Missing Believed Killed
The Remarkable Story of
A Japanese POW Camp Survivor

John Baxter
(Arum Books)
I want you to know I am an unashamed fan of War Stories, at least well-told War Stories. And my favorite wars, in descending order, are World War I, the Spanish-American War, the Punic Wars, the War of the Roundheads and the Cavaliers ... and the Chinese Opium Wars.

The first, because it was so ferocious, and so completely unnecessary. The second, because it was thoughtlessly manufactured by the Hearst newspapers.

We can't help but treasure the Punic Wars because they were the first we students of the classics were forced to study. The English Civil War? Well it sounded quite silly: Cavaliers? Roundheads? But it was far from silly: the death toll finally came in at 7,000,000 or so.

The Opium Wars? The colonials were the fundamentalist Christians of their day, and like fundamentalists everywhere, they required the losers to abide by their rules. In this case, forcing the Chinese government to let its citizens buy and use opium: not a bad idea considering our present dilemma over drugs and the ridiculously flopped "War on Drugs," eh?

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War stories have to be written with style ... we want to be there and not disgusted and yet not bored (because wars are like being in prison, and they seem to all participants to go on forever: "We are all doing time," etc.) Being a prisoner of war is boring to the nth power, but good writers (Koestler, Debs, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alexander Dubcek) were forced, while in the can, to stir the juices for their memoirs.

And Baxter certainly does this. He was stuck in Japanese prisons for more than three years during WWII, but his tale is neither tedious nor self-serving.

While he did time, it was bad. According to the findings of a Tokyo tribunal in 1947, the death rate of Western prisoners in the hands of the Japanese was 27.1% --- seven times that of POWs under the Germans and Italians. 52,000 British casualties occurred, including 12,000 unnecessary deaths in captivity. The Japanese military believed that those who had surrendered were cowardly and thus treated them dreadfully.

But it wasn't just the Anglo prisoners. Between 1931 and 1945, the Japanese overran neighboring countries --- parts of China, Malaya, Burma, Mongolia, Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Kuala Lumpur, Borneo and Java. And, in the process, they murdered over twenty-five million people (men, women, children).

They had little respect for those they conquered. Nor, as Baxter points out, for their own people. The first thing the POWs saw when they were delivered to Japan proper was a young man hung upside-down by his heels. He had stolen some food, and passers-by were invited to pummel him.

POWs were treated no better. Twice a day, for their meals, they got a little rice with a bit of radish and no medical care to speak of. They were required to work in the mines ten days straight, and got constant beatings for minor infractions.

If you are ever planning to be a prisoner-of-war, don't let it happen in Japan . . . and let this be your textbook. It is all a matter of who will keep secrets, who won't rat on their fellow POWs (in the Pacific theatre, it was the Dutch, according to Baxter, who were the least trustworthy); who will divide everything equally amongst their fellows, and who knows how to make "poteen" (moonshine).

And best, find those who know how to execute "discreet sabotage:"

    Most machinery that we "repaired" seemed to have a very limited working life before it returned to us for further attention. One of our number was well versed in electro-mechanical engineering, so we were able to introduce numerous little defects into mine equipment without detection.

How did Baxter survive under such unbearable conditions? One secret was his youth. More, he had a very useful trade. Forget the law, or being a stock-broker: he had been a plumber in his previous life. And he learned, along with his fellow prisoners, how not only to plumb, but how to scheme.

Being British seemed to help. "The camp administration was largely left to the British, who preserved a wary rapport with each succeeding influx of Japanese."

    By this time most of us had become acclimatized to a tropical existence the hard way and were starting to understand what made our captors tick. Everyone was becoming expert at scrounging and improvisation.

The irony in Baxter's book is that so many of his fellow prisoners died after August 1945 ... when the war ended, when they were technically free. Three airplanes that were flying them out of Japan crashed and burned. In the most horrific incident, Dutch POWs leaving Okinawa were seated in the bomb bay, and "during the flight, at a height of 10,000 feet, someone accidentlly actuated the bomb-bay release, and eight men fell to their deaths into the Pacific below."

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Baxter survived his three years, we suspect, because of his spirit of forgiveness. He even maintained contact with one of the more humane of his guards, a man named Hirano, in Fukuoka. Ultimately, Baxter received a special honor in 1995: the Japanese Ambassador to the UK, "in front of millions of viewers ... personally apologized to me for what his fellow countrymen had done."

--- Richard Saturday
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