Conditions in the Far East camps were uniformly bad and the flagrant disregard of the Japanese for the provisions of the Geneva Convention resulted in much suffering and a severe degree of malnutrition. The following brief description of life in the numerous camps which spread from Nagasaki to Moji in the south island of Kyushu is illustrative of the camps in general. In the latter part of 1944, when the tide of the war was beginning to turn against the Japanese, all the line officers in these camps were evacuated to Manchuria, leaving them in charge of the medical and dental officers and a few fighting officers who were considered too weak to travel. By this time the health of the prisoners, as a result of the conditions under which they were living, was extremely poor. The long hours of work and the completely inadequate rations had reduced their morale to such an extent that their only concern was to keep themselves alive. It was agreed by most of the medical officers who were present in the camp when Japan capitulated, that another winter in captivity would have caused at least 50% more deaths.
The work done by the prisoners varied in different camps but the large majority worked in open cast mines, which was considered the hardest form of work. Others worked in shipyards, steel works and similar installations. Prisoners who arrived in Japan without being torpedoed had a certain amount of their own clothing; others were entirely dependent on the issue made to them by the Japanese, which consisted of old Japanese uniforms and shirts, which were too small. All these items were in a very dilapidated, louse contaminated condition and no boots were issued. The prisoners suffered great privation by this lack of adequate clothing and it was not until the late winter of 1944 that their discomfort was to a certain extent alleviated by an issue of British Army greatcoats.
The rations consisted mainly of poor quality rice mixed with millet and sweet potatoes or pickled vegetables. Hot water was the only beverage. In winter this meagre diet was supplemented by a vegetable stew made of cabbage tops and beans, but at all times the total calorific intake per day was well below that required for sedentary life standards. The medical officers were asked to compile lists of all prisoners who were suffering from phthisis or other severe illnesses, so that they could give them extra rations. When the lists were supplied, the Japanese erased the names from the ration strengths maintaining that since they were going to die in any case, it was useless to feed them. A medical officer with personal experience of these camps has recalled the desperate efforts which were made by the prisoners to provide some form of nourishment for the seriously ill among them. The husks of the unpolished rice which was issued as a ration were full of small worms, ladybirds and other small insects. When the rice was soaked these floated to the top, were skimmed off and boiled in clean water. The resulting liquid was strained and given to the sick as a kind of ersatz beef tea! The supply of medicines and drugs was negligible; five aspirin tablets, one bandage and ten vitamin tablets were issued daily for a camp of 450 prisoners of war. An American shaving cream known as ‘Barbisol’ which the Japanese issued for Christmas 1944 became the principal dressing for wounds and sores, which were bandaged, for the most part, with paper and pieces of rag.
All officers and sick personnel, with the exception of those lying in bed, who were mostly dying, were kept fully occupied. Two hours were spent every morning emptying into barrels the maggot ridden latrine contents, subsequently used as manure and other tasks consisted of scrubbing the floors, transporting the dead two miles for cremation and returning with the ashes, collecting the rations in hand carts and unloading them, building stores and fences and, towards the end of the war, constructing air raid shelters.
Inevitably the health and morale of the prisoners deteriorated. The chief physical disabilities from which they suffered were severe weight loss, oedema, right heart enlargement, retrobulbal neuritis and various types of avitaminosis dermatitis. Very few letters reached Japanese prisoners of war and it was considered that this, in some ways, was better from a psychological point of view, since the effect on those who did receive any mail made it obvious that personal reminders of home were, in the circumstances, detrimental to morale. Some of the prisoners had no inhibitions left and were resolved, should they ever get away from the camps, to make up for lost time as quickly as possible, an outlook which sometimes ended in subsequent disaster. Others became over inhibited and began to worry over the smallest detail which might prevent them from reaching home in full possession of their faculties.
Events on the Cessation of Hostilities in the Far East
There was little delay in repatriating prisoners of war from the European theatre, who were rapidly evacuated by air, but due to the greater distances involved and to certain other factors it was some time before the Far East prisoners reached the United Kingdom and the waiting period which elapsed had some bearing on their physical condition on arrival. The Japanese Government capitulated on the 15th August, 1945, but due to typhoons and the heavily mined coastal waters, it was not until approximately the 15th of September that the American forces were able to land in any strength. The task of caring for the prisoners during this interim period was an extremely difficult one for the medical officers.
The United States Air Force dropped advisers by parachute and after all the camps had been clearly marked with a large P.W. on the roof to indicate their position from the air, U.S. aircraft dropped supplies of food, clothing and medicine. (See Appendix A) The general deficiency of such things as proteins, fats, vitamins, the continued overwork and the gradual and almost complete lack of hope had produced patients whom it was extremely difficult to advise. The men were tired and hungry and heedless of discipline or advice, unless it suited them. They ate what they wanted, when they wanted. Included in the supplies dropped by air were large quantities of sweets and chocolates which the men ate avidly and this initial consumption of an excess of carbohydrates resulted in oedema in the majority of prisoners. Despite requests and warnings by the medical officers, the P.O.W.s began to explore the countryside, bringing back with them local food in the form of fowl, pigs and fresh eggs. Many of them also ignored warnings concerning the local Saki, an almost pure wood alcohol named after the Japanese rice wine. Numerous cases of blindness and peripheral neuritis, extending to paralysis, resulted from excessive consumption of this liquid.
Despite these initial excesses, however, the health of the prisoners generally improved in a remarkably rapid manner and the normal appetites satisfied, the sex appetites began to reappear. This led to a certain amount of venereal disease, mainly gonorrhea, and the medical officers in the camps used penicillin for the first time, with satisfactory results.
Medical Sorting and Evacuation of the P.O.W.s in Far East Camps
Japanese Camps. The most severely ill prisoners in the Japanese mainland were transferred at once to nearby Japanese hospitals and it was arranged that the American forces in Okinawa would send a fleet of aeroplanes to nearby airfields to convey the sick to the five general hospitals in Okinawa, which had been set up in preparation for the invasion of Japan. As the road communications in many parts of the country were very poor, the Japanese railway authorities were instructed to arrange for hospital trains to convey the sick to pre-arranged airfields, whence they were flown to Okinawa. Those prisoners who remained in the camp were examined by the P.O.W. medical officers and given various courses of treatment and diets appropriate to their particular cases.
The general evacuation of prisoners from Japan proper was arranged from Nagasaki and Yokahama by American Naval forces. On arrival at the ports of embarkation all personnel were stripped, given hot showers with plenty of carbolic soap, dried and completely sprayed with D.D.T. powder. All clothing was taken from them and destroyed, but they were allowed to retain personal possessions such as souvenirs provided that they had been thoroughly disinfected. Each man was then examined by an American Army doctor and his medical history was recorded. In this task the Americans were assisted by the P.O.W. doctors. The prisoners were divided into three categories:-
- a) Those who required immediate hospitalisation and treatment
- b) Those who required continued treatment and observation
- c) Those who were fit to proceed on ordinary naval vessels
Those in categories A and B were taken on board American hospital ships and the rest embarked for Okinawa, where they landed and were flown a few days later to Manila.
The British P.O.W.s were sent to a large camp about eleven miles from Manila, to await transportation to the United Kingdom via the United States and Canada. This camp, administered by the Australian Army authorities was well run, but the majority of the men found the three to four weeks delay very frustrating, particularly as it was extremely difficult, due to heavy traffic to get replies to cables sent to the United Kingdom. One prisoner received his first delivery of 22 cables on board the Queen Mary, one day out from New York.
The four weeks journey across the Pacific in R.N. aircraft carriers and American troop transports was, to many of the prisoners, a very beneficial convalescent period. Many of the original B cases were fit enough to join the A group at Manila and shared the advantages of the long sea voyage. The Red Cross, American, Canadian and British did everything they could to make this journey comfortable. Clothing, sweets, fruit, cigarettes and similar commodities were distributed at every port of call. The shortage of money, due to the restriction of the dollar allowance, was in some ways an advantage, as it curbed a natural tendency to excessive consumption of alcohol. The generosity which was encountered everywhere en route more than compensated for any financial difficulties.
Malaya and the Dutch East Indies
On the re-occupation of Singapore Island it was found that the P.O.W.s were free on the island and in many cases camps were partially deserted, the prisoners of war living with Chinese or in empty houses. It was not clear until the last moment whether or not the Japanese would oppose the landing, consequently the occupying forces had to give high priority to operational commitments and few definite arrangements could be made beforehand for the evacuation of the P.O.W.s. The problems which confronted the service authorities when planning the evacuation of prisoners were accentuated by the presence on the island of large numbers of civilian internees, men, women and children of many nationalities, all in need of assistance. Food and medical supplies from existing stocks were made available to both prisoners and internees, although it was found that the majority of the former were wandering all over Singapore Island obtaining what they needed from natives or allied troops.
The medical authorities made rapid arrangements for the more seriously ill prisoners of war to receive attention in civilian or service medical establishments, though the number needing immediate attention was fortunately small. A little later, with the re-occupation of the Dutch East Indies, considerable numbers of prisoners of war and internees from these islands were flown in by Dakota to Singapore. These included numbers of Gurkhas and Indians, who showed signs of gross undernourishment and ill-treatment at the hands of the Indonesian guards and required immediate hospitalisation.
All prisoners of war and internees, wherever possible, were given the opportunity to return to their native country by air or by sea. Transport difficulties were aggravated by the presence among their numbers of Dutch and Indian personnel. As transport by air was naturally limited, the majority travelled by sea. Initially a number of hospital ships of the occupying forces were available to convey the more seriously ill and the remainder travelled by transport, with a high priority. The decision to return the majority of prisoners by sea proved to be a wise one, since the long sea voyage with plenty of good food, rest and sunshine resulted in their arrival in the United Kingdom in a greatly improved condition.