Texas is the proud home of more than 170,000 servicemembers and roughly 1.5 million veterans. Within our state’s borders lies Military City, USA – also known as San Antonio – and many military installations, large and small.
But among all our servicemembers and veterans, Texas’ most decorated unit remains the group of 532 brave men we now call the “Texas Lost Battalion,” who were captured by the Japanese 75 years ago, in March 1942.
The story starts earlier, in the fall of 1940, when the 36th Division of the Texas National Guard arrived just outside of Brownswood at one of Texas’ largest training centers, Camp Bowie. World War II had engulfed both Europe and Asia, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had issued orders in late August to mobilize the National Guard.
After a brief period of training, the unit traveled to a port in San Francisco, embarked on The Republic as the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery, 36th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, and set sail for the Pacific Theater.
Two weeks into the journey, on December 7, 1941, The Republic and its convoy were just west of Hawaii when troops heard the news of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States officially joined the war, and The Republic shifted course from its original destination, the Philippines, to defend the Dutch East Indies.
The 36th Infantry Division arrived on the island of Java on January 11, 1942, the very same day the Japanese began their invasion of the Dutch Islands. The 36th Infantry Division supported the 19th Heavy Bombardment Group as they fought off the Japanese. But when that Group left Java for Australia, the 36th was left behind in the increasingly grim Java.
It was then, after most other Allied units had retreated to Australia, that the Japanese completed the demise of the Dutch Islands and took the remaining units prisoner. The Japanese neglected to file the identities of the captured units, so the 36th Infantry Division fell off the United States’ radar. The U.S. Military and the soldiers’ families had lost track of the 36th Infantry Division, and so they earned the fabled name “Texas Lost Battalion.”
For the next three years, the Texas Lost Battalion was forced to endure brutal conditions in Japanese Prisoner of War (POW) camps. The Texas soldiers were dragged through the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Burma, and Thailand, working back-breaking jobs in brutal conditions as their fellow POWs perished around them, including the Railroad of Death connecting Burma and Bangkok and the infamous Bridge over the River Kwai.
The Texas Lost Battalion was – figuratively – found on September 16, 1944. On that day, American submarines sank two Japanese freighters transporting British and Australian POWs in the Pacific, and the surviving POWs told stories of working alongside Texas soldiers from the 36th Infantry Division.
On August 15, 1945, the soldiers of the Texas Lost Battalion were finally liberated – some 42 months after their capture. Unfortunately, not all of the 532 brave troops that embarked on The Republic in 1941 returned home after the war. Each of them has a story to tell, and the legacy of their heroic service lives on.
Their story is one of unwavering courage, unspeakable sacrifice, and unbreakable dedication. It’s a story we must continue to share, generation to generation. That’s why earlier this month, I submitted their story to be memorialized in the Congressional Record, so Texans, and all Americans, can reflect upon the storied Texas Lost Battalion and always remember that freedom isn’t free.