Former Australian prisoner of war Alfred Ellwood can vividly recall being interrogated and at times tortured by the Imperial Japanese Army’s notorious military police after he was captured in East Timor, an experience that scarred him most of his life.
But during a recent visit to Japan, Ellwood, 89, said he no longer harbors any animosity toward the country responsible for his suffering, nor its people, whom he praised for adopting a war-renouncing Constitution.
Ellwood, from Kensington, Victoria, was an army captain when he was captured Sept. 29, 1943, by the Imperial Army’s 48th Division two months after landing on East Timor by boat, and was mostly held in the capital, Dili, before being transferred to the island of Bali. He was eventually liberated there by Allied forces on Oct. 2, 1945.
A story that ran in the Oct. 5, 1945, edition of The Argus, an Australian newspaper, said Ellwood and six other POWs were found near the summit of a 1,400-meter mountain on Bali and flown to Singapore.
“None of them suffered any particular torture except solitary confinement and a starvation diet. They were subjected to grilling and the usual banging about,” the article said, a simplified account that neglects the severe physical and mental abuse Elwood suffered at the hands of the Kempeitai secret military police.
“I had the great misfortune of being delivered into the hands of the Kempeitai the day after my capture,” Ellwood said at a recent meeting in Tokyo hosted by the Japanese Society for Friendship with ex-POWs and Families. Four other Aussie POWs and their family members also came to Japan for the meeting.
Ellwood and the others visited Japan from Nov. 27 to Dec. 5 at the invitation of the government. Their trip was arranged through the Foreign Ministry’s Japan-Australia grassroots exchange program, part of the government’s efforts to promote reconciliation and understanding with former Australian POWs.
On Nov. 29, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba spoke to the POWs and their kin and delivered an apology on behalf of the government for the pain inflicted upon them during the war. The group visited the Foreign Ministry for the occasion.
During their nine-day trip, the guests visited Tokyo and other places of special significance, including the sites of former POW labor camps, and met with government officials and citizens.
“I do want to stress that I do not have any hostility toward the Japanese people or Japan, my only problem is with the Japanese military of that era, and of course with the Kempeitai in particular,” Ellwood said before recounting his story.
After being handed over to the Kempeitai, Ellwood said he soon realized there was no point in relying on the Geneva Conventions, which set out standards for the humanitarian treatment of victims of war.
“The first question I was asked was my age,” Ellwood said.
“My inclination was just to simply give my name, rank and serial number, which was required under the Geneva Conventions, but the Kempeitai officer asked me my age, and I answered truthfully, 21, whereupon he dealt a blow to my head and knocked me to the floor,” he said.
Ellwood said this was followed by several months of violent interrogations, where he was occasionally bound up “like a turkey” with handcuffs and denied food and water.
“I had no medical assistance for various conditions I had. I contracted malaria, dysentery and beriberi, and it was only when I had a severe attack of asthma that I got medical assistance,” he said.
Blindfolded most of the time, Ellwood lived in a small cell with a wooden barrel, which may have previously been used to store miso, as a toilet.
“That soon became filled, overflowed, and maggots were crawling all over the floor and over my body when I was resting,” he said.
Ellwood said he eventually “cracked” under the interrogation and disclosed information to his interrogators.
“It was a matter of either talk or you were bashed to death; it boiled down to that. I was bashed so severely in the head that I couldn’t see out of my eyes on the occasions that I had my blindfold off,” he recalled.
The Kempeitai discovered Ellwood’s code book and signals diary, which he had used to communicate with the Australian military, and used them to send bogus communications — the main reason Ellwood believes he was kept alive.
“Communication headquarters will occasionally run a security check and might send out a question, such as ‘What is your mother’s maiden name?’ or ‘Where did you first go to school?’ ” Ellwood said. “Had they not kept me alive, they ran the risk of blowing the whole thing.”
Around 22,000 Australian military service members were captured by the Imperial forces during the war, of whom about 8,000 died before the war ended.
Many were sent to various locations across Southeast Asia that had been seized by Japanese forces, or to Japan itself, and were held in inhumane conditions and subjected to forced labor. POWs were used in the construction of the notorious Thailand-Burma railroad — also known as the Death Railway — during which more than 100,000 Allied POWs and Asian laborers perished.
“War really is a failure of intelligence — neither side knew much about the other side — it’s a failure of diplomacy, it’s a failure of politics, a failure of leadership, and of course it’s the old people who are the leaders and the politicians and the diplomats, and they send the young people to war and destroy a lot of lives,” he said.
Lorna Johnston, the only woman among the five POWs on the trip, couldn’t hide her surprise at seeing modern-day Tokyo, which she was visiting for the first time in more than half a century. The last time she was in the city, it lay in ruins after devastating air raids toward the end of the war reduced it to rubble.
Johnston, 96, joined the Australian Army in 1941 and that April was deployed to Papua New Guinea’s then capital, Rabaul, to work in a military hospital.
But Japanese forces soon occupied the area, and Johnston and other nurses, along with 70 Australian service members, were sent to Japan in July 1942. They were forced to knit bags and make envelopes at the Yokohama Boat House for the next 18 months, before being transferred to a facility in Totsuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
Johnston still recalls the horrors she witnessed in the March 1945 fire-bombings of Tokyo that killed some 100,000 people.
“We had been seeing quite a few bombing raids by the Americans. But one night we woke at midnight with the sirens going and it was the bombing of Tokyo and Yokohama, and the Americans came over with the B-29s, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, and they started at midnight and they kept going and going all night until 5 in the morning,” Johnston recalled.
The following day, she heard from one of the guards that the bombings and ensuing fires were so intense that hundreds of civilians had fled to the Sumida River and dived in to escape the blazes, only to drown after spending hours in the water.
“We are very sorry for the devastation and everything that happened, because every one of the guards lost their family and houses,” she said.
“All I want to say to you to end this story is that I can’t believe that in 70 years you’ve built such beautiful cities like Tokyo and Yokohama that I’ve seen in the last couple of days,” she said.
Ellwood also praised the enormous strides postwar Japan has made, not least in terms of shedding its previous military aggression and expansionism. “War is a nasty business, a really nasty business, and it’s a great credit to the Japanese people that they’ve renounced war,” he said.