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Episodes & Studies Volume 1



In most of the Japanese-controlled areas there was a time-lag between the capitulation and the rescue of prisoners in their hands. In many areas prisoners knew from their secret radios or from the admissions of their guards exactly when the war had ended; a week or more might pass before the Japanese could bring themselves to make a formal announcement. In many camps this interval was used to flood the camp with food, medicines, and hoarded Red Cross parcels, and in most the Japanese intention of fattening up prisoners and internees before they were released was childishly obvious. It was impossible to remedy years of malnutrition in a fortnight, especially as starved men and women could not immediately adjust their digestions to a fuller diet.

In Japan itself Allied aircraft soon identified the camps and began dropping food, cigarettes, medicines, and clothing, as well as radios by which the prisoners could themselves make known their condition and their wants. Early in September men were being taken on board United States hospital ships, where they were ‘processed’* before being flown out to Manila. New Zealanders mostly went by sea from here to Australia on their way home.

The RAPWI (Repatriation of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) organisation, functioning under Lord Mountbatten’s command, was in action soon after Japan’s capitulation, though the delay in arranging the surrender of the Singapore area entailed a wait that was peculiarly trying to most prisoners. First, leaflets were dropped from the air addressed to the Japanese. Then some helpers ‘dropped in’ by parachute. Once the initial contact had been made, supplies, medicines, and medical staff were brought in and the camps entirely taken over. Men were evacuated as rapidly as was humanly possible: by air, mostly, if they were fit enough. The prisoners and internees in China were liberated by the British Fleet, and many did the first lap of their homeward journey in carriers emptied of their aircraft for the purpose. The Rangoon prisoners had been freed earlier in 1945 when the Japanese had retreated from the town. The Sarawak and Celebes prisoners and internees were liberated by Australian troops.

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Black and white photograph of message in paper

Allied pamphlet dropped in Thailand, 1945

The work of the RAPWI organisation won praise. New Zealanders in Malaya and Java had a further advantage in the speed given to their homeward journey by the RNZAF Prisoner of War Evacuation Flight which arrived in Singapore on 12 September. This small unit ferried released prisoners from Singapore to Auckland.

The capitulation took most prisoners and internees by surprise. They had known that the war had been going badly for Japan, but they had feared that the Japanese would fight on as they had so often declared they would. Some believed that the Japanese would kill their prisoners at the end. So many heartening rumours had proved groundless in the past that liberation was a mental jolt to most prisoners. The emotion was almost unbearable. The transition from misery to happiness had been too abrupt.

* ‘Processing’ was the comprehensive term for attending to the immediate needs of liberated prisoners of war: it included disinfestation, medical and dental’ examinations, giving particulars of all the circumstances of captivity, the issue of new clothing and kit, and of free cable forms to communicate with relatives.