Excerpts from 'Hostages to Freedom'By Peter Stone
Singapore had fallen on 15 February 1942 leaving thousands of British, Australian and Indian troops prisoners of war in a number of camps on the island, the main one being at Changi on the eastern end of the island. In October 1942. Six hundred British officers and men at Changi Prison were selected and told they were to be sent to Japan. "The parade moved off to the accompaniment of much shouting and screaming from the Jap guards on the march to Singapore,"' recalls Gunner Alf Baker, 3rd Anti-aircraft Regiment, 47 C.O.D. company who had been in Singapore a year. It was 18 October 1942, the 245th day of captivity of British troops. Under command of Lt. Colonel John Bassett, commanding officer of 35 Light Anti Aircraft Regiment, they arrived exhausted after the fifteen mile march to the docks.
Four hundred sweaty, stinking men were encouraged by bayonet point down into the first hold of a decrepit 6,500-ton ex-Liverpool coaler. The remainder were packed into an even smaller hold aft. A thin layer of straw in each hold had the pretence of bedding. 'During the hours of darkness the ship slipped away from Singapore, rising and falling on a gentle running sea. The silence of the hold, broken only by the creaking and groaning of the ship forcing its way through the sea, was shattered by the cursing of those unlucky enough to fall victim to a dysentery sufferer who, in the darkness of the hold, couldn't find the steps to the deck and benjo. Those who managed to reach the deck were forced back, being beaten down the steps into the now stinking hold' Alf Baker wrote. (There were also 2000 Japanese on the ship).
It was the third day before the hold covers were removed and the wretched men fed for first time. A wooden bucket of rice and another 'with what looked like used washing up water with small greasy suspicious looking bits floating in it' was passed down into the holds. Toilet facilities on deck consisted of a wooden hut suspended over the side of the ship with a slot in the floor. "'The Japs began to entertain themselves by emptying their urine buckets down on to the prisoners below. The Japs would dance up and down clapping their hands as excited children would do"' Baker recalls, referring to them as having been spawned in the sewers of Yokohama. The beatings continued, the rice ration reduced, the heat intensified.
The prisoners soon realised that they were not heading for Japan. On 22 October they arrived at Surabaya and noted an estimated twenty to fifty ships sunk around the harbour, victims of Japanese bombs or scuttled by the defending Dutch. Still uncertain of their destination, they could not however have realised the horrors that lay before them. On 5 November 1942 they entered Simpson Harbour. Surprisingly, there was only one death during the journey, that of Battery Sgt. Major Tommy Lambourne of 11 Coast Regiment, who died on the way to the benjo as a result of dysentery. He was buried at sea.
"All horio come". Paraded on deck, most without footwear, the British prisoners were kicked and shoved down the gangway into landing craft. After two hours marching, to where they knew not, the exhausted prisoners staggered along tracks "'ankle deep in volcanic ash to the foot of a mountain towering over them, spewing out red hot embers of lava resembling Roman candies on Guy Fawkes night. Huddled together, soaked to the skin, they longed for the dawn". (This must have been the volcano Matupi). The following day, 599 prisoners were transferred to Kokopo by truck and placed under the control of the Land Transporting Group of the 17th Army. Not a word was to be spoken to the natives nor missionary staff for fear of death.
Surrounded in their prison by corrugated iron, they were permitted to visit the beach and bathe and given the ultimatum, "'No work - no kai-kai". And work it was - hard back-breaking work digging trenches and unloading barges. The Japanese had not tempered their sadistic humour. Japanese soldiers would place a large heavy sack of rice, sugar or salt on the back of the prisoner to carry from barge to shore. One POW had an open wound between his shoulders. "The Japs would rub the sack up and down on the POWs shoulder as he screamed with pain, they laughing and clapping".
The first death amongst the prisoners on land was only a short time away. Incensed by the treatment of his comrade, one of the POWs grabbed a Japanese soldier and slammed him into the side of a barge. Other Japanese came immediately to the rescue. The British soldier was tied to a tree and left overnight with no food nor water. By the following afternoon he was pleading for water. A tub was brought and placed three feet before the prisoner. A Japanese soldier dipped a tin into the water - and poured it over the POWs feet, urinated into the tin and offered that to prisoner. When he refused to drink, the stinking contents were poured over him. Dissatisfied with this perverted performance, the prisoner's shorts were ripped off and animal dung rubbed on his penis, head and face. 'in a few moments the flies and ants began to eat him alive'.
The prisoners found no trace of their comrade the following morning. When asked. the Japanese said he had died of a fever. 'There was no depth of depravity to which the Japanese would sink' Baker wrote. The Japanese repeatedly told prisoners how they would ravage white women in Australia when they landed. "Their talk about white women used to make my blood boil", recalled Gunner Joseph Fowler. "Until near the end they talked of invading Australia. Many of them were sexual maniacs. Homosexuality was commonplace amongst the Japanese. They had thirty geisha girls at Kokopo where we were held and I heard there were others at different parts of Rabaul".
At the end of November 1942, the British POWs were assembled and told they were to build an airstrip for the Japanese in the Solomons. A young British lieutenant shouted the do's and don'ts of the Geneva convention and was bashed and kicked unconscious until the Jap officer, 'purple with anger', kicked the unconscious man until he was exhausted and could kick no more. Eighty-two on parade were rejected as being not fit enough to work, and told they would soon die at Kokopo. The remaining 516 were taken to Rabaul in trucks for transportation 'somewhere in the Solomons'. (There is some doubt as to the exact number - 516 or 517. Interrogation of Japanese after the end of hostilities indicate the number was 517. That 600 left Singapore is not disputed, nor that one died on the voyage and 82 were left in Rabaul. The number depends on whether the first POW murder at Rabaul happened before or after the contingent left for the Shortland islands.)
'There was now plenty of room in the sheds - and 'Blackshirt the Bastard Jap' had gone with the Solomons group. But no food had been allocated for the remaining horios' recalls AIf Baker. "The guards had no previous experience at dealing with POWs but it didn't take many days for them to show the prisoners what they thought of them. The beatings started again, for no apparent reason. Anyone in a Japanese uniform was to be obeyed instantly. If not, vicious beatings were the punishment. With every Jap to be treated as a master, and a heavy workload demanded by them, it was obvious that a very bleak future lay ahead".
Plantation owner Karl Hoeler saw the remaining British prisoners at Takubar mission plantation living in the native labourers quarters. "They used to come to Kinigunan each morning and carry cargo from Kinigunan beach. They were all badly treated. I saw them thrashed and kicked when they were working. Also a number of Javanese were working with them". It was in November 1942 that Sister Columba was returning to the Sacred Heart Mission at Vunapope from Tapo when she saw some of the British officers and men. "Their condition was pitiful but in spite of this they managed a smart salute in response to my wave".
In terrible health, the British prisoners had asked to see a doctor. Somewhat surprisingly the Japanese agreed, and they were taken to Vunapope and stood outside the barbed-wire surrounding the mission. The MSC doctor, Dr Schuy was brought out to look at them - through the wire. Likewise, the prisoners could look at the doctor, but neither the soldiers nor the doctor were allowed to speak. Needless to say, no medical treatment was received. Such insensitivity reflects on the attitude of some of the Japanese who appeared to have had a cruel sense of humour. Gunner J. Fowler had dysentery, Gunner G. M. Moore a bad wound in the back, Alf Baker beriberi. All the men who remained behind were gravely ill in some way or other. The only British doctors had gone with the Solomons group, so medical attention was in the hands of medical orderly Lance Bombardier Joe Blythe. Diphtheria struck. Blythe isolated patients in one shed, but could not prevent the first death. Now there were eighty-one.
December 1942 - three men die from malaria. Seventy-eight left. No medicine, no quinine. New Year 1943 gives no cause for celebration. Joe Blythe does all he can, but by the end of January there are six more deaths from amoebic dysentery and malaria. Seventy-two left. Joe Blythe confronts the Japs. 'Medicine is for soldiers, not prisoners'.
Some horios are assigned work in the Japanese bakery. There were two daily bakings, the morning bake for Japanese sick at Kokopo, the afternoon bake to Japanese in Rabaul. At great risk, the bakery team smuggled in small amounts of human waste from the benjo to add to the morning mix. Massive food poisoning and dysentery broke out at the hospital. Yet the Japanese were impressed at the cleanliness of the horios in the bakery, always scrubbing the pans thoroughly after the morning mix. They couldn't deduce that this was because the bakers got two doughnuts each from the afternoon mix.
By end of February 1943 another fifteen British horios had died, mainly from disease and malnutrition, leaving fifty-seven. One had succumbed to a particularly severe bashing by Korean guards, 'some of the cruellest men in the world', who had taken over. Some relief was found with a new commandant, Sergeant Junze Higaki who spoke good English and was a Christian. He ordered the prisoners to move to another location but this did not prevent two more deaths from malaria and beriberi. Fifty-five left. Blythe was granted a new cemetery plot by Higaki. The horios were moved to a small valley inland near Tobera airfield. Two tents were erected, with a cookhouse fifty yards away. Coconut leaves were woven for a wall around the benjo a hundred yards away - some privacy at last.
Joe Blythe asked again for medical supplies, but the official reply was "War last one hundred years - so all men die". Hikagi however helped himself to quinine tablets and gave these to Blythe, a small amount every seven to ten days, putting the Japanese at great personal risk. But this new site is soon to be named Death Valley by the remaining horios. Despite the available quinine, malaria was still the main problem, with dysentery, wet beriberi and dry beriberi close runners-up.
Ten more deaths in March 1943 - now down to forty-five. All are suffering malaria, each being attacked on an average four or five days every month. Some victims have two diseases, some all three - malaria, beriberi and dysentery. They knew they had little chance of recovery. "Blythe never ceased his work, but armed only with words of comfort and encouragement, he realised more than the rest that they all had only a slim chance of survival". The prisoners realised the inevitable and estimated eleven weeks for them to be wiped out to a man. Their main concern now was, "who will bury the last man?".
April 1943 - twelve more die. Down to thirty-three. Higaki allowed them to bury the dead with dignity. He would stand a little apart from them and would salute as the body was lowered into the grave in the small but expanding cemetery. 'The plot itself was beautiful and peaceful, with bushes of red and yellow berries and flowers adding colour to this private glade which had now become a little piece of Britain'.
Colonel Asahuno, Department of (Japanese) Army conveniently explained the demise of so many men as quite understandable, in his report after the surrender, dated 29 September, 1945. Those in good health were engaged in the light work at the supply depot there (at Kokopo). However, owing to the change in environments, their unfamiliarity to the Japanese food, the stoppage of the supplies from Japan and the severe war shortage, twenty-eight of them died on March 6, 1943. How convenient that they should all pass on due to malnutrition on the same day. Colonel Asahuno has quite a few facts incorrect, including the number of deaths on the one day.
A new complaint now struck the camp - diphtheria scrotum caused by a vitamin deficiency which caused swelling and rawness in the testicles and making it very difficult to walk. With a scrotum 'the size of pineapples', Lance Sergeant E. Jones knew he would soon die but saw himself fortunate as he would not have to put up with 'this hell' for much longer. He died within days. Another victim, ill with malaria and sunstroke, raved and clapped and shouted, drawing attention from the guards. Contrary to expected opinion, he was not beaten, but the Jap guards danced and clapped right along as if it were a great joke. The gunner died within a few days. (Diphtheria scrotum was given the appropriate name of 'Changi Balls' as it was a common complain of prisoners in Singapore's Changi prison). Another lost his sanity completely, and died believing that he was peacefully at home with his family - instead of lying on a ground sheet in a tattered tent surrounded by death and misery. Others drifted off in their sleep.
May 1943 -Tobera airfield received much attention from allied bombers. And now we see the real cause for the demise of the British prisoners - according to the Japanese side of the story. You see, it was basically the Allies fault - all of that bombing was simply not good for the prisoner's health. As Colonel Asahuno explains, 'As far as circumstances allowed, liberty was given to them to the utmost and POWs were treated, as regards rations and supplies, on the same footing as those of Japanese soldiers, and especially they were given increased rations of flour. Best possible diagnosis, treatment and care and attention for promoting their health was given them by the medical officers attached to the unit. However, due to prevalence of malaria and infectious diseases in that area and insufficient sleep and rest owing to the continuous bombing, their strength declined and weakened to such an extent that most of them suffered from a complication of malaria and intestinal contagious diseases and consequently thirty-three of them succumbed to death'.
That appeared to explain the problem succinctly. But soon four more prisoners died of their privations. "Why only four?", the remaining prisoners asked themselves. Has death taken a holiday? Were they becoming more determined to live now that the Japs were taking a hiding? Twenty-nine left. Four more weeks of strenuous work passed before another death. Then another two, making three for June. Now twenty-six left. July - three more. Allied bombs are very close. August - another death. Now twenty-two. Tropical ulcers add to their misery.
November 1943 - American aircraft bomb the Rabaul region in intensive daily attacks. "Our hopes remained high as American fortresses and their escorts continued the bombing raids almost every day. And soon as the Japs repaired the runways, the Yanks poured more bombs on them. It was obvious that resistance to the Americans became weaker with every raid", recalled Alf Baker. To supplement their meagre rations, the horios sneaked out of their tents at night on food raids. They were generally successful but the meagre supplements to their daily rice diet did not warrant the enormous risk - death was certainly the penalty for being caught.
Three months pass. The next death is in late November - now twenty-one left. The tents are in a terrible condition so a large 30-ft x 16-ft hut of bamboo and kunai-thatch is built in a day. A sleeping platform is raised two feet off the ground at each end. For the first time since arriving in New Britain the horios do not have to sleep on the bone chilling earth.
Thousands of Japanese troops struggled by the camp during the last weeks of 1943, remnants of battles in the Solomon Islands. They built a new camp near the prisoners. Unfortunately 'Blackshirt the Bastard' is back but he is soon put in his place by Higaki. Gunner Jonah Jones somewhat impudently approached the Japanese bully. 'Blackshirt now number ten soldier - you no go back Japan - you finish, die'. Blackshirt looked so dejected that they thought he was about to burst into tears. No sign of the Bushido warrior now, no evidence that he would rather die for his Emperor. His only wish was to survive and return to his homeland, just like the 100,000 or so others on the island. The prisoners did not know the circumstances, but whatever had happened in the Solomons had frightened this Japanese warrior.
'"What about our mates?" they asked Blackshirt. '"hey come back in Maru tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow" he answered impatiently. This brought some joy to the remaining horios, but days passed with no sign of their comrades. They thought that perhaps their ship had been sunk by an American submarine -perhaps they had all been executed by the Japs. Surely not - not all 516 of them.
One evening the horios were attempting to cheer themselves up with a sing song. Suddenly a guard burst into the hut. The singing stopped. The horios waited for the inevitable beating for displaying such merriment. The guard drew himself to his full five-foot-five height and in very good English began to sing 'Just Morry and me, and baby makes three, we're happy in our brue heaven'. He was good and they clapped him. The guard was so pleased he gave each of them a couple of cigarettes. "trange these Japanese!" commented Alf Baker. Songs also had another meaning to the horios. A whistled or sung Red Sails in the Sunset, signalled danger of approaching Japs. When They Sound the Last All Clear, meant, appropriately, just that. The signals did not prevent three men being punished for stealing tins of fish when 'dobbed in by a kanaka'. Sgt Major Juni Tanaka prevented the Kempetai from taking away the three prisoners to Rabaul from whence they would never return. 'The Kempetai corporal argued that he had the right to do so. Tanaka struck him a vicious blow to the face -flattened him - the corporal was subdued'. (Alf Baker lists 'the bastards in Kempei Tai' as Wada, Kujushima, Ishikawa, Yamasta. Wada seems to have been a little horror and although the name Wada is relatively common, he could have been the same guard hated by the American POWs. Patrick Ahern recalls, "The times alternated between good and bad. Some good Commanders and guard staff include S Higaki, Tanaka, Sojo, Captain Nishikawa, 2-Lt. Sirasawa. Bad ones include Cpl Yana, Sgt Harodhi, Sgt Hamada, and all the infantry troops on Watom". American prisoner John Murphy was to observe, "I would say that the Japanese officers, Colonel Kikuchi and his (immediate) subordinate officers, were not brutal themselves but they showed a general disregard and negligence as far as POWs were concerned".
The three horios were made to stand up and take beatings for three days and nights, with only one rice ball and a few gulps of water during the period. They were not allowed to rest, sleep, or lie down and were let off with a warning. "If you steal from the Japanese you will be shotted to death and then severely punished". They were lucky. A native who committed a similar offence was buried up to his neck. Elias, the luluai of Taranata Village, Watom Island recalled, "ToApuki was caught stealing a case of meat and as he was one of my villagers I went to (officer/guard) Sekimoto about this matter and told him that as I had very few boys for work he should not execute ToApuki. I offered to pay Sekimoto for the meat and the crime with pigs, bananas and fowls but Sekimoto said that there had been a lot of stealing and this would not be satisfactory (to his superiors). Sekimoto said that ToApuki would have to be executed. After my conversation, ToApuki was sent to dig his own grave, and all the natives in the vicinity were made to assemble. After the grave had been dug, ToApuki was blindfolded and made to kneel on the edge of the hole".
"A Jap officer sliced off his head which rolled into a second hole" recalls Bombardier W. Murphy. (The native in question was a Tolai, identified as such by the fact that the Australian War Crimes Commission seemed confused that his name was either Apuki or ToApuki. The names of Tolai men are preceded by 'To').
At some time in their stay every horio had felt the weight of Tanaka's fist. Patrick Ahern recalls. 'He was always good to me although later he gave Lance Bombardier Newell a dreadful time'. Tanaka wanted to punish all the horios, thrashing them with a belt and bamboo poles. "Once a prisoner fell to the ground the guards enjoyed kicking and clubbing, sometimes jumping on the prisoner. Tanaka and the guards took a rest after five minutes concentrated effort, lit their cigarettes and lounged about laughing".
"Presento" cried Tanaka on Christmas Day 1943 - and gave them a horse's head. Into the pot it went. Higaki was replaced early 1944 by the ever smart Yano. The horios missed Higaki who had a sympathetic manner and listened to their complaints.
Watom IslandDeath Valley would claim no more lives. February 1944 came with orders to move to Talili Bay where the remaining twenty-one horios were ferried across to Watom Island. They were back into tents again under the control of Watom Unit Commander Colonel Kahachi Ogata, 17 Division Army. By now the prisoners were in a terrible state. Tension mounted. "They cursed the rain. They cursed the Japs. They cursed Churchill and other British politicians , and they cursed themselves. As the days dragged by they began to see the worst in each other. Fights began to break out - men faced each other with lips snarling and fists flying. Not that they could inflict much damage on each other. They looked silly really, like two skeletons locked in a grotesque dance. The Japs thought it amusing and laughed and clapped". Joe Blythe conducted service one Sunday and said with great passion, '"he Japs have failed to beat you, and yet here you are beating yourselves with your own childishness. Jesus Christ said, be child-like, not childish. You are supposed to be men. Then for your own sake, for my sake and for God's sake, behave like men".
During the crossing from Talili Bay one of the barges making the crossing was attacked by an American bomber. A few Japanese were killed, and one badly wounded having taken a canon shell through the face. He was dumped at the church, abandoned by the Japanese. It was obvious that he would die, so was of no further use. Blythe protested. The Japanese medical orderly told Blythe that he could stay with the wounded man if he wanted to. Without drugs there was little he could so, but a roster was arranged to be with the man during his last hours. The attitude of the Japanese toward one of their own men, wounded while on active service, increased the contempt the prisoners already possessed toward the Japanese. "Bushido indeed" Alf Baker said. Yet such compassion by the British prisoners to a dying Japanese was not extended to those alive and well, and every opportunity was taken to put the Japanese down. One Japanese soldier who had lost his nerve always sought the apparent safety of the prisoner's trench when the bombers came over. As the aircraft flew over, the horios would count out the number of bombers, exaggerating tremendously so that finally the terrified Japanese would scream 'no, no' and bury his head in his hands.
The horios remained on the beach at Watom Island for three weeks and then moved into the mountains. "After many hours and utterly exhausted, we stopped at a clearing beside a Kanaka village. The natives gave us shy friendly glances but were afraid to venture near, for fear of the Japs". Death Valley was unpleasant. Watom Island was Hell. "We were made to work digging tunnels four feet wide and five feet high for Japanese shelters. This was very hard work but Tanaka met us fairly reasonably" recalls Patrick Ahern. The Japanese would work at the face, the horios used to carry away the rubble. It was back breaking work. A flat rate of five feet per day was expected. Some days, on a soft patch, this was no problem but when a rock face was met the horios were blamed for delays even though it was the Japanese tunnellers who could not keep up to schedule. (The five British tunnellers selected for this work were Captain Mallett, Harry Buglass, Frank Docketty, Joe Fowler and Alf Baker).
Still the beatings and sadism continued. Baker's shrapnel wound, received during a bombing attack a month previously, opened up. The Japanese guards would see sport in striking Baker on the wound until he collapsed from pain. To encourage him to rise again he was pricked in the back by a bayonet, blood trickling out from more wounds. Baker fainted again and again with the pain. "The Japs walked away laughing. Then Higaki walked into the camp. He did what he could and told the guards told not to entertain themselves at the expense of the prisoners".
"We lived in a kind of mental tunnel of deep blackness," Alf Baker writes. "The cloud of depression closed around us and wrapped us deeply within its folds of utter hopelessness. The fact that everyone suffered the same way was no consolation. Each one was locked in his own thoughts and dreaded each others' company. Sometimes we saw American planes heading for Rabaul. When the wind was in the right direction we could hear the distant explosions, but it did nothing to lighten our darkness. We felt that we had been forgotten and abandoned".
A friendly kanaka at great risk, educated the horios on jungle foods - the roots of the papaya tree, breadfruit, egg-fruit, tapioca and ginger. They already knew of the leaves of the sweet potato and bamboo shoots and were always on the lookout for more food. When the opportunity presented itself, bananas were stolen from native villages the - Japanese were blamed.
After months of back-breaking work, a tunnel four hundred and fifty yards long stretched deep into a mountain. A team had been digging from the opposite side. It was time to join the two. The prisoners could not help but be caught up in the excitement of the breakthrough. The join was only two feet out vertically and fifteen inches horizontally. Quite a superb feat of Japanese engineering. The Japanese milled around laughing, dancing, slapping prisoners playfully on the back, saying. "Ingriss sojah, number-one-boy, domo arigato, go yasumu" - English soldier very good, thank-you, go and rest. More important was the cup of hot tea, a rice ball and a cigarette. Baker recalls that this was one of the few times that the Japanese soldiers treated them like normal human beings.
Next day the work and beating continued. "Months of tunnelling had touched the very bottom of human endurance" Baker recalls. The horios could not go on. The group was divided once again. Joe Blythe was in a group of four and had no access to the others. Some worked on garden plots. Returning one night they found a large python asleep at the floor of the tent. It provided a witness for the prosecution - and snake cutlets with their rice and seaweed soup. The horios had been accused of stealing young chicks. They found them inside the snake.
Alf Baker's wound ulcerated and was now a mass of stinking rotten flesh some four by four inches. A Jap doctor was called - a rarity in itself. Four of Dr Malakami's assistants held Baker down while they cut away all the rotten flesh down to the bone. Baker couldn't walk for a few days and the pain persisted for a fortnight, but the doctor's action saved his leg. Unfortunately Malakami only remained on Watom for a short time before being transferred to Rabaul.
Another year passed. Christmas Day 1944. There was no horse-head for dinner, but at least a rest day was granted and the prisoners could visit other camps to see their mates. But such joys were short lived. Malaria, beriberi and changi-balls prevailed. Captain R.F. Mallett lay dying, his body bloated by wet beriberi. Fever shook his body and dysentery forced him to benjo many times each day and night. "Ingriss pig no work no food" said The Jockey, one of the most brutal and sub-human of the guards impatient at Captain Mallett's slow death, a drunken Jockey delivers a final beating. Two more deaths soon follow. Eighteen left. One of the prisoners, Frank Docketty, enjoyed a change of routine when told to collect shellfish by skin-diving. As near-shore supplies ran low however he had to venture into deeper water. Despite his emaciation, a shark thought he would make a tasty entree but Frank managed to swim to shore. He refused to return, so was chained in a pig sty each night with no covering. Often he stole the pig food which he said was much better than the slop dished up for him before. The Japanese treated him like an animal but his spirit did not break.
Into 1944, the Japanese guards gradually became less brutal, and were prepared to talk with the horios, telling them improbable tales of their success in war as gradually they were losing the battle. A particular favourite of 'Buckteeth' was that of the hero Japanese pilot who ran out of bombs and bullets whilst attacking an American aircraft carrier. Undaunted, the flying hero resumed the attack on the carrier by flying upside down. When he reached the bridge he drew his sword and cut off the head of the American captain, which, for some strange reason, caused the ship to turn turtle and sink. This story amused one of the prisoners so much that he jumped up clapping and cunningly shouted "Banzai - Banzai - fags all round". This delighted 'Buckteeth' and cigarettes were indeed handed around.
Many Jap guards were given the name of 'Gormless' for obvious reasons - they came in all shapes and sizes. In a fit of frustration, and total indiscretion, Baker threw a punch at one Gormless, hurling his seven and a half stone behind a whack on the Jap's nose. Gormless wiped the blood away with a small sweat towel , grunted something and walked off. "That's it" the horios thought. Baker would not be with them in the morning. The penalty for such rashness was death. Gormless was sure to return. And that he did. He came alone, confronted Baker - and handed him a banana and a packet of 'Rising Sun' cigarettes. The horios were speechless. They had no idea at the time the significance of change of the attitude in the Japanese. Within a month the war was over.
By the middle of August 1945 Baker could no longer walk and like many others was close to death. Then they heard the words wished for so many times over the past three years. "Igriss sojah ik Igirisu, senso ijo" - English soldier go England, war over. They were told that Japan had ended the war as a humanitarian gesture as they were killing too many Americans. Rations were improved and all prisoners given fruit, clean clothes, soap - and hair clippers. Higaki apologised and said they could have been given fruit sooner but the Japanese commander would not allow it. 'Toward the end the Japanese were particularly friendly and protective toward us and seemed to be generally overjoyed at the conclusion of the war' Ahern recalls.
FreedomSeptember 6, 1945 - a day the eighteen remaining British prisoners-of-war would remember for the rest of their days. Each was dressed in a Japanese uniform and assembled for the move from Watom Island. Two were on stretchers. The little church by the beach that they had seen on arrival lay in ruins. Landing craft took the prisoners across to the mainland; vehicles transported them on to a camp near Rabaul - a camp with huts and bunks and blankets. They were inspected by Japanese medics, medicines administered, and horrible ulcers 'treated with a white powder'.
The following day the British, no longer prisoners of war, were taken by truck toward Rabaul with a large Japanese armed guard escort which caused them some concern. It was not too late for treachery. A Chinese forced-labour group waved as they passed. They noticed the appalling devastation of the once thriving town of Rabaul. The once spectacular Simpson Harbour was barren of all ships. Only beached and wrecked barges littered the shore and portions of the hulls or super-structures of sunken ships protruded above the waterline. Very little had escaped allied bombing.
They were subsequently transferred to the HMAS Vendetta where the men were examined by the ship's doctor and the Japanese clothing exchanged immediately for Australian naval uniforms. By nightfall they had arrived on the north-east coast of New Britain and disembarked at Jacquinot Bay. Englishman Alf Baker was still a stretcher case. All were admitted to 2/8th Australian General Hospital where they were given tender care by Australian nurses. Baker faced amputation, but it was decided to try a new wonder drug called penicillin. It had a remarkable effect and Baker's leg was saved.
After a week at Jacquinot Bay, the group was taken by plane to 2/7 Australian General Hospital at Lae, a large well equipped hospital with facilities for tropical ailments. All the ex-captives were suffering from beriberi , malaria and dysentery; some had terrible ulcers and hookworm. After a week, the seventeen British ex-POWs had recovered sufficiently to be sent on to Australia for further repatriation care and then back to England.
The condition of the prisoners angered the Australian troops and it was only strict discipline that prevented any more bloodshed. "Are there any of these bastards you want us to deal with?" the horios were asked. After some hesitation, someone replied, "o, don't waste ammunition, they are not worth it. All we want is to get out of here as fast as we can".
The Fate Of The Ballalae MenAfter the war the fate of the 516 British prisoners of war who left Rabaul for 'somewhere in the Solomons' became known. They were taken to Ballalae in the Shortland Group south of Bougainville. There they were sent to work to build an airstrip for the Japanese Navy and Army. Late in 1943 the island was attacked and captured by the 3rd New Zealand Division. When the fighting was over, natives on nearby islands told the New Zealanders that when the airstrip was finished the prisoners were lined up and shot. Remains were found by the Australian Army War Graves unit after the war and re-interred in the Port Moresby War Cemetery. Identification of individuals was not possible. That is the short version of the story. What really happened at Ballalae will never be known as there were few witnesses other than the Japanese implicated in the crimes. But from statements taken by the Australian War Graves Unit at the end of the war, from Japanese officers and surviving Chinese prisoners, it is possible to piece together a vivid and not altogether pleasing scenario of events.
The British prisoners left Rabaul by ship toward the end of November 1942. The Japanese had taken control of the Shortland Islands of which Ballalae is part, and commenced to build an airstrip on the island. Ballalae Island is pear-shaped with dimensions of approximately 2000 yards east-west and 1900 yards north-south, and has sufficient land for a single wide strip and taxiways on either side. It is surrounded by a fringing reef, an idyllic island under peacetime conditions. Four Japanese Naval units and an Army unit initially occupied the island. The (Navy) 18 Construction Unit (Kenselsui Tai), under the command of Engineer Lieutenant Commander Norihiko Ozaki, arrived on the island on 26/27 November 1942, a month or so prior to the prisoners. Ozaki was commander of the island till early January when Commanding Officer Lieutenant Reichi Kimbara arrived. Ozaki and Kimbara received their orders from the South East Area Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka based in Rabaul. Kusaka must bear the responsibility for events on Ballalae, even though he visited the island only once for a short stay of less than an hour.
Captain lsamu Miyake, in charge of an anti-aircraft battery on the island, recalls the British prisoners arriving by 'a small transport with Army guard' at the end of December 1942, whereupon they became the responsibility of Ozaki and his 18 Construction Unit. Despite their miserable health and emaciated appearance after what must have been a voyage to and from hell, it was clear that the British prisoners were to be used as slave labour to construct the airstrip. Osaki demonstrated his authority on the day the POWs arrived at Ballalae by shooting an officer who had, it was reported, attempted to swim away from the island.
The prisoners were housed in tents between an Army unit and the shore on the western tip of the island. Judging by the statements of Japanese after the war, concerning the lack of vegetables and the hot, miserable, malaria infested conditions that they had to endure, one can imagine the privations of the prisoners who soon succumbed to the effect of exhaustion, malnutrition and lack of medical supplies. Lt. Norihiko Miki recalls, 'Ballalae Island is an unhealthy place and there were always a large number of sick, mainly malaria cases, and we suffered from a shortage of drugs'.
Although under Ozaki's command, the POWs were guarded by Lt. Senda in charge of the Army unit when not actually working on the air strip, and it would appear that both Ozaki and Senda were responsible for the harsh treatment of the British, and possibly the many Chinese also known to have been on the island. The Chinese were to report frequent beatings, water torture, being strung up by the thumbs till dead, and everyday killings, particularly of the ill. On one occasion a Chinese was tied up in a sack and used for bayonet practice, whilst another sick Chinese was placed in a sack and buried alive. Just how many Chinese were on the island is not known, nor how many deaths, but at one time thirty Chinese were reported on the island. Many had been captured in Canton and taken to Rabaul and then on to Bougainville or Ballalae. They remained on Ballalae for only a few months. The statements taken from Chinese who had been on Ballalae were all from survivors who had been transferred to Buin or other areas prior to the end of the war. Native labourers were also employed on the island but as they were not subjected to brutal treatment and worked in month-long shifts, they were most likely local Shortland Island natives. The airstrip was completed about the end of March 1943.
A number of air-raid shelters were built throughout the island, but due to seepage in the coral, they could not be constructed more than a few feet below the surface and were covered with coconut tree logs and earth. Miki states that these were for the prisoners also, however other sworn documents suggest that the prisoners were not allowed to even dig their own slit trenches. Many prisoners simply kept on working during an air-raid, and suffered the consequences. Many were killed by allied bombs in this manner. Each time a raid took place, the British prisoners would be beaten. Chinese POW Kwung Lim recalls, 'On one occasion after an allied plane had dropped a bomb on a Jap kitchen killing four Japs they beat all the Australians (sic). As each one entered the compound after work he was struck with a piece of timber about 5-ft long and about 5-inches in diameter all about the body. About ten Jap guards took turns at the beating. Each one was struck seven or eight times. Four of the prisoners were beaten into unconsciousness, revived with buckets of water and then beaten again. The four were so badly beaten that I think they were likely to die'. Chong Sy Kwong recalls, "Some of the Australians (sic) who attempted to ward off the blows with their hands were then struck on the head. Those who did not attempt to protect themselves received about ten blows but those who attempted to protect themselves were severely beaten. They looked to be so thin and weak"
It appears that the vast majority of the prisoners, some three hundred or so, were annihilated in one allied bombing raid. Miki recalls that it was during a raid in the middle of February that a direct hit was made on the small POW compound. Chong Sy Kwong recalls that after the raid, he saw about 150 bodies, and that only about one hundred prisoners went to work. The bombing and subsequent high death toll is confirmed by all those interrogated by the Australian War Graves unit.
Miyake recalls that at the end of April 1943 he received a signal from 1 Base Force Headquarters at Buin warning that an American naval task force was in the vicinity and to be prepared for invasion as per a plan drawn up by Lt. Kimbara and Lt. Senda of the Army Unit. "So far as I can recall, the plan provided that the Army would have responsibility for the Prisoners of War on the island in the event of an enemy landing being attempted, and that they would dispose of the prisoners". The US Navy did not attempt to make a landing, but on 30 June 1943 after an allied air attack, the remaining seventy to one hundred British prisoners were lined up and bayoneted or killed with a sword. The bodies were buried in a large pit on the island. In November and December 1945 436 bodies were exhumed.
Despite over two thousand Japanese being on the island, not one of the 108 interviewed after the war would admit to actually coming in contact with the British POWs. Major B.C. Millikin, B Sqn 2/4 Aust Armoured Regiment reports that 'in view of the wall of silence raised by these Japanese it would appear that they have either been ordered not to say or admit to knowing anything or else they have decided upon this course themselves'.
A warrant for Ozaki 's arrest in Japan was indicated in the Japanese press. Despite having a young family, Ozaki planned to commit suicide in July 1946, apologising to his family and friends in a note. 'I don't know for what reason but I am going to be tried by our former enemies as a suspected war criminal. The question of justice is beside the point, but as for myself. I do not think I will be able to bear it. No matter how I ponder the matter. I cannot bring myself to feel like surrendering to the authorities. Therefore I have finally decided to kill myself without saying a word to anyone. My mental state is not explainable, but please try to understand'. It appears that little of the Samurai remained in Oiaki for he appears not to have gone through with the suicide hid, considering he made a ten-page confession dated 8 August 1946.