Survival as a POW in Nagasaki, Japan

Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW's suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri. Leslie Cole, 1945
Orderly on his rounds in X Ward, Changi Gaol, Singapore, with POW’s suffering from starvation and Beri-Beri.
Leslie Cole, 1945

Aidan McCarthy, a Medical Officer with the RAF, had survived a series of hazardous episodes during the war including the evacuation from Dunkirk, the rescue of men from a burning aircraft that had crashed on a bomb dump – for which he was awarded the George Medal, the surrender of Java to the Japanese and being torpedoed when his POW ship was en route to Japan. He then found himself in a POW camp in Nagasaki.

Here they struggled with malnutrition while being forced to work on building warships for Mitsubishi. There was also the casual cruelty of the guards:

The poor quality and scarcity of our rations were the cause of a big increase in beri beri. Another problem was dropsy (an accumulation of water in the tissues), and in these cases numerous trips to the toilets became a necessity, especially at night.

Those who made the lavatory trip were usually in a great hurry but first the permission of the guards on duty had to be obtained. POWs had to bow and say ‘Banjo-ari-ma-sen’ (Toilet please). On the return trip another bow to the guard was required and an ‘Arigato’ (Thank you).

Some of the guards were bloody-minded and instead of allowing the man straight through they kept him waiting for no apparent reason. This delay was sometimes disastrous. The result caused great amusement for the guard and also earned the unfortunate man a few slaps on the face.

Casual beatings were commonplace for any inaction of the ‘rules’. When they were finally allowed to send postcards home to their relatives, the Japanese discovered that 13 of the men, including MacCarthy, came from Ireland. All were given a beating by the camp Commandant because they came from a neutral country but had volunteered to fight for the British.

Towards the end of 1944 most of the other officers were moved to other camps leaving only the Medical Officers and Padres behind:

Because of a Japanese decision to dispense with general duty officers, I, by virtue of my seniority, found myself the camp’s senior officer. This meant I was beaten each time offences were committed and thus ensured a daily beating. I was given a blow on the head with a bamboo cane or a blow on the face for each offender. Then the offenders themselves received several blows.

This face slapping and head bashing with a cane or sometimes with a leather belt was not too painful when one was tensed and ready for it. True, apart from a local stinging of the scalp, it sometimes produced a slight headache.

Though we found it difficult to obtain radios or receive news, we realised that the Japanese were definitely losing the war. The wholesale demolition of houses to provide fire lanes in the event of incendiary bombing, the increased air raids, the irritability of the officers and warrant oflicers with the guards and of course with us, and a continuous atmosphere of tension gave us all the evidence we needed.

Our main source of war news came from small maps in newspapers that had been discarded by civilian workers after being used for wrapping food. They were small inset maps with Japanese writing and characters. We collected them lovingly and became expert at recognizing the different characters for aeroplanes, tanks, naval ships, the different nationalities and even which parts of the world the maps represented.

By careful analysis of successive maps we were able to piece together a fairly comprehensive picture of the Pacific war in general — or at least as it was presented to the Japanese people.

The European theatre of war was reported without concealment of the real facts. Besides it soon became apparent from the remarks of our guards that they considered Germans ‘not joto’ (no good). In a peculiar and paradoxical fashion, the Japanese seemed to relish the fact that the Germans were beginning to take a hiding in Europe.

POWs returning from the ration runs reported that they had seen young Japanese cadets in full dress uniform wearing white Banzi head scarves instead of caps. Armed with a large sword at their sides, they were strutting about the streets and being treated like gods. We speculated that they must be royal princes — yet they seemed so prolific that this theory was unlikely. One such figure appeared in our camp, where he had VIP treatment from the whole staff, including the Commandant. Later, the interpreter told us that they were Kamakasi (suicide) pilots. For a week prior to their one and only flying mission, they were given this godlike treatment. In my opinion they deserved it.

The repeated knocks to the head were to have long term consequences for MacCarthy. In 1969, while still serving in the RAF he began to suffer blackouts and was eventually diagnosed with a brain tumour. The operation to remove it discovered it to be benign, almost certainly the consequence of numerous small bleeds as a result of being hit on the head. See Aidan MacCarthy: A Doctor’s War.

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