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Pacific FrontApril 1942

British Prisoner of War

Peter Lee
Captured by the Japanese in early 1942, he endured several years of horrendous imprisonment.

Peter Lee’s words are read by Michael Burrell.

Testimony Transcript

Laurence Rees: In the early years of the war, Peter Lee was an RAF supply officer, serving in Java. He was captured by the Japanese in 1942, and after a few months found himself in a prison in Jesselton in Borneo.

Words of Peter Lee: We were quartered in what was then a local prison, which contained two concrete buildings and the rest were all wooden buildings surrounded by a corrugated iron fence. Now, there were 800 of us in that prison, and the prison was built for not more than about 400. So it was incredibly crowded. But what was much, much worse was the quality of the food they supplied to us which was absolutely abysmal. For example, they were supplying us with sacks of rice that had congealed. I don’t know whether you’ve seen congealed rice. It just hardens to the consistency of cement. So to use it as a food, you have to break it up with hammers. And it wasn’t surprising, therefore, that in the six months we were there, we lost over 50 men out of 800. Now, that’s a very, very high percentage of people to lose. And the rate of people dying became so alarming that even the Japanese began to worry. And so they moved us to Sandakan, where the surroundings were better, it was an open place. It was crude, yes. We were in basically these Far Eastern type huts built on stilts. But what was very much better is that it was open. I mean, you had – yes, you had barbed wire around it, but you could see quite a long way - you could see rubber trees, jungle.

Laurence Rees: But at Sandakan on the Northern tip of Borneo the British prisoners were still dying.

Words of Peter Lee: I can well remember, every day I used to go and see our men in the sick bays and you’d find a young man that I’d known as a typical example of young British manhood, fit as a fiddle, this is when we were in Singapore, and you’d either find them horribly emaciated, ghosts of their former self, or incredibly bloated with beri-beri with these distended stomachs, their private parts distended, and just lying back naked on the bench. And inevitably of course, people who’d reached that degree of malnutrition and illness, they didn’t recover.

Laurence Rees: At Sandakan the British prisoners were ordered to build an airfield for the Japanese.

Words of Peter Lee: It was basically shifting earth. There were no machines to assist. It was all human labour, carrying earth from one spot and dumping it in another, to create a runway. You had to obey the orders - whether you were an officer or another rank. You had to obey the orders of the lowest rank Japanese. Japanese private, in other words. If you didn’t obey it immediately, depending on the personality of the particular Japanese solder, you’d get a crack over the head or a crack over the backside with a stick. There was one occasion on which somebody intervened – he was an officer – when one of their men was being beaten up by some Japanese guards, and he was horribly beaten up by quite a number of them. So generally one realised that we had to grin and bear it. And you evolved a system of doing what you were told and not aggravating them. In other words, you were recognising the situation that you were in. And it was a very complex situation. You had to recognise that.

But there were amusing incidents. I was summoned across by one Japanese guard, I remember, and I expected to get a beating for something or other. One had no idea sometimes what you were being beaten for. And he beckoned me over and when I got there he said to me, in very stilted English, ‘easto is easto, westo is westo, no bloody mixo.’ He’d obviously been told by one of our lads, you know, to call me over and say this to me. But those sort of incidents were not terribly common. But there were some. When you’re taken prisoner of war, in such circumstances, you very quickly have to make your mind up what your general attitude is going to be. I quickly resolved to accept the reality of the situation. That I was a prisoner of war and that I’d have to obey these foreign troops. And my main concern was to try and make things as easy as possible for the men. I also realised that there was no point in reminiscing about the past, about your family, about your friends, because the past was the past and all you do if you reflected on the past in relation to the horrible present, was to torture yourself.

So I resolved to live actually in the present, to take the situation as it was, not as I wished it to be. In other words, to be a realist. And I’ve always, throughout my life, been convinced that to be a happy person, to live a useful life, you have to keep yourself both mentally and physically as strong as possible, and to be occupied as long as – as much as possible. So that is something I tried to live up to during the whole time I was a prisoner. In other words, in those sort of circumstances, keep your mind and body occupied as much as you can, and not to mope about or never feel sorry for yourself. The best thing you could do was to think of ways of assisting the community. And I was fortunate, I must confess, that in most of the prison camps I was in I had a camp job.

Laurence Rees: Peter Lee is clear in his judgement about the Japanese as jailors.

Words of Peter Lee: My considered opinion, over the whole range of our experience, was that the Japanese treatment of prisoners of war was brutal, sadistic and uncivilised. That’s the shortest way I can sum it up.... Some people said it was their military code, the spirit of Bushido, as you’ve probably heard, which taught the Japanese soldiery that the highest honour they could aspire to was to die for their emperor and their country. The greatest shame they could bring upon themselves was to be taken prisoner of war. In other words, if you were in an extreme position die rather than become a prisoner. I suppose that coloured their treatment of prisoners of war. But I must emphasise that the Japanese treated their own soldiers in exactly the same way.

They had a very simple form of discipline for ensuring that everybody involved in any foul-up was personally aware of it. For example, if there had been a foul up, the officer in charge, say a Major, would be summoned by his Colonel, and he’d have his face slapped. He’d go back to his Captain, who was responsible for the troop where it occurred, the Captain would have his face slapped. The Captain would go back to his men, summon the sergeant, he’d have his face slapped and so it went on down the line, until it actually arrived at the man responsible for the foul-up. In other words, throughout the chain of command, everybody was impressed that they must not err again in future.

Laurence Rees: In August 1943 the majority of officers at Sandakan camp – including Peter Lee - were separated from their men and sent elsewhere. Around 2,500 prisoners were left at Sandakan – 700 British and 1,800 Australian. These prisoners were then so mistreated that by the end of the war only 6 of the Australians had survived and every single one of the 700 British soldiers had died in Japanese captivity.

Words of Peter Lee: Absolute horror. Because nobody at the time had any idea that such a thing could possibly occur in what is called a civilized world. That I think is an enormous blot on the Japanese record. There’s no question of forgiveness. You cannot forgive the unforgivable. But I believe very strongly that anger, perpetuated anger hurts the hater much more than the hated. It can colour a person’s whole personality, whole life. I’ve seen this in some of my former comrades. They’re so imbued by this hatred of the Japanese that it coloured all their attitudes on other things. And I think that’s negative.