Finally, dysentery forced Allen into the POWs’ hospital, weighing just 75 pounds.
If wasn’t until Hank Allen felt his ship dead in the water, with the world exploding around him, that he knew he had to jump. “Even up until the time I got into the water I couldn't believe the ship would sink,” Allen recalls.
Allen's cowboy boots and leather look seems to belong on someone else. Like many combat veterans and former POWs, Allen speaks with an unusual combination of vulnerability and determination.
Plunging into the water, under a layer of diesel fuel, he began swimming for Java. He struggled to get away as Japanese machine guns tore at the bobbing crewmen, sending little geysers of water skyward. Allen glanced over his shoulder at the searchlights and wondered if the lucky ones weren't still inside the ship, gently drifting down to the floor of the sea.
It was a narrow escape. Only a third of his navy crewmates would make it; and for years, nobody in the United States knew there were any survivors at all. Hank Allen was swimming for a place where his past wouldn’t matter. Nothing would, except animal instinct.
One day on the Concord he was roughed up by a third-class petty officer, and Allen reported the incident to his superiors.
Just three months earlier, on December 7, 1941, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, crippling the U.S. Navy. Aboard outdated ships scattered around the Far East, sailors fought to stall the Japanese Imperial Navy’s advance. Few of their stories are remembered.
But Hank Allen was aboard the USS Houston, and his story became part of a major theatrical film that won eight Academy Awards. The Bridge on the River Kwai premiered in London in 1957 and was hugely successful.
One of the stars, William Holden, portrayed a character who was identified as a survivor of the Houston. Most who’ve seen the movie remember the prisoners whistling a tune that became the film's trademark. Hank Allen, now retired and a resident of Lakeside, often heard Australian prisoners of war whistle the “Colonel Bogey March" during his own time as a POW.
USS Houston. On the night of February 29, 1942, the Houston sailed directly into the 86-ship main Japanese invasion force.
But he doesn’t remember blowing up bridges and heroically derailing trains like the prisoners in the movie. His story is about trying to survive the jungles of Southeast Asia long before the Vietnam War. Like many fighting men who followed a generation later, he left something there. In the permanent space where others store faith in humanity, Allen keeps the terrible knowledge of what people are capable of doing to each other.
Chingi prison, Singapore. After six months on Java, the Japanese decided to combine their POWs in Singapore.
His cowboy boots and leather look seems to belong on someone else. Like many combat veterans and former POWs, Allen speaks with an unusual combination of vulnerability and determination. The pain hasn't gone away.
"When you gradually strip everything else away, there’s only one thing left in a human being, and that's survival. I can't think of hardly anything that a man won’t do if he’s pushed long enough and hard enough. You do things to survive that would horrify you to think about today. I was an absolute animal.”
British engineers had already decided before the war that it would be impossible to extend the Burma Railway to Bangkok.
Survival had never been part of Allen’s life. He’d been sheltered growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. While the Depression raged, he rode in huge, expensive REO automobiles and ate in fine restaurants. Manual labor was something other people did for him. His family wasn't rich, but his divorced mother, a former Miss New Orleans, dated a man who was both the sheriff and a local mobster, and money was lavished on the young Allen. "He gave me a millionaire's taste," he remembers, "and I had a hard time getting over it."
Burmese camp. The POWs’ diet made them part of modem medical texts. The rice they ate was polished; polishing rubs off the inner bran layer, leaving it with little vitamin content.
In the French Quarter’s finest restaurants, he'd order stuffed avocado. At 75 cents, it cost more than most men made in a day in the late '30s. Gifts presented to his mother included a bracelet with 32 one-carat diamonds. In 1938 Allen’s mother married and departed on a world tour, and 17-year-old Hank tagged along.
Railroad trestle, Thailand. Anthills were hidden on bridges in hopes that the insects’ appetites would weaken the supports.
They began their trip along the East Coast of the United States; but by the time they arrived in San Francisco, Allen had tired of family travel. Wandenng along the piers, he watched sailors in crisp uniforms board ships for exotic ports. He decided the navy offered a custom-made getaway. Allen wasn’t really sure what sailors did, but whatever it was, it was certain to be glamorous. The decision seemed so trivial at the time that he didn’t give it much thought.
But the recruiter’s office gave him a shock — the navy had no openings for enlistees. If it was that popular, Allen thought, joining up was an even better idea. So he returned every day, hoping to be selected. Nobody could have convinced him otherwise. Finally, a recruit didn't show up for induction, leaving a slot open. Allen got it, came to San Diego for basic training, and was assigned to the Concord, a light cruiser based in San Francisco.
As Allen told his tale of deprivation as a POW, his aunt interrupted and reminded him things were also tough at home. “She said they had butter rationed and sugar rationed. And they had to stand in line for nylons."
It would take some time for Allen and navy life to get used to each other. The recruiting posters had not prepared him for his new job. From sunrise to sunset he chipped barnacles off the hull of the ship with a hammer and chisel. “It was a wet, grimy job,” said Allen. “I began to wonder if I had signed up for Devil’s Island."
This wasn’t the navy Allen thought he had Joined, so he decided he needed a vacation. It was easy enough for him to just sneak away. A week later, the military police found Allen at a friend’s house in San Jose and took him back to the barnacled ship. Hank Allen began to realize it would be as hard to get out of the navy as it was to get in.
In early 1940, the Concord and its reluctant sailor were reassigned to Pearl Harbor. And while Allen enjoyed Hawaii, the ship was becoming intolerable. One day, he was roughed up by a third-class petty officer, and Allen reported the incident to his superiors. The petty officer was reduced in tank, and his fellow petty officers rewarded Allen with the worst duty on board.
As Allen described the punishment, “I had to go around the mess hall like a bus boy and clean up after the crew. The job usually rotated among the men, but I was told I would have it forever. And we were supposed to get liberty every week, but my card was always kept from me.” This job was only slightly better than chiseling barnacles, so Allen put in for a transfer, which was quickly granted.
His new ship had already left for the Philippines, so Allen was told to catch a supply ship the following day. But the call of the surf, women, and tropical drinks was too strong. Allen took another unscheduled vacation and headed for Honolulu. His ship left without him. When he finally returned to base, he was again ordered to catch the next supply ship. And again he left for Honolulu. By now, the officers could see a pattern emerging. This time when he returned, Allen was thrown in the brig.
From there, he was escorted to his new quarters — the brig of yet a third supply ship. After a day at sea, the captain figured it was too far for Allen to swim back to Honolulu and ordered the brig unlocked.
All the way to the Philippines, Allen's only duty was cleaning his quarters. "It wasn’t so bad. All these other men were crammed into quarters, and I had a nice private room down in the brig," laughed Allen. "After I straightened it up, I just went up on deck and spent the rest of the day playing poker." Allen thought he'd finally found the navy he had in mind back when he joined.-
The supply ship finally arrived in Manila and delivered Allen under guard to his new assignment, the USS Houston. AWOL charges were still pending, but an officer who discovered that Allen had a high school education offered him a deal. The officer had a complicated job to fill, and there were few other qualified candidates. In return for the navy dropping all charges, Allen agreed to quit taking unscheduled vacations.
Instead of chipping barnacles and busing tables, he learned to fire the ship’s huge guns. At the same time, less than 2000 nautical miles away, Japanese sailors were planning their attack on Pearl Harbor.
The USS Houston was commissioned in 1929, and by now, in 1941, the cruiser was yesterday’s technology. The ship was built under the Naval Limitations Treaty of 1921, signed after World War I, which sharply limited the size, firepower, and even the thickness of the steel plating on warships. When she was christened, the bottle bounced off the hull and didn’t break. Superstitious sailors viewed this as a disastrous omen.
Known as a “paper" cruiser because of her thin steel plating, the Houston was just over 200 yards long, with a top speed of 32 knots. Her nine eight-inch guns could loft shells 18 miles. But during her short lifetime, the ship would see more entertaining than action. On board the ship was a $25,000 baby grand piano and a 55-piece set of silver — unusual hardware for a warship.
The Houston had begun her career as a sort of floating White House, as the personal yacht of President Franklin Roosevelt. A special lift was installed on the Houston to accommodate his polio handicap, and Roosevelt often fished from one of the ship’s launches. In 1940 the president’s yacht became the flagship of the US. Navy’s Asiatic fleet and was sent to Manila to be outfitted with anti-aircraft guns. Allen and his crewmates aboard the Houston in Pearl Harbor in the summer of 1941 were soon to have their skills put to the test.
To many, the attack on Pearl Harbor was not much of a surprise. The U.S. Navy had broken Japanese codes and knew 48 hours before the attack that the Japanese Imperial Navy was headed east. There wasn’t hard information on the target, just the direction. "They had passed the point of no return,” said Allen. "There was no other reason for them to be there. They were sailing far outside the normal range of maneuvers."
The men on the USS Houston knew their ship could be a target. On December 4, 1941, with half the crew on liberty and others doing laundry on shore, the Houston suddenly weighed anchor and sailed south, hiding out at nearby Panay Island. The remaining crew caught up with the ship in small boats. At anchor off Panay, Allen and the crew welded the portholes shut and tied down the ship’s gear in preparation for battle, while the Japanese Navy continued east.
Aboard the Houston, there was no longer any doubt where the Japanese were headed. Allen bitterly blames President Roosevelt for not alerting the ships in Pearl Harbor. “As far as I’m concerned they should have shot Roosevelt for treason for what he did to the men at Pearl Harbor," said Allen. “He just needed some excuse for Americans to want to go to war."
For the next 72 hours, Allen and the Houston's crew labored to stay awake. Every few hours, a corpsman came by with Dexadrine pills, and the chaplain offered shots of rum. After two days of waiting, the Japanese attack came. The morning of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese also attacked Panay. Miraculously, the Houston managed to sneak away in the shadows of the island's mountains.
Allen lusted to revenge the Pearl Harbor attack. The Japanese obliged with frequent air attacks on the Houston. In its war reporting, the Japanese claimed to have sunk the Houston so many times, she became known as “The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast.”
“We used to pray for the Japanese planes to come over. They used to come over in blocks of 49 and bomb us several times a week,” said Allen. These early fights, with the neatly spaced formations of Japanese planes, only encouraged Allen and the other young sailors. When the Japanese bombers appeared with their distinctive drone, the captain zigzagged the Houston away from the falling bombs. But suddenly, on February 2, 1942, a direct hit exploded turret number three aft of the Houston's bridge.
“A 2000-pound bomb hit on the fantail and killed 50 men," Allen described. “There were bodies and pieces of bodies laying all over the place, and after that, I wasn’t very anxious to see the Japanese any more. All my enthusiasm for battle was gone.”
As part of the burial detail, Allen had to retrieve bodies out of the turret. The Japanese bomb hadn’t exploded the powder stored in the tunet, but it ignited in a flash fire, charring those inside beyond recognition. “I reached for the first man in the turret to grab him by the shoulders and my fingers sunk in all the way to his ribs,” said Allen. "Those men had just been cooked." After burying the dead on Java, the Houston returned to action with a crew more closely acquainted with its own mortality.
Meanwhile, the Japanese grip on the Western Pacific was tightening. Just two weeks after the Houston was hit, the British “Island Fortress" of Singapore fell. Next in line for the Japanese was Indonesia, and then Australia.
On February 18, 1942, the Houston was sent north out of Port Darwin, Australia to try and slow this Japanese advance. A Japanese armada swarmed south toward Java, led by 38 destroyers and 11 cruisers. They guarded an invasion force of 97 transports and freighters. Defending Java, the Houston joined an international force of 14 ships. Hank Allen, now a combat veteran, had no illusions about their chances of victory. This battle wasn’t about winning or losing. “Our goal was to delay the Japs long enough for Australia to be fortified. We had to force them to fight for Java and not just skip it and take Australia. But we had absolutely no chance. We were terribly outnumbered."
Several decks down inside the Houston, Allen and most of the crew would never see the ensuing battle, when they finally encountered one arm of the vast Japanese invasion force. The crewmen only felt the concussions, like an unending thunderstorm. No place on board was safe, especially the plotting room, which was surrounded by aviation gas, fuel oil, and ammunition. The Houston’s remaining eight-inch guns were controlled from this room in the center of the ship. Allen and a 21-man crew ran a mechanical computer that aimed the guns.
Greatly outnumbered, 13 Allied ships were sunk. The Houston and the Australian ship Perth were ordered to retreat; their only hope was to escape to Australia, where Allen thought he would finally get some rest.
But on the night of February 29, 1942, the two ships sailed directly into the 86-ship main Japanese invasion force. Instead of running, which would have been hopeless, both Allied ships attacked. In the confusion, the Japanese fired wildly, hitting some of their own ships. Having run out of ammunition, the Houston began firing magnesium star shells at the Japanese. These were meant more for lighting up the sky than for sinking ships; but many Japanese thought this was a secret weapon, since the magnesium fires could not be extinguished and caused horrible burns.
But the Houston itself was on fire, with four torpedo hits. Just after midnight, the call went out to abandon ship, but not before the Houston and the Perth had taken 17 Japanese ships with them.
Allen and the fire-control crew were three flights down from the main deck when the call went out. One Japanese torpedo had destroyed their escape hatch, and the only way out was to climb up through a hollow mast, barely wide enough for a man to squeeze through. In total darkness, on a pitching ship during battle, Allen climbed the mast's narrow ladder and made his way out. Once on deck, the rest of the fire-control crew scrambled forward for their life jackets as the Japanese sprayed the ship with shells and machine-gun fire. But Allen had another plan, the first of many seemingly trivial decisions that kept him alive.
Remembering the previous night’s poker game, Allen went aft to his locker. He grabbed the $1000 he’d won, ran back up on deck, and made for the Houston’s stern. Allen found piles of empty ammo cans littering the deck and began throwing the watertight containers overboard for others to use as rafts. In the confusion, he suddenly found himself without a life jacket or raft and jumped overboard. "This was my home, I couldn't imagine it going down," he recounted later. "But I realized that if I was going to live I was going to have to get off because it actually was going down."
In oily seas, Allen swam clear of the Houston. Japanese shells continued to slam into the ship, sending shock waves through the water. Finally, she tolled over on her side and nosed into the waves. The Houston fell 190 feet to the bottom of the Java Sea. But for the crewmen, the ordeal was just beginning.
"The Japanese were going around in small boats and machine-gunning everybody on small rafts, so we stayed away from anything afloat," said Allen. If he hadn’t gone to retrieve his poker winnings, Allen might have been among the crewmen killed on the rafts.
Only 369 men out of a crew of nearly 1100 made it off the Houston and survived the ensuing ordeal in the water. Besides the Japanese and the sharks, the crewmen also had to deal with the Sunda Strait. This treacherous, five-knot current drains the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean, between Java and Sumatra. Swells would sweep men toward shore then, agonizingly, drag them back out. Many were swept past the last point of land into the open ocean where there was no hope of survival. Allen, a strong swimmer, fought for shore.
“My friend and I swam all night," said Allen. “We had nothing [for flotation]. Around two or three in the morning, we were exhausted, floating vertically in the water, and a shark swam under my feet. It was quite frightening. If I could have, I would have risen completely out of the water."
During the night, Allen took inventory of his belongings. Reaching back for his poker winnings, he felt only torn cloth. His wallet and pocket were gone. Shrapnel must have ripped both away. At least the padding had saved his hide. Now, exhausted, Allen again swam toward distant land outlined by moonlight.
"The next morning, we swam up to a Japanese carrier. The crew threw garbage at us and ran us off. Later, there was a landing barge. Someone on board spotted us and came over. I felt very much like a fish in a barrel because he pointed a rifle at me. And I’d been told the Japanese didn’t take prisoners so that was my first experience at dying, because I thought I was dead then."
Instead, Allen was hauled on board and given a cigarette. His offer to pay the Japanese officer met with a flurry of punches and kicks. Allen’s gesture was taken as an insult. This was his first lesson in the Japanese soldier’s code of honor. Rare acts of kindness weren’t for sale, but many other things were. Minor mistakes could cost prisoners their lives.
The following day, Allen landed on Java with the Japanese invasion and was immediately put to work as a human mule. He pulled a rickshaw-like cart loaded with enough food, water, and ammunition for two Japanese soldiers. Barefoot on hot asphalt, he and another prisoner struggled with the load 24 hours a day. Slowing down meant a jab in the back from a bayonet on a rifle tied to the cart. For further encouragement, a Japanese soldier walking alongside held a string tied to the rifle’s trigger. "Nobody believes this, but we actually got to the point where we took turns sleeping while pulling the cart. I was so exhausted I just leaned forward and the other prisoner would guide the cart," said Allen.
The POWs were not given food or water. Allen stole occasional drinks out of filthy creeks, having to shove human feces aside to cup a handful of water. It’s a textbook way to get dysentery, but he was close to dying of thirst anyway. Aside from nausea, chills, fever and cramps, dysentery makes it hard for the body to retain water. Already dehydrated, Allen was now violently sick and close to death. He was descending a ladder from a world with rules to a place with only one: survival.
Four days later, the POWs arrived at the Japanese camp. After fighting the war in the Pacific for barely over one month, Allen and the remaining crew of the USS Houston, along with Dutch, Australians, other Allied military men, would spend the next three-and-a-half years as prisoners.
The Japanese army wasn’t prepared for the arrival of so many POWs and was now faced with feeding two armies. There wasn’t much question who would be better fed. In the first three months, the six-foot-tall Allen dropped to under 100 pounds. Shoved inside a stifling, tiny schoolroom with 21 men, Allen squatted for two weeks with no room to lie down. Everyone had dysentery.
One day, as he walked back from the nearby jungle, which served as the POWs’ latrine, Allen fell to his knees and almost lost consciousness. The Japanese ordered other prisoners to carry him to a tiny shack, where they expected him to die. Passing Javanese natives took pity and threw Allen taro root, the only nutrition he’d had in days. Soon, the summer rains came, breaking the heat and filling the coconut shells he'd placed nearby with clean water. After several days, Allen regained strength. Realizing how bad he smelled and looked, he wandered away from the camp and down to the river. There, surprised Japanese soldiers again took him prisoner.
After six months on Java, the Japanese decided to combine their POWs in Singapore. They distributed posters picturing a mountain resort and told the POWs they were going to this place to do light work and regain their health.
As he boarded a freighter bound for Singapore, Allen realized the ship's hull was so thin he could put a hammer through it. The ships were unseaworthy old rust buckets the U.S. had sold as scrap iron to the Japanese before the war. Down in the hold, with the hatches sealed, the POWs waited five days for the ships to move. Without food, water, or bathrooms Allen stood in the darkness as a rising tide of human waste washed against his bare feet. Everyone again got dysentery.
When they finally left Java, the POWs were again targets at sea.
In the six months since the Houston sank, the Allies had fortified Australia and had begun flying missions over the Java Sea. The slow-moving, defenseless freighters, flying the Japanese flag, were easy targets. A bomb turned the first POW ship into a rust-colored stain on the water. No one knows how many died.
Allen, in the second freighter, felt sudden course changes as it tried to zig-zag away. Once, a 2000-pound bomb screamed down, glanced off the side of the ship and exploded in the water. But the paper-thin hull was shredded with shrapnel, killing 50 men. After five days at sea, the ship limped into Singapore.
“I got off the ship from Java starving to death and stole a coconut,” Allen recalls. “I didn't know it was stealing. There were coconuts and fruit on the trees and I took one. The English MP arrested me and told me they were going to put me in the brig because it was the king's fruit. I despised the English."
The English POWs at Singapore were also in charge of picking work crews for the Japanese. Most of those crews were made up of the newly arrived Americans. The workload was uneven, but the conditions more survivable than in Java. Allen entered his eighth month as a POW.
The Imperial Army's master plan for World War II was to link up with Adolf Hitler somewhere in the Middle East. To get there, Japan had to take India. But after losing Burma, the British held the line in India. For Japan, continuing the battle demanded men and supplies from Tokyo. But Allied submarines harassed the shipping lanes, so the decision was made to build a railroad.
Allen and the men of the Houston were loaded on another freighter and shipped a thousand miles to Moulmein, Burma. On arrival, they were greeted by a Japanese sergeant speaking perfect English. He informed them that they were the rabble of a defeated army and would be building a railroad. Allen’s group worked east from Burma, while another snuggled west from Thailand.
As early as 1898 the rail line had been surveyed. Sections of the railroad in Burma had been operating since 1925. British engineers had already decided before the war that it would be impossible to extend the Burma Railway to Bangkok, Thailand.
But the Japanese found those British plans and decided otherwise. This missing leg would complete a railway from Vietnam, across Southeast Asia to their front lines in Burma. What the plans didn't reveal was 250 miles of the most inhospitable climate and geography in the world.
Railroad track would have to cross narrow mountain passes and leech-filled rivers, across country that soaks up 300 inches of rain a year. Beriberi and malaria were also waiting in this jungle. A minor scratch could turn into a tropical ulcer eating away a man's flesh and exposing his bones.
The POWs soon believed the Japanese intended to work them to death. A typical day was 18 hours long. The temperature reached 100 degrees, and the humidity hovered near 90 percent. Uniforms and shoes had long ago worn our and given way to loincloths. The POWs looked more like barefoot primitives than fighting men.
“Three times a day we got rice, and if they had some type of vegetable to throw into it, we really had a treat,” said Allen. “I think it was about the 100-kilo camp [camps were named by distance in kilometers from Moulmein] they started bringing in horse meat. And even though today you wouldn’t even consider feeding it to an animal, it was the most delicious thing we ever had. It had about an inch of maggots when they brought it in, and they would halfway scrape them off before they’d throw it in the pot. So that was really quite a treat.”
The POWs’ diet made them part of modem medical texts on tropical disease. The rice they ate was polished; polishing is a milling process that rubs off the inner bran layer of the grain, leaving it with little vitamin content. Malnourished, the body stops processing food leading to dangerous weight loss. This combined with hard labor and a disease-filled jungle are the perfect conditions for beriberi. Limbs swell, muscles weaken, then atrophy. For many POWs, it was impossible to stand up. The miserable conditions also fostered a particularly resistant strain of malaria that included repeated relapses.
“It was awful easy to become despondent and think, well I can only last another few months in this jungle. You could actually watch a man die," Allen said, remembering the empty stares of those just waiting to go. All you had to do was give up hope. If you ever thought the war was going to last longer than three months, you were dead in a couple weeks."
"You had to have extreme hope that the war would end within three months. I didn't give up, but in the back of my mind was the constant nagging thought that I’d never make it."
Malaria struck Allen with a fever so severe he couldn’t stand. Still he was forced to continue working. Carried on a stretcher to a pile of boulders, he lie pounding away on the rocks with a mallet. Finally, dysentery forced him into the POWs’ hospital, weighing just 75 pounds.
Human milk was the only nutritious food available. With severe dysentery and the accompanying diarrhea, it was all Allen could digest. “There was no treatment or medicine, it was just a place to die, so there were no rules,” said Allen. “Some of the POWs took up a collection. They carried me to the fence surrounding the camp where native women waited. For two dollars they would stick their breasts through the fence." For many, two dollars and a visit to the fence was the price of life. A night's poker winnings would have saved many lives.
Beatings with rifles and bamboo poles were common occurrences for the POWs. Most were survivable, but any inconvenience caused by the POWs threatened their lives. On one occasion, Allen was forced to work late on the railroad tracks, causing his guard to have to stay late. As they returned to camp the guard swung the butt of his rifle at Allen. “He was actually trying to kill me. He came at me with his rifle and brought it down to hit me in the head and he would've crushed my skull if I’d let him. But I put my arm up, and he broke it.”
But Allen’s arm stayed in a sling too long; cartilage formed around the elbow, and he was no longer able to bend it. One morning, months after the first incident, he went to the guard house to pick up shovels for digging latrines; inside he found the same guard, who asked what was wrong with Allen’s arm. Knowing that blaming the guard would mean another severe beating or death,
Allen tried to talk his way out. “I said, 'I'm a rather not too bright American, and I fell down and broke it.' And he said in his pidgin English, 'I'm a good doctor, I’ll fix it.’ So he put my arm on the guard table, and got up on the table, and jumped on it, and re-broke the arm.”
Always hungry, slaving away on the railroad, and apprehensively waiting for the next beating, the POWs struggled to hold on to any hope, any sign that there might be an end. For Hank Allen, it came one morning as he paddled a raft of gasoline drums down river to be filled at a barge. Darkly tanned, wearing a loincloth, he looked like something out of the Stone Age. Suddenly the 20th Century arrived. A U.S. B-17 Flying Fortress came screaming up the river, just clearing the treetops. Allen stared into a glass bubble on the nose of the plane. Behind it was the smiling face of a shirtless machine-gunner, sunning himself. In an instant, he was gone. But Allen finally had a sign that home still existed.
More often, spirits were lifted by something simpler. “In the few minutes after we’d eat, before we’d go to sleep, we’d lie in our bunks and build a feast,” remembered Allen. “We would start from scratch and build a complete meal. Then you’d sit down with a glass of wine after dinner and you’d go through the whole dream sequence of it, you know, more or less fantasizing. It was one of the things that kept you alive, having some positive thoughts."
There were minor victories for Allen and the POWs. Many remember the Dutch doctor who risked his life daily. He talked the Japanese into bringing him medicine to treat them. Then the doctor used fake compounds on the Japanese, saving the medicine for his fellow POWs. And with survival at stake, capitalism boomed. A shipmate of Allen’s did a thriving business in venereal disease placebos. He sold them to Thai natives to resell to the Japanese. The plaster-of-Paris tablets brought $5 apiece. Near the end of the war, he escaped from the prison camp with $33,000 sewn up in a softball.
Some of the jokes played on the Japanese were a little more deadly. On the railway’s major bridges large makeshift piledrivers were used to sink support poles into the ground. The POWs lifted heavy weights using rope pulleys then dropped their lines, sending the load crashing down. A Japanese soldier stood on a scaffold surrounding it, guiding the contraption. Before going up he would distribute cigarettes to his POW crew, trying to buy a little safety. But as the piledriver picked up momentum it would occasionally “accidentally” topple over, killing the Japanese supervisor. It was a dangerous game played by desperate men.
As the Burma Railway neared completion, the POWs faced another problem. The rail line was then a military target. With added fuel tanks, B-24 bombers could strike the railway from their bases in India. The POWs camped alongside the tracks in huts had no protection at all. Although they were in terrible danger, some remember running naked, waving their loincloths, to welcome the attacking Allied planes. As soon as the planes left, the Japanese climbed out of their bunkers and forced the POWs to start rebuilding.
As depicted in The Bridge on the River Kwai, the primary targets were bridges. During the climactic ending of the movie, a reluctant British officer finally falls on a plunger blowing up the bridge he’d designed. It was a bridge that supported more than a railway; it shored up the dignity and self-respect of the movie prisoners.
But the final conflict the British officer faced was just a convenient piece of Hollywood fiction. Not only did the real POWs have no pride in their railway, they’d do everything possible to delay or sabotage the construction, despite the fact that they were closely watched. Their methods didn't have the drama of dynamite; instead of timers and fuses, anthills were hidden on bridges in hopes that the insects’ voracious appetites would eventually weaken the supports. Sand often found its way into gas tanks. The POWs had no illusions about these gestures ending the war, but little victories were the only ones they had.
Hank Allen’s delicate balancing act between life and death in the jungle ended one day in 1944. The Japanese assembled the POWs and asked for volunteers to go to Japan for interviews with foreign journalists and the Red Cross. The volunteers were told they they would have to agree to say they had just been captured. But it didn't matter to Allen. He seized the chance to leave the jungle. “At that time many men were dying every day," said Allen. “I knew I would never make it through another rainy season. People talk about heroes but survival comes first. I would never betray my country, but I’d say I was captured anywhere to survive.”
Five hundred POW volunteers, Allen among them, were taken by rail to a place most Americans had never heard of — Saigon. A French colony now ruled by the Japanese, Vietnam was the jumping off point for Tokyo, although it was impossible for any ships to leave because American submarines stalked the harbor. Allen would be loaded aboard Tokyo-bound freighters only to be taken off hours later. For once, he was cargo the Japanese wanted to protect.
In Saigon the greatest danger to the POWs was the almost constant U.S. air raids. They were a mixed blessing — as the bombings increased, the Japanese beatings decreased. Eventually the beatings stopped. The POWs later found out this coincided with the August 1945 bombing of Hiroshima.
Soon, instead of bombs, Allied planes dropped pamphlets on Saigon. The pages were coveted with strange characters and pictures of Frank Sinatra. Translated, the message said the war was over, and those who treated the POWs well would be rewarded.
When Hank Allen's war ended, there were no proclamations. No armies of liberation marched triumphantly through the streets. The Japanese guards simply abandoned their prisoners and tried to melt away into the Asian population. With his new freedom, Allen attempted to cram four lost years of living into a few months. He moved into a downtown Saigon apartment with a French-Chinese nightclub singer. That’s where his friends found him when the evacuation planes arrived.
Allen was one of the first POWs airlifted back to the States. The first stop was Calcutta, India, and Allen hurried off the plane to make a telephone call. After four years, only one phone number came to mind: his uncle in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He realized he didn't have any change and made the call collect. A stranger answered. Rosalie Smith said she didn’t know anyone in Calcutta and refused to accept the call. Then the line went dead. So Allen hung up and hopped back on the plane, determined to find out who had answered that phone.
It seemed like days later they landed in the United States. Allen remembers kissing the ground in New York. Thinking about that moment still gives him chills today. There were more girlfriends, food, and drink. And luxuries, like talking without permission.
Allen arrived home in Baton Rouge to find that his uncle had moved. A beautiful young woman now lived there. She was the one who had refused his call from India. Rosalie Allen says she’d do the same today. She and Hank Allen have been married 44 years.
“My return was a tremendous shock. My mother was collecting my insurance, because they had declared me dead,” laughed Allen.
Although everyone wanted to hear his story, he wanted to tell it only once. The following evening, after dinner, his aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother gathered. As Allen told his tale of deprivation as a POW, his aunt interrupted and reminded him things were also tough at home. “And I’ll never forget it. Can you imagine how naive? She said they had butter rationed and sugar rationed. And they had to stand in line for nylons. Americans just didn’t understand."
Allen made the front page of the Baton Rouge paper and became a celebrity in local nightclubs. (In those same clubs, he’d see German POWs out on dates. Some prisoners had it better than others.) He stayed with the navy and, because of his technical background, was assigned to the U.S. missile program in White Sands, New Mexico. The officers quickly learned he was not a man to be ordered around. Allen had a standard response to discipline threats. “I said, ‘there’s nothing in this world you can do that I haven’t seen. When the veneer of civilization melts away, you begin to see life as it is. I look life right straight in the eye.’ "
Allen’s adjustment to a world where hardship is a long wait in line hasn’t been easy. He knows more about what people will do to survive than makes for polite conversation. And when someone hears his story and responds, “I can imagine," Allen smiles, knowing there are some experiences that defy empathy.
“When your life is completely under the control of a sometimes sadistic human being, you become an entirely different animal. And yes, it’s made me stronger, but it’s also twisted my viewpoint somewhat. If anything, it’s made somewhat of an agnostic out of me. It’s rather hard to believe that anything but a vengeful God would let something like that happen.’’
The Burma Railway cost the lives of over 16,000 POWs and 100,000 Asian forced laborers. None of the 43 bridges crossed the River Kwai. But, not wanting to disappoint the tourist trade, Thailand changed the name of a river to accommodate the movie.
Trains still cross a bridge on the River Kwai. Farther down the line there are only vague clearings that hint of former activity. Most of the unmarked graves and the railway have been reclaimed by the jungle, and it’s hard to tell what might have taken place there.
This summer the 163 members of the Houston Survivors Association meet in Dallas. Besides imprisonment, they’ve survived the years of tormented memories that plague former POWs. And when Hank Allen tells war stories, they won’t remind anyone of Rambo.
“I see war as about the stupidest thing mankind ever did. Because war solves nothing," said Allen. “We won a war with Germany and Japan, and who are our biggest competitors today? What did we solve? War is a foolish thing."
On that point the movie version and Allen’s version are the same. In the film’s final scene, the POWs’ doctor, the lone voice of reason, surveys the carnage of the destroyed bridge that cost so many lives to build, and can only reply, “Madness.”