President Franklin D. Roosevelt Informs the American Red Cross of a Plan Afoot to Supply American Prisoners of War Held in Japanese Camps

This was the only major, successful agreement between the U.S. and Japan on supplies for POWs; the exchange point for the plan would be Vladivostok, Russia, as that nation was an ally of the U.S. but not at war with Japan

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This unpublished letter was acquired directly from the descendants of the recipient and has never been offered for sale

During the course of World War II, the Japanese captured some 300,000 Allied prisoners of war. These prisoners found themselves in camps in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and other Japanese-occupied countries. The terms of...

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President Franklin D. Roosevelt Informs the American Red Cross of a Plan Afoot to Supply American Prisoners of War Held in Japanese Camps

This was the only major, successful agreement between the U.S. and Japan on supplies for POWs; the exchange point for the plan would be Vladivostok, Russia, as that nation was an ally of the U.S. but not at war with Japan

This unpublished letter was acquired directly from the descendants of the recipient and has never been offered for sale

During the course of World War II, the Japanese captured some 300,000 Allied prisoners of war. These prisoners found themselves in camps in Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and other Japanese-occupied countries. The terms of the Geneva Convention were ignored by the Japanese who often made up rules and inflicted punishments at the whim of the camp commandant. The majority of prisoners were put to work in mines, fields, shipyards and factories on a diet of about 600 calories a day. Prisoners were rarely given fat in their diet and all were continuously hungry. The majority survived on barley, green stew, meat or fish once a month and seaweed stew. According to the findings of the post-war Tokyo Tribunal, the death rate of Western prisoners was 27%, seven times that of POWs held by the Germans and Italians.

It was quickly clear that conditions in Japanese prisoner of war camps were awful, and efforts were made to try to visit the camps, and to send in mail and supplies. These were mainly conducted through the International Red Cross Committee via the Japanese Red Cross in Tokyo. The cumbersome methods, necessitated by war, of getting word to a belligerent nation that did not maintain the same close contact with the International Red Cross Committee at Geneva as did the U.S., British, German, and Italian governments complicated the problem. In their negotiations with the Japanese through neutral channels, the Allied authorities and the Red Cross sought to obtain from them full information concerning the Allied nationals in their hands, regular facilities for the sending of relief supplies and mail, and permission for neutral inspectors to visit prisoner-of-war and internment camps. The Japanese were indifferent and progress was slow at best. In time International Red Cross Committee delegates were able to visit 43 camps, which was a drop in the bucket, as there were (at the end of the war) 102 camps in Japan, Formosa, Korea, and Manchuria alone. Moreover, for most of the war period it was estimated that some nine-tenths of the 300,000 Allied prisoners and civilians in Japanese hands were held in occupied territories, south of a line running roughly from Rangoon to the northern Philippines, in which not only were inspections of camps forbidden, but no relief action of any kind could be undertaken without express permission from the Japanese authorities on the spot. As for mail for prisoners of war in the Far East, it was by July 1942 mainly being transported across Russia to Vladivostok on its Pacific seaboard and hence to Japan, under an agreement reached with the Soviet Government. This was feasible because the Soviet Union and Japan were not at war.

The Red Cross made efforts to deliver supplies. In July 1942, a Swedish ship, with a neutral crew, was chartered by the Red Cross and loaded with a large cargo of food, clothes, medicines, and recreational equipment. Loaded and ready to sail, it stayed in port until early in September, when the Japanese finally refused its request for safe conduct. The only method on which agreement was reached for the transportation of relief supplies was by diplomatic exchange ships, which went from various United Nations ports to Lourenço Marques, in Portuguese East Africa, and there met the Japanese exchange ships. The American Red Cross was able to send 20,000 standard food parcels, 10,000 articles of clothing, $15,000 worth of toilet articles, $50,000 worth of medical supplies, 10,000 cans of tobacco, and a million cigarettes. These supplies were carried to Japan or reshipped by the Japanese authorities to other areas where prisoners were held. But the extent to which they were distributed to prisoners is unknown.

Cornelius N. Bliss, Jr., whose father was a member of President McKinley’s Cabinet, was a philanthropist who was also active politically. He participated in the successful presidential campaign of Theodore Roosevelt in 1904. In July 1916, he was named treasurer of the Republican National Committee, and also served as president of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, President Wilson named Bliss to his War Council, a group of advisers Wilson collected to guide his actions as commander in chief. After the war, Bliss returned to business and philanthropy on a large scale, operating as a trustee, board member, or president of several organizations, including the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the Metropolitan Opera, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the Depression, he was one of six men named by New York City Mayor Walker to operate a relief fund, two others being J.P. Morgan and former governor Al Smith. During World War II, he was a chairman of the American Red Cross committee on war activities, and was for a time chairman of the Red Cross.

In 1943 efforts to deliver supplies were concentrated on a plan to have them shipped to Vladivostok, as was the mail. The Japanese would then collect the supplies and distribute them to prisoners of war. American vessels would give Japanese ships collecting the supplies safe conduct. Here President Roosevelt discloses this plan, and the hoped for channel, to the American Red Cross.

Typed letter signed, on White House letterhead, Washington, September 25, 1943, to Bliss, revealing what would be the only major agreement between the U.S. and Japan on supplies for POWs. “Thank you for the memorandum concerning the shipment of relief supplies to prisoners of war in Japanese custody in the Far East which you sent me under cover of your letter of September 16. The situation of our people held by the Japanese is of the greatest concern to all of us. The consent of the Soviet government in agreeing to the immediate shipment of supplies to Vladivostok is indeed gratifying and I am hopeful that we soon shall find it possible to arrange with the Japanese government a means by which these supplies may be forwarded to their destination.”

This plan was successful, if only to a degree. Relief supplies arrived in Vladivostok in November 1943, less than two months after this letter. But the Japanese did not collect them for six months, and it was only in November 1944 and early 1945 that the relief parcels were actually distributed to the camps. Then in April 1945 an American submarine sank a Japanese ship carrying supplies, and the Japanese saw this as treachery. The supply channel slowed to a trickle.

 

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