by Doctor Bob
The little-known story of what happened to many Japanese soldiers after world War II.
|At the end of World War II, many of Japanese soldiers captured in New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, were interned by the Australians for several months on Muschu Island, some 20 km off the coast of Wewak, in what is now Papua New Guinea. What befell those prisoners was of little interest in the chaos after the war, and almost no records exist as to the details. Finally, it may be possible to shed some light on at least some of their experiences.
After uncovering the remains of several Japanese soldiers on Kairiru in 1976, we had contacted the Japanese/Papua New Guinea Friendship Society, and their response was far beyond anything we might have expected.
We had discovered the bones after a landslide had exposed a cave, whose entrance had previously been covered by a cave-in. For details on how we discovered them, refer to my story entitled,”Japanese Bones on Kairiru Island”.
The Headmaster at St. Xavier’s High School, Brother Patrick Howley, had immediately sent off the tags and some transcriptions of the Japanese writing we had found, but it was several months before we heard anything back about them. It took the form of an elaborate letter, embossed with many seals and characters, which in perfect English, firstly thanked us for our return of the artifacts, but more importantly, for our preservation of the remains of the soldiers they identified.
They went on to ask if they might send a delegation from Japan to retrieve the rest of the artifacts, and to give the bodies a proper funeral. They explained that it was of the highest importance to the families of these men that they receive this final tribute of respect, and went on to ask if they might be permitted to send a Shinto priest to perform the ceremony.
That evening, we sat around in the brother’s library, on the second floor of the monastery. Although I was not a monk, I shared the monastery with them occupying a small room on the main floor, and had joined them for a cool drink, and some after-dinner discussion about the letter we had received.
Brother William Borell, our resident scientific expert, seemed to have no doubts that we should allow them whatever accommodations we might have available, and welcome them to the Island.
“It is our Christian duty to offer them our hospitality, and it is our human duty to give their families the peace they deserve after so long. You have no idea of the dishonor and humiliation that they have been subjected to by the loss of their sons in an unmarked grave. They would have been forced to live in shame.”
The general discussion seemed to agree with Br. William, but Br. Pat, who had lived on Kairiru longest, brought up something that none of the others had thought about.
“We need to ask the locals about how they would feel about it first”, he said, sipping his nightly Glenfiddich. “There is still a lot of hard feeling on Kairiru, especially in Kragur, on the North side of the island. The Japanese had caught some of their people and treated them very badly, and they haven’t forgotten it.
We need to have a Kebung (meeting) with the men on this side, and then get over to Kragur to talk to their men. I don’t need to remind you that there are no Japanese Trade-stores in Wewak yet, and Japanese tourists rarely come here.”
This more or less tabled the discussion for the evening, but Br. Pat went on to tell us what he knew of the occupation.
“There were over a thousand troops stationed here on Kairiru, manning the anti-aircraft guns and submarine base at the eastern tip of the island. The placement of the guns allowed them to guard the aerial entrance to Wewak, and the geography of the sea-bottom there made it possible to approach very close to the island before surfacing. A natural bay granted them a hidden harbor for refueling and rearming”.
My own father was a veteran of the war in Europe, so by now, I was enthralled in the story, and I questioned him more about the events that went on then. He took another sip of his whiskey, and then lit a cigarette, drawing deeply and thoughtfully, while gripping it with the cigarette close to his palm, as he often did.
“Yes, mate, there was a helluva fight around here, and the Japanese forces in New Guinea surrendered right there at Wom peninsula, not 20 km away on the mainland. In fact, there’s a Japanese Freighter sunk in the strait, right off Bik Muschu, as well as lots of other remains of the war lying around in the bush.”
I had been to the small monument to the men who died on Kairiru, located on the beach near the wharf at St. Xavier’s. There, mounted in concrete, and regularly painted grey to keep them from rusting away, were a heavy machine-gun, and a mortar launcher. Simple lettering in the wet concrete at the base read, “To those who fell on Kairiru.” At the time I hadn’t thought much about it, but now I felt like I needed to go back and look at it again.
As the school generator puttered to silence, and Pat got up to head for his room for the night, he added, “The worry we have now is, the unexploded ordinance the Americans dropped all over the island, especially in the swampy areas on this side. They sank into the mud, and haven’t likely all been found yet. The villagers of Bruniak found one a few years ago, and the boys uncovered one in a new garden we were making last year, both very much alive and dangerous. The army had to come out and set them off, bloody exciting!”
With that, he headed off to bed, and so did I, but I lay thinking about what it must have been like for the poor men back then. After a year on the island, I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like without antibiotics. Cuts, scrapes and bites got infected almost as a matter of course, and I had gotten a number of them myself. It seemed that only antibiotics could stop the spread of infection, and I had unfortunately seen some rather horrific cases of ulcers that had gotten completely out of hand, on both students, and villagers. I drifted off to sleep with the images of misery in my mind, and a little thankfulness that I was born in my own time.
Over the next couple of weeks, in Papua New Guinea fashion, Br. Pat organized and hosted meetings on both sides of the island, and sought the reaction of all the Bik men of Kairiru. Of course, this meant providing all the food, and as much drink as he could afford, which truly wasn’t much, being a monk. Everyone at the school chipped in a bit, and somehow it was enough so as not to embarrass anyone, and at the same time, get the job done.
Strangely, it was not the men of Kragur who objected to the Japanese delegation, so much as the men from Dagar on our side of the Island. It turned out that there had been payback made by the men of Kragur, whose relative had killed by the Japanese. Before the Americans were able to round up all the survivors on Kairiru, the men of Kragur had hunted them down in the bush, and killed many as they tried to evade the bombing and the Australians. They felt that their debt had been paid.
One Big man from Dagar, from the Southwest part of the island, got up and talked for a long time. I spoke Pidgin quite well by then, but it took me a while to understand what he was referring to.
It seemed that just before the Japanese were taken off the island by the Americans, a group of Japanese soldiers had raided the village gardens above Dagar, and while doing so, one village man had been killed, and his wife had been raped by the soldiers. This story became more relevant when he finally finished by telling us that this woman was still alive, and that she had given birth to a boy afterward, who was definitely half Japanese. When he was pointed out to me, I recognized a man I had seen before while I treated villagers at the Aid post, but I had not spoken to him, as he had not required any medical help.
Now, the real problem became evident. This young man claimed the right of payback for the death of his “father”, the husband of his mother, but his real father was the man who had raped his mother!
After this became clear, Br. Pat stood up in the center of the circle gathered around the village. Assuming the Melanesian style of oration, he first repeated what had been said by all the other Big men who had spoken, and agreeably complimented them on their wisdom. Then he turned to the young man in question, and spoke to him directly, which is uncommon in a Kebung. He spoke only in Pidgin, but what he said was simply this..
“If you want, I will write the Japanese Mastas, and ask them what payback they will offer for the death of your father Uliup, and also the offense against your mother, but what will you do if they refuse? You know, if you make trouble for them, you will have to go to court.” With this final pronouncement, Br. Pat returned to his seat on the ground, and unconcernedly took out his Trade-store Cambridge cigarettes, and carefully passed out one to each Big Man at the circle.
While he was doing this, the young man nervously got to his feet and stood waiting for his chance to speak. Br. Pat whispered to me that normally such a young man without status in the village would not speak at a Kebung, so he was waiting for permission from the Bik men.
Indeed, this was true, as after he had popped a betel nut in to his mouth, an old man near the center of the circle, wheezed out in Pidgin, “Whusat man I gat Tok?” This was basically a challenge to declare himself, what status he had, and what right he had to speak.
“Nem b'long mi Shaku”, he began, giving his name. After that, he began in halting English to speak to the group, but mainly to Brother Pat. He told how he had grown up as a half-caste in the village in his uncle’s house. His life had been very hard. His mother had grieved many years for his father, as no payback had been made for him. The Japanese had gone, never to return, and after he had grown up and understood, he only wanted justice for his mother and himself. He told how the priest at St. John’s Seminary on Kairiru had taught him to read and speak English a bit, and through him, he had learned of the Japanese occupation. Now it seemed that there was a chance that they were coming back, and he could ask for payback for his father. Before sitting down, he also promised that he would make no trouble for the Japanese Mastas when they came, but asked if he could meet them.
This little speech was accepted amiably by the men, and consensus was soon reached. Br. Patrick would write to the Japanese and invite them to come to Kairiru, and he would also include a description of the claim Shaku was making, and await their response.
Walking back from Dagar village to the school, Br. Pat told me that he thought that the Japanese would definitely want to settle this issue agreeably, and since they had been so thankful for our assistance, he felt they could come to some sort of arrangement.
The letter was composed and sent off, and for a couple of months the whole discovery was forgotten in the day-to-day life of a boarding school with four hundred and fifty students.
Our first notification came in the form of the morning radio broadcast from Wirui Mission in Wewak. Br. Canute cheerily informed us in his thick Australian accent, that there were, “ aaff a bloody regiment of Nips were sitting in the Marist Brother’s Mission house in Wewak right then, waitin’ for a ride out to Kairiru, at the soonest possible time. They’re suckin’ up all me grog, mate!”
Our boat, the TAU-K, normally made at least one trip a week into Wewak for supplies, and as it was just about to leave that morning, Br. Pat and a few other monks went along to greet our guests and accompany them on the trip back out to Kairiru. It was during the “”Talley-O” season at the equator, and this brought a brisk Northwest wind and rain virtually every day for three months, so the trip out to the island can be quite rough and tiresome, as well as a bit nausea-inspiring in the choppy seas. It was a 12 meter Aluminum landing-craft, powered by two Volvo-Penta 105 hp marine diesels, with a drop-front loading ramp. It could make good very good speed, but in rough water the constant spray made the trip far from pleasant.
Meanwhile, Br. Bryan Leak, who was deputy-headmaster at St. Xavier’s, supervised a school-wide work day to get the whole place ready for our guests. Br. William, who had been imprisoned by the Japanese in Hong Kong during the war, knew the culture better than anyone, and gave us our best advice.
“Everything must be clean and neat”, he said with authority. ”Keep it simple, and don’t forget to bring lots of flowers for the guest house. I remember they loved the Roses in the Monastery garden in Hong Kong, and plundered them mercilessly to give to their girl friends. We have no Roses, but there are many orchids.”
Br. William was a true expert on the flora and fauna of the South Pacific and Asia. He had written a number of scientific articles on the area around Singapore, which have been published now. He later earned a Masters Degree, without examination, from the University of Melbourne in Australia. We all took his advice as usual, and set to work.
The boat didn’t arrive back to the island until just before dark that night, which is always around seven. The travelers were cold, wet, and tired, but not very hungry, since most were a little sea-sick. The wind had been so strong, that they had been forced to take the longer route around the eastern side of Muschu, in order to take advantage of the calmer water on the leeward side of the island as they came out. This had turned a two hour trip into a 4 hour trip against the wind most of the way, especially coming up the strait.
As the boat tied up to the wharf, the large group of boys from the school had gathered around it. They spontaneously struck up a loud chorus of an Island welcome song that they all knew, or had learned since coming to St. Xavier’s. This seemed to greatly please the delegation, which waited respectfully on the boat until the song was finished.
There were seven men in the group, all dressed very neatly in either short-sleeved Tropical suits, or white shirts and shorts, with socks and sandals. The one who appeared to be the youngest, stepped forward and said to the assembly, “We thank you for your welcome song, and we also would thank Br. Patrick Howley for his invitation to Kairiru.” With that he bowed formally, and everyone began to help unload the boat, and carry their luggage up the beach to the guest house.
Noticing the small monument off the path, they immediately turned toward it, and having translated the inscription, they knelt in a short prayer. This, the large group of boys that had gathered, witnessed in silence, taking their cue from the monks and others teachers present at their arrival.
Continuing on up to the house we had prepared for them, we were rewarded by much bowing and thanks for their accommodations. They seemed very satisfied that they would all have their own room, and the island-style shower we had rigged up from the tank up higher on the hill above, seemed to create a bit of a joke, when they realized that it was cold water!
After leaving their luggage, they followed us over to the Brother’s dining room, which was actually a small separate building from the Monastery. By now, they hand got their land-legs back, and with it, regained their appetites too.
Rice and Kau Kau (sweet potato) had been cooked in great abundance, and the cook girls had done something I really liked with the Mung beans which we grew on Kairiru. Stir-fried with Kau Kau (sweet potato), it made a wonderful side dish, and with all the many kinds of fruit for dessert, it was notably the best meal I had enjoyed since coming to Kairiru. Br. Desmond had contributed the main dish of roast beef, which he had carefully hoarded in the cooler at St. John’s seminary, also on Kairiru.
With the monks leading the prayer this time, we all sat down together, and were just about to begin dinner, when one of the men stood up, and through the interpreter, asked if he might be allowed the honor of giving a toast before we began. He appeared to be the senior member of the group, as his hair was completely white, but undiminished in its fullness.
Of course, this permission was immediately given, and reaching into his pack that he had brought with him, withdrew a large bottle of Japanese Scotch, top quality. The round of appreciation that this earned, gave him a few moments to compose his toast, while the glasses were filled. Finally, he turned stiffly and faced the east, and raised his glass.
As he spoke only Japanese, I have no idea what he said, but it was very intense and full of emotion. Finishing his toast, he snapped his glass to his lips and drank the libation in one quick gulp, which we all imitated. This formality complete, we sat down, and the dinner began in earnest.
Of the seven men, only the youngest, who had spoken at the wharf, could speak English, and he was there as their interpreter. Now, he rose again to introduce the delegation to the whole group of monks, and the other staff members, like myself that had been invited. Four of the men, were family representatives of the men whose tags we had found. One was a Shinto preist, and the other, whom we had assumed was the eldest, was veteran, who had been a Doctor on Vokeo Island, some 40 kilometers to the Northeast. He was amazingly fit and healthy looking, and I had noticed his agility when disembarking from the boat. I had a flash of imagery what he might have looked like as a young medical officer thirty years earlier, and was somewhat lost in thought, when my turn at introduction came along.
When I stood to tell them my name and where I was from, they made exclamations of surprise when they heard that I was from Canada. The Doctor told us he had been to Canada, and travelled to Banff National Park, and also attended the Calgary Stampede a few years before. He seemed to have been much impressed with the beauty of Banff and Canada in general. He went on to tell us quite a story, via the interpreter, about how he and his family had spent three days on a ranch in Alberta. They had gone on a trail ride into the mountains, and he got quite excited in describing a Cinnamon bear they had startled in the bush.
I was most pleased however, by the way he ended the story by saying what a wonderful place Canada was, and how friendly everyone had been to them while they traveled. I somewhat shyly assured him that the people of my province, Saskatchewan, would even outshine Alberta for hospitality, and that what we lacked in mountains, we made up for in breath-taking open spaces, and thousands of crystal clear lakes, teeming with fish.
The monks soon chimed in with their own recommendations for spots to visit in Australia, and the banter soon led to a lively discussion about a multitude of places and topics. The poor interpreter was barely able to eat dinner, he was kept so busy at his occupation!
They were all tired after a long day of travel all the way from Japan, but more so from the trip out to the island, so they asked if they might be excused. They had informed us that they intended to begin the funeral service at dawn the next day, and that it would take up most of the day. Br. Pat assured them they would be afforded as much privacy as possible for their ceremony, as the next day was a school day. He had requested that no one use the soccer field that lay adjacent to the small monument on the beach, where they intended to perform the service, and the villager’s market day, normally held nearby, wasn’t scheduled for that day.
We all retired for the night, but I noticed that the kerosene lights in the guest house remained on till long after the generator sputtered to silence at ten. I fell asleep to the sound of what seemed like chimes ringing down below, and it steered my dreams into some uncomfortable territory that woke me several times.
The next morning dawned unusually clear and calm for the rainy season, and the morning deluge down the slopes of Malangis had ceased early. By seven, when the school bell rang for breakfast, the steam was rising off the lawns and the sun was so bright it hurt. As I dressed for breakfast, I heard the sound of a big gong ringing down from the beach. The normal roar of the waves on the beach was much subdued, and I could also hear chanting at intervals. Walking down the path from my house on the hillside above the school, I could see that our guests had already built a large funeral pyre out of the driftwood that the boys had collected for them, as part of our preparations. As yet, it remained unlit, but I could see wisps of smoke coming from the several braziers they had placed around the site.
The day was a busy one for everyone at the school as usual, and we never noticed their activities until just before school broke for lunch, when the boy’s attention was drawn to a large column of smoke rising from the beach. The flames leapt high above the pyre, and were clearly visible from the classrooms. The smoke billowed energetically upward for more than a hundred meters, and then was carried off to the east by the Tally-O wind, which had picked up over the day.
New Guineans do not cremate their dead, and this led to a number of discussions with the boys that afternoon during work in the gardens, as we all did, ten hours a week. They were very curious as to why the Japanese would want to destroy the bones of their Timbunas (anscestors), when they should take them home and keep them, as they do. I tried to explain a bit about Shinto Buddhist ideas to them, but they were mainly just glad that the bones of the soldiers were gone. They had been carefully stored in Br. William’s cupboard in the Science room, and many boys had been afraid to go into that room, even during the day time while Br. William was there! Now, at least, their spirits wouldn’t come around to bother anyone. I bowed to their convictions, and went on with my hoe.
By the time work was over at 5:30, we saw that the ceremony at the beach was over, as the site had been vacated. We all headed off for a much anticipated shower and a rest before supper at seven. As I passed the monastery, Br. Bryan Leak called me over to ask if I would have some nicer clothes for dinner that night. It seemed that the Japanese delegation had asked if they might make a special presentation that evening, and we were to all gather in the library upstairs in the monastery after dinner.
We all seemed to rush through the evening meal, in anticipation of what might be in store later. By the time sunset had necessitated the lights be turned on, we all had assembled in the main room of their library, chairs having been brought in from everyone’s room. Br. Pat was resplendent in his Philipino shirt and colorful Lap Lap, wrapped island style around his waist. He had even trimmed his beard!
We all sat quietly holding our drinks, which poured condensation in the tropical humidity, while the Japanese men came in to take their places. They all bowed formally to us before sitting, while the Doctor and the interpreter remained standing.
He began by thanking us once more for all our hospitality, and also the respect they had been given to complete their funeral services. Then, he asked us to come together to the balcony of the monastery, where we could see large pile of the cargo they had brought with them, stacked beneath a blue tarp below on the lawn. At his signal, two of the boys gathered around had pulled back the tarp to reveal and amazing display of goods.
There were cans of many strange and interesting foods, and a multitude of electronic gadgets, from Tape decks to amplifiers and cameras. There were many items that were obviously for the boys, and they set up a great cheer when it was explained to them. When this was distributed with the assistance of the head prefects in the school, we all returned to our seats, as the Doctor seemed to have something else to say. After first refilling our drinks from his supply of Scotch, we once again waited for him to speak.
He began very softly, facing the ocean, and told us his story. I will retell it now, as best that I can.
He had been transferred to the sea-base on Vokeo Island in June of 1944, and he had been one of the thousands of others who had been rounded up by the Allied forces after the surrender of Japan. He had been brought to Muschu Island, along with some thirteen thousand other men, and left there for three months, before they were repatriated to Japan.
As we listened, it seemed to me that he must have considered himself lucky to have been spared, when more than one hundred and twenty thousand of his countrymen met their end in New Guinea. I was wrong...
Muschu is a smaller coral island, located between the mainland and Kairiru, and it has none of the naturally occurring springs of Kairiru, nor does the soil support the rich vegetation found on volcanic islands.
By this time, he held his glass with a shaking hand, and his voice became emotional. The interpreter sat looking down at his sandals, translating each phrase as it was spoken, and we were all cast in a spell of silence, broken only by the buzzing of the night insects.
As he turned to finish his story, I could see that tears were streaming down his face, although he remained in control of himself. He told how the Australians had left no guards on the island, only boats patrolling around it night and day. There was no escape, as all the tribes on the mainland were against them, and the local people had been taken off the island.
The men had eaten every living thing on the island, right down to the coral, and also hunted the reefs out as far as they could, but there just wasn’t enough food for so many men. In the end, they had turned on each other, and he was only one of 900 men who survived. At this point he was so caught up in emotion that he had to stop for a minute. I have never forgotten his last words in the many years since.
He said, “The Japanese army did many bad things in the war, but they weren’t the only ones.”
After such an outpouring of openness, it seemed that there was nothing to do but sit silently and grieve a little for his poor comrades. Br. Desmond, the spiritual leader of the monastery, suggested we all say a little prayer for the men whose bones we had found, and all the people who had lost their lives in the war, both Japanese, and otherwise.
The gathering politely broke up soon after that, and as I walked back up the hill with another teacher, we talked about the evening. We had both spent many happy hours snorkeling and swimming on the reefs of Muschu, which had no muddy streams to interrupt the coral. As we parted, we had to admit that it would never seem the same again.
The surprises weren’t over however, as we were about to learn the next morning. We awoke to the sound of Kundu drums coming up from the village. Soon a procession was spotted coming down the trail.
It was Shaku, coming for his payback!