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Prisoners of War

III: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

III: Protection of the Interests of Prisoners of War and Civilians

There were signs in 1945 that the previous three years' negotiations with the Japanese authorities regarding prisoners might at last begin to bear fruit. In January the Swiss Minister in Tokyo was able to say that the notification of lists of prisoners had improved, and that he was continually receiving fresh lists of considerable size. The head of the Japanese Prisoner-of-War Information Bureau announced that he hoped to be able to make regular returns of camp strengths. The Imperial Prisoners of War Committee decided that Japan might be offered similar regular returns on a basis of strict reciprocity.

Similarly, a survey of mail to and from the Far East revealed that by February 1945 the position had greatly improved. In the summer of 1943, when the Arctic convoys had been suspended, a new route for forwarding mail to Moscow had been established through Persia. This became the normal route for all correspondence from New Zealand, as well as from Australia, South Africa and India, and for air mail from the United Kingdom. From Moscow it went on through Korea to Japan, air mail completing the journey in seven and a half weeks, and surface mail taking nearly twice as long. There were also signs that delivery to the prisoner-of-war camps in Japan had been speeded up, though there were still long delays in delivery to distant areas. The delivery in Japan of an accumulation of very old mail, and statements by Japanese officials that there was no objection to letters of one page in length,1 seemed to indicate that the Japanese had to some extent improved their censorship arrangements. But the Japanese still made censorship difficulties their excuse for not permitting a regular quota of outward letters or postcards from prisoners and civilian internees.

However, in view of the slowness of mails, the Japanese Government had proposed in late 1944 an exchange of telegrams through the International Red Cross Committee between prisoners of war in their hands and their next-of-kin. The scheme began in December, and by February 1945 completed forms were being sent to Geneva at the rate of 2000 a week; but Radio Japan proved unable to absorb more than 500 or so telegrams a day. And, though in three months some 40,000 British Commonwealth messages were received by the International Red Cross Committee and about 29,000 were retransmitted to Japan, by the end of April fewer than 200 had been received in the United Kingdom and only about sixty in Australia.

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The International Red Cross telegram scheme having proved disappointing, it was decided that broadcasting should become an officially recognised method of communicating with prisoners of war and internees in Japanese hands, and that it should be made available to next-of-kin through the Commonwealth. Previously it had been regarded as a danger to security, since it involved direct communication with the enemy and since the Japanese would certainly use it for transmitting propaganda. But the state of the war in 1945 had largely removed these objections. Broadcasts from Australia had begun in August 1944, under an arrangement with Japanese-controlled Batavia Radio for an exchange of messages between prisoners and their relatives in Australia. New Zealand was included under this scheme in early 1945. By May messages were being sent from Australia at the rate of 300 a week, and the scheme proved of considerable value in establishing contact with camps in southern areas increasingly cut off from seaborne mail.

During 1944 there had been some extension of the facilities for neutral inspectors to visit camps in Japan and in Hong Kong, and the Japanese authorities had granted visas for four more delegates of the International Red Cross Committee to proceed to the Far East. The Swiss Minister in Tokyo, however, considered that the Japanese would never allow neutral delegates to speak to prisoners without witnesses, and that it would be useless to make further representations on this matter.

Unfortunately, neither in their visits to camps nor in their other opportunities for negotiations with the Japanese authorities were these neutral agents able to accomplish very much. The Swiss Minister in Tokyo, after numerous representations concerning the dangerous location of certain prisoner-of-war camps, received the reply from the Japanese Foreign Minister that his Government was always careful to site these camps outside danger areas. The casualties at Non Pladuk and other camps on the Burma-Thailand railway mentioned in an earlier chapter were sufficient to disprove this statement. And there followed further bombing at camps in Japanese-occupied territory and, especially in 1945, in Japan itself. Moreover there was evidence in February 1945 that the Japanese were deliberately siting prisoner-of-war camps in order to protect vital targets. Although it was not possible on this account to divert air attacks from them, the Allied air forces received instructions to exercise all practicable care. Since the Japanese broadcast details of every such attack, the Allied authorities decided to publicise the facts in such a way as might influence the more responsible Japanese.

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1 A strict limit of 25 words had previously been imposed.