The WWII Prisoner of War Experience in the Pacific–PART I

The WWII POW Experience in the Pacific

Robert E. Winslow

Sergeant Major, USMC (Retired) (1939-1970)

April, 2007


The Japanese were totally unprepared for the enormous number of prisoners who fell into their hands in the early days of World War II.  Not only did they seriously under-estimate the strength of Allied forces in such holdings as Singapore and The Philippines; the mass surrender of these forces was an inexplicable gambit to Japanese minds steeped in the inflexible Bushido code of death before surrender.

After several weeks of futile resistance, seventy-three thousand British soldiers in Singapore, including twenty-eight major generals and above, laid down their arms to Japanese forces who had committed the unthinkable act of attacking this impregnable naval fortress from the land side, a maneuver recommended by the ubiquitous LtCol Tsuji as a result of one of his many reconnaissance forays prior to the war.

Three weeks later, the “soft underbelly” of the Dutch East Indies, whose brutal Dutch overlords were the antithesis of the benevolent bwanaism which characterized British colonialism, also fell to invading Japanese forces.

Twenty-six thousand American and sixty-thousand Filipino troops surrendered in April 1942 on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines.  Final holdouts consisting largely of the 1500-member Fourth Marine Regiment gave up a month later on the besieged island of Corregidor. 

Early in the war, lack of foresight may have set the stage for such outrages as the Bataan Death March.  Later atrocities are less easily explained.  Throughout the war the Japanese government deliberately shirked its responsibilities for the welfare of prisoners of war.  POWs were seen as irksome liabilities, their lives and welfare barely tolerated only to the extent that they contributed to the Japanese war effort.

In January 1942, Prime Minister Hideki Tojo informed the commandants of the newly established prison camps that they were not bound by the Geneva Convention of 1929, which had defined international procedures for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.  The effect of this edict was an abdication of control by the Japanese government over its POW camps.  Many prison camp commanders interpreted their government’s rejection of international standards as a green light to treat prisoners as they saw fit.

There was more to come.  The presumed idleness of all those thousands of POWs being housed, fed and clothed from the limited resources of a nation at war could not long be tolerated.  In mid-1942, prison camp commandants were ordered by Prime Minister Tojo to “…place the prisoners under strict discipline and not allow them to lie idle doing nothing but eating freely for even a single day.  Their labor and technical skill should be fully utilized for the replenishment of production, and contribution rendered toward the prosecution of the Greater East Asiatic War, for which no effort ought to be spared.” (As quoted in E. Bartlett Kerr, Surrender and Survival: The Experience of American POWs in the Pacific 1941-1945, p. 88)

This was a further violation of the Geneva Accords, which prohibited war-related work by prisoners of war.  Throughout the newly-won Japanese empire, prison camp commandants began to vigorously and inhumanely “prosecute the Greater East Asiatic War” with the forced labor of their charges.

As a result, in many camps Allied prisoners of war were literally worked to death.  By far the most egregious case was the building of the Siam-Burma railway during 1942 and 1943 – the infamous Death Railway which bridged the River Kwai — through 258 miles of nearly impenetrable jungle terrain.  Before the task began, Lieutenant Colonel Yoshitida Nagatomo gave assembled POWs a long “pep talk” which included the following remarks:

“We will build the railroad if we have to build it over the white man’s body.  It gives me great pleasure to have a fast-moving defeated nation in my power.  You are merely rubble, but I will not feel bad because it is your rulers.  If you want anything you will have to come through me for same and there will be many of you who will not see your homes again.  Work cheerfully at my command.” (Quoted in Laforte & Marcello, editors, Building the Death Railway: The Ordeal of American POWs in Burma, 1942-1945, p. 18)

Colonel Nagatomo’s promise was fulfilled.  Allied servicemen of all nationalities died at the rate of 55 per mile of track.  Before it was done, this monstrous project would cost the lives of 27 percent of the nearly 50,000 Allied prisoners of war and more than half of the 250,000 Asian slave laborers who worked on it. 

In compliance with Tojo’s “no work, no food” decree, prisoners too sick or disabled to work were placed on half rations or less; a certain death sentence if carried out.  Healthy prisoners forestalled this option by either making up the difference from their own starvation rations, or carrying sick comrades to work places on litters.  Literal-minded camp authorities accepted the latter practice; all prisoners present at the work place, working or not, received “full” rations.  I recall going on work details in Osaka while I was so sick from malaria that I could barely walk in order to receive my regular uncut ration of barley and seaweed.

At their war crimes trials, Japanese generals, including Tojo, disclaimed knowledge of mistreatment of POWs by subordinates.  Perhaps so.  Post-war analysis suggests that many generals (except perhaps the dour and plodding Tojo) were selected for charisma rather than managerial skills, so maybe they were “out of the loop,” as they claimed.  In his book Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, George Feifer remarks (p.96) that “Japanese commanders were valued more as symbols than as hands-on leaders, more as embodiments of strength than strategists or policy makers.” Among such “strong and silent generals . . . it was almost a motto that real men didn’t bother with the details.”

We too had our “real men” who didn’t bother with the details.  Douglas MacArthur became a glorious-stern-visaged-steely-eyed-corncob-pipe-smoking-wading-through-the surf-at-Leyte symbol of the US war effort in spite of his obvious inattention to “details” such as how to win battles.

In the early stages of waging the Allied war from Australia, before he became so loaded up with men and materiel that only a complete jackass could have lost against over-committed lesser Japanese forces, MacArthur engaged American and Australian forces in a catastrophic campaign to chase Japanese forces out of New Guinea, a tactical and logistical disaster that in the end finally prevailed at great unnecessary cost in men and materiel.  The best historical narrative of this fiasco bears the appropriate title, Bloody Buna.

There is no doubt that MacArthur’s blunders in New Guinea and the Philippines cost the lives of more Allied troops than did the assaults of the Japanese.  He should go down in history as the worst general ever to wear an American Army uniform.  Kudos to Harry Truman for finally ridding our nation of this Christ-quoting blustering poseur in the midst of another conflict which he was also completely mishandling (except for the amphibious landing at Inchon, a successful Marine operation for which MacArthur was happy to steal the credit.)

MacArthur’s personal courage has never been seriously questioned, in spite of the epithet “Dugout Doug” hung on him by Marines chafing under his vacillatory command. Neither is his religiosity questioned, which some view as valid reason to have peremptorily dismissed this babbling Christ-quoter from any position which required logical thought.  But it was not to be, not even after such mawkish apologetics as this one MacArthur read to assembled reporters in Australia shortly after the fall of Bataan:

“The Bataan Force went out as it would have wished, fighting to the end its flickering, forlorn hope.  No army has done so much with so little, and nothing became it more than its last hour of trial and agony.  To the weeping mothers of the dead, I can only say that the sacrifice and halo of Jesus Christ of Nazareth has descended upon their sons, and that God will take them unto Himself.” (Toland, p. 335)

During the course of Truman’s and MacArthur’s negotiations about who was really in charge of making wartime decisions during the Korean War, they met on Wake Island.  Not long after this historic meeting, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command, eliciting tremendous uproars from Republican Congressmen who immediately promised to run him as their candidate to replace Truman in the next election.  This plan bogged down when it was discovered that MacArthur’s understanding of democratic procedures were so absolutely nil that he might well have had the losers in the election stood up against the wall and shot.

Yes, I exaggerate, but not much.  In any event, Big Mac never ran for President.  As promised in his famous farewell speech before Congress, he just faded away.

One of my Wake Island buddies, Fenton Quinn, worked for the government during Harry Truman’s second term and was asked by his boss one day if he would like to meet the president.  “Of course,” said Quinn and consequently the following:

“Mr. President, I would like you to meet Fenton Quinn, who served on Wake Island in the early days of World War II.”
Harry Truman: “Oh, yes, Wake Island!  I remember it well!  That’s where I met God!”

In the Japanese armed forces, one result of the “above the fray” leadership of “strong and silent generals” who tolerated the insubordination of Bushido inspired zealots was the flourishing of a widespread “system of non-responsibility,” as the distinguished Japanese political scientist, Masuo Maruyama, defines Japan’s military and political culture during World War II.  (Quoted in The Genocidal Mentality, Robert J. Lifton & Eric Markusen, p. 185)
The system of non-responsibility had a long history.  During the 1930s, several military coups and assassinations of high-ranking officers and government officials by cabals of junior officers went relatively unpunished.  They murdered in the name of the emperor, they said, to protect him from the treasonous counsel of insufficiently warlike and patriotic advisers. 

This bizarre sub-culture of “patriotic” insubordination – gekokuju – was sustained and encouraged by the common view that crimes committed in the throes of patriotic ardor merited not punishment, but praise, e.g., the previously described “insubordinate” slaughter of Wake Island POWs on the decks of the Nitta Maru.  As narrated elsewhere, Lieutenant Toshio Saito, the naval officer who perpetrated this atrocity, oozed into the Japanese populace and presumably died of old age.  Commander Cunningham, in his memoir of the Wake Island battle and its aftermath, finds it inexplicable that “he could remain uncaptured through all these years in an island kingdom noted for its effective police control.” (W. Scott Cunningham, Wake Island Command, p. 162.)

During the trials of the assassins of Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai in 1932, 110,000 petitions for clemency signed or written entirely in blood were received by trial officials.  Nine young men from Niigata asked to take the place of those on trial and as a token of their good faith enclosed their own nine little fingers pickled in a jar of alcohol.  None of the assassins were sentenced to death.  Of the forty who received sentences, all were free within a few years.  (Toland, p. 10)

One of the foremost examples of gekokuju at work was Japan’s war in China, which began as a direct result of mid-level officers disobeying orders from Tokyo and deliberately creating “incidents” which destroyed Japan’s uneasy modus vivendi with Chiang Kai Shek.  During the rising tide of Japanese militarism in the 1930s, such acts were publicly condemned and privately admired.  Some key conspirators who survived the subsequent face-saving purges later wound up in high level positions where they continued to exert subversive authority far in excess of their nominal rank.

As did Lieutenant Colonel Tsuji, described as a “poisonous insect” by one of the generals he confronted in a Bushido inspired tantrum.  It was well known that Tsuji once conspired to assassinate Prince Konoye, but he was never called to account for this or for other subversive acts.  As John Toland has observed, “[t]he assassin in Japanese history ha[s] often been a more sympathetic figure than the victim.” (Toland, p.9)

Gekokujo leaders were members of the “Cherry Blossom Society,” so named in consonance with the Bushido metaphor of death in battle as beautiful and sublime as the fall of a cherry blossom.  (The last signal sent by the doomed defenders of Peleliu, before dying to the last man, was “Sakura! Sakura!” – [Cherry Blossoms! Cherry Blossoms!] Meirion & Susie Herries, Soldiers of the Sun: The Rise and Fall of the Imperial Japanese Army, p. 481)

There is convincing evidence that the ubiquitous Tsuji, a leading member of the Cherry Blossom Society, countermanded General Masaharu Homma’s orders to deal fairly with POWs taken in the Philippines, resulting in the infamous Bataan Death March. (Toland, pp 336, 337, 344) Tsuji arrived in the Philippines from Singapore, where shortly after its surrender he had instigated the massacre of five thousand Chinese citizens for the dire crime of supporting “British colonialism.”

Tsuji was unaccountably ignored by the War Crimes Tribunal after the war.  The U. S. generals who sat as judges in General Homma’s case apparently discounted testimony that revealed Tsuji’s role as no excuse for Homma’s overall command responsibility.  From their own experience in the American army, they considered it inconceivable that a mere lieutenant colonel could usurp the command of a lieutenant general.  General Homma was found guilty of the Bataan Death March and shot by firing squad after his wife successfully appealed the original sentence of a disgraceful, unmilitary hanging.

Tsuji, convinced for very good reason that the war crimes tribunal would eventually be after him, went underground as a Buddhist priest in Thailand immediately after the war. He later made his way to Japan and hid out with friends until the Tribunals ended their task, then in September, 1952 was elected to the Diet and reelected in 1956.  In 1961 the Japanese government sent the “rehabilitated” Tsuji to Southeast Asia on a mission to investigate the political and military situation. During the war Tsuji’s survivability had been the stuff of legends, but this time his Shinto gods deserted him.  He arrived in Bangkok on April 4, from whence he traveled on to Laos and vanished.

Several months later it was reported that Tsuji had entered Red China, but there was never a response to the Japanese Red Cross’s requests for information about him.  His mysterious disappearance has engendered a multitude of rumors: he was working for the communists; he was working against the communists; he was back in Japan incognito.  Soon after his disappearance, his wife told interviewers that she believed he was dead.  Others have suggested that he lived out the remaining years of his once eventful life in a Red Chinese prison (John Toland, The Rising Sun, p. 1028). And so the bell must toll for the inimitable Lieutenant Colonel Masanobu Tsuji.

Marines who suffered the misfortune of capture by the Japanese during World War II experienced a devil’s mixture of unpredictable treatment, ranging from the courtly treatment by the officers who accepted the surrender of the Marine Legation and Embassy guards in North China to the atrocities committed by warders of the appropriately named Bataan Death March and Burma Death Railway.

In camps in or near the Japanese homeland, POWs usually suffered only random and unpredictable beatings along with near-starvation rations.  In outlying camps in the further reaches of the newly acquired Japanese Empire, men were tortured, mercilessly beaten, taunted with jeers and laughter as they lay dying, executed for insignificant misdeeds or merely for the sport of their captors.

Unfortunately for prisoners of war, many gekokuju inspired zealots in the mold of Colonel Tsuji wound up as prison camp commanders.  They viewed their charges as non-men, eternally disgraced by their surrender, their very presence an insult to military honor, their very existence an unnecessary drain on Japan’s scarce war-time resources.  If they had possessed proper soldierly virtues, they were told again and again, they would have died on the battlefield. 

A Japanese officer in a Mukden prison camp, after beating a young sailor to death over some smuggled cigarettes, summed it up: “You men are nothing but beasts, so I will treat you like beasts!” (POW report of Charlie W. Dieball, USMC on file in Marine Corps Historical Archives)

The demonization was mutual, ironically in almost identical terms.  In a private letter justifying the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Harry Truman declared that “[w]hen you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.” (Ronald Takaki, Hiroshima: Why America Dropped the Atomic Bomb, p. 100.  Ronald H. Spector, in Eagle Against the Sun, p. 555, attributes this remark to Truman’s diary.  Possibly it appeared in both places.) As a result of such thinking, 200,000 Japanese “beasts,” otherwise known as innocent men, women and children, were destroyed by atomic bombs. 

To some degree, physical mistreatment of POWs was an extension of the custom of corporal punishment that prevailed in the Japanese armed services.  To enforce discipline, Japanese officers routinely slapped junior officers or NCOs, who in turn, whacked their subordinates, who in turn welcomed an opportunity to take out their rage and frustration on hapless prisoners of war. 

The task of looking after universally despised prisoners of war who lacked the proper spirit to gloriously die for their country was not seen as a good career move in the Japanese army, but since most hale and hearty Japanese soldiers were still extremely busy with their brutal expansion of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, it was necessary to look elsewhere. Such a degrading task provided a perfect dumping place for the misfits, the drunks, the trouble-makers, the psychopaths, and a few disabled veterans of the China campaigns, and there were also “inferior” troops from Japanese “allies” such as Korea and Taiwan to call upon to ride herd on the detested prisoners.

The thousands of Allied POWs (including the few Marine survivors of the sinking of the USS Houston) who built the infamous Burmese Death Railway through the storied valley of the River Kwai were often guarded by illiterate Formosan conscripts who were themselves “some of the most abused, ignorant and corrupt peasants who ever wore the uniform of an army” (David Bergamini, Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy, p. 968).  These conscripts from conquered lands were beaten, despised, starved and degraded by the Japanese themselves.  POWs in these camps were at the bottom of a ladder of savage oppression, the final targets of accumulated fury and brutality that were the hallmarks of Japanese military discipline.

Prisoners in all camps soon learned that the behavior of guards was completely unpredictable.  Guards who seemed friendly one day could explode in senseless violence the next, while on rare occasions, the most brutal guards would astonish prisoners with unexpected acts of kindness.

My first prison camp in Shanghai was considered a model prison camp, one of the very few Japanese POW camps allowed to have regular visits from International Red Cross representatives.  The only other camp with similar privileges that comes to mind was Zentsuji on the home island of Shikoku, where the Marines from Guam and a few from Wake began their POW experience.  As previously noted, the survival rate of POWs in these home island camps was exponentially greater than that of the unfortunate prisoners picked up in the outer reaches of the new Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.  I consider myself fortunate to be among them.  Some of my boot camp buddies who wound up in the Fourth Marines were not so lucky and did not return to the land of Hershey bars, zoot suits, and Mickey Rooney.

The Shanghai International Settlement was still semi-independent and thriving in the early days of the war, before the Japanese lost patience with its polyglot citizens and interned or expelled them all.  One of my most “pleasant” and almost unbelievable memories of my stay in Shanghai is Christmas dinner in 1942, turkey with all the trimmings, which the expatriate community of Americans, Russians, Anzacs, Aussies and Lord knows who else managed to put together for us and convince the Japanese to distribute these life-saving, or at least life-enhancing, commodities to us ravenous POWs.  We discovered that the “sparkplug” of this extraordinary endeavor was expatriate American Shanghai bar-owner Jimmy James.  After the war, Jimmy became the “star” of several of our reunions and an honorary member of our group.

Not all Japanese who had contact with POWs went along with the customary ritual abuse.  Nearly every former POW, including me, can recall individual acts of kindness or compassion by Japanese citizens or camp guards.  Human connections between guard and prisoner sometimes transcended the depravities of prison camp life. One extraordinary encounter is recalled by former Sergeant Irwin Scott of the Fourth Marines, excerpted from an oral interview on file in the Historical Branch, Headquarters, US Marine Corps:

“I was sitting on the bank one day, by myself, we had nothing to eat… my mother’s favorite aria was “Un Bel Di” from “Madame Butterfly”…”One Fine Day” – When I was in high school, I loved the aria because I’d hear Mother play this record… it’s a most beautiful thing…
I started humming, to myself…and this voice behind me said, “I know that tune” I didn’t turn around because I knew…from the accent…it was a guard.  I never said a word…and he kept talking…he named some town that he was from, and he said, “I worked for American.  They loved opera…they used to play that all the time.” …I heard something hit beside me, and…I saw him walk off.  I looked down and it was a banana leaf…inside was some rice and something else.  It was his bento, his lunch.  And I ate it, I was hungry.  After that…he would come by…probably every third day…he would come by without anybody seeing, drop a package.  It would be a banana, something like that.”

When Scott later became desperately ill from malaria, the same guard split his own inadequate quinine ration 50-50 with Scott until he recovered; a risky business indeed, for both donor and donee.  Men had been decapitated for less.

Such occasions were rare, but throughout the war a few guards and interpreters dared to show their “human” faces when out of sight of other Japanese.  While I was working in the shipyards in Osaka on near-starvation rations, a young Japanese worker who shared with me the affliction of beriberi because of our vitamin-deficient diet, also generously shared his barely sufficient bento box of rice and seaweed as we paused midday for what would have otherwise have been my nonexistent lunch. 

Most Japanese civilians had no contact with POWs and were probably unaware of prison camp conditions.  One Marine POW, being carried into an Osaka hospital as a result of severe malnutrition, recalls an English speaking Japanese nurse bending over his emaciated body in disbelief and asking, in Japanese negative style, “Japan did not do this to you?” He credits her with later dispatching extra rations of rice and soup from the galley to aid his recovery (Robert E. Haney, Caged Dragons: An American POW in WW II Japan, p 117)


Noted historian-author John Costello has written that Admiral Kimmel’s and General Short’s unpreparedness in the defense of Pearl Harbor “would have paled into insignificance if the dereliction of MacArthur’s command in the Philippines had ever been investigated. . . Whatever [their] omissions. . .their command shortcomings pale into relative insignificance before the far more egregious dereliction of MacArthur.” (John Costello, Days of Infamy, p. 340) In one of the most insightful and best-written memoirs of the POW experience, a former Marine POW with first-hand knowledge of MacArthur’s “egregious dereliction” has arrived at a similar conclusion:
“Had MacArthur’s economy in the expenditure of personnel in the offensive part of the American war in the Pacific not been in some measure his redemption, his loss of more than 100,000 troops might have marked him as the worst general in the history of warfare” (Robert E. Haney, Caged Dragons, An American POW in WW II Japan, p. 264).

The Japanese attacked the Philippines from the air nine hours after General Douglas MacArthur was told about Pearl Harbor.  All available evidence suggests that MacArthur’s Manila headquarters in the first days of the war was in a complete state of funk, paralyzed by indecision.  There seems to be no other explanation for the destruction on the ground of half the American bombers and two-thirds of the fighters in the Philippines in that first attack.

Indecision also governed MacArthur’s ground defense strategies.  Original plans called for withdrawal to the Bataan peninsula in case of Japanese attack, to fight a delaying action while awaiting reinforcements from the States.  MacArthur gave that up in favor of defending the beaches (on 7,000 islands!) and the approaches to Manila.  As a prelude to disaster, supplies were repositioned accordingly.

When he later realized the utter impossibility of defending thousands of miles of coastline against amphibious assault, he reinstated the original plan.  By then, it was too late to save most of the supplies; thousands of tons of ammunition, food, and medical supplies were abandoned and lost to the Japanese.

Historian-author Stanley Karnow joins the condemnation: “MacArthur’s decision to defend the whole archipelago. . .would prove to be a colossal blunder.  For, in their desperate last gasp, his beleaguered forces were denied the food, medicine, and other supplies that he had dispersed around the country” (Stanley Karnow, In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, p. 284).  MacArthur solved that problem by putting his troops in Bataan on half rations.  In due course, he further reduced rations to 175 calories per day per man per day; a veritable death sentence.  In some units 70 percent of the men became too feeble to carry their rifles.

Even these starvation rations, in many cases, did not make it to the front lines, and desperate troops went foraging.  By February they were eating wild dogs, monkeys, iguanas, snakes, and anything else they could find running loose on the peninsula, including large insects.  The 26th Cavalry, the pride of MacArthur’s Philippine Scouts, made the last known cavalry charge in the history of warfare, then butchered and ate their horses.

In March, the supply of quinine, at the time the only known preventative for malaria, ran out.  By the end of March admissions for malaria to the two American hospitals on southern Bataan numbered nearly one thousand per day. Weakened by starvation and ravaged by malaria, dysentery and nameless tropical diseases, approximately sixty thousand Filipino soldiers and ten thousand American soldiers began the infamous Bataan “Death March” on 9 April, 1942, the date of their surrender.

The Fourth Marines sat out this horror on the small harbor island of Corregidor, where shortly after their arrival from Shanghai they had been enlisted by MacArthur as his “palace guard.” General MacArthur sat it out in Australia, where he had arrived in March after his departure from Corregidor.

The exact number of Marines who made this “trek to hell” has never been determined, but best estimates place the number at about 70; those members of the 1st Air Warning Unit on Bataan and the guard detachment at USAFFE headquarters in Manila who had not managed to escape to Corregidor when Bataan fell.  Their destination was Camp O’Donnell, a half-completed Philippine army post about eighty miles to the north.  The casualty records are woefully incomplete; even the “best” estimates range the death toll for Filipinos on this hideous journey between 5,000 and 10,000, along with 650 to 1000 Americans. 

Some marchers made the trip without major problems.  Some rode nearly all the way in trucks.  Some were allowed to accept food and water from local villagers.  Some were given frequent rest stops and were allowed to stop for water at the artesian wells along the route.  Some were allowed to stop and cook food.  Some Filipino soldiers simply melted into the jungle or took anonymous refuge in one of the villages along the way.  A few Americans were equally successful.

But for many it was literally a Death March.  Men who straggled or fell out of line were bayoneted, shot or beaten to death.  Some exhausted stragglers were buried alive, often by other prisoners forced to do so at bayonet point.  Prisoners in one column who dropped out of line were dispatched by a squad of Japanese rifleman marching behind them, who were apparently deployed for that exact purpose.  Desperately thirsty men who broke ranks and ran towards artesian wells for water were shot and killed.  For no apparent reason, one U.S. lieutenant was pulled from ranks, lashed to a pole and decapitated by a Japanese executioner.  His headless body remained on display as a grisly warning.

Former Marine Irvin C. Scott of the 1st Air Warning Group recalls the horrors:

“By the time the Death March was over, you were either carrying somebody or you were barely able to carry yourself. . . if a man fell, and you didn’t pick him up, [the Japanese] would bayonet him. . .They would take the men and they would crucify them to the telephone poles, with their hands above their heads. . .we were going through a little barrio.  There was a pump there, a well.  The Nips motioned to a man to come over, and he went running over.  They picked up their rifles and just shot him.  It was a game.  . .  They took this group of us out [into a dry rice paddy].  They sat over on the side, under the trees.  They made us take off all of our clothes and stand there in the hot sun.  We stood there, I know, three-quarters of the day.  They thought it was funny as hell.  . . [When men dropped] they would come over with their rifle butts and [beat them] . . . Some of the men were left there, dead. . . The whole thing is a bad dream.” (Excerpted from oral interview with former Marine sergeant Irvin C. Scott on file in the Historical Branch, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps)

Many times, civilians who attempted to pass food or water to the marchers were severely beaten or killed.  One old peasant and his wife caught passing out rice were burned alive and their charred bodies displayed on stakes to discourage similar acts of generosity.

With the exception of a fortunate few who rode trucks all the way to Camp O’Donnell, prisoners were assembled at the town of San Fernando, about thirty miles from their destination, for travel by train to the town of Capas, five miles from their final destination – Camp O’Donnell.  Here, for the first time, the Japanese made an effort to feed the prisoners.  They set up large cauldrons for cooking rice and fed the men twice a day.  Those prisoners who still had money augmented their rations by purchasing food from Filipino civilians, whose presence the Japanese often tolerated.

The windowless boxcars awaiting the prisoners in San Fernando were of similar vintage to those which had transported North China Marines to their prison camp in Shanghai.  In most of them, single doors on each side provided the only ventilation.  With kicks and blows from their rifle butts, guards forced prisoners into the cars until they were squeezed together so tightly that no one could change position.  Those standing could not sit; those sitting could not stand.  After the last prisoner was somehow jammed in, the doors were slammed shut.

The 25-mile trip to the town of Capas was the culmination of all the horrors which the prisoners had so far encountered.  Stricken with malaria and dysentery, starved and brutalized by Japanese guards, their energy and spirits were at the lowest ebb.  Pressed against each other so tightly they could hardly breathe, most of the prisoners fell into a dazed stupor, more dead than alive.  Many men with dysentery lost control of themselves in the rolling prisons.  Their refuse soon littered the floor and the stench became overpowering.  Men who fainted from heat and suffocation remained upright, immobilized by the press of bodies.  Some of them never regained consciousness and died where they stood, wedged between neighbors who were themselves barely conscious, unaware of their comrades’ deaths.  Some went down, breathing their last desperate gasps in the filth and slime that covered the floor.

The average duration of the trip from San Fernando to Capas was four hours.  The trains traveled so slowly that some of the stronger men nearest the doors were able to leap from the cars to their freedom.  At times guards allowed the many Filipinos who gathered around the train at its frequent stops to pass food and water to the captives, and at other times the same guards drove the civilians back with jabbing bayonets.  As prisoners would discover in the years to come, the only thing consistent about their treatment at the hands of the Japanese was the inconsistency of such treatment.

Many Americans who received life-sustaining food or water from Filipinos on this frightful journey believe they owe their lives to the generosity of these friendly people, who risked and sometimes gave their own lives to help their suffering American friends. Under the relatively benign forty-year dominion of the United States, the Philippines had become a commonwealth in 1935, with total independence promised ten years later.  As a result of this political benevolence, along with the immense popularity of American cultural phenomena such as movies and music, most Filipinos held Americans in high regard.  Consequently, Filipino audiences were largely immune to the Japanese “liberation from colonialism” propaganda which sparked irreversible nationalist movements in Asia’s other colonial territories.

General Masaharu Homma, the overall Japanese commander in the invasion of the Philippines, had approved a plan that included feeding prisoners during the march the same rations as Japanese soldiers, and for aid stations and “resting places” along the route.  The plan was based on the fallacy of providing for no more than 25,000 prisoners.  Tragically, no attempt was made to modify the plan when the actual count of prisoners turned out to be triple that number, most of them in no shape to march even a furlong, let alone sixty miles.

The resulting chaos and disorder invited mistreatment of the marchers by angered, frustrated guards.  Another prime factor in encouraging atrocities was the gekokuju machinations of the roving Bushido zealot from Imperial Headquarters, Lieutenant Colonel Masanobu Tsuji. He arrived in Manila on April 3 from Hong Kong, where he had instigated the massacre of 5,000 pro-British Chinese citizens.  Tsuji was on a roll.  He now proposed a “final solution” for American and Filipino prisoners of war:
Execute them all!

Several of Homma’s staff officers were so enthused by this proposal that they joined Colonel Tsuji in ordering subordinate commanders to kill all prisoners; such were the Emperor’s wishes, they said.  Most commanders, to their credit, refused to execute prisoners without a written order.  But the bodies wantonly strewn along the road from Mariveles to Camp O’Donnell were stark proof that not all of the Emperor’s minions had dismissed the murderous machinations of Tsuji and his cohorts. 

At his war crimes trial, General Homma claimed to be unaware of the subversive activities of Colonel Tsuji and some members of his staff.  The available evidence supports his testimony, but the tribunal, as noted elsewhere, nevertheless considered him responsible, as the senior commander present, for the Bataan Death March and sentenced him to death.

The dying did not stop when the marchers reached their destination at Camp O’Donnell.  Within three months of their arrival, nearly two thousand Americans and some twenty-five thousand Filipinos died – of malnutrition, of dysentery, of malaria, of dengue, of beriberi, of strange tropical diseases unlisted in standard medical texts. 
For most of the new arrivals at Camp O’Donnell, life began with a greeting by the commandant, Captain Yoshio Tsuneyoshi, an over-age reserve officer of limited talents who had assumed command of Camp O’Donnell just one week before the first men arrived.  Few listeners would ever forget the experience. 

Clad in a short-sleeved shirt, baggy shorts and riding boots, Tsuneyoshi climbed on a box and began his lecture.  A Filipino interpreter translated the message, which included threats of instant execution for the slightest violation of any order, and pronouncements that American influence in Asia was over, to be replaced by the all-conquering, all-powerful Japanese.  His voice rising to a screech and his arms windmilling in wild gyrations, his peroration concluded with the declaration that “[y]ou are our enemies and we will fight you and fight you and fight you for a hundred years!” (unpublished memoir of BGen Curtis L. Beecher USMC, on file at Douglas County museum of History and Natural History, Roseburg, Oregon, p. 62)

The Japanese 14th Army staff, aware of conditions at O’Donnell – a reported 200 men (Americans and Filipinos combined) dying each day – in late May relieved the Commandant and closed the camp. The surviving prisoners were transported by truck and train the few miles to the newly established camp at Cabanatuan, where they would join the newly arrived POWs from Corregidor.


Although we Wake, Guam and North China POWs were randomly beaten and cruelly starved, as were all of Tojo’s hostages, our combined death rate during the war years was a mere 3 percent, compared to the 35 percent death rate among American prisoners of war captured in the Philippines and elsewhere in Indochina.  One major reason for the disparity in death statistics is tallied in Japan’s own official figures that 10,800 of the 50,000 prisoners aboard the aptly named “hell ships” sent to Japan from the Philippines and elsewhere in the latter days of the war did not make it, a 22 percent casualty rate (Gavan Daws, Prisoners of the Japanese, p. 297).  Another reason for the disparity is the fact that we were in good health at the beginning of our captivity, compared to men captured in the Philippines after fighting a desperate five month losing battle against the Japanese invaders.  By the time twenty-six thousand American and sixty-thousand Filipino troops surrendered in April 1942 on the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines many of them were already walking skeletons, largely due to the incredible bungling of General Douglas MacArthur, whose inept repositioning of large caches of food and vital medical supplies guaranteed that they would be captured by the Japanese.


In the years to come, as Allied offensives began to roll back the borders of the newly won Japanese empire, the Japanese began to transport prisoners of war in the Philippines northward to the Japanese homeland.  The reasons were at least twofold.  It would be a disgraceful outcome for these tokens of Japanese Bushido warrior supremacy to be liberated by advancing Allied forces, and despite all evidence to the contrary, Supreme Headquarters in Tokyo still was deluded by the conviction that Allied POWs could be depended upon to voluntarily contribute to the Japanese war effort in homeland shipyards, factories and elsewhere. 

Prisoners of War in such outlying areas as the Philippines, some barely ambulatory, were herded into the holds of Japanese transports for the journey to Japan.  The Japanese could have marked the ships to avoid aerial attacks by Allied forces, but for reasons that Tojo took to his grave, they did not do so.  As a result they were attacked by Allied submarines and aircraft. This incomprehensible oversight caused the deaths of at least 4,000 Allied prisoners of war killed or drowned in the autumn of 1944 and spring of 1945 aboard ships attacked by Allied submarines and planes, in addition to the large number of Japanese civilians and servicemen who were also passengers on these ships.

Typical was the aborted voyage of the Oryoku Maru, described by one survivor as a “classic example of the Japanese incapacity for organization,” and by another as “an eternity of horror.” In three holds of equal size the Japanese placed 611, 189, and 819 prisoners of war for a trip from Manila to Japan. 

The sinking of one of these ships, the Arisan Maru, by an American submarine, engendered an amazing story of survival that Hollywood surely would have rejected as “just too many unbelievable coincidences.” Sergeant Calvin Graef, after hanging on to wreckage of the Arisan Maru for many hours with Corporal Don Meyer, eventually wound up in a lifeboat with Cpl Anton E. Cichi, Sgt Avary E. Wilburn and civilian Robert S. Overbeck.  They had no food or water; the lifeboat had no oars or mast and the rudder was broken.

Three miracles: A keg drifted by that contained fresh water and a pole floated by that turned out to be the missing mast; and some time later they picked a box from the sea that contained a sail and rigging.  They fashioned a rudder by breaking up an interior compartment of the boat; in which they found a tin of hardtack, and unbelievably sailed 300 miles to the China coast through a typhoon, (the civilian happened to know celestial navigation) where they were fed, clothed, and guided by friendly natives for thirty days to a U. S. airbase in the heartland.  They made it home eight months before the war ended. (This extraordinary endeavor is mentioned in several sources; in detail in E. Bartlett Kerr, Surrender and Survival, p. 207-209, in a footnote on page 678 of Toland, The Rising Sun, and briefly in Gavan Daws, Prisoners of the Japanese, p.293 It is also available by Googling The Arisan Maru on the Internet.)

Other survivors of the aptly named “hell ships” were not so fortunate, telling tales of unbelievable squalor, degradation and death in the jampacked holds of the ships that made it through to Japan.

In one of the most insightful and best-written memoirs of the POW experience, one Marine survivor of the dreadful journeys to Japan, being carried into an Osaka hospital as a result of severe malnutrition, recalls an English speaking Japanese nurse bending over his emaciated body in disbelief and asking, in typical Japanese negative style, “Japan did not do this to you?” He credits her with later dispatching extra rations of rice and soup from the galley to aid his recovery (Robert Haney, Caged Dragons, p 117).


POWs in the Japanese homeland spent most of their daylight hours working for civilian “honchos” unschooled in the fine points of Bushido. Thus, while in Osaka a compassionate “honcho” would hide his emaciated POW crew behind buildings because he deemed them too feeble to work for the Japanese empire, elsewhere:

“The atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army are impossible to catalog.  The number and the hideous variety of the crimes defy even the most twisted imagination: murder on a scale amounting to genocide, rapes beyond counting; vivisection; cannibalism; torture; American prisoners of war allowed to drown in excrement in the “hell ships” taking them back to Japan for use as forced labor…More than a quarter of all prisoners taken by the Japanese died under interrogation, from starvation and untreated disease, or simply through random brutality” (Meiron and Susie Herries, Soldiers of the Sun, Random House, NY, 1991 pp 475, 476)

American history books prominently report Japanese war-time atrocities, but war crimes committed by our own troops are much less visible, if reported at all.  It is usually necessary to dig into obscure footnotes to discover that on the battlefield in the Pacific war, there were no “good” guys and “bad” guys; in war every soldier is a “bad” guy.

Charles Lindbergh, on a mission as a civilian in the South Pacific to check out the capabilities of the latest American fighter aircraft, was appalled by the mindless savagery of our troops’ conduct against the Japanese.  Later, as he toured the death camps of Nazi Germany, he remarked in his diary that “It seemed impossible that men – civilized men – could degenerate to such a level,” then recalled his experiences in the South Pacific and remarked that the American treatment of the Japanese in the Pacific War was equivalent to the German “defiling of humanity” in his treatment of the Jew (Charles Lindbergh, The Wartime Journals, p. 997). 


None of the lawsuits instigated by former prisoners or war of the empire of Japan seeking recompense for their “slave labor” in such plants as Mitsubishi have been successful due to the extremely strange wording of the peace treaty of 1951 that ended hostilities with Japan.

Article 14(b) of the Peace Treaty reads:
Except as otherwise provided in the present treaty, the Allied Powers waive all reparation claims of the Allied Powers, other claims of the Allied Powers and their nationals arising out of any actions taken by Japan and its nationals in the course of the prosecution of the War, and claims of the Allied Powers for direct military costs of occupation.

No such waivers exist in the peace treaties concluded with other Axis powers.  By disallowing all claims for reparations from the Japanese, it appears that strategic geopolitical thinkers in the State Department were making sure that Japan would become a willing ally in fending off the inevitable “sleeping giant” Communist Chinese threat to US interests in Asia and to hell with former POWS.  There were not enough of us left to swing an election, we were all patriots who believed all the lies our government told us, and we are dying off pretty fast because of what the Japanese did to us, so no problem.

In my long lifetime of watching what our government is doing to/for its citizens, it has become evident that hypocrisy always rules the day, and unfortunately that includes the alleged friends of the common man – Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower – whose “cold war” policies egregiously sacrificed the rights of former American POWs.

American prisoners of war suffered disease, torture, starvation and death at the hands of their Japanese captors, but the US government has filed “friend of court” briefs in support of Japanese denials of responsibility and culpability in the few claims against the Japanese from former POWs that have made it into international courts.

The fact that the American government has deliberately blocked all claims for recompense for the atrocities committed by the Japanese government against their prisoners of war would seem to be no less a war crime than the acts of the Japanese.  “One of the greatest ironies of the cold war is that Japan not only eluded its responsibility to pay reparations but received billions of dollars in aid from the United States, which helped build its former enemy into an economic powerhouse and competitor” (Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking, p. 223).

In contrast to this indecent scenario approved at the highest levels of our government – think Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and a lapdog Congress – in a move also approved at similar high levels, the German government and German companies equally contributed to a $5 billion foundation that has been used to compensate former slave and forced labor victims of German companies, including American servicemen in POW camps, during World War II.

Next: PART II, The WWII POW Experience in the Pacific

6 thoughts on “The WWII Prisoner of War Experience in the Pacific–PART I

  1. 1.Very Pro-Marine /Anti-MacArthur. This is understandable in that Winslow is a decorated Wake Marine.
    2. Not defending MacArthur-not at all…but:
    – Defense and relief of the Philippines hinged on the American Navy steaming westward, breaking the Japanese blockade, and massive reinforcement- absolutely none of which was within the capabilities of the United States in 1942.
    – MacArthur was Ordered to Australia – to reorganize and continue the fight, but also…primarily to prepare the defense of Australia against Japanese invasion.
    – What better place to defend Australia, than to tie the Japanese down in New Guinea. In fact, the very first “Island Hopper” was MacArthur. Strategic Defensive via Limited Offensive.
    – Foodstuffs, as well as fuel, etc. was stored in Manila – not cached throughout the archipeligo.

    3. Read Casualty Statistics for WWII- US Armed Forces. You will find that MacArthur’s forces, from 1942 through 1945, had the lowest casualty rates of any American Army, the United States Marine Corps, and the U.S. Navy.  A Fact.

    4. The Japanese will NEVER pay reparations to individuals or ex-POW’s. They will build schools, dams, generating plants, causeways, etc. on islands and nations they once conquered ( “Good Will” ) and Peace Memorials all over the place ( “So Solly” ). They admit to nothing. WWII is called the Great Pacific War” in Japan, and is discussed for less than an hour during a school year. Thirty to forty minutes of that hour addresses the Atomic Bombs…… So go figger… They are the archtype Asian “Stonewallers”. Their take is that “it had something to do with the end of British, Dutch, and American Colonialism”. (Nothing whatsoever about creating “An Empire of The Sun”). 
    Asians are patient people. They will wait hundreds of years to have their way. And to distort history. Look at the present . In less than a century, China is the Aggressor, and Japan is the “Champion of Peace”……..

  2. In reply to the question about whether a movie has been made about the prisoners of war in the Pacific: If you search on line for “WWII prisoner of war films” you’ll find several older movies on WWII POWs, a few that were based on novels (sometimes semi-autobiographical by authors that lived through the experience) and most of them dramatized.  Examples are “The Bridge Over the River Kwai,” and “King Rat.”  to my knowledge there have been no documentaries about the Prisoners of the Japanese that focused on the POW camp experience.  The latest biography about a POW that may eventually be turned into a movie is “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand.  I’ve read that a movie about it’s subject, Louis Zamperini, may be filmed in the next few years.  Coincidentally, he and my father, Bob Winslow, were both being held at the Naoetsu prison camp when the war ended.

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