17 July 2012

Book review: Prisoner of the Japanese, by Tom Wade, *****

English prisoners freed in Japan, September 1945 (AP Photo)

On 15 February 1942, the Japanese captured Singapore and took 130,000 Allied prisoners of war. One of those prisoners was British Lieutenant Tom Wade. For the next three and a half years he was to suffer the indignity and hardships of captivity and the torture and brutality of his captors, first in Changi, then in Korea and finally in Tokyo.

This book is the story of those years in captivity. They were years of horror and despair, characterised by harsh treatment at the hands of sadistic guards who believed that a soldier who has surrendered has lost all humanity. At Tokyo Headquarters Camp in particular, Wade and his fellow POWs had to suffer the paranoid beatings and victimisation of Sergeant Matsuhiro Watanabe, who successfully avoided prosecution by the War Crimes Commission at the war's end.

Wade's moving account of his period of captivity is characterised by the sense of determination, hope and endurance which sustained all those who shared his experience.


This first hand account of three and a half years (the whole of the Pacific war) in captivity is highly instructive, and not only because of what it tells us about life as a POW of the Japanese.

The author tells us about the embarrassingly inadequate preparations by the British for the defense of Singapore. Not only did they fail despite General percival having actually foreseen an attack from Malaya, but they did not even allow many Singaporeans and Malayans to defend themselves, as London did not trust the local Chinese population enough to issue them weapons.

Life as a POW was not so bad in the beginning, at Changi prison, we learn, and the prisoners were treated in a relatively human way. The author argues that life for some British regulars was not worse than in their poor homes in the UK. They learned Japanese and could move out of prison and around the island relatively easily. They were often treated badly, but no worse than the Japanese would treat their own men.

Being a prisoner of war, for the Japanese, was a degradation far worse than dying in combat, and given this mentality it comes as no surprise that enemy POWs were cosidered little more than scum. Things got worse as the war progressed, and conditions were much worse at the prison camp in Korea where they were moved. The final camp in Tokyo was as bad or worse and August 1945 did not come a day too soon. Elation with freedom and victory had its tragic moments, such as when some POWs were killed by crates of food dropped for them by American B-29s!

It was a bit surprising to me to read that throughout this time the International Red Cross did not appear to be as active as one would have expected in checking on the POW's conditions, even though parcels from home were repeatedly delivered to them.

It was equally surprising to learn that in a rigid hierarchy as the Japanese military, even privates were given more command responsibility than their Western equivalents and subordinates who were close to the action were listened to more than their superiors who were further removed.

This is another book on the same subject

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