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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

After Capture

page 6

After Capture

The hours following capture are always the most anxious for a prisoner of war. He has no guarantee that his surrender will be accepted. Even such large-scale capitulations as those of the forces defending Singapore and Hong Kong had an element of uncertainty, for it was widely believed that the Japanese ‘took no prisoners’.*

The prisoners taken by the Japanese Navy were generally (but not always) well treated while in its hands. This was true of the coast-watchers captured in the northern Gilberts and of the crew of the Hauraki, captured in the Indian Ocean in July 1942. But it was not true of the passengers (some of them servicemen) and the crew of the Behar, another merchant ship sunk by a squadron of Japanese cruisers in March 1944 in the Indian Ocean. The shelling of the ship went on while the boats were being launched. An officer shouting through a megaphone directed the lifeboats to row to one of the cruisers, and as each survivor climbed up a rope ladder on board he was stripped of any valuables and of much of his clothing, beaten and kicked, then tied up and left for many hours in a position of great discomfort. The rest of the voyage, too, was made under terrible conditions.

The Japanese did not interrogate all their prisoners. When they did they often used violence at the interview, and before and after it, to enforce their demands for accurate information. An Air Force officer shot down over Burma in 1944 was subjected to questioning accompanied by various methods of ‘persuasion’. He had been advised to tell the enemy nothing, but ‘Japs have no limit to their brutality, so this was bad advice’; he felt that he should have been instructed to tell some sort of prepared story. (Fleet Air Arm pilots shot down over Japan in 1945 gave, as they had been advised, long, rambling statements with much inaccurate and misleading detail.) This airman held out for a fortnight before giving his squadron number (it was due to move in a fortnight), earning some left-handed admiration from some of his tormentors for his steadfastness.

A few Japanese officers took in good part a complete refusal to give more than name, rank, and number. But, that the use of violence to induce a prisoner to ‘talk’ was part of a general policy is shown by the establishment in Japan itself at Ofuna, near Yokohama, of a naval interrogation centre, known as ‘Torture Farm’. Here the prisoners, appallingly fed even by Japanese standards, had to engage in exhausting physical exercise, do everything at the double, and suffer mass and individual beatings at the hands of Japanese of above the average height and physique, to demoralise them before their interrogation by teams of intelligence experts. However, most prisoners of the Japanese found it easy to give some answer which would satisfy their questioners without betraying vital information.

Captivity usually began with a long march on foot carrying all baggage. Prisoners captured in small groups often had their valuables taken from them; others surrendering in larger units were better able to retain them. Although they did not realise it at the time, the clothes they carried with them into captivity were likely to have to last them the three or more years of their imprisonment. Prudence in selecting kit to take into prison camp paid heavy dividends.

page 7
Black and white sketch of soldiers entering door

into bondage —from White Coolie, by Ronald Hastain, the sketch by Ronald Searle

The first quarters allotted to newly captured prisoners of war were usually the worst of their captivity. To some extent this was due to the exigencies of war, and in part to the unpreparedness of the Japanese to accept the surrender of large numbers of prisoners. It frequently happened that men were given no food at all during the first two or three days of captivity.

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* In 1904 the Japanese took prisoner large numbers of Russians.