By Linda Goetz Holmes

Ex-POWs who suffered daily from starvation and disease in Japanese captivity might take a measure of comfort, 60 years later, in knowing how very hard their government tried to help get supplemental food, medicines and supplies to them in their camps, from Burma and Thailand to Manchuria, Taiwan and Hokkaido. So much did the American, British and Dutch governments want to bring relief to their suffering prisoners, that they were willing to pay into a secret fund, managed by the Swiss Bank, which regularly made deposits directly into a bank controlled by the government of Japan. It is indeed one of the most unique -- and tragic -- stories of World War II.
Shortly after Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor, triggering declarations of war by Allied governments, Thailand's ambassador to the United States rounded up all the young Thai men studying here in the United States and sent them to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), where they were trained by our Office of Strategic Services (OSS) personnel, and spirited back into Thailand. Their mission: to get into villages as close as possible to the route of the Burma-Thailand Railway, where 60,000 Allied POWs, including 668 Americans, were being used as slave labor by the Imperial Japanese Army in the near-impossible task of building a railroad through dense jungle -- a project which would cost over 16,000 Allied POW lives.  Little did POWs know that some of the young natives selling them bananas were  in fact reporting back to Allied governments about the desperate conditions along that infamous route.

It was those reports from Thai eyewitnesses which triggered urgent conversations beginning in late 1943 between American, British and Dutch officials that something had to be done to supplement the meager rice balls and appalling conditions in which the POWs found themselves. So a bold idea was hatched: the three Allied governments would set up a secret relief fund through the Swiss National Bank, which could deposit the money in its branches throughout Asia, to be withdrawn on the spot, so to speak, by Swiss Red Cross workers, who could quickly purchase food, medicine and clothing and deliver the supplies directly to POW camps. Initially, the fund was meant for the Railway POWs, but eventually it was agreed that all POW and civilian internee camps, everywhere in Japanese occupied territory and the Home Islands, would be included. It seemed like a simple humanitarian effort, but the Japanese government turned the project into a frustrating nightmare, contriving to intercept the money and bottle it up so that none reached the starving POWs and internees. One is hard-pressed to find a more egregious act than this one during World War II.
As talks progressed between the Allied governments and the Swiss in early 1944, the Japanese government announced that henceforth all relief monies designated for POWs and internees in Japanese occupied territory would first have to be cleared through Tokyo and deposited in the Yokohama Specie Bank (YSB) at a conversion rate arbitrarily set by the Japanese government.  When the details of the relief fund were finally worked out and signed by Swiss and Japanese government officials on August 1, 1944, the Japanese insisted that deposits from this fund, too, must be placed in the YSB, promising to release them as requested by the Swiss.

But in a move which even the Nazis did not have the nerve to do, the Japanese government cut off all communication between the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva and its workers in Asia. So the Swiss -- and the Allies -- did not know until the end of the war how few relief supplies (including Red Cross boxes) actually reached the prisoners, or even where the Swiss workers were.  And we are not talking about pocket change here: with monthly deposits faithfully continuing by America, British and Dutch treasuries into this most secret account at the Swiss Bank, the fund eventually grew by warıs end to 98 million Swiss francs. The United States contributed over $6.2 million, worth about $55 million today. And the U.S. Treasury never saw its money again.

Meanwhile, The Japanese government made free use for its own purposes of the interest generated in its bank by the accumulation of these funds. And it spent a considerable sum of the relief money to order cannons for its naval ships from a foundry in Switzerland. The war ended before that order could be filled, but the diverting of funds by the Japanese and the willingness of the Swiss to fill the order to was nevertheless in place.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this subterfuge is that even Japanıs Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu apparently was unaware that his own government had already instructed the Yokohama Bank to bottle up this relief money. On November 13, 1944, U.S. intelligence cryptologists intercepted a secret message from Shigemitsu to his attaché in Saigon, who was inquiring about the existence of this relief fund. In a two-page message, Shigemitsu described the arrangement of the fund in great detail, ending by instructing: ³The details of this agreement are secret from all but the officials concerned and care is to be taken that they do not leak out. Care should also be taken that the working of this agreement is not hampered by delays in paying.

When the war ended, this vast sum of un-spent relief money was discovered. The Japanese government apparently got off with a slap on the wrist for this breach of agreement,  allowing the continuing suffering and death of thousands of prisoners and civilians in Japanese captivity.  As the assets of the Yokohama Specie Bank were liquidated, two million Swiss francs of the relief money was unaccounted for.  Under the terms of the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan, the remainder of the funds were to be turned over to the International Committee of the Red Cross for disbursement to those Allied countries whose nationals had suffered as prisoners of the Japanese, for the postwar comfort of those prisoners. The British government retrieved most of its investment, but apparently placed its recovered funds in its general treasury.

The ICRC recommended that only military prisoners should receive proceeds of the disbursement, since civilians did not have verifiable identification numbers. Distribution of the funds was delayed for several years, because the ICRC asked each of the involved Allied nations to provide figures of how many of their nationals were POWs. The government of India could not come up with an accurate figure; finally the ICRC asked India for a general estimate, so that disbursement could at last take place in 1958, distributing the remainder of the relief fund on a proportional basis.

Among Allied countries whose nationals had suffered in Japanese captivity, only the United States declined to take its share of this disbursement. Perhaps this was because under the War Claims Acts of 1948 and 1952, American ex-prisoners of the Japanese were allotted $1.00 per day for "missed meals" while in captivity, and later $1.50  per day for "pain and suffering and forced labor."  Other nations had apparently not made similar allocations in the postwar years.

When the National Security Agency declassified the first batch of some 300 intercepted Japanese diplomatic and military wartime messages in late 1996, Shigemitsu's  November 1944 message caught my eye, because it confirmed rumors I had been hearing about the existence of a secret Allied wartime relief fund for Pacific captives. I wrote to the presidents of both the Swiss National Bank and the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi  (successor  to the Yokohama Specie Bank), asking what became of the money. I received a detailed reply from the Swiss bank, and later from the Tokyo bank, giving a full accounting of the amount each nation had contributed to the fund, and  the eventual disbursement by the ICRC. When my findings were published by the Associated Press and my own article in The Australian, British and Dutch ex-POWs were especially furious, because their governments had not distributed proceeds to them as provided for in the 1951 treaty. The result was that the British, Dutch, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand, Norway, Singapore and even the Isle of Man governments paid a belated ex gratia , tax-free sum to each surviving Pacific ex-POW of between $20,000 and $24,000 . Only the United States government has not done so, but not for lack of trying. Bills have passed in Congress in 2003 and again in 2006, only to be deleted from appropriations budgets at the request of the White House.

And what of the Japanese government and its corporations, which denied  Swiss relief workers access to POW camps; refused to distribute Red Cross parcels delivered to its camps; blocked off relief funds contributed by Allied nations through the Swiss, violating a signed agreement; and failed to pay its white prisoners for their labor, as ordered by its own Diet?  No offer of compensation, no apology, no acknowledgement of its egregious wartime behavior. Some ally!  


Linda Goetz Holmes, a Pacific war historian, is a member of the Historical Advisory Panel to the Nazi war Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Interagency Working Group (IWG).

A detailed account and accompanying documents of this secret wartime relief fund  is contained in chapter 11 of her book Unjust Enrichment (Stackpole Books, 2001).   


Ms. Holmes' photo: courtesy of Ms. Mary Ellen McGayhey