Electrocuted, gassed, frozen, boiled alive: Christopher Silvester reviews Prisoners of the Japanese by Gavan Daws.

Christopher Silvester – The Telegraph

Copyright The Telegraph
(Filed: 30/04/2006)
Perhaps the most shocking statistic of the Pacific war is that, of all the PoWs who died in captivity, “one in every three was killed on the water by friendly fire”. Japanese transport ships, known to the PoWs as “hellships”, were bombed and torpedoed in greater numbers towards the end of the war, just when they were ferrying large numbers of prisoners back to Japan – though, of course, many of the PoWs died of disease, starvation and thirst during or soon after such journeys.
Sometimes, the journeys lasted for months, interrupted by stop-overs in ports or transfers to other ships. Gavan Daws is puzzled by the obliviousness of American policy in this regard: “at every level up to and including [Gen Douglas] MacArthur himself, it was known that the Japanese were transporting PoWs in unmarked ships” yet “the US Navy went on sinking PoW transports until there were no more to sink”.
This is not the only charge he levels against MacArthur, much resented by American PoWs from the Philippines for his egotism: “MacArthur issued 142 communiquÈs, more than one a day, all vividly written and making wonderful reading, and in 109 the only man in uniform identified by name was MacArthurÖ It was always MacArthur’s men, MacArthur’s flank, MacArthur. On Bataan they choked on the sound of the name.”
Daws describes the tactical errors that led the bulk of the US army in the Philippines to retreat into the Bataan peninsula (“One of the Japanese generals said it was like watching a cat go into a sack”) and remain there, under MacArthur’s orders to fight to the death, until starvation and disease caused their field commander to surrender. Had they surrendered sooner, many more might have been in better shape to survive the Bataan death march, during which collapsing or stumbling prisoners were shot or bayoneted – not that life beyond that was guaranteed.
MacArthur comes into the story again towards the end, when he grants immunity from prosecution for war crimes to the staff of Unit 731, based in Manchuria, which performed medical tests on PoWs and Asian civilians. Apart from being deliberately infected with disease and having healthy organs removed for medical practice, their victims were “burned with flame-throwers, blown up with shrapnel and left to develop gas gangrene, bombarded with lethal doses of X-rays, whirled to death in giant centrifuges, subjected to high pressure in sealed chambers until their eyes popped from their sockets, electrocuted, dehydrated, frozen, boiled alive”. Yet many of those scientists were able to pursue profitable post-war business careers.
Acutely aware of the power of race-hate, both from and towards the Japanese, Daws is equally fascinated by the tribalism among the PoWs. One source of puzzlement to him is that, in the holds of the hellships, “Americans – and only Americans – killed each other”. The worst of all these ships, Oryoku Maru, had “the highest number of officers in the holds, more than 1,000, more than one in four of them field-grade, and by far the highest proportion of officers to enlisted men, two to one”.
In the moral economy of the camps, it was only enterprising Americans who traded and lent rice to fellow prisoners (at interest) against future rations, thus luring them into nutritional bankruptcy. The Australians and the British wouldn’t permit it. Smokers were particularly vulnerable, as they would trade what little protein they had for nicotine.
An Australian academic, Daws has spent 10 years doggedly interviewing former PoWs and reading written testimonies. The result is a triumph, a masterpiece of combined storytelling and analysis, “the reverse side of official history”. Daws focuses on American PoWs because they were captured in almost every area invaded and occupied by the Japanese, but he also highlights the experience of the Dutch, who have been neglected in other studies. At the end of the war, Dutch colonial troops returned to the East Indies to fight Indonesian nationalists, lost, and were forced to resettle elsewhere: “It took them (and the Dutch civilian internees) the better part of 40 years to squeeze a token payment out of the country they had suffered for.”
How to remember, when others were too ready to forget, the PoWs? One group from the Philippines’ camps met yearly for a meal of “prisoners’ sukiyaki: rice, millet, maize, dried fish, grasshoppers”. Another group “had an old khaki undershirt from prison camp that they mailed round and round among themselves for years”. Daws deserves a campaign medal of his own. As well as offering sharp insights in admirably restrained prose, his every page packs an emotional wallop. Unforgettable.


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