FRANKEL-Y SPEAKING ABOUT WORLD WAR II IN THE SOUTH PACIFIC by Stanley A. Frankel


 

CHAPTER 7 - JAPANESE PRISONERS, DOCILE AND COOPERATIVE

THE MOVEMENT of our troops across the small island of New Georgia, toward the Munda air strip along the Pacific Ocean, was slow and bloody. But it was inexorable since we outnumbered the Japanese at least 5 to 1 and had superior weapons and supplies, while they had begun to run out of food and ammunition. After three weeks, our sweep led to the capture of the airfield and the driving of the surviving Japanese into the sea. On that last day, about 100 of the enemy waded into the ocean, and as the water got deeper, they threw away their guns and began swimming toward God knows where. There were no islands closer than 20 miles away and no friendly ships to pick them up. They just swam to a watery suicide.

I quickly learned first hand what the expression ‘‘ shooting fish in a barrel’’ meant; our infantrymen, joined soon by artillery troops, quartermaster corpsmen, and anyone else close by, stood on the beach shooting at the flailing enemy. As the few faster swimming Japanese reached spots beyond rifle range, the Americans hauled up 60MM mortars with instant- contact shells and lobbed them in the area of the lead swimmers.

Division Headquarters heard about this and jeeped down several Nisei* translators and a loud speaker system. The Niseis positioned themselves in the middle of the firing soldiers and called out in Japanese: ‘‘ Come back. Drop your weapons. Raise your hands. You will be well treated. ’’ The objects may never have heard the message. None made any move shoreward. More likely, even those who heard, had been trained not to be taken prisoner, and death by rifle or drowning was the only option they knew . . . or could choose.

By sundown, there were no more specks in the ocean, the shooting gallery was closed, and the fighting was officially over. This hari- kari episode is a particularly vivid example of the Japanese unwillingness to be taken prisoner. They had not been trained, as were we, to surrender in case the situation became hopeless. We were lectured that the Geneva Convention required prisoners to give their captors only name, rank and serial number; nothing about units, size of force, tactical intentions. I do not know whether captured Americans observed these conventions; I’m sure their Japanese captors did not honor them.

The Japanese soldiers were brainwashed never to surrender: go down fighting; take an American soldier or two with you; and as a last resort, hari- kari . . . suicide with a bullet or a grenade or a sword. They were sternly reminded that to be taken prisoner was the worst possible disgrace, if captured they were no longer to be considered Japanese. They were told that when war ended, that if they returned home, they would be tried and probably executed. The bad news for us was that we could not take many live prisoners; the good news was that if and when we lucked onto a petrified Japanese or an unconscious one, upon interrogation he would tell us everything he knew, even if that meant betraying his compatriots.

Anyway . . . the soldiers at Guadalcanal had managed to capture a few, and the following story of those few reflects their mental and physical state-- some months after they had surrendered.

This word picture of the Japanese prisoner arose out of a rear echelon, morale- building, baseball game.

Our regimental team took on the Island MP’s. Our boys had just returned to a rest area after the New Georgia battle, and commanding officers were trying desperately to eradicate the picture of dead Japanese and watery foxholes from the minds of our soldiers. Our regiment had several good softball teams. In spite of rules against officers playing on enlisted men teams, I accompanied the team I organized to their games, both as manager and as third baseman.

The island MP’s had a topnotch team, and we traveled a few miles by 66 truck to their well- kept diamond. Both sides warmed up a bit and then settled down for the ball game. Private Gaines was up first and drew a base on balls. I was up second. I took a good hefty swing at the first ball, missed, and it was just then that I noticed them.

They were sitting behind some chicken wire fences about twenty yards away, parallel to our third base line. Our team bench was between the line and the chicken wire. About twenty laughing, cheering, jabbering Japanese were watching our game! The same species of men that we had killed in New Georgia and whose maggoty bodies we had smelled soon after they died. The identical features, builds, skin. Just better fed and a lot more jovial.

Needless to say, trying to watch the ball with one eye and these Japanese with the other didn’t work. I fanned. One of my men forgot himself for a second and called out disgustedly: ‘‘ Keep your goddam eye on the ball . . . sir. ’’ I walked back to the bench and pointed out my discovery to the rest of the men. They ceased to be interested in the game. We gawked at these Japanese while they smiled back at us and cheered us, unconcernedly. Later we learned most of them had been prisoners for about a year, having been captured at the Canal. As far as we knew, these were the same as the enemy who had shot at us from trees in the Munda fight, who had ambushed our medical trucks on the Jeep Road, and who had held grenades to honorable stomachs when the jig was up.

We lost the game 1- 0. The third baseman bobbled two easy grounders, and the Japanese screamed lustily. The louder they screamed the more he bobbled. It was an odd experience. One week ago we had shot our last little yellow brother, and this afternoon he was cheering us on to victory at his favorite game, baseball. The whole business aroused my curiosity because I assumed that all prisoners had been evacuated long ago. Also, twenty Japanese is a helluva lot. Our division took about six prisoners during the whole campaign and all except one were half dead with malaria and multiple bullet wounds when we grabbed them.

The next day, I returned to the stockade and was able to round up an old OCS chum, Lieutenant Jones, who was now in charge of these prisoners. He told many tales and permitted me to interview them and to nose around. He explained that no publicity had been given out on this little Japanese detachment, but he saw no objection to writing home some of the pertinent information.

Jones explained that these men were ideal prisoners. After the first day of internment, most of them understood that they were not going to be tortured or starved. In fact, the C rations and the cigarettes lavished on them were luxury items. They bowed to their guards and they bowed to the medics who ministered to them. They bowed to little religious books and dolls they had strung around their neck, and they seemed overwhelmed at the kindness of their captors. In return, they cooperated in every way: never attempted to escape; forever volunteered for work details; and gave every bit of assistance they could to aid in our war effort.

The most literate of all, a Japanese Zero pilot with a rank equivalent to that of our flying sergeants, spent two full days interpreting a Japanese document which had been picked up in a cave. He didn’t go to sleep for forty- eight hours until the questioning was complete. The information which was gleaned from this document was of value in our Intelligence estimates. He must have realized he was being a traitor, but that didn’t seem to faze him. This Zero pilot had been the newest acquisition, having been picked up several months back when the Allies went into the Treasury Islands just to the south of Bougainville.

The prisoners cultivated gardens, built mess halls, latrines, and kitchens, erected their own barracks, built tables and lounge chairs, bought cards, ate heartily, laughed, played baseball and basketball. One thing they did not do was write home, even though the Red Cross offered them facilities to do so. In fact, they blanched and shook their heads violently whenever they were offered a chance to inform their folks that they were safe. They were prisoners of the enemy, therefore dishonored, and Nippon had severed all relations with them.

Lieutenant Jones explained there was one infallible method of convincing a reluctant Japanese prisoner to tell all he knows: to tell him, via interpreters, that they will send his name and picture back to Japan. At that, the Japanese falls to his knees, begs forgiveness, and proceeds to spill enough beans to send a few squads of his brothers- in- arms to honorable ancestors. We might note that few Japanese ever attempt to hold anything back. Being taken prisoner is not in their handbooks. No Japanese is ever taken alive. Thus, they are not drilled in the ‘‘ Name- Rank- Serial No- nothing more’’ routine. They usually reveal everything easily without any persuasion and seem unhappy when their lack of information does not permit them to answer a specific question. For this reason, our men have been repeatedly warned that though all dead Japanese are good Japanese, a live Japanese prisoner is worth ten times his weight in American lives. The bravado with which some American soldiers cold- bloodedly shoot quivering, defenseless, even wounded Japanese, in this context, can be equated to treason. The moral aspect of the situation is secondary; the significant point is that taking Japanese prisoners can save American lives. If one of our soldiers kills a Japanese he could take prisoner, he is in effect putting a pistol to the head of three of his buddies. If the prisoner has enough information to lead us to one camouflaged pillbox, he has saved arms, legs, lives.

I talked to the Zero pilot, Lt. Tasha. He was small, handsome, personable. In broken English he answered every question politely and enthusiastically. He worked in some kind of ordnance plant as a civilian in a small town near Tokyo. He had a Japanese high school education and had studied four years of English. He was inducted into the Imperial Army Air Force, and applied for pilot training. He was accepted and in the summer of 1939, earned his wings and won his right to pilot a Zero. First sent to the Chinese theatre, he accompanied bombers on routine missions. He never saw a Chinese plane in the air and had no encounters with the Flying Tigers. In fact, he never actually pulled the trigger of his machine gun except to clear the gun or to do some practice shooting. He spoke earnestly, apologetically. Maybe he didn’t strafe women and children. He was convincing. He returned to Japan in the summer of 1941, got a new plane, and did some flying with a fighter squadron. When the Japanese launched their Pacific drive, he was sent first to the Philippines after the fighting had subsided. Next he went to Truk, then Rabaul, and when the Americans seized New Georgia, to the Kahili airdrome on Bougainville. Tasha had never engaged an American plane in combat and was forced to land on the Treasury Islands when his motor went haywire. The island was then in Japanese hands but fell a short time later and he was taken prisoner, without putting up any fight. He had great admiration for the American P38 but retains a reverence for his own Zero. He doesn’t expect to return to Japan ever, has completely excluded his family and his wife from his thinking, and appears pleasantly resigned to going to the States and working there even as a prisoner for the rest of his life. Tasha shrugs his shoulders when you ask him who is going to win the war. In the back of his oriental mind are still those many years of indoctrination: ‘‘ Japan has never lost a war. Singapore, Hong Kong, Corregidor. Greater East Asia ruled by the God Emperor. ’’

Kori, the five- foot ten husky, was next. He had three middle teeth knocked out, a crew haircut, and the build of a wrestler. Kori didn’t laugh, but not because he wasn’t happy. He was the workhorse of the whole crew. In Japan he had been a farmer, had been drafted into the Army at the age of 21. The interpreter estimated that Kori was one of the reluctant dragons for he frowned when asked about army training. The work was hard and the food wasn’t as good as on the farm. He too traveled to China and engaged in several skirmishes. He claims that the Japanese never lost a battle in China; often raided a town and then withdrew without seeing a Chinese soldier. Kori was sent to the Philippines when Japan invaded those islands, and was in a reserve Division which didn’t have much action. He saw a lot of American prisoners. His superiors told him that the war was about over, that the Japanese had taken Hawaii, and that San Francisco would be invaded next month. He was dispatched from the Philippines to reinforce the Hawaiian garrison (which explained to him the long ocean voyage). He didn’t know it wasn’t Hawaii until he was taken prisoner by a U. S. Marine officer who told him that this was Guadalcanal, an island of which he had never heard. Since that time, he is up on his geography. He blamed everything on his officers, claims that the Japanese soldier is not brutal or warlike, that he would like to surrender, that he loves life. But the officers are vicious, using whips, gunbutts, and fists to beat iron discipline into the ranks. The men are violently afraid of the officers, even more than they are afraid of the Americans. When the Japanese lose their officers, they try to surrender but the Americans won’t let them. He swears that Marines shot ten men in his company who advanced forward with a white flag almost to the Marine lines before being fired on. He disclaimed any knowledge of Japanese faking surrender and tossing hand grenades. With that, I took a couple of salt tablets.

The other prisoners substantiated a great deal of what he said, especially the terrifying fear of the officers. Our own experience with their officers is substantiating. An officer will not be taken prisoner. He will kill his men and then himself. If taken prisoner after being shelled into unconsciousness he refuses to talk and is insolent and swaggering. The Japanese enlisted soldiers regard him with awe and fear and, while he is in the room, refuse to answer even the most simple questions. When he leaves, they give him fierce glances. It is some time before the men can be convinced that he can do them no more physical harm. Then they talk but they keep looking quickly toward the doorway through which he left.

* These Nisei were bilingual second generation Japanese born and educated in the U. S., serving in the U. S. Army.

 

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Second Edition Dec. 1, 1994