Fukuoka Camp 14
These images are taken from Eric’s private collection, as well as from the Australian war Memorial, with thanks.
The men were trained in their new work like children in the classroom with daily lectures by civilian teachers, that often ended in jovial riots among the men who didn’t take their new classes very seriously. The men were taught how to put rivets in place for building ships, how to weld, caulk and scaffold, for 10 days before being put to work. After the training period was over the men were given black wooden tags on which their prison numbers were printed boldly. Each category of workers was given tags of different colours. These tags enabled dockyard hanchos, gestapo and kaigoons (naval guards) to pick a man’s trade grouping on sight.
At this early stage food was available in the camp but the guards were hasher than what they had been in Java. The men knew if they misbehaved, they would be placed in an ‘eiso’, a small wooden cage near the guardhouse that was so small a man could neither stand nor stretch out, for days at a time. Every tenth day was ‘Yasume Day’, a day of rest on which men could wash clothes, hunt for bugs and lice in their bedding and read books.
After a few weeks of building ships, the men learned the tricks of their trade and then embarked on a cautious program of sabotage. One way was to use wrong sized rivets or bolts and another was to overheat the rivets. Over heated rivets tended to crumble under pressure. Through this sabotage the men only managed a daily output of about half the rivets expected of them, and many of the rivets they did produce were duds. The work was extremely tough, the fumes almost asphyxiated the men and the guards made sure the men were constantly at work. The noise of the dockyard was also unbearable.
Around November there were visible signs of the upcoming winter and the Americans, who had been in the camp for a few years warmed the men of the new torments winter would bring. The stress the men were under as well as the extreme boredom from completing the same tasks over and over made the men irritable, and it some cases they would turn on each other. Some men wrapped towels around their heads to block out the repetitive chatter around them, so they could not see nor hear the other men talk about the food that they didn’t have. News of the outside world was scarce, but the men smuggled a few magazines into the camp that let them know that the Allies had landed in Europe and the Second Front against Germany was well and truly in business. Among the POW’s there were a few who spoke Japanese and who could read the local papers to the men, but any man caught was sent to ‘eiso’.
As the long hours and increasing harassment at the dockyard sapped the men’s strength the daily rations no longer seemed enough. The men were always hungry, and more and more men were getting sores, boils and abscesses. The men did notice though at this time, that Australian troops were treated less harshly than other nationalities. Often before punishment, a prisoner would be asked his nationality. The Americans received the worst treatment, then the Dutch and English. Australians received the light end of the stick usually.
Initially, after surviving the sinking of the Tamahoko Maru the slave labor of the camps seemed an acceptable alternative to a watery grave, but it was not long before the reality of prison life in Japan caught up with them. In the book “Last Stop Nagasaki” Eric described how life in the camp was for him;
“Rice was very scarce and the usual watery soup, if one got a piece of meat as big as a marble, it was an event. Usually we had a hot communal bath at night. If there was no hot water I always had a cold shower, and felt warmer afterwards. In the bath some of the Eurasian Dutch would urinate and there were a few fights between them and our boys. Most Aussies didn’t get on with the Dutch.
Our billets were double-deck bunks 16 men to each room, which was approximately 16 ft × 16 ft. We weren’t allowed to smoke at certain times and when a Nip was approaching, the signal ‘Red Light’ was relayed ahead. They never twigged what we meant. When we were allowed to smoke, a bamboo ashtray full of water had to be on the table.
One incident I’ll never forget is, most of us had beri-beri and had to urinate frequently, some of the boys had to go twelve times a night, I think my best tally was six. One chap volunteered to empty the two-gallon tin he found. It was in the room to save us going to the latrine through the snow. About midnight one night I got up to ease myself and the tin was full, so I thought as I had to go outside I may as well take the tin and empty it. On the way out I met a guard and he said ‘Koora!’ and wanted to know what was in the tin. I said Tra’ (water). He got down to smell it and discovered what it was. He took me to the guard house and I had to stand at attention, freezing, from about midnight till about 10 to 7 am when we went to work. I missed out on my steak and eggs for breakfast! To keep me awake a guard came about every fifteen minutes and bashed me mostly with a rifle. Needless to say there was no tin in the room after that.
“It wouldn’t matter what time of the night you were up, someone would be under a light catching body lice or fleas on themselves. One chap in our room was very light-fingered, the best way to save whatever you had was to give it to him to look after. Things never went off that way! The guards were the usual animals. Working conditions were bad. The old factory was draughty and when it rained you had to be pretty good to dodge it and keep dry. We were making parts for ships, propellers etc. for the dockyard. We used to damage as many as possible.”
The only luxury the men experienced was their daily bath. The bath itself was the size of a small swimming pool. The water was steam-heated and the procedure was for each man to soap himself outside the bath, wash off the soap with water from a wooden dipper and then step into the water. The temperature varied and some evenings the water was so hot that the men emerged like boiled lobsters. Sometimes it was stone cold.
By winter a distinct change in the attitude of the guards began to manifest itself. The guards would kick and bash the men, particularly those with injuries, and those who complained became regular targets for beatings. Men were sent to ‘eiso’ for longer periods, and when they came out were shadows of their former selves. News began to filter into the camp that the war was turning the way of the Allies, and this accounted for some of the nastiness the men experienced. Injuries amongst the men increased as did cases of pneumonia as the unbearable cold of winter set in. New rules to prevent men from getting colds and pneumonia were introduced. Each morning before check parade and before each evening parade the men had to strip off and rub their bodies vigorously with a hard brush for ten to fifteen minutes.
The onset of winter, which was the coldest in Nagasaki in 70 years, also brought new apprehensions since none of the prisoners had experienced even a mild Australian winter for at least five years and almost all of them were carrying in their blood the active parasites of malaria. They were housed and clothed, but the work suits they wore to the foundry and the dockyard were totally unsuited to those sunless, chilly environments.
Christmas passed in Camp 14 with no emotional contribution to the festive season. There was however an issue of Red Cross parcels, from which the tins of powdered milk had been removed, but otherwise the daily routine of work continued. The men had no idea how long they were going to be in the camp and for many desperation began to set it. At least in Java they knew there was a small possibility of escape, as dangerous as it may have been, but in Japan they knew they were stuck there until the Americans invaded to set them free. Many men also believed that once an invasion did commence there was a high chance the Japanese would execute all the POW’s as they would prove a nuisance.
The new year provided news the Americans had captured Leyte in the Philippines, and that meant American planes would soon be seen overhead. But the men still could see no future for themselves and tried to settle into a routine of living a day at a time with food their main preoccupation. The men were paid a small wage by the Japanese which they exchanged for mandarins, dried seaweed and cigarettes.
Over the next few months the Allies began the squeeze on the Japanese and frequently planes were flying over the camp, and eventually dive bombers were attacking ships in the Harbour. The raids added a new routine for the men, as they were sent to bomb raid shelters several times a day. This raid also marked the beginning of the end of the production from the dockyard. The guards became hasher as the reality of the Japanese situation became clearer. Men were sent to ‘eiso’ for three or four days at a time, beatings increased, and smoking was prohibited amongst the men. In April the Japanese workers began to talk openly about the war and declared that Germany was finished. Other rumors spread that Hitler had been captured and was being held in the Tower of London. By May the snow was slowly melting, and air raids increased giving some joy to the prisoners, even though they were themselves at risk from the bombs.
As though to compensate for the improvement in the weather the men’s food deteriorated further in quantity and quality. The average meal was three-quarters of a pint of grain consisting of 10 per cent rice, 10 per cent barley and the rest Kaffir corn plus a half-pint of meesau soup. Prisoners were weighed each fortnight and at this stage each Australian was about two stone underweight. The hospital was full, and men were still dying of pneumonia. But with these unbearable conditions came the news that peace terms were being discussed between the Allies and Japanese and that the Allies had captured all of the China coast. The men were well aware that if Japan was invaded though, every soldier and civilian would fight to the death to protect the Island. Despite this optimistic news the POW’s were past caring what happened to them.
By June 1945 more than 80 of the men who survived the sinking of the Tamahoko Maru were dead either from sickness or accidents. The end of June saw a number of men moved to nearby coalmines leaving just 24 Australians at the camp. Then in August it was ordered for an Atomic Bomb to be dropped on Nagasaki, a new hell for the men of Fukuoka 14 to experience, but one that perhaps saved their lives.