to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

6.4 Brutality

I am continually amazed at the level of brutality imposed upon the Allied POWs by the Japanese. As I read some of the British POW accounts of their experiences, I wonder how the US POWs managed to avoid much of this. All of the Allied POWs seemed to suffer the same level of deprivation, but the US accounts fail to cite the kind of brutal treatment suffered by some of the others.

In short, no US POW is recorded as having been executed[1] or to have been beaten to death. In truth, one US POW did die soon after a severe beating but his official cause of death is recorded as due to his underlying disease. Other Allied accounts regularly mention executions (beheading or firing squads) for severe infraction of the rules. Despite being in dense jungle and far from any friendly forces, some Allied POWs still attempted to escape the TBR camps. One group planned to travel via the long range of mountains that run along the Thai-Burma border and try to make their way to China. They lasted 4 days and did not get very far north. All 4 were summarily executed upon their return to their base camp.

It is difficult to even begin to describe the level of humiliation and brutality that these POWs were subjected to. By comparison, even our pets live like royalty! With each movement, the POWs seemed to sink deeper and deeper into a world that they could never have even imagined. For the US personnel, the first few months of their imprisonment at the Bicycle Camp on Java would soon be looked back on as a relative paradise. Even the brief sojourn through Singapore was a step down. Then they found themselves in Burma. Once again with each movement deeper into the jungles and highlands their quality of life deteriorated. The cumulative effect of their status was almost more than a human could be expected to bear. Not only was the work relentless, monotonous and draining, but there was the sheer humiliation of walking around practically naked while constantly being berated and ‘bashed’. All of this was compounded by the ever deteriorating amount and quality of the food on offer. By the height of the Speedo period in the Spring of 1943, their daily food intake was barely enough to subsist on much less having to do physical labor.

Add to all of this the nearly universal effects of disease and debility and the overall result is a level of hell that even Dante failed to conger up! Added on top of all the former was the ever-growing list of infections (malaria, the various forms of dysentery, diphtheria) and to top them the horrendous infections that went by the name of Tropical Ulcer. It is hard to locate a such in a medical dictionary simply because it was almost unique to this period of history. In short, because of the sheer lack of any means to cleanse a wound, the smallest cut or scrape was liable to become infected with a literal soup of organisms from the environment. The wound would ulcerate and expose the underlying muscle, then continue spreading until the bones and tendons were visible. This is not even a form of gangrene but a suppurating mix of bacteria and fungus. The medical staff tried variety of remedies; none of them seemed to work effectively. Ultimately, the wound became so large as to be life-threatening and the only recourse was amputation. Of course, without adequate instruments, facilities or medications any type of surgical intervention was fraught with peril. It is quite amazing that any of these men survived this intervention; many did not!

Every POW suffered the same level of deprivation. Due to the dense trackless jungle that the TBR was hacked through, supplies were difficult to transport. Monsoon rains made that task nearly impossible. Just about every jungle camp along the route was isolated; a world unto itself. Sometimes junior Japanese NCOs or ever low ranking Korean guards were the ‘camp commandants’. The Koreans had been shipped in to free up Japanese soldiers for combat and every Allied POW account describes them as the most brutal and inhumane. To the Japanese, the Koreans were only slightly above the Allied POWs since their country, too, had capitulated. [see section 10.5 for a fully account of the Japanese-Korean relationship.]

The chronic lack of adequate and nutritional food led to all the Allied POWs suffering malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. Then there were the tropical diseases of malaria, bacterial and parasitic dysentery and the most dreaded on all: cholera. Those Allied POWs who were unfortunate enough to be housed near (particularly if downstream) from the Asian slaves suffered most frequently and worst from cholera. No US POW is recorded as having died of cholera. Although in his Oral History interview (OH 185 pg 82), CPT C.A. Cates claims to have contracted a mild case that he cured by eating burnt rice (charcoal) on the advice of a native. There is also a suspicion that medical doctor CPT Samuel Lumpkin may have contracted cholera but his official COD is listed as dysentery.

Beatings for any minor infraction of the rules were fairly common. Allied officers were usually assigned an oversight role concerning the work parties. They would often try to intercede on behalf of their men. This brought down the wrath of the guards on those officers when they were perceived as delaying the work pace. More than a few Allied (but no US) officers reportedly died as a result of the cumulative effect of these beatings. The most minor of infractions or just to show their general disdain for the POWs was a slap across the face. It wasn’t meant to injury, simply humiliate. If a worker was thought to be slacking off, he’d incur a ‘bashing’. This could take many forms from a slap on the back with a bamboo rod, a kick in the shins or even a minor jab with a bayonet. The punishment for an action that displeased them was a true beating with fists to include kicking the man when he was downed. The medical personnel were said to have experienced such beatings on a regular basis as they attempted to dissuade the guards from forcing the sick men to work.

Punishments such as being placed in a cage or partially underground pits/caves were debilitating, but rarely fatal. Another favored punishment was to have the POW kneel with his arms tied behind his back and a bamboo pole placed behind his knees. Twenty-four hours of this was not uncommon. But most survived.

Naturally, any actual medicine that found its way along the TBR path was reserved for the guards and never for the POWs. Almost to a man, the POWs who wrote accounts of their ordeals, describe the local Thai people as being a reason that they survived. Every camp seemed to have a marketplace or a black market meeting area, where the Thais would come to sell the foodstuffs that they had gathered in the jungles (bananas, papaya, mangoes) or cultivated. Eggs were a rather plentiful and cheap source of food to supplement the meager rice diet. For the Thais, this seemingly was a purely commercial transaction, not an act of humanitarian concern. The Japanese actually had a pay-scale for the POWs. About half of that ‘pay’ was “collected” by the guards as ‘room and board’! But that left enough for most POWs to supplement their diet; even if that consisted of the local rice-based liquor known as LAO (rhythms with cow). 

In most camps, the officers, who were paid quite a bit more that the lower ranks, would pool some of their monthly allowance to buy supplemental food for their ill (hospitalized) comrades. The Japanese only ‘paid’ men who worked. Without that resource many more would have perished. Often a hospitalized prisoner’s survival hinged on a best friend feeding him and finding supplemental rations.

Some of the POWs recount the futility of being sent to a “hospital camp”. At various intervals along the route, the Japanese established sites that were ‘hospitals’ in name only. Most POWs saw them as dead camps; places where the soon to be dead were simply removed from sight. The Allied medical personnel went to some truly extraordinary measures to try to save these men. They had almost no actual medications to administer and often resorted to local herbal remedies. The largest ‘output’ of these ‘hospitals’ were often graves! But at least they afforded the sick and injuries POWs a chance to rest and avoid further abuses. This and the minimal actual medical care that they received resulted in their bodies fighting off whatever infection or ailment they had.

Once the actual construction work was completed conditions improved if only in the sense that the exhausting physical labor was removed. Only once the POWs reached the consolidation camps at Kanchanburi did their overall condition begin to approve. We can still count how the lingering effects of their prior conditions continued to claim lives in those ensuing months. The Japanese overseers were forced to establish a completely new hospital facility in nearby Nakorn Pathom. This is said to have had an average patient population of 5000, with a max of 8000. Only then, in the spring of 1944, did the IJA HQ begin to furnish even the most basic of medical equipment and supplies to allow the allied medical staff to have a positive impact.

Of the 131 US POWs that perished while working the TBR , all but one died of disease, not overt brutality or execution. We owe a debt of gratitude to the senior US ARMY officer, LTC Tharp, for keeping meticulous records of the fate of his charges. He recorded that soon after their arrival in Burma one of his men was killed during an Allied bombing raid on what they must have assumed was a Japanese encampment, not a POW camp/hospital. Prior to becoming POWs, he had lost 3 men: 1 to an accidental GSW and two others who had volunteered to fly as gunners on the B-17s whom the TXNG Battalion had linked up with on Java. That plane was shot down during the first Japanese air raid on the airfield at Singosari.

As horrendous as the US POWs’ experience was, they were rather benign compared to that suffered by the POWs of other nationalities. In Gavan McCormack’s book, Hank Nelson states that the death rate among Australians was near 36%. He goes on to state that nearly half of all the AUS soldiers who died in Asia died as POWs. In a more global perspective, the death rate in the Allied (not Russian) POW camps in Europe was about 4%.

What is even more frightening is the death tolls among the hundreds of thousands of Asian Forced Laborers (aka romusha). Some accounts suggest that may have been as high as 50%. [Their story is told in Section 20.]

[1] See the story of Pomeroy with Col Toosey


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