MURDER AND CANNIBALISM ON THE KOKODA TRACK
It is clear from the historical source material to be found at the end of this chapter that cannibalism of Allied prisoners by the Japanese military was not a rare occurrence. In "The Knights of Bushido", Lord Russel of Liverpool cites examples of Allied prisoners of war being murdered and portions of their bodies served up at dinner parties attended by senior Japanese Army and Navy officers. Captured American pilots were not only more likely to be murdered but the eating of their flesh was made into something of a festive occasion in the Japanese officers' mess. Lord Russell includes the actual text of a Japanese document headed "Order regarding eating flesh of American flyers". See pages 233-240.
Both Lord Russell and Laurence Rees in "Horror in the East" make it clear that the cannibalism practised by the Japanese military was not necessarily related to shortage of normal food. The following case of murder and cannibalism by Japanese soldiers is drawn from the Kokoda Track in 1942 and was in no way explained by shortage of rice or other rations.
Between 21 July and 26 August 1942, the Japanese landed 13,500 troops at the villages of Gona and Buna on the northern coast of Australia's Territory of Papua. Ten thousand of these troops were tough, jungle-trained combat veterans. The task facing this Japanese army was to cross the rugged Owen Stanley Range and capture the Australian administrative capital Port Moresby which was located on the southern coast of Papua. Port Moresby was at this time the last Allied base on the island of New Guinea, and its capture by Japanese troops would enable Japan to strike deeply with its bombers into the Australian mainland and intercept the vital lines of communication between the United States and Australia. The Japanese did not realise that the only path across the steep ridges and valleys of the Owen Stanley Range was a very narrow dirt path called the Kokoda Track. In the expectation that their troops would quickly brush the Australians aside, the Japanese allowed only ten days rations for the crossing of the mountains.
The initial defence of the Kokoda Track was undertaken by about five hundred militia troops of the Australian 39th Infantry Battalion. These Australian militia troops were poorly armed, equipped and supplied, and the Japanese outnumbered them initially by at least ten to one. Many of the Australians were only eighteen and, although superbly led, they lacked both combat experience and adequate training. Despite these serious disadvantages, the Australians forced the Japanese to fight for every foot of their advance along the Kokoda Track.
The young militia soldiers of the 39th Battalion blocked the Japanese advance along the Kokoda Track for five weeks and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy.
On 26 August 1942, the exhausted and starving militia troops were finally joined on the northernmost ridge of the Owen Stanleys at Isurava by the first of three battalion from the 2/14th Brigade. These were combat toughened Australian troops who had returned from the Middle East. Despite these reinforcements, the Australians were still outnumbered on the Kokoda Track by five to one, and were forced to carry out a bloody fighting withdrawal in which both sides suffered very heavy casualties. The Japanese advance ground to a halt on a ridge where they could actually see the lights of Port Moresby. The Japanese supply lines were in chaos, and the surviving Japanese troops were starving and exhausted. Unable to proceed, and denied reinforcements because of the critical situation facing the Japanese on Guadalcanal, the Japanese were ordered to abandon the capture of Port Moresby and retreat to their beachheads on the northern coast. They were closely pursued by fresh reinforcements from Australia.
An especially abhorrent aspect of the heavy fighting on the Kokoda Track during the Australian fighting withdrawal is the failure of any Australian taken prisoner by the Japanese to survive capture. The Japanese are known to have frequently murdered prisoners of war, singly and in batches, on little if any provocation. Resistance appears to have been especially effective in provoking murderous instincts in the Japanese military. The Japanese were infuriated by the strong resistance to their advance put up by the Australians on the Kokoda Track. They had suffered heavy losses, and the Australian fighting withdrawal had seriously disrupted their timetable for crossing the mountains and had caused their own troops to run short of food. In those circumstances, the Japanese would not want to waste their own food on prisoners of war whom they had been taught to despise. The circumstances point to a strong probability that all captured Australians were immediately executed by the Japanese. Even more horrifying, is the evidence that the Japanese killed and ate captured Australians when they had not exhausted their own food supplies.
As the Australians pursued the retreating Japanese along the Kokoda Track, they came upon evidence that the Japanese had been eating captured Australian soldiers. After a fierce clash with the Japanese at Templeton's Crossing, an Australian patrol was forced to withdraw and leave behind six Australian dead and four wounded. Reinforcements arrived on the following day, and the Australians were able to attack again and capture the Japanese position. The Australians troops were horrified to find that the Japanese had been eating both the wounded and dead Australians who had been left behind on the previous day. Corporal Bill Hedges describes the ghastly scene:
"The Japanese had cannibalised our wounded and dead soldiers..We found them with meat stripped off their legs and half-cooked meat in the Japanese dishes (pots)".
One of Corporal Hedges closest comrades was among the butchered bodies. He said:
"I was heartily disgusted and disappointed to see my good friend lying there, with the flesh stripped off his arms and legs; his uniform torn off him."
Shortly afterwards, the Australian corporal was appalled to discover that the Japanese had not resorted to cannibalism because of starvation. He said:
"We found dumps with rice and a lot of tinned food. So they weren't starving and having to eat flesh because they were hungry."
The quotations by Corporal Hedges come from "Horror in the East" by Laurence Rees, a BBC publication (2001). This book is essential reading for anyone hoping to try to understand Japanese war atrocities.