POW Overview

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Overall description of the Japanese Prison Camp system -- Number of camps, different types, unusual locations

Over 500 Japanese POW camps and civilian internment camps stretched from Rangoon (Burma-Myanmar) down through Malaya, Singapore, Sumatra, across Indonesia (NEI) as far east as Rabaul in the Solomon Islands. Hundreds of camps stretched north through the Celebes, Borneo, the Philippines, Hainan Island, Taiwan and Korea.

In Japan alone, over 160 POW slave labor camps existed at the time of surrender. Camps were located in many areas of mainland China including notorious camps in the Hong Kong and Shanghai areas. Prisoners were used mainly for mining coal, ore, ship building, airfield construction and military defense bunkers. The most notorious were a camp in Palawan (massacre of 150 Yanks), Sandakan where 2,200 died in a forced march (Borneo), and a series of camps along the Burma-Thailand Death Railway where an estimated 15,000 Allied POWS perished, along with almost 180,000 civilians impressed into slavery.

During the Japanese occupation of the NEI, two large groups of people were deprived of their freedom: prisoners-of-war and detained civilians. These groups ended up in different camps. Both groups consisted of considerable numbers of people, many more than the Japanese had expected and the allies had expected at the liberation. It has been calculated that 42,233 European servicemen in the Indies had become prisoners-of-war: 3,847 servicemen of the Royal Dutch Navy, 36,869 of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) and 3,847 servicemen of the KNIL auxiliary corps.

Around 8,200 of them lost their lives, about one out of every five. Besides, many native servicemen of the KNIL fell into the hands of the Japanese army, of course. The Javanese and Sundanese were soon set free, but most of the Menadoese, Amboinese and Timorese, the Christian natives were held. Except on Borneo, most prisoners-of-war did not stay on the islands where they were captured, but were transported elsewhere, especially to be put to work.

The number of civilians interned by the Japanese is estimated to have been 125,000. The largest group concerned civilians from the Netherlands East Indies. According to Dr. D. van Velden (from whose book "The Japanese camps for civilians" a lot of information has been taken) 96,300 civilians ended up in Japanese camps; 13,120 (13.6%) succumbed. During the war the Japanese reported to the Red Cross that there were 98,000 detainees, of whom 16,800 died (17%). Though the precise figures are not known, we may assume that about 100,000 civilians from the Indies were in Japanese camps, of whom one in six died.

The Burma-Thailand Death Railway - Lives lost and percentages of total POWs

3,098 Dutch (19%)
6,904 English (29%)
2,646 Australians (31%)
131 American (23%)
180,000 Asiatic (90%)
Source: Dutch National War Memorial Museum

Overall description of the POWs - Number of Americans, other nationalities

Americans: 36,260 Military of whom 13,381 died as POWS (38.2%) plus 13,996 civilians of whom 1536 died (11%) [American Ex POW Assn]
Australians: 21,000+ Military of whom 8031 died as POWS (39%) [AWM)
British: 50,000+ Military of who 12,433 died as POWS (25%) plus over 25,000 Indian troops (death rate unknown) [IWM]
Dutch: 100,000+ Military of whom an estimated 25% perished
Civilians: Estimated 250,000 Dutch civilians and other westerners in the Netherlands East Indies. Civilian death rate estimated at 15%.
Thirteen ships were sunk while transporting 15,712 POWs from Southeast Asia to Japan. Some of the ships sunk had no survivors. An estimated 10,720 prisoners died on these unmarked Hell Ships on the way to Japan.
A quick look at the State of Residence for POWs (that we have determined so far) shows the Top 5 States as: California, Texas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, New York, and Illinois.

Description of living conditions inside the camps

In general, the accommodations were of two distinct structures: In the tropic areas, barracks were made of bamboo with Atap leaves for roofing material. Barracks generally held 100 men and were 20 feet wide and 100 feet long with double platforms running down both sides of the interior. Each man slept lived in his assigned 2 foot wide space. In the northern climes, e.g., Japan, they barracks were typical for the Japanese army and had similar interior arrangements. The exteriors were simply clapboard or stucco with tile roofs. Insulation was unknown. Rarely was heat allowed inside the POW barracks.

First, blankets made from shredded wood, rarely provided the protection needed against the winter chill. Lice and voracious bed bugs were extant in almost every camp, augmented by swarms of blue-bottle flies and mosquitoes in the summers. Most barracks had dirt floors that become muddy and fouled as a result of severe dysentery.

Historical characters in Japanese govt. that were responsible for prison camps

First, and foremost, was General Hideki Tojo who made the decision to use the prisoners as expendable slaves and was responsible for the policy to "Kill All the Prisoners" upon invasion of the homelands or imminent danger. Each POW considered their immediate camp commandant as the most notorious -- however, a few stand out as horrific.

Second, in the pantheon of evil, would be Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma who deliberately chose to ignore the plight of the POWS captured in the Philippines. At the Nichols Field (Pasay) POW Camp was the Japanese Camp commander, Naval Lieutenant Sato, a thug called "The White Angel." This brutal and sadistic officer always appeared in a spotless white uniform and delighted in abusing, torturing and often executing American POWS whenever he had the whim. In Osaka was Colonel Murata who delighted in humiliating prisoners in front of civilians and authorized the theft of prisoner's Red Cross packages.

Third was Shiro Ishii, the commander of the Unit 731 Medical Experimental Operations in China. He personally directed the mass murder of civilians to test poisonous chemicals, plagues and vivisection upon living patients. He was never tried for his crimes.

Elements of Japanese military culture that was reflected in the running of the camps

As a hierarchal society, all owing fealty to the Emperor, each person believed that anyone "above them in rank" could give them orders "in the name of the Emperor." Mythical powers of the Samurai were inculcated into the military, to wit, surrender was the ultimate disgrace. Ergo, every POW was the lowest and vilest person in existence.

Unit 731 - character and significance of this unit

Unit 731, headquartered in Harbin China, was created to develop chemical and biological weaponry. Experiments included replacing blood with anti-freeze, developing flea borne plagues, surgery practice for future combat medic by use of live, conscious prisoners deliberately shot for these training exercises. Anesthesia was rarely used. These medical experiments were also practiced in other camps in the Osaka, Kobe and Tokyo area camps.

Story of Terence Kirk and his secret camera

Simply stated, Kirk colluded with a Christian Japanese guard to obtain glass photographic plates, created a pin-hole camera, and took pictures of his fellow starving prisoners in the Fukuoka #3 (Yahata) POW camp. Believing all POWs in this camp would die, he hoped that these plates would be found to prove the horrific treatment of the POWS.

Background of the "gag order" surrounding the telling of POW histories

The origin in clouded but the requests stem from the prior decision of FDR to keep from the public, the suffering of the POWS under the Japanese. Escaped prisoners (Dyess from Cabanatuan) had revealed the horrific treatments in early 1943. FDR wanted nothing to divert the public's attention from the forthcoming campaigns in Europe. Many -- not all -- rescued POWS were instructed to sign a sheets promising not to talk about what happened to them. In some rare instances, some men were contacted by FBI agents when they arrived home and told "not to talk" or they would face a life time at Leavenworth Prison. No satisfactory explanation has been found for this policy during the post war years except to prevent early revelation of evidence used in the War Crimes Trials.

Acquisition and use of evidence (affidavits, other) of the POWs at the Tokyo war crimes trials

Each prisoner, upon rescue, was required to complete a 5"x7" identification card and an affidavit in response to a series of written questions. The latter became the basis to determine -- in general -- where war crimes were committed. Certain men were selected to expand their affidavits and to describe in detail their "witness" to a war crime. These became the basic elements of the charges levied against thousands of Japanese criminals. (We have many many examples.)

Probable First and Final POWs Captured by the Japanese

Japan had invaded North Malaya and also occupied the international settlement in Shanghai even before Pearl Harbor was bombed. The HMS Peterel (crew of 21) was sunk 2 hours after Pearl was attacked. Right after that, the USS Wake (crew of 14) was ordered to surrender. Then the SS President Harrison (156 total) was sunk and those on board were interned.

We do have a page on William Bowden who was purportedly the "first Allied airman captured by the Japanese" on Dec. 8, 1941, when his plane crashed in the Gulf of Siam.

The final prisoners taken is harder to track, but probably they were airmen downed during air raids on mainland Japan. Below is from Toru Fukubayashi's data:

Aug. 10, 1945, a Firefly operating out of Royal Navy’s carrier Indefatigable, while attacking Koriyama Airfield, had one wing of the plane shot off by AA fire and crashed in the rice paddy in Nishikawa, Nishibukuro-mura, Iwase-gun (present Sukagawa-shi), Fukushima-ken. Sub-Lt. Burn F. O’NEILL and Sub-Lt. Thomas I. DAEBY bailed out and landed on a rice paddy. They were taken prisoners and sent to the Tohoku A/D HQ in Sendai-shi via Sukagawa Kempei Tai and Koriyama Kempei Tai. They were transferred to Omori POW Camp in Tokyo on Aug. 17 after the war, and returned to New Zealand.

Aug. 10, 1945, TBF (#JZ136) operating out of Royal Navy’s carrier Implacable made a forced landing in the field near the Kamimata railway station in Takine-mura, Tamura-gun, (present Takine-cho, Tamura-shi), Fukushima-ken. Lt. Victor H. SPENCE and Petty Officer Jack ROGERSON got out of the plane and ran into the mountains, but were found 2 days later near Kawauchi-mura, Futaba-gun and surrounded by the members of the civil defense corps and captured. They were handed over to the Japanese army soldiers and sent to Tohoku A/D HQ in Sendai-shi on the following day. They were transferred to Omori POW Camp in Tokyo on Aug. 17 after the war, and returned to the UK.

Aug. 10, 1945, F4U operating out of USS Hancock (CV-19) was hit by AA fire while attacking Obanazawa Airfield, and made a forced landing in the brush in Fukubara-mura, Kitamurayama-gun (present Obanazawa-shi), Yamagata-ken. Ens. John W. PETERSON was captured by the villagers, and sent to the Tohoku A/D HQ in Sendai-shi. He was transferred to Omori POW Camp in Tokyo on Aug. 17 after the war, and returned to the US.

Aug. 14, 1945, P-47 (507FG, 465SQ) was attacked by 2 Japanese fighters (Hien?) and was afire while patrolling along the coast of Kyushu, and crashed into the sea. 2/Lt. William L. McDaniel bailed out and was taken prisoner. He was sent to Seibu A/D HQ in Fukuoka and executed by beheading at Aburayama on the following day.  Aug. 14, 1945, TBM (#69272, Bennington CV-20) crashed in Tokyo Bay, while attacking Shibaura factory. Lt.(jg) Lee M. PASLEY and ARM2/c John M. McCARTHY were taken prisoners, and sent to Navy Ofuna POW Camp, whence they returned to the US after the war.

Aug. 15, 1945, Seefire (HMS Indefatigable) engaged in a dogfight with a Zeke piloted by SFPO Kaoru TAMURA scrambled out of Mobara Naval Airbase ended in a tie, and the seafire crashed in a rice paddy in Naganuma, Satsubo, Nishi-mura, Chosei-gun (present Chonan-cho), Chiba-ken. Sub-Lt. Fred HOCKLAY bailed out and landed on Obuta, Higashi-mura, Chosei-gun. He was taken prisoner by civil defense guards and turned over to a training unit stationing at Higashimura primary school. After the Emperor’s broadcast on termination of the war at noon, he was taken, by two-wheeled cart, to Myoshouji temple in Iwai, Mutsuzawa-cho, where a small unit of 426 Reg. was stationed, then to Ichinomiya primary school in Ichinomiya-cho, where 426 Inf. Reg. HQ was stationed. After dark, he was taken to the mountains south of Ichinomiya-shi urban area, and executed.

Japan and the Geneva Convention

A very enlightening chapter from the Judgment for the International Military Tribunal for the Far East.
Japan Agreed to Apply the Geneva Convention, 1929

The Secretary of State of the United States directed the American Legation in Switzerland, on 18 December 1941, to request the Government of Switzerland to inform the Japanese Government that the Government of the United States intended to abide by the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention and the Geneva Red Cross Convention, both of which had been signed on 27 July 1929, that it further intended to extend and apply the provisions of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention ot any civilian enemy aliens that it might intern, that it hoped that the Japanese Government would apply the provisions of these conventions reciprocally as indicated, and that the Government of the United States would appreciate an expression of intention by the Japanese Government in that respect. The inquiry was delivered to the Japanese Foreign Minister TOGO on 27 December 1941 by the Minister for Switzerland.

The Governments of Great Britain and the Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand also inquired through the Argentine Ambassador in Tokyo on 3 January 1942. In that inquiry, those Governments said that they would observe the terms of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention of 1929 towards Japan and asked if the Japanese Government was prepared to make a similar declaration.

On 5 January 1942, the Argentine Ambassador delivered another note on behalf of Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, proposing that in the application of Articles 11 and 12 of the Convention relating to the provision of food and clothing to prisoners, both parties take into consideration the national and racial customs of the prisoners.

Upon receipt of these inquiries, TOGO called upon the War Ministry, Navy Ministry, Ministry for Home Affairs, and Ministry of Overseas Affairs for their opinion. At that time, TOJO was concurrently Prime Minister and War Minister; MUTO was Chief of the Military Affairs Bureau of the War Ministry; SATO was MUTO's assistant in the MIlitary affairs Bureau, KIMURA was Vice-Minister of War; SHIMADA was Navy Minister; OKA was Chief of the Naval Affairs Bureau in the Naval Ministry; and HOSHINO was Chief Secretary of the Cabinet.

TOGO was concerned for the safety of the Japanese living in Allied countries, and for that reason desired to give a favorable answer to the inquiries and so instructed the Bureau of Treaties, pointing out that the fate of Japanese residents amounting to several hundred thousands, in the enemy countries would be affected by the treatment by Japan of the prisoners of war and civilian internees who might be in her power. The War Ministry agreed with TOGO. On 23 January 1942, KIMURA told TOGO: "In view of the fact that the Geneva Convention relating to prisoners of war was not ratified by His Majesty, we can hardly announce our observance of the same. But it would be safe to notify the world that we have no objection to acting in accordance with the Convention in the treatment of prisoners of war. As regards providing prisoners of war with food and clothing, we have no objection to giving due consideration to the national or racial habits and customs of the prisoners."

TOGO answered the American and British inquiries on 29 January 1942. His note to the Government of the United States read as follows: "Japan strictly observes the Geneva Convention of July 27, 1929, relative to the Red Cross, as a signatory of that Convention. The Imperial Government has not yet ratified the Convention relating to treatment of prisoners of war of 27 July 1929. It is therefore not bound by the said Convention. nevertheless it will apply 'mutatis mutandis' the provisions of that Convention to American prisoners of war in its power." The note addressed to the Governments of Great Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand on the same date was as follows: "The Imperial Government has not ratified the agreement concerning the treatment of prisoners of war dated 27 July 1929, and therefore, it would not be bound to any extent by the said agreement, but would apply 'mutatis mutandis' the provisions of the said agreement toward the British, Canadian, Australian and New Xealand prisoners of war under Japanese control. The Imperial Government would consider the national and racial manners and customs under reciprocal conditions when supplying clothing and provisions to prisoners of war." The same assurances were given to the other Allied Powers.

As the War Ministry had not agreed to extend these provisions to civilian internees, TOGO, through his Vice-Minister, inquired of the War Ministry on 27 January 1942, regarding the application of the Prisoner of War Convention to non-combatant internees. After conferences, the War Ministry acquiesced further in TOGO's plan to protect Japanese nationals in Allied countries, and on 6 February 1942 KIMURA told TOGO: "The 1929 Convention relating to prisoners of war has no binding power whatsoever on Japan. But this Ministry has no objection to applying the principles of the Convention to non-combatant internees within such limits as it is applicable, provided, however, that no person be subjected to labor against his will."

TOGO informed the Government of the United States on 13 February 1942 that, "The Imperial Government will apply for the duration of the war under conditions of reciprocity the provisions of the Convention relating to treatment of prisoners of war of 27 July 1929 to enemy civilian internees, in so far as they are applicable and provided that they are not made to work without their consent."

Taking note of the assurance TOGO had addressed the British countries on 29 January 1942 that Japan would take into consideration the national and racial customs of the prisoners of war in supplying them with clothing and provisions, the United Stats addressed another inquiry on that subject. That inquiry was dated 20 February 1942, and stated that the Government of the United States would be bound by the same provisions for prisoners of war as for civilian internees in conformity with Articles 11 and 12 of the Geneva Convention and expected in consequence that the Japanese Government would equally conform to those provisions in the treatment of prisoners of war and civilian internees. TOGO answered this inquiry on 2 March 1942, in the following manner: "The Imperial Government intends to take into consideration, with regard to provisions and clothing to be distributed, the racial and national customs of American prisoners of war and civilian internees placed under Japanese power."

This exchange of assurances constituted a solemn agreement binding the Government of Japan as well as the Governments of the other combatants to apply the provisions of the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention of 27 July 1929 to prisoners of war and civilian internees alike, to take into consideration the national and racial customs of those prisoners and internees when supplying them with food and clothing as required by that Convention, and not to force internees to work. The agreement provided that the Convention was to be applied in a spirit of reciprocity, that is to say equally by both sides, each performing in kind and in return for that done by the other. The only exception to this rule established by the agreement were such as might be justified under the reservation "mutatis mutandis". That the agreement did not allow an exception to be made by reason of conflict with the municipal law of Japan is plain upon construction and is shown by TOGO's testimony as follows: "The inquiries from the United States and Britain were therefore referred in the normal course by the Foreign Ministry Treaty Bureau, which managed such matters, to the War Ministry, as the ministry empowered to decide the question. The answer which came back was that we should undertake to apply the terms of the Geneva Convention mutatis mutandis', and it was therefore so replied to the Governments inquiring.

"Although the prosecution seems to consider that by the giving of this answer Japan became bound by the Convention to the same extent as if she had ratified it, I assumed (and still assume) that we were binding ourselves only to apply to Convention so far as circumstances permitted. 'Mutatis mutandis', then, I supposed to imply that in the absence of serious hindrances the Convention would be applied; I assumed also (although this was only assumption on my part) that where the requirements of the Convention came into conflict with the provisions of domestic law, the former would prevail." The Director of the Bureau of Treaties, who conducted the conferences with the other Ministries regarding the answer to be given the Allied inquiries, further confirmed this.

Although when it was made, the members of the TOJO Cabinet intended that the Allied Powers should understand the agreement as we have interpreted it, they did not abide by the agreement. Instead is was used as a means to secure good treatment for Japanese who might become prisoners of war or be interned by the Allied Powers. When Vice-Minister KIMURA answered TOGO's request for his opinion regarding the answer to be made to the Allied inquiries, he said that "it would be safe to notify the world" that Japan would observe the Convention, but he prefaced that statement with the remark that the Government could hardly afford to announce an intention to observe the Convention in view of the fact that the Emperor had not ratified it. The successive Japanese governments did not enforce the Convention, for although the Ministers of State considered these assurances to the Allies to be a promise to perform new and additional duties for the benefit of prisoners of war and internees, they never issued any new orders or instructions to their officers in charge of prisoners of war and internees to carry this new promise into execution and never set up any system which secured performance of the promise. Instead of making an effort to perform this agreement, they made efforts to conceal from the Allies their guilty non-performance by denying access to the prisoner of war and internee camps; by limiting the length, contents and number of letters which a prisoner or internee might mail; by suppressing all news regarding such prisoners and internees; and by neglecting to answer or by making false answers to protests and inquiries addressed to them regarding the treatment of prisoners and internees.

Reference has been made in an earlier part of this judgment to the effect of the various conventions in relation to the treatment of prisoners of war and civilian internees and to the obligations of belligerents in that respect. Whatever view may be taken of the assurance or undertaking of the Japanese Government to comply with the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention "mutatis mutandis, the fact remains that under the customary rules of war, acknowledged by all civilized nations, all prisoners of war and civilian internees must be given humane treatment. It is the grossly inhumane treatment by the Japanese military forces as referred to in this part of the judgment that is particularly reprehensible and criminal. A person guilty of such inhumanities cannot escape punishment on the plea that he or his government is not bound by any particular convention. The general principles of the law exist independently of the said conventions. The conventions merely reaffirm the pre-existing law and prescribe detailed provisions for its application.

As to the effect of the undertaking by the Japanese Government to observe the convention "mutatis mutandis", counsel for the Defence submitted, inter alia, that the insufficiency of food and medical supplies in many of the instances established was due to disorganization and lack of transport facilities resulting from the Allied offensives. Whatever merit that argument has in its narrow application, it loses effect in face of the proof that the Allied Powers proposed to the Japanese Government that they should send, for distribution among prisoners of war and internees, the necessary supplies; which offer was refused by the Japanese Government.

It is not necessary to enter into a precise definition of the condition "mutatis mutandis", for at no stage in the defence was anything said or even suggested to the effect that these words justified the atrocities and other grossly inhumane acts of Japanese forces, nor was it argued that these words could justify the looting, pillaging and arson which as been clearly established. On those points, the accused who gave evidence, for the most part, did no more than plead complete ignorance of the happenings deposed to.

Any interpretation placed on the condition which attempted to justify the atrocities would amount to nothing more than a submission that by the insertion of the words "mutatis mutandis" the Japanese military forces would be permitted with impunity to behave with gross barbarity under the guise of complying with a Convention which prescribed humane treatment as its cardinal principle. Such a submission could not be accepted.