“Special Prisoners”

Recent work at the Center for Research: Allied POWs under the Japanese (Mansell.com) has uncovered two secret radio POW camps in Japan during the war. A few Allied prisoners were known to have worked in broadcasting for Radio Tokyo during the later years of the war, but details were vague. While the production of this camp was openly broadcast over the airwaves in Asia and the Pacific where Japan hoped to influence Allied troops, the second camp remained top secret through the war as it received both Japanese and U.S. military transmissions. POWs who were selected as “special prisoners” for radio transmission work at Bunka camp and radio reception at Kanigaya camp had to tread a fine line: obey their captors to avoid punishment but sabotage when they could without detection.

Japan had kicked its propaganda machine into high gear in the early months of the war as it swept across the Pacific. Among the newly captured Allied prisoners arriving on the Nitta Maru in January 1942, a few were chosen to smile for cameras and record carefully worded messages to their families to convey Japan’s benevolent treatment of the POWs. A glossy magazine ironically titled “Freedom” published aerial photos of Wake under siege and staged photos of prisoners and bucolic camp life in the spring of 1942. JOAK (NHK) radio station continued to send crews into the POW camps to record personal messages for the folks back home. However, as the tide of war turned against Japan, foreign radio competition was also strengthening in the region and pitting jazzy, modern programs against Radio Tokyo’s stodgier format. While POW camps provided a potential source of talent, Japan’s challenge was to screen, interview, and entice prisoners to agree to the work. Ultimately more than two dozen British, Australian, and American POWs with prewar radio, writing, or entertainment experience were transferred into Bunka camp and several hundred Nisei were also brought on board to monitor foreign broadcasts, translate, and perform other tasks.

A small roster labeled “Bunka” deep in the archived documents for Tokyo-01-Omori camp lists thirty Allied POWs – officers, NCOs, and civilians, most of whom were quietly transferred into and out of Omori to reside and work in the Bunka Gakuin Vocational School in Tokyo. Prior to that, three Allied POWs were put up in a luxury Tokyo hotel in 1942 to edit English-language scrips aimed at Allied troops. In the spring of 1943, they started the “Zero Hour” musical program and soon Bunka was set up to inter the foreign workers as more prisoners came on board to write radio programing during the winter of 1943-44. “Zero Hour” was expanded (including the controversial Tokyo Rose), and POW-themed shows like “Humanity Calls” and “Postman Calls” featured POW messages to families. A variety of book adaptations and scripted shows were added to the lineup. The Bunka prisoners chipped away at the Japanese propaganda load by using verbal tricks, slang, and veiled sarcasm to skirt the censor.

Ten of the Bunka POWs were Wake Islanders: civilians Joseph Astarita, Dar Dodds, Milton Glazier, Larry Quille, Stephen Shattles, Mark Streeter, and John Tunnicliffe, and Wake military personnel Ens George Henshaw, PFC Arthur Andrews, and Cpl Albert Rickert. At least one other civilian, Jack Taylor, was chosen for the radio work but refused. According to his brother, Bill Taylor (who successfully escaped a prison train and later wrote the book Rescued by Mao), Jack was transferred with others to Omori in November 1943, but when he refused to “write propaganda” he was tortured, beaten, and finally sent to another camp where conditions and treatment were abysmal. The lesson was clear: this job was not a matter of choice. Bunka camp rewarded its inmates with better food, medical care, and lighter labor than the other prison camps, but quitting was not an option.

Unlike the commercial enterprise of Tokyo Radio, Kanigaya Camp operated as a detachment of the Tokyo Naval Communications Unit. At the Radio Station Listening Post select prisoners were put to work in signal reception at what would become a large, technologically advanced facility that copied U. S. naval transmissions for decoding work in Tokyo as well as transmitting those of Japanese naval operations to fleet headquarters. Allied POWs were chosen for their experience as naval radiomen and telegraphists. The first four Kanigaya prisoners were U. S. Navy radiomen from Wake Island taken off the POW transport Nitta Maru and held for several months at Ofuna naval interrogation camp in early 1942 before being sent to the listening post: Marvin Balhorn, Victor Besancon, Frank Kidd (who died in 1944), and Charles Sargent. Over time other radio-qualified Allied POWs came into the camp where they lived and worked in isolation from the outside world. Much remains to be discovered about the Kanigaya operation.

After the Japanese surrender in August 1945, both camps closed, and the POWs were slipped back into the mainstream camps: Bunka men went back to Tokyo-01-Omori and Kanigaya men were sent back to the Ofuna interrogation center. Their rosters were buried in Omori and Ofuna records and they were technically liberated from those camps. Several of the Bunka internees including Wake Islander Mark Streeter were detained for months-long investigations of treason. (The Bunka camp page below includes a very long, defensive memoir by Streeter titled “They Called us Traitors.”) Eventually all were cleared but Iva Toguri, a Nisei who voiced “Tokyo Rose” and was convicted. While the special radio camp prisoners may have enjoyed relatively better living and working conditions, they were still subject to deprivation and punishment had to constantly mind the treacherous line between sabotage and collaboration and defend their actions long after.

“Tokyo Calling: Japanese Overseas Radio Broadcasting 1937-1945,” PhD dissertation by Jane M. J. Robbins, 1997
Thanks to Wes Injerd and Rita Merta for opening the doors on this topic.


  1. Very informative, especially about something I had known nothing previously.

  2. Another great article. I believe I saw a preview of a movie that is coming out on this very subject.