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Courtney Kruger, prisoner of war in Japan, dies in Utah at 91

Published August 2, 2014 11:14 am

Obituary • His daughter believes his years as a POW was a factor in his death.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Courtney Kruger, a U.S. soldier who was captured by the Japanese and then spent 3 1/2 years suffering as a prisoner, died Tuesday at the veterans hospital in Salt Lake City. He was 91.

Kruger's daughter, Connie M. Wright, said her father suffered from pulmonary fibrosis, caused by damage to lung tissue. Wright said when doctors recently took X-rays of her father's lungs, they found severe scarring she assumes came from working in an acid plant while he was a POW in Japan.

Kruger was a 19-year-old radio operator and private assigned to a B-17 in the U.S. Army Air Corps when, the day after they attacked Pearl Harbor, the Japanese began attacking U.S. positions in the Philippines. Kruger's B-17 at Clark Field was destroyed. He was reassigned to an infantry unit on the island of Mindanao.

According to a history Kruger provided to his family, Kruger helped evacuate Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Philippine President Manuel L. Quezon in March of 1942. But by May, the remaining Americans were lightly armed, besieged by Japanese troops and forced to hide in the jungle. Under orders by their commanding officer to do so, Kruger and his comrades surrendered on May 10.

Kruger remained in a prison on Mindanao. While there, he survived dengue fever, according to an account he gave the University of Utah in 2004. He picked bananas and cultivated rice, but almost all that food went to the Japanese. He told the university he was given 750 grams of rice a day and boiled weeds to make soup. Meanwhile, some of his fellow prisoners were murdered at random, Kruger said.

In June of 1944, Kruger and other prisoners were marched through the jungle to a ship that took them to Manila. The next month, Kruger and about 1,000 prisoners were placed aboard another ship called the Canadian Inventor.

It was one of the infamous Japanese "Hellships" that carried POWs crammed into cargo holds with no ventilation or sanitation, and little food or water. Kruger told his family of passing the dead to the front so they could be removed from the hold.

In September, the ship arrived at the port of Moji in Japan. Kruger was sent to work as slave labor at a sulfuric acid plant in Toyama.

He again developed an illness, but his comrades, including a captured doctor, nursed him through with help from a Red Cross packet that included B1 vitamins. His weight dropped to 65 pounds.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military was carpet bombing Japan. One attack on Toyama reportedly killed 10,000 people, but missed Kruger and his fellow POWs.

In September 1945, an American colonel arrived in the camp and told the prisoners the war was over.

Courtney Thomas Kruger was born Aug. 21, 1922, in Compton, Calif. On May 1, 1941, he joined the Army Air Corps hoping to become a pilot. He was waiting for an opening in flight school when war started.

After he was liberated, Kruger was sent to Bushnell General Military Hospital in Brigham City.

Kruger went to visit a friend in Salt Lake City and met the man's sister. Then-Cpl. Kruger and Ruby Ellen Southam married Oct. 27, 1946, at Fort Douglas.

Kruger was discharged from the Air Corps as a staff sergeant, and he and his family settled in Holladay. Wright said her father worked as a mechanic for Eastern Air Lines and later went to work behind the counter at post offices in Salt Lake City and Holladay.

Wright said she has heard older family members describe her father as undergoing a personality change from a tough young man before the war to the mild, gentle man who reared her. Wright said Kruger learned that if he acted aggressive or just gave the wrong look to his Japanese captors, he could suffer a beating or other abuses.

"I used to think he was kind of a wimp as a father," Wright said. "Only later did I learn the reason he was passive was because of the trauma he experienced during the war."

Kruger rarely spoke of his time in the military or as a prisoner, his daughter said, though over the decades he participated in ceremonies and programs to recognize POWs.

Ruby Kruger died in 2003. Courtney Kruger is survived by Wright and another daughter, Karen M. Israelsen; and three grandchildren.

One of Kruger's prized possessions was a keepsake from the prison camp in Toyama. On Aug. 20, 1945, American airplanes dropped care packages attached to small parachutes.

At a gathering of POWs in Salt Lake City in 1995, Kruger showed off a small, yellowish piece of cotton that was one of those parachutes.

"There were three cartons of cigarettes attached," Kruger told The Tribune in 1995, "and a short message which said, 'Good luck, see you soon.' "

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle —

Services for Kruger

Services for Kruger will be 2 p.m. Saturday at the Salt Lake Veterans Home, 700 Foothill Drive in Salt Lake City. Burial will follow at Salt Lake City Cemetery, 200 N St.