The Forgotten POWs of the Pacific: The Story of Taiwan’s Camps

More than 400 Allied servicemen died in Taiwan’s notorious camps during World War II, most of them at Jinguashi
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
Photo: J. Michael Cole / Thinking Taiwan
David Prentice
By

Jinguashi, a small, secluded town on the northeastern tip of Taiwan, wakes to the same schedule every day: busloads of tourists spill over from excursions in neighboring Jiufen to wander through the town’s old streets marveling at temples and scenery. Teapot Mountain and the Gold Waterfall fit effortlessly into the background, the kind of breathtakingly beautiful terrain for which this part of the country has become so famous, and which pulls tourists in from every stretch of the globe. The town is also home to Jinguashi Gold Ecological Park, a popular destination for visitors, and a historical sight testament to the region’s rich mining past. It consists of a number of hiking trails ideal for exploring old mines, and a small educational museum displaying various cultural artifacts.

However, it was in these very mines some seventy years ago, at the height of the Pacific War, that thousands of Allied servicemen slaved away, mining ore in the largest copper mine in the Japanese Empire. In 1942 a Prisoner of War (POW) camp was established at Jinguashi — or “Kinkaseki,” as it was then called by the Japanese colonial government. The camp, which at its most active stage housed over a thousand POWs, along with the horrors endured by those interned in Kinkaseki, represent an almost hidden past, a dark era of Taiwanese colonial history that has been largely forgotten, or conveniently glossed over by past governments. Only recently has recognition of Taiwan’s POW camps entered the public conscience.

The origins of the POW camps across Taiwan at places like Kinkaseki lay with Japan’s conquest of Singapore in February 1942. Japan’s victory resulted in the largest ever surrender of British military personnel in history. Some 80,000 men from Britain, India, and Australia were subsequently shipped off on Japanese “hell ships” to other parts of Asia for forced labor. They joined a further 50,000 allied servicemen captured by Japanese advances in Malaya, and together they were sent to work on infrastructure projects across the Japanese Empire — projects like the Burma­Siam Railway, also known as the “Death Railway.” Likewise, a significant proportion were taken to the Japanese mainland, Manchuria, or the Philippines. Between 1942 and the end of the war in Asia in September 1945, over 4,000 POWs had docked in the ports of Kaohsiung and Keelung in Taiwan.

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To maximize the exploitation of this newfound labor force, fourteen POW camps were built across Taiwan. Officers were intentionally kept in separate camps in order to disrupt the chain of command and dent morale in the ranks. Conditions differed from camp to camp, but in Kinkaseki the harsh and inhumane conditions at the camp and in the mine meant that the health of the prisoners rapidly deteriorated. Prisoners were required to march over the side of a steep mountain in order to start a day’s work. Considering the terrain and difficult-to-reach location, just getting to the copper mine proved a difficult enough exercise for the men, who were already in poor health and physical condition. In his book Banzai you Bastards, one prisoner at Kinkaseki, Sergeant Jack Edwards, described his first day entering the mine as “descending into hell.”

The primitive state of the mine also made work a treacherous task, working in constant fear of the mine collapsing due to a lack of timber supports. Prisoners worked in temperatures of up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit (54.4 degrees Celsius) and were often exposed to dripping acid water. The only source of lighting in the mines came from a few carbide lamps, and they often went out due to lack of oxygen in the mining shaft. In an interview with the BBC in 2004, another former Kinkaseki POW, Maurice Rooney, described conditions in the mine as a “continuous nightmare” in which prisoners lived with the “constant fear of collapsing rock to maim, bury or even kill.” If copper ore quotas for the day were not reached, prisoners were beaten with mining hammers and sticks.

On the local Taiwanese guards in the camp, Sergeant Edwards noted that they were “just as cruel.” He noted further: “They emulated their masters very well. The guards would strike you for the most trivial things. You had to stand to attention while they hit your head with their fist. If you tried to dodge it, then you’d end up with a rifle butt on your head.”

As if conditions were not bad enough, a lack of adequate food rations — prisoners were fed mostly rice balls and sweet potato leaves — starved the men to the brink of death. Most men in the camp at some point suffered from ailments including dysentery, pellagra, beriberi, ulcers, pneumonia, and diphtheria. Their emaciated figures were little more than skeletons in rags. Then, with the war in the Pacific coming to an end, in March 1945 the mine was closed and Kinkaseki was abandoned. Allied ships were sinking Japanese convoys, and consequently the mined copper ore had no way of getting to Japan to be processed for the war effort. Soon thereafter, the men were picked up by the advancing U.S. Navy in Keelung and escorted safely back home.

By the time the war in the Pacific had come to an end in August 1945, 430 Allied servicemen had died in Taiwan’s notorious POW camps, most of them within the confines of Kinkaseki. After the war, the bodies of those who didn’t make it out of the camps alive were subsequently removed to Sai Wan War Cemetery in Hong Kong, where they rest to this day.

Erected in 1997, Taiwan’s official POW memorial now stands on the site of the former camp at Kinkaseki. With assistance from the British Trade & Cultural Office, a memorial service is organized every November in Jinguashi to remember the men who gave their lives in the war and never made it back from the camps in Taiwan. The memorial wall and sculptures that make up the fittingly poignant memorial nestle restfully into the surrounding landscape of Jinguashi. It is in this peaceful spot that the sacrifices of these men, and the hardships they endured, will never be forgotten.

 

David Prentice is a Master’s student on the IMAS program at National Chengchi University in Taipei. His research interests include Taiwanese culture and Taiwan’s indigenous peoples. He can be reached at dawei.prentice@gmail.com. For more information on POW camps in Taiwan visit http://www.powtaiwan.org

8 Responses to “The Forgotten POWs of the Pacific: The Story of Taiwan’s Camps”

October 31, 2015 at 10:24 pm, Rhett said:

The Hash House Harriers of Taiwan ran through this Kinkaseki POW camp with Jack Edwards in the late 1980s. I will always remember some of the stories Jack shared with us during that memorable weekend.
Many people don’t know about the stories of Taiwan during Japanese rule (1895-1945) and the early days of KMT rule, and more people should be aware of that time/place in history.

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November 02, 2015 at 8:48 am, Michael Boyden said:

Jack Edwards was a dear friend of mine and really the inspiration behind the original POW memorial at Kinkaseki. I was Chairman of the Kinkaseki Memorial Committee that organized both its installation from community donations and the inaugural memorial service in November 1997. The annual remembrance has endured and is fitting tribute to the quiet bravery of all of the POWs in Taiwan.

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