The Far Eastern Prisoners of War

Over 50,000 British servicemen became FEPOW, having been captured by the Japanese between December 1941 and March 1942, in places as far apart as Hong Kong, Singapore and the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies. Thousands of civilians of various nationalities, but predominantly Dutch, British and American, were also taken prisoner and held under similar circumstances to the Allied forces.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was part of Japan’s military government’s expansionist policy to rid the Far East of western colonial rule. Seizing British, Dutch and American colonies also gave the Japanese access to much-needed tin, rubber and oil – the raw materials of twentieth century mechanised warfare – and these were in plentiful supply in the western-held colonies of Malaya, the Dutch East Indies and the Philippines. With lightning speed and efficiency the Japanese military forces forced the British, then the Dutch and the Americans, into surrendering these territories in one humiliating defeat after another.

Far East prisoners of war (or FEPOW) were subjected to years of neglect, malnutrition, disease and slave labour. They were moved at the whim of their captors around a vast area, by sea, train and on foot, to wherever a labour force was required. The death rate was nearly 25%, in contrast to just over 4% for British POW held in Europe. When the Japanese finally surrendered on 15 August 1945, three months after the war had ended in Europe, just over 37,500 British FEPOW were liberated from camps.

At least 20,000 of these men (as well as hundreds of civilian internees) disembarked in Liverpool between 8 October and the end of December that year; the remainder either returned via Southampton or, in the case of a few, flew back and were the first to arrive home during the September.

Thousands of FEPOW returned to homes in the north of England and some of these men were either referred, or referred themselves, to LSTM for medical treatment in the early years post-war. This was the beginning of a relationship that was to continue for over six decades.