50 states, 50 heroes: Earning respect

Published 7:01 am Saturday, April 4, 2020

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Born Dec. 17, 1907, in Peru, Indiana, Richard Nott Antrim briefly served in the U.S. Naval Reserve before his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1927. He graduated as an ensign in 1931. After serving in various positions, he was appointed executive officer of the Clemson-class destroyer USS Pope in Dec. 1939, a position he held when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

With the U.S. now at war with Imperial Japan, the Pope was deployed to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia). It participated in the Jan. 23-24, 1942, Battle of Balikpapan off the coast of Borneo, where Antrim directed fire at a Japanese convoy to delay the Japanese landing forces attacking Balikpapan.

Antrim distinguished himself during the Feb. 19-20, 1942, Battle of Badung Strait off the coast of Bali. The Pope’s commander, Comm. Welford C. Blinn, recommended Antrim for a “decoration deemed appropriate” (he later received the Navy Cross) as well as his own destroyer command.

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After the Japanese victory over Allied naval forces at the Battle of the Java Sea on Feb. 28, 1942, the remaining Allied ships began to withdraw from the island of Java. The Pope joined the British heavy cruiser HMS Exeter and British destroyer HMS Encounter in an attempt to escape, leaving Surabaya, Java, on Feb. 28. They were spotted by Japanese aircraft, which then alerted the Japanese fleet.

In the ensuing battle, the Exeter and Encounter were sunk, but the Pope continued to fight. It was all to no avail; the ship was unable to lose her pursuers and on March 1, the Pope began to sink.

Wounded in the battle, Antrim helped organize the evacuation of the Pope. As the senior officer of the surviving 150 men, Antrim kept the lifeboats together and distributed the rations as evenly as possible. For about a week the men kept together on the open water before a Japanese destroyer took them on board. From there, the men were transported to a prisoner-of-war camp at Makassat on the island of Celebes.

For the Japanese, surrender was the ultimate form of shame and dishonor. Prisoners captured by the Japanese were treated as subhuman, often being beaten savagely by prison guards for the slightest infractions. In April 1942, Antrim and his fellow prisoners witnessed a guard repeatedly beat a naval officer, Lt. j.g. Allan Jack Fisher, with a stick for not bowing low enough to him. Risking severe punishment, Antrim told the guard to stop, a move that stunned the guard and the other prisoners. Antrim then managed to communicate to the guard that Fisher should have his case heard by the camp’s commandant.

In front of the other prisoners and the Japanese forces, Antrim argued that Fisher meant no disrespect as Americans were not used to bowing and needed time to learn Japanese customs. The commandant, however, ruled that Fisher would receive 50 rope lashes.

Having already suffered a brutal beating, it did not take many lashes before Fisher was unconscious, at which point other Japanese guards began kicking him. Antrim again stepped in, telling the guards, “I’ll take the rest.” Again, the guards and other prisoners were stunned. When Antrim repeated that he would take the rest of the lashes, his fellow prisoners cheered. The Japanese commandant, impressed by Antrim’s bravery, spared Fisher the rest of the punishment. He then slightly bowed and saluted Antrim.

Because of Antrim’s actions, the guards treated the prisoners with more respect, though the cruelty did not completely cease.

As Antrim’s captivity continued, he was forced to take charge of constructing slit trenches designed to provide protection from air raids. Convincing the Japanese to let him alter their layout plans for the trenches, he arranged the trenches in a new pattern. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, Antrim’s pattern read “US” from the air, warning incoming Allied bombers that American prisoners were inside the trenches. To do so was an incredible risk; had the Japanese known what he did, he would have been executed.

The POW camp was liberated in September 1945 with the Japanese surrender. Because his fate was unknown, Antrim had been listed as “missing in action.” On Jan. 30, 1947, President Harry Truman presented Antrim with the Medal of Honor at the White House.

Antrim retired from the Navy on April 1, 1954. After his retirement, he was advanced to the rank of rear admiral based on his combat awards, which along with the Medal of Honor and Navy Cross included the Bronze Star, Purple Heart and Navy Presidential Unit Citation.

Antrim died on March 7, 1969, in Mountain Home, Arkansas, at the age of 61. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

In 1979, the Navy named the USS Antrim, an Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigate, in Antrim’s honor.