by Larz F. Neilson
George W. Duffy spent three years as a prisoner of war in Japanese prison camps in Southeast Asia during World War II.
Duffy was third mate on the American Leader, owned by U.S. Lines.
Serving on a merchant ship was probably the most dangerous civilian job during the war, especially in the early part of the war. Before the war, there were about 50,000 U.S. sailors in the merchant marine. Six months after the war began, some 10,000 of them were dead.
Duffy grew up in Newburyport and graduated from the Mass. Nautical School in 1941. He was in the last class at that school to train on the USS Nantucket, a steel-hulled, square rigged sailing ship with auxiliary steam engine. Ten years earlier, Larz Neilson had been a cadet on that same ship.
After graduating, Duffy landed a position with U.S. Lines on the American Leader. On Dec. 3, 1941, that ship left Pearl Harbor for Manilla. Four days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, triggering World War II. Immediately thereafter, they attacked an airfield near Manilla. The American Leader skedaddled out of the harbor.
Ten months later, on Sept. 9, 1942, the American Leader was sunk by the German warship Michel in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. Eleven crew members died in the sinking. The Germans picked up the surviving crew members, including Duffy, and held them as prisoners of war. The Americans were held in a small compartment on the ship for nearly four weeks.
The prisoners were held in a small compartment in the Michel where they found small slips of paper secreted, giving the names of ships and dates of sinking. Duffy added the name and date for the American Leader. Also on board the Michel were crewmen from two other ships.
On Oct. 7, the Germans then transferred the prisoners to a supply tanker, the Uckermark. On that ship, one of the crew gave them some newspapers and games. In a tabloid magazine, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung was the picture of seven sailors desperately clinging to a life raft. Duffy tore out that page, folded it up and put it into his clothes. Had the Germans found that paper in his possession, Duffy could have been executed.
Duffy and his fellow sailors assumed they would be taken to Germany. However, the German ship received orders to go to the Indian Ocean, where the prisoners were turned over to the Japanese.
Duffy spent the next three years as a prisoner of war under horrible conditions in Java and Sumatra. He and fellow prisoners were put to work building a railroad, much like the men in the movie, “The Bridge over the River Kwai.” He survived three bouts of malaria and saw many of his shipmates die.
As the war wound down, the prisoners knew that things were changing. The Japanese surrendered in August 15, 1945. But for the prisoners, there was no moment or announcement of their freedom. And for many, there was never to be any freedom. Another 220 men died after August 15, 42 in camps along the railway and 178 in camps around Pakan Baroe.
The Japanese simply went away, leaving the former prisoners to find their way out. The former prisoners spent many days just trying to get out. Lady Louis Montbatten and some senior British military officers landed, and Duffy met with her for about 15 minutes. She was surprised to find an American in the camp. “What are you doing here?” she asked.
“At the moment, Ma'am trying to get back to Boston” said Duffy. He proceeded to tell the story of the sinking of the American Leader. It would still be three more days before he was flown to Singapore. By the time he reached home, the war had been over for six weeks.
At the southern tip of Manhattan Island in Battery Park is a monument showing four sailors on a life raft. One man is kneeling, another standing, a third is lying over the edge, pulling a fourth out of the water. That sculpture was created by Marisol, from the image on the magazine page that Duffy had kept with him through his three-year ordeal, and then in his files for more than 40 years.
The photograph, taken by an unknown German u-boat sailor in World War II. The men on the raft were American sailors, civilians, who had been on a U.S. flagged tanker which the Germans had just sunk. The sub left the men on the raft, and they all perished.
Duffy wrote that he was literally haunted by the specter of those drifting men. He began a search for their identities. The men had been on the SS Muskogee. Duffy has come up with the probable identities of three of the men.
The kicker in this story is that the sailors in the Merchant Marine were not considered veterans until 1988. The Germans had considered them military. The Japanese also considered them military. But to the U.S. government, they were civilians. Capt. George W. Duffy finally received an honorable discharge from the Coast Guard in 1988. It was dated Oct. 2, 1945. He has also received several awards for service during the war.
Duffy has since written a book, “Ambushed Under the Southern Cross,” telling the story of his life at sea and in the prison camps. It is available on Amazon, published through Xlibris.