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ICRC in WW II: activities in the Far East


Apart from the logistical problems to be overcome in such a vast area, the ICRC was to face immense difficulties in reaching prisoners of war held by Japan.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, the Japanese army conquered half of Asia and captured tens of thousands of prisoners of war. The Japanese authorities were unconcerned by the plight of these prisoners because, for a Japanese soldier, defeat meant dishonour, and death was preferable to captivity. This explains why, even after Japan had lost the initiative in combat, the number of Japanese prisoners of war who fell into the hands of the Allies remained very low. Furthermore, Japan had not ratified the 1929 Geneva Convention on prisoners of war . Against this background, the ICRC ran into enormous difficulties in its work.
The day after Pearl Harbor, the ICRC asked the belligerents for their lists of prisoners and proposed that Japan should, de facto , apply the provisions of the 1929 Convention, subject to reciprocity. Both steps produced results: the Japanese authorities announced the opening of an information office for prisoners of war and agreed to the presence of an ICRC delegate in Japan. They also agreed to the posting of ICRC delegates to Shanghai and Hong Kong, but refused to accept the delegates appointed by the ICRC in Bangkok, Borneo, Java, Manila and Sumatra. All the delegates were to face huge difficulties, and two of them, Dr Matthaeus Visher and his wife, were executed by the Japanese.
The fact that major obstacles were placed in the ICRC's way was noted by the delegate in Tokyo, Dr Fritz Paravicini, in the first report he sent the ICRC, dated 15 May 1942.

Moreover, the Japanese authorities were not concerned ab out their soldiers who had been captured, and the soldiers themselves were quite aware of being the subject of severe disapproval. Japanese prisoners of war therefore did not wish to write to their families, and even asked that their names not be communicated to their government. It was different for civilian internees, who could not have avoided internment: they received supplies from the Japanese Red Cross.

©ICRC/Ref. hist-thai 3237/32 
Burma: a captured Japanese soldier. 
    By the end of October 1944, the Allied forces were holding 6,400 Japanese, while the number of Allied prisoners of war in Japanese hands came to around 103,000 (mainly Americans, English, Australians, Dutch and New Zealanders).

It was only in early 1945, after the recapture of the Philippi nes by the Allies and the occupation of Okinawa, that the number of Japanese prisoners began noticeably to increase. Then, finally, the order to surrender given by the Emperor on 14 August 1945 forced the Japanese army to lay down its arms.

©ICRC/Ref. hist-3237/31 
Thailand: American prisoners of war. 

In the Far East, throughout the war, the ICRC's work remained very limited. In Japan, Korea, Manchuria and Formosa, ICRC delegates were able to visit camps for prisoners of war and civilian internees. But these visits were subject to a great many restrictions -- they were made in the presence of the Japanese authorities, and the delegates were not even allowed to talk to the prisoners.

To cover Shanghai, Hong Kong and occupied China, the ICRC was authorized to open only one delegation (Shanghai), and the activities of its delegate were kept to a minimum by the Japanese authorities. The delegate did, however, visit camps, under the same conditions as his colleagues in Japan.

 Burma railway  

The Kingdom of Thailand, which was brought into the war on the Japanese side on 25 January 1942, kept its national government. Civilian internees were the responsibility of this government, whereas prisoners of war were under the control of the Japanese military authorities. The ICRC delegate was officially recognized by the Bangkok authorities: he received the support of the Thai Red Cross and was able to make visits and distribute relief to some 200 civilian internees.

As for the prisoners of war, they were forced by the Japanese authorities to build the Burmese railway line, in conditions of extreme hardship. No ICRC delegate was authorized to visit them. Sometimes, however, deliberately ignoring official instructions, the ICRC brought supplies close to the camps, although it was not itself able to oversee their distribution.

The ICRC did not face the same kinds of difficulty where Japanese prisoners in the hands of the Allies were concerned. Up to the end of the war, their numbers remained low: at the end of 1944, the ICRC counted a total of 8,658 of them, scattered among five camps in the United States, seven in Australia and New Zealand, four in the Pacific Islands and five in China. The number of these prisoners increased sharply during the first six months of 1945, with the advance of the Allied forces in the Philippines and the Japanese islands, and by the end of July 1945 it was thought to have reached a total of 15,949. At the end, with the surrender of Japan, it suddenly rose to several million. 

 Civilian internees  

The Japanese civilian internees were held in different camps in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth countries, Central America and South America. Unlike the prisoners of war, they were quite happy to use the services of the ICRC for communicating with their families, and the Japanese Red Cross sent relief for them through the ICRC. With the agreement of the Red Cross, the ICRC arranged for some of the relief to be brought to Japanese prisoners of war.

During 1944, the Allied forces continued their offensive in the Pacific. The Marshall, Biak and Mariana Islands were the scene of fierce fighting. In the Mariana Islands campaign alone, the Japanese lost around 46,000 men and very few were captured. In the Palace Islands, in the Carolines, 13,600 Japanese were killed and 400 taken prisoner. These operations were the prelude to the recapturing of the Philippines by General MacArthur.

In October 1944, the Japanese air force called on suicide pilots, the kamikazes. This move showed the strength of Japan's determination to resist.

In 1943, the ICRC tried to strengthen its delegation in Japan, where it wanted to send Dr Marcel Junod. But Japan kept procrastinating, and it was only in June 1945 that Dr Junod was finally able to start on his journey. He travelled through the USSR, arriving in Manchuria on 1 August 1945.

 Hiroshima and Nagasaki  

On 6 August 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and, on 9 August, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On 14 August, the Allies announced the surrender of Japan, which was signed on 2 September.

On 5 September 1945, the ICRC launched a solemn appeal stressing the dangers to the civilian population of progress in air warfare and the use of atomic physics.

After the surrender of Japan, ICRC delegates visited the camps in which Allied prisoners of war had been held, provided assistance and acted as a liaison with the Allied headquarters. Finally, the delegates undertook prot ection and assistance work for Japanese prisoners of war: from September 1945 up until 1949, they carried out over 300 visits to their places of internment.