by Jack Demlow
It is well known in the American popular consciousness that Japanese Imperial Army at the time of World War II abhorred the idea of being taken prisoners in war, leading to suicidal attacks by Japanese soldiers and utter contempt for any enemies that they took prisoner. Additionally, though Japan officially stated that the terms of the Geneva Convention would be followed so far as it was possible, Japan had itself never ratified it.
Following the Convention “so far as it was possible” meant it would not be followed very far at all, for excuses of cultural difference and necessity for labor would be used by the state as an external pretense to mask the Japanese military’s total antipathy regarding their prisoners’ well being; The Imperial Army violated at least 5 different articles of the Geneva convention with regards to the trial and execution of Allied POWs alone, not to mention further violations with regard to treatment of prisoners in the camps and using prisoners for labor. It is also worth noting that the disciplinary culture within the Imperial Army was extremely severe, and an institution that encouraged beatings for its own soldiers would hardly be expected to protect prisoners of war. Common means of execution were bayoneting, beheading with the sword, and by firing squad, while in fewer cases prisoners were drowned or immolated en masse.
While the behavior of Japanese soldiers and camp guards showed disturbing callousness towards the lives of defeated Allied soldiers, sadism was not reserved for prisons and camps: on several occasions, surrendering Allies were bayoneted or shot en masse on the spot. In
Hong Kong and Singapore, wounded soldiers were killed in their beds or penned up alongside civilian doctors and nurses for execution later. The captured defenders of Amboina Island (nearly 300 men) and both the civilian and military crew of the Vynor Brook (also around 300 persons) provide additional examples of mass slaughter, their executions seemingly ordered to prevent them from being a “drain” on the resources and manpower of the Japanese military.
Allied airmen were a unique case, for they were especially despised by their Japanese captors. After the “Doolittle Raid” bombed several cities on the Islands of Japan as a reprisal for Pearl Harbor, the Enemy Airmen’s Act was created by the Japanese government as a deterrent to Allied air strikes: in essence, the act declared that any Allied airmen who were found guilty of attacking civilians, private property, nonmilitary objectives (beyond what was unavoidable) or committing ‘violations of war-time international law’ would be prosecuted as war criminals and could be given the death penalty or ten years imprisonment. Three captured Doolittle pilots would be executed for such “offenses,” with their trials being little more than formal fronts for state-sponsored revenge. In the case of the Doolittle flyers, and many others that would be executed throughout the war, the impossibility of determining which plane was responsible for the destruction of which buildings did not stop the Imperial Army from finding them guilty. As the war progressed and more and more airmen were captured in greater numbers, trials were often dispensed with and prisoners were executed straight away. Regardless of whether or not they were given an official trial, their “guilt” was already determined by the flags on their uniforms.
As for the Allied soldiers who were not executed immediately or charged with war crimes and executed later, their fates were notoriously bleak and uncertain. They might be tortured or worked to death, murdered on the whim of a Japanese guard, or they might survive long enough to fall victim to another cruelty: mass execution to prevent their rescue by the Allies. Not only were these mass murders aimed to spite their foes, but in some cases, the executions were carried out to silence witnesses to the Imperial Army’s atrocities. Massacres on Formosa and Palawan took place while the war was still raging, with the events on the latter island being particularly chilling: the prisoners were fooled into thinking that an Allied bombing run was on its way, and then when they were all huddled in bomb shelters the Japanese soldiers lit the structures on fire and hosed them down with machine gun fire. Allied soldiers held on Wake Island and Fukuoka were murdered when their captors heard about Japan’s surrender, final acts of cruel defiance by men who were taught that defeat was anathema.
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