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Canadian Military Journal [Vol. 22, No. 4, Fall 2022]
Military History

Chris Madsen is a professor in the Department of Defence Studies at the Canadian Forces College and the Royal Military College of Canada in Toronto. He teaches on the National Security Programme and the Joint Command and Staff Programme.

Captivity as a prisoner of war is a challenging experience for any military member. After the point of capture, arguably the most dangerous moment at start of a longer ordeal, the surrendered soldier enters into a confined world dictated by respect for governing legal rules and military convention, differences of culture and language, expectations of mutual interaction, and the vagaries of personality and behaviour.Footnote 1 It is hard to characterize a typical captivity experience because circumstances of each situation can be so different. Certainly, freedoms become restricted, life revolves around set routine, and the prevailing boredom of confinement is interrupted by instances of excitement. Provision of food and daily personal requirements involve constant struggles, and in extreme cases, disagreements can lead to violence, threats, serious injury or even death while in captivity. The lot of prisoners of war represents a lottery, wherein chance and causality determine treatment after capture.

Captors who follow established legal rules and treat prisoners with respect according to humanitarian principles and military convention will generally ensure better conditions. The prisoner of war is not a criminal, but only held out of combat for duration of captivity until conflict ends.Footnote 2 Prisoners look forward to eventual return home, reintegration into the professional armed forces, or release into civilian life. When responsible authorities care less about expected standards, neglect basic needs, and wilfully abuse prisoners through arbitrary and brutal conduct, the situation is far more trying physically and emotionally for those enduring captivity. At these points of stark abnormality, the will to survive almost appears beyond the control of any single individual. The experience of Canadian and Allied prisoners of war in Japan during the Second World War fits the pattern of a harsher captivity at hands of a sometimes cruel and inimical enemy.Footnote 3

Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall, during three years and four months in Japanese captivity, manifested true military leadership in confronting a truly terrible situation. A native of St. Catharines, Ontario, Birchall was a professional officer and pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force deployed in maritime patrol squadrons flying long-range Catalina aircraft. In April 1942, he and his crew were shot down in the Indian Ocean after locating a large Japanese fleet steaming toward the British naval base and air stations at Colombo for a major air strike comparable in scale to the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor five months earlier.Footnote 4 Subsequently called the Saviour of Ceylon by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Birchall was picked up by a Japanese destroyer and then returned to Japan onboard the aircraft carrier Akagi, flagship of the naval task force.

Upon reaching the port of Yokosuka, the RCAF officer was separated from other crew members and despatched to a special naval interrogation camp at Ofuna for a period of time until handed over to Japanese army authorities responsible for overall care of prisoners of war. In the next four camps, Birchall was the most senior ranking officer amongst prisoners (squadron leader was equivalent to major in the Canadian Army) and as such he assumed the leadership function of camp spokesman for dealing directly with the Japanese and maintaining discipline within the ranks.Footnote 5 Birchall also felt responsible for the health and welfare of those below him in the camps, an obligation not all captured officers shared. In everyday interactions, he tried to better the conditions of prisoners as a group and softened the worst excesses of Japanese actions. When reason and logical argument failed with the captors, the camp spokesman frequently received beatings on behalf of other individuals or collectively. Despite the constant threat of physical assault and worse sanctions, Birchall remained steadfast in his belief that prisoners should be treated as professional soldiers and human beings and that the group could only come through captivity stronger together. He demonstrated that one person through leadership and adherence to professional conduct can make a difference and thereby influence and alleviate the most negative aspects of captivity, so exemplified by the Japanese experience.Footnote 6

The naval interrogation camp’s purpose was to extract relevant military and operational information. The means were long hours of questioning, tricks, segregation, sleep deprivation, and purposeful restriction of food rations.Footnote 7 During his months there, Birchall dropped several kilograms in weight, no doubt related to his lack of cooperation. Arrival of new prisoners of interest to the Imperial Japanese Navy from sea battles in the Java Sea and the southern campaigns put further strains on available accommodation and food supply. Camp authorities and guards insisted on prisoners speaking Japanese, and Birchall recognized that rudimentary learning of the foreign language would be necessary for increasing survival chances in captivity.Footnote 8 The choice was entirely pragmatic, as he expressed neither fondness nor comprehension of Japanese culture and society. It is safe to say that Birchall, like many Allied prisoners of war held in Japan, came to hold a lasting hatred of the Japanese borne from captivity that persisted long after the war. The conviction derived from firsthand experience in enemy hands as much as the prejudices of a generation that lived and fought through an ideological and racially motivated world war.

The main camps where Birchall found himself most senior in rank and leader amongst prisoners of war were makeshift places of detention holding a diverse collection of defeated persons from Japan’s early military conquests: British and Canadians from Hong Kong, Americans from Guam and the Philippines, Dutch from the East Indies, Australians from New Guinea, and merchant seamen taken off interned ships.Footnote 9 The first, designated Camp No. 3, was housed in a large requisitioned baseball stadium outside Tokyo located near factories and other industrial concerns. Transferred there in September 1942, Birchall discovered little semblance of military authority and open resentment toward the behaviour of some officers after surrender. Many other ranks felt that their own officers had abandoned them. The Japanese promised Allied officers favours and better treatment in return for cooperation and turning against subordinates. The result was a leadership void that the Canadian Birchall sought to fill by uniting all prisoners of war, regardless of nationality and service affiliation, into a common body following a military structure with shared goals.

The Japanese commanding officer at the baseball stadium camp was Lieutenant Hayashi Junsho whom Birchall found inconsistent and unpredictable. He vacillated between arbitrary demands and occasional shows of force and violence. Even minor infractions were severely punished, including failing to salute. Birchall and other prisoners learned quickly which Japanese amongst non-commissioned officers and guards were most brutish or amenable to enticements. Although subject to punishment if caught, prisoners traded for medicines, food, and other items useful to living in captivity. When barter or paying off proved impossible, stealing and concealment were resorted to. The change instituted by Birchall was that all such activity would benefit the group as well as the individual. Careful records were kept of all transactions and values placed on items, split evenly between the prisoner who took the risk and the general ledger. Deaths from sickness and malnourishment were soon reduced in total numbers within the camp. Enduring captivity was much less an individual survival mechanism than a collective effort.

The Japanese, in situating camps and employing prisoners, were chiefly interested in labour. Allied prisoners of war were brought to Japan from other parts of Asia where they had been captured, to work in industrial concerns and factories as manual and semi-skilled workers. The 1929 Geneva Convention made distinctions between labour directly related to the war effort, which was prohibited and work performed by prisoners of war in selected industrial sectors of importance to the broader civilian economy. The Japanese, however, hardly respected legal stipulations because Japan had never signed and ratified the international convention governing prisoners of war.Footnote 10 Instead, the Japanese military followed its own laws and regulations which were heavily influenced by Bushido, a modern interpretation of the ancient Samurai code popular in Japan’s militarized wartime society.

In the Japanese view, prisoners of war, by choosing to surrender or allowing themselves to be captured, lived in shame and were no better than common coolies. Birchall, like most soldiers from western militaries, held a different conception about status and obligations of prisoners in captivity. For them, existing international law and custom dictated that they be held and cared for to the same standard as the captor nation military, as much as possible. It was small comfort that the brutality meted out prisoners of war was probably comparable to that prevalent throughout the Japanese military toward lower ranks.

Although the 1929 Geneva Convention stipulated that officers were not required to work manual labour and perform only supervisory functions over men in their charge, actual practice in Japan was that all prisoners of war from camps worked regardless of rank. The Japanese selected places of employment, numbers, working hours, and quotas for output. Birchall constantly interceded with Japanese camp commanders to limit the most strident demands in terms of reasonable work. Many conflicts involved exemption from employment of sick prisoners and extent to which individual prisoners actually suffered the effects of ill-health. Given the inconsistent and sub-standard diet, most prisoners suffered from malnutrition and in their weakened bodily states were prone to disease and ailments beyond the normal run of most militaries. A considerable number of prisoners inside Birchall’s camps, for example, lost their eyesight due to vitamin deficiencies. They were expected to put in full days of work as well. Ironically, outside employment allowed prisoners wider opportunity to forage food and other items to barter for medicines. Fresh produce and meats were clandestinely brought into camps and cooked for benefit of the group.

At Birchall’s second main camp on the Asano Docks, working parties and individuals regularly broke into shipping packages and containers to find anything useful. The Japanese forbade such activity, and severely punished offenders when discovered, but they could not halt the practice. Birchall reflected later that theft and stealing was a necessary acquired skill in captivity. Prisoners engaged on work details grew the most adept and enjoyed the best opportunities. The Japanese faced a dilemma because labour provided by prisoners was a top priority, but employment in scattered concerns outside camps loosened supervision and positive control leading to increased conflict between the two sides. In such situations, Birchall reminded Lieutenant Hayashi and other Japanese camp commanders that only healthy and alive prisoners of war could be useful workers. Due to acute shortages in civilian labour and urgent need, the argument usually won out. Birchall directly used labour performed by prisoners of war as leverage over Japanese authority and actions.

Birchall always recognized his limitations in dealing with the Japanese, particularly the junior officers running camps. He technically held higher rank according to military convention, but they were clearly in charge and well able to exert their authority over prisoners, at times in very arbitrary and unreasonable ways. Orders passed to Birchall were expected to be observed without hesitation, and if transgressions discovered, as they inevitably were, Birchall was either held personally responsible or forced to explain on behalf of the prisoner population. The Japanese disliked lying and deliberate untruths, which they considered shameful conduct by officers and soldiers. For his part, Birchall believed it was all part of the game, and he frequently lied and misrepresented facts until caught out or forced to construct another elaborate concocted story made somehow believable to buy more time. In captivity, professional officers bound by honour and codes of conduct were bendable in times of extreme distress under an enemy showing sadistic tendencies. Flexibility and realistic probabilities of least harm were key to handling the Japanese and their demands.

Nonetheless, Birchall condemned individuals who cheated and benefited at the expense of other prisoners of war in satellite camps and treated in hospitals away from main camps beyond his immediate control. When such prisoners returned, Birchall enforced his own sanctions or fully documented each case for later judgment by military authorities after liberation. Active collaboration with the enemy and treasonable behaviour were never tolerated for long.

Burning of sick prisoners in the guise of medical treatment provided perhaps the starkest conflict with Japanese orders and authority. Acting upon higher directives, Japanese medical personnel began selecting prisoners with acute ailments from the camp hospital and subjecting them to a procedure involving lighting of powder applied to sections of the skin, which left burns that reddened and blistered. Birchall, as camp spokesman, and the Allied camp doctor protested such experimentation and told the Japanese commander that they would not condone “the branding of prisoners like cattle.” Lieutenant Hayashi, however, remained unmoved, and only after negotiation did Birchall convince him that if sick prisoners were to receive such medical treatment, then burning should be applied by responsible medical staff amongst the prisoners.

Birchall immediately ordered the practice stopped, much to the relief of the distressed doctor, and saved more patients from the burning treatment, except for a few later at the hands of a Japanese medical sergeant on his own accord. The Japanese apparently were only concerned that an order had been given from above and cared less about adverse physical effects on prisoners. Birchall successfully used his skills of persuasion and some guile to end objectionable and arguable illegal acts on the most vulnerable prisoners in the camp. None of the sick prisoners suffering from a variety of health conditions gained from the unusual Japanese treatment and in fact they now had greater health complaints that compromised pre-existing conditions. Most tellingly, the Japanese declined to perform burning treatment on other Japanese, military or civilian. In general, prisoners of war should be protected from medical experimentation under international law and customary practice.

Defiance in captivity was carefully considered. Location of camps in the heart of Japan meant escape or attempted escape were virtually impossible. There was simply nowhere to go. Waters surrounding Japan provided a barrier to reaching any friendly territory. Any prisoner of war trying to escape faced considerable risk of being shot and killed during the act of getting through wired enclosures and past guards, and even from surrounding civilian populations and police once free and on the run. White-skinned Caucasians emasculated by work and thin diets speaking English or European languages hardly blended into the countryside.

Far more often, prisoners of war employed on worksites stayed longer than allowed or exited the camp for short periods of time to free-range, thereby missing roll-calls and counts. The Japanese response was unequivocal about breaking of promulgated rules and orders. Birchall acknowledged that in such situations little could be done beyond simple reasonable argument. Caught prisoners were separated from camp populations and confined, required to stand at attention in yards for lengthy periods of time, and subjected to physical blows and slaps. These sanctions, except the last, were routine in most captivity situations and allowable under international convention.

Situational awareness was important even in a prison camp. Birchall consciously befriended Japanese interpreters to improve sources of information and gain some advantage during translation of interactions with Japanese officers and commanders. The interpreters were often civilians conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army, and some even had visited or came from North America, as students to attend universities in Japan. Japanese interpreters privately told Birchall of military plans to liquidate or kill Allied prisoners should the war turn decisively against Japan and the Americans tried to invade the Japanese home islands. By strength of numbers, prisoners of war could have attempted to over-power guards and seize the camp by force or riot, but in their weakened state the object might not have been feasible and casualties likely would have been high. Even if the camp was taken, the Japanese could always bring in troops to quell any disturbance. Resort to force was therefore a losing proposition one way or the other. Birchall decided it was much better to wait out events and only act when necessary with sufficient forewarning. If the Japanese intended to kill all prisoners at once, then suitable action as soldiers could be warranted. Slaughtering unarmed men en masse would be a conscious choice. To defy openly the armed Japanese, whom possessed all the advantages, was a last resort in Birchall’s mind.

Contacts with the outside the world beyond camps and extended workplaces in Japan were limited. Mail was sporadic and very one-sided. The Japanese eventually allowed Birchall the privilege of sending cards back to his wife and family according to strict rules about content and format. Sentences were restricted in length and written in capital letters for ease of translation. In the first two years, he received no correspondence from home because Canadian military authorities still listed him missing in action whereabouts unknown until March 1943. Neutral Switzerland, through its legation in Japan, advised the Canadian government that Birchall was alive and acting as camp leader near Yokohama. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions in the Indian Ocean. In January 1944, the Royal Canadian Air Force promoted Birchall to Wing Commander, dating for purposes of seniority and pay from 5 April 1942 when he entered captivity. He only learned of the news in a letter from his father over a year later. The Japanese still recognized his existing rank and the promotion really made little difference in day-to-day administration inside the camps since he was already the most senior and actively engaged in leadership roles.

As part of propaganda efforts, the Japanese recorded Birchall reading scripted messages broadcast on short-wave radio to Allied forces and North America. These personal messages were directed to family members, specifically his wife and daughter, and mentioned the level of treatment afforded in Japan and his desire to go home.Footnote 11 Birchall reasoned that such messages, despite the clandestine purpose to make Japanese captivity seem more comfortable than in actuality, really only expressed feelings that he genuinely held. Personal information only mattered to his immediate family members, and it was better to have them know that he was surviving captivity in Japan. Civilians back in North America sent packages and parcels to Japan through neutral organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Canadian Red Cross Society.

Distribution of Red Cross parcels and other amenities meant for prisoners of war was in reality far less than depicted in Japanese propaganda. Civilians pilfered goods during transportation and military authorities held back supplies either to enforce good behaviour from prisoners or for their own enrichment. Birchall, however, was thankful for any parcels sent from home or provided by neutrals that finally reached prisoners, which boosted morale and frequently bettered chances in the continual contest between life and death in the camps. Most importantly, external contacts reminded prisoners that they were not forgotten as the war came closer to the Japanese home islands.

Gradual signs that military operations were tipping in Allied favour increased by the time Birchall reached his third camp at Omori in Summer 1944. Cut off from current news and subjected to strict censorship, prisoners of war held in Japan were kept ignorant about the war’s prosecution and strategic matters in general. If guards were to believed, Japan was still winning victory after victory against weak and outnumbered foes. Rumours abounded about conduct of the war, since actual headlines were frequently out-of-date by months or arrived sporadically. Prisoners rarely had a complete picture of events, just what could be gleaned from contact with friendly Japanese or other reliable sources. Birchall logically deduced that lack of new arrivals from battlefronts suggested the Japanese were not taking further large numbers of prisoners and therefore at least checked in their offensive advances and maybe losing battles and campaigns.

Appearance of long-range American bombers in the skies over Japan’s capitol city provided the clearest evidence so far. The Omori camp, located on a man-made island in the Shinagawa district on outskirts of Tokyo, furnished a front row spot to observe the effects of strategic bombing on Japan’s industries and urban civilian population. Prisoners of war cheered the flying formations overhead and watched in fascination as planes dropped loads of incendiaries and high explosives in coordinated bombing runs on targets. Birchall, ever the air force professional, marvelled at the technical proficiency and accuracy achieved by the big US Army Air Force planes. Even so, large white PW letters were painted on building roofs to better distinguish the camp from the air in relation to its surroundings. Somehow it worked because Omori camp was spared the destruction and killing all round the general area. Prisoners were detailed to collect dead bodies thrown into the river, and civilians increasingly crowded onto the island seeking a safe haven from bombing. Fresh water supply to the camp was cut-off and electrical power flickered on and off.

A number of heavy bombers were shot down in the camp’s general vicinity. One plane that crashed close-by was stripped of anything valuable and useful. American flying crews who survived crashes or parachuted out from burning aircraft, Birchall noted, were kept separate from the general prisoner of war population when brought into camp. The Japanese were interested in operational and technical intelligence, and moreover held the view that these terror flyers should be treated as criminals responsible for mass deaths. Many captured Americans were roughed up and killed before Birchall could intercede on their behalf and convince the Japanese to spare their lives.

The newest prisoners brought the latest news and reported on the war’s progress. The American navy under Admiral Chester Nimitz strategically seized islands closer to Japan to provide the necessary airfields and long runways for heavy bombers, China with American assistance and supply held off Japanese land offensives, General Douglas MacArthur fought sea and land battles for retaking the Philippines, and Nazi Germany was close to defeat in drives by the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, thereby depriving Japan its closest Axis ally.

While welcome tidings from a strategic perspective, conditions in Japanese camps actually worsened. Prisoners of war shared in shortages of food afflicting the civilian population and disruption or breakdown of transportation networks.Footnote 12 Already meagre diets became even more restricted. Opportunities for bartering or purchasing from civilians were curtailed because homes were burnt-out and factories where they had previously worked mostly destroyed. Birchall realized that time was working against them in this stage of captivity. What good was winning if prisoners of war in Japan starved before Allied military forces arrived? Or worse, what if Japanese military authorities decided that prisoners should be eliminated prior to conceding defeat, as a last passing mark to Bushido? Ominously, Birchall was told to prepare for transfer of himself and a large contingent from Omori to a new camp farther away in the remote hills.

The move to Suwa, the last camp in which Birchall resided from June 1945 until several weeks after Japan’s unconditional surrender, was undertaken for entirely practical motives. The camp, adjacent to an open pit mine where prisoners of war were intended to work, was entirely new and roughly constructed. It lacked most amenities and even the fact that the water supply fed through agricultural fields was problematic. Crude conditions at Suwa were not the only challenges facing Birchall in his role as camp spokesman. A familiar opponent, Lieutenant Hayashi, was again Japanese commanding officer in the camp. Guards were a mix of regular army and civilian, all too willing to abuse prisoners at any opportunity.

Birchall again emphasized collective group interests and instituted the same system of sharing and reward from previous camps. Fresh produce and meat procured from civilian sources - purchased, foraged, or stolen - was pooled to augment rations provided by the Japanese military.Footnote 13 Cooking was communal and equal shares given out to all prisoners. As availability of food became more sporadic, meals frequently consisted of no more than thin soups or rice gruel with a few cut-up vegetables and little protein. Still, prisoners of war were now eating better than the guards and Japanese camp staff. Birchall concluded that living through the coming winter months at the Suwa camp would be almost impossible given declining availability of food, if the war continued for much longer.

Fortunately for Birchall and other Allied prisoners of war, end of the war against the Japanese in August 1945 came sooner rather than later. Atomic bombs dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the Americans initiated governmental and military actions in Japan to accept unconditional surrender.Footnote 14 Birchall only learned of these significant events through the Japanese camp interpreter. Hayashi, much less forthcoming with information, went to Tokyo to discuss with higher military authorities, intentions toward the prisoners and any subsequent arrangements for transfer and movement from Suwa. He was told to stay in place until the surrender instrument was signed and occupying American forces arrived.

Birchall, not willing to trust the Japanese completely, asserted his personal leadership upon Hayashi’s return. Individual Japanese, he told them, would be held responsible for all acts against prisoners of war until liberation with clear obligations to take every reasonable step to ensure survival. Beatings and physical violence by guards stopped. Henceforth, control of the camp was shared between Birchall and Hayashi. Remaining stores of food and other materials were opened to the prisoners for inventory purposes and distribution. Hayashi still maintained contact with the far-away Japanese military headquarters, while Birchall negotiated and bluffed with the Japanese to assume more authority inside the camp. When the Japanese refused to release some prisoners from detention, Birchall threatened to take over the camp completely, since there were at least 230 prisoners and only 30 guards left. Privately, he dreaded taking such action, but the Japanese thankfully conceded by freeing the prisoners. Making contact with Allied forces and planning for eventual movement and repatriation of prisoners of war was uppermost in his priorities.

To alert the Americans to the location and presence of prisoners of war at Suwa, large PW letters were painted on building roofs on the camp’s south side. On morning of 29 August 1945, a formation of eight American fighter aircraft overflew the camp, Birchall observing “it was a great thrill to see those white stars on the starboard wing.”Footnote 15 It was the first contact with outside Allied military forces. The next day, another flight of naval aircraft returned dropping the first supplies by parachute and instructions for prisoners to line up one man for each 10 in the yard to give quick indication of numbers inside the camp. The items included 156 military ration packs, cigarettes, magazines and newspapers, canned meat and biscuits, packages of navy survival clothing, emergency rations taken from life rafts and boats, toilet paper, bandages and medical supplies, soap, powdered juice and cocoa, as well as chocolate fudge.Footnote 16 Well wishes were scribbled from the aircraft carrier USS Bon Homme Richard, whose personnel obviously had hurriedly collected whatever they could find and pushed into fighter, dive bomber, and torpedo planes for dropping to the prisoners. A US flag found in the bundles was raised on the camp’s main flag pole.

Two more flights on 30 August and 5 September (the weather was inclement between those dates) delivered more military ration packs, canned meat and salmon, razor blades, tooth brushes and paste, and medical supplies. It was a remarkable example of military helping military. Birchall made sure all air-delivered bundles were collected, carefully inventoried, and then put in safe storage for general distribution. He even allowed the Japanese to keep a portion for their own needs. In no sense was the sudden bounty a free-for-all. Birchall worried about the effect of introducing rich food in greater quantity might have on weakened bodies and constitutions of those who had gone without for so long. He also planned to use whatever food and supplies remained to hasten an earlier departure from the camp.

Japanese arrangements for movement of Allied prisoners of war from Suwa pushed forward. Hayashi told Birchall to be ready to leave at any point. Birchall purchased a couple horses from nearby Japanese farmers for slaughter and killed two last pigs. Horsemeat was traded for fresh vegetables and a night’s entertainment at a local hot springs hotel for some Allied and Japanese officers, which Birchall enjoyed as a fitting tribute before leaving the camp. The impending transfer was hardly secret, and large numbers of prisoners roamed the countryside trading existing and newly acquired goods for Saki and other alcohol, to celebrate themselves. Drunkenness and intoxication, Birchall observed, made keeping discipline hard amongst prisoners. Although willing to give them some license, Birchall still insisted on roll-calls and mandatory parades to keep up military forms. The difference was that these regular events were run by the prisoner of war leadership instead of the Japanese. In late evening on 6 September 1945, ten buses and trucks for baggage took Birchall and all prisoners to board a waiting train at the closest station. Birchall organized prisoners into groups, and not a single person was left behind. Once loaded, the train left for the port of Yokohama at 0030 early morning 7 September. The journey was delayed by several hours by derailment of another train on the tracks ahead. Prisoners of war helped injured survivors with blankets and gave out remaining medical supplies.

The train loaded with prisoners of war arrived at the Yokohama train station at 0900, and soon war journalists and photographers started to appear for a story. Trucks took them to the docks for processing, identification, and preliminary medical examinations.Footnote 17 The mood was celebratory and just a bit overwhelming. To American troops freshly arrived in Japan, the thin prisoners of war resembled skeletons, though they were grinning and happy to be free at last. The lucky ones survived Japanese captivity, in no small measure thanks to the leadership shown by Birchall in getting the group through trying situations together to the very last. Birchall, for the first time no longer responsible for the lives of the prisoners, collapsed onboard the hospital ship USS Marigold with characteristic Canadian under-statement: “All the fight had gone out of me & just the big feeling of relief made me feel “What-the-Hell.”Footnote 18 He was soon on his way back to Canada.

Birchall’s Japanese captivity experience did not end with repatriation. Throughout his time in Japan, Birchall had meticulously recorded events and impressions in written diaries. Those pages in his possession at liberation were handed over to American military authorities. Other sections from diaries were subsequently dug up from hiding places in previous camps. About half the total pages were destroyed during shore bombardments from American warships or never found again. Although incomplete, this documentary record represented a bonanza for investigators and prosecutors of alleged war crimes. Birchall’s rank and position as camp spokesman furnished unique insights into understanding what had happened in individual camps and the actions of specific Japanese military personnel in positions of responsibility and authority. Hayashi was one Japanese officer on Allied war crimes lists, as a so-called minor war criminal accused of committing alleged violations against American and Allied personnel.

To this end, the Americans held war crimes trials before eight military commissions at the district courthouse in Yokohama. At American request, the Royal Canadian Air Force authorized Birchall for travel to occupied Japan in November 1947, to give witness testimony and confirm details from his diaries entered into evidence. He flew from Ottawa to Montreal, Washington D.C., Fairfield, Hawaii, Guam, and then to Tokyo, a nine-day trip arriving 12 November.Footnote 19 In a deposition for the military commission, Birchall recounted his recall of events and answered questions about complicity of the three accused on trial – two Japanese camp commanders and one medical sergeant who allegedly abused prisoners of war. His testimony was straightforward and without prejudice.Footnote 20 Once finished, Birchall departed Japan in mid-December 1947, travelling through India and Europe, back to Washington, D.C. in time to join an American joint staff course as a student. Birchall resumed his professional career in the Royal Canadian Air Force and rose in rank to higher levels of responsibility in the Canadian armed forces.

The experience in Japanese captivity and leadership style developed during that time stayed with Birchall for the rest of his life. A less resilient person might have been irretrievably broken by the ordeal, as many prisoners of war held by the Japanese undoubtedly were. Birchall kept any psychological and emotional scars to himself, and in fact appeared to emerge from captivity stronger and more self-assured.Footnote 21 The decision to remain in the Royal Canadian Air Force was never in question. With his health and weight regained after extended leave with his family, Birchall returned to military service and duties as a professional officer. He served as the Canadian air attaché in Washington D.C., Canadian military attaché at NATO headquarters in Paris, and commanded a fighter base in Canada.Footnote 22 His last military posting was commandant at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, where he resided for four years until retirement in the rank of air commodore in 1964. Birchall stressed the importance of leadership in the military context and through personal example inspired younger generations of military leaders.

Retired in Winnipeg, he regularly talked to junior air force officers about his wartime exploits, Japanese captivity, and later Royal Canadian Air Force career. Just as he had once felt responsible for the lives of Allied prisoners of war, Birchall believed only sound leadership better prepared military officers for complex and potentially adverse situations faced by them in the future. In doing so, Leonard Birchall always kept his professional perspective, modest demeanour concealing an inner strength, and a sense of humour.

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