My mother’s war, courtesy of Pearl Harbor

My mother’s heading to the hospital again today.  She’s not aging gracefully, in large part because of the damage done to her body and soul during WWII.  I thought that this would be a good day for me to reprint what I once wrote about her war (originally part of this longer post about Japanese atrocities).

In 1941, my mother was a 17 year old Dutch girl living in Java. Life was good then. Although the war was raging in Europe, and Holland had long been under Nazi occupation, the colonies were still outside the theater of war. The colonial Dutch therefore were able to enjoy the traditional perks of the Empire, with lovely homes, tended by cheap Indonesian labor. All that changed with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Most Americans think of Pearl Harbor as a uniquely American event, not realizing that it was simply the opening salvo the Japanese fired in their generalized war to gain total ascendancy in the Pacific. While Pearl Harbor devastated the American navy, the Japanese did not conquer American soil. Residents in the Philippines (American territory), Indonesia (Dutch territory), Malaya (British territory), and Singapore (also British) were not so lucky. Each of those islands fell completely to the Japanese, and the civilians on those islands found themselves prisoners of war.

In the beginning, things didn’t look so bad. The Japanese immediately set about concentrating the civilian population by moving people into group housing, but that was tolerable. The next step, however, was to remove all the men, and any boys who weren’t actually small children. (Wait, I misspoke. The next step was the slaughter of household pets — dogs and cats — which was accomplished by picking them up by their hind legs and smashing their heads against walls and trees.)

After this separation, the men and women remained completely segregated for the remainder of the war. The men were subjected to brutal slave labor, and had an attrition rate much higher than the women did. Also, with the typical Bushido disrespect for men who didn’t have the decency to kill themselves, rather than to surrender, the men were tortured at a rather consistent rate.

One of my mother’s friends discovered, at war’s end, that her husband had been decapitated. This is what it looked like when the Japanese decapitated a prisoner (the prisoner in this case being an Australian airman):

Japanese execution0001

The women were not decapitated, but they were subjected to terrible tortures. After the men were taken away, the women and children were loaded in trucks and taken to various camps. The truck rides were torturous. The women and children were packed into the trucks, with no food, no water, no toilet, facilities, and no shade, and traveled for hours in the steamy equatorial heat.

Once in camp, the women were given small shelves to sleep on (about 24 inches across), row after row, like sardines. They were periodically subjected to group punishments. The one that lives in my mother’s memory more than sixty years after the fact was the requirement that they stand in the camp compound, in the sun, for 24 hours. No food, no water, no shade, no sitting down, no restroom breaks (and many of the women were liquid with dysentery and other intestinal diseases and parasitical problems). For 24 hours, they’d just stand there, in the humid, 90+ degree temperature, under the blazing tropical sun. The older women, the children and the sick died where they stood.

There were other indignities. One of the camp commandants believed himself to have “moon madness.” Whenever there was a full moon, he gave himself license to seek out the prisoners and torture those who took his fancy. He liked to use knives. He was the only Japanese camp commandant in Java who was executed after the war for war crimes.

Of course, the main problem with camp was the deprivation and disease. Rations that started out slender were practically nonexistent by war’s end. Eventually, the women in the camp were competing with the pigs for food. If the women couldn’t supplement their rations with pig slop, all they got was a thin fish broth with a single bite sized piece of meat and some rice floating in it. The women were also given the equivalent of a spoonful of sugar per week. My mother always tried to ration hers but couldn’t do it. Instead, she’d gobble it instantly, and live with the guilt of her lack of self-control.

By war’s end, my mother, who was then 5’2″, weighed 65 pounds. What frightened her at the beginning of August 1945 wasn’t the hunger, but the fact that she no longer felt hungry. She knew that when a women stopped wanting to eat, she had started to die. Had the atomic bomb not dropped when it did, my mother would have starved to death.

Starvation wasn’t the only problem. Due to malnourishment and lack of proper protection, my mother had beriberi, two different types of malaria (so as one fever ebbed, the other flowed), tuberculosis, and dysentery. At the beginning of the internment, the Japanese were providing some primitive medical care for some of these ailments. As the war ground on, of course, there was no medicine for any of these maladies. She survived because she was young and strong. Others didn’t.

So yes, the Japanese were different. They approached war — and especially civilian populations — with a brutality equaled only by the Germans. War is brutal, and individual soldiers can do terrible things, but the fact remains that American troops and the American government, even when they made mistakes (and the Japanese internment in American was one of those mistakes) never engaged in the kind of systematic torture and murder that characterized Bushido Japanese interactions with those they deemed their enemies. It is a tribute to America’s humane post-WWII influence and the Japanese willingness to abandon its past that the Bushido culture is dead and gone, and that the Japanese no longer feel compelled by culture to create enemies and then to engage in the systematic torture and murder of those enemies.

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  • Earl

    Is it over the top to observe that there is a part of current American political spectrum that “feel(s) compelled by culture to create enemies”, even if torture and murder aren’t part of the program?
    Do we know of any historic situations where the first part was all that occurred….that demonizing some part of the population didn’t eventually lead to the second part?

  • 11B40


    I’ve been trying, not very successfully, for the last couple of days to steel myself against our media’s current predilections in regard to the the Pacific Theater of WW II.  Through their warped lenses, I expect to see more teary-eyed stories about the internment of Japanese-Americans (whose casualty rates never seem to come to notice) and A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagaskai with nothing more than a terse introductory sentence or two about the Pearl Harbor attack.

    My father was drafted in the Army in February of 1942, at the age of 35. He spent the next four years interned on the West Coast with a couple of side trips to Saipan and Peleliu. When we talked about the the A-bombings, he said that the only problem with it was that we only had two. He had walked where the Japanese Imperial Army had walked and knew what they were capable of, what they had done, and what they were prepared to do more of.

    Needless to say, we will not be hearing from the Grandmas of Java, or Nanking, or Manila.


  • jj

    It’s either a tribute to our humaneness or our stupidity, because of course the consequence of ever talking to the little bastards again – let alone rebuilding their country for them and welcoming them back into the human race – was that all the rest of our eastern pals, the Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese felt perfectly free to engage in whatever tortures they could dream up when they took a US prisoners.  They knew there’d be no price for this behavior.
    I’m not entirely convinced that our “humaneness” is a purely good thing – but then, I’m Irish, and good at grudges.

  • Charles Martel

    I always cracked up when some village idiot atheist preaches about how cruel Christianity and Judaism are compared to the peaceful religions of the East. Yep, those Chinese and Japanese Buddhists sure have been impressive in restraining themselves when it comes to applying torture and suffering.
    What’s that, you say? “Real Buddhists wouldn’t do that kind of stuff?”
    Oh, OK. Does that argument apply to Christians and Jews, too?
    Didn’t think so.

  • Gringo

    My mother’s hometown boyfriend was one of the sailors who got killed at Pearl Harbor. She kept this loss deep inside her heart. My siblings and I didn’t find out about this until after my mother died, when we were going through a scrapbook my grandmother had kept of my mother’s memorabilia. We asked our aunt about some cards in the scrapbook, and found out about the sailor who lost his life in the Pearl Harbor attack.  That is how my siblings and I remember Pearl Harbor.
    Charles, that reminds me of an online discussion I once had with someone who was bewailing all those killed in the name of Christianity. Such as all we US Americans have killed over the centuries. What about the hundred million killed in the last century by Communists, who were avowed atheists, I inquired. That doesn’t count, came the reply, because they weren’t doing it in the name of atheism, but in the name of Communism. That atheism was a bedrock tenet of Communists in power, at least until the Sandinistas, and Communists had persecuted believers and destroyed places of worship didn’t seem to matter, either. Also note that by his definition, any Christian who went to war was killing in the name of  Christianity, regardless of the political motives of the war. BTW, I am an agnostic, formerly atheist.
    (This was a discussion with an American. I just got snarky about Eurosneers, who have similar arguments, and added “US American,” a favorite term for some Eurosneers.)

  • Danny Lemieux

    My question for atheists, Gringo, is “so, why is murder wrong, exactly?”.

    I’ve never gotten a good answer. They can’t get away from the fact that, if you take God out of the picture, all value systems are relative…a matter of opinion. 

  • Danny Lemieux

    Charles Martel…add cannibalism to those exotic, peaceful Eastern value systems – this article details the cannibalism that was practiced by the Chinese during the cultural revolution.

    But, of course, if we could only be more like them, as per Andy Stern, Thomas Friedman, Paul Krugman, Robert Reich, abc….. 

  • roylofquist

    I was born in 1943. A war baby. Everybody in my extended family and people I met later in life were deeply affected by the war. There was no question in the minds of these people that there are terrible differences in the humanity of different societies.

    Folks. all through history the Barbarians have been at the gates. Those who don’t heed the lessons are headed for painful ends. If we, the aware, don’t prevail we will share their fate. 

  • Ymarsakar

    It’s wrong because the state says it is wrong, Danny. When the state says it is right, it’ll be right.

  • gpc31

    BW, thank you for the perspective.  Terribly moving.

  • Old Buckeye

    Our educational system has sanitized the history textbooks to delete any whiff of these atrocities.

  • zabrina

    Bookworm, thank-you for sharing this truth. We must never forget, and we must make sure the younger generation knows and remembers.
    Best wishes for you, your mother, and your family.

  • David Foster

    Check out the “children’s history” section at any chain bookstore…it is probably a pretty good indicator of what is being taught in public schools. Regarding WWII, you will find:

    –a great deal on the Holocaust, and appropriately so
    –a little bit about major battles of WWII, especially the European Theater; also a consiiderable focus on the Home Front
    –several books about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the internment of Japanese-Americans
    –nothing at all about the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in China, the Philippines, and elsewhere


  • Ymarsakar

    One of the things that wasn’t mentioned is that the Japanese only put people they wanted to get rid of, in charge of prison camps. The people that worked there, were the lowest of the low, and either lacked the courage, connections, or even desire to fight in the war against honorable opponents. As with all miserable people, they start finding amusements when they have power over other people. 

  • Ymarsakar

    The Japanese historically before 1869, tested the sharpness and quality of a blade by having a master swordsman cut through the (live) bodies of prisoners.  A master swordsman has a clean angle of cutting, and will not snag the blade due to lack of skill, thus any inefficiency would be the result of the blade itself. The ability of a sword to cut through muscle, tendons, and bone without snagging or denting or deflecting, was very highly prized by the samurai class. What you see in the picture is someone who is not a samurai nor a master swordsman, attempting to emulate and role play the position of sword tester, which was a prestigious tradition before it was outlawed after the Meiji Restoration. They probably liked to think of themselves as better than they were really situated in the overall Japanese hierarchy.


  • 11B40


    As if totally determined not to disappoint my expectations, one of our local Progressive (née Public) Broadcasting System stations, KCSM, aired a documentary entitled “Forgotten Fields” which was about a group of Japanese-Americans who were released from their internment because they were needed to work in California’s agricultural fields. Such it is in the San Francisco Bay area.

    Nothing about Pearl Harbor was broadcast to my knowledge. 

  • phillips1938

    My cousin was in the Japanese POW camp for women and children in Java.  On old bed linen his mother made an embroidered book with images of the camp and camp life.  It is in Dutch.  Her, husband was in a work camp with “Jew” on his sleeve.  All  three survived and made it to Israel.  Here are the photos:

  • Ymarsakar

    Leftist power is based upon propaganda. They will never cease the utilization of Leftist propaganda. Ever. Until you break their backs, of course.

  • Bookworm

    phillips1938:  That is an amazing album.  Do you know what camp your cousin was in?  My mother was moved around, but she was primarily in Tjideng and Adek.  Because there were so few Jews, if she and your cousin intersected, they would have known each other.

    Your cousin’s mother, by the way, is/was an incredibly gifted artist.  She managed to convey with charm and courage an extraordinarily difficult situation.

  • phillips1938

    I don’t have the full book.  Maybe your mother will recognize it.

  • Ymarsakar

    Book, don’t you find it interesting that so many people part of the anti-American clique here in the US are able to paint pleasant conditions in the US as a horrible demon infested pit of capitalist greed? When someone else, in a real pit of crazyness, chose to portray it differently.

    I don’t know what you would call that, that cognitive dissonance Book, but I call it evil on the Left’s part. 

  • peggyn

    Hope your Mother is doing well.

    • Bookworm

      Thanks, peggyn. She is much better today. She seems to have had an allergic reaction to one of her meds. Life can be hard when you’re very, very old. I’ve gone from total denial (“I’ll never be that way. I can’t imagine myself being that old.”) to bargaining (“Yeah, it will happen one day, but not for thirty or forty years, right? I’ve still got time, right?”).

      The people at my Mom’s retirement community are lovely, vital people, but collected together as they are, they are also a reminder that time is relentless.

  • Bookworm

    Phillips1938:  I’ll show the pictures to my mother and see if she does.

    Ymarsakar:  Evil is a good word for what you’re describing.

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