Letters as a lifeline: WW2 Prisoners of War in Japan

How a London postman became a Japanese Prisoner of War. This is Frederick Smith's story.

Content warning: Documents in this post include descriptions of the conditions faced by prisoners of war in the Second World War which some may find upsetting.

This blog contains a historical document that uses a racist term to describe Japanese people. The document has been included to help better understand this period of history and context for the term used is provided.

The Second World War was fought across the globe with many soldiers finding themselves captured and imprisoned thousands of miles from their families. These soldiers were known as Prisoners of War (POW).

POW Conditions

The Geneva Conventions, international humanitarian laws, date to 1864. However, it wasn’t until 1929 that articles were produced dealing with the treatment of prisoners of war. This included the right for POW’s to correspond with their relatives.

Of the 47 states that took part in the 1929 conference, 46 signed the convention relating to prisoners of war, including the German and Japanese governments. However Japanese authorities never officially consented to their agreement and would later abandon these principles.

Those captured in Japan and Japanese Territories were subjected to horrific conditions, malnutrition and forced labor. To understand this treatment and the effects of imprisonment, we will explore the diary and correspondence of postman Frederick C.R. Smith.

Frederick Smith

Frederick Smith (believed to be the man circled below) was a postman at the Palmers Green Sorting Office in London. He joined the war in July 1941 as a driver for the 208 Petrol Depot, Royal Army Service Corps.

This sepia photo is so old and worn out that only 3 men are fully visible on it, out of 9. There is a row of men standing and a row below them crouching down. All men look directly to the camera smiling. They are either shirtless or wearing vests. They are all thin, their clothes don't fit them well.
The text on the back of this photo reads
Front and back of a photograph of Fred Smith and fellow prisoners at the Motoyama Camp, Japan, 1945. 2014-0076/10

He journeyed to Cape Town then through the Indian Ocean before arriving in Java (an Indonesian Island). Java was occupied by the Japanese army at the time. At 5pm on the 8 March 1942 Fred and the rest of his comrades surrendered to Japanese forces.

Newspaper article reporting Fred’s capture, Unknown date. 2014-0076/19

During Fred’s time as a POW, he was held in four prison camps; two in Java and two further camps in Japan.

Fred’s diary documents his time in Java but was hidden from the authorities when he was taken to Japan and no further entries were made. The diary entries discuss the conditions in which the men were kept, describing the scarcity of food and the prevalence of illnesses and disease

30 March 1942

Arrived Batavia [An area that corresponds to present-day Jakarta, Java] 8am to our dismay all troops English, Australian & R.A.F were placed in a large native prison, regulated to hold 900 prisoners. we were 2,400 strong. we were placed in cells 12 x 12 sq. ft. 15 men per cell, it was bad. Sanitary arrangement were very bad. food consisted of steamed raw rice & lousy tea. no milk & no sugar. within a week our makeshift hospital was full and five men died of “dysantry” [dysentery], malaria & maninjitus [meningitis].

Page from Fred’s Diary March 1942. 2014-0076/01

From Fred’s entries we understand that in Java the men didn’t receive mail from home. They were concerned that their loved ones may not know where they were, or even if they were alive.

September 1942

Thousands of men out here, and there [their] wives are no better informed. So we have all the same worry. We all pray for the day when news reaches home. But these nips are so inhuman. I have never had a letter or anything since I left good old England. But our day will come very soon, of that I am convinced.

Page from Fred’s Diary September 1942. 2014-0076/01 (Within the text is the derogatory term ‘Nips’ used to describe Japanese people, originally taken from a formal way of pronouncing the native name of Japan ‘Nippon’)

June 1942

It would not do for me to put my thoughts of home & family on paper. As we have just got to grin & bear it, and keep our chins up.

One doesn’t mention home in here. A man keeps those thoughts sacred to himself and walks about with a keen eye waiting.


For Fred and many of the prisoners, thoughts and feelings about home were not discussed, as a means of self-preservation.

Correspondence to POWs in Japan

As British soldiers became prisoners of war in the Far East, the Post Office wanted to facilitate correspondence with family. To help families of POWs in Japan and Japanese Territories successfully write to their loved ones, the Post Office issued a leaflet, (P2327B). This provided letter writers with guidance on what could be written and how to address their correspondence, depending on the recipient’s force and whether their camp address was known.

To reach these prisoners, mail travelled through Russia, at the time a neutral territory whose postal service sent letters into Japan. Initially this was achieved through ‘surface routes’ (i.e. not by air). This consisted of sending mail by boat through the Artic Sea.

Later, facilities were made available for POW mail to travel with airmail to soldiers in the Middle East. This provided air service to Iraq where the mail would revert to a surface route to Russia. This was faster than the original route, but could still take months to reach Japan.

Blank postcard with space to write a 'from' name and address and 'to' details such as 'Service no. & rank', 'name', 'camp' and 'country'.
The plain back of the postcard leaves space for 25 words. It is specified at the top of the postcard that they be written in block capitals.
Post Office Far East 3d Prisoner of War Airmail Card. PH172/21

To maximise space on the aircraft, a special lightweight airmail postcard was produced costing 3d (3 pennies) each. The Japanese authorities issued restrictions about the type of mail that would be accepted for POWs.

The new airmail card instructed the sender to write in block capitals and for the message to be no longer than 25 words. By sticking to these rules, there was a greater chance of the card passing the Japanese censor and reaching the prisoner.

The cheaper postcard looks the same as the above, except the stamp is different.
Post Office Far East 1½d Prisoner of War Airmail Card. PH172/21

The price for the card was reduced to 1½d in April 1945, however with war breaking out between the U.S.S.R. and Japan shortly afterwards, there was no longer any neutral country for communication to travel through. The Post Office released a press notice on 9 August 1945 saying all correspondence to Japan was suspended.

End of the War

The Second World War ended in Europe on the 8 May 1945, but war continued in Japan. It wasn’t until the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and the U.S.S.R. joining the war that the Japanese government surrendered. Documents were signed and war in Japan and Japanese Territories ended on the 2 September 1945.

Fred tells his wife that he will be home soon, via this Telegram
This telegram is in poor condition, it is in two pieces, but it directs Fred's wife to wait for him at home, instead of coming to meet him in Southampton.
Telegrams sent from Fred to wife Annie on his journey home, November 1945. 2014-0076/13-16
Fred tells his wife that he has arrived in Southampton and will be home soon.
Telegrams sent from Fred to wife Annie on his journey home, November 1945. 2014-0076/13-16
Once again, Fred informs his wife that he is nearly home.
Telegrams sent from Fred to wife Annie on his journey home, November 1945. 2014-0076/13-16

Fred was liberated from the Motoyama prison camp by US troops in August 1945. Annotation on one of his belongings suggests he travelled to Canada and later took the Candain Pacific railway from Seattle to New Jersey and finally home to the UK. Within the museum’s collection, we have telegrams sent to his wife Annie letting her know he was safe and on his way. This is where our story ends.

The diary, along with other items, are believed to have been donated by Fred. But we are unsure what happened to him after the war and whether he rejoined the Post Office.

When the Japanese POW camps were liberated, thousands of letters in unopened mail bags were found which had been withheld from prisoners. Withholding communication and connection to the outside world appears to have been a form of torture. In times of conflict, communication is a lifeline, but for those imprisoned in Japan, the war was a long, lonely separation from their loved ones.

Learn more about the postal service during the First and Second World War.