Five Minutes at Midway

June 1942–October 1944

Five minutes! Who would have dreamed that the tide of battle would shift completely in that amount of time?

Captain Mitsuo Fuchida and Commander Masatake Okumiya of the Imperial Japanese Navy, 19551

With the important exception of Burma, the next stage in the Allies’ war against Japan can be told largely in terms of aircraft carriers, which became the key weapon in deciding whether the Japanese could retain the sprawling empire they had won in the six months after Pearl Harbor. Although the monsoon had halted the Japanese advance towards India in May 1942 – at least for the time being – it was their catastrophic loss of no fewer than four aircraft carriers at the battle of Midway (to the Americans’ one) the following month that evened up the odds between Axis and Allies. Midway ended any hope of Japan – whose carrier production lagged far behind that of the United States – continuing her whirlwind progression in the east. Captain Mitsuo Fuchida and Commander Masatake Okumiya subtitled their 1955 history of Midway The Battle that Doomed Japan; nor was this unacceptable hyperbole.

The indecisive battle of the Coral Sea, fought 800 miles north-east of Queensland on 7 and 8 May 1942, had resulted in the sinking of the Japanese light carrier Shoho, which capsized after being hit by thirteen bombs, seven torpedoes and a crashing dive-bomber, and of the American carrier Lexington, which exploded two hours after the last Japanese plane left, the victim of a spark from a generator that was left running accidentally, with fires ignited by petrol fumes from tanks ruptured in the attack. The evacuation of theLexington was orderly and 2,735 crew members – over 90 per cent – survived. Two heavy Japanese carriers, the Shokaku and Zuikaku, were damaged, and so the plans to take Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea – from where Australia could be threatened – had to be abandoned. (Lieutenant James Powers won a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for bombing the Shokaku’s deck from only 300 feet, which along with his Dauntless dive-bomber comrades’ efforts meant that aircraft could not land on it. As there was not enough room on Zuikaku for both carriers’ aircraft, Japanese planes had to be physically manhandled over the side into the sea to make room. In all, 564 American sailors and airmen died and sixty-six aircraft were lost, compared to 1,074 Japanese and seventy-seven aircraft.2 Crucially, the US carrier Yorktown had only been damaged in the battle rather than sunk, as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, believed. He therefore assumed that his invasion of the atoll of Midway would not be opposed by American air power, and assembled 165 warships, the most powerful armada ever seen in the history of the Pacific Ocean, to take the island. With Midway in Japanese hands, Pearl Harbor could be bombed, and along with the Aleutian Islands, another part of the ‘ribbon defence’ of the Southern Resources Area could be protected.

Intelligence was key to the American victory at Midway, both the accurate and timely information that Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the Commander-in-Chief in the Pacific, was given by his code-breakers, and the halting and inaccurate reports that Admirals Yamamoto and Nagumo got from their intelligence officers, who did not have the luxury of reading their enemy’s signals. To make matters worse the Japanese failed to pool what little information they did have, partly because Nagumo’s radio transmitter was weaker than Yamamoto’s and partly because of the need for radio silence.3 Nimitz knew that Nagumo had four aircraft carriers in service after the battle of the Coral Sea, with one damaged there and another stripped of aircraft, whereas Yamamoto did not know that Rear-Admiral Frank ‘Jack’ Fletcher had three carriers – Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown – which by late May 1942 were stationed north of Midway. (It was estimated that it would take three months to repair the damage done to Yorktown in the Coral Sea; it was miraculously achieved in forty-eight hours, a testament to American engineering efficiency and professional devotion.) In a sense the three islets of Midway, though only 2 square miles in size, themselves counted as a fourth – unsinkable – American aircraft carrier, with its complement of 109 planes.

Yamamoto split his invading force into three, which was an error as the squadrons were too far apart to support one another. As well as Nagumo’s First Air Fleet, there was a Midway Occupation Force carrying 51,000 men, and his own main force comprising one carrier, four cruisers, seven battleships, twelve destroyers and eighteen submarines. As well as taking Midway, Yamamoto was hoping to lure the American Pacific Fleet into a massive engagement that it could not win. Nagumo’s First Air Fleet approached the atoll under heavy cloud cover, masking it from Midway’s reconnaissance planes, and was able to launch a dawn attack with 108 of its 201 planes. This was successful, although the runway was not attacked, as the Japanese wanted to use it as soon as they had captured the atoll. The ninety-three planes in the reserve were fitted with bombs and torpedoes in case of an appearance by the fifty-vessel American fleet. Through what Fuchida and Okumiya call ‘a fantastic chapter of accidents and blunders’, this was to be decisive.4

Having finally spotted Nagumo’s fleet at 07.00 hours, Rear-Admiral Raymond Spruance, who commanded the Enterprise and Hornet battle group, sent 116 planes into an all-out attack from 175 miles away. (As in the battle of the Coral Sea, neither side’s ships even came within sight of each other, in this new form of naval engagement.) At exactly the same time, Nagumo, having heard reports from Midway that another wave of attacks was needed, but nothing about the American fleet, which he had every reason to believe had sailed off north to deal with the diversionary attack against the Aleutian Islands, ordered his ninety-three reserve planes to be refitted with incendiary and fragmentation bombs. The change-over would take an hour to carry out, yet only fifteen minutes into the job a reconnaissance plane reported ten American ships to the north-east. ‘For a mauvais quart d’heure he pondered the problem, and then decided to re-arm his reserve aircraft with torpedoes. Order; counter-order; disorder.’5 Meanwhile, his first wave of bombers and fighters were on their way back from Midway. It was a pivotal moment in the war in the Pacific. With half of his reserve planes loaded with ordnance to attack Midway and the other half armed to attack the American carriers, Nagumo took the fateful decision to land his Midway first-strike planes before launching the others.

While the flight crews on the carriers were therefore struggling to detach the incendiary and fragmentation bombs and reattach the torpedoes, at 09.05 Nagumo turned 90 degrees east-north-east to engage the American task force. This had the effect of allowing him to evade, for the moment, the US dive-bombers and fighters from the Hornet, which had launched her planes at 07.00. Yorktown, to the east, launched half her planes at 07.30. Fifteen Devastator torpedo-bombers from the Hornet did spot Nagumo’s force, and went straight into the attack. Much is made of the fanatical courage of the Japanese kamikaze (divine wind) airmen later on in the war, but to have flown unescorted into the anti-aircraft guns and Zeke fighters of Nagumo’s fleet took tremendous bravery, and only one of the fifteen survived, with no hits scored. The torpedo-bombers of the Enterprise (nicknamed ‘the big E’) and Yorktown were also badly mauled without any positive results, and at 10.24 hours the attack was broken off with only eight Devastators still in the air out of an initial attacking force of forty-one. ‘For about one hundred seconds the Japanese were certain they had won the battle of Midway,’ wrote the US Navy’s official historian Rear-Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison, ‘and the war.’6

Yet at 10.26, before the Zekes had time to regain altitude after devastating the Devastators, thirty-seven dive-bombers from the Enterprise appeared directly above Nagumo’s four carriers. Cloud cover at 3,000 feet masked the American approach, but below that the visibility was ideal for the attackers. The hero of Pearl Harbor, Mitsuo Fuchida, believed that because the Japanese fighters had no time to regain altitude while they were shooting the US torpedo planes out of the sky, ‘It may be said that the Americans’ dive-bombers’ success was made possible by the earlier martyrdom of their torpedo planes.’7 Soon after the Enterprise dive-bombers attacked, planes from first the Hornet and then the Yorktown arrived. Thousands of feet below, the crews were still changing the bombers’ armaments, and so were caught with the maximum amount of ordnance in the most exposed place possible. The carriers’ decks were strewn with bombs, fuel and planes, with little stowed away, so when Enterprise’s dive-bombers hit the result was carnage. On board Nagumo’s flagship, the Akagi, Zero fighters were just beginning to be launched. Fuchida, who could not fly at Midway because he had recently had his appendix out, and who was then wounded during the attack, recalled that:

[as] the first Zero fighter gathered speed and whizzed off the deck, at that instant a lookout screamed ‘Hell-divers!’ I looked up to see three black planes plummeting towards our ship. Some of our machine-guns managed to fire a few frantic bursts at them, but it was too late. The plump silhouettes of the American Dauntless dive-bombers quickly grew larger, and then a number of black objects suddenly floated eerily from their wings. Bombs! Down they came straight at me!8

Akagi took two direct hits, the first on the aft rim of the amidship lift, the second on the port side of the flight deck, the effects of which might have been controlled if the deck had not been wing-tip to wing-tip full of burning planes loaded with exploding torpedoes. ‘The entire hangar area was a blazing inferno,’ wrote Fuchida, ‘and the flames moved swiftly towards the bridge.’ By 10.46 Nagumo – who had made one of the worst decisions in military history – was persuaded to transfer his flag to the light cruiserNagara, which he did with reluctance. Below decks on the Akagi, survivors had to use hand-pumps and:

Fire-fighting parties, wearing gas masks, carried cumbersome pieces of equipment and fought the flames courageously. But every explosion overhead penetrated to the deck below, injuring men and interrupting their desperate efforts. Stepping over fallen comrades, another damage-control party would dash in to continue the struggle, only to be mown down by the next explosion.9

Not a single man from the engine room escaped from this Dantean hell. The ship was abandoned at 18.00 hours, except for Captain Taijiro Aoki, who lashed himself to an anchor ‘to await the end’.

‘We had been caught flat-footed in the most vulnerable position possible,’ wrote Fuchida and Okimiya, ‘decks loaded with planes armed and fuelled for an attack.’10 Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier Kaga slipped beneath the waves at 19.25, with 800 of her crew dead, and another carrier, Soryu, which had suffered three hits from thirteen planes in three minutes, sank at 21.13, with her captain Ryusaku Yanagimoto singing the ‘Kimigayo’, the Japanese national anthem. Nagumo ordered the fourth carrier, Hiryu, to sail off north-eastwards and send forty planes to attack Yorktown and, although only seven made it through the American defences, they were able, with ‘skill, gallantry and determination’, to land three bombs on her. Later on Yorktown was also hit by two torpedoes from planes returning from Midway, forcing the listing carrier to be taken in tow and set off back to Pearl Harbor and Fletcher to transfer to the cruiser Astoria, with Spruance taking over tactical command.11 Hiryu was not going to escape retribution, however, for at 17.00 hours twenty-four planes from Enterprise and Yorktown sank her with four hits. On the way back to Pearl Harbor, Yorktown and an escorting destroyer were sunk by the Japanese submarine I-168, the only American vessels that were lost in the entire battle.

Midway between Japan and mainland America geographically, and coming almost midway during the Second World War (in the thirty-third of a seventy-one-month war), the battle wrecked the three-phase Japanese plan for Asian domination midway through its second phase. It was true that the two minuscule Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska had been captured by the northern diversionary force, but because of Allied code-breaking, that attack had failed to divert American forces away from Midway. The battle of Midway deserves its attribution as one of the most decisive battles of history, because against the American losses of one aircraft carrier and a destroyer, 307 men killed and 132 planes lost, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers, a heavy cruiser, 3,500 men – including many experienced pilots – and 275 planes.12 It was true that after Midway the Japanese still had five aircraft carriers in commission, with six being built or repaired, but by contrast the Americans had three large carriers, and no fewer than thirteen under construction. ‘Until late 1943,’ records an historian of the Pacific War, ‘the US Pacific Fleet never possessed more than four aircraft carriers. Thereafter, however, American strength soared, while that of Japan shrank.’13 The United States could now attack the perimeters of the Southern Resources Area at will. ‘Midway was the most crucial battle of the Pacific War,’ Nimitz was to conclude, ‘the engagement that made everything else possible.’14

The British also took great heart from the victory. With the news only just starting to come in, Churchill told the War Cabinet, as noted by an assistant in the secretariat:

Losses at sea signs of fear on part of Japs – the Navy is a political force in Japan – which will perhaps be more inclined to a restrictive and cautious policy – this policy be in harmony with sending out submarine raiders – if we think of this as having an effect on the Japanese situation – think they will go for China and Chiang Kai Shek conquest. I don’t think they’ll try India or Australia. This gives us 2 or 3 months breathing-space. We must come to rescue of China – it would be an appalling disaster if China were forced out of the war – and a new government set up. The General Staff must think of attacking lines of communication in Burma. If carrier losses confirmed – review consequences of diminution of enemy forces. If Japan adopts conservative course it is a chance for us to get teeth into her tail.15


Midway made possible the landing on 7 August 1942 of US forces on the island of Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands, the first offensive land operation undertaken by the Americans since Pearl Harbor nine months previously. Once it was known that the Japanese were attempting to build a runway there, which would have had the effect of interdicting air traffic between the United States and Australia, 18,700 men of the Marine Corps 1st Division under Major-General Alexander A. Vandergrift made an amphibious landing on Guadalcanal and also the nearby islands of Tulagi and Gavuth. Taken by surprise, the Japanese garrison of Guadalcanal fled into the thick jungle of the ‘steamy, malaria-ridden, rain-sodden island’, while 1,500 of them put up stiff resistance on Tulagi, but were almost all killed, at the cost of 150 Marines.16 Having taken the runway on 8 August, which they named Henderson Field after a hero of the battle of Midway, the 11,145 Marines on Guadalcanal threw up a defensive perimeter of 2 by 4 miles, and dug in. That tiny area was about to receive a battering equal to any similarly sized battlefield in American history.

As the Marines were still bringing equipment ashore for Operation Cactus, disaster overcame their naval escort when a Japanese force from Rabaul made a night attack, in what became known as the battle of Savo Island. Armed with new, liquid-oxygen-propelled Long Lance torpedoes which could carry a 1,000-pound warhead at 37 knots for up to 25 miles, the Japanese slipped past Captain Howard D. Bode’s patrol south of the island – Bode was asleep in his bunk in the USS Chicago at the time – and attacked the cruisers under the command of the Australian Rear-Admiral Victor Crutchley vc, who was himself ashore on Guadalcanal. Four cruisers – the American Vincennes, Astoria and Quincy and the Australian Canberra – were sunk, as they and theChicago were lit up by flares dropped by Japanese planes. (A guilt-stricken Bode later shot himself, proving that the Japanese had not entirely monopolized the honourable tradition of hara-kiri.) 17

With more than a thousand Allied sailors dead, Crutchley’s stricken flotilla was forced to leave the environs of Guadalcanal, from which Fletcher had already removed the aircraft carriers Saratoga, Wasp and Enterprise after losing twenty-two fighters out of ninety-eight. This meant that the Japanese based at Rabaul had an opportunity to reinforce the island and attempt to fling the Americans off it. The Henderson Field bridgehead was subjected to day and night bombardment from Japanese naval vessels as well as aerial bombing from Rabaul, and on one day – Dugout Sunday – there were no fewer than seven air raids. The Cactus Air Force of nineteen fighters and twelve torpedo-bombers of the 23rd Marine Air Group did what they could, but until they were reinforced they could not protect the airfield adequately. On 17 August Lieutenant-General Haruyoshi Hyakutake landed from Rabaul with 50,000 men of the Seventeenth Army to attack on the ground. Rear-Admiral Razio Tanaka also began a series of landings of men and supplies along the Slot, a channel of islands between Rabaul and Guadalcanal, in a six-month series of often night-time operations nicknamed the Tokyo Express by the Marines who found themselves on its painful receiving end.

Instead of attacking simultaneously, which was difficult to do in the light of his lack of reinforcements, Hyakutake sent in assaults on Henderson Field piecemeal, which in desperate fighting the Marines managed to fight off and occasionally to counter-attack. In the battle of Tenaru River (which was actually fought on the Ilu river), Colonel Kiyono Ichiki’s attack of 917 men ended on 18 August with the loss of almost every man in the unit. Ichiki himself burnt the regimental standard and committed hara-kiri. On 12 and 13 September, during the hard-fought battle of Bloody Ridge, a mile to the south-west of the airfield, the Japanese got to within 1,000 yards of the runway. Yelling ‘Banzai!’ (One thousand years!) and ‘Marine, you die!’, 2,000 Japanese rushed out of the jungle and overwhelmed the right flank of Lieutenant-Colonel Merritt A. ‘Red Mike’ Edson’s Provisional Force of two battalions. Three Japanese even got inside Vandergrift’s bunker, where they were killed by his clerks. Edson won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his valiant defence, in which 143 Americans were killed and 117 wounded, but 600 Japanese were killed and 500 wounded.

Although the Marines were finally reinforced by air on 20 August, Hyakutake received reinforcements via the Tokyo Express throughout September and October, and between 23 and 25 October his assaults were flung back with 2,000 killed against 300 American killed and wounded. After that Vandergrift felt he could expand the perimeter, and go on the offensive.18 Although malaria in the fetid conditions badly affected the American forces, the Japanese were hit by malaria and severe hunger too, and once the US Navy had won a four-day battle off the island on 15 November – the last of seven major naval engagements in the six-month campaign – the Japanese were reduced to releasing drums of supplies from passing destroyers, hoping they would float ashore and be retrieved.

On 8 December, a year and a day after Pearl Harbor, Vandergrift, ‘the Hero of Guadalcanal’, and his Marines were finally relieved by Major-General Alexander M. Patch’s US Army regulars, who forced the Japanese, in a ‘desperate and well-conducted rearguard action’, back to Cape Esperance in the east of the island, from where 13,000 of them, including Hyakutake, were miraculously evacuated by night on 9 February 1943 by Tanaka’s Transport Group.19 They were the lucky ones; Japanese left in the interior of Guadalcanal looted native villages to survive, and so ‘The islanders exacted terrible revenge, and Japanese heads decorated the native long-houses for years afterwards.’20 In the entire land campaign, the Japanese had lost 25,000 dead and 600 planes, the Americans 1,490 killed and 4,804 wounded. Both sides lost twenty-four ships, but the Japanese far more tonnage. The first rung of the ‘Solomons ladder’ had been successfully trodden, and the Americans would now move north. Most importantly, though, just as Midway had proved that the Imperial Japanese Navy was far from invincible, Guadalcanal showed the same for the Imperial Japanese Army. In all 103,000 American lives were to be lost defeating Japan, as well as 30,000 British, Indian, Australian and Commonwealth. Guadalcanal was to be the first of several stations on a via dolorosa whose names – such as Kwajalein, Tarawa, Saipan, Guam, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa – are ‘written in blood into American history’.21

The onset of the monsoon in May 1942 had halted the Japanese advance into India, and Commonwealth attempts to attack in the Arakan and retake Akyab came to naught in 1942 and 1943, so the British resorted to a new type of warfare for their forces in Burma in 1943: long-range penetration jungle fighting. This innovative strategy was the brainchild of one of the most glamorous, unconventional and controversial figures of the war: Brigadier (later Major-General) Orde Wingate. Churchill called him ‘this man of genius who might well have become a man of destiny’ and likened him to Wingate’s relation Lawrence of Arabia, who had been a friend of Churchill’s.

The Chindits, Wingate’s British, Indian and Gurkha troops of the 77th Indian Brigade, fought deep behind Japanese lines in northern Burma. The heavy losses they suffered, on occasion having to abandon their wounded, makes Wingate’s military legacy something that historians continue to debate.22 There is disagreement over how the name Chindit originated; some believe it came from Wingate’s mishearing of the Burmese word for lion, chinthe, others that it was after a figure of Hindu mythology, others after the Burmese word for griffin. Whatever its genesis, the force soon found great popularity with the British public, which appreciated the high courage shown in spending long periods of time operating far behind enemy lines.

Wingate could be unscrupulous, especially in leapfrogging senior officers by using his access to his admirer Churchill, and he made a fair number of enemies in the Fourteenth Army in building up his command from a brigade to a division, but for all the sometimes bitter criticisms of him he was undoubtedly one of the true originals. On 31 August 1940, lunching at the War Office, ‘He said he had acquired quite a taste for boiled python, which tasted like chicken,’ the Director of Military Operations Major-General John Kennedy recorded. ‘His men kept remarkably fit – he thought chiefly because they knew they would fall into the hands of the Japanese if they didn’t. He is a man of great character, a good talker and a very good writer too.’23 A manic depressive who tried to commit suicide by cutting his throat with a knife in a hotel in Cairo in 1941 after the Ethiopian campaign; a nudist who frequently wore only a pith helmet and carried a flywhisk in camp; someone who never bathed but instead cleaned himself by vigorous scrubbing of his body with a stiff brush, Wingate ate raw onions for pleasure and has been described as a ‘neurotic maverick’ and a ‘foul-tempered, scruffily dressed egomaniac’.

Born in India when his father was fifty-one, Wingate was raised a strict Nonconformist, who was thus excused chapel at Charterhouse. He came sixty-third out of sixty-nine candidates entering the Royal Military Academy Woolwich in 1921, and hardly shone there either, graduating fifty-ninth out of seventy. It was actual experience of guerrilla warfare in Palestine and Ethiopia that convinced Wingate that a small force could wage a new type of long-range penetration warfare beyond the Chindwin river. ‘If you’re in the Army you have to do something extraordinary to be noticed,’ he once said. He certainly achieved that in his comparatively short life. When fighting the Italians in Ethiopia and the Sudan or Arab terrorists in Palestine – Wingate was an ardent Zionist – or indeed the Japanese, Wingate often found himself also ranged against the British military High Command, who tended deeply to distrust his unconventional methods. He struck his own men in both the Sudan and Palestine, hardly adding to his popularity. Yet as the writer Wilfred Thesiger, who served under him, pointed out, the defeat of 40,000 Italian-led troops by two battalions of Ethiopians and Sudanese could have been achieved only with Wingate in command.

There were two separate Chindit expeditions, with many lessons learnt in 1943 that were put into operation in 1944. Their training in India was comprehensive, with bayonet practice at 6 a.m. followed by unarmed combat, jungle-craft lectures, use of the compass, map-reading, two hours of fatigues in the afternoon, latrine-building and jungle-clearing with machetes. On exercise the Chindits would concentrate on blowing up bridges, disabling airfields and especially staging ambushes. Brigadier Michael Calvert, one of Wingate’s key lieutenants, later stated of this regime: ‘Most Europeans do not know what their bodies can stand; it is the mind and willpower which so often give way first. Most soldiers never realized that they could do the things they did… One advantage of exceptionally heavy training is that it proves to a man what he can do and suffer. If you have marched thirty miles in a day, you can take twenty-five miles in your stride.’24

In the first Chindit sally, Operation Longcloth, Wingate crossed the Chindwin into Japanese-occupied northern Burma on the night of 13 February 1943 with 3,000 men. Using mules for transportation and air drops for supplies, he marched 500 miles in order to harass the Japanese and cut their rail links. Wingate’s Order of the Day stated:

Today we are on the threshold of battle. The time of preparation is over and we are moving on the enemy to prove ourselves and our methods… The battle is not always to the strong, nor the race to the swift. Victory in war cannot be counted on, but what can be counted on is that we shall go forward determined to do what we can to bring this war to an end… Knowing the vanity of Man’s effort and the confusion of his purpose, let us pray that God may accept our service and direct our endeavours, so that when we shall have done all we shall see the fruit of our labours and be satisfied.25

On 18 February the Chindits succeeded in cutting the railway link between Mandalay and Myitkyina for four weeks. Thousands of Japanese were being diverted from other operations, especially against China, to try to swat the small force. Then, on 6 March, the Chindits blew up three important railway bridges in the Bongyaung region. On 15 March two Chindit columns, under Calvert and Major Bernard Fergusson (later Lord Ballantrae), crossed the Irrawaddy river with plans to destroy the strategic Gokteik Gorge railway viaduct. The east bank of the Irrawaddy, however, with its lack of adequate cover, made it much more difficult to operate there than in the jungle on the west side of the river. Although they were successfully supplied by air occasionally, food and sustenance were limited and constant forced marches burnt up energy. The fighting was fierce, too, and almost always against heavy odds. By 26 March only three-quarters of the Chindits were left of the original 3,000-strong force, of whom 600 were badly emaciated. With three Japanese divisions advancing on them, they moved north towards India and eventual escape, crossing back over the Chindwin in the second half of April 1943. Before they returned, however, they set an ambush for the enemy in which a hundred Japanese were killed at the cost of one Chindit.

The fighting the Chindits had to undertake, and the appalling conditions they had to contend with in the jungle, made their two expeditions among the great military feats of the Second World War. A passage from Fergusson’s war diary for his column dated 30 March 1943 underlines the harshness of the situation by the end of the first expedition:

Party now consists of 9 officers, 109 other ranks, of which 3 officers, 2 other ranks wounded. All weak and hungry in varying degrees. Addressed all ranks and told them: (a) only absolute discipline would get us out. I would shoot anybody who pilfered comrades or villages, or who grumbled (b) Anybody who lost his rifle or equipment I would expel from the party, unless I was satisfied with the excuse (c) Only chance was absolute trust and implicit obedience (d) No stragglers.26

Sentries who fell asleep could expect to wake up to a flogging.

For some of the wounded or simply exhausted men, the last 80-mile trek back to safety was simply too much. Sergeant Tony Aubrey of 8 Column recalled how one soldier, ‘whose feet were in a very bad state, made up his mind he could go no further. He lay down. His mates, worn out as they were, tried to carry him. But he wouldn’t allow them to. All he wanted was to be left alone with as many hand grenades as we could spare. So we gave him the hand grenades and left him. There wasn’t anything else to do.’ Stragglers got back as best they could. ‘At first we worried about him,’ Aubrey said of one such. ‘ “How’s so-and-so making out?” we asked each other. But after a time we forgot him. He was just another piece of landscape. This may sound like man’s inhumanity to man, but it wasn’t you know. We were just too tired to care.’27 Wingate himself, wearing the same corduroy trousers he had worn throughout the expedition, which were slashed to ribbons and his legs streaming with blood, swam back across the Chindwin. Once in camp he told the press that he was ‘quite satisfied with the results. The expedition was a complete success.’

Of the 3,000 officers and men who crossed the Chindwin on 13 February, 2,182 were safely back in India by the first week in June. Nearly all the mules were dead, and most of the equipment had been lost or destroyed. The Japanese had killed 450 Chindits; 120 Burmese had been permitted to remain in the jungle, and most of the rest were taken prisoner. The 17th Battalion the King’s Liverpool Regiment lost more than one-third of its complement. Fergusson’s own estimation was that they had achieved:

not much that was tangible. What there was became distorted in the glare of publicity soon after our return. We blew up bits of railway, which did not take long to repair; we gathered some useful Intelligence; we distracted the Japanese from some minor operations, and possibly from some bigger ones; we killed a few hundreds of an enemy which numbers eighty millions; we proved that it was feasible to maintain a force by supply dropping alone.28

Yet the three-month expedition also proved that Allied troops could survive in the jungle just as well as could the Japanese, an important psychological factor. The first expedition therefore helped to dissolve the myth of the invincible Japanese superman, a necessary precursor to building up the morale necessary for eventual victory. The raid had nonetheless been very costly, and several regular soldiers questioned the value of the Chindits’ incursions into the Japanese strongholds of Pinbon, Mongmit and Mianyang. Wingate was taken by Churchill as a prize exhibit (along with the leader of the daredevil Dambusters bombing raid Wing Commander Guy Gibson) to the Quebec Conference in August 1943, where he persuaded both Churchill and Roosevelt that light infantry brigades properly supplied from the air could fight hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, cutting lines of communication, creating mayhem, drawing off troops from the front line and generally, in his words, ‘stirring up a hornets’ nest’. It was therefore decided that the Chindits should be launched on a second expedition in the spring, only this time with treble the forces.

On 5 March 1944, three Chindit brigades comprising over 9,000 men and 1,000 mules launched Operation Thursday, entering Burma in three separate places, with some landing by glider deep behind Japanese lines. This was far more ambitious than Longcloth had been, and was intended to cut off the Japanese Army of Upper Burma, threatening its rear as it marched towards the Imphal Plain. It was also hoped to cut the communications of the Japanese forces fighting against the Chinese armies in Burma under the effective command of Chiang Kai-shek’s chief of staff, the American Lieutenant-General Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell. A fourth Chindit brigade had already set off the previous month on an exhausting land route from the Naga Hills, across the Chindwin and over precipitous, 6,000-foot mountain ranges.

Within ten days of its launch, Calvert’s 77th Brigade succeeded in taking Mawlu, cutting Japanese road and rail links and getting his ‘strongholds’ supplied by air. Unfortunately Fergusson’s 16th Brigade, after a fatiguing overland march from Ledo that was to take over a month, was unable to capture the Japanese supply base at Indaw. Wingate’s Order for the Day for 13 March 1944 nonetheless read:

Our first task is fulfilled. We have inflicted a complete surprise on the enemy. All our columns are inside the enemy’s guts. The time has come to reap the fruit of the advantage we have gained. The enemy will react with violence. We will oppose him with the resolve to conquer our territory of Northern Burma. Let us thank God for the great success He has vouchsafed us and we must press forward with our sword in the enemy’s ribs to expel him from our territory. This is not the moment, when such an advantage has been gained, to count the cost. This is a moment to live in history. It is an enterprise in which every man who takes part may feel proud one day to say ‘I was there.’29

Tragically, an air crash at Imphal on 24 March killed the forty-one-year-old Wingate, who had possibly been warned by the RAF that sudden rainstorms made flying too dangerous at that time. ‘He died as he had lived,’ concludes one account of his campaigns, ‘ignoring official advice.’ Other accounts vigorously deny this, claiming that the weather and flying conditions were not as treacherous as has been made out. Like much else about his life, his death is surrounded with mystery and controversy.

On 9 April the Chindits were reinforced by hundreds of extra troops flown in by glider in a daring operation. The conditions they faced were horrendous: monsoon rain that could turn a foxhole into something approaching a Passchendaele trench in minutes; constant attacks of diarrhoea, malaria and any number of other tropical diseases; ingenious booby-traps and the ever present fear of them; highly accurate enemy mortar and sniper-fire; inaccurate maps; leeches; bad communications; reliance on village rumours for intelligence; sick and obstinate mules; low-nutrition food and bad water; mile upon mile of thick jungle in which it could take an hour to cut through 100 yards; the abandonment of the wounded and stragglers. These are the factors in Chindit warfare that crop up time and again in the memoirs of the survivors.30

George MacDonald Fraser, who was not a Chindit but who did serve in Burma, explained what it was like when two men of his section died in a jungle skirmish:

There was no outward show of sorrow, no reminiscences or eulogies, no Hollywood heart-searchings or phoney philosophy… It was not callousness or indifference or lack of feeling for two comrades who had been alive that morning and were now names for the war memorial; it was just that there was nothing to be said. It was part of war; men died, more would die, that was past, and what mattered now was the business in hand; those who lived would get on with it. Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form’s sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow.31

Much the same would have gone for the Germans, Russians, Americans or Japanese. War is war and its personal, human element has changed remarkably little over the centuries.

One problem that the Chindits had, as well as the enemy and the terrible conditions, was the fact that the US commander in China, General Stilwell, considered them to be merely ‘shadow-boxing’ and a waste of time and effort. Yet on 27 June, Mike Calvert, by then a brigadier, took Mogaung with his Chindit 77th Special Force Brigade supported by two Chinese battalions. After fighting for Mogaung for an entire month, Calvert’s force, once 800 strong, was down to 230 Gurkhas, 110 1st Lancashire Fusiliers and 1st Battalion the King’s Liverpool Regiment and 180 1st Battalion South Staffordshire men. They nonetheless took the key railway bridge, and thus cut off the Japanese 18th Division fighting against Stilwell.

Acts of individual bravery were commonplace. One case was that of Captain Jim Blaker of the 3rd Battalion 9th Gurkha Rifles who had taken more than five hours to climb up to the summit of Point 2171 outside Kamaing, only to find it ringed with mortars and machine guns, which scattered his small force back into the thick jungle. ‘Come on C Company!’ cried Blaker, who charged forward until hit in the stomach by machine-gun bullets. ‘I’m going to die,’ he called out as he expired. ‘Take the position!’32 The Gurkhas rose as one with fixed bayonets and kukri knives and captured the hillside. (They did not have the strength afterwards to bury him and his dead comrades, however, and three months later a Graves Registration Unit found tall bamboo growing through their skeletons, by which time Blaker had been awarded the Victoria Cross.)

The human cost of the Chindit operations was very high, but after the war Lieutenant-General Renya Mutaguchi, commander of the Japanese Fifteenth Army in northern Burma in 1943, stated that: ‘The Chindit invasions did not stop our plans to attack [India], but they did have a decisive effect on these operations and they drew off the whole of 53rd Division and parts of 15th Division, one regiment of which would have turned the tables at [the coming battle of] Kohima.’ Disgracefully, the Official History, written by Major-General S. W. Kirby, who shared the High Command’s distaste for Wingate, published only the part of that sentence up to the first comma.

The last Chindits left Burma on 27 August 1944. Half were admitted to hospital on their return, but after rest and special diets the formation – once reinforced – began training for its third operation before it was officially disbanded in February 1945. The Chindits left an example of human endurance extraordinary even for a conflict such as the Second World War.

Western accounts of the war often minimize, to the point of sometimes ignoring it altogether, the experience of China, despite the fact that fifteen million of those who died in the conflict – a full 30 per cent – were Chinese. It was the Chinese who held down half of Japan’s fighting strength throughout the war, and around 70 per cent of the effort was undertaken by the Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces under their generalissimo, Chiang Kai-shek, based at Chunking. By contrast the Communists under Mao Zedong were, as Max Hastings has put it, at best merely ‘an irritant’ to Japan.33 The Chinese experience of war was terrible: in the great starvation caused by the Japanese, Chinese people ‘hunted ants, devoured tree roots, ate mud’. In December 1937 the Japanese Army massacred 200,000 civilians and raped a further 20,000 women after the fall of Nanking. Yet the Chinese somehow stayed in the war, with the result that Japan had to divert vast forces to fighting in the interior of China, which she could otherwise have dedicated to the invasion of India, or Australia, or both.

China had been at war with Japan since 1937, and in the two years after the fall of Nanking, Chiang Kai-shek’s capital, that December the Japanese established control across much of China’s eastern seaboard, including many of her industrial centres. Russian support for the Kuomintang ended with the Russo-Japanese neutrality pact of April 1941, Japanese air superiority was near total, and the Communists would attack Chiang’s forces as readily as Japan’s. The Nationalists therefore fought a hand-to-mouth campaign until significant support began arriving from the United States after Pearl Harbor. Even then, the fall of Burma in 1942 meant that the overland route for supplies was cut off, and they instead had to be flown over the Hump of the Himalayas. After Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, US warplanes were withdrawn from Chiang, even though he was desperate for them. In any Allied allocation list, the Chinese, who had been forced back into Yunnan province by 1943, always seemed to come at the bottom.

It was, as so often and over so many theatres in the war, to be air power that made the difference, in this case the China Air Task Force (USAAF Fourteenth Air Force) under Major-General Claire L. Chennault. With the ear of FDR but having to fight running administrative battles against General Stilwell, Chennault achieved much in China, albeit with minimal resources stretched to capacity and beyond. At the end of the war, Chiang was badly positioned to take on the Communists, but he had done the Allies a great – and largely unreciprocated – service by tying down more than one million Japanese soldiers for four years, who therefore could not be used elsewhere. The Chinese had not defeated the Japanese by August 1945, but they had remained in the field, which for a country the size of China was all that was necessary to force the Japanese to expend huge resources trying to defeat them.

In January 1944 the Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo authorized Operation U-Go, a Japanese invasion of India under the command of Lieutenant-General Mutaguchi, hoping to forestall General Slim’s own advance into Burma, to close the Burma Road to China and, through the use of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, possibly to spark off a revolt against British rule in India. Of the 316,700 Japanese troops in Burma in March 1944, three divisions – the 33rd, 15th and 31st – were earmarked for the task, along with the (anti-British) Indian National Army, numbering more than 100,000 troops in all.34 Owing to a lack of supplies and a relative weakness in air power, Mutaguchi depended on surprise and an early capture of the gigantic arms, food and ammunition depot at Imphal, the capital of the Manipur province. From there he hoped to march via the village of Kohima to capture Dimapur, which boasted a vast supply dump (11 miles by 1 in size) on the Ledo-to-Calcutta railway, and which was therefore the key to British India. Certainly, Slim would not be able to recapture Burma without the stores at Dimapur.

Slim’s plans to capture Akyab in December 1942 had failed, as had an attack on Donbaik in March 1943, and for all its splendid effect on morale Operation Longcloth could not affect the course of the struggle in Burma. In September 1943 South-East Asia Command (SEAC) had been founded with Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten as its supreme commander, and the following month Slim’s Fourteenth Army, comprising Britons, Indians, Burmese, Chinese, Chins, Gurkhas, Kachins, Karens, Nagas and troops from British East Africa and British West Africa, was also set up. The intention for 1944 was for Lieutenant-General Philip Christison to take Akyab with XV Corps, Stilwell’s Northern Combat Command to take Myitkyina, and Lieutenant-General Geoffrey Scoones’ Central Front to take Tiddim. Before any of that could happen, however, the U-Go offensive had to be repulsed. Although Slim was expecting an attack, he did not think it would come with such speed and force and as early as it did. The Japanese Burma Area Army attacked in the Arakan in February 1944, but was defeated by the 5th and 7th Divisions, which were airlifted to Imphal on 19 March. They got back just in time, because it turned out that the Japanese were only 30 miles from the town. On 7 March 1944 the Japanese unleashed Operation U-Go: their 33rd Division struck in the south, a week later the 15th Division crossed the Chindwin river in the centre and the 31st Division, under Lieutenant-General Sato Kotuku, in the north. Slim ordered the 17th and 20th Divisions to hold the Imphal perimeter, while the 5th and 23rd fought on the Imphal Plain.

Because of the mountainous Naga Hill region in the north, with jungle paths and narrow ridges 8,000 feet high, Slim assumed that Sato would have to try to capture Kohima with only a regiment; in fact on 5 April the entire 31st Division arrived there, after marching 160 miles in twenty days, bringing large numbers of animals both for food and for carrying arms and ammunition over passes and ravines and through jungles. Kohima was considered the key to Imphal 80 miles to the south, Imphal to Dimapur and Dimapur the key to British India itself, which is why it was soon to see, in the writer Compton Mackenzie’s view, ‘fighting as desperate as any in recorded history’.35

At 17.00 hours on 5 April, Colonel Hugh Richards of the 1st Assam Regiment, some of whose rear details were stationed at Kohima, was informed by a Naga tribesman that the Japanese were approaching along the road from Imphal, and there was no time to waste if he wanted to defend the town. Sure enough, Major-General Shigesaburo Miyazaki of the 58th Infantry Regiment was approaching, his pet monkey Chibi on his shoulder, having cut the Dimapur–Imphal road that morning (the Kohima–Imphal road was to be cut soon afterwards).36 Kohima, a village 5,000 feet above sea level surrounded by peaks 10,000 feet high to the west and 8,000 feet to the north and east, has been described as ‘an ocean of peaks and ridges crossed by bridle paths’.37 Richards had been trying to fortify the place for a month, stymied by a quartermaster in Dimapur who would not release barbed wire to him as there was an administrative regulation forbidding its use in the Naga Hills.

Defending the village perched on a ridge and soon completely surrounded by over 6,000 Japanese under Sato were 500 men of the 4th Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel John ‘Danny’ Laverty, some platoons of the Assam Rifles and Shere Regiment, a small detachment from the 1st Assam Regiment and some recruits from the Royal Nepalese Army, numbering around a thousand in total.38 The 1,500 non-combatant civilians proved a problem: although the tiny area the British Commonwealth forces were defending – effectively a triangle 700 by 900 by 1,100 yards – was well supplied with food and ammunition, the Japanese cut off its water supply early on in the siege, so that water had to be severely rationed. Despite his formidable advantage in numbers at Kohima, Sato had little faith in the success of U-Go in general. On the eve of his attack, he drank a glass of champagne with his divisional officers, telling them: ‘I’ll take this opportunity, gentlemen, of making something quite clear to you. Miracles apart, every one of you is likely to lose his life in this operation. It isn’t simply a question of the enemy’s bullets. You must be prepared for death by starvation in these mountain fastnesses.’39 The Japanese obviously did pep-talks differently.

What happened next rates with the great sieges of British history, such as that of Rorke’s Drift in the Zulu War. The Japanese, having taken positions above Kohima, bombarded the force inside the perimeter at dusk every day from 6 April onwards, before attempting to overrun it night after night. Vicious hand-to-hand fighting took place, with the Japanese capturing more and more of the village as the dreadful fortnight wore on. Every building in the village – the General Hospital, Garrison Hill, the Kuki Piquet, the Field Supply Depot (FSD) and its bakeries, the Kohima Club, the Detail Issue Store and the District Commissioner’s bungalow – became a scene of death and destruction, as some held out and others were captured by countless determined Japanese assaults. Water had to be dropped in by parachute, and the defenders felt desperate when supplies fell on Japanese positions instead, so small was the perimeter target area. They felt even worse when ammunition originally intended for them was used to bombard them.40

Scenes of great heroism on both sides were commonplace, though none perhaps outdone by the nineteen-year-old Lance-Corporal John Harman of D Company of the 4th Royal West Kents, who almost single-handedly cleared the tactically vital FSD bakeries of Japanese, taking direct part in the killing of forty-four Japanese, and winning a posthumous Victoria Cross in a series of feats that almost defy belief.41 ‘The actions were hand-to-hand combat, fierce and ruthless, by filthy, bedraggled, worn-out men, whose lungs were rarely free of the noxious smell of decaying corpses inside and outside the perimeter. Once the circle had closed, the wounded could not be evacuated, and were often wounded again as they lay, helpless, in the restricted space available to the frantically overworked medical officers.’42

With front lines sometimes only 15 yards from each other, as close as anything seen in the Great War, at one point fierce fighting took place across District Commissioner Charles Pawsey’s tennis court which lay between the rubble of the Kohima Club and his destroyed bungalow.43 ‘Where tennis balls had been idly lobbed by the few Europeans in more placid times,’ wrote Louis Allen, who served in intelligence in South-East Asia during the war, ‘grenades whizzed back and forth across the width of the court.’ It was true that 161st Brigade, part of the 5th Indian Division at Jotsama, kept up counter-battery fire against the Japanese shelling Kohima, but Sato had cut the road link at Zubza, which was only 36 miles from Dimapur, so reinforcement was impossible. The most dangerous moment of them all came on the night of 17 April, when the Japanese stormed the Kuki Piquet, thereby getting between Garrison Hill and the FSD, threatening at any moment to cut the perimeter in half, thus splitting the garrison. Richards had run out of reserves, and he and his men resolutely if fatalistically awaited the coup de grâce expected at dawn. Yet as the Indian Official History of the war states, ‘The final vicious assault did not come.’44 The Japanese, as exhausted and as hungry as the defenders, failed to press home the attack.

It was at this key moment, on Sunday, 18 April 1944, that 161st Brigade, part of Lieutenant-General Sir Montagu Stopford’s XXXIII Indian Corps from Dimapur, managed to infiltrate a Punjabi battalion and tank detachment into Kohima, which relieved the General Hospital and the West Kents’ position facing Kuki Piquet and Pawsey’s bungalow. ‘Most of its buildings were in ruins,’ recorded Allen of the battered village of Kohima, ‘walls still standing were pockmarked with shell bursts or bullet holes, the trees were stripped of leaves and parachutes hung limply from the few branches that remained.’45 As the Punjabis took up position, ready to start the process of trying to prise the Japanese out of their immensely well-dug-in positions, they saw among the British and Indian survivors ‘little groups of grinning and bearded riflemen standing at the mouths of their bunkers and staring with blood-shot and sleep-starved eyes as the relieving troops came in. They had not had a wash for a week.’46 They had suffered over 300 casualties between 5 and 20 April 1944 – including three British brigadiers killed – but had held out.

Going on to the offensive, the next problem was how, in the words of Major Geoffrey White of the Dorsets, to ‘get a medium tank on to the tennis court or manhandle a gun into such a position as to blow the devils out of their holes at very close range in support of an infantry attack’.47 The Japanese were expert diggers and had dug themselves into the terraced ground in such a way that little could touch them from the air. Over the next two months, Shigesaburo Miyazaki’s 58th Infantry Regiment was dislodged from its positions, terrace by terrace, ridge by hard-fought ridge, holding out the longest of the division, and covering the retreat. Its commander survived to hold high office in the Japanese Army.

Meanwhile at Imphal the RAF’s Third Tactical Air Force kept the besieged town resupplied by air once Mutaguchi had cut the road to Kohima on 12 April. During the eighty-eight-day siege it moved 1 million gallons of petrol, 12,000 reinforcements and 14 million pounds of rations into the town, and flew 13,000 casualties out. Once again, Allied air superiority was the key. With weak air support and inadequate supplies, the entire Japanese offensive had stalled, and Mutaguchi’s Fifteenth Army was starting to disintegrate. His whole plan had gambled on being able to supply his forces from captured supplies, and when Slim’s 5th and 23rd Divisions broke the Japanese stranglehold, this was denied him. With Sato withdrawing from Kohima on 31 May, and the monsoon descending that month, the gamble had clearly failed. Mutaguchi was furious that Sato had committed so many troops to Kohima, rather than diverting at least one regiment to attacking Imphal, and when Sato arrived at Mutaguchi’s headquarters he was solemnly handed a revolver and a white cloth, which he indignantly refused. He explained that he had saved his men from ‘a meaningless annihilation’ but was nonetheless accused of ‘premeditated treason’.48

The first time that the Japanese abandoned a position without a fight came on 17 June at the Mao Songsan Ridge, and five days later the Imphal–Dimapur Road reopened. Some units, such as Lieutenant-General Masafumi Yamauchi’s 15th Division, had been so stripped of manpower by illness, battle-losses and dispersal that they were down to the strength of one and a half battalions. (Yamauchi consoled himself writing haiku poetry.) ‘The road dissolved into mud,’ recorded Major Fujiwara Iwaichi, the officer who had trained the Indian National Army, ‘the rivers flooded, and it was hard to move on foot, never mind in a vehicle… Almost every officer and man was suffering from malaria, while amoebic dysentery and beri-beri were commonplace.’49 The time had come for Slim to exact a terrible revenge against the U-Go offensive. The number of Commonwealth casualties at Imphal was 12,603 versus 54,879 Japanese (including 13,376 killed). Some authorities give figures as high as 65,000 for the number of Japanese killed in the whole of the U-Go campaign.50 Although miraculously the Japanese retreated in formation, keeping order throughout the ordeal and recrossing the Chindwin under constant harassment by the RAF, not one tank or heavy artillery piece could be saved, and over 17,000 mules and pack ponies perished too.

As a result of U-Go, which has been described as ‘the biggest defeat the Japanese had known in their entire history’, Mutaguchi was dismissed, along with the entire Fifteenth Army Staff, barring one officer. Hideki Tojo, the Japanese Prime Minister, resigned on 18 July 1944. Given that he was not told about the battle of Midway until six weeks after the event, he was clearly not the all-powerful dictator of popular Western mythology; power rested in the Supreme War Council. He was much more than a scapegoat, however, and was not surprisingly executed in 1948. Burma was now open for Allied reconquest, and the British Army recrossed the Chindwin on 19 November. ‘The consequences of Imphal and Kohima’, recorded their historian, ‘far transcended any British achievement in the Far East since December 1941.’51

In protecting the Indian sub-continent from the ravages of Japanese rule, whose vicious cruelties had been apparent in Manchuria and China since 1931 and which were extended to the whole of the Southern Resources Area between 1941 and 1945, the British Empire performed its greatest service to the people of India. Adolf Hitler had written in Mein Kampf: ‘If anyone imagines that England would let India go without staking her last drop of blood, it is only a sorry sign of absolute failure to learn from the World War, and of total misapprehension and ignorance on the score of Anglo-Saxon determination.’52 About this he was right, and yet only three years later the British did indeed withdraw from India without fighting for it. But there was a world of difference between granting independence to a dominion’s own people in peacetime and having it wrested away by a foreign power in time of war.

When considering the horrific cruelties inflicted on European POWs by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War, it is important to see them in the overall context of atrocities such as the Rape of Nanking.53 Whereas 6.2 per cent of British Commonwealth prisoners of the Japanese died between 1941 and 1945, the figures were 23 per cent for the Dutch, 41.6 per cent for the Americans and a monstrous 77 per cent (230,000 out of 300,000) for Indonesian forced labourers.54 As Pedro Lopez, the Philippine counsel at the Japanese War Crimes Tribunal, stated of the 131,000 documented Filipinos – the full figure was probably many times higher – murdered by the Japanese after 1941, there were ‘hundreds who suffered slow and painful death in dark, foul and lice-infested cells’.55

The literature covering what one historian has called ‘The Horror in the East’ is voluminous, and the Kachanaburi death camp on the River Kwai, Unit 731’s anthrax experiments, Changi Jail in Singapore, Korean ‘comfort’ women, the Bataan Death March and so on have particularly foul places in the long story of man’s inhumanity to man.56 There are many other, lesser-known aspects of the barbarity shown by the Imperial Japanese forces towards their captives, including that of the psychopathically sadistic behaviour of the Japanese Navy, and especially their Marines. Cold-blooded torture and the routine execution of prisoners seems to have been standard procedure. What happened to the SS Tjisalak was fairly normal practice, according to the evidence given at the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal.57 After the 5,787-ton Dutch merchant ship was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean on the way from Melbourne in Australia to Colombo in Ceylon on the morning of Sunday, 26 March 1944, the captain gave its seventy-six crewmen the order to abandon ship. Unbeknown to them, an official Japanese naval order of almost exactly a year earlier had authorized submarine commanders: ‘Do not stop at the sinking of enemy ships and cargoes. At the same time carry out the complete destruction of the crews of the enemy ships.’ What happened next was thus the officially condoned policy of the Japanese Admiralty.

The Japanese submarine I-8 rose to the surface and its commander, Tatsunosuke Ariizumi, ordered it to move close to the three lifeboats full of survivors, which were fired upon with machine guns. Survivors of that ordeal were ordered to come up on to the submarine’s deck, where they were disarmed and their hands tied. Within a few minutes the crowded foredeck was full of the Tjisalak’s Chinese, Indian and European crew. They then started to behead the Europeans, one by one. ‘They’d just go up and hit a guy on the back and take him up front, and then one of the guys with a sword would cut off his head. Zhunk!’ recalled the ship’s radio operator. ‘One guy, they cut off his head halfway and let him flop around on the deck. The others I saw, they just lopped ’em off with one shot and threw ’em overboard. They were laughing.’58 Another survivor, a twenty-one-year-old British wireless operator called Blears, agreed. ‘They were having fun, and there was a cameraman taking movies of the whole thing!’ As he was led off to execution, Blears could see ‘Two Japanese officers were waiting for us, one with a sword and the other with a sledgehammer.’ Managing to free one of his bound arms, he dived into the water and swam to a raft from the wreckage of the Tjisalak, as two Japanese sitting on deckchairs fired at him. Fear of the sharks that were being attracted by the smell of blood from his comrades made him swim all the faster. Back on the submarine, the twenty-two seamen were all tied together by long ropes and the I-8 then submerged, ‘dragging the kicking and struggling men down into the depths, deliberately drowning them’. Miraculously, one Indian named Dhange managed to free himself, and also lived to bear witness alongside Blears and the radio operator.59

Sinking lifeboats was common practice among the Japanese, as was shooting survivors in the water. After the Japanese submarine I-26 torpedoed the American Liberty ship Richard Hovey in March 1943, two days out of Bombay sailing towards the Suez Canal, it surfaced and opened up its 20mm anti-aircraft cannon into her small boats and rafts, and then rammed them. Lieutenant Harry Goudy recalled that the Japanese on deck ‘were laughing and seemed to get quite a bit of sport out of our predicament’. These criminal actions were also being filmed.60

Similar treatment was meted out to the crew of the American Liberty ship Jean Nicolet on her way to Calcutta from California in July 1944. William Musser, a seventeen-year-old mess-room steward, was hauled up on to the Japanese submarine that had sunk his ship, and was ‘immediately frogmarched towards the bows between two Japanese sailors. Suddenly, one of his captors turned and struck Musser a savage blow across his skull with a length of steel pipe. The Japanese laughed as Musser staggered about concussed and terrified. Taking careful aim with a pistol, the same Japanese pulled the trigger and blew the American boy’s brains out. Musser’s body was then kicked over the side like a bag of refuse.’61 Ordinary Seaman Richard Kean, aged nineteen, was stripped of valuables and his lifejacket and had his hands tied behind his back. Before he got to the bow of the ship a Japanese sailor bayoneted him in the stomach, as another smashed a rifle butt down on the back of his head. His body was also kicked overboard. The other prisoners then had to hear a harangue from the captain, who told them, ‘Let this be a lesson to you that Americans are weak. You must realize that Japan will rule the world,’ and so on. From then on, Americans were dragged off the deck individually down the hatch into the submarine. ‘The night air was soon rent with screams of agony and the sounds of violence,’ the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal was told, ‘as the terrified survivors suffered untold mental anguish waiting to be snatched and led to an unknown fate.’ On deck, the Japanese formed two lines, whereupon the Americans were forced to run the gauntlet, being hit with metal bars, rifle butts and lengths of chain, and slashed with bayonets and knives. Anyone still alive at the end of the line faced a large sailor ‘whose job it was to lunge his bayonet deep into the bleeding and bruised Americans and heave them bodily over the side like a man heaving hay with a pitchfork’.62

Astonishingly, two men somehow survived this process. Assistant Engineer Pyle was cut with a sword but managed to fall into the sea, and Able Seaman Butler described how ‘One tried to kick me in the stomach, another hit me over the head with an iron pipe, another cut me over the eye with a sabre,’ but he too managed to release his hands and jump overboard. With thirty others tied up, the submarine’s diving klaxon then sounded and the Japanese rushed down into the bowels of the vessel, slamming the hatches shut behind them. One American sailor who had secreted a penknife managed to free several of his comrades before the submarine dived; all the rest drowned.

Yet it was the behaviour of Japan’s 17,000-strong Manila Naval Defence Force (MNDF) against innocent civilians in the capital of the Philippines in February 1945 that truly defies belief. Furious that the Americans were recapturing the islands, Vice-Admiral Denshichi Okuchi unleashed the MNDF to do anything they liked to the local population, who they (rightly) believed sympathized with the Westerners. In one incident, twenty Filipina girls were taken to an officers’ club called the Coffee Pot, and later to the nearby Bay View Hotel, where they were ‘Imprisoned in various rooms and over the next four days and nights Japanese officers and other ranks were given free access to the terrified girls, who were dragged from their rooms and repeatedly raped.’63 One written order from the High Command of the MNDF from this period reads: ‘When killing Filipinos, assemble them together in one place as far as possible, thereby saving ammunition and labour.’ The diary of a warrant officer called Yamaguchi reads: ‘All in all, our aim is extermination.’ Civilians who had taken refuge in the German Club in Manila were burnt to death when Japanese naval troops surrounded the building, poured petrol over the exits and set fire to it. According to the historian of these horrors, those who tried to escape were:

impaled on bayonets, some also were shot dead. Women who made it through were dragged screaming into nearby ruined buildings where Japanese soldiers gang-raped them. Some were carrying children, but the Japanese bayoneted these babies in their mother’s arms before assaulting the mothers. After being raped many times the Japanese soldiers often cut the women’s breasts off with bayonets; some had petrol poured on their hair and ignited.64

Such utter bestiality was repeated ‘on countless occasions’ right across the city.

On 7 February 1945, advancing American forces discovered the mutilated corpses of forty-nine Filipinos on the corner of Juan Luna and Moriones Streets in Manila. One-third of the corpses were women and another third babies and infants. All had been shot, bayoneted or beheaded, and most of the females – of almost all ages – had been raped. Pregnancy was certainly no protection, as a mountain of contemporaneous evidence proves: ‘In some cases, Japanese troops had cut the foetuses out of their mother’s bellies before killing the victim.’65 As well as bayonet wounds, some young female survivors of a separate massacre had had ‘both of their nipples amputated from their breasts, and a 2-year-old boy had had both of his arms cut off by the Japanese. Some children as young as five were nursing bayonet stab wounds and severe burns caused by sadistic Japanese naval troops for no other reason than to inflict pain and suffering on infants.’

When the MNDF entered the Philippines Red Cross hospital in Manila, further foul scenes of wholesale massacre were enacted, and one survivor, its acting manager Modesta Farolan, recorded, ‘From where we were, we could hear victims in their death agony, the shrill cries of children and the sobs of dying mothers and girls.’ On leaving her hiding place, Farolan discovered that ‘Women were raped and sliced with bayonets from groin to throat and left to bleed to death in the hot sun. Children were seized by the legs and had their heads bashed against the wall. Babies were tossed into the air and caught on bayonets. Unborn foetuses were gouged out with bayonets from pregnant women.’66

Nor was the deliberate attack on the Red Cross hospital out of character for the Japanese Navy. There were many occasions when hospital ships bearing clearly identifiable Red Cross marks were specifically targeted. Whenever doctors and nurses fell into Japanese hands, as in Hong Kong at Christmas 1941, they were particularly ill-treated, possibly because they were seen as responsible for getting wounded men back into action. The Japanese had agreed before the outbreak of war to abide by the provisions of the Geneva Convention regarding non-combatant status, which since 1907 had expressly protected the International Red Cross, but this was entirely ignored after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Hospital ships were bombed in harbour, torpedoed at sea and fired upon too often for it to be coincidental.

On occasion the Japanese Navy would go to some lengths to think up imaginative ways to murder people. At St Paul’s College in Manila in February 1945, for example, 250 hungry and thirsty civilians were herded into the school hall and told that there was food and drink under three large chandeliers in one of the buildings. The Japanese then withdrew. The prisoners rushed to the trestle tables loaded with food, but they barely had a chance to take a bite before explosives in the booby-trapped chandeliers blew up. Then the Japanese threw hand grenades into the hall to finish off the survivors.

At La Salle College, a Catholic institution in the city, the rapes and massacres wound up, as the father superior later recalled, with ‘bodies being thrown into a heap at the foot of the stairs. The dead were thrown over the living. Not many died outright, a few died within one or two hours, the rest slowly bled to death. The sailors retired and we heard them drinking outside. Frequently they returned to laugh and mock at our suffering.’ Many Japanese even raped women and girls who were bleeding to death from gunshot and stab wounds. There were many other scenes described to the War Crimes Tribunal – and not denied by the perpetrators – that are simply too disgusting to recount here. Men of the Imperial Japanese Navy were undoubtedly every bit as depraved, sadistic and ruthless as their military counterparts.

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