Monday, May 6, 2013

Prisoners of War

Some Survived

In mid-November 1943 Major Tsuneishi wanted a central location for POWs with broadcasting experience. He set up a secret prison camp in the Kandu section of Tokyo. He called it Bunka camp. Before the war the nondescript building served as the Japanese cultural center. In the center of the prison yard stood a ramshackle wooden structure that served as the prisoners dormitory. The entire camp was sealed off from the surrounding neighborhood by high walls and barbed wire. Armed guards in military uniforms kept the curious away. A sign over the gate read “Sungadu Technical Research Center.” To the outside world the nondescript compound looked harmless. A passerby would never have identified it as a concentration camp. On December 18, 1943, Major Cousens and Captain Ince were transferred Bunka camp.

 Living conditions in the camp, nicknamed “Bunker Hill” by American POWs, were grim. Twenty-seven prisoners were housed in a forty-by-sixty-foot room. There was no heat and no blankets. Medical supplies were nonexistent.  Camp guards sold Red Cross supplies on the black market. A Dutch POW described the Bunka menu: “We got a ration of three cups of kaoliang (a grain often used as chicken feed) a day and three bowls of soup to get that down with. The bowls of soup were a little larger than the teacups. The soup consisted of daikon (radish)..., a little salt..., a little soy, to which water was added.” Starving prisoners ate buds off tree branches and an occasional stray dog or cat.

Every two weeks after the guards washed their laundry prisoners were allowed to bathe in the filthy water.  Japanese prison guards were infamous for their brutality. It was a dishonor for a Japanese soldier to be assigned prison guard duty; subsequently, only the dregs of the Japanese military were selected. Guards took out their shame and frustration on their prisoners. Sadistic beatings and torture were daily events. At the slightest provocation a guard would knock a prisoner senseless. There was little or no medical attention—sick, wounded, starving, it made no difference. Prisoners toiled for fifteen-hour days in nearby labor camps.

The brutal conditions in Japanese concentration camps took a tremendous toll. Nearly 10 percent of Allied servicemen died in captivity. In the eight concentration camp groups spread throughout Japan a total 3,544 soldiers and sailors perished. In comparison one percent of POWs died in Nazi concentration camps. The average American lost sixty-one pounds during captivity. Men were crippled and disfigured from the constant beatings. Teeth were ruined, and many went blind from malnutrition. Beriberi was endemic, as were tuberculosis and dysentery. The prisoners at  Bunka knew that any given day could be their last. If the guards didn’t kill them, disease and starvation would. Each morning for three months a camp officer, Captain Kimai, ordered the prisoners to stand at attention in the courtyard while they listened to his rants about the impending deaths of those who refused to participate in Radio Tokyo broadcasts.

When he arrived at Bunka, Major Cousens was appalled at the conditions. As the ranking Allied officer, he demanded better treatment for the prisoners. His complaints were rebuffed with beatings. Cousens appealed to Toguri for help. She redoubled her smuggling efforts, using whatever resources she could scrounge up. She no longer was smuggling for three; now it was the entire camp of 27 who depended on her. She bought, bartered, and begged aspirin, quinine, and yeast pills. Friends contributed vegetables and fruits. She hid contraband in a tin mess can. One day she managed to smuggle in a blanket under her clothes.  She hiked further and further into the countryside to scrounge whatever she could.  If she was discovered the penalty was death.

To be continued