The Real Tenko

Despite being a fictional account, the storylines featured in the groundbreaking drama Tenko reveal the many real horrors women endured at the hands of their enemies....


Despite being a fictional account, the storylines featured in the groundbreaking drama Tenko reveal the many real horrors women endured at the hands of their enemies while imprisoned in concentration camps - facts that had previously not been common public knowledge. While treatment of POWs during wartime is undeniably harsh for all concerned, the fact is that women were and are treated differently from men. One of the most detailed account of women captured by the Japanese during World War II is based around the invasion of Corregidor.

The Women of Santa Tomas

Corregidor is an island in the Philippines' Manila Bay that has served as a vital defence structure to any naval attacks against the capital city of Manila. During World War II, the island had been the site of several battles but it finally fell to the Japanese on May 6th 1942.

When the island fell a total of 79 women were taken prisoners and imprisoned in a concentration camp of Santa Tomas. All the captives were American and comprised of 66 Army Nurses, 1 civilian dietician, 1 civilian physiotherapist and 11 Navy nurses.

According to the account of Lieutenant Colonel Madeline Ullom, Santa Tomas was the largest cohort of captured U.S. uniformed women on record. While incarcerated Ullom and fellow nurses created a hierarchy among the inmates. They organized shifts and began care for other prisoners who were captured, but despite the different roles their Japanese captors treated them equally badly.

All these women had to constantly fight off starvation and disease, with an average weight loss being about 30% of their body weight. During that time all nurses suffered from diseases such as beriberi or scurvy.

Fortunately all survived the ordeal but according to Ullom, "our atmosphere was one of a dusty pall, ever present, in which we moved, worked, tried to eat, tried to breathe in an endless nightmare."

Women POWs in Europe

During World War II POW camps for women were set up all over Europe. A particularly vivid account reserved for us comes from Janina Skrzynska, who was one of many women that formed part of the Polish Home Army and were imprisoned by the Nazis in the North West German region of Oberlangen, in a special penal facility just for women POWs.

According to her account, the German authorities did not see the women as equal to the men and refused to give them "prisoner-of-war status", which afforded them certain internationally recognised conditions in which POWS had to be detained.

While the male prisoners were sent to camps that were automatically under the care of the International Red Cross the women were kept in overcrowded barracks separated from the main POW camps by barbed wire.

Janina's Story

In Janina's account there were two hundred prisoners in each rotten wooden barrack, which comprised of three-tier bunks and only two cast-iron stoves burning damp peat "that produced more smoke than heat."

"In these cramped conditions," Janina wrote "cold, frequently hungry, and lacking even the most basic sanitary facilities, these women had to endure the severe winter of 1944".

In an attempt to survive the intense cold, the inmates made the most of the decrepit barracks. They ripped out planks from the bunks, floorboards and door and window frames for fuel. However, this was stopped when camp authorities started imposing penalties for destroying government property.

Janina also describes the kind of meals they received. "In the mornings and evenings a tepid herbal tea, frequently mouldy bread, the occasional piece of margarine or a spoonful of beetroot marmalade. At midday we would receive soup from bitter cabbage or grubby peas with two or three jacket potatoes."

Solidarity in Numbers

In these grim surroundings it often falls on camaraderie and unity to survive. An excellent example of this can also be found in Janina's account from her time in Oberlangen. In January 1945, the first children were born in the camp, but the commandant ordered that the children would not be given clothes "because its mother has nothing."

These words were enough!" Janina wrote. "Every woman who had anything to spare - a piece of bed linen, a handkerchief, a blouse or an undergarment - would undo the stitches, cut, sew and wash. So many bonnets, baby gowns and nappies were made for the first child that there was also enough for those who were born later. Cartons from Red Cross parcels were converted into cradles."

On-going concern

Of course, women POWs is not something that is to be consigned to history. There are many women serving in the military who are imprisoned in military camps throughout the globe but because most of us still think of warfare as engaged largely by men, less consideration is given to those women who have to endure sometimes greater hardships than their male counterparts, including rape and abortion.