The early months of 1942 were a tough time for the Allied navies in the Western Pacific. In its successful bid to control vital oil and food producing regions, a superior Japanese navy destroyed the naval port of Darwin and invaded Java. Dutch, American, British and Australian warships took heavy losses in the battles of the Java Sea and Banda Sea.
Lieutenant Richard Antrim was XO of the American destroyer Pope, which in March 1942 was escorting the damaged British heavy cruiser Exeter to safety when they both came under Japanese attack. The Pope escaped, but was eventually tracked down and sunk by a Japanese air strike. Antrim and all but one of his crew were able to abandon the ship. Though wounded, Antrim gathered his fellow sailors in their life rafts and allocated scant food rations.
A Japanese warship picked up the 150 sailors after three days and transported them to a POW camp in the Celebes. The Japanese regarded surrender as a dishonor, and considered POW’s as subhuman. They routinely beat prisoners and withheld food and medical aid. One morning in April, 1942, a Japanese guard began brutally beating an American prisoner who had not bowed properly. Other guards joined in, and soon the man was unconscious, close to death. At this point, Antrim stepped in and, using pidgin and sign language, asked the guards to discuss the infraction. When they refused, he volunteered to take the remainder of the punishment himself. Antrim’s action so impressed the Japanese guards that they stopped beating the prisoner and instead took him to the infirmary. They even bowed (albeit slightly) to Antrim. What he had done fit the ancient Japanese code of “bushido,” or warrior loyalty.
Antrim’s fellow prisoners were also impressed. They cheered loudly when Antrim volunteered to take the punishment, and he became the de facto leader of the prisoners in the camp. Antrim was able to negotiate improved treatment for all prisoners from their Japanese captors because of their greater respect for him and his fellow officers in the camp.
Antrim took charge of a labor detail tasked with digging protective trenches in the camp. He cleverly had his men dig the trenches in the shape of “US” to signal their presence to Allied bombers. For this action, Antrim was awarded the Bronze Star by President Truman in 1947. Antrim was also awarded the Medal of Honor for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” in saving the life of his fellow prisoner.
Antrim retired from the Navy in 1954 with the rank of Rear Admiral. As a Medal of Honor recipient he frequently spoke at patriotic events. In a 1967 Veterans Day speech he urged his fellow veterans to fight crime, poverty and prejudice. He told them that “The United States has crossed a threshold of a broad social revolution, the aim of which is, in part, the elimination of poverty and prejudice.” This, he said, would lead to “a golden era of America.”
Photo credit: U.S. Navy.