Watom Island British POWs

by Peter Leggett

Peter Leggett & Watom IslandLiving in the New Guinea Islands since the late 1960’s, I first heard of British POWs’ being interned on Watom Island some 27 years ago. I started to investigate more into stories told by a few older natives from the island who were there through those war years. Many times I walked across the rugged terrain on different parts of the island hoping to find some clue; talked with more locals to find information and maybe even grave sites, but for a few years never came up with any real evidence of British POWs’ being interned there.

I talked to a number of expatriates who came in the area right after the war and ex- servicemen who were stationed around Rabaul. Nobody even knew British POW’s were transferred to Rabaul during WWll; so all I had was a few stories from local natives of Watom Island, which was not much to work on.

Sometime later, while visiting Bita Paka Commonwealth War Cemetery, I came across five graves belonging to British soldiers. Also nearby were a few unknown graves that may have been British as well, but found no records to confirm this. Often I wondered where those five British soldiers came from. I asked local authorities and still got nowhere.

A few years later a retired U.S. Army Air Force veteran, Jose Holguin came to Rabaul to find remains of his aircraft and crew. They had been on a bombing mission over Rabaul and were shot down. The B 17E crashed in the central Baining area of East New Britain and Holguin was the only survivor. Because of severe injuries the villagers had no choice but to hand him over to the Japanese, as they could no longer care for him without proper medicine and knew he would die. Holguin became a POW from June 1943 to the time of his liberation in September of 1945. I found him to be a wonderful person and his exploits are another story. Unfortunately, he passed away seven years ago.

Talking with Holguin, I asked if he knew of any British POWs’ transferred here during his time as a prisoner. I told about the stories from the natives of Watom Island, he confirmed that during his internment he had heard of British POWs’ being held, but had never had any contact with or even seen them until the time he was liberated by Australian Military Forces. Holguin was my link with the past; I asked if he had any information on these British POWs’, and he related this story:

While being set free from his prison cell, a truck drove up to the compound and there on the back was a group of British POWs’. Holguin talked awhile with them, and also recorded on a scrap of paper the names and rank of seventeen of the British soldiers. There were actually eighteen on the truck. Holguin had missed one who had gone to relieve himself. I asked the Lt. Col. “ do you still have the names?” He said, “ yes, back in the States”. He agreed to send me the list on his return. This was the information required, solid evidence that British POWs’ were transferred to and held in Rabaul. Holguin sent me the names of the seventeen he had recorded; next I wrote to the British High Commissioner in Port Moresby. The High Commissioner forwarded my inquiries to the Department of Defence in London, and they answered with information held on record. I also wrote to the Australian Army H.Q. Melbourne, Australia; as it was their military personnel who liberated all POWs’ at Rabaul, they also wrote the investigation reports taken from each prisoner. Interestingly, these statement reports were never sent on to England.

I discovered that a contingent of 620 British soldiers captured in Singapore in January 1942 were confirmed to have been transported to Rabaul. Additionally over 6,000 Indian and Pakistan POWs’ were transported around the same time or soon after. A large proportion of the 620 POWs’ were regular British Army, and most came from the Royal Artillery Regiment. Just a few came from other British Regiments.

The Japanese did not keep any form of records on POWs’ so there is no way in telling who went where – today there are still many unaccounted for.

This contingent of 620 British POWs’ were transported in the holds of a British ship captured and renamed Eige Maru; also on board were approximately 2000 Japanese troops. The POWs’ were like caged animals with little fresh air, water and provisions, also enduring tropical temperatures of 86 degrees fahrenheit on the outside of this vessel translated to over 100 degrees in the over crowded holds. There were no facilities for washing themselves or clothing, and no toilets other than a few buckets provided.

This voyage from Singapore to Rabaul departed 18th October 1942 via Surabaya was to take 24 days on route, including requirements to port in a safe harbour for fuel – this vessel as with most pre war merchant ships was a coal burner.

When these poor souls finally arrived in Rabaul they were moved into working parties and assigned to various Japanese Army Divisions. After about a month, a large number were again transported this time from Rabaul to an island called Ballalae in the Shortland group, south of Bougainville which than formed part of the former British Solomon Islands Protectorate. Approximately 480 POWs’ were sent there, the exact number is unknown.

These prisoners however were to build a coral airstrip on the island atoll for the Japanese advance southward. A few of these prisoners were killed or injured by allied bombing raids aimed at destroying the airstrip, Japanese offered them no shelter during air raids. POWs’ that were injured would be left to die or invariably executed. When the Japanese could no longer continue construction on the strip, all remaining POWs’ were executed. Their bodies were crudely dumped into a mass grave near the airstrip they had been building. As was the custom with Japanese, all identification had long since been removed from the POWs’ so there was no way to identify any remains. The bodies of only 436 were found after the war by allied forces and transported to Bomana Commonwealth War Cemetery outside Port Moresby. Although given a decent internment, all are listed with the same head plaque “ Here lies an Unknown British Soldier 1942 – 1945 known only unto God“.

May these forgotten souls find eternal peace together with those still unaccounted for and of which have been denied a decent place of internment.

With the few remaining POWs’ still in the East New Britain area numbering approximately over 100 from the original 620 landed in Rabaul. Few of these had since died from ill treatment by the hands of their captors. These remaining prisoners worked in different areas under Japanese Army units in a number of places. British Ministry of Defence records state a number of British POWs’ as having been executed in the Kokopo area just a few miles south from Rabaul. The Japanese did not keep POW records for various reasons; therefore other prisoners assigned to different work parties would not know the fate of their comrades.

Over the months to follow many more would die from black water fever, beri-beri, dysentery, malaria and malnutrition, also not forgetting to make mention of their appalling living conditions and the harsh cruelty received from some Japanese guards.

Towards the end of February 1943, the few remaining POWs’ now numbering around 55 were moved to a valley near Tobera airstrip. They were later to name this place,“ Death Valley”. The next twelve months saw their numbers reduced even further.

In February 1944, only 21 surviving POWs’ were transported to Talili Bay for transfer to Watom Island. This group, in poor health were quickly put to work digging trenches and a large tunnel for the Japanese. After a number of week’s hard labour and completion of the tunnel the group was split into different work parties and assigned to other parts of the island. It was then they lost contact with each other.

Also they were to loose a further three more comrades from acts of brutality and sickness before the war was finally declared over.

The eighteen survivors when liberated 6th September 1945 were ferried back from Watom Island to what is now known as Kulau Lodge Beach Resort at Kabakada on the side of Talili Bay. They were then moved by truck to the POW compound in Rabaul where they met Holguin.

These few POW’s being left on Watom Island before the Japanese surrender probably saved their lives, for had they been assigned to work parties around Rabaul area, they would invariably have met the same fate as that of their comrades.

Very little has been written about the 620 British POWs’ transported to Rabaul. A few military records in old archives make mention of these soldiers in notations of name, rank and serial number, MIA or POW against a name with a brief account of known events.

I did write a request to the Imperial War Graves Commission in London for a Memorial Plaque to be erected in Bita Paka Commonwealth War Cemetery, to record the names of those British POWs’ who lost their lives in this area along with a short inscription of events. However, I was politely told that the names of those POWs’ are all recorded on memorial plaques in cities, towns and villages in Britain from where they derived.

One of the old headman on Watom Island named Tokulap was one who first told me of the British POWs’ being on the island under the Japanese. Tokulap passed away some years ago. However some of his family still remain on the island while others have moved to Kabakada. Henry Tobungtabu who was then a young man, is another who remembers a work party of five POWs’ at the north end of the island. He remembered the passing of Capt. R. F. Mallett and two others; their grave sites near the gun emplacement and of the two surviving POWs’ when liberated.

The Australian Army H.Q. formed the 8th Military District in Rabaul and by December 1945 had established a War Crimes Tribunal, which continued to early 1949, then moved to Manus Island. Many atrocities were committed against Australian Forces, downed airmen from Australia, New Zealand and the United States, POWs’, civilian Europeans, Chinese, mixed race and also the native population. Also to mention a number of German Catholic priest, nuns and sisters that were executed. A total of 98 Japanese were handed down death sentences for a number of heinous crimes committed. Officers were shot by firing squad while other ranks were hanged from gallows. All were buried in unmarked graves within the confines of their prison camp. Many other Japanese receive prison sentences ranging from 1 year to 15 years. These were served in Japan under Occupation Forces.

Historical records tell us that thousands of British and Commonwealth Forces were captured by the Japanese in the Asia and Pacific theaters. Many of these were transported to Japanese held territories – Burma, Borneo, Java, Malaysia, New Guinea, Thailand and also Japan itself. Commonwealth War Cemeteries scattered through these regions bear mute proof of the alarmingly high percentage of these poor souls who perished in captivity that fill these cemeteries, also the memorial tablets which only record a name, rank and number and listed with no known grave. Each has a story – none the least of which was that of my own father, killed and buried in Burma in 1945.

When the group of POWs was split up, they were moved to different areas on the island and assigned to other work projects, some still dug tunnels and others planted food gardens for the Japanese, at this time food was getting very short with all the allied bombing. There is an account that one of the POWs` was told to go in the sea to catch fish for the Japanese guards. The Japanese did not permit the islanders to mix or talk to POWs`, however they did on occasions when the chance arouse; this would mostly take place when the POWs` worked in gardens.

There was a number of times when the islanders would smuggle local fruit and vegetables to the prisoners. There is also an account of the Japanese executing one of the islanders for stealing food from their store. I hope to find a little more information from one old man who remembers the 5 POWs near the large gun

To conclude, I can only say that we must all learn to live with one another – learn from the past, be especially humble and learn forgiveness, but never forget the sacrifices and suffering, or the reason for which our fathers died.

To all those poor souls wherever your resting place is - rest in peace.

S. J. (Peter) Leggett MBE
Rabaul, New Britain
Papua New Guinea
8th March 6002 A.L.

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