Sketch by Jack Chalker

Deep Despair

Deep Despair - Kanasai (Kanose) Camp, Japan


Cast from your eye

That look of deep despair,

Walk in the wind

Feel it whistle thro’ your hair,

Raise your arms

As if to catch a bird in flight,

Let your mind go free

As thistle down, fluffy white,

Do not think about the past

Endeavour to be happy, make it last


When the railway was finished I was sent to with 150 Americans and 250 British to Kanasai (Tokyo Branch 16 - Kanose) in Japan. We sailed in a party of six ships most of which were sunk by US submarines. I was in a lucky ship, although battened down and in cramped conditions, the height was only 4 feet high. After this perilous journey we were in for another treat, we were to work in the hills near Kanasai, at a factory which made black gunpowder !!! 

On getting to the camp, under the command of Capt. Janis, on 29th June 1944 we found were the second British group to arrive. We were sorted out after a kind of interrogation and numbered, mine was 178. I was a lathe hand and was ordered to work on one of their lathes no other Englishman or American was present so I more or less became a Japanese. I took over from a young Jap who I found out was a kama-kasi pilot and after about 5 days he went off to war and was killed some days later. We were ordered to stop work and formed into a line, eight Japs and myself. Two soldiers and a woman appeared, she was dressed all in white, with a large red sash, carrying a large bunch of flowers. It appeared she was the soldiers mother and as she passed along the line they each bowed to her in turn. I didn’t feel very happy about my situation and thought the two soldiers with swords might take it out on me. However it was not the case and when she came to me I bowed like the others, she stopped for a while and I couldn’t help but notice there was no anger in her eyes, I see her many times to this day.

We worked a 12 hour day with other duties when we got back to camp I was lucky because on going to work the children were going to school and were always talking. I learned about the death of President Roosevelt and the landings in Italy etc. Women were treated like 2nd class citisens doing all the dirty work, emptying the latrines with large barrels on their backs was one of them. They would trudge up the hillside and empty these on the gardens something that’s got to be seen to be believed. When I got back to camp everyone wanted to know what I'd found out that day.

A real treat was to get a few soya beans and grind them down to make a kind of flour then steal a chrisanth imus, dip it in this kind of batter roast it on the nobby until it was crisp.

A nobby was a large pan carried on a small rail cart and contained the molten lime stone and coal which made carbide it was then crushed up pre heated in a pot at floor level to become black gunpowder.

Apart from the beatings and hard work, the mental torture of not knowing if one was going to survive or what the future would bring was a problem. Unlike someone who gets a sentence for burglary or theft, there was no fixed sentence with freedom at the end. A criminal sentence, does not get you unwanted beatings or ill treatment, there was no seat to sit down on and talk with visitors and very few letters to keep us in touch, it was not a case of the punishment fitting the crime. It didn't seem right somehow that we were the innocent victims and deserved better treatment, but nothing could be done about it, so we had to put up with it.

On top of all this, there was a language problem. At the beginning the Japs couldn't speak English and nobody from our side spoke Japanese hence the shouting would start and then the slapping. When we were on the railway and didn't do what they wanted, mainly  because we didn’t understand, they got more angry, perhaps thinking we were playing them up. In Japan it was much different because we had to do every thing in the Japanese language. They started by getting everyone into four ranks then a Jap would go along and give each man a number. After this the Jap sergeant would shout BONGO! This means ‘number’ and as each man shouted the number he was given the guard walked with a stick down the row, if anyone forgot his number he was for it. After doing this a few times, they then changed the front row with the back row and started all over again. Then they would take a man from the end and put him at the beginning, this way everyone constantly had a different number. When they were satisfied with this, they started on marching orders and we had to obey. “Quick march, halt, right turn, left turn, stand at ease” etc. I can assure you it was a most effective way to teach us Japanese, but under very brutal conditions.

The factory we were to work in was supplied, as well all the houses around it, with electricity by way of a turbine. driven by water. The river which supplied the water to drive the factory turbines was held back by a dam, during the summer the water level went down and sometimes this affected the power supply. When this happened everyone was put to work picking up all the stones from the river bed so as to increase the volume of water, this included the schoolchildren and women. The pows had to work in between their shifts and after 12 hours working we found it very hard and kept on to the point of exhaustion.

The factory was a hub of activity. The furnaces that melted the limestone and coal together, gave out a terrific glare especially at night. One must have seen it for miles so it any of our planes had been near they couldn't have missed it. Looking back makes one realise how lucky we were in escaping a certain death from our own side. The men who worked these furnaces stood on the top floor, the limestone and coal was sent up and they shovelled it into the large opening at the top, the heat was terrific as well as the glare. It was a very dangerous place to work because there was these large carbons (which I used to make on the lathe) hanging overhead which supplied the current to cause an ark. They were encased in a large steel water jacket and if they split open, off would go the roof, such as it was, and would cause great damage as well as injuries. They worked a 12 hour shift and every 10th day worked an 18 hour shift then the shift coming on would also work 18 hours so they changed from a night shift to a day shift.

On 9th June 1945 a fire accident at the carbide mill caused three British PoWs to receive serious burns, all eventually died from their burns:- Gunner John Ford Buchan, Gunner Oliver Crowdell and Gunner john Foster.

When you finished your shift you went to the bathing pool as we called it. There was a large concrete box, large enough for every one to get in at least they made us get in steam pipes all around the sides. The steam was then turned on and you were boiled like crabs turning red as well. After washing the carbon off the best way you could you then had to stand on top of the concrete and jump into another pool of cold water, something I would never recommend for anyone with a weak heart because the shock is terrific. Afterwards when you kind of recovered you felt really fit. I suppose its like hitting your head with a hammer its nice when you stop. There were no towels just a small piece of cloth about 15ins square and you wiped yourself down wringing the cloth until it was almost dry until you yourself were almost dry.

Before work started at the factory everyone had to parade outside with the men in front, the women next, then the pows behind. All would face the east and the Japs would say they didn’t have chance to do honour the day before but hoped to fulfil their obligation before the sun sets today, meaning to give their lives to their country. Strange lot, but it was their way of life and it nearly proved its point.

Then to the other extreme,  when one morning we went on parade outside the works and we were kept waiting in the hot sun while  the manager went round the corner to seek his pleasure with a young office girl who was about 17-18. It didn't finish there because we then had to wait for his second in command to be satisfied as well, no one dared smile or laugh, it seemed so de-grading.

The factory was even attacked by an American fighter plane, he made several runs over the factory, out of the blue several of the military went up to the hill and waved their swords at the plane as if to do battle, we all had our spirits raised that day although we dare not cheer. One of the most painful things for me was when these Jap workers ate their rice, as sometimes they had some to spare, this they tipped into a dustbin as they were not allowed to give any food to a pow. Mouth watering I watched this, not very nice when your starving.

We had a good summer in Japan but when Autumn came the Jap on the next lathe to me made a strange remark. He told me that it would start snowing on December 8th and low and behold on December the 8th it started snowing and kept on for weeks. Everything was snowbound we were cut off, even our main line of supplies from the railway was blocked. They expected it because stores were brought up beforehand.

One night during this winter the Jap sergeant detailed a small party to go with him outside the camp some were US and the others including myself were English. We walked quite a long way the snow was very deep we had a kind of snowshoe. It was a moonlight night and seemed very strange because we were level with the tops of the houses, you could just see the smoke stacks sticking out of the snow. We came to the place and went down through a kind of tunnel to a house. We had brought two poles with us and some sacks, nobody dare ask what they were for but we were about to find out. We got the two poles and then slid the sacks over them to make a kind of stretcher. The Jap the then pointed to a long bundle and we laid it on to the stretcher, four men picked it up and off we went. During the way back one of the Yanks thought he would like to find out what we were carting so as we walked he came alongside and slid his hand underneath the wrapping hoping to find something to ea. All of a sudden he cried ‘Jesus it's a body’ it was one of the sergeants girl friends and we were doing his dirty work unbeknown to the camp officer. We had to take the body to another house and leave it there needless to say we didn't get any extra food.

As the snow began to melt, things were getting a little thin on the ground. Fortunately we survived, but the thought was always there of being in another world, cut off from help and no chance of being freed, especially as we were in the hills a world all on its own. The pow’s who were loading the limestone some distance away out in the cold suffered badly because they had to travel to work in the buckets along a cable line high up, they must have felt the cold but there was no relief, the work went on as usual. The Japs took it all in there stride they were used to it, slaves of the factory, in a way they were like us they had no choice, even with punishment. If a worker made a mistake or did something wrong he was taken in front of the manager and slapped or punched. This most probably is what gave them a low opinion of us pows,  as we were the lowest form in their eyes. It gave them a sense of superiority, like man and his dog. If we had lost the war, you can get an idea of what we would have to endure for the rest of our lives, I shudder to think about it.

It was near the end of the war and I was sharpening the tools from my lathe on an old open grinder when a piece of steel flew into my eye and blocked my vision and being late at night nothing could be done so I had to suffer the night. The next morning two guards with rifles took me to the railway station and we boarded a train. I had to sit in a seat by myself with the blind drawn so I didn’t know which way we were going. After about ninety minutes we got off and walked quite some distance and arrived at a small house where I was told to take off my shoes (such as they were).

I finished up with just my loin cloth I was then ordered to go inside where I was met by a small middle aged lady who didn’t speak English but motioned me to kneel down (all the time I was thinking this could be it). However she held a needle in her hand and without anything to kill the pain just gently removed the piece of steel which was a blessing and relief. The two guards were with me all the time and and would not allow me to talk to the lady. She motioned me to go out of the house after I manage to thank her, I was very grateful. We walked back to the station and I could see much bomb damage of course I could not talk to the guards about it. On the way back the train was packed full and I needed to go to the toilet, which, like ours, was at each end of the carriage, the carriage had no corridor, but all open with a centre gangway. The guard told me I could go, he kept behind me all the time with his rifle, much to the delight of the people on board.  I went in and was just about to close the door when he put his foot against it, with a sharp kick so there I sat doing what I had to do in front of a carriage full of people looking on. At least my eye felt better, I realised they needed me fit to work on this special lathe.

Kanasai Camp - Japan

Reg - top row, left 6

The picture above was taken near the end of the war at Kanasai, Japan. The Japs fitted the prisoners out with these clothes just for the picture, notice they are too small !

We received a Red X parcel (the only one we ever had) and it contained coffee tinned milk cigarettes etc. some were laid out on the table as the photo shows to let the world know how well we were being treated.

Many things were learnt, mainly by experimentation as we tried to survive, they didn't always succeed. Due to our low state of health, many of us suffered with boils, which were very painful to say the least. However someone came up with the bright idea about milk being injected it into the patients backside. The thinking behind this was to draw all the poison out away from other parts of the body like the neck and back where most boils seemed to appear. Unfortunately it didn't work very well, but it did create a large lump on the backside, this would not allow the patient to sit down for several days. On top of this nobody was keen to part with the precious milk.

During the last months of the war I saw the first US plane come over and being at the factory that made explosive material, I felt a little uncomfortable. One bomb or a few bullets could have set everything off and there would have been very few who would have survived. Those down near Tokyo were in a different situation because the air raids there were numerous, many died. Our camp being up in the hills, was hard to find, so perhaps we were lucky in some ways.

There were rumours of a big bomb being dropped on Japan, when ever there was a raid we were all taken out on the square and someone would be for it also I heard the men talking at work, the Jap on the next lathe told me we would soon die like everyone else because a bomb had been dropped and killed many people. If the guards had heard him he would have paid a heavy price. The Jap on the next lathe was an old boy who was drafted up from the South, he had little experience of turning. One day he was trying a pair of large callipers over a carbon spinning in the lathe, it was 2 feet in diameter and he held the callipers with his hand under them which soon made a grab of his hand and took the skin off. Nobody else seemed to take any notice so I flew to his machine and switched it off, got an old piece of rag and tied it up, then told him how to hold the callipers in safety.

While a POW I wished many times I'd have taken more notice of the things my father tried to teach me, he'd been a first mate on a three master in his younger days and the various knots and things like mats and rope shoes he made was amazing also many nights I laid awake looking at the stars wishing I had paid more attention when he used to point out The Plough Or Southern Cross or if you looked for a particular one it would take you due East or West etc. It might not have helped with any attempt to escape as we knew this was impossible but it would have told us which way we were going instead of feeling lost to the world!. The other thing was getting tattooed, I'm glad 1 took his advice because it was one way of being identified should the matter ever arise, something which was certainly a more disadvantage to the POWs in German hands, however the thought of war in the 1930 period did not arise and everyone was carefree with the feeling of what do 1 want to know that for there will never be another war like the last one because it was a war to end all wars. How wrong we were first the Germans flattened Europe and then we faced an enemy who we didn't know never even seen them told they couldn't fight anyway nearly all had to wear glasses and the bullets they fired were the small ones 2-2 whereas ours were 3-3 it should be a piece of cake but the cake was like iron and we were the ones who would suffer for our miss-thoughts. There is always something to learn in life, I learned the hard way but I must say from my past it has had an effect and made me appreciate my life today.

A Jap sergeant who he spoke English of a kind, ran the camp, he asked an RAF wireless operator if he could repair a wireless for a friend of his. Of course he was glad to try the repair as he might get a little extra rice for doing it, however he asked me and some others to help him. When I finished my shift on the lathe, I had to walk alone through a press shop to join up with the other prisoners to be marched back to camp. The RAF operator said there was a thing that looked like a wireless valve in one of the machines and he wanted to borrow it between shifts,  if we could get it, someone else would put it back on the shift going on.  I'd heard he was repairing a set for the sergeant and thought it was for that, I later found out it was to make up a wireless to try and get some news about the war. He repaired the Jap’s set and somehow took a valve and a few other bits from it, he also made an aerial hidden in a broom handle. Very little was known about it as the risk was very great, nobody heard the results but rumours floated about that we were doing well in Burma which helped to cheer everyone up.

Many people today could learn a lot from those who experienced the last war only simple things but very useful as an example. The camp at Kanasai in Japan was managed by the factory, they owned everything and supplied everything food, clothing, houses, electricity. Every now and again we would get a small packet of tobacco, which we understood was made from the bark of a tree, it was about the same size as a packet of 20 cigarettes, but a great joy and helped to ward off the hunger pains we also had on occasions squib with our rice. I remember we tasted caviar twice, they of course said it was something that the people in England didn't get, Another thing was grasshoppers you baked them on one of the hot nobbys but had to break the legs off as they were hard and could puncture the stomach. These things happened near the end of the war and we didn't know how things were going at that time, but looking back now makes one wonder if it was all part of the preparation for ending the war. It didn't make the work any easier though in fact I think it got harder even the Jap workers became more sharp and demanded the limit from us.

It was midday when we were having a break and the guard who was always outside the door with his rifle went away and we opened the door expecting someone to shout to us to start work but nothing happened. After quite some time the guards came and said all men back to camp so we were taken back all wondering what was going on. The next morning we were told the Jap officer in charge was going to speak to everyone and so we went on parade as usual a box was brought out for him to stand on then he told us that he'd been informed that General Mac Arthur was going to make a speech and we might possibly be going home, in the meantime working at the factory would cease and during the next few days we were to do camp duties. He would give further instructions later. Perhaps this news took the Japs by surprise and may have accounted for their actions in making us work hard.

Unknown to us Japan had surrendered on the 15th August 1945, the first occupation forces arrived at Yokosuka on the 30th. The Japanese Foreign Minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu then boarded the Missouri in Tokyo Bay and signed a surrender document which General Douglas MacArthur accepted.

The next thing were told to do was get up on the roof and paint POW on it, so that a B29 could drop us some food. The B29 came but was much too high and  he dropped his load of oil drums packed with food which missed us, we managed to get a few but in them were cigarettes and chewing gum.  I don't think anyone did any chewing we were so hungry just ate the stuff. We found out afterwards the drums that missed us killed some of the local people.”

One Jap who worked with me, took, me to his home to show me how they lived. He gave me a fan to take home. When we did leave the camp alot of Jap civilians were at the station to wave us off. These Japs though were not the army who were controlled by the power that governed at that time. Also they were lucky as they had enjoyed some of the food that had been dropped for us. There were others outside the factory area who took a different view, thinking we had got everything in the way of food and clothing. The guards had to do an about turn and protect us. Things were pretty desperate for them but we had been enduring this for the last three years as pows.


Next Chapter

Free at Last - Journey Home



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