Harold P. Smith – Lieutenant Commander, United States Navy

From a contemporary press report:

Harold P. Smith, 82, a retired Navy Lieutenant Commander who during World War II survived the Battle of the Java Sea and as a prisoner of war endured the horrors of forced labor on a railway in the jungles of Southeast Asia, died of prostate cancer May 9, 1998 at his home in McLean, Virginia.

Commander Smith, a native of Pawnee, Oklahoma, was serving aboard the USS Houston, a heavy cruiser, when it became part of a hastily assembled Allied naval task force attempting to intercept a Japanese invasion fleet heading for Java in 1942. The two forces squared off in a traditional surface battle for more than seven hours, with the Allied forces sustaining heavy casualties.

Only the Houston and the Australian cruiser Perth were able to escape the battle zone. The Japanese gave chase and eventually sank the ships. Of the Houston’s 1,068 crew members, only 368 men survived the sinking. Among those was Commander Smith, who spent more than 30 hours floating in the oil-covered and shark-infested sea before he climbed aboard a Japanese transport ship.

The POWs were crammed into the lower deck of the ship, which at times came under attack by Allied forces unaware of the cargo. In one of those attacks, Commander Smith was injured as a piece of shrapnel hit his shin.

Soon after arriving in Burma, the POWs joined other captured Allied personnel and were ordered to build a 258-mile railroad connecting Burma to Thailand. At the time, Japan wanted a rail link between those two countries as an alternative to the vital sea route that had been damaged by Allied submarine attacks.

The prisoners’ plight became the subject of the French novel “Bridge on the River Kwai,” which was made into the 1957 film of the same name starring William Holden and Alec Guinness.

The prisoners were subjected to harsh conditions: back-breaking work, abuses by the guards, jungle diseases and a diet of mainly rice.

About 15,000 Allied POWs died while building the railroad, which later became known as the “Railroad of Death.” After 3 1/2 years in captivity, Cmdr. Smith and the others were liberated in September 1945.

Commander Smith shared his story with those who asked about it, his son Jeffrey Smith said.

“He was so sure that he was going to die that one night he gave his belongings to a soldier next to him,” Smith said of his father’s days in the camp. Malnourished and suffering from a tropical ulcer that had festered after his untreated shin injury, Cmdr. Smith gave the soldier his sister’s address and asked that he write her a letter explaining his death, Jeffrey Smith said. By morning, however, Cmdr. Smith awoke to find that the other soldier had died.

“He always felt lucky that he was able to survive, that his life after the camps should be considered bonus time,” Jeffrey Smith said.

After recuperating at a naval hospital, he continued to serve in the Navy, retiring from naval security in 1963. In retirement, he was with the National Security Agency as a civilian procurement officer from 1963 to 1977.

Survivors include his wife of 51 years, Annette M. Smith of McLean; five children, Maureen Bingham of Springfield, Harold P. Smith Jr. of Annandale, Jeffrey Smith of Arlington and Karen Pitts and Sherri Schultz, both of Ashburn; and nine grandchildren.


On Saturday, May 9, 1998, of McLean, VA, beloved husband of Annette M. Smith; father of Maureen Bingham, Karen Pitts, Sherri Schultz, Harold Jr. and Jeffrey Smith. Also survived by nine grandchildren. Interment Arlington National Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be made to Hospice of Northern Virginia, 6400 Arlington Blvd., Suite 1000, Falls Church, VA 22042.

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