The fate of Allied POWs in WWII

National POW/MIA Recognition Day is celebrated annually in the US on the third Friday in September. It is a day when those captured or missing, and their families, are remembered and recognised in ceremonies at the Pentagon, museums and war memorials. With 83,000 Americans currently missing from WWII, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam and the Gulf War, it is not surprising that many feel the need to honour and mourn lost colleagues and family, and the US Department of Defence continues to try and recover or track down lost soldiers. Over 73,000 Americans remain unaccounted for from WWII alone, and the search goes on.

Although there’s no British day of remembrance, and no government department working to find the missing around the clock, the UK Forces certainly suffered their share of captures and disappearances in the war. The missing are exceedingly hard to trace, but Forces War Records can help you to find out if your ancestors were taken prisoner. We hold exclusive collections of ‘Imperial POW held in Italy in 1943’ and ‘Imperial POW held in Japan’, as well as the more widely available ‘List of British Officers Taken Prisoner WWI’, ‘British Red Cross & Order of St John Enquiry List 1917 (missing and wounded)’ and a record of ‘POWs of the British Empire held in Germany, 1939-45’. 

According to ‘POW: Allied Prisoners in Europe 1939-45’ by Adrian Gilbert, both US and British POWs held in Italy (and Germany, in fact) were comparatively lucky. Their countries had not been occupied, and the German and Italian governments recognised that the treatment of Axis Prisoners of War would depend on the care given to Allied prisoners in return. Furthermore, as noted in ‘Dunant’s Dream’ by Caroline Moorehead, the ‘Prisoner-of-war Code’ agreed at the 1929 Geneva Convention (in theory at least) dictated the conditions of captive housing, temperature, nourishment, hygiene and working parties, and demanded that higher status should be given to officers, and valid complaints should be listened to. The Red Cross and representatives from neutral countries were regularly allowed in to inspect conditions, so widespread violence or neglect could be prevented from occurring.

By September 1943, when Italy changed sides in the war, 80,000 Allied prisoners were being held in the country. Some of the camps were very picturesque, and Officer prisoners especially were accorded a lot of freedom and privileges. The men suffered more hardships, with up to 80 being housed in one block and food often scarce; in the winter of 1941-42 especially, disruption to Red Cross deliveries meant that there was real hunger. There was also the odd camp commandant who really didn’t like enemy soldiers. In particular, a Colonel Calcatera, who commanded Campo P.G. 57 near Gruppignano, encouraged ill-treatment of prisoners and was rumoured keep a notice in his office saying, “English are accursed, but more accursed are the Italians that treat them well’.

However, the worse punishments British prisoners had to endure were things such as solitary confinement, being made to stand for hours in the cold, or having their hair cut off. Until 1942 prisoners weren’t ever forced to take part in working parties, and those who volunteered to work were given double rations as a reward. They suffered from the lack of freedom, the monotonies of camp life and bouts of hunger, but not much else.

Not so those unlucky enough to be taken prisoner by the Japanese. 140,000 Allied soldiers, mostly from the US and the Philippines but many from Britain, Australia, Holland and New Zealand, were captured in East Asia. Of these, 1 in 4 died in captivity. ‘Prisoners of the Japanese’ by Gavan Daws explains that, unlike in the German death camps, there was no concerted policy of Genocide. Instead, the men were viciously and arbitrarily beaten, starved until they had no strength left, denied medical attention and made to work, in many cases literally, to death. Worse, they often used prisoners for medical experimentation, and there were reports of cannibalism and, with Chinese prisoners, mass burial of live prisoners.

The Japanese refused to be bound by the Geneva Convention, and in fact often raided the Red Cross shipments of food and medicine meant for the prisoners. Their complete disdain for the men in their charge was not, in fact, political in origin, but stemmed from cultural and racial differences. Japanese soldiers lived and died by the code of Bushido, honour unto death. Those who failed to fight for their country until their last breath, and worse actually allowed themselves to be captured, deserved only torture and death. They were inhuman, lower than dogs, and certainly not worthy of compassion.

This is why the prisoners of the Japanese endured a staggering level of cruelty and neglect, whether during the Bataan Death March, when in April 1942 US and Phillipine soldiers died in huge numbers on being forcibly transferred to Camp O’Donnell, during transport back to Japan in vessels so over-crowded, airless and riddled with disease that they have been compared to the African slave ships of the Eighteenth Century, or in the camps themselves, where guards set prisoner against prisoner and systematically broke down men who demonstrated any spark of resistance or humanity. Unlike the POWs in Italy, who chafed to re-join the fighting and worked to keep themselves fit in case of liberation, the Japanese POWs had enough of a fight on their hands just to stay alive.

War is by nature violent and brutal, and very few wish to live through times of conflict, but at least soldiers involved in the fighting of World War Two felt that they were in some way helping their country, even as they suffered. Whatever conditions they were held in, POWs all shared feelings of helplessness and frustration at being unable to control their own destinies and make a difference in the war. However, to be captured in the first place a man must have first stepped up to do his bit. That is why it is right and proper that prisoners and the missing should be honoured and remembered, just as combatants are, and their families prevented from suffering alone.



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