Prisoners Of War

Photograph of Japanese sailors taken prisoner
National Archives #80-G-79984-28-2

Prisoners of war, or POWs, were military personnel who had surrendered and were entitled to certain protections under the Geneva and Hague Conventions. Only lawful combatants were entitled to these protections. Persons who engaged in combat while not wearing distinctive insignia  visible from a distance; who were not part of a chain of command back to a legal sovereign; or who did not bear arms openly or abide by the laws and customs of war, were unlawful combatants and had no protection under international law. They were generally executed as bandits by both Axis and Allies if taken prisoner.

POWs were theoretically entitled to the same rations, medical care, and pay as their captors. Enlisted men could be required to perform nonmilitary work for pay, but officers could not be required to work. Punishment for attempted escape was limited to 30 days solitary confinement. POWs charged with more serious offenses were entitled to trial by military tribunal in the presence of a neutral observer. This was usually a representative of a protecting power acting as an intermediary between the belligerent powers. On conclusion of hostilities, POWs were required to be repatriated within a reasonable time frame. In practice, these protections were mostly observed between the western Allies and the European Axis.

These rules regarding prisoners of war were adopted for both idealistic and realistic reasons. Properly guarding, transporting, and caring for prisoners of war consumed significant resources that might otherwise have been available for military use. Nations that accepted this obligation made a powerful statement that upholding certain basic rules of humanity was important enough even to risk defeat in time of war. However, there were also pragmatic reasons for proper treatment of prisoners, not least of which was the likelihood that mistreatment of prisoners would become known and would deter enemy troops from surrendering. There was also the likelihood that mistreatment of prisoners would provoke retaliation in kind. Prisoners were also potential sources of intelligence, and, to some extent, prisoner labor could replace drafted civilian labor. 

It may seem strange that men engaged in the business of killing other men and destroying their works should be expected to behave in a humane manner towards enemy captives. However, the right to quarter (the opportunity to surrender) established by the Conventions was an important check on wartime violence. An army is not just a murderous mob; it is an instrument of state policy that must remain under firm control to prevent it becoming no more than a murderous mob. Rules regarding wartime conduct generally, and rules regarding prisoners of war in particular, were an important aspect of maintaining that control.

Prisoners of war in the Pacific and Asia

Prisoners of war
Number of deaths
Death percentage
21,726 7,412


Netherlands East Indies     
United Kingdom
50,016 12,433
United States

Allied Prisoners of War

Japan signed both the Geneva and Hague Conventions but ratified only the Hague Conventions, which had less to say about prisoners of war. The failure to ratify the 1929 Geneva Convention was due to pressure from the Japanese Army, which was undergoing a profound shift in its attitude towards conduct on the battlefield. In previous conflicts, such as the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese War, and the First World War, the Japanese Army had been notably correct in its treatment of prisoners of war. Of the 4,592 German prisoners taken by the Japanese during the First World War, only 82 died in captivity, primarily from the 1918 influenza pandemic. This reflected the desire to establish Japan as a respectable member of the international community in equal standing with the Western powers. However, by 1929, Japanese Army leaders had become convinced that Japan's national aspirations would never be satisfied within the existing international order. This eroded support for compliance with international standards of military conduct, as did the growing emphasis on absolute obedience to the Emperor. Japanese Army officers at distant posts on the Asian mainland, particularly with Kwantung Army, were influenced by their proximity to the brutal warlord struggles in China, and their attitudes propagated throughout the Army.

The Japanese had insisted on unconditional surrender of Allied forces in the Philippines and southeast Asia in the first months of the war, and they took the position that unconditional surrender meant that even the Conventions did not apply. Navy Minister Shimada Shigetaro told the Cabinet on 20 March 1942 that Japan would not respect the Second Hague Convention with regard to prisoners of war, on the grounds that Britain had waged "extreme warfare based on retaliation and hatred" (Browne 1967).

Under bushido, as characterized by samurai professor Inazo Nitobe in 1907, captives were to be treated with mercy, but this injunction failed to make it into the code of the modern Japanese Army. During the Pacific War, Allied prisoners of war were regarded by the Japanese as completely dishonorable and were subject to appalling treatment. It did not help that discipline within the Japanese Army itself was brutal, and many of the prison camp guards were Korean conscripts who were at the bottom of the military pecking order. Lieutenant Geoffrey Adams, a British prisoner on the infamous Burma-Siam Railroad, became acquainted a Korean guard, nicknamed "Kaneshiro" ("The Undertaker") because he was the camp coffin maker. "Kaneshiro" engaged in petty fraternization with the prisoners, and, possibly in retaliation, he was confronted by a Japanese non-commissioned officer for a trivial violation of regulations and beaten unconscious. Mistreated by their Japanese NCOs, the Korean guards mistreated Allied prisoners in turn, a pattern that one Japanese critic has described as "transfer of oppression" (quoted in Hicks 1994). An anecdote from Hastings (2007) illustrates the concept:

Ito had been constantly brutal. The POWs had no inkling that he spoke English until suddenly he addressed a terse question to Abbott: "Homesick?" ... He asked curiously what Abbott thought of the Japanese, and received a cautious reply: "I don't know them very well, so I cannot answer your question." The guard persisted: "How do you think of what you know? How do you think of me?" Abbott said: "In our army, we do not strike and beat people as punishment. Ito is always doing so, and this blackens my thoughts about him." The eyes of the little Japanese widened in amazement. He asked how the British Army punished wrongdoers. Abbott explained that physical chastisement was unknown. Ito never hit a prisoner again.

Tojo set the tone for much of the treatment of prisoners of war on 25 May 1942, declaring that (Hoyt 1993):

The present situation of affairs in this country does not permit anyone to lie idle, doing nothing but eating freely. With that in view, in dealing with prisoners of war, I hope you will see that they are usefully employed.

He elaborated shortly afterwards to prospective POW camp commanders:

In Japan we have our own ideology concerning prisoners of war which should naturally make their treatment more or less different from that in Europe and America. In dealing with them you should, of course, observe the various regulations concerned and aim at an adequate application of them. At the same time you must not allow them to lie idle doing noting but enjoy free meals, for even a single day. Their labor and technical skill should be fully utilized for the replenishment of production, and a contribution thereby made towards the prosecution of the Greater East Asia War for which no effort might be spared.

Tojo's statements were superficially innocuous. Under the international conventions, it was permissible to require enlisted POWs (but not officers) to work. They could not be required to perform work of immediate military value, such as arms production, but they could be put to work on food production, railway construction, or other activities of indirect military value. However, Tojo's statement became license for local commanders to make slaves of POWs, who were neither paid nor given sufficient food to remain physically fit. Tojo's admonishment not to allow POWs to rest for even a single day meant that POWs worked seven days a week, and working hours were brutal, sometimes exceeding 18 hours a day. Worse still, Tojo's instructions led to a practice of refusing food to POWs who were too sick or injured to work.

Assignment to prison camps was considered demeaning, so it is likely that camp commanders represented the worst of the Japanese officer corps. Many stole the Red Cross food parcels that were sent in large numbers for the prisoners, while others withheld hundreds more tons of Red Cross parcels until after the final Japanese surrender. Parcels from family members were also withheld. One camp commander on the Burma-Siam Rairoad ordered the prisoners' band to play the dwarves' work tune from the animated film, Snow White ("Hi, ho, hi, ho, it's off to work we go") as the starving inmates were mustered into work details each morning. The commander at Camp O'Donnell on Luzon, Tsuneyoshi Yoshio (known as "Baggy Pants" to the prisoners), received survivors of the Bataan Death March with an angry tirade that included the declaration that Roosevelt and MacArthur would be hanged once Japan had occupied Washington, D.C. At age 51, Tsuneyoshi, a graduate of the Japanese military academy, had not yet advanced beyond the rank of captain. Tsuneyoshi's incompetence was too much even for the Japanese, and after a few months he was sacked and the prisoners sent to other camps. Postwar he was sentenced to 6 years' imprisonment, but was released in a general amnesty.

The Japanese almost invariably executed prisoners of war who attempted to escape. In some camps, the prisoners were coerced into signing agreements that they would not attempt escape, allowing the Japanese to apply the legal fiction that prisoners who attempted escape were being executed for mutiny or desertion.

Military discipline tended to disintegrate among Allied prisoners of war, though some captive commanders, such as Maltby, were able to restore a measure of discipline. Maltby forbade individual escapes on the grounds that the Japanese would retaliate by withholding food, endangering the lives of the remaining prisoners. On the other hand, Maltby seriously considered organizing a mass escape in spite of predictions that a third of those escaping would perish. These plans never came to fruition. The Japanese eventually separated senior commanders from their officers and officers from men, which aggravated discipline problems.

The International Red Cross proved ineffective at applying pressure on the Japanese to improve camp conditions. Red Cross officials who visited the Hong Kong POW camps cabled back reassuring reports that gave no hint of how terrible conditions were. One of the officials later claimed that the Japanese were censoring his reports, and anything close to a candid evaluation of conditions would never have passed scrutiny. This official also claimed that the Kempeitai were searching his office and residence weekly for anything incriminating.

Incredibly, some POWs held in countries with a sympathetic local population were able to establish contact with Allied authorities. A group of escaped prisoners from Hong Kong organized the British Army Aid Group, which passed messages to the prisoners via Chinese truck drivers bringing supplies to the camps. In one camp, an electronics technician was able to construct a radio transmitter. The prisoners sent back reports on conditions in the camps and on Japanese activities in Hong Kong harbor. The Kempeitai were able to uncover some of these operations and executed three British officers for espionage.

Allied prisoners at Cabanatuan were able to construct clandestine radio receivers using extra parts obtained on the pretense that they were being used to repair their captors' radios. These receivers were able to pick up the powerful broadcasts from San Francisco and kept the prisoners informed on the progress of the war as seen from the Allied side. The prisoners were also able to establish ties with the underground network outside the camp, which was able to smuggle in vitally needed food to keep the prisoners from starving.

Allied authorities were reluctant to believe that the Japanese treated their prisoners as badly as they did. Japanese POWs claimed under interrogation that Allied POWs were well treated, perhaps out of fear of retaliation, or perhaps because they believed their own propaganda. As late as January 1945, the British Political Warfare Committee suggested that mistreatment of Allied POWs was the exception rather than the rule, taking place mainly in isolated areas far from Japan where local military authorities were less well controlled. Such illusions were shattered within months as large number of POWs were released in the Philippines and Burma. Their stories were so shocking that the Allied governments sometimes censored them for fear of their own citizens' reactions. In particular, American authorities feared that stories about Japanese atrocities would undermine the "Germany First" policy.

Hell Ships. The Japanese attempted to move large numbers of POWs from southeast Asia to Japan. The prisoners were packed into the holds of merchant ships under appalling conditions, and the ships were not marked in any way to indicate that POWs were aboard. As a result, many of these "hell ships" were sunk by Allied submarines and aircraft. The Japanese made little effort to rescue the survivors, although a number were picked up by American submarines.

In one notorious incident, Lisbon Maru was sunk by U.S. submarine Grouper on 1 October 1942 off the China coast. The ship was abandoned by the Japanese, who left 1,816 British POWs locked below decks with inadequate ventilation. When the prisoners broke out of the hold, five Japanese guards who had been left behind fired on them. At about this time the ship finally foundered in shallow water, and the prisoners found themselves in the water with four Japanese gunboats shooting at them. Some 843 were shot or drowned before the survivors were finally rescued. The captain of Lisbon Maru, Kyoda Shigeru, was later sentenced to seven years' imprisonment by a British military tribunal.

Mortality rates tell the story as well as anything. Whereas 4% of western POWs held by the Germans died in captivity, 27% of western POWs held by the Japanese perished in the prison camps. The contrast is particularly great for the Americans: Of 24,992 American soldiers captured by the Japanese, 8,634 or 35 percent died in captivity, whereas just 833 or 0.9 percent of the 93,653 American soldiers captured by the Germans died in captivity (Frank 1999).

The Japanese evidently considered killing all their prisoners of war rather than let them be repatriated by the Allies in the event of an invasion of Japan. On 16 August 1945, the Japanese Navy Ministry sent out an order that included the following:

All papers relating to prisoners and interrogation (particularly those such as the ones published in December 1944 which refer to interrogation of American pilot prisoners), and confiscated ——, together with this dispatch are to be immediately and positively disposed of in a manner that will offer the enemy no pretext.

This order strongly hints that the Navy Ministry had previously issued orders to execute prisoners of war, which orders were subsequently destroyed. A Marine sergeant in a prisoner of war camp outside Himeji testified (Frank and Shaw 1968):

In 1944. . . Tahara came to me and advised "I am very sorry — we must all die." Tahara told me that orders had been issued by Tokyo which would require, the moment the first American set foot on Japanese soil, that all POWs be killed and that the camp authorities then commit suicide.

Shortly afterwards, the Japs began daily drills. A platoon of Japs would arrive at our camp from Himeji barracks (they were required to move on the double for the 11 kilometers), hastily set up their machine guns to completely encircle the camp and execute other maneuvers clearly indicating a plan they wished to execute without mistake. Their arrival, their maneuver, their critique, and their departure took place two or three times each week. The . . . authorities made mention that the soldiers were being trained to protect us from irate civilians who might wish to harm us if U.S. troops started to invade. On one occasion, I made a point blank statement to the [Japanese second in command], Sgt. Fukada, that it was regrettable that we should have to die after so long a term in prison camp — he agreed and stated he would have liked to have lived after the war was over, perhaps the country would some day be a good country again.

I believed that orders directing massacre of the prisoners had been issued and am still of that opinion.

A number of captured airmen in Japan were in fact murdered after the Emperor broadcast the surrender. On the other hand, Major General Matsui Hideji released his prisoners of war before retreating from Rangoon; those in hospital were found by the DRACULA invasion force. Regrettably, those released prisoners who attempted to walk to the British lines were wearing old-style khaki uniforms resembling those of the Japanese, rather than the newer British jungle green uniforms, and were attacked by Allied aircraft that mistook them for a Japanese column.

China. The war in China produced few prisoners of war on either side until the mass surrender of Japanese troops at the end of the war. The Japanese released only 56 Chinese prisoners of war at the end of hostilities, after eight years of fighting a Chinese army whose strength peaked at around 6 million men. This was in spite of Japanese records showing the capture of thousands of prisoners, including 9,581 in the Wuhan campaign alone (Peattie et al. 2011). It is faintly possible that some Chinese prisoners of war were given their paroles or were impressed into puppet forces, but it is much more likely that captured Chinese troops were generally shot or beheaded out of hand.

Japanese Prisoners of War

The Japanese military ethos regarded surrender as completely dishonorable. The 159 Japanese soldiers captured at Nomonhan in 1939 and repatriated by the Soviets were severely punished by their own army. Enlisted men were assigned to penal units and officers were ordered to commit suicide. The message was clear, and prisoners of war constituted not more than 3% of Japanese casualties even in the final campaign at Okinawa. Those who did offer surrender sometimes engaged in perfidy, turning on their would-be captors with a grenade or knife.

Some Allied units became reluctant to offer quarter, with the result that many Japanese did not survive their attempt to surrender. Captain John Burden, a former physician working with Japanese immigrants in Hawaii who was the first Japanese language officer on Guadalcanal, reported that on "several occasions word was telephoned in from the front line that a prisoner had been taken, only to find after hours of waiting that the prisoner had 'died' en route to the rear. In more than one instance there was strong evidence that the prisoner had been shot and buried because it was too much bother to take him in" (quoted in Straus 2003).

However, those Japanese POWs who made it to the rear were usually treated humanely, in part because Allied intelligence officers considered prisoners to be valuable intelligence assets. The Japanese did nothing to prepare their men for the possibility of capture, since that possibility was unthinkable, and Japanese prisoners tended to talk freely with their captors if treated well. Many Japanese prisoners begged their captors to allow them to remain in Allied countries and to not inform their government of their capture rather than face the dishonor of returning alive to their families. These requests were refused, since such notification was required under the Conventions, although fully half the prisoners gave false names to interrogators to avoid shaming their families. Many of the prisoners felt that by being taken captive they had ceased to be Japanese, and some prisoners even helped the Americans draft propaganda leaflets.

The Americans interned captured Japanese at Camp Paita in New Caledonia, though most were eventually transferred to seven camps on the U.S. mainland. Spain acted as the protecting power for Japanese prisoners of war in the United States until April 1945, when the massacre of the Spanish consulate at Manila caused Spain to break relations with Japan. Japanese captured by Commonwealth forces were interned at Camp Bikaner in present-day Pakistan; Camp Cowra, Camp Hay, and Camp Murchison in southeast Australia; and Camp Featherston near Wellington, New Zealand. Prisoners thought to have particularly valuable information were sent to either Fort Hunt or Camp Tracy, where they were kept in wiretapped rooms and subject to thorough interrogation. Even here, however, there was little or no use of duress to extract information.

Sometimes Japanese prisoners of war did not remain psychologically broken. There were two instances of riots at Allied prisoner of war camps, where the actions of the Japanese prisoners suggest that they had decided it was better to regain their honor by being shot while attempting escape than to continue to endure the shame of captivity. The riot at Camp Featherston on 25 February 1943 took place when 250 prisoners refused to report for work, the situation escalated, and 48 prisoners and one guard wound up dead. The mass breakout at Cowra on 4 August 1944 resulted in the escape of 359 prisoners, all of whom were subsequently either recaptured, killed while resisting recapture, or committed suicide. The Cowra breakout ultimately cost the lives of 231 prisoners and four guards. A third planned riot at Camp Piata was exposed by an informer, and the ringleaders promptly hanged themselves in their barracks.

Both riots were led by a hard core of "true believers", prisoners who maintained a deep faith in the ultimate victory of Japan. At Featherston the ringleaders were petty officers from cruiser Furutaka, while those at Cowra were noncommissioned officers upset that they were going to be separated from their men. The ringleader at Piata was Senior Petty Officer Sato Mitsue, who was "a dyed-in-the-wool Imperial Japanese Navy warrior type — 'self-confident, dignified, exuding authority'" (Straus 2003).

However, while many POWs professed to interrogators that they wished to be killed, relatively few seemed to really mean it. Interrogators sometimes became so annoyed with requests from POWs to be killed that they invited the prisoner to make a run for it so that he would be shot by the military police while attempting escape. None took the interrogators up on the offer.

Japanese prisoners of war feared the worst when they returned to Japan after the war. For the most part, their fears went unrealized, and they were able to reintegrate into Japanese society relatively smoothly. One ex-POW even rose to flag rank in the postwar Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.

Few Japanese were taken prisoner by the Chinese prior to August 1945. One recent estimate is that about 8300 Japanese had been taken prisoner by Chinese forces by 15 August 1945. Both the Japanese and the Chinese generally executed captured enemy soldiers out of hand. However, the Japanese capitulation led to the mass surrender of some 1.2 million Japanese troops in China. Expecting vicious retribution from the Chinese, the Japanese instead found their treatment by the Chinese to be "magnanimous" (Straus 2003). The Kuomintang were primarily concerned with ensuring that the Communists did not gain any advantage from captured Japanese weapons, from the power vacuum in formerly Japanese-controlled areas, or by directly employing surrendered Japanese troops against the Kuomintang.

Russia had not signed the Conventions, and both Russian prisoners and prisoners of the Russians were treated with great brutality in the European war. The brief Russian campaign in Manchuria in August 1945 resulted in the capture of numerous Japanese prisoners, who were generally also treated quite poorly. Some were not repatriated until 1956. American researchers estimate that the Soviets captured 2,726,000 Japanese nationals during the campaign, of which only a third were military. Of these, 2,379,000 eventually returned to Japan. Some 254,000 were confirmed dead, and the remaining 93,000 were presumed dead. However, this 13% death rate, while appalling, was far less than that of either German prisoners in Russia or Western prisoners of the Japanese.


Allen (1984)

Breuer (2002)

Browne (1967)

Drea (2009)

Edgerton (1997)

Ellis (1995)

Felton (2009)
Frank (1999)

Frank and Shaw (1968; accessed 2012-6-15)

Harmsen (2013)
Hastings (2007)

Hickman (2009; accessed 2012-4-14)

Hicks (1994)

Hoyt (1993)

Johnson (1983)

Lindsay (2005)
Newman (1995)
Russell (1958)

Straus (2003)

Tanaka (1998)

Webster (2003)

Weinberg (1994)

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