Hara-kiri lessons and The Bombs
In its way, it’s a form of nuclear fallout.
Mention the atom bombs on Japan and you’ll get consistent reactions.
People applaud them as a tactical necessity to end the war against a vicious enemy.
Others see the bombs themselves as inhuman and immoral.
Letters put both viewpoints after this column told how New Zealand soldiers secretly heading for carnage as invaders of Japan were saved by The Bombs and the immediate Japanese surrender.
Bernard Moran, Glenfield, was in Kobe in 1971 teaching English in a Japanese business school to managers heading off to overseas postings.
While out socially, he told a 41-year-old student that many people in the West felt very guilty about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I was understandably shocked when he said he was very glad the Americans dropped the bombs.
“In fact, he had seen the distant flash in the sky while walking to school.
“He explained that after the Americans took Iwo Jima and Okinawa, everyone knew the assault on Japan would soon begin.
“In his area of Kobe, all the residents, including the elderly, were issued with pikes – long staffs with a sharpened spearhead – and instructed that when the Americans closed in, they were to be attacked street by street.
“My student was 15 at the time.
“One day, their teachers handed out a small knife to each student in the school.
“When the American soldiers came near the school, they were to kill themselves – to die for the Emperor. No one must be taken alive.
“Several times a week, a bell would sound and the students in class would take the knife out of their drawer and practise a form of harakiri.
“When I felt the steel on my skin, I was very scared, but I couldn’t show my fear.
“Years later, at a school reunion a group of his classmates talked about the knives.
“They had all been drinking and he confided how terrified he felt at the prospect of committing hara-kiri.
“You were scared? said one. Yes, yes! he replied.
“Well, I was terrified too!
“They all confessed their secret terror and agreed that if the Americans hadn’t used the atomic bombs to force surrender, they would all be dead.
“The atomic bombs were terrible, but they saved our lives.” Not the only ones. John Jones, 88, of Takapuna, was a post office wireless operator and coastwatcher recruited by an official who trawled for volunteers at the Post Office training centre in Wellington.
Captured at 20 in Betio, now Kiribati, only a few days after Pearl Harbour, he spent four years as a POW in Japan:
“On August 15, 1945, I was working on a rail line with five US marine POW friends at a small town, Sukaide on Shikoku Island, about 70 miles from atombombed Hiroshima.
“We were made to stand in the street with the many Japanese civilians. At noon, we had to make a 45 degree bow towards Tokyo and remain there for the length of the emperor’s surrender speech.
“Several weeks before, at the Zentsuji prison camp, we were made to dig a wide and deep zigzag trench of some 30 or 40 metres outside our barracks.
“As time went on, all of us – including five New Zealanders – became suspicious that what we had dug was, in fact, our own graves.
“This was confirmed by the occupying US forces who released us weeks later.
“This was not the first time Kiribati coastwatchers had realised that execution was close.
“Sad to relate, 17 men of our unit captured at their posts were beheaded.”
Three of his mates later beheaded by the Japanese are among photos he took on deck as the steamer Viti carried them north to their island posts, all smiles with their hair newly shaven – priceless and moving reminders those years.
Included too in John’s files are those gravetrenches he and others dug at their POW camp, a Japanese identity photo of him and an inscription Americans wrote for a memorial at Betio:
“In memory of 22 British subjects murdered by the Japanese ... standing unarmed at their posts, they matched brutality with gallantry and fortitude.”
John Jones is very critical of failure to brief the volunteers on just what was involved in their “off-shore” work, and later New Zealand government failure to evacuate the coastwatchers when their peril became clear after Japan attacked Pearl Harbour.
He believes that US commanders offered to rescue them and a few unarmed New Zealand soldiers before they were captured, and that the then Prime Minister Peter Fraser, for whatever reason, chose not to take up the offer.
Evidence in the coastwatcher official history supports his theory:
“Although the Japanese in their treatment of the prisoners did not take a stand upon the principles of international law, it would have
of been possible for them to have justified the execution of the seven wireless operators (but not the soldiers) on the ground that they had been civilians doing work of an essentially military character.”
And added to that is a very significant footnote signed by Major General Sir Howard Kippenberger as editor-in-chief of New Zealand War Histories.
He had earlier been in charge of repatriating New Zealand POWs from Germany.
“The position of remaining coastwatchers had obviously become desperate.
“They can only have been abandoned because it was considered that the information they supplied was worth the sacrifice.”
Stephen Sharpe, NZ 4210006, RNZAF aircrew, Pacific theatre: “Thank you for your column. It should be widely disseminated and added to all recorded history of New Zealand’s participation in World War Two.
‘Stories of our war are focused on Europe and the desert and Crete. The Pacific barely rates a mention.
‘I suppose it may be because New Zealand- ers were given little information about how near we were to being over-run.
“And let us always remember that we were saved by the US in the Pacific. Let’s hope your resume will put to rest those bleaters who bemoan the dropping of The Bombs.”
Mac MacDonald: “Most interested to read your excellent column A Medal They Didn’t Get – Thank God.
“I’d very much like a copy of the war history you mention and would be grateful if you could advise where it can be sourced.
“I was in Burnham after returning from leave (16th Reinforcements) when The Bombs went off. While rumours were rife, I never did get the full story until your column.” • Late news, Mac, the previously secret records show you and your 16th reinforcement very much in the mix for the planned invasion. Now you know what you escaped.
The sources for the column facts were The Official History of New Zealanders in the Second World War, Volume Three and the 1782page The Surrender and Occupation of Japan.