Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific
by Gavan Daws, “William Morrow and Company, 448 pages .
“Asia under the Japanese was a charnel house of atrocities,” writes Gavan Daws in this strong, somber, important book. “POWs, civilian internees, and Asian natives starved, beaten, tortured, shot, beheaded. The water cure. Electric shock. Vivisection. Cannibalism. Men strung up over open flames or coiled in barbed wire and rolled along the ground. . . .” We in our time are far more familiar with Germany’s wartime misdeeds than with those of Japan. Part of this is because of postwar politics, when we were helping the country become our bulwark against communism in Asia, and partly, perhaps, it is because America brought the war to an end with a weapon that raised powerful moral questions of its own. But the result was that the 140,000 Allied prisoners, victims of systematized racism second only to what the Jews suffered under Hitler, had no official history written about them. Daws has tried to redress that with his compelling study, and since the heart of his narrative is the tales of the prisoners themselves, the work has drama and immediacy. He brings a muted fervor to his tale (he notes with quiet irony that no POW in Asia has ever gotten reparations for his sufferings, while our government has made available twenty thousand dollars for every Japanese-American citizen who was interned), and it is often hard, heartbreaking reading. But you might want to bear with it. After all, Japanese prison camps killed more than ten thousand Americans, and this book, so far, is their only memorial.