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Preston Clark and the USS Houston

Finding Aids, USS Houston & Military History
pages from Lt. Preston Clark's payroll records, including information regarding the deaths of POWs

pages from Lt. Preston Clark’s payroll records, including information regarding the deaths of POWs

We have recently published an update to our Cruiser Houston Collection finding aid to include a series dedicated to the papers and artifacts of Lieutenant Preston R. Clark.  Materials added to the collection include photographs, correspondence from World War II prisoner of war camps, and artifacts from the years spent in the camps.

Lieutenant Clark served on the USS Houston when it was sunk following a bravely defiant stand during the Battle of the Java Sea.  Presumed lost in the aftermath, Lt. Clark and others survived hours of swimming to dry land only to be captured by the Japanese and interned in P.O.W. camps.  Clark remained in captivity for nearly four years where he and others worked on the Thailand-Burma or “Death Railway” (a construction project immortalized in Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge over the River Kwai and the film of the same name).

While in captivity, Clark continued to fulfill his duties as Lieutenant, even maintaining a log of payments to the men under his command while facing extraordinary loss and circumstances beyond hyperbole.  Anecdotally, survivors of the USS Houston and their loved ones speak highly of his leadership and service during those years of imprisonment.  His meticulous records and attention to his duty no doubt helped to bring about balance to pay logs and some degree of normalcy to his men, but also brought a peace to the families and loved ones of those that were lost while held captive, by way of recording details regarding circumstances of death and final resting places for those unable to make it home.

Lt. Preston Clark's records of U.S. Navy and U.S.M.C. deaths

Lt. Preston Clark’s records of U.S. Navy and U.S.M.C. deaths

Clark and many of his men were liberated as the war in the Pacific reached its end.  The documents that came home with Clark, along with the wealth of additional primary sources included in these materials, are sure to provide researchers with fresh insight into the sacrifices offered up by so many.  We encourage you to visit us here in Special Collections, tour the USS Houston exhibit located on the second floor of the M.D. Anderson Library, and survey these updated materials for yourself.

New USS Houston Digital Collection Now Online

Digitization, USS Houston & Military History

The latest digital collection containing materials related to the USS Houston, the Lt. Robert B. Fulton USS Houston Letters, is now available in the UH Digital Library. This collection contains letters Fulton wrote home prior to the sinking of the USS Houston (CA-30), along with other correspondence and documents.

Fulton sent this postcard to his parents the week after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on Japan by the Univted States.

Fulton sent this postcard to his parents the week after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on Japan by the United States.

Fulton was aboard the Houston when she was sunk by Japanese torpedoes in the Java Sea on Feb. 28, 1942, and he, along with more than 300 survivors of the sinking, was taken prisoner by the Japanese. Fulton spent most of the duration of the war in Zentsuji POW Camp in Japan before being liberated from Rokuroshi POW Camp on Sept. 7, 1945.

The heart of this collection is Fulton’s letters home. These provide insight into the experience of a naval officer on the USS Houston during the build up to war in the Pacific and during the conflict’s early months. Fulton describes daily activities on the ship, excursions and picnics, and the mounting tension in the area. Censorship prevents him from relaying the whereabouts or engagements of the ship.

Equally interesting are the colorful greeting cards Fulton received in POW camp, which contain handwritten messages and drawings.

This handmade card was sent to Fulton by fellow POWs.

This handmade card was sent to Fulton by fellow POWs.

Special Collections is dedicated to preserving and sharing the story of the Houston and her crew through archival and digital collections, as well as a permanent exhibit in M.D. Anderson Library. Additional digital library collections include the William Slough USS Houston Letters and the USS Houston Blue Bonnet Newsletters. While not related to the Houston, the Marine Bombing Squadron (VMB-613) Photos also contain World War II-related materials.

The original material for all these collections are available in Special Collections, which is open to the public. Be sure to take a look at these digital collections or come view the originals in our Reading Room.

Captain O.C. McDavid’s World War II Letters

Finding Aids, USS Houston & Military History

Captain O.C. McDavid was a journalist, an artist, and, like so many of the young men of his time and age, a soldier. Special Collections holds a collection of his personal correspondence covering the breadth of his service during World War II, and a finding aid is now available online.

Sketch of facilities, undated

Captain McDavid served much of World War II stationed in the South Pacific, supporting the Allied cause by helping to establish village governments with local populations and building infrastructure to support sanitation, security, and healthcare. As with most correspondence from the war, censorship of operations and engagements with Axis forces provide scant details for those interested in the minutiae of South Pacific strategy. Instead, what emerges in these letters has as much to do with McDavid’s observations of foreign cultures as it has to do with the struggle for the South Pacific. Of particular note, given Captain McDavid’s later career and work as an artist, are the comic and compelling illustrations and sketches he uses to embellish so many of the letters back home.

As Allied troops sought out and clashed with Axis forces, McDavid’s words and pictures show us American G.I.s and their Australian allies working, living, and sharing with native New Guineans.  All of this is set against the backdrop of the realities of war, evenings peppered with what McDavid describes as “The sharp staccato spitting of a machine gun. The throaty hacking of a BAR,” as he and his fellow soldiers wonder at what lurks beyond the palms in the darkness.

McDavid’s letters also reflect a resolve and pleasure towards his service and appreciation of the experience in spite of the perils. He writes home to his children:

“Many times, for sure, I’ve wished I had gotten to an overseas theatre where there’s at least some civilization. But, if I had gone over [to Europe] I probably never would, in all my life, have seen the places that lie behind the Pacific. Only read about them in the pages of the National Geographic. I would have missed the kampong poontooan and I would not have danced with an Indonesian maiden.”

Those interested in McDavid’s career as an artist and journalist will no doubt enjoy these glimpses into his formative years, while those with interest in the Pacific Theatre of World War II may be interested to look into the particulars of his work and time spent in New Guinea. We encourage you to explore the finding aid for more information and visit us if you are interested in studying this collection.

Australian Ambassador to US Visits the Library

Events, Exhibits, USS Houston & Military History

We had some special visitors in the Library on Thursday, led by the Australian Ambassador to the United States, the Hon Kim Beazley, AC, who was here to tour the USS Houston Exhibition. Located on the second floor of the library, the exhibition features original letters and artifacts from the World War II-era ship and POW camps, an American flag made by prisoners-of-war in Saigon, and vintage photographs of USS Houston crew members. Paintings of the ship are also on display, as well as a newly restored model, ship’s bell, two uniforms, and – of particular interest to the Ambassador – several items related to the Australian light cruiser HMAS Perth. As a native of Perth, Ambassador Beazley has long had a keen interest in the story of the ship and her crew.


Pictured, L-R: Capt. Carter B. Conlin, USN (Ret.); the Hon Kim Beazley, AC; and librarian Julie Grob

The Perth joined the Houston as part of an ABDA (American, British, Dutch, Australian) fleet in the Battle of the Java Sea. The two ships’ fates were tied together, as both the Perth and the Houston survived that battle but found trouble the following night when passing through Sunda Strait, where they encountered a large Japanese force. Outnumbered and outgunned, both ships were sunk.

Mr. Beazley and his party toured the exhibit with curator Julie Grob and other University representatives. Attendees included Ambassador Beazley and his wife Susie Annus; Australian Consul General to the USA, Mr. Mauro Kolobaric, and his wife Silvana Kolobaric; Australian Honorary Consul General to Houston, Ms. Nana Booker; Capt. Carter B. Conlin, USN (Ret.) of the Naval Order of the United States; Don Kehn, Jr., Historian for the USS Houston Survivors Association/Next Generations; Dr. Marshall Schott, Associate Vice Chancellor/Associate Vice President for Outreach and Planning, University of Houston; Michelle Buhr, Director of Stewardship, University of Houston; and Julie Grob, Coordinator for Digital Projects and Instruction, Special Collections/Curator of Cruiser Houston Collection.


HMAS Perth

Grob presented Ambassador Beazley with a copy of Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR’s Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of her Survivors by James D. Hornfischer on behalf of the University of Houston Libraries.

Materials for the exhibition were drawn from the Cruiser Houston Collection, which contains over 70 boxes of archival material related to the history of the ship and her crew. The collection forms part of the USS Houston and Military History Archives. For more information about what is contained in the collection, be sure to take a look at the finding aid. The original materials can be viewed in the Special Collections Reading Room.

Finding Aid Available for Kenneth W. Kennedy World War II Letters

Finding Aids, USS Houston & Military History

A finding aid is now available for the Kenneth W. Kennedy World War II Letters.  The correspondence of Brigadier General Kennedy and his family provide an intimate glimpse of World War II life, both behind the curtain and on the stage of the North Africa Campaign.

Kenneth W. Kennedy played the role of a young Shore Party Commander in Operation Torch as part of the invasion of Northern Africa.  After the war, his engineering projects at home were numerous and included maintenance of the Mississippi River navigation channels as well as work on the early space launch facilities at Cape Canaveral.  This collection of letters home during World War II not only give insight and analysis of operations in the North Africa Campaign, but also (as much as secrecy would allow) the lengthy and meticulous preparations, both in the U.S. and abroad, leading up to the invasion.

The collection dates back to Kennedy’s days at West Point and as a whole provide a telling look at the transition of an officer from peacetime to the perils of war.  Letters from a number of family members, including his brother Joseph William Kennedy, are also included in the collection.  Joseph William Kennedy was a member of the team to first produce and isolate plutonium at the University of California, Berkley and he would later head the Chemistry and Metallurgy division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory as work proceeded on the first atomic bombs.  His letters include correspondence from both his time spent at Berkley as well as Los Alamos.

This collection, providing insights into the family and work of two brothers so critical to the war effort of the Allies, is sure to be a delight to anyone interested in the history of World War II.  Curious?  Take a detailed look at the finding aid or drop by the Special Collections Reading Room to view the entire collection.

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