Prisoners of the Japanese
Posted on 19th July 2021
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 Harbour. The following day Japanese forces landed on the Malayan Peninsular and began an advance upon Singapore. In very short order they were also to invade Burma, Hong Kong, Borneo, the Dutch East Indies and numerous Pacific Islands - 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 lay ahead.
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, executed, and worked to death.
Much like the Holocaust remains a stain upon Germany so does the deliberate maltreatment of prisoners and local civilian populations alike upon Japan who unlike the former still refuse to fully accept their guilt and responsibility.
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."
Percival chose to ignore the order and 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.
Of those who 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 who had called General Percival’s bluff could hardly believe his luck.
The following day the entire British Army was made to line the streets and salute the Japanese flag as Yamashita and his entourage drove in triumph through the city.
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. 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 their policy 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.
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.
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 and 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.
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 guarded by soldiers of the anti-British Indian National Army recruited from among 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 where 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 the prisoners were themselves forced to build the British at least maintained a modicum of military discipline; Officers were saluted and regular parades held but it was difficult thing to sustain.
The men were exhausted, dehydrated and suffering from dysentery, beri-beri and a myriad of other diseases. All suffered from malnutrition and the Army Doctors worked hard to keep men alive but denied medical supplies there was little they could do. This was particularly the case with malaria which remained the biggest killer but could easily have been combated with quinine. Repeated requests were made for it but the Japanese always denied that they had any though 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 also 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 would have to shout out their prison number in Japanese and respond to shouted orders immediately and without hesitation. Not doing so would result in a beating.
The Prison Camps were not securely guarded – isolation and the intolerable climate along with the effects of malnutrition and disease had made it largely unnecessary.
There were few escape attempts, the prisoners being simply too exhausted, too weak or too sick to try and for those who did recapture was inevitable while the penalty for attempting to escape was to be beheaded as the other prisoners looked on.
Over time certain characteristics emerged among the different nationalities taken prisoner.
The British stubbornly maintained military discipline even to the point of ordering every soldier who could to 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 which 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 kept themselves to themselves and rarely mingled with the other prisoners. They 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 prevailing attitude among 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 and a number of murders were committed.
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 itself. 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 cargos such as rubber and oil as Hospital and Prison Ships instead in an attempt to fool the Allies. It didn’t and they soon became 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.
As the ragged and starving Japanese Army which had already resorted to cannibalism (though they were permitted to eat only the corpses of Allied dead) retreated across the Island of Borneo they took their prisoners with them from 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 3 of whom would later testify to a War Crimes Tribunal that would see Captain Tekukawa Takuo and Lieutenant Watanabe Genzo 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. He 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 little criticism of their treatment and the death rate among them was very low. Indeed, it was considered a matter of honour for 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 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 veneration of the Emperor Hirohito as a living God.
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 this more traditional Japanese way of life was rigorously enforced by the Kempitai or Security 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 ancient Shintoism which became the State religion and Bushido which was to form the core value system of the militarism that came 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, with 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 in a society already 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 of Japan were raised.
The Japanese Army barely treated their own soldiers better than they did the prisoners under their care. Officers would often physically beat their own men for the slightest infraction of the rules and the rations they received were the bare minimum required.
Wounded soldiers who could not be moved were often disposed of as an inconvenience.
Subjected to such harsh conditioning they did not see their treatment of men who had dishonoured themselves by surrendering as anything but decent. Officers arraigned after the war for war crimes simply could not understand what they were being charged with.
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. Many of the camp guards were not Japanese as such but rather Taiwanese volunteers of Japanese extraction. Poorly trained they were often recruited from among the worse elements of society and many had criminal records.
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; but then it would be wrong 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.
How prisoners-of-war were treated was determined at the highest levels of Government and the Military. Japan intended to forge their own Empire throughout south-east Asia and its policy was to humiliate the white man, the old colonial masters wherever and whenever they could.
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