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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Aircrew Prisoners

page 24

Aircrew Prisoners

The japanese, so insouciant themselves of international law, were quite ready to attempt to impose it on their enemies. Allied aircrew who fell into their hands were treated as ‘special’ prisoners or ‘criminals’, because they were supposed to have made war on the civil population of the areas they had attacked.

Aircraft operating from India in the Burma theatre from 1944 could not always pass unscathed through the enemy’s flak: his light anti-aircraft fire was particularly efficient. Alighting in paddy fields to avoid the jungle, pilots rarely crash-landed without the death or injury of some of the crew, but injuries did not earn them any specially considerate treatment from their captors. It was usually some days before they reached a regular prison, after going through the usual cycle of being handed over by Burmese villagers (sometimes friendly, but in terror of the Japanese), interrogation, and a long journey by punt or ox-waggon which might involve exposure to violence at the hands of pro-Japanese Indians.

These ‘special’ prisoners were miserably lodged in Rangoon jail, five men in each 9ft by 15ft cell, sleeping on concrete with a minimum of clothing (the only accessions were the garments of dead comrades), allowed out once a day with a wash once a week, fed a meagre amount of rice and water, and maltreated by their guards. The wounded received no attention, although one prisoner was eventually allowed to undertake the duties of amateur doctor. A prisoner who asked whether his capture had been notified to Geneva was told: ‘It will not be necessary, you will die.’ However, after some months the Japanese lodged the aircrew ‘criminals’ with the other Allied prisoners in the adjoining compound. The improvement in sanitation alone, as well as in morale, did much, in spite of the attacks of the guards, to make the sombre Japanese prophecy untrue: untrue, that is, for about half their victims. A prisoner in Rangoon remarked that moral attitudes were important; the man who exercised, even walking up and down the tiny cells, was not affected by malnutrition to the same extent as others.

Some Fleet Air Arm aircrew were shot down over Japan itself in the last few weeks of the war. These men, too, were ‘special’ prisoners. They were beaten up, but not with the specialist skill of prison guards, by the local population, then interrogated and lodged in civil jails. One New Zealander was led out before a firing squad, but it was a mock execution. In jail, clad only in an undergarment, these prisoners had to submit to conditions as hard as any in Japan. These men owed their lives to the capitulation following so closely upon their capture.

Another late prisoner of war was a fighter-pilot shot down over an outlying island of New Britain in June 1945. He broke his leg in the crash and was brought in to Rabaul tied to a stretcher. There he was confined in an unlighted cave 15ft long by 3ft wide and 5ft high entered by a barred door about 2ft high and 1ft 6ins wide. He was brought out of this cell only to undergo interrogation. No violence was used against him, but he received no attention for his injury and set his leg roughly himself. He kept up his spirits by singing and helped to pass the time by fraternising with a toad in the cave. After more than two months in darkness the Japanese brought him out and told him of the capitulation. He then found that there were eight other Allied prisoners of war there, some in worse condition than himself.