LONDON – Britain and Japan tried to keep secret “one of the worst war crimes” of World War II, according to a recent BBC investigation.
The British government decided not to bring charges against Japanese commanders for the massacre of around 280 British and Dutch prisoners of war who were machinegunned in 1943, the BBC said.
And British ministers, anxious to end the war crimes trials in 1949 and rebuild relations with Japan, appear to have concluded it was best not to reveal to the relatives of the deceased how their sons and husbands died.
Now, the children of the men who were allegedly executed are considering trying to get an apology from the British government for their betrayal.
The story began in November 1943 when the Japanese ship Suez Maru was torpedoed by a U.S. submarine on its way from Japan to Java. The ship, which was transporting about 548 British and Dutch POWs, sank and about half of the men drowned.
However, the rest managed to survive by clinging to debris from the ship. Over the next few hours, the Japanese guards, who had managed to flee to an accompanying minesweeper, machinegunned the POWs to death as they desperately clung to the wreckage of the ship.
Documents unearthed by a team from BBC Radio 4’s “Document” program show that in the immediate aftermath of the incident a Japanese commander claimed all the POWs died when the Suez Maru was torpedoed and sank. The POWs were being kept in the ship’s hold and there were no survivors despite rescue boats being deployed, it was claimed.
Unaware of the massacre, the British government informed the relatives of the POWs that they had drowned.
But in 1949, one of the Japanese crewmen decided to reveal the truth about what happened on that fateful day, according to documents.
In a letter to Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the former crew member wrote: “Some of them (POWs) waved their hands. I heard people moaning in pain. The burst of machinegun fire didn’t cease for some time.”
He told investigators some of the men were so desperate to end their misery they actually tried to stand up on the wreckage to become easier targets.
His openness with the Allied authorities resulted in his family ostracizing him.
Following his testimony, the Allies called in the commander who in 1943 had claimed that all the POWs had drowned.
He told his interrogators he saw about 200 POWs alive in the water after the ship’s sinking. He admitted his superiors told him to omit the fact that the men were deliberately slaughtered when he wrote an official account of the incident in 1943.
The commander said that although it was his final decision to kill the POWs, he was mindful of what his superiors would have done in similar circumstances. He also claimed there was not enough room in the accompanying ship to accommodate all the POWs. “We shot people for an hour or two,” he said.
Within months, a report about the massacre was sent to London. Allied authorities recommended that there was sufficient evidence to charge three of the commanders for war crimes.
However, the BBC could not find any evidence the trio faced a trial or were given an official reprimand.
It appears senior politicians in Britain debated the issue in 1949 and concluded it was best not to pursue any charges.
Although they were angered by the allegations, they thought it was best to draw a line under a series of war trials in Japan that had already seen 700 war criminals executed. Germany was also finishing its war trials and it was hoped that all the hearings would be over by September 1949.
Ministers also felt that bringing charges against the trio would lead the relatives of the deceased to question why there had been a six-year delay in revealing the truth and cause them to ask why no action was being taken.
So it appears the British government decided to do nothing.
War crimes experts told the BBC that nothing similar could happen now, and Britain’s decision represented practical political considerations.
Britain and the United States were keen to ensure Japan remained an ally following the war to provide a bastion against communism in the region.
Kathleen Emms told the program it was “terrible” and “disgusting” how she was never told the real truth behind the death of her husband, Douglas.
Her son, Terry, said: “The way it happened should be looked into. The truth should come out and those at fault should be made to pay.”
It is thought that the three former Japanese naval personnel are no longer alive.
Experts are now advising the surviving relatives about seeking justice from the British government for the coverup.