In early August three things happened that made us suspect the end of the war had either taken place, or was about to take place, but we would have to wait until the middle of the month for absolute confirmation of our liberation.
The first thing was a news report on 6 August. The eight of us in the isolation hut huddled around our evening newspaper, puzzled by a seemingly unbelievable front-page headline. I interpreted it as: ‘One B-29 aeroplane, one bomb, Hiroshima finish.’ At the time, we had no concept of atomic warfare or its shocking consequences. We speculated that Hiroshima had been bombed by Allied forces but we did not understand the devastation which had taken place – there was no picture accompanying the story. We had no idea just how radically the world of weaponry had changed during the term of our incarceration. I wondered if I had misinterpreted the words or if it was perhaps a false report, but the men had also returned to camp with rumours that Hiroshima had been destroyed. I don’t remember what we talked about in the hut during that night, or what we issued in that evening’s bulletin; we were obviously excited – we knew that the end really must be nigh, but at the same time we could not yet celebrate. After years of clinging to unreal deadlines (‘Home by Christmas!’), we didn’t dare presume our freedom was an absolute certainty. When only a few days later the headlines were similar for Nagasaki, we remained under a spell of what I would term ‘cautious optimism’.
The second thing occurred on 10 August, when Sakata came in for its share of bombing. From the window of our hut we watched Allied bombers form a circle in the sky and, one by one, peel away to swoop down on a target in the harbour and then resume its position within the circle. The men returned to camp that night with first-hand accounts of how the planes had strafed the town and destroyed the Japanese anti-aircraft guns. We allowed our hopes to rise another notch. (In hindsight, it’s difficult to believe we could have been so calmly philosophical about our own odds of escaping an Allied attack; I think after surviving a shipwreck one’s outlook on ‘chance’ becomes relative – and, in relative terms, we suspected the targets would be ships, factories, anti-aircraft posts and larger buildings as opposed to our own camp. Strangely, I do not recall experiencing any real fear that we might die at the hands of our own forces).
The third thing happened on 15 August. We had been maintaining a vigilant eye on our keepers, forever on the lookout for some kind of change in their behaviour to verify our suspicions that the war was over. On this particular afternoon we observed some guards setting up a table outside their own guardhouse. A wireless set was carried across the parade ground and placed on top of the table and the guards were soon on parade before Lieutenant Mori. The wireless was switched on and the guards yelled out ‘Banzai!’ repeatedly, so we knew the voice coming from the radio had to belong to someone of high standing. As the broadcast continued, the guards became increasingly subdued. We were not close enough to hear the radio but we watched as their facial expressions tightened; tears rolled down the cheeks of some.
Inside the hut, we chattered rapidly. That had to have been the voice of the Emperor advising of Japan’s surrender. The war was over; it must be! We waited: surely Lieutenant Mori would soon be heading our way. But nothing happened. The guards were dismissed and with their heads hanging low they dispersed within the camp without another word. If Japan had surrendered, why wasn’t any one telling us? We waited for the men to return from work – their rumours seemed to match our hopes, but there was no newspaper on this day to confirm what we wanted to hear. . . .
The next morning all men were sent to work as usual but, that afternoon, the work parties returned very early and our guards abandoned their posts. The following day the men were not sent to work and the moment we had been waiting for finally arrived during evening roll call.
Standing at the front door of our isolation hut, we watched our men standing on parade. Armed guards were positioned along the sides of the columns of our men and Lieutenant Mori walked slowly to the front. He wore tiny spectacles on the bridge of his nose and a sword hung by his side. He looked immaculate. Glancing down at a small piece of paper clasped in his hands, he read his announcement in English:
The longed for day of peace has arrived … you must obey your own officers … we are concerned for your health and your safety … myself, the guards and Military Police will do our best to protect you.
There was no hypocrisy in Mori’s announcement, which he read with great dignity and respect; no postulating over how fortunate we were to have been in the care of the IJA. I think he knew we deserved nothing but the truth.
Inside our minds, we were bursting with joy, but there was no cheering, no din of spontaneous applause, no tears of relief. We would not celebrate in the face of our enemy. Nor did the Japanese react. Both sides were silent. Many might question such a lacklustre response, but unless you have been a prisoner of war it will be difficult to understand, just as it is almost impossible for me to put such a situation into words. After years in captivity, we had become disciplined in the art of self-control – we were experts at masking emotions in front of our keepers. On the Railway, the penalty for emotional outbursts had always been physical. We had learned long ago to keep our thoughts, feelings and hopes inside our own minds; they were safe there. Surrounded by armed guards, the poker game between ‘us and them’ was still very much in progress. The minutes following Lieutenant Mori’s speech were peaceful. For most of us it was time to acknowledge our own personal triumph over a relentless endurance test: our victory was survival. I was 29 years old and free – well, almost.