Over 50,000 British servicemen endured the brutalities of Japan’s prisoner of war camps during World War II. Theirs was a remarkable story of survival and courage. Never before, or since, have such large numbers in Britain’s armed forces been subjected to such extremes of geography, disease and man’s inhumanity to man, as were the prisoners of the Japanese in World War II. A quarter died in captivity. The rest returned home sick and damaged. For three and half years, they faced unrelenting lethal conditions. The average prisoner receives less than a cup of filthy rice a day. The amount was so meagre that gross malnutrition led to loss of vision or unrelenting nerve pain. Diseases were rife. Malaria and dysentery were almost universal. Dysentery, an infective disease of the large bowel, reduced men to living skeletons. Tropical ulcers were practically gruesome. Lt ME Barrett, who worked in the Ulcer huts at Chungkai prison camp in Thailand wrote about them in his diary. “The majority were caused by bamboo scratches incurred when working naked in the jungle. Leg ulcers of over a foot in lenght and maybe six inches in breadth, with bone exposed and rotting for several inches, were no common sight.” Random beating and torture was meted out at will by sadistic, brutal and unpredictable captors. Lt Bill Drower, an interpreter at Kabul Officers camp in Thailand, dared to challenge his captors over one translation. He was severely beaten and kept in solitary confinement for the final 80 days of the war. At the time of his rescue, he was close to death from malnutrition and blackwater fever, a rare but extremely dangerous complication of malaria. On top of these horrific conditions, the majority of PoWs worked as slave labourers to keep Japan’s heavy industry going. They toiled relentlessly on docks, airfields, in coalmines, ship building yards, steel and copper works. These brutalities are now well known among the horrors of World War II.
Less is known about the extraordinary spirit of the prisoners of war- a spirit the cruelty of the Japanese signally failed to conquer. It is the remarkable story of how they overcame appalling adversity during the war- and how, having survived, they had to do so again in peace because they were so haunted by the horrors they had endured. One crucial means of survival in the camps was to form strong bonds with fellow prisoners- close friendships were a lifeline in Japanese captivity. Having a small group of three to four mates was essential. They shared food and workload, and nursed each other when sick. RAF aircraftsman Derek Forgarty, captured in Java, recalled in a 2008 interview: “You bonded like a brother. If a person was sick you took them water, you did their washing. We were so close and it got closer over the years, people would die for their mates, that’s how close things got.” Without these mates, many more prisoners would have died. Dental officer Capt David Arkush remembered in a 2007 interview how “everybody had dysentery. They lay in their own excreta. Unless they had a mucker, a pal, to look after them they stood little chance of survival.” Across individual camps, PoWs pooled their skills and trades to help one another. Doctors denied tools or medicine, needed the expertise of others. Medical orderly and former plumber Fred Margarson ran secret PoW workshops at Chungkai hospital camp in Thailand where he supervised the making of artificial legs for tropical ulcer patients. His friend Gordon Vaughan, a post office engineer before the war, made vital medical instruments for examining dysentery patients from old tin cans and surgical forceps from pairs of scissors.
As many as a quarter of the prisoners died, but 37,500 British servicemen who had initially been taken into captivity lived to see VJ day. Many thousands of them had to wait up to five weeks, or longer, before the camps they were in could even be found by the Allies. Almost all of them sailed the 8-10,000 miles back to Britain, disembarking in either Southampton or Liverpool, more than five months after the war in Europe had ended. The main victory celebrations had faded long ago for most Britons. They were now preoccupied with post war problems of finding work and feeding their families. Rather than feeling jubilation the returning ex-PoWs were full of shame and guilt at having surrendered, and having survived. These feelings of guilt were compounded by a difficulty in telling people about what they had been through. Many turned to each other for support, just as they had done in captivity. Soon PoW clubs sprang up in village halls and pubs across the country. These clubs provided as place where former prisoners could meet regularly and where the trials and the friendships of prisoners-of-war life were understood. The gatherings also saw some bizarre activities. The London Far East Prisoner of War Social Club held its first “Tenko” night in 1948. Tenko was the Japanese command for roll call. Everyday in captivity started with the same routine. Prisoners were woken between 5am and 6am, and lined up for a tedious process of being counted and recounted. PoWs spent these Tenko nights comparing notes about their time in captivity. Then at 10pm, the command was cried out, and two Japanese officers and two Korean guards appeared. They were British ex PoWs dressed in enemies uniforms, souvenirs from their time in captivity. Hundreds of PoWs jumped to obey the order, and then paraded round the floor in a parody of the grim, daily processions. Imagining the harrowing events they had endured in a safe environment, and expressing previously forbidden emotions, may have helped PoWs deal with their trauma.