Japanese Occupation

Posted 6 years ago

Japanese forces maintained a shipbuilding facility in Subic Bay throughout WWII.  The area became infamous for the war crimes committed against Allied prisoners of war, among which was Bataan March – where an estimated 66,000 Filipino and 10,000 American prisoners of war were forced by the Japanese military to endure a 106-kilometer forced march in April 1942 during the early stages of WWII.

Japanese Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma and U.S. Gen. Jonathan Wainwright during the surrender of Bataan
Starting in Mariveles, on the southern tip of the Bataan Peninsula, the prisoners marched northward to San Fernando, in Pampanga on April 9, 1942 and then taken by rail in cramped and unsanitary boxcars farther north to Capas, Tarlac. From there they walked an additional 11 km to Camp O’Donnell, a former Philippine army training center used by the Japanese military to intern Filipino and American prisoners.

The march lasted five to 10 days, depending on where a prisoner joined it and along the way, the captives were beaten, shot, bayoneted, and, in many cases, beheaded. A large number of those who made it to the camp later died of starvation and disease.

Only 54,000 prisoners reached the camp; though exact numbers are unknown, some 2,500 Filipinos and 500 Americans may have died during the march, and an additional 26,000 Filipinos and 1,500 Americans died at Camp O’Donnell.

The tragedy of the Oryoku Maru also called “Hellship” also took place in Subic Bay. The Japanese prisoner transport ship, with 1,619 prisoners of war (POWs) left the port of Manila in the latter part of October 1944. This was about the time American forces are launching aerial offensives against Japanese strongholds in the Philippines.

The Oryoku Maru after being bombed in Subic Bay 1945.
As the Oryoku Maru was anchored at the bay it was bombed by US fighter aircrafts unaware of the presence of the POWs. Only about 450 men survived the bombing and sinking and the subsequent maltreatment by the Japanese.

The day the Japanese came

As four-year-old Fiona Paton unwrapped Christmas presents in 1941, she had no idea her carefree world was about to be shattered.

Within a few days, she would be a Japanese prisoner of war. That year Fiona, her Scottish-born father Ronald Barr and Philippines-born mother Peggy, celebrated their last ‘free’ Christmas in the Philippines capital of Manila.

Despite her tender age, Fiona (now 74) who has lived in Otorohanga since the early 1950’s, can recall what happened vividly. Japan attacked the Philippines on December 8, 1941 the same day they attacked Pearl Harbour.

The Japanese invaded northern Luzon and in Manila was destroyed on the ground by the Japanese bombers. Most of the American Air Force craft stationed in Manila was destroyed on the ground by the Japanese bombers.

EARLY YEARS: Fiona Barr’s happy childhood in the Philippines was crushed overnight when the Japanese overran Manila. She is pictured (above left) playing in the gardens with her adoring parents, copra exporters Ronald and Peggy. Above centre- this photo was taken by a Japanese photographer during Fiona’s first Christmas as a POW. Above right- Fiona poses happily with her Filipino amah (nanny) shortly before both became prisoners of war.

The US Army, about 20,000 Americans and 80,000 Filipinos, retreated and on December 26, all American military forces abandoned Manila leaving the civilians behind- Fiona and her parents among them.

On January 2, 1942 Japanese forces occupied Manila ordering all Americans and British civilians to remain in their homes until they could be registered. “Dad worked for Hanson, Ord and Stephenson exporting copra and hemp for rope mainly to America,” say Fiona.

“He married Mum in January 1936 and I was born the following year. “With World War II looming we were booked on a ship bound for Australia where Dad was hoping to join the Air Force. “We had been living in Davao on Mindanao Island in the south, but Dad was called back up to Manila to cover for his boss who was ill and returning to the USA.

“Out of duty to the company he went and we missed our ship.” It was a colossal error… the Japanese invaded before the family could rebook their tickets. The last American forces in the Philippines surrendered on May 6, 1942 except for a few men who took to the hills to initiate guerilla warfare against the Japanese occupiers.

It was the worst defeat of the United States in World War II. The Barr family was interned early 1942. “We weren’t rich by any means though we had servants, as did most expats living in the island at the time,” she recalls. “I had a happy, secure childhood but was quite shy, I’m told.

“I had been very sheltered and hand an amah, or Asian nurse, who was employed to look after me while Mum worked as a secretary at the US Clark Air Base.” After the Japanese invaded the city all white’ enemy civilians’ including Fiona’s father were rounded up.

The men spent the first few nights in the street before the Japanese decided where to put them. “In the meantime Mum, my grandmother, Nanny Betty Price, and I were held in our second floor flat with Japanese officers taking over the floor below.

“We were terrified because we had no idea what had happened to Dad, let alone what would happen to us. “At one point there was a knock at the door- a Japanese officer stood there asking if Mum had a pair of slippers because his feet hurt.

“She went to the bedroom to get Dad’s slippers and horrors, he followed her. “ I was apparently asleep in a cot in that room. The officer came over and stared at me, fascinated by my very blonde curly hair.

“He took the slippers, but came back again with another officer to check out my fair curls. “ Luckily I was sound asleep because I’d have probably screamed the place down and got us all into trouble.”


Her father was taken to Santo Tomas University Internment Camp which housed more than 4000 civilians, mostly Americans and British, from January 1942 until February 1945.

CAMP ABLUTIONS: Civilian POW’s made the best of the basic amenities and communal hair washing with soap in cold water was considered a luxury. GOOGLE IMAGE

The POWs were largely left to fend for themselves in the overcrowded conditions. Fiona says initially the Japanese did not provide food but the prisoners managed with goods non-interned foreigners from neutral countries who gathered outside the compound every day.

Internees received food, money and letters this way until the Japanese put a stop it. The POWs had a diverse backgrounds business executives and bankers to beach combers and missionaries. Facilities were scarce and the lines were endless for toilets and meals.

Sanitation was the biggest problem. At first, most believed their imprisonment would last a few weeks expecting the United States to quickly defeat Japan. But as news of the American Forces’ surrender at Bataan and Corregidor seeped into the camp, that hope died.

“I’m not sure how long it was until the women and children were also rounded up and taken to Santo Tomas,” says Fiona. “Were so lucky to be sent to the same camp as Dad. “There were hundreds of married couples although men and women were segregated, plus about 400 children

“I’m not sure if there were mattresses, but Nanny and I slept on the floor while Mum and another lady slept on a table. “When another camp was later built several miles out of the city the Barrs were moved there and kept in barracks behind wire fences.

“We had two little rooms off a central aisle, with Nanny and me in one and Mum and Dad in the other,” Fiona recalls. “There was a camp kitchen and we did some of our own cooking on a verandah outside our room. “The food wasn’t too bad to begin with, but towards the end we starved. “

“Our clothes were just rags, but we were so happy to be together. “ I remember we had a little plot by the fence where we grew peanuts and planted whatever seed we could scrounge.”  Fiona believes the guards were generally fair-minded people who didn’t want to be in the camp any more than their prisoners.

She remembers one asking her father why he didn’t get through the boundary fence to pick the juicy papaya. “Dad said he didn’t want to get shot, so the guard handed Dad his rifle and climber through the fence himself.

“The guards were good to us children – we used to march up and down in lines behind them pretending to be soldiers – they’d often share scraps form their lunch with us.”

She remembers a guard asking her mother how many children she had.

“Just one, how many do you have?” she replied.

“He showed her a photo of his children. Mum asked when he would never see them again. He replied: “never.”

“Such was their fatalistic attitude – they believed they would never see Japan again,” says Fiona

“Of course, the officers were different – some were extremely cruel.” She recalls having a doll and remembers her mother teaching her to knit using a piece of string.

“In the camp we were supposed  to get Red Cross parcels, but we only saw one in four years. “When we ran out pf cooking oil Mum used to Ponds cold cream to fry the scraps.”  She says it got very scary towards the end. 


“We learned that the Japanese, once they realized they would lose the war intended to machine gun us all when they evacuated the camp.


SURVIVORS FREED: Santo Tomas camp prisoners of war (above & below) wait patiently to be evacuated in February 1945. There had been a race to free them after US intelligence intercepted a message destined for Tokyo ordering all POWs to be killed before they could be set free. GOOGLE IMAGES

War in the Pacific

WORLD War II began for America on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombed its naval fleet in Pearl Harbour.

The Japanese viewed the Asia/Pacific region as the rightful property of the Imperial Government and had already invaded China and Indochina. They had also signed pacts with Germany, Italy and the USSR. The US, among others, was standing in the way of this Asian domination and was preventing critical supplies of crude oil from reaching Japan.

Within 10 hours of Pearl Harbour being attacked, Japanese warpalnes attacked Important American airbases in the Philippines and two American islands- Wake and Guam. Japanese troops invaded Malaya, Thailand, seized Shanghai, then invaded Burma and Hong Kong.

General Douglas MacArthur declared the Philippines capital, Manila as an open city to avoid its destruction. The Japanese bombed it anyway and in January 1942, it fell. US and Allied civilians were rounder up and sent to prisoner of war camps. The Red Cross announced Japan’s refusal to allow supplies to reach US POWs.

Japanese carrier planes then bomb Darwin and US troops arrive in Australia. Japan defeats an Allied strike force and controls Java and the Dutch East Indies. On the Bataan Peninsula 72,000 US and Filipino troops, low on ammunition and food, surrender and the infamous Bataan Death March begins.

Prisoners are forced to march in the hot sun without food or water for 63 miles and up to 10,000 die. The slow are tortured, beheaded, bayoneted, run down by tanks, buried or burned alive where they drop from exhaustion. Prisoners, who broke rank to scoop up water from puddles, were shot as were civilians who try to help them. There are no bathroom breaks – prisoners must defecate while walking,

The conditions within Camp O’ Donnell were brutal and harsh, leading to thousands more POW deaths. Hatred of the occupying force grew and, as Japan controlled few of the more than 2000 populated Philippine islands, guerilla resistance continued throughout the war.

America began bombing Japan, winning the battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 by turning back a Japanese invasion force heading for New Guinea.

The Battle of Midway followed in June 1942. It became the turning point of the Pacific War for the Allied forces safeguarding Hawaii.  US marines landed on the Japanese-held Guadalcanal in the Solomon Island and began island hopping towards Japan. Japan retaliated the same month and bombed Oregon on the US mainland.

By January 1943, Australian and US troops had defeated Japanese troops trying to take New Guinea and Australia was no longer under threat. The US shoots down Japanese Admiral, Isoroku Yamamoto’s plane and all but three warships, sunk at Pearl Harbour return to sea.

By August 1944, US troops had liberated Guam.

In October, US troops headed by General MacArthur began liberating the Philippines. Between February and March 1945, US troops landed on Iwo Jima, began bombing Tokyo and invaded Okinawa. The US 6th Army and Filipino soldiers liberate Manila and recapture Bataan. US paratroopers recapture Corregidor.

In August, atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Japan surrenders on August 14, 1945, three months after Germany’s surrender on May 7. Eight months later, Lieutenant General Homma Masaharu – the Japanese commander in charge of the Philippines invasion who ordered the evacuation of POWs from Bataan – is charged with the atrocities committed during the Bataan Death March, found guilty and executed by firing squad on April 3, 1946.

LUCKY ONES: American and Filipino troops freed 3768 POWs from Santo Tomas camp. It is thought 450 of them died of starvation and deprivation. GOOGLE IMAGE
Fiona Barr
BACK HOME: Fiona Barr was shipped to Scotland with her parents after they were released as POWs, but the family returned to the Philippines as soon as they could. Fiona relaxes in their Daliao garden in 1949.

“That’s why the Americans sent in a special force to rescue us.” The year was 1945. I remember seeing a lot of planes flying over the hills,” says Fiona. “I was worried because I didn’t know what was happening. The next morning I saw hundreds of back things floating in the sky and ran to tell Dad.

“He looked out and told us to get under the bed because American paratroopers were coming to set us free and there was likely to be fighting. “Amphibious tanks had crossed the lake in the night and at first light the Americans came through the camp gates to get us out.”

Fiona recalls her first “proper” American food after all those years – it tasted horrible. The family was eventually put on a troop ship for America.

“After the ship docked at Los Angeles we were taken to a big picture theatre for immigration processing, then shown to our room and had our first hot bath – with soap – in four years.

“It was absolute bliss.

“Someone took us shopping for clothes in a huge department store and I was allowed to choose a beautiful doll. “I’ll never forget that moment – I was nearly eight and hadn’t had a pretty dress on new toy since I was tiny tot.”


Reaching Glasgow after their long ordeal the family was unable to settle. Fiona’s mum became pregnant with her brother Colin in 1946, and soon after, her Dad returned to the Philippines. When the family rejoined him, Fiona was left in Scotland to finish school.

Then political trouble blew up in nearby Formosa and the Barrs decided to finally get out of the east.


“Dad’s dream was to have a farm amongst the heather up in the wilds of Scotland, but Mum vetoed that.” says Fiona.” Family friend Ben Carter had emigrated to Maihiihi after the war so Dad visited New Zealand to check it out.

“He loved it and ‘sold’ the idea to Mum.” The family emigrated in 1952 spending a year in Palmerston North where Fiona’s sister Gillian was born, before buying a dairy farm at Tihiroa, near Otorohanga. Her brother Jim was born in 1956.


Fiona finished her schooling at Otorohanga District High School, and then helped her parents on the farm until she married Peter Paton, a fellow Scotsman in 1958. The couple had two children – Ian and Jean. Sadly Peter died of Parkinsons in 2010.


Fiona says she’s not sure how her experience as a Japanese POW affected her in long-term. “I’d always been shy and being interned didn’t help that,” she says. “However, I learned to accept life and survive the best I could.

“I was always totally secure that my parents adored each other and they loved me. “Other men in the camp scrounged cigarettes when they could, but Dad always traded his smokes for food me. “None of us hated the Japanese after our experience. We were lucky in that we were fairly well treated as prisoners of war.

“Not everyone got off so well and we witnessed some terribly cruel things. “War is a dreadful thing – I’m glad children will never experience it.”

NO HARD FEELINGS: Despite the harsh four years she spent in a Japanese POW camp as a little girl, Otorohanga woman Fiona Paton is not bitter. “I learned to accept life and survive the best I could.”

By: Robbie Kay

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