The liberation of Santo Tomas civilian internment camp

On February 3, 1945, the US forces reached the campus of University of Santo Tomas in Manila, which had been turned into an internment camp for some 3,700 Allied civilians. After a few days of resistance by the Japanese, the camp was liberated.


Video: Santo Tomas prisoners liberated

Youtube video posted by Mr. Michael Reyes, , a current student at Santo Tomas University.  University of Santo Tomas during the 2nd World War

Famous war photographer for LIFE magazine, Carl Mydans, who had been interned at Santo Tomas himself at the beginning of the war, took this picture after the liberation. It appeared in the March 5, 1945 issue of LIFE magazine.


(Caption)  Two starved men sit outside university’s gym-hospital. They are Lee Rogers (left), a retired employee of Cavite Navy Yard, and John C. Todd, a miner.  When Rogers entered Santo Tomas he weighed 145 pounds. Now he weighs 90 pounds. Todd dropped from 178 pounds to 102. Behind them is one of the vegetable gardens which internees grew to keep themselves alive.

According to the US Congressional Record, almost 14,000 American civilians were interned by the Japanese military, of whom 10 % died.  In addition to Santo Tomas, there were several more civilian camps in the Philippines, such as the one in Los Banos where 2,147 internees were liberated on February 23, 1945. Allied civilians were also interned in China and Japan.

Those who survived these camps lost more than three years of their lives, their livelihoods, and their homes and possessions.

In 1998, I met one of such survivors, Mr. Gilbert Hair. He was interned at Santo Tomas from 1942 when he was only 9 months old until 1945. It was obvious to me that he was still physically suffering from effect of his childhood malnutrition after more than 50 years. Gil’s father, John MacGavin Hair, was a British civilian who volunteered for the American Army when Japan invaded the Philippines. He became a POW and died on the Hellship Enoura Maru in January of 1945.

In 1990, Mr. Hair founded an organization called the “Center for Internee Rights, Inc.” Its purpose was “to seek justice and recognition for these people who were so brutalized by the Japanese and so forgotten in our history.” It grew into an organization of 8,000 members. He once shared his reflection with me:

"I did not know how my father had died until I was in high school. When I learned about his story I cried. I would not be able to sleep at night. It is still an emotional subject. But I try not to think about an individual case or individual incident, but rather focus on the big picture. And that helps to desensitize. You have to be desensitized, otherwise you would be too emotional. And if you are too emotional it can impact your thinking. When you run an organization this large representing so many victims, you have to be as logical and insensitive as you can be to do the work. It is the only way I know how to do it."
         Mr. Hair  (1998)

Mr. Hair spearheaded a lawsuit against the Japanese government, seeking $20,000 compensation for each individual victim, the same amount that the US government paid to each Japanese American who had been interned during WWII.  It was dismissed by the Tokyo District Court in 1998. Appeals to the Tokyo High Court and the Japanese Supreme Court never succeeded. (Former POWs’ forced labor lawsuit against Japanese companies was also dismissed by the US Supreme Court in 2003.)

Mr. Hair passed away on September 15, 2004.  He was 63 years old. He never received any reply from the Japanese Embassy in Washington DC to which he wrote many times.

Today, former civilian internees of the Japanese continue to make their efforts to educate people, both in the US and Japan, about their wartime experience.  website of BACEPOW

Stories of the following former civilian internees can be found within this website:
      Sascha Jean Jansen         Walter Riley        Cecily Mattocks Marshall      Angus Lorenzen

Documentary film on Santo Tomas camp:
Victims of Circumstance: Santo Tomas Interment Camp

Families interned at Santo Tomas camp