Remembering a hometown military hero

Published 11:09am Wednesday, November 13, 2013

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following guest column was written by local resident Cathy Bridge in honor of Veterans Day about her uncle’s service in the military.

On Veterans Day, I want to remember my uncle, Walter Leroy Beeson, who is a true hometown hero. He was born and raised in Brookhaven, enlisted in the Navy and was stationed aboard the Navy aboard the cruiser USS Houston during WWII.

Walter Leroy Beeson
Walter Leroy Beeson

On Dec. 8, 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Seaman First Class Walter Beeson’s ship was ordered to sail from the Philippine Islands and join ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian Naval Forces) to raid and destroy Japanese Naval units in the China Sea and Southwest Pacific area.

In late February 1942, USS Houston was part of an Allied fleet of American, British, Dutch, and Australian (ABDA) forces that participated in the first surface-to-surface action in the Pacific war, the Battle of the Java Sea, from which only two of 14 Allied ships survived: USS Houston and HMAS Perth.

Ordered to disengage, the two ships attempted to navigate the Sunda Strait being advised that no Japanese were in the area; however, the two cruisers ran into the middle of a large Japanese landing force that simply overpowered the two cruisers fresh out of a major battle.

On March 1, 1942, the HMAS Perth was hit and sunk shortly after midnight. About 20 minutes after midnight, the USS Houston was struck by a torpedo, sinking the ship. Of the 1,068 men on the ship, only 368 survived the battle and the sinking of the USS Houston.

That day was my uncle’s 21st birthday.

A well-documented and substantiated story about the heroism of a Naval chaplain involved my uncle, Walter Beeson.

God in the Foxhole and Ship of Ghosts are two books that described the sacrifice of Chaplain Rentz.

“Grueling hours passed. Most of the men had life jackets, but Seaman Walter Beeson, hanging on the float next to the chaplain, did not. Weakened by his wounds, his hands stiffening, he kept losing his grip and sinking into the sea. Finally Chaplain Rentz said, ‘You men are young and with your lives ahead of you. I am old and have had my fun. I have lived a major part of my life and am willing to go with God.’

“With that, he removed his life jacket and thrust it to Beeson. ‘Put it on,’ he ordered. Beeson refused. ‘No Chaplain,’ he protested weakly. ‘Beeson, lad, put it on.’

“Rentz let go of the pontoon float and swam off. Marine Sergeant Jim Gee retrieved him. Beeson insisted the chaplain take back the life jacket. Rentz told Beeson, ‘I’m old and can’t last much longer and swam away.’ One moment he was among them, then next he was gone, sacrificing his life so that a younger man, a kid really, might have a chance to live.”

Chaplain George Rentz was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for valor, the only Navy chaplain so honored during World War II. In 1984 a guided missile frigate was commissioned USS Rentz in his honor.

These surviving men of the USS Houston swam to the Java shore and were captured and placed in prisoner of war camps throughout Southeast Asia.

Once in the hands of the Japanese, the men of the Houston began a life of primitive hardships and brutal treatment that would last for three and a half years. The Japanese brought the American POWs to Burma to become slave labor to build the Burma-Thai Railway or The Railway of Death. The most famous portion of the railway is Bridge 277, “the bridge over the River Kwai,” which was made popular in the movie of the same name.

Living conditions for the laborers were appalling. Each man received half a cup of bug-infested rice a day and some POWs dropped below 80 pounds. Malnutrition brought on diseases. The tropical environment bred more cases of dysentery, plus malaria, cholera and tropical ulcers that ate through flesh to expose the bone. Although doctors were present in the camps, they were not allowed any drugs or tools for practicing medicine.

There were 79 men from the Houston who died building the Death Railway. Upon the railway’s completion in October 1943, the surviving POWs were scattered to various camps in Singapore, Burma, Indochina, and Japan, where they performed manual work for the Japanese until the war’s end.

Of the 1,068 men assigned to the USS Houston, 368 survived the sinking but became Japanese prisoners of war. After 3 1/2 years of captivity, 289 POW survivors were liberated in September 1945. The 79 who died in captivity, died from starvation, disease, and mistreatment. My uncle was among the 289 survivors.

On Aug. 16, 1945, the POWs learned that the war was over. Upon their release, they were sent to hospitals in Calcutta, India and the Philippines then returned to the United States, where they reunited with their loved ones and began the process of rebuilding their lives.

Uncle Walt returned home, married and had one daughter and two grandchildren. His three younger brothers, Charles, J.L. and Hayward, followed in his footsteps and enlisted in the military.

Walter Leroy Beeson passed away on April 21, 1998, at the age of 77 and is buried in his hometown of Brookhaven.

In 2012, there were 15 survivors of the USS Houston still living, all in their 90s.

In honor of these heroes and all who paid the “ultimate sacrifice,” for those men and women we know and loved, and for those who are known only to God, may we honor them on Veteran’s Day.