World / Recall the History

Hope in the darkness

By Chris Peterson (China Daily Europe) Updated: 2015-10-30 07:33

Japanese prisoner of war camp remembered in exhibition

Just over 70 years ago, a heavily laden United States Air Force B-24 Liberator bomber droned through the skies over Mukden, the former capital of Manchuria, which was still under the control of Japanese occupation forces. The war had ended with Japan's capitulation a few days before.

Its mission? To deliver, by parachute, supplies, weapons and a six-man team of US specialists who were looking for a Japanese prisoner of war camp holding thousands of Allied servicemen and some VIP prisoners.

Hope in the darkness

US soldiers after being captured by the Japanese during its invasion of the Philippines. Provided to China Daily

The camp is remembered in an exhibition being staged in the northern English city of Liverpool.

Manchuria, the name given to the region that now comprises the provinces Heilongjiang, Liaoning and Jilin, was invaded by the Japanese, who set up what it called the "independent state of Manchukuo" under the puppet emperor Puyi, the last ruler of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

The Japanese had set up a main camp in Mukden, along with nearby satellite camps, to hold US soldiers captured during its invasion of the Philippines, as well as British servicemen held after Singapore's surrender in 1942. Among them were so-called VIP prisoners, namely US General James Wainwright, who had led American soldiers in the Philippines, and General Arthur Percival, who had surrendered the British colony of Singapore to the invaders.

Mukden camp, now known as Shenyang Camp after the city it is located in, contained over 2,000 US, British, Australian, Canadian, French and Dutch personnel, and the camp's remains are the best preserved of almost 200 POW camps established by the Japanese throughout Asia.

Traveling with the US team in the Liberator bomber was Cheng Shih-wu, a Chinese interpreter, whose role typified the extraordinary bravery of some of the unsung heroes of this story, the Chinese civilians living near the camps.

Reviled by Japanese occupation soldiers, Chinese civilians risked death to pass what little food they could spare to the starving prisoners inside the camps, according to official Allied records based on interviews immediately after liberation. The Japanese treated their captives appallingly by any standards.

The militarists who gained control of Japanese society before and during World War II doctored the so-called bushido, or warrior code, to suit their view, which dictated that soldiers who surrendered were less than human. This view extended to Chinese civilians under their control.

The prisoners traded what small items they had or could steal from the Japanese through the wire to sympathetic Chinese civilians on the outside, who risked their own lives to sell the items, using the money to provide food and basic medicines for the Allied captives.

After liberation, many prisoners sought out the Chinese who had helped them, and stayed in touch until it was no longer possible to do so.

Beatings, executions and solitary confinement comprised the everyday life of prisoners in the camps, whose rations issued by the Japanese barely kept them alive, and they were denied all but the most basic medical treatment.

This, then, was the situation when US Major James Hennessy, the specialist team leader, took the decision to parachute from the Liberator bomber with his colleagues, despite a 32 kilometers per hour wind that made parachuting dangerous. The flight crew of the Liberator had a narrow escape after the team had jumped. As they climbed out of the area they spotted a Japanese Zero fighter intent on a kamikaze attack, but pilot Lieutenant Paul Hallberg managed to take evasive action and the suicide plane passed harmlessly below them.

Hennessy and his team successfully landed with the supplies but were immediately apprehended by Japanese soldiers who either didn't know the war was over, or who refused to believe the emperor had surrendered.

Although they were not harmed, they were disarmed and held before being taken to the nearby headquarters of the Kempeitai, the dreaded Japanese secret police force. There, the colonel in charge surrendered to them and offered to commit ritual suicide, or harikiri, in front of them. They declined, and continued their liberation task.

They found 1,600 prisoners who were gaunt, malnourished and emaciated. The Japanese guards had withheld vital International Red Cross supplies from the men for three and a half years.

The Japanese destroyed many records of the camps before their surrender, so it is difficult to pin down the exact numbers of dead.

Just over 2,000 Allied prisoners were sent to Mukden and its satellite camps, and about 1,600 were freed. The deaths were a result of maltreatment by guards, inadequate medical treatment and executions.

An unknown number of Chinese civilians were also killed for trying to help the prisoners.

The Liverpool exhibition, Forgotten Camp, starts on Nov 7 and lasts for a week.

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