to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

8.15 the Engineers

I have read dozens of survivor accounts in which many provide stories of their interaction with their captors. There were three groups with whom the POWs had contact in decreasing order: the Korean Guards, the IJA Camp Staff and the IJA Engineers. Amongst themselves, these three groups remained quite separate; each had its own barracks areas. Except for the camp staff ordering and often disciplining the Koreans guards, there seemed to be little contact between these groups.

There are photos that show Japanese soldiers (likely engineers) seemingly doing hard labor alongside the POWs (and romusha). The dating and placement of these is uncertain. No POW mentions soldiers doing work. Even sergeants among the Engineers seems to have a purely supervisory role. The usual work scheme seemed to unfold this way. Engineering officers would define the work to be performed that day. Sergeants would set markers for excavations or berm building. The IJA camp staff would assemble the POW work parties called kumis. Each would consist (at least early on) of about 50 men under the supervision of a POW officer. Those POW officers rarely actually performed hard labor. Their primary job was to shield the workers from the wrath of the guards.

The Korean guards would march the POWs to and from the work site of the day – which could be as much as 12 Km from the camp, but was usually close by. At first, the labor continued until the task of the day was accomplished then the POWs were returned to camp. It seemed to the POWs that efficient accomplishment would earn them more downtime. Apparently, it was the Australian POWs who encouraged the Texans to slow down; not work too quickly to accomplish the tasks. Some POWs describe instances where stakes were placed to demarcate the area to be excavated. The POWs would distract the guards and move the stakes, allowing them to more quickly complete the assigned task and return to camp. Apparently, the Engineers were rarely present during the heat of the day or in the rain. They would appear later to verify that the assignment was complete and release the POWs to be returned to camp. For obvious reasons, the Engineers seemed to be on-site during the building of bridges and trestles more so than for excavation and berm building.   

For the most part, the POWs seemed to have little direct contact with the Engineers. There are a few notable incidents where confrontations of various severity occurred, but these were quite rare. This seems to have been borne out in the post-war trials for war crimes in which it was the IJA camp staff and Korean guards who stood trial, but few of the Engineers. Those same Engineers, though, seemed totally oblivious to the plight and health of their ‘tools’. For that is precisely what the POWs and romusha were to them. It would seem that the enlisted men of the Engineer units benefited most from their presence in that they themselves did far less – if any – manual labor. One would think that these Engineers who took great pride in their work would have interceded somewhat more on the behalf of these ‘tools’. But is also seems that early on they learned that the ‘care and feeding’ of the POWs were strictly the purview of the IJA camp staff and that they could not (would not?) influence it. [see SECTION 25 WHATIFs]

In his memoirs, Australian LtCol. Dunlop goes into considerable detail as to how as the health of the POWs deteriorated and the daily number of workers demanded by the Engineers became harder to fill, sick men were forced to work. It was not uncommon for the camp staff to come to the hospital huts and demand that some of the men join the work parties. Such action were later defined as war crimes for which those IJA soldiers paid the price.

It is also worthy of note that the Korean guards were described by the POWs as the most vicious. Whether on orders of their Japanese supervisors or of their own accord, they were the ones who meted out the beatings, punishment and torture. As often as not, a Korean would be detailed to oversee whatever punishment was handed down. They were the ones who stood in the sun or rain while the IJA soldiers retreated to their barracks.

The POWs commonly describe incidents where the Korean guards were severely beaten by their IJA supervisors for some infraction of the rules, however minor. It is small wonder, then, that the guards would be easily triggered to slap, punch, kick or strike the POWs for infractions that they observed or just perceived. There were some exceptions to this, in that a few of the guards and fewer of the IJA staff had friendly interactions with the POWs. One aspect of the behavior of the US POWs that never seemed to amaze their captors was their sense of humor. Perhaps as a release of tension and frustration the Texans especially, would laugh and joke in the face of the horrors they faced.   

PVT Eldridge RAYBURN describes things this way in an interview:

What would be some of the forms of punishment that they would give to the prisoners?

Well, outside of making you stand at attention while he slapped both sides of your face until it was red as a beet, well, they had this favorite one of bringing you to the guardhouse and making you stand at attention there for hours. There was various ways but they would go into a rage and if they could beat on a couple of guys for maybe ten or fifteen minutes, why, they were all right. And they done plenty of that–for no reason. Would they also use clubs and gun butts and things like that?  Oh, they always had their guns. Oh, they was real handy with the butt of a rifle, you know; I mean, that was one of their favorite things, you know. If he slapped you around to where you’d turn around, well, he could get you in the kidney with that rifle butt.

But in Bicycle Camp there wasn’t just a whole bunch of that going on. Oh, if they’d catch somebody way off down from the barracks down there, you know, out away from the guard house, then somebody down there might take a real good beating. But the sticks didn’t come into this or the bamboo didn’t really come into this until after we hit the jungle because it was so handy–bamboo grows every here.

I also understand that one of their punishments in extreme cases was to place a bamboo pole behind a prisoner’s knees and make him lean on it for an extended period of time.

Oh, I’ll tell you, there was several little tricks like that, and I know that later on they practiced this farther down the railroad. But I didn’t see any of that in Bicycle Camp. They had some “hot holes.” They had some little deals, you know, where they put you in a hole, covered–and it was dark–for two or three days. There’s probably no telling what degree it was in there. I believe, probably, one of their favorites was this standing at attention in front of the guardhouse, and for two of our prisoners that lasted seventy-two hours. CPL Jack Cellum was one of them.

As described in the earlier sections about the Bridge, the IJA Engineers were capable and experienced men. Unlike the premise of the famous movie, they needed no help in planning or construction. The workers (POWs and romusha) were simply tools. It is interestingly rather well documented that the bridge and trestles constructed on the TBR are straight out of the US Military Engineering Manual (aka Merriman’s Manual).