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Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific

(Gavan Daws)

A sickening indictment of how Anglo-American prisoners of war were mistreated, tortured, murdered, and employed as slave labor by the Japanese.

Living through hell

In the early months of the Pacific War, 150,000 American, British Commonwealth, and Dutch colonial soldiers and civilians were captured by the Imperial Japanese Army. Their treatment was barbarous--often literally worse than death. Of Japan's white prisoners, about 27 percent died in captivity, compared to about 3 percent of Anglo-Americans in German prison camps (the Russians were another matter).

Gavan Daws has crafted a masterful history of these unfortunates, following some of them throughout their nearly-four-year ordeal. He divides them into "clans," which is both a useful way to remember diverse people as they appear and reappear in the narrative, and also a way to drive home his point about survival: that to be a member of a clan was to have a better chance to live through the hell of a Japanese prison camp.

The survival rates of the white prisoners was markedly dissimilar. The Dutch fared the best, in part because as colonialists they were familiar both with the climate and the bugs, and in part because they were imprisoned on the islands in which they had lived. The British did fairly well--their military caste system was very effective, even in captivity, and when officers were housed separately, the sergeants took command, and if the sergeants were murdered, then the corporals took over.

The highest death rate was among the Americans. They were a number of reasons for this: the Japanese treated them worse than the other white prisoners; a number of them were civilian workers captured at Wake, who had no military training; and of course the frontier ethic that encouraged Americans to fend for themselves. Of all the white prisoners, only the Americans were known to have turned on each other, killing their fellows to obtain food or even to drink their blood and thus avoid dying from thirst.

Anyone with an interest in the Pacific War should read this book, and Death on the Hellships as well.