“Being in a prison camp was better than going to a British boarding school”: child hostage of Japanese in WW2 reflects on his experience

Rupert Wilkinson was five years old when, along with his mother and sister, he was forced to leave his home and live under the domination of the Japanese in an internment camp in the Philippines.

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Rupert Wilkinson and his sister before they entered Santo Tomás Internment Camp

Rupert and his family were living in Manila when Japanese soldiers invaded the city in January 1942. His father, Gerald Wilkinson, ran a sugar company while also working for the British secret intelligence service. 

On Christmas Eve 1941, just before the Japanese entered Manila, Gerald joined General Douglas MacArthur, American general and field marshal of the Philippine Army, as his British liaison officer. He went to Corregidor, a fortress island in Manila Bay, and then followed MacArthur to Australia, creeping by submarine under Japanese ships.

A week after his father’s departure, Rupert, along with his mother, Lorna, and older sister, Mary June (aged eight), were taken to Santo Tomás Internment Camp, an old Dominican university-turned-prison for “enemy aliens”.

It would be three years before Rupert and his family were liberated.

Today, Rupert is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex, and the author of Surviving a Japanese Internment Camp: Life and Liberation at Santo Tomás, Manila, in World War II. Here, in an interview with History Extra, he recalls his experiences.

Q: What was life like in the camp?

A: Not so bad at first. After a few months, we were able to live outside at home under ‘open arrest’. My mother had caught bronchitis, and the Japanese were afraid of any chest ailments, due to the scourge of TB in their own country.

We lived outside for one year, from May 1942 until May 1943. For the first few years you could get items from outside via a ‘package line’ at the front gate – our Filipino and neutral Irish friends brought us food, which we ate in addition to camp rations. Some people even had cooked lunches brought in from their servants outside.

But the camp underwent extraordinary change. By early 1944, as the war turned against the Japanese, they tightened security. They sealed off the camp – no more imports through the front gate – and they began to cut and cut the amount of food. Overnight I slept in dorms run by a former scout leader and two assistants – it was called ‘the boys’ club’.

By the last month, our ‘chow line’ food was down to a ladle of boiled rice mush and a cup of hot water for breakfast; a thin soup for lunch; and a little stew of rice, mongo beans and bits of sweet potato for supper. 

Some of us, my mother included, carefully eked out cans of food from big Red Cross parcels we had each received a year before the end, but even so, our calorie intake fell to well under 1,000 a day.

So we were all very hungry. There was a high death rate, primarily among older men. I remember they looked like washboards. The rest of us were skinny, but didn’t have protruding stomachs from starvation.

Overnight it was pretty hard – it was a commuter college, so there weren’t many dorms, so they were immensely congested. You had beds 18 inches apart, and dorms were sex-segregated.

But we lived in a ‘shanty’, a hut made of wood and straw, in the daytime.

Q: How did your mother deal with the situation?

A: I think the grown-ups were worried about how things would end. There was a fear that food would be totally cut off and we would starve to death. Like other mothers, she found it distressing to see her children hungry, but she kept her distress from us at the time.

My mother never complained. I would ask, “When are the Yanks coming?” and she would say, “they’re building lots of guns and tanks and planes, and then they’re coming back.”

The Japanese usually left us alone – there were no rapes ever reported. Well before the end, the camp was one of the better places to be in Manila – there was a structure. Outside, you were more likely to get abused by individual soldiers. It was more chaotic.

Q: You must have had some very difficult experiences?

A: It was not Auschwitz. When I learned quite recently that my father had tried to get us repatriated under a diplomatic exchange, I found to my amazement I was glad he hadn’t succeeded.

I would have had to leave my best friend, Nick Balfour, and been plunged into a wartime British boarding school with people I was unfamiliar with, away from my mother. I would have had no better privacy either.

Overnight, Nick and I slept in ‘the boys’ club’. Nick, who was French British, and I were teased for our English accents, and I was also laughed at for having a stutter. So that was pretty stressful.

But I was an expert on Grimms’ Fairy Tales and King Arthur and Robin Hood stories, and that gave me some ‘cred’. These tough American boys, who had called me a “bloody limey,” also wanted me to “tell us another story about kings and castles and knights”.

Grown-ups had to do labour, two to three hours a day. My mother worked in the camp vegetable garden, not that it produced much – bad soil. There was also a school at the top of the big ‘main building’, but it was very hot there, and as we got hungrier, most of us didn’t learn a lot.

About a month after we had been interned, the camp was traumatised when three seamen – two British, one Australian – got over the wall and tried to escape. They were picked up and beaten, but there was a public announcement saying that although they had betrayed the hospitality of the Japanese, they would not be punished further.

But then that decision was reversed. They were taken to pre-dug graves and shot into them. They were essentially buried alive.

There were very few other atrocities. But every so often an internee suspected of trying to help military prisoners of war in another camp was picked up and tortured in Fort Santiago. This was an old Spanish prison which had become headquarters for the Japanese ‘Gestapo’ – the dreaded Kempeitai.

There were raids too. Shanty homes were turned upside down as they tried to find our secret radios. But they never did. The raids mainly came from outside the camp – from the army and the Kempeitai.

Q: Can you remember what you understood about what was happening at the time? Why did you think you were in the camp?

A: My mother presented it almost as if it was a natural cataclysm. We were at war, and we had been invaded, and that was that.

One thing I remember is one night in Manila, before we were interned, seeing oil tanks across the Pasig river set on fire by Americans as they left. The river itself was burning. “How come?” I asked my mother, “water doesn’t burn.”

She explained that the Americans didn’t want the Japanese to get the oil, so they had set fire to it and had poured it onto the river. I remember thinking, “how sad, the Americans have been beaten, and what a waste.”

Q: Do you remember the night you were interned?

A: After my father left, we moved into Manila from the suburbs to stay with neutral Irish friends, the Shannons. It was thought to be safer there. 

When the Japanese came, they quickly rounded up ‘enemy aliens’ – some more abusively than us. A Japanese officer came to the Shannons’ house and briskly told us we had an hour to pack a suitcase for each of us, and a bag of enough food for three days. We also took some light mattresses, maybe off patio furniture .

We were then trucked with other Americans and British into Villamor Hall, an old music school turned into a collection centre. That was when I got really frightened.

We were at first separated by sex. A dad and son in another family we knew took me into their line-up. The son, a few years older than me, had been rather supercilious to me before the war, but now he was suddenly very nice. “We’ll take care of you,” he said, putting his arm around my shoulder. That scared me.

If he of all people was being nice to me, things must be bad. Would I ever see my family again, I wondered? 

Well, thankfully I did. I was allowed to join my family again, and we spent the next night or two sleeping on the floor, crowded in with many others, before getting trucked to Santo Tomás.

Q: Did you miss your father?

A: Not as I remember. It was war, and he was away on work. It was an extraordinary time, when fathers were absent.

But I got closer to my mum, and I had my best friend, Nick. My sister, Mary June, did miss our father, and she didn’t have a real chum like I did. She does, though, remember Sunday school with some nuns in the camp’s early days.

They portrayed such love. She kept that in her heart. She did not know what was going to happen, but she was sure God would be there.

There were a lot of children in the camp, and a lot of activities were organised for us. Our childhoods were not “stolen”, as another writer on our camps has claimed. We were inventive, and some of us did a huge amount of reading – hence my becoming an expert on Grimms’ Fairy Tales!

Q: Can you tell us about the night you were liberated?

A: Most of us, including my mother and Mary June, were liberated on the evening of 3 February 1945, but I was one of 210 camp detainees held hostage for two-and-a-half days until the Japanese commandant negotiated an exit for his garrison.

My dorm in the boys’ club was in a separate building – the ‘education building’ – on the top floor, and the Japanese garrison occupied the two floors below us.

There had been sounds of gunfire overnight, and we knew that the Americans had landed north of Manila. Filipinos in nearby houses outside the camp would turn their radios up loud, and you could hear reports of the fighting coming closer.

That night, the gunfire seemed even louder. Suddenly, we heard a great roar, and voices of men in other dorms shouting, “they’re here!”

We rushed to the window and we could see the hulks of tanks coming towards the main building, and then a flare went up. It was so powerful, that for a moment it turned the camp into daylight. We later learned the flare was intended to send a signal to other tanks that had got lost.

But we couldn’t go outside, because the Japanese were underneath us.

What basically happened was this: alarmed that there might be a massacre, the American commander, General Douglas MacArthur, sent a ‘flying column’ of 1,900 men in tanks and jeeps into the city ahead of his main army. 

When the GIs got into the camp and liberated most of the detainees, to much jubilation, they only then realised in the darkness the garrison holed up in the education building.

The army tried firing on the ground floor, but the Japanese simply moved up onto the top floor, using us as a bargaining chip, while they negotiated an exit.  An internee interpreter was the go-between, with permission from both sides to walk in and out of the education building.

When all this started, Nick and I in the boys’ club heard an American voice on a loudspeaker telling us to get under our beds. We then heard a deafening noise, like a demon giant with a huge typewriter. It was the tank machine guns raking the floors below us – that, for me, was the most frightening moment of the whole business.

Soon, though, things quieted down. Japanese soldiers – mostly Taiwanese actually – came into our dorms and peered out the windows. They had already taken our bedding to barricade the stairs, but they now clumped down on our beds.

Nick and I lay under the same bed, and when Nick woke in the morning, he saw a hand grenade dangling a foot from his nose from the soldier sleeping above us. 

In the morning, we had to stay in our rooms except to go to a latrine along the corridor – you had to say ‘Benjo’ (toilet) to a Japanese officer. At times we could go to the window and call out to friends outside, and even joke with GIs standing around the tanks outside.

We got no breakfast, but in the early afternoon, big stainless steel canisters of corned beef and bean stew came in – delicious.

In the end, a deal was negotiated. Before we woke up after the second night, the garrison left and was escorted out of the camp. We couldn’t leave right away, though, as our liberators wanted to check the building for booby traps.

When an American lieutenant came into our dorm, we crowded around him: he looked so big and friendly, but what fascinated us most was his pistol.

He let us go and we raced outside to our families. My mother had a can of Christmas pudding that she had kept for liberation. When we opened it, we saw it had gone bad. But we didn’t care. 

Our travails weren’t over, though. For several days after we were liberated, Japanese mortars shelled the camp before the US army wiped them out.

Seventeen internees were killed – my first sight of bloodied bodies, lying in stretchers along a corridor. But Santo Tomás then became a safe haven in the ferocious fighting and massacring that swept through the city

Q: How do you feel about films like The Railway Man, which focus on prisoners of war?

A: I’m not seeing the film, because I don’t want to see the brutality all over again, having read the book. I admire the book enormously. I read it because the author, Eric Lomax, found reconciliation with one of his tormentors after the war. 

Unfortunately some – but by no means all – fellow members of the ‘Santo Tomás community,’ who suffered much less than Lomax, go on hating. They get furious, for example, when I say that the Japanese people too were victims of what their country did.

Japan’s refusal, unlike Germany, to give a full and formal apology, does not help, but that’s no excuse.

To find out more about Rupert's book, click here. For orders outside the US, click here.