Taiwan: Horrors of Japanese POW camps revealed to visitors at Kinkaseki
They were little more than skeletons clad in rags, skin stretched over bone. The scars they bore told the story of some of Japan’s most brutal World War II prison camps: Formosa — or modern-day Taiwan.
After Japan surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945, the escort carriers USS Santee, USS Block Island and their accompanying escorts steamed to Formosa to liberate 1,160 American, British, Dutch and Australian prisoners of war who had toiled in the 16 camps that spanned the island since as far back as the fall of Singapore and Bataan. They were tasked with feeding and clothing the men on the way to hospitals and a repatriation center in the Philippines.
During the journey, the prisoners spoke of having their teeth ripped from their heads with pliers and the Japanese guards making bookends and belts with the tattooed skin of their comrades. Some did not survive the voyage. It was a sight the sailors and Marines of the task group would never forget for the rest of their lives.
“The condition of the POWs remains in my mind to this day almost 60 years later,” Ben Owens, a Navy corpsmen, recalled in a USS Block Island Association history from 2009. “If anyone has any doubt as to the treatment that POWs had at the hands of the Japanese, I can tell you that it was horrible.”
One of the young Marines aboard the USS Block Island was my grandfather.
I went to Taiwan recently to retrace his steps and perhaps find out what was behind my grandfather’s gentle yet weary eyes. I wanted to relax and take in the sights, but I also wanted to catch glimpses of what he had seen; I wanted to understand.
So I met up with my friend Michael Hurst, a Canadian ex-pat and founder of the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society, to make the journey to the site of one of Formosa’s most notorious camps: Kinkaseki.
Hurst has spent the better part of 20 years as advocate, researcher, park and memorial administrator, museum curator, videographer, tour guide and even archaeologist in his quest to make sure the more than 4,000 allied prisoners of war from Formosa are never forgotten.
We set out early one April morning, taking the train to the Ruifang Station. There, we hopped on a bus and made the seemingly endless trek up a winding mountain road, flanked by small homes, shrines and vendors hawking trinkets.
Hurst said that when the prisoners arrived, already weakened by weeks on Japanese hell ships, they were forcibly marched up the mountain. Some died in the days after arriving.
I knew we had arrived once I noticed Japanese-style buildings and a torii (gate) a bit further up the mountain, faded and swallowed up by the forest.
Kinkaseki opened Nov. 14, 1942. The prisoners housed there were slaves, tasked with pulling precious metals from the largest copper mine in the Japanese empire. The Museum of Gold is now housed in the former offices of the Taiwan Metal Mining Corp.
At the museum, visitors get the full mining experience down to seeing ore seams and the very mining tools the prisoners were beaten with daily. Thanks to Hurst, the museum also features a display dedicated to the prisoners of war who worked there with local laborers, complete with artifacts like medicine bottles and the guard’s rice dishes, in addition to photographs of the men.
Upon entering the mine, visitors can see the conditions the POWs were forced to work in, dark tunnels, rusted rail carts, low ceilings and the constant drip of acidic water powerful enough to eat through metal. The tunnels the prisoners worked in were so hot and dangerous that the Taiwanese and Japanese miners refused to go into those places, Hurst said.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the men were not fed well, often just one meal of boiled sweet potato vines, some rice and soup, according to the association history. There were railways, but they were forced to trudge up and down the mountains to get to and from work in the copper mines below.
Dysentery, pellagra, beriberi, ulcers, pneumonia, diphtheria and many other ailments took their toll, Hurst said. Sometimes the men would have to bury their comrades; sometimes they were forced to dig their own graves.
At the site of the prison camp, only one gate post and a wall remains, a final witness to the horrors. However, thanks to Hurst and others, there is an expansive park where one can reflect on the sacrifices made by those who were enslaved there. A memorial wall with more than 4,000 names, a statue of the emaciated prisoners, monuments, sculptures, displays and information sits amid calming pools, lily pads and trees.
As we soaked it all in, we came upon some of the Japanese guard’s broken rice bowls, exposed by recent rains. Then we traced the prisoner’s steps to liberation.
We returned to Ruifang Station and took the train to Keelung, about 13 miles northwest of Jinguashi. It was here, at Keelung Harbor, then called Kiirun, the prisoners arrived in Formosa. It was also the very spot they were picked up by U.S. Navy destroyers USS Gary, USS Kretchmer, USS Finch and USS Brister and taken to the escort carriers for their trip home at the end of their nightmare.
I looked at the buildings lining the streets. They had been built by the Japanese before the war and though damaged by allied bombing, were repaired afterwards.
The tie-ups at the pier were original from the war, though rusted. The tracks that brought the POWs to the waiting destroyers were still there.
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. The destroyers were navigating the heavily mined harbor filled with men. More still stood on the pier.
The USS Block Island was located offshore, my grandfather watching intently. In his eyes I could see the POWs of Formosa and their broken bodies as they clambered aboard to freedom.
IF YOU GO
Directions: Kinkaseki/Taiwan POW Memorial, No. 60, Qítáng Road, Jinguashi, Ruifang District, Taiwan. To get there, take the subway from anywhere in Taipei to Ruifang Station. Then take the bus up the mountain towards Jioufen. After passing through the commercial district of Jioufen, get off the bus at The Museum of Gold, or Jinguashi Station.
Times: The Kinkaseki/Taiwan POW Memorial is located below the museum and open 24 hours per day, free of charge. However, it is best seen during daylight hours. The museum is open Monday through Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Friday through Sunday 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Services for non-Chinese speakers are available from Tuesday through Friday at 10 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m.
Costs: TWD $100 per adult (about $5 U.S.)
Food: A small store onsite sells beverages and snacks.
Information: powtaiwan.org (website is in English).