For prisoners of war of the Japanese there was little respite from some very harsh living conditions. The same stories of starvation and malnutrition, and enforced hard labour, come from prisoners held all over the Far East.
Occasionally it was possible for prisoners to help themselves by bartering with local natives. Some camp administrations allowed this, others took a far more punitive view of such arrangements. It is hard to understand the reasoning for such attitudes – the Japanese wanted the men for labour and the men were only trying to to find food so that they could survive such labour.
In Indonesia John Baxter was to remember an incident, during this period, that demonstrated both the brutality and the incomprehensible attitudes of the Japanese:
The Japanese punished even minor infringements severely, including trying to buy or barter food from the natives. One prisoner, caught exchanging a leather wallet for some bananas with a native, was beaten up by two guards and thrown into solitary confinement.
The Indonesian vendor was tied to a tree outside the main gate of the prison with barbed wire and left in the blazing sun, with food and water placed on the ground out of his reach. Every work party entering and leaving the prison, including passing natives, sympathised with the poor wretched man, who became delirious with heat and pain after three days without food or water.
He received no medical attention, only daily taunts from the guards, who often kicked and punched him as they passed. On the fourth day, mercifully, he died, but his limp body was left for several days more as a warning, before was cut down and carried away.
Meanwhile, in his solitary confinement, the PoW involved was being systematically starved by the Japanese, who reduced his ration to one small dish of cold rice a day and one cup of water. No arrangements were made for washing or tending his many cuts and bruises, and his cell — none too clean on his arrival — became progressively filthier.
During the night someone contrived to slip a banana and a hard-boiled egg through the bars, which he promptly devoured. Such was his hunger that the banana skin was consumed as well, but the eggshell was his undoing. An observant guard noticed the fresh fragments in the general filth on the cell floor, and uproar ensued.
The entire prison population was called on parade to hear a diatribe from the Commandant about the evils of passing food to a man on sentence. The subsequent order for the guilty person to own up evoked no response.
The Commandant then issued the ultimatum that, if no one confessed, the entire parade ‘would stand to attention until further notice, without food, water or medical attention, come rain, wind or sun until all men die!’
Naturally, no one came forward, and a battle of wills began. The ordeal lasted the rest of a blistering hot day and well into the night. A heavy machine-gun was brought out and trained on our assembled ranks, who were encouraged to stand stock still by roving guards who beat anyone making the slightest movement.
Towards nightfall many of the weaker men had collapsed, but no one was allowed to attend to them, and they lay where they had fallen. No one was permitted to visit the latrines, and several dysentery cases were in a parlous state, unable to control their bodily functions.
Around midnight the infuriated Commandant, having received no response from our ranks, ordered his guards to drag the bed-ridden patients from the camp sick bay and place them on the ground in front of us.
At this stage a young RAF officer bravely stood forward and accepted the blame for passing the illicit food to the PoW in solitary. He was marched off to the guardroom, and the parade was dismissed.
Then another inexplicable feature of the Japanese character manifested itself. We fully expected the young officer to receive a severe beating at the least, but the Commandant seemed to realise that, as an officer, he was shouldering the blame for someone else, and he actually complimented him on doing so. A nominal sentence of seven days in the cooler was awarded, after which the officer returned to the main camp to the acclamation of us all.