The Ethic Of Prison Camp Survival


One of the greatest accounts of suffering and survival that I’ve read is the book Prisoners of the Japanese by writer Gavan Daws.  It’s a compendium of anecdotes, stories, and harrowing accounts of Allied prisoners taken by the Japanese Army in the Pacific.

More than this, it is a painstakingly-assembed oral record of the men–almost all of them dead now–who lived and survived in now-forgotten hellholes like Changi Prison, Cabanatuan, the Burma-Siam railroad, Davao, and a dozen other places.

Thousands of men from the armed forces of the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand, and the Netherlands were done to death in these camps, either by disease, forced labor, starvation, or related causes.

The stories are powerful, and unforgettable.  I remember when I bought the book the first time.  It was at a bookstore in Seoul in the mid-1990s.  I started reading it at a restaurant and ended up staying there for over two hours, absorbed in this book.

I could not take my eyes off the pages.

In one section of the book, Daws records the recollections of a prisoner named Forrest Knox.  Knox tried to give some general rules for the qualities and traits that were common among the men that survived the hell of prison camp life in the Far East.

And the qualities of those who did not.

Being in good physical shape was important, of course.  It could withstand punishment and tolerate abuse.  On the other hand, a big frame needed more food to power it.  And men who spent too much time fussing over their bodies often found it hard to accept the loss of their once-powerful physiques.

Being young could be difficult.  Young men were still growing and developing, and their minds were not subtle or seasoned enough to process what was going on around them.  Some life experience, and some seasoning, often proved a big plus.

Knox also noticed that young men from poor backgrounds seemed to fare better. They didn’t expect as much out of life.  Many of them, growing up during the Depression years, were used to going without.  They could work with their hands.

Being adaptable also was a key trait.  Knox related the story of one experienced old soldier who was very intelligent and tenacious, but who could not get used to eating rice.  Rice in those days was not a food that most Americans grew up eating.

What other things helped?  A strong philosophy was a major factor.  A man needed to have some sort of worldview that he could put things in.  It kept him balanced and grounded.  It didn’t necessarily have to be a religion.

And if a man didn’t have a strong philosophy, he needed something that kept his mind and body occupied, to remind himself that life was worth living.  “Even hate would do,” notes the author.

One man knew shorthand, and used it to record atrocities; another man took sketches of the guards and camp commandants, so that he could use them for war crimes prosecutions in the future.

Who had an edge, single men or married men?  That was a hard one to decipher.  Single men seemed in some ways to have an advantage, due to the fact that they had nothing back home to pine over.  But on the other hand, sometimes having just that was what kept a man from despair.

The best skill seemed to be learning how to stay “off the skyline.”  Do your job, but try to be invisible.  Don’t stand out too much.  To draw attention would be to invite a savage beating from a Japanese or Korean guard.  With bamboo poles or rifle butts.

In the end, there was always some uncertainty in the calculus of survival.  Strong men sometimes perished, and weak ones sometimes survived.  Men of strong faith sometimes succumbed, while atheists sometimes prospered.

In the camps, it was easy to lapse into depression or fatalism.  The prisoners had a word for it:  give-up-itis.  The disease of giving up.

You could stay on a man’s back, and encourage him to take care of himself, to eat his rice, to look after his hygiene, or to keep the morale up.  But if a man began to give up, and fall into despair, there was only so much you could do.

Sometimes there was wisdom in knowing when to let go.

It was hard to say.  In the end, maybe Forrest Knox said it best when he tried to sum up what it took to survive for three years as a starving slave:

Faith and digging in garbage cans.  

You could slice it and dice it any which way you wanted, but in the end, it all came down to the will to live.  You couldn’t control who got beri-beri, or typhoid fever, or who got tropical ulcers, or who was beaten to death by a Japanese kempetai with a club, or who died on a hellship bound for the Japanese mainland.

You just couldn’t predict it.  The best formula just came down to this:

Faith and digging in garbage cans.  

Doing whatever it took.  And this has the ring of truth.  Without this ethic–this drive to do what needed to be done–the calculus of survival became ever more improbable.


Read More:  Conflict In Yemen