Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific

Book Description


Survivors of the notorious Bataan death march, members of slave labor teams, soldiers in Douglas MacArthur’s army in the Philippines, and other prisoners of war tell the stories of their capture, stories often ignored in official accounts.

The Author

Gavan Daws has written books about Hawaii, the Pacific, and Asia–among them Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific and Holy Man: Father Damien of Molokai the biography of a nineteenth-century missionary priest who gave his life in the service of Hawaiian leprosy sufferers and was made a saint in 2009. For a decade and a half, Daws headed historical research on the Pacific and Southeast Asia in the Australian National University’s Institute of Advanced Studies. During that time, he was a member of the UNESCO Commission on the Cultural and Scientific History of Humankind, and he was elected to the Academy of the Humanities in Australia.

My Thoughts

According to the author, during the first months following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese captured more than 140,000 Allied prisoners. More than four died at the hands of their captors–denied medical treatment, starved, or worked to death. In Japan, the killing went on to the last moments of the war. Downed airmen were tortured by the hundreds, and even beheaded. The book includes extensive Sources, including interviews, POW diaries, and 27-volume The Tokyo War Crimes Trial, and official histories. There are also several pages of notes.

My uncle, Dale R. Wilson, may have been a POW of the Japanese during World War II, when his B-25 was shot down in New Guinea in late 1943. This book has been a resource in trying to learn what may have happened to Dale. When I learned how the Japanese brutally mishandled downed airmen in the Southwest Pacific Theater, maybe it would have been better if he’d perished with their plane and rest of the crew on the day they were shot down.


  1. You’d think that soldiers would have some sort of respect for one another, even on opposing sides… but I suppose that’s just in the movies.

    • The Japanese considered their emperor a god and were taught they could never lose, would never lose, that it would be honorable to kill yourself rather than surrender. They didn’t consider Americans even as humans. I was shocked at the mindset.

    • I admit that I was shocked at the Japanese considering their emperor a god, and going to any length to never surrender–even those little kaiten suicide boats.

      • I was first introduced to the Japanese view of honor (never surrender) through Yukio Mishima’s short story “Patriotism.” It was a horrendous shock to read graphic descriptions of ritual suicide using very lyrical language to demonstrate the honor of the act.

      • I recently read The Plum Blooms in Winter by Linda Thompson, a well-researched historical novel about what happened to one of the crews of the Doolittle Tokyo raiders, and a Japanese girl who was the only one in her family left to avenge the death of her brother, who’d been killed by bombs from that plane. After the war, some of the crew visited the area and, after many other episodes she faced, she finally had her plan to assassinate them. Certainly opens your eyes to the Japanese mindset during those days.

  2. Part of the problem was addressed beautifully in Flyboys. The Japanese actually thought of themselves as better than everyone else. Also, they weren’t prepared to deal with POWs, or even a population of people in land they’d taken. For sure, there were good people, but there we more than a few bad one’s.

    A good book to also check out is Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides. It details not only the treatment of the Bataan POWs, but one of the most successful military rescue ops ever. Awesome read.

    • Just ordered it. Right by my copy of Flyboys should be The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II. Fascinating story about Serbia/Yugoslavia that you never hear about. I was especially interested after teaching ESL to Bosnian refugees and helping them get settled here. (Yes, a crash course on the Bosnian war–before and after I visited there with one of the families who settled here, whose baby boys I attended their births. The middle one Adis is about to join the Air Guard, having completed junior college–soccer scholarship. The youngest one Denis is 18 today!)

  3. The Japanese during World War II were nothing short of brutal. It may not be that way today, but back then the Japanese had no value for life—not for themselves, and certainly not for anyone else. Countless examples exist, from the Rape of Nanking to the island campaigns in the Pacific. You’re right to observe that it would have been better for our air corps men to go down with their plane than to risk captivity by the Japanese. Then we have the case of the infamous Unit 731 of the IJA who undertook lethal human experiments on allied POWs. General Shiro Ishii, a military medical officer, routinely tested chemical and biological weapons on his captors, which included civilian populations … an estimated 500,000 people died at his hands. Ishii received immunity from the US government in exchange for the data he collected. Ishii died in 1959, never having to answer for his disgusting crimes. We might argue that the US government was guilty of these crimes as well, “after the fact.”

    I enjoy reading your posts.

    • Thank you for your feedback. There were some war crimes trials where some Japanese leaders were convicted. Some of the transcripts have been published. Reading those is when I began to hope that Dale Wilson perished with the rest of the crew in their B-25.

  4. Thanks for sharing. My wife and I often joke about doing the “Bataan death march” when walking too far or exercising too much. Indeed, the real deal was not funny. My father served with the Flying Tigers in China and had many stories about the mistreatment of prisoners on both sides (China and Japan).

  5. I am the child of a child prisoner of war. My father was 4 when he entered the Japanese prison camp and was freed at the age of 7. My Father lived an emotionally tortured life from the atrocities that he experienced. He died when I was 13.

    • Oh, Michelle, I hope you’ll make sure your father’s memory and experiences are never forgotten. I can see that you have a powerful website, powerful with hard-won wisdom. When I was in my fifties, it was my favorite decade–felt like I “fit in my skin.” I lost my sixties to fibromyalgia, still have symptoms, but now in my mid-seventies, it’s exciting to meet God’s new day each morning. Keep on seeking him!

      • Thank you so much for your lovely words. Writing my story is so very difficult for me and my hope is that my healing is occurring on many levels. I’m glad you are excited for life. It’s a wonderful thing… 🙂

      • My grandmother lost three sons during WWII. I’m almost writing her redemption story, along with my mother’s and her sisters. They led “normal” lives for decades after the devastation of the war, although they never got over those losses. It so helps to surrender pain to God every morning.

      • Michelle, send your mailing address to I’ll send you a copy when it’s published, probably in about another month. Meanwhile, their war stories are in the WWII category on my website, their bittersweet 1930s stories are in the Depression Era category.

      • Fantastic thank you and of course I will pay for it. Just let me know and I can send payment through PayPal if you have it. I will take a look at your website. Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to me. I really appreciate it 🙂

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