■ Won-loy Chan "Burma: The Untold Story" (part 1)
…Of the prisoners brought in on 3 August, none attracted more attention and curiosity than did a young Korean female who answered to the name of Kim. Morris Force Kachins had captured her in a bunker along with a Japanese soldier.
The Comfort Girls
Kim was a "comfort girl" and looked the part in an above-the-knee length dress that was obviously all she was wearing. We put MP guards around her and Sgt. Karl Yoneda of the OWI*1 asked me if he could ask her a few questions. Since we were overwhelmed with legitimate POWs to question, I said yes. I never did learn what Karl asked her or what she answered. I asked her a few routine questions later, but it was readily apparent that she had no valuable information. The nest day we put her on a plane for Ledo to be turned over to the British who were responsible for all POWs and civilians.
There are no official records of the Korean comfort girls. No one knows how many of these unfortunate young women were forced into prostitution by the Imperial Japanese forces during the World War II. Estimates run as high as 200,000. Mostly daughter of Korean farmers and peasants—although some came from the city slums and some may have practiced the oldest profession previously—between 1935 and 1945 they were rounded up by the Kempei Tai and sent to China, Burma, Guam, Malaya, the Philippines, the Dutch East Indies, in fact anywhere in the vast Pacific theatre of war where Japanese troops were garrisoned. Thousands were killed during the bloody fighting in the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. Following the Japanese surrender, many were repatriated by the Allies, eventually returning to Korea. The Japanese destroyed all records of this chapter in the history of the Imperial forces. Only a few photos remain today. The comfort girls were organized by the Japanese into what they euphemistically called the Women's Volunteer Labor Corps*2. They were grouped down to platoon level of about fifty girls each. Some were exclusively for the pleasure of Japanese officers. Others serviced NCOs while the least attractive were forced to cater to the lowly private soldier of the Emperor. Each platoon-sized group was commanded by Mama-san, usually a middle-aged Japanese woman who spoke Korean. When the girls weren't engaged in their primary occupational specialty or were ill, they acted as the washerwomen and barracks maids in the troop rest areas.
No one knows that has become of those who survived the war. Most would be in their early or mid-sixties today. United Nations troops in Korea between 1950 and 1953 reported that some of the girls continued to practice the profession after returning to Korea. Some also did that on Okinawa. For the vast majority, however, the stigma and shame resulting from what they had been forced to do prevents research and the absence of official records leaves one to conjecture as to the fate of those still living.
The 18th and 56th Imperial Japanese Army divisions in northern Burma each apparently had a platoon of comfort girls attached. Most were kept in the headquarters areas, principally in Myitkyina and Bhamo. When Myitkyina fell on 3 August 1944, some twenty-one of the girls were still there. How many had attempted to raft down the Irrawaddy could not be determined. Undoubtedly, many who tried were killed by Allied marksmen from the river banks along with the fleeing Japanese troops. Others probably died from starvation and exposure in the jungles of north Burma. About a week after Kim was picked up, processed, and sent back to Ledo, twenty more of the girls either turned themselves in or were picked up by our forces. In various stages of dress and undress, they could have caused a small riot among both Chinese and American troops who hadn't seen a female in quite some time. However, a quick-thinking American military police officer immediately segregated them from the male prisoners, found clothing that more adequately covered them and got them into tents inside a guarded barbed-wire enclosure, where they were protected from victor and vanquished alike.
At about 0930 hours on 8 August, Sgt. Grant Hirabayashi, an interpreter-tranlator with the 5307th came to see me. (When Ichimura and Koike had been recalled to NCAC*3 headquarters, we'd been able to get help from some of the Nisei assigned to Merrill's Marauders.) "Captain," he said, "you aren't gonna believe this, but I've got about twenty female, I think Korean, POWs down at the center and I need help." Along with sergeants Howard Furumoto and Robert Honda, Grant and I went down to the improvised female POW processing point. A GI MP guard opened the gate and let us enter. Inside a large British style tent with the sides rolled up because of the heat were the female prisoners. They were dressed for the most part in ill-fitting, shapeless, and not very clean dresses or baggy pants and blouses. They were sitting or squatting on makeshift mats. And elderly Japanese Mama-san in the traditional Japanese kimono was with them. The girls were young, eighteen to twenty-four was my guess. Some, despite their makeshift clothing and lack of even rudimentary grooming, were still attractive. Their expression varied. One or two appeared defiant, but most wore looks of fear and anxiety. Some obviously had tears in their eyes or running down their cheeks while some with their heads bowed low appeared to be praying. None exhibited the coquetry usually attributed to camp followers. I'd heard the stories of female prostitutes serving with the Japanese and had only half believed them. But here they were. Could they have any intelligence information that would be of help to us? After all, it is said that a man is most vulnerable during the act of love. I was anxious to obtain some valuable intelligence since so far at least the low-ranking soldiers I had interrogated hadn't provided much.
I had with me a number of photographs of Japanese officers who were supposed to be commanders of units of the 18th and 56th divisions that I showed to the girls, which Grant asked them to identify in his fluent Japanese. The girls (Koreans all) spoke some Japanese, but it was of the bedroom and kitchen variety and extremely limited. When you added that to their confusion, fear, and general lack of education, the answers they gave weren't worth much. They mumbled in mish-mash of Korean and Japanese in answer to the questions, but one of them did finally identify a photo of Colonel Maruyama as commander of the 114th Regiment. (I got the impression that the young woman who made the identification had known the good Colonel Maruyama very well indeed!)
Aside from that we got nothing of value. We had reached an impasse with the girls looking at us and us looking at them. After some hesitation, one of the girls spoke to the Mama-san and the next thing we knew all the girls were chattering hysterically. The old Mama-san listened and then told the girls to be quiet. She looked at all four of us and then approached me. (She also obviously recognized rank when she saw it.) She looked around again, and this time included Grant in her look. (She also obviously recognized who spoke the best Japanese in the group.) Then, looking at me she spoke to Grant. She asked if the girls could be permitted to know their fate. I instructed Grant to tell her that confinement was only temporary. That just as soon as possibly they would be sent to India (I doubted if any of them knew where India was) and eventually back to Korea. Grant spoke in his best Japanese. The Mama-san translated to Korean.
*4：Colonel Chan was a combat intelligence officer on the staff of Genral Joseph W. (Vinegar Joe) Stilwel during World War II. He took part in General Stilwell's Second and Third Burma campaigns, including the bloody battle for Myitkyina in June , July, and August 1944.