WAR CRIMES COMMITTED BY THE IMPERIAL JAPANESE NAVY
The countless atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army wherever its aggression took it are reasonably well known. What is less well known is the dark war record of the Imperial Japanese Navy. The following examples provide only a representative selection.
Downed American pilots and aircrew "rescued" by Japanese warships at the Battle of Midway were interrogated and then brutally murdered.
On the morning of 4 June 1942, Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McClusky led thirty Dauntless SBD dive-bombers from the carrier USS Enterprise in an attack that destroyed the Japanese fleet carriers Akagi and Kaga. After he had made his own attack, and despite the sky over the Japanese carrier fleet now swarming with Zero fighters whose angry pilots were desperate to avenge the loss of Japan's two best carriers, Lieutenant Charles R. Ware delayed his own departure from the burning carriers. His purpose was to rally to him the "rookie" pilots of his own division and any other inexperienced pilots who might need his experience and combats skills to lead them to safety. Despite heavy Zero attacks, Ware was able to collect and form up five SBDs into an ad hoc division.
Keeping his SBDs close to sea level to guard their unprotected bellies from the attacking Zeros, Ware led his pilots on a south-east course away from the Japanese fleet. Ware was able to ward off repeated attacks by the Japanese fighters by turning towards each Zero as it made a fast firing pass from the rear and creating an arc formation that enabled all of his rear gunners to concentrate the fire of their twin .30-calibers on the Zero. Because of Ware's skilled management of his division under sustained attack by the Zeros, the only significant damage suffered by the six planes of his division was to the fuel tanks of Ensign Frank W. O'Flaherty's SBD. The loss of fuel was a calamity for O'Flaherty and his radio-gunner Bruno P. Gaido because all of the SBDs involved in the attack on Akagi and Kaga had been a long time in the air and were already low on fuel.
Once clear of the Japanese fighter screen, Ware led his division on a north-east course where he hoped to find USS Enterprise. However, on this day misfortune was dogging Lieutenant Ware and his small band of pilots. They were sighted by a strike group of Aichi Val dive-bombers and six escorting Zeros from the surviving Japanese carrier Hiryu. The Japanese Zero pilots could not resist the temptation to attack what they believed was an easy target. Before the Zeros reached them, O'Flaherty's tanks ran dry and he was forced to ditch in the sea. O'Flaherty and Gaido were last seen by Ensign McCarthy inflating and then scrambling aboard their life raft, and then the Zeros were upon them. Once again, Ware initiated the successful defensive tactics used during the early Zero attack. The Zeros broke off the attack, and two limped back to Hiryu. The remaining four Zeros failed to catch up with the Aichi Val dive-bombers that they had been escorting, and only one Val survived an attack on the American carrier USS Yorktown.
With no clear idea where Enterprise was located, and with all SBDs running very low on fuel, Lieutenant Ware and Ensign McCarthy elected to take different courses. The other three pilots chose to follow Ware. Ware and these three pilots and their aircrews were never seen again. Their SBDs were swallowed up in the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. McCarthy was almost out of fuel when he picked up USS Yorktown's homing signal. Within sight of Yorktown's task force, McCarthy's fuel tanks ran dry and he was forced to ditch in the sea. He and his radio-gunner Earl E. Howell were rescued by the destroyer USS Hammann.
Sadly, O'Flaherty and Gaido were spotted and fished from the sea by the crew of the Japanese destroyer Makigumo. After interrogation, and when it was clear that the Japanese had suffered a disastrous defeat in the Battle of Midway, O'Flaherty and Gaido were murdered by the angry and vindictive Japanese. The two unfortunate American airmen were bound with ropes, tied to weighted fuel cans, and then thrown overboard to drown. The Makigumo hit a mine off Guadalcanal in 1943 and sank.
Ensign Wesley Osmus suffered a similar barbaric fate at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Navy.
On the morning of 4 June 1942, Lieutenant Commander Lance E. Massey led a strike by twelve TBD torpedo bombers from USS Yorktown's VT-3 squadron against the Japanese fleet carrier Soryu. Ensign Wesley Osmus was the pilot of one of these torpedo bombers, and his radio-gunner was Benjamin R Dodson, Jnr. While still about 14 miles (22 km) from the Japanese carriers, VT-3 came under sustained attack from defending Japanese Zero fighters. The TBD of Ensign Osmus was the last aircraft in the American formation, and his aircraft was the first to be hit. When his fuel tank exploded in flames, Osmus bailed out. Dodson did not follow. The radio-gunner was either dead or badly wounded and went down with the blazing aircraft.
Ensign Osmus was plucked from the sea by the Japanese destroyer Arashi. After interrogating the pilot, the Japanese murdered him and dumped his body in the sea.
The murder of Ensign Osmus came to light after the Japanese surrender when the US Navy gained access to the Battle of Midway action report produced by Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo after the battle. The circumstances of the young pilot's death while on board Arashi were then investigated as a possible war crime. The Japanese police produced to war crimes investigators the names of Japanese who had been serving in Arashi at the time of the Battle of Midway. American investigators then questioned these crew members who were still alive. This questioning confirmed that Ensign Osmus had been rescued from the sea by Arashi and interrogated. Later that same day, the commander of Arashi gave the order for Osmus to be executed. This order was passed to Chief Sato. Osmus was taken to the stern of the destroyer and thrown overboard, but he managed to grab the chain railing. A fire axe was then fetched and employed to complete the murder of the young pilot whose body fell into the sea.
Just before 10.00 am on 19 February 1942, Australia's northern port of Darwin was bombed by Japanese aircraft launched from Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo's carriers. The hospital ship Manunda was in Darwin harbour at the time of the Japanese air raid, and one dive-bomber attacked and bombed the hospital ship. There can be no doubt that this attack was deliberate. The hospital ship was painted white and was clearly marked with large red crosses. Nurses, medical staff, and crew were killed and injured in this barbarous attack on a hospital ship.
On the night of 14 May 1943, the Australian hospital ship Centaur was steaming north, off the eastern coast of Australia, when it was struck by a torpedo fired from the Japanese submarine I-177. The ship exploded and sank within three minutes. No radio distress call was able to be sent out, and the survivors clung to rafts and debris for thirty hours before they were rescued by the destroyer USS Mugford. During that thirty hour ordeal, the survivors were repeatedly attacked by sharks. One survivor, who was interviewed on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of this atrocity, described how his dreams have been haunted by the screams of survivors as sharks dragged them beneath the water. Two hundred and sixty-eight crew members, doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel died. Only sixty-four survivors were rescued, including one nurse.
At the time when the Japanese sank this hospital ship it was painted white with several large red crosses prominently displayed along each side and on the funnel. The ship was lit up like a Christmas tree, with bright lights illuminating her white sides and all of the red crosses. In accordance with the relevant Geneva Convention, Centaur's description as a hospital ship with protected status had been supplied to Japan at the time of her conversion from merchant ship. Prime Minister John Curtin denounced the attack on a clearly marked hospital ship as "barbarous". In conformity with an established pattern of denial of atrocities, the Japanese government denied responsibility for sinking the Centaur at the time, and continued denying responsibility until 1979 when the commander of the submarine had died.
On 20 March 1943, the commander of the Japanese First Submarine Force at Truk issued an order to all of his submarine commanders to murder all crew members of merchant ships after their ships had been sunk and relevant information obtained. This order to murder survivors of merchant vessels had been officially sanctioned and prescribed at the highest level of the Imperial Japanese Navy, and indeed, it emanated from the Japanese government itself.
Japanese schoolchildren are not permitted to learn from their history books or other official sources that, from early 1943, Japanese submarine crews routinely murdered all survivors of merchant ships sunk by them. Lifeboats were machine-gunned and rammed, and survivors in the water were machine-gunned.
Sixty survivors of the American merchant ship SS Jean Nicolet were taken aboard the Japanese submarine that torpedoed their ship in the Indian Ocean. They were brutally beaten and stabbed repeatedly on the deck of the submarine before their bloodied bodies were thrown into the shark-infested sea. Under the circumstances, it is astonishing that a handful of Americans reached their sinking ship and survived to bear witness to this atrocity. The Japanese government denied that its navy was responsible for this atrocity.
The order to murder survivors of merchant ships extended beyond the submarine service to Japanese surface warships. Following a sortie by the heavy cruisers Aoba, Chikuma and Tone into the Indian Ocean in February 1944 for the purpose of disrupting Allied merchant shipping, seventy-two merchant seamen were taken aboard Tone from MV Behar and murdered by command of Vice Admiral Sakonju. Sakonju was executed as a war criminal in 1947 for this atrocity. Vice-Admiral Sakonju pleaded in vain that the order to murder survivors of merchant ships had come from the highest level of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
An interesting aspect of the war crimes of the Imperial Japanese Navy is that Japan's "hero" of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, might well have found himself charged as a war criminal in respect of the officially sanctioned murders of Allied merchant seamen if he had survived the war. His culpability in respect of the murders of American aircrew at Midway might have been more difficult to prove.