Wise As It Was: ‘Lost Battalion’ found

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, February 17, 2018

Share this page...

Front page

In March of 1942, the men of a North Texas National Guard battalion were captured by the Japanese on the island of Java – and lost.

For months, the war department had no answers for the whereabouts of the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, 36th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, a battalion which included several Wise County residents.

“One of the mysteries that may not be solved until after the war’s close is the fate of the Second Battalion …” the Dallas News wrote in June of 1942, when news of the capture of the 600 North Texas men reached the U.S. “Some of them have probably been killed in action …”

The Messenger reprinted the News’ article with the addendum that several Decatur and Wise County residents had just received letters informing them that their husbands, sons and brothers were among those missing in action.

The Messenger frequently ran letters from local service men stationed in Europe and the Pacific during the war years, and those letters often bookmarked notes on the presumed prisoners of war – lists of the missing men and updates from other servicemen who, perhaps in a case of wishful thinking, believed the 2nd Battalion was still on the loose in Java, engaging the Japanese in gorilla warfare.

In a December 1942 issue of the Messenger, Billy Bills, a Wichita Falls man, wrote his account of the war. Bills was the last member of the battalion to leave Java before the invasion, joining the 19th Bombing Squadron in Australia. He believed his friends from North Texas were still alive.

“You can bet your bottom dollar that if there is even one man left alive, he is fighting,” Bills said. “I am sure those fellows retired into the hills and that they are still giving the Japanese plenty of hell. They will be there dishing it out when we take back the islands – they will be there because they are Texans and the grandest bunch of fellows that ever lived.”

In late January of 1943, news finally reached Wise that its soldiers of the 2nd Battalion were indeed prisoners of war. The parents of Thurman Rhine of Decatur were sent a telegram from the war department on Jan. 23 to inform them of their son’s POW status. The telegram came too late for his mother, who died the day before with her son’s whereabouts still unknown.

But the Rhines’ telegram “brought a renewal of mingled hope and fear for the relatives of the other missing men,” the Messenger reported. “Floods of unofficial reports and rumors during the last year have established few facts concerning the missing battalion of North Texas artillerymen.”

More news of the men slowly trickled in. The Redwines of Decatur, whose son Ardell was among the missing, learned of the fate of their son in March. The Redwines received 44 cards and letters from strangers across the country that said they’d heard a message from Ardell on a broadcast from Tokyo.

“Hello, Dad, Mother, and all the others,” Ardell Redwine’s message went. “I am well and in good hands. Don’t worry, love to all, Ardell.”

The message was part of a program where Japanese radio announcers read letters from POWs in English. More parents in Wise became inundated with letters from out-of-state concerning the broadcasts, with more welcome messages – their sons were prisoners, but they were alive.

“Reports from Wise County’s Lost Battalion continue to come in … lifting the heavy burden to some extent, that has almost been too heavy to bear for the past two years,” the Messenger wrote in December 1943. “Many of these parents have prayed night after night, that news from their sons would come by Christmas 1943, and that prayer has been answered.”

Though the men were confirmed prisoners of war by 1943, what they endured during their captivity wouldn’t be clear until 1944. Many of the men of the 2nd Battalion, along with the survivors of the sunken ship USS Houston, were forced to work on the Burma Railway in Thailand, the railroad depicted in the 1957 film “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

More than 80 men in the 2nd Battalion died during their captivity.

The Wise County Heritage Museum in Decatur is home to a Lost Battalion room, dedicated both to the men who died and those who survived to return home once the war ended.

Leave a Reply. Note: As of March 24, 2011, all posted comments will include the users full name. News and Blog Comment Guidelines

You must be logged in to post a comment.