A personal reflection on Civilian Internment in the Far East during WWII and Covid-19 lock down in the UK in 2020

Written during early ‘lock down’ by Dr.  Bernice Archer, author of: The Internment of Western Civilians under the Japanese 1941-45: A Patchwork of Internment. (HKUP 2008)

As I write on this May 2020 morning in this unwelcome, uncertain and scary world of Covid-19 (C-19), I have been in ‘lock down’ for 8 weeks. I am isolated, my freedom seriously restricted, anxious about the virus, unable to travel and ‘banned’ from visiting loved ones, friends and colleagues and they me.

But as I take my lone daily walk I have had time to reflect that 2020 is the 75th anniversary of the end of the war in the Far East during which approximately 130,000 Western civilian men, women and children were interned for at least three and half years by the Japanese.

In 1941/2 the interned civilians were traumatised by the battles. After the colonies surrendered, they immediately lost their freedom, were terrified of the enemy and fearful for their lives. Anxious about the future, they desperately missed loved ones, some of whom had been killed in the fighting. Their homes had been bombed and/or looted and they were now crammed into unfamiliar, unsuitable and unbearable overcrowded accommodation, surrounded by complete strangers from the outset of internment. 

In camp they were constantly aware of their enemy. They could see, hear and ‘feel’ their presence and often suffered physical violence. They must have felt powerless. But before long, many found ways to silently ‘mock’ their enemy, to circumvent their increasingly incomprehensible rules, avoiding contact whenever possible and in some cases perhaps found a way to accommodate their enemy.

Here and now, C-19 is our enemy. It is ‘out there somewhere’, maybe close, maybe not. We can’t see, hear, smell, feel or touch this ghostly, silent and invisible ‘presence’, until it strikes its unfortunate victims. It is hard to mock or to accommodate it. We too feel powerless. In order to survive, we must try to evade it, so mostly we abide by the rules imposed on us by our politicians and their scientific advisors, ‘social distancing’ friends, families and strangers. To quote the current political mantra, we are “staying home, protecting the NHS and saving lives.”

Historians have written much about how and why Far Eastern civilian internees found themselves in such a disastrous situation. Records show the disappointment, anger and frustration with politicians and senior military personnel who appeared complacent, under-estimating the capabilities of the enemy and the speed at which it would travel and overwhelm. It took just 100 days for the Japanese to conquer much of the Far East.

Evacuation plans were confused or non-existent. Western troops arrived late, and with local forces were under-trained, ill-prepared and equipped. As a result, approximately 130,000 civilians were interned with almost 15,000 dying, mostly from malnutrition and related diseases.

So, 75 years on, I think about how we are dealing with this C-19 enemy? Purportedly first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, the capital of China’s Hubei province, it reportedly arrived in the U.K. in January 2020. Since then there have been over 40,000 deaths. Questions and criticism abound – about lack of preparedness, under-estimating the timing of onset, the severity and potential of infection, the delayed start of lock down, inadequate medical equipment and testing, the disappointment, anger and frustration of exhausted NHS and care staff about PPE – all endlessly raised, discussed and debated by politicians, the media and the public.

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. But it should not be dwelt on if one wants to remain sane!

Looking forward then, comparing a C-19 ‘lock down’ with the experiences of Far East civilian internee internment, is manifestly incomparable. The mainly Dutch men, women and children captured and interned in Java and Sumatra suffered unbearable and unforgivable abuse and brutality at the hands of the Japanese soldiers. And although the internment of civilians in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Philippines was perhaps less brutal, they also suffered interminable years of deprivation in dreadful conditions.

But how, after the initial shock and seemingly insurmountable challenges, did internees survive physically and mentally for over three years?

Daily routine was not a choice or an option, it was imposed by the Japanese. They had to adhere to Tokyo time, the Japanese calendar, rules and regulations, as well as adjusting to a harsh and alien environment. Morning and evening roll calls (tenko) were compulsory and could take hours. Days were filled with queuing for inadequate rations, washing and insanitary toilet facilities.

Their captors provided only meagre amounts of rice, rotting vegetables and occasionally meat. Hunger, starvation and weight loss were the norm, as was ill health, compounded by limited medical equipment, drugs and medical care. The overcrowding was constant and appalling, made worse whenever more people arrived. In Stanley camp H.K. it was recorded that:

There was a desperate shortage of clothes, beds, blankets, shoes, soap, toilet paper, brushes, disinfectant, refuse bins and material for fly and mosquito control.1

All rooms were overcrowded and in many cases one room contained a collection of men, women and children whether related or not. All possible odd spaces, holes under staircases, corners in passages, kitchens and pantries came to be occupied with no thought given to hygiene or public health.2

Of course, internees did not live without some strife. The overcrowding, stress, fear and uncertainties, the health of their children and whereabouts and survival of loved ones, were constant. But when I asked how they managed, the common response from all the women I interviewed was “We just got on with it”. 

But how?

After the initial chaos of internment, life began to settle to what we now refer to as a ‘new norm’.  Many internees eventually made new and unexpected friendships, they became creative, adapted old skills and discovered new ones. Innovation, adaptation and stoicism were the keys to survival in internment.

If you were fortunate to be interned with professional men and women then medical teams ‘built’ hospitals, gave medical care and worked together experimenting with drugs and medical equipment. Engineers, chemists and biologists surveyed the camps and created essential utilities. Gardening, after a fashion, became invaluable and essential to augment the meagre rations. Even in single-sexed camps the women formed work committees and allocated teams for various jobs. The ‘Womens’ Group’ in Stanley Camp Hong Kong argued:

“Above all our object as a women’s group is to be ready to undertake any work which is within our scope.” 3

And the Work Organisation chart prepared by the women in Changi Gaol records that:

“Office staff, Medical and Health Department, Education, Recreation, Labour and departments dealing with food, Finance, Red Cross and Creche….. Every woman had to clean her own sleeping accommodation, wash her own clothes and fetch her own food”….“ There were 247 other daily camp chores to be done but of the 398 women in the camp only 140 were available for heavy duty work and 186 for light duty, consequently many women found themselves doing more than one job.” 4

The work was unpleasant and demeaning. But the women found innovating ways to use it to communicate with their male relatives in other camps. As the women cleaned the drains they would shout and send messages through to the men’s section of the camp. The Changi quilts, recording the embroidered names of women internees and sent to the men’s POW camp a few miles away, are a perfect example of their sewing and embroidery skills and ingenuity; the ‘dustbin parade’, where notes were dropped in the bins for husbands to read:

“By the simple expedient of putting a note into a scarlet toffee tin in a dustbin and getting someone to warn my husband to salvage the tin”. 5

was another example of brave and subversive contempt for the rules. Both men and women used ‘selective’ wording in their Red Cross postcards home. 

Meanwhile each camp found ways to come together in groups, creating entertainments and other social activities – plays and concerts took place in most camps, although these had a ‘darker’ side:

“We were like a herd of elephants the women said, but had the nerve to do things we would not do normally as we might have been machined gun down at any time”.6

And even though there were fewer entertainments in the camps in Java and Sumatra, the amazing women’s vocal orchestra was created in a Palembang camp in Sumatra in 1943.

Has any of the above been reflected in this present-day C-19 situation?

I think it has. Engineering companies have changed profit-making production to produce ventilators and other breathing apparatus; willing volunteers are producing PPE equipment; scientists across the world are working together to adapt drugs to help alleviate the symptoms of C-19 and to create a new vaccine. In the community, there is home schooling, home-made face masks, gardening is becoming a lifeline for many with more people learning how to grow vegetables. Entertainments of course flood the TV, and for calming the brain exercise, jigsaw puzzles and books are the focus of much online shopping.

On a personal level, I have discovered the unexpected but welcome care and friendship of previously little-known neighbours who help with shopping and check on me daily. I have discovered new ways to communicate via Skype (Zoom was unsuccessful) and I am using email and text more. But should the internet collapse, I have discovered the joy of sending and receiving hand-written letters and cards. There is a new community spirit, as each Thursday evening more and more neighbours emerge from isolation to clap the NHS and other essential workers, to wave and chat – at a distance.

There are many families not so lucky, crammed into small flats with no outside space and little income, who are finding it even more difficult to adjust, cope and survive. Domestic abuse is rising, the virus is still active with no vaccine yet found. Covid-19 still holds us captive and, currently, ‘lock down’ remains in place.

Post War/C-19:

In due course historians, sociologists, medical, scientific, political and public enquiries will draw conclusions as to how we handled the invisible and stealthy C-19 enemy, and what lessons must be learned to avoid such a catastrophic global situation in the future. But when our ‘enemy’ is defeated there will be more and different challenges: economic and social, mental and physical health issues. How many people will have lost their lives or lost loved ones, homes, jobs and businesses? These are the inevitable consequences of every war or conflict.

What will our post C-19 ‘new norm’ be? Who knows?

Meanwhile I wonder what would civilian internees make of our responses to C-19 and ‘lock down’ today? Sadly, all the adults I interviewed have passed away, but it seems to me that implicit in their responses to internment, was the message: remain active both physically and mentally, adapt your skills, re-evaluate your needs and wants, standards and values, cherish friends and family.

Re-visiting the Far East civilian internees’ camp experiences has given me a whole new perspective on my C-19 ‘lock down’. It has lifted me out of my isolation inertia and highlighted ways to cope and manage these uncertain times. We are fortunate here in the U.K. that at least most, though undoubtedly not all, have enough food, ample clean water, functioning utilities, a bed to sleep in and the means, if only by telephone and the internet, to communicate with friends and family members.

And while we wait anxiously for our ‘liberating forces’ – the scientists – to find a vaccine to defeat the virus, we still have access to doctors and the medical and caring professions, some of whom are also making the ultimate sacrifice while helping others to live.

So, if they were here today the civilian internees would quite rightly be telling me to “Stop the self-pity, stop the moaning and just get on with it”!

******But Note to self: Next time get hair cut immediately before lock down! 


1. Dean. A. Smith and Michael F. A. Woodruff. ‘Deficiency Diseases in Japanese Prison Camps’ in Medical Research Council Special Report. Series No.274 HMSO, 1951.p.14

2. Report by C.C.Roberts, billeting officer in Stanley Camp. Thanks to Charlotte Havilland for a copy of this report.

3. Hong Kong Public Records Office (HKPRO). Phylis Ayrton private papers, H.K.M.S No.72.

4 IWM. Dr. M. E. Hopkins papers.

5. AWM PR89/59. Letter, 4 September 1945, from Helen Beck to Colonel Stahle, pp 4-5.

6. Correspondence with the author from ex-internee, February 1992.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s