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Hope found in despair of Japanese POW camp

by Michael Hoffman

VICTORY IN DEFEAT: The Wake Island Defenders in Captivity, by Gregory J.W. Urwin. Naval Institute Press, 2010, 478 pp., $38.95 (hardcover)

An American solder mused, “We were amazed. We had always been told that [the Japanese] were inferior people. We was amazed at how well they were bombing.”

History had conspired to teach Japan the need to bomb its way to racial equality. It seemed the only language Caucasians understood. Few place names resonate more luridly than Pearl Harbor as a symbol of that sad need. Wake Island, 3,000 km west, stirs fewer memories today. It was Dec. 8, 1941, breakfast time on that inhospitable little coral atoll garrisoned by U.S. Marines. Radios crackled with the news of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Defense preparations got under way, but languidly. “Those little yellow bastards haven’t got the guts to attack us,” muttered one marine to himself.

But they did, and Wake Island fell on Dec. 23, after a valiant defense that made it something of a Pyrrhic victory for Japan. Most of the 1,621 Americans captured that day remained prisoners of war for nearly four years, until August 1945. Their captivity is the subject of “Victory in Defeat.” American historian Gregory Urwin relies on diaries and interviews to recreate in exhaustive detail the day-to-day suffering, fear of worse suffering, drudgery, discomfort, hopelessness, hope, grit, and something else, something hard to put your finger on, that maybe transcends all those things. Perhaps irreverence is the word. When a somewhat underqualified Japanese interpreter announced, “The Emperor has gracefully presented you with your lives” — meaning their supposed death sentence had been revoked — a marine “muttered in response, ‘Well, thank the son of a bitch.’ “

They never quite got over the trauma of surrender. “I’d rather died in combat, I think,” said one officer. A civilian contractor added, “It’s a shame these great big Americans being captured by these midgets.”

Racial stereotypes that shock today were common currency then, on both sides.

A Japanese officer recalled, “We had been instructed that in hand-to-hand combat to never allow an American ‘gorilla’ to come within an arm’s length. … We were told that one solid punch was enough to break a man’s neck.”

Japanese World War II POW camps were, and remain, notorious. They were slave camps, torture camps, death camps. Forty percent of American POWs died in Japanese captivity — as against 4 percent of enemy prisoners who died in American or British custody. The Japanese had been educated since earliest childhood to hold life “lighter than a feather,” to choose death over surrender, to hold in bottomless contempt anyone, countryman or enemy, who chose otherwise. To Americans, life was the supreme value. If captivity befell, they would make the best of it and cling to hope of better days ahead. A Japanese doctor, broad-minded and humane, marveled at American prisoners “joking, laughing, talking in loud voices, and generally not acting like POWs at all.” That’s a big part of the “victory” Urwin’s title celebrates.

Another big part of it is survival, and this, Urwin makes clear, is a Japanese victory as well as an American one. The Americans’ captivity was miserable in the extreme but not, except intermittently, horrifying. Most survived — all but 243 of the 1,621; which proves, Urwin says, that “The atrocities that occurred at so many other camps were not inevitable. They did not stem solely from an ancient culture unable to adapt to modern standards.”

The American prisoners were subjected to some gratuitous cruelty, occasional random murder, frequent unprovoked beatings and much naked hostility, but there was also grudging and growing respect for these captives whose stubborn refusal to either die or abase themselves was at first a reason to despise them but over time became a source of bemused admiration. In the doctor mentioned above it worked a mental revolution. “It made me realize,” he said of talk he’d had with two American doctors among the prisoners, “how much importance the Americans placed on the well being of their people … (and) how little the Japanese valued the lives of their own soldiers.”

The mercy, relatively speaking, with which the Japanese treated the American prisoners had something to do with an effort to make the camp at Woosung near Shanghai, to which the captives were shipped early on and where they spent most of their detention, an international showcase of Japanese humaneness. Shanghai was an international city even under Japanese occupation, and the 10,000 Westerners who continued to do business there were important witnesses. The Woosung inmates were comparatively well-fed, and as for labor, “We are still working on the ‘Great East Asia’ project,’ ” a U.S. Marine confided to his diary in April 1942, “but not very hard.”

The greatest strength of “Victory in Defeat” is also, at times, its greatest weakness — detail. Skillfully deployed, it brings a remote time, place and situation vividly to life. Indiscriminately accumulated, it bogs you down and makes you wish the author’s shaping hand had been firmer. Sometimes less is more. That said, this is a document of considerable historical, cultural and psychological interest. The title could as easily have been “Hope in Despair” — an inexhaustible theme.