Sailor Survives Sinking of the USS Houston – and Becomes POW

Bill Ingram was 17 years old when he survived the sinking of the USS Houston in the Java Sea on Feb. 28, 1942 — only to be captured by Japanese forces.

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Captured: Stories of American World War II Prisoners of War:

On February 28, 1942, William (‘Bill’) Ingram was below deck working as a powder monkey – nickname for a crew member who guides heavy powder bags sent up on an elevator from the depths of the ship to a gun crew in the turret on deck – when a Japanese torpedo struck the U.S.S. Houston.

At general quarters the seamen worked as fast as they could, loading the powder bags in two-and-a-half-foot projectiles. These, when shot, could travel 12 miles.

That was the case as the crew of the Houston fought in the Battle of the Java Sea.

Fighting furiously in the middle of the Sunda Strait Ingram was shocked to hear the ominous order every sailor dreads – the Houston was sinking and the crew should abandon ship.

It was not the first time the crew had faced the possibility of entering Davy Jones’ Locker. Recently, the Japanese had reported the Houston — President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s flagship — as sunk. She had, in fact, evaded so many attacks that she was nicknamed “The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast.”

All of the time Bill Ingram was aboard the USS Houston, the crew was at general quarters– prepared for battle.

Ingram was born in 1924 in Springfield, Illinois. Like most Americans of the 1930s, he, his parents and four siblings learned to do without everything but necessities during the Great Depression. Ingram thought of nothing but the survival of his family. He quit school in the eighth grade to earn money by selling newspapers and working at a roller rink. 

In June 1941 William Ingram, Sr. signed the form, giving permission for 17-year-old Bill to enlist. Being in the Navy not only promised the thrill of adventure in traveling around the world, but guarantee of a steady paycheck  and ‘three squares and a cot’ — military slang for three meals and a place to sleep, precious commodities at that time.

Bill Ingram traveled to Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago for basic training. After graduating, he was assigned to the Houston. But when he arrived at Hawaii in fall 1941, the Houston was at sea on maneuvers.

Bill waited on the USS Shalmat, an old troop transport thatwas five miles from Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes attacked the American Navy base.

The deaths of thousands of sailors and civilians infuriated the American public. Within days the American Congress had declared war on Japan and the other Axis powers of Germany and Italy.

In January 1945, Ingram finally boarded the Houston. As the youngest member of the 1,100-member crew, his assigned post was the starboard part of the powder box for one of the ship’s nine eight-inch guns.

On February 28, dozens of fellow seamen rushed around the ship to secure their safety. Ingram could not move. The order to abandon ship had terrorized him.

Another sailor named Red Clymer, seeing the young seaman’s frozen expression, hauled the teen to the side of the ship. Terrified, Ingram pulled back.

Clymer found a life ring for Ingram and a flotation device for himself. Then Clymer hauled their bodies over the bow where they were instantly engulfed in a deluge of fuel oil and salt water.

Their heads bobbed in the water, along with dozens of other sailors. The sea which the crew had gazed at for months with affection and even camaraderie now challenged them in a menacing arena.

Clymer shouted at Ingram to swim away from the ship as fast as possible. Ingram knew when the Houston rolled, its back tow would pull anyone under who was close to certain death.

Ingram shot through the water as fast as his skinny arms would take him. Oil caked his face, making it difficult to see. With a thankful heart he recalled the instructor who had given him free swimming lessons as a child at the local YMCA.

Captured! Stories of American World War II Prisoners of War

The night provided no illumination with only lights from the burning, sinking ship filling the sky. As Ingram propelled himself through the water, he struggled to stay afloat. “My limbs felt as though they weighed of lead,” he said.

Drowning bodies lay scattered as men submitted to the travesty of a watery grave.

After plowing through the tumultuous waves for a long while, Ingram paused to gulp in deep breaths. Twisting his body to check on the progress of Clymer, he felt a wave of panic at not spotting the seaman. Ingram attempted to call his name, but the sound dissipated among the other seamen screaming frantically for help.

Resigned and feeling very alone, Ingram resumed swimming while praying for Clymer’s safety.

After spending a terrifying night in the cold sea, a Japanese patrol boat spied Ingram in the water. They ordered him to come aboard. Barefoot and dressed only in underwear, he became a prisoner of war.

Prisoner of War medal

Ingram then became a Prisoner of War until the end of the war in 1945. Part of his duties as a prisoner was to help the Japanese build the Thai-Burma railroad that would stretch 250 miles to Bangkok. Its purpose was to supply Japanese troops and weapons in the Burma campaign of the war.

After the war, Bill Ingram stayed in the Navy for 22 years, retiring at the rank of Chief Petty Officer. Later, he worked in the iron industry and lived with his wife and two children in Jacksonville, Florida.

“I loved being in the military and would do it again except for the Burmese particular,” he said.

Note: Of the 1,068 men who manned the Houston, approximately 368 escaped from the sinking ship, only to be captured in the sea or jungles of Java. Only 289 survived the brutal treatment from the Japanese prisoner of war camps.

The Thai portion of the railway continues to exist. Out of respect for the dead soldiers that built the Kwai Bridge, a new bridge was built and the original bridge closed to trains in 2014. The bridge is still open to foot traffic.

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