One of the more talked about ‘issues’ was whether or not the Japanese had plans to execute the POWs en masse if the war went badly for them. At the time of their capture, many of the men fully expected to be summarily executed by their captors. This sentiment may have been more prevalent among the Houston crew than the Texans. They had had more exposure to the stories of the early years of the war in Asian and the atrocities that were reported out of China.
In order to better understand what happened in AUG-SEP 1945, one must have an appreciation for the geo-political-military situation that Thailand found itself in in 1942. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched major invasions of the Philippines and Malaya aimed at Singapore. They entered through southern Thailand. They had also landed in French-Indo China.
The Thai Prime Minister Phibun quickly assessed the overall situation and negotiated an agreement with them to avoid a futile fight to defend the country. What followed was akin to the Vichy French situation. The Japanese assumed administrative control of everything south of Bangkok and west to the Burmese border at Three Pagodas Pass. They also had a fairly large garrison at Chiang Mai in the far north and some troops in the east around Korat and up into Ubon where they were building an airfield. Thus, they controlled about half of the countryside. The central plains and most of the north-eastern portion of the country remained under Thai control. They was simply no reason for the Japanese to waste troops to occupy and administer those areas of no strategic importance. They took the south because of the vital rail line from Bangkok to Singapore.
This situation came into prominence in mid-late 1944. The war was going badly for both Germany and Japan. The major Allied HQ became concerned about the future welfare of the POWs. They began to parachute in teams of OSS and SSA agents, usually in pairs. Stories are told that in mid-AUG, after the surrender message by the Emperor, British and America agents appeared seemingly out of nowhere to take control of the situation. The Japanese couldn’t understand how so many could have been there for so long and stayed hidden. One of the major tasks of these teams was to monitor the various POW camps for signs that the Japanese were preparing to execute those men. In addition, to the agents, Thais who had been in the US or UK as students or businessmen were also trained as trainers and were sent in to help the agents form guerilla or resistance units. This is where the Thai control of the central plains was critical. It allowed a generally safe, ‘off limits’ area for these agents to operate with impunity.
John Coast, a British Lieutenant, relates the story of the arrival of two such men at the Kanchanaburi POW camp in mid-AUG in his excellent book: Railroad of Death. These turned out to be two American paratroopers, regular Army not special OSS agents. They had parachuted in some months before and had been watching over the various camps in the area. In his book Railway Man, Eric Lomax (also a Brit) relates a brief encounter with these two at the Khao Din rail yard just to the south of Kanchanaburi city. He was returned down a slope having delivered water to a Japanese anti-aircraft battery perched on a hilltop overlooking the yards. They had been frequent targets of P-38 long-range attack craft. As he shuffled along the path, he noted a movement in the bushes. Two white faces appeared and with fingers on their lips to instruct silence, waved him by. That was the first and last encounter until they drove into Khao Din one morning and picked up the 10 Americans who were there and took them back to the main camp area.
John Coast picks up the story a few days later. He heard it from a fellow Brit who had been a police officer in Penang Malay before the war. He decided that he wanted to go back there rather than be repatriated back to England. He made contact with the Governor of Kanchanaburi Province to see if he could assist that wish. The GOV discouraged such an attempt in that there were apparently many Japanese combat troops between them that had yet to capitulate. But in an effort to assist, the GOV took this man on a day’s journey into the hills near Lat Ya. Part of the meager Thai Army had maintained a presence in Lat Ya which was astride the historical invasion route by the Burmese. Today, it is the site of the largest Thai Army base in the country as the HQ of the 9th Infantry Division. It is also the site where US Forces trained Thais who were deploying to Vietnam in the late-1960s. In the 1940s, Lat Ya had a primitive air strip that was apparently used by the Allies to land transport planes laden with supplies, weapons and ammunition for the ‘sleeper agents’.
After a multi-hour journey, first by car and then by horseback, they came to a clearing in the jungle where there were dozens of Thais undergoing military training. In a rather comfortable house sat the two American soldiers – referred to as only Hank and Dan. Over cigars and whiskey, they told their story of monitoring the camps and training a force that was to attack if it appeared that an execution was about to take place.
For their part, the US POWs at Kanchanaburi were as amazed as everyone else to find two America soldiers in their midst. The fact that they were driving Jeeps was even more strange since the Jeep had entered service well after they had been taken as prisoners. By the end of the war, there were only about 350 US POWs still at Kanchanaburi. Many had been sent on to other camps, some to Japan and Vietnam and others returned to Singapore. The paratroopers easily hired (procured / stole) trucks and took the now ex-POWs to Bangkok where they stayed in warehouses near the port – a place that became known as Harbor City. Within a matter of days, they were being shuttled out to Calcutta to the 142nd General Hospital for recuperation and treatment of their ills.
One short side-story to this side-story is worth telling. An AAF Major walked into a barracks area and yelled “Are there any Yanks here!.” When a few identified themselves he told them to grab their gear and gather as many of their mates as possible. He had room for 40 to leave immediately. They carried some of the weaker men on stretchers to the plane. It seems that that pilot had made a few trips into the airport but there were only British troops awaiting evacuation. He said he was tired of carrying out Brits when he knew there had to be Yanks nearby.
LTC Tharp’s personal diary relates how he moved his HQ staff to Bangkok and began sending small groups to the other camps in Thailand to round up the Americans and bring them to Bangkok. CPT Fowler flew to Saigon to retrieve the TXNG men who had been sent there.
One of the most unfortunate stories is told elsewhere. It is the account of Ensign John Stivers who was diagnosed with a brain tumor and sent to the Nakorn Pathom hospital camp (about half way between Kan and Bangkok). He was quickly brought to Bangkok and spent a week or so at the Bangkok Nursing Home hospital (which still exists today). He was rapidly evacuated through Calcutta to New York where he died on 7 OCT 1945, barely two month after liberation.
Although no US POWs were involved, ‘liberation’ came early to some 175 POWs. On Sep 12 1944, the Hellship Rokyu Maru was sunk by a US sub while en route to Japan. Over the next week, oil-coated , near death survivors were plucked from the sea by other US subs in the area. That story is told here:
One question that arises not infrequently is that of retribution against the guards. From my reading, it either was very uncommon or the men simply are not inclined to talk about it. As to the latter, I can understand an individual not wanting to admit that he was involved, but there are even few stories of what ‘other guys’ did. Concerning the former, it does seem that as soon as they were notified of the surrender, the Japanese guards simply melted away; “recalled to Bangkok” was the phrase used. In many cases the Koreans departed with them. Where they remained, the Koreans seemed to become meek and humble and simply tried to stay out of the way of the former-POWs and their new-found freedom of movement. Lastly, there are descriptions of the Engineers cowering in their barracks hoping noting would happen to them. As noted, however, direct contact between the POWs and the engineering staff was infrequent and fleeting. IOW, there was little animosity to be addressed.