I see that the 70th anniversary of the dropping of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki this last weekend brought the usual hand-wringing and heart-string twanging on the part of the news media, and another round of the endless discussion over whether it was justified or not, with the same old patient answering of what the alternative would have been. I’ve really nothing more to add to that particular discussion, save noting that the stocks of Purple Heart medals struck and stockpiled in anticipation of American casualties in a full-frontal invasion of Japan have only in the last fifteen years been diminished to the point where a new order for them had to be initiated – this, after Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Kosovo, Gulf War 1, and Iraq.
The expected fate of American and Allied soldiers in an invasion of the Japanese mainland was only part of it, an aspect which tends to be forgotten in the afterglow of the mushroom cloud. There were Allied civilians involved as well, and their fates were also tied up in use of the atom bomb. With the passage of time, memory of the realities of WWII in the Pacific for people who were actually present have dimmed in memory as that generation passes. There is a kind of partial amnesia in certain quarters, a tendency to forget that conflict between the Allies and the Japanese was knock-down and drag out brutal, completely unscathed by any pretense of observing the so-called rules of war; that white flags would be honored, that prisoners and internees would be treated humanely, according to the Geneva Convention, the Red Cross would be respected – all these and a number of other war-making conventions were flung down and danced upon, beginning with on Day One – as far as Americans were concerned – with a sneak attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor.
Germany may very well have been run by a murderous Nazi gang headed by a demented paper-hanger and failed artist, Germans may have been referred to disparagingly as Krauts, and lampooned in the movies and pop music by cut-ups like Charlie Chaplain and Spike Jones, but as far as Americans were concerned, they at least made an effort to honor the rules of war when it came to all the Allies save the Russians. They had a certain amount of grudging respect as an enemy but a mostly honorable one – until the concentration camps and indisputable evidence of the Final Solution were uncovered at the end of the war. With the Japanese, there was no such mutual courtesy extended, no quarter offered and none given or expected from the very first. Poisonously racist attitudes and assumptions were openly demonstrated by all parties concerned, and the Japanese were more than equal in demonstrated bigotry towards all non-Japanese. Initially welcomed as liberators from the colonial powers all over south-east Asia, they had made themselves so detested for their brutality that by 1945 returning Westerners had local allies who hated the Japanese more than their one-time colonial masters.
I had read that initially those horrifying reports of the treatment of American and Filipino POWs on the Bataan Death March which leaked out through a handful of fortunate escapees were suppressed as a matter of national security, to avoid damaging morale on the home front. It was easier, in those days of written letters, telegrams and a few radio broadcasts, to keep a lid on everything but rumors. Of rumors and fears there were plenty all across the United States, Australia and Great Britain; those countries and a handful of others saw thousands, hundreds of thousands of civilian and military citizens – nurses, missionaries, soldiers, businessmen, colonial authorities, expatriates, and their wives and children – simply vanish into the black hole of the Japan administered Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere after the fall of Singapore, Malaya, Borneo, the Philippines, Hong Kong and those European enclaves in China. Few if any letters or contact, no reassurance from the Red Cross that their people were alive, safe and well for more than three and a half years; fears and rumors abounded. If those military and civilian internees were still alive, they were not safe and – increasingly as the war ground on to a bitter end – not well, either.
In a museum in Britain sometime in our wandering summer of 1976 – was it Carlisle? Salisbury? York, maybe? One of those little local museums, with a case of artifacts given over to the relics of the local regiment, with dusty embroidered colors, and little Victoria sweet-tins, and souvenir hardtack crackers adorned with poems in careful copperplate handwriting. This museum had a long picture of an entire company of soldiers; one of those formal things with four rows of men and officers standing on risers. Everyone who has ever served has been in at least one picture of that sort, but this one had a sad distinction; the entire company, fifty or so, were captured in the fall of Singapore… and none survived to the war’s end. They were sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railway, and among the museum’s relics was a metal measure about the size of a 12-ounce can. It was used, so said the card underneath, to measure out the daily ration of water and rice for the slave labor set by the Japanese to work on the railway. And that was what they got, day in, day out, doing hard physical labor in the tropics … just that little rice and water. The saying about the Burma-Siam railway after the war was there was a man dead for every sleeper laid, the whole length of it: POW, internee, or native civilian pressed-ganged into the service of the Japanese.
POWs and internees were routinely starved, forced into hard labor, denied any kind of effective medical treatment save what internee doctors and nurses could provide, spitefully prevented from communicating with the outside world, or keeping any kind of diary or record at all, subject to the most vicious punishments – up to and including murder in a revoltingly gruesome variety of ways – for the most trivial offenses or often none at all. Transported to Japan itself, to labor in mines and factories, POWs were loaded like cattle, into the holds of transport ships; men went insane, and tragically, died when the ships were bombed and torpedoed by the Allies. There are also stomach-churning accounts of POWs used as guinea-pigs in Japanese medical experiments, and vivisected while alive and un-anesthetized. The estimate is that 27% of the Allied POWs held by the Japanese perished in captivity, as opposed to 2-3% held by the Germans.
Civilian internees fared hardly better; this account of women and children interned in Sumatra – most of them shipwrecked in the Java Sea while escaping Singapore by sea in the last days before the surrender – reckon that about half perished in captivity. American internees in the Philippines fared a little better, although most survivors of Santo Tomas and Los Banos estimate they were about two weeks from dying of starvation when they were liberated. “Thou shalt not kill,” runs the bitter couplet, “But need not strive, officiously, to keep alive.” Most military and civilian survivor accounts concur on the time frame of survival; that is, if the Japanese didn’t massacre them all first, as they did at Palawan. At best, writer-historian Gavin Daws estimates that the subsequent life-expectancy of the survivors was reduced by ten or fifteen years, so severe were long-term health problems resulting after three years of near-starvation, exposure to every tropical and deficiency disease known to medical science, and the psychotic brutality of the Japanese camp guards.
During the war, this was not something much talked about, except in the vaguest sort of way – no spreading despair on the home front. Immediately afterwards, the most popular accounts of captivity, such as Agnes Newton Keith’s Three Came Home (1947) give the impression that it all was quite dreadful, but skimmed over the specifics. Many survivors wanted more than anything to just forget, to put it out of mind, and have a normal life again, and many more just could not talk about it at all, save to those few comrades who had been there with them. It is only in the last few years that I have really noticed the horrific accounts being published, and historical memory uneasily jousting with political correctness. But it is clear – that the total surrender of the Japanese after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved civilian internees and POWs alike.