The Carnage at Laha, February 1942

The Laha Airfield Executions

The Japanese marines unhindered by Dutch rearguard defences had quickly crossed the Hitu Peninsula and an advanced party entered the village of Lelua, near the Laha airfield, within fifteen hours of landing at Hitu-Lama on the north coast of Ambon. After 24 hours the small Japanese naval landing contingent was reinforced and the initial assault was launched against the Australians and Dutch defence positions.

The Australian and Dutch troops defended fiercely for over nine hours of continuous close combat fighting, and their resistance was not despised by the bushido warriors of Nippon. Yet by mid-morning of 2 February the battle for the airfield was over. Later on that Monday the surviving Australians at Laha approached the Japanese with surrender negotiations, sending at least ten representatives under the commanding officer at Laha, Major Newbury, waving a white flag. The Australian party was escorted to the village of Suakodo, where the local Japanese HQ was located, and held captive for the night at the village school.

Exactly what happened next is not certain, and perhaps never will be, but in Japanese reports collected after the war, which vary in detail, nevertheless they all agree on the overall events. Evidence was given in the Prosecution Court of the Tokyo Naval General Court Martial by Lieutenant Commander Ken-ichi Nakagawa in November 1945, and in an interview with Hamanishi Shiego on the Laha battle presented in the Australian battalion-group commander's post-war Ambon prisoner-of-war report. Also from the Tokyo General Mobilisation Court in December 1945 commentary by John van Nooten executive officer of Gull Force on Ambon in 1942.

Up to one hundred of the allied prisoners were seriously wounded or ill at the time of surrender and died shortly after. According to Japanese accounts ten men were summarily executed after falling into Japanese hands during the attacks, another twenty to forty Australians were held at Suakodo for a few days then executed between the 6-8 February. These unfortunate POWs (ca. 30 Australian POWs), said a Japanese Warrant Officer after the war, were led one by one away from the native school and a little way along the road into the jungle near Laha with their hands tied behind their back. Lieutenant Ken-ichi Nakagawa, the head execution makes each kneel down with a bandage over their eyes. The Japanese troops then step out of ranks to behead each POW or bayonet him one by one. Each Australian was decapitated by a sword blow to the neck severing the head, death was almost instantaneous, and carried out by about ten samurai wielding Japanese having despatched two or three prisoners.

The remaining Australians at Laha perished over the next two weeks, once the dead had been burned and the battleground debris cleared by the captives. Possibly when the IJN warship that was taking the POWs across Ambon Bay was sunk by a mine. Others were definitely beheaded, or bayoneted for practice, by indifferent reasoning of the Japanese way of life and death.

On February 9th, 1942, two graves, about five metres apart, were dug in a wooded area near the Laha airstrip on Ambon Island the defence of which had cost 309 Australian lives. The graves were circular in shape, six metres in diameter and three metres deep. Soon after 6pm, a group of Australian and Dutch prisoners of war, their arms tied securely behind them, were brought to the site. The first prisoner was made to kneel at the edge of the grave with eyes bandaged and the execution, by samurai beheading, was carried out by a Warrant Officer Kakutaro Sasaki. The next four beheadings were the privilege of eager crew-members of a Japanese minesweeper sunk a few days previously by an enemy mine in Ambon Bay. This could only be considered as an act of reprisal for the loss of their ship. As dusk descended, and the beheadings continued, battery torches were used to light up the back of the necks of each successive victim. The same macabre drama was being enacted at the other round grave where men of a Dutch mortar unit were being systematically decapitated. On this unforgettable evening, 55 Australian and 30 Dutch soldiers were murdered. Most of the corpses were buried in one hole but because the hole turned out not to be big enough to accommodate all the bodies, and adjacent dugout was also used as a grave. Details of this atrocity came to light during the interrogation of civilian interpreter, Suburo Yoshizaki, who was attached to the 1st Kure Special Naval Landing Force, at that time stationed on Ambon.

A few days later, on February 24, in the same wooded area, another bizarre execution ceremony took place. Around the graves stood about 30 naval personnel who had volunteered for this grisly task, many of them carrying swords which they had borrowed. When some of the young prisoners were dragged to the edge of the grave, shouting desperately and begging for their lives, shouts of jubilation came from those marines witnessing the executions. In this mass murder, which ended at 1.30am the following morning, the headless bodies of 227 Australian and Dutch prisoners filled the two large graves. Witness to this second massacre was Warrant Officer Keigo Kanamoto, Commanding Officer of the 1st Kure Repair and Construction Unit.

The ugly spectre of revenge raised its head, often seen as the main motivator for Japanese reprisals and atrocities during time of war, as some of the minesweeper crew had participated in the cold blooded slaughter of unarmed soldiers. So too it is believed that troops of one particular Japanese unit, whose commander was killed in the battle for Laha, joined the blood lust. Although throughout the ages of warfare soldiers, and combatants, had blatantly killed, even sold into slavery, prisoners captured on the battlefield or after a siege of a citadel. However the undisputed massacre at Laha, far from being genocidal, happened in the mid-Twentieth Century. Unlike those abysmal abnormalities of extermination committed by the militant Japanese in civil war ridden China.

By 1942 it had been over a decade since the Third Geneva Convention of 1929 had been signed by some fifty nations protecting the lives of prisoners taken in war from senseless slaughter. Imperial Japan had signed the agreement yet the home islands government had not ratified the convention, which would have mattered little to the victorious Japanese sense of humanity. The Japanese servicemen's bushi-no-nasake, the magnanimous behaviour that sumarai should show feeling for one another, in this case foreigners, had no place for those that, although lost and beaten, gave up the fight and surrendered their lives to the victors.

Yet worse was to come for capitulated Allied prisoners of war on the South East Asian islands, and nearly 400 more Australians died in captivity on Ambon. The death rate under the Imperial Japanese Navy was higher then that of Australian prisoners under the Japanese Army slave labouring on the notorious Thai-Burma railway administrated by Korean POW guards.

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