Episodes & Studies Volume 1
Food and Health
Food and Health
The life of a prisoner of war, whether in the Far East, Italy, or Germany, centred around food. Universally throughout the Japanese prisoner-of-war or internment camps food progressively deteriorated both in quantity and quality as the war went on. Some of the blame for this may be laid at the door of the war situation: Japanese supplies (Japan itself consumes more rice than it grows) were disrupted by the successful attacks of Allied submarines and bombers on Japanese shipping. In a small internment camp in Japan an elderly nun, otherwise well treated, remarked that the internees, though short of food, were better fed than the mass of the Japanese people. On the other hand, in almost every camp plenty of food could be produced during the few weeks following the capitulation when the Japanese were desperately trying to redeem themselves, and at this time, too, Red Cross parcels, some of which had been so long in store that their contents had gone mouldy, were issued. Few Japanese prisoners of war had more than two parcels issued to them during more than three years, and then often they received only a page 27 fractional share of a parcel. Many camps, however, benefited by Red Cross purchases in bulk. The guards extensively plundered Red Cross supplies, both of food and medicines.
The staple diet was rice and vegetables. The rice would be served with traces of sugar, with pickles or vegetables (often only sweet-potato tops or some pale variety of melon), and occasionally with shreds of meat or of fish. Vegetable soup was also commonly served. In some areas, including Japan, the rice might have barley or other grain mixed with it.* Quantities were almost invariably short, the shortages roughly corresponding to the laziness or black-market opportunities of the Japanese quartermasters. Even when the quantity was nearly enough to give men the illusion of fullness, the deficiency in vitamins began to make itself felt after six months. Although many men caught such tropical diseases as malaria, dengue, or dysentery, the chief disease, immeasurably increasing the deadliness of all the others, was slow starvation. It was malnutrition which killed most of the victims of the Japanese, and to a large extent it was calculated malnutrition. The food bought by the prisoners with their own funds, or gifts to them, were taken into account by the Japanese. It was apparently their policy to keep their captives below normal—something below their own low standard, that is—so that they would be less likely to give trouble, and, moreover, might disembarrass their captors of their presence altogether.
Prisoners of war were paid, supposedly, at the same rates as corresponding ranks in the Japanese forces. Officers received what would have been substantial amounts but for the Japanese habit of ‘banking’ a part on their behalf and deducting a sum to cover the cost of their ‘keep’. After contributing half or more of the balance to funds for the sick and for other ranks, an officer did not command more than the equivalent of £1 a month. Other ranks who worked were paid on a scale that gave them about 15s a month. At first in nearly all camps there were canteen supplies— usually local fruit and vegetables—and the Japanese took a percentage of the canteen profits. In the last year inflation in all the countries controlled by Japan made money of very little value.
In Hong Kong, in 1943 and 1944, the daily ration was 500 grammes of rice and beans, but in 1945 it had dropped to 350 grammes. Rations everywhere declined in about the same ratio as at Hong Kong. Dogs, rats, lizards, and snakes were all eaten. In 1945, in the Sime Road civil internment camp at Singapore, a snail farm was instituted. Prisoners of war and internees realised the protective value of certain foods. At Hong Kong soya beans, eggs, and synthetic vitamin B1 were bought in small quantities, the usual preference to the sick being given in the distribution. There, too, men ate green swamp weed or garlic, when they could get it, not for nourishment but to check skin diseases.
It is true that some had needs even sharper than food. Some men at times bartered their rations for cigarettes, a form of trading aptly described as ‘polite cannibalism’.
The doctors did magnificent work among the prisoners and internees. Rarely were they given any substantial assistance by the enemy: on the other hand, there were numerous cases of deliberate obstruction. Some of the doctors performed amputations and other operations with razor blades, with meat saws, with a piece of sharpened hoop-iron. In Burma the ingenuity of a Dutch chemist supplied a local anaesthetic concocted from jungle plants. In many camps a little copper sulphate, used in the treatment of tropical ulcers, was the sole medicament supplied, even though other drugs had been provided by the Red Cross. One of the most bitter revelations of the capitulation was the large stock of drugs held in store by the Japanese which would have saved the lives of many prisoners. The only occasions when the Japanese showed any solicitude for the health of their prisoners was when epidemics were threatening. Once a man was sick, his chances of survival were further reduced because of the smaller rations given to those who did not work. Also, it was difficult to get men who were ill to touch rice.
The civilians interned in Singapore had a diet of about 2000 calories a day to begin with, since during the first two years about 25 per cent more food was available in addition to the Japanese rations. But there were fluctuations and more than one period of crisis. In 1945 the diet had sunk by May to 1500 calories, and it was impossible to work the same hours daily. The death rate was low for the conditions: 18 in 100 during the whole time of internment. This was attributed to the fact that so many of the men working in Malaya had passed stiff medical tests before taking up their appointments. Moreover, in a camp community health measures could be enforced. The shortage of medicines (the Japanese did supply a proportion of the drugs asked for) was offset by the knowledge and skill of the 100 doctors in the camp, many of them specialists. And the circumstances of their internment eliminated two causes of illness—over-eating and over-drinking.page 29
The effects of malnutrition were widespread. Men with legs swollen from the effects of beriberi or with hideous tropical ulcers, which often resulted in amputation or death, were common sights in all camps. And ‘once a man was a victim of beriberi work held no pleasure …. to drag one foot after another was an effort’. It was a common thing for prisoners and internees to sink in weight from 12 stone to 8 stone, or less. In internment camps only a few of the children, for whom the grown-ups made great sacrifices, were not noticeably affected.
Many prisoners noticed two common effects of malnutrition—dimmed eyesight and unreliable memory. Long after release many still feel physical effects, particularly a tendency to tire easily. Others have confessed to nervous symptoms resulting from their captivity—hatred of crowds, exaggerated shyness, extreme sensibility (to the point of weeping at the cinema).
* In Japan itself the proportion of rice to its substitutes (millet, barley, maize, and soya bean) in the prisoners’ diet was often very low.