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Human face of war
ODA Kensaku
The air and sea around the isolated Buna Garrison were increasingly controlled by the Allies in January 1943. With extraction of troops on Guadalcanal a priority for Army Headquarters, the Japanese troops in Papua were left little hope of substantial support or evacuation. Into this situation, Major General ODA Kensaku was sent to replace HORII Tomitarô as commander of the South Seas Force on 20 December, after the latter had perished while withdrawing from the mountains. It was a posting with few commending features, and one from which he would not return.

ODA Kensaku had been the head of the Toyohashi Junior Officer’s College since before the start of the Pacific War. His arrival in Papua may have raised the morale of the troops, but there was little he could do to salvage the situation in the face of overwhelming Allied pressure. When orders came from the 18th Army to withdraw, the decision was taken by the commander for the remainder of the South Seas Force to proceed to the mouth of the Kumusi River overland, through the approaching Allied lines. His last moments are related by the 18th Army Chief of Staff, YOSHIHARA Kane, as follows.

According to what we heard, the Major General withdrew the very last remaining unit, then said to the soldier on duty: "That’s the end of that. I am going to smoke one cigarette at leisure." Then he ordered "March on." The man on duty did as he was told, and continued with leaden feet after the retreating unit. Some time afterwards he heard pistol shots in the rear. He hastily went back to see if the enemy had started a fight, and saw that the Major General and Lieutenant General TOMITA had committed suicide and were lying on a cloak spread out on the ground.

YOSHIHARA, and others later, would cite ODA’s "sublime conception of duty as the model for a military officer". ODA’s decision to remain behind is interpreted within the Japanese military code of conduct as representative of the supreme sacrifice a commander can make for the troops under his care. Suicide, literally "self-determination" in this context, has been used by many Japanese military figures as an honourable alternative in the face of overwhelming odds, or as an indication of ultimate responsibility for unfavourable circumstances.

From another perspective, however, understanding ODA’s death is more complex. According to Col YOKOYAMA Yosuke, the head of the 15th Engineer Regiment, Major General ODA was struck down by malaria soon after arriving, and was unable to make important decisions. A battalion commander from the 41st Regiment, Maj KOIWAI Mitsuo, gave an alternative account of the final moments of ODA’s life which described how the commander had tried to withdraw, then changed his mind after determining that it would be impossible to break through the Allies’ lines. Staff officer TANAKA criticized this evaluation of the commander, implying that ODA had taken the path of "self-determination" somewhat prematurely after the Allies had closed in, despite the fact that only a few other-ranked soldiers had managed to escape.

Chief of Staff YOSHIHARA attempted to critically evaluate the death of the commander, as follows.
Perhaps the Major-General, having previously decided to commit suicide, and having endured all difficulties to that point, had carried out his cherished desire on that day after settling his affairs. But under what circumstances could he have considered his affairs were settled? This is beyond my limited comprehension. But, in what way were the 10,000 men of the South Seas Force, built on two regiments, at that time under his care? With most of the survivors injured and sick, how would they reform after the withdrawal? Would he not later recall those horrible circumstances? How could he alone retreat and leave the corpses of the main strength of the force behind? Surely the path an officer must take is to remain with the spirits of his unit, at least offering words of consolation to the fathers and brothers of the departed spirits. Is not discarding the present and acknowledging the time to die for others the sacrifice of the commander towards the men of his unit?... I think that this occasion was precisely when he fulfilled the teaching that there is a time to die.

Major General ODA was hardly to blame for the situation of his force, but was ultimately responsible for it. Perhaps his inability to influence the course of events, combined with his personal struggle with illness and the conditions, led to his suicide. Perhaps the ignominy of withdrawal weighed heavily on his mind, and the respite of death seemed preferable. In any case, the commander’s death symbolised the end of the South Seas Force operations in Papua, and the complete failure of the Japanese Army’s attempt to invade Port Moresby over the rugged Owen Stanley Range.

Contributed by Steven Bullard (AJRP)

YOSHIHARA Kane, Minami jûjisei: Tôbu Nyûginia-sen no tsuioku (Southern Cross: Reflections on the East New Guinea campaigns), Tokyo: Tôbu Nyûginia Kai, 1955.

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