Susumi Hoshijima, the Beast of Belsen of Sandakan POW Camp
One of the infamous commandants of concentration camps during World War II (WWII) was none other than Josef Kramer.
He was the Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau (from May 8, 1944 to Nov 25, 1944) and of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (From Dec 1944 to its liberation on Apr 15, 1945).
The camp inmates called Kramer, the Beast of Belsen.
An apt label for someone who was directly responsible for the deaths of thousands of people.
After the war, he was captured by the British Army and convicted of war crimes.
Kramer was sentenced to death on Nov 17, 1945 and hanged on Dec 13, 1945.
Thousand of miles away from Poland and Germany’s Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, there was another camp in Borneo where hundreds of Prisoners of War (POWs) died under severe conditions and under cruel treatment.
In the Sandakan POW camp, more than a thousand people died and another thousand died marching from Sandakan to Ranau.
And the one who was directly responsible for their deaths was the commander of Sandakan camp, Captain Susumi Hoshijima.
Captain Athol Moffitt, the prosecutor of the war crime trials for the brutality at the camp and Sandakan Death Marches, compared Hoshijima to the Beast of Belsen.
Susumi Hoshijima and Sandakan POW Camp
During WWII, the Sandakan camp POWs were forced to build a military airstrip. As Hoshijima was the military engineer, he was tasked to lead the construction.
A graduate of Osaka University, he started his military career managing the Sandakan camp as a lieutenant. By the end of the war, he was promoted to captain.
Towering at 1.8m, Hoshijima was described to have an athletic body.
In the beginning, life at the Sandakan POW camp was reported to be in good condition.
The POWs were actually paid for their work on the airstrip. The money they earned allowed them to buy extra food from the locals.
There was even a canteen for the POWs to buy extra food, medicine and cigarettes.
In terms of law and order, the discipline was considered light.
Things reportedly started to change when the Japanese moved the British and Australian officers from the Sandakan camp to Batu Lintang in Kuching.
These officers were the ones who provided some sort of protection from the Japanese. They formally complained to the Japanese and organised the soldiers to support each other.
Once they were removed, the conditions started to deteriorate in the camp.
On top of that, Formosan (Taiwanese) guards started to arrive in 1943. These guards were reportedly more vicious and cruel than the Japanese.
Since they themselves were colonial subjects, they were also suffering from their Japanese superiors, creating an injurious chain reaction.
As Japanese military officers beat and punished Formosan guards, so those same guards carried the pain forward by torturing POWs.
Susumi Hoshijima and his firing squad
Another theory is that the conditions at Sandakan camp had reportedly started to deteriorate in August 1942.
So what happened? It started when two POWs tried to escape but were caught in the jungle outside the camp.
As a warning, Hoshijima drew up a contract that specified execution by firing squad as the punishment for escape.
The POWs’ leader, Colonel A. W. Walsh at first refused to sign the contract. He stated that under Australian army regulations, it was a prisoner’s duty to take any ‘reasonable opportunity’ to escape.
Bound and held at gunpoint in front of his men, however, Walsh was left with no choice but to agree to Hoshijima’s terms.
Hoshijima’s new terms came into effect in May 1943. More than 20 men were rounded for possessing radio components.
After enduring three months of torture, one of them admitted to having the radio parts. The group was tried and found guilty. They received punishments ranging from six months in jail to execution by firing squad.
From there on, the conditions became worse and eventually ended with the infamous death marches of 1945.
Susumi Hoshijima’s cage punishment
According to Paul Taucher in his paper Command Responsibility at the Sandakan-Ranau War Crimes Trials, Hoshijima had authorised the use of the cage as punishment.
He also permitted the confinement of prisoners under inhumane conditions, and had authorised his subordinates to beat them.
“Three bamboo cages had been built in early 1943, to be used in the punishment of both POWs and IJA (Imperial Japanese Army) soldiers who broke camp regulations. The cages were designed so that a person inside could not lie down or properly stand up. These cages were not unique to Sandakan; records show they were relatively widespread in POW camps across Asia and the Pacific,” Taucher wrote.
While in the cage, these prisoners had no protection against the elements or mosquitoes.
In Sandakan, one POW died in the cage and several others died after being released from the cage.
Medical conditions in the Sandakan POW Camp
Apart from suffering from torture and brutality, the POWs were also suffering from lack of medical attention.
According to Japanese regulations, each POW camp was required to have at least one doctor on site.
However, the Sandakan POW Camp was established as a branch of the larger Batu Lintang (Kuching) camp.
Due to this, the camp doctor was permanently located there.
Records stated that two doctors visited Sandakan sometime in 1944.
Unfortunately, they did not bring any medical supplies with them. They did not even bother to treat any of the sick prisoners.
They just came, inspected the camp then went back.
The last consignment of medical supplies was sent to Sandakan from Kuching in July 1944.
By October 1944, the shipping route between Sandakan and Kuching was closed because of Allied forces continual bombing and attacks.
It was reported that the last doctor to visit Sandakan camp was Dr Yamamota. When he visited the camp in October 1944 and February 1945, he brought large amounts of quinine and atabrine (antimalarial drug).
However, it is not sure if the drugs were given to the POWs.
Susuimi Hoshijima reduces the food supply in Sandakan POW Camp
To make things worse, Hoshijima reportedly ordered the reduction of food supplies to Sandakan POW Camp.
Mark Felton in Never Surrender: Dramatic Escapes from Japanese Prison Camps wrote, “In accordance with the sudden reduction in work as the Allied air campaign closed the airstrip, in December 1944 the Japanese camp commandant, Captain Susumi Hoshijima, reduced the prisoner’s already meagre rations to only 140-200 grams of food per man per day.
“The POW death rate, which was already fairly high from tropical diseases and physical abuse, began to climb rapidly as the men, wracked by malaria, dysentery and beriberi, now became seriously malnourished and started to die of starvation and disease in large numbers. To make matters even worse Hoshijima ordered his men to cease feeding the prisoners altogether from January 1945.”
A shocking find inside the home of Susumi Hoshijima
While the POWs of Sandakan Camp slowly died due to hunger and sickness, Yuki Tanaka in Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II revealed a shocking truth.
He stated, “By March 1945 the Japanese had stockpiled huge quantities of food and medical supplies in preparation for the expected Allied invasion. Presumably these stockpiles were intended only for Japanese personnel. The storage room beneath Commandant Hoshijima’s house contained more than 90 metric tonnes of rice and 160,000 quinine tablets. After the war, Allied forces found other stockpiles in the Sandakan area containing more than 786,000 quinine tablets, 19,600 Vitamin A and D tablets, large numbers of Vitamin B and C tablets, and a great deal of medical and surgical equipment. Nothing from these stockpiles was supplied to POWs, nor would the camp command have been permitted to do this even had they wished to.”
Tanaka added that the responsibility for the many POWs deaths from malnutrition and illness must lie in large part with the higher command of the Borneo Garrison and Lieutenant General Yamawaki Masataka and Major General Manaki Takanobu in particular, who seemed to have made the decisions deliberately to weaken POWs to death or close to it.
Susumi Hoshijima’s trial
It doesn’t matter whether the order to reduce the food supply came from Hoshijima or his superiors, the fact did not change that Hoshijima was directly responsible for the deaths and brutality against POWs in Sandakan camp.
After the war, Hoshijima was charged with ‘authorising and permitting POWs in his charge to be closely confined under in human conditions and beaten’, ‘authorising and permitting POWs in his charge to be tortured and beaten by soldiers under his command’, ‘failing to provide adequate and proper medical care and food for the POWs under his charge’ and ‘authorising and permitting underfed and ill POWs in his charge to be used for heavy manual labour and other labour’.
His trial took place between Jan 8 and 20, 1946 at Labuan.
Rather than focusing on the Sandakan Death Marches, his charges focused on the conditions at Sandakan Camp.
Under his command of the camp, more than 1100 POWs died from sickness, torture and starvation.
In the end, Hoshijima was found guilty on all four charges. He was sentenced to death and executed by hanging on Feb 27, 1946.
Moffitt, who had compared Hoshijima to Beast of Belsen, wanted the worst punishment for him. In fact, he even stated, “Death by the ignominy of hanging is too good for this barbarian, ironically self-termed ‘cultured’”.