By H. Robert Charles

H. Robert Charles was a Marine aboard the USS Houston when it was sunk on March 1, 1942 in the South Pacific. After swimming to the nearby island of Java, he was rounded up along with the other survivors from the Houston. They were taken to Burma where they were forced to work on the infamous Burma-Thailand Death Railway. Fellow prisoner Henri “Doc” Hekking, a doctor from the Dutch Colonial Army, served as the doctor for the group of prisoners. Lt. James P. Lattimore often spoke up on behalf of the prisoners, taking beatings to save the lives of others, including, on one occasion, the life of Charles. James W. Gee was also a leader in the camp, convincing prisoners to talk and play games to keep their minds alive.

Throughout their ordeal, the POWs were overseen by the sadistic Major Yamada, a Japanese officer who did not shy from using brutal methods to ensure that the prisoners worked to complete the railway on schedule.

The building of the Death Railway was the inspiration for the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. This article is adapted from Charles’ memoir, Last Man Out.

Burma – October 30, 1942
Each work camp along the railroad was designated by a number indicating its distance from base headquarters. The 190 Americans and 590 Australians with whom we had come from Singapore were told we would be moving out right away to the camp at Kilo 40. The highest-ranking prisoner at Kilo 40 was Australian Col. C. M. Black, whose men became known as Black Force. The American was Capt. Arch L. Fitzsimmons, whom Henri remembered from Singapore.

Henri asked Colonel Nagatomo if he was supposed to stay in Thanbyuzayat or go with Colonel Black’s force, the outfit he had arrived with from Singapore. In the confusion Nagatomo mumbled something like “Ush,” motioning toward the Americans.

There were not enough trucks to transport the entire group in one trip. As soon as the available trucks were loaded and had pulled out, the remaining prisoners – Americans – were made to walk along the jungle road. It was a long, grueling, depressing hike, moving into the tangled jungle. But we set a spirited pace and maintained it.
“Slug” Wright, the soldier who had been decked by the guard for taking water from the steam pipe, jogged alongside Henri. The long-legged American Marines of the Houston were setting the pace, causing Slug to have to run, and Henri wondered why, “You a doctor?” Slug asked, gasping for air, eyeing the stethoscope.

It was like asking if water was wet. “Yes,” Henri grunted.

“I’m a medic,” Slug panted, grinning from ear to ear.


“You don’t know what a medic is? A medic’s like a corpsman.”


“You don’t know what a corpsman is?”

“No. Is corpsman like pharmacist?”

“No, a pharmacist is a guy who works in a drug store, pushing pills and stuff.”

“Stuff? What is ‘stuff’?”

“Anything,” Slug said. “Sodapop. Ice cream. Shakes. Got it?”

“What you mean, anything?”