Prisoners of War
II: Prisoner-of-war and Civilian Internment Camps
II: Prisoner-of-war and Civilian Internment Camps
The civilian internees at Singapore remained in Changi Jail during 1942 and 1943 and the early part of 1944. As time went on the supplies of food originally brought into the camp from stores in Singapore became exhausted, the Japanese ration scale progressively decreased, and the purchase of extra food outside the camp became more difficult owing to inflated prices, as well as continual uncertainty whether the Japanese would allow foraging parties to leave the camp and bring back the purchases. From April 1943 the Japanese allowed the Singapore agent of the International Red Cross Committee to supply the camp with extras and to pay for goods bought by the internees from a firm of Singapore merchants. Rice polishings thus obtained were added to the diet in time to avert a serious outbreak of beriberi. But if food was always a difficulty, facilities for recreation steadily improved, and many former internees mention excellent performances by the camp theatre and orchestra. Those who studied the Shonan News were able to glean something of the war situation by reading between the lines, and this was brought into focus by the reception of BBC bulletins from New Delhi on concealed radio sets.
An incident occurred in 1943 which showed that the Japanese Kempetai could be just as harsh in the application of their methods of investigation to civilians as to prisoners of war. The Japanese apparently became suspicious that the internees had established a page 327 spy organisation in Changi Jail, with contacts in the town of Singapore to stir up anti-Japanese feeling and commit sabotage, and with radio equipment which enabled it both to receive and to transmit messages. After a parade of all internees lasting from dawn until dusk in the jail yard, during which their quarters were searched (and looted), 57 internees, including three women, were taken for interrogation to Japanese military police centres in Singapore. They were crowded into small cells irrespective of sex or age, kept sitting at attention for some fourteen hours a day, and brutally beaten for any infraction of orders. Their food consisted of a totally insufficient amount of rice (occasionally vegetables and weak tea), their only water supply for all purposes was the one water closet in each cell, and bright lights were kept burning all night. Eventually they were all interrogated.
The following extract from the report of the commission1 set up later to record the facts concerning this incident will show the actual methods of interrogation:
The building occupied by the Japanese Military Police resounded all day and all night with blows, the bellowings of the inquisitors and the shrieks of the tortured. From time to time victims from the torture chamber would stagger back or if unconscious would be dragged back to their cells with marks of their ill-treatment on their bodies. In one such case an unconscious victim so returned died during the night without receiving any medical attention and his body was not removed until the afternoon.
Beating with iron bars or any other weapon offering, jumping on a stomach distended with water, burning the body with lighted cigarettes, electric shock, jiu-jitsu holds and various forms of mental torture—these were the principal types of savagery used by the Japanese military police in these investigations. Some of the internees spent months in their custody. Twelve, including the Changi Jail camp leader, died as a result. One man died after 55 hours' consecutive interrogation and beating; one died as a result of injuries received in an attempt to commit suicide; only one was executed. Among the conditions for which the survivors had to be treated in the Changi Jail hospital were extreme emaciation, dysentery, beriberi, heart strain, and various injuries to joints and limbs.
1 The commission, presided over by S. N. King of the Malayan Civil Service, sat from 30 August to 2 September 1945 at the Sime Road internment camp and took evidence from 36 survivors.
Of the prisoners of war who were originally concentrated in the Changi garrison area of Singapore Island, those who remained quartered within the area improvised and adapted their living conditions to give them something approximating the regimental life they had formerly known. Spit-and-polish, saluting, and even drill for some time maintained their place in the daily routine. Those who were detached for work in some other part of the island and given new quarters there were chiefly concerned to maintain their health so that they could stand up to the constant physical strain of heavy coolie labour, and to study the best way of handling their guards in order to avoid the beatings and the other severe punishments with which the Japanese followed up their disapproval.
In the Changi area the water supply and electric lighting were in time restored to damaged buildings. Adequate sanitation was provided by properly sealed bore-holes, and the medical authorities did everything possible to prevent the spread of disease by explaining the danger to the men and encouraging them to pay more than usual attention to measures of hygiene. Even so there was a high death rate, caused mainly by malnutrition, beriberi, dysentery and diphtheria. The daily ration of poor-quality rice, reduced in quantity to an average of about nine ounces a day, would have needed the addition of a great deal more than the scanty and irregular supplies of fish and vegetables available at Changi to make it sufficient to maintain health. Red Cross supplies of food landed at Singapore from the exchange ships in September 1942 made little difference, as the portion which the Japanese authorities allowed to be distributed amounted only to some six pounds of food for each man. On medical advice rice polishings, a kind of palm oil, and a local type of lentil were added to the meals to combat deficiency diseases.page 329
In the early months at Changi several parties of men had made unsuccessful attempts to escape. The Japanese took a serious view of this, and four men recaptured from one of the later parties were executed in the enforced presence of senior British officers. At the end of August the Japanese issued instructions that every man was to be asked to sign a document in which it was declared that he would not under any circumstances attempt to escape. Of 17,300-odd in the Changi area, all but about six men (at that time undergoing punishment) refused to sign. As a reprisal the Japanese ordered all prisoners except hospital inmates to move out of Changi into Selarang Barracks, about two and a half miles away. On 2 September the prisoners were herded with their possessions down the road and into the Selarang barrack square. This was an asphalted area, the former parade ground of 2 Battalion Gordon Highlanders, surrounded by seven barrack buildings which had formerly been their quarters. These were now called upon to accommodate seventeen to eighteen times the number for which they had been built, and many men had to sleep without shelter in the barrack square.
In the centre of the square wide and deep trenches were dug as latrines, and successive fatigue parties continued digging during almost the whole period they were there. Since large numbers of men had to sleep and eat a few feet away, it is not surprising that dysentery soon made its appearance, and a number of cases were taken into a small infirmary improvised in another part of the area. In spite of the appalling conditions and the fear of violence on the part of the Japanese, accounts of this incident speak of excellent discipline and high morale among the men, who held nightly concerts and sing-songs to show that the situation had not got them down.
Meanwhile the hospital at Changi with its 2000 or so inmates had been completely isolated, even the bodies of those who died in this period having to be buried inside the hospital compound instead of in the camp cemetery. After three days the Japanese, on orders from Tokyo, threatened to move all the hospital patients into the Selarang area, and it was realised that further negotiation with them regarding the order to sign the non-escape pledge was useless. The senior British officer took the responsibility of ordering all men to sign, at the same time explaining that it was parole given under duress and therefore need not be considered binding. Apart from the situation which would have resulted if the hospital patients had been moved into the Selarang area, a Japanese decision to keep the 17,000 fit men there for any length of time could only have resulted in much suffering and disease and a considerable death rate. Once page 330 the signatures were obtained the Japanese were satisfied and everyone was allowed to return to Changi.
All fit men were liable to be called out by the Japanese for working parties, apart from those required for camp fatigues. The clearing of bomb damage, the construction of the Changi aerodrome, the felling and stumping of trees, the construction of roads, the handling of bombs and other cargo at the Singapore docks or on Blakang Mati Island, and later the digging of trench systems and air-raid shelters, were tasks carried out almost entirely by prisoner-of-war labour. Where necessary detached camps were set up near the places of work, sometimes in thatch-roofed huts and sometimes, as on Blakang Mati, in vacant army barracks. Men in a small party were often able to make themselves more comfortable than they could have done back in Changi. Food was also sometimes more plentiful at these working camps. A New Zealander who worked on Blakang Mati speaks of ‘unlimited rice with an ounce or two of meat or fish’. But as the war progressed the quantity of food supplied to all prisoners gradually decreased.
In mid-1942 the Japanese began to move numbers of prisoners from Changi to other areas. In June the senior officers (excepting lieutenant-colonels, mostly those formerly in command of battalions) were transferred to a camp on Formosa. Junior officers and men were moved to areas such as Korea or Borneo, where working parties were required and no Allied troops had been captured on the spot to provide them. Large numbers were required more particularly in Burma and Thailand, where the Japanese decided, for strategic reasons, to carry out the project for a railway connecting Moulmein and Bangkok, which had been begun before the war but abandoned by the countries concerned. Some 250 miles of railway between Thanbuzayat in Burma and Bampong in Thailand remained to be constructed, much of it through mountain country and dense jungle. Now, with a large reserve of prisoner-of-war labour, the Japanese authorities decided to push it through in the shortest possible time.
1 They were designated by letters of the alphabet, for example, A Battalion. Several battalions formed a Group.
Many of them, therefore, were not fit for the daily marches that followed. Eleven to thirteen miles over a muddy jungle track through torrential monsoon rains caused most of the prisoners considerable distress, especially those who endeavoured to carry their kit with them rather than leave it at Bampong. Stragglers often arrived at a staging camp at 3 a.m., having been beaten up on the way by Korean guards, but all had usually to be on the march again at 6 a.m. Staging camps had been established at Kanburi and other places on the route north to Tarsao, but the accommodation was inadequate. Often there was little more than an open piece of jungle with perhaps an odd hut, and men had to prepare their evening meal as best they could and then doss down in the open. Rations on these journeys were poor, and some who were at first thought fortunate in being taken part of the way by barge up the Kwei Noi River received no food at all while on board. The combination of poor food and physical exhaustion during these northward treks was the beginning of much illness that later ended fatally for the men concerned.
They now found themselves in areas where monsoon rains had been pouring down for five to six months and had converted any jungle clearings into quagmires sometimes knee-deep in sticky mud. These camp-site clearings were on the east bank of the Kwei Noi River, where the Japanese planned to lay the railway. They were usually at some height above the river and often had a precipitous, rocky approach, up which supplies such as bamboo for hut construction, water, and food had to be carried from the river's edge, where the bamboo grew and the cookhouse was usually placed. Exhausted though they were from the march, the men were set to work to build coolie-type huts or to put in order whatever huts already existed. These were bamboo structures about a hundred yards long and eight yards wide, roofed with attap palm leaves and fitted on each side for the length of the hut with six-foot-wide sleeping platforms of lashed bamboo. The task of building such a camp, making it habitable for one or two thousand men, and ensuring sufficient cookhouse and latrine accommodation was a big one. But the majority of prisoners in these parties were usually put on to road page 332 and railway construction work long before proper living accommodation for them was completed.1 Some men had to live for long periods under tent flies and improvised bivouacs, and others still had at times no cover over their heads at all.
The water supply was the unfiltered river water, which was boiled and usually provided with each meal. But there was seldom enough and men often drank direct from the river, thus becoming victims of whatever infection was carried from camps further upstream. Food supplies were brought up by barge on the Kwei Noi or by lorry along a road that was merely a converted jungle track. Since by neither method was a consistent service maintained, rations were nearly always below Japanese official scales. Vegetables, long in transit, often arrived in a rotting condition. Rice was of a poor quality, often maggoty and mixed with all kinds of filth. Supplies of fish, meat, oil, salt, and sugar were on a minimum scale, and sometimes men had to live for two months or so on little more than a pound and a half of rice flavoured with salt daily. The fortunate, by trading with the Thais, were often able to obtain duck eggs, fruit, sugar, peanuts, and oil. Rice, together with vegetables and whatever else could be obtained to go with it, had to be cooked over bamboo fires in twelve-gallon shallow containers known as Kwalis. But there were often not enough of these for the numbers in camp, and all sorts of improvised clay ovens were made and successfully used. The Japanese kept cookhouse personnel to a minimum (one to four for a hundred men), and the heavy physical work of cutting bamboo and carrying all stores from railhead or barge mooring during long hours of work resulted in a high rate of casualties among them.
1 First priority was usually given to the construction of the Japanese guardhouse and accommodation for the guards; the fit prisoners' accommodation and the cookhouse came next; and last of all accommodation for the sick.
It was the practice during the first two or three months to send officers out with these working parties in the rough proportion of one to 25–30 men, in order to do what they could to safeguard the men's interests. But they were consistently ignored by the Japanese in charge of the work, and if they had occasion to remonstrate with the latter, were often made the object of especially spiteful treatment. Something has already been said of Japanese Army methods of enforcing discipline among their prisoners. On the Burma–Thailand railway beatings of varying severity, the holding aloft of heavy weights, standing to attention for long periods without cover and without food and water, being tied to trees or back to back with another prisoner, became accepted as part of the everyday routine. But, as one New Zealand ex-prisoner put it, beatings, although ‘the usual thing’, were ‘worrying affairs’ since one never knew when the guard might become berserk and carry on until the supposed offender died. In December 1942 the Japanese engineers in charge made their first attempts to persuade officer prisoners to work on the railway. By the New Year parties of officers had been forced out to work under the threat both of using firearms and of starving the sick, and by May 1943 they were being treated, along with the other ranks, as part of the prisoner-of-war labour force for the railway.
For those whose health broke down under these conditions of work, there were only the most inadequate medical facilities. Medical opinion regards the region through which the Burma–Thailand railway passes as one of the most unhealthy in the world. Tropical heat, monsoon rains, almost every kind of biting insect, and prickly bamboo, a scratch from which goes septic and produces an ulcer, created conditions which would have challenged an expert and well-equipped medical service. But not only were the available Japanese medical officers deficient in medical knowledge, but often a junior Japanese NCO or private soldier was in complete charge of the medical arrangements for a thousand or more prisoners. A ‘hospital’ was created simply by setting aside one or more of the crude jungle huts built to accommodate workers, and prisoner-of-war medical personnel accompanying the troops had to rely on whatever equipment they had been able to bring with them. In the areas occupied by prisoners there had been no malaria control page 334 or other hygienic measures before their arrival, and those under-taken by prisoner-of-war medical officers on their arrival were often rendered wellnigh impossible of execution by the refusal of the Japanese to free sufficient men from work on the railway to carry them out. Serious epidemics of dysentery and cholera were attributed to lack of facilities for sterilising water and failure to prevent available sources of supply from becoming contaminated. The drugs supplied by the Japanese to treat these and other diseases were ludicrously inadequate, though fortunately it became possible to obtain small quantities of essential drugs through a clandestine organisation. A great deal of essential medical equipment was improvised by such prisoner-of-war medical personnel as were allowed by the Japanese to care for the sick. But the proportion of these was in general only one per cent of camp strength, the remaining doctors and orderlies being forced to do manual labour on the railway.
Early in 1943 the Japanese authorities decided that progress on the railway was not sufficiently rapid, and orders were given for the bringing up of thousands of additional workers. Before the middle of the year 10,000 prisoners of war had come up from Singapore as ‘F’ and ‘H’ Forces, further parties had come from the Dutch East Indies, and tens of thousands of Tamils, Chinese and Malays, men and women, had been pressed into service as labourers. The latter, lacking any military organisation and, more important, any medical facilities, were soon decimated by tropical disease. Their situation became so appalling that even the Japanese recognised it by recruiting prisoner-of-war medical teams from Changi and sending them to the various coolie camps.
In addition to bringing up more workers, the Japanese increased their pressure on the whole of their labour force. From late April until November 1943, the ‘speedo’ period, each Japanese engineer officer drove his team of workers mercilessly so that his particular task would be completed on time. In April conditions on the railway were hot and dry, with thick layers of fine dust everywhere; but May saw the onset of the monsoon, which continued until October. Ceaseless rain and thick mud soon made conditions for the workers doubly hard and turned their pitiful encampments of huts and tents into evil-smelling quagmires. Little account seems to have been taken of this in the demands of the Japanese: the daily task for one man could rise as high as moving three cubic metres of soil a distance of 270 yards through mud and then up an embankment 25 feet high. Tools and equipment were often of the poorest and earth had to be carried in bags and baskets or on stretchers. Work went on in some places until 11.30 at night, and for two or page 335 three months some working teams hardly saw their camps in day-light. After a roll-call at dawn they were marched off immediately to work, and they did not return to camp until just before dark. No men were allowed to remain for camp cleaning and maintenance, and cookhouse and medical personnel were cut to a minimum.
A senior Japanese officer in charge of prisoners of war in Thailand stated in June 1943 the attitude that was general towards the sick: ‘Those who fail in charge by lack of health is regarded as most shameful deed’. During the ‘speedo’ period, owing to exhaustion from overwork and semi-starvation, few of the workers were free from some kind of sickness. But as the sickness rate grew the Japanese increased their pressure. The threat to turn out all sick from the camp hospitals forced medical officers to admit only those who were seriously ill. Occasionally, men were forced to limp out to work on sticks and some were even carried on stretchers. Those who fell sick during work were liable to receive whatever savage punishment came into the mind of the guard or overseer. A prisoner stricken with a sudden attack of malaria might be stood up to his neck in a cold river; those who collapsed might be kicked or beaten with whatever implement was to hand; men with festering feet might be forced to work on sharp rock or in thorny jungle. Evacuation of the seriously ill was often not permitted for considerable periods, with the result that thousands accumulated in the various working camps dotted along the railway.
When it was permitted, evacuation took place by the haphazard means of hitch-hiking on a passing lorry or river barge. Since no fit men were allowed to accompany them, the weak were supported by the less weak, and they were often several days in transit with no medical attention and little food. Those who reached ‘base hospitals’, such as those at Takanun, Tarsao, Non Pladuk, Chungkai, and Tamarkan in Thailand or Thanbuzayat in Burma in mid-1943, moved into hopelessly overcrowded conditions and what one medical report describes as ‘pools of infection and gangrene’. Only the devotion, skill, and enterprise of the prisoner-of-war medical staffs, with the aid of food and medicine clandestinely obtained, saved the lives of thousands of these sufferers and gradually evolved organisations which could control disease and mortality.
This reckless disregard by the Japanese of the health of prisoners and civilians alike decimated the labour force for the railway so quickly that for the final tasks of its construction there remained only the convalescent and the half-fit remnants of various groups, a small fraction of the original strength. In the space of a year the deaths among Allied prisoners on the railway amounted to something like a quarter of their number, or some 15,000 men out of a force of page 336 60,000 or more; and groups working under particularly bad conditions had an even higher death rate than this. In addition large numbers of men were permanently disabled as a result of amputations or the after-effects of disease.
At the end of October 1943 trains of Japanese troops and supplies began to go right through from Thailand to Burma. The work eased, fine weather followed the end of the monsoon rains, and there was much-needed rest for those still up river in working parties as well as an opportunity for them to make their camps more habitable. At the end of the year most of the work on the railway had been completed and the Japanese began to move working parties down to base camps in the plains near Bampong. By March 1944 the bulk of the prisoners of war were concentrated in Chungkai, Tamarkan, Kanburi, Tamuan, Non Pladuk, and Nakom Paton in this area. At these camps accommodation was very much better than was possible at the working camps up river, notably that at Nakom Paton, built by Thais under Japanese orders as a sort of convalescent depot. At Chungkai the prisoners had built a hospital, a theatre and a church; there were gardens, recreation areas and canteens. While at the working camps up river it had occasionally been possible to obtain from local Thais duck eggs, fruit and nuts, at the base camps various canteen goods were in reasonably good supply throughout the whole period. By the time the prisoners from the railway were brought south, snack bars at these base canteens were selling omelettes, cakes, and peanut butter. The Japanese made a small issue of two-year-old Red Cross food. There were concerts and more elaborate stage shows at the camp theatre, and those whose physical condition allowed it could play volley-ball and basket-ball during the day. Guards had been instructed that Allied prisoners were to be better treated, and those men who had survived the dark jungle days of mid-1943 began to feel that the worst was behind them.
There appears to have been at this time some desire on the part of the Japanese to do something not only to prevent the terrible wastage of their prisoner-of-war labour force, but also to counteract the reputation for uncivilised treatment of prisoners of war which they were rapidly gaining all over the world. In May 1944 officer prisoners were required by the Japanese to write ‘essays’ concerning their experiences on the Burma–Thailand railway. They were invited to express their opinion freely on such things as ‘actual examples of most miserable, most detestable and most painful things or matter during the work’. The ‘essays’ were to be used ‘as reference on treatment of P.O.W. in future’. At Kanburi prisoners, most of whom were by 1944 reduced to wearing a very abbreviated loincloth known as a ‘G-string’, were issued with clean uniforms. page 337 These they were ordered to put on, then to sit round an improvised stage listening to the camp band, and even to smile and look happy while the official photographers of a Japanese inspection party took pictures of them. Similar photographs were taken at other base camps, always of the fitter-looking prisoners, dressed in clean uniforms and usually posing with Red Cross or other food. As soon as the photographs were taken, both clothing and food issued for the occasion were withdrawn.
Parallel with this effort to create propaganda for the outside world went attempts to present to prisoners and civilians within Japanese-occupied territory a picture of the war favourable to the Axis powers. But continued absurdly exaggerated claims in Japanese newspapers soon lost any power they might have had at first to impress prisoners of war. News from Allied sources was in any case available to discount such claims, for during almost the whole period of captivity radio receiving sets were operated by prisoners of war, and the gist of the broadcasts listened to was passed on to prisoners up and down the railway. Those who operated these radios risked almost certain execution at Japanese hands if discovered, and two of them were almost certainly beaten to death. There are many tributes to the courage of the men who thus kept open for thousands of their comrades this source of cheer and comfort.
There was another factor which gave the lie to the Japanese claims that events of the war were in their favour. As early as mid-1943 Allied reconnaissance planes began to make frequent flights over the territory of the railway; bombings followed and became more and more frequent. In some camps the Japanese allowed the prisoners to dig slit trenches, but they were seldom adequate and as often as not prisoners were forced to remain in their huts during the raids. Moreover, most of the camps were sited right alongside the railway track, some near bridges or other vulnerable points, and were therefore almost certain to suffer during aerial attacks against the railway. The camp at Tamarkan, for example, with not only a bridge but also an anti-aircraft battery nearby, had a considerable number of casualties as a result of raids. Non Pladuk camp was located among sidings holding petrol, ammunition, and stores trains, protected by an anti-aircraft post. In September 1944 a three-hour night raid on this area, during which no prisoners were allowed to leave their huts, resulted in 95 being killed and over 300 wounded.
Those who went ‘up-country’ in maintenance parties and were engaged on such work as bridge repairing also experienced Allied bombing. From May 1944 onwards there were many such parties, consisting for the most part of unfit or convalescent prisoners left behind when the fit were transferred to Japan in February. Besides maintenance work, these parties had the task of cutting wood fuel page 338 for the locomotives and of handling stores at dumps located at various points along the railway. Although at first the work was not too hard, a rising sick rate and the evacuation of the worst cases south to base hospitals caused a reversion to the long hours and the driving of the sick out to work which had been characteristic of the terrible ‘speedo’ period during the building of the railway. There were the same haphazard arrangements regarding feeding and accommodation and the same lack of proper medical attention. Conditions for some of these ‘up-country’ parties continued bad until almost the end of the war.
Besides those from Changi, the Japanese had used on the Burma–Thailand railway further large groups of British Commonwealth and Dutch prisoners shipped across in late 1942 from the Dutch East Indies. Fit prisoners in Java in excess of those wanted for aerodrome construction and other tasks were transported from Batavia to Singapore from April 1942 onwards, and taken on by ship to Moulmein for employment on the Burma end of the railway, though some shiploads in these convoys were sent on direct from Singapore to Japan. Similarly from Medan, in Sumatra, other ranks were taken to Mergui and Tavoy on the west coast of Burma and eventually on to Moulmein for use on the railway. Some of the officer prisoners on Sumatra went to Singapore and were taken north in the parties which worked on the Thailand portion of the railway. A certain number of prisoners were also shipped from the eastern port of Sourabaya to Timor, Amboina, and others of the more easterly situated islands of the Dutch groups. Some remained on Sumatra until their liberation.
ON THE ANDES ON THE VOYAGE HOME
THE ARGYLL STREET CAMP, HONG KONG
The Selarang Barracks, Singapore, crowded by the Japanese with 17,000 prisoners of war because they had refused to sign pledges not to escape
FOUR SCENES IN SELARANG BARRACKS: (from left to right)
top— Signing the pledge not to escape — under British orders; filling in time: bottom— The cookhouse; a rainy day
CHANGI JAIL, SINGAPORE
This building housed civilian internees and, later, prisoners of war
UNLOADING SICK PRISONERS FROM SAMPANS AT CHUNGKAI —a painting by J.B.Chalker
The same overcrowding was evident in the camps at Sourabaya, which was a transit centre for prisoners going east, just as Batavia was for those going north. The Lyceum School built for 400 children was made to hold 2400 prisoners of war, and the Jaarmarkt camp with 5000-odd was little better off. In April 1943, however, drafts of prisoners were shipped off to islands farther east and others were moved back to Bandoeng for a few months, until at the end of the year nearly all remaining British prisoners were concentrated in the Batavia Bicycle Camp.
Small islands such as Haruku and Ambon, to which some of our men were sent, were by comparison with the main centres of Java primitive and ill-supplied. The Japanese High Command, however, wished to use them as bases for aircraft, and local Japanese commanders did not hesitate to send large numbers of prisoners of war there to construct aerodromes, although there were no adequate arrangements for their accommodation, their feeding, or their medical care. The treatment of a party of 2070 officers and men, which left Sourabaya in mid-April 1943 and spent some fifteen months on Haruku and Ambon, takes its place with the worst examples of treatment in Burma and Thailand. Many of the men were unfit before leaving Java, and a fortnight's voyage of the ‘hell-ship’ type described later further unfitted them for the heavy labour of unloading bombs and petrol to which they were set on their arrival in port. Long hours of work on Haruku, totally inadequate food, lack of medical supplies (the heavy kit and medical supplies of this party having been taken on to another island) sent the sick rate mounting rapidly. By 17 May there were 700 patients in the improvised hospital on Haruku, mainly with dysentery, beriberi, and other deficiency diseases. Besides reducing the rations for the sick, the Japanese periodically drove out to work all those who were just able to stagger from the wards, and a policy of general intimidation was carried out with great brutality by some of the guards. In a little over seven months some 400 of the prisoners were dead and another 650, very ill, had been returned by ship to Java. Conditions in the camp established on Ambon were also bad, but the temporary accommodation for the drafts of sick men coming page 340 from Haruku en route to Java was the worst of all. By September 1944 both Haruku and Ambon were cleared of Allied prisoners of war, and those who survived the sea voyage to Java were sent either to hospital or to further work there.
Those who had had the misfortune to be transferred to Macassar on the island of Celebes soon after their capture had a similarly hard time, although they were not decimated by disease to the same extent as those on Haruku and Ambon. After some six months in the Dutch barracks at Macassar described earlier in this narrative, many of them went out with working parties to small camps at Maros and Mundai, approximately twenty miles from Macassar. Here they were kept for about eighteen months. At Maros the accommodation consisted of bamboo and attap huts, with trench latrines ten yards or so away, and at Mundai of old and somewhat dilapidated buildings. Other camp arrangements were on the usual primitive scale. The food, which consisted for the most part of three cups daily of boiled rice and two helpings of vegetable soup, was cooked in the main camp at Macassar and sent out to the work-camps in boxes and tubs. Attempts by prisoners to supplement this diet by trading with the native population or by just taking what they saw while out at work were often successful but, if discovered by the Japanese, were savagely punished. The men seem however almost unanimous that the risk was worth it because outwitting their captors ‘kept up morale’ or was even ‘the spice of existence’.
All ‘who could crawl out of the gates’ (to use the words of a New Zealander) were made to work seven days a week from nearly dawn until dusk, with perhaps five days' holiday a year. The tasks usually involved heavy manual labour: constructing aerodrome runways, building air-raid shelters, making roads, sawmill work, carpentry, powdering lyddite by hand. Some of the few ‘rest-days’ were filled in by compulsory labour in the camp gardens. Another New Zealander's account mentions that ‘hardly a day passed but there was a beating’. These were sometimes with iron bars; the number of strokes often went as high as between one and two hundred and sometimes left the victim unconscious, with parts of his flesh almost pulped. Beatings were varied by standing to attention in the sun without a hat, hand-presses, holding heavy weights above the head, and the remainder of the Japanese Army repertoire for maintaining discipline. There was little relief for the prisoners from this brutish existence, since within a year of their capture there was a ban on sports, on meetings (which ruled out lectures, entertainments and church services), and even on singing and whistling. Some found solace in tobacco, and a New Zealander writes that if this was short ‘most felt the lack of it acutely as nerves page 341 were highly strung through cruelty, air-raids, and overwork’. The air raids at least gave hopes that a favourable end to the war might not be too far distant.
Naval men captured in waters near Banka Island were eventually brought to Palembang in Sumatra, where a main camp for prisoners of war was established on the outskirts of the town. In the course of the next year or two the camp changed its quarters several times and was finally established permanently in an old orange grove a short distance from the town of Sungeron. The accommodation here was built by prisoners with bamboo and flax. About 1000 to 1500 prisoners were held here and used for working parties at the docks and in the neighbourhood. In general, more food and other supplies could be obtained at a camp near a large centre, but the rations at Sungeron camp, especially over the last period of its existence, were low enough to cause a large number of deaths from starvation. At first it was possible to obtain canteen supplies such as eggs and sugar, but this became more difficult and the rapid increase in prices soon made it impossible for prisoners to buy. Men had to rely for extras on what they could pick up while out at work in the docks or elsewhere, and take the risk of being caught.
One of the main working parties based on Palembang was the No. 1 Aerodrome Camp, far enough away to be established in its own quarters alongside the work. Here a draft of prisoners from Java brought the numbers to some 1500, but it was not long before bad living and working conditions had put about 600 of these in the camp hospital. Long hours of heavy manual labour on insufficient food and lack of medical supplies had the same result on the prisoners' health here as in many other Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Here, too, there was no proper water supply, wells and nearby streams proving not always reliable. The position of the sick would have been much worse but for the purchase of extra food which was made possible through the sick fund set up from deductions from prisoners' pay. Eventually in May 1944 most of the seriously sick were sent to the main camp at Palembang, and a year later the remainder of the camp joined them.
The prisoners who had been held at Padang shortly after capture were moved in mid-1942 to an old military barracks in Medan. Here they were crowded, but the buildings were reasonably well equipped and properly lit. There was a garden in which they were allowed to cultivate vegetables for their own use; there was a library, though mainly of books in Dutch; there was a piano which made much easier the holding of sing-songs and other entertainments. A New Zealand naval man calls Medan a ‘rest camp’ by comparison with the ‘jungle’ camps in Sumatra to which he was sent later.page 342
One of the latter operated for most of 1944 at Blanki Djeran, in the mountain and jungle area of northern Sumatra. Prisoners were engaged on heavy tasks such as road cutting, railway laying, and bridge building. Their quarters were crude huts, and a nearby stream had to serve for the double purpose of ablution and sanitation. During this period the ration of rice was reduced to 250 grammes daily for each man, and to a mere 100 grammes for those who were unable to work through sickness. Prisoners were able to barter with the natives for extra food, but as in other camps this entailed the risk of severe disciplinary action on the part of the Japanese guards. From here most of the prisoners were moved in late 1944 to another working camp in central Sumatra, where they were engaged on similar work constructing communications to a coal mine. Those who became too sick to work were eventually transported to a base camp at Pekan Bharu.
Civilians interned on Sumatra were not much better off. The women and children remained for 18 months in the area of disused houses in Palembang which had been allocated to all the internees on their arrival there. During this period the men had to build for themselves a separate camp of bamboo and attap huts, and their transfer to this new camp at Palembang eased the overcrowding in what then became the camp for women and children. The men, however, were again transferred, this time to Banka Island, and in September 1943 the women and children were all moved into the men's bamboo camp. Here leaking huts, mud floors, trench latrines, and drawing water from wells made life for the interned women and children one of great hardship. Finally in September 1944 the women were also transported to a camp at Muntok, on Banka Island. Rations here became worse than they had been on Sumatra, and lack of medicaments made it almost impossible to combat malaria. The death rate rose alarmingly and the hospital became filled with sick and dying women and children. In April 1944 the Japanese authorities moved the whole camp back to Sumatra.
A New Zealand nurse in this group comments on the appalling conditions under which the journey was made. The women and children were packed into the holds of a small ship and for long periods were unable to move from a cramped knee-to-chin position. Nine women were reported to have died before Sumatra was reached. Such conditions were typical of the voyages by ‘hellship’ on which Allied prisoners of war were transported in Dutch East Indian and Malayan waters, through the China Sea and as far north as Japan itself. The ships used were for the most part Japanese freighters, varying in size down to 1000 tons. There were often 500 prisoners in a hold, packed in with petrol drums, bombs, cases of supplies and page 343 other cargo, so that almost every account describes the space as insufficient to lie down. Sometimes they were battened down in spite of the terrific tropical heat, and on other occasions they were left unprotected from heavy tropical rains. Only meagre rations of rice and fish were provided, sometimes not properly cooked, and there was nearly always a minimum amount of water. The necessity of eating below decks and the siting of food distribution points near the few available latrines spread diarrhoea and dysentery. Most accounts speak of the filth, foul smells, lice and other vermin among which the prisoners were forced to live, sometimes for journeys lasting a month. As often as not separate accommodation for the sick was lacking, and it is small wonder that deaths occurred on the longer voyages.1 Though some men were able to keep an outward show of cheerfulness, the revolting living conditions, the intense heat, the endless waiting for food and water, and the nervous strain when Allied aircraft passed overhead made these voyages seem like prolonged nightmares to most of those prisoners unfortunate enough to experience them.
Some twenty of the crew of the Hauraki were more fortunate in being able to travel to Japan from Singapore in their old ship at the end of 1942. The ship's senior officers had been sent on ahead in October for interrogation, and after an uncomfortable journey reached Yokohama. At the interrogation camp at Ofuna, about ten miles from the city, they were put into small cells and forbidden to speak to anyone. Here they were given ‘just enough food to keep alive’ and were subjected to an exhausting regime of physical exercise. They also experienced and saw the mass and individual beatings which helped to give this camp the title of ‘torture farm’. After being softened up in this manner, they were interrogated several times in their six weeks' stay and were finally drafted out to a working camp in the Yokohama area.
Another group of prisoners was similarly employed at the Muroran Steel Works at Hakodate, in the south of the island of Hokkaido. They worked for thirteen days out of fourteen, shovelling coal and iron ore or in a large repair shop for railway engines. They were more fortunate than some in that the wooden one-storied huts of the camp had been specially built for prisoners of war and were therefore new and in good condition. There was ample water and they were able to get hot baths two or three times a week. In spite of the usual inadequate rice and vegetable soup diet, a New Zealander who had experienced some of the worst camps and hospitals of the East Indies before going to Hakodate thought the conditions were ‘relatively good’.
New Zealanders also went to various camps in the group centred round Osaka, in the south of the island of Honshu. Conditions at the Tanagawa dock-construction camp, where the accommodation had a damp earthen floor and the diet was worse than the average at Japanese camps, caused much hardship and sickness. At other camps in this group accommodation consisted of the usual Japanese wooden huts, with sleeping platforms and straw mats. But although the rations at these camps were superior to those at Tanagawa, they were barely sufficient in quantity and, consisting as they did mainly of grain and vegetables, with meat and fish only occasionally, were seriously lacking in protein content. Even the calorific value, minimal for those on light tasks, was totally insufficient for men doing heavy work at a copper refinery or at a foundry manufacturing bomb cases.
Those who went to No. 6 sub-camp at Fukuoka were at first given temporary quarters in a disused railway shed, the worst feature of which was that there was no special accommodation for the sick. There was, moreover, no provision for heating during the first winter the prisoners were in Japan. They were employed for some eleven hours a day in a factory for making green carborundum, often page 345 working alongside high temperature furnaces. The diet was on the inadequate scale already described, and the guards at this camp were more than usually brutal in their punishments for trivial offences. During the winter of 1943–44 the death rate became serious and the following April they were removed into a camp of newly built huts.
At Zentsuji, on the island of Shikoku, the first of the prisoner-of-war camps set up in Japan, the treatment during the first year of its existence seemed to many prisoners who had experienced conditions elsewhere to justify calling it a ‘propaganda camp’. However, the worsening conditions in Japan, and in particular the increasing shortages of essential foodstuffs and fuel, made themselves felt in Zentsuji, just as they did in the other camps in Japan to which men were sent from Malaya, Thailand, and the Dutch East Indies. Meat and fish were rarely seen at Zentsuji during the latter period of its existence, and there was no heating during the winter of 1943–44. Rest days from work, which had originally been on a scale of one in six, dwindled to one a month. At first prisoners had been employed on clearing mountain land for agriculture, but later they were working with coolie gangs on railway yards and docks, loading grain and heavy military supplies. Nevertheless, Zentsuji had better stocks of medicine and more clothing than most camps. A great deal more of the Red Cross food sent to Japan had been distributed in this camp than in most others, and the prisoners were able to add to their food supplies by raising chickens, rabbits, goats and pigs. The report of the neutral inspector who visited the camp in 1944 spoke of Zentsuji as ‘considerably superior to other camps in many respects’.
Among the prisoners who filled the various camps in Japan were some three or four thousand from Hong Kong. The transfer of drafts of prisoners which began in September 1942 and continued throughout 1943 eased conditions at Shamshuipo camp a good deal by reducing the overcrowding. The second half of 1942 was probably the worst period in the camp's existence. Numbers were as high as 6000 to 7000, the diet consisted almost entirely of rice and poor quality vegetables, and for a considerable time, as a disciplinary measure owing to escapes, prisoners were forbidden to receive parcels from outside the camp. Before long there were a large number of cases of dysentery, beriberi and pellagra, and the death rate from malnutritional diseases as well as from an outbreak of diphtheria became serious. Visits from the representatives of the Protecting Power and the International Red Cross Committee in December 1942 were accompanied by the supply to the camp of a considerable quantity of tinned food. A naval surgeon in the camp notes that ‘sickness decreased as a result’, and it is thought that the page 346 husbanding of this bulk supply to supplement the Japanese rations throughout 1943 probably saved a good number of lives. Heavy labour required of working parties included unloading bombs and aviation petrol and enlarging the Kai Tak aerodrome. A redeeming feature of life in Shamshuipo was that the Japanese guards were for the most part confined to the perimeter and left the internal organisation and control of the camp to prisoner-of-war officers and NCOs.
The same could be said of the Argyll Street camp, to which nearly all officers were sent in April 1942. But it was some time before the camp could boast of even fairly simple amenities. Roofs leaked and there were at first no beds, most officers having to make good this lack by buying stretchers. It was a month or two before canteen facilities could be organised, but once they were it was possible to supplement the meagre Japanese rations to a certain extent, though at very inflated prices. By 1943 a fair library had been set up, and an officer speaks of ‘reading, lectures and cards ad lib.’ What the camp still lacked in material amenities could be forgotten if men were able to organise recreation and left reasonably free to enjoy it.
The conditions under which prisoners of war were transported from Hong Hong to Japan were similar to those (already described) for prisoners from the Dutch East Indies. A New Zealander among the draft of 1800 prisoners who left Hong Kong on the Lisbon Maru in late September 1942 described how they were ‘cramped into the holds with little air and not enough room for everyone to lie down at once.’ Many were suffering from dysentery and other diseases, but there was no provision for the sick, nor even any attempt to remove the bodies of men who died in the holds. On 1 October, when the ship was torpedoed, the first action of the Japanese on board was to batten down the holds and then to abandon ship. When the stern went down some 200 prisoners in the after-hold were drowned, but the remainder broke open the other holds. Once in the water, however, they were fired on by Japanese from auxiliary vessels near the sinking ship. Some 800 prisoners lost their lives, the remainder being eventually picked up by Japanese vessels. A few managed to reach Allied submarines and so escaped.
In May 1944 the officers remaining in Argyll Street were moved to Shamshuipo, where a special area was set aside as an officers' camp. A considerable number of prisoners had got out of the camp in early 1942, and the Japanese had taken special precautions to prevent any further escapes, their security measures including an electrified perimeter fence. In view of this, of the strong likelihood of execution if recaptured, and of considerable feeling among certain prisoners against attempts to escape as they brought reprisals on those remaining in camp, the successful escape from Shamshuipo in July 1944 of a New Zealand naval officer1 reflects the greatest credit on him, not only for his coolness and endurance of hardship but also for his strength of will in deciding to make the attempt. Having been prepared for some time in advance, he chose a dark night with rain and wind and reached a sea-wall just outside the camp after climbing an insulated post supporting electrified wires and crawling under two other fences. He then swam across the bay to the western side, climbed a cliff in heavy rain, and made for the hills. Five nights' travelling over rugged countryside and dodging Japanese brought him to Tolo Harbour. He skirted Mirs Bay as far as Shatau, swimming, wading, or scrambling over the coastal cliffs, and again struck inland. Eleven days after the night of his break, completely exhausted, his sight failing owing to malnutrition, he met Chinese guerrillas and found he was beyond Japanese patrolled territory. He was treated very well and passed from village to village until he reached Waichow, and thence Kunming. The British Military Intelligence report on this exploit describes it as ‘one of the most remarkable escapes of the war.’page 348
Civilians remained throughout the war at the Stanley internment camp on the island of Hong Kong. Gradually the internees made good by improvisation the various deficiencies in the sleeping, cooking, and sanitary arrangements of the camp. They suffered, however, from a shortage of essential foods similar to that experienced in most camps under Japanese control. The excellent recreational and sporting facilities of the internment area have been described in an earlier chapter, but accounts of repatriates mention that after a while they became too weak to play football or softball or even to climb up the rather steep hill from the beach after sea bathing. The low diet of the first year of internment gave rise to some 1500 cases of malnutritional disease of varying severity. Supplies of Red Cross food received at the end of this year, and eked out for six months, did much to ease the situation and to eliminate the more serious conditions such as beriberi. Parcels from friends in Hong Kong and China, their own vegetable gardens, and attempts to raise pigs, fowls, and rabbits, all contributed towards alleviating the internees' food shortage in a way that was not possible for most prisoner-of-war camps. But besides the young children interned at the beginning of 1942, a considerable number of babies were born during the succeeding three and a half years; and the special requirements of the very young as well as the elderly, not to mention those of pregnant women and nursing mothers, made the requirements of a large camp for internees such as Stanley proportionately more difficult to fulfil. As in most internment camps containing men, women and children, many adults kept their diet down to an inadequate level in order that the children should have as much as possible, and their own health suffered accordingly.
The internment of Allied civilians in China began in November 1942, when between 200 and 300 men were confined under guard in Shanghai at what became known as the Haiphong Road camp. These men were evidently regarded as dangerous and suspect, and they were placed under the control of the Japanese gendarmerie. Early in the following year nearly all the remaining Allied civilians in occupied China, except a few of advanced years or in ill-health, were gathered into civilian assembly centres under the jurisdiction of the Japanese Consul-General. During 1944 internment was extended even to the elderly and ailing.1
The Lungwha Civilian Assembly Centre, on the outskirts of Shanghai, housed some 1700 men, women and children, partly in the modern buildings of a Chinese university and partly in barracks enclosed in a 60-acre compound. In the Yu Yuen centre some 800 men, women and children occupied the Municipal School buildings and British Army barracks, and here too there was a large sports ground. At Pootung 1000 men lived in the former warehouses of the British American Tobacco Company, reconditioned so as to be suitable for living quarters. At the Great Western Road centre 400-odd men, women and children lived in British military barracks, most families having their own apartments; and again there was a large sports ground. Although overcrowded, another group of civilians of about the same size, interned in the building of the Columbia Country Club, were able to enjoy all the clubs' indoor and outdoor amenities.
The food at these civilian camps in China, at least in 1943, appears to have been on the whole better than that at camps in other Japanese-occupied territories, though still by our standards insufficient. Moreover, all of these camps had canteen facilities for the purchase of extras, though it became more difficult to get supplies as the war progressed. Many kinds of recreational activities were immediately available to the internees, since at nearly every assembly centre they had had the opportunity of bringing in with them as much sporting gear and other material as they wished. Quarters were nearly everywhere crowded, and internees usually had to improvise a great number of amenities which were lacking, but they were usually able to buy the necessary materials. Control by the Japanese Consulate-General ensured better treatment than they would probably have had at the hands of the Japanese military authorities.page 350
New Zealanders working for missions in the Weihsien and Canton areas were also interned in early 1943. At Weihsien (Shantung) a civilian assembly centre was established in the former American Mission compound. At Canton the Oriental Mission compound on Honam Island became the internment camp. To the former went several New Zealand missionaries and teachers, who had up to that time been allowed to continue their work. At the latter the four New Zealanders from Kong Chuen saw out the rest of the war. The camp was under the comparatively mild supervision of a local Japanese consular official, and the Swiss Consul was able to visit weekly and arrange for grants in cash, a daily milk and egg supply, and other assistance.
The year 1944 saw conditions for the internees become more difficult, not only because of an increasing shortage of food and fuel, but because of a tightening up by the Japanese on all matters likely to affect their security. In the middle of the year some 350 aged and infirm British civilians were interned in the Lincoln Avenue Civilian Assembly Centre at Shanghai. The quarters consisted of houses formerly occupied by staff of the China Bank, but not all were in good repair. By this time the Japanese rations consisted mainly of poor quality rice and vegetables, and meat and fish that were sometimes hardly fresh enough for human consumption. Some, however, were able to get parcels from friends outside, and all benefited by aid from the International Red Cross delegate. The old people were expected to work at camp duties for half a day, but this was not compulsory for those over 60 years of age, and the strain upon those who had to attend to the needs of their more elderly comrades must have been considerable. It is probable that the camp diet, combined with lack of heating and general lack of sufficient comfort, hastened the deaths of many of the internees.