It was now almost three years since the Canadian troops that had been based in Hong Kong in December 1941 had been captured by the Japanese. They had endured much in that time and many had succumbed to the starvation diet, forced labour and brutal treatment of their captors.
In early 1943 they had been transferred to mainland Japan where they were employed in hard labour at Niigata POW camp and its satellite establishments, the forced labour included unloading ships, working in mines and a metal foundry. Later in 1943 they had been joined by US prisoners taken prisoner on the Philippines.
Jack Smith describes a day in the life of a prisoner inside Niigata POW camp in November 1944:
It had been snowing heavily during the night, it was time to get out of the “Tatami” a mat woven out of rice straw where I had slept with all my clothes on, it was five A.M. The building did not have any heat. The only washing facility was an old-fashioned hand pump, we helped each other to pump and wash. There was a cone of ice under the spout and the air was cold, with a chilling wind, I splashed some water on my face and rubbed my teeth with my finger to try to clean them.
Tenko!! (Roll Call) searched and then proceeded to breakfast and work by 5.30. We made our way to the Corrugated Building, near the foundry for breakfast. I could hear everyone shuffling along as I was, they must of felt like I did “Miserable” The Building had no heat, it had a three foot foundation to give the inside more height. It was furnished with tables about eighteen inches high. And we were supposed to sit on the concrete floor to eat. We did it different; we sat on the table and ate from the utensils on our laps.
We were followed by some of the other prisoners dragging a two-wheel cart with 2 tubs on it. One tub had cooked rice and the other tub had watery soup made with “Weeds”
The snow had reached a depth of about three feet; at the ground surface the snow was melting, there was six inches of slush below where the ground was and that is where the feet would land. I had tried to make my whittled wooden clogs more comfortable by wrapping paper and a piece of “black–out curtain that I had borrowed “stolen”. My body weight had been slowly dropping and now I weighed about 80 pounds, this was caused by lack of food and sickness
This morning was cold! I was Cold! The building was cold! And the food was cold! It was a tin cup of boiled rice, and a cup of “Dicon” soup (a type of large white radish). The cups were carefully filled level full, a flat stick made sure the ration was of that amount. I was thinking the furnaces in the Foundry would be hot and there would be warmth.
As we passed through the door where the Foundry and welding shop was the “Hancho Doanna’ (Civilian overseer) shouted “Sa Maaie San” (Smith person) “Muticoy jew Sanjo” “Get ten persons, then he told us of our mission today. Oxygen can be a dangerous gas around open fires and so the building that filled the Oxygen Bottles was a good distance away. The usual method of transporting the oxygen bottles to the welding shop was done with a two-wheeled cart pulled by Cows and women drivers, but today the snow was too deep for them. They had the Oxygen bottles laid out with a ten-foot piece of rope attached to each one and we were expected to drag them all the way there and back.
Matsu san, the overseer would not come with us, so we were left to do it without an overseer, we each started dragging an Oxygen bottle. These bottles are universal and used in almost every country in the world, but they come in different sizes. The ones we used were the larger welder type and were heavy when loaded. I started out and as we passed the welding shop I picked up a key for the welding bottles, “This was a No No” but we continued on our way shuffling along, we took turns about every fifty feet breaking a trail and rested every ¼ mile, we were cold and almost exhausted when we finally reached the Oxygen plant.
We were not allowed in the building, so we waited outside, as the bottles were taken in and filled. When each bottle came out filled I took the key and slightly opened the valve so that it would allow the gas to escape slowly. This was a dangerous move to make. If the Japanese considered it to be done intentionally it would mean being tied to the barbed wire fence and left to the mercy of the weather for days. It was necessary for all the men in the party to agree on what was being done. This is one of the great privileges of being a member of the Canadian Army, when the men give their word it was final and there would be no Quarter given.
We started back to the foundry, and now that the bottles were filled when we started back, it became more apparent just how deep the snow was, just trying to walk through it would be difficult for strong healthy men, but we had no choice and so we struggled on. It had been snowing for days, and one of the roofs of the buildings that we slept in had collapsed with the weight of the snow. It killed some of our Canadian Comrades when it caved in.
We were exhausted when we reached the Foundry about one o’clock and we had missed our “Binto” lunch as we were too late, we were glad of the warmth in the foundry, it felt so good, Suddenly! The Japanese Welding Boss, started screaming and yelling because he had no Oxygen! My knees became weak and I knew we were in for it! “Of course we had no idea of how this happened” “We couldn’t possibly open those valves with our fingers” “Maybe it was the guy that filled them didn’t tighten them enough”, “Maybe it was the snow or the ropes”, It almost worked! But were made to stand to Attention, and were all were slapped around and punched while being verbally abused.
Then we were sent back to get the bottles refilled. This time it was easier as a path had been made. We returned to the Foundry almost exhausted. On our return our comrades that were working in the Foundry, as they had an easy day due to the fact that there was no Oxygen to weld with, helped us. We were in time to go back with them to the Camp where we slept. At last I had a glimmer of warmth knowing that we had been able to partially shut down the Foundry for one day, and our fellow Prisoners had a more comfortable day. We felt that in some way we were able to slow up the Japanese War Effort, even if it was a small contribution. Our Comrades also shared in our war effort, but we never did get that missed “Binto” loss made up.
I went to bed that night still cold and wet from our trips to the Oxygen Plant, I was able to remove my sodden wooden clogs, and wring out my pant legs, lay down on the “Tatami” cover myself with the one blanket and bring my feet close to my bum for warmth. My wounded arm was aching, and finally my feet began to ache slightly and I knew they had begun to warm up, I drifted off to sleep.
Jack Smith’s story is from a collection held by the Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association. For a survey of conditions in Niigata PoW camp see this Niigata University thesis, by Shigeru Takeuchi.