The July 24 Book World review of "Surviving the Sword: Prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East, 1942-45" incorrectly said that 4 percent of the Germans captured by Allied forces in World War II died as prisoners. The sentence should have said that 4 percent of Allied prisoners held by Germany died. (Published 7/28/2005)
SURVIVING THE SWORD
Prisoners of the Japanese in the Far East, 1942-45
By Brian MacArthur
Random House. 458 pp. $35
"Abu Ghraib" and "Guantanamo" have entered the vernacular as grim reminders of how quickly right yields to might during wartime. But the casual use of words such as "torture" and "gulag" today numbs us to the infinitely greater brutality inflicted on our fathers and grandfathers as "Fepows" (Far East prisoners of war) during World War II -- when the mere mention of "Bataan" could evoke pity and outrage.
Surviving the Sword, by Brian MacArthur, a former executive editor of the Times of London, is a nearly unrelenting account of atrocities that are, even to our jaded sensibilities, almost incomprehensible. As the 60th anniversary of V-J Day nears and "as the surviving Fepows enter their eighties and nineties, it is time their story was told," MacArthur writes, "especially to a new generation, most of whom remain ignorant of the suffering they endured."
Numbers can only begin to suggest the staggering dimensions of the horror. Within five months after Pearl Harbor, more than 50,000 British and Australians in Singapore, 52,000 Dutch and British in Java and 25,000 Americans in the Philippines had fallen into Japanese hands -- a total of 132,142 Fepows. Most spent the next three and a half years in prison camps, where 27 percent of them died (compared to 4 percent of Germans in Allied prisons). A third of the dead -- 12,000 men -- perished during construction of the Burma-Thailand railroad, immortalized in "The Bridge on the River Kwai."
During their captivity, the Fepows were slave laborers, carving an airstrip out of the coral hills of Haruku with hand tools; hauling more than 700,000 cubic feet of timber to build 688 bridges in the jungles and mountains; moving tons -- per man, per day -- of coal, limestone and copper in the mines of Japan. They were fed so poorly -- mostly rotten and maggoty rice, in two or three small portions daily -- that they suffered from scurvy and such vitamin deficiencies as pellagra and beriberi, when they weren't simply starving. What little protein they got often came from eating scorpions, snakes and rats.
Sanitation was so bad that the Fepows were literally awash in their own excrement, spreading cholera, dengue fever, diphtheria and dysentery. Tropical ulcers exposed men's flesh and bone to flies, which laid eggs that hatched maggots, which in turn feasted on their hosts' marrow. Within a few months, malnutrition and grueling physical work turned healthy soldiers into walking skeletons.
And if starvation, disease and slave labor in fetid jungles and under the burning sun weren't bad enough, the Fepows' captors added simple sadism to the endless routine. Beatings, often with sticks and wire, were almost too common to note; more remarkable were the fiendishly imaginative forms of torture the Japanese inflicted. They stuck lighted cigarettes into noses and ears, crucified men by the wrists and made them hold buckets of sand for 12 hours a day, forced them to swallow gallons of water and jumped on their stomachs.
And when the Japanese tired of torture, they summarily executed their prisoners. Shootings were common; so were beheadings.
Surviving the Sword unsparingly exposes the wide range of human responses to such inhumane treatment. Among the Fepows were cowards, collaborators and thieves exploiting their comrades' suffering -- the real-life versions of James Clavell's novel King Rat, whose eponymous anti-hero was a composite of three Americans the author knew in Changi, Singapore. They cut deals with the Japanese, stole provisions, sold them to dying men, then pilfered what the dead left behind. They collected IOUs when their victims ran out of items to barter and sometimes had the temerity to demand repayment after the war.
But Surviving the Sword is mostly a chronicle of courage, compassion and camaraderie. It describes true heroes such as Lt. Col. Philip Toosey, who defied the Japanese and maintained order and morale in Tamarkan, Thailand. He understood that "the real issue was not building the bridge [along the Burma-Thailand railroad] but how many prisoners would die in the process." (Toosey was the inspiration for the delusional Col. Nicholson character in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," an interpretation that MacArthur calls "a libel.")
And Toosey's heroism was matched by countless acts of quiet courage among the Fepows. "The old idea of 'every man for himself' disappeared," writes MacArthur. "There were selfish, greedy men among both officers and enlisted men in every camp, but it was the strength of comradeship that enabled men to keep going under almost intolerable mental and physical stress." Men sacrificed food and medicine to help the sick and washed excrement and vomit off the dying. Most of them even went so far as to forgive their captors after the war -- or at least put their suffering behind them, perhaps so successfully that this book needed to be written. The Fepows were "so scarred by their experiences," MacArthur writes, "that they could not discuss them even with their wives and close family. They believed that their experiences at the hands of the Japanese were literally incomprehensible."
Beyond its value as history, Surviving the Sword illuminates troubling topical concerns. Japan "had never ratified the Geneva Convention," MacArthur writes, "mainly because it proposed that prisoners should be treated in a different way from its own soldiers. Under Japanese military law, it was better to die with honor than live in the shame of captivity." Thus the ideal of reciprocity -- that a nation at war should treat its prisoners humanely to ensure similar care for its own soldiers in enemy hands -- was meaningless to the Japanese.
The worst of the wardens and guards were sentenced to lengthy imprisonment or death, as MacArthur notes, but only after Japan was defeated, and only after tens of thousands of Fepows had perished.
Today, although U.S. law can and should punish American abusers at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, international law cannot stop beheadings in Iraq committed by other enemies for whom the reciprocity principle is meaningless. Now as in World War II, might -- sometimes abused as it is -- is required to enforce right. *
Robert Asahina, a visiting scholar in the Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program at New York University, is writing a book on the 442nd (Japanese American) Regimental Combat Team in World War II.