During World War II the entire area was occupied by the Japanese Army and Changchun served as the capital of the Japanese-controlled puppet state in Manchuria. China's last emperor Pu Yi was installed as the head of the Manchukuo government by the Japanese. He resided in the Imperial Palace in Changchun, which is now the Museum of the Manchu State Imperial Palace. I visited that museum in the early 1980s.
Historians recently discovered the remains of the infamous Liaoyuan POW camp. The camp had never been "lost." Local residents simply didn't talk about it. Only the oldest residents knew that foreigners had once been incarcerated there during World War II. Of the 20 barracks in the formerly 30,000 square meter camp, only five rooms have survived the decades of neglect.
What makes the Liaoyuan camp different is that its prisoners were all high-level officials: 41 Allied senior officers and more than 200 field rank officers were detained at the facility before 1945. Prisoners included Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright, who served under General Douglas MacArthur during the war, and Lieutenant General Arthur E. Percival, the British Commander at the time.
In August 1945, the American military launched "Operation Cardinal" to rescue Lieutenant General Wainwright and the other Allied prisoners. When Wainwright was liberated, he "looked like a tattered scarecrow -- quite thin -- and was losing his hearing....his job in the POW camp was to sharpen razor blades for everybody," reads one rescuer's diary.
Life magazine's picture of General MacArthur signing documents as Supreme Allied Commander during formal surrender ceremonies on USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945 is available at http://www.life.com/image/50433085. Standing behind MacArthur are Lieutenant General Wainwright and Lieutenant General Percival, both of whom had been rescued from the Liaoyuan POW camp only a few days earlier.
The camp has numerous tunnels that are still intact. "What are these tunnels for? And when they were faced with an imminent defeat, why did the Japanese move the high-level officers to this camp?" asked historian Li Jie. "Is it possible that the Japanese were holding them as bargaining chips in the negotiations that followed their surrender?" surmised Chang Yijie, head of the research group. "But Japanese troops destroyed all the files upon their retreat, leaving few clues for us to guess the answer," said Chang.
Now a museum is being built to conserve the remains of this POW camp, but the lack of historical records has propelled Chinese historians to launch a global search for witnesses, hoping that their memories can rescue this veritable wartime monument from oblivion.
"We will send historians to the United States, Britain, Netherlands, Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan to find those veterans who had survived the Japanese POW camp in China," said historian Song Jianguo.
The first destination is the American city of Walla Walla, Washington, the hometown of Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright, Commander of Allied forces in the Philippines and former prisoner at the Liaoyuan POW camp.
"Barbara Clark, the mayor of Walla Walla, has invited the Chinese historians to visit those local veterans who survived the Japanese POW camp," said Song. "We hope to bring back oral accounts, videos, and objects to help us complete our museum."
If you or one of your elderly relatives can help supply any history of the Liaoyuan POW camp, you might contact the visiting historians via the Walla Walla City Manager's office at 509-527-4522.