- Kenny, L.B.
- RAN operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
During my stay there they were given a 17 foot crocodile that went into the pot. I was offered some, but declined. Some of the PO Warders who tried it said it tasted like fish. The prisoners cut it up like mince meat and put it on Naval issue biscuits.
The Japanese were very hard workers and needed no driving to make them work. They were capable of almost anything and built a church, cinema, swimming pool, wharf, and storage sheds on Manus. They also maintained the whole fleet of motor vehicles on the Island, the electric light supply, made exquisite furniture, painted pictures in lacquer and repaired clothing and boots. All worked except twenty or so who were too old or unfit for heavy manual labour. These men worked in the gardens or in the quarters.
They always had two complaints which they raised every month in the recognised manner, i.e. they wanted white rice in lieu of brown rice and resented having to salute the Australian Flag at colours each morning. I think the last was justified as the Japanese are fiercely proud of their country and look down on anyone who isn’t Japanese. The brown rice was a necessity to prevent beriberi. This point was explained to them each month. They understood the nutritional need for the brown rice and appreciated that it cost more to supply it, but they still wanted white rice. The Japanese cook explained to me that the white rice tasted better and more national dishes could be made with it.
Officially the internal running of the camp was done by a committee of three, consisting of a camp leader, assistant camp leader and interpreter, the first two being elected by ballot every three months. The interpreter was selected by the Commandant, and only when the Navy did not have one available. Actually over 80 of the criminals could speak good English and the remainder communicated efficiently in Pidgin. However, when raising anything official such as a deputation to the Commandant, they would only speak Japanese.
Unofficially, the undisputed boss of the compound was ex-General Imamura, General McArthur’s opposite in the SW Pacific. I do not know if Imamura sought this position or whether he was given it by the prisoners because he was the highest ranking ex-officer present. Physical force apart, we could not stop the prisoners bowing to him each morning before colours. For this ceremony Imamura would sit with ex Rear-Admiral Tanaka on his right, an ex-Naval Surgeon Captain (whose name I have forgotten) on his left. We tried to stop the practice, not to stop marks of respect, but to impress on the prisoners that they now all had the same status, i.e. convicted war criminals. However all our attempts failed.
Tanaka was known as the ‘Fighting Admiral’ and among his achievements were:-
- Sinking of HMAS Canberra
- Sinking of President Kennedy’s PT Boat
- Running the ‘Tokyo Express’ from Rabaul to Guadalcanal.
The prisoners were a mixed lot with a variety of backgrounds; e.g. an ex Davis Cup player named Sato and a medical graduate of Harvard who acted as camp interpreter for most of the time I was there. He was never fully trusted and held us all in contempt for our ignorance, subservience to Britain and the gall of an insignificant country like Australia holding Japanese as prisoners.
One of the criminals had migrated to Brazil before the war and married a Brazilian woman. On the outbreak of the war, he rallied to the colours and returned to join the Japanese Navy. This caused complications as under the regulations governing the prisoners they were allowed to write home one letter a month. These were sent to Melbourne for censoring. This man alternated each month in writing one month to his mother in Japanese and the next month to his wife in Portuguese. Difficulty was experienced in getting the Portuguese letter censored.
During my stay there a Japanese Red Cross ship visited Manus and left parcels of food, cigarettes and other permitted items including bags and bags of the coveted white rice. The criminals had a real party for weeks after, cooking their favourite dishes, smoking Japanese cigarettes etc. We couldn’t help but rejoice with them.
When I was there, the Chief Warden was an ex RN man. He was a splendid chap whose only defect was that he assumed that the criminals and police boys (who only spoke Pidgin English) understood his cockney accent. Every time he ordered the prisoners to fall in, which wasn’t often, he never failed to please the ex-Navy men by ordering ‘Navy first’. As I am sure you all know, the Army was the Japanese senior service and the ex-sailors were thrilled to be able to take precedence over the Army. From what the prisoners told me and from my own readings, there was considerable jealousy between the two services.
In 1950 and 1951 a further series of trials were held, this time on Manus Island. The second series was necessary as it took years to round up those to be tried, collect evidence, witnesses, etc. The numbers tried are not known to me but they were far smaller than in the first series. Six were condemned to death and were hanged in 1951, the execution being carried out by an Army Warrant Officer. The ashes of those executed were to have been sent back to Japan but owing to non-stop rain, it was impossible to cremate them, so they were buried at sea.
My duties as Commandant’s Secretary were minimal so I had plenty of time to get to know most of the prisoners. They all agreed that they had fair trials but I only found one who said that he committed the offences for which he was sentenced. The others maintained they were innocent. This man was actually a Formosan, being one of the twenty odd Formosans amongst the prisoners. Their tragic plight was brought home to me by one of our house boys, Matsomoto, telling me that he was dreading his release in a few months as he would be returning to Formosa unable to speak the language (Chinese) now the vernacular in Formosa. He was a young man and during the whole of his life had to speak Japanese as the Japanese forbade the speaking and learning of Chinese. I have often wondered how Matsomoto got on.
The Formosans were spurned by the Japanese, being considered very inferior. Thus when the prisoners had organised sports day (Baseball being the most popular) the Formosans were completely excluded. Volley Ball and Table Tennis were also popular sports.
Some may remember reading a book published shortly after the war entitled ‘Slaves of the Sons of Heaven’. In it was an account of the trials of Australian POWs in the Burma area. The author described all the Japanese Officers as bastards and a Major Saito as an arch-bastard. Saito had six Australians who had attempted to escape shot, i.e. direct contravention of the Geneva Convention. For this crime he was serving a life sentence at Manus. As he was fluent in speaking English and able to read it well, one day we sent for him and made him read the passage dealing with his order for the executions. He got furious and denied the whole thing. We smartly told him what we thought of him and threw him out of the compound office. He was a nasty piece of work; taller and more heavily built than most Japanese. I believe he was disliked even by his own fellow prisoners.
Each night at 2000 the criminals were allowed to listen to the radio Tokyo for about thirty minutes. One day in May 1953, they told us that on a certain day in June a ship called the Harka Maru would be arriving at Manus at 0800 to repatriate them to Japan. The NOIC NG was immediately informed and signalled Navy Office who told him that they knew nothing about it. We therefore told the Japanese to forget it and so did we. But on the exact date and time the very ship did arrive to transfer them to a gaol in Japan – we received about a fortnight’s notice of their leaving.
The prisoners were transferred to the ship by lighters and were greeted with wild emotional scenes by the crew. They, together with their new guards, female nurses on board to care for them and even the staid Japanese foreign office officials in charge of the transfer arrangements, cried for happiness that the prisoners were all last to return home. It was a truly amazing scene especially when the prisoners discarded their prison garb and put on colourful kimonos and traditional Japanese sandals. The only unpleasant feature to me was that the poor Formosans were left completely out in the cold, being confined to a small area on the quarterdeck. I rejoiced with the Japanese and felt it only fair that they, like all other war criminals, should serve their sentences in their home land and not on a remote tropical island.
Two of the sailors who were at Manus at that time (both are now officers) (one was a PO Warden and the other a Stores Assistant) who got to know the prisoners well, have told me since that they have met ex-prisoners whilst they were in Japan. Both told me the now ex-prisoners were doing well in ‘civvy street’. One was a doctor, Dr. Sato, who was employed on our quarters as a houseboy. Sato readily attended to our minor complaints and sporting injuries, thus saving us the trouble of going to the sick bay and getting messed about as only SBAs can. Everyone liked Sato as he was unfailingly cheerful, helpful, hard working and generally did all he could to make us comfortable. My friend told me that during Expo 70 held in Japan he was serving in HMAS Stuart and met Dr. Sato in Tokyo and to his immense pleasure found him well and running a successful private practice.
So ended the saga of the Japanese war criminals under direct Naval custody and control. To the Navy’s credit there were never any attempts to escape or violence. The prisoners were very well looked after, receiving excellent food and medical treatment. If they took ill, as quite a few did, with terminal complaints like cancer, they were flown home to die amongst their families. The prisoners left holding the RAN in high esteem.