Tall grass ripples serenely on the sides of the mountains around this town in the north of Taiwan, but Jack Edwards’ thoughts are on a horror beneath the rocky slopes.
That’s where he and hundreds of other half-starved prisoners of war toiled in a hellish copper mine for the Japanese during World War II. They spent years picking away in the tunnels, fed only watery vegetable soup and roach-infested rice.
“Night after night, men would roll up in their blankets and never wake up,” said Edwards, a Welshman who recently returned with three other former prisoners for a memorial service.
Books and movies have told the stories of suffering in other squalid POW camps in Europe and Asia. But few are aware of the atrocious conditions in the network of camps on Taiwan -- then a Japanese colony and a key supplier of Japan’s military.
The island’s history since 1949 has gotten more attention, when it became the base for Nationalist Chinese forces that lost a civil war to the communists on the mainland. Later, it became a manufacturing juggernaut, churning out shoes, sporting goods, polyester clothes and electronic equipment.
Edwards has a different focus, on the tunnels of the Kinkaseki copper mine, a place where men around him died of starvation or dysentery while working half-naked in the damp earth.
Each day filled the POWs with fear. Fear of being hit by the broadside of a mining hammer wielded by an angry Japanese overseer. Fear that the tunnel would collapse, crushing their bones as they slowly suffocated.
The men worked in heat above 100 degrees. To get into the tunnels, they descended nearly 1,000 uneven steps in the dark. They often stood in sulfurous water that stung their raw, bare feet.
At the time, the mine was the largest in the Japanese empire. Much of the copper was used to build fighter planes and other weapons of war.
Edwards was among 100,000 British soldiers captured when colonial Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1942. About 3,500 were sent to Taiwan; others went to camps scattered across Asia.
More than 1,000 soldiers -- mostly British -- were held at Kinkaseki, and nearly half of them died there.
Edwards published a history of the camp and has campaigned to get the governments of Japan and Britain to officially recognize the suffering of the Kinkaseki POWs.
In Chinkuashih, a marble memorial is a reminder of those who died in the camp. Standing next to it, Edwards tensed while talking about the past.
“War is a dirty, filthy business. The worst business of all is to be taken as a prisoner of war and die slowly by inches,” he said.
During the memorial ceremony, Edwards and other former POWs walked in single file, medals dangling from their suit coats, to place a wreath at the base of the monument. Families of several veterans who died placed small wooden crosses.
Veteran Harry Brant’s daughter and granddaughter came with him to gain a sense for the first time of the hardships that he had to endure. Brant, from Newcastle, England, was visiting for the third time.
“All we’re taught about World War II is Hitler and how Singapore fell and that is it,” said his daughter, Molly Graham. “It’s like we’re ashamed to talk about it because it was a defeat.”
The wartime camp isn’t widely known in Taiwan either. Chang Yen-hsien, president of Taiwan’s Academia Historica research center who attended the service, said, “This is the first time I’ve heard of this.”
Michael Hurst, director of the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society, said the Japanese had at least 15 POW camps around the island. Hurst, originally from Calgary, Canada, lives in Taiwan and is writing a book about the camps’ history and also runs a Web site on them. He said it is important to tell the story so future generations don’t forget to guard against such cruelty.
So far, Hurst has found the sites of 14 former camps and has interviewed more than 100 former POWs. Some of the old camps were built over, and there is little physical evidence remaining of any of them.
In Chinkuashih, a metal plaque hangs on a concrete column that was part of the camp’s entrance. Rusted bolts jut out of the post, which stands next to a partial wall with plaster cracking off the underlying bricks.
“Some good comrades went through these gates. Not many returned,” said Brant, wearing a beret and leaning on a cane as he sipped a beer.
“Coming back today, I only wish they were here to see this because I don’t think they’d have any hatred inside of them. That’s all gone. The hatred, it’s a thing of the past.”