What does enforced confinement reveal about who we are?

I want to share a story with you that I recently came across during the research I am doing for my book on WW2. I am not a massive fan (to put it mildly) of the use of war metaphors for our current predicament. It is too problematic, and leads us to some uncomfortable and frankly quite dangerous places. So I won’t be going there.

However looking at how a group of people coped with some aspects of confinement during WW2 can give us some interesting insights into the human condition (albeit within very different contexts of course). History can be both window and mirror for us. A window into a familiar yet different world, and also a mirror for us to look at ourselves and ask some searching questions about who we are, what we believe and why we behave in certain ways.

The story I am going to relate is based around the internment of some American and other foreign (mainly British) nationals in the Philippines during WW2 at the University of Santo Tomas. I will contrast this with a second blog where I look at the experiences of Japanese citizens in US internment camps.

The Santo Tomas internment – seen from both the inside and out – is a fascinating story. The confinement experience has much to tell us about simplicity and sharing, about discipline and social hierarchies, and about the incredibly powerful drive humans seem to have to restore “normality” to their lives. It also raises really powerful questions about “collaboration”, but that’s another story.

Let’s begin.

The story centres around Manila. The Philippines was attacked by Japanese forces on 8 December 1941. They entered Manila on January 2 1942, and they began rounding up “enemy aliens” (Americans, British, and others) on January 4th 1942 and transported them to the walled campus of the University of Santo Tomas. The campus covered around 48 acres. At its high point there were 3800 internees crammed onto the campus grounds. There were around 1400 women and 700 children under 17. Initially, the Japanese had no plan for what to do with the internees, but the US Red Cross Emergency Committee, the Dominican Fathers of Santo Tomas University and the Japanese military authorities agreed that the internees could move to the campus. The internees were not liberated until February 1945.

For over 3 years, the internees were confined to the University buildings and grounds. Interestingly, the internment camp was left very much to govern itself, and so was not subject to the same brutally murderous conditions that existed in many Japanese POW camps and transit ships (the so-called “hell ships”). Within the confines of the University, the internees had a good deal of autonomy in determining how to live. Interned, confined and subject always to the rules and codes of conduct set by the Japanese military authorities, they set about creating a community in enforced lockdown.

Initially, there was chaos, anxiety and fear in the camp. And there was anxiety ranging from the murderous (no-one knew how severe the Japanese camp regime would be) to the mundane (how to protect oneself against the mosquitoes). People were now separated from friends, family and acquaintances. Their businesses were closed. Careers were interrupted. Travel was impossible. There was deep and abiding uncertainty: how long would this last? Some even felt very deeply the new shift in their social status: internment placed everyone on the same level. Your previous life was now a distant, irrelevant memory. All of these psychological shocks happened abruptly and simultaneously.

The Japanese immediately segregated the men from the women and children. They were to be housed in different classrooms and corridors around the campus. The occupiers did not want the family unit to be sustained, nor did they wish to see personal intimate relations between the internees. But what now? How would the camp organize itself to ensure the survival of the internees? How would Japanese oversight of the camp be administered?

Within just a few weeks this confinement community had evolved into a “miniature city”, complete with administration, food rationing, disciplinary committees, entertainment, construction brigades, “lost and found” and so on. An internee committee was set up (under the leadership of an American businessman named Earl Carroll) who reported to the Japanese commandant. This committee set up an internal police force, an executive committee and a whole series of other committees to administer the camp on behalf of the Japanese. Funds were provided by the Red Cross and also from the funds of many of those who were interned. Each room had a monitor appointed by the committee, and this room monitor took a nightly roll-call. Each floor of every building appointed an overseer from the different room monitors. The internees wanted to provide as much autonomy as possible for themselves in order to prevent Japanese interference in their internal affairs. This was not just accomplished through setting up these internal structures though. They also adopted a posture towards their situation and towards the Japanese (acceptance and compliance) which provided minimal resistance and maximum co-operation (or collaboration as some have suggested). The internees did the roll calls. They took a census of the camp and they began to exert their own disciplinary measures against their own people in the hope of avoiding punitive sanctions from the Japanese. This did not go down well, as you can imagine.

The Japanese commandant – Tomayasu – initially believed that he would have to impose very strict surveillance and discipline on the community of internees when he first arrived, and 3 British internees who attempted to escape in February 1942 were executed. However, he softened his approach as he got to know the internment committee and how it worked. Russell Brines – a US journalist who lived in the camp for about 18 months -paints a deeply human portrait of Tomayasu (entirely different from our traditional ideas about Japanese military figures). Brines described how Tomayasu tried to plead for the lives of the 3 escapees by humbling himself with his superiors. His pleas went unheard, but it seemed to herald a softening of Tomayasu’s approach. Although Japanese soldiers continued to patrol the grounds to prevent any further escapes, Tomayasu came to trust the internees self-administration. From this point onwards, he tried to give some small concessions to the internees to try and make their lives as bearable as possible. Local Filipinos were able to come to the gates and supply the internees with various commodities: food and books were in great demand, but people also had golf clubs and furniture delivered. These deliveries were obviously searched, and any alcohol or anything that might be used as a weapon was confiscated.

The camp quickly established a whole range of activities and practices to try and “normalize” their confinement. 2 softball leagues with 18 teams were set up which drew large crowds. The British played soccer and tried to learn softball. There were athletic competitions and barn dances. A library was created. Movies were shown. A camp newspaper emerged. Religious services were held regularly. Educational programmes began to run, and the teachers managed to get a local manila Principal to sign off on the certificates achieved by the students in these open-air classrooms. But in the midst of these various innovations, three main problems remained. Severe overcrowding in the dormitories (alongside separation from your family). Food supplies to ensure an adequate diet for both sustenance and nutrition. Sanitation: there were only 6 bathrooms for the 2000 or so internees, and nearly 100 people to each toilet [imagine 1000 people trying to live on the King’s campus and you will get some idea of the scale of the problems].

This is where things get interesting and complex. The internees had to try and solve all these different problems, the most pressing of which was that of food. There was not enough food for everyone, and many had no access to either funds or food. Rapidly, a system of sharing and distribution grew up. Internees donated food to those who had nothing. Those who had some funds applied for loans to purchase food supplies and equipment in order to start supplying communal meals. Breakfast and dinner were served communally. Lunches still had to be sourced by individuals. Breakfast was served between 7 and 9am. Dinner was served between 4 and 6pm, and there were long lines. Portions were minimal, and they had to start issuing meal tickets to prevent people getting multiple meals. The committee in charge took the best cuts of meat, all the milk and bread to feed the children and those who were sick. The majority of people were fed from the communal kitchens and supplied their own lunches. 200 or so internees were fed and clothed entirely by the camp administration.

The sanitation issue began to be addressed with the purchase of $5000 worth of sanitary equipment and the setting up of two tents (donated by a circus owner!) which were to act as hospitals so that the sick could be quarantined. Labour was mobilised to dig ditches for garbage. A large patch of land was cleared and weeded (and in so doing removing hundreds of rats from the campus to provide land for vegetable gardens). Drains were cleared, fly traps and mosquito nets installed, and the swimming pool was cleaned in order to keep a reserve supply of clean water. The rudimentary hospital facilities were augmented with physiotherapy and optometry. All births and deaths were moved outside of the camp. Although in general the health of the internees was good (esp given the rather basic diet) there were many different diseases amongst the internees, most notably gastro-intestinal and respiratory conditions.

Once the food and sanitation issues were starting to be resolved, so the question of overcrowding began to be addressed. Onsite carpenters and plumbers and electricians tried to make the rooms as comfortable as possible, and also to build several small buildings to help the internees cope with the rigours of day-to-day life. The blossoming of entertainment and education made it easier to cope with the close proximity and the separation.

In spite of all these problems – the living conditions, the inadequate diet, the overcrowding, the sanitation – a remarkable spirit of unity, co-operation, sharing and equality grew up amongst the internees. Confinement brought an amazing sense of human solidarity to the camp. The sharing of resources. The willingness of everyone to volunteer for even the most menial of tasks, to endure the privations without much grumbling. Perhaps most surprisingly, the creation of a taxation system to subsidise the operation of the camp brought little dissent. Moreover, confinement – by enforcing simplicity – also brought other benefits to the internees, as they exercised more, and read more and did more communal activities together. Life was stripped of an externally generated set of pressures to achieve or produce or consume, and it took on a hue of simplicity which provided some psychological, spiritual and physical compensation for the anxiety and frustrations and fears of confinement. It is important not to romanticise this experience. But in the midst of deprivation and separation, they found a modus vivendi. Once the internees had come to a place of acceptance of their situation, and of the unlikelihood of imminent liberation, they exhibited a remarkable sense of resilience and togetherness.

The sharing of resources and the willing donation of labour and talent and time was more than just a response to the plight they found themselves in. It was also at a deeper level, a manifestation of a desire for community, for belonging and for human solidarity. Talking of the mundane back-breaking work that people of all backgrounds volunteered to undertake, Brines notes, that it was, “a release for pent emotions.” He went on, ‘labour also expressed the individual’s desire to belong to the community whose cohesiveness was common hardship.”

The common hardship of enforced confinement produced social cohesiveness.

What is it about commonly shared hardship that can produce this type of response? And is it a particular type of hardship and a particular type of community that together create the conditions in which humans can and will co-operate, share, work and unite? The hardships this community endured were not existential (although there was obviously the constant pervasive threat posed by the presence of the Japanese soldiers). There was food and water and shelter and a seemingly reasonable predictability of supply (but the quality and quantity were low). There was just enough deprivation to require common efforts and labour to survive, but not so much that it became a grim, desperate struggle for survival, a war of all against all. The communal aspects are also interesting. It was relatively homogenous culturally and ethnically and linguistically, yet also divided by class and education and income and age. Although overcrowding was clearly deeply problematic, this was mitigated in part by the size of the community. It was neither small nor large, and so it was possible to both find groups of people with whom you had things in common and also to distance yourself from those who were annoying or irritating or unbearable. You could enjoy activities and events because there were sufficient people with the requisite skills and energy to make a diverse programme viable.

The particularities of their common hardship was interestingly a mixture of enforced confinement and voluntary sharing and co-operation on the campus of Santo Tomas. Forced together, confined into a certain space and needing organisation and co-operation to survive, they found within themselves the requisite capacity to join together and look after each other.

What does this mixture of enforcement and altruism tell us about humans in confinement?

It would be nice to end the story there. A heartwarming tale of human co-operation, of how confinement brought an unexpected and unanticipated culture of sharing and simplicity and equality to a group of internees. Of how this pattern of sharing continued until they were liberated in the spring of 1945.

But it didn’t end like that. Things began to break down and the spirit was gradually eroded over time. This is not to say that there was a total breakdown in discipline and co-operation. But over time, people began to pursue their own interests, seek their own pleasures in defiance of the internees own guidelines and rules. Confinement co-operation could not be sustained. Why?

It happened gradually of course. And it began with booze. But it was never just about the booze.

As the months dragged on, people began to miss things from their everyday life, and booze was the main thing that began to dominate people’s minds. It was obviously close at hand in Manila, but the Japanese had banned it (along with overt displays of personal affection), as they saw it as leading to a swathe of social problems, eroding morality, and leading to indiscipline, fights, sex, and so on. The camp authorities were eager to sustain the ban on alcohol, as they feared that it would bring overt Japanese intervention into the life of the camp.

The tipping-point for people starting to complain and then flouting the rules seems to have been when they felt that the immediate danger had passed, and that a degree of security had been established. This is when the desire for a return to “normality” started to grow. Nostalgia for their former way of life became the drug of choice for the internees. If they could just have…..[fill in the gap, for many it was alcohol, as they reminisced about cocktail hour] then everything would be fine. Bottles started to be smuggled in. Some started to make their own hooch. Stills were set up, in direct contravention of camp rules and regulations. People began to complain about their own camp authorities, and the “bureaucratic officiousness”. The same rules that had given them life and hope and autonomy and survival had now become a burden.

People were now getting intoxicated. What could be done? The internee administration did not feel empowered to use force so they tried other means to try and discipline the intoxicated. Renewed requests for co-operation fell on deaf ears. They tried shaming: publicising names and broadcasting names of miscreants; all to no avail. They appointed a special “court” and sentenced them to special work details or time in a designated “jail” ( a former storehouse). Eventually the Japanese threatened to send the intoxicated to a military prison. This had the most lasting effect.

So why had things changed?

The prevailing attitude now was “pay no attention to those in charge, they have no power over us.” Then Brines says something very interesting, “we fought towards normalcy with surprising determination.” The new craving was for minimal restraint, and alcohol was the symptom of this shift in attitude. Another sign of change was the growth of shanties: little semi-permanent structures began to be built across the campus, as families sought time together and for the restoration of some much needed privacy. They were still not allowed to sleep together in them, as the Japanese diktats on intimacy were non-negotiable. But over time more and more structures began to be built, many becoming quite substantial and sophisticated, with running water and multiple rooms, and architects in the camp employed to design them.

These shanty buildings gave some respite from the heat, and provided space for people to distance themselves. Eventually little mini-settlements grew up as several shanty homes joined together. They even got names: Glamourville, Shantytown, FroggyBottoms, JungleTown. Neighbourhood consciousness (with all the petty rivalries that go with neighbourliness!) developed and the camp authorities often had to intervene. Each settlement elected their own mayors and police chiefs and banded together to buy additional garbage cans.

These individual dwellings marked another shift: a corrosion of community and the restoration of social hierarchies from before the war. The shanties gradually grew larger as a desire for status and importance began to take root. Running water reduced the pressure to the main sanitation areas. People started preparing their own food and avoiding the communal eating times. The wealthier began creating separation from the rest. They started to employ filipino or black internees to undertake household duties. Party guest lists began to be curated, to separate the people out. Merchants and entrepreneurs developed businesses to serve the needs of the wealthier, while the poorer were now looked after by the camp. A gulf had now developed, and it was beginning to widen.

The camp lived a schizophrenic life. At night-time, relative equality returned as everyone had to go back to their rooms to sleep. Everyone had the same amount of physical space, and you slept next to anyone. But during the day, the social hierarchies and divisions were openly displayed, highly visible and fiercely maintained. Dissatisfaction grew and calls for an elected committee became louder and louder, and eventually the Japanese agreed and a new elected committee took over the running of the camp (although the Japanese still chose which internee was to lead the committee). Political divisions now came to the fore, and became increasingly intense during the rainy season when everyone had to abandon their shanties temporarily and move inside. Interestingly, the Japanese had to try and conceal evidence of the camp elections, as many German and Italian citizens in Manila were complaining that life was too easy in the camp.

Gradually life became more difficult, and this undoubtedly contributed to the erosion of confinement communalism in 1943 and beyond. Bedbugs began to appear in their thousands. Japanese troops who had served in the frontline treated the internees much more harshly when they took their turn as camp guards. The succession of Japanese victories in 1942 led to the Japanese being incredibly condescending towards the internees, and with the prospect of liberation being pushed into the distant future a resigned fatalism and lethargy began to grow across the camp. Complaints against the new leadership were increasingly vocal, although it was clear that what they were really complaining about was the extended period of confinement. Nostalgia for their old way of life grew and grew.

The camp became increasingly crowded. In May 1943 800 men were transferred to a nearby camp at Los Banos (a satellite campus of the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture). From 1944 onwards, the succession of Japanese defeats made life in the camp increasingly fraught. Food and medicines were in short supply. Weight-loss, malnutrition and disease spread rapidly. The Japanese took direct control and dismissed the internee administration. Oversight became more draconian and arbitrary. When 8 internees died from malnutrition and starvation, the Japanese insisted the doctors fabricated the cause of death on the death certificates.

Rumours that the Americans were close to liberating the camp began to grow in late 1944. The Japanese arrested and executed 4 of the camp leaders in January 1945. The camp was finally liberated in February 1945. The total number of internees liberated at Santo Tomas was 3,785, of which 2,870 were Americans and most of the others were from the UK. Between January 1942 and March 1945, there were 390 total deaths from all causes in Santo Tomas. Those over 60 years old were the most vulnerable. They comprised 18 percent of the total population, but suffered 64 percent of deaths. There is a lot more to this story, of course, and I have appended a reading list at the end if you wish to follow up yourself.

By way of conclusion, why did the dynamics of the camp change so, and what does this story tell us about humans living in confinement for long periods of time? It seems there is a paradox at work in this story. The move towards a whole new way of being for these internees – including radical sharing, compassion, other-mindedness, volunteering, social equality – only happened because people were forced into confinement against their will. It was in the midst of this enforced context that they began to display a much greater degree of community-mindedness and love-your-neighbour-as-yourselfness (in very tangible and meaningful ways) than they had in their everyday lives up to this point. But while the confinement produced changed behaviour and attitudes, it also undermined these attitudes and actions as time passed. People began to resent and resist, to complain and to chafe, to retreat into the old ways, to their own circle, to forget about others. This pattern of enforced confinement at Santo Tomas created meaningful solidarity but could not sustain it.

Does solidarity require hardship to live and grow? How can communal solidarity – over time – flourish?

How can we sustain the patterns and behaviours from confinement that benefit us in the long-run?

How do we make lasting changes to our lives (both personal, group and societal) when we all have such a powerful drive to restore “normal life’?

I would love to hear the thoughts of others on what you have learned about yourself and others from your own experiences of relative confinement, and what are some of the reasons why we seem to tire so quickly of the rules imposed upon us.

Some Further Reading:

Russell Brines. …until they eat stones, (1944)

A. V. H. Hartendorp, The Japanese Occupation of the Philippines (2 vols.1967)

Michael P. Onorato, Forgotten Heroes: Japan’s Imprisonment of American Civilians in the Philippines, 1942–1945, An Oral History ( 1990)

James Mace Ward, “Legitimate Collaboration: The Administration of Santo Tomás Internment Camp and Its Histories, 1942–2003” in Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, pages 159–201.

Some other materials were from the Hoover Archives at Stanford which I visited in 2016.

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