Deaths continue – is the war really over?

At the same time I was old enough to know that this lost Japanese platoon was beyond the point where life and death meant anything at all. They were aware that their own lives would shortly end, and that they were free to do anything they wanted, and inflict any pain.

Peace, I realised, was more threatening because the rules that sustained war, however evil, were suspended. The empty paddy fields and derelict villages confirmed that nothing mattered.

Emaciated British prisoners of war in a Japanese hospital for prisoners of war at Nakom Paton, Thailand.
Emaciated British prisoners of war in a Japanese hospital for prisoners of war at Nakom Paton, Thailand.

The war was over but not everyone knew it or was prepared to acknowledge it. American airmen were killed in the skies over Japan by renegade Japanese fighter pilots. Across the Japanese occupied territories people detained in PoW camps and civilian detention centres guessed that things had changed – but their guards often would not admit it openly. A strange, dangerous, limbo like existence continued for many until Allied troops arrived.

In China James Ballard and his family had been detained along with many other European civilians in 1942. They knew thew war was over and had begun to receive parachute drops of food from American planes. Fortified by Spam and chocolate fourteen year old Ballard felt strong enough to explore further afield:

The camp fell behind me more quickly than I expected. Around me was a silent terrain of abandoned paddy fields and burial mounds, derelict canals and bridges, ghost villages that had been deserted for years.

I skirted the perimeter of the airfield, where I could see Japanese soldiers patrolling the burnt-out planes and hangars, and decided not to test whether they agreed that the war was over.

I passed the wrecks of canal boats and trucks caught in the air attacks, and the bodies of Chinese puppet soldiers. After an hour I reached the Hangchow—Shanghai railway line, which circled the western perimeter of Shanghai. No trains were running, and I decided to walk along the embankment.

Half a mile in front of me was a small wayside station, no more than a concrete platform and a pair of telegraph poles. As I approached I could hear an odd sing- song sound, and saw that a group of Japanese soldiers was waiting on the platform. They were fully armed, and sat on their ammunition boxes, picking their teeth while one of them tormented a young Chinese man in black trousers and a white shirt.

The Japanese soldier had cut down lengths of telephone wire and had tied the Chinese to a telegraph pole, and was now slowly strangling him as the Chinese sang out in a sing-song voice. I thought of leaving the embankment and walking across the nearby field, but then decided it would be best to walk straight up to the soldiers and treat the grim event taking place as if it were a private matter that did not involve me.

I drew level with the platform and was about to walk past it when the soldier with the telephone wire raised a hand and beckoned me towards him. He had seen the transparent celluloid belt that held up my frayed cotton shorts. It had been given to me by one of the American sailors, and was a prized novelty that no Japanese was likely to have seen. I unbuckled the belt and handed it to him, then waited as he flexed the colourless plastic and stared at me through it, laughing admiringly. Behind him the young Chinese was slowly suffocating to death, his urine spreading across the platform.

I waited in the sun, listening to the sing-song voice as it grew weaker. The Chinese was not the first person I had seen the Japanese kill. But a state of war had existed since 1937, and now peace was supposed to have come to the mouth of the Yangtze.

At the same time I was old enough to know that this lost Japanese platoon was beyond the point where life and death meant anything at all. They were aware that their own lives would shortly end, and that they were free to do anything they wanted, and inflict any pain.

Peace, I realised, was more threatening because the rules that sustained war, however evil, were suspended. The empty paddy fields and derelict villages confirmed that nothing mattered.

Ten minutes later, the Chinese was silent and I was able to walk away. The Japanese soldier never told me to go, but I knew when he had lost interest in me. Whistling to himself, the plastic belt around his neck, he stepped over the trussed body of the Chinese and rejoined his companions, waiting for the train that would never come.

I was badly shaken, but managed to steady myself by the time I reached the western suburbs of Shanghai. Perhaps the war had not really ended, or we had entered an in-between world where on one level it would continue for months or even years, merging into the next war and the war beyond that.

I like to think that my teenage self kept his nerve, but I realise now that I was probably aware of nothing other than the brute fact that I was alive and this unknown Chinese was dead. In most respects, sadly, my experiences of the war were no different from those of millions of other teenage boys in enemy-occupied Europe and the Far East. A vast cruelty lay over the world, and was all we knew.

See J. G. Ballard: Miracles of Life: Shanghai to Shepperton : an Autobiography

Discovered after the liberation. Prisoners of war and internees at Stanley Civil Internment Camp, Hong Kong, who were tortured and executed by the Japanese, inscribed their names and dates of execution on their cell walls as a record. The photograph shows the inscription made by D W Waterton who was executed, possibly for constructing and using a radio.
Prisoners of war and internees at Stanley Civil Internment Camp, Hong Kong, who were tortured and executed by the Japanese, inscribed their names and dates of execution on their cell walls as a record. The photograph shows the inscription made by D W Waterton who was executed, possibly for constructing and using a radio.

England: Coastal areas prepares for invasion

Before going to see Jock in the Eye Hospital this afternoon I went down to Brighton sea front to see if the rumour current here that the piers or one of them had been blown up for our own defence was true or not. Both the piers are standing but in the middle of each a space has been made by blowing up. Palace Pier was blown last night, West Pier early this morning. It is a clever piece of work, for any one going on to the pier, or landing at the sea end, could not possibly see the vacant place.

The government wanted to avoid a mass movement of refugees if invasion came. A leaflet issued to every household in the potential invasion areas of southern England in August 1940.
The government wanted to avoid a mass movement of refugees if invasion came. A leaflet issued to every household in the potential invasion areas of southern England in August 1940.
Bren gun carriers of 53rd Striking Force, Royal Armoured Corps, passing through a town in southern England, 9 August 1940.
Bren gun carriers of 53rd Striking Force, Royal Armoured Corps, passing through a town in southern England, 9 August 1940.

The ‘invasion scare’ in England was now at its height. The prospect of a German invasion was taken very seriously by everyone. Military fortifications were being built all along the south coast as well as many other coastal locations around Britain. Although there was some confidence that the Germans would have to win air superiority first, the possibility of a surprise attack could not be discounted.

After the refugee crisis in France, which had blocked many roads and impeded military movements, the government wanted to avoid the same situation arising if the invasion came.

In Lindfield, a village in Sussex in southern England, sixty-six year old Miss Helena Hall was noting almost everything in her diary:

August 5th Monday

The leaflet Stay where you are was in the letter box this morning. Copies are being delivered by the postmen to every house in the country. At 7.30 a company of Scots were being drilled on the Common opposite my house. I took a snapshot from the front door and did not care to go closer for I think it is not allowable to take snapshots of the military, harmless though the scene is …

Concrete emplacements are being built in many places now, chiefly at crossroads to make motor or other traffic difficult. There is quite a collection of them at Sussex Square where the road crosses the Scaynes Hill, Ditchling, Lindfield and Haywards Heath roads. I should think the barriers would also impede our own motor units, like many ideas it will hit both ways.

August 6th Tuesday

The US have declined to send food to the hungry peoples of Europe which would only undo our blockade, much as we dislike helping to starve those we regard as friends and hope still to benefit. No doubt Americans will find it just as hard as we do….

The red Cross of Lorraine, the emblem carried by Joan of Arc, has been adopted by General de Gaulle for his forces in addition to the national flag. Warships will fly the Tricolour at the stern and the Cross of Lorraine at the bows.

Before going to see Jock in the Eye Hospital this afternoon I went down to Brighton sea front to see if the rumour current here that the piers or one of them had been blown up for our own defence was true or not. Both the piers are standing but in the middle of each a space has been made by blowing up. Palace Pier was blown last night, West Pier early this morning. It is a clever piece of work, for any one going on to the pier, or landing at the sea end, could not possibly see the vacant place.

If therefore the Germans did try the landing stages they would not get far without disaster. One can hardly recognize Brighton beach, at this time of year usually crowded with holiday folk all gay and happy.

And now there is first, nearest the sea a line of barbed wire festooned entanglements supported at intervals on posts. Next on the flat beach there are mines, all fairly close to one another, circular with white tops, then another line of barbed wire similar to the other.

The place was alive with soldiers, some laying the mines. In one place were a number of blocks, wood I should think, painted white and in red letters ‘danger, laid mines’. Along the sea front in several places are erections with holes on all sides, obviously for men to shoot from.

Shops are holding their sales just the same, but one misses the usual crowds.

See A Woman Living in the Shadow of the Second World War: Helena Hall’s Journal from the Home Front

See also 12 July 1940 for another Helena Hunt Diary entry.

UK-FLAG
US FLAG
The second side of a leaflet issued to every household in the potential invasion areas of southern England in August 1940.
The second side of a leaflet issued to every household in the potential invasion areas of southern England in August 1940.
Pillbox camouflaged as a car in Felixstowe, 24 August 1940.
Pillbox camouflaged as a car in Felixstowe, 24 August 1940.

Watching and listening to the battle overhead

The scene of the crash was on a golf-course, and a good-sized crowd had arrived there before us… The German fighter-bomber had hit the tree-tops in its descent, and there it lay, sprawling broken-backed on the greensward… It was consuming rapidly in its own flames, and the empty cartridges-cases leaped out of the pyre in all directions. The police had formed a cordon. Sternly they ordered the mob to keep its distance, but the small boys were too much for them. They dived and ducked through the cordon singly and in dozens, cheerfully contemptuous of the awful penalties attached to interfering with captured enemy property…

Locals watch as troops and police inspect Messerschmitt Bf 109E-1 (W.Nr. 3367) "Red 14" of 2./JG52, which crash-landed in a wheatfield at Mays Farm, Selmeston, near Lewes in Sussex, 12 August 1940. Its pilot, Unteroffizier Leo Zaunbrecher, was captured.
Locals watch as troops and police inspect Messerschmitt Bf 109E-1 (W.Nr. 3367) “Red 14” of 2./JG52, which crash-landed in a wheatfield at Mays Farm, Selmeston, near Lewes in Sussex, 12 August 1940. Its pilot, Unteroffizier Leo Zaunbrecher, was captured.

As the Luftwaffe steeped up their attacks they moved inland from the attacks on convoys in the English channel. Increasingly people living in the south east of Britain became witnesses to the conflict.

Hubert S. Banner describes how the air battle fascinated those watching below:

Enemy activity was steadily on the increase; for now we were well into the opening phases of the Battle of Britain. Air-raid warnings in our area [Tunbridge Wells] averaged twelve or thirteen a day, and seldom any longer were they false alarms.

Time after time we would hear the heavy rumble up among the clouds which betokened a formation of German bombers, and there you would spot them as they sailed across the intervening patches of blue sky, dainty and silvery like little moths in the August sunshine, with still tinier moths that were their protective fighters weaving in and out and making rings around them as well-trained dogs encircle a flock of sheep.

And then often would be added the sound of our intercepting aircraft as they came tearing across the sky to do battle. Faint bursts of machine-gun fire would reach our ears, and sometimes a shower of the ‘empties’ would descend upon us… to bounce off the roofs and rattle all over the streets, whereupon there would be a frenzied rush of children scrambling to fill their pockets…

There was a period when the pupils of the Maidstone Grammar School had to go over every foot of their football-ground before each game in order to clear it of splinters…

The red-letter days were, of course, those when the exchanges overhead produced visible results in the form of Nazi airmen floating to earth. First you would discern a white speck against the blue, apparently stationary. But the speck would grow larger until you could make out its unbrella-top shape, and then at last you would be able to see the minute figure dangling beneath.

And what a rush there would be in the direction of the spot where the figure seemed likely to descend. Sometimes there was more than one. On one memorable occasion I saw five on their way down simultaneously, and the difficulty then was to decide in which of the five directions to rush…

I saw my first Nazi at close quarters during those memorable days. My wife and I had just finished lunch when we were startled by a ‘zoom’ that ended in a loud crash. Rushing to the window, we saw a column of black smoke rising above the tree-tops, and a few moments later began a crackling fusillade that reminded one of the Fifth of November. ‘Machine-gun ammunition popping off in the bonfire,’ I decided.

We jumped into the car and drove towards the smoke and noise, and soon we were overtaking a throng of cyclists and pedestrians all heading in the same direction.

The scene of the crash was on a golf-course, and a good-sized crowd had arrived there before us… The German fighter-bomber had hit the tree-tops in its descent, and there it lay, sprawling broken-backed on the greensward… It was consuming rapidly in its own flames, and the empty cartridges-cases leaped out of the pyre in all directions. The police had formed a cordon. Sternly they ordered the mob to keep its distance, but the small boys were too much for them. They dived and ducked through the cordon singly and in dozens, cheerfully contemptuous of the awful penalties attached to interfering with captured enemy property…

Beneath the trees… lay the Nazi airman. A First-Aid Party was in attendance. Tender hands were bandaging his cut forehead and broken leg. He was silent now, but I learned afterwards that when first dragged from his burning ’plane he had made noise enough until one of the men saidto him: ‘Be a man and shut up, can’t you? You asked for it, and now you’ve got it.’ Not another squeak had come from him after that rebuke…

Meanwhile the police were examining his effects… They drew forth in turn a carton of Californian dried raisins, a large slab of Cadbury’s chocolate, and – crowning insult – a packet of twenty Gold Flake. Many of the men who had thus far kept silence could no longer restrain their feelings when they caught sight of those Gold Flakes. They might be able to forgive the German for having come over with the intention of blowing them to bits, but not for having brought with him cigarettes looted from our abandoned stores in France.

See Hubert S. Banner: Kentish Fire

Soldiers guarding a crash-landed Junkers Ju 88A-1 of Stab II/KG 54 at Portland Head in Dorset, shot down by a No. 213 Squadron Hurricane over Portland Harbour, 11 August 1940. The censor has obscured the background.
Soldiers guarding a crash-landed Junkers Ju 88A-1 of Stab II/KG 54 at Portland Head in Dorset, shot down by a No. 213 Squadron Hurricane over Portland Harbour, 11 August 1940. The censor has obscured the background.

The British prepare for a Nazi invasion

The last remaining British troops in France had not yet been evacuated but attention rapidly switched to the threat to Britain herself. The threat of invasion appeared very real and was underlined by the issue of an official leaflet ‘If the Invader comes” to every household in the land during the course of this week.

Members of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) stand guard at a concrete road barricade at Findon, Sussex, 26 June 1940.
Members of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) stand guard at a concrete road barricade at Findon, Sussex, 26 June 1940.
A pillbox on the promenade on the sea front at Worthing, 26 June 1940. The pier can be seen in the background.
A pillbox on the promenade on the sea front at Worthing, 26 June 1940. The pier can be seen in the background.

The last remaining British troops in France had not yet been evacuated but attention rapidly switched to the threat to Britain herself. The threat of invasion appeared very real and was underlined by the issue of an official leaflet ‘If the Invader comes” to every household in the land during the course of this week.

The government was very concerned that the flight of refugees that had hindered military movement in France should not be repeated if invasion came to Britain. The straightforward message to everyone was “Stay Put”.

The front page of a relatively simple leaflet issued to every household during June 1940.
The front page of a relatively simple leaflet issued to every household during June 1940.

Another high priority was the reduction of rumours and panic. This was perhaps more difficult to combat – since so many diaries from the time make mention of stories circulating about parachutists and similar events, many of which are presented as fact.

The second page of the leaflet
The second page of the leaflet
A car passes a sandbagged barricade on the A23 road near Brighton, Sussex, 26 June 1940. Camouflaged tents can be seen in the background.
A car passes a sandbagged barricade on the A23 road near Brighton, Sussex, 26 June 1940. Camouflaged tents can be seen in the background.
A car negotiates a barricade comprising concrete blocks, on the road between Warnham and Horsham, Surrey, 26 June 1940.
A car negotiates a barricade comprising concrete blocks, on the road between Warnham and Horsham, Surrey, 26 June 1940.

Okinawa – US forces face a gruesome clear up

After a walk through a long tunnel we came on a huge underground cavern and one of the ghastliest sights I ever saw. Here lay General Amamiya, surrounded by his staff and some two hundred officers and men. They had all killed themselves, most with grenades, although Amamiya had thoughtfully given himself a lethal injection to avoid the rigors of ritual suicide. The cave floor was literally carpeted with corpses.

In June 1945, after 82 days of intense fighting, US Army and Marines secured Okinawa. The cost was enormous: 12,000 Americans and 70,000 Japanese and Okinawan conscripts lost their lives in a battle that would be remembered as one of the most terrible in the history of warfare.
In June 1945, after 82 days of intense fighting, US Army and Marines secured Okinawa. The cost was enormous: 12,000 Americans and 70,000 Japanese and Okinawan conscripts lost their lives in a battle that would be remembered as one of the most terrible in the history of warfare. More than 100,000 Okinawa civilians, not including those who were conscripted, are also believed to had been killed or forced to commit suicide during the battle and its aftermath.
Marine First Lieutenant Hart H. Spiegal of Topeka, Kansas, uses sign language as he tries to strike up a conversation with two tiny Japanese soldiers captured on Okinawa. The boy on the left claims he is “18” while his companion boasts “20” years.
Marine First Lieutenant Hart H. Spiegal of Topeka, Kansas, uses sign language as he tries to strike up a conversation with two tiny Japanese soldiers captured on Okinawa. The boy on the left claims he is “18” while his companion boasts “20” years.

Although the battle for Okinawa was effectively over by 22 June the formal surrender did not take place until 7th September, after Japan had surrendered as a nation. While organised fighting had collapsed there were many Japanese soldiers still holding out in their caves and dug outs, some would choose suicide but many felt it their duty to take an American with them.

For the American soldiers and marines engaged in the final ‘clearing up’, operations continued to be difficult and dangerous. Even if they did not confront resisters the business of dealing with mass suicides was as gruesome as it is possible to imagine. US Intelligence officer Frank B. Gibney describes some of the final scenes:

Japanese troops who were preparing a last-ditch “defense.” The flower of the island’s youth — teenage girl nurses’ aides as well as boeitai boy soldiers- were sacrificed to the directives of the Japanese army command. In many cases they were forced to hurl themselves from the low southern cliffs into the sea, so they, too, could “die for the Emperor.”

Even after entering the stockade as prisoners, many soldiers still regretted their decision to stay alive. This was a backhanded tribute to the cruelly effective indoctrination of Japan’s militarists.

As sophisticated an observer as the novelist Shohei Ooka, whose book A Prisoner’s Journal (Furyoki) became a Japanese classic, could later write of his capture (in this case in the Philippines): “I did not regard capture by the enemy as the heinous disgrace our drill instructors had pictured… Soldiers in the field had every right to abandon hopeless resistance. Yet once I had fallen captive, how discomforting, how reprehensible it felt to be idly enjoying life among the enemy while my brothers in arms continued to risk their lives in battle. I felt a sudden urge to throw myself into the ocean and kill myself…”.

At 10th Army G-2 interrogation headquarters we mobilized every Japanese speaker in American uniform — officers and noncoms, army, navy, and marines — to extract militarily useful information from our prisoners. Because of the numbers involved, we sometimes interrogated POWs in groups — for the first time in our experience.

Various interrogators were assigned to different Japanese units to elicit information on their tactics during the campaign, all the while screening prisoners for further questioning.

In addition, we were on constant call to accompany intelligence officers from various division headquarters, in efforts to talk out the last survivors of 32nd Army battalions from their cave hideouts. Generally we were unsuccessful. And time and time again the attempts of individual soldiers to turn themselves in were frustrated by the determined resistance of hard-liners in these caves who wished “Death for the Emperor!” to be the fate of all.

At one point we were led by an engineer captain, just taken prisoner, to a cave where General Amamiya and many of the surviving 24th Division troops had blown themselves up. With 7th Division intelligence officers, I went down to one of the cave entrances and crawled in.

After a walk through a long tunnel we came on a huge underground cavern and one of the ghastliest sights I ever saw. Here lay General Amamiya, surrounded by his staff and some two hundred officers and men. They had all killed themselves, most with grenades, although Amamiya had thoughtfully given himself a lethal injection to avoid the rigors of ritual suicide. The cave floor was literally carpeted with corpses.

In the middle of this carnage we found one survivor, a private who had been the general’s orderly. Amamiya had told him to stay alive and report how they died – to the Emperor, presumably. The orderly had faithfully remained, prepared to do so. He found an underground spring that gave him a steady water supply and subsisted for almost a week on bits and pieces of rations which had been left behind by the suicides.

The captain who had taken us to the cave was unhinged by the experience. He suffered, to put it mildly, a mental breakdown; it took him a long time to recover. But the general’s orderly, once released from the cave, seemed to shrug off his ordeal. Late that aftemoon I saw him in one of the prison camp yards playing volleyball with his fellow captives.

This account appears in Hiromichi Yahara: The Battle for Okinawa

Japanese POWs are photographed after capture and internment during the Battle of Okinawa. The 82-day-long battle lasted from 1 April 1945 until 22 June 1945. After a long campaign of island hopping, the Allies were approaching Japan, and planned to use Okinawa, a large island only  550 km (340 mi)  away from mainland Japan, as a base for air operations during the planned invasion of Japanese mainland. Okuku, Okinawa Prefecture, Okinawa Island, Ryukyu Islands, Japan. 27 June 1945.
Japanese POWs are photographed after capture and internment during the Battle of Okinawa. The 82-day-long battle lasted from 1 April 1945 until 22 June 1945. After a long campaign of island hopping, the Allies were approaching Japan, and planned to use Okinawa, a large island only 550 km (340 mi) away from mainland Japan, as a base for air operations during the planned invasion of Japanese mainland. Okuku, Okinawa Prefecture, Okinawa Island, Ryukyu Islands, Japan. 27 June 1945.