One hundred and fifty anxious faces looked back at the USS Pope, slowly sinking into a watery grave. The ship "that was old enough to vote", an old four-stack destroyer, had served well during its short combat career. The Battle of the Java Sea was its third major engagement. It was only three months after Pearl Harbor and the Japanese ruled the seas. A massive force of enemy cruisers and destroyers sought to encircle Java, a small island of the Malay Archipelago. As darkness fell on the eve of February 28, 1942 three ships slipped out of Surabaya in a desperate attempt to escape the snare the enemy was creating. Two of the ships were British, the heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and the destroyer HMS Encounter. The third was the USS Pope. Through the night they had quietly tried to elude the enemy, but with daylight they were spotted by enemy aircraft and quickly engaged by nearby enemy cruisers and destroyers. All three ships fought valiantly, but in vain. The Exeter and Encounter quickly sank and the badly damaged Pope was spared the same fate only by being hidden in a passing rain squall. The reprieve was only temporary. Damaged by enemy shells and bombs from Japanese carrier-launched aircraft, the Pope had slowly begun to sink.
As the sun set across the ocean, it would have been a night for panic and terror, were it not for the courage of the Pope's Executive Officer, Lieutenant Richard Nott Antrim. As the ship had begun its slow descent to the ocean floor, he had organized life rafts and a single whaleboat to bear the 151 man crew to safety. Despite wounds from the earlier engagement, he struggled through the pain to lead and encourage his men. With great foresight he had attempted to insure provisions for an ordeal at sea, then distributed the meager rations among the men. All but one of the Pope's crew survived the sinking, a tribute to Antrim's cool, effective leadership. But for them all, the greatest ordeal lay ahead.
For three days the sailors remained together in a tight group, enduring the heat of the tropical sun, a merciless ocean, and a shortage of food and water. Richard Antrim's calm voice, effective leadership, and valiant example held them together. Then, on March 5th they were plucked from the sea....by a Japanese war ship. They became prisoners of war, taken to Makassar in the Celebes, one of the larger islands that was firmly under the control of the Japanese army. It was there that not only allegiances, but customs, collided.
"BUSHIDO" is a Japanese word meaning "the way of the warrior". It was an ancient code with roots in feudal Japan, a code that demanded endurance, courage, and other warrior-like traits. It also demanded that any warrior who forfeited his honor in any way, should take his own life rather than live in dis-honor. To the Japanese soldiers of World War II, a prisoner was a warrior who had forfeited his honor and should have taken his own life. For this reason their hatred of Americans as enemies at war, turned to absolute disdain towards prisoners of war. Bushido justified, for the Japanese captor, sub-human treatment of prisoners, men the Japanese considered to be cowards and unworthy of respect. Torture was common, arbitrary, and deadly. This was the fate that awaited the crew of the Pope when they joined more than 2,500 other prisoners at the POW camp at Makassar.
For weeks the prisoners had lived in fear, watched fellow prisoners broken and abused by sadistic guards who viewed their lives as something lower than the most basic animal life forms. Cries of pain and anguish filled the long nights, and the sights of death were quickly seen with the dawn of each heart-rending day. Hope quickly vanished as prisoners did their best to avoid eye-contact with the enemy and struggled to obey each order to the ultimate degree. They had seen time and again how quickly, how cruelly, and how deadly, the slightest infraction could be.
Time lost meaning, all that the prisoners could do was hope to survive each night, then pray for the end of each day. Tension mounted on both sides, and the situation was extremely volatile. It could erupt into mass murder at any moment, for the slightest, or even for no, reason at all. It was in this climate that the 2,700 prisoners watched in pained agony as one lieutenant failed to bow too low to a Japanese guard one horrible day in April. As was expected, and all too common, the reaction was swift and violent.
The Japanese guard flew into a rage, venting all of his anger in a swift series of abusing blows from his swagger stick. It was an insane, violent flurry of blows that broke the skin and crushed the body of the lieutenant. Those Japanese guards who witnessed it felt no compassion, content to believe the battered lieutenant was receiving all he deserved and perhaps not enough. The frightened prisoners could not but look on helplessly, knowing that the slightest movement might draw attention to them and result in a similar or worse fate. But Lieutenant Richard Nott Antrim had had enough. His heart breaking for the lieutenant he stepped forward, calling attention to himself to plead for mercy. It was an act that could have been perceived as insane as the wrath the guard vented on his victim, a hopeless gesture that could only result in two deaths instead of one. But it was an act the Naval lieutenant believed had to be done, regardless of the cost.
With the broken body of the lieutenant laying at their feet the lieutenant faced the enraged guard to plead the case of his brother. Struggling with broken English and gestures, he tried to convince the guard that enough had been done, that the lieutenant had meant no insult. His sincere effort drew the attention of the entire force of enemy guards. Fellow prisoners looked on in amazement and fear, certain bad was about to turn worse. It also attracted the attention of the Japanese commander. Antrim continued to appeal the lieutenant's case, begging for mercy. In the center of the prison compound with trigger happy guards on one side and the abused and demoralized prison population on the other, a "kangaroo court" was held. There would be no mercy. Antrim was ordered to step back while the nearly unconscious lieutenant received his "just sentence".... fifty lashes with a thick, raw hawser.
The helpless lieutenant was already near death from his earlier beating as the first lash of the hawser landed across his body, only to be followed by another, and another, and another. Large welts broke open to spill his blood on the ground and, like a swarm of hungry sharks, the frenzy of the guard administering the punishment created a bloodlust. Fifteen lashes had left the man unconscious, unable to move or flinch from the repeated beating. Three more guards rushed into the scene, brutally kicking at the prostrate form. Further lashes would fall upon a body that could feel no more pain unless something happened.
"Enough!" Spoke the voice of Lieutenant Richard Nott Antrim as a stunned silence fell over the camp at his unprecedented action.
"I'll take the rest!" Lieutenant Antrim said.
Prisoners could only stare in incredulity. The Japanese were stunned. They had never expected to see such an act of unselfish, personal sacrifice by any of the prisoners they despised as sub-human. So stunning was the proclamation, no one on either side of the camp could believe what their ears had heard. Lieutenant Antrim had to repeat his offer.
"If there is to be 50 lashes, I will take the rest of them for him."
This time his stunning pronouncement sunk in. From the ranks of the battered, broken prisoners there erupted a roar of acclaim. Among the Japanese guards there was nothing but silence, amazement, and a slow dawning of what had just occurred before their eyes. It was a defining moment, one of those rare experiences that is so magnificent and powerful, none can deny it. The punishment ended, and a young Naval officer's broken body gently restored, because Richard Nott Antrim cared enough to show the highest degree of brotherhood....unconditional love.
In the years that followed, torture and abuse continued. But the actions of Lieutenant Antrim that day in April gave the Japanese guards a new appreciation for their prisoners and the torture and beatings lessened for a time. For the hopeless men who struggled to find reason to continue, to survive in the living hell to which they had been cast, there was a new inspiration.
On January 17, 1943 station J.L.G.4, Tokyo broadcast a message, read by a Japanese announcer and written by Richard Nott Antrim. It read:
"Dear Mother: The Japanese have given me permission to send a message and I am sending you my love. I am treated fine and in good health. I want you to write in care of the War Prisoners' Information Bureau in Tokyo, through the International Red Cross at Geneva, Switzerland. Love Dick."
Two and a half more years remained before he would see his family again. When he was liberated in September, 1945 he returned home to continue his service in the United States Navy. He never sought recognition, only to serve others. His valor on a momentous day in April, 1942 became known only because it was an act other returning POWs couldn't help relating to others. On January 30, 1947 President Truman invited Commander Antrim to the White House to award him the Medal of Honor with that simple under-statement,
"You did a mighty fine thing."
On a chilly April day in 1969, the sound of "Taps" echoed across the hillsides where warriors rest in Arlington National Cemetery. Beneath a flag draped casket rested the body of a hero far too few people ever met. Most of his neighbors back home in Arkansas saw Dick Antrim in uniform for the first time as the newspapers announced the death of a humble, quiet man whose first concern had always been for other people.
On September 26, 1981 Mary Jean Antrim flew to Seattle for the Commissioning of the Guided Missile Frigate Antrim, named for her late husband. It was a ship destined to remind us all of a noble hero who had passed through our midst. The crest of the ship tells a story that, due the wishes of a humble hero, hadn't been heard enough.
The wreath is for outstanding gallantry and achievement in which the palm denotes victory, and the laurel, honor. The torch symbolizing leadership and bravery is contained behind the portullis representing the period of imprisonment as a prisoner of war.
On the shield, the dark blue and gold are traditionally associated with the Navy and represent the sea and excellence. The light blue and downward pointing star refer to the Medal of Honor awarded to Rear Admiral Antrim for heroic actions while in a Japanese POW camp at Makassar, Celebes and Java.
The anchor symbolizes his naval career and represents his dedication to service. The crosslets are a personal device from the Antrim family crest. The cross throughout the shield is an allusion to the Navy Cross awarded Admiral Antrim for action in the battle of Java Sea in the Dutch East Indies. Beneath the shield is the ship's motto "IN DEFENSE OF FREEDOM", which provides a reference to both Admiral Antrim's life of dedication and the mission of the ship which bears his name.
Among those attending the commissioning ceremony was Tom Dearmore, now an editorial director of the San Francisco Examiner. Tom reported that the day started with the dark clouds so common to the Puget Sound. And then, "just at the right moment a shaft of sunshine breaks through." Perhaps it was symbolic in its own way, a humble man's way of saying, "Okay, my story can now be shared."
A very special "Thank You" to Dick Antrim's daughter JUDY ANTRIM LAYLON for sharing her father's story with us and assisting in the preparation of this story. She has done so, not only out of a deep love and sense of respect for her father, but also a strong patriotic love for America.
Judy Antrim Laylon
"The Peru Republican" Peru, Indiana
"The Baxter Bulletin" (and specifically articles by Tom Dearmore)
Heroes of World War II, by Edward F. Murphy
The U.S. Naval Historical Center
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