Nearly half of the 50,000 American POWs were forced to work as slave labors in factories, shipyards and mines owned by some of Japan's largest companies, including Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Kawasaki and Nippon Steel. About 1,5000 were sent to factories in Manchuria. Some may have been used in experiments at Unit 731. Many were prisoners captured in the Philippines or in the Pacific War. See Bataan Death MarchAbout 4,000 of 25,000 slave laborers in Japan died while doing slave labor. Others died from disease or in fire bomb attacks or nuclear blasts. After the war, Red Cross medical and food supplies distributed in Japan for POWs was found piled in warehouses. The Japanese high command had a plan to exterminate all the POWs and slave laborers in Japan. In his book “Prisoners of the Japanese”, Gavan Davis wrote, "If the war had lasted another year, there would not have been a POW left alive."

Allied prisoners who worked in mines — so dangerous that Japanese miners refused to work in them — endured some of the harshest treatment. They were fed starvation diets of rice, were routinely beaten, and were forced to work in the bitter cold, wearing only gunny-sack-like garments. [Source: Peter Maas, Parade magazine, June 17, 2001]

A typical prisoner was fed around 600 calories of rice at the beginning of the war but only 400 calories at the end. One prisoner told Parade he weighed 185 pounds when he was taken prisoner and only 97 pounds when he was freed in 1945. He also said he was once beaten with pick ax for not working hard enough. The attack left him with a broken nose, a broken shoulder and ax wounds that caused severe internal damage in his hip.Another miner broke his leg after a boulder fell on it. His Japanese overseers refused to give a POW doctor plaster to make a caste. A makeshift split didn't work and the leg became putrid. When gangrene began setting in the POW doctor decided the leg had to be amputated. The operation was done with a razor and a hacksaw. To keep infection and gangrene toxins from spreading, maggots were placed on the stub.

Working at a Japanese Coal Mine

On his experience working at a Japanese coal mine after the capture of Singapore, Frank Jones wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “From the start, the Japanese were very harsh. Changi was mostly just rough ground, very little shelter from the sun and there was hardly any water. Fortunately our Royal Engineers got a water supply going so we avoided a serious drought. All the PoWs (Prisoners of War) were herded into one area and ordered to sign a paper saying they wouldn't try to escape. We refused at first, but our generals made us do it. The conditions were dreadful. We had a cursory health examination by our own doctors who had no option but to pass all of us as fit for work. We got into one of barrack blocks so being under cover helped a bit. Our numbers were gradually whittled down. We'd sometimes go out in work parties into Singapore or elsewhere and come came back to find half our unit missing.

After a while, I don't remember how long, we were taken to the docks and embarked on a PoW ship. One of the blokes said that it had been sold a few years before to the Japanese as salvage. Our journey took several weeks, during which we were fired on by a US submarine, but fortunately, they missed us.

About 150 of us, including Aussies, disembarked in Moji, in Japan, from where we boarded a train and went to a little village, whose name I don't recall. We were put into huts in two groups. One group would work days and other nights, mostly down a coalmine. I'd never been down one before, but basically, I took it as it came. Conditions were very bad - brutal treatment by the guards, and very hard work. Among it was building tunnels, which was very dangerous as there were no roof supports. We had three types of guard: military, civilian and coalmine, and we had to watch out as cruelty was often down to the individual guard regardless of their unit. I was in charge of our group and had a yellow flash on the side of my cap which, luckily, meant I got left alone mostly but my physical condition was very poor and went down to five stone.

You could walk out pretty well any time you liked. One Aussie did and they brought him back dead, but refused to show us the body, so we don't know how he died. But escape was hopeless, as we'd stick out like sore thumbs in the Japanese landscape. 10 days before the end of the war, I was moving into a position to dig some coal when the tunnel behind me collapsed and trapped my leg. My mates carried me through the tunnels and onto a wagon. I put on a tourniquet and loosened it occasionally in case of gangrene. I was taken to the top by my group and transported to a sort of hospital. A Japanese doctor took my leg off above the knee.

I was taken back to the barracks the next day following an air-raid. It was August 4th 1945, and by Aug 15th it was all over. Word came through that all the guards had disappeared. That disappointed many of my comrades because they would have liked to have got their revenge. I embarked for the UK in September and arrived back in December.

Death Railway Between Thailand and Burma

“The Bridge over the River Kwai” — made famous in a film by the same name — was part of the notorious "Death Railway" built from Bangkok to Rangoon across 257 miles of mountains covered by dense tropical forest and malarial jungles in Thailand and Burma by 61,806 Allied prisoners of war — from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States — captured in 1942 and 1943 and 200,000 and 300,000 Asian slave laborers, mostly from Malaysia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries.

The railroad was intended to be a supply line for an invasion of India from Burma by the Japanese. It crossed a relatively narrow isthmus shared by Thailand and Burma, bypassing the inconvenient Malay peninsula, which required ships to travel 1,200 miles between Bangkok and Burma. The railway journey was just over 350 miles. Parts of the railroad remains in use today.

Construction of the railroad lasted for 16 months. Most of the work was done by hand or with the help of elephants, which, according to one Japanese account, were better treated than the workers who were typically put to work clearing jungle, grading the land, crushing rocks and hammering ties.

About 20 percent of the Allied prisoners who worked on the railroad died of starvation, disease and execution. Two British prisoners accused of having a radio and map were beaten to death and their bodies were tossed head first into a latrine. One former British POW who worked on the River Kwai Bridge told the Washington Post, "If I saw a Japanese soldier here now, I would kill him."

Film: “Bridge of the River Kwai” (1957), David Lean's Oscar-winning classic, was on a best-selling novel by the same name bu Pierre Boulle. At least a dozen other memoirs and books on the railway have been published.

Bridge Over the River Kwai and Allied POWs Who Helped Build It

Toshi Shimizu's painting of bridge constructionChinese comfort girl

Kanchanaburi (85 miles west of Bangkok) is home of the famous "Bridge over the River Kwai," immortalized by the Pierre Boulle novel and the academy-award-winning David Lean movie with David Niven. The original bridge was brought to Thailand from Java by the Japanese during World War II, and reassembled by prisoners of war and forced laborers, only to be destroyed by allied bombs in 1945. The present bridge was built after the war on arched supports left standing after the 1945 bombing.

The work done on the Kwai River bridge by Allied POWs was done at several camps. The conditions varied from camp to camp. In some camps the workers had relatively good relations with the Japanese. In other places the Japanese soldiers were treated more cruelly by their commanders than the POWs were by their captors. About 23 percent of British soldiers on the railway died. In comparison, one third of the Japanese POWs under the British died.

One survivor, Loet Velmans, wrote in his memoirs that his survival was due to luck, youth and optimism. “The prospect of death was so unappealing that I chose to ignore it. Life, I thought, was bound to go on somehow until my new and real life would start after the war was over...The despair was gradually replaced by a determination: one way or the another, I was going to beat the horrors of this living hell...humor and the capacity to laugh were indispensable to survival...the joke, the quip, and funny sketch all worked like powerful tonics.”

“Japanese officers, NCOs and privates alike showed us only one face: cruel, ruthless, and devoid of any humanity.” Velmans learned that prisoners in the eyes of the Japanese “were cowards” who “had surrendered too quickly, without a fight.”

It is estimated that 16,000 allied POWs and 100,000 to 150,000 Malay and Indonesian laborers died during the construction of the bridge. A total of 6,982 Allied prisoners who died in captivity during the war are buried in a beautifully maintained cemetery with rows of flowering plants. Some died building the Bridge Over the River Kwai and others perished while laboring on the notorious "Death Railway" to Burma, which claimed more than 60,000 lives.

Many of the graves are in inscribed with poignant epitaphs like the one for H.S. MecLeod, a 34-year-old Australian sergeant who died in 1943: “A smile and a wave of the hand, he wandered into an unknown land.” The memorials resemble the memorials for fallen soldiers at Normandy. For the Asians that died there are few memorials. The mass graves where many of them were buried and now covered by orchards.

Book: “Long Way Back to the River Kwai: Memories of World War II” by Loet Velmans (Arcade, 2003)

Dutch Japanese POW Works on Death Railway in Thailand

Elizabeth Day wrote in The Guardian: “Bras and his older brother Gerrit were among thousands transported to Thailand on the notorious hell ships. Their ship was subjected to heavy bombardment and Bras remembers hearing the sound of the bombs dropping in the ocean around them as they made the perilous crossing.“Yes, we were scared,” he says now. “We thought we would drown like rats. We were deep in the hold, covered from the top by a sheet. Two people suffocated. It was a terrible situation.”From Thailand they were taken by cattle wagon to the site of the Burma railway. There, the two brothers joined forced labourers digging 5m trenches and setting down sleepers in desperate conditions. Construction of the 415km railway cost the lives of around 13,000 PoWs and 100,000 native labourers. One man died for every sleeper laid. [Source: Elizabeth Day, The Guardian, July 26, 2015]

“Bras says the danger came not from the beatings the Japanese guards meted out at random intervals (“They passed,” he says phlegmatically, “and they didn’t want to kill us because they needed us to work”), but from the threat of cholera and malnutrition. He recalls being “always hungry”, but thinks he survived because, unlike some of his British counterparts, he was acclimatised to the tropics.

“His brother, who was a trainee pathologist, knew it was imperative to boil water before drinking it. Those who didn’t “died like flies”. There was a seasonal elevation of the Kwai owing to high rainfall. Once, after the waters receded, Bras remembers seeing the corpses of people who had died from cholera littering the branches of the trees bordering the river. Bras spent two years on the railway. He and his brother would supplement their meagre daily rice rations with strips of young bamboo and the odd squirrel thrown in for protein.

“Has he seen the film The Bridge on the River Kwai? “Yes!” he says, his voice whooping with laughter. “I think it’s a very beautiful film, but completely beyond the truth.” They did not spend their time singing and dancing and putting on shows, he says. “It [the film] was so ridiculous for a person who experienced the reality. It… it was a joke.”

Asian Workers on the Death Railway

frame from the film Railway of Death

The Asian prisoners put to work on the Death Railraod included Malays, Tamils, and Chinese from what is now Malaysia; Burmans and other groups from what is now Myanmar; and Javanese from present-day Indonesia. About one third of the Allied POWs died, The death toll among the Asian laborers was as high as 80 or 90 percent. The prisoners died of malnutrition, disease and brutality while building the railroad. They suffered from malaria, dysentery, beriberi. Some died of heat stroke caused by intense heat and a lack of water. Other suffered infections and wounds from brutality inflicted bu Japanese soldiers. [Source: New York Times]

Some of the Asian were press ganged into working. Others volunteered for promised wages. They were told the they would be working on a glorious project that would help liberate India from the hands of British colonial oppressors. In Malaysia, the Japanese visited many rubber plantations demanding that each family supply at least one able-bodied son for the project. Few Thais were put to work on the railroad. This was because the Japanese did not want to antagonize their hosts.

An estimated 70,000 Asian workers died making the railroad. Japanese records show that of the 85,000 workers brought in from Malaya, 33,000 died. Many of Asian were thrown into mass graves. One Thai woman told the New York Times, “Sometimes the people were not yet dead, They were still groaning when they threw them into the hole.” Despite the scale of the tragedy little is mentioned of the Asian railway workers in history books from Southeast Asia and there have been no government efforts to find or reclaim bodies still in the jungle.

The Asians railway workers were generally kept separate from the Western prisoners. Eric Lomax, a British POW wrote in his memoir “The Railway Men” of seeing “thin columns of Asians” that soon became a “flood, a tide of unhappy men...It was possible even then with my small knowledge of events overtaking all of us, to guess that these pathetic laborers would die in enormous numbers and be the biggest victims of the railway.”

One man who was a teenager from Malaysia at the time of the war told the New York Times he volunteered after his mother was offered a large cash payment in return for his labor. He spent two years breaking rocks and hammering railway ties. Fearing he would be thrown into a mass grave, he said, “I was getting sick and I knew I would end up in the hole.” He escaped by jumping into the river and floating downstream for a week, clinging to a piece of bamboo, before being rescued and cared for by Buddhist monks.

Chinese and Korean Forced Laborers in Japan

Japanese steel factory

China and Japan estimate about 39,000 Chinese nationals were forcibly brought to Japan during the second world war at Tokyo’s behest to work in coalmines and construction sites, where harsh conditions killed almost 7,000. [Source: Agence France-Presse, July 24, 2015]

An estimated 4 million Koreans were forced to work as slave laborers between 1910 and 1945 in mines, factories, construction sites and battle zones in Korea, Japan and elsewhere in Asia and the Pacific. During World War II they dug trenches and tunnels, cleared mines and performed other duties, and were often the victims of Allied bombing raids.

The forced laborers lived in squalid camps, were poorly fed and were often beaten by brutal guards. There were promised meager wages which were deposited in postal saving accounts but many of them never saw the money.

Around 40,000 Koreans were taken to Sakhalin island in present-day Russia as part of a slave labor force that worked in Japanese coal mines there. One man who was dragged from his home while having dinner with his parents in 1943 told TIME, the last thing he said to his family was, "I don't know where I'm going but I'll be back."

At the end of World War II, the Soviet Army invaded Sakhalin. Ethnic Koreans were separated from ethnic Japanese and the Japanese were allowed to return home while the Koreans got stranded because they were not covered by repatriation programs and Stalin needed coal miners. Many never returned home and many of those that did didn't get the opportunity until after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990. The man who was dragged from dinner didn't return until 1998.

Mitsubishi Materials Apologizes to China and U.S. for World War II Slavery

In July 2015, Japan’s Mitsubishi Materials apologised and agreed to pay compensation to Chinese victims of forced labour during World War II days after the firm made a landmark apology to US prisoners of war. AFP reported: “More than 3,700 Chinese who were forced into hard labour in the company’s wartime mines will be eligible for compensation of 100,000 yuan (about $15,000), Kyodo News and Jiji news agencies said. Mitsubishi Materials, a sprawling conglomerate which makes everything from cement to electronics, expressed “deep remorse” and “sincere apologies” to the victims and built a $75,000 monument honouring them, Kyodo reported. The Japanese firm apologised earlier to US prisoners of war used as forced labour during the second world war. [Source: Agence France-Presse, July 24, 2015 *]

“Of the 3,765 Chinese labourers used by Mitsubishi Materials’ wartime predecessor Mitsubishi Mining Co, several hundred died at the time, and only 1,500 survivors or their relatives have been found, Kyodo said. Since the 1990s, Chinese survivors have filed a series of lawsuits against the Japanese government and corporations seeking damages for wartime wrongs. However, Japan’s supreme court in 2007 ruled against granting wartime compensation to individuals, saying their rights to claims were relinquished after a 1972 Sino-Japanese declaration that normalised ties between the two countries.” *\

Image Sources: Japan Focus; National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons;

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, “Eyewitness to History “, edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, “History of Warfare “ by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to, “The Good War An Oral History of World War II” by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2016

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