Appendices - Hirohito's War
D: THE JAPANESE EMPIRE - FROM CO-PROSPERITY TO TYRANNY
Prisoners of War: In the Japanese war code it was not possible for a soldier to surrender and retain honor. As Hirohito’s War has described, in battle after battle in the long retreat from the outer reaches of Japan’s empire, from the central Pacific, New Guinea, the Indian border, and from the Solomon Islands, Japanese soldiers chose death over capture. To the amazement of the US Marines, in many instances the death rate of Japanese in the Pacific Island battles was as high as 99.9 percent. To the Japanese the surrender of tens of thousands of Allied troops in the first months of the war was simply incomprehensible. To Japan’s commanders it bespoke not only cowardice but a lack of seishin (pure heartedness) on the part of their western enemies.
The sense of shock and disgust on the part of the Japanese troops was followed by a more pragmatic question. How could they deal with such large numbers of prisoners In part the Japanese Army’s brutal treatment of their captives was caused by it being logistically quite unprepared to deal with the tens of thousands of prisoners of war. Another shock was the sheer size of their prisoners. As Toyoshige Karashima recalled thinking, “How on earth are we going to look after people of this size.”35
For the Western captives the brutality of their treatment was equally surprising. In Hong Kong, prisoners were kept in roofless huts with no protection from the rain and were forced to sleep on bare concrete. There was no medicine. Food was limited to a bowl of rice in the morning and another in the evening. There was no sanitation and rats and flies were everywhere. The smell was almost the worst thing to bear. Beatings were frequent – often meted out for failure to bow or salute. Anthony Hewitt, who was ordered to escape by his commanding officer recalled, “I thought they were terrible people, the Japanese. There was absolutely no link between normal civilized behaviour and the way these Japanese troops were behaving. No reason at all why they had to behave in this awful, cruel and sadistic manner.”36
Yet it should be noted that Japanese soldiers in the field often suffered conditions much worse than those described by Hewitt. In New Guinea and the Solomons, troops would dream about two bowls of rice a day, and their living conditions were often much worse. This is not to excuse the barbarity of Japanese punishment of prisoners; but as to living conditions, the Japanese Army simply lacked the logistical assets to feed themselves let alone armies of prisoners. When one prisoner, Jim Miller complained about lack of food, his commandant Hoshijima told him that “people die of starvation every day in Japan. You’re only POWs – why should we feed you? The Japanese only feed POWs if they work.”37 For some the lack of food was excuse enough to murder prisoners. One Japanese soldier, asked why he bayonetted Chinese soldiers, responded, “Well, there was an administrative problem and not all of them could be fed.”38
The shortage of food was a constant issue for prisoners. Ruff, a Dutch teenager at the time of her internment recalled unremitting hunger: “It was really dreadful – the starvation. You really had hunger pains. We ate anything. We ate weeds. Towards the end we even ate rats and snails. We even ate a cat – the camp commandant’s cat – because we were so hungry.”39 Starvation brought specific illnesses. Like Japanese soldiers in the field, prisoners suffered from beriberi and pellagra. Early symptoms were aching feet, the pain of which eventually kept people awake all night.
For women POWs the fear of sexual attack was as great a problem as hunger. Two years into her captivity Jan Ruff O’Herne, along with other of the younger women, was taken away and put in a brothel; when they protested the Japanese said “they could do with us what they liked.”40 Ruff, a virgin, had her clothes ripped off by a “large, fat, bald Japanese officer”41 who ran his sword over her body before raping her. The first night she was raped by ten Japanese soldiers. After a week she was subjected to a gynecological examination by a doctor. She appealed to him for help believing that a doctor would help her. She was more than disappointed; he raped her and did so every week during his visits. After three months the Dutch girls were taken to a prison camp in Batavia (Jakarta). It is interesting to note that the Japanese kept them separate from other prisoners to prevent them from talking about their experiences. It is clear from this that Japanese officers were quite aware that what they were doing was morally wrong. After the war she confessed to a priest about what had happened and told him that she wanted to become a nun. The priest told her that would be inappropriate given her experiences. In 1992 Ruff became the first European ‘comfort woman’ to speak out and demand an apology from Hirohito and the Japanese government.
Prisoner punishments were varied. Some commandants simply shot prisoners who escaped. Others were savagely beaten. Special punishment sometimes involved keeping prisoners in wooden cages where they could not stand up. Their screams would keep other prisoners on edge. Daily exercise consisted of being taken out for a beating.
Singapore’s Changi barracks before the war were renowned as a luxury showcase for the British Army. Set in green parkland dotted with trees and bougainvillea and overlooking the sea, it had every appearance of an island paradise. Apart from troop barracks set on the ten square mile site, there were officers’ bungalows, mess quarters, warrant officer accommodation and messes, theatres, canteens, cinemas, squash courts, playing fields, garages, workshops and churches. However when 52,200 mainly British and Australian troops were transferred there by their Japanese captors in February 1942, most of the accommodation had been bombed. For the first week there was no food at all; a testament to how badly the Japanese Army was resourced in logistical capability.
The Japanese set about breaking the spirits of the Allied troops by humiliation. When Lieutenant-General Percival refused to allow his men to teach the Japanese how to use captured British weapons, he was locked up and denied food for four days. Officers were forced to remove insignia of rank. Orders were also given that prisoners would have to salute guards – a humiliation for many when renegade soldiers who had chosen to join the Indian National Army (INA) were given many of the guard duty tasks. One Sikh guard who inflicted butt and bayonet wounds on British prisoners ended up being murdered when he was bundled into the latrines. He was upended head first in the latrines and drowned.
Nevertheless the British were better treated than many Indians and Chinese who were taken bound into the sea and mown down by machine gun. Robert Reid, 2nd Lieutenant, reported: “We are voluntarily sending out burying parties to bury the hundreds of Chinese and Indians butchered by the Nips on Changi Beach.”42
Using extraordinary ingenuity prisoners were able to fashion goods from waste. Huts were repaired and fitted with bunks and bedding made from rice sacks, pots and pans were fashioned from junk, a disused electricity source was used to connect the huts for fans, and fresh water was pumped for showers. Vegetables were grown using urine to water the plants. Eventually the troops kept pigs and chickens. The camp’s commandant connived at and encouraged these luxuries but it still proved little more than a starvation diet. Thereafter with just 2,000 calories available for men required to do physical labor, deterioration of physique was inevitable.
Boredom was alleviated by the foundation of a university. The commandant was persuaded that if men’s minds were occupied they would be less likely to plan escapes. Accordingly 20,000 books were transported from Singapore. Major E.W. Swanton, after the war a famed cricket correspondent for The Telegraph, wrote, “You go round and see a flock of gunners listening to a lecture on the modern history of Europe or a Shakespeare play reading.”43 Not surprisingly sport played an important role in keeping up morale. Games of touch rugby, soccer, badminton, volleyball and tennis were conjured from what was available. The camp even held swimming and athletic competitions. On occasions Japanese and Korean guards participated. As historian Brian MacArthur points out in Surviving the Sword , by the end of the war “Changi became a small city, with its own government, ‘schools’ and ‘universities’, churches, factories, farms and gardens, theatres, medical services, cookhouses, craftsmen, technicians and ‘businessmen’, who became moneylenders.”44
Camps brought out the best of human behaviour – and also the worst. ‘King Rats’ operated like Chicago mobsters. Theft, protection rackets, dealing in food and rare goods became the norm. Cigarettes were the main trading currency having the advantage of keeping currency supply limited as new issues went up in smoke. By common acknowledgement, the Australians were the smartest of the ‘rat’ set. Sometimes the ‘King Rats’ worked closely with the POW chief officers to sustain a form of welfare system. Others however looted medicines, blankets and other goods desperately needed by the POWs.
Dr. Cyril Vardy made detailed notes about the diet in his diary: “Breakfast. Rice with ½ sardine, or rice alone, or 1 small piece of cheese. Strong black tea. Lunch. Rice and milk (very little milk) ALWAYS. Dinner. Rice and a little stew, or curry or small piece of vegetable or one small piece of meat about that size. We twice a week get bread (2 slices, one with butter, one with jam). Once a week Army biscuit. Once a week sugar – teaspoonful. But there is always rice.”45 Eventually cooks learnt how to flavour rice with foraged spices or fish, coconut and chillies. The men also learnt how to make rice flour. Regimental Sergeant Major Peter Neild calculated that he ate 3,800 consecutive meals of rice. It may have been a harsh regime but tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands would have craved a diet as rich as this. Nevertheless by August 1942 some 22,342 soldiers had been admitted to hospital. The main illnesses were dysentery but 926 had beri-beri and 1,314 had malaria.
In December 1942 change came to Changi as 18,000 troops left for Burma, Thailand and Borneo. In the following months a further 16,000 were sent to Thailand and Japan, also to serve as laborers. For those who left, memories of Changi would be a paradise compared to what lay ahead. Indeed those fortunate few who survived the labor camps and found their way back to Changi basked in happiness. Flight Lieutenant Dick Philps rejoiced when he returned after surviving the building of an airport from coral on Haruku Island in the Moluccas: “Wonderful Changi Jail, civilized and, by our own standards, luxurious.”46
Packed into cattle trucks, the Allied troops were taken north to work on the Thai-Burma railway. Four days of horror followed; searing heat, foul conditions, and widespread dysentery. They were dispersed to different construction projects. Lieutenant-Colonel Philip Toosey’s British troops were joined by 1,000 Dutch troops from Java to work on the construction of two bridges over the River Kwai. With no construction equipment jungle clearing of teak and deeply rooted bamboo forests had to be done by hand. The bridge too was hand built. Unlike their life at Changi where soldier’s had the day to themselves, at the River Kwai men were on their feet for twelve or more hours per day: Stephen Alexander noted “the primitive nature of the tools, and the sheer number of men slaving away – some digging, some in long snaking queues carrying baskets of earth, some chaining sand and stones from the river bed – made for a positively biblical scene. We felt like the Israelites building a temple to Moloch.”47
There were constant beatings by the Korean guards who themselves were cruelly treated by the Japanese. One Korean was knocked down and had his eyes gouged out by the heel of a Japanese officer. In the Japanese Army brutality was handed down rank by rank – Allied prisoners were the end of the line. In the face of the appalling conditions Toosey’s refused to back down with regard to army discipline. He took the view that the Japanese would ignore all aspects of the Geneva Convention in order to get the bridge built – however many POW lives were lost. “It became clear to me that whether we liked it or not, the work had to be done.”48 Rather than defy the Japanese Toosey focused on the negotiation of better conditions. As part of the arrangements British officers were given a greater management role. Tamarkan camp was eventually rebuilt and became the model for others in Thailand. Remarkably the POWs were paid. Toosey organised a confiscation of a third of officers’ pay to buy medicine and food for the sick. Dr. Arthur Moon managed to save thousands of lives dealing with dysentery, malaria, malnutrition and frequent construction site injuries. An outbreak of cholera also had to be dealt with. Japanese doctors who visited once a month refused to enter the ulcer ward because of the unbearable stench. Out of the nearly 2,000 men, 30 were dying each month – a figure that would have been greatly increased if Toosey had not made contact with a helpful Thai resistance group (V organisation) who supplied him with money and medicines. Toosey also managed to persuade the commandant to allow him to develop a pig and duck farm.
The addition of Dutch prisoners added significantly to knowledge about how to prepare rice and flavour it with herbs and ground sambal bajak (a sort of peanut butter). They also taught the British better hygiene methods. Stephen Alexander noted that “it was a godsend to us the Dutch coming in and showing us how to use water.”49 For Toosey, a stickler for hygiene, their fastidiousness was welcome. Toosey himself refused to allow men to go unshaven and used Dutch barbers – thus preventing lice infestation. In spite of Toosey’s efforts, the condition of the men deteriorated. He later recalled one man “who was so thin he could be lifted easily in one arm. His hair… was full of maggots… a ragged pair of shorts, soaked with dysentery excreta. He was lousy, and covered with flies all the time… could be smelt for hundreds of yards.”50 When Toosey forced the Japanese guards to look at such men, “with the exception of the Camp Commandant, they showed no signs of sympathy and sometimes merely laughed.”51 By September 1943 15,000 of the 40,000 prisoners in Thailand were sick – not including those with dysentery and beriberi, who were still working in the slave gangs.
Miseries increased during the monsoon especially as the war turned against Japan and their engineers urged ‘speedo’ on their POW work gangs. Three 8-hour shifts working 24 hours a day was changed to two 12-hour shifts. Later even the POWs had to admit that the completion of the railway in the given time was a stupendous achievement. The conditions for the POWs were horrific and clearing the jungles brought an astonishing array of insects to add to the torment. Sapper Ronald Earle, later a cartoonist whose creation inspired the St. Trinians series of films, wrote, ‘”Mosquitoes and foul fat flies were a horror, and their bites were often fatal… we were kept awake by the swarms of bed bugs that wandered over us, sucking our blood… sometimes giant centipedes wriggled into our hair when we finally got to sleep…”52 The ‘speedo’ campaign drove Japanese guards to a frenzy of brutality. They knew that if they failed to meet targets, they too would be humiliated, beaten and flailed.
Unlike in the film The Bridge on the River Kwai  Toosey’s teams attempted to sabotage the bridge. Concrete was incorrectly made, poor termite infected trees were selected for key joints, and nuts and bolts were left loose or left out. The film’s suggestion that Toosey (Nicholson in the film) tried to build the perfect bridge was a slander to Toosey, as was the suggestion that it was British rather than Japanese engineers who designed it. Incongruously actor William Holden, playing an American soldier, played the heroic part even though there were no Americans at Tamarkan and there was no commando raid. Their efforts to weaken the bridge were unnecessary. Eventually the bridges were destroyed in air raids by British and American bombers at the end of 1944.
As a result of Toosey’s work and in spite of its miseries, Tamarkan became known as the best in region. Arrivals from other jungle camps were amazed. Australian war correspondent recalled that “on my birthday, a fortnight after arrival, with eight of my cobbers I had a discussion with four roast ducklings, stuffed with onions and herbs – a discussion more profitable in our pellagra-ridden condition than the finest of the Socratic Dialogues.”53 No better testimony could be given for the work of Lieutenant-Colonel Toosey, who became a legend and hero to those POWs who worked in the Japanese labor camps in Burma and Thailand. It remained a constant sadness to him and his troops that his reputation was so badly besmirched by David Lean’s famous film.
Officers were paid though enlisted men were only paid if they worked. A black market flourished and with it spivs and entrepreneurs. Difference in pay rankled as did the maintenance of rank, including an officer’s mess. Inevitably money went on the purchase of extra rations. A day’s pay for an enlisted soldier could buy an egg or four cigarettes. Officers were paid twice as much. Theft became commonplace – from the Japanese and each other. At Changi when the camp commandant harangued the POWs about theft of petrol he drove off in his car, which spluttered to a halt after a few hundred yards. While he was talking his gas tank was syphoned off.
While most post-war attention on POWs has been placed on Changi Prison in Singapore and on the building of the Burma railway by POWs, in others areas of Japan’s Empire prisoners suffered much more egregiously. After the war the Netherlands Forces Intelligence service deduced from captured documents that the kempeitai alone swept up 1,918 POWs of whom 743 were killed. Remarkably 304 persons, including 92 Europeans, 117 Indonesians and 35 Chinese and other Asians were pronounced as dead before sentence. Cause of death was listed as heart failure. It is clear that POW deaths speeded up as Japanese defeat came closer. As Major Katsumara confessed, “in view of the possibility of an Allied landing it was decided to deal with criminals as quickly as possible.”54 Throughout the Japanese Empire, Allied prisoners were dispatched as defeat drew nearer. In the Philippines the rapid rescues by General Krueger’s invasion forces on Luzon almost certainly saved hundreds and possibly thousands of lives. (SEE Chapter 32: “I have returned”: MacArthur Regains the Philippines)
During the course of the Pacific War some 27 per cent of the 350,000 male POWs died in capitivity. Given that these were mainly young men it was an astonishing mortality rate over a three and half year period. By comparison only 4 per cent of POWs held in German or Italian prison camps died in captivity. The figures hide the death rates of some camps that were much higher than the average. At Sandakan in Borneo only six POWs out of 2,500 (mainly Australians) survived the war. The surviving six all managed to escape. The remainder either died of disease or starvation, were beaten to death or shot. After the war Captain Hoshijima, Captain Watanabe and Captain Takakuwa were found guilty of murder, sentenced to death and executed.
Startling though the death rates were in the Pacific War, by way of comparison, of the 5.7m Soviet troops taken prisoner by the German Army on the Eastern Front, some 3.3m died in captivity – more than double the mortality rate of Japan’s POWs.
Although most of the focus of attention is placed on the physical conditions of captivity and the brutality of the Japanese regime towards the Allied prisoners of war , the psychological effects of imprisonment should not be ignored. On his forty second birthday, Dr. Vardy reflected “I cannot remember anything, except misery, disappointments, unhappiness – disillusions – friends, love, peace, home comfort for all seem to have flown out of life’s window.”55 Corps discipline, the focus on the daily fight to survive, friendship and large doses of humor were the qualities that kept men going. The collective singing of rude ditties about the Japanese did wonders for morale. Dr. Pavillard described camp life as a make believe. Mind games helped keep them alive: “We refused to think in terms of not going home. We took our survival and ultimate freedom for granted and related all our experience as prisoners of war to that fact.”56
Hatred of the Japanese was another unifying force. On occasions however compassion proved the stronger power. On Ambon in 1944 Flight Lieutenant Dick Philips recalled the arrival of wounded Japan troops who were expected to transfer themselves to a nearby empty ship for onward transportation. Emaciated British POWs, witnessing the pathetic state of the wounded Japanese, boarded the boat and carried them to their new ship. The Japanese guards looked on, incredulous.
In part the apparent disconnection of the Japanese towards the human suffering of the POWs may reflect the profound differences between Zhen Buddhism (Japan’s main religion) and Christianity. Buddhism teaches disconnection from the world while Christianity does not. The parable of the ‘good Samaritan’ is the perfect illustration of how one should ‘love thy neighbour’ by doing practical self-sacrificing actions. Christianity, even imbued by non-believers, promotes engagement, not detachment. It is noticeable that the deeply entrenched social structures of charity and community work do not exist to the same degree in Japan as in Europe. In Japan group beliefs may be psychologically strong but do not necessarily manifest themselves in giving outside the family unit.
However it would be wrong to put too much emphasis on these differences. The atrocities committed by Russian Orthodox Christians and Christian Germans (Catholic and Lutheran) stand comparison with anything done by the Japanese in Asia. In the camps at Changi, in Thailand and Burma, religion played a significant role in maintaining the morale of the troops and Father Noel Duckworth became a legendary figure among POWs not only for pastoral work but also for founding a black market operation to get supplies into the camps. On Sundays he thundered against the Japanese, lumping them together as the incarnation of evil and pointing at the guards standing nearby.