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Attitudes to the war
Military funeral for the Japanese midget submarine crew
After the bodies of Lieutenant CHUMAN, Lieutenant MATSUO, Petty Officer OMORI, and Petty Officer TSUZUKU were retrieved from the two midget submarines, they were sent to the police for identification. How the bodies of enemy combatants should be handled was a delicate matter. Rear Admiral G.C. Muirhead-Gould, Flag Officer-in-Charge of Sydney Harbour, decided that a military funeral was to be arranged for the crew. The funeral was going to be held on 9 June 1942 at the Eastern Suburbs Crematorium, in Botany Bay in Sydney.

Arranging a funeral with military honour for enemy combatants was certainly a rare and exceptional event, but it was not the first time that happened. During the First World War, Captain Von Richthofen, the renowned German pilot who was nicknamed “Red Baron” was given a burial with military honour by the allied soldiers after his plane was shot down in April 1918. Similarly, Captain Hans Langsdorff, who commanded the Admiral Graf Spee during the battle of the River Plate and later committed suicide, was also honoured by both sides in death.

During the preparation of the funeral, KAWAI Tatsuo, the Japanese diplomatic representative in Australia, was contacted by the RAN and informed that the bodies would be cremated in two days. He was asked if there was any objection to cremation in the context of Japanese culture. Since the start of the Pacific War in December 1941, KAWAI had been interned at his residence, Carn Brea, in the area of Auburn in Melbourne, with his Japanese staff until repatriation could be arranged. He and his staff found out about the submarine attack through Australian newspapers and they were moved to tears with their admiration of bravery of the submariners. Kawai asked if a wreath could be sent in his name to the ceremony and the ashes could be returned to Japan. [1]

When the decision to hold the military funeral was reported in Australian newspapers, some groups expressed hostile opposition. The Australian Native Association was the most vocal opponent; they argued that the enemy should not be honoured as much as their own, particularly when 21 sailors had perished in the sinking of the Kuttabul. The members of the Ironworkers’ Union also passed the resolution protesting against the funeral. [2] However, the general sentiment among the public was supportive to Muirhead-Gould’s decision. In an editorial on 10 June 1942 the Sydney Morning Herald defended Muirhead-Gould, saying that the Australians “will desire that the enemy’s dead, like their own, shall not be treated with ignominy”. Lieutenant John Acheson Burstal, who was given a difficult task of finding four large Japanese flags to cover the caskets in the wartime Sydney, also observed: “all naval personnel thought that he had done the right thing”.

The funeral was held on the morning of 9 June. No religious ceremony was conducted. A report said that a few people, mostly women and children, gathered outside. Muirhead-Gould was there to represent the RAN, and H. Hedinger, Consul-General of Switzerland in Sydney, was in attendance on behalf of KAWAI. The sole mourner was an unidentified grey-haired woman in the chapel among the representatives and reporters. A firing party stood outside the crematorium with arms reversed and fired three volleys over the chapel. A naval bugler sounded the Last Post.

The funeral was recorded live by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), and Fred Simpson, an ABC producer, added the narration later. The recording was broadcast to Japan over the radio. After the war, the disc of the recording was taken to Japan in 1951 by Simpson and a Japanese translation of the English narration was added later.

Why did Australia decide to arrange the military funeral to the enemy combatants? There are various theories. The decision was most likely made by the RAN, but the government also needed to approve it. These two agencies might have had different motives. David Jenkins, author of Battle surface!, claimed that the Australian government was hoping to put pressure on the Japanese government to take some measures to improve the treatment of the Australian prisoners of war, the idea being that the Japanese would appreciate the Australians’ gesture. [3] Such a pragmatic aim might certainly have motivated the decision. It was also likely that the tradition in the British navy of honouring the dead, whichever side they were on, was retained by Muirhead-Gould and also prevailed in the RAN. Yet this view was also adopted by the public, as we have seen in the Sydney Morning Herald editorial of 10 June 1942. It defended Muirhead-Gould’s decision with the headline, “Enemy is dead”, and argued that the tradition of warfare was to treat the enemy with respect and to hold a dignified funeral after the battle was over. In that sense, Muirhead-Gould’s decision was not extraordinary, but was accepted among the general public at that time as a decent and civilised way of treating the enemy.

1. Bob Wurth, Saving Australia: Curtin’s secret peace with Japan (South Melbourne: Lothian Books, 2006) pp. 196–98.
2. Sydney Morning Herald, 10 and 11 June 1942.
3. David Jenkins, Battle surface (Milsons Point: Random House, 1992) p. 231.

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