During their three and a half years of imprisonment in the Far East, POWS suffered overwork and maltreatment, but also undernutrition and exposure to various tropical diseases. This frequently led to attacks of malaria and dysentery, as well as various syndromes of vitamin deficiency. Tropical ulcers and cholera outbreaks also occurred – particularly in the jungle camps of the Thai-Burma Railway.
In September 1945, Professor Brian Maegraith of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (LSTM) addressed a group of families in Blackpool, whose relatives were ex-POWs on their way home. Maegraith warned of likely relapses of malaria and dysentery, as well as psychological problems. Contrary to standard advice, he told the families to “let them talk” of their experiences. Below is a photo of this meeting published in the local Blackpool newspaper.
A letter appeared in the British Medical Journal in December 1945, drawing attention to the inadequacy of medical screening of returning Far East POWs. Dr F E Cayley (himself a former Burma Railway POW doctor) pointed out the high rates of intestinal parasitic infections amongst these men (notably amoebiasis – the main cause of dysentery relapses), and recommended routine microscopic examination of stool specimens. Such examinations were almost never done, the only relevant precautionary measure being an information leaflet given to some returning Far East POWs, the text of which is shown below –
INFORMATION LEAFLET FOR THE MEDICAL ATTENDANTS OF A REPATRIATED PRISONER Some diseases, which do not normally occur in this country, are present in the countries in which you have been serving. It is essential for the protection of yourself, your family and your friends and to prevent any possible epidemics of disease in this country that any illness from which you may suffer while you are on leave, or after your release from the Services, should receive immediate medical attention. Notes for Medical Practitioners The following diseases commonly occur in the Far East POW – Malaria, Dysentery (including Amoebic Dysentery), nutritional deficiencies, skin diseases and worm infestations.
Failure of adequate medical screening and follow-up of returning Far East POWs was a lost opportunity which was to have lasting effects. Post-war, over 4,000 of these men were seen at the military hospital Queen Mary’s Roehampton (1945 to 1967), and a similar number at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine (1945 to 1999). There were early relapses of malaria and dysentery, increased tuberculosis risk, chronic intestinal worm infections, and permanent neurological damage due to vitamin B deficiency. Perhaps most importantly, over one-third suffered significant psychiatric illness, later recognised as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Thankfully, there were some benefits from this unfortunate episode. The Liverpool School conducted a major research project on the long term health problems of ex-Far East POWs, leading to a series of papers in the medical literature. These have significantly contributed to the knowledge-base and clinical practice of both tropical and military medicine. As numbers of ex-POWs declined, the LSTM FEPOW Project has moved to recording the oral, art and medical history of the POW experience. This has resulted in the books Captive Memories (M Parkes & G Gill, 2015), Burma Railway Medicine (G Gill & M Parkes, 2017), and Captive Artists (M Parkes, G Gill & J Wood, 2019) – see the captivememories.org.uk website for more details.
The unilateral cease-fire on 15 August should have resulted in an immediate improvement of the plight of the PoW. The Japanese had been ordered to do so. However, in some places the conditions had deteriorated to such an extent that the dying continued before the situation was brought under control.
The predicament at Palembang
RAPWI team ‘Blunt’ entered its assigned camp at Palembang, Sumatra on 4 September and four days later reported: ‘908 PoW, 272 hospitalized and 249 died of malnutrition and illness’. According to a message 10 September the situation had not improved: ‘British 470, hospital 150. Many dying. Civilian men, women and children. Need urgent medical relief air supplies.’ Another two days later SEAC HQ in Ceylon received a request from Palembang for a medical team immediately because ‘Doctors here are as weak as patients and cannot cope. Medical supplies […] urgently required. Immediate evacuation of sick essential; 50 by air and 200 by sea’. Even Lord Bevin (Minister of Foreign Affairs) in London was worried (message 12 September): ‘Almost complete absence of information about Java and Sumatra in contrast to voluminous publicity about other areas is causing alarm…. There is in fact ground for concern since deaths actually reported by Japanese through International Committee Red Cross in Geneva are much higher in proportion than anywhere else in the Far East.’
Dr. Reeds analysis of the sharp increase in mortality is equally clear: ‘a policy of starvation’ as he called it. On 27 May 1945 the rationing was cut by the Japanese (measured in grams of rice):
none / ill
Even these rations were not met; one week only 233 gr was issued. On 21 August, a week after the cease fire, the rations increased. Dr Reed noted that before 27 May the main cause of death was disease (dysentery); after 27 May it was starvation. He also noted that the starvation due to the 27 May decease became apparent in 6 weeks; whereas the recovery from 21 August was immediate. Dr Reed allowed for the psychological factor of liberation and the increase in morale: “The general effect of being able to put a man off duty and tell him to lie back and absorb his 500g of rice per day had to be seen to be believed.”
Air Supply by the RAPWI
Before the arrival of the RAPWI teams, the RAF dropped supplies to all known camps in South East Asia. This operation to supply the camps by air was called ‘MASTIFF B’ and started with Red Cross supplies of a general nature. As the RAPWI teams entered the camps they would take stock of the material needs and place orders with RAPWI Main Control on Ceylon. RAPWI Main Control would make an assessment of all the requests of all the camps in SEAC and the availability of supplies and aircraft and allot them accordingly. There were 4 categories of supplies and 2 kinds of packing: containers and packs. For Palembang the supplies were delivered:
Capt Mockler RAMC parachute
The chart shows that the after the initial Red Cross supply droppings, the supply ceased until the RAPWI team Blunt managed to place orders mainly for food and medicine as well as an additional medical team.
Evacuation to Singapore
Following the advent of RAPWI team Blunt the situation improved and after 12 September things happened quickly:
12 live broadcast of surrender ceremony in Singapore shared with PoW
13 Medical team lead by Dr. Mockler arrived (by parachute) from Ceylon
14 Japanese finally cooperated: they were helpful in giving supplies of food and
clothing. “Their attitude has lately been correct” as RAPWI team Blunt put it.
15 new hospital was put in operation
19 Palembang visited by Lady Mountbatten which was ‘extremely popular’
15 – 20 all 240 ill PoW evacuated by Dakota to Singapore
21 – 25 evacuation of the 600 British by Dakota to Singapore
Medical evacuation of PoW from Pakan Baroe to Interview of PoW from Singapore, 17 September. Pakan Baroe, Sumatra Palembang in Singapore is not Palembang, but the scene was similar.
Two pictures of Lady Mountbattens tour on Sumatra 15-19 September, camp not known.
The Japanese should never have mistreated their PoW and put their heath and lives in peril. Throughout the war and in all camps the treatment had been brutal and negligent. But Palembang may have been one of the few camps genuinely in acute danger of mass starvation for whom the Japanese cease fire came in just time. It did not, however, result in an immediate improvement of the situation; this only occurred a week later when the rations increased. The advent of the RAPWI team Blunt on 4 September lead to improvements, although it took yet another week (11 September) before the RAF started delivering the supplies that were desired. But the end was in sight; the evacuation of the ill PoW commenced 15 September and after completion is was the turn of the healthy to leave.
One cannot undo the past, but one can count the possible difference made by compliance by the Japanese to the terms of the Allies and a much sooner arrival of the British RAPWI teams on Sumatra.
 Captain J. Mockler is one of the few RAPWI-personnel that died in active duty. On 5 November Mockler (IAMC) and J.W. Smith (RAA) were supervising the evacuation of RAPWI at Benkulen, Sumatra. They were attacked and Smith was wounded. Mockler died and was buried in Palembang; he now rests in Jakarta.
 The AWM description is problematic. There weren’t any Australians in Palembang and the men seem very emaciated despite having had food and rest for a month.
February 1945. We arrive in Ubon north-east Thailand and ordered to build an airstrip for the Japanese. We’ve been prisoners for 3 long barbaric years.
June. Work on the airstrip is going well. Not too demanding. Local Thais tell us the war in Europe is over.
July. A plane flew over the camp and dropped leaflets with news the allies invaded Japan. Is that really true? The guards are on edge. Next day when we’re ordered to dig trenches across the airstrip. Is it to stop our planes from landing, or have we dug our graves? We’re anxious.
Early August. The Japanese tell us we don’t need to work but they’re as confused as us. Some are friendly, all of them less demanding. Something is in the air.
15 August. Today we saw the guards in a panic burning papers. Rumours that the war is over spread through the camp.
18 August. We’ve been uneasy for the last 2 days. RSM McTavish ordered everyone onto the parade ground. We were called to attention and Major Chida Sotomatsu, the camp commandant, made an announcement. It was translated:
‘The Greater East Asia war has ended. You must carry on as you have been for some time until your own people come and take you over. I, as camp commandant, wish to thank you all for the good work you have done for me in the group. Higher officials have given out certain orders and it is my wish that you all adhere to these orders in a soldierly manner. I am still responsible for you all until I can hand you over to your own people. Outside work will cease as from tomorrow. Inside work as far as the I.J.A. are concerned is also finished, but work will have to carry on as before for your own benefit. Do your work as exercise. Those of you who are fit must keep fit. Those who are sick must do their utmost to get fit as soon as possible.’
We are free!
24 August. We were stunned at first. We are free but stay in the camp. Local Thais generously bring us food and drink. They’re organising entertainment for us; cinema, dancing, sports, even horse racing. The Thai army spoke to RSM McTavish, but they couldn’t tell him when we will be leaving.
25 August. Colonel Toosey arrived this evening. We gave him a tremendous reception. He said he had been worried about us, but relaxed when he saw us in good shape.
27 August. British officer Major Smiley arrived early this morning. He tells us he’s been in Thailand since May training the Seri Thai resistance. When the Japanese surrendered, he came straight to Ubon. He stayed undercover in case of Japanese revenge attacks. His radio operator contacted HQ to requisition supplies. We need decent clothes. The Thais send in more food.
28 August. Colonel Toosey sent the 20 sick men back to Bangkok with the 4 Americans. No news of our departure. We are organising football with the local Ubon team. We now have a radio and listen to the BBC. We go into Ubon but back before curfew.
22 September. It’s been five frustrating weeks waiting to go home. But we are now on the move. The Australians and 250 of the British have gone. The rest of us go in 2 days. Feeling sorry for the hundreds of Dutch who can’t go home because of fighting in the Dutch East Indies.
(The Dutch are trained in firearms and tactics in anticipation of fighting the insurgents. They eventually leave Thailand in February 1946.)
On the 74th anniversary of VJ Day, Ashley Prime writes for RFHG about his father, Lance Corporal Ashley Prime – a former prisoner of war in Singapore and Thailand – whose moving post-war letters have been published open access for all to read.
I had of course always known that my father had been a Japanese Prisoner of War. I grew up with that always in our minds in our home, but it was never really seen as a negative. It was just there, and from my childhood, I recall kindly former colleagues of his visiting our home. They were always kind and I never felt any anger in the way they were. At least to me as a small child.
Later in life, I was living in West Germany in my early twenties, and whilst back in London on holiday, I asked my father about the war and his experiences. He said he hadn’t really ever talked to me about it but did want to rectify that. We didn’t discuss anything further, but it was at that point that I started to receive a series of handwritten letters on A4 paper, over a period of around 18 months. He had been meticulous in keeping as many of the original documents as he had, including the postcards he had sent my mother, the only letter he had received from her and his record card. All in support of his letters.
And he wrote and wrote and wrote. Sadly he died in 1983 before he was able to complete his life story. He had written up to the mid 1950s and had therefore covered the fall of Singapore, captivity and liberation.
What did I take from the letters? And how did it change my view of my father? Firstly, there was throughout his letters a lack of anger, a lack of bitterness, with a pragmatic acceptance of his fate. He said that ‘you will be back’ – the parting words from his wife – and ‘another life experience’ kept him going.
He had already said to me that forgiveness was one of the most difficult things to do. But holding on to bitterness eats us all away from the inside and doesn’t allow us to move on. And I think he did that with his captors, with the evidence of him giving them cigarettes, refraining from beating them and pitying them at the end of the war when the Japanese themselves became captives.
And that is how I remember him. He was always kind, thoughtful, loving and caring. I rarely, if ever, saw him angry and he never raised his voice to me. I miss him today in 2019 as much as I do when he was here.