Japan

While all our hopes during the long years of captivity had been to see an Allied victory, we were apprehensive about our chances of surviving an invasion of Japan.

[Hugh V. Clarke, Last Stop Nagasaki! Sydney, George Allen & Unwin, 1985, 83.]

Many thousands of Allied prisoners of the Japanese captured in South East Asia were transported to Japan between 1942 and 1944. Among them were nearly three thousand Australians.

The first group of sixty officers and nineteen women (including six army nurses) were shipped from New Britain in July 1942. Like most prisoners they travelled in stifling small cargo ships which, in this instance, made no allowance for gender.

Many other groups of prisoners, usually of mixed nationalities, followed over the next two years. Three main forces were shipped from Changi in Singapore in 1942–43: C Force (2200 strong including 563 Australians) in late November 1942; G Force (1500 including 200 Australians) in late April 1943; and J Force (900 including 300 Australians who were mostly convalescent) in mid-May 1943.

They were followed in June-July 1944 by a group of 267 Australians shipped from Java and Timor; a further 2250 prisoners, including 1000 Australians, from Singapore; and a force of 2300 prisoners who had survived the building of the Burma-Thailand railway, in September 1944.

By this stage the seas between South East Asia and Japan were dominated by American submarines. Only 73 of the 267 in the first convoy survived when the ship on which they were travelling, the Tamahoko was torpedoed. Some 1650 British and Australians on the Rokyo Maru and the Kachidiko Maru were also sunk in September 1944 with the loss of 540 Australians including the commander of A Force Brigadier A. Varley. The third convoy took seventy days to reach Japan, stopping at Borneo, the Philippines and Formosa (now Taiwan) en route.

The last party, including 600 Australians who had been brought from Tha Markam on the Burma-Thailand railway to Singapore via Saigon, arrived in Japan in January 1945 after a long voyage which involved sheltering in many small harbours en route.

Once in Japan Australian POWs were broken into small groups and scattered across many camps. These included Akanobe, Ikuno, Kobe, Naoetsu, Oeyama, Ohama, Osaka, Sakata, Taisho, Takefu, Tokyo and Yokohama, all on Honshu island; Zentsuji, on Shikoku island; Moji, Fukuoka, Hakarta, Omuta and Kanoya, on Kyushu island; and Nisi Asi-Betu, on Hokkaido island. The Australian women transferred from New Britain spent the war at Totsuka, about 30 kilometres south of Yokohama.

The POW workforce was used in a range of Japanese industries. Mostly they worked in coal and copper mines, iron and smelting works, and shipyards (welding, riveting and painting and as riggers). The women at Totsuka were tasked with digging air raid shelters, carrying wood and cutting trees while also making small items for pay.

The range of the camps and locations across Japan makes it difficult to generalise about the prisoners' experiences. In some camps—for example, Yokohoma and Naoetsu—the treatment was brutal and there were many petty restrictions. Within the first thirteen months at Naoetsu 20 per cent of the Australians died. In contrast, at Totsuka none of the Australian women died.

Wherever they were, prisoners endured long working hours, infestations of lice and fleas, and bad health resulting from a poor diet. The Japanese winters were particularly severe and some prisoners died of pneumonia. However, some of the deprivations they suffered were also being experienced by the wider Japanese population as the US blockade strangled the Japanese economy in the later years of the war.

Conditions were alleviated a little by the fact that many camps received some supplies of Red Cross parcels—a privilege rarely granted prisoners in South East Asia. These parcels included sugar, bully beef, meat and vegetables—essential supplements to the starvation diet being provided by the Japanese. Some camps received warm clothing. At times the prisoners in Japan also received mail from home and were allowed to write to their families.

As the Allies advanced closer to Japan in 1944–45, air raids became increasingly common. A number of POW camps were hit by conventional and incendiary bombing and the men became increasingly exhausted as they were moved from camp to camp to evade the bombing.

Adding to the tension was the fact that the prisoners feared they might be massacred by the Japanese when an Allied invasion occurred. At one camp a tunnel was dug leading to anxious speculation as to whether the prisoners were digging their own tomb.

All they would have to do would be to herd us inside and blast the two entrances.

[Quoted in Clarke Last Stop Nagasaki!, p. 85.]

But then in early August 1945 news was received of a 'burning' bomb and on 9 August prisoners working on the ships at Nagasaki saw a B-29 circling.

There was this almighty flash like lighting, then an orange explosion, then the blast. I was thrown right across the bridge, covered in dust and glass, and a couple of my mates took me to the big air-raid shelter in the dockyard "¦ when I was told that one bomb had killed 100 000 people and that Nagasaki had just disappeared I could only say 'bullshit'.

[John King quoted in Hugh V. Clarke, Twilight Liberation: Australian prisoners of war between Hiroshima and home, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1985, 119.]

Those Australians who died in Japan were later buried by the Australian War Graves Group in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery at Yokohama.


Last updated: 17 January 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Japan, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 8 December 2021, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/locations/australian-prisoners-asia-pacific/japan
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