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Prisoners of War

I: The Last Months of Hostilities and the Capitulation

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.

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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.