True grit: 73rd Lost Battalion Reunion honors hero

By Austin Jackson | Published Wednesday, August 15, 2018

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SURVIVOR – Lost Battalion member and Texas National Guardsman Rufus Choate, 95, was recognized at the 73rd Lost Battalion Reunion, Friday at the Decatur Conference Center. He is one of four surviving Lost Battalion members and was the only one able to attend the reunion last weekend. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

When an 18-year-old Rufus Choate stepped on the scale before entering the Pacific Theater as a Texas National Guardsman, he weighed 155 pounds. When he returned home from Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, he weighed just 97.

The now 95-year-old Choate, who now lives in Arlington, is still haunted from his three-and-a-half years spent imprisoned by the Japanese Army during World War II.

He has scars on his body, and memories of sadistic guards, waiting for an excuse to assert their power, still carve through his brain. But something else was brought back from Japan.

Choate returned to U.S. soil with the lifelong bonds forged through starvation and the depths of human depravity. He’s a member of the Lost Battalion, a brotherhood that’s shrunk considerably over the years, but will be long-remembered for their fortitude and strength through the worst of circumstances.

Last weekend, those bonds were honored and nurtured at the Lost Battalion reunion held for the first time in Decatur. For Choate, one of the four surviving members from the original 902 that were imprisoned, revisiting those years is bittersweet. He said maintaining his bonds with families of survivors is what it’s all about.

“It’s good to be surrounded by friends,” Choate said. “The bonds are very strong. We were together through a lot of extreme hardships for a long time, taking care of each other and looking out for one another. You know, a lot of the time, it was just nice to have someone to talk to.”

Standing Ovation

STANDING OVATION – Rufus Choate, 95, received a standing ovation at the 73rd Lost Battalion Reunion dinner and dance Friday at the Decatur Conference Center. Choate was held in captivity for three-and-a-half years in Nagasaki, Japan. He lost more than 55 pounds before he came home. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Choate, along with 533 Army Texas National Guardsmen, were captured by Japanese forces. In 1945, 442 guardsmen returned home. The rest of the Lost Battalion was made up of 335 men from the Navy, who swam ashore from the Cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) after it was sunk and 35 Marines who were also captured. Only 209 of those men came home.

He spent most his captivity working in the shipyards at the prison camp. They worked grueling hours on Japanese ships, day after day while being fed minuscule portions of rice. He lost 58 pounds during the time

There were no safety precautions. Choate said he suffered an injury he still deals with after a piece of metal from a table saw struck him. There was no such thing as work boots there.

“If something dropped on your foot, it was gone,” he said.

Beyond the working conditions, Choate said the worst part was the cruelty of the guards. But something that he had to deal with once he was free from their tyrannical authority was feeling stuck.

“There was just no advancement,” he said. “It was like a void; we didn’t advance mentally or mature. The food was scarce; and the work was hard. A lot of the guys had health problems when they got back.”

His Lost Battalion brothers helped him acclimate to civilian life. They’ve stayed in touch and seen each other at 73 years of reunions.

Choate received a standing ovation at the Lost Battalion reunion dinner at the Decatur Conference Center Friday. He was the only surviving member in attendance this year.

Terri Shields helped organize the event. Shields’ father was a member of the Battalion; and she said it was a special to have Choate in attendance; as well as have the reunion in Wise County for the first time.

“The Lost Battalion was a special group of people,” she said. “There’s a reason why their survival rate was unprecedented.”

Choate said what kept them going through awful circumstances was having friends and brothers at their side. He explained the bonds were a little different than his blood-family members.

“You got your brothers and sisters and like any families you have arguments, but I can’t remember ever getting in a fight with any of my battalion brothers,” he said. “We just helped each other through.”

One of the men Choate became particularly close with was a bunk neighbor who became a lifelong friend. Choate said he didn’t grow up with a lot of formal education but was one of the smartest men he’s known. He died recently.

“He was one of the best poker players I’ve ever come across,” Choate said. “I miss him. He used to come to the reunions every year. We’d get together and more or less hang out. We just got a good relationship with these guys.”

The amount of Lost Battalion survivors has steadily dwindled at the reunions over the years, but the spouses and family members still make it a point to attend.

“The families paid a price, too,” Shields said. “We all have a special bond.”

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