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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Civilian Internees

page 25

Civilian Internees

The civilian interness were on the whole better treated by the Japanese than the service prisoners of war. If anything, they received less food, but they also experienced much less direct brutality. They had better facilities than the prisoners of war for recreation and education (schools were organised where children were interned), and they were generally made to work only on duties about their own camps.

The civilians interned in Malaya were gradually concentrated in Changi Peninsula, first in Changi prison, the civil jail built to accommodate 600 native prisoners but made to receive 3000 or more internees, and later in Sime Road barracks, in both with separate sections for men and women. In these camps conditions were more rigorous than in most other internment centres, and after October 1943 approximated closely to those experienced by prisoners of war. The camp was governed internally by a ‘very complex and democratic organisation’, which succeeded in checking if not in altogether eliminating rackets, which were, of course, connected with extra food. Discipline, including bowing to the Japanese, was not so much severe as ‘humiliating’ with ‘too much indiscriminate bashing’. Punishments for men internees included ‘beatings, kneeling in the sun for long periods, and other subtle methods’. At first, courses of study were organised on a very full scale; a library of 7000 books was collected, and concerts, plays, and other community activities helped to make the time pass.

On 10 October 1943, known to the Changi internees as the ‘double tenth’, the scene changed abruptly. The military police descended on Changi, searched the building, and left carrying off fifty men and three secret radios they had found. The Japanese suspected that the internees were sending out radio signals and attributed to these a successful Allied attack on a Japanese convoy. How the internees were to collect the information they were supposed to have sent out was apparently not given any consideration. Not all of the fifty interrogated returned, and most of those who did had been badly injured. Everyone endured a cut in rations, and all forms of study and recreation were abolished except for a weekly concert.

Conditions of internment were severe also at Kuching, in Sarawak; here the food was poor and a man might receive a beating for smiling through the wire without permission at his wife and child. In China, both at Shanghai and Hong Kong, conditions were less harsh. In Hong Kong, apart from the inevitable matter of food, the internees were not badly treated, and the Japanese even gave up attempts to teach them to bow. ‘Generally speaking, our passive refusal to take the Japanese seriously proved to be an excellent technique,’ one reported. These internees successfully combated the usual manufacture of propaganda: ‘flashlights were taken of an open-air concert but the audience spoilt them by making V signs just before each flash.’ Parcels from friends outside could be brought into the camps in China once a month. At Bangkok, in Thailand, in a camp which the Japanese inspected but did not control, the conditions of internment were relatively mild although the area was intolerably confined.

Many of the internees in China or Japan were missionaries. The Japanese appear to have treated them with something approaching respect: this does not apply to their attitude to the chaplains captured with military formations. Many missionaries were not imprisoned until months page 26 after Japan had entered the war. Japanese respect for old age showed itself in their treatment of a small group of nuns and Protestant missionaries interned together in Japan itself. They were allowed out to go shopping and for walks under guard; they received kindnesses from their guards and exchanged language lessons with them. A missionary who ran an orphanage in Hong Kong was allowed to remain in charge of it without being interned at all. She was given access to the orphanage funds in a bank seized by the enemy, had a pass to move about, and was not molested even when soldiers were quartered in part of the building; instead, the Japanese, who are supposed to cherish children as well as to respect age, sent some of their own food to the orphans. Except for the increasing food shortage she could hardly have been better treated. A priest in the Philippines, although not interned until 1944, found that the 2000 internees at Los Banos camp were being fed starvation rations although the American paratroops who liberated them found nearby stores stuffed with rice. The guards at this camp shot it out with the liberating troops while the internees lay flat on the ground in their own quarters; none of them was hurt, but 165 Japanese guards were killed for one casualty among the attackers. This is one of the few instances of direct vengeance descending on Japanese guards.

A New Zealander interned with the Dutch in Java found compensation for his loss of liberty in the books available and in the excellent concerts organised. Discipline was intermittently severe, hundreds of men being lined up on occasion and made to beat each other, a form of collective punishment more usually reserved for prisoners of war. Collective punishments of a less brutal character were frequently inflicted on internees, in a few instances for escapes. In spite of the acute shortage of food the Japanese frowned on personal efforts to supplement rations, and nearly everywhere they made trading ‘over the wall’ an offence. But even comparatively harsh punishments might fail in their effect. At Wei-hsien in China in 1943, ‘one man was caught getting eggs in over the wall and he was imprisoned in a cowshed for a fortnight. He was a Trappist monk and he rather enjoyed his solitary confinement.’