North High School Wall of Honor
Robert Earl Ketman, Jr.
Class of August, 1940
Died: September 5, 1943
Research done by Rick Nehrling, class of 1963.
Robert Earl Ketman, Jr.
Robert is shown in the June, 1940 North High yearbook as being a proposed August, 1940 graduate. However, official military records indicate Robert enlisted in the US Navy on June 4, 1940 in Des Moines, Iowa. His service number is 3218742. Another US Roster shows service number as 3214287. At the time of his enlistment, attendance at North High, and military service, his next of kin was listed as Mr. and Mrs. Robert Earl Ketman, Sr., 1145 19th Street, Des Moines, Iowa.

He was sent to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station, Illinois, for training. After training, he was assigned to the USS Houston, (CA-30), a heavy cruiser, on September 21, 1940. The Houston was commanded by Captain Albert H. Rooks.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked the US Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Shortly after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the USS Houston was ordered to join the ABDA (American-British-Dutch-Australian) naval forces at Darwin, Australia under the command of Admiral Karel Doorman of the Royal Dutch Navy.

On February 27, 1942, as Japanese amphibious forces were gathering to invade the island of Java, the ABDA force comprised of the USS Houston, along with four other cruisers and nine destroyers, attacked the Japanese invasion forces in the Java Sea. The attack was repulsed by superior Japanese firepower.

On February 28, 1942, the USS Houston and the HMS Perth, an Australian destroyer, were at Tanjung Priok, Java, which is the main port of Batavia (later called Jakarta). They were ordered to sail through the Sunda Strait, which separates Sumatra from Java, to Tjilatjap, on the south coast of Java. The USS Houston, was commanded by Captain Albert H. Rooks, and HMAS Perth, was commanded by Captain H.M.L. Waller, Royal Australian Navy, both of whom were survivors of the Battle of Java Sea. Both ships left early in the evening on February 28th for the Sunda Strait. The only ships they expected to encounter were Australian corvettes on patrol in and around the strait.
Feb. 28, 1942: Battle of Sunda Strait: As the two ships were proceeding towards the Sunda Strait they encountered a Japanese landing in progress at Banten Bay. A ferocious night battle took place during which three Japanese transports were destroyed - two by friendly fire - and three other Japanese transports were damaged before the Japanese covering force of three cruisers and nine destroyers under Read Adm. Takeo Kurita sank the USS Houston and HMAS Perth.
USS Houston
Out of the 1064 men onboard the USS Houston, only 368 survived. On the Perth, out of the 677 men onboard, 307 survived. The commander of the Houston, Captain Rooks, went down with the ship. Robert Ketman survived the ship's sinking.

The fate of the Houston was not known for almost nine months, and the full story of her fight was not fully told until after the war was over and her survivors were liberated from prison camps. Captain Rooks posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his extraordinary heroism.

It has been reported by Houston survivors that the actual sinking was slow enough to permit many unwounded men to get into the water and clear the ship. The survivors also stated that many of the life rafts were placed in the water before the ship sank, and the crew was equipped with life jackets.

The Japanese did not start to pick up any survivors until dawn. By that time, the majority of the survivors had reached the shores of Java and were scattered over a distance of about twenty miles. It was reported that survivors spent anywhere from 8-12 hours in the water before they reached land or were picked out of the water. All Houston survivors were captured and turned over to the Japanese Army. (Robert Ketman made it to shore and was captured by the Japanese Army. He was officially reported by the Japanese as a POW in February, 1943, which was almost one year after the Houston had been sunk and Robert had been captured by the Japanese Army).

The survivors, now POWs, were held in the town of Serang, Java in the local jail and theater for the next six weeks. Conditions were atrocious with overcrowding, very little food, and limited sanitary facilities. During the six-week stay in Serang, dysentery became prevalent, and everyone suffered from malnutrition.

In mid-April, 1942, the surviving POWs from Serang (Robert Ketman survived Serang) were moved to Bicycle Camp, Batavia. Already in this camp were a large number of Australian and Dutch prisoners. All of the POWs remained at Bicycle Camp until October 1, 1942. On October 1, 488 Americans, 385 Australians, and 159 Dutch prisoners were transported from the Bicycle Camp to Singapore where they remained until January 7, 1943. (Robert Ketman was in this group of Americans.)

On January 7, the prisoners were transported by train from Singapore to Penang, British Malaysia. Here they boarded a Japanese "hellship", the Moji Maru. They set sail with another "hellship", the Nichimei Maru which was loaded with over 900 Dutch prisoners and Japanese troops. The two ships were to convoy together enroute to Moulmein (later called Mawlamyine), Burma. On January 15, 1943, the two transport ships were bombed by two US B-24s and two PBYs. The plane bombing runs sank the Nichimei Maru, killing most of the Japanese troops and approximately 50 Dutch POWs. The survivors were loaded onto the Moji Maru and continued on to Moulmein. (Robert Ketman survived this attack).

The Moji Maru arrived at Moulmein on January 16, 1943. The POWs were kept in the district jail until January 27, 1943, when they were moved by rail to Thanbyuzyat, Burma about 40 kilometers southeast of Moulmein. They were then loaded onto trucks and driven to Hlepauk camp which was 18 kilometers from Thanbyuzyat. This was the beginning of their work in constructing the Burma-Thailand Railway linking Rangoon, Burma (now called Yangon, Myanmar) to Bangkok, Thailand. Once the railroad was completed, the Japanese could move men and supplies quickly between Thailand and Burma.
The railroad was to become 421 kilometers (approximately 250 miles) long with a height difference of 300 meters and had numerous crossovers and bridges. The majority of the railroad construction was through the jungles and mountains of Thailand and Burma. The railroad construction was made famous in the 1957 Academy Award-winning motion picture, "The Bridge Over the River Kwai."
Audio; "Bridge Over River Kwai" American POWs during building of railway, bridge Bridge, Book
When the Americans arrived at the first railroad work site in late January, 1943, they were in good physical condition. However, life as a captive forced laborer on this railroad construction was extremely hard and difficult. Survival was almost impossible. The men were on death row, and they knew it. During the railroad construction, many thousands died from undernourishment, hard labor, torture, tropical disease, and neglect.

The Japanese were merciless task masters and bludgeoned men into long hours of spirit-destroying work. The job was ardous in the extreme, particularly for the many men who had to work barefoot. The long working hours, the intense harassment on the job, the lack of footwear, and the starvation diet affected men's health to a point where they became very vulnerable to all the tropical diseases that were indigenous to the area. Men worked while they lasted, and as men died, the Japanese would get more POWs or native labor to work in order to meet the railway construction target, which was 2 kilometers a day.

Malaria and dysentery were the POWs' constant companions. There was little quinine available to control malaria and nothing with which to treat amoebic dysentery. A lack of vitamins in the diet soon brought on all sorts of other complaints ranging from beri-beri to red raw mouths, tongues, and throats. Cuts and wounds on the legs and feet generally became infexted due to the absence of antiseptics, disinfectants, and bandages. Many lesions soon turned to tropical ulcers which often became gangrenous requiring the infected limb to be amputated.

The Houston survivors were placed in a group known as Group 5 and assigned to a work camp where they lived and worked. Once the work near that camp was completed, the men were moved to another camp and lived and worked from that camp. The camp names were based on the distance (kilometers) from the Base Thanbyuzayat and the name of the nearest village. Consequently, all camps had the village name and kilometer distance from Thanbyuzayat.

The first camp that Group 5 and Robert Ketman were assigned to was Hlepauk or 18 Kilo Camp in January, 1943. In early March, the Group was moved to Apalaine Camp or 80 Kilo Camp. In late March, the Group was moved again, this time to Lawa Camp or 85 Kilo Camp. In early May, the Group was moved to Regue Camp or 100 Kilo Camp. By late May, which was when the rainy season started, the first American from Group 5 died.

Robert Ketman survived the first three work camps, but on September 5, 1943, he died from the complications of amoebic dysentery and tropical ulcers at the Regue Camp or 100 Kilo Camp. He was buried at the 100 Kilo Camp's cemetery in grave number 120.

Another record of his burial: He died at the 100 Kilo Camp and was buried in that Campís cemetery. That is according to the official records. A couple of references were found that stated that he was removed from that Campís cemetery and that he was reburied in the Barrackpore Cemetery in India along with 1500 other POWs. When that cemetery was closed in 1948, he was reburied in Hawaii in the Punchbowl Cemetery. Unfortunately, we were never able to find him on the official records at either site.

It is estimated that 61,000 POWs and 250,000 natives (residents of the countries) were forced to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway in some of the most severe and atrocious conditions. The railway, which was 421 kilometers long of single track and 1 meter gauge, was constructed in a little over 12 months. Over this period, approximately 13,000 POWs and 100,000 natives died.
The above information was obtained from the following:
(1) The State Summary of War Casualties from World War II for Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Personnel was compiled in April, 1946, by the Casualty Section, Office of Public Information, Navy Department. It is considered to be the official list of the World War II dead for the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. These records can be found online at

All of the names and information in this document are arranged by State. Within this document, the Navy states the following: "Inclusions of names in this State group have been determined solely by the residence of next of kin at the time of notification of the last wartime casualty status. This listing does not necessarily represent state of birth, legal residence, or official state credit according to service enlistment."

The casualties listed in the document represent only those personnel on "active duty in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, resulting directly from enemy action or from operational activities against the enemy in war zones from December 7, 1941 to the end of the war." Any casualties in the United States area (training, other assignment to a permanent duty station in the US, etc.) or as a result of disease, homicide, or suicide, in any location, are not included. This document only contains the names of those individuals who died in the line of duty status. Those individuals who were not in the line of duty at the time of their death are not listed in this document.

(2) A USS Houston website that contains detailed information about the ship and its crew can be found online at This site indicates that Robert Ketman's date of death is Septemer 5, 1943, and that he is buried at Barrakpore Cemetery, Calcutta, India. Another source stated that this cemetery was closed and the remains of the POWs were reburied at the Punchbowl Cemetery in Hawaii.

(3) A site regarding Prisoners of War of the Japanese can be found online at

(4) Information regarding USS Houston crewmen who died while prisoners of war can be found online at

(5) Information regarding allied POWs in World War II can be found online at

(6) The comprehensive list of names from North High's 1893-2018 graduation classes are from Claradell Shedd's North Des Moines High School website. The names of all North High School graduates can be found online at Robert Earl Ketman, Jr.'s 1940 class page can be viewed at
Deceased: He died on September 5, 1943 at Regue Camp or 100 Kilo Camp. He is buried in the cemetery there in Grave #120. His rank was Seaman 1st Class.
Music: "Bridge Over the River Kwai"
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