Facebook Twitter

JAPANESE POW CAMP - A TALE OF FORCED LABOR, SUFFERING

SHARE JAPANESE POW CAMP - A TALE OF FORCED LABOR, SUFFERING

The crematorium fire burned night and day at Japan's No. 2 prisoner of war camp on the Thai-Burma railway.

"It was usual to wake up in the morning and find the chap next to you had died during the night, so your first job of the day was to take him to the crematorium and throw him on the fire," said Bill Holtham, one of the camp's former inmates.The 52,000 Allied soldiers taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II were starved, beaten and forced to work from dawn to dusk in mines or building Japan's 260-mile railroad linking Thailand and Burma.

About a third were killed or died in captivity. Many more died after returning home, their bodies destroyed by four years of deprivation and overwork.

Undernourished and achingly thin, prisoners labored for 14 hours a day in fierce tropical heat or on freezing mountains, suffering regular beatings from their guards if they failed to respond to the screamed imperative "Speedo, Speedo, Speedo."

Only those with extraordinary physical and mental strength survived.

Former Signalman Arthur Titherington, who was a POW at the Kinkaseki copper mine in Taiwan, said that of the 523 British prisoners who arrived there with him in 1942, only about 100 lived until the end of the war.

The POWs at Kinkaseki were forced to trudge one mile over a steep mountain and then scurry, crouching, down hot, narrow tunnels to reach their workplace, often hundreds of feet below sea level. At night, they also returned on foot.

If the starving prisoners flagged in their labors, the guards beat their wasted bodies with hammers.

Many were killed or injured in roof falls while working in unsupported tunnels. Others collapsed in the fearsome heat in the deepest parts of the mine, some falling to their deaths down the chutes for the copper ore.

Their bodies became stained yellow with the acid water that flowed through the mine.

The water channels, into which they stumbled frequently because their feet could not grip in their ragged canvas boots, doubled as latrines for the prisoners plagued by diarrhea and dysentery.

Even the very sick were often forced to work, their friends carrying them over the mountain to the mine.

When the prisoners returned to the camp, their guards refused them permission to lie down before 9 p.m. Those who collapsed onto their wooden pallets from sheer exhaustion were beaten and forced to stand for hours as punishment.

Watching the ever-mounting death toll, the prisoners joked that there were only two ways out of Kinkaseki; "head first or feet first," said former POW Jack Edwards, in his book "Banzai You Bastards."

Any defiance from the prisoners met swift and brutal punishment. Holtham recalled one prisoner on the Thai-Burma railroad who lost control and turned on his guards with an ax.

The guards tied the man to a tree and left him there. His fellow prisoners could not take him food or water for fear of being beaten themselves.

Starving and exposed to the cold nights high up in the mountains of Burma, he grew delirious.

"We just had to lie there listening to him screaming," says Holtham. It took him several days to die.

To the Japanese, a soldier's highest honor was to die for the emperor, and it was his duty to kill himself rather than be captured. They believed the foreign soldiers who had allowed themselves to be taken prisoner were dishonored and deserved their mistreatment.

Titherington believes the guards were cruel because they were among the lowliest in the Japanese army - good soldiers were sent to battle - and were themselves brutalized by their superiors. They unleashed their frustration on the POWs.

Guards assaulted their captives with fists, swords or sticks for infringements of arbitrary and constantly changing rules.

Prisoners could be awakened at night and beaten for not facing the right direction while they slept or having failed to keep their thin blanket pulled over their heads.

Most camps had a punishment cage made of bamboo, about 4 feet high and 2 feet wide, too small to stand or lie down in.

The guards would force the captive to stand for hours in awkward positions - crouched on one leg for example - and then order them into a different contortion. Some POWs spent days in the cage, some failed to come out alive.

On an unvarying diet of poor quality rice and water, the prisoners were severely malnourished.

Titherington is 6 feet tall, now a robust-looking man, with a ruddy face and an uprightness that defies his 73 years. When he was released in August 1945, he weighed only 77 pounds, less than half his normal weight.

Like most prisoners, he was suffering from beri-beri, malaria, dysentery and tropical ulcers.

"At the end of it I was as near to being dead as it is possible to be without actually being dead," said Titherington.

The POW medical officers struggled to help, but they were given no medicines by the Japanese and had to make do with what surgical instruments they had carried with them, often on foot over hundreds of miles.

Food rations for sick POWs were either cut or suspended, obliging other prisoners to share out their meager rations.

Limbs, injured in work accidents or eaten away by the gangrene caused by tropical ulcers, were amputated without anesthetic.

"We had 48 amputations in our camp," said Holtham. "Only four of them lived."

Holtham himself had severe ulcers around his ankles and almost lost a foot. "The treatment was to scrape away the dead flesh with a blunt spoon," he said.

Cholera was another major killer. Sketches by POWs depict the isolation tents where most cholera patients died painfully.

The wasted bodies are lined up on closely packed pallets, skeletal men - those strong enough to get up from their beds - clutch at tent-poles as they squat to defecate into square tin buckets. The stench can only be imagined.

Adding to the physical privations, the POWs were kept isolated from the outside world. More than as year passed before any of them were allowed to send home a single, preprinted postcard to tell their relatives they were alive.

On the railroad, some POWs had managed to rig up radios and tune into news bulletins, but those at Kinkaseki never even knew what day or month it was.

In August 1945, the POWs at Kinkaseki heard from a civilian driving a buffalo cart that there had been a huge explosion and that the war was over.

A few days later they were taken in trucks to Taipei where the camp commandant made a speech.

"He told us the war was over and we could all go home," said Titheringon.

"Then he said he hoped we would all be good ambassadors for Japan."