Death march begins as Japanese retreat on New Guinea

B-25D 'Red Wrath' (41-30024) of 498th 'Falcons' Bomb Squadron, 345th 'Air Apaches' Bomb Group flown by Capt R. W. Judd bombing anti-aircraft sites, Wewak & Boram, New Guinea, 16 Oct 1943

B-25D ‘Red Wrath’ (41-30024) of 498th ‘Falcons’ Bomb Squadron, 345th ‘Air Apaches’ Bomb Group flown by Capt R. W. Judd bombing anti-aircraft sites, Wewak & Boram, New Guinea, 16 Oct 1943

In the Far East the slugging battle against the Japanese continued. Even in the most desperate circumstances they could not contemplate surrender, choosing instead suicide or the most recklessly suicidal attempts at escape.

The Japanese 82nd Naval Garrison had been cut off and isolated at their base in Sio, New Guinea, known to them as Gali. As the Allied forces closed in it was almost impossible to resupply them. On the 22nd they received their last shipment of rice, brought by submarine. It was not enough. Most of the men were already starving and many were suffering from tropical diseases, as well as the casualties from Allied bombing and strafing.

Tetsuo Watanabe was the Naval Surgeon attached to the unit. On the 23rd his last duties in the Naval hospital had been to place grenades by the pillows of his patients who could not walk. This last tearful, silent ward round was all he could offer these men, who were to be abandoned.

Then the nearly 7,000 men of the 82nd Naval Garrison set off on a march across the north of New Guinea. Tetsuo Watanabe was in a better position than most, carrying about two days worth of food, for a march that was expected to take a month. The first group had left the day before. Yet even as they set off many men fell by the wayside:

23 January 1944

At 11:00, we left Gali, Good-bye, Gali camp! The enemy might have noticed our retreat. The sound of shelling was closing in. We started the walk on a terribly muddy track.

Soon Paymaster-Seaman Okada collapsed suffering lack of blood caused by malaria. His face turned pale and bloodless. He tried to say something while in the arms of his comrade. Soon red liquid began to flow from his mouth. He bit off his tongue to kill himself. He used to tell me, ‘Surgeon, please come to my sushi bar in Shinjuku when we return to Japan’.

He knew his destiny and did not want to be a burden to his comrades. He was only nineteen years old.

Although we struggled on the horrible track, we managed to find a camp site about two kilometres inland. Upon arrival at camp all superior officers were summoned, and the supreme commander, Captain Ukai, repeated instructions about the march.

The site was fouled by excrement left by the 1st Echelon that had camped here yesterday. Indeed, it was very difficult to find a clean place to put up a tent. However, when I observed the excrement, which consisted of green fibres and yellow viscid liquid, the soldiers appeared to be eating only grass or roots of trees of low food value.

I made a bed of grass and used a stone as a pillow. I was exhausted and had a good sleep.

24 January

We departed early in the morning. I felt refreshed because I slept well. It did not rain last night, and so did not disturb my sleep. We came to the beginning of the mountain trail at last. The jungle was so dense and it was dark inside. I started walking without thinking anything, just looking at the backside of the soldier in front. It was a terribly sheer slope which reminded me of the climb from Nakabusa Onsen to Mt Tsubame in the North Alps.

By the track dead bodies were scattered, reeking a horrible putrid smell. Maggots were wriggling in their eyes, ears and mouths although some soldiers were still breathing. This area literally looked like hell. Those who had perished on this climb must have exhausted their last strength in their already skinny and bony bodies.

See Hiramitsu Iwamoto ed. ‘The Naval Land Unit that Vanished in the Jungle by Tetsuo Watanabe’, Palmerston ACT: Tabletop Press 1995. This was a very small print run. Available from National Library of Australia.
A slightly longer extract is contained in: Richard Aldrich (ed): The Faraway War: Personal Diaries Of The Second World War In Asia And The Pacific

An image from the same sequence released by the USAAF>

An image from the same sequence released by the USAAF.

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