Escaping POW camps during WWII under Japanese occupation

The Geneva Conventions are four treaties and three additional protocols which establish international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war.

Basically, the treaties define the basic rights of wartime prisoners for both civilians and military personnel.

In other words, just because you have conquered a country, it doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want to the people who live there.

The first treaty was signed by international committees in 1864.

For the next century, the Geneva Conventions are negotiated over and over again.

In 1907 for instance, the convention added the standards for the ‘humane treatment’ of Prisoners-of-Wars (POWs).

Then in 1929, the Geneva Conventions Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War was signed by 47 governments including Japan.

But then why did so many POWs died during World War II (WWII) in the hands of Japanese forces?

This was because the Japanese government never ratified the 1929 treaty.

In 1942, the Japanese government stated it would follow the terms of the Convention mutatis mutandis (changing what has to be changed).

Escaping POW camps according to the Geneva Conventions

The Convention recognised that a POW may have the duty to attempt escape.

In fact the Geneva Convention prohibits a captor nation from executing a POW simply for attempting escape.

Under the authority of the senior official, a POW must be prepared to escape whenever the opportunity present itself.

In a POW compound, the senior POW must consider the welfare of those remaining behind after an escape.

However, as a matter of conscious determination, a POW must plan to escape, try to escape and assist others to escape.

During WWII, the POWs died in Germany at a rate 1.2 per cent. Meanwhile in the Pacific theatre, the rate was 37 per cent. In the Philippines alone, the death rate of POWs was 40 per cent.

One of the many motives contributing to these death rates was execution for escaping POW camps.

Selarang Barracks Incident
Photograph taken during the Selarang Barracks Square Incident when Japanese General Fukuye concentrated 13350 British and 2050 Australian prisoners of war because of their refusal to sign a promise not to escape. The picture shows external excavations for latrines made necessary because of overcrowding in the barracks. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial (Copyright expired-Public Domain).

The Selarang Barracks Incident

In August 1942, four POWs escaped from the Selarang Barracks in Singapore. The barracks was used to house a British Army infantry regiment.

After the British surrender of Singapore on Feb 15, 1942, one of the places used by the Japanese as Allied POWs for internment was the Selarang Barracks.

The four escapees Australian Corporal Rodney Breavington and Private Victor Gale and British soldiers Private Harold Waters and Private Eric Fletcher were recaptured.

The newly arrived Japanese Commander General Shimpei Fukuye wanted every POWs intered at Selarang Barracks to sign a pledge to prevent any escaping attempts.

The pledge stated, “I the undersigned, hereby solemnly swear on my honour that I will not, under circumstances attempt to escape”

Only three agreed to sign while the rest refused to since it clearly against the Geneva Convention which stated the POWs had the right to attempt to escape.

General Fukuye then ordered all prisoners except the three who signed to gather at the parade square in Selarang Barracks.

The result? Almost 17,000 men had to cram themselves into the square which was designed to hold 800. (Some reports stated 15,000 men cramped into a space for 1,200).

Meanwhile, the four escapees were executed on Sept 2 with rifles. The initial shots were non-fatal and the poor men had to beg the Japanese to be finished off.

Despite the execution, the rest of the POWs stood firm and did not sign the oath.

However without food and little water available, and cramping under the hot sun, dysentery broke out among the POWs.

Slowly, those who were already sick before began to perish.

Before more men would die, Lieutenant Colonel Holmes ordered his men to sign the oath.

Taking advantage that the Japanese were not familiar with British names, the POWs signed them using false or meaningless names.

Finally on Sept 5, the Japanese allowed the prisoners to disperse and went back into the barrack buildings.

Escaping POW camps in Sandakan

Sandakan Death Marches
The cemetery at Sandakan POW Camp after the war.

Among the first to escape from Sandakan POW camp in Sabah were Herb Trackson and Matt Carr.

However, they were recaptured six weeks after their escape at the end of August 1942.

When being interrogated, they told that their commanding officer Major G.N. Campbell and Captain J.G. Scribner had ordered them to take any opportunity to escape.

The two officers then were also arrested. Due to this, the commandant in-charge Captain Susumi Hoshijima gathered all POWs to sign a contract.

The contract contained three demands; ‘we will attempt to accomplish any order given the Japanese, we will not attempt to escape and we are aware that we will be shot if we we attempt to escape.’

After back and forth debate between Hoshijima and the POWs about how the contract was not in line with the Geneva Convention, the POWs finally did signed the contracts.

However just like in Singapore, the Allied POWs signed them using fake names and even actors’ names.

Escaping POW camps – success stories

So did any of these POWs manage to escape Japanese POW camps without being captured?

The only successful mass escape from a Japanese camp during WWII was not as massive as 400 POWs that were rescued by Steve Rogers in Captain America (2011).

On April 4, 1943, US Air Force pilot Samuel Grashio, US Air Force Lieutenant William Dyess, US Marines Austin Shofner and Jack Hawkins, six other Americans and two Filipinos escaped from a camp in Davao, the Philippines.

Before their historical escape, they spent two months smuggling food and equipment to a jungle cache.

After wandering for three days in the swamp, they made contact with a group of Filipino guerrillas.

Over the course of the few months, seven of the men were transported using a submarine to Australia while three stayed behind with the guerrillas to fight.

Unfortunately, one of the three was killed by the Japanese.

The Berhala Eight

4069257 Berhala Island
One of the Berhala Eight, Jock McLaren (at left) returning to Berhala Island in October 1945. Awm121749. Credit: Public Domain (Copyright Expired).

Another group of POWs that managed to escape from Japanese camp was the Berhala Eight.

The Berhala island in Sandakan was made a temporary camp before the POWs were sent to a more permanent camp at Sandakan.

Eight men realised that it would be harder to escape from the permanent camp so they decided to escape from the island before they were to be transferred.

They managed to steal a boat and set off to the Tawi-tawi islands in the Philippines.

Their escape from Berhala Island save their lives as they then missed the infamous Sandakan Death Marches.

Speaking of Sandakan Death Marches, these were a series of forced marches from Sandakan to Ranau which resulted in the deaths of 2,434 Allied POWs.

There were only six survivors and they survived because they managed to escape.

The last POW to be alive at Sandakan camp was Australian John Skinner.

He was executed five hours before Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender marking the end of WWII.

Understanding the Japanese laws behind escaping POWs

Whether in it Singapore or Sandakan, what was with the Japanese obsession to have the POWs sign contracts stating that they would not escape?

Japanese historian Yuki Tanaka did some explanation in his book Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II.

Generally, the contract incident was an example the distinction between Japanese and Western attitudes to law and the contradictions between the Geneva Convention and the principles of Japanese military law.

Tanaka stated,

“The seventh article of the Japanese law on punishment of prisoners states that the leader of a group of prisoners who had been captured while attempting to escape would be punished by death or between ten years and life imprisonment and all other members of the group would be imprisoned for a minimum of one year.

“The regulation on the treatment of POWs stipulates that POWs must sign a contract promising not to escape and that any prisoner who did not sign a contract would have thereby expressed an intention to attempt to escape and therefore be subject to heavier surveillance.

“If a prisoner did sign such an oath and subsequently attempted to escape, he would also be subject to a minimum sentence of one year’s imprisonment.”

Plus, a Japanese law dating from 1904 gave Japanese prison guards the right to shoot at escaping prisoners when such action was necessary to prevent a prisoner from successfully escaping.

Since their law did not define ‘when such action was necessary’, the Japanese guards would just shoot anybody who tried to escape.

The Japanese and Geneva Convention

The truth was actually simple; many of these Japanese commandants and POW camp guards were unaware of the contents or even the mere existence of the Geneva Convention and if their country had anything to do with it.

The commandant of Java POW camp Major General Saito Masazumi testified to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal after the war that and issue of international law in relation to POWs was never raised in a meeting.

Furthermore, he himself had no knowledge of any international law regarding to POWs and so he did not ask about it.

The same thing with Lieutenant Colonel Yanagida Shoichi, the commandant of a POW camp on the Burma-Thailand Railway. He testified that he never heard of the Geneva Convention.

Thus, just about all Japanese POW guards at every camp would shoot prisoners who made unsuccessful escape attempts.

Escaping POW camps under the Japanese was a gamble of life.

If they didn’t died being shot during the recapture, they were either executed later or died while being tortured.

Were there any justice for these men who were executed because they tried to escape after the war?

Generally, yes. For instance, General Fukuye who was responsible for the Selarang Barrack Incident was sentenced to death during the Singapore War Crimes Trial in 1946.

He was executed by firing squad on April 27, 1946 on the same spot where the four escapees were shot three years earlier.

Fortunately for the general, he died instantly and did not need to plead to be killed off.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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