Full Circle: Block Island to Taiwan

Fri, 05/20/2022 - 1:15pm
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In 2018 I visited Taiwan and completed an intellectual journey that commenced in 2003 as a summer intern at the Block Island Historical Society. While completing my Masters degree program I spent a summer at the island’s museum located at Bridgegate Square. I assisted in a number of ways, however my passion was working with the vast collection of objects and paper-based ephemera. On the third floor of the museum building I located pieces of history that, at the beginning, seemed outside the bounds of the history of our island community. These consisted of images and documentation pointing to two World War II era aircraft carriers. Sparking my interest, I researched further and discovered that these carriers were both named USS Block Island, CVE 21 and CVE 106.
A mentor of mine once told me a good research project is very much like chipping away in an avalanche zone. With the invaluable assistance of Dr. Gerry Abbott we curated a permanent exhibition about both vessels titled “Valor & Courage” at the American Legion Post 36. Display panels and objects today shed light on the exploits of the crew of both USS Block Islands that included battling German U-boats in the Atlantic, surviving the sinking of the first ship (CVE 21) off the coast of Africa, and the second carrier (CVE 106) waging war in the Pacific. In 2007, partnering with the American Legion and then-Commander Daniel Millea, the Block Island Historical Society hosted a day visit of the USS Block Island Association, which allowed over 150 veterans and family members connected to the two carriers to visit Post 36 and see the bell from CVE 106 that rests in Legion Park. Lastly, the tale of these two vessels and how her veterans remembered them in the decades after the war served as the framework for my dissertation at Arizona State University.
Beyond the U-boat attacks, braving Pacific typhoons, and providing air support in the invasion of Okinawa, the story of these two escort carriers included a unique story of survival and redemption. At the conclusion of the war USS Block Island, CVE 106, was ordered to proceed to the northern coast of Taiwan (then known as Formosa). During the war the Japanese ran 14 POW forced labor camps that included prisoners from a host of Allied nations including Britain, Australia, the Dutch East Indies and the United States. Over the course of the rescue operations hundreds of malnourished POWs were transported via truck and train to the coastal port of Keelung. Here U.S. Navy destroyer-escorts then ferried over 400 of these POWs to the USS Block Island, CVE 106. The hangar deck originally constructed to house aircraft was radically transformed into a floating sanctuary. Cots with clean sheets were laid out in neat rows. The ship’s galley worked overtime in producing the first full meals these men would eat in years. As the men walked, or were carried on board, sailors played musical instruments welcoming them.

Cecil Clarke
In the course of my research I met one of these POWs who survived over three years of internment in Taiwan. Mr. Cecil Clarke was in the British Army during World War II. As his troopship was rounding the Horn of Africa enroute to S.E. Asia he heard of the attack on Pearl Harbor. His unit was ordered to surrender with the fall of Singapore in February of 1942. Transported to Taiwan in hellish conditions onboard ship, he labored for over three years in three different camps on the island, among them the infamous copper mine camp at Kinkaseki, during which he lost half his body weight. To keep their spirits up laboring in the mines these British POWs sang songs, including one titled “The Yanks are on the Way!” As the war progressed, the Japanese informed the POWs of the Japanese Empire’s continued successes against the Allies. However, as the weeks passed in 1945, Clarke and his fellow POWs were forced to run for cover due to Allied fighter pilots who, mistaking them for Japanese troops, made strafing runs on the
camp. While these certainly proved unpleasant, American aircraft above signaled to the prisoners that indeed the tide of the war had shifted in the Allies’ favor. When the camps were liberated in September of 1945, Cecil was a walking skeleton. However, he was lucky in that he was strong enough to walk.
I was able to visit the site of the Kinkaseki Camp outside of Taipei. My guide was Mr. Michael Hurst MBE who has dedicated 20 years to the preservation and memory of the
more than 4,350 POWs held on the island nation during the war. On the train ride out of Taipei, Michael gave me a detailed description of the evacuation of the nearly 1,300
POWs from the island at the close of the war and the role of the USS Block Island, CVE 106, in this effort. Our final leg of the journey up the mountains was a taxi-ride up a very steep road. This is the same road the POWs had to trudge up on their way to the camp in 1942.
Today all that physically remains of the camp is the stone entrance. Thanks to the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society the grounds have been transformed into a memorial marking both the POWs who died and those who survived while laboring in the copper mines beneath the mountains ringing the camp. A polished black granite wall lists names of all the POWs held in Taiwan and it is here that I saw the name Cecil Clarke.
It is just one of the several thousand listed. Cecil had personally told me about his journey home from Taiwan. I asked Mr. Clarke what he did in his free time on his months-long trip home. His reply, “eat.” In the four-month journey back to England he put on nearly a pound a day. After transport to Manila on the carrier, he faced a slow traverse of the Pacific on a troop ship to Canada’s west coast, then a train ride crossing North America, and one final sea voyage to England. Back on British soil he was again 160 pounds. However, once home he confronted one last challenge, the massive amount of internal migrations in Great Britain during the war years.
The British Post Office, from 1939 to 1945, recorded 60 million changes of addresses in a nation with just 40 million people. Walking up to his mother’s home in England, he knocked on the door. A stranger answered, telling him he had resided in the house for quite some time and had no contact information for his mother. Cecil found a neighbor who informed him his mother, like many mothers, thought her son dead after hearing nothing for over three years and had moved to a new town. Luckily he had the address and Cecil completed the final leg of this four-year trip around the world by knocking on an unknown door for the first time and embracing his mother. He had survived hell and went on to lead a life filled with kids, grandkids, and great-grand kids.
Cecil’s story came floating back to me as I stood on the former grounds of the Kinkaseki Camp and stared at his name etched in black stone. Magnifying his story of survival by
the hundreds of other names surrounding his (and realizing many of these names were men who did not survive) proved nearly overwhelming. In September of 1945 their internment ended. The first leg of their journey home was on board two escort carriers, one of which was USS Block Island, CVE 106. In the 15 years it took me to reach Taiwan after first discovering the story of the USS Block Islands, most of the veterans I met connected to the vessels have passed away. However, I felt closer to all of these sailors after visiting the terrestrial location in Taiwan marking an experience they spoke so emotionally about. These sailors experienced war on two oceans. These were survivors of the sinking of CVE 21 in the Atlantic. They then fought from CVE 106 in the Pacific. However, after celebrating the close of the war by drinking beer
and playing instruments on the deck of the carrier, one more powerful experience awaited them. This experience proved so powerful many sailors could not speak of it 60 years after the event. Such was witnessing men like Cecil weighting just 80 pounds walk on board with the look of deliverance in their eyes.
Hruska’s book “Valor & Courage” is now out in paperback and can be purchased at the Block Island Historical Society Gallery, Island Bound Bookstore and D. Chatowsky Art Gallery.