Britain’s Forgotten Front: What Was Life Like in Japanese POW Camps? | History Hit

Britain’s Forgotten Front: What Was Life Like in Japanese POW Camps?

Prisoners at work on the Burma-Thailand railway, nicknamed the 'Railway of Death' by many for the high number of fatalities amongst those who built it.
Image Credit: Creative Commons

Britain’s war in the Far East is often forgotten in popular discourse surrounding World War Two. The British Empire held colonies in Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma and Malaya, so Japan’s programme of imperial expansion affected Britain as much as other nations in the region. In December 1941, Japan launched aggressive offensives on British territory, occupying several key areas.

As they did so, Japan captured just under 200,000 British soldiers, taking them prisoner. Viewing surrender as a fate virtually worse than death, the Imperial Japanese Army kept prisoners of war (POWs) in dire conditions for many years, forcing them to complete gruelling construction projects. Thousands died. But this aspect of Britain’s war effort is scarcely remembered in many wartime commemorations.

Here’s an overview of what life was like for British POWs in East Asia.

Imperial Japan

Imperial Japan viewed surrender as deeply dishonourable. As such, those who did surrender were seen as undeserving of respect and were treated, on occasion, as virtually sub-human. Having never ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War, Japan refused to treat POWs in accordance with international agreements or understandings.

Instead, prisoners were subjected to a grim programme of forced labour, medical experimentation, virtually unimaginable violence and starvation rations. Mortality rates for Allied POWs in Japanese camps was 27%, 7 times that of those held in POW camps by the Germans and Italians. At the end of the war, Tokyo ordered all remaining POWs to be killed. Fortunately, this was never carried out.

A map of Japanese POW camps in East and Southeast Asia operational during World War Two.

Image Credit: Medical Research Committee of American Ex-Prisoners of War, Inc. Research and proof of authenticity by Frances Worthington Lipe / CC

Hell ships

Once Japan had captured British territories and soldiers, they began the process of transporting their prisoners by sea to Japanese strongholds. Prisoners were transported on what became known as hell ships, crammed into cargo holds like cattle, where many suffered from starvation, malnutrition, asphyxiation and disease.

Because the ships also carried Japanese troops and cargo, they were legally allowed to be targeted and bombed by Allied forces: multiple hell ships were sunk by Allied torpedoes. Overcrowding and a complete lack of care for prisoners meant that the death rates of ships sunk were particularly high: the sinking of hell ships resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 Allied POWs.

In the darkest hours of World War 2, thousands of men from Burma (now Myanmar) gave their lives fighting a brutal war for Britain against the Japanese, and to carry out the most successful guerrilla campaign of the war. Now only a handful of veterans remain - will they get the recognition they deserve before it's too late? One determined band of Brits are in a battle against time to make sure they do.
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Tropical climates and disease

Japanese POW camps were located across East and Southeast Asia, all in tropical climates to which many British soldiers were not acclimatised. Dirty water, meagre rations (a cup of boiled rice a day in some cases) and gruelling schedules of hard labour, combined with a high likelihood of contracting dysentery or malaria, saw men become reduced to virtual skeletons in a matter of months. Tropical ulcers, which could develop from a mere scratch, were also greatly feared.

POWs who survived described a great sense of togetherness amongst men. They looked after each other. Those who had any medical knowledge were in demand, and those good with their hands fashioned artificial legs for men who had lost parts of their limbs to tropical ulcers, accidents or war.

Australian and Dutch prisoners of war at Tarsau in Thailand, 1943. The four men are suffering from beriberi, a deficiency of vitamin B1.

Image Credit: Australian War Memorial / Public Domain

The Death Railway

One of the most famous projects British POWs were forced to undertake was the building of the Siam-Burma railway. Considered by the British to be too difficult to build for decades thanks to arduous terrain, Imperial Japan decided it was a project worth pursuing as overland access would mean there was no need to complete a hazardous 2,000km sea journey around the Malay peninsula.

Stretching over 250 miles through dense jungle, the railway was completed ahead of schedule in October 1943. However, it was completed at a huge cost: roughly half of the civilian labourers and 20% of Allied POWs who worked on the railway died in the process. Many suffered from malnutrition, exhaustion and an assortment of grim tropical diseases.

Dan talks to Dr Bill Frankland, a 106 year old veteran of World War Two who lived through a Japanese prisoner of war camp and who also made important contributions to our understanding of allergies.
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The Selarang barracks incident

Changi Prison in Singapore was one of the more infamous POW facilities run by the Japanese. Originally built by the British, it was grossly overcrowded, and Japanese officials tried to get those arriving in the already overrun facility to sign a pledge not to escape. All but 3 POWs refused: they believed it was their duty to try and escape.

Furious at the display of insubordination, Japanese generals ordered all 17,000 prisoners to file into the Selarang Barracks every day: with virtually no running water, gross overcrowding and a lack of sanitation, it was a hellish experience. After several days, dysentery was rife and the weaker men began to die.

Eventually, the prisoners realised they would have to sign: the Japanese would not back down. Using false names (many Japanese soldiers did not know the English alphabet), they signed the ‘No Escape’ document, but not before 4 prisoners were executed by the Japanese.

A forgotten return

Group photograph of liberated POWs left behind by the retreating Japanese in Rangoon, 3 May 1945.

Image Credit: Imperial War Museum / Public Domain

VJ Day (the surrender of Japan) took place several months after VE Day (Nazi Germany’s surrender), and it took several more months for Allied prisoners of war to be released and return back home. By the time they arrived back, celebrations for the end of the war were long forgotten.

No one at home, even those who had fought on the Western Front, fully understood what those in the Far East had been through, and many struggled to talk about their experiences to their friends and family. Many ex-POWs formed social clubs, such as the London Far East Prisoner of War Social Club, where they spoke about their experiences and shared memories. Over 50% of POWs held in the Far East joined a club in their lifetime – a remarkably high number compared to other veterans.

Japanese officials were found guilty of numerous war crimes in the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and further war crimes trial across Southeast and East Asia: they were punished in accordance with their crimes, with some subject to execution or life imprisonment.

The Imperial Japanese occupation of Hong Kong began on 25 December 1941, and lasted until Japan surrendered at the end of World War Two. Joining Dan on the podcast is Barbara Sowerby, who was born in Hong Kong in 1936 to an English father and Portuguese mother. Aged just five years old, Barbara’s happy childhood would change when her family were amongst the fleeing civilians caught and imprisoned by the Imperial Japanese Army. Barbara shares the remarkable story of her time as a child prisoner of war. This episode is dedicated to Barbara’s late husband Keith Sowerby. Keith detailed the remarkable story of Barbara’s early life and had hoped, before his passing, to publish a book of this extraordinary account.
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