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Human face of war
The true horrors of the battlefield leave little room for the faint hearted. There is no doubt that the extreme conditions of combat led soldiers to commit acts outside of their normal cultural and moral frameworks. However, what can we collectively gain by recounting those aspects of the experience of war most abhorrent to modern sensibilities? Will we not just revive feelings of bitterness and hatred that led so many to die in these campaigns? On the other hand, to sanitise accounts of these aspects of war, or to gloss over atrocities is to sidestep an enquiry into a basic characteristic of the human condition that we too often ignore.

The following acts by Japanese soldiers are difficult to comprehend. To explain them as the result of Japanese militarism or a flaw in the Japanese character is to simplify the complexities of the cultural, historic, geographic and emotional conditions in which the war was fought in New Guinea. As John Dower reminds us, the peculiar savagery of the war in the Pacific was also fuelled by racial stereotypes that were manifest in low numbers of prisoners, and the killing of the wounded and sick by both sides.

Gona missionaries

May Hayman and Mavis Parkinson, two Anglican missionaries who were stationed at Gona, fled into the jungle with the local Anglican priest, Father James Benson, when the Japanese landed on 21 July 1942. Their sudden departure was later related by TAKITA Kenji, the head of an information squad attached to the Japanese Army in Rabaul.

One of the first to land were 2nd Lt IDA and his embarkation squad. A small building was nestled among the sago palms. In the gathering gloom, it was recognised not as a native hut but as a western style building. The party led by 2nd Lt IDA approached cautiously and slowly opened the door. The scent of a woman’s perfume wafted to their noses. A search by torchlight revealed that no-one was in the room, though a young woman’s clothes remained. Two still-warm coffee cups sat on the table.

"They can’t be far. Look for them!"

At that moment, the phone rang. They picked up the receiver and a flustered voice said in English: "Head for Kokoda immediately!" It seemed that these Europeans were taken by surprise and fled to Kokoda.

May Hayman was a nurse who ran the missionary clinic. Mavis Parkinson was the teacher at the missionary school. They survived for several months in the jungle with the assistance of Father Benson, local villagers, and a small group of Australian and American soldiers and airmen. They were ultimately delivered to the Japanese by a village councillor after the servicemen were killed and Father Benson escaped. According to a local witness, they were executed by the Japanese at Ururu Plantation. The two missionaries were made to stand over shallow graves and brutally bayoneted by the Kenpeitai after they refused to reveal any information during interrogation. In February 1943, after the Japanese were defeated in the area, the bodies of the two women were recovered and re-interred at Sangara mission station.


There is substantial evidence that some Japanese during the Papua campaigns participated in the consumption of human flesh. However, were these acts isolated and the result of extreme hunger and stress under the awful conditions of the campaign, or, as suggested by Yuki TANAKA, were they a ritualistic institutional practice sanctioned through inaction from higher command?

Hunger and privation were the norm for many Japanese soldiers who fought in the Papuan campaigns. The Allies’ control of the air and sea between Rabaul and Gona resulted in sporadic supply and reinforcement for units, which after September 1942 were isolated and operating on depleted supplies. For soldiers on the brink of death, having slipped into mental and physical torpor, the thought that one more meal would bring them another day was often enough to override moral considerations and disgust. One veteran of the campaign recounted the following.

At that time, suffering continuously from severe diarrhoea and malarial fevers, I was sleeping on the grass. I could barely walk. "You’ll die without taking sustenance, you know. Eat this, there’s too much for me." A friend offered me quite openly some human flesh, and I too knew what it was. It had a pleasant aroma, and I ate it without any hesitation. This lack of hesitation, however, caused me lasting concern.

During the war, and even after repatriation, this issue didn’t cause me any concern. However, those times eventually began to occupy my thoughts after I had sunk back into the routine of everyday life. I began to feel pain deep in my body, similar to my old injuries, but without any cause. I began to imagine voices saying things like "You have done what must not be done!" Even though I responded by thinking that such acts were born of the hell of the battlefield, my feelings of emptiness increased.

Though no Japanese were tried by the Australians for this as a war crime, the investigations into allegations of cannibalism revealed a horrifying trail of bodily mutilation and defilement along the Kokoda Trail and on the coast near Giruwa. While some Japanese accounts attribute these primarily to local tribesmen, and others blame the fanatical excesses of the Japanese military elite, there is no doubt that the "hell of the battlefield" in Papua in 1942–43 witnessed many acts of barbarism and desperation that are difficult, even now to examine with objectivity.

Contributed by Steven Bullard (AJRP)

TAKITA Kenji, Taiyô wa moeru (The Pacific is burning), Tokyo: Kachô Shuppansha, pp. 55–56.

Yuki Tanaka, Hidden horrors: Japanese war crimes in World War II, Boulder: Westview Press, 1996, pp. 111–134.

Hohei Dai 144 Rentai Tsûshin Chûtai Shi Hensan Iinkai, Hohei Dai 144 Rentai Tsûshin Chûtai shi (History of the 144th Infantry Regiment Signals Company), Kochi: Hohei Dai 144 Rentai Tsûshin Chûtai Shi Hensan Iinkai, 1986, p. 83.

John Dower, War without mercy: race and power in the Pacific War, London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986.

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