Allied Prisoners Of War in WWII Japanese Camps Facts and Information

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Conditions in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps In World War II

This Research Paper was compiled for HIS390, which is the preliminary paper to the Senior Thesis Paper at UNCA.

The Japanese viewed those who surrendered as inferior and subject to the mercy of their captures. Tojo, the Japanese war minister, informed the commandants of prisoners of war camps the Japanese government had not signed the Geneva Convention and they were not bound to it. The Japanese field code for soldiers required soldiers to commit suicide rather than surrender. Because of the time schedule set for conquest by Japanese high command, Japanese soldiers slaughtered surrendering Allied soldiers routinely. On Dutch Timor, 800 Australians surrendered only to be tied together and used for bayonet practice. “The Japanese commander explained prisoners were likely to drag upon the movement of his troops.” When Japanese troops overrun Hong Kong, Colonel Tanaka told his troops, take no prisoners. At the Royal Army Medical Corps dressing station, staff and wounded offered no resistance. They were led out and executed on a nearby hill.

Bataan Surrender & Death March

On April 8, 1942, General King summed up the situation of his troops on Bataan. His troops had enough food and ammunition left for two days. Weakened by starvation and disease, the men could barely muster enough strength to move yet alone fight another battle. King knew he had no choice but to disobey orders. At 0900 on April 9th, King surrendered 78,000 men to the Japanese. King had secured enough vehicles and gas to transport his men to the prison camps. However, the Japanese had other plans. Groups of prisoners assembled in various locations in the vicinity of Mariveles at the tip of the Bataan Peninsula. A series of marches set out north towards San Fernando anywhere from 65 miles away. The Japanese gave no water or food to the prisoners along the way. Prisoners fortunate to have their canteens ran out of water quickly in the 120-degree heat. Prisoners fell by the roadside. The Japanese killed all that did not get up. Marching eight abreast, the two inside positions proved to be the safest and the most coveted. Prisoners on the perimeter of the columns received the most blows from Japanese guards. A Japanese guard noted one prisoner staggering on the perimeter of the column and pulled the man in front of a convoy of passing tanks. The prisoner’s clothes remained etched in the dirt; a grim reminder to the other prisoners to keep in step.

When the prisoners reached San Fernando, they loaded railroad boxcars. The Japanese forced over one hundred men into the boxcars that could accommodate forty men comfortably. Packed in so tightly, no one knew when another died because no one could fall over. Men died of asphyxiation because of the thin air. With no sanitary facilities and dysentery rampant, the floor and men soon became covered with blood, mucus and excrement. The floor became slippery, the stench overwhelming. The trains stopped, the prisoners unloaded, leaving the dead behind. They marched another ten to twelve miles to Camp O’Donnell.

Camp Conditions

At Camp O’Donnell, two small water spigots served initially 45000 Filipinos and 8000 Americans. Men waited in line 12-14 hours to fill their canteens. To supplement the water supply, men carried water from the polluted Bamban River. Men drank the water without boiling it. As a result, dysentery spread throughout the camp. In the first six weeks of captivity, 1500 to 1600 prisoners died. The Japanese shut Camp O’Donnell down in July 1942 transferring all but the very sick to Cabanatuan.

Primitive sanitation facilities contributed to the spread of dysentery. Latrines consisted of open slip trenches and could not accommodate the population of the camp. Men unable to control their bowels could not reach the latrines in time. Prisoners used buckets and dug trenches for toilets. Flies landed on the excrement then landed on food thus contaminating the food supply. Amoebic dysentery reached epidemic proportions.

Prisoners afflicted with amoebic dysentery suffered from inflammation of the large intestine resulting from ulcerations. The disease caused abdominal pain and diarrhea with blood and mucus. Doctors tried in vain to arrest the disease using burnt rice as treatment. However without effective drugs, prisoners died from dehydration resulting from the diarrhea.

Mosquitoes carried Dengue Fever and Cerebral Malaria. These two debilitating diseases commonly occur in the tropics. Prisoners with Dengue fever suffered from extreme pain and stiffness in their joints, fever and blinding headache. Prisoners afflicted with Malaria suffered from recurring bouts of chills and fever. The camp hospital had very limited supplies of quinine to treat malaria. Without adequate medications, prisoners developed anemia, clogged blood vessels of the cerebral tissues, jaundice, and enlargement of the Spleen and Liver.

Burial details involved three groups of prisoners each assigned a different task. The first group dug a mass grave measuring 12 feet by 5 feet deep. The second group carried the dead in blankets to the burial ground not far from the camp. After retrieving the dog tags of the dead for identification, the prisoners arranged the decomposing bodies so more could fit in the grave. After straightening out the bodies, the third group put the dead into the grave. Prisoners had to hold down the bodies with sticks to keep them from floating to the top as other prisoners filled the grave in with dirt. The soft dirt of the Jungle, the rains of the monsoon season and the humid weather of the Philippines together with the gas produced by the rotting flesh caused the dead to swell and rise to the top of the ground. Japanese guards wore surgical masks due to the nauseating stench of rotting corpses. “Wild dogs dug up the graves and carried off body parts.”

Food & Nutrition

The quality and quantity of food varied from camp to camp depending on the commandant. In the Philippines at Camp O’Donnell and Cabanatuan #1 daily meals consisted of rice and a few sweet potato tops made into a thin gruel. Prisoners received a piece of meat the size of the end of a finger twice a week. Worms, weevils and cockroaches crawled through each serving. Daily rations actually consisted of what prisoners referred to as “R, R and R (rocks, rat shit and rice) and scraps of maggot ridden fish. “ Rocks in the food broke enamel off teeth and added to the misery of the prisoners.

Total calories for the diet ranged from 1200 to 1650 calories per day. An average man of 200 lbs doing heavy work needs 4000 calories a day to maintain body weight. The Japanese official ration for prisoners set in the fall of 1942, allowed 15 ounces of rice to officers and 28 ounces to enlisted men doing hard labor with an occasional infusion of vegetables, fish and meat up to a maximum of 12 ounces. The diet fed to prisoners not only lacked sufficient calories to maintain body weight but lacked sufficient nutrients to maintain health resulting in malnutrition and disease.

A main diet of polished rice with very little else such as the diet fed to prisoners causes a vitamin B1 deficiency known as Beriberi. Symptoms of Beriberi include exhaustion, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and numbness. Beriberi left unchecked results in nerve and heart damage. Adding meat and vegetable to the diet checks the disease.

The disease Pellagra results from a diet high in starch and insufficient in niacin and amino acids. Symptoms displayed in patients with Pellagra include skin lesions, diarrhea, and neurological disorders such as dementia, nervousness, confusion, depression, apathy and delirium. . Prisoners rescued at Cabanatuan by Rangers acted confused and many refused to leave. Adding milk and eggs to the diet can effectively treat pellagra. Prisoners rarely received milk and eggs in their diets.

Prisoners attempted to supplement their diets to stay alive. Papaya, Okra leaves, sweet potato peels, wild plants found near the camps, roots, lizards, snakes, snails, rats, dogs and cats that roamed the camps and earthworms supplemented the diets of prisoners. Around camp Cabanatuan #1, fruit lay rotting on the ground yet the commandant refused to allow prisoners on pain of death to harvest the abundance of fruit growing on the trees outside the camp.

At Cabanatuan, Chaplain Taylor organized an entire smuggling ring to obtain medicine and food for hospital patients. Taylor contacted prisoners who routinely picked up and delivered rice sacks to the prison to help. These prisoners, in turn, requested the help of the Filipinos who loaded the rice sack. Risking death, these Filipinos obtained the requested medicine and food then hid it between the rice sacks in the loaded carts. After driving the carts into camp, the drivers secretly delivered the goods to Chaplain Taylor. Unfortunately, the guards caught Taylor. For punishment, Taylor spent 14 weeks in solitary confinement in a cage where he could neither stand up nor lie down. Another Chaplain died under interrogation for the same crime because he refused to identify the Filipinos involved in the smuggling network.

Red Cross Packages

At Cabanatuan, the commandant turned away Red Cross trucks that attempted to deliver food packages to the prisoners at the camp five different times. Average Red Cross food packages consisted of medicine, blankets, powdered milk, a small tin of butter, sugar, coffee, cans of meat and milk, a box of prunes, a chocolate bar and other items equivalent to about eleven pounds of food. In addition to supplies, the Red Cross delivered mail from home to the prisoners. “Communication with family and love ones was important to maintain morale in periods of long captivity.

Japanese withheld Red Cross packages as punishment or for their own consumption. Guards stole medicine from “the only two Red Cross packages the prisoners received in three years. In a turnabout, a few merciful Japanese who had been American educated, actually stole medicine back and used it to keep some of the prisoners alive.” When packages did reach the internees, the Japanese withheld food rations until the prisoners consumed all the food contained in the Red Cross packages.

After 1942 the Japanese began to feed the internees better. Rations increased however food still remained inadequate. Death rates of prisoners began to decrease. Japanese soldiers foraged for food from the beginning of the war because they did not receive adequate food supplies from military stores. In 1944, the supply lines to the Japanese army had been cut by the allies. To demonstrate the destitution of the Japanese army, between 1943 and 1944, starving Japanese soldiers in New Guinea resorted to cannibalism in their own ranks. The Japanese unable to feed their own army, cut the rations of the prisoners.

Cabanatuan became the largest Prisoner of War camp in Asia. The Japanese used Cabanatuan as a holding camp where prisoners throughout Asia came to await shipment to various labor camps. From here prisoners went to labor camps in Japan, Formosa, Manchuria and elsewhere in Asia. Prisoners loaded ships in Manila Bay. Survivors declare the hell ships to have been the worst experience of their internment. Packed tightly into the ship holds, prisoners suffocated. They had very little air, no sanitation, no water and no food. Prisoners drank blood and urine to try and quench their thirst. The unmarked ships carried cargo as well as the prisoners. American submarines sunk many of the ships in route to Japan and other locations in Asia. On September 7, 1944, two torpedoes stuck the Shinyo Maru, Japanese guards started shooting the prisoners. The ship sunk. Out of 750 prisoners on board only 200 survived. On December 14, 1944, an American Navy plane attacked the Orokyu Maru. The ship held 308 prisoners of war, most of which managed to swim to a nearby island. Filipino guerillas helped the survivors get off the island and to freedom via an American submarine. On October 24th, 1944, the Arisan Maru sank after being struck by three torpedoes from American destroyers. The Arisan Maru held 1800 prisoners, only three survived.

Rescue of Cabanatuan Camp Prisoners

In late 1944, Tojo (Japanese minister of war) issued orders to all Japanese commandants of Prisoner of War camps to kill all Prisoners. Fortunately, many Japanese commandants never carried out these orders. However, in December 1944, on the Island of Palawan in the Philippines, a detail of 150 prisoners were massacred. Burned alive using aviation fluid. A few prisoners managed to escape and fled to nearby islands where they were rescued by the Filipino resistance. The resistance fighters took the escaped prisoners to a nearby island where Americans were staging the imminent invasion to take back the Philippines. After telling their horrific story, American commanders organized a rescue team to free remaining prisoners in Cabanatuan. Rangers together with Filipino resistance fighters carried out the successful raid on January 30, 1945. Many prisoners were to weak to walk. Oxen and carts were hidden nearby the Prison camp to carry the prisoners to freedom.

The story of Cabanatuan and its rescue is recorded accurately in the 2005 movie The Great Raid:


  • General Kreuger: Henry, I'll be honest with you. This mission appeals more to my heart than to my head.
  • Lt. Colonel Mucci: I'm here to tell you men the latrine rumors are true. We finally got a mission worthy of Rangers. We're going to push through our frontlines right into the Japs' backyard and rescue 500 hundred American prisoners of war. Goin' to be a rough son of a bitch- a textbook-style raid that can only succeed through speed, surprise, and overwhelming firepower. Before you start congratulating yourselves, remember you haven't achieved a damn thing yet. You're the best-trained, least-proven battalion in this whole army. This is your one chance to do something about it, and I mean ONE chance. How you acquit yourselves over the next 48 hours will determine how you are judged for the rest of your lives- men worthy of serving in this army.. or.. an embarrassment that history and time will eventually forget. It's up to you. Now, I happen to think it's the former. That's why I'm accompanying you on this raid. There's not another group of men in this or any other army I'd sooner trust my life with. You're the finest, best-prepared soldiers this country has ever sent to war, and I expect you to PROVE it... IS THAT CLEAR?
    6th Ranger Battalion: YES, SIR!

See also,

Japanese POW WWII - Read about Japanese POWs in Burma, Philippines, China, Singapore.


Breuer, William B. , The Great Raid: Rescuing the Doomed Ghosts of Bataan and Corregidor, Miramax Books; Reprint edition (May 22, 2002)

Sides, Hamilton, Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II's Greatest Rescue Mission, Anchor; 1st Anchor Books ed edition (May 7, 2002)