Ghost Rider: Eugene Robert Orth of USS Houston

Surrounded by the perfectly-aligned, white marble sentinel headstones of almost one-quarter million American war veterans, explorers, historical figures, and national leaders, Chief Warrant Officer Eugene Robert Orth's mortal remains rest in Section 35, Grave 3523 of the Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, encircled by the graves of an Army Master Sergeant from North Carolina and a Private First Class from Virginia, a Coast Guard Captain from Massachusetts and a Navy Lieutenant Commander from Pennsylvania. Shaded by an evergreen and two cherry trees, the gravesite lies about two hundred yards south of the Tomb of the Unknowns in gently sloping terrain. On 14 April 1966, a partly cloudy day in the nation's capital with a temperature in the low 50s, and just over one year after his U.S. Navy retirement, " ... Orth .. . of Mechanicsburg, P[ennsylvani]a, formerly of Bellows Falls, [Vermont] died ... at the Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D. C. " Attending physician Army Dr. Gerald Smith listed the cause of death as "cancer of the lung, congestion, heart failure, [and] peneumonitis radiation type." While tourists braved the cool spring weather to gaze at the delicate pink and white blossoms on the over 3,000 Japanese-donated, mostly Yoshino cherry trees surrounding the District of Columbia's Tidal Basin in West Potomac Park, businessmen considered a proposal to broadcast television signals into homes via a satellite system, politicians read that the president of Iraq had been killed in an airplane crash in his country's city of Basra, and travelers noted that Pan American World Airways placed the airline industry's first order for twenty-five of the new Boeing 747 jumbo jetliners, Eugene Orth's family grieved. Four days later, they interred the former sailor in Arlington for his eternal rest. His wife, two children, three sisters, and his mother survived him.  

Only one decade after leaving active duty, Orth's life had ended at fifty-one years, statistically about twenty years premature for a mid-twentieth-century American man. His life's story was one common to Great Depression-era young men in the United States - no opportunity for a post-secondary trade school or college education, greatly limited prospect for work, responsibility for a financially struggling family, and close, firm family ties. His success in life had come through military service.

His enlistment had provided Orth with opportunities that Navy recruiters had touted. His military career had been one of excitement, education, travel, advancement, and adventure. Unfortunately, in early 1942 during the beginnings of America's participation in the Second World War, it had also included deadly nighttime combat action aboard a doomed cruiser against superior Japanese forces in the Java Sea concluding with his capture and imprisonment as a prisoner of war (POW). To say that his almost thirteen hundred days as a POW in various Japanese internment camps in Java suffering tropical disease, surviving on inadequate rations, and performing grueling coolie labor shortened his life would be accurate.

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The ten-thousand-ton heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) lies on her starboard side one-hundred-thirty-odd feet under the surface of the Java Sea, her bow heading roughly east. Shell holes perforate the ship's steel superstructure in several areas, particularly the bridge and port aircraft hangar bay. Eight-inch gun Turrets Two and Three are ripped loose from the warship and lay nearby amidst various pieces of debris. Four Japanese Type 93 "Long Lance" torpedoes exploded below the great ship's waterline, holing her hull in three places on the starboard side and one on the port. The 600-foot vessel, once capable of a speed of over thirty knots, defiantly flew the Stars and Stripes as she sank, her beautiful clipper bow piercing the sea bottom during the early morning hours of 1 March 1942, the eighty-fourth day of America's forty-six month participation in the Second World War. Nicknamed by her sailors "The Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast" because of previous Japanese claims to have sunk her, Houston took with her to the depths of the Java Sea two-thirds of her crew, a total of 721 officers and men, including Capt. Albert Harold Rooks, her commanding officer of six months, who posthumously received the Medal of Honor. The Japanese later captured 366 Houston sailors and Marines from the oil-slicked sea and on various beaches on the northwest Javanese coast. They sent the majority of these prisoners of war to Burma to serve as slave labor in building the Burma-Thailand Railway, appropriately named the Death Railway, and a bridge on the Khwae Noi (or River Kwai), which was made famous in a 1957 David Lean film that won seven Academy Awards. The Japanese scattered the rest to ten different prison camps in Japan, Thailand, Java, Malaya, and the Philippines. Although seventy-six Houston survivors, slightly over 20 percent, died in captivity building the railroad, 290 others, including Pharmacist's Mate Second Class (PhM2/c) Eugene Robert Orth, survived an ordeal of filth, depravation, disease, and brutal treatment during three and one-half years in Japanese prisoner of war camps throughout Asia. These men of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet's flagship were among the first Americans to be taken prisoner by the Japanese in the Second World War.

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