Online Exhibit

Prisoners of War

This exhibit is online-only.

The Way of the Japanese Warrior

During Japan’s feudal period (ca. 1100-1600) and Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1860s), the Code of Bushido emerged among the warrior class and the aristocracy. Bushido called one to live according to a set of virtues that included righteousness, courage, loyalty, and self-control.

In the late nineteenth century, Japanese society began to modernize and industrialize. At this time, militarists deviated from Bushido’s true course by instilling nationalism and deifying the Emperor. Adherence to this new version of Bushido called for followers to keep death in mind so as not to stray from one’s duty to one’s family and the Emperor.

Many in Japan began to see Bushido as a means of national unity, especially after experiencing military victories overseas against Russia (1904-05) and in Manchuria and Korea (1931). Orders were presumed to have come from the Emperor himself and were to be followed without question or hesitation. By the time Japan went to war against the United States, Bushido had become a romanticized way in which to motivate an imperialist army bent on overseas conquest.

A Japanese Soldier's Views on Surrender

With the Meiji Restoration (1868), the Emperor was elevated to the status of a living god in Japanese society. With education reform, this idea was introduced to millions of students attending public schools in Japan. Combined further with the remnants of the Code of Bushido, an alternate version of a soldier’s duty emerged.

If a soldier from a Western country found himself no longer able to resist his enemy, surrender provided a logical course of action. Not so with Japanese soldiers. If in similar circumstances, the only logical course of action for a Japanese soldier would then be to charge the enemy in a final suicide assault or use the last bullet on himself. Under no circumstances was surrender honorable. In surrendering, a Japanese soldier brought disgrace not only to himself, but also to his family, comrades, ancestors, and the Emperor.

When Americans on Bataan surrendered and asked their Japanese captors to alert their families back home of their prisoner of war status, the Japanese were confused that anyone would want their family to know of their capture. Furthermore, the Japanese made no distinction between those who fought honorably until surrender was inevitable and those who surrendered without a fight.

Death Marches

The Imperial Japanese Army moved large bodies of prisoners of war overland by forced marches. Sick and wounded POWs were expected to keep the same pace as the fit. Those falling behind were beaten, prodded with a bayonet, or murdered.

On 9 April 1942, Major General Edward King surrendered his forces (between 60,000 to 80,000 Americans and Filipinos) to Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma of the Imperial Japanese Army on Bataan. After the surrender, the Japanese conducted a 60-70 mile forced march that became known as the Bataan Death March. Only 9,500 Americans and 44,500 Filipinos made it to Camp O’Donnell.

Similar marches occurred in other locations where Allied forces surrendered: Dutch soldiers on Timor in February 1942, and British and Australian POWs at Sandakan on Borneo, between February and May 1945.

Japanese Prisoner of War Camps during World War II

General Treatment of POWs

Through centuries of warfare, prisoners of war have been mistreated. In 1785, the Treaty of Friendship between the United States and Prussia resolved to feed POWs adequately, give them exercise, not manacle them and not house them in convict prisons.

By 1907, after the adoption of the Regulations Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land, drawn up at The Hague, these treatment points became codified among some nations. In 1929, nations met in Geneva for the International Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Forty-seven nations signed the agreement, including Japan. In it, signatory nations agreed to treat POWs humanely by respecting their personal property; provide prisoner of war status to all captured troops, even non-combatants; not allow work to be excessive or connected to the war effort; provide decent housing and feeding captives; and allow outside aid from organizations such as the Red Cross to be distributed.

Japan never ratified the Geneva Prisoner of War Convention of 1929, but she were bound by the articles of the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907. Japan felt ratifying the 1929 agreement would require an extensive overhaul of the Japanese Military and Naval Discipline Codes. In early 1942, the United States and other Allied nations informed Japanese Prime Minister Tojo they would abide by the 1929 agreement and formally requested Japan do the same. Tojo informed the Allies Japan would abide by the 1929 agreement mutatis mutandis, or with the respective differences having been considered. The Japanese argued that ratification would embolden Allied airmen to attack Japanese cities, knowing they would be well treated should they be shot down. Instead, the Japanese considered Allied airmen guilty of war crimes and thus, not entitled to POW status.

By the end of the war, Japan knew her culpability. On 20 August 1945, Imperial Headquarters sent a signal to all commands where POWs were held indicating that documents that would be unfavorable to the Japanese in the hands of the enemy ought to be destroyed. Imperial Headquarters also permitted personnel who mistreated POWs and internees to be transferred or to flee and disappear without a trace.

Prison Camp Life

A day in captivity started with morning roll call (tenko), conducted in Japanese. If a POW made a mistake in pronunciation or mixed up the number order, a beating ensued. After tenko, it was off to various work assignments such as: laying track for a railway, tending a farm field, mining coal, or manufacturing airplane parts. Prisoners resisted by deliberately breaking tools, ruining machinery, or starting fires.

As time passed, food scarcity and disease increased. The average weight loss in captivity was 80 pounds. This reality forced POWs to scrounge and steal food. The penalty for thievery could be severe: beatings, solitary confinement, or even execution. In October 1942, Japanese authorities issued an order that rations for POWs and civilian internees should not exceed 420 grams (less than 16 ounces) per day. Eighteen months later, this was further reduced. Prime Minister Hideki Tojo issued a “no work, no food” order.

Religion and a sense of humor saved many lives. An unshakable belief in the eventual triumph of good over evil sustained many POWs through their ordeal. In regards to humor, POWs often gave funny nicknames to their humorless and gullible captors.

The Kempeitai

The Kempeitai served as the Imperial Japanese Army’s military police force during World War II. Established in 1881, it was administered by the War Ministry. When involved with prisoners of war or employed at POW camps, the purposes of Kempeitai personnel varied. At POW camps, Kempeitai members were charged with finding thieves, locating stolen goods, and discovering radios, diaries, etc. Outside the camps, the Kempeitai quelled native resistance and punished natives who rebelled or harbored rebels. The Kempeitai were authorized by higher headquarters to use torture on POWs or civilian internees. Some of their methods included:

The water treatment: filling a man’s stomach with water, and then forcing it out of him by jumping on his abdomen.

Burning lit cigarettes, candles, oil, or irons or applying electric shock on sensitive areas.

Knee spread: a victim was forced to squat on his haunches with a pole behind his knee joints.

Suspension: a victim was hanged by his fingers, wrists, ankles, or neck until he can barely touch the floor with his toes.

Kneeling on sharp items

Finger- or toenail removal; also bamboo slivers were inserted under the nails.

Flogging with blunt objects (rifle butts, flats of swords, wooden clubs, and bamboo canes), punching, and kicking.

Civilian Internment Camps

When Japanese forces occupied a recently conquered area, foreign civilians fell into their hands. The maltreatment of civilian internees mirrored that of prisoners of war. In some cases, civilians were exterminated, as happened to some 25,000 to 50,000 Chinese residents of Singapore who were considered threats to Japanese rule. In other cases, they were herded into overcrowded camps. In Sumatra, some 13,000 civilians (mostly Dutch) were interned at 3 sites. In one camp for women and children at Brastagi, by November 1944, rations were at 140 grams of vegetables per person per day. Women were forbidden to go into town and procure food for their starving children by means of barter. When 350 women left the camp one day to get food, the Japanese arrested the camp leaders and tortured them when they refused to admit guilt or implicate the ringleaders. When the Kempeitai failed to extract confessions, they had trials that ended in executions.

Civilians had to adjust to new realities in captivity. The chief threat to their lives came from their captors, but once camps were established, the immediate threats became disease and starvation. Civilians had to adjust to certain new living conditions as well. Internment camps were often overcrowded, lacked privacy, and restricted freedom of movement. Civilians often were not treated as harshly as POWs, they were rarely used as slave labor, but they faced similar circumstances of malnourishment and captivity. The Japanese operated 358 civilian internment camps throughout their empire during World War II, with most of their interned civilians being held in the Dutch East Indies.

Angels of Bataan and Corregidor

United States Army and Navy nurses served in several hospitals in Manila before the war started. Once fighting was underway, a few nurses left, but many remained and were captured at their posts. Eleven Navy nurses were captured and were eventually interned at Los Baños where they established an infirmary and continued working as a nurse unit. Sixty-six Army nurses managed to escape from Manila to Bataan with the rest of the US Army Forces in the Far East.

During the Battle of Bataan, the nurses worked in two field hospitals that had open-air wards. Prior to the fall of Bataan in April, the nurses were ordered to Corregidor, where they fell into Japanese hands in May 1942. The Army nurses were imprisoned with civilian internees at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila.

Once inside Santo Tomas, under the leadership of Maude Davison and Josephine Nesbit, the nurses established a routine of each working a four-hour shift every day in the hospital. When liberation came in February 1945, all 77 Army and Navy nurses had survived and each received the Bronze Star Medal. Together, the Angels of Bataan and Corregidor also received a Presidential Unit Citation for heroism.


In some places, prisoners of the Japanese were made to sign an agreement not to attempt escape. At Singapore in September 1942, the Japanese forced over 17,000 British and Australian POWs to sign an oath vowing not to attempt escape. If they refused to comply, the POWs were assembled and made to stand at attention for 3 days in the tropical sun.

Being forced to sign an oath never stopped prisoners from making escape attempts. The Japanese enacted punishments for attempts, which included severe beatings and in some cases executions. At some POW camps, the commandant’s policy was to group the prisoners into units of ten. Should one of the ten attempts to escape, the other nine from his group would be executed.

After suffering the Bataan Death March and after the fall of Corregidor, 969 American POWs were loaded onto the Hell Ship, Erie Maru, and transported to the Davao Penal Colony (Dapecol) on Mindanao. Escape from Dapecol was considered impossible due to the surrounding jungle and swamp. Ten POWs, however, escaped in April 1943, by simply walking out one morning as though heading out for their normal agricultural duties. After 4 days of struggle through jungle and swamp, the POWs encountered Filipino guerrillas, who assisted them in making radio contact with MacArthur’s General Headquarters in Australia. From July to November 1943, seven of the 10 escaped via submarine and were returned to duty. Three stayed with the guerrilla forces in Mindanao. This escape illuminated Japanese atrocities toward American POWs. In early 1944, when the War Department released news of the treatment of POWs, an enraged American public’s resolve was stiffened to see the war against the Empire of Japan end and to bring to justice those guilty of war crimes.

War Crimes

Prisoners of the Japanese were beaten, starved, denied aid, overworked as slave laborers, made to serve propaganda purposes, and kept in squalor. Some were forced to be paraded through the streets of cities the Japanese occupied to show citizens the inferiority of the Allied troops and the superiority of the Japanese. Perhaps the worst crimes were massacres. Many troops were massacred shortly after they were captured for the sake of expedience. Civilian massacres occurred on the pretext that captives would become involved in espionage against the Japanese as happened to Russian civilians in Manchuria in August 1945. The Japanese also executed civilians as punishment for hindering or not supporting Japanese war efforts. In Singapore, thousands of Chinese civilians were massacred in early 1942 for their support of the British cause on the Malay Peninsula. Dutch civilians in the Dutch East Indies were executed for an oil field fire. Elsewhere, several Indian POWs were beheaded for petty food thievery. Other civilian internees were massacred prior to an Allied invasion so as to prevent their being liberated as happened to 98 American civilians on Wake Island in May 1943. In an effort to cover up the crime when the war ended, their bodies were exhumed and scattered about the island in an attempt to make Allied investigators believe these civilians had been killed in bomb raids or had been shot while attempting escape.

Perhaps the worst massacre occurred in Palawan on 14 December 1944. In August 1944, British Intelligence intercepted a directive allowing POW camp commandants to deal with prisoners on their own without waiting for orders from Tokyo if an invasion seemed imminent. It went on to suggest various methods of execution. At Palawan, 150 American POWs were made to dig what they thought to be bomb shelters. They were forced inside and gasoline was poured over the tops of the shelters and then lit. Many POWs were machine-gunned or stabbed when they tried to escape. Five survived. Civilians and prisoners of war alike were scheduled to be exterminated in early February 1945 in the Philippines. Many civilian internees in Manila were rescued just days before.

War Crimes on the High Seas

The Imperial Japanese Navy disregarded international maritime law with regard to submarine usage. The law called for passengers and crew of merchant vessels to be transferred to a safe place before the vessel was destroyed. Once their ship sank, these sailors were legally and rightfully entitled to prisoner of war status. Instead, records indicate Japanese submarines torpedoing merchant vessels, ramming lifeboats, and machine-gunning survivors in the water.

The Japanese submarine I-8 patrolled the Indian Ocean. In March 1944, she torpedoed a Dutch freighter, SS Tjisalak. Survivors were hauled onto the submarine’s deck. Captured sailors then ran a gauntlet while Japanese sailors slashed them with swords, beat them with hammers and wrenches and finally shot them and kicked them overboard. Only six survived to be rescued. Later in July, I-8 sank the American liberty ship, SS Jean Nicolet. Again, survivors were hauled onto the submarine’s deck where they faced a gauntlet; this time being marched individually past the conning tower to be executed and tossed overboard. When an aircraft approached, I-8 crash-dived with Jean Nicolet sailors still on deck. Only twenty-two made it to life rafts and were rescued the next day.

Hell Ships

The Japanese Empire chose not to abide by the Geneva Convention and thus was not obligated by its rules regarding prisoners of war. Japan used Allied POWs as slave labor for industrial work. In order to make use of the labor source, Japan transported POWs to the Home Islands aboard freighters and cargo vessels known as Hell Ships.

During the war, Japan moved some 62,000 Allied POWs aboard 56 Hell Ships. These ships were not marked and were subject to Allied attack. Nineteen were sunk by torpedoes or bombs and 1 was lost in a typhoon. About 22,000 POWs perished en route to their destination, around 1 in 3. Conditions on board these vessels were sometimes worse than those experienced in camps. Once aboard, POWs were subjected to stifling heat, insufficient food and water, deplorable sanitary conditions, and long voyages.

One of the first Hell Ships was the Nitta Maru, which hauled 1,235 American POWs from Wake Island to China and Japan in January 1942. When loading, each POW had to run a gauntlet of the crew and received blows and beatings. Five were executed on deck and tossed overboard for “crimes”. Aboard the Maros Maru, only 325 out of 630 British and Dutch POWs survived the 67-day voyage from Amboina Island to Java in late 1944.

The Oryoku Maru set out from the Philippines in December 1944, with 1,650 US POWs. She was bombed and then abandoned. Prisoners were forced to swim ashore where Japanese soldiers machine-gunned them on the beach and in the water. About 1,300 survived only to be marched to a tennis court and left there in the open for six days while another transport, the Enoura Maru, was procured. Once the POWs reached Takao Harbor in Formosa, they were again attacked by the Allies, who thought they were destroying Japanese shipping. By the time the POWs reached their destination in Japan, only 450 remained.

Forced Labor

In early 1942, Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo decided that Japanese forces in Southeast Asia needed a railway linking Thailand and Burma. Two hundred and fifty miles of track would need to be built to connect existing lines between the two countries. The line had strategic value because it would shorten communication between Japanese forces in India and Burma to other parts of Southeast Asia. Transportation engineers estimated a line could be built in 5-6 years. Imperial General Headquarters demanded it be done in 18 months. Work started in November 1942, with Allied prisoners of war brought from Singapore and deposited at various camps along the proposed route. Facilities at camps were inadequate. Huts could not keep out the rain. Too many POWs were sick and there was not enough medicine; many lacked proper clothing and food was scarce and of poor quality. Work went from 8 am to 10 pm with no days off. Men were driven until they were exhausted. When they became sick and unable to work, they were starved. Many died from preventable diseases because their Japanese captors did not provide enough food or medicine.

In the middle of 1943, the Japanese became desperate to finish the project before the year ended and instituted a program known as “Speedo.” The idea behind “Speedo” was to finish the line by August. To ensure this, work shifts increased to 16 hours per day. The rail linking Bangkok and Rangoon was completed in November 1943. Estimates vary between 150,000 to 270,000 native coolies (Burmese, Javanese, Tamils, Thais, Malayans, and Chinese) and between 46,000 to 61,000 Allied POWs who worked on the railway. Between 60,000 and 90,000 natives and between 13,000 and 16,000 Allied POWs died building the railway.

The Lost Battalion of the Texas National Guard

When the Army National Guard was ordered into federal service in November 1940, the unit in Texas was reactivated as the 36th Infantry Division. Most of the division would see action later in Europe, but the 2nd Battalion, 131st Field Artillery Regiment was detached and sent to the Pacific. The 2/131st was on its way to the Philippines when the war began. It was rerouted to Australia before landing on Java on 11 January 1942 to help defend the Dutch East Indies. The Imperial Japanese Army invaded Java on 1 March. Dutch authorities surrendered one week later.

While on Java, E Battery was released to defend an airfield. When the rest of 2/131st was captured, the two groups had a very different prisoner-of-war experience. The 99 men of E Battery first went to Changi, Singapore in October 1942, then to various parts of Japan in November to work in shipyards, on docks, in coal mines, etc. In August 1945, they were liberated. Ninety-one E Battery members survived captivity.

The rest of the 2/131st went to Burma in October 1942. They were forced to build the Thai - Burma Railway along with thousands of Dutch, British, and Australian POWs. Survivors from the cruiser USS Houston (CA-30) also went. The Houston sank at the battle of Sunda Straight on 1 March 1942. Three hundred sixty-eight survivors who washed ashore on Java were captured and made POWs.

These units became known as the Lost Battalion because the word was not immediately delivered to the US government that these people had been captured. The first news the Allies heard of the fate of these units was in September 1944, when a US submarine sank a Japanese freighter full of POWs. Some of those rescued reported they had built the Thai - Burma Railway with members of 2/131st and of the cruiser Houston. After the war, these units were liberated from various camps around Southeast Asia. Seventy-seven Houston sailors and 78 members of 2/131st (less Battery E) died in captivity.


Toward the end of their captivity, Allied POWs began to speculate about their future. Many dreamed of being liberated and others feared they would be executed in the event of an Allied invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. These concerns were well-founded as news of the POW massacre at Palawan (14 December 1944) became more widespread. Imperial Japanese Headquarters published an order in August 1944, authorizing the destruction of Allied POWs at the discretion of each camp commandant.

When the Allies invaded Luzon, Philippines (9 January 1945) and learned POWs remained at Cabanatuan, General Walter Krueger authorized a rescue mission. The Sixth US Army commander did not wish to see another massacre like at Palawan due to having invaded Luzon. On 30 January 1945, 100 soldiers from the 6th Ranger Battalion and the Alamo Scouts liberated over 500 POWs while over 250 Filipino guerrillas held off Japanese reinforcements dispatched to Cabanatuan. After some overland travel, the groups made it back to the Sixth Army lines.

When the war ended, mass executions did not occur. It is unknown if that would be the case in the event of an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands. Instead, POWs marveled at the overnight change in tone from their Japanese captors as news of the war’s end trickled into POW camps. Shortly thereafter, B-29 bombers appeared dropping palletized food, clothing, and medical supplies into or near the known POW camps. When the war concluded, repatriating Allied POWs and getting them medical attention became a priority. Many American POWs were transported aboard hospital ships and other vessels where they had free reign on the mess decks. After returning home many ex-POWs spent considerable time in hospitals. Many also joined veterans groups such as the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor, in order to find support in the community and stay connected to other former POWs.


World War II in the Pacific varies in many ways from the war in Europe. One noticeable difference is in the way prisoners of war were handled by the Nazis as opposed to the Japanese. Allied POWs captured in Europe by Germans or Italians suffered a death rate in captivity of 4%. The death rate in captivity of Allied POWs in the Pacific ranged from 27-31% (depending on the source). The Empire of Japan captured some 350,000 Allied prisoners and civilians during World War II. The average length of captivity for a POW in Europe was 347 days, while the average duration of captivity for a prisoner of war in the Pacific was 1,148 days.

The Japanese, like the Nazis, conducted medical and other experiments on prisoners. The Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwangtung Army, also known as Unit 731, served as a biological and chemical warfare research and development unit for the Japanese Army in Manchuria. Unit 731 practiced vivisection, infected prisoners with venereal diseases and other germs and parasites, and studied the effects of various weapons (conventional, chemical, and biological) on people. Most of the unit’s victims were Chinese, but some Allied prisoners of war at Mukden were “treated” for dysentery by personnel from Unit 731 in 1943. Unit 731 also attempted to test the effects of certain diseases on people in the event of an Allied invasion of the Japanese Home Islands.