I was a Japanese Prisoner of War

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Towards the end of November 1944, No.2 Squadron IAF moved from Kohat to Mambur airstrip on the Burma Front to take part in the operations against the Japanese. Within a day of the operations starting, On 2nd December 1944, Flying Officer K V Nair failed to return from a sortie. His Hurricane aircraft, LA316 was seen force-landing near a Chaung 15 miles NE of Akyab. Nair was seen clmbing out of the aircraft but his  fate remained a mystery till about five months later when he was one of the Prisoners of War liberated from the Rangoon Jail.  Nair would give the following account of the period he spent as as a POW under the Japanese.

Towards the end of November 1944, No.2 Squadron IAF moved from Kohat to Mambur airstrip on the Burma Front to take part in the operations against the Japanese. Within a day of the operations starting, On 2nd December 1944, Flying Officer K V Nair failed to return from a sortie. His Hurricane aircraft, LA316 was seen force-landing near a Chaung 15 miles NE of Akyab. Nair was seen clmbing out of the aircraft but his  fate remained a mystery till about five months later when he was one of the Prisoners of War liberated from the Rangoon Jail.  Nair would give the following account of the period he spent as as a POW under the Japanese.

The Capture

The first thing that attracted my attention, as the Jap soldiers came running towards me, was their head-gear. Though I had never seen a Jap in person before, I could not possibly mistake their identity. The head dress sat tight on their shaven dome, with a crescent-shaped peak projecting forward and downward and with a flap at the rear rising and falling with the wind as they ran towards me. They were obviously scared, they glanced incessantly at the sky in fear of possible Allied aircraft which may strafe them.

The Japanese had no sympathy or sentiment for a prisoner – much less for an airman. Wasn’t he one of the enemy that bombed and strafed them from the air? I was brought to reality by a pair of heavy boots hitting me on my posterior. An unexpected slap on the face and a kick near the groins left me completely stunned for a while. I was denuded of everything except the slacks, bush shirt and flying boots that I was wearing. I was dragged to the crashed aircraft where some Japanese had gathered, shouting and gesticulating. A few fists were displayed before my face, too close to be comfortable.

As I gathered my dazed wits, I realized that I was amidst well over a hundred Japanese armed to the teeth. Obviously, they were part of a column patrolling the hills in that area.  One of the Japanese stood out from the rest in that he carried a long sword. Standing in front of me, with legs well apart and hands on his hips, he gave me a good look over. He took a step forward and peered into my face, his yellow nose a few inches from mine.  Our eyes met. I could not miss the absolute contempt and cruelty in them . “Indo” that was the only word uttered, then he turned round and laughed. The rest of the men followed suit – He was a Japanese officer. I will never forget the 20 odd miles march with the column that day. My flying boots were not too comfortable for the first half-hour. After that when the fur inside warmed up, it was miserable, I was hungry too.

It is amazing how much kit a Japanese soldier carries on his back. One tried to harness his kit on to my back. I nearly doubled up. He thought better of it and eventually transferred it on his own back. We never marched in the open. When there was open ground to be crossed they took immense pain to go around it and in doing so, sometimes reached four to five miles extra. No wonder our airmen were so unlucky in spotting them from the air.

We walked in single file, and I was nowhere in the centre. A rope was tied round my waist with knots in front of each end of which was held by the Japanese walking in front and behind me.

At dusk the entire column reached the outskirts of an open field. They waited for darkness to fall before venturing across. It was pitch dark when we moved on. There were no lights, except for a solitary torch used by the Japanese officer for his exclusive comfort.

Another peculiarity I noticed was , that while we were marching, the Jap officer did not carry his personal belongings on his back. They were carried by the Burmans, by shifts. As the column marched past villages, the Burmans changed shifts, each village supplying change.

We stopped at a village near a “chaung”- chaung is the Burmese word for a rivulet. I hoped that we would stay  there for the night as by now my feet had become blistered. A Jap N.C.O. shouted something to one of my escorts. A handful of half cooked, cold rice was produced and dumped in front of me on the top of an old kerosene oil tin. A little warm water was served in a short bamboo stick. I drank it at once and asked for more, by signs. It did not produce any result. The bamboo was snatched from my hand and thrown away.

I did not touch the half boiled rice. I must have passed off into a semi-comatic slumber, for I was rudely roused by a Jap applying a lighted cigarette to my thumb nail. It hurt terribly and as I sprang to my feet, I was hit with the butt end of a rifle. A few minutes later, I was untied. I was escorted to the chuang by five Japs, including the N.C.O. They all carried tommy-guns and hand grenades. A dirty handkerchief was tied around my face and I was thrown into the bottom of a small canoe. We kept moving, approximately, in a southeast direction till the early hours of the morning when we moored the canoe near an island ; It was a very small marshy island.

I was pulled out of the boat and the two Burmans who were rowing moved away with the canoe, evidently to hide it. The Japs moved only by night resting the whole day under the cover of some heavy bush or dilapidated roof.

Transportation to Rangoon

I will not go into the details of the journey , or the subsequent ones. It covered a total time period of about 29 days. I finished it in the Rangoon Central JAil. The whole distance was covered partly on foot, partly in improvised motor bats and partly by truck.

We stopped enroute at the Myohaung, Tangup, and Prome. I spent a week each at Myohaung and Tangup, tied up to a bamboo pole near a basha accommodating the Jap guards. When one Hurri-bombers came over Myohaung, all the Japs would take cover in fox holes dug at an angle into the earth. I was tied to the pole and exposed to the mercy of our own bombers. What an irony it would have been had I been killed by one of my own squadron pilots. During my detention in Myohaung , one aircraft used to strafe the place daily, sometimes more than once. I am sure the Japanese must have suffered casualties from these attacks. When the raid was over, the Japs pulled out of those “single man” shelters, like foxes after a hunt.  They invariably spat into my face as they passed by.

My escorts did not understand Hindi or English and all the orders given to me were in Japanese. Rifle butts and bamboo sticks soon helped me to pick up the meaning of a few of these orders, which stood me in good stead at other places. The physical aspects of these humilations did not matter much compared to the psychological. I often pitied some of the Japanese as they knew not what they were doing. The majority of them were uneducated, uncouth and uncultured. What better treatment could be expected of them. The responsibility for all this lies with the “War-lords” of Japan dreaming of world domination.

  It is amazing how soon one gets used to a new environment.The daily beatings and insults were accepted by me as a matter of routine. I even found the time and patience to study at close quarters the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of this Super Race. How often have I felt amused in seeing the remnants of Nippon’s Imperial Army, chasing frogs and lizards for a colourful meal.

It was at Taungup that I received a terrific hiding. It was because I had dared to laugh. I happened to witness five Japs falling down a latrine trench (because) the bamboo stick on which they perched, like crows in a row, gave way. It was sight to see them crawl out of that filthy trench. Even now I cannot help laughnig when I think of it.

From Taungup I was taken to Prome. I rode on top of a lorry, under heavy escort. We moved only at night. It comes (back as a) nightmare to me, when I think of that ride over Taungup-Prome Pass. I was in a column of about 70 to 80 vehicles of all descriptions, loaded to capacity (with) oil drums and ammunition cases. (A quarter) moon threw an uncertain light (on) the track, and those mad Japanese drivers went tearing down that high-way  without a headlight, and often at dangerous speeds-negotiating hair-pin bends without a brake. I was put on top of one of these lorries with my hands and feet tied, and two armed sentries sitting by my side.

As we tore down that pass, with a sheer drop of a few thousand feet on one side, my escorts laughed and sang. It was an absolute death but with what abandon the Nippons enjoyed the thrill of it. On the second night, one of the leading trucks lost balance on a hair-pin bend. And, as it went hurtling down the slope, there was terrific applause and shouting from the Nips on top of the following Japs. They were obviously delighted at the sight of destruction even though it was a loss to them.

Rangoon Jail

I was kept in solitary confinement in the Rangoon Central Jail for five months. There were about 150 Air Force officers and men of all nationalities in my barracks which consisted of about 80 cells upstairs and downstairs. The cells were about 10 feet by 12 feet facing each other with a central corridor. It had a window and a door, heavily barred by iron bars and I could see the inmates of the cells opposite me.

The first night I was kept in a cell upstairs, opposite which was one whose prisoner was a Beaufighter pilot. Talking was prohibited, and this was often brought home to the offenders, when the eternal bamboo stick came crashing down on the head, from the nearest Jap sentry. At night the sentries stayed outside the barrack and this gave us the opportunity to whisper to each other but with great caution. The etiquette of the prisoner-of-war camp demands that as soon as a new prisoner is brought in he is to be warned of what things to do and what not to. This can be done only at night and by the prisoner in the opposite, or adjoining cell. That night one of our officers whispered to me about how low one must bow when the Japanese sentry parades parades past, when to get up in the morning and many odds and ends of prisoner regulations. The advice spared me much attention from the rifle butt and bamboo stick. Food was served in dirty tins by Chinese prisoners of war , under close scrutiny of Jap sentries. This consisted of boiled rice and warm water in the morning, repeated at noon and evening.

I was transferred to a cell on the ground floor a few days later – this was my abode during the rest of my stay in the prison. There were a couple of R.A.F. pilots in the cells opposite, and an American N.C.O. flight engineer in another. We whispered across at night, and to hear the sound of another civilized human being in the dark was a great solace. Most of the inmates of the barrack were sufferring from malaria, beriberi, dysentery, and scabies. I felt miserable when I looked at some of my co-POWs. There were in such absolute misery-moving about like phantom ghosts with eyes staring into vacancy – nude, lice-ridden, and absolutely helpless. Our life was worse than that of animals. One prisoner went absolutely raving mad – an Englishman, who had been there since 1942, and had seen his brother die in another cell.

Flying Officer K V Nair is seen in this screen grab – from a film about the POWs liberated from Rangoon Jail.  The video can be seen on Youtube

Coffins used to brought in and taken out as a matter of routine and one kept on asking oneself, when his (turn) was coming. In a way death was (better) compared to the animal life in (those) cells – there is a limit to everything (and) it was hard to keep one’s wits (beyond) a few months’ stay in those solitary cells.

I contracted malaria during the first week and had three attacks in one month. No medicine, no blankets and (not) even enough water to drink, but what I saw of the condition of some of the co-P.O.Ws. in adjacent cells, steeled my heart to a great extent. I reached the stage when I did not mind what happened – come what may. There were a few absolutely callous sentries. They made our already miserable life unbearable. Beatings with the bamboo stick and abuses were part of the day’s happenings. Added to this were other cruelties.

As new prisoners were brought in, we heard about the advance of our troops. The stayed bi-weekly bombing of Rangoon by our aircraft told us indirectly that we were not to be in prison long. We were freed much sooner than any of us expected.

There were a few dramatic incidents when the enemy cleared out of Rangoon. The Japanese sneaked out of the prison walls and Rangoon with their tails tucked between their legs. A few of the prisoners were taken by them, but were later intercepted and recovered by our troops.

Editor’s Notes:

K V Nair was one of the hundreds of the Allied POWs rescued from the Rangoon Jail in May 1945 when the Japanese retreated from Burma.  At that time the Japanese left behind most of the POWs without guards and fled. 

This account was first published in the RIAF Journal issue dated Dec 1945, and reproduced again in “The Eagle Strikes”.  K V Nair went on to become a Squadron Leader, however he was cashiered from service on 14th August 1954, serving just under 13 years in the IAF.

Our Thanks to Indranil Roy for transcribing the article.  To Matt Poole of Maryland, USA for providing the video footage of K V Nair

Further Reading:

Photographs of Rangoon Jail at the time of liberation : https://bringhomec47.wordpress.com/history/rangoon-central-jail/


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