Saviour of Ceylon
Existence as a PoW
Now aboard the destroyer ‘Isokaze’, the crew were locked in the ships paint locker for the first few days. They were then moved to the Japanese flagship under Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo command as the Japanese were worried that Ceylon had been warned of their approach, and the crew were brutally interrogated. Believing no warning was given by the crew in response to interrogation the Japanese continued with the attack on Ceylon.
The Japanese attack on Ceylon went ahead but the warning from the Birchall’s crew put the Allies on the alert and allowed the harbour to be partially cleared before the ‘The Easter Sunday Raid’ went ahead, saving Ceylon from the Japanese.
Birchall was taken with the rest of the crew to Yokohama, Japan and they were paraded through the streets, being stoned and spat on by the crowds in retaliation for a bombing raid by the Americans which had just taken place on Tokyo.
The crew were then taken to Ofuna Interrogation Centre situated just South of the Centre of Yokohama. They soon learned it was certainly not a PoW Camp, named by the Japanese as ‘Navy Yokosuka Guard Unit Ueki Detachment’.
The centre was run by Japanese Naval Headquarters from Yokosuka and housed British and American Aviators, mostly Naval aviators who had been shot down over Taiwan and Japan. The few British in the camp were Navy and Air Force men captured by the Japanese Navy after being shot down.
There were five buildings in the centre, one contained the main office, the galley and the bath house. Another consisted of the guards quarters and the interrogation rooms. The remaining three housed the prisoners. Each PoW building was divided into small cells each side of a entrance walk way. Each cell was roughly 2 meters wide by 2.5 meters deep with a small window. The height of each cell was 2.3 meters on the day time side and 1.5 meters over the sleeping side. A bamboo sleeping mat was supplied with five cotton blankets, some prisoners only had three. A very small wattage electric light bulb was supplied in each cell making it easy for the guards to view the prisoners through a small window near the cell door.
Twice a day a bowl of rice with watery soup was supplied, on rare occasions the soup was replaced with a herring. A cup of Japanese tea was given, but they never received water so had to use the toilet water flush to drink when they were allowed to use the toilet in the morning.
The PoWs now had one day to look forward to as it was their bath night. The bath house contained two tanks which were filled with hot water. Ten were allowed in at a time and would hurriedly strip off and leap into one of the tanks, this soon thawed them out in the winter. After about ten minutes in the tank they got out and washed themselves down using the half-bar of soap supplied by the Japanese which had to suffice for all fifty PoWs who bathed that night. Then after the wash they jumped into the second tank for a rinse down. The ten were then ushered out and the next ten waiting PoWs allowed in. After about 10 minutes after their bath the cold again got to them. On a normal day they all used one tap which froze in the winter so they missed having a wash. This was bad but to the thirty Americans who were kept in solitary confinement through the summer and winter, some as long as nine months, the cold and loneliness caused considerable damage to their physical and mental health.
Commander Yokura Sashizo was the Naval officer in charge of the Interrogation Center ruled the camp with a fist of iron. He was known to line up all the Japanese Guards and attack them with a club.
There were about ten Japanese guards and as there did not seem to be any rules, beatings were often taken from them for unknown reasons. Some guards just dished out their own savage treatment to PoWs they did not like. Even the more pleasant guards could quickly turn very aggressive, especially if the Japanese had suffered in the ongoing war, or even if they had suffered a beating by Commander Yokura Sashizo.
Excessive torture, of selected prisoners took place at the Interrogation Centre. These rooms had a very bright light of about 200 watts and the interrogation could last eight hours, at any time of day or night. The interrogation officers were mostly ex-embassy staff who knew the English language very well. Injuries obtained from the interrogations went unattended, although there was a Japanese medic at the camp, no medicines or assistance was given to the prisoners who suffered the torture and those who were brought into the camp suffering from burns or fractures did not receive any medical help. The average weight loss in the camp was 3 to 7 stone and the illnesses from malnutrition went unattended.
Tortures included standing on their tiptoes or on their hands and be subjected to battering or weakening. Another was nicknamed ‘The Ofuna Crouch’ this involved standing on the balls of their feet, knees half bent and arms extended over the head, the position had to be held from 30 minutes to several hours, if not a severe beating was given.
After the war Chief Petty Officer Harold Newman, HMS Exeter of Carshalton, Surrey, England, assumes the position known as the "Ofuna crouch". He is demonstrating to the Australian officers, the cruel methods used at Ofuna.
Birchall once said of his time at Ofuna ‘You were beaten from the moment you got up to the time you went back to bed, if you didn’t get out in six months, you would die in this place.’ The atrocities he saw at Ofuna were patients at the local hospital operated on without anaesthetics, and putting in spinal injections of urine.
After being transferred away from Ofuna, he continuously stood up to brutal treatment by the guards but in 1944 at Tokyo 13D he went too far in the Japanese eyes. The sick were being forced to work, so he organised all work stop until the Japanese allowed the sick rest from work. Because of his stand, in 9th July 1944 he was sent to disciplinary prison camp where he was beaten and starved by the Japanese but they could not break him so he was sent to a camp in the mountains outside Tokyo. At Tokyo 5B Birchall was Camp Commander and William Cook, one of his crew on the shot down Catilina, was with him at the camp.
As a PoW he wrote a diary which later served as evidence in war crime trials against the Japanese.
27th August 1945 his camp was liberated by American troops.