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Prisoners of War

III: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

III: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

In their negotiations with the Japanese through neutral channels, the Allied authorities never ceased trying to obtain from them full information concerning the Allied nationals in their hands, regular facilities for the sending of relief supplies and mail, and permission for neutral inspectors to visit prisoner-of-war and internment camps. In spite of repeated requests for the regular forwarding of complete lists, not only of captures but of transfers and casualties, the Japanese never appear to have set up an organisation capable of dealing even with the notifications of capture of the 300,000 Allied nationals in their hands. The first British lists did not come through until May 1942; by January 1943 less than a quarter had been notified, and by September 1943 only 65 per cent of the British prisoners of war and only 20 per cent of the civilians. On the average New Zealand page 351 next-of-kin waited 18 months for the first news of their prisoner or internee relative; and the news even then was often only a card or a message over the Japanese-controlled radio. News of those held in the Dutch East Indies seems to have been withheld the longest.

The Japanese were similarly indifferent about mail. Besides that sent on exchange ships, mail for prisoners of war in the Far East was by July 1942 being transported across Russia to her Pacific seaboard and thence to Japan, under an agreement reached with the Soviet Government. The distribution of this mail among the prisoner-of-war and internment camps in Japan and Japanese-occupied territory was slow and haphazard. Censorship was a prime difficulty in the way of prompt delivery: piles of uncensored mail were found in some Japanese camp offices on liberation, and it seems probable that some was destroyed to avoid the work involved in censorship. The amount of mail received varied greatly and almost inexplicably. One New Zealander who worked on the BurmaThailand railway received 126 letters, another only three. Prisoners in Japan on the whole fared better, especially those at Zentsuji (where one man received 80 letters), than men in the Dutch East Indies where the number seldom reached double figures. New Zealanders at Macassar received no mail at all. The average number of cards which the Japanese allowed to be sent out was from four to five for the whole period of captivity, and only some of these reached their destinations. Again those at Macassar fared worst: they were each allowed to write one letter only, which was not despatched but read out, often in a mutilated fashion, during a broadcast from Radio Tokyo.

While the attitude of the Japanese authorities regarding prisoners' mail seems to have been one of indifference, their attitude regarding visits to prisoner-of-war and internment camps was much more positive. In the first place they refused for the greater part of the war to recognise, except in Japan, Shanghai and Hong Kong, the right of representatives of the Protecting Power and the International Red Cross Committee to pay visits of inspection. The result of this was that International Red Cross Committee delegates were able to visit only 43 camps and Protecting Power representatives only 31,1 whereas there were at the end of the war 102 camps in Japan, Formosa, Korea, and Manchuria alone. Moreover, for most of the war period it was estimated that some nine-tenths of the 300,000 Allied prisoners and civilians in Japanese hands were held in occupied territories, south of a line running roughly from Rangoon to the northern Philippines, in which not only were inspections of camps forbidden but no relief action of any kind could be undertaken without express permission from the Japanese

1 Visits were allowed for the first time in March 1942.

page 352 authorities. Only in 1944 were the agent of the International Red Cross Committee in Singapore and the Swiss Consul in Bangkok able to work openly and effectively as distributors of Red Cross relief supplies.

Some ex-prisoners of war and internees have directly or implicitly criticised the neutral representatives who were able to visit camps, on the grounds that they accomplished nothing with the Japanese authorities. It should be mentioned that they had the greatest difficulty in obtaining the necessary permits for each visit, that during the visit they had to refrain from all reference to humanitarian texts in order not to anger the Japanese authorities, and that the latter always regarded them with suspicion and ill-will. The report of the International Red Cross Committee gives the best idea of how the visits were conducted:

The duration of the visit of the camps was generally restricted to two hours, made up of one for conversation with the camp commandant, thirty minutes for visiting quarters, and thirty minutes for an interview, in the presence of the Japanese officers of the camp, with a camp leader appointed by them. No communication with the other prisoners was authorized, and negotiations undertaken with the object of altering this state of things were not successful. The camp commandants often refused to reply to questions put to them.1

A camp leader who openly criticised conditions and treatment was liable to be beaten after the departure of the visitor, and recourse was had sometimes to the passing of messages while shaking hands in order to convey the true situation. In 1943, when the International Red Cross agent in Singapore complained to a senior military official concerning his continued non-recognition, he was arrested and interrogated by the Japanese military police as a suspected spy. These men had no assurance that the Japanese would respect the persons of neutral nationals any more than they did those of the nationals of enemy countries. By taking too aggressive a stand they would have run a great personal risk and would probably at the same time have jeopardized what scant opportunities for relief work they had.

Negotiations with the Japanese for an exchange of sick and wounded prisoners of war produced no result, but those for an exchange of civilians made possible two repatriation operations, one in 1942 and the other in 1943. As early as February 1942 proposals had been made to the Japanese by the British Commonwealth and United States governments for an exchange of civilian officials, together with a certain number of non-officials. For Japanese from various parts of the Commonwealth there were to be exchanged Commonwealth civilians who wished to leave China, Japan, Thai-

1 Report of the International Committee of the Red Cross on its activities during the Second World War, Vol. I, p. 451.

page 353 land, and Indo-China.1 By July the details of the agreement with the Japanese had been finalised for the exchange to take place at Lourenço Marques, in Portuguese East Africa. In late August the Asama Maru reached Lourenço Marques with some 800 civilians from Japan, South-East Asia and the Philippines, and within the following fortnight the Tatura Maru and the Kamakura Maru arrived with a further 1000-odd from occupied China.2 Besides returning with Japanese officials and other civilians, these ships carried back mail and relief supplies for Allied nationals held by the Japanese.

The Allied governments began negotiations for a second exchange almost immediately, but only the United States and Canada succeeded in reaching an agreement with the Japanese authorities. In September and October 1943 several hundred Americans and Canadians, including a number from Hong Kong, walked with relief from the Teia Maru on to the Gripsholm at Marmagao in Portuguese India. They expressed their thankfulness for having escaped from the semi-starvation of their internment camps, as well as their anxiety for the health of those they had left behind in Japanese custody. The information they provided gave urgency to the question of further exchange agreements, but in spite of unceasing negotiation, this draft was destined to be the last to be repatriated from Japanese custody until the liberation of the Philippines in February 1945.

1 The categories of civilians included in the lists submitted to the Japanese were: people imprisoned by the Japanese, people compelled to miss evacuation in the national interest, experts and technicians, missionaries, wives and families of the above categories, together with other women and children, the aged and infirm. These categories had equal priority.

2 There were 13 New Zealanders in this contingent. No civilians were exchanged from territories occupied after 7 December 1941, which included Hong Kong, Malaya, and the Dutch Indies.