The Indian PoWs captured by the Japanese during Word War II were used as targets for shooting practice and some PoWs were eaten by the Japanese.
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“On April 2, 1946, the Reuters correspondent in Melbourne, Australia, cabled a short message, which was carried by all newspapers a day later, including The Times of India. It read: “The Japanese Lieutenant Hisata Tomiyasu found guilty of the murder of 14 Indian soldiers and of cannibalism at Wewak (New Guinea) in 1944 has been sentenced to death by hanging, it is learned from Rabaul.”
The nationalist narrative has long projected the Second World War as a clash between the patriots of the Indian National Army (INA), supported by the Japanese Empire, and the evil British Empire. The soldiers of the Indian Army who fought for the British are immediately dismissed as stooges of the Raj. But the refusal of many who were taken prisoner to renege on their oaths of loyalty in the face of extreme torture also showed remarkable bravery.
After the fall of Singapore on February 15, 1942, 40,000 men of the Indian Army became prisoners of war (PoWs). Some 30,000 of them joined the INA. But those who refused were destined for torture in the Japanese concentration camps. They were first sent to transit camps in Batavia (now Djakarta) and Surabaya from where they were packed off to New Guinea, New Britain, and Bougainvillea.
At the camps, they made no distinction between Indian officers and men. Officers would be slapped across the face or beaten up with sticks for the slightest error made by their men —error in this case being a tired soldier taking a moment’s rest while on double fatigue duty, or a sick soldier failing to salute a Japanese officer. Very often, work parties of haggard men would be taken away from the camps to the shooting range where they would be used as live targets for new Japanese infantry recruits to improve their marksmanship. Soldiers who were not killed in the firing but wounded were bayoneted to death…
The TOI report of May 16, 1944, also mentioned that the Indian soldiers “were victims of ‘indescribable indignities’ at the hands of their captors”. The chapter Indian POWs in the Pacific, 1941-45 by G J Douds, which is part of the 2007 book, Forgotten Captives in Japanese-Occupied Asia, edited by Kevin Blackburn and Karl Hack, elaborates on these indignities. “At Hansa Bay in New Guinea, Hindu prisoners were also severely beaten for their refusal to touch beef…the Japanese tried to prevent Muslims from fasting during Ramzan. Extra fatigues were imposed in a bid to enforce eating. The Muslims held out and the fast was eventually permitted; but in general no toleration was shown in religious matters,” reads a passage.
The Sikhs were particularly insulted for their long hair and beards. In February, 1944, eight rescued Sikh PoWs narrated their tales of suffering and about the indignities heaped on them. “We were locked in a room for a night and a day without water. Next day, when our mouths were very dry, they took us out and made a sport of plucking our beards. For food we were given dry bread, but before we could eat it our hands were tied behind our backs. We writhed in pain to get at the bread, which was placed in our laps. One Indian commissioned officer who asked for water was hit on the head and shot. Another was forced to drink large quantities, and when he had finished the Japanese jumped on his stomach until the water poured from his mouth, ears, nose, and eyes,” one of the men was quoted in the Canberra Times dated February 4, 1944.
The men further detailed how a Viceroy’s Commissioned Officer (VCO) was hung upside down alive and bayoneted by the Japanese who also pulled his heart out.
But the most spine-chilling of all Japanese atrocities was their practice of cannibalism. One of the first to level charges of cannibalism against the Japanese was Jemadar Abdul Latif of 4/9 Jat Regiment of the Indian Army, a VCO who was rescued by the Australians at Sepik Bay in 1945. He alleged that not just Indian PoWs but even locals in New Guinea were killed and eaten by the Japanese. “At the village of Suaid, a Japanese medical officer periodically visited the Indian compound and selected each time the healthiest men. These men were taken away ostensibly for carrying out duties, but they never reappeared,” the Melbourne correspondent of The Times, London, cabled this version of Jemadar Latif on November 5, 1946.