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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Gain and the Loss

page 31

The Gain and the Loss

It is difficult to write with moderation of the Japanese treatment of their prisoners. Comprehensive schedules have been drawn up of the many ways in which particular articles of the Geneva Convention were deliberately and cynically violated. The crimes are being dealt with by the proper authorities, and justice will be done where the perpetrators can be identified— no easy matter. No mention has yet been made of the cruelty inflicted on the relatives of prisoners of war and internees by the failure of the Japanese to notify the Red Cross of the capture or internment of thousands of persons, or by such actions as the burning of prisoners’ mail. Some next-of-kin had their first notification that their sons or husbands were in Japanese hands when they received from them, possibly two years after capture, one of the rare cards that the enemy allowed to be sent. Most men sent three or four cards a year, less than half of which reached the addressees. Another device of the Japanese for plaguing their prisoners was to refrain from delivering letters until many months after their arrival. Most letters were never delivered: this is hardly surprising as the Japanese kept no records of the prisoners and internees in their hands.

It may be thought that the continued castigation of the Japanese in this survey, which relates primarily the experience of New Zealanders, is based on prejudice and exaggeration. On the contrary, the worst atrocities have been left unrelated, and it must be understood that types of maltreatment instanced as having happened in a particular camp or area were practically always common to all camps. However clearly we may diagnose the maladies that have twisted the Japanese spirit, it is no longer possible by explaining to excuse them. No doubt in some ways the Japanese might have been worse. They generally allowed prisoners the restricted exercise of their religion. They did not specially persecute women, though the circumstances of internment inevitably bore more heavily on them than on men. Some Japanese, the most brutal among them, could reveal strange flashes of kindness and generosity.

Former prisoners of war and internees show surprisingly little vindictiveness towards the Japanese. Their feeling is rather one of contempt, and few condescend to outright hatred; some reserve that feeling for fellow-prisoners who acted selfishly or who took advantage of the general misery to gain some personal advantage. An ex-prisoner, however, looking back, noticed signs of hysteria and felt that trivial incidents had sometimes been allowed to take on an exaggerated importance in the unnatural and harsh conditions of imprisonment. One man has lost his ‘comfortable belief in the general decency of the human race’: he remarks that many who find it easy to be brave on a full stomach become different persons with an empty one. Yet another ex-prisoner noted that ‘men from whom one would expect nothing did things of kindness and bravery which astonished one’. Men showed a stern, unyielding pride in taking without flinching the beatings inflicted on them.

It was the solidarity and comradeship, more intense even than while serving in the forces before capture, which sustained most men in captivity. One ex-prisoner robustly stated that he would not have missed the experience for anything. Another gained ‘an education that many books or any university in the world could not have taught me’. Another felt that nothing in the future could be worse than his time in Japanese hands. A naval surgeon said roundly that ‘my three and a half years with men of high morale under grim conditions have made me quite unable to page 32 endure any form of grousing and complaints’. This is a constant theme with former prisoners and internees: they are impatient with the pettiness, self-seeking, and querulousness of people at home, and some explicitly regret the unselfishness and common sacrifice of prison life, a sharp contrast to the ‘dog eat dog’ spirit of ordinary society. Many men entirely revised their attitude to life and learned in bitter earnest the true meaning of the theme of the prisoner-chaplain’s sermon, ‘The Wisdom of Adversity’. It is unlikely that much of the heroism of these men and women will ever be recorded in detail, much less rewarded officially. But its reaffirmation of the strength of the moral fibre of ordinary people deserves to be paid the highest honour.

Black and white sketch of plane

allied air drop of supplies
—from White Coolie, by Ronald Hastain, the sketch by Ronald Searle