The Mitsushima POW Memorial, Hiraoka, Japan. The poppies (left from a visit the
previous year) mark the names of members of the 79th LAA Battery.
“It not matters whether you are among those who hit or among those who
watch, among those who perform or among those who let it happen.
You are all guilty, actors and spectators.”
Michael Quoist, 1963.
The people of Hiraoka erected a memorial on the site of the former Mitsushima
POW camp – at the location of what was the area between the Administration
Building and the ‘esso musho’ (guardhouse cell.) The site of the former prisoner of
war work camp is now the local elementary school’s sports field.
On the memorial it reads:
“In April 1943, we did get a supply of Red Cross medicines, but it was
insufficient for our needs and due to the lack of medicines the life of the
prisoners were endangered and many prisoners died due to lack of
The following prisoners died as a result of the behaviour of the Japanese
camp staff in withholding food and medicines.
(From the official records of the Yokohama Class B and C War Crimes
As a result of the number of deaths at Mitsushima, Tatsuo Tsuchiya being tried as
the first war criminal, and the subsequent war crimes trials which resulted in 6
executions and 4 life sentences, Mitsushima earned the reputation as one the most
notorious POW Camps of the war. But was that reputation deserved?
The prisoner of war camp at Hiraoka – which was known as Mitsushima – was
Tokyo Headquarters’ second detached camp. The headquarter camp was on a
specially built island in Tokyo Bay called Omori. It was effectively Japan’s
Alcatraz. The first detached camp was a hospital at Shinagawa – where sick
prisoners of war were sent.
Mitsushima was effectively Tokyo Headquarters’ first labour camp. It was the
furthest from the coast than any other prisoner of war camp, deep in Japan’s
mountainous interior. The site was a hydro-electric power scheme, built using
stockpiles of American cement, steel, and equipment. Chinese and Korean
labourers upstream cleared the area that would become the hydro lake. Allied
prisoners of war would collect aggregate (Sakamoto detail), prepare aggregate
(Kumagai detail), or assist with lining the intake tunnel (Kamijo detail).
The first to arrive at Mitsushima were 82186 Americans captured on the Bataan
Peninsula and Corregidor in the Philippines. The Americans volunteered to escape
the disease and starvation at Camp Cabanatuan after they survived Camp
O’Donnell, which was the final stop of the Bataan Death March.
The Americans chosen for the trip to Japan had to pass strict health inspections.
Then, they were loaded into the holds of the Nagato Maru, a filthy ship whose
previous cargo included livestock. Animal effluent and hay still lined the holds.
Sailing through rough seas for 23 days, the Nagato Maru travelled from tropical
to near arctic climes. During this journey, the POWs wore what was left of their
tropical army uniform. Thirteen died on the journey to Japan. By the time they
arrived at Mitsushima, many more were sick.
Richard Gordon, author of Horyo, described the journey in a Public Broadcasting
Service documentary American Experience – MacArthur:
“They jammed us into the holds of the ship, no lights. [They] let us up on
deck for the first couple of nights out and then, after that, wouldn’t let us
because American submarines were in the area. They had given us life
jackets when we first went aboard that ship. And then when the submarines
came near us, they took the life jackets off us and put them on the cases of
their dead that they had, [that] they were taking back to Japan. The ashes.
And they protected the ashes with our life jackets. So fortunately this
submarine didn’t hit us that time. But it hit enough other ships after that. But
there was no toilet facilities down in those holds. Pitch black. They had one
bucket that you used for urinal and defecation and what have you. And the
boat would rock and spill it all over and men were lying in it. It’s
unbelievable to attempt to describe that. It can’t be done because it gets too
close to home when I start thinking about some of those conditions. But
that’s what we lived with for twenty-some-odd days. Yet later ships took
forty days to get to Japan. So the conditions became even worse for those
people. Ultimately, 5,000 Americans went to the bottom of the Pacific
A full list of these prisoners can be found on p.742.
Ocean as a result of those sub attacks and those plane attacks that took
Conditions weren’t any better when they arrived at Mitsushima Camp. Gordon
described the conditions:
“The very first five months of [Mitsushima] was probably the worst five
months of my life. Worse than anything in the Philippines. Because, number
one, we had come out of the Philippines with no clothing, other than what
we had on our backs. Which was trousers cut off at the knees because they
wore out, shirts cut off at the elbows because they had worn out. No socks
and no shoes.
“The cold that first winter in Japan was incredible. We had no clothing, as
I say. They gave us British clothing they had captured in Singapore. Which
they wouldn’t let the Japanese people see us in. So they put a Japanese cloth
clothing over us, which they made it so thin you could see through it, but it
covered up the uniforms that the Japanese had taken in Singapore...So we
would sleep in our clothing and even then, we’d freeze because [of] subfreezing temperatures. And at the bottom of the bay where we slept was a
pit. They gave us charcoal to burn. And then at nine o’clock at night, we had
to put it out for fear of fires. There was no heat in those barracks all night
long. So men slept huddled together for body warmth. And used all sorts of
blankets just to wrap each other up in. And if you became ill, as I did, and
you had the chills as I did from malaria, it just was that much colder on you
because you shivered yourself all night long.
“That first winter the guards were a Japanese army guard. They were not
civilians yet. They still were active duty soldiers. Young. Japan had-everything they touched at that point in time had turned to gold. They had
won everywhere. And the Japanese felt very filled with the spirit of winning.
And they were acting out. They mistreated every prisoner they ever laid their
hands on. They would make-- take any pretext to beat on you, to make life
miserable for you. If they caught you leaving the barracks at night to go to
the latrine, because you had to make a lot of trips to the latrine, to the
bathroom, if they caught you not completely dressed, they’d beat you. That
first winter, we lost something like 48 men, Americans and British. And
mainly from the cold and the fact that we were without food and were sick
when we went into that camp. Men died.”
The following night on 27 November 1942, 193188 British prisoners of war arrived
in Japan. One prisoner died on the train journey to Mitsushima. They survived a
month long journey from Singapore on the Tofuku Maru in similarly ghastly
conditions as the Nagato Maru, which resulted in 27 deaths. On arrival at Japan,
about 150 POW were stretchered off sick and about 30 subsequently died.
Interview with Richard Gordon. American Experience - MacArthur. Public Broadcasting Service.
The root of the cause of the deaths at Mitsushima were twofold:
The condition of the prisoners when they arrived; and
How those prisoners were treated after their arrival.
Here is how Charlie McLachlan recalled his arrival at Mitsushima:
“It was freezing cold, everything was frozen. The river was frozen,
everything was freezing and we were in rags, just shorts, rags, bare feet.
“And here he comes out [the camp commander]. Big fur lined leather coat,
fur hat, big top boots, and said,
‘If you think you are cold, it is only your mind that is cold. If you think
you are cold, rub your body with snow because it is only in your mind.’
“And here he is all wrapped up! All these other ones must have looked
down on him. Everybody was in rags, in tatters… frozen stiff.”189
It couldn’t have been made clearer to the Camp Commander, Sukeo Nakajima,
that the prisoners of war were his responsibility. His prisoners were there to work.
He subsequently was fired by the Commander of Tokyo Camps, Colonel Kunji
Suzuki, due to the number of deaths in his care.
So, how did Sukeo Nakajima allow so
many deaths in his care?
Mitsushima was a collision of cultures:
stubbornness, ignorance, and prejudice
from both sides combining in a lethal
The Japanese have a deep-seeded fear of
disease. It is still evident today as the
public wear facemasks to avoid catching or
spreading disease. Since Japan opened its
borders to trade in the 1850s, Japan also
suffered several epidemics. In many ways,
Japan feared the West due to the risk of
Photo 47: Japanese wear facemasks in
public to avoid catching or
This fear was demonstrated by the
measures the Japanese military took before
and after each hellship journey. Each
prisoner was ‘rodded’ – a procedure where a glass rod was inserted up the rectum
to inspect for diarrhea. Every prisoner was also inspected for respiratory diseases.
Some prisoners interpreted these inspections as being some type of slave grading.
In fact, the Japanese didn’t want sick on the mainland. That explains why sick were
kept on Java, Changi Prison, and Selerang Barracks.
On board most hellships, conditions were as cramped for prisoners as they were
for Japanese troops. On board the Tofuku Maru, there were three holds. In the rear
hold were 600 Japanese troops. In the front two holds were 1,200 Allied prisoners.
Not one Japanese troop died on the 31-day voyage.
Interview with Charles MɔLachlan. Havelock North, New Zealand, 19 September 2003.
The poor hygiene amongst some prisoners on the Tofuku Maru caused and spread
the epidemic aboard. The prisoners had plenty of food for a 35-day voyage but not
enough medicine for such an epidemic. Once the epidemic became severe, the
guards stayed clear of the holds.
Many prisoners aboard blame the Dutch Javanese soldiers for starting the
outbreak of disease. They pointed to the Dutch using food bowls as toilets. They
would clean their polluted bowls in the drinking water. Many Royal Air Force
airmen would also waste drinking water for cleaning.
The Royal Artillery prisoners pointed to these two examples due to the lessons
learned on the Warwick Castle trip out to the Far East where they needed to ration
water. Those in The Sparrows had two previous journeys on hellships from Timor
and Java so, by the time they boarded the Tofuku Maru, they knew how to avoid
Another contributing factor to the care of prisoners of war was the Japanese
perception of frailty. Westerners were of larger build with more muscle mass and
required more food.
The Japanese also treated dysentery and digestive diseases with reduced food
intake. The prisoners thought that the sick were punished with half rations because
they were not working. The Scottish traditionally used the same methods and ate
charcoal to flush out disease.
The Japanese were very proud of their culture and methods. Even under the Hague
and Geneva Conventions, prisoners must be treated the same as the captor’s forces.
The guards issued Japanese army split-toed footwear instead of the South African
Army boots held in storage for months. The guards said that the army boots would
be issued at the end of the war so prisoners could wear them home.
The guards were also aware that the locals were suffering from malnutrition. The
food and conditions within the camp were better than the locals enjoyed. The
distribution of the Red Cross parcels was conducted sparingly and surreptitiously.
The guards kept ‘luxuries,’ like hot chocolate and cigarettes, for themselves. Some
guards, who were also starving, kept some cans of food.
The Japanese were brutal to fellow Japanese. Japanese soldiers could beat lower
ranks with impunity. Prisoners were the lowest of the low in the Japanese hierarchy.
Japanese civilian prisons – today and back then – are harsh environments. Corporal
punishment still takes place.
Being taken prisoner in war is inconceivable to Japanese culture. Yet, there were
36,000 Allied prisoners working on the Japanese Mainland. The Japanese used
them to fill the labour shortage. They were there to work. They weren’t there to be
beaten to death as sport.
Based on evidence, no prisoner of war at Mitsushima was killed by brutality.
They, however, died:
As a direct result of their condition when they arrived at the camp;
Due to the climatic conditions of the camp;
From being forced to work when they were frail;
Due to the lack of medical treatment at the camp;
Due to their diet at the camp; and/or
Due to a combination of the above.
For a start, Nakajima was a lazy camp commander. He arrived late, left early, and
did little in between. The camp was left in the hands of an interpreter, ‘Mushmouth’,
who tried to conceal his poor grasp of the English language, and former Japanese
soldiers scarred from battle.
Guarding prisoners – their enemy – was the ultimate insult. Unable to
communicate with the prisoners using words, they used sticks, fists, and rope. This
is no excuse for the sadistic nature of some beatings but no cases led directly to
Nakajima was so preoccupied with the perception of his camp that he tried to
conceal the condition of his prisoners to his superior officer.
“Whenever the colonel would be visiting the sickbay would be emptied out
and sent out on work detail.”
“You’d be amazed what happened when the colonel were coming into
inspect the camp. We had to turn in all the Red Cross presents, what we had
been given out, we had to turn them back in… afterwards. Collected them
all. Stuff like this all the time.
“When the Red Cross people were coming the same thing happened. We
weren’t really allowed to say much to the Red Cross representatives.”190
Nakajima disobeyed the orders from his colonel. Red Cross supplies were meant
to be distributed to prisoners. They were not. Nakajima tried to be self-sufficient at
the most isolated prisoner of war camp in Japan. He unnecessarily put the lives of
prisoners at risk by not asking for help when he could have.
Colonel Kunji Suzuki effectively kept to the standards of the Hague and Geneva
Conventions, which Japan had promised to observe. The problem is that those
under his command did not.
The one area where guards did not comply was corporal punishment, which was
forbidden by the Geneva Convention. Under the Hague Convention, however, a
captor can apply the same discipline to a prisoner as the captor would apply to his
Mitsushima prisoners witnessed brutality between guards. A slap across the ear,
a hit on the head with a wooden sword, or a punch in the face was acceptable. It
was part of the Japanese hierarchical disciplinary system.
Nakajima did not monitor his own guards. Mushmouth, the interpreter,
unilaterally deciding who was fit to work.
“A lot of people I have interviewed have said they used to avoid the sick
bay. Even when they were sick they wanted to work to stay out of sickbay.”
Interview with Leslies Hilton Chater. Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, 15-20 June & 6 July 2004.
“So, do you find it strange that Mushmouth (the interpreter) used to send
people out to work who were sick?”
“Send them out?”
“Mushmouth used to send sick people out to work?”
“Oh God yes! Yes sir. He would hold his own sick bay and so would the
camp commandant. “You go to work, you go…” After our own people
would say they weren’t OK they would come along and say “You go, you
go, you OK, you go.” And some of them died working.”
“Some of them died on the job?”
“That’s right. Right at the beginning.”
Nakajima could have communicated more regularly with the officer POWs
sooner. It was only after he was getting grief from his colonel that he tried to
improve the lines of communication. Here is how Chater described the
“People were dying and we couldn’t produce enough for the workforce and
[the camp commandant] was getting hell from Tokyo, the Headquarters for
the POW Camps.
“So eventually he came to us, the same as what happened in the pictures,
the Bridge on the River Kwai. They came to us. They used to take the
officers and make them stand at attention when anything went wrong when
they couldn’t produce enough people.
“He eventually came to us.”
“What’s the matter with you people? You’re all sick! You can’t get
“So we told him bluntly,
“In the first place when we arrived here we were all half dead
because of the boat trip and you made it worse by cutting the food
for anyone who was sick and couldn’t work, half rations.”
“And other things like that. Penalizing us. So it made it worse and worse.
“And finally he came to us and we told him what was wrong. We said,
“We can’t blame you for the ship. It wasn’t your fault. But the
other things were your fault because we didn’t have any rest or
anything when we arrived at Mitsushima.”
“OK, what do you need?”
“We desperately need medicines for dysentery.”
“What medicine do you need?”
“The doctor was there and he handed him a list. He turned around to his
medical orderly, this was the camp commander, and handed him the list.”
“You go up to the village and get these!”
“Just like that.”
“And also, we’ve got to have to have better food. They can’t work without
food particularly when they aren’t well in any event.”
“Next thing we know we have more food. It’s as simple as that. And
gradually you could see the difference in the troops. And I kept a record of
how many people we could produce to work up to that time and the time
after. You could see the numbers going right up until we could produce all
they needed to work.”191
If Nakajima asked for medication sooner from the Red Cross, he would have
received it. Once they asked for a real doctor, they got one in the form of Dr.
Nevertheless, again, Japanese pride interfered with the treatment of the sick.
Japanese used traditional methods that were either outdated by Western methods or
not beneficial at all.
Burning treatment – where burning cotton wool lined the spine – was one such
method. As Dr. Whitfield said, “A hot water bottle would suffice.” Eating charcoal
was seen as primitive but, even today, it is the best method for treating some forms
of digestive infection.
The senior British officer at the camp, Flight Lieutenant Leslie Chater – a
Canadian engineer commissioned by the Air Ministry – squarely lay blame on the
Camp Commander, Lt. Sukeo Nakajima. Nakajima was where the buck stopped.
“Do you hold anyone responsible for the deaths of the POWs in
Mitsushima and Kanose?”
“Do you think the guards at Mitsushima were responsible for any of the
“The Camp Commander is responsible for deaths. Doesn’t matter what
happened they’re responsible for it. The guards were under pretty strict
orders… by the book… all set out by the command in Tokyo.”
“And the actual… it’s like the British… the actual camp commanders were
scared stiff of that top boss. And I gave you some idea, examples of what
happened when he finally came to us because he was getting hell from the
bossman in Tokyo.”
“You prisoners are dying, you have been doing enough work for us, you
promised work for us to the company!”
“That was the time things turned around.” 192
Notwithstanding the conduct of the guards and commander, the conduct of the
prisoners should not be overlooked. Knowing that guards would punish groups for
the conduct of one prisoner, several of the prisoners’ conduct exacerbated the
cruelty and deteriorated the conditions for the most vulnerable.
The lack of leadership by Major Cory and Ace Faulkner stood out as a major
problem with cohesion amongst the men. Instead of reigning in troublemakers, they
were more concerned with their own welfare. They wanted to be relocated to an
‘officer’s camp’ and moped around the camp. Captain Hewitt struggled to control
the American prisoners as Cory and Faulkner’s conduct undermined him.
The conduct of people such as ‘Bully’ Jones and Martindale are worthy of war
crimes prosecutions. They not only stole food from civilians and the guards, but
also from fellow prisoners. In one case, they not only traded meals for cigarettes
with Frank Brancaticano, but they also later stole the cigarettes from Brancaticano.
After Brancaticano became frail from trading too many meals for cigarettes, Hewitt
ordered that no one collect Brancaticano’s meals. Jones and Martindale continued
to steal Brancaticano’s meals until he died from pneumonia – a complication from
The depth of Martindale and Jones’ depravity is demonstrated by the
Christian/Shinto funeral service conducted for Brancaticano. After the service,
Jones and Martindale stole the food on the altar left as offerings to the Gods for
Brancaticano’s transition to heaven.
Brancaticano was the only prisoner at Mitsushima or Kanose to die as a direct
result of human cruelty. All the others prosecuted at Yokohama were punished for
what they did not do rather than what they did – in other words, negligence.
Brancaticano would not have been able to trade meals had it not been for the likes
of George Peil. George Peil and Jim Bitner were not trained cooks and yet they
wrangled themselves into positions to feed the prisoners. They did not have
experience with cooking rice or barley and it showed. The second epidemic at the
camp was in spring 1943 when most deaths occurred. Most of the deaths were from
inflammation of the digestive system – the result of poor diet. The barley that Bitner
and Peil cooked was not properly prepared and, instead of providing carbohydrates
and essential amino acids, acted like chards of glass through the intestines. It was
only after Shichino spoke out that the camp commander took an active interest in
the quality of the food served to the prisoners.
The level of medical treatment that the prisoners received was the most
controversial subject raised by those interviewed. Every former prisoner
interviewed mentioned the late arrival of a sufficiently qualified medical
practitioner at Mitsushima. Many criticized the Dutch-Javanese doctor, who
accompanied the British prisoners from Java, Medical Officer 2nd Class Nicolaas
Van Slooten. Squadron Leader Grant did ask repeatedly for a ‘proper doctor’ to be
sent to the camp. Eventually, Ships Surgeon Whitfield arrived from Shinagawa via
Noetsu too late to save anyone. No deaths occurred at Mitsushima between the time
Whitfield arrived and the main group left for Kanose.
Once the main group arrived at Kanose, there were only four deaths –
Brancaticano and the three Battery men in the Carbide plant. Kanose Commander
Hiroshi Azuma was tried for allowing prisoners to be exposed to dangerous
Central to the prosecution’s case was the length of the stoking rods used by
workers at the plant and the provision of safety equipment. What is known is that
the same conditions were provided to everyone at the plant. The equipment and
methods were provided by United States-based heavy industrial companies.
Sparks from the molten nabes of carbide ignited carbide dust on the factory floor
and exploded, injuring Harold Rogers and killing Buchan, Crowdell, and Foster.
The proximity of the stokers to the nabes made no difference.
In reality, a double standard was applied. The prisoners volunteered to stoke the
furnaces. They used safety equipment and methods which were best practice.
Harold Rogers showing two different length stokers used at the plant.
(Exhibit in USA vs. Azuma et 5)
Prosecution Exhibit M showing molten carbide poured into a nabe. Note the sparks
onto the floor.