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3 Years in Rangoon Gaol

Taken from "The Newsletter" published by the Indian Red Cross and St. John War Organisation - dated September 1945 by H Born

British, Indian, Australian, Chinese and American prisoners released by the Allied capture of Rangoon have now told their story. It is a grim story due primarily to insufficient diet and complete absence of any medical service, in addition to the usual hardships of captivity.

The Jap as an individual is callous in the extreme. He has little interest in human feeling, and it is this quality which made the life of Allied prisoners of war in Japanese hands almost unbearable. The released prisoners tell how they suffered from 'routine' beatings, especially when under interrogation, and solitary confinement was all too frequent. Although in most cases solitary confinement was a matter of weeks, there were men who were kept in a small cell without seeing another living soul or breathing fresh air for 12 to 14 months. This was especially hard when the prisoner was ill.

M.O.S Saved Many Lives

Amongst the prisoners who were confined in the Rangoon Gaol were two British and two Indian medical officers, and they saved the lives of a great many of the men. Nevertheless, it is estimated that about one-third of the men captured at the time of the fall of Burma died within the first twelve months. Most of these lives could have been saved had the Japanese rendered any medical service or made available medical stores. The men had a few bandages between them, and with these, particularly bad sores were bound up. A wonderful example of the medical officer's skill was the amputation of an arm carried out without any medical equipment. The operation was a complete success, and the patient is among those who were rescued. All the men were full of praise for the never-ending work and the extreme ingenuity of the medical prisoners in their midst.

The diet was only just above starvation level, especially when taking into consideration the fact that the prisoners were made to carry out coolie work. Another sidelight on the peculiar Japanese mentality is that when they captured a trooper mounted on a horse they would not believe that he was not an officer. To them any soldier riding a horse must be an officer. In answer to their interrogation, he maintained that he was not an officer, and after two severe beatings, he decided to adopt the temporary rank of an officer. Japanese were then satisfied. They especially ill-treated any prisoner who did not promptly obey their orders.

Lack of Vitamin B

The diet consisted principally of rice. For two years it was rice which had been rejected as unfit for Japanese consumption. Recently the quality improved. Then there was bran, the same quality as given by the Japanese to their pigs. Most days there were eight pumpkins and four marrows among the 200 men. The cook, also a prisoner, did wonders with that food, but it lacked Vitamin B so greatly that health was progressively on the decline. Once prisoner has lost 75 per cent of his vision and hearing due solely to malnutrition. It will take many months for these men to return to normal health.

During their captivity no Red Cross food parcels or medical supplies were allowed through, but within the last few weeks they were allowed to write one postcard. As the Japanese military position deteriorated, so the treatment of the prisoners improved.

In spite of all they had suffered, the released prisoners arrived on board the ship, that was to bring them on the first part of their journey home, in surprisingly high spirits. They were, however, in rags. Their clothes were torn and verminous. Every man had lice or scabies. In gaol the men had only been allowed two mess tins of water each week for all washing purposes. They were without any personal possessions except for one or two men who clutched oddments which had meant so much to them during the past months. Once clutched a minute piece of soap, another a rusty razor blade with which he had shaved for over 14 months. One prisoner had made a pipe - the stem was made of an old toothbrush. It is not easy for them so suddenly to readjust their lives to realise that they are now free, that they no longer have to bow to a sentry, that from now onwards kindness will be offered to them from all sides.It was pathetic to see how grateful the men were for even the smallest comforts. To them a handkerchief was an immense treat. Immediately on release, they were provided with pyjamas, vests, shirts, shorts, etc. Most of these garments were supplies provided by the Indian Red Cross. They were given cigarettes. In fact the Red Cross stores on the ship, which was to bring them from Rangoon, were thrown open to them without reserve. Each man was given a bag in which to keep the possessions he was given - a razor, blades, soap, toothbrush, and so on.

Starved for News

Above all else, the men wanted to see a newspaper or a magazine. They had not seen or heard any real news since the day they were captured, and in some cases that was over three years ago. They were delighted to listen to the wireless, and many played cards on board with a joy which was a pleasure to see. Their diet was the best which could be provided. Most of the men were suffering from some form of beriberi and here again, the many Red Cross special foods were particularly valuable. Even in the few days on board, the men put on weight and a distinct improvement in their nervous system could be seen.

September 1945