Let’s get one thing out of the way really quickly: Getting captured in full-scale warfare is nothing to be ashamed of. When tens of thousands of people are clashing in a massive battle, it’s easy to get cut off and isolated through no fault of your own, shot down over enemy territory, or any of dozens of other ways to get captured. But that means you were headed to a prisoner camp, and where you were captured and by whom mattered a lot in World War II.
What Was Life Like For Prisoners of WWII
That’s because not all of the major combatants were yet signatories to the Geneva Conventions, and life as a prisoner wasn’t great for even those who were covered by the conventions.
That’s because Geneva Convention protections are actually fairly limited, and were even more so in World War II. The broad strokes are that captors must not execute those who have surrendered or are surrendering; must give sufficient food, shelter, and medical care away from active combat; cannot torture prisoners, and must not overwork prisoners.
The U.S. fulfilled all of these requirements in their prisoner camps on the U.S. mainland, and Britain and France had similarly good records of prisoner treatment during the war. Not perfect, but good. (But it’s worth noting that the U.S. and Britain were both accused of human rights violations against their own citizens and some war crimes including the execution of Axis soldiers who were attempting to surrender.)
Recently liberated Allied soldiers in a prison corridor in Changi Prison, Singapore.
(State Library of Victoria Collections)
But not all prisons were run that way. German prisons were more strict, had more reports of beatings and food shortages, and some prisoners were executed for political reasons as the war drew to an end. But the worst German atrocities were those committed against suspected commandos, Jews, or people’s designated undesirable by the German state.
If a U.S. or other Allied soldier was suspected of being Jewish, gay, or of some other category that would’ve gotten a German or Polish person thrown into a concentration camp, then that soldier would likely be thrown into a concentration camp themselves. There, they would be subject to all the atrocities of the Holocaust, including summary execution as the Germans tried to hide evidence of their crimes at war’s end.
And some prisoners were subjected to the same unethical medical experiments that the Nazis famously performed on Jewish prisoners.
That may sound like the worst a World War II prisoner could suffer, but there were similar nightmares in store for certain prisoners of the Soviet Union. Food shortages for the Soviet Army led to forced labor of some prisoners. And the deep hatred of Soviet troops toward German invaders led to summary executions and torture. Food was scarce and could be made from inedible ingredients like straw or sawdust.
But arguably, the worst place to be captured was in the Pacific while fighting Japan. Japanese forces were convicted after the war of forced death marches like the five-day ordeal that many Americans and Filipinos captured on the Bataan Peninsula were forced to suffer without water or food. Other Japanese leaders were convicted of cannibalism after butchering Americans for meat used as a delicacy on officer tables. Torture, beatings, executions, and more were common in Japanese camps.