Brutal treatment in Japanese PoW camp

‘My personal worst moments came when I had to appear before the Japanese Commandant and an assortment of interpreters, to try and explain away, to humourless Japanese officers a book of political cartoons I had drawn. I had lent the book to a careless person who allowed it to fall into the hands of Japanese guards. This was at a time when the war was going badly for Germany and Japan and this was reflected in the cartoons. I was extremely lucky to get away with a whole skin. The Japanese did not approve. I never saw the book again.’

There are few images available to illustrate the Japanese POW camps. Here is a drawing from Changi Prison on Singapore by Des Bettany by kind permission of Keith Bettany. See more of Des Bettany’s work at his online exhibition.

George Cooper had become a prisoner of the Japanese when HMS Exeter had been sunk in March 1942. Like most prison camps run by the Japanese conditions were not particularly good in his camp in Macassar, with very basic accommodation and an inadequate diet. It was around this time however that a particular individual joined the camp and circumstances became a great deal worse for the Royal Navy, U.S. Navy and Dutch civilian prisoners.

Cooper believed that Yoshida Tomano had been given the lead role in running the camp because of his capacity to run ‘a campaign of terror’. He was only a low ranking seaman but ‘Yosh’ became notorious amongst all the men who encountered him. By these means the Japanese were able to keep order in a camp of over 3,000 men with only seventeen guards:

I used to call him “The Magnesium Flame” – he had only to be touched off to flare up into a white hot fury. But when it had burned itself out he would become quiet, subdued and on occasions even penitent and ashamed. He knew he lost “face” by these scenes, yet appeared unable to help himself.

When he was on the warpath he was very frightening. I have seen five or six hundred British sailors including myself standing stiff at attention, not daring to move an eyelid. A flood of Japanese would pour forth from his tongue; and the sound of this shouting was always the prelude to a scene. At night it was quite eerie and not unlike a mad dog. I doubt that anyone who lived in that camp could ever forget it.

Then would come the beat-up. First the punching in the face, usually with the inside of the clenched fist, to save his knuckles, then always the flogging on the backside with the victim leaning at an angle of forty-five degrees against a wall or tree.

Sometimes the victim would be strung up by his wrists tied behind his back with his feet just touching the ground. Yosh was a remarkably good shot and rarely hit off the target area except when he put a special low one across the thighs for spite.

Most of the guards gave a hand in the terrible beatings that prisoners had to endure, but it was Yosh who dealt out the majority. In the early months he used the baseball bat already mentioned – a wicked weapon; but later he devised one that was far worse a club of the same shape, but slightly lighter and about a yard long.

If this was not readily available, he soon found a suitable substitute. During a beating it was unwise to utter any sound, as this only inspired the Nip who was administering the flogging to even greater efforts; on the other hand to stick it quietly earned the victim the guards’ respect – they would give him the thumbs up sign and say “Good” in Malay.

The great danger was in falling down. For some reason this made Yosh and any guards in the vicinity go quite wild, and they would rush round the victim kicking and stamping on his face and body with their hobnailed boots; they would in fact kick him back into the standing position. Serious injury was liable to be inflicted to the head, spine and limbs. Burst ear-drums were by no means uncommon.

George T. Cooper was to survive the war but his experiences at the hands of the Japanese are reflected in the title of his memoir: George T. Cooper: Never Forget, Nor Forgive. He was awarded the OBE for services to other PoWs and later became a Captain in the Royal Navy.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Mr P Bennett January 11, 2017 at 9:38 pm

In the 1970s I worked at “The Met”, Railway and bus manufacturers. I worked upon Railway carriages as a specialist metal straightener. A Bill Jones introduced me into the finer arts required for that Role. He came from West Bromwich in a coach daily to the Saltley Birmingham site and with many other “Black Country” people from their erstwhile closed carriage workshops.
A truly lovely group of hard working and as sociable a people as I had or ever met since, even to me a Brummy – once one had befriended you! Bill was that person!
He was chatty and as with many of his neighbours a pigeon fancier.
War – pigeons were chalk and cheese but also integrated as when he was based in Singapore he had more than one with him. The capture was accomplished and with so many others marched to camps. At some point pigeons were released s a desperate attempt to let his family back home know what had become of him. MORE WAR E-MAIL ME, PETE

James, Edison Thomas September 2, 2014 at 4:18 pm

POW camps really sucked.

Editor May 4, 2014 at 6:34 pm

From the sources I have seen there was no difference in the Japanese treatment of any of their detainees, POWs or civilian, British, American Australian or Dutch. It is possible that the local populations and the Chinese were treated rather worse in some situations. You can find quite a few accounts if you search this site for Japanese POW including:

Hope this helps, even though it is rather grim reading.

Clarra May 4, 2014 at 5:50 am

This information is great, I was wondering if the Australians captured were treated any different or were they treated badly too and if you know of any Australians captured that I can research and make reference to, thanks so much:)

david smith November 3, 2013 at 1:45 pm

Dear Sir

Thank you for giving this infomation on the bad conditions in this camp, my grand father was incarcerated there and died of dysentry through the bad conditions .
regards David Smith
grandson of Leslie Spurrel smith cook on HMS Exeter.

Keith Bettany November 7, 2012 at 8:58 am

Thank you for sharing this,

Keith Bettany

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