Rupert Wilkinson. Surviving a Japanese Internment Camp: Life and Liberation at Santo Tomás, Manila, in World War II. Jefferson: McFarland, 2013. 234 pp. $35.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-6570-5.
Reviewed by Paul Springer (Air Command and Staff College)
Published on H-War (November, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)
Rupert Wilkinson is an emeritus professor of American studies and history at the University of Sussex. However, long before he dreamed of being a historian, he was a part of the history he would eventually document in his work Surviving a Japanese Internment Camp. When Wilkinson was only five years old, his family was placed into an internment camp at the University of Santo Tomás in Manila by the Japanese invading forces. For three years, Wilkinson, his sister, and his mother struggled to survive the daily ordeal of living under occupation in a very crowded camp. Gradually, the availability of food, medicine, and other necessities declined, while the hostility and outright cruelty of the guard force gradually increased. More than six decades after the liberation of Santo Tomás by American troops under General Douglas MacArthur, Wilkinson decided to write about his experiences in the compound. Rather than simply producing a memoir of his childhood captivity, he sought out as many of the survivors and their descendants as possible, and thus obtained a remarkable collection of personal papers, memoirs, interviews, and other sources to provide context to his narrative.
Santo Tomás was the largest internee camp in the Philippines, eventually housing nearly four thousand American, British, and other captives. The camp opened on January 4, 1942, and remained under Japanese control until February 4, 1945. Near the end of 1941, an Emergency Committee decided to preplan a number of internment campsites, on the assumption that any Japanese invading force would have made few preparations for holding civilian prisoners. Because of the foresight of the committee, the foreign residents of Manila were mostly sent to the university, a far safer location than many of the alternatives. Once in place, the internees initially had relatively lenient opportunities to shop for their own sustenance in Manila and to interact with Filipino inhabitants of the city. Gradually, though, the camp administrators clamped down on the internees, limiting their access to outside resources and reducing their food rations while increasing their daily labor. While the internees were by no means comfortable, Wilkinson notes on a number of occasions, they still received much better treatment than captured military personnel, who were despised by the Japanese. The internees were able to maintain a semblance of self-government and minor freedoms, and could receive substantial aid from outside the camp for most of their captivity. One major source of sustenance was the International Red Cross, which was permitted to distribute aid packages for most of the three years of internment.
Wilkinson’s discussion presents a fascinating window into the lives of internees. The men were separated from the women for much of the duration, although the Japanese eventually relented and allowed married couples, and some unmarried couples, to cohabitate, although sexual liaisons were officially prohibited. The Japanese were shocked to find a number of new pregnancies within the camp, despite the prohibition, and on one occasion they imprisoned four expectant fathers for breaking the rules. Wilkinson’s work is surprisingly evenhanded toward the Japanese captors; even the most hated members of the guard personnel receive a fair treatment in the work. The internees managed to resist their captors on a number of issues and successfully petitioned the camp commandant for a change in the rules of their internment on several occasions. For their part, the Japanese seemed mostly content to allow the prisoners to oversee their own affairs, as much as possible, so long as there were no escapes from the camp or overt signs of resistance. On one occasion, three escapees who were quickly recaptured were executed by the guards, making escape an unattractive option for the rest of the internees.
The internal dynamics of the camp are the most fascinating aspect of this study. There was no effort to pool resources into a single community, although small groups of internees certainly banded together for mutual support and individual acts of kindness were common. The denizens of the camp quickly divided themselves into “haves” and “have-nots,” with the former using their financial resources to fund a much more comfortable internment, at first through direct purchases and later through bribing guards and purchasing black market goods. Strangely, the economic divisions did not seem to create much strife within the community, and members of each group interacted socially throughout the duration of their confinement. Certain groups within the camp wielded enormous power, most prominently the medical personnel held within the camp. Their efforts literally meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of the camp’s inhabitants, and even the Japanese guards respected the medical personnel’s special privileges.
By far, the hero of the narrative is Dr. Luis de Alcuaz, a chemistry professor at the university who worked to convince the school’s leaders to accede to the camp’s placement; who used his status as a neutral Spanish citizen to pass through the camp gates at will, often smuggling much-needed food and medical supplies; and who served as an informal liaison between the university leadership, the Japanese authorities, and the internees. On many occasions, de Alcuaz risked his life to help the internees, despite how easy it would have been to rely on his citizenship as a means to avoid the worst aspects of the war. At the end of the captivity, de Alcuaz was forced to retire from the university as punishment for working to have the school’s grounds used as the internment camp. MacArthur arranged a Medal of Freedom for de Alcuaz, who immigrated to California and became a chemist within the food industry.
Wilkinson’s work is a study in making do under terrible wartime circumstances. It is filled with fascinating anecdotes of how the internees overcame incredible adversity to retain their common humanity and their sense of decency. Despite all of the hardships, the internees did not turn on one another, and most managed to maintain their spirits until liberation. Upon the arrival of American troops in the vicinity of Santo Tomás, the Japanese guard force retreated into one of the university buildings, where they held approximately two hundred internees as hostages. In a unique twist, the Japanese commandant managed to negotiate a safe conduct for his troops to retreat from Santo Tomás, beyond American lines, in the hope of continuing their fight. In exchange for this consideration, the hostages were released without incident. Most of the guards were later killed in combat with American forces; a few surrendered once the futility of their cause became clear.
The conclusion of the work does an excellent job of contextualizing the entire Santo Tomás experience and has far more insight than might be expected from an eight-year-old’s recollections. Of course, this insight is due to Wilkinson’s decades of practicing the historical craft and the enormous volume of materials he was able to utilize to present the full story of the civilian internees at Manila. In all, this is a wonderful work on a marginalized subject and a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any reader interested in the occupation aspects of the Pacific War.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Paul Springer. Review of Wilkinson, Rupert, Surviving a Japanese Internment Camp: Life and Liberation at Santo Tomás, Manila, in World War II.
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