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Art of survival born from desperation, fear and hope


SURVIVING THE SWORD: Prisoners of the Japanese 1942-45, by Brian MacArthur. London: Time Warner Books, 2005, 512 pp., £20 (cloth).

Of the 132,142 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) taken by Japan in World War II, 27 percent died compared to 4 percent of Germany’s. The brutal treatment of the POWs is well documented and is still controversial due to unfulfilled demands for apology and compensation. Here, readers learn in excruciating detail what these POWs experienced based in large part on their memoirs and diaries. It is a grim story about the art of survival and the nightmare of war.

Why were allied POWs treated so inhumanely? Race was certainly a major factor. And, only four months after the British surrender of Singapore on Feb. 15, 1942, the war Japan started with a string of lightning successes had already become a lost cause. The debacle at Midway involving the loss of four Japanese aircraft carriers was the beginning of the end. The logic of supply lines, desperation and fanaticism took a heavy toll on the POWs. They were considered subhuman chattel precisely because they surrendered and were treated accordingly. Asians toiling alongside them also died and suffered in far larger numbers, exposing the realties of Pan Asian liberation.

Of the 7,000 Australians and British of F Force who worked on the notorious Railway of Death near Sonkurai, Thailand, 44 percent died. The death rate of the British POWs was a staggering 60 percent, although less than 2.5 percent for officers.

Some 12,000 Allied POWs and well over 70,000 Asians died in appalling conditions in the railway work camps, many from cholera and dysentery. The average weight loss for those who survived this ordeal was 70-89 pounds (32-40 kg). One tries to imagine how only six of the 2,750 POWs in Sandakan survived to tell the tale.

Under the circumstances, it is amazing that some of the former POWs are as forgiving as they are. Some are not. One embittered medical officer wrote: “By bushido . . . we understood the normal behaviour of our captors: remorseless, lecherous, treacherous, kindless villainy, villainy that having been done was impertinently presented to the world as chivalry.”

Page after page we read about savage beatings, beheadings, humiliations, deprivation, malnutrition, tropical maladies and all that man is capable of, both good and bad. There are some kind jailers and generous acts, but these are overshadowed by tales of unrelieved malevolence and cruelty. From Bataan and Changi to Sandakan and Fukuoka, readers confront graphic accounts of what was endured.

Amid this misery we also learn about the social history of the camps and why survival rates of the British, Australian, American and Dutch POWs varied. Incomprehensible degradation was the norm, but many POWs showed great courage and compassion in helping others survive. Others stole to survive while some preyed on each other. Smokers had a decided disadvantage as many traded scarce food for a fix of nicotine.

There are tales of great ingenuity in making do with what was available. Desperate and talented men produced medicines, radios and food supplements while engaging in heroic acts of sabotage. British officers and gentlemen often proved wanting while slum dwellers from London, Liverpool and Glasgow were hardier and generally acclaimed for their conduct. Although there were certainly many who distinguished themselves, we also read about “neatly dressed British officers carrying canes, blowing out puffy moustaches and talking in an ‘old chappy’ way.”

The Aussies’ higher survival rate is attributed to closer bonds between the officers and enlisted men, comradeship and “a more determined will to live, a higher sense of discipline, a particularly high appreciation of maintaining good sanitation and a more natural adaptability to harsh conditions.” The Dutch POWs drew on their experience in the Netherlands East Indies to survive tropical diseases that felled so many newcomers from Britain.

Appalling conditions were accentuated by the isolation. Letters from home were uncommon and often brought bad news. One unfortunate POW received a letter from his fiancee who explained that she had decided to marry his father and signed the letter “Mother.”

In an effort to bolster morale, POWs staged plays and sporting events and even organized universities.

Many of the POWs were transported back to Japan due to manpower shortages. About 11,000 POWs died on these “hellships,” one third from friendly fire. Those who made it were forced to work in mines and factories. Incredibly, they found that slaving for corporate Japan was even worse than the POW camps.

Brian MacArthur, a veteran journalist for the Times of London, ably brings the strands of this important story together, reminding a new generation of what happened. Sensibly, he lets readers draw their own conclusions about the implications of these accounts of savagery, misery and solidarity.