WWII POW helped build bridge over River Kwai


Earl “Joe” Snyder, a World War II prisoner of war who was presumed dead before he returned home in 1945, died of emphysema yesterday in St. Charles Mercy Hospital. He was 81.

Mr. Snyder of Millbury went into the Navy when he was 17 years old. He received his high school diploma during his tour of duty.

He sailed in the Pacific Theater on the USS Houston. Japanese suicide bombers attacked the ship on the Sunda Strait, forcing the crew to jump overboard, his wife, Erma, said.

After he was picked up by Japanese troops, Mr. Snyder hauled their ammunition for three days before being transported to a prison camp aboard a crowded ship.

Mr. Snyder was a prisoner in Burma for more than three years. He helped build the Burma Railroad and the bridge over the River Kwai.

“They worked 17 hours a day,” his wife said. “They had no shoes and no hats. They built the Burma Railroad with practically no tools.”

Many of the men suffered from malnutrition and illness. Mr. Snyder narrowly escaped dying from an ulcer on his leg.

Back in the United States, people presumed that Mr. Snyder was dead. The Lutheran Orphans and Old Folks Home in Toledo gave him a funeral and his death notice appeared in a local newspaper.

But Mr. Snyder survived the prison camp until the war ended in 1945. After Japan surrendered, guards abandoned the camp where he was held, his son, Joel, said.

Mr. Snyder and his companions were able to flee and make their way back home.

When Mr. Snyder returned, he weighed just 97 pounds. He was 165 pounds when he entered the Navy, his son said.

Mr. Snyder contacted his future wife after he arrived in the United States. Mrs. Snyder said she was “truly shocked” that he was still alive. The couple married shortly after his homecoming.

Mr. Snyder worked for 20 years in the shipping department of the former Doehler-Jarvis company. He volunteered for several years with the Millbury Volunteer Fire Department.

He belonged to the Christ Dunberger American Legion Post, Disabled Veterans, American Defenders of Bataan & Corregidor, and USS Houston Survivors of the Asiatic Fleet.

Of the USS Houston's crew of over 1,000 soldiers, fewer than 300 survived the war. Mr. Snyder attended several crew reunions.

Before entering the Navy, Mr. Snyder attended Clay High School. He played on the school's first organized football team.

He enjoyed hunting, fishing, and bowling. Mr. Snyder also was a skilled mechanic who taught his children how to fix cars.

“He was outgoing,” his wife said. “He'd always wear a smile on his face.”

Surviving are his wife of 57 years, Erma; son, Joel; daughters, Rhonda Lutes, Pamela Clere, Kim McGrew, and Trudy Bredburg; brother, Norman Scofield; sister, Mary Cluckey, seven grandchildren, and a great-grandchild.

Services will be at 11 a.m. Tuesday in the Eggleston-Meinert Funeral Home, Millbury, where the body will be after 2 p.m. tomorrow.

The family requests tributes to St. Peter's United Church of Christ in Millbury.