Far East Prisoners of War: A Beginner’s Q&A

The “Bridge on the River Kwai” today, courtesy of Yvonne van der Meij
The “Bridge on the River Kwai” today, courtesy of Yvonne van der Meij

What do you mean by “Far East Prisoners of War”?

How did these soldiers come to be prisoners of the Japanese?

Why was Japan so intent on conquest in Southeast Asia?

Where did the imprisoned soldiers come from?

Where were imprisoned soldiers held?

Weren’t many Japanese soldiers imprisoned by the Allies as well?

What were some of the problems encountered by FEPOWs?

Why were conditions so bad?

How did FEPOWs cope with their situation?

What’s the Siam-Burma Railway, and how were FEPOWs involved?

Where does The Bridge on the River Kwai get in there?

What happened at the end of the war?

What were some of the long-term effects for the FEPOWs and their societies?

History is littered with atrocities. Why is this one worth remembering?

I’m only going to read one book about this. What should it be?

OK, so I’ll do more than read one book. What should I seek out?

What do you mean by “Far East Prisoners of War”?
Broadly, anyone from the Allied forces in the Second World War who was a prisoner of war of the Japanese, either in Japan itself or anywhere in the Pacific theatre of war. However, this specific term tends to be used less for Americans and Canadians than for soldiers from other English-speaking countries. The organisation FEPOW advocated for veterans in Great Britain in the decades following the war.

The Japanese also imprisoned many Allied civilians and impressed or imprisoned an untold number of locals in China, Malaya, Burma, etc., but the word is not used for them.

How did these soldiers come to be prisoners of the Japanese?
There’s a case to be made that World War II actually started in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria. But Japan was not officially at war with Western countries and their allies until December 7/8, 1941. On that day,* in one stunning offensive, Japan attacked both America’s Pearl Harbor and the British colony of Malaya. The “island fortress” of Singapore, the seat of British colonial Asia outside of India, is at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Though Singapore was heavily defended against invasion by sea, it was inadequately prepared for invaders coming down the peninsula. By the following month, Allied forces in Singapore were isolated and struggling with dwindling supplies, food and personnel. England was understandably preoccupied with her war in Europe and was unable to send sufficient aid. A parallel crisis was taking place on the islands of Java and Sumatra. These were Dutch colonies, but English-speaking forces had also been directed there to shore them up against Japanese invasion. On February 15, 1942, General Percival, the British commander, surrendered Malaya and Singapore to his opponent General Yamashita. In April 1942, Java and Sumatra also fell to Japan. A total of something like 140,000 Allied soldiers became prisoners.

*International Date Line. Effectively all happened at once. Amazing strategy by the Japanese.

Why was Japan so intent on conquest in Southeast Asia?
The home islands of Japan lack many natural resources necessary for both industry and warmaking. Tin and rubber, especially, were essentially nonexistent in Japan and common in Malaya. More importantly, the ultimate Japanese aim was to chase the British and other colonial powers from India, England’s “jewel in the crown.” Their rallying cry demanded Asia for Asians, a laudable goal…on paper. European colonialism in Asia had a brutal, unjust history, to put it mildly, and the colonies were long overdue for self-determination. The Japanese occupiers, however, often treated other Asians as badly as the Europeans had done.

Where did the imprisoned soldiers come from?
Those for whom the term FEPOW is used came primarily from England and Australia. Some were of English or Australian background but had lived in Malaya or India. Others, especially in Java and Sumatra, were from the Netherlands. There were also a handful of South Africans, Canadians and Americans. (Again, many Americans and other Allies were held elsewhere by the Japanese–especially in the Philippines following the infamous Bataan Death March–but that’s not the bit of geography discussed here.) Since England had been at war since 1939, the Far East was a second deployment for many of the British soldiers.

Another group worth noting here were Korean soldiers working as prison camp guards. Korea had been ruled by Japan since 1910 and its young men relegated to cannon fodder or other lowly functions. Many of the day-to-day authorities encountered by the English-speaking FEPOWs were Korean, not Japanese–and it’s a safe bet that most of them didn’t want to be there any more than the POWs did.

Where were imprisoned soldiers held?
In Singapore, the POWs were initially concentrated in very large camps in the city center, particularly Changi. This remained the largest camp throughout the war. In Java, the main POW camp was at Tanjong Priok near Batavia (present-day Jakarta). Once the Japanese began to use POWs as labour, camps were thrown up in numerous locations between Singapore and Moulmein in Burma. Notable ones include Ban Pong in Thailand, the southern base camp for the Siam-Burma Railway; the major railway-building centers of Kanchanaburi (or “Kanburi”) and Tamarkan in Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat in Burma, the northern base camp for the railway. Kanchanaburi is today the site of the main museum dedicated to the railway and the FEPOW experience. Tamarkan is the location associated with the railway’s most culturally familiar symbol, the “Bridge on the River Kwai.” Other prison camps were scattered throughout the Pacific theatre, from Taiwan to Guam to Japan itself. Here, have a map.

Weren’t many Japanese soldiers imprisoned by the Allies as well?
The ethos among Allied soldiers encouraged them to live to fight another day. Japanese warrior culture, in contrast, took seriously a code of honour or death. Japanese soldiers were intensely shamed if they surrendered. The Allies therefore did take Japanese prisoners, but in much smaller numbers.

This cultural difference had a major impact on how POWs were treated. Japanese officialdom considered Allied prisoners as honourless as they would their own men who surrendered. The guards were therefore not required to show respect to their Allied prisoners.

We should also remember the appalling and unconstitutional internment of Japanese-Americans in the United States. But that’s not the focus at the moment.

What were some of the problems encountered by FEPOWs?
Starvation tormented nearly everyone in every Pacific POW camp. In Singapore especially, the surrender happened partly because rations were already few and far between. In most locations the Japanese supplied white rice in barely sufficient quantities and other foodstuffs even more sparingly. Prisoners who knew the region and its edible plants had a real advantage. In Thailand and elsewhere, locals conducted black-market trade with prisoners for duck eggs and other precious protein sources. Still, hunger was a daily occurrence.

Similarly, medical supplies and even clothing were sparse. The tropical climate was not kind to fabric or anything perishable. Monsoon rains for several months a year destroyed supplies and reduced morale.

Most prison camps were rickety affairs built mostly from bamboo and palm leaves. Water supplies were difficult and sanitation a constant nightmare. The Japanese weren’t concerned when fences in the far-flung camps were flimsy; escape into the surrounding rainforest almost guaranteed a nasty death. Those who tried to escape and were caught were tortured and executed.

Diseases of malnutrition and crowding such as beri-beri or dysentery took a constant toll. Mosquitoes were unavoidable, and malaria was rife. Some locations suffered huge fatalities from cholera. And any minor wound could fester into a tropical ulcer, requiring surgery–frequently amputation–or killing the victim.

Late in 1942, the Japanese administration began systematically to use Allied soldiers for labour. This varied from stevedore work with supply ships or trains to major projects such as airfields or, especially, the Siam-Burma Railway. For starved, sick men, pitiless hard work took an even greater toll.

On the books, the POWs were paid a pittance, but in effect they were slaves. They were having almost the same experience as a vastly larger number of Malays, Tamils, Burmese, Thais, and other non-Japanese Asians who were impressed into service for the Japanese. The FEPOWs, however, had some supplies, some skilled officers, doctors and other support personnel, as well as hope that someday the war would end and they’d go home. The Asian labourers–called romusha–had none of these. They died in horrific numbers.

The attitude of guards and commandants ran the gamut from disciplined yet respectful to sadistic. While not every guard was cruel, guards were seldom held to account for mistreating POWs.

The numbers tell the tale: about four percent of Allied prisoners in German or Italian hands died in captivity. For prisoners of the Japanese, the percentage was more than one in four.

Why were conditions so bad?
Because Japanese military culture banned surrender, the Japanese administration was surprised by the number of prisoners suddenly on their hands in 1942. Hastily assembled bureaucracies weren’t prepared to cope with food and other necessaries. Supply lines for the Japanese themselves were stretched to the limit and pounded by the Allies; in many places Japanese soldiers were simply told to forage or steal. Overall, Japanese military culture expected its rank and file to toughen up against violence and maltreatment from their own officers, so even less consideration was given to prisoners.

How did FEPOWs cope with their situation?
The resourcefulness of the FEPOWs is one of the most staggering and inspiring aspects of their story–as is the case with prisoners, refugees, and the very poor throughout history. Men created clothes, shoes, cooking gear, surgical equipment, cigarettes, tools, even artificial limbs out of incredibly limited resources. Skills or crafts that made a moderate living at home saved lives in the Far East.

Especially in the larger and slightly better equipped camps like Singapore’s Changi, sport and the arts provided pastime and outlet for the prisoners. Their numbers included men who had been professional cricketers or footballers at home. Teams and leagues were organised and, when hunger prevented strenuous play, old games could be retold and debated. Singers, dancers, actors and writers also became FEPOWs and used their talents to put together recreations of West End musicals or original entertainments. Despite a Japanese ban on documentation of their plight, visual artists drew or painted a wide range of images. The work of Ronald Searle (later a bestselling cartoonist/illustrator), Jack Chalker, and Des Bettany were just three of the artists whose pictures are worth a thousand words.

FEPOWs were often lucky in their doctors, who worked tirelessly to treat the very ill or injured and also encouraged better sanitation and other practices in the camps. The Australian Dr. E.E. “Weary” Dunlop was rightly a hero to his men. Armed forces chaplains also rose to most occasions, providing the comforts of religion not only in words and ritual but also in direct aid to the sick and troubled. The beautiful chapel at Tanjong Priok combined the best of FEPOW art and spirituality–and featured a tough-looking Winston Churchill as the British lion.

What’s the Siam-Burma Railway, and how were FEPOWs involved?
By 1942, there were stretches of railway in Thailand* and in Burma, but assorted engineers had concluded over the years that the terrain made it impossible to connect them. However, with ocean shipping under fire by the Allies and India as the ultimate goal, Japan decided to throw its large supply of slave labour at the problem. POWs and romusha labourers were transported up the line from Singapore and the Indonesian camps to a base camp in Thailand and thence to smaller, even less commodious work camps strung out from there into Burma. Here, have a map.

At the railway camps, Japanese engineers directed prisoners and labourers to clear trees, cut passes through rock, lay sleepers, and build bridges over the mighty Mae Khlong river and its tributaries including the Kwae Noi (the “River Kwai”). The workers were given handheld tools, plus explosives to cut through rock. Sometimes elephants with local mahouts worked on the sites. The workday lasted at least from dawn to dusk, and during 1943 the Japanese instigated the “speedo” period, demanding even longer shifts with less rest, care, and food. Given the strain on men already starved and ill, it is remarkable that the railway was officially completed in October 1943. Long-term, however, it still proved folly: the haste of the construction (not to mention deliberate sabotage by workers) and constant bombardment by the Royal Air Force meant the railway was never of much use to the Japanese. Today the rainforest has swallowed much of the line. Only a few short sections are used today.

*Siam changed its name to Thailand in 1939. During the war most English speakers still referred to it as Siam, hence “the Siam-Burma Railway.” Thailand has never been conquered by an outside power. Its wartime government collaborated with the Japanese to avoid conquest and permitted them to build the railway through Thai territory.

Where does The Bridge on the River Kwai get in there?
The River Kwai is a branch of the main river the railway ran along. Various parts of the railway had to cross it. Pierre Boulle, a writer who served as a French spy in Asia in the war, published the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1952.* It was David Lean’s hit 1957 film, though, that fixed the most common images of the railway in the public mind. While an outstanding work of cinema, Lean’s project portrays many howling inaccuracies and was much criticised by former FEPOWs. By all means see the film, but don’t take it as gospel.

*Eleven years later he, er, topped it with The Planet of the Apes.

What happened at the end of the war?
As the Allies closed in on them, the Japanese moved many prisoners from the Southeast Asia camps to ones in more securely held territory. This could involve terrifying and dangerous voyages by sea in what were rightly called “hellships.” In the Japanese home islands, POWs were used as industrial labour or in mining.

Many FEPOW survivors and many researchers maintain that official Japanese policy would have massacred all the remaining Allied POWs if Allied forces invaded the Japanese homeland or if the war stretched on much longer.

Wherever they were, the ordeal of the Far East Prisoners of War began to end when news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reached their guards in mid-August 1945. In many camps, the guards simply departed, leaving British, Australian, and Dutch officers to regroup as best they could. Having had no trustworthy news for years, the soldiers were delighted to hear that Hitler had been defeated back in April. Allied forces quickly organised succor for their lost troops, with food and clothing drops and visits from medical personnel beginning the long process of reclamation. Most of those trapped in Singapore, Java, Thailand, and Japan got home to England, Australia or elsewhere between October and December 1945. They had been prisoners for 3 1/2 years, and some hadn’t been home in six.

What were some of the long-term effects for the FEPOWs and their societies?
Responses to returning FEPOWs were mixed. Although family members were over the moon to have their son, brother, husband or father back, they were given little assistance in adjusting to someone who had been through battle and traumatic deprivation. In addition, the British government quietly instructed returning FEPOWs not to discuss the politics of their suffering. Stressing the defeat in Singapore reflected badly on the British army, and officialdom desired a good trade relationship with Japan.

Former FEPOWs also had ongoing health struggles including the legacies of malnutrition, recurring malaria, and missing limbs. While quite a few former FEPOWs died early from ailments stemming from their imprisonment, a wonderful number are still living and thriving today, into their 90s. Here’s a brief address by one of them, Maurice Naylor, at a conference devoted to studying this piece of history.

As with all veterans and their families, some thrived, some coped, and some fell apart. Many remained understandably bitter against the Japanese, refusing throughout their lives to buy, for instance, a Japanese-made television. At the other extreme, Eric Lomax, who had been tortured by the Japanese secret police, publicly forgave and made a friend of his persecutor. Throughout, the former FEPOWs had each other, forming what we’d now call support groups and finding comfort in veterans’ gatherings where others understood what they’d gone through.

Elsewhere, the defeat of the old empires by the Japanese did indeed contribute, in the long term, to independence for what are now the countries Malaysia and Indonesia, among others.

History is littered with atrocities. Why is this one worth remembering?
Historian Edward Gibbon said, “The history of empires is the history of human misery.” At the beginning of the 20th century, Britain and the Netherlands ruled their vast colonies with iron fists. When they surrendered in Asia, a sort of historical karma put a boot on the neck of the nationalities that had always worn the boots before.

Of course, the actual sufferers were in no way at fault for the many crimes of colonialism. That they were caught in the middle was tragic. As soldiers, they signed up for some form of hardship–but not the sort they ultimately endured. Studying the ways these privileged (by world standards) people coped with the loss of almost everything provides a unique look at human nature and at the 20th century as a whole.

The prison camps themselves were also an accidental social experiment, with men from different places, classes, backgrounds, and ranks torn apart and remixed based only on the Japanese demand for workers. The assorted nationalities sometimes collaborated well and sometimes resented each other, with the British characterized as snobs, the Australians as undisciplined, the Americans as petty thieves, and so on. But all found some kind of common ground, if only in their hatred of their captors! In many cases, officers reserved privileges to themselves–and in others they laid down their lives for their men. Sometimes men abandoned each other, but more often they carried those who could no longer walk. Over and over, they endured beyond anyone’s expectations.

Often the Allied story of World War II is told as a straight line of triumph. It is worth remembering the times when it wasn’t. It is worth remembering the soldiers’ struggles in conditions their own governments’ policies had so often visited upon other peoples. And it is worth remembering human suffering, whenever and wherever it happens, if it moves us to greater understanding of humanity in both its cruelties and its compassion.

I’m only going to read one book about this. What should it be?
One excellent overall history: Brian MacArthur’s Surviving the Sword

One excellent memoir: Ian Denys Peek’s One-Fourteenth of an Elephant

OK, so I’ll do more than read one book. What should I seek out?

Click here for a quick list of books, films, and web resources related to the Far East Prisoners of War.

Spot an inaccuracy in this article? It’s an honest mistake, I promise. Drop me a line and I’ll do my best to correct it.

3 thoughts on “Far East Prisoners of War: A Beginner’s Q&A

  1. Well written and like you have said well worth rembering. Well done. I am a novice at writing about the subject close to my heart I have learnt a lot from your blog thank you most grateful for connecting with you.

    Like

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