Surrounded by rolling hills, Jinguashi is a picturesque former mining town on Taiwan’s north-eastern coast. But beneath the lush foliage and distant ocean views lies a dark and forgotten chapter in history.

Jinguashi was the location of Kinkaseki camp, one of more than a dozen prisoner of war (POW) camps, where around 4,500 Allied soldiers were held captive during World War Two.

Taiwan was a Japanese colony at the time and the soldiers – who were captured by the Japanese military between 1942 and 1945 – were forced to work in copper mines under appalling conditions.

At the camps, they would be forced to heave massive stones from the valleys for the farming of sugar cane and dig man-made lakes on a paltry diet of rice and watery vegetable soup.

Many suffered from a disease called beriberi, a vitamin deficiency that made their testicles swell, but were still forced to work.

Captives slogged in temperatures of more than 40C in the summer, and in the winter, their manholes were so cold, many died.

If they didn’t meet their daily targets, guards would beat them with mining hammers.

For decades, these camps were forgotten, with no sign of their dark past or the prisoners of war who were held there.

But Canadian historian Michael Hurst was determined to change that.

“These were real slave labour camps… it suddenly hit me (that) we have to find the prisoners and tell their story,” Mr Hurst told the BBC.

Mr Hurst, who is in his 70s, has been based in Taiwan since 1997.

He has spent the last two decades identifying the locations of all POW camps in Taiwan and erecting memorial plaques at each one.

During his search he also identified thousands of captives and contacted more than 800 of them, whose correspondence he has compiled in his book Never Forgotten.

All of them have now passed away except one who is 100 years old.

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“The men told me: ‘It was easy to die; living day to day was the hard part,'” Mr Hurst told the BBC.

“I was very touched by their stories and shocked by the treatment they got… There have been times I’ve shed tears; they’re pouring their hearts out at me in a way they haven’t done even with their families.”

Mr Hurst has a very personal connection to the project too – his uncles and aunts had served in Europe and he had always wanted to do something to honour veterans of the war.

He also recognised that little was done to commemorate the war effort that took place in the Pacific, even though 30 million people died in the region.

‘We were always hungry’

Around 140,000 military personnel were sent to Asia to defend allies against Japan’s invasion.

Mr Hurst says the camps in Taiwan held senior ranking officers, and were considered among the most brutal in the region.

His research is based on archives, war tribunal testimonies, diaries written by the men involved, information provided by Taiwanese guards and testimony from some men who were held captive.

One of them was US Army Sergeant Carl A Pasurka, who had joined the war effort at the age of 24, turning down his boss’ offer of a deferment when he was drafted in.

“We were always hungry, and our thoughts were always of survival and getting back home,” he wrote in a letter to Mr Hurst before he died.

He recounted an incident when some young Taiwanese girls attempted to pass the prisoners bits of food, and “were promptly slapped around” by the Japanese guards.

According to the US-based National WWII Museum, the death rate at Japanese POW camps in Asia was much higher than that of camps run by the Germans and Italians in Europe.

Around 27% to 42% of Allied prisoners held in Asia died from starvation, untreated illnesses or executions, compared to 1% to 2% in Europe.

Japan was a signatory to the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war, but hadn’t ratified it.

“It wasn’t a law in their eyes,” Mr Hurst told the BBC.

“[To the Japanese military] If you surrender, you dishonour yourself, your family and the emperor, so the most disgraceful thing was to be a prisoner of war. So the prisoners were treated like animals, worthless.”

A bittersweet homecoming

When the men were finally released, freedom did not meet their expectations either.

Many were urged by their governments not to talk about their capture, so that flawed battle strategies wouldn’t become public, according to Mr Hurst.

Others suffered from lifelong illnesses from the beatings and diseases, while some died prematurely.

And for many of the survivors, the mental scars of prolonged imprisonment stayed with them for years.

“Jack never talked about his experience as a POW,” said Eileen Astley, whose late husband John A. Farmer served in the UK’s Royal Artillery.

“It made me feel incredibly sad that he had gone through this and I was married to him and didn’t even know how much he had suffered.”

She and her daughter, Lin Mount, have visited Taiwan twice to see the camp where he was held captive.

During the second visit, Ms Mount said “the camps still got to me with both anger and sadness, as well as peace, especially… being able to touch Dad’s name. I felt the closest I could to my Dad when at the camps”.

Her father died of camp-related illnesses when she was just 11.

Blot on history

For the Taiwanese, the camps are considered a blot on their history. However people also recognise that at the time, the island was subject to its colonial ruler, Japan.

“Taiwan played a big role in the war as it was a major base from which Japan would launch many of its wartime expeditions,” Mr Hurst said.

While WW2 history is taught in Taiwan, critics say not enough is mentioned and hardly anything is taught about Allied POWs held on the island or the strategically important role Taiwan played.

There is also the fact that some Taiwanese also willingly worked or fought for Japan.

They were trained to be loyal to Japan, and worked as camp guards or volunteered to serve in the imperial army, including as kamikaze soldiers who went on suicide missions to bomb the Allies’ warships, Mr Hurst discovered.

There has since been fierce debate over what Taiwan teaches about its wartime past, and “this is the kind of thing I’ve been fighting in Asia,” according to Mr Hurst.

He pointed out that there were few annual memorials for Allied soldiers killed in the war’s Pacific front, compared with those held for soldiers killed in Europe.

He believes history should be taught and more should be done to honour the soldiers who fought in the Asia Pacific, so that history is not repeated.

After the war ended, several of the camps’ Japanese officers and Taiwanese guards were convicted in wartime tribunals and sentenced to prison, but many were later granted amnesty.

“Probably more than 50% of the people were never punished,” Mr Hurst told the BBC.

But some Taiwanese guards have apologised to the POWs, he said.

“When these guards apologise and the prisoners say ‘I forgive you’, the guards can die in peace too. So forgiveness is a wonderful thing,” Mr Hurst said.

For Mr Hurst, the most rewarding thing is giving the former inmates recognition for the hardship they went through and sacrifice, in the twilight of their lives.

“There wasn’t one I talked to who didn’t tell me ‘finally someone cared’, they were so grateful they weren’t forgotten… these men suffered fighting for the freedom that we enjoy today.”

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