When Woody’s aunt did not quite understand, an older sister had to sign for him.  His 22-year Navy career began in Norfolk.

“I got off the train at the old station at the end of East Main, near where HarborPark is now.” The bright lights and neon-lit action of the old Navy town impressed the youngster as “a good place for liberty;” but Stanley was headed for 12 weeks of Basic Training. The first thing an old Chief told the raw recruit from Tennessee was easy enough: “Forget your first name.”

During the next five years Woody saw a lot of history, and he was a part of everything he saw. His very first ship was the USS Houston [ http://ow.ly/iCH57 ]. The heavy cruiser was the flagship of the fabled Asiatic Fleet, and the favorite pre-war ship of FDR. And – with Woody onboard as the youngest member of her 1100-man crew – she was soon to become known as “the Ghost of the Java Sea.” The young sailor got to see a bit of the exotic old world before full-scale war broke out in the Pacific, as the still sharply etched chain tattoo on his right wrist attests. (“I got that inShanghai in 1941. I woke up the next morning, and it felt like my whole arm was on fire.”)  

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Houston was at sea, having been among the ships moved out of Subic Bay in the Philippines the week before, thanks to the foresight of Admiral Thomas C. Hart [ http://ow.ly/iD8AZ ]. For the next three months it was one long, continual battle at sea, one of the most remarkable and heroic sagas in any navy’s history. The Houston became part of a spirited but hopeless Allied defense by a damaged, desperate armada of Australian, British, and Dutch ships which came together to face the mightiest of Japanese fleets, at the same time their Asian homeports were falling to Japan’s ground forces.

USS Houston ~ 6-08-13Leadership aboard ship was excellent, Woody said. “Morale until the end was great. It was gung-ho. We were going to be victorious and come back home to the States.” At the very end, there were only two ships: the USS Houston and Australia’s HMAS Perth. Battered but still afloat, they were almost safely away. One formal account states: on “February 28, 1942, the two cruisers ran afoul of a fresh Japanese fleet. The courageous ships gave all in a suicidal charge into the midst of the enemy fleet. Both ships went to the bottom, blasted apart by close-range shellfire and torpedoes. When the Houston went down (on March 1, 1942), the US Asiatic Fleet ceased to exist.”

That was the Battle of the Java Sea. Like their comrades still fighting on the ground in the Philippines, Woody and his shipmates bought valuable time and helped save Australia from falling to the Japanese war machine. But the price was dear, heavy with blood and years. Woody was among the 349 men from the crew of 1100 who somehow survived the sinking, the machine-gunning of sailors in the water by the Japanese (“Not many people know that.”), and the 30-mile swim to Java through shark-infested waters. “All I saw was the mountain tops off in the distance. I didn’t really swim. We were just like driftwood in the sea. It took me 20 hours.”

Japanese landing parties had preceded them, and the survivors were immediately rounded-up at bayonet point as they lay exhausted on the beach. “That first night was the worst night. You thought it would end, but it would never end.” The senior officers were separated from the enlisted men, and the Houston’s sailors, now POWs, were immediately put to work; first unloading invasion supplies from barges, then shipping the spoils of Dutch colonial Java, from automobiles to furniture, back to Japan. “I thought that maybe in a year’s time it would be over. I had no idea. It took a year just to sink-in that I was a prisoner.”

Woody was on Java for three months, then shipped to Singapore in the sweltering, fetid hold of a freighter packed to standing-only with POWs – one of the infamous “Hell Ships” [ http://ow.ly/iCOUa ]. He was in Singapore for three months, working as one of Japan’s slave laborers the entire time. Then came Rangoon, Burma. From there he was sent to work on the notorious Burma-Thailand Railway. As with William Holden’s character in the movie (“I was on the Houston. . .”), Woody and the 280 other ship’s survivors sent to that hell were among the relatively few Americans among the tens of thousands of other prisoners used for the project (60,000 Allied POWs, and 250,000 Burmese and Thai civilians pulled from their villages along the way). Known to history as “the Railway of Death,” the railroad’s lethal 400-mile course included the Bridge on the River Kwai. (In an interview in The Virginian-Pilot in 2008, Woody said, “We put the finishing touches on that bridge.”)

More than 16,000 POWs died from injuries, illness, starvation, and exhaustion. “I got all the tropical diseases,” Woody recalled, “malaria, beri beri, yellow jaundice. But our group was lucky. The Japs gave us plenty of quinine – candy-coated, too. I don’t know how they ever got those.” He laughed. “Write that down.”

The Railway of Death was completed in 1944. After 18 months in the Burmese jungles, Woody was sent to a POW camp in Saigon, then part of French Indochina, for more labor on the docks. He had been there for a year when the war ended. How did he know it was over? “After they dropped the second bomb, we got up (one morning) and all the guards were gone. I remember when I got captured, March 1, 1942 – I’ll never forget that one – but I don’t remember what date I was liberated. I was so happy it didn’t matter.” Whenever it was, the 150-pounder from Chattanooga now weighed just 98 pounds.

As he has grown older he has become more reflective. “The experience is coming back more and more. How I survived, I’ll never know. Maybe camaraderie. That’s the key to everything. Comradeship.” He smiled thoughtfully. “United we stand.” Then he added in a soft drawl: “Surviving the sinking was more extraordinary that surviving the captivity.” He does not mention anything about heroism, or the months of continual fighting he spent as a “hotshell man” for his anti-aircraft gun during the last run of the USS Houston in the Java Sea.

Today Woody sees positive changes in attitudes towards history and the military; and, although reluctant to talk too much about himself, the inquiries of “young kids, 25 or 30 year-olds, mean a lot to me.” Woody has five children of his own. Mary Lou, his wife of 52 years, died last year. A life lesson: “Working all this time has helped, especially if you like it.” He still enjoys his work at the Yacht Club, still five nights a week, from 5 to 9 or 10 p.m. He values the years of “friendships and the relationships with his customers.” How much longer will he continue to work? “As long as I can make the last drink.”

If slowing down is inevitable (“I drank to so many people’s health that I’ve about ruined my own.”), Woody still attends the reunions of the USS Houston survivors which take place each year in Houston, Texas, on March 1. Of the original 349 sailors, only about 75 are alive today. When asked about Patriotism, Woody says simply that it is “love for your country, and a concern for the interests of the country.”

How does Stanley Woody want to be remembered? He answers quickly: “As a true American.” Then he adds with a smile: “To the bone.”

Postscript: Stanley Woody died on June 1, 2010. An excellent tribute piece by Corinne Reilly in The Virginian-Pilot [ http://ow.ly/iG4ZY ] features several photographs. One is a sepia image of a handsome kid with a big smile in a handsome uniform, looking fit and confident. It is a portrait of the very young Stanley Woody, and he looks pretty enough to be in a Hollywood movie.

                                                              Finis  –      


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