Photograph of
      Japanese-Americans awaiting internment
National Archives

Internment refers to the nonjudicial confinement of persons in time of war. Enemy combatants are interned as prisoners of war, but the term is usually applied either to enemy civilians held in custody by a belligerent or to combatants held by a neutral power as required by international law.

Internment of Combatants by Neutral Powers

The Second Hague Convention spelled out duties and responsibilities of neutral powers in time of war. Among these was the responsibility to intern any land combat force that crossed into a neutral's territory.

The only neutral nations of any importance during the Pacific War were Russia and Portugal. Both the Allies and the Japanese largely ignored Portugal's neutrality, and Portugal was in no position to effectively protest. Allied troops entered Portuguese East Timor following the Pearl Harbor attack and the Portuguese governor confined himself to his residence to maintained the fiction of neutrality. The Japanese seized Portuguese East Timor in February 1942 and the surviving Allied troops conducted a guerrilla campaign until February 1943. Macau was occupied by Japan in 1943.

Unlike Portugal, Russia was in a position to resist violations of her neutrality, and did so until August 1945. When one of Doolittle's raiders landed at Vladivostok following a fuel system failure, the Russians interned the crew for over a year before allowing them to escape through Persia. Crews of B-29s that landed in Russian territory in 1944-1945 were likewise interned until Russia became a belligerent. The Russians cynically retained all the American aircraft involved under the guise that they were reparations for the costs of internment, and the B-29 was reverse-engineered as the Tupolev-4 bomber.

Internment of Civilians

Internment of civilians from enemy countries was practiced by all sides in the Second World War. However, in the United States, both Japanese nationals and most Japanese-Americans were interned. The internment of 120,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry, on the basis of their race, has been condemned by most American historians.

Internment was not pleasant, but morbidity and mortality rates in American internment camps were not significantly different from those in the general population, suggesting that living conditions were acceptable, if somewhat Spartan. Barracks in internment camps were built to the same standards as military barracks for active duty troops (and often by the same contractors.) There were several instances of Japanese-Americans living outside the West Coast voluntarily joining their relatives in the internment camps. As the war progressed, many camp commanders gave the internees increased freedom to come and go from their camps, and some internees were able to find sponsors outside the West Coast and thereby secure their release. None of these observations are meant to condone the internment; they are meant to put the internment in perspective at a time when Germany was systematically slaughtering millions of Jews and Japan was treating civilian internees with great cruelty.

Japanese internment camps varied considerably in their harshness, though few were as bad as Japanese prisoner of war camps. The mortality rate was about a third that of American prisoners of war: Out of 130,895 interned Allied civilians, 14,650 or 11.2 percent died in captivity, versus 35 percent of American POWs (Frank 1999). The Chapei camp outside Shanghai, which held predominantly British civilians from the International Settlement, was possibly the least harsh civilian internment camp run by the Japanese. Families were kept together, there was generally enough food to ward off starvation, and the British civilians were even allowed to a measure of self-government through a judicial committee that punished various misdemeanors. This may have been a consequence of the fact that Chapei was run by the Japanese consul-general at Shanghai rather than the Japanese Army.

Chapei camp was exceptional. Interned Dutch women in other camps were routinely struck by camp guards, although rape was rare. One camp commander ordered all dogs killed, and boys were forced to club their own pets to death. The greatest hardship in most camps was the lack of food, which compelled some Dutch women (estimated as about 10% on Sumatra) to trade sex for food. The ration was just 140 grams of vegetables per person by November 1944. The death rate in one internment camp was 17%, an atrocious figure but still less than in Japanese-run POW camps.

The worst of the Allied internment camps, Purama Quila outside Delhi, suffered a death rate of about 5%, which if less than in the Japanese camps still "reflected deplorably on British competence as well as humanity" (Hastings 2011). Purama Quila seems to have been the exception rather than the rule.


The Avalon Project: Second Hague Convention (accessed 2008-12-4)

Felton (2009)

Frank (1999)
Hastings (2007, 2011)
Russell (1958)

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