Prisoner of the Samurai
Surviving the Sinking of the USS Houston and the Death Railway
James Gee and Rosalie H. Smith, edited by Allyson Smith
Casemate, Philadelphia, 2018, 224 pages
Book Review published on: January 11, 2019
Prisoner of the Samurai is an incredibly well-written, first-hand account of the heinous conditions endured by Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and their treatment by their Japanese captors in Southeast Asia during World War II. The narrative, as told by Gee, a surviving marine, is made more impactful by its straightforward style and unvarnished details of the courage, compassion, and determination required of the prisoners to endure the Japanese POW camps. It is a riveting and awe-inspiring book that brings to the forefront the worst of war and the extremes of humanity.
The USS Houston was a Northampton-class cruiser commissioned in June 1930. She was the former flagship of the Asiatic Fleet and arguably President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite warship, owing to the fact that Roosevelt took several extended cruises on the Houston in the 1930s. James W. Gee, known as Jimmy to his friends, was attending the University of Texas when he and his buddies enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1940. Gee was part of Houston’s seventy-four-man marine detachment when it was sunk in the Sundra Strait between Java and Sumatra (Indonesia) during the Battle of the Java Sea on 1 March 1942.
In 1945, Rosalie Smith, then Navy Lt. Rosalie Hamric, was the nurse in charge of the psychiatric ward of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Hospital, where Gee was undergoing medical treatment and rehabilitation. Part of his therapy entailed writing about his experiences while in captivity, which Smith helped compile and edit. However, the manuscript for Prisoner of the Samurai sat idle in her attic for decades following her unexpected death, before being discovered and edited by her daughter Allyson Smith.
Prisoner of the Samurai describes Gee’s harrowing experiences during the Battles of the Flores and Java Seas; the subsequent sinking of the Houston; his at-sea survival, capture, and imprisonment; and his eventual liberation and rehabilitation. In great detail, Smith helps Gee chronicle his experiences and those of a handful of his fellow captives (Bob McCann, Chuck Satterlee, Gordon Strong, Johnny Sayre, Marv Jones, Mike Sullivan, “Tex” McFarland, and Tom O’Neil) as they were forced into performing hard labor, unloading enemy ships, and building the “Death Railway” in Burma; subsisting on scant, putrid, and often maggot-infested food; all while battling some of the most dreadful of medical maladies such as malaria, beriberi, dysentery, and tropical ulcers. Arguably, the most difficult emotion for a POW to overcome is the fear of the unknown. How long will I be imprisoned? Will I survive? Does anyone outside this camp know I am alive? Will I ever see my family again? The barbaric and psychopathic actions of the Japanese guards, being moved from one prison camp to another, and not knowing if one will survive in the cargo hold of a Japanese “hell-ship” under constant attack from Allied aircraft placed the most mentally taxing demands on these POWs. Still, they endured.
The central theme of this book undoubtedly revolves around the incredible compassion and comradery that built an indomitable will amongst these POWs with one goal in mind—to make it home alive. Enduring the lows of their incarceration was offset by transitory highs: spotting a tiny U.S flag waved by a Javanese local, amusing prisoner-performed plays, Johnny Sayre’s singing, a visit from the heroic “Jungle Doc”—Dutch physician Dr. Han Hekking, or B-29s flying over their coal mining camp forty miles outside of Nagasaki, Japan.
Prisoner of the Samurai is a compelling, quick read that highlights the unsinkable “human spirit,” and a must read for future generations, lest we forget the sacrifices of the greatest generation. Based on my personal experience with Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School, I believe Prisoner of the Samurai should be required reading for every military member attending SERE School. The book is an extraordinary memoir of one man’s ordeal under the most barbaric circumstances imaginable for three plus years; how he and his tight-knit group of fellow prisoners banded together; displayed the utmost courage, compassion, and resiliency; and turned their will to live into an unassailable force that ensured their survival and eventual return home.
Book Review written by: Capt. James F. Buckley, U.S. Navy, Retired, Fort Belvoir, Virginia