Formosa, Korea and Manchuria

It was cold, by jeez it was cold, no vegetation, just flat uninteresting Manchurian plains. Then we saw the camp barracks. They had these big Russian pachika stoves inside them, decent double decker bunks, blankets, and each of us had an issue of clothes on the bed.

[John Murphy, quoted in Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon, Sydney, ABC, 1985, 163.]

A relatively small number of Australians captured by the Japanese in South East Asia in 1942 spent much of their time as prisoners of war in camps in Formosa (Taiwan), Korea and Manchuria. Life in these North Asian camps was often bleak and harsh but the rates of death and illness were much lower than in Ambon, Thailand, Burma and Borneo.

In mid-1942 the Japanese decided to separate the senior POW Allied officers across the Pacific from the men they commanded. In August two parties left Changi for Formosa in the primitive and crowded cargo ships the Japanese employed to transport POWs across the region. One party of forty-seven consisted of senior officers above the rank of full colonel and included the most senior Australian officer in captivity, Major-General C.A. Callaghan and twelve other Australian officers. With them were some four hundred engineers and technicians. The second group was a working party of a thousand prisoners, of whom 96 were Australian (6 officers and 90 men).


Disembarking at Takao, on the south of the island of Formosa, in late August the groups were soon split up. The working party was sent to Korea in late September 1942 while the engineers and technicians of the second group remained on Formosa till November 1942 when two hundred of them were shipped to Moji, Japan.

Initially interned at Heito near Takao the senior officers were subsequently moved to Karenko on the east coast where a number of US officers from the Philippines were already established. They were later joined by British and Dutch senior officers from the Netherlands East Indies. Accommodated in overcrowded barracks they were treated in a manner calculated to humiliate them, sometimes being slapped and kicked by their guards of much lower rank. Their diet was poor, though they supplemented it by developing gardens. All officers lost weight and most contracted dysentery or malaria.

In early to mid-1943 conditions improved when the officers were distributed to a number of camps around Formosa: Tamasata near the east coast; Mosak near the capital Taihoku in the north; and Shirikawa, a dismal marshy spot surrounded by hills in the centre of the island.


In October 1944 the Japanese, apparently fearing an Allied invasion of Formosa, moved the senior officers to Manchuria, via Japan and Korea. Here they were concentrated with British and US officers at Chen Cha Tung (Liayuanchow) in an old two-storey stone barracks built by the Russians as a prison in earlier times.

Conditions in Manchuria were better than on Formosa. Food supplies were more satisfactory, in part because the POWs received Red Cross parcels regularly—a privilege very rarely afforded POWs in South East Asia. Since they were not required to do manual work, other than digging slit trenches, the officers' main hazard was the cold. In winter, temperatures fell as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, forcing the prisoners to stay in bed all day to keep warm. Yet none of these men suffered serious harm. In May 1945 they were concentrated with some two thousand other Allied POWs in Manchuria near Mukden.


Around ninety Australians in the working party that had accompanied the senior officers to Formosa were transferred to Seoul, Korea on 25 September 1942. Conditions in Seoul were severe. It was bitterly cold, particularly as no heating was provided in the huts until a month after the first snow. But from February to August 1943 Red Cross parcels were supplied regularly and the men were allowed to write letters home.

In September 1943 a group of POWs, including one Australian officer and 50 men, were transferred to Konan in North Korea. There they were employed on hard manual labour: factory work, breaking up stone, stoking furnaces and so on. Like all prisoners of the Japanese they were subjected to gratuitous violence and there were few medical facilities for treating those POWs who fell sick. However, by standards elsewhere in Asia the Japanese discipline was relaxed and food rations satisfactory, at least in quantity. Heating was provided throughout the winter and this, together with the Red Cross parcels, made the experience of the prisoners a little less intolerable.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Formosa, Korea and Manchuria, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 July 2024,
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