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This Day in History: Richard Antrim outwits his Japanese captors

On or around this day in 1942, a Navy lieutenant intervenes to keep a Japanese guard from beating an American prisoner of war to death. Richard Antrim would also outwit his Japanese captors, helping Allied forces to know exactly where POWs were being held.

The former action would earn Antrim a Medal of Honor. The latter would earn him a Bronze Star.

Antrim was serving as Executive Officer of the USS Pope when it was sunk on March 1, 1942. Nearly all of the sailors escaped to lifeboats, but then they ran into a bit of bad luck: The Japanese found the survivors before Allied Forces did.

The stranded crew had survived the dangers of the ocean, but now it joined other prisoners of war at Makassar, Celebes.

Life as a prisoner was harsh. The Japanese couldn’t understand the Allied prisoners, who were willing to surrender in some circumstances. A Japanese warrior would commit suicide first. The Japanese believed the prisoners of war to be without honor and treated them accordingly. Thus, even the smallest gaffe could result in brutal punishment.

But Antrim was braver and more honorable than the Japanese could have imagined, as he demonstrated to them one April day in 1942.

On that day, an American prisoner had failed to bow properly to a Japanese guard. The guard completely lost it. He began beating the American ferociously, until the prisoner was basically senseless. The American seemed on the verge of death.

Antrim couldn’t just stand there. He intervened, appealing to the guard for mercy. Hadn’t the American prisoner been beaten enough? He’d meant no offense by the improper bow.

A crowd of prisoners and guards began to gather. Antrim’s actions were shockingly brave. He risked redirecting the guard’s anger at himself. Instead of one American death that day, there could easily be two.

Do you think thoughts of his wife and two daughters flashed through Antrim’s mind as he took that brave step forward? Would he ever see them again?

Sadly, Antrim’s plea didn’t work. Three guards resumed flogging the prisoner. But now Antrim shocked them again. According to his Medal citation, he “stepped forward and indicated to the perplexed guards that he would take the remainder of the punishment.”

The other Allied prisoners were “suddenly inspired.” And now the Japanese were really baffled. Could some prisoners have honor and bravery after all?

The end result of these events was that both Antrim and the other prisoner were spared any further punishment. And the Japanese began treating the Allied prisoners of war just a little more humanely—all because one brave naval officer risked his life to do the right thing.

But Antrim wasn’t done yet.

Later during his captivity, the Japanese forced the prisoners to build slit trenches for bomb protection. Antrim was put in charge of the effort. “Through self-effacing courage and sheer audacity of purpose,” his Bronze Star citation notes, “he caused to be constructed under the very eyes and alert surveillance of Japanese guards, a huge sign ‘U.S.’”

He did it by changing the design of the trenches—and even talked the Japanese into approving the new plans.

If Antrim had been caught, he would have been immediately beheaded. Fortunately, he wasn’t caught. Allied planes saw the signal and thus knew to avoid the area during their bombing runs. Many prisoners’ lives were saved.

In the end, Antrim got something that not every prisoner of war would get: At the end of the war, he was released and returned home to his family. But he’d come close to losing it all on that day in April 1942.

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