10 Japanese Prison Camps in The Philippines

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Continuing on from my blog post on the Bataan Death March at the Historiat, here is a list of the 10 most infamous Japanese internment camps in the Philippines:

10. Camp O’Donnell. Camp O’Donnell has already been mentioned in the Historiat piece, so I’ll outsource to there, but it’s worth noting here that the camp was initially built by American forces to house its own occupying army in the Philippines. Twenty thousand Filipinos and 1,500 Americans are said to have died there, mostly from disease and malnourishment, but also from summary executions and lethal beatings.

9. Davao Prison and Penal Farm. Davao was built in 1932, again by American forces, as a prison for both common criminals and anti-American guerrillas. When the Japanese Army ousted and occupied the Philippines, Davao was used as the Army’s official garrison. The relative prestige of the location didn’t make life any easier for the prisoners housed there, though. A favorite method of execution for the Japanese officers running the camp was beheading.

8. Puerto Princesa and the Palawan Massacre. Puerto Princesa was a relatively small internment camp, with only hundreds of prisoners, but it is also the prison that led to the infamous Palawan Massacre of 1944. As the Allies bore down on the labor camp, Japanese forces marched the prisoners back to their own camp, where they proceeded to force the prisoners into a trench, light them on fire, and gun down all those who tried to flee. The massacre sparked a new campaign to rescue prisoners of war throughout the archipelago.

7. Santo Tomas. Located in the capital city of Manila, Santo Tomas was a university before the Japanese turned it into a prison for enemy non-combatants. Thousands of non-military personnel from the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and elsewhere were housed with their families in the camp. Even though there were women and children in the camp, and Santo Tomas was not a labor camp, conditions upon the arrival of Allied forces in 1945 were terrible. Starvation was rampant, and flooding destroyed the “community” gardens the prisoners were allowed to grow. As Allied forces marched ever closer to Santo Tomas, the gardens themselves were raided and then destroyed by the Japanese in preparation for battle with the Allies.

6. New Bilibid Prison. Built by the Americans in 1936 (Old Bilibid Prison was built by the Spanish in 1865 and converted into a county jail), New Bilibid was infamous for being the processing camp that ultimately led to a hellish, Japan-bound sea voyage and the labor camps situated within the heart of the empire. New Bilibid, also located in Manila, housed some civilians and thus was not a labor camp, nor was it known for brutality or death. In fact, when the Japanese guards fled New Bilibid in 1945 and the prisoners raised an American flag over the prison, the guards came back to the prison to warn them that such a stunt was a bad idea because Japanese artillery units would target the site. A speckle of humanity in the midst of total war. Today, the internment camp is a prison that houses criminals on death row.

5. Los Baños Internment Camp. Another university turned into a holding area for mostly civilians, Los Baños is best known for the rescue mission undertaken by Filipino and American special forces units in 1945. Los Baños had mostly favorable conditions through the first two years of Japanese occupation, but as the war turned against Tokyo, food became more and more scarce and brutality more and more common. When the joint Filipino-American unit arrived to rescue the captives, many did not want to go out of fear for their lives, and some of the villagers nearby also refused to leave their homes. When the Japanese reinforcements arrived to find the camp abandoned and burned to the ground, they turned their wrath on the villagers who had refused to leave. Fifteen hundred civilians, including women and children, were massacred as collaborators.

4. Baguio Internment Camp. Also known as Camp Holmes or, alternatively, Camp #3, Baguio is located in the highlands of the Philippines and was a popular spot for American tourists and missionaries upon the invasion of the island by Japan. Camp Holmes was popular because it was higher in elevation and thus avoided the numerous health pitfalls associated with tropical climates. Needless to say, this was a relatively well-off prison camp during the war and mostly housed missionaries, women, and children. Torture was still used when Japanese authorities deemed it necessary, though, and dysentery was a problem for the entire duration of Tokyo’s occupation. When war crimes were being handed out by the Allies, the director of Baguio, Captain Rokuro Tomibe, was sentenced to death, but a Catholic priest pleaded for Tomibe’s life and the charges were dropped. Another speckle of humanity presents itself to us.

3. Camp John Hay. Like Baguio, Camp John Hay was a relatively nice internment center where forced labor was non-existent and many of its residents were women and children. It was also situated in the highlands of the Philippines and so had better weather. This is not to say that living conditions at the prison were very good. Indeed, the camp (which was built as a military base for the Americans in 1903) was, at the time of the Japanese invasion a well-known getaway for Americans and only meant for 60 or so people to catch a little leisure time. Japanese logisticians, however, managed to crowd 500 mostly civilians into the camp. Conditions became so bad the Western prisoners were moved to Baguio and John Hay was used for seditious Filipinos for the duration of the war.

2. Bacolod Internment Camp. Located on the large island of Negros, Bacolod housed all civilians, and was eventually shut down and the prisoners moved to Santo Tomas. Unlike some of the other prison camps, where time done was often in years, Bacolod shut down after only three months of operation. While not a major internment camp, Bacolod is useful here because the prisoners were used as shields to protect Japanese officers from American bombing campaigns, a tactic that had yet to be mentioned here.

1. Cabanatuan Prison Camp. The most notorious of Japan’s prison camps, Cabanatuan was known as the “Zero Ward” because there was zero chance of getting out of there alive. Slave labor was utilized, starvation and malnutrition ran amok, torture and beatings were standard fare, and disease spread like Texas bluebonnets along the highways in April. The healthier prisoners were often transported in a “hell ship” to Japan for harder labor, and the sick ones simply died from a horrific tropical disease, a beating, or starvation. Filipino guerrillas and American special forces rescued the POWs on the same day the the Allies recaptured Camp O’Donnell. The prisoners were flown to the United States and hailed as heroes.

Further thoughts

You’ll notice that there are not that many internment camps strictly for soldiers, or for Filipinos. This may be because there is not sufficient evidence to prove they existed, but also because the Japanese were prone to simply line up any surrendering soldiers and shoot them on the spot, and of course Japanese racism towards Filipinos and other Asian ethnic groups was rampant. Japanese soldiers were taught that only cowards surrender, and thus that the enemies who surrendered to them were no more than pests to be rid of.

Japanese internment camps for hard manual labor were found in more than just the Philippines, too. Tokyo had camps in China, Thailand, the Dutch East Indies, Taiwan, and Japan itself. There are even some anecdotes, though I don’t know if they are credible, that survivors of the Bataan Death March were working in labor camps in Japan when they saw the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki.


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