An image from the Shenyang POW camp museum shows Allied prisoners in a forced march
An image from the Shenyang POW camp museum shows Allied prisoners in a forced march

The American public does not, in general, tend to know very much about World War II, a conflict that concluded just over seven decades ago. A new exhibit relating to a long-forgotten Japanese-run POW camp that was operational from 1942 until the end of the war may be useful, then, in jogging the collective memory.

Japan is said to have operated upwards of 200 POW camps during the
war, with most of them now lost or forgotten. One of the best-preserved has been turned into a museum.

The Shenyang POW Camp, as it is called, is at a site known for holding some 2,000 prisoners from six allied countries, namely the US, the UK, Canada, France, Australia and the Netherlands. At its peak, it held more than 1,200 Americans. Material from the Shenyang museum is currently on show for the first time in the US, at an exhibition in San Francisco.

High-ranking officers held at the camp included the men in command of US operations in the Philippines: Lt. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, Major Gen. Edward King and Major Gen. George Moore. To avoid total annihilation, they had to surrender to the Japanese at the beginning of the Pacific War. In Japanese hands, American prisoners were subjected to a brutal forced march without water, food or protection from the tropical sun. More than 30% died along the way in what became known as the Bataan death march.

Of the Americans who survived the march, around 2,000 were placed in the hold of a vessel, the Totori Maru, and shipped to Mukden, the old name for Shenyang. Nearly 800 died en route due to extreme heat in the hold, disease, malnutrition, live bacteria injections and attacks by Allied planes.

An image from the Shenyang POW camp museum shows Allied prisoners in a forced march
An image from the Shenyang POW camp museum shows Allied prisoners in a forced march

The brutal treatment continued at Mukden. Prisoners were routinely beaten, kept malnourished and forced to work as slaves at nearby Japanese machine tool factories. They were also subjected to bacteriological and biological experiments, such as being injected with germs so that doctors could observe the effects, which very often included death. In collaboration with scientists from the notorious Unit 731, doctors performed dissections while patients were still alive.

As one American prisoner observed, no matter how ill a GI felt, he had no desire to go to the prison hospital for treatment because such a visit would, invariably, be fatal.

Thanks to some talented artists among the American POWs, the brutal conditions were documented in a series of cartoons. One drawing portrays the overcrowding of the barracks, with half a dozen prisoners depicted sharing the same bunk. Another shows a dog roasting on a spit – a feast for the camp after the prisoners managed to capture a stray. Yet another shows prisoners losing their teeth due to eating food loaded with coal cinders. Prisoners in another drawing soak their feet in buckets of icy cold water in an attempt to relieve the pain of beriberi.

The drawings memorialize the brutality taking place. The sarcasm, irony, wit and humor they reveal also reflects an indomitable American spirit in the face of adversity.

Another section of the exhibition is devoted to acts of kindness and friendship by Chinese workers toward American prisoners at the Japanese-run factories. The Chinese shared precious morsels of food and helped the POWs turn stolen parts from the factory into cash.

One photo display, from 2003, shows David Kornbluth, the then-Consul General at America’s Shenyang Consulate, presenting Li Lishui with a certificate of appreciation for his bravery and generosity toward American POWs during the war.

Other displays show former POWs returning to see the restored camp. Some came back with their wives and families and some brought with them photos of Chinese friends they had not forgotten, the bonds of friendship proving to be indelible.

The exhibition concludes with the statement: “Let us commemorate together and draw lessons from the past, appreciate the sacrifices made for us; not take our peaceful lives for granted, but rather be grateful.

“Let us also hope that humankind will never again choose to go down the road to war and that peace, friendship and progress will become the very foundation of human society.”

After the end of WWII, Germany took full responsibility for the Holocaust against the Jews and openly apologized, without reservation. Japan has taken a different approach

As I walked around, a series of questions crossed my mind. Why is it, I wondered, in light of their atrocities and crimes against humanity, that our political leaders and policy makers so quickly embrace Japan as our ally and China an adversary?

One of the first sections of the exhibition is devoted to the Bataan death march. There is a photo of a blindfolded American GI, hands bound behind his back and on his knees. A Japanese soldier stands beside him with his sword raised high, ready to decapitate him. The photo reminded me of the photo of a Japanese officer ready to strike down a Chinese prisoner during the Rape of Nanjing.

After the end of WWII, Germany took full responsibility for the Holocaust against the Jews and openly apologized, without reservation. Japan has taken a different approach. It denies that atrocities ever took place, and where total denial is not possible, maintains that they were not as serious as reported by the victims.

If they express any remorse, it is for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In other words, only in the context of where the Japanese were victims of war and not aggressors.

The current government of Shinzo Abe would like nothing more than to unabashedly renounce any guilt for some of the most heinous crimes ever committed against humanity. Abe has been moving away from Japan’s constitution of peace and nonaggression and preparing for the day when Japan can openly develop weapons of destruction. Ironically, Washington is encouraging Japan to become a military power again. How easily Americans forget.

The exhibition Forgotten Camp: Allied POWs of Shenyang runs at the WWII Pacific War Memorial Hall, 809 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, until December 5. It is sponsored by the US edition of China Daily and the Chinese Consulate of San Francisco. This is the first time the exhibition has been shown in the US.

George Koo retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield's, a novel green building platform.

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