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Waterboarding: the most horrific experience of my life


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From The Times
March 4, 2008

Waterboarding: the most horrific experience of my life

As the US Justice Department investigates whether waterboarding constitutes torture, a former Japanese PoW, who was a victim of it in 1943, recounts its full terror

Some of the best brains in the United States, together with some of the weaker ones, have combined recently to try to decide whether “waterboarding” is or is not a form of torture. This problem seems to occupy a surprising amount of time and involves not only very senior people but also President Bush personally.

I know the answer to this difficulty and I will supply it later in this article. Indeed, the solution is quite simple, but it requires personal experience. There is really no scope for argument at all.

It is easy to confuse torture and ill-treatment, both of which have been widespread throughout the whole of history. In everyday terms, ill-treatment is self-explanatory and implies deliberate bad treatment, often as a form of punishment. It is today widespread and looks like being with us until the end of time. Sometimes the intention is that the victim should not survive.

Torture, on the other hand, is ill-treatment but with a specific purpose. This purpose is almost always to persuade the victim to provide information that he has and that he does not want to disclose. It follows that it is preferable that the victim should be kept alive because death puts an end to the prospect of obtaining information. Sometimes victims die, however, because of the ferocity of the torture, which is a very dreadful death indeed. Perhaps even worse, victims are sometimes killed when they have provided the information required.

The variety of forms of torture embraces the full range of human ingenuity. Indeed, there have been people who as a form of employment have specialised in devising treatment and procedures that give rise to ever-increasing decrees of pain and discomfort. There seems to be no limit to the techniques and to the pain itself.

For historical and cultural reasons, which we need not explore here, many of the most dreadful tortures have been devised and used in China and Japan, up to quite recent times and including the Second World War.

One of these has been widely known in the Far East as the water torture and it is this which, with adjustments, is now quoted in the US as “waterboarding”. The water torture was extensively used by the Kempeitai, the military police branch of the Imperial Japanese Army, in South East Asia during the Japanese occupation which came to an end in 1945.

I am probably the only person in the UK, and possibly even in the Western world, to have suffered personally the full-scale traditional water torture and to have survived. This arose from having been a lieutenant in the Royal Signals in the Second World War. My personal experience of systematic organised and deliberate torture dates from August 1943. In that year I was in a small PoW camp in Kanchanaburi, Siam, [now Thailand] known as the Sakamoto Butai. This was the PoW camp supporting the main Japanese Army mechanical workshops, responsible for maintaining the machinery used on the construction of the infamous Burma-Siam Railway. The Japanese troops working there were almost all technical personnel, and were mostly reasonable and fairly civilised men. The PoW camp consisted of about 200 men, mostly British and mostly captured in Singapore the previous year. We also were supposed to be technicians of various kinds. The main problem in being a PoW is usually not the physical problem of food, or even of basic survival. The problem is one of noninformation. No one receives any reliable information about the outside world. This is a very serious matter psychologically.

The only way to get over this difficulty in a PoW camp is to acquire and to operate suitable radio sets. In a PoW camp this means making them, which for obvious reasons is a matter of great difficulty and great danger. The relatively stable day-to-day routine in the workshop camp and the technical background were helpful for making small and totally illicit radio sets. The technical genius who conjured up the working radio receiver at Kanchanaburi from basic materials such as silver paper was a sergeant major in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps; one Lance Thew, formerly the proprietor of a civilian radio shop in Sunderland. Our radio receiver worked nicely, under secure conditions for many months. The end came one day in August 1943, however, when several PoW camps on the Burma-Siam Railway were raided by the Japanese Military Police simultaneously. What gave rise to this widespread search is not known, even to this day.

On August 29, 1943, without warning, a small group of Japanese soldiers, who were never precisely identified, arrived in the camp and started a search of the PoW living huts. It was not long before the Japanese discovered one complete, usable radio set and some incomplete ones. A terrible commotion broke out. Retribution descended first on Thew, then on an heroic sergeant named Fred Smith, then on a group of officers, including myself. As an officer in the Royal Signals I tended to attract attention in difficulties like this. The Japanese regarded Royal Signals personnel with great respect, quite rightly. But they also deemed us not only as highly suspicious, but probably also as responsible for every communication problem in the PoW camps throughout South East Asia.

Thew and Smith were badly ill-treated immediately.

A little later, on September 29, 1943, the group of six officers were removed from the workshop camp to another one in Kanchanaburi where, eventually, we were each individually beaten for some hours until unconsciousness took over. I emerged from the fray with two broken arms.

After several days nominal recovery the six of us were swept into the local HQ of the Kempeitai where the official interrogators and torturers now took over. Once again the Royal Signals got special attention. To begin with I was placed in front of a group of three Japanese; two were NCOs and were quite awful, even in appearance; the third was a young man of my own age, who introduced himself as the interpreter. The interrogation lasted for some days, on and on and on. The Kempeitai men wanted to know everything about the PoWs in the Sakamoto Butai, including the full story of the making of the radios, the sources of material, the circulation of the news and of various related sins. Men being interrogated in those circumstances are in a very difficult position. One has only a fraction of a second to think up answers to questions and the protection of one's life and the lives of others must be paramount. Eventually, after several days, we reached the point where the Kempeitai clearly felt they were not getting anywhere. They announced that they were going to take '”further steps”.

This is the beginning of the classic torture situation. The interrogators, unable to learn what they want by conventional question and answer, decide that they have to resort to conventional torture.

One morning I was led out to the back of the Kempeitai building, where the simple apparatus for the historic water torture was laid out. From its availability I wondered if they used it quite often. I was laid on my back on a bench; my arms, still broken and almost useless, were placed across my chest, my face was covered by a cloth and a tap feeding a hose-pipe was turned on. It was all so simple. To encourage me to say something the senior Japanese man beat me from time to time with the branch of a tree. This did not do my arms any good at all. The interpreter, who did not seem sympathetic to the whole procedure, held my left hand. I suspected that he wanted to make sure that I remained alive.

The whole operation was a long and agonising sequence of near-drowning, choking, vomiting and muscular struggling with the water flowing with ever-changing force. To put it mildly, it was ghastly, quite the worst experience of my life. There were occasional intervals for interrogation. How long the torture lasted, I do not know. It covered a period of some days, with periods of unconsciousness and semi-consciousness. Eventually I was dumped in my cell, which was so small it offered little scope for movement. At about this time two of my colleagues were beaten to death. Their bodies were dumped in a latrine where they may well remain to this day.

The remaining two years, until the war came to an end in August 1945 were a long sequence of further ill-treatment, near starvation and continuous fear, night and day, first in Bangkok then in Singapore. During this period another of my colleagues, Major Harry Knight, a splendid Australian, died of ill-treatment and neglect.

At the end of the war, I made a formal complaint to the War Crimes organisation in South East Asia about the beatings that killed my two colleagues and badly damaged the rest of us. Captain Matsuo Komai, of the Imperial Japanese Army, was convicted of responsibility for this and was hanged in Singapore. I did not make a complaint about the interpreter, who presided over the water torture, but I never forgot him.

The physical damage suffered by victims of torture can usually be repaired. But the psychological damage can never be repaired. It accompanies victims of torture throughout the rest of their lives. It certainly accompanied me for a long time until the appearance of a news item in The Daily Telegraph in 1986 intimating the establishment of a new organisation, the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. The distinguished director, Helen Bamber, and her staff helped me enormously. Then came a review of a book by a fellow former PoW, Jim Bradley, in the Telegraph in 1991. By following up the review I was able to identify the interpreter present throughout the water torture in 1943. His name was Nagase Takashi. With my support, my wife wrote to him and we received expressions of deep remorse. This led to our visiting Thailand and Japan in 1993 where we met. I had started the search for Nagase with murder in mind. In the end I gave him a formal written statement of forgiveness, in Tokyo, towards the end of our visit.

The repercussions of August and September 1943 are still with us today. In July 2007, a deputation from north Japan made the journey to Berwick-upon-Tweed to visit my wife Patti and me. It was led by Osamu Komai, son of Captain Komai who was responsible for the dreadful beatings which killed two of my colleagues and which left me very badly damaged. Although aware of my responsibility for the execution of his father, Osamu Komai wished to come in person to apologise formally for the beatings. Then on New Year's Day, this year, Nagase Takashi and I had a telephone conversation. Ideally, Mr Nagase and I would like to meet again but age and health are now problems.

In case anyone is still in doubt whether the water torture is, or is not, torture I shall refer to a Japanese Army document, which is authoritative. I have an extract from the Japanese Secret War Service Guide, headed '”Fundamental Rules for Interrogating War Prisoners”. This was probably issued in the Kwantung Army in Manchuria in 1938. In the list of “official” tortures item No 3 reads: “Putting the person interrogated on his back (it is advisable to raise the feet a little) and dripping water into the nose and mouth simultaneously.” A later section draws attention to the importance of minimising the disturbance caused by victims' screams.

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, published by Vintage, is available for £7.99, and from Times BooksFirst for £7.59, free p&p. 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirst

Eric Lomax: from Post Office worker to Prisoner of War

1919 Born in Edinburgh. Works in the Post Office after leaving school. Is very interested in trains

1940 Commissioned into the Royal Corps of Signals

1942 Now a lieutenant, he is captured and sent to the prisoner of war camp in Kanchanaburi, Siam, now Thailand (where the infamous “bridge on the River Kwai” is located)

1943 The camp is raided by the Japanese Military Police, who think he is a spy because of a map he has drawn of the Burma-Siam railway. They torture him. He is moved to Bangkok and Singapore and ill-treated and nearly starved for the next two years

1945 The war ends. Lomax returns to Edinburgh, now a captain. He discovers that his mother has died and that his father has remarried. He marries his prewar fiancée, with whom he has two daughters

1948 Retires from the Army. Works for the Civil Service (including some years abroad), then obtains an academic post at Strathclyde University

1982 Retires

1983 Marries his second wife, Patti

1987 Discovers the name of the interpreter who was present during his torture via the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture

1988 Meets him in Kanburi, Thailand, and forgives him

1996 Publishes his memoirs, The Railway Man
This has been discussed before, with an alternate point of view.

paracowboy said:
water-boarding and similar, nastier, techniques are used by several NATO militaries in regular training. It ain't torture. It sucks, but it ain't torture.  ::)