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Prisoners of War

I: Japanese Victories

page 159

I: Japanese Victories

ON 7 December 1941, when British Commonwealth troops were fully engaged in a desperate struggle with the German and Italian forces in Libya, the third member of the Axis, Japan, announced hostilities against the United States by her attack on the American fleet in Pearl Harbour. Within four days the United States had declared war on the three Axis countries, and Britain was at war with Japan. Japan wasted no time. The previous July she had walked into Indo-China. Now, landing a seaborne force in Thailand near the Malayan border on 8 December, she began her attack south and two days later had taken the Kota Bharu airfield in the north-eastern corner of Malaya. The same day her air forces sank the two battleships, Prince of Wales and Repulse. Immediately she swept across Thailand, to sever the Malay peninsula and drive north into Lower Burma and south to link with her seaborne forces. Meanwhile she had landed in North Borneo and the Philippines; her troops had crossed the Kowloon border to attack Hong Kong; and with the Allied fleet for the time being crippled, her warships were able to range unmolested as far east as the Gilbert Islands, which she occupied on 11 December.

The weeks and months that followed brought a series of disasters for the British Commonwealth and United States forces. Hong Kong fell on 25 December after a 14-day attack; Kuching, the capital of Sarawak, was taken about the same time; Manila, in the Philippines, fell on 2 January 1942, and soon only the Bataan Peninsula and the island of Corregidor remained as a centre of American resistance there. The British forces in Malaya were unable to hold the Japanese southward drive, and on 15 February, a week after Japanese troops had come across from the mainland, Singapore surrendered. Overpowering the remaining British and Dutch naval forces in the Java Sea, the Japanese swept south and east to the Dutch East Indies: Java capitulated on 9 March, and by the 20th Japan was not only in possession of the two main islands of Java and Sumatra, but was moving eastward to complete her occupation page 160 of the Dutch group. In Burma Rangoon fell in the same month to the Japanese northern spearhead; and by June 1942, six months after her first attack, with Mandalay and the Andaman Islands in her hands and the last American resistance quenched on Corregidor, Japan was in undisturbed possession of the whole of South-East Asia and the north-western Pacific.

At the time when these areas were overrun by the Japanese forces they contained between three and four hundred New Zealanders.1 Some of these were serving with the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and there was a handful of New Zealand Army personnel. More than two-thirds, however, were civilians—missionaries, business officials, surveyors, engineers, journalists, nurses, teachers. Though mainly in Malaya, Burma, Hong Kong and parts of China, they were scattered over almost the whole of the south-east Asian archipelago and as far north as the islands of Japan itself. They formed only a small proportion of the British white population, just as our servicemen in the Far East were only a small proportion of the British forces in that vast region; but in most of the Japanese detention camps and internment centres of the Far East there were at one time or another some of our people. And New Zealanders can be said to have shared, with much larger numbers of other Commonwealth, American, and Dutch people, most of the experiences of prisoners of war and civilian internees in the areas of Asia and the Pacific occupied by the Japanese.

Just before the Japanese attack there were 24 New Zealanders on various islands of the Gilbert, Ellice and Ocean Groups, either as civilian radio operators or as 2 NZEF personnel on coastwatching duty. It was clearly one of the first objectives of the Japanese assault to occupy these points and capture the means of communication they afforded to the Allies. Thus there were Japanese transports off Makin Island in the Gilberts on the morning of 9 December, and in the next few days Japanese landing parties took possession of this and the other almost undefended islands of

1 The difficulty in reaching an exact figure lies in deciding exactly who were New Zealand nationals. On the one hand a number of people of New Zealand origin had been away from New Zealand either in the Colonial Service or in the service of some foreign business concern long enough to have almost lost touch with their country of birth. On the other hand there were people not of New Zealand origin who by marriage or previous domicile appeared to have sufficient association with the country to be looked after by the New Zealand authorities. The Missing and Prisoners of War Agency gives the following figures for New Zealanders:

Civilians interned in the Pacific (including 52 in Volunteer Defence Forces)214
Merchant Navy51
Air Force53

page 161 the group. Some of the posts kept transmitting information until the last moment and those who were not surprised were able to destroy their codes and equipment. On Tarawa in October 1942, 17 New Zealand coastwatchers were executed by the Japanese; seven others captured in December 1941—three from Makin, three from Little Makin, and one from Abaiang, all in the Gilbert Group—survived the war as prisoners in Japan.

Treatment by the enemy of those they had allowed to survive does not seem to have been unduly bad at this stage: there was strict supervision accompanied by a good deal of threatening behaviour, as well as jeering and some attempt to degrade the white prisoners in the eyes of the natives. ‘This is the Imperial Navy's grand advance! You are now prisoners of the Emperor of Nippon’, one party was told. Only the radio operators were interrogated, and those not very intensively, though they had a somewhat more thorough questioning after reaching Japan. They were all transferred north-west on Japanese transports and warships, and in early January 1942 disembarked at Yokohama, among the first prisoners to arrive in Japan.

On the Asian mainland the first people to be affected were those in China. At the time of ‘Pearl Harbour Day’ (as it came to be known to the internees) there were in various parts of China a number of European missionaries, mostly British and American. Though the Japanese invasion of the mainland—the ‘China incident’—had taken place three years before, the mission stations had kept going in spite of the immediate dangers from bombing and later annoyances and restrictions from the Japanese occupation forces. The Japanese had landed in October 1938 to the north of Hong Kong, Canton had fallen almost immediately, and in the course of the next few months European missionaries and others, though free within their residential compounds, became a good deal restricted by the Japanese occupation forces in their activities outside.

The majority of them (some forty) were in the Shanghai area, and there were two other smaller groups, one near Peking and the other near Canton. On 8 December 1941 the International Settlement at Shanghai was occupied by the Japanese, and shortly afterwards they published a proclamation in the newspapers and over the radio ordering all enemy subjects to register with their consular authorities within a stated period. Full particulars were taken of each person in return for the issue of an identification card. Some families were confined to their homes for the first ten days, and a few who were working for the Chinese authorities, and so suspected of political activities or of having special knowledge, were taken away immediately for detention and intensive interrogation. But page 162 for the most part British civilians were soon allowed to go freely about the city and to carry on with their occupations. The greater number of them were not interned until early 1943, and the older people not until 1944.

Mission stations in outlying districts some little distance from main cities were allowed to continue their work, but Japanese military guards were posted to them to exercise supervision over their activities and to indicate that the Japanese Government had confiscated all British property. Restrictions were placed on the amounts of food and medicine which missions could purchase, and the number of Chinese workers which they could employ was reduced. Much was done towards making the mission communities self-supporting by growing fruit, nuts, and vegetables, and by rearing stock inside the mission compounds; and help was usually given by local Chinese villagers. For the most part the Japanese guards did not interfere inside the compounds, but there were exceptions, especially when guards had been drinking saki. At Kong Chuen, near Canton, much unnecessary victimisation was endured from a self-important young guard officer, who took the mission books and anything else he fancied, rode his horse through a hospital corridor, and conducted mock bayonet practice in front of the hospital several times a week. On the other hand the director of this mission records that from other Japanese soldiers they experienced ‘good-will and friendliness’ and received help with their mail arrangements and goods permits. This is a pattern of contradictory behaviour on the part of the Japanese which was the common experience of most British people who fell into their hands.

The only other British Commonwealth subjects to feel immediately the effects of Japanese hostilities were those unfortunate enough to be either in Thailand, in the path of the Japanese advance by land, or else in Japan itself. The latter were the object of immediate attention by the Japanese police. A New Zealander resident in Tokyo, where he was teaching English, found four policemen waiting for him on his return from work, and was bundled off to a police cell in a small nearby township. From there he was taken to Yokohama Prison, where he was to remain for questioning at intervals during several months.

British people employed in mines, plantations, and other concerns in Thailand were for the most part rounded up with their families by Thai police in the day or two following the commencement of hostilities. One New Zealand surveyor was in a party of 27 civilians handed over to the Japanese and transported to Kampong Toh, where they were kept under guard in the main living rooms of two bungalows. On the night of 13 December 1941 a party of page 163 Japanese troops arrived from the front with eight Indian prisoners, whom they put with the civilians in one of the bungalows. Some time later two hand grenades were thrown into the living room of this bungalow, a machine gun was fired up through the floor, and a number of Japanese soldiers burst into the room, fired at the occupants, and then set about bayoneting them. Thirteen were killed as a result of this and of further shooting next morning, and all but eight of the others lost their lives trying to get away through the jungle. The New Zealander, though wounded in the legs and head, was able with help to make off into the jungle, but after some ten days was recaptured by Thai police and taken to Bangkok.

The New Zealanders in Hong Kong consisted of a few naval personnel (mainly signals), a few nurses at the military hospital, and a number of civilians, some of whom were serving with the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force. Hong Kong was attacked from the air on the same day as Pearl Harbour, and this was followed shortly afterwards by artillery fire and infantry attacks which penetrated the outer defences of the area of the colony on the mainland. The island of Victoria held out for three weeks, but the Governor had to surrender to superior forces on 25 December. Disarmed troops and volunteers were marched, laden with what belongings and food they could gather together, into the city, where Chinese had been ordered into the streets to see the British disgrace. The prisoners were accommodated in some damaged wooden huts in a dirty area at North Point reserved for Chinese refugees. Naval men were for the most part assembled at the dockyard and later taken across to the Kowloon side, where the Shamshuipo Barracks, already damaged and looted, were being used as the main prisoner-of-war collecting centre for the Hong Kong area. Medical staffs in hospitals were allowed to carry on their work and the wounded there were mostly unmolested, though in one auxiliary emergency hospital many of the patients and some of the hospital staff were massacred. Some of the wounded outside the hospitals were left to die without food or medical aid, and medical search parties were forbidden.

Civilians not taken while fighting with the Defence Force were sooner or later assembled at what became known as the Stanley Internment Camp—a large area on a narrow neck of the Stanley Peninsula, the south-east corner of Victoria Island. The whole area had been fought over and was in a very damaged and disordered condition when all the internable men, women, and children of the colony were herded together there in January 1942. Only an exceptional few, such as a New Zealand woman1 in charge of a

1 Mrs M. A. Jennings, Superintendent of the Taipo Rural Home and Orphanage.

page 164 rural home and orphanage near Kowloon, were allowed to continue their work and live outside the camp.

By the end of 1941 the Japanese invasions of the Philippines and Borneo were well advanced. Kuching, in Sarawak, surrendered on 24 December; and in the Philippines Manila, having been declared an open city after the American withdrawal to Bataan, was taken over by the Japanese on 2 January 1942. In Sarawak not all civilians were immediately interned, some being allowed to live normally in their own houses for some four months. On the other hand a New Zealander who held an administrative post with the Sarawak Government was immediately arrested and kept under guard until a general internment camp had been set up in Kuching. In the Philippines civilians were taken in early January to the newly set up internment camp at Santo Tomas University.

After the first Japanese drive south from Thailand in December 1941, fighting continued in Malaya during the early weeks of 1942, with the British Commonwealth forces staging delaying actions and withdrawing to the south. Finally on 30 January the land forces were evacuated to Singapore Island, secure in the thought that there would be some respite for weary troops as the Japanese would not have sufficient landing craft to cross the Straits of Johore in large numbers. Shortly afterwards (8–9 February) the Japanese brought over 18 battalions with tanks and artillery in one night. Resistance continued until by 15 February the essential services of the city had been so severely damaged as to decide General Percival to capitulate.

During the next day or so members of the armed forces were marched to the Changi military area on a small promontory 15 miles outside the city. Among them were a number of New Zealanders—engineers, surveyors, miners, civil servants and others who had joined the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force, as well as men serving with regular British Army units in Malaya—though they made up only a small proportion of the 60,000-odd moved to Changi. At the same time a proclamation ordered all British civilians to assemble at various points in the city, whence they were moved, mostly on foot, the men to the ‘Karikal’ camp at Katong, some six miles out, or to the Joo Chiat police station, the women to a camp near the Roxy Cinema. There were a number of New Zealanders among those who went to ‘Karikal’, including some members of the Volunteer Force who had managed to get rid of their uniforms before capture.

As in Hong Kong, the fall of which also marked the termination of a campaign, there was practically no attempt at interrogation, though a New Zealander who lived beside the sea in Singapore was page 165 subjected to some hours of severe questioning concerning local fortifications. The wounded were left in charge of the British medical authorities, but were before long all moved to accommodation in the Changi area no matter what their condition, many, including some leg-wound cases, being forced to walk the whole fifteen miles. As in Hong Kong, too, there were some instances of the killing of wounded, especially badly wounded in the field, and there was a massacre at one hospital in which many patients and hospital staff were bayoneted, and altogether 250 lost their lives.

Many people were able to get away from Singapore by sea in the days prior to the capitulation. But, owing to the almost complete Japanese domination of the sea and air in the Banka Straits and generally to the east of Sumatra, many of the ships were bombed and sunk and others were forced to surrender because they had women and children aboard. Those survivors who managed to get ashore on Singkep, Banka, or other islands, or on Sumatra itself, were sooner or later rounded up in the course of the Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies. Only those who lost no time in continuing their voyage on to Australia or to Ceylon were spared the ordeal of captivity in Japanese hands. One New Zealand naval officer1 serving on HMS Grasshopper, which left Singapore on 13 February in company with HMS Dragonfly, bringing away civilians and servicemen, was among those who made Singkep Island after both ships had been destroyed by Japanese bombing. Later he reached Sumatra and then sailed with a party for Ceylon in a native prau, only to be picked up by three Japanese tankers in early April and brought back to Singapore.

There were four New Zealanders among the servicemen taken off on the Fairmile 310 on the same night. She was attacked twice and then ran on to a shoal off the Seven Brothers group of islands, everyone getting ashore. Three of the New Zealanders set sail with a Javanese for Batavia but were never heard of again; malaria and other diseases killed 19 other officers and men. The survivors (including one New Zealander)2 were taken to Singkep and later to Changi Camp at Singapore.

At the end of February, in order to clear the way for the military occupation of Sumatra, Java, and Celebes, the Japanese fleet brought to action the remaining British, American, and Dutch naval vessels in Dutch East Indian waters. There were New Zealanders among the complements of the cruiser Exeter and the destroyer Encounter, both of which were sunk on 1 March, and on the Stronghold, sunk next day in the Timor Sea. The survivors were picked up by

2 Able Seaman H. R. Oldnall.

page 166 Japanese naval vessels, transferred to captured Dutch merchant or hospital ships, and taken on to Macassar in Celebes. There they were given accommodation in old Dutch barracks, and though some were transported to Japan, many remained in camps near Macassar until their liberation.

Japanese paratroops attacked Medan in north-eastern Sumatra on 13 February, and the Allied land defences proved insufficient to stem the Japanese advance. In face of the rapid progress of the enemy, RAF fighter and bomber squadrons operating from Medan and Palembang respectively, together with other servicemen, were evacuated to Java after a few days, some getting away from their stations just before the Japanese occupied them. Attempts at evacuation continued until the capital, Padang, on the west coast, fell on 17 March. There the Japanese captured, as well as a large number of Dutch, approximately 1200 British servicemen awaiting transport to Java. The majority of them were from Singapore, and the New Zealanders among them were either naval or air force personnel. The naval personnel were survivors from the complements of ships sunk during the evacuation from Singapore, and the Air Force personnel either evacuees from Singapore or members of the squadrons stationed on Sumatra who were unable to be evacuated in the earlier drafts to Java.

Naval and Air Force officers were taken by truck to Medan and transported back to Singapore almost immediately; some of them were interrogated on their arrival there. There seems to have been little attempt to interrogate the remainder, for whom a camp was set up in some Dutch military barracks. Wounded who happened to be in hospital at the time of the Japanese invasion were looked after by the Dutch, but others not so fortunate suffered neglect.

The Royal Air Force squadrons evacuated from Sumatra continued to operate from north-western Java until Japanese landings on 28 February forced them farther south. Some units were still able to continue, but others were moved to Tjilatjap, on the south coast, to await evacuation to Australia. Japanese attacks on shipping prevented any large-scale evacuation after 4 March. On the 8th the Dutch forces capitulated, and some RAF units were ordered to the Tasik Malaja airfield to await the arrival of the Japanese. Of the remainder many hid up in bush country near Garoet in the hope of evacuation. But although some got away in locally obtained craft and reached near enough to Australia to be picked up and taken on by flying boat, the majority were captured by the Japanese occupation forces over the next few weeks. Some were apprehended and handed over by Javanese native police; and some suffered beatings and other ill-treatment according to the whim of the page 167 commander of the Japanese unit in the area. A few, too, were given a fairly severe interrogation if they were suspected of being guerrillas or of knowing Air Force dispositions and plans. Soon after capture they were assembled in temporary camps at Garoet, Tasik Malaja, Tjilatjap, and other centres near the places of capture.