As the Jewish survivors in Europe were adapting to their freedom in June and July of 1945, the war still raged in the Far East until the Atom Bomb was dropped and the Japanese unconditional surrender achieved on 15 August 1945.
Often said to be forgotten or overlooked, the fighting in the Far East during WWII was some of the most brutal and difficult. Japan sided with Germany and Italy in September 1940, although, militaristic Japan had already started its expansionist activities into China and South Asia. The tripartite alliance made little difference until December 1941 when Japanese Forces attacked the US Naval Fleet at Pearl Harbour. The US joined the conflict and British and American territories of Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaya, Burma, Borneo, Guam and the Philippines now became theatres of war.
There were Jewish communities in the countries that the Japanese invaded. Some would become refugees fleeing the occupation, while others found themselves in internment camps, although not the Death Camps of the Nazis, they were horrible places as the Japanese were not afraid to starve and beat civilians to death.
The AJEX Roll of Honour and records indicates thousands of Jewish personnel fought against the Japanese coming from Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the US. Those who experienced the fighting, found it difficult with heat in jungles, mountains, swamps and at sea. In Burma the Japanese controlled all the key roads which meant that the British and Indian troops (British Indian Forces included those from Burma, Nepal, Singapore, modern day Pakistan and Bangladesh as well as India) had to move around the jungle to get around often falling ill from disease. Leading the fighting in Burma was British Brigadier Orde Wingate, a non-Jewish Zionist, who with his Chindits fought using guerrilla tactics. In the years before WWII, he trained men of the Haganah and is still remembered in Israel today.
For many it is the Japanese POW camps that they associate with the war in the Far East. These camps largely ignored the Geneva Conventions with the Japanese believing that death was better than capture and therefore, anyone who became a POW was a coward. Beatings and torture were regular occurrences, and the POW’s became forced labour, that could be starved and left to die of disease if the Japanese guards so wished.
The extreme bravery, resilience and courage that POW’s in the Japanese camps was extraordinary. Acts to unite the Jewish POW’s together, including holding make shift religious services in a temporary established synagogue was one of the acts of defiance shown by Captain, Dr David Arkush while a POW. While Jewish Captain Henry Philips, MBE, helped to illegally gather and spread news about the war around the camps. He was arrested and tortured by the Japanese to give away others engaged with resistance, which he didn’t do, he even challenged Japanese officials at a trial they held for him; surprisingly despite sending him to a Thailand gaol they didn’t execute him, but he was in a terrible condition when he was liberated.
When the fighting finally ended, those in the Far East returned home often unable to talk of what they had experienced and witnessed. Today 75 years on AJEX is proud to commemorate and remember those who served in the Far East, to reflect on their courage and resilience and to remember the brutality and horror that war can bring. We continue to look after the Jewish military family and to ensure that our community and others never forget the contributions that we have made.