They were beaten for no reason. They were made to stand naked in bitter cold outside the guardhouse. They were tormented with scarce food and water. They were forced to make armaments to be used against their own side.
Allied prisoners of war (POWs), most of them Americans, endured everything from starvation and disease to torture and death when they were held from 1942 to 1945 at a prisoner camp run by the Japanese Army in Shenyang, known then as Mukden, in Japanese-occupied Manchuria.
The first winter at Mukden camp was just one more hellish ordeal for men who had survived the Bataan Death March and Japanese “hell ships”.
When they arrived at the camp in November 1942, the prisoners were wearing thin, tropical clothes, some without shoes or boots. Frostbite was not uncommon in the bitter cold.
How did more than 2,000 POWs captured in the Philippines end up in faraway Mukden?
There was a huge military industrial complex in Mukden and the Japanese were in great need of technical personnel to staff the factories, said Gao Jian, history researcher at the “9.18” History Museum in Shenyang.
The Japanese Army did research into the POWs’ backgrounds and transferred those with technical skills and the highest-ranking officers to Mukden by way of Korea, she said.
The camp was an old Chinese military barracks built partly underground, where prisoners slept eight to a shelf. During the first winter, nearly 200 POWs died from failing health and the harsh living conditions.
This lesser-known history of the Allied POWs at the Mukden camp is depicted through 250 historic photographs and 42 pieces of duplicated artifacts at an ongoing exhibition, Forgotten Camp, in San Francisco, organized by the Site Museum of Shenyang POW Camp of WWII Allied Forces and China Daily.
In the photos, the POWs appear thin and malnourished. Jackie Hallerberg, daughter of Walter Huss, a late Mukden POW, said the prisoners’ diet was rice and very thin broth with a few soybeans.
In addition to the physical torture, the POWs also suffered from mental anguish, as the Japanese tried continually to debase them.
They were forced to bow Japanese style to any Japanese regardless of their rank. If they didn’t bow fast enough or low enough to suit the approaching Japanese, it was grounds for a beating, according to references collected by the Mukden POW Remembrance Society, a group committed to preserving the camp’s history.
Despite the harrowing times, there were still moments of humor. Two POWs, who worked in the factory’s drafting department, got their hands on paper and made comical drawings to entertain their friends. Another officer who came to the camp later drew scenes from each of the camps in which he’d been held.
Photos of the drawings, such as training fleas to stand at attention and do thorough cleanup on their days off, are featured in the exhibition, which runs through Dec 5.
Even while working at the Japanese factory, the POWs never stopped “fighting” and assisting China’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression, by sabotaging production at the factory, said Gao.
They threw tools into poured concrete, set machines “off level”, which made the finished products “out of tolerance” and put sand into the oil of machinery with moving parts, which made the machines break down quickly, according to the Mukden POW Remembrance Society.
Many POWs made friends with fellow Chinese workers. They gave items stolen from the factory to Chinese friends, who in turn sold the items on the black market and got what the POWs needed. It was dangerous, because discovery would lead to severe punishment and often death for the Chinese involved.
Photos at the exhibition show some POW veterans returning to Shenyang years later to reconnect with their old Chinese friends.
Some Chinese received awards from the US government for helping the POWs, yet others had passed away before the awards were given, said Gao.
Researchers and scholars have been calling for more study to be done on the site since it was discovered in 2003.
It became a major historical and cultural landmark, protected at the national level in 2012 and the museum was opened to the public in 2013.
“This is the only museum in China that involves more than 10 countries. However, the research has been based on oral history.
“We need access to more historical materials to better understand this history, which went unremembered for half a century,” said Gao.