Tom Marsh - Japan

When we left Hong Kong the Jap military had made some effort to equip us for our journey. Evidently we were regarded as a source of labor by someone in authority and therefore our rating was now higher then when we had been left to idle and starve in the camps of Hong Kong. Before leaving we were all provided with overcoats.


By taking the military overcoats away from those left behind. We were also given a generous supply of bully beef and beef stew ration. Most of us carried several tins of this in our baggage, which consisted of a bag of some sort or sack that could be carried.

We anchored out in the bay and were taken ashore in tenders. Here we got quite a reception. On the wharf to receive us was a party of the Emperor’s Household Guards. They had smart new uniforms, peaked caps, and carried the new short rifles then being issued to the Japanese Army. They were bigger men then ordinary Japanese. Their Sergeant-Major was a huge man, over six foot, with a large red sash and a black pointed military moustache. They were also of a much milder disposition then the combat troops we had met. The big Sgt.-Major himself helped others and me up the ladder to the wharf. Here we all squatted and were sorted out into our respective companies. The guards were all smiles and we thought that this was going to be much better then Hong Kong. This impression was strengthened when the guards served us each five hot buns made of pure white flour. They must have plenty here, we thought, to give the prisoners such delicious food. Possibly this was a gesture on the part of the Emperor. He had welcomed us to Japan and was soon to be through with us.

The Imperial Guards stayed with us till we reached Tokyo. They made some of our boys understand that all was not well where we were going and that we would encounter some very bad actors. They told us that any extra food we might have upon us would be taken away. Most of the boys decided to eat as much as they could. Some gave tins of beef to the guards.

The coaches were small with hard straight seats, but at least we all had one. The following afternoon we reached Tokyo and pulled into the huge modern station. We were detrained and marched a short distance to another train, passing through a subway in doing so. It must have been suppertime for the station platforms were crowded with Japanese commuters, each almost an exact replica of the other. Cheap fedora hat with feather in brim, dirty white collar, black string tie, black morning coat, baggy gray pants, white dirty socks and Oxfords or rubber canvas shoes. Here we had the white-collar brigade, each a caricature of a London banker. They swarmed about the platform like beetles. They pushed and swayed. Some were eager to see the prisoners while others were more concerned in keeping their feet and position. I saw several fall off the platforms onto the tracks and scurry to get back before the trains came. I saw few women.

On the new train was a different detail of guards. We were back to the old style. These were shabby and ill equipped and treated the prisoners harshly. I have often noticed that trait in human nature that gets satisfaction from having someone else in a worse position or condition. If the guards are well fed and satisfied with their job they treat prisoners fairly well. If the guards themselves are cold and hungry they see to it that the prisoners fare worse.

Finally we came to a small station on the outskirts of Yokohama. Here we detrained and were and were told to get our bags. All was confusion. The guards gave us no time to find our own bags and cuffed us around. At least our luggage was put on a couple of trucks, and with a Jap officer on horse back in the lead, we marched two miles to our new camp. The district was a poor one and given over to industry. Everything looked dirty and dilapidated. There were bits of rusty machinery scattered around and evidently a lot of small sheds were used to house machines that did subcontract work for the shipyard nearby. We saw few people.

Our camp was in a factory yard enclosed on one side by a steel works and the other by a refinery. In this yard had been recently built two large buildings 120 ft. long by 35 ft. wide. Each of these housed 250 men. There was a five foot passage down the middle of each bay that ran crossways to the hut. These huts were built of flimsy material, mostly bamboo and laminated wood. The roof was of gray clay tile and was so heavy that after a few weeks the building sagged. Few of the windows opened. The beds were wooden platforms covered with a grass mat and divided by strips of wood. The floor was dirt mixed with lime but it had already crumbled in many places.

We were given four wood fiber blankets apiece. There was no warmth in them. We were also issued a bowl, a cup without a handle, and later a paper towel. We were first crowded into the small compound while a mean faced Jap Army Officer read us the riot act. Sword and all he climbed up on top of a table with his interpreter who said, “He say that you are prisoner. You forfeit all rights when you surrender. You are property of Imperial Army. You must be obedient and diligent and have confidence in Imperial Army. Any breaking of rules will be severely punished. He say go now and work hard. Imperial Army will watch to see you do same.”

We were all given a number on a piece of paper which we wore pinned to the front of our clothing. We poured into the shelters and were allotted our places. There was a board shelf over each platform where we could pack our clothes. All goods given us were marked with the red star of the army. We were given a G-string, a piece of cheap cotton about eighteen inches by six, with a string to tie around the waist.

We had no knifes, spoons or forks. The Japs, like the Chinese, use chopsticks which are however shorter then the Chinese type. The Chinaman can perform gracefully, lifting his rice from the table to his mouth. The Japs hold the bowls up to their mouths and shovel in the rice. We gradually obtained or made ourselves eating utensils, a wooden spoon or a tin knife.

At first they fed us fairly well with rice, beans and sweet potatoes but as the American blockade tightened our meals got worse. Most of us put on a little weight but this only helped to conceal our true condition. Many men who had shown symptoms of beriberi in Hong Kong now suffered from hot foot. There was an epidemic of diarrhea caused by the change of diet and water. This was very weakening and it could be said that there was not a really fit man among the five hundred in the camp.

For a day or two we were allowed to stay around and clean up the enclosure and to attend lectures where we were supposed to learn the Japanese language. From then on all commands given by the NCO were to be in Japanese and we were told to learn Japanese numbers. The Jap language and numerals are not difficult to learn and we had already acquired much knowledge of them because if we disregarded or misunderstood a command we were beaten. We learned fast, so that when we paraded and numbered, one would hear, “YATAKI” (attention), “BANGÔ”(number). “ITCHI – NI – SAN – SHI – GO” (1,2,3,4,5 … etc.)

We had been here about four days when one cold morning we were fallen in and marched to work. Previously there had been a questionnaire, which we were required to answer and to fill in the trade or profession we had worked at in civil life.

We marched a mile and it was wet and rainy. Puddles of near freezing water lay all along the route. Most of us wore only rubber tennis shoes, part of the Hong Kong Garrison stores. Our feet were soaked and icy cold. We were marched to the Nipon Ko Kan shipyard4, through the big gate past the guards and into the ground floor of a building used as a storehouse. This floor was open on one side to the wind and rain. There were several civilian Japs awaiting us. Each wore an armband marked with a sign like our seven turned about; this was the Japanese ‘F’. We called them ”Foo Men”.

In this place tables and benches were set up marked with numbers for each section. We were supposed to find our section and ultimately did so. My group of thirteen, I discovered, was supposed to be painters. Eight of us had experience in painting and decorating. The rest consisted of a commercial artist, two farmers, a printer, which I guess they had confused with the word painter, and a truck driver.

Now we were introduced to our ‘Foo Man’. A civilian workman’s importance in the shipyard was shown by a ring of tread or tap around his hat. A three ringer was a foreman. Our Foo Man was a three ringer. He made himself known to us by bowing. We all rose and gravely bowed back. He then disappeared, to return with some others carrying bundles of clothing. These were our working clothes, consisting of badly made overalls of a strong khaki material. All the suits were of a huge size. They had been especially made for us. Whoever had described us to the Jap tailor must have exaggerated somewhat. We were all underweight and some of the smaller men simply disappeared into the coveralls. Putting them on we followed our Foo Man through the shipyard until we came to the paint shop, an iron shed with a cement floor, about 30 ft. by 60 ft., crammed with all kinds of painting material and ladders etc.

At one end there was a storeroom, a stove, and also a place for lockers. A small cubbyhole served as the office. As we entered and stood gazing on and being gazed at by those Japs that happened to be around, the office door was suddenly opened and out came the Master Painter himself, a very important personage. He was in our eyes a funny figure of a man. About five foot nothing, black morning coat, khaki army pants, dirty white socks, worn out low shoes, bow tie with polka dots, and to top it all a straw boater, and of course spectacles. He gravely regarded us. Then bringing himself to attention gave us a military salute. We all gravely saluted back. He came forward and began to ask questions in Japanese. Fortunately we managed to know enough to tell him we were Canadian soldiers. When he heard we were soldiers he pulled himself up and gravely gave us another salute. We replied. By now we were entering into the spirit of the thing. He asked who was the senior. I showed him my chevrons and again he came to attention and saluted. I returned this salute. Then we were shown by signs that they wanted us to work and gave us dusters and told us to clean up the paint shop. The Master having saluted again returned to his cubbyhole.

Later we were assigned heavy work around the shop or in the yards but the Japs were rather disappointed that such big men should have so little life in them. They didn’t know we were all sick from exposure and malnutrition not counting wounds that slowly healed at best. Pointing at their flat noses, a manner by which they identify themselves, they said, “Look at Jap. He jump around. He quick and active. You all humped up and drag your selves around.”

This was true and would remain true till we got a proper diet and protection from infection and exposure. An illustration, marching to work in canvas slippers through icy water and stay all day with wet and cold feet meant colds and flu and in some cases pneumonia, and a further weakening of resistance against more virulent diseases.

In this paint shop were some queer characters. There was Buster, so called by the boys because of his resemblance to Buster Keaton the comedian. Buster was the most self-effacing individual that I ever saw or failed to see. During the day he slunk past in filthy overalls. He spoke to no one and few spoke to him. He knew himself to be a wretched slave working only for a meager ration of cigarettes and salt. But at night that was different.

Folded over so carefully away in his locker was what he and all that saw him knew to be a dude suit. White straw hat, a coat that fitted nowhere and rose at the back as if angry, tight blue pants, a little short, spotted socks, canvas shoes and a cane. Buster walked out through the gate a different man. A ladies man prepared to charm the opposite sex.

Then there was ‘Old Iron’ He was indeed old and was known as a miser by all in the paint shop. While our misers collect gold Old Iron collected anything, a cigarette end, a bent and rusty nail. Hand any of these to Old Iron and his wrinkled face would writhe with smiles. He would bow not once but several times and then would hide the tit bit in his rags. I say rags and I mean just that. He was a mass of patches. His grandfather must have got the suit secondhand when young for the patch on patch made padding at the knees and elbows or wherever there was wear.

The foreman, the three ring Foo Man, was almost a lovable character and deserved a better fate then to work under the conditions and pay for which they all worked. He was intelligent and considerate. He was obviously sorry for us. He never struck one of us and never reported any of us. He was concerned when we got soaked coming to work. He would allow us to congregate around the stove and when a guard appeared he would spring forward and abuse us in Japanese and tell us to get to work or else. The guard would smile. We were being hounded and that was what he wanted. As soon as the guard was gone our friend would allow us back around the fire. He could not believe that when he reported a man sick, obviously almost unable to walk, that the Army would not look after him. The Army took no notice and sent the man back to work so our Foo Man told the sick one to hide up in the loft on some old sacks and thus helped him to recover.