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Forgotten Japanese POW camp recalled in Chinatown exhibition

Sam Whiting (San Francisco Chronicle)

The torture and travail endured on the Bataan Death March is well known. What isn’t is the torture and travail those prisoners of war were put through when they reached their end destination in China.

This remembrance is the mission of “Forgotten Camp: Allied POWs of Shenyang,” a North American premiere at the World War II Pacific War Memorial Hall, inside a Chinatown storefront. The display of 200 enlarged images, along with wall text and illustrations smuggled out by the POWs themselves, comes from China’s Site Museum of Shenyang POW Camp of World War II Allied Forces, and this is its North American premiere.

The exhibition details the three years of incarceration forced upon troops captured during the Pacific War. Most famous were the 75,000 American and Filipino troops who surrendered on April 9, 1942, on the island of Luzon. Broken into groups of 100, they walked in the heat, without food or water, in what became known as the Bataan Death March. After five days, those who survived were dispersed to various POW camps, including those under Japanese control in Manchuria.

Twelve hundred American POWS arrived packed into the holds of cargo ships from Manila, via Korea, to enter the Mukden POW Camp in Manchuria in November 1942, according to online sources. Additional troops from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand, brought the population to 2,000.

They lived in barracks partly underground and were put to work as slave labor. An estimated 200 of them did not survive the first winter in the camp. The 1,300 surviving prisoners at Mukden were rescued by Red Army troops in August 1945.

“Compared with (atrocities in) the European theater of World War II, I doubt the American public has heard as much about the atrocities the Japanese Imperial Army committed in China and other Asian countries,” said Chinese Consul General Luo Linquan, in an interview with China Daily USA, one of the exhibition sponsors.

“The prisoners suffered a lot, and it helps the American people to know this history,” said the curator, Lihong Fan, who came from Shenyang (formerly named Mukden), the capital of the northeastern Liaoning province in China, for the opening Tuesday, Nov. 21.

Since 1,200 of Mukden’s 2,000 prisoners were American, operators of the museum would like to see more American visitors and San Francisco is the likeliest place to find them.

“This (exhibition) is about their experiences in the camp and the fight against fascism,” Fan said through an interpreter.

The Mukden POW Camp is called “the forgotten camp,” because its location and history were mostly unknown until 2003. Said to be the best preserved of the 200 POW camps in the Pacific theater, Mukden opened as a free historic site and museum two years ago.

If the Mukden POW Camp is unknown, so is the World War II Pacific War Memorial Hall. It opened two years ago in a narrow hillside storefront that did its part during the war. It was headquarters for for a war drive called “Save One Bowl of Rice.” In lieu of that one bowl, Chinatown residents were asked to donate $1 to be sent to China for the war effort against the Japanese.

More than 100 members of the Chinese community came to the opening of the exhibition. Among those attending the event was Simplicio Yoma, who served in the Philippine army and was captured during the war. He says he was on the Death March, but that he was not held at the Mukden POW Camp.

“It brings back very painful memories of the occupation,” said Yoma, through an interpreter, as he sat in his full dress uniform, covered in medals, waiting for the opening program to begin. “It’s important so that history will not repeat itself and the horror of World War II will not be forgotten.”

Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SamWhitingSF Instagram: @sfchronicle_art

Forgotten Camp: Allied POWs of Shenyang: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesday- Sunday. Through Dec. 30. World War II Pacific War Memorial Hall, 809 Sacramento St., San Francisco.


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