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Past and Present

Ex-POWs' trip to Japan coincides with the release of a valuable new WWII historical resource

by Satoko Kogure

‘Ican forgive, but I won’t forget,” says Jack Simmonds, an 82-year-old Australian, who was detained as a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II.

Along with fellow Australian ex-POWs Neil MacPherson, 82, and Jack Boon, 87, Simmonds was visiting Japan for the first time since the end of the war. “I wanted to see Japan, where I spent my war-time, with my eyes again,” he said.

His thoughts are echoed by his fellow travelers.

“I don’t have any ill feeling toward Japanese people,” says Boon, who worked on the Japanese railway project in Thailand, immortalized by the movie “Bridge on the River Kwai,” before being brought to Japan.

“I have made many good Japanese friends and enjoyed my visit last time, so I wanted more ex-POWs to visit Japan,” says McPherson.

“But even if we become too old to visit Japan again, our families will visit our Japanese friends some time in the future,” he says.

During World War II, there were more than 130 Allied POW camps in mainland Japan, at which about 35,000 POWs, captured and brought from Southeast Asian countries, were forced to work at coal and other mines, shipping yards and munitions factories. Severe conditions at work sites and camps resulted in at least 3,500 deaths by the end of the war from starvation, various diseases and ill treatment.

As part of their visit, Simmonds, McPherson and Boon traveled to the Commonwealth War Cemetery in Hodogaya, Yokohama, to pay their respects to their former comrades and allies.

Some 1,853 foreigners, most of whom were commonwealth servicemen who died in Japan as prisoners of war, are buried in the 13-hectare cemetery that’s little-known compared to the nearby Foreign General Cemetery, one of Yokohama’s most famous sightseeing spots.

Jack Simmonds became a POW in February 1942 in Singapore, when just 19 years old. He was first forced to work on Japanese-managed projects in Southeast Asia, before being sent to Japan aboard the Kyokkou Maru on April 25, 1943.

According to Simmonds, there were 1,500 others on board, accommodated in “the holes of the ship with just enough room to lie down head to toe,” and fed “a small bowl of rice and a half a cup of water per day.” They were allowed to get some fresh air up on the deck for 30 minutes a day, the rest of the trip spent below deck in poorly ventilated quarters. After a voyage of three weeks on the “hell ship,” his party arrived in Moji, northern Kyushu, on May 19, 1943.

Then he and his fellow prisoners were transferred to Taisho, Osaka, where he was put to work in a steel factory for nearly two years, before being moved to another POW camp in Takefu, Fukui. It was here that he heard of the Japanese surrender. At the Taisho camp, “beatings by the Japanese took place regularly,” Simmonds has written. “We were made to learn normal everyday words in Japanese, learn to salute and goose step. And if any error occurred, many men were beaten.”

However, Simmonds said, “I don’t really want to talk about those bad stories. When I’m invited to schools back in Australia, I try to talk about good things. The Japanese leaders of our work group were mostly amiable; I had several English conversations with these Japanese, and they were happy to understand where I was from in English.”

“Ill feeling doesn’t produce any good feeling,” he says.

With each gravestone in the war cemetery representing a similar, though ultimately tragic story, the POW Research Network Japan, which helped organize the ex-POWs’ trip, sought to gather and publish a comprehensive list detailing the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the graveyard’s 1,800 occupants.

Each headstone at the cemetery carries basic information about the dead — including name, regiment, nationality, age and date of death.

However, up until now, no information had been gathered and published detailing how and where in Japan they died.

“Because the Japanese government was afraid that it would be accused of the conditions at POW camps after the war, they ordered all the camps to destroy the related records when the war ended,” says Taeko Sasamoto, a television scriptwriter and one of the co-representatives of the organization, who compiled the list. The newly-published list hints, for example, at the appalling conditions aboard the ships that brought the Allied POWs to Japan.

Some 122 deaths, out of the 128 British POWs who died at the Moji camp, were caused by acute colitis.

According to Sasamoto, it can be assumed that these were the ones who had survived from the “hell ships” and arrived in Moji, but ended up dying soon after arrival. This demonstrates how poor the medical supply was, and how bad the food situation and sanitation was on the ships.

“By making this list, I wanted to give the families of those who lost their loved ones in Japan some idea about how these people died.

“I also hope that this list can give people, Japanese included, some idea of what happened in Japan during the war years.”

The organization is now compiling a list, due to be completed this summer, of POWs who died in Japan during the war.

The POW Network Japan has made
the details contained in its Yokohama
Cemetery POW list available on the Internet. The site is in Japanese only,
though an English version is due to be
posted shortly. The list can be found at
http://homepage3.nifty.com/pow-j