on 23 May 2014
Surviving a Japanese Internment Camp
Life and Liberation at Santo Tomás, Manila, in World War II
Rupert Wilkinson (2014) McFarland & Company, Jefferson, N. Carolina
This is an extraordinary book recounting the details of one of the largest concentration camps for civilians that the Japanese established in Manila, Philippines in early 1942. Rupert Wilkinson was interred in this camp as a young boy and has waited 70 years to write this book. Two aspects come through. The first is that the author is a professional historian, and the second is that he has not wasted the 70 years since the camp was liberated – he has been thinking about it!
[Statement of interest: I was also in this camp, but was too young to remember it. I have never met the author]
The historical section of this book treads a familiar path – there have been many books about Santo Tomás, so the overall picture of the camp is well known. However, the author’s main point is not to describe the scene day-by-day but more to ask questions. There are two main ones.
(1) Were all the Japanese brutal savages?
(2) What was the role of the camp “organizers” and was it effective?
Wilkinson clearly does not believe that the Japanese were universally “evil” – they are certainly not now, I have many good Japanese friends. He points out the anti-West propaganda and brutal military training programs that were part of the culture of pre-war Japan had a profound effect on Japanese troops who were seeing foreign lands and people for the first time. This is not an excuse, just a fact. As with Germany in that period, we see a steady decline in moral standards to a state that eventually condones barbaric behavior. It is a slippery slope requiring continual diligence – example Syria of today.
The story of the camp “organisers”, almost always elected (although the Japanese often interfered in such democratic processes), is a complex one. In the early days of Santo Tomás, the Japanese took a very hands-off approach, essentially leaving the organisation of the camp to many different committees. This even extended to the feeding of the prisoners, where, at least at the beginning, internees were actually fed by paying local Filippinos to bring in food from the outside. The Japanese army expected enemy troops to fight to the death, and had apparently not thought they might capture a large number of enemy civilians, and hence had no plans to feed them. By 1944 conditions had changed much for the worse, especially with respect to the supply of food. The Japanese concerns were dominated by what the local guerilla forces knew or planned, so the outside contact steadily decreased as the years continued. The various civilian leaders had to tread a fine line between the Japanese military and their civilian colleagues, who often became upset that the leaders appeared to be agreeing with the Japanese! This “balance” swung back and forth, often depending on the whims of the Japanese commander. In general, the author has high praise for such leaders; their job started from impossible and went downhill from there.
The rescue of the camp in February 1945 after the Linguyan landings, charged to a so-called flying column, by General MacArthur, was a spectacular success (and described very well in the book), but was predicated to some extent on the rumor that the Japanese were planning either to massacre the prisoners or send them by boat to Japan. Of course, the latter fate would have been a massacre also, as by late 1944 the US was sinking any ship approaching Japan. The author finds no evidence that such a massacre was planned. Indeed, the general disorganization of the Japanese by late 1944, surrounded by guerillas on land, and the US forces approaching by sea and air, suggests that their only concern was for their own skin. After the US forces entered the camp, the Japanese took a number of hostages (mostly young boys from one of the dormitories, the author being one of them). The hostages were released on condition the Japanese guard troops had safe passage out of the camp. This deal was done, but it did not include passage through the Philippino guerillas, and most of the Japanese guards never survived that gauntlet.
One interesting aspect is the opinion of the author on a band (~60) US Army & Navy Nurses brought from Corregidor after it fell in May 1942. On p. 113 he calls them arrogant and adds “They did their job professionally but to often they came across as stiff, unsmiling, and defensive.” In the nurses’s account “We Band of Angels” (Norman, 1999, Pocket Books) the incidents recounted by Wilkinson about the nurses have a different “take” – allowing them the pride of a job well done, and to emerge as heroines. Such are the vagaries of history! My money is on the professional historian, but it is far too late for polemic over such a point. In both accounts their leader Maude Davison comes through as one tough lady – perhaps exactly what was needed.
The Santo Tomás story is a fascinating one that Rupert Wilkinson tells with enough detail to give the overall impressions without all the myriad details. His intent is to ask the big questions and he does that with much flair and intelligence. The 70-year wait is not in vain!
He ends by asking the question as to whether it is more evil to slay civilians at close range than to bomb them from great heights. An old discussion but made more relevant today as we see the introduction of drone warfare.
I most heartily recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good read and likes to have serious questions posed along the way.
G. H. Lander (firstname.lastname@example.org)