Once the Thai government officially declared war on England, the Swiss Consul assumed the responsibility of ‘looking after’ British interests. There were a number of British-owned companies in Bangkok that attempted to continue to operate with a primarily Thai staff.
But the Consul had to walk a fine line. He was first and fore-most there to look after the interests of his home country. He needed to act with extreme caution in his interactions with the Japanese on the behalf of other countries. He ended up “responsible” for the citizens of 23 countries! Many civilians of all nationalities were interred by the Japanese at a camp on the grounds of Bangkok’s Thamasat University.
The Consul was able to provide two important functions. The Embassy was also the HQ of the International Red Cross (IRC). They oversaw the shipping of millions of Red Cross Packages meant for the POWs across the world. Most of these arrived on Swiss-flag ships. Of course, once off-loaded they had no control over their handling and actual delivery. It is widely believed that the Japanese confiscated or looted many of these. If the POWs ever saw one, they were distributed in such a way that 5-7 men had to share the contents of ONE package!
Perhaps the most vital function was communication. They were able to send and receive diplomatically protected messages. From Knights’ autobiography we have indications of some of those messages. [see Section 15.1 for a review of Knights’ text]
There seems to have been regular exchanges between the Swiss in Bangkok and the British Embassy (Consulate?) in ChungKing China. The fragmentary information provided by Knights suggests that while the British were well aware of the plight of their troops at the hands of the IJA, they were reluctant to act on behalf of the POWs. It appears as if they were overly concerned that they were being scammed. But they did so in the most passive-aggressive of ways. The Swiss Consul reports that they simply ignored messages he sent requesting various types of aid. The delivery of requested funds would obviously have been a rather complicated series of secret hand-offs. The Brits seemed to feel that if they could not truly control the process, they did not want to participate in it.
As a back-up plan, the organizers of the V Organization simply asked for a guarantee of repayment of pledges. They thought that they had donors who could locally provide funds if they had assurances that those IOUs would be paid post-war. No such guarantee was forthcoming from London! Apparently, even the Chinese government offered a loan that the Brits refused. There were times when the messages suggested that the Brits were playing at this by offering a wink and a nod, as if to say, “We don’t disagree, but we can’t agree.”
So while the diplomats played word games the POWs died!
The ICRC on the TBR
According to the fragmentary messages provided by Knights, in MAY 1943 the ICRC was able to negotiate an agreement with the Japanese authorities in Bangkok to purchase supplies locally and have them delivered to the POWs – particularly those working the TBR. While laudable in its own right, such a delivery was fraught with the same myriad problems that prevented the adequate care and feeding of those POWs.
Just as they couldn’t prevent the hording and looting of the standard Red Cross Packages, they could not control deliveries anywhere. Even if the ICRC personnel were aware of the existence of the V Organization, it could never be revealed as a means to make deliveries or all its members would be in jeopardy.
In 2012, a Master’s Degree thesis was published that was the result of a study of documents held in the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Switzerland and pertinent published works. In short, it confirmed what was generally known about the efforts to assist Allied POWs held by the Japanese. Its most pertinent concluding assessment was that: “There is no tangible measure of the impact the work of the ICRC had on the Siam–Burma Railway camps, but it can be concluded that it managed to mitigate the suffering of the POWs it reached and achieved more than could have been expected in the hostile attitude it encountered from the Japanese.”the-role-of-red-cross-aid-in-the-prisoners-of-war-camps-on-the-siam-burma-railway
The failure of the ICRC to have had a favorable impact on the lives and outcomes of the Allied POWs is laid solely on the failure of the IJA authorities to cooperate with the intervening authorities. This work also documents the reports by POWs themselves that those few Red Cross packets that did reach them had been previously looted by the Japanese, usually at the camp level. On a purely objective level, this is somewhat understandable. While the living conditions of the IJA guards at the dozens of TBR camps was infinitely better than those of the POWs, those conditions were still harsh to say the least. The utter failure of the support troops to maintain functional supply lines resulted in constant shortages even for the cadre. The farther these camps were from the HQ at Kanchanaburi City the worst the shortages and conditions. It also needs to be noted that this research paper documented that there was no ICRC activity in the Burma Sector of the TBR.
The overall lack of interest and concern for the well-being of the Allied POWs on the part of the IJA as well as the transportation failures resulted in the majority of the ICRC relief aid that reached Bangkok simply being stored and never distributed. Even this failure was kept hidden in that no ICRC representatives were ever allowed to visit any of the camps. So sparse was the information supplied by the Japanese authorities that the ICRC claims to have had no record of the US POWs on the TBR until post-surrender.
This research goes on to document the contributions made by clandestine activities such as Khun BoonPong and the ‘V’ organization. Other Bangkok-based organizations, although less organized and efficient, were able to smuggle in needed items and money on an occasional basis.
This research report does make an effort to deflect criticism from the ICRC for its failure to have any effect what so ever on the plight of the hundreds of thousands of romusha laborers. The same argument is applied to their failure to aid the civilian detainees in Thailand. Simply stated, the ICRC had a mandate under the Geneva Convention agreements to aid only POWs across the world and that mandate nor their capacity to deliver supplies, did not extend to these other groups.
I would not go so far as to state that the conclusions draw by the author were a “whitewash” of the ICRC effort but it clearly portrays the ICRC efforts as maximal and lays all the blame for the failure to make delivery to the intended recipients in the lap of the Japanese. It relates a sham front in which the Japanese outwardly (if reluctantly) accepted the ICRC’s efforts but wholly failed to carry on beyond that. Huge quantities of ICRC items were found in warehouses at the Bangkok docks. These were promptly delivered to the now former-POWs within days after liberation. There are also reports that a few of the camp commandants belatedly delivered (albeit looted) supplies to the POWs in the latter days of the war seemingly in an effort to curry favor and avoid recriminations that were sure to be forthcoming.
I must also comment on the editorial style of this document. Just about every sentence in the 40-page text is associated with a footnote. These not only identify the source of the statement but also seemingly refer the reader to those sources to supply bulk of the information. Hence, the text is written somewhat in a telegraphic style with huge amounts of information presented in a single sentence plus its reference. Many of the declarative statements held sufficient information to write an entire chapter. It is entirely possible that this was dictated by the mandate of the controlling school in which it was prepared, but it is an odd presentation.
For a project that seemingly searched long-archived ‘original’ documents, it failed to have uncovered any previously unknown facts or figures. One can only assume that many of the letters and reports in those ICRC archives had not been read since the end of the war, and yet they seemed to contain little or no previously published information. In this it is a reasonably adequate ‘supporting’ document but hardly notable for any new revelations about the ICRC activities during this period.