Prisoners of the Japanese

On 7 December, 1941, a day that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said would ‘live in infamy’ planes of the Japanese Empire attacked the United States Naval Base at Pearl Harbor.

The following day Japanese forces landed near the Island of Singapore and began advancing down the Malayan Peninsular.

In very short order they were to invade Burma, Hong Kong, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies, and numerous Pacific Islands.

In the next few months they were to sweep all before them.

On Christmas Day the British surrendered Hong Kong and 1,700 Canadian troops were to become some of the first prisoners of the Japanese.

Little could they have imagined the nightmare that, awaited them.

In total some 140,000 European and American soldiers fell into the hands of the Japanese Army, mostly in the first few months of the war. Of these 35,000 were to die in captivity where they were starved, beaten, deprived of medical supplies, executed, and worked to death.

Much like the Holocaust remains a stain upon the name of Germany the deliberate maltreatment of prisoners of war and local civilian populations alike by the Japanese stigmatises a nation that unlike Germany still refuses to fully admit its responsibility or guilt.

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On 15 February 1942, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival surrendered the city of Singapore despite having received express orders from the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill not to do so:

“There must be no thought of sparing the troops or the civilian population, commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and the British Army is at stake.”

It was an order that General Percival chose to ignore.

After a brief meeting under a flag of truce at the Toyota factory on the outskirts of the city, he surrendered 130,000 British, Commonwealth, and Malay troops to a Japanese army less than half its size. Moreover, it was an army that was short on ammunition and exhausted from its rapid advance down the Malay Peninsula. Indeed, it was close to withdrawing despite only rarely having been tested.

Of those that surrendered 50,000 were British, 40,000 Indian, 17,000 Australian, and the rest Native Malay troops. Many had only arrived the day before and had not even fired a shot in anger.

The British had lost only 2,000 men killed and 5,000 wounded in the fighting and the Japanese Commander General Tomoyuki Yamashita could barely believe his good fortune.

He had earlier called General Percival’s bluff and demanded his surrender, and to his astonishment he had acquiesced.

The following day the entire army was made to line the streets and salute the Japanese flag as they marched in triumph through the city.

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For the Japanese to see so many fit young men, taller and physically stronger than they were in a state of such abject surrender was shameful.

The whole event was captured on newsreel and shown throughout Japanese controlled south-east Asia, and as if to emphasise who was now in control the following day British Officers were provided with brooms and forced to sweep the streets of the city clean as the people looked on.

It was the policy of the Japanese to humiliate the former colonial rulers in the eyes of the local populations.

The Fall of Singapore, the greatest single capitulation in British military history was a bitter and irreversible blow to British prestige in its Dominions and marked the beginning of the end of the Empire.

At 1.00 pm on 14 February, the day before the formal surrender, Japanese forces had broken through British lines and were advancing towards the Alexandra Military Hospital. A British Officer carrying a white flag of truce approached the advancing Japanese and was summarily killed. The Japanese then broke into the hospital itself. Doctors, Nurses, Patients, even those undergoing surgery, were brutally bayoneted and clubbed to death. It was a sign of things to come and should have served as a warning to those who were thinking of yielding to an enemy who had nothing but contempt for those unwilling to sacrifice unreservedly their lives for the cause in which they fought.

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Less than two months later on 9 April, 1942, General Edward King surrendered the American garrison at Bataan after a bitterly fought 90 day siege, 11,796 American and 67,000 Filipino troops were taken into captivity.

First they were stripped of all their belongings and then, already half-starved and diseased, they were forced to march 61 miles in extreme heat to their place of incarceration at Camp O’Donnell.

Denied food and water they began to drop like flies and those who fell by the wayside were either left to die or bayoneted to death. Any prisoner who stopped to help one of his comrades in distress was likely to be clubbed and beaten or simply killed out of hand.

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In what became known as the Bataan Death March 650 American and 10,000 Filipino troops died.

Prior to his surrender General King had asked the Japanese Commander General Masaharu Homma if his troops would be well treated. He had received the reply:

“Do you think we are barbarians?”

Six years later General Homma would be executed for war crimes, as indeed would be General Yamashita – the Tiger of Singapore.

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The British and Australian troops captured at Singapore were held at Changi Prison on the Island.

The Camp was administered by the prisoners themselves and it was guarded by soldiers of the anti-British Indian National Army recruited from amongst those Indian troops taken at Singapore.

The Camp was used as a prisoner distribution centre from where captives were sent to work on the Japanese mainland or to labour on the Burma Railway and it was thought of by many of the prisoners as a safe haven where they could exist, if barely, unmolested by their Japanese captors.

Many thousands of British, Australian, and Dutch prisoners were taken from Changi Prison to work on the Burma Railway.

Forced to labour 16 hours a day in intolerable heat on a handful of rice and subject to constant beatings they completed the 421 km railway in just over 12 months.

It was to cost the lives of 6,500 British, 2,800 Dutch, and 2,700 Australian lives. Perhaps as many as 80,000 forced native labourers also died.

In the Camps, that the prisoners were forced to build themselves, the British at least managed to maintain a modicum of military discipline.

Customs of rank were maintained, officers saluted, and regular parades held. But it was difficult thing to sustain.

The men were exhausted, dehydrated and suffering from dysentery, beri-beri, and other diseases. Denied medical supplies the Army Doctors did what they could to combat a multitude of illnesses but the biggest killer remained malaria.

This was an illness that could easily have been combated with quinine but despite repeated requests for it the Japanese always denied that they had any, but supplies were available and it was possible to purchase it on the black market.

At the end of the war ample supplies of the drug were found in most of the liberated prison camps.

Denied the required drugs it was impossible to prevent death in the camps becoming a daily occurrence.

The Japanese, who were not signatories to the Geneva Convention refused to hand over Red Cross Parcels and so with no other means of supplementing their meagre rations the prisoners grew vegetables where they could.

Given that their staple diet was rice served as a bland thin soup without seasoning known as lugao, which many prisoners could not bring themselves to eat or vomited up soon after doing so, the vegetable yield became essential to staving off starvation.

Even so, they could never grow enough.

At Daily Roll Call the prisoners were expected to be able to shout out their prison number in Japanese as they were also expected to be able to respond to shouted orders immediately and without hesitation.

Not doing so would result in a fierce beating.

The Prison Camps were not securely guarded – malnutrition disease, the intolerable climate, and the rugged terrain made it largely unnecessary.

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There were few escape attempts, the prisoners being simply too exhausted, too weak, or too sick to try, and those that did were invariably recaptured – and the penalty for attempting to escape was often to be beheaded as the other prisoners looked on.

Over time certain characteristics amongst the different nationalities of those taken prisoner began to manifest themselves.

The British stubbornly maintained discipline amongst their troops even to the point of ordering that every soldier must shave in the morning and Military Tribunals were established to try those who stepped out of line.

This didn’t prevent British Officers from regularly accepting privileges from their Japanese captors in order to maintain the class system they had been raised in at home.

This caused a great deal of resentment.

The Australian’s adopted a far more laissez-faire approach to their incarceration.

Notoriously informal in any case, they had a nose for survival and soon earned a reputation as pilferers and runners of contraband; they also had an easy-going manner and swagger about them that allowed them to build relationships with some of the guards.

It was also said that no Australian died without someone being there to hold their hand.

There was frequently friction between the Australians and their more uptight British counterparts.

The Dutch prisoners very much kept themselves to themselves and rarely mingled with the other prisoners. They also had a reputation for selfishness refusing to share precious medical supplies or any surplus food, and were in fact widely loathed for their apparent arrogance and aloofness.

The only recorded episodes of prisoner’s turning upon each other, was amongst the Americans where a number of murders were committed.

The prevailing attitude amongst the Americans seemed to be every man for himself and little attempt was made to maintain discipline.

Indeed, they often formed gangs based on Regiment, City, or State, and it is perhaps indicative of that American individualism that they came together in loose informal groupings for self-defence.

As the war progressed prisoners were distributed to all four corners of the Japanese Empire, to places as far-flung as Manchuria, Thailand, Borneo, the Philippines, and the Japanese mainland.

They were often transported in what were to become known as Hell Ships.

These were Merchantmen and converted Container Ships that were used as prisoner transports though the Japanese refused to mark them as such.

Instead they marked those vessels carrying valuable cargoes such as rubber and oil as Hospital and Prison Ships in an attempt to fool the Allies.

As such, the genuine Prison Ships were prey to submarine and bomber attack.

The name Hell Ships was well deserved.

Prisoners were so tightly packed in the holds that they could only move by crawling over one another.

Swelteringly hot, deprived of water and in pitch darkness they could sometimes be confined in these holds for weeks at a time and lived in constant fear of death.

At any moment there suffering could be ended by a bomb or a torpedo and many Hell Ships were indeed sent to the bottom.

On the Montivideo Maru, for example, 1,053 Australian prisoners locked into the holds and unable to escape were drowned.

The worst disaster was the sinking of the Junyo Maru which went down taking 5,640 of the 6,520 prisoners on board.

Even those fortunate enough to escape the sinking ship would often be subjected to machine gun fire in the water whilst others took the opportunity to turn on their guards and murder them.

Of the thirteen Hell Ships known to have been sunk 10,720 of the 15,712 prisoners aboard were drowned.

So great had been the number of prisoners taken in 1942, and the burden they represented, that it was suggested at a Japanese Council of War that they should all be executed.

The idea was rejected but even so the wholesale slaughter of prisoners did occur.

The Sandakan Death Marches occurred between January and June, 1945.

As the ragged and starving Japanese Army that had already resorted to cannibalism (though they were permitted to eat only the corpses of Allied dead) retreated across the Island of Borneo they decided to move the Allied prisoners at Sandakan 160 miles through dense jungle to the town of Ranau.

Brutally treated many did not survive the march and even for those who did it was only to be a stay of execution.

When it was decided to abort the operation instead of releasing the prisoners they chose to kill them and of the 2,400 Allied prisoners-of-war and 3,600 slave labourers at Sandakan only 6 Australians, who had earlier escaped into the jungle, survived.

Of the 6 survivors 3 lived to testify as to the events at Sandakan and as a result at the end of the war. Captain Tekukawa Takuo and Lieutenant Watanabe Genzo were hanged.

On 14 December 1944, at Palawan in the Philippines the sighting of an American convoy convinced those in charge of the camp there that it was soon to be liberated.

During a bombing raid soon after the Japanese ordered the prisoners to remain in their barracks or seek shelter in some nearby trenches, they then doused both in petrol and set them alight.

As the men fled their sparse clothing in flames the Japanese machine gunned them down.

Of the 150 prisoners at Palawan only 11 survived.

The mistreatment of Allied prisoners-of-war went well beyond callous brutality and simple neglect. The notorious Unit 731 of the Japanese Biological and Chemical Warfare Department carried out human experimentation on a massive scale in Manchuria and China.

Such experiments included live vivisection, amputation without anaesthetic, forced drowning, and testing the time it took a man to suffocate.

Most of its victims were Chinese and Korean civilians, perhaps as many as 300,000, but they were also known to have carried out experiments on Russian servicemen and downed U.S Airmen.

General Shiro Ishii, in charge of Unit 731, was captured after the war but he was granted immunity from prosecution for war crimes in return for data relating to their germ warfare programme.

Ishii died in Tokyo in 1959.

Why did the Japanese treat prisoners-of-war so brutally?

German soldiers who had been captured during the First World War expressed no criticism of their treatment and the death rate amongst them was very low. Indeed, it was considered a matter of honour by the Japanese to respect those under their charge. So what brought about such a stark change of attitude?

Japan between the wars was a Nation undergoing a transformation.

The devastating Tokyo earthquake of 1923 which killed more than 200,000 people was viewed by many as a punishment for rejecting the traditional Japanese way of life, and a campaign ensued to eradicate all western influence from Japanese society.

This combined with a rise in militarism, and a growing conflict between parliamentary democracy and the adoration of the Emperor Hirohito as a living God.

Japan during this period was not only in political turmoil but was a society irreconcilably divided between traditionalists and those who sought closer ties to the West.

It was a country close to chaos and one ruled by political assassination.

Elected Governments came and went and none of them were able to wield sufficient control over an army that was willing to kill those Ministers they felt stood in their way.

Uniformity became the order of the day throughout the 1920’s and 1930’s. Western styles of dress were frowned upon and khaki dungarees became the standard day wear.

Adherence to a traditional Japanese way of life was rigorously enforced by the Kempitai, or Secret Police, and any miscreant behaviour was harshly punished sometimes with a prison sentence or more often a public beating.

There was also a revival in the traditional Japanese religion of Shinto, which along with Bushido, the code of the Samurai Warrior, soon came to dominate.

Shinto was soon installed as the State religion and Bushido became the core value system of the militarism that was to dominate Japanese society in the decades between the wars.

Shintoism with its rituals of water purification, prayer, and the drinking of saki was strictly codified. At its core is the worship of one’s ancestors and a belief in the spirits. In its crudest form it engendered among its worshippers self-denial, self-sacrifice, and self-immolation. Its revival saw Japan’s other major religion Buddhism proscribed.

Bushido, and its seven virtues, placed the emphasis on honour, courage, and a good death. Honour lost could be regained by enacting Seppuku (ritual suicide) or what we know as Hari-Kiri, and this was the code by which the Samurai Warrior lived.

The union of Shinto and Bushido was to lead to a culture of death.

Japan was already a society highly defined and to its strict culture of deference was now attached this new religious rigour.

The military training of children was strictly enforced and it engendered an atmosphere where self-sacrifice and devotion to the person of the Emperor prevailed.

It was in this harsh environment that young men and women were raised.

Conditions in Japan itself were also tough.

It was still a predominantly agricultural country, desperately poor, and it had been badly hit by the World Economic Depression, and a life in the military, though harsh, was at least a way out of grinding poverty.

All this goes some way to understanding the character of the Japanese soldier even if it does not excuse or fully explain the cruelties for which they were responsible.

The Japanese however barely treated their own soldiers better than they did the prisoners under their care.

Japanese Officers would often physically beat their own men for the slightest infraction of the rules and the rations they received were rarely more than the minimum required.

Wounded soldiers often went untreated and it was not unknown for those who were wounded and unable to move to be disposed of as an inconvenience.

These men, subjected to such harsh conditioning did not necessarily see their treatment of prisoners as anything but decent.

Those Officers arraigned after the war for war crimes simply could not understand what they were being charged with.

The middle-ranks of the Japanese Officer Corps were largely made up of the sons of poor peasant farmers often barely educated who saw themselves as the inheritors of the Samurai tradition, and there was an obsession with blooding their much-cherished swords.

It was considered a humiliation to serve in a prisoner-of-war camp and those who did had often been deemed unfit for front-line military service, either physically or emotionally.

Also, many of the camp guards were not Japanese as such but rather Taiwanese volunteers of Japanese extraction.

Poorly trained they were often recruited from amongst the worse elements of society and many had criminal records.

It would be wrong however, to think that the maltreatment of prisoners was entirely down to the callous behaviour of individuals, a general contempt for those who willingly surrendered their arms, or an accumulation of all the factors detailed above.

Japanese policy was to humiliate the white man and the old colonial rulers whenever and wherever they could.

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