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  Texas : Feature : Columns : Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories :

THE ORYOKU MARU AND
LIEUTENANT WALTER A. KELSO, JR.’S JOURNEY

by Bill Cherry

I want to tell you about my first friend’s daddy, Lieutenant Walter A. Kelso, Jr., who was an important member of a prominent Galveston family. And I want you to know the end of the story before I begin.

In 1944 Lieutenant Kelso became a Japanese prisoner of war, and he passed away along with seventy-six other American soldiers because the enemy let them die of dysentery and starvation in 1945. Only one survived.

Lieutenant Walter A. Kelso, Jr.,  WWII
Lieutenant Walter A. Kelso, Jr.
Photo courtesy Walter A. Kelso, III.
Fort Crockett was an Army Artillery fort that was installed during World War I to protect the shores and waterways of Galveston and Houston. It ran along Galveston’s seawall from 39th Street west to 53rd Street, then jumped back a block of so north, and then meandered for a few more blocks toward 61st Street. The guard house was at the corner of 45th Street and Avenue U.

The fort continued to be used and was modernized so it could serve throughout World War II.

In addition to the artillery emplacements that ran along the south, there was a huge telephone switchboard that was under a large concrete mound across from Gaido’s Restaurant at 39th Street. It was there to provide emergency communications should Galveston be attacked.

The fort itself was, quite frankly, a self-contained mini-city. Officers and enlisted men lived there; there was a hospital, movie theater, non-denominational church, a PX, gym and outdoor recreational facilities. Nearby and on the property were Japanese prisoners of war.

My very first friend, Butch Kelso, and I met in 1944. He was three and I was four. Our birthdays were in June, six days apart. He lived across the street. His dad, Lieutenant Walter A. Kelso, Jr., had graduated from Culver Military Academy, like all three of the Kelso boys did, and he was serving his duty in the Army.

The guard house at Fort Crockett was three block south and six blocks east of our houses on Woodrow, so many days in the late afternoon, one of our mothers or Margaret, Butch’s babysitter, would walk us to Avenue U, just in front of the guard house, to see the military parade, band and all, parade there for the ceremony to lower the American flag.

We’d hold a salute while the Star Spangled Banner played, then snap our hands to our sides along with the platoon soldiers.

Patriotism was important to everyone then, and it was especially important to Butch and me since his daddy was oversees helping protect us from the enemy.

On a spring-like day in 1945, Butch and I were playing at his house one afternoon. The windows were open, and the cool gulf air was surrounding us. Butch’s mother was in a blue sundress with big flowers on it. She had on leather thong sandals and she was dusting the mahogany furniture in the living room. The doorbell rang.

The visitor on the porch was unexpected. He was in full military dress. He had come to tell Barbara Kelso that she was a widow.

Lieutenant Kelso had died of starvation in the ward of a Japanese hospital. He had been a captured prisoner.

When the soldier left, Butch’s mother sat with us on the couch and told us that Butch’s daddy had died. I remember thinking that the only thing I could do to help was to share my daddy with Butch, and I told him so. None of the three of us cried.

Barbara Kelso never remarried. The actual story of Lieutenant Kelso’s last days was rarely discussed, and when they were, the details were very abbreviated. The pain remained too strong for the Kelsos.

About ten years ago, Butch’s son, Mark, (who I proudly call my surrogate nephew) by then a graduate of A&M University and a computer wizard and public school teacher, decided it was time for Lieutenant Kelso’s story to be researched and told, told to his grandmother and his daddy and the remaining members of the Kelso family.

Lieutenant Kelso’s mother and daddy had passed away without knowing much more than an outline, and even the outline left many gaps with unanswered questions.

Mark uncovered and spoke with survivors and those who knew the truth, people now living all over the U.S., and even after fifty years had passed. Families showed him letters and photographs. And for himself, his family and for the others Mark meticulously pieced together the story. Here’s what he learned.

His grandfather, as a prisoner, survived an attack of the OM on December 15, 1944, and the attack on the Enoura Maru on January 9, 1945. He made it through on the last ship the Brazil Maru where it docked in Moji, Japan on January 28, 1945.

He was taken to the town of Kokura outside of Moji to a warehouse/hospital where he died of dysentery and starvation on 2/4/45.

Mark told me that he recently uncovered a diary that may shed another light on his death. It appears that an American captain who was in reasonably good health took charge of 77 out of the 110 men who went to this so called hospital. All but one of those men died.

Mark has concluded that the Japanese did attempt to get some health back to these men, but they were either too far gone or this American officer who was in charge had something to do with these helpless men, including Lieutenant Kelso, not getting taken care of.

Lieutenant Kelso died in Japan on February 4, 1945.

The purpose of my piece, though is to point you to the incredible web page Mark has developed. http://www.oryokumaru.net Please take the time to study it.

More World War II
Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories Feb. 18, 2008 column
Copyright William S. Cherry
All rights reserved

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Bill Cherry, a Dallas Realtor and free lance writer was a longtime columnist for "The Galveston County Daily News." His book, Bill Cherry's Galveston Memories, has sold thousands, and is still available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com and other bookstores.


 
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