- Kenny, L.B.
- RAN operations
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1976 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
IN SHARP CONTRAST to the Nuremburg Trials, the role of the Australian Government in convening and conducting war crimes trials is very little known. The first series of trials were conducted in New Guinea and Darwin during the years 1945 and 1946. I do not know the exact numbers tried or the proportion of those found guilty. What I do know is that the first series of tribunals sentenced some 125 Japanese to death.
The method of execution was interesting in that a different method was ordered according to the degree of barbarity of the crime. If it was barbarous and lacking in any military mitigation, the condemned men were hanged. On the other hand, if the crime was based on a military footing, the prisoner was shot.
Of the others, those not acquitted were sentenced to imprisonment from a few years to life. All were ex-members of the Japanese Armed Services sentenced by the Allies for war crimes. They were war criminals, not prisoners of war.
At first the prisoners were sent to Finschaven, New Guinea, to serve their sentences. All administration and guarding was carried out by the Australian Army.
In 1949 the Army ran down its operations in New Guinea and was anxious to rid itself of the burden of the war criminals. They soon realized that the RAN had a Naval Base on Manus Island, a part of the then Territory of Papua-New Guinea. Arrangements were duly made in the same year and the prisoners, numbering approximately 190, arrived in HMAS Tarangau, Manus Island, to continue serving their sentences under Naval administration. To the best of my belief this was the first time the RAN was given such a role.
To administer, guard and efficiently put the war criminals to work, the following personnel were added to the complement of HMAS Tarangau: 1 Lieutenant Commander, Commandant Japanese War Criminals Compound; 1 Lieutenant, Interpreter; 1 CPO, Chief Warden; 4 POs, Duty Wardens; 1 LWTR, Commandant’s Secretary; 1 ERA, to supervise criminals working on motor vehicles and allied engineering tasks; 1 Shipwright, in charge of joiners and plumbers coordinating work on various projects; 4 Joiners, in charge of working parties; 1 Plumber, ditto.
In addition, there were some 200 native police to guard the criminals. They were members of the Royal Papuan and New Guinea constabulary and a white Sub-Inspector of that force was in charge of them.
The prisoners lived in Quonset huts which, in typical Japanese manner, were kept spotlessly clean. They were well fed, housed and clothed. During their four years under Naval control, they never once complained about ill treatment nor had cause to, if anything, the Navy were soft on them; certainly softer than the soldiers had been. I think that this was due to the fact that very few, if any, of the sailors had seen action against the Japanese or seen the results of their crimes: it was different for the soldiers.
They worked a six day week from 0800 to 1700 with an hour for lunch. They would arrive back in the compound for their midday meal dirty, with grimy clothes wet through with perspiration (Manus is only two degrees from the Equator). On falling in after the lunch break to resume work, every man had showered and changed into clean clothes. This happened without fail on every one of their working days. Their prison garb was Army fatigue dress known as ‘Giggle Rig’, light cotton trousers and jacket plus a floppy hat. Not a bad prison outfit for the climate.
Their diet was brown rice and tinned meat and vegetables. This was supplemented by vegetables they grew in the rather large garden kept by them adjacent to the compound. The crop was mainly leeks and egg fruit. You can use your imagination as to what they used for fertiliser!
On Sunday mornings they were allowed to go fishing and usually caught enough fish for a meal that day. An occasional bonanza would come their way when a shark or a crocodile was caught by a sailor in Tarangua. These were given to the Japanese who would devour them with relish. It backfired once, however, as a shark given to them one weekend caused almost 100 food poisoning cases amongst the prisoners.