Across the territory occupied by the Japanese in the Far East, tens of thousands of Allied men continued to toil in the Prisoner of War camps. From China to Malaya, Thailand and Korea, right across to Japan itself, they were now aware of the changing fortunes of war through the increased activity of Allied aircraft. The effects of of the high level B-29 raids were everywhere, as well as the marauding P-38 Lightnings. Such raids put some POWs at risk but they were welcomed as great morale boosters.
John McEwan had endured the years of captivity since been taken prisoner in Singapore in 1942. He was a veteran of several Japanese POW camps including the notorious Kinkaseki mine on Taiwan. Kinkaseki closed in early March and they were transferred to another camp on Taiwan, but their sufferings were far from over:
The punishing labour went on as we tried to avoid Tashi’s beatings by stretching our wills to breaking point, a task made the more difficult by his resentment at the regular appearance in the skies of the twin-fuselage aircraft bearing the white star of the USA. He sank to lower depths of depravity, as the US warplanes bombed at will with never a Japanese Zero in the air to challenge them.
But as they had an effect upon him so too did they affect us. They provided the stimulus to keep going and their daily visits were a tonic to us, setting morale upon an upward spiral again. In contrast, Tashi would fall into a cowardly rage that made him even more bestial than before.
Occasionally, some of us allowed our approval of the actions of our US friends to show and even this mild show of resistance was dealt with severely. The offenders were made to kneel on the ground while a piece of wood was placed at the back of their knees. They were made to sit back causing intense pressure in this area and an effective blockage in the blood supply. After a short time the legs were left bereft of feeling.
Tashi then commanded them to stand and maintain an impossible upright stance, impossible because of the numbness of the already weakened limbs. When they fell he would batter them with his rod across legs and buttocks, shoulders and head. And he would laugh his evil laugh as his poor, painwracked victim cowered before him, trembling, attempting to maintain an erect position on incapacitated legs but usually unable to do so.
His underlings would attempt to ingratiate themselves with him by laughing and jeering. Watching one of these sessions, Dempsey was unable to contain himself. ‘Bloody Japanese bastards’ he swore quietly as a young Englishman was trying to stifle uncontrollable sobbing against a background of the barbarian contempt of the Japanese.
Tashi heard the forbidden words and went raving mad, ranting and swearing in abusive Nipponese and glaring at Dempsey. While the japs converged upon Dempsey, the young Englishman was left alone and began to compose himself. Dempsey, on the other hand, knew he had blundered and knew what was to follow but, though as weakened as the rest of us, he retained a spark of wild and irrational defiance, which did not allow him to do other than stand his ground. Tashi whacked him on the head.
The mad—eyed japanese screamed insanely, ‘Bastardo – no okay. Dammi – dammi. Bastardo dammio — Bagerro, dammi — dammi’ and with each cry he bounced his rod off Dempsey. Dempsey still refused to give ground and Tashi became ever more incensed and enraged as Dempsey refused to fall and as he saw the contempt in Dempsey’s eyes.
Like the rest of the squad, I could do nothing but watch as the mad NCO waded in with stick and fists. I willed Dempsey to swallow his pride and go down. At last one of the henchmen succeeded where Tashi had failed. He kicked furiously at the back of Dempsey’s legs, making him fall to the ground in a crumpled heap but still allowing him to contain the agony of his beating. He refused to show the usual tears of humiliation and this defiance was unbearable to Tashi, who was unable to comprehend the fact that one of the cowed and beaten men, calloused by years of starvation and humiliation, would refuse to beg for mercy under this demeaning abuse.
Tashi changed tack. He watched two of his lackeys kick Dempsey repeatedly. He then announced that another POW had to take part in the humiliation. This was a common depravity among them. They would make two prisoners face each other and swing punches until one of them fell.
I wondered who would be chosen and fervently hoped it would not be me. I could not have punched my friend in these circumstances. Tashi, however, strode to where Taffy Morgan was and jabbed him with the bamboo rod. ‘Yosh — anatowa’ he snarled at Taffy pointing to Dempsey and indicating the odious task in hand.
Taffy had still not recovered fully from his beating at Changi and was in a semi-stupor. His face was expressionless as he followed Tashi to the spot where his friend Dempsey stood, swaying weakly on quivering legs. Taffy took a long lingering look at the vicious Jap Corporal, who urged him on, bellowing the usual gutturals.
Tashi jabbed a finger at Dempsey and, at last, Taffy squared up to his mate. Dempsey raised his head, blood washing down his face, and nodded to Taffy to ‘Get on with it!’ He well understood the situation. Taffy met his friend’s eye and wasted no further time. He raised his calloused right hand and thumped Dempsey with all the strength he could muster in his own weakened state. Dempsey dropped like a stone.
It was obvious to all who watched that Dempsey would not rise for a while after being hit so hard and Tashi and his gloating serfs were convulsed with laughter and clapped their hands crying ‘Joto — Joto’ (Good, Good).
Taffy looked at me. As our eyes met I saw a glimmer there that had been absent for too long. His look clearly said that he had done what had to be done under the circumstances. Dempsey was having enforced rest, Tashi had been deprived of further depraved entertainment and Dempsey had surrendered to a British hand rather than a Japanese.