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Prisoners of War

II: Recovery and Evacuation after the Armistice

II: Recovery and Evacuation after the Armistice

Planning for the evacuation and repatriation of released prisoners from the Far East, like that for prisoners in Italy and Germany, had been begun by the Imperial Prisoners of War Committee in late 1942. Towards the end of 1944 a draft directive was submitted to the Combined Chiefs of Staff and detailed planning began. Commanders-in-Chief in the Pacific were made responsible for the protection, maintenance, and evacuation of all United Nations prisoners of war within their respective operational zones, but were to co-ordinate their plans. These were to ensure provision for prisoners of war in any armistice agreement made with the enemy, to take control of prisoner-of-war camps, to see that liberated prisoners were properly cared for, to send back nominal rolls, to preserve enemy records concerning prisoners and to apprehend enemy personnel charged with their maltreatment. Governments of countries to which prisoners belonged were made responsible for informing the War Office and the War Department1 of the numbers2 and locations of their nationals held by the Japanese, as

1 For transmission to Supreme Commander South-East Asia Command, to Commander-in-Chief South-West Pacific Area, or to Commander-in-Chief Central Pacific Area respectively.

2 There were approximately 130,000 British, 15,000 United States, and 30,000 Dutch.

page 511 well as of any special requirements for their handling after recovery. Members of the forces to which prisoners belonged were to be used as repatriation personnel at the earliest possible stage of evacuation. Priority in repatriation was to be given to sick and wounded, but no other distinction was to be made among United Nations servicemen in respect of either rank or arm of the service.

The surrender terms imposed on the Japanese made it obligatory on them to preserve the safety and well-being of all prisoners and civilian internees in their hands and to supply adequate food, shelter, clothing, and medical care until the Allied forces took over. Until this occurred, prisoner-of-war and civilian internment camps were to be handed over to the command of their camp leaders. The Japanese were to prepare complete lists of all those in their hands, together with their camp locations, and, when required, to transport them to places where they could be conveniently handed over to the Allies.

To bring relief immediately after the armistice to prisoners of war and civilian internees, information leaflets, food, clothing, and medical supplies were dropped into camps from the air. In the area covered by the South-East Asia Command alone about one and a quarter million pounds of Red Cross stores were thus distributed to some 250 camps. These air drops, by bringing badly needed information and relief, benefited especially those isolated camps whose evacuation might take time. By 12 September all known camps had been flown over and assisted in this way.

As soon as it became possible, recovery teams were organised and sent to known camp locations and to areas where prisoners were thought to be. Owing to the sudden collapse of Japan the only recovery teams immediately available were drawn from the Australian forces operating under the Command of General MacArthur; and the Australian authorities agreed that they should be available for dealing with all Commonwealth prisoners of war until the arrival of United Kingdom and other Commonwealth teams. Eighteen of them were established, as well as staff for a large reception camp at Manila. It was these teams which had the task of carrying out the initial responsibilities of Commanders-in-Chief regarding prisoners of war and civilian internees in their respective areas.1

On 17 August a flight of RNZAF transport aircraft, each fitted with bunk accommodation for sixteen, left New Zealand for duty under the South-East Asia Command, to assist in the return of our released prisoners of war and civilian internees to New Zealand.

1 The operation was given the title RAPWI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) and the teams were known as RAPWI teams.

page 512 Based on Singapore, this RNZAF flight was responsible for the evacuation of most of our people from the southern areas. A New Zealand Army RAPWI team followed in early September to accompany the land forces of South-East Asia Command into recovered areas and assist with documentation and other tasks affecting New Zealanders. Since reliable news of the latter was at this stage a matter of the greatest interest to an anxious New Zealand public, a senior Army officer1 was also sent on 13 September to work with the Australian recovery organisation in the northern area, including the Philippines, China, Hong Kong and Japan. In practice the work of all three components of this rather uncoordinated piece of organisation tended to overlap. But in the upshot New Zealand was promptly informed about our nationals in the various areas, adequate attention was given to obtaining news of the missing, and arrangements for the care and speedy repatriation of our people gave general satisfaction.

When the civilian internees at Singapore were transferred to the Sime Road camp in 1944, the prisoners of war from the Changi area took their place in Changi Jail. There they remained for the last year or more of their captivity, some 6000 prisoners crammed into a prison designed to hold 600 peacetime criminals. The officers and the camp hospital were housed in attap huts outside the building, but living conditions generally were much worse than they had been previously. Over the last months of the war the rice ration became smaller than ever, and other food almost negligible in quantity. Some prisoners noticed a more conciliatory attitude on the part of a few of the guards, especially after the collapse of Germany; but others saw no change, and there appears to have been no change in treatment until almost the time of the capitulation. This was not announced to the prisoners until some days after it occurred, and in that period generous quantities of food, including Red Cross food parcels, which had evidently been in store for a considerable time, were poured into the camp. Shortly afterwards, on 28 August, Red Cross supplies were dropped by Allied planes, followed by RAPWI officers equipped with wireless. Finally, on 5 September Allied forces landed on Singapore Island to take over control of the area and arrange evacuation.

Civilians in the Sime Road camp noticed an appreciable change of attitude on the part of their guards for a month or more before the capitulation. On 26 August the camp leader was informed by the Japanese that the war was over, and the internees then took over control of the camp until the arrival of Allied recovery teams. Liberated New Zealanders, both military and civilian, spoke highly page 513 of the welfare work and the efficient arrangements for their evacuation, for which the RNZAF flight stationed in Singapore was responsible. Many of our people were flown all the way to New Zealand, though a number also went at least part of the way by sea transport. The majority were home by September.

Some account has already been given of the siting of prisoner-of-war camps in Burma and Thailand near military objectives during the last year of the war, and of the resultant bombing and casualties. During 1945, in addition to the railway maintenance parties whose hardships have already been described, the Japanese sent into Thailand large parties of prisoners to cut roads through virgin jungle and to construct defence works in the north. Treatment of these parties followed the pattern of the worst experienced by those who had worked on the construction of the railway: in a little over a month one party of 1000 had 50 per cent sick and 18 per cent dead. In the base and more settled camps, however, some noticed ‘more latitude’, especially on the part of Korean guards, who were beginning to show anti-Japanese feeling. Other men reported that many of the Japanese guards became even more severe and petty than usual.

Not long before the armistice the Japanese decided to move officer prisoners from Kanburi, where they had all been gathered into one camp, to another location some seventy miles north-east of Bangkok. They were at Bangkok in transit when the capitulation was announced. In many camps work ceased a few days before any announcement to prisoners by the Japanese, who first distributed long-stored Red Cross parcels, just as they had done in Malaya. So far as food was concerned, those in Bangkok were well looked after by the Swiss and Swedish representatives there, and most other camps were able to obtain ample supplies from the local Thais. As in Malaya, Red Cross supplies were dropped from the air, and this was followed by the parachuting in of RAPWI contact officers. After a journey to Bangkok by truck or train, liberated New Zealanders were flown to Singapore and from there to New Zealand.

Most of the British prisoners in Java were by April 1945 gathered in a native jail outside Bandoeng. The strength of this camp rose to nearly 6000 prisoners, and overcrowding became similar to that experienced in the early days of captivity. Here the attitude of the Japanese guards towards their prisoners seems to have hardened as Japan suffered more and more from Allied air raids, and seems to have shown little sign of relaxing until almost the end of hostilities. Then suddenly beatings stopped, and food, clothing, and medicines were brought in. Shortly afterwards contact officers page 514 arrived by parachute and arranged for prisoners to be evacuated to Batavia. From there our men went by RNZAF transport planes to Singapore, and home by the routes already described.

A number of our men had been moved by ship from Palembang to Singapore at the end of 1944. For those who remained on Sumatra the food became steadily less. In one camp in central Sumatra workers were receiving in 1945 only 150 grammes of rice a day and sick men only 100 grammes. One New Zealander records how prisoners were driven to supplementing this with coconuts and bananas, edible fungi, and even cobra flesh. The number of prisoners in camp hospitals or in special camps established for those too sick to work rose rapidly in the last months before liberation. In the main camp at Palembang from May to August 1945 there were approximately 260 deaths out of a camp strength of 1150; 70 of these died in the fortnight immediately preceding the armistice. As elsewhere the Japanese made a last-minute effort to retrieve the situation before the arrival of Allied troops, by sending into the camps quantities of food, clothing, and (in one prisoner's phrase) ‘anything our authorities demanded’.

Most of the men in the Macassar area were moved in 1944 to a makeshift bamboo camp on the outskirts of the town and were used as dock labour at the port. They were subjected to regular bombing attacks from Allied aircraft. The last stages of the war brought little change in the treatment received from their guards. On the capitulation, however, they were moved to a better camp, and food became more abundant and varied. It was not until 21 September that British naval units arrived with Australian troops and evacuated the prisoners to Australia, en route for home. Australian troops also liberated the neighbouring territory of Sarawak, and New Zealanders held there also went home via Australia.

In the Shamshuipo prisoner-of-war camp at Hong Kong, news of the armistice was received on 17 August from outside the camp before the Japanese camp commandant had decided to announce it. The camp leader immediately demanded an interview and, receiving an admission that the Japanese had capitulated, insisted on the withdrawal of Japanese guards and the complete transfer of camp administration to himself and his staff. Forage parties were sent out for fresh meat and milk, and the camp began to live comparatively well. Most of the civilian internees at the Stanley camp remained there after the announcement of the armistice, though the Japanese guards, who thereafter kept to themselves, did not interfere with their liberty and supplied them with large quantities of food. At the end of August a British naval squadron arrived, and evacuation took place by plane or ship to Manila and home.

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The last months of captivity for people in the civilian assembly centres of occupied China were hardly less rigorous than those of internment camps properly so called. In mid-July all civilians from the Yu-Yuen and Colombia Club centres were suddenly transferred to the Sacred Heart hospital, which had been evacuated the day before by the Japanese Army and left filthy and verminous. Besides trying to exist on very bad and inadequate food, these people had the anxiety of suddenly finding themselves in the middle of an industrial area which had already been severely bombed. Reports from most of the centres indicate that there was little change in the attitude of Japanese guards, except perhaps a certain hardening when the news of the bombardments of Japan filtered through.

When the capitulation came the guards were immediately marched off, leaving the civilians to themselves. People who were at the Lincoln Avenue centre describe how their leader, who had been to see the Swiss Consul on 15 August, came back with the dramatic news that the camp was to be ‘dissolved at noon’. In point of fact, owing to the danger of rioting and violence in the city, most Allied civilians in the Shanghai area found it wiser to remain in their camps until liberation forces arrived. They were well looked after for food and money by the Swiss Consul. United States troops were flown in within a week, and those who chose to do so returned to their former work in Shanghai, while the others were evacuated to Hong Kong.

United States contact officers did not arrive in Northern China until the end of August, and in some places it was more than a month later before evacuation became possible. But food and other supplies were regularly parachuted in to these camps until their inmates too could be moved to Hong Kong.

The pattern of events as they affected captives in Japan during the last phase of the war differed from that in other areas only in the degree to which conditions and treatment worsened. Apart from the strain on her economy imposed by the years of war, Japan became the principal objective of Allied bombardment. Not only did prisoners and civilian internees held there experience personal danger and the shortages and discomforts that follow destruction, but they bore the brunt of the increasing resentment and nervous tension among the Japanese who guarded them.

A New Zealand merchant navy man, who was imprisoned at Omori, describes the mud floors, the lack of heating during the winter of 1944–45, when temperatures went well below zero, and the poor quality of the food, which his weakened digestion caused him sometimes to vomit up while attempting to swallow it. But the deterioration of conditions within Japan brought no relaxation in the amount of heavy work demanded of prisoners. At Omori they page 516 had to load heavy sacks of rice into railway trucks or work in the holds of filthy tramp steamers discharging pig-iron. Those at Sendai were employed long hours in a pig-iron and carbide factory or clearing land of dense scrub with crude farm implements.

Some prisoners had the comparative good fortune to be moved from industrial centres to camps in the country; a number went, for example, from the Muroran steelworks near Hakodate to lumber and mining work in the hills at Nisi Asibetu. Others, including some New Zealanders, who had to remain in what had become military targets, lost their lives in the terrible naval bombardments of Japan by the Allied fleets. At the beginning of August the Kaimichi steelworks, some 300 miles north of Tokyo, was bombed and shelled on two occasions and practically demolished. A considerable number of prisoners working there were killed or injured, and a few succumbed later to burns. It is one of the war's cruellest paradoxes that men who have survived battle with the enemy, and later as prisoners, enemy ill-treatment, should thus helplessly find death at the hands of their own comrades.

Some of those who came in contact with Japanese civilians at their work noticed a change in their morale and a more conciliatory or even ‘friendly’ attitude on their part towards Allied captives. But in almost every prisoner-of-war or civilian internment camp the discipline imposed by the guards became more strict, right up to the time of the armistice. The complete reversal of attitude which then took place was all the more striking. Thus, in the last winter of the war, men at Hakodate were being made to stand for long periods on one of the guard towers in the snow as a punishment for having brought firewood into the camp in excess of the amount permitted. At one of the camps at Osaka a New Zealander reports that in this period the guards ‘knocked us around just the same and even worse’; another mentions that as the war took its decisive turn against Japan they ‘became very sullen and quiet’.

Liberation in varying degrees came to nearly every camp in Japan soon after the armistice, and the Japanese home forces seem to have made every effort to carry out the Allied instructions regarding prisoners of war and civilians. Camps at Tokyo, such as Omi, were handed over to the prisoners on 15 August, and at other centres the capitulation was announced to the prisoners and internees by the commandant in the course of the next day or two. Local Japanese authorities plied some camps with so much food that there were resultant cases of sickness and stomach pains. At the same time large quantities of food and other supplies were dropped from Allied planes: at Nisi Asibetu, for example, 40 parachute loads at a time. It took a little longer—up to a month in outlying districts page 517 —before the arrival of United States troops. But swift evacuation to Manila followed, by hospital ship when necessary.

As in Europe, it had originally been intended that repatriation should be a gradual process, but when capitulation became imminent there was a change of plan. It was thought best for recovered personnel to be repatriated to their home countries as quickly as possible, with the exception of those unfit for the voyage. The use of hospital ships where possible substantially reduced the latter; and the use of transport aircraft speeded up evacuation of exprisoners of war and internees both from camp areas and also from reception centres on part at least of the journey home. In general, those from Japan, Korea, Manchuria, and Formosa went to the reception centre at Manila before going on; those from China and Hong Kong went home direct from Hong Kong; and those from Thailand, French Indo-China, Malaya, and the East Indies went to Singapore.

The Australian Reception Group, under whose care came the fitter New Zealanders evacuated to Manila, had two camps some 18 miles from the city. Each had sleeping accommodation for 4000 in tents, as well as dining halls, canteens, and recreation huts built of wood and iron. These had been provided and were kept supplied by the United States Forces. Red Cross welfare workers served in the canteens and gave other services at all hours. Those who required hospital and convalescent treatment before onward routing went to a United States general hospital on the outskirts of Manila. At Hong Kong a reception camp was established under British arrangements to handle ex-prisoners recovered on the China coast. Prisoners and civilian internees released in the Changi area at Singapore were catered for by a RAPWI centre established there. New Zealanders passing through Singapore also benefited from a welfare centre set up in the Cathay Building by the RNZAF party established there to undertake their evacuation.

From these reception centres New Zealanders went by sea or air, or partly by each, to Australia and on to New Zealand. While in Australia they were well looked after by the Australian Red Cross Society, which provided welfare facilities at various points on the routes followed. Comforts were supplied to them after their arrival in New Zealand by the Joint Council. They were provided with accommodation at their port of arrival, were subjected to only essential ‘processing’ and sent on almost immediately to their homes. Generous arrangements were made for the supply to them of pocket-money and, if necessary, further financial assistance. Most of our people from the Far East were back in their homes by the middle of October.

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