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Prisoners of War

IV: Relief Supplies for the Far East

IV: Relief Supplies for the Far East

At the end of December 1941 the British Red Cross had made tentative plans for the shipment to British nationals in the Far East of relief supplies similar to those regularly despatched to Europe. It was proposed to send a neutral ship with supplies obtained in Australia and New Zealand from an Australian port, and the International Red Cross Committee was asked to try to organise a shipping line. By February the food supplies2 had been arranged and a neutral ship was ready to sail as soon as the Japanese should supply a safe conduct. All the negotiations for the use of ‘Red Cross ships’, however, fell through, and the Japanese refused to allow relief supplies to come by any other means than on the exchange ships bringing back Japanese diplomatic personnel. There was nothing left but for the British Red Cross to arrange to have as much food and medical supplies at Lourenço Marques as the ship returning to Japanese territory would carry.

The value of such large and well-selected consignments when and if they eventually reached the prisoners made it worth while to send them, but the immediate problems in the camps requiring urgent relief, some idea of which has been given earlier in this chapter, had to be met as best they could by those on the spot. page 187 The work of the neutral committee of the World Alliance of YMCAs in Tokyo in supplying recreational material has already been mentioned. But when the International Red Cross Committee's delegate in Shanghai tried to organise a relief service for prisoners of war at the beginning of 1942 he was flatly refused, the Japanese authorities claiming that the prisoners ‘lacked nothing’. He was able to organise supplies, however, through the local residents. The first relief for those in Hong Kong had to be organised in the same way, since it was May before Dr Egle from Shanghai was allowed to visit Hong Kong, and no permanent delegate arrived until June. The delegate at Singapore was informed at first that the services of a representative of the International Red Cross Committee were not required either for prisoners of war or civilians; and the supply of relief there also had to be organised privately. In the Philippines, in the Dutch East Indies and in Borneo, the same conditions applied: the Japanese refused to recognise delegates and neutral officials, and anything that was done had to be informal and indirect. It was always hoped that in time these restrictions would be relaxed. But the course of the war was to make the Japanese more suspicious than ever of foreigners and to make work on behalf of prisoners and internees a source of personal danger to those who attempted it. Moreover the inflated prices which resulted from the Japanese occupation made it more and more difficult to finance the private purchase of relief.

* * * * *

The rise of Japan to be one of the great powers of the twentieth century resulted from her wholesale adoption of the technology and many of the social and political institutions of the West. The fact that she had emerged from centuries of isolation less than a hundred years before emphasized the almost miraculous speed with which she had adapted Western ideas to her own needs, and showed that such a people possessed at least the intelligence and industry of Europeans. Her military technique had been proved efficient, and her industrial products, if not always considered so durable, were convincing reproductions of their European counterparts. It was tempting to draw the conclusion that she had become completely ‘westernised’ in outlook. Her interest in Red Cross matters seemed indicative of a humanitarianism analogous to that of the West. Even the horrifying events of the ‘China incident’ tended to be regarded as exceptional to a war between two Asiatic peoples with a long tradition of mutual antagonism, and not as a warning of what might happen in hostilities between Japan and a Western power. Public opinion was quite unprepared for the type of outlook created among the men of the Japanese armed forces by their Samurai training.

page 188

The traditions of the Imperial Japanese Army established the principle that the military honour of a soldier forbade his surrender to the enemy; and the military regulations promulgated by the Japanese Minister of War in January 1942 reaffirmed the idea and made it enforceable. The training manual of each branch of the service contained the paragraph: ‘Those becoming prisoners of war will suffer the death penalty’. Combat instructions found in a captured notebook contained the following advice:

When you are temporarily knocked unconscious by a blow and fall into enemy hands, quickly attack, escape, or commit suicide.

When you faint due to wounds quickly commit suicide the moment consciousness is regained.

When a Japanese soldier left his family to join a combatant unit a farewell ceremony was carried out in accordance with funeral rites; and after his departure he was regarded by his family as dead unless he should return as a conqueror. Since notification of his capture involved disgrace for his family, few captured Japanese desired it.

In view of these considerations, the attitude of Japanese troops to their captives was hardly likely to be other than one of contempt. Since prisoners were little better than dead men, their living conditions were of no importance and the notification of their capture to their relatives unnecessary, In any case, not only were the rations issued to the Japanese soldier inferior in quality and quantity to those issued to the Allied forces, but his discipline was severe and brutal by comparison. British captives were, moreover, members of a detested enemy nation, which in the past had been patronising and superior, and whose loss of face should be made apparent to the peoples of the East which Japan was in the process of liberating and incorporating in a ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’. It was small wonder that the Japanese authorities took little interest in the transmission of information concerning captives. Their callous neglect of wounded prisoners and their murder of some of them were the logical consequence of their military code. The beatings into unconsciousness, the mass punishments in the presence of an arch-offender before his more frightful torture in private, the bayoneting to death and the beheading of recaptured escapers all become explicable in terms of their own severe discipline. And while some such cases might have had their origin in the sadistic complex of an individual guard, the major incidents of this type were all enacted with a purpose and the attitude of those responsible was, it seems, more one of amused indifference than of sadistic enjoyment.

While there can be no doubt of the extreme savagery of these incidents, any more than of the rapings and massacres following page 189 Japanese victories, it would be easy by dwelling on them to give a false impression of their place in the overall picture of captivity under the Japanese. The accounts of War Crimes trials, by their very nature, seldom tell the whole story. To balance the picture it is necessary to detail the living conditions in a fair sample of camps and to recount the sometimes surprising amenities and recreational facilities that captives were able to improvise. Although violent physical ill-treatment was all too common, the most widespread ill-effects of captivity in the Far East seem to have resulted from lack of proper food and medical supplies. But in this field, too, the prisoners themselves and their medical officers did much to mitigate Japanese neglect, often without the knowledge of their guards. To those who organised these aspects of camp life must go much of the credit for the maintenance of morale.

In early May the Battle of the Coral Sea brought a sharp check to the hitherto scarcely unhampered eastward advance of the Japanese forces; and the Battle of Midway at the beginning of June put an end to their plans of conquest for the time being. The check became a turning point and the wave of Japanese aggression began slowly to recede westwards. But at this stage there was for British prisoners of war in the Far East no indication of Japan's ultimate defeat, beyond the news brought in by new prisoners and fragmentary information gleaned from surreptitious listening on a secret radio or snatched conversations with friendly natives. Their guards showed no sign of relenting in their treatment; they were in fact entering on the period to which belong the worst examples of Japanese neglect and ill-treatment of European captives.

2 New Zealand's offered contribution consisted of 70,000 tins of meat, butter, jam, chocolate, and coffee and milk.