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A dark piece of WWII history in Taiwan
By Matthew Smith

TAIPEI - Overcast and chilly, gradually turning to a steady rain, the weather is unwelcome but entirely appropriate for the occasion. A group of perhaps 70 people has arrived at the town of Chinguashi, amid the windswept, grassy hills overlooking Taiwan's rugged northern coastline and the South China Sea. The town is not far from Jiufen, a larger hilltop community popular with Taiwanese tourists. But the group that gathered at Chinguashi last Sunday did not come to enjoy the area's natural beauty.

Indeed, four of the visitors know the area most for its horrendously ugly past, for the suffering they and their comrades endured 60 years ago. These men know the location by a different name: Kinkaseki, site of one of World War II's worst prisoner of war camps. It is a name that they know all too well, having spent years living under atrocious conditions and working as slaves for the Japanese Imperial Army. Their story - unlike the misery of Allied POWs in places such as Thailand, Burma, the Philippines and Borneo - has never entered the world's general consciousness. But Jack Edwards, Les Davis, Harry Brown and Bill Kingate - as well as other surviving former Kinkaseki inmates around the world - still remember those years of suffering, and the hundreds of their comrades who died here.

When Singapore fell in 1942, tens of thousands of British soldiers surrendered to the Japanese invaders, whose busido code upheld that a true soldier should commit suicide rather than give up. At the time, Taiwan had already been a Japanese colony for 47 years, supplying food and natural resources to help fuel Japan's ongoing industrialization and militarization.

Among the bounty of Taiwan were the mines at Kinkaseki, which boasted the largest copper output in the Japanese empire. While there was no shortage of Taiwanese civilians willing to dig in the mines, they refused to enter the deepest and most dangerous shafts. For that work, the Japanese brought more than 500 British Commonwealth and Allied POWs to work as slaves at Kinkaseki in November 1942. That total was to rise to over 1,000 men before the war ended.

Conditions at Kinkaseki were worse than any of Taiwan's other 15 POW camps. The men were forced to march daily up and over a high ridge to the mine entrance - "the hellhole of Kinkaseki". Working in a mineshaft as much as a mile long and more than 800 feet in depth, the prisoners were made to produce daily quotas of copper ore - and administered daily beatings when they could not meet the quotas. With skin stained yellow by the hot sulfurous water in the mine, covered in bruises from daily beatings to their slowly starving bodies, the POWs were forced to work in unstable shafts amid temperatures that reached as high as 55 degrees Celsius (130 degrees Fahrenheit).

Under such conditions, hundreds of POWs died and were buried in a nearby cemetery over the next three years; and those who survived the war would continue to suffer and die from their injuries in the years following World War II. The torture, degradation and slow starvation they endured - which became worse as the war continued - is best described by former Kinkaseki inmate Jack Edwards in his book Banzai You Bastards!. "The culmination of nearly three years of being on a starvation diet, being treated brutally, and the hard labor in the mine, was resulting in rapidly increasing illnesses, mental depression, and death. All of us were sick, some worse than others. Men dragged themselves back and forth to the mine like zombies."

Jack Edwards is doggedly unapologetic about the book's title, which was the Kinkaseki inmates' morale-building cry when US bombers attacked the camp and the nearby copper smelting works as the war turned against the Japanese. The author's insistence on using it made publishers balk, he says: "But I told them, 'I don't give a damn if we never sell a single copy - that's the title'." The book has sold surprisingly well in Japan, considering the Japanese translator's similar aversion to niceties: The Japanese version is titled "Drop Dead, Jap Bastards!"

Despite an admirable level of good humor, the pain the POWs endured is still apparent in those who survived the ordeal and its aftermath, and who returned for this year's memorial. "It was terrible, and I wouldn't have wished it on anybody," says former POW William Kingate, who made the return trip to Taiwan this year. "Not even my own worst enemy."

Jack Edwards, 84, who returned to Kinkaseki in the years following the war to gather and present evidence for war crimes trials, eventually settled in Hong Kong. He has made it his lifelong task to spread the word about the POW camps of Taiwan, and to ensure that the memory of the hundreds who died there is never forgotten. As Edwards tells it, some 800 of the graves in Hong Kong's Sai Wan Bay Cemetery are those of POWs who died in Taiwan and were moved there after the war. Almost half of them died from the effects of overwork, torture, starvation or accidents in the mines at Kinkaseki.

Nevertheless, their story is still not widely known. The British public, enthralled by "The Bridge Over The River Kwai", which Edwards calls "a tremendous film - and a load of rubbish", had little capacity for listening to horror stories of the POW camps of Taiwan. "A War Story", a 1981 documentary by Canadian Anne Wheeler and commissioned by the National Film Board of Canada, is a far more accurate piece on Japanese POWs, the men say. The haunting film is based on the journals of Ben Wheeler, Ann's father, who served as camp doctor at Kinkaseki, and includes footage taken by Japanese propagandists and Allied war crimes investigators. Yet even this film was never widely circulated outside of Canada.

Taiwan's POW camps might have been entirely forgotten by everyone but the POWs themselves and their families. But inspired by Edwards, a group of expatriates here in the mid-1990s found the site of the Kinkaseki camp at Chinguashi, and with the assistance of Taiwanese authorities and local residents, a memorial was established on the site of the camp in 1997. (Despite being one of the few pieces of level land in the mountainous area, Chinguashi residents believe the site to be haunted, and never developed it.)

Meanwhile, the group also formed the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society, an organization that finds former POWs and tries to promote awareness - in Allied countries, Japan and Taiwan - of what happened here. "We just felt that more needed to be done," says society director Michael Hurst. The group has so far located over 200 POWs and their families, and has re-discovered 14 of the island's 15 WWII POW camps. With help from the society, the past few years have seen many POWs return to Taiwan for annual memorial services in November. And now that the surviving POWs are all well into their 80s, this resurgence of interest in their story comes not a moment too soon.

One of the society's goals is to raise awareness of the camps in Taiwanese society. Ironically, many of the Kinkaseki prison guards were recruited from the local population and remain living in Chinguashi to this day. Yet for most Taiwanese, this piece of history is completely unknown. Indeed, the mines at Chinguashi, which only ceased operations in the 1980s, are a source of nostalgia and a potential tourist attraction, which creates a strong incentive to airbrush the camp from the area's history - as does the common view in Taiwan that Japanese rule was benevolent. But thanks to the POWs and those who support them, that seems unlikely to happen.

"To Taiwan, we wish to say, do not neglect the darkness of your past," says Father Edmund Ryden, SJ, director of the John Paul II Peace Institute at Fujen University, in a brilliant sermon at the ceremony. "As you strive to be a country of the high tech future, do not forget that on this, your soil, in living memory, deeds of hate, torture, violence and disrespect were committed. A present built on a romantic fiction of the past lacks substance … To forget the past is to be blind to the present too."

Likewise, Edwards stresses that one of his goals is to teach young people in Taiwan to value their own history, and to rethink their ongoing identification with Japan and Japanese culture. Banzai You Bastards! is now available in simplified Chinese characters, and Edwards says that a traditional character edition will be published soon, for the Taiwan market.

"I sincerely hope that even when we pass on, people will still go up to Kinkaseki and remember what happened there, because as I say at the end of my book, 'None of us should forget'." He adds a cautionary note for all of us: "And please don't forget, because if you do, you'll be condemned to go through it all over again, just like our fathers were."

For more information, visit the Taiwanese POW Camp Memorial Society website:

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Nov 21, 2002


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