Prisoners of War
CHAPTER 12 — Liberation in the Far East and Repatriation (January—September 1945)
Liberation in the Far East and Repatriation (January—September 1945)
I: The Last Months of Hostilities and the Capitulation
IN late 1944 the Philippines had been cut in two by the invasion of Leyte and Mindoro. Luzon was invaded at the beginning of 1945 and a month later Manila was liberated. The same month the drive north to Japan began with assaults on the Ryukyus and Iwojima and continued with another on Okinawa. On the Burma front the Allies had consolidated their positions in 1944, and in 1945 a drive south through Arakan brought them to Rangoon, which fell in May. In June the Australians landed on the coast of northern Borneo. By the middle of the year the Japanese were in full retreat throughout the Far East.
At the same time the air assault on the Japanese islands had begun, and a naval bombardment in mid-July demonstrated the overwhelming superiority of the Allied aero-naval forces. Yet as late as the 27th of that month the Japanese Government rejected the Potsdam ultimatum, and it seemed that their armed forces would fight on until Japan itself was completely overrun. A week later an atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, and a few days later another on Nagasaki. Under the threat of an unknown new weapon which promised something approaching national annihilation, the fanatical determination of the Japanese military leaders to fight on was overruled. On 11 August the Japanese Government ordered their forces to surrender.
The New Zealanders captured during the last months of the war in the Far East were Fleet Air Arm or Air Force pilots shot down in territory still held by the Japanese—Burma, New Britain, the Dutch East Indies, or Japan itself. It is probable that the Japanese treatment of prisoners immediately after their capture and during interrogation improved on the whole during 1944, though not so markedly as it did in the last few days of the war.
In late 1942 a New Zealand airman who had been shot down in Burma and badly burned had been fortunate enough to be treated by a Japanese doctor, who had put on proper dressings; but his interrogators, in a rage at their lack of success after four hours of page 507 questioning, had torn them off and dragged their victim away for execution. The intervention of a senior Japanese officer had saved him, the same doctor had redressed his wounds, and he had been flown to Rangoon in a semi-conscious condition. Several more of our airmen crashed into the Burmese jungle in the later stages of the war, but they did not experience brutality matching this. In 1945, however, captured aircrew were still being told that they were not ordinary prisoners of war but criminals awaiting sentence. Certainly, too, it was exceptional for prisoners' injuries to be properly attended to by the Japanese, though no doubt partly because the Japanese themselves were desperately short of medical supplies. Nor did these injuries deter the Japanese from imposing on prisoners temporary spells without food or water during interrogation, from preventing their sleeping, nor from administering the usual beatings.
Thus two New Zealanders who baled out over Japan in August 1945 were ‘set on by the local population and given the customary beating’ with hoes and sticks, and were kept without food until their interrogation at Sendai was completed. But though beating accompanied the questioning, they were ‘not kicked around after that’. On the other hand, in more remote areas there were brutalities almost to the very end. A New Zealander who crashed on an island in the New Britain group was taken to Rabaul and confined for two months by himself in a dark cave, the entrance to which was so small that his broken leg had necessitated his being dragged through the opening. Luckily he had not long to wait for liberation. Some prisoners had the misfortune to meet their death in the last few weeks of the war. A New Zealand airman, captured in Sumatra in early 1945 and taken to Singapore, was executed by the Japanese a fortnight before the capitulation.
It will be recalled from an earlier chapter that there were a number of New Zealanders among the 3000-odd civilians interned in the Santo Tomas University camp at Manila in the Philippines. The overcrowding at this camp was increased in the middle of 1943 when some 800 aged, sick, and mothers with young children, who had previously been released conditionally, were reinterned. A number of families, in order to achieve something approaching family privacy, had built themselves primitive shanties in the courtyards or grounds, and there did their cooking, washing, ironing, and other household chores. Food, which had always been in short supply, became still more scarce. For the first year it had been possible to buy eggs, fruit, and vegetables at a camp canteen, though at excessive and rapidly rising prices, but latterly these supplies almost disappeared. Many internees grew vegetables and a page 508 few had fruit trees. There was a marked loss of weight among all internees and a considerable number died from malnutrition or through lack of drugs.
During 1943 a number of civilian men were moved from Santo Tomas to a camp at Los Banos, some twenty miles south of Manila on the other side of Lake Laguna. They were joined in the following year by more civilians of both sexes, until the numbers reached over 2000. Here there were crude barracks with thatched roofs, most of them without doors or flooring, and still cruder sanitation arrangements. The camp lacked a proper water supply, and after three weeks of extreme shortage fatigue parties were allowed to bring it from the nearby hills. Rice was fairly plentiful until the last few months of captivity, and it was possible to buy fruit until late 1944. In the weeks preceding liberation supplies of all kinds became increasingly scarce—a situation which played into the hands of the black marketeer. Recorded prices include 75 dollars for a packet of native tobacco, and a jewelled tiepin for eight ounces of rice.
As an assault by the United States on the Philippines became imminent, the Japanese evacuated as many prisoners as possible to Japan by ship. But when the invasion had begun they did not try to move camps from the path of the invading forces, and for the most part handed over prisoners correctly, with the exception of a number of those on Palawan, who were horribly massacred. Civilian internees were left in their camps but were extremely apprehensive as to what action their guards might take. The attitude of the latter seemed to have become bitter or, as one internees described it, ‘sullen and ominous’. It was known that the Japanese had adopted towards the pro-Allied Filipino population a policy which did not stick at wholesale butchery.
Fortunately both camps were liberated without any barbarity on the part of the Japanese. On 3 February American planes flew over Santo Tomas dropping messages of good cheer, and twelve hours later the first American tank drove into the camp. The liberation of Los Banos three weeks later was more dramatic. Six men who had escaped a week before led in Filipino scouts and American paratroops close to the Japanese guard posts by night. Next morning carriers dropped more paratroops over the camp, and the Japanese guard was accounted for in less than an hour. Since the camp was in what was still a battle zone, the internees were ferried across the lake to Manila in amphibian vehicles. They were quartered in the former Bilibid prison, converted into an emergency hospital, and plied with good food and medical attention. After a short stay at Manila most of the New Zealanders left for Australia and were back in New Zealand by the middle of April.page 509
A number of New Zealand airmen captured in operations over Burma were confined in the former British civilian jail at Rangoon. The treatment of prisoners in this camp, more especially of the aircrew captured in 1944 and 1945, was bad and at times inhuman. In 1943 it was possible to buy eggs, tomatoes, and sugar fairly regularly; but as time went on this became impossible, and men had to exist on little else than an inadequate rice ration and vegetables grown in the camp garden. Medical care was hampered by lack of supplies and sometimes by obstruction on the part of the Japanese. It was only after some time that books were allowed in the camp, and a ban on all gatherings made it impossible to carry out any organised recreation, to set up educational classes, or to hold religious services. It was exceptional for a day to pass without someone receiving a beating with bamboo, steel golf club or other weapon, and beatings into unconsciousness were not uncommon. Aircrew received worse treatment still. They were kept sometimes five to a filthy cell measuring five yards by three, were given no bedding except old sacks, received half the rations of the other prisoners, and were beaten if caught conversing with one another. Those who came in wounded were almost without exception denied the services of a medical officer.
Some of the inmates of the cells were in time moved to another part of the camp and were able to improvise some kind of medical treatment for their sick and wounded comrades. Over the whole period of its existence the camp had a death roll of more than 40 per cent of its strength. In the last week or two before liberation some prisoners noticed a slight improvement in the general treatment, but others record that some of the guards were ‘nastier than ever’. Perhaps in this camp more than in others prisoners had good grounds for wondering whether they would survive until liberation came.
As British forces approached Rangoon the Japanese attempted to transfer fit prisoners to Moulmein, but the rapidity of the British advance compelled them to release most of their prisoners while on the move. Thus on 25 April about half the prisoners in the Rangoon area were marched off towards Pegu, and two days later they were abandoned by their guards. The last Japanese abandoned the Rangoon jail on the night of 28–29 April, leaving behind them a message informing the prisoners that they could regard themselves as free and saying that they hoped to meet them again on the battlefield. Four days later units of the British Army marched into Rangoon, and liberated prisoners were sent by air or by hospital ship to Calcutta.
By June 1945 sufficient prisoners of war and civilian internees had been recovered from Japanese captivity during military opera- page 510 tions to assess the extent to which Allied nationals were in special danger as liberating forces approached them, and to determine what measures could be taken to protect them. Apart from the resiting of camps close to military targets which the Japanese wished specially to save from bombing, there was evidence that the Japanese were tending to secure their prisoners in strategically safer areas rather than move them to areas where they could be more usefully employed. Movements of senior Allied officers from Formosa to Manchuria, and of all kinds of prisoners from the Philippines to Japan, from Malaya to Indo-China, from western to eastern Thailand, and from Shanghai farther inland to Fengtai, all pointed to this and to their possible use as hostages. It was conceivable that the Japanese might still try to move more prisoners north from the threatened southern areas. In order to omit no step which might save Allied lives, it was proposed to attempt to negotiate with the Japanese an agreement to cease further withdrawals of prisoners of war; and if no response was received, to give Commanders-in-Chief discretion to issue solemn warnings similar to those given to Germany. In view of the Japanese rejection of the Potsdam ultimatum it seems doubtful whether these measures would have been effective; but the swift advent of the armistice obviated the necessity of putting them to the test.
II: Recovery and Evacuation after the Armistice
1 For transmission to Supreme Commander South-East Asia Command, to Commander-in-Chief South-West Pacific Area, or to Commander-in-Chief Central Pacific Area respectively.
The surrender terms imposed on the Japanese made it obligatory on them to preserve the safety and well-being of all prisoners and civilian internees in their hands and to supply adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care until the Allied forces took over. Until this occurred, prisoner-of-war and civilian internment camps were to be handed over to the command of their camp leaders. The Japanese were to prepare complete lists of all those in their hands, together with their camp locations, and, when required, to transport them to places where they could be conveniently handed over to the Allies.
To bring relief immediately after the armistice to prisoners of war and civilian internees, information leaflets, food, clothing, and medical supplies were dropped into camps from the air. In the area covered by the South-East Asia Command alone about one and a quarter million pounds of Red Cross stores were thus distributed to some 250 camps. These air drops, by bringing badly needed information and relief, benefited especially those isolated camps whose evacuation might take time. By 12 September all known camps had been flown over and assisted in this way.
As soon as it became possible, recovery teams were organised and sent to known camp locations and to areas where prisoners were thought to be. Owing to the sudden collapse of Japan the only recovery teams immediately available were drawn from the Australian forces operating under the Command of General MacArthur; and the Australian authorities agreed that they should be available for dealing with all Commonwealth prisoners of war until the arrival of United Kingdom and other Commonwealth teams. Eighteen of them were established, as well as staff for a large reception camp at Manila. It was these teams which had the task of carrying out the initial responsibilities of Commanders-in-Chief regarding prisoners of war and civilian internees in their respective areas.1
1 The operation was given the title RAPWI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) and the teams were known as RAPWI teams.
When the civilian internees at Singapore were transferred to the Sime Road camp in 1944, the prisoners of war from the Changi area took their place in Changi Jail. There they remained for the last year or more of their captivity, some 6000 prisoners crammed into a prison designed to hold 600 peacetime criminals. The officers and the camp hospital were housed in attap huts outside the building, but living conditions generally were much worse than they had been previously. Over the last months of the war the rice ration became smaller than ever, and other food almost negligible in quantity. Some prisoners noticed a more conciliatory attitude on the part of a few of the guards, especially after the collapse of Germany; but others saw no change, and there appears to have been no change in treatment until almost the time of the capitulation. This was not announced to the prisoners until some days after it occurred, and in that period generous quantities of food, including Red Cross food parcels, which had evidently been in store for a considerable time, were poured into the camp. Shortly afterwards, on 28 August, Red Cross supplies were dropped by Allied planes, followed by RAPWI officers equipped with wireless. Finally, on 5 September Allied forces landed on Singapore Island to take over control of the area and arrange evacuation.
Some account has already been given of the siting of prisoner-of-war camps in Burma and Thailand near military objectives during the last year of the war, and of the resultant bombing and casualties. During 1945, in addition to the railway maintenance parties whose hardships have already been described, the Japanese sent into Thailand large parties of prisoners to cut roads through virgin jungle and to construct defence works in the north. Treatment of these parties followed the pattern of the worst experienced by those who had worked on the construction of the railway: in a little over a month one party of 1000 had 50 per cent sick and 18 per cent dead. In the base and more settled camps, however, some noticed ‘more latitude’, especially on the part of Korean guards, who were beginning to show anti-Japanese feeling. Other men reported that many of the Japanese guards became even more severe and petty than usual.
Not long before the armistice the Japanese decided to move officer prisoners from Kanburi, where they had all been gathered into one camp, to another location some seventy miles north-east of Bangkok. They were at Bangkok in transit when the capitulation was announced. In many camps work ceased a few days before any announcement to prisoners by the Japanese, who first distributed long-stored Red Cross parcels, just as they had done in Malaya. So far as food was concerned, those in Bangkok were well looked after by the Swiss and Swedish representatives there, and most other camps were able to obtain ample supplies from the local Thais. As in Malaya, Red Cross supplies were dropped from the air, and this was followed by the parachuting in of RAPWI contact officers. After a journey to Bangkok by truck or train, liberated New Zealanders were flown to Singapore and from there to New Zealand.
Most of the British prisoners in Java were by April 1945 gathered in a native jail outside Bandoeng. The strength of this camp rose to nearly 6000 prisoners, and overcrowding became similar to that experienced in the early days of captivity. Here the attitude of the Japanese guards towards their prisoners seems to have hardened as Japan suffered more and more from Allied air raids, and seems to have shown little sign of relaxing until almost the end of hostilities. Then suddenly beatings stopped, and food, clothing, and medicines were brought in. Shortly afterwards contact officers page 514 arrived by parachute and arranged for prisoners to be evacuated to Batavia. From there our men went by RNZAF transport planes to Singapore, and home by the routes already described.
A number of our men had been moved by ship from Palembang to Singapore at the end of 1944. For those who remained on Sumatra the food became steadily less. In one camp in central Sumatra workers were receiving in 1945 only 150 grammes of rice a day and sick men only 100 grammes. One New Zealander records how prisoners were driven to supplementing this with coconuts and bananas, edible fungi, and even cobra flesh. The number of prisoners in camp hospitals or in special camps established for those too sick to work rose rapidly in the last months before liberation. In the main camp at Palembang from May to August 1945 there were approximately 260 deaths out of a camp strength of 1150; 70 of these died in the fortnight immediately preceding the armistice. As elsewhere the Japanese made a last-minute effort to retrieve the situation before the arrival of Allied troops, by sending into the camps quantities of food, clothing, and (in one prisoner's phrase) ‘anything our authorities demanded’.
Most of the men in the Macassar area were moved in 1944 to a makeshift bamboo camp on the outskirts of the town and were used as dock labour at the port. They were subjected to regular bombing attacks from Allied aircraft. The last stages of the war brought little change in the treatment received from their guards. On the capitulation, however, they were moved to a better camp, and food became more abundant and varied. It was not until 21 September that British naval units arrived with Australian troops and evacuated the prisoners to Australia, en route for home. Australian troops also liberated the neighbouring territory of Sarawak, and New Zealanders held there also went home via Australia.
In the Shamshuipo prisoner-of-war camp at Hong Kong, news of the armistice was received on 17 August from outside the camp before the Japanese camp commandant had decided to announce it. The camp leader immediately demanded an interview and, receiving an admission that the Japanese had capitulated, insisted on the withdrawal of Japanese guards and the complete transfer of camp administration to himself and his staff. Forage parties were sent out for fresh meat and milk, and the camp began to live comparatively well. Most of the civilian internees at the Stanley camp remained there after the announcement of the armistice, though the Japanese guards, who thereafter kept to themselves, did not interfere with their liberty and supplied them with large quantities of food. At the end of August a British naval squadron arrived, and evacuation took place by plane or ship to Manila and home.page 515
The last months of captivity for people in the civilian assembly centres of occupied China were hardly less rigorous than those of internment camps properly so called. In mid-July all civilians from the Yu-Yuen and Colombia Club centres were suddenly transferred to the Sacred Heart hospital, which had been evacuated the day before by the Japanese Army and left filthy and verminous. Besides trying to exist on very bad and inadequate food, these people had the anxiety of suddenly finding themselves in the middle of an industrial area which had already been severely bombed. Reports from most of the centres indicate that there was little change in the attitude of Japanese guards, except perhaps a certain hardening when the news of the bombardments of Japan filtered through.
When the capitulation came the guards were immediately marched off, leaving the civilians to themselves. People who were at the Lincoln Avenue centre describe how their leader, who had been to see the Swiss Consul on 15 August, came back with the dramatic news that the camp was to be ‘dissolved at noon’. In point of fact, owing to the danger of rioting and violence in the city, most Allied civilians in the Shanghai area found it wiser to remain in their camps until liberation forces arrived. They were well looked after for food and money by the Swiss Consul. United States troops were flown in within a week, and those who chose to do so returned to their former work in Shanghai, while the others were evacuated to Hong Kong.
United States contact officers did not arrive in Northern China until the end of August, and in some places it was more than a month later before evacuation became possible. But food and other supplies were regularly parachuted in to these camps until their inmates too could be moved to Hong Kong.
The pattern of events as they affected captives in Japan during the last phase of the war differed from that in other areas only in the degree to which conditions and treatment worsened. Apart from the strain on her economy imposed by the years of war, Japan became the principal objective of Allied bombardment. Not only did prisoners and civilian internees held there experience personal danger and the shortages and discomforts that follow destruction, but they bore the brunt of the increasing resentment and nervous tension among the Japanese who guarded them.
A New Zealand merchant navy man, who was imprisoned at Omori, describes the mud floors, the lack of heating during the winter of 1944–45, when temperatures went well below zero, and the poor quality of the food, which his weakened digestion caused him sometimes to vomit up while attempting to swallow it. But the deterioration of conditions within Japan brought no relaxation in the amount of heavy work demanded of prisoners. At Omori they page 516 had to load heavy sacks of rice into railway trucks or work in the holds of filthy tramp steamers discharging pig-iron. Those at Sendai were employed long hours in a pig-iron and carbide factory or clearing land of dense scrub with crude farm implements.
Some prisoners had the comparative good fortune to be moved from industrial centres to camps in the country; a number went, for example, from the Muroran steelworks near Hakodate to lumber and mining work in the hills at Nisi Asibetu. Others, including some New Zealanders, who had to remain in what had become military targets, lost their lives in the terrible naval bombardments of Japan by the Allied fleets. At the beginning of August the Kaimichi steelworks, some 300 miles north of Tokyo, was bombed and shelled on two occasions and practically demolished. A considerable number of prisoners working there were killed or injured, and a few succumbed later to burns. It is one of the war's cruellest paradoxes that men who have survived battle with the enemy, and later as prisoners, enemy ill-treatment, should thus helplessly find death at the hands of their own comrades.
Some of those who came in contact with Japanese civilians at their work noticed a change in their morale and a more conciliatory or even ‘friendly’ attitude on their part towards Allied captives. But in almost every prisoner-of-war or civilian internment camp the discipline imposed by the guards became more strict, right up to the time of the armistice. The complete reversal of attitude which then took place was all the more striking. Thus, in the last winter of the war, men at Hakodate were being made to stand for long periods on one of the guard towers in the snow as a punishment for having brought firewood into the camp in excess of the amount permitted. At one of the camps at Osaka a New Zealander reports that in this period the guards ‘knocked us around just the same and even worse’; another mentions that as the war took its decisive turn against Japan they ‘became very sullen and quiet’.
Liberation in varying degrees came to nearly every camp in Japan soon after the armistice, and the Japanese home forces seem to have made every effort to carry out the Allied instructions regarding prisoners of war and civilians. Camps at Tokyo, such as Omi, were handed over to the prisoners on 15 August, and at other centres the capitulation was announced to the prisoners and internees by the commandant in the course of the next day or two. Local Japanese authorities plied some camps with so much food that there were resultant cases of sickness and stomach pains. At the same time large quantities of food and other supplies were dropped from Allied planes: at Nisi Asibetu, for example, 40 parachute loads at a time. It took a little longer—up to a month in outlying districts page 517 —before the arrival of United States troops. But swift evacuation to Manila followed, by hospital ship when necessary.
As in Europe, it had originally been intended that repatriation should be a gradual process, but when capitulation became imminent there was a change of plan. It was thought best for recovered personnel to be repatriated to their home countries as quickly as possible, with the exception of those unfit for the voyage. The use of hospital ships where possible substantially reduced the latter; and the use of transport aircraft speeded up evacuation of exprisoners of war and internees both from camp areas and also from reception centres on part at least of the journey home. In general, those from Japan, Korea, Manchuria, and Formosa went to the reception centre at Manila before going on; those from China and Hong Kong went home direct from Hong Kong; and those from Thailand, French Indo-China, Malaya, and the East Indies went to Singapore.
The Australian Reception Group, under whose care came the fitter New Zealanders evacuated to Manila, had two camps some 18 miles from the city. Each had sleeping accommodation for 4000 in tents, as well as dining halls, canteens, and recreation huts built of wood and iron. These had been provided and were kept supplied by the United States Forces. Red Cross welfare workers served in the canteens and gave other services at all hours. Those who required hospital and convalescent treatment before onward routing went to a United States general hospital on the outskirts of Manila. At Hong Kong a reception camp was established under British arrangements to handle ex-prisoners recovered on the China coast. Prisoners and civilian internees released in the Changi area at Singapore were catered for by a RAPWI centre established there. New Zealanders passing through Singapore also benefited from a welfare centre set up in the Cathay Building by the RNZAF party established there to undertake their evacuation.
From these reception centres New Zealanders went by sea or air, or partly by each, to Australia and on to New Zealand. While in Australia they were well looked after by the Australian Red Cross Society, which provided welfare facilities at various points on the routes followed. Comforts were supplied to them after their arrival in New Zealand by the Joint Council. They were provided with accommodation at their port of arrival, were subjected to only essential ‘processing’ and sent on almost immediately to their homes. Generous arrangements were made for the supply to them of pocket-money and, if necessary, further financial assistance. Most of our people from the Far East were back in their homes by the middle of October.page 518
III: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians
There were signs in 1945 that the previous three years' negotiations with the Japanese authorities regarding prisoners might at last begin to bear fruit. In January the Swiss Minister in Tokyo was able to say that the notification of lists of prisoners had improved, and that he was continually receiving fresh lists of considerable size. The head of the Japanese Prisoner-of-War Information Bureau announced that he hoped to be able to make regular returns of camp strengths. The Imperial Prisoners of War Committee decided that Japan might be offered similar regular returns on a basis of strict reciprocity.
Similarly, a survey of mail to and from the Far East revealed that by February 1945 the position had greatly improved. In the summer of 1943, when the Arctic convoys had been suspended, a new route for forwarding mail to Moscow had been established through Persia. This became the normal route for all correspondence from New Zealand, as well as from Australia, South Africa and India, and for air mail from the United Kingdom. From Moscow it went on through Korea to Japan, air mail completing the journey in seven and a half weeks, and surface mail taking nearly twice as long. There were also signs that delivery to the prisoner-of-war camps in Japan had been speeded up, though there were still long delays in delivery to distant areas. The delivery in Japan of an accumulation of very old mail, and statements by Japanese officials that there was no objection to letters of one page in length,1 seemed to indicate that the Japanese had to some extent improved their censorship arrangements. But the Japanese still made censorship difficulties their excuse for not permitting a regular quota of outward letters or postcards from prisoners and civilian internees.
However, in view of the slowness of mails, the Japanese Government had proposed in late 1944 an exchange of telegrams through the International Red Cross Committee between prisoners of war in their hands and their next-of-kin. The scheme began in December, and by February 1945 completed forms were being sent to Geneva at the rate of 2000 a week; but Radio Japan proved unable to absorb more than 500 or so telegrams a day. And, though in three months some 40,000 British Commonwealth messages were received by the International Red Cross Committee and about 29,000 were retransmitted to Japan, by the end of April fewer than 200 had been received in the United Kingdom and only about sixty in Australia.page 519
The International Red Cross telegram scheme having proved disappointing, it was decided that broadcasting should become an officially recognised method of communicating with prisoners of war and internees in Japanese hands, and that it should be made available to next-of-kin through the Commonwealth. Previously it had been regarded as a danger to security, since it involved direct communication with the enemy and since the Japanese would certainly use it for transmitting propaganda. But the state of the war in 1945 had largely removed these objections. Broadcasts from Australia had begun in August 1944, under an arrangement with Japanese-controlled Batavia Radio for an exchange of messages between prisoners and their relatives in Australia. New Zealand was included under this scheme in early 1945. By May messages were being sent from Australia at the rate of 300 a week, and the scheme proved of considerable value in establishing contact with camps in southern areas increasingly cut off from seaborne mail.
During 1944 there had been some extension of the facilities for neutral inspectors to visit camps in Japan and in Hong Kong, and the Japanese authorities had granted visas for four more delegates of the International Red Cross Committee to proceed to the Far East. The Swiss Minister in Tokyo, however, considered that the Japanese would never allow neutral delegates to speak to prisoners without witnesses, and that it would be useless to make further representations on this matter.
Unfortunately, neither in their visits to camps nor in their other opportunities for negotiations with the Japanese authorities were these neutral agents able to accomplish very much. The Swiss Minister in Tokyo, after numerous representations concerning the dangerous location of certain prisoner-of-war camps, received the reply from the Japanese Foreign Minister that his Government was always careful to site these camps outside danger areas. The casualties at Non Pladuk and other camps on the Burma-Thailand railway mentioned in an earlier chapter were sufficient to disprove this statement. And there followed further bombing at camps in Japanese-occupied territory and, especially in 1945, in Japan itself. Moreover there was evidence in February 1945 that the Japanese were deliberately siting prisoner-of-war camps in order to protect vital targets. Although it was not possible on this account to divert air attacks from them, the Allied air forces received instructions to exercise all practicable care. Since the Japanese broadcast details of every such attack, the Allied authorities decided to publicise the facts in such a way as might influence the more responsible Japanese.page 520
1 A strict limit of 25 words had previously been imposed.
IV: Relief Work in the Far East
It is to be expected that in the months immediately preceding a country's defeat the supply of relief goods to the enemy captives she holds will deteriorate. In 1945 such relief transport arrangements as it had been possible to make with Japan came to an end. The danger to her external sea communications from the Allied fleets and to her internal communications from the Allied air forces would have made this inevitable, even if there had been a strong initiative on Japan's part to maintain them. Not only were no relief supplies arriving in Japan, but the inflated prices and the shortages resulting from bombardment made local purchases more difficult than ever. The Japanese made small distributions of old stocks of Red Cross parcels to some camps, but this brought little improvement to a situation which, in respect of food at least, became worse than it had ever been.
Only after the Japanese capitulation in August did relief supplies again become available, and so urgent was the need by then that large-scale parachuting operations were necessary to get them to camps where they were needed to save further loss of life. Neutral delegates were immediately able to visit all camps, even in the southern area of Japanese-occupied territory, and to send out word of their requirements. As the Allied authorities received the messages giving each camp's food and medical position, the numbers of seriously and dangerously ill, and the prevalent conditions, packages of supplies were made up to meet each situation. Besides food, clothing, and medical supplies, medical teams and specialists, including psychiatrists, were dropped where they were urgently needed. Two British hospitals were flown into Bangkok. The immediate fall in death rates, and the vast improvement in the condition of many captives in the few weeks before their evacuation, serve to indicate how much disease and death might have been avoided had only a fraction of these supplies been regularly available throughout the war.
V: Japanese Prisoners of War in New Zealand
Although the 800-odd Japanese prisoners of war at Featherston remained under excellent material conditions until the end of their captivity, their anxiety concerning their future increased as the end of the war became imminent. In September 1944 they told a neutral inspector that unless some arrangement could be made by which they could either return to their native country as ‘honourable citizens’ or find asylum in some other territory such as an island in the Pacific, they would probably only be able to end their unhappy page 521 position by mass suicide. Their hopes lay in the possibility of the neutral observers who visited them in their camp being able to explain their predicament and negotiate on their behalf.
Once they had heard the news of the cessation of hostilities, their questions took a more precise form. They were anxious to know whether they were covered by the Imperial Rescript to the Japanese Armed Forces ordering them to lay down their arms; whether reprisals would be taken on them in New Zealand on account of the bad conditions in the prisoner-of-war camps for which their countrymen were responsible; when their repatriation would take place, and whether they would be able to take their possessions and accumulated pay with them. They were assured that no reprisals would be taken on them in New Zealand, that their repatriation would take place as soon as shipping difficulties were overcome, and that representations were being made to the Supreme Commander in the Far East so that on their return their future might be assured and they might be given credit in Japanese currency for the money they had earned in New Zealand.1
By the end of 1945 arrangements were in hand for them to leave on two large American tank landing craft. The New Zealand authorities went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that conditions on this voyage would be as comfortable as possible. Although it did not prove possible for the New Zealand representative of the International Red Cross Committee to accompany the repatriates (as the latter had requested), a detachment of the New Zealand guard from Featherston Camp who were acquainted with the prisoners was placed on each vessel in order to facilitate dealing with them during the voyage. A stock of comforts purchased by funds of the New Zealand Red Cross Society was placed on board the vessels for distribution on disembarkation. Special bunk accommodation for the prisoners was installed in the vessels, special rooms were built to accommodate the sick, and extra ventilation and steam heaters were fitted to adjust the interior temperature both to the tropics and to the northern winter. All the prisoners were embarked on 30 December 1945, and the vessels left for Yokohama on the same day.
So ended New Zealand's first experience of housing and guarding on her soil enemy prisoners of war. Before leaving on their repatriation voyage the senior officer among the prisoners wrote to the General Officer Commanding the New Zealand Military Forces thanking him for the ‘just and considerate treatment’ they had received. There can be no doubt, as the International Red Cross page 522 representative said in his final report, that the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention of 1929 was applied ‘in every respect’. By most standards the treatment was extremely generous. It is tragic that an incident such as that of February 1943 should have happened at a prisoner-of-war camp whose administering authorities were so humane and well-intentioned. The whole experience serves as another illustration of the fact that guarding prisoners is not always the simple task it seems. It also suggests that those negotiating on behalf of prisoners of war could, if their zeal to ensure humane treatment were allowed to overrule all other considerations, make control of prisoners by detaining guards almost impossible without the use of firearms.
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In March 1945 it became Allied policy to use the Japanese treatment of their prisoners of war as a weapon of political warfare. By this time sufficient was generally known about camps in Burma and Thailand and in the recently liberated camps of the Philippines to make it clear what kind of conditions had existed there. It was felt that the Japanese in retreat would realise that their future in the world would depend largely on their external relations with the Great Powers, and that further ill-treatment of prisoners of war would count heavily against them. No suggestions of reprisals or revenge were made, and no imputations that any improvements in treatment which did occur were due to the deterioration of their military position. But it was made clear that unless local commanders responsible for ill-treatment were punished the Japanese Government would be held responsible.
Accounts of the last months of captivity by prisoners of war and civilian internees do not show that their treatment improved; but neither do they show that it deteriorated in a way or to an extent that could be attributable to definite Japanese policy in that direction. Most important of all, the Allied fear that the Japanese might in a last resort use their prisoners as hostages, and that wholesale massacres might occur, was confirmed by subsequent events in very few places. If Allied policy contributed to this result alone it was amply justified.
The capitulation of Japan concluded New Zealand's first experience of the hostility of a major Asiatic Power in aggressive mood. The threat to their own country reminded many people, who had in the past thought of it only as an outpost of European culture, that it was geographically situated much nearer to Asia. Those who came into direct contact with the Japanese found out that in spite of outward similarities they differed fundamentally from page 523 Europeans and ourselves in their standards of diet and living in general, in their conditions of work, in their military discipline, in the value they placed on human life, and in their regard for humanitarian considerations that we in our tranquil and prosperous isolation have sometimes tended to regard as inherent in human nature. If we are really to think out for ourselves more of our international relationships, we need to see more of the world through the eyes of our own people. However short our pre-war contacts with the peoples of the Far East may have fallen of what was appropriate to our position in the Pacific, there are now numbers of New Zealanders who have had close contact with them both during the war and since. Those of our men and women who suffered captivity in the Far East have first-hand knowledge of the mentality of one of these peoples at war. To take account of this knowledge does not necessarily imply continued rancour towards a former enemy; to neglect it is to be unrealistic.
1 A total of approximately £5500 was credited to the Japanese prisoners during their period in New Zealand.