Whilst the Second World War raged in Europe and beyond it was in the Far East that a very different kind of war began. At the beginning of the year 1942 Japan captured the Far East on its quest to command the resources available on this mountainous land of jungle. Troops were sent out to stop the onslaught of the Japanese as they advanced across the land and sea but many were sent too late into a trap of instant capture.
When Singapore fell the islands beyond succombed. The Japanese captured part of China including Peking and Shanghai, Hong Kong; Rangoon, Hanoi and Saigon in Malaya; Burma; Thailand; French Indo-China; The Philippines; Borneo; Sumatra; Batavia with Java; The Dutch East Indies with Haruku; part of New Guinea; The Solomon Islands; and the many islands from north Japan to just north of Darwin in Australia. Korea was already part of the Japanese Empire and fought alongside them.
The Japanese found themselves with hundreds of thousands of Prisoners of War. These were American, Australian, New Zealand, British, Dutch and Chinese troops but the majority were the innocent natives. All became subject to the brutality which followed. With so many Prisoners of War the Japanese put the prisoners to work. It became horrendous slave labour.
The prisoners were fed a diet of white rice, which was often maggot-ridden, with little else; malnutrition soon followed. The prisoners had to eat what they could and scavenge undetected by the guards. Starvation diets, sickness and slave labour combined to cause some of the highest death rates in the Second World War statistics. It was only with the ingenuity of the kinder officers held in the camps that lives were saved time and time again and willpower restored. Jungle injuries caused tropical ulcers seeing many amputations or death from infection; without anaesthetic doctors had to improvise or the patient thankfully passed out. Dysentery became a quick killer as the prisoners worked in camps with no sanitation.
The prisoners didn’t only have to contend with illness from diet but injury from working without proper equipment. The rock through the mountainous jungle had to be chipped by hand, the piles dug by hand on precipitous ledges or below the water. Jungle also meant malaria was rife and the tropical infestations of fleas and lice caused misery. Clothing was often reduced to a ‘Jap Happy’ where a piece of cloth was tied around the waist over the genitals as that was all the prisoner had left. They often lacked footwear.
Then came the brutality by the prison guards where the starving, sick men were whipped or punished if they fell from exhaustion. Any small breach of the Japanese rules was met by horrendous torture. Escape was punishable by death and only a handful managed it.
RAILWAY, MINES, HELLSHIPS AND MARCHING:
On the Burma-Thailand railway the prisoners were often marched through the jungle in the heat or flooded, mosquito ridden tropical season to get to their destinations and then have to build their own camp. After completion of the railway the prisoners returned to Singapore and many were moved onto Japan to work in the mines under the same atrocious conditions. They were transported in Hellships many of which were sunk by the approaching allies, resulting in hundreds of deaths, as the ships were not marked as carrying prisoners. On board they were packed into the depths of the ships for days without food, water or sanitation and many went mad.
As well as mines there were other infamous atrocities such as the Bataan Death March where 75,000 Americans and Philippinos were marched to their prison camps with physical abuse and murder committed by the guards. It was a march of six days without food and little water, anyone who fell was bayoneted to death.
The Japanese did not adhere to the Geneva Convention. Their values of life were that you fought to the death, if you did not you were a coward and you were defying the Emperor. That is why they thought so little of their prisoners; you were not supposed to be caught.
THE END OF THE WAR:
It was three and a half years of hell from 15th February 1942 to the Japanese surrender on 15th August 1945. When surrender neared the command from the Emperor was to murder every single prisoner and it wasn’t until the atomic bombs were dropped that their many lives were saved. With freedom came repatriation and eventual long trips home with nursing back to health from the skeletons they had become.
At the end of the war thousands of Red Cross parcels were found stashed in the camps simply kept away from the prisoners and surplus to the Japanese’s requirements. They could have saved many lives.
But after all the hardship and endurance it is not surprising that many FEPOW came home to wives who had ‘moved on’ or did not believe their stories as they themselves had been through their own war on the other side of the world at home. Without the counselling service as we see today, they were sent home and expected to work for the rest of their working lives as if nothing had happened.
It wasn’t until the year 2000, 55 years after the end of the Second World War that a compensation scheme became available in the United Kingdom.
The 15th August every year is FEPOW day when we can remember them all, whether they died in the Far East, survived and died of consequences of it or are still alive to tell their valuable history.
'FEPOW Community' is a valuable online resource.
There are resources available all over the world and we want to Waymark them in honour of these heroes who are no longer forgotten. Wikipedia holds a wealth of information with a list of Japanese-run internment camps, Japanese hell ships, International Military Tribunal for the Far East, Far East Prisoners of War and
'American Ex-Prisoners of War' have a good website.
THE FEPOW PRAYER:
As we that are left grow old with the years
Remembering the heartaches, the pain and the tears
Hoping and praying that never again
Will man sink to such sorrow and shame
The price that was paid – we will always remember
Every day, every month – not just in November.
And that goes for their children, grandchildren and future generations too.