Huge numbers of Allied POWs were captured by the Japanese between December 1941 and May 1942. After the Guadalcanal Campaign, most Allied POWs were killed in the field rather than captured because the Japanese were cut off from relief.
This idea was reinforced in the Allied soldier’s mind after the fate of the Goettge Patrol. Lt. Col. Frank Goettge was the intelligence officer of the 1st Marine Division on Guadalcanal. In August 1942, a few weeks after the Marines landed, a Melanesian native informed them that there was a large group of Japanese seeking to surrender. Goettge, hoping for a debriefing of the prisoners, took a reinforced platoon to bring in the Japanese. The patrol was caught in a trap and annihilated; only three men survived. The remains of Goettge’s patrol have never been found.
This incident, and the deep racial hatred, led many Allied soldiers to prefer death to capture. But the large numbers of soldiers surrendered by their commanders in the Philippines and Singapore did not have much choice. They entered captivity at the start of the war, and only about half of them would leave the POW camps alive.
At first, the Japanese did not know what to do with so many prisoners. It was unthinkable that so much success would have resulted in so many prisoners, and there was no plan to effectively deal with them. There was some worry that they would be a potential threat in the rear areas, and at least one officer on the General Staff in Tokyo argued for their liquidation. Thankfully for the POWs and Japan, this advice was not heeded. The execution of so many prisoners, after capitulation, would have prolonged the war and ensured the complete destruction of Japan.
Nevertheless, the Allied POWs under the Nazis fared much better than the POWs in the Pacific. While the Soviet and German soldiers died in huge numbers on the Eastern front, only 25% of Western Allied POWs died in German hands. In Japanese hands, 51% of Allied POWs died of all causes.
This treatment has often been attributed to Japan not signing the Geneva Convention of 1919. This provided for the fair treatment of prisoners during war. But the widespread treatment of Allied POWs during the war goes beyond the failure of the Geneva Convention. There was a fundamental devaluing of Allied POWs as human beings; packed into the “Hell Ships” from the Philippines, made to work in dangerous conditions, the POWs were not considered for anything but treatment as animals. The POWs borne the brunt of the Japanese frustration with the progress of the war. Executions in the last year increased, and the majority of the war crimes indicted in 1946 were recorded in the second half of the war.
In China, a biological/chemical warfare unit performed live vivisections on Allied POWs. Designated Unit 731, the research unit also dropped bubonic plague by air.
In what John Dower calls the “power of the bayonet,” the rank and file enlisted man in the Imperial Japanese Army took out their anger over mistreatment by their officers on the Allied prisoners. Beatings were routine; reasons were not given or presumed needed. Thousands of Filipinos and Americans died in captivity in the first few days after surrender because of the death march and the treatment of the guards.
Executions were commonplace, in both the Japanese Imperial Navy and the Army. During the Battle of Midway, several American pilots shot down over the First Air Fleet were captured, interrogated, and beheaded on deck after they had talked. This harsh treatment was known during the war. A famous photograph smuggled out of occupied New Guinea in 1945 showed an Australian flyer being executed by samurai sword. This enraged both the Australian and the American public, confirming the rumors of abuse that had circulated for years.
In 1946, the Tokyo War Crimes trial began. Unlike the Nuremberg Trails, the Allied Countries’ public did not follow them closely, since many of the defendants were unknown. Over 20,000 men were eventually indicted, and of those several hundred were hung. Among those were some of the most important leaders of Japan, including Tojo, Homma, and Yamashita. Eventually most of those men were released after prison sentences.