Forgotten Infamy

updated 08/21/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/21/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE OLD MAN WANTED TO TELL HIS STORY. LUCKILY FOR him, Gavan Daws is a good listener. In 1982, Daws, an Australian-born historian and writer, was having a drink in a Honolulu bar when he overheard a World War II veteran recounting his horrific experiences as a prisoner of war in Shanghai under the Japanese. "My ear grew out in his direction as it does whenever I hear an interesting story," says Daws. "I went down and talked to him, and we talked and talked." The vet, Harry Jeffries, eventually introduced Daws to other buddies who had been held captive, and they directed him to others. By 1991, Daws had recorded the stories of dozens of POWs, men now in their 70s and 80s who had held their chilling wartime tales closely for decades.

Daws compiled their accounts in Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific (Morrow), published to acclaim last November and now in its eighth printing. During his research, Daws discovered that as their lives near an end, the ex-prisoners want the world to know what they endured. "These guys feel legitimately like they have been crowded off the pages of history," says Daws. "I think the pages ought to be big enough to include them."

Before that bar-stool encounter, Daws, 61, had scant knowledge of the Pacific POWs. Since then he has thought of little else. "I weep for the dead, the disabled and the ruined lives of World War II on both sides of the conflict," says Daws, "but the POWs have had the least acknowledgment." They were sacrificed, he says, to geopolitics: With the Cold War looming and the Soviet Union threatening to dominate the Pacific, it became more politically expedient for America to resume relations with Japan and forgo prosecuting thousands of known war criminals.

With this week marking the 50th anniversary of the Allied victory over Japan, Daws and the survivors continue their public campaign for an apology. Japan's June declaration of "deep remorse" for its wartime actions against other Asian nations didn't mention Allied captives. "If my puny efforts can add even one decibel to the volume of noise to attract the attention of the Japanese government," Daws says, "then it will have been worth it."

Daws's book—part oral history, part archival record based on 10 years of research—describes Japan's assault on Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines and other Allied strongholds after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. In the months that followed, Japan took more than 140,000 Allied prisoners of war. By V-J Day, Daws says, one in three American POWs was dead. Those who survived were forever scarred by the experience. Many of the prisoners, among them young GIs who had never been outside their home states, were used as human guinea pigs in medical experiments, forced into slave labor building the 250-mile Burma-Siam railroad, starved and subjected to unimaginable forms of torture. "POWs and thousands of captive men, women and children [see story, page 89] were infected with cholera, typhoid and syphilis," some as a result of medical experiments, says Daws. "They were shot, burned with flamethrowers, blown up with shrapnel and left to develop gas gangrene, bombarded with lethal doses of X-rays...electrocuted, dehydrated, frozen, boiled alive."

In fact, for American GIs, it was far deadlier to be a prisoner under the Japanese than the Germans. Of the more than 90,000 servicemen held in German camps, only 4 in 100 died, compared to 27 percent of those captured by Japan.

Daws cites the infamous 1942 Bataan Death March as "the war's worst single atrocity against Americans in uniform. It was a forced march of sick, exhausted men over 65 miles through tropical heat," he says. "American soldiers by the hundreds were randomly bayoneted and decapitated. Filipinos were staked and burned alive by the side of the road. There was a dead body every 10 or 15 yards" of the march. Some 78,000 U.S. and Filipino POWs were forced on the march. It left more than 7,000 dead.

Documenting the traumatic stories deeply affected the author. "Talking to some of them at 1 or 2 in the morning, hearing about their nightmares, being let into these lives and seeing the struggle they've had," says Daws, "makes my petty problems seem nonexistent."

Daws has spent much of his life collecting stories. Born to two schoolteachers in the small Australian town of Shepparton, he moved to Melbourne after graduating from high school. There he reported briefly for the Melbourne Herald before he was drafted in 1950 for the Korean War. Daws saw no action: "I guarded Australia, so to speak." After earning a B.A. in history and English at the University of Melbourne in 1954, Daws taught for three years, then moved to Honolulu to study and teach at the University of Hawaii, where he met his Hawaiian wife, Carolyn, who worked in the library. "That was where my life truly began," he says. The couple, who have no children, live in an airy home in suburban Honolulu. Daws's eight books before Prisoners included an account of the Molokai leper colony that was instrumental in saving its site from developers.

Daws has put off future projects to devote time trying to persuade both Tokyo and Washington to formally acknowledge the POWs. He points out that the U.S. government paid $20,000 in reparations to each of the residents of Japanese ancestry and Japanese-Americans who had been interned on American soil during the war. The POWs were given $2.50 for each day of captivity (through a Red Cross-administered fund) and told to expect no more. "Japan could give each POW a Nissan and never miss it," Daws says.

Once V-J Day's anniversary passes, Daws fears the POWS will lose the chance for recognition. "This is their window of opportunity, and that window is closing," he says. "It is going to drop off the screen, and the deeply conservative forces in Japan will heave a sigh of relief because the world spotlight won't be on them anymore."

To the men whose lives he chronicled, Daws is a hero. Says Frank Ficklin, 73, of Granbury, Texas, a retired international oil field manager who was taken prisoner in Java in 1941: "I wish the Japanese people would read it. I wish they knew of the brutality." Mostly, like the raconteur who met Daws in the bar 13 years ago, the POWs just want to tell their stories. "They are old and dying," says Daws. "I don't think anybody wants to die with their life ignored or misunderstood. You hope your life has some sort of shape and meaning as it comes toward the end. They don't have that sense. And that's the real tragedy."

SUE AVERY BROWN in Braintree

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