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What Life Was Like For POWs In The Far East During The Second World War

Japan's early successes in the Far East during the Second World War resulted in over 190,000 British and Commonwealth troops being taken prisoner.

Japanese military philosophy held that anyone surrendering was beneath contempt. As a result, their treatment of captives was harsh. Conditions varied, but in the worst camps - such as those along the Thailand-Burma ‘Death Railway’ - prisoners suffered terribly.

Forced to carry out slave labour on a starvation diet and in a hostile environment, many died of malnutrition or disease. Sadistic punishments were handed out for the most minor breach of camp rules.

Most prisoners of war (POWs) existed on a very poor diet of rice and vegetables, which led to severe malnutrition. Red Cross parcels were deliberately withheld and prisoners tried to supplement their rations with whatever they could barter or grow themselves.

Powerful bonds formed among prisoners. Some shared their meagre rations with desperately ill comrades or risked their lives to barter outside the camps. Ingenious prisoner doctors improvised medical equipment and drugs denied to them by the Japanese. But despite such efforts, British and Commonwealth prisoners in the Far East were seven times more likely to die than those captured in Europe.

Escape was almost impossible. Most camps were hundreds of miles from Allied-held territory. Prisoners were too under-nourished to be capable of surviving for long and Europeans in Asia could not easily pass unnoticed.

In August 1945, atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced the Japanese to surrender. However, with camps scattered throughout the Far East, it was impossible for Allied recovery teams to reach them all immediately.

For many, liberation came too late. Almost a quarter of all Allied prisoners in Japanese hands died during captivity.