This weekend, the Commonwealth countries observe Remembrance Day, which falls every year on Nov. 11, to honor those who fought in World War II.
Here in Taiwan, there will also be a series of events to commemorate Allied soldiers who fought in Asia, particularly those imprisoned by the Japanese.
From 1942 to 1945, during its colonial rule, Japan brought more than 4,300 prisoners of war (POW) to Taiwan, interning them in camps across the island.
The Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society is holding its annual commemorative activities this week, which includes a Remembrance Day service on Sunday at the Taiwan Prisoner of War Memorial Park at New Taipei City’s Jinguashih (金瓜石), near Jiufen (九份). The event is being held in cooperation with the New Zealand Commerce and Industry Office.
The Society, founded and run by Canadian expat Michael Hurst, first brought attention to POW camps in Taiwan by successfully campaigning to build the country’s first POW memorial in Jinguashih in 1997.
Since then, Hurst and the society has established contact with more than 300 former POW survivors and their families, and identified and located all 14 of the Japanese-run camps in Taiwan.
To date, the Society has built seven POW memorials, including a 17m-long memorial wall at Jingguashih, which was inaugurated last year and is inscribed with the names of all POWs who were imprisoned in Taiwan, often under dire conditions.
“That’s what this is all about, making sure their story is told and they’re remembered,” said Hurst, a businessman who has lived in Taiwan for 24 years and is considered the de facto expert on the history of allied POWs in Taiwan.
The event of note this year by the Society will be the unveiling of the Karenko POW Camp Memorial in Hualien on Monday.
Karenko, located at a present-day military base, was used by the Japanese to imprison high-level military officers and government officials representing Allied forces in the region, says Hurst.
Among those prisoners was Merton Beckwith-Smith, a Major-General with the British 18th Division. Members of Beckwith-Smith’s family will be at the ceremony in Hualien on Monday.
At the Karenko camp, the Japanese army subjected the POWs to hard labor and “delighted in humiliating the senior officers,” said Hurst.
And as Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention, those at Karenko were not protected by the treaty’s call for humane treatment of POWs.
“Working them to death, starving them to death, withholding medicine — it was all part of the generic way that the Japanese treated the Allied prisoners of war right from Thailand to Manchuria,” he said.
But healing is very much one of the central aims of the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society, says Hurst, who is also in regular contact with Taiwanese veterans who served under the Japanese.
Over the past decade, the Society has escorted POW survivors to the sites of their former imprisonment in Taiwan, but fewer are returning these days as many of the veterans are in their 90s, and are unable to travel.
Hurst has also established friendships with many POWs during his fifteen years of research and involvement with the Society.
“For me, the greatest honors or rewards that I have is having met these heroes, having met these men who overcame these horrific conditions of starvation and brutality, and illness and disease,” he said.