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Prisoners of War

IV: Relief Supplies for the Far East

IV: Relief Supplies for the Far East

Reports from the International Red Cross Committee on prisoner-of-war camps in Japan, received in London up to early 1943, showed that the ration issued by the Japanese authorities was ‘insufficient in energy value for a man doing anything but light work’. It was, moreover, ‘deficient in first class [animal] protein, fat, calcium, vitamin A and vitamin B’.3 Information gleaned from other Japanese occupied areas indicated that the ration of prisoners of war held there was even worse. This seriously deficient diet had created the conditions for the onset of many diseases resulting from malnutrition and for the weakening of resistance to other diseases normally encountered in those climates. In these circumstances and on the advice of the British Army medical authorities, first priority

3 Minutes of Imperial Prisoners of War Committee, Sub-Committee B.

page 354 in the despatch of relief supplies was given to drugs and dressings and second priority to concentrated foods such as dried meat, powdered whole milk, cheese and butter.

The problem of relief in the Far East resolved itself into finding ways of delivering the goods into the hands of the appropriate Japanese authorities and reaching agreement with them on their distribution to camps. From December 1941 until almost the end of the war, attempts were made to co-ordinate the arrangements necessary for a regular relief service by sea, either by deposit at and collection from a neutral port under safe-conduct or by delivery in Japanese waters on a neutral ship. In 1944 the Allied authorities had stored a considerable quantity of relief supplies at Vladivostok, and in November of that year the Hakusan Maru collected 2000 tons, which were distributed to areas containing prisoner-of-war camps in Japan and Japanese-occupied territory. But the Awa Maru, one of the ships carrying out the distribution in the southern occupied areas, was torpedoed on her return journey in April 1945, and thereafter Japanese co-operation in this field, such as it had been, came to a standstill.

Apart from this single voyage of the Hakusan Maru to the Siberian seaboard,1 the ships used in the two civilian exchange operations of 1942 and 1943 were the only means by which relief supplies for Allied prisoners of war and internees were able to reach the Far East.2 Little time was allowed for the loading of the exchange ships at Lourenço Marques in 1942, and of the 7000 tons of supplies gathered together from the Commonwealth under the supervision of the South African Red Cross Society, only 4000 tons could be loaded. At Goa in 1943, however, it was possible to load a large quantity of urgently needed drugs and other medical supplies. These three despatches spread over the whole war period allowed only a very thin distribution of relief goods to the 300,000 Allied nationals estimated to be in Japanese hands.3

There is plenty of evidence, too, that this distribution was far from satisfactory. Some packages were received damaged and incomplete; others had deteriorated through long storage at their

1 The actual port of call was Nakhodka, adjacent to Vladivostok.

2 Some packets of vitamins were sent by post via the Soviet Union and had been received in Japan at the beginning of 1945.

3 The International Red Cross Committee estimate that during these exchanges the following quantities of goods were brought back by Japanese ships:

Exchange of August-September 1942

  • Asama Maru 6993 parcels (to Japan)
  • Tatura Maru 48,818 parcels (to Singapore)
  • Kamakura Maru 47,710 parcels (32,940 to Hong Kong)

Exchange of October 1943

They estimate the total number of parcels received by the Japanese for distribution at 225,000.

page 355 destination. Very considerable quantities of food and essential drugs were even found to be still in stock at the time of the liberation. As might have been expected, the International Red Cross Committee had the greatest difficulty in obtaining satisfactory receipts showing that the prisoners or internees had taken possession of the goods.
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Colour map diagram


It has been possible since the end of hostilities to gain some idea of how much prisoners and internees actually received over the whole war period. New Zealand prisoners in Japan seem to have received an average of four to five food parcels, except those in Zentsuji who received anything up to twenty parcels. Prisoners and civilians in China and Hong Kong also received about four to five parcels, in addition to a certain amount of bulk food which was used to augment the camp meals. Prisoners and civilians in Singapore received a fraction of a food parcel (sometimes as low as one-sixteenth) on three occasions, as well as bulk food. Those who were transferred to Thailand received during their stay there a fraction (anything up to one-seventeenth) on one occasion, in 1944. Prisoners in Java and Sumatra received fractions of a parcel on two occasions; civilians, a tiny fraction on one occasion. The men who went to Macassar received nothing at all.

It was fortunate that in some at least of the areas of the Far East where prisoners of war and internees were held, the Japanese permitted the local purchase of food and to a smaller extent of medicines. Once the pay of officer prisoners had been agreed upon, this provided an important source of camp funds for such purchases, and part of it was usually contributed towards a fund for other ranks1 if they happened to be, as at Hong Kong, in a separate camp located in the same area. But, with the progress of the war, local currencies became greatly inflated and the prices of goods so high that in 1944 and 1945 these funds could not be made to go far.2

As early as March 1942 the delegate of the International Red Cross in Japan, foreseeing the difficulties in the way of Japan agreeing to regular relief shipments, asked to be supplied with funds for the local purchase of necessities. This was the beginning of the arrangements made by the British Government and the British Red Cross for the provision of large amounts of cash to representatives of the Protecting Power and to delegates of the International Red Cross Committee in the areas of the Far East where British Commonwealth nationals were held. The Japanese

1 Working other ranks received between 10 and 30 sen a day according to the type of work.

2 A New Zealand naval officer in Shamshuipo, Hong Kong, reports that in 1944 his monthly pay of 110 yen would buy only one tin of golden syrup.

page 356 were reluctant to allow this money to be spent on behalf of prisoners of war, as they considered that the latter were supplied with everything they needed. Prisoners of war working in Thailand on the railway had to be supplied by a clandestine organisation operating from Bangkok and at first financed from private funds. Medical supplies, eggs, chickens, fruit, soap, and cigarettes all found their way into some of the camps on the railway, in the face of Japanese opposition,1 through the good offices of a small group of civilians in Bangkok and various intermediaries, all of whom ran a great personal risk. In October 1943 the Swiss Consul at Bangkok was officially allowed to send relief supplies to prisoner-of-war camps, and by late 1944 he was spending on behalf of the British authorities some £11,500 a quarter, as well as about £900 a week as pocket-money for prisoners to buy food on the spot.

Similar arrangements were made in other areas. In 1943 British authorities sent instalments of £10,000 to Singapore, increased in 1944 to £18,000. Hong Kong received as much as £10,000 a month, increased in 1944 to £15,000 a month. But of the latter only 25 per cent could be spent on behalf of prisoners of war in the area, and in Singapore as little as two per cent of the funds provided. It was not until 1944 that the Japanese would allow funds to be provided in the Dutch East Indies. A factor which may have contributed to Japanese complaisance in this matter as the war progressed was the fact that transfers of funds to the Far East had to be made in Swiss francs, and such transfers gave the Japanese Government additional badly needed European currency. Britain, on the other hand, had the greatest difficulty in finding Swiss currency, since not only did the vast sums required use up her reserves, but in time of war she was unable to supply Switzerland with the goods necessary to rebuild a credit. The authorities concerned realised that this would create post-war penury in respect of Swiss currency, but as this was the only means of regularly sending relief to British nationals in the Far East, who were in dire need of it, it was felt that the sacrifice was worth the consequences and the risk from the point of view of economic warfare justified.

1 The Japanese allowed only the Catholic Mission to give relief on a small scale to prisoners there.