Q: Did the Soviets treat the Japanese POWs they captured as badly as they did German POWs, some of whom are kept in camps and gulags until the 1950s?
— Knox Martin, Memphis, Tennessee
A: The Red Army captured nearly 3 million German POWs during World War II. About one-third died in captivity during the war or shortly after. Most of the survivors were released by the end of 1946. Approximately 85,000—labeled “war criminals” — were held until 1950, subject to forced labor. The harsh Soviet treatment of German prisoners, however, is eclipsed by Nazi Germany’s barbarous treatment of Soviet POWs. Approximately 3.3 million Soviet prisoners were systematically starved to death by the Germans from 1941-45. Second only to Jews, Soviet POWs were the Nazis’ largest group of victims. Compared to these horrors — and Japan’s cruel treatment of Allied prisoners — Japanese POWs in the Soviet Union did not fare so badly.
On Aug. 8, 1945, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. The next day, the Red Army launched a massive invasion of Manchuria, quickly overwhelming the Japanese defenders. Sporadic fighting continued until Aug. 30. Meanwhile, the Red Army pushed into Japanese-occupied northern Korea and made amphibious landings on Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands, making good Stalin’s aim to retake the territory Russia lost to Japan in 1905. That autumn approximately 600,000 Japanese Imperial Army troops were marched north into captivity, to toil in labor camps throughout the length and breadth of the Soviet Union. Two hundred thousand worked on the Baikal-Amur Mainline project, a railway to run parallel to, but well north of, the Trans-Siberian. Some 60,000-70,000 Japanese detainees died of disease, exposure and hunger, most in the winter of 1945-46. Repatriation of Japanese POWs began in 1946, was mostly completed in 1947-48, and continued in dribs and drabs until 1956.
—Historian Stuart D. Goldman is the author of “Nomonham, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory That Shaped World War II.”
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