Tokyo, Japan January 8, 1941

On this date in 1941 the Tokyo Gazette published the Imperial War Depart­ment’s newly adopted Japa­nese Field Service Code. It advised soldiers in part, “Do not give up under any cir­cum­stances, keeping in mind your re­spon­si­bil­ity not to tar­nish the glo­ri­ous his­tory of the Im­perial Army with its tradi­tion of in­vin­ci­bil­ity.” Japan had refused to ratify the 1929 Geneva Con­ven­tion on the treat­ment of pri­son­ers of war partly, as the country’s vice min­is­ter of the navy ex­plained, because the Japa­nese had no con­cept of being cap­tured. Addi­tional dis­in­cen­tives to sur­ren­dering were the govern­ment’s warning that any Japa­nese POW returning home would be shot and the rumor that the Allies tor­tured and killed any pri­soners they took.

Toward the end of the war in the battle for the Philip­pine capi­tal of Mani­la (Febru­ary 3 to March 3, 1945), 17,000 Japa­nese troops fought to main­tain con­trol of the city in vi­cious hand-to-hand fighting. More than 16,000 Japa­nese service­men perished along with 1,000 Amer­i­cans and 100,000 Fili­pinos. During the Battle for Mani­la U.S. troops also cap­tured the small rock is­land fortress of Corregi­dor in the en­trance to Mani­la Bay. Some 5,000 well-pro­vi­sioned Japa­nese troops held out on Corregi­dor for 10 days, costing 225 Amer­i­can lives and 405 wounded. The Japa­nese dead num­bered over 4,500. Of these 500 were buried alive by U.S. bull­dozers or demoli­tion charges, sealed in Corregi­dor’s caves from which they had been fighting. Indoc­tri­nated to choose between victory and a heroic death, only 20 Japanese were taken captive.

On the island of Iwo Jima during this time frame, the Allies en­gaged 22,000 island de­fenders over the course of five weeks. Total Japa­nese dead was almost 19,000. Only 216 Japa­nese were taken pri­son­er (some cap­tured because they had been knocked un­con­scious or were other­wise dis­abled); roughly 3,000 went into hiding. On the high seas, Allied sub­ma­riners’ dis­incli­na­tion to rescuing ship­wreck sur­vivors, as much as Japa­nese re­sis­tance to being taken cap­tive any­where, goes a long way explaining why, at the end of the war in the Paci­fic, the U.S. held only about 5,500 Japa­nese POWs. Japan’s Axis part­ner Nazi Germany had nothing com­parable to the Japa­nese Field Service Code, and thus the Allies held over 12 mil­lion German POWs and Disarmed Enemy Forces (so-called DEFs) during the war.

Japanese Prisoners of War in Allied POW Camps in the Pacific Theater

Japanese POWs in Manila, 1945Japanese POWs on Okinawa, June 1945

Left: The Battle of Manila lasted for one month, from Febru­ary 3 to March 3, 1945. At the end, Japanese casualties largely amounted to the entire force of 10,000 sailors and marines and 4,000 soldiers, with only dozens surrendering, mostly foreigner laborers (perhaps these two seen in this photograph).

Right: A group of Japanese prisoners of war on Okinawa, June 1945. The Battle of Oki­nawa (April 1 to June 22, 1945) was the first battle in the Pacific War in which thou­sands of Japa­nese soldiers surren­dered or were cap­tured. Many of the prisoners were native Oki­nawans who had been pressed into service shortly before the battle and were less imbued with the Japa­nese Army’s no-surrender doc­trine. When the Amer­i­can forces occu­pied the island, many Japa­nese soldiers put on Okinawan clothing to avoid capture.

Japanese POWs in Cowra, Australia, 1944Japanese POW in Borneo, 1945

Left: Japanese POWs practice baseball near their quarters in Cowra, Austra­lia, prior to August 5, 1944, when they staged a break­out that resulted in the deaths of 257 of their own and four Austra­lian guards. The photo­graph was taken with the inten­tion of using it in pro­pa­ganda leaf­lets, to be dropped on Japa­nese-held areas in the Asia Pacific region. Tokyo lodged protests with the Austra­lian and New Zea­land govern­ments, the only time the Japa­nese govern­ment offi­cially recog­nized that some members of the country’s military had surrendered.

Right: A rope-tied Japanese soldier captured in mid-1945 at Balik­pa­pan on the east coast of Borneo, the world’s third-largest island in today’s Indo­nesia, during Oper­a­tion Oboe (May 1 to August 15, 1945). Heavy bombing and shelling by Austra­lian and U.S. air and naval forces in July 1945 over­whelmed enemy out­posts manned by roughly 30,000–31,000 Japa­nese Army regulars and con­scripted locals on Borneo, but like other battles in the Pacific War many Japa­nese fought to the death. This Japa­nese soldier was an excep­tion, perhaps caught as the Aus­tra­lians combed the jungles and hills for stragglers following the end of major operations on Borneo.

Japanese POWs in Malaya, 1945Japanese POWs in Manchuria, 1945

Left: A group of Japanese POWs in Northern Malaya, Novem­ber 15, 1945. Japanese forces in Malaya surrendered to the Allies first at Penang on Septem­ber 4, 1945, then, after Singapore’s surrender, in Malaya’s capital Kuala Lumpur on Septem­ber 13, 1945. Japanese soldiers who remained in Malaya, Java, Sumatra, and Burma at the end of the war were transferred a few miles across the straits from Singapore to the Indonesian islands of Rempang and Galang, where from October 1945 onward more than 200,000 Japanese troops awaited repatriation to Japan. The last troops left the islands in July 1946.

Right: In China, few Japanese soldiers surrendered to Chinese forces prior to August 1945. It has been esti­mated that at the end of the war Chinese Nationalist and Com­munist forces held around 8,300 Japa­nese pri­soners. Following the Soviet Union’s declara­tion of war against Japan on August 8, 1945, the Red Army captured 640,276 stranded Japanese in Man­churia. This photo shows Kwan­tung Army sol­diers (Japan’s occu­pa­tion army in China) being marched into Soviet cap­tivity in Chang­chun (renamed Hsinking by the Japa­nese in 1932), the capital of their puppet state Man­chu­kuo (Man­churia). After Japan’s surren­der in Septem­ber 1945, some 560,000 to 760,000 Japa­nese POWs were interned in the Soviet Union and Mon­golia to work in labor camps. Between December 1941 and August 15, 1945, the date of Japan’s capitu­la­tion, the Western Allies had taken just 35,000 Japa­nese pri­soners; most were repatriated by 1946. The Soviets held Japanese POWs much longer and used them as a labor force.

U.S. Navy Ensign Robert Russell’s Account of His 1,200 Days as a Japanese POW in the Philippines, Japan, and China (Part 2)