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Conditions 

The treatment received, as was to prove the case many times afterwards, depended very much on where and when one was held and by whom. This ranged from the just acceptable to the wholly unacceptable which included extraordinarily cruel beatings, deprivation and even death.  Generally, the further one was from good supply routes, the nearer to the front line, the greater the strategic importance of the project, the greater the difficulty in returning the POWs to a main centre, the greater was the probability that one would not survive.

Initially the Japanese were ill prepared for such numbers and any available holding centre was used. Some, the cinema in Serang which held 1500, mainly Australians, for 5 weeks as one example, were wholly inadequate for the purpose with poor food, no medical supplies and humiliating treatment by the Japanese. The malnutrition, sickness and death that resulted were only a taste of what was to come. In many cases later, upon arrival at their prison camp, the POWs’ first task was to build their own huts.

One theme through all the camps, particularly as they came fully under Imperial Japanese Army Regulations was the Japanese tradition of senior ranks inflicting physical punishment on more junior ranks. A command was issued which allowed the recipient to prepare himself and offer his face to be slapped, often sufficient to knock out teeth. Apart from beatings, more serious crimes allowed the guilty to commit suicide, with the most serious attracting death, usually by beheading.

This seems to have been originally introduced as a way of maintaining discipline in the Japanese army which had increased 5-fold since the turn of the century. The fear created ensured immediate, unquestioning, compliance with orders. This, coupled with the extreme conformity of Japanese life, ensured a dedication to the Emperor that was absolute.

This discipline also applied to POWs who received anything from a face slapping to beatings with bamboo canes and in the worst cases beating with staves or sledgehammers until death resulted. “Bashings” or beatings were an aspect of captivity remembered and dreaded by all POWs and could be inflicted for the most minor of offences. Such behaviour was alien to Allied Forces and deeply shocking.

A major incident occurred soon after the Fall of Singapore when POWs refused to sign a document promising not to escape. All were herded into the compound at Selarang under atrocious conditions. After several days, when the risk of an epidemic became real, officers agreed to the signing to avoid widespread deaths. This “no escape” contract was extracted from POWs, often under grievous threat, in many locations.

The Japanese made it clear from the beginning that escapees would be executed and this proved to be the case on many occasions. The likelihood of a successful escape was very small indeed.

Not all Japanese showed this brutality, but only a minority treated the POWs as required by the Geneva Convention. Naval and Air Force personnel had a generally better record. It is equally clear that some Japanese, and representatives of client countries, went far beyond the requirements of Army discipline by inflicting wanton, sadistic punishment on sick and defenceless POWs. It is clear also that Bushido, that had ensured respect for POWs taken during earlier conflicts, had been forgotten. It was only later in the war that worldwide criticism of Japanese treatment of POWs had any impact on their treatment, and then only in a few cases.

Throughout the period of captivity, few Red Cross parcels were delivered to POWs, and shortage of medical supplies became a death warrant for many. There is evidence that the Japanese variously used supplies themselves, sold them to the local population or inexplicably stored them for the future.

Conditions in POW camps near large centres of population were somewhat better. In those camps, nutrition was better if not adequate, medical facilities, although basic, mostly served the purpose and the other needs of life were met. Concert halls, sometimes libraries, gardens to supplement diet, and churches were built. Despite the brutality, POWs were allowed to follow their religious beliefs when conditions permitted. Although discipline was harsh and the food poor, at least the chance of survival was greater. (Pictures taken from The Churches of the Captivity in Malaya by Rev. J N Lewis Bryan MA)

By contrast, conditions in distant work camps in the jungle or remote islands were often truly appalling. For those weakened by malnutrition, dysentery, cholera, malaria, dengue fever, beri beri and maltreatment, the future was precarious. Any insect bite could become rapidly infected, leading to jungle sores which took flesh and bone. Treatment for this was often crude, gouging out the decaying flesh with a metal spoon or similar, but at least it saved many amputations. Those that were required were usually carried out without anaesthetic.

Thousands died from malnutrition, disease and being worked beyond the limits of human endurance. Others were simply massacred when they had fulfilled their task.

POWs were in principle paid for their labour, but when it was paid, it was little and in any case in the jungle, what could be bought? Many officers refused manual work citing the need to preserve some of the military discipline within their units. This was often bitterly resented by the other ranks who had to work in appalling conditions. In some cases, officer work battalions were set up making this unavoidable and in others, officers took part in work gangs to prevent the chronically sick being forced to work.

POW camps, often built next to obvious military targets, but again unmarked, led to many more unnecessary deaths due to Allied bombing. It is believed there were nearly 250 camps in SE Asia with a further 91 in Japan.

Overall, among the main groups of POWs, British, Australian and American, it is estimated that approximately one in three perished. The mortality rate among the Dutch was somewhat less, probably a reflection of the fact that they were generally acclimatised to local conditions and were more aware of how to survive off the land.

In comparison, deaths among POWs in German POW camps were less than 4%.                                                                                                Top