go to home page


I could walk down our barrack past women and children with broken teeth and bleeding gums, hair growing in tufts and faces and stomachs bloated with hunger oedema and beriberi, boils as big as ping pong balls and oozing tropical ulcers and not let myself see them: pain was pain.
Ernest Hillen, Dutch child internee Kampong Makassar Camp, 1944-45

"There must be at this stage be no thought of saving the troops or sparing the population. The battle must be fought to the bitter end at all costs ... Commanders and senior officers should die with their troops. The honour of the British Empire and of the British Army is at stake. I rely on you to show no weakness or mercy in any form.4 These words were penned by a British Prime Minister and represent one of the harshest orders ever issued by a British leader in wartime.

The Prime Minister was Winston Churchill and the battle he was referring to was the struggle to defend Singapore from an almost irresistible Japanese military juggernaut which by early 1942 was swallowing up British, American and Dutch overseas territories at a voracious pace. The exhortation from Churchill had arrived on the desk of the hapless British commander in Malaya and Singapore, Lieutenant General Arthur Percival, only two days before the final capitulation. Behind the thin line of British, Australian, Indian and Malay soldiers holding the Japanese at bay was a huge mass of Chinese, Malay and white civilians, all trying to flee Singapore by whatever means at hand, before it was too late. Families crowded the docks and quayside, fighting with army deserters to get aboard the last few remaining ships. No one wanted to fall into the hands of a terrifying Asiatic enemy whom many were comparing, in terms of brutality, to Genghis Khan's Mongol hoard. Frantic mothers, their husbands already lost to the fighting, pulled along terrified and confused children towards what they prayed would be salvation and a ticket to safety. For most, they had left evacuation too late and the women and children were now trapped in a burning and battered Singapore City, the streets littered with rubble from the shelling and bombing and strewn with decomposing bodies, the air rent with the crack of bullets and the crump of mortars and artillery fire, the sky above filled with howling Japanese aircraft that swooped down to strafe at will the long columns of refugees and soldiers.

General Percival's forces had been pushed all the way down the Malay Peninsula since the initial Japanese invasion on 8 December 1941, when enemy troops had first hit beaches in southern Thailand and northern Malaya. By early February 1942 the Japanese were ashore on Singapore Island, the last significant bastion of the British Empire in Asia still resisting the Japanese. Over 70,000 British and Commonwealth troops were trapped with their backs to the sea, the Japanese literally breathing down their necks as they pushed inexorably towards the city centre. Simultaneously, the confused scenes enacted in Singapore were being replicated in almost all of the European colonies in the East. In Hong Kong, the British were also trapped with their backs against the sea, with no hope of reinforcements or relief; in the Philippines American and British nationals tried to stay one step ahead of the Japanese columns cutting through Luzon Island towards Manila; in the Netherlands East Indies, hundreds of thousands of Dutch and British civilians waited with bated breath for the next round of Japanese attacks that must surely soon strike the archipelago once Singapore had fallen; and in Burma, British families had begun to evacuate towards India, sure that the Japanese were about to cross the border and strike for Rangoon.

The maelstrom and confusion at the docks in Singapore was epic as mothers dragged small children through crowds of shout-ing and fighting whites and Asians, jostling the suitcases containing all they had left in the world towards ship gangplanks, while military policeman yelled at the crowds to stay back and keep order, occasionally firing warning shots into the air from their service revolvers. The deafening detonations of aerial bombs and the shriek and moan of the diving Japanese aircraft was the con-stant refrain of the evacuation, and the background was the huge black clouds that hung over the city as whole districts burned under the furious bombardment. The women had largely been abandoned to care for their children and get them to safety, as all the able-bodied men were at the front lines or were already dead or prisoners of the Japanese. Rich Westerners even paused to order their chauffeurs to push their expensive cars into the harbour rather than leave them for the conquerors. The clock in the tall, battle-scarred Cathay Building downtown ticked off the minutes as the British Empire in Singapore drew to a violent and ignominious close.

While the desperate scenes of evacuation were played out in Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma and the Philippines, in the city of Shanghai on China's east coast the British population largely sat tight and awaited its fate with a grim stoicism borne of the realization that they literally had nowhere to run to. Hong Kong could have been so different. In 1939, shortly after the outbreak of the war in Europe, Neville Chamberlain's government had drawn up evacuation plans for Hong Kong in the event of a war with Japan. Those to leave would consist of British and other European women and children only. It was felt in London that if the Japanese attacked Hong Kong, and bearing in mind that the Chiefs of Staff considered the colony virtually indefensible, it would have been an embarrassment if large numbers of white women and children were taken prisoner. It was thought that internment would cause not only wholly unnecessary suffering to these non-combatants, but would also allow the Japanese to use the women and children for distasteful propaganda purposes. In July 1940 the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Mark Young, received orders from the Colonial Office in London to proceed with compulsory evacuations to the American-controlled Philippines. The families of servicemen form-ing the Hong Kong garrison were evacuated, along with certain registered non-service British women and children. By 3 August 1940 large numbers had been successfully sent away by ship, but not without some controversy. Many in the colony continued to ignore the clear signs of Japanese aggression in the ramp-up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, preferring to believe the myth that the Japanese would not be so foolish as to attack the British Empire or the United States. What many failed to take into consideration was the fact that the British Government had already conceded that Hong Kong was a lost cause before the first Japanese soldier set his cloven-toed boot over the border from occupied China in December 1941. The steady draining away of naval and military assets in Hong Kong had been completed by the time the evacua-tions were underway. Forces were being diverted to Singapore or the war in Europe and North Africa, leaving only a couple of under-strength and under-trained infantry brigades to delay the Japanese attack and make sure that the colony did not fall without a face-saving show of resistance by the British.

Many of the Hong Kong evacuee women wanted to remain with their husbands, and many husbands believed the govern-ment had blundered in ordering the evacuations. Women and children started to return. At the same time the local Chinese were embittered by what they rightly perceived as a racist lottery when it came to evacuations. Even Chinese people who held British passports were denied evacuation — this being reserved for women and children of European descent only — and many white men had married local women. Pressure in the colony led the colonial administration to make the evacuations non-compulsory, with the result that large numbers of white women and children remained in Hong Kong when the Japanese launched their invasion, with terrible results for them all. The evacuees who had already been ordered to leave had been permitted instead to remain in the colony if they volunteered as auxiliary nurses or administrative staff.

Now, it was too late. The ships that had left Hong Kong got no further than Manila, which was about to fall to the Japanese. The ships that had left Singapore stood little chance. Forty out of forty-four would be sunk by Japanese warships or aircraft before they could get to the Netherlands East Indies or Australia, and the survivors were thrown into internment camps. The vast majority of British, American and Dutch civilians living and working in Asia would shortly be swept into a series of camps, where conditions would prove as bad as the concentration camps in German-occupied Europe. They would be starved, beaten and humiliated, have their culture, humanity and dignity steadily stripped away, and they would sicken from a multitude of horrible diseases. The numbers are astounding: 132,895 Western civilians were interned by the Japanese, including 40,260 children under sixteen years of age. Fifteen thousand died. But figures only hint at the misery. Most of today's survivors of the camps were children during their internment, and their childhoods were ruined by what they saw and were forced to do by the Japanese. Over 40,000 children, whose only crime was to have been living in Asia when the war began, received the kind of treatment normally reserved for the most hardened military criminals. That so many survived demonstrated the incredible courage and adaptability of children, who in many ways were better equipped to deal with internment than their parents. Seen through the eyes of children, Japanese internment was the defining experience of the lives of its survivors, a nightmare world in which parents and older children strove to maintain some sense of normality for the little ones cast into this shameful prison camp regime. In this book I shall attempt to tell just some of the stories of the children of the camps.

The effects of imprisonment by the Japanese are still felt by the thousands of people who are alive today and who had the great misfortune to have experienced it. When the Allied prisoners-of-war and internees were released from captivity in September 1945 they were all, to a greater or lesser extent, suffering from the effects of prolonged malnutrition. They had been exposed to the whole panoply of tropical diseases and many had suffered badly with malaria, dysentery, typhus, beriberi, typhoid fever and dengue fever. Some had become infested by parasites that took years to leave their bodies. Many had been physically abused, from being slapped across the face to being beaten with clubs, or subjected to lengthy periods of torture at the hands of the Kempeitai military police that had resulted in appalling injuries, and in some cases permanent disability. The psychological effects of Japanese imprisonment were huge, and suggestions have been made by experts that nearly 40 per cent of British internees sub-sequently suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder as a direct result of the privations they had endured and the violence and death that they had witnessed. Young women had become widows and many of the children died in the camps from starvation or disease. Families had been destroyed, never to be put back together again.

Shanghai, May 2010