Terrible Story Of A Captured Airman In The Hands Of The Japanese In World War Two

Burma campaign: Attacking a Japanese position.
Burma campaign: Attacking a Japanese position.

So traumatized was Flight Sergeant Bill Tate by his two years as a Japanese prisoner of war that 50 years passed before he could recount the horror to his son.

Captured after his Wellington bomber lost an engine and crash landed in central Burma in 1943, he was starved, placed in front of a firing squad, and had bamboo pushed under his toenails.

William Tate, 61, has converted his father’s memoirs into the book, “Surviving the Japanese Onslaught.”

His father never talked about the war, he explained.  To get him to talk about it was very difficult.

Over the past two decades, his son learned more, although his father could not speak for more than a half-hour at a time because it was hard for him.

William had a rough draft of the book before his father died in 2007, aged 85.

Burma campaign: View of the Garrison Hill battlefield with the British and Japanese positions shown.
Burma campaign: View of the Garrison Hill battlefield with the British and Japanese positions shown.

Flight Sgt. Tate served with RAF Bomber Command as a wireless operator and flew missions stopping the Japanese advances into China and India.

The six-man crew successfully bailed out and Tate spent four days attempting to walk towards the Indian border before he was apprehended.  Resisting, he was beaten and sent to the POW camp at Rangoon Gaol.  Thirty percent of prisoners died because of the abysmal treatment.

His first beating, one of many, was inflicted when he failed to take off his boots in the presence of the commanding officer.  He was then suspended from a tree branch by his wrists after he refused to answer questions during interrogation.

The next day he was in front of a firing squad.  His life was spared at the last minute because he did not plead for mercy, earning the admiration of the camp commandant.

Daily beatings by the guards were not unusual, often because a POW had bowed imperfectly or used the incorrect word.

His first month was spent in solitary confinement during which time he was lashed and tortured twice.

In one instance he was starved for a day before being provided with water and a dish of raw rice.

Tate said he voraciously ate the rice and drank all of the water and his stomach felt a bit swollen due to the partly cooked rice expanding.  A half-hour later the guards returned, and forced him to eat additional rice.

When he finished guards held him down on the floor while one jumped on his stomach, he related.

In early 1944 his close friend Paul Griffiths, who had also bailed out of the Wellington, died in Rangoon Gaol from beriberi — a disease attributed to vitamin deficiency.

Tate said the fact his friend had to die at such as young age, simply through a premeditated policy of starvation, chronic ill-treatment and malnutrition, grinds away at his emotions even today.

Following the war, Tate kept a promise he made to Paul on his deathbed and visited his parents, Mirror reported.

Since the Japanese did not release prisoner names the Red Cross, Tate’s family waited over two years to learn he was alive.

Not until May 1945 did they learn he had been found alive in Burma and weighed only 84 pounds.

Even now, William has trouble reading his father’s story because it is so upsetting.  But he does want the rest of the family, including nephews and nieces, to be aware of what happened to him.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE