The Washington Post
Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East, 1942-45by Brian MacArthur
During World War II, there were few fates that could befall a soldier so hellish as internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. To this day, many survivors--most of whom are in their eighties--still cannot talk about their experiences without unearthing terrible memories. Surviving the Sword gives voice to these tens of thousands of Allied POWs and offers us a powerful reminder of the terror and depravations of war and the resilience of the human spirit.
In this important book, Brian MacArthur draws on the diaries of American, British, Dutch, and Australian Fepows (Far Eastern prisoners of war), some of whose recollections are published here for the first time. These soldiers wrote and kept their diaries, in secret, because they were determined that to record for posterity how they were starved and beaten, marched almost to death, or transported on "hellships"; how their fellows were summarily executed by guards or felled by the thousands by tropical diseases; and how they were used as slave labor--most notoriously on the Burma-Thailand railway, as depicted in The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The diaries excerpted in this book make plain why the Fepows believed that their brutal treatment by Japanese and Korean guards was, literally, incomprehensible to those who did not live it. The prisoners whose stories appear here risked torture and execution to keep diaries and make sketches and drawings that they hid from the guards wherever they could, sometimes burying them in the graves of lost comrades. The survivors' narratives reveal not just a litany of horrors, but are a moving testament to the nobler instincts of humanity as well, detailing how the POWs prevailed over horribleconditions, even finding or creating a precious few creature comforts and sustaining the rudiments of culture, learning, and play. Forced into solidarity by inhuman conditions, the soldiers showed incredible compassion for one another, improvising ingenious ways to care for the sick, boost morale by subtly mocking their jailers' authority, or even turn meager rations into the occasional feast.
Countless thousands died in Japanese prison camps during World War II. Those fortunate enough to emerge from their ordeal were never the same again. Surviving the Sword at last fills a notable historical gap in our understanding, while also commemorating and memorializing the Fepows' struggle and sacrifice.
The Washington Post
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Read an Excerpt
At 6:15 p.m. on December 6, 1941, Emperor Hirohito presided over a solemn feast with his closest advisers at Omiya Gosho, his mother's palace in Tokyo. They toasted the spirits of his commanders in the field and heard a prayer of supplication and benediction from the Emperor, Japan's high priest. Nine hours later at 7:40 a.m. in Hawaii Japan launched its war against the United States with a devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. President Franklin Roosevelt declared that December 7, 1941, was a date that would live in infamy. Attacking with 183 planes, the Japanese sank 3 battleships, destroyed 120 planes and killed 2,403 servicemen. When Roosevelt declared war on Japan, a true world war had begun. An hour before Pearl Harbor, Japan had attacked British territory in Malaya.
Assault boats landed on the beaches at Kota Bharu, quickly overran the Anglo-Indian barbed-wire defenses, captured the airfield, and established Japanese air superiority over northern Malaya. Meanwhile, after landing with his mobile and mechanized 5th Division, the best in the Japanese army, Lt. Gen. Yamashita, the Tiger of Malaya, had established the HQ of Japan's 25th Army in southern Thailand and had immediately begun advancing down the peninsula that connected Thailand and Bangkok to Malaya and Singapore. On December 11, thirteen miles south of the Thai-Malay border, they quickly overcame the first resistance at Jitra. The town was defended by twenty thousand British and Indian troops, but they abandoned it that evening, allowing food, ammunition, guns, trucks, and armored cars to fall into Japanese hands. The Indians had never seen a tank, and the British armored carshad been made by Rolls-Royce for the First World War.
The task of defending the rest of Malaya against Yamashita and his chief staff officer, the thirty-eight-year-old Lt. Col. Tsuji Masanobu, the fanatical planner of Japan's campaign (who had tutored Prince Makasa, the brightest of Hirohito's brothers), fell to Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, who had taken command in May 1941. At the age of twenty-six, Percival had volunteered on the first day of the First World War; during that conflict he would win the Distinguished Service Order, the Military Cross, and the French Croix de Guerre. He had been a soldier for twenty-seven years, mainly in staff positions. But in Malaya, now aged fifty-three, he had jumped directly from commanding a division in England to commanding an army, and an independent, multinational, polyglot army at that.
As Gen. Clifford Kinvig has observed, it was the most demanding elevation of the war. Percival commanded 100,000 men in one British, one Australian, and three Indian divisions. They were joined during the campaign by another 7,000 Indian and 30,000 British troops, some of whom would land in Singapore only in January. Set against him were three Japanese divisions, the 5th, the 18th, and the 2nd Imperial Guards, with a front-line strength of 60,000 men. This was the strongest invasion force that Japan had ever sent to war and included most of the army's tank forces and the best artillery, mortar, and machine-gun units, as well as small-boat and jungle commandos, bicycle troops, and bridge and railway engineers. Inspired by Hirohito, the Japanese were fighting for an Asia for the Asiatics.
The aim of the war, according to the Emperor, was to eradicate the source of evil and to see an enduring peace established in East Asia. It was a war between the yellow and white races in which the white commanders gravely underestimated the strength, caliber, and fanaticism of their enemy. Before they sailed, all the Japanese troops had been issued an anti-West manual entitled Just Read This and the War Is Won. Their job, it declared, was to set Asia free. When you encounter the enemy after landing, regard yourself as an avenger come at last face to face with his father's murderer. Here before you is the man whose death will lighten your heart of its burden of brooding anger. If you fail to destroy him utterly you can never rest at peace. And the first blow is the vital blow. Westerners being very superior people, very effeminate, and very cowardly have an intense dislike of fighting in the rain or the mist or at night . . . By jungle is meant dense forest in which a large variety of trees, grasses and thorny plants are all closely entangled together. Such places are the haunts of dangerous animals, poisonous snakes and harmful insects . . . This type of terrain is regarded by the weak-spirited Westerners as impenetrable, and for this reason in order to outmanoeuvre them we must from time to time force our way through it . . . You must demonstrate to the world the true worth of Japanese manhood. The implementation of the task of the Showa Restoration [the reign of Hirohito], which is to realize His Imperial Majesty's desire for peace in the Far East, and to set Asia free, rests squarely on our shoulders. Corpses drifting swollen in the sea-depths, Corpses rotting in the mountain-grassÑ We shall die. By the side of our lord we shall die, We shall not look back. That warrior spirit of the Japanese had also been celebrated in the Japanese Field Army Service Code of January 1941. You shall not undergo the shame of being taken alive. You shall not bequeath a sullied name,it said. After exerting all your powers, spiritually and physically, calmly face death rejoicing in the eternal cause for which you strive.
At Jitra, Tsuji used the tactics which were followed throughout the Malaya campaign. Soldiers forded rivers and infiltrated behind enemy lines, enabling engineers to repair damaged bridges. Tanks then moved forward until stopped by another unbridged river. The infantry used collapsible bicycles which could be carried on their backs across streams. Using bicycles in war was incomprehensible to the British, but the bicycle troops moved so quickly that they put pressure on the retreating British. They could also clear derelict armor from the road. Yamashita, meanwhile, used flanking movements in which troops proficient in jungle fighting turned British lines by getting through swamps and other impassable terrain. Small-boat parties moving down the west coast infiltrated deep behind the British lines, creating a fear of encirclement among the British. By February 1, twenty thousand Indian troops had surrendered, and Percival withdrew the British troops to Singapore. The rear was brought up by the ninety survivors of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, with bagpipes defiantly playing Highland Laddie and Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair. The landward end of the causeway linking Singapore and Malaya was dynamited, but the Japanese arrived by night a week later. Gen. Wavell, the British Commander in Chief in the Far East, who had moved to Java, attempted to stiffen the British resistance in an order of the day on February 10. Britain's fighting reputation and the honor of the British Empire were at stake, he said.
The Americans had held out in the Bataan Peninsula against far heavier odds, the Russians were turning back the Germans at Stalingrad, and the Chinese, with an almost complete lack of modern equipment, had held the Japanese for four and a half years. It will be disgraceful if we yield our boasted fortress of Singapore to inferior forces. There must be no thought of sparing the troops or civil population and no mercy must be shown to weakness in any shape or form. Commanders and senior officers must lead their troops and if necessary die with them. There must be no question or thought of surrender. Every unit must fight it out to the end and in close contact with the enemy . . . I look to you and your men to fight to the end to prove that the fighting spirit that won our Empire still exists to enable us to defend it. In spite of the exhortation from Wavell, the Japanese continued their relentless advance. By February 13, Percival and Lt. Gen. Sir Lewis Heath, Commander of the 3rd Indian Corps, had agreed that the British might be forced to surrender. Maj. Cyril Wild, one of Heath's staff officers, who had worked in Japan before the war and spoke fluent Japanese, was asked to be ready to go through the lines and contact the enemy.
That day a Japanese force invaded the Alexandra Barracks Hospital and bayoneted to death 323 people, including 230 patients, many in their beds or on operating tables. It was a chilling demonstration by the Japanese army of their merciless brutality. Afterward, survivors were returned to the British lines as a warning of what might happen in the future if the British did not surrender. At 9 a.m. on February 15, Percival held his final conference in the underground battle-box of the British HQ in Fort Canning. The situation was grim. The meeting was told that ammunition would run out that day and water the next. There was no dissent when the decision to surrender was made. Wild was with the first party that drove through the front line to meet the Japanese at a small villa off the Bukit Timah Road and then accompanied Percival to the meeting with Yamashita at which it was agreed to surrender at 8:30 p.m. Yamashita had been preparing to launch his final assault on Singapore two hours later. Few acquainted with the situation could doubt that had Yamashita attacked that night he would have broken clean through to the sea, splitting the garrison in two,Wild said later.
The half million citizens of Singapore would then have shared the fate of those of Nanching and Hangchow. As it was, Yamashita never allowed his three divisions to enter the city after the capitulation.Within seventy days, Yamashita's army had marched 650 miles down a road through the jungle, repeatedly overcoming the Allied troops, crossed the Johore Strait, and conquered Singapore, the impregnable fortress.(Wild was to have the satisfaction of being the sole member of the surrender party who witnessed the formal surrender of the Japanese to Lord Mountbatten in September 1945. He also interrogated Yamashita in Manila on the day before the latter's trial. Yamashita was hanged in February 1946.) Judged against what occurred elsewhere as the Japanese army advanced, the prisoners taken in Singapore were fortunate. On New Britain Island there were at least four separate massacres of prisoners on February 4, in which more than 140 Australians were shot or bayoneted to death at the Tol Plantation, where the Japanese had set up their headquarters. The prisoners thumbs were tied together behind their backs, then they were bound by cords or belts passed between their arms, grouped into twos and threes, and led into the jungle.
The Japanese stood over the prisoners to stab them, said Pte. Bill Cook, who was serving with the 2/10th Field Ambulance: I received six wounds in the back two just missing the spine, two more breaking ribs, one under the shoulder blade and the other sliding across the shoulder blade. My two companions had not uttered a sound. I think one of them must have died very quickly and the other lingered a short time because, when the Japs started to leave us, he groaned a little and one of the Japs returned and stabbed him again. I had been holding my breath and feigning death but could not hold it any longer. When I breathed again, I either made a noise or moved, and the Jap started on me again, stabbed me another four times in the neck and another through the ear, which entered my face at the temple, severing the temporal artery, and the point of the blade finished in my mouth. Each of the wounds which I received had not hurt a great deal, except the last, which grated across the cheek bone and, when he withdrew the bayonet, it lifted my head. Blood spurted from my mouth. He then covered the three of us with palm leaves and bushes, and left us. I just lay there waiting to die and I heard two distinct shots followed by a scattered volley of rifle shots which meant that the last two had been shot. When the guards left, Cook managed to free himself by chewing through the cord and then staggered fifty yards to the sea to let the salt wash his wounds. The next morning he found a small party of his countrymen and eventually escaped to Australia.
The Americans on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines suffered an even more pitiless and brutal introduction to captivity under the Japanese. The treatment of prisoners on the Bataan death march, although it lasted only days, was as vicious as the treatment of the men on the Burma Thailand railway and was the worst atrocity committed by the Japanese against U.S. prisoners. When the Americans on Bataan surrendered on April 9, between eleven thousand and twelve thousand of them became prisoners, as well as more than fifty thousand Filipinos. There are no exact figures, but at least six hundred Americans and five thousand Filipinos died as they marched seventy-five miles in temperatures of 90°F from Balanga to San Fernando, where they were put on trains to Camp O'Donnell. Another one thousand Americans and sixteen thousand Filipinos died within the following six weeks. When Gen. Edward King had negotiated surrender with Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma, he had asked if his troops would be well treated. We are not barbarians, Homma's interpreter had snapped. The prisoners would be given humane and honourable treatment. Some were indeed aided by a few sympathetic guards, and a few thousand men escaped the march to be transported to San Fernando in trucks. But they were the exceptions.
King had reserved enough transport and petrol to get his troops out of Bataan. He offered them to the Japanese, but his offer was ignored. In spite of the promise of humane treatment, the marchers, most suffering from malaria and dysentery compounded by malnutrition, some wounded, set out without food or water. What food they received was thrown at them by sympathetic Filipinos. As they marched they were beaten, bayoneted, starved, and kicked with hobnail boots. Men who lagged behind were immediately, brutally, beaten and bayoneted. One marcher was Maj. William Ed Dyess, a twenty-six-year-old, six-foot-tall Texan from the farming community of Albany, a fighter pilot who had become an infantryman on Bataan. After his stay at O'Donnell, Dyess was imprisoned first at Cabanatuan and then at Datao, from which he was part of a daring escape that eventually got him back to America. He became a hero after his story of the march was told in newspapers and alerted Americans to the crimes that were being committed against prisoners. The first murder on Dyesss march from Balanga occurred when Japanese yen were found on an officer during the initial search of the prisoners possessions:
Meet the Author
Brian MacArthur has spent most of his career at The Times of London, where he was an executive editor. He was also deputy editor of The Sunday Times, founding editor of The Times Higher Education Supplement, and editor of The Western Morning News. He is the author of several books about the media and has edited The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century Speeches and The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches.
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