Tom Marsh - The Coal Mines of Sendai

We left Camp D3 one afternoon in April 1945.We were under Captain Reid and a Lieutenant Finn, an American Naval Officer, who had accompanied us from Hong Kong. Traveling all night we arrived the following morning at a way station near the coal-mining town of Sendai in northern Honshu Island.

By Japanese standards we were well equipped when we left D3, each man had a uniform, overcoat, shirt, underwear and new boots. Most of this was from our own British Army stores. The boots were from a shipment of Red Cross supplies. In comparison to what had happened to us in the last three years we now considered ourselves well off. Most of us now felt that the war could no last much longer and that we had a fair chance of survival. We had also been issued a little extra food from Red Cross stories on our departure. This bucked us up a lot.

Another thing that helped our morale was the opportunity to learn the latest war news. One of our boys, Charlie Clark, at some risk to himself, got in touch with a Japanese civilian worker in the shipyards. For the price of three hundred yen this worker agreed to go to Tokyo and obtain a current copy of the Nippon Times. This was an enormous price in Japan when one considers that we were paid ten sen a day and there are one hundred sen to a yen. This paper was smuggled back to camp in one of the men’s shoes and was eagerly read as it is printed in English. It told of the collapse of Germany and the death of Hitler. It also told indirectly of the advance of the Americans in the Pacific. We were jubilant! It was the first authentic news we had since our imprisonment and definitely the best.

As soon as the train stopped we detrained into a large siding used for loading coal. This is where we first saw our new camp officials. They had come down to inspect and greet us. Our train guard did not leave until they had escorted us to the camp. Our new camp bosses were a nondescript lot. The Japanese system of running each camp was much the same. First there was a Japanese Officer as Commandant. Usually this officer was unfit for front line service or had money, like Charlie at D3, and desired a safe haven or was the fool of an influential family and was thus put out of the way.

The Japanese Commandant at Sendai was a fool. We called him “The Child.” He was young and completely dominated by the NCO under him. Next in every camp there was a Senior Noncommissioned Officer, usually a Sergeant. He was very important and practically ran the camp. These men were trained at a special school in Tokyo and all operated along the same lines. The Army supplied the guards at the gate and around the camps, usually about twenty men under a Corporal. These guards were changed every two weeks and were supplied by the local garrisons. Sergeants and Corporals in the Japanese Army have much more responsibility and power then in our Army. The Army guard does not interfere with the working of the camp.

The economy of the camps and their discipline are regulated by the Quartermasters, a body of men who are closely aligned with the Army yet not of it. They have no rank yet fill positions of responsibility. Master Cooks, Chief Clerks, camp Mine Guards and others. They wear makeshift uniforms and at times carry arms and yet a private in the regular Army could knock them about. The only thing lower then them were the prisoners. These were the men with whom we would have most to do with and we recognized their bread as soon as we stepped off the train. They were itching to show their importance by abusing the prisoners. We had seen it all before.

On the pretext of helping to get us loaded into a number of waiting motor trucks they shouted contradictory orders and began pushing and slapping the prisoners. I finally found myself in a truck, squatting, tightly packed on the floor. I was looking over the side watching with interest the antics of a particularly repulsive individual who was cuffing every prisoner within reach. Suddenly the same man jumped up on the wheel of the truck and slapped me in the face. This man was the camp Quartermaster. He had a big close cropped head, bright beady eyes, wide mouth and a hanging lip that gave him a constant leer. Because of his squat yellow form we called him the ‘Frog.’ All through our stay at Sendai he was constantly devising ways of adding to our misery and torture.

Once loaded the trucks started off and proceeded through a hilly country along a dirt road for about eight miles to camp. Along the way there were a number of thatched farmhouses surrounded by small well-cultivated fields. Although it was April most seemed to be growing crops. The road wound into a valley and along the banks of a river and we saw our new home. The buildings were the usual low tiled sheds surrounded by a nine-foot fence. It lay close to the base of a steep hill into which ran the mineshaft.

Our trucks unloaded outside the main gate where a sentry stood in his box. Still under the charge of our railway guards we filed through the gate to the curious inspection of the rest of the guards. We soon found out how out of place the word “home” was when applied to Camp Sendai, it was just another form of hell. Our first inkling of the conditions at Sendai was when we saw a group of human scarecrows standing near the gate. They were half naked, emaciated to the point that it was difficult to imagine how life could possibly remain in such a pathetic form. Their faces were pale, gaunt and haggard with hollow unseeing eyes, which stared at nothing. Their almost lifeless bodies were crippled and covered with scabs and sores. They were supposed to be brushing grass mats, but each movement was one of utter exhaustion as if in slow motion.

“Who were these poor souls?” we asked each other.

We learned later they were British Prisoners unable to work in the mines.

Once inside the gate our railway guards left and we were at the mercy of the Frog and his companions. We were formed into a line around the compound and some tables were placed in the center. Our two Officers, Captain Reid and Lieut. Finn, stood by these tables with a party of the Japanese officials. The Sergeant of the camp appeared strutting in polished jackboots and pulling on white gloves. He addressed us through his interpreter, an old Japanese with the behind out of his pants, and gave the usual line of, “You work or else.” Then he told us to empty our pockets, each man making a little pile of his personal belongings in front of himself. At first we wondered what was coming off but we soon found out. It was all our good clothing we had received on departing from our last camp.

We were all ordered to strip and pile our clothes beside us. At the time we were allowed to keep our wedge service caps and boots but these were later taken as well. Most of us were wearing union suit underwear; these were taken from us, and a G-string provided. We were all called to attention and made to turn about and march twenty paces and halt. We then turned and faced our clothes. Now Frog Face, the quartermaster, and his minions had their innings. They began carting off our clothes and piling them on the sidelines. They took practically everything. They also rummaged through our personal possessions taking what they fancied and treading over and kicking the rest in every direction.

These little piles constituted the whole of our belongings. A few letters, a snapshot of loved ones, a package of Red Cross cigarettes, a hand made comb, a carefully whittled spoon, razor blades, all were kicked around or stolen. The men stood and watched anxiously hoping their own pile would not be disturbed. Naked and shivering with cold for two hours they constantly edged towards their clothes only to be beaten back when they did so.

At last we were allowed to march back to where we had left our possessions. All was confusion and disorder. Some found that all was gone while others were more fortunate. I was lucky and managed to recover a few letters and photos as well as a cardigan sweater and my water bottle. Putting these on I was well dressed compared to most of the others. We were each given a small cotton work shirt and a suit of overalls or work clothes which were made of sacking. The pants fastened around the waist with a string and the bottom of the leg reached to my knees. A jacket with sleeves that came to my elbow completed the outfit. These clothes were obviously intended for Japanese workmen and were much too small. We made ludicrous figures and the whole scene would have been laughable if it were not for the tragic circumstances. We were dismissed and allowed to find our allotted place in the sheds.

Our huts were divided into a number of rooms by wood and paper partitions. Previously, Japanese miners and their families used these huts.Each room held about twelve prisoners however the low platforms that served as beds only held ten. The remaining two prisoners were forced to sleep on the dirt floor between the platforms. We were so closely packed that during the night it was impossible to move without disturbing the others.

Arriving in our room our little party sat or squatted on the platforms and gloomily commented on the situation. The frog-faced Sergeant and all his motley crew were roundly cursed by the more robust while others just sat in despair. The majority however were of the opinion that we could see it through. It would soon be summer and the war must soon end. We all knew the Jap now. We knew his weaknesses and how to string him along. Once we determined to do this we all felt a little better.

A block from the camp, the mine was a large hole running a mile down into the hill. That evening we saw the other prisoners come out of the pit returning from the days work in the mines. There were two hundred British and two hundred Malayan Dutch prisoners. It was an unbelievable vivid scene of tortured humanity. Half naked emaciated bodies black with coal dust. Bare foot and adorned in rags. Hardly able to walk with backs bowed. It was like view a procession of the living dead. These living skeletons paid no attention to us as they shuffled into camp dispersing to their huts, the ultimate in human misery somehow maintaining the power to live.

We were all shocked! I made a vow then and there that come what may I would not go down into the mine. I still had the will power to decide my own fate and this was the end of the road for me. I had enough! Life as these men now lived would be intolerable. I regretted that I had survived and endured so much only to end up in this hell hole called Sendai.

Later we learned that the Dutch miners were in much better shape than the British. This was explained that the British were the survivors of Singapore and had been sent to help build that infamous railroad along the peninsula through Indo China. They were riddled with malaria and other tropical diseases as well as severe malnutrition. The Japanese hated the British for their defiant stubbornness and unwillingness to cooperate.The Japanese had reduced them to dumb driven beasts, sick both in mind and body. Later when we spoke to them they told us it was only a matter of time until we would all die. They had seen thousands of their comrades die. They had heard no news from anywhere for years, no letters, no Red Cross parcels, nothing. We told them that Germany had surrendered and that Japan too would soon fall. They refused to believe us. They hated the Jap and lived to thwart him. Perhaps it was only hate that kept them alive.

We soon discovered that one of the Commandants for this camp was a white man, a Dutch Captain working under the Japanese. The camp cooks were also Dutch. Captain Reid and Lieut. Finn were able to negotiate a fair distribution of the available rations with the result that the British received a little more to eat.

We were given two blankets each, made out of wood and wool, and a porcelain bowl. Our eating utensils that had been taken away were now reissued but few got their own back. Our food was always the same, two small bowls of rice daily and on a good day some greens or a small bun of bread. Water was our only drink and it was a surprise to me upon my return to Canada that I preferred water to drink for quite some time. I am only just beginning to enjoy a cup of tea.

The day following our arrival we had a visit from a Jap doctor who was to decide which of us were most fit to do the hard work in the mines. We all assembled in the compound where the doctor, with spectacles and buckteeth, sat on a box attended by Captain Reid the Frog and several others. Through the old interpreter, with the ragged rear, we were told, “This great man he say give you big prize if you are strong. Run quick.” The Doctor gave a grin with his buckteeth.

The prisoners were paraded in front of the doctor in groups of ten and made to do pushups as long as they were able. The Jap doctor questioned those who were unable to carry out this exercise or who collapsed early. Captain Reid would offer an explanation to as to the man’s inability as best he could. The whole process appeared academic as men riddled with diseases were posted for work anyway.

Most of the prisoners did not bother to deceive the Jap. They knew from past experience that sick or not they would be put to a task in the mine and that this would be the real test of their remaining strength. All the prisoners were aware that the more that faked the test the harder it would be for the others. Therefore the prisoners developed a kind of game around the tests. They began booing those who collapsed early; especially if they knew the man could do the work, and cheering those who managed to out last the others. None of the prisoners achieved anywhere near what they could have when fit however most did quite well. Of course they were so thin they had a lot less weight to lift.

When my turn came I was determined not to go into that mine and decided to fall right away. I pretended to make an effort and fell on my face. The boys did not boo me. They knew that I had been badly wounded. That my arm had been broken and healed crooked, and riddled with diseases. The Frog was right on the spot to beat me for malingering when I pointed to my arm saying, “ Hong Kong.” Captain Reid explained to the Jap doctor and I was excused from further tests.

Now a forty foot circle was marked out and the boys were made to run around it as many times as they could while carrying a hundred pound bag of rice on their backs. Some made a fairly decent job of this and were cheered by the others. This pleased the Japanese doctor and the guards immensely. Even the Frog momentarily stopped kicking and cuffing prisoners near him onwatch. Others however just staggered a few feet and dropped the bag. If the boys thought they were putting it on they booed.

When all the prisoners had completed the tests they were assigned their tasks. Most of course went to the mines. A few, like myself, having very obvious disabilities were found jobs in the camp. Another Grenadier and Ijoined two more of our boys in the shoe shop, which was in the same hut as the tailor shop. There were also two Dutchmen working there and we worked two shifts day and night. The work consisted of patching by hand the rotten footgear the prisoners wore. Our good boots had been taken away from us and we were issued old rubber sneakers. These were mostly too small for our feet as our toes stuck through and the soles fell off. We managed to save these as best we could by using one old shoe to patch another.

When our boys had returned from their first day in the mine they had a terrible story to tell. The mine went down into the earth over a mile and there were no ventilation or safety provisions. Pit props were so scarce that the men were in constant danger of being buried by a collapse and there had been many accidents in the past. Men worked naked and up to their knees in water. The Japanese miners were like animals, ignorant and stupid, speaking a patois that was hard to understand. They threw coal at the prisoners, beat them, some even bit them. They were a very sad bunch of boys. Some of the prisoners were lucky and by chance had fared a bit better then the others. They had been assigned to digging an opening in a new vain of coal in a different part of the hill out in the open.

As the summer dragged on there was very little to ease the men’s lot.We received one half of a Red Cross parcel each during our stay. There was some attempt made at entertainment on rest days, which were few and far between. The Dutch Captain was quite a performer of stage magic and once in a while would put on a performance.

He would mesmerize the Jap Commandant’s chickens and sew two prisoners together by passing a needle and thread through their throats without pain. Many of the prisoners swore by his magic powers so I asked them, “ Well, if he has so much mystic power why can’t he get himself out of here?”