|"Yet they're human just as we are"; Australian attitudes towards the Japanese in the South-West Pacific, 1942-1945
Dr Mark Johnston
[Note: More detailed explanations and evidence for the contentions in this talk can be found in my books, Fighting the enemy (CUP 2000) and At the front line (CUP 1996).]
In December 1942, an Australian private – a veteran of recent fighting at Sanananda and of the Libyan and Greek campaigns – wrote some thoughts about the enemies he had faced. “My regard for Tony [the Italian] was always impersonal and for Fritz … tinged with admiration, but none of us know anything but vindictive hatred for the Jap.”
Australian soldiers felt an animosity towards the Japanese that they generally didn’t have towards their European enemies.
In action the hostility expressed itself in Australians’ greater enthusiasm for killing Japanese. “If an Italian or German were running away, one might let him go,” wrote Jo Gullett, “but never a Japanese.” Whereas in the Middle East, Australian commanders had struggled to awaken fully a “killing instinct” in their men, the Japanese brought out that instinct.
Thus the following extract from a diarist’s account of action against Japanese in 1943, is scarcely imaginable against the Germans or Italians:
Japs are running out of the jungle everywhere and we start some very good shooting. Got on to one with the Bren gun trying to crawl away in the grass...Saw one with his pack on his back walking up the track and soon everyone was stuck into him. He soon hit terra firma. Later in the day we saw his body and pushed it over the cliff into the sea.
An official wartime publication described how, at Wau, fifty Japanese were “hunted down and exterminated.” The concepts of “hunting” and “exterminating” capture the mood of the time, which was not one of trying to bring an essentially like-minded foe to accept defeat by the rules of war, but one of seeking to annihilate an alien enemy.
The killing of unarmed, sleeping, sick or wounded Japanese was common. Although official pressure was put on troops to take prisoners, the Australian front-line soldiers – like their American counterparts – had little desire to do so.
Japanese dead were not considered in the same light as German or Italian dead. Frank Legg, who had been a member of the 2/48th Battalion at Alamein and become a war correspondent in the Pacific, noted while first reporting 9th Division fighting against the Japanese that, whereas the common practice had been to bury each other’s dead in North Africa, here there was a “strange callousness”. For example, a Japanese who lay dead on a track on the Huon Peninsula had a bullet hole between his eyes and a note pinned to him which read: “Don’t bury this bastard, it’s the best shot you’ll ever see.”
I want now to examine briefly the sources of this contempt and hatred. Most obvious was that the Japanese were a far more pressing threat to Australia itself than were the European enemies.
In January 1942, a signaller in the Middle East wrote to his fiancée of his concern about the “yellow horde”. He wrote, “my thoughts are full of smashing them, before they reach what they desire.”
Tied to this awareness of the threat the war now posed to their homeland was a hatred for those who menaced it. Early in 1943, General Blamey tried to stir up hatred of the Japanese in veterans of the recent campaign by emphasising that the Australians were fighting to prevent both the deaths of their families and the end of civilisation. The Japanese forces which advanced along the Kokoda Trail were described by the historian and second in command of the 2/14th Battalion as “cocksure hordes” seeking “to glut their lust and savagery in the blood of a conquered white nation”.
Australians had perceived a Japanese threat to their white outpost since at least the beginning of the century. As talk of threats to “civilization” and to a “white nation” suggest, Australian soldiers’ hatred of their Japanese foe was racist. If fear of invasion was one source of hatred, racial animosity was a second.
The Australians who fought in the Second World War had grown up in an era when assertions of racial superiority were far more acceptable than today. In 1941, Prime Minister Curtin had justified Australia’s entry into the war against Japan in terms of the nation’s commitment to maintaining the “principle of a White Australia”.
Australians considered the Japanese racially inferior. The commander of the 7th Brigade at Milne Bay reported after the battle that destroying the enemy was “a most effective way of demonstrating the superiority of the white race.”
White superiority had been challenged by the outcome of other campaigns earlier in the year. The racism of Australians who had scoffed at the Japanese in 1941 had to be refined in the light of defeats in Malaya, Singapore, Java, Timor, Ambon, and New Britain. These Japanese successes added a hysterical edge to the racial hatred against them. An image of the Japanese as a “superman” or “super soldier” grew up. This conception was fairly persistent, but not the majority view after 1942. The feeble physical condition of many Japanese encountered in campaigns after 1942 heightened racial contempt for them.
A far more common image than that of superman was that of a creature less than a man. “Jo” Gullett concludes from his experience in the 2/6th Battalion: “[The Japanese] were like clever animals with certain human characteristics, but by no means the full range, and that is how we thought of them – as animals.” Australian soldiers, like Americans, often compared Japanese to animals, especially rats or vermin. Senior officers encouraged this attitude. General Blamey told troops at Port Moresby in 1942 that the Japanese was “a subhuman beast”; at the beginning of the following year he informed soldiers that the Japanese was “a curious race – a cross between the human being and the ape.”
This idea helped Australians to account for Japanese success in the early campaigns, for it explained Japanese adaptability to primitive conditions. It also excused murderous treatment of them. A normally very humane veteran of the desert, Private John Butler, wrote of his first brush with the Japanese: “Out foraging this morning I came across the head of a good Jap – for he was dead – like a damned baboon he was; this is not murder killing such repulsive looking animals.”
Some of the language used by Australians is disturbingly reminiscent of Nazi race propaganda. In most respects, Nazism was repugnant to Butler and his comrades. However, the same racist disdain appears in American writings of the time, and there is no doubt that on this issue many otherwise compassionate western soldiers maintained attitudes towards the Japanese which today seem insupportable. As I’ve said, this was a racist age: the Japanese themselves harboured racist attitudes towards whites.
Moreover, we mustn’t exaggerate the importance of racism in wartime Australian hatred for the Japanese. When in Australia the government launched an intense hate campaign in March–April 1942, the Sydney Morning Herald argued that Australians needed no stimulus to fight the Japanese aggressor, and certainly not “a torrent of cheap abuse and futile efforts in emulation of ... Goebbels”. The propaganda campaign was opposed by 54 per cent of Australians surveyed in a Gallup Poll on the issue.
Moreover, the peculiar circumstances in which Australian front-line soldiers served gave them reasons to temper their racism, or at least to suppress it occasionally. Realism was important. While Australian training staff did not want their soldiers to feel inferior to the Japanese – a real danger in the early years – they did want them to be level-headed about his strengths. Propagandist notions are dangerous when formulating tactics. On the battlefield, being realistic about the enemy’s capacities was a matter of life and death.
The life-and-death realities that Australian soldiers faced in their confrontation with the Japanese may have softened racism towards them in action. However, these realities also largely determined the character and intensity of their hatred for the Japanese. Among soldiers, the racist language of the pre-war era was a convenient means of expressing feelings that owed their existence to the unique circumstances of the front line. For it seems to me that the intensity of Australian soldiers’ hatred of the Japanese derived from the reality of the fighting more than the prejudices of civilian life.
I believe that observation and experience heightened the hatred that Australian front-line soldiers felt for the Japanese. Racist prejudgements, and even the threat to Australia, did not goad Australian soldiers in the same way as personal experiences or personal expectations based on reports from other front-line soldiers. Many Australians who campaigned against the Japanese considered their opponent evil, detestable, underhanded and frightening in his methods.
At the jungle training school at Canungra, recruits were told that the Japanese was “a cunning little rat”, who was “full of little ruses and tricks.” Australians were unwilling to take Japanese prisoners largely because of distrust born of bad experiences, with Japanese offering surrender and then acting as human bombs by detonating concealed explosive. The thousands of Australian soldiers who passed through Canungra were advised to shoot any Japanese surrendering with their hands closed. Frank Rolleston recalls that an apparently defenceless Japanese carrying a white cloth at Milne Bay was shot down on the grounds that “we were not prepared to take the slightest risk with an enemy that had proved to be the limit in deception and treachery.” The fact that Australian wounded, and the stretcher bearers who carried them, could expect no immunity from enemy fire was a major source of criticism, as was Japanese bombing of medical facilities. Thus a medical officer wrote about a tent “ward” attacked by enemy aircraft in Papua: “When the smoke cleared the twelve [patients] were still in the tents, but each one was dead – killed by the deliberate sub-human fury of Tojo's men.”
Japanese callousness and brutality towards helpless men caused fierce animosity in Australians. While unchivalrous and callous behaviour was encountered against the Germans, the Japanese lifted brutality to a higher level. Brutal acts were committed more often by Japanese than by any other enemy. I’m sure you are all aware of Japanese massacres of Australian prisoners in Malaya, Singapore, Timor, New Britain, Ambon.
It’s hard to know how much Australians in New Guinea knew of the atrocities against their compatriots in the early 1942 campaigns, but my impression is that it wasn’t much and that such information did not inform their hatred as much as it might have. Stories about New Britain became widely distributed, and well-informed Australians knew of Japanese excesses against the Chinese. However, the Australian wartime government, like the British and American, was unwilling to publicise material about atrocities for fear of worsening the conditions of prisoners.
Australians in New Guinea had the pressing relevance of the issue of brutality brought home to them by the many Japanese atrocities at Milne Bay. Unlike the men engaged in the early 1942 campaigns, most Australians who fought there were able to pass on their stories of Japanese atrocities. I'll give one example of the impact of these atrocities.
At the sight of men who had been bayoneted to a slow death at Milne Bay, a Tobruk veteran who had been sceptical of stories of Japanese atrocities said his “hatred rose to boiling point and I cursed those cruel, yellow cowardly curs of hell”.
The atrocities continued throughout the war. In March 1945, for example, a signalman on Bougainville reported that Australian provosts caught in a jeep by Japanese had been tied to their vehicle, then set alight. During the Aitape-Wewak campaign, the corpse of a member of the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion was found “badly mutilated, disembowelled, the left leg was missing from the hip, as well as portions of the right leg, and the hips had all flesh removed.” This was an atrocity of a type that horrified Australians and occurred also in the Papuan campaign: namely cannibalism.
Of course such sights created intense hostility to the perpetrators. For example, a lieutenant of the 2/1st Battalion recalls that during their advance on the Kokoda Trail, the sight of a dead young Australian soldier with one of his thighs stripped of flesh “incensed all our party and feeling against the enemy was explosive”. An officer whose battalion had suffered such casualties in the Aitape-Wewak area in 1945 argued:
The frequent evidence of Japanese atrocities had a remarkable effect on the troops. It developed a feeling of disgust that caused men to enter battle with a greater determination to eliminate the enemy.
An astute regimental historian says that not propaganda stories, but the physical evidence of Japanese atrocities was crucial in making Australians hate the Japanese in a way they had not hated Italians and Germans. This is a crucial point in understanding Australian attitudes towards the Japanese.
The “feeling of disgust” about atrocities also explains much of the unusually murderous behaviour of Australians. As early as the Milne Bay battle, Brigadier Field wrote in his diary, “[t]he yellow devils show no mercy and have since had none from us.”
The lack of prisoners taken by Australians owed much to resentment of atrocities. Cam Bennett, of the 2/5th Battalion, argues that Japanese attitudes to their captives “divorced them from any consideration whatever” whenever his Australian comrades had a chance to kill them.
The circumstances of jungle warfare also militated against the taking of Japanese prisoners. The fact that in the Kokoda campaign both sides took virtually no prisoners partly reflects the problems of getting POWs back over extraordinarily difficult terrain. Because enemies were hidden and ambush was a constant possibility in the jungle, there were few opportunities for the niceties of asking for surrender: one had to shoot first and ask questions later. This logic of jungle warfare was conducive to hatred of the enemy, who like oneself, could not afford to treat one chivalrously as a potential prisoner.
The mud, the decomposing vegetation, the pouring rain, the humidity and the eerie sounds of the jungle also contributed to the hatred of the enemy with whom this place was identified. It was a place where soldiers fought in small groups, in isolation. The frightening enemy, with his apparent enthusiasm for death, and the menacing environment in which he was encountered made for a personal hatred for the Japanese that was peculiar to the soldiers who faced him.
I want to turn now to a discussion of how Australian soldiers evaluated Japanese as fighters. Australians were often impressed by certain martial abilities of Japanese soldiers. They respected their field craft, their ability to ambush, and their resilience and tenacity. As an Australian at Sanananda put it, “[h]e is a tough nut to crack, this so often despised little yellow chap.”
Australians frequently wrote with grudging admiration of the defensive positions created by their enemy. The 22nd Battalion history for example says of ground near Finschhafen:
It was obvious that this was Jap country. Along both sides of the track were many weapon pits cleverly sited and expertly dug. They were exactly circular, as if marked out by compass with the sides plumb vertical. And they were finished to perfection with clever camouflage to an extent that they were quite unnoticeable until one had come abreast of them.
Notes used in training Australians for jungle warfare conceded the “remarkable” ability of Japanese to dig or burrow into the side of hills.
I’ve mentioned the idea of the Japanese super soldier, which was quite prevalent in the months after Japan’s entry into the war. Defeat of the Japanese at Milne Bay and on the Kokoda Trail damaged this image, but the super soldier conception was a resilient one. Even in 1945, the Canungra Training Syllabus laid down that on Day 2, recruits should be told that the concept of the Japanese “super soldier” was a myth.
Like all armies, the Japanese had units of varying strength, experience and ability, but the differences in quality between its soldiers were perhaps more striking than those in any other army faced by the Australians. Particularly apparent was the difference in quality between the Japanese faced by Australians in 1942, on the one hand, and those faced afterwards.
Many Australians who served in the campaigns from 1943 on wrote disparagingly of the Japanese. For example, Private Keys of the 2/15th Battalion wrote proudly to his sister in October 1943:
When we came up here we were told how bad the conditions were – what a wonderful fighter the Jap is. Well, Min, the conditions here are 100 per cent better than in the desert. ... [The Japanese] has had everything in his favour, such as high ground, etc. … every time we've met him we have belted him … he has run.
By the last year of the war, Japanese forces were generally being defeated with greater ease than in earlier campaigns. In circumstances where casualty rates were running at more than ten-to-one against the Japanese, a sense of contempt had much to feed on.
In March 1945, a lieutenant of the 2/3rd Battalion pointed out that the soldiers they were facing this time were not in the same class as the men they had faced in the Owen Stanleys: and for good reason, as this enemy was out of communication with Tokyo and had little or no food.
Aspects of the Japanese performance that were criticised in New Guinea included: their poor marksmanship; poor weapons; their tendency to be incautious, especially by chattering or laughing loudly near the front; their naivety in attack; their tactical inflexibility; and their tendency towards needless self-sacrifice.
For even the do-or-die courage of Japanese soldiers did not necessarily raise the military prowess of Japanese in Australian eyes. The Japanese willingness to die appeared bizarre to many Australians. Let me give you one example. A Japanese prisoner near Aitape “wept with frustration and humiliation” when his Australian captors would not shoot him, even though he bared his chest to them hopefully. Instead the Australians said, “[w]ake up to yourself you stupid bastard, you don’t know when you’re well off!” To the Australians, only a “stupid bastard” would want death, and to be alive was to be “well off”. The Japanese attitude was incomprehensible. Their bravery in action often seemed like fanaticism or madness rather than traditional military heroism.
Naturally, many veterans of the Middle East compared the Japanese with their European enemies. “As a fighter the Jap might be a little better than the Italian,” a 9th Division infantryman conceded in October 1943, “but he can’t compare with the Jerry.” On the other hand, an Australian who had been with the 6th Division in Greece said after fighting at Kokoda and Sanananda that, “I think Nip a better fighter than Fritz”, and this may have been a common attitude among 6th and 7th Division veterans of the Middle East who fought the Japanese in 1942. At Canungra, recruits were told that “the Jap is NOT like the German whom we have become accustomed to fighting. He is NOT as good a soldier.”
Most 9th Division veterans, who generally faced stiffer opposition from the Germans at Tobruk and Alamein than from the Japanese in their later campaigns, would have agreed with this judgement. Correspondent Allan Dawes reported that after the amphibious landings at Finschhafen, he heard many Western Desert veterans say:
If they’d been Germans, they’d never have let us on that beach – never. … No Jap would ever have got this place, if we had been where they were, and they had been the invaders.
That conclusion is significant, for of course, at the top of the Australians’ hierarchy of armies was their own.
Contemptuous poses were readily adopted from 1943–1945. Australian victory was certain, and the odds were greatly against the Japanese, who were suffering from life-threatening shortages of food and other supplies. A superior attitude had been more difficult to maintain through most of 1942, with all its military disasters. Yet in this period, too, many Australians had clung to a belief that, man for man, they were better soldiers than the enemy. Even as they lay down their arms in Singapore, they felt that they were yielding to “a force which they counted as less than their equals”.
When Australians discussed their defeats at Japanese hands in 1942, they complained about numerical inferiority and lack of air support. Their defeats were explained by factors external to their soldiering ability. Paradoxically, Australian victories later in the war tended to be explained by their own soldiering abilities, while external factors such as their numerical preponderance, aerial superiority and the lack of supplies available to the Japanese tended to be forgotten.
Even when Australians felt contempt for the Japanese, in battle he was treated with great caution. There was a terrible grimness about the campaigns against him in New Guinea. The fear of falling, dead or alive into Japanese hands ensured this.
I want to finish by discussing the issue raised by the quotation I used in the title of this talk. In March 1945 an artilleryman in action on New Britain wrote in a letter home:
[W]hen you stop to think war is a pretty rotten business, here we are throwing shells at the Japs … hoping they blow them to bits and although we call them little yellow [expletive] yet they’re human just as we are.
It was unusual for Australians to write in such a detached manner about the Japanese. However, detachment and even sympathy were occasionally evident. Dower’s suggestion that Allied soldiers had images of Japanese as superhuman, subhuman and inhuman, but not as humans like themselves is not entirely accurate. Sometimes Australians showed empathy with the enemy: saying they knew what it was like to have dysentery as the Japanese did; imagining his discomfort under Australian gunfire; picturing his reaction as an amphibious invading force came towards him; or saying in the Aitape-Wewak region that living there for three years as the Japanese had done would be “pure hell”.
While Japanese who survived to become prisoners never aroused Australian sympathy like those captured in the Middle East, sometimes they did touch emotions other than anger or contempt: the appearance of starved men could draw forth comments like “poor devils”, and even gestures such as the provision of food, water or covering.
Moreover, the murderous treatment meted out to Japanese prisoners was not morally acceptable to all. Here’s an example: Captain J.J. May was responsible for the loading of wounded men on air transports from the Wau airfield during the heavy fighting there in January 1943. He was approached one day to make room for six Japanese prisoners who would soon arrive, bound together, and who were to be taken to Port Moresby for questioning. The Japanese did not come at the expected time, but eventually:
A soldier appeared with his rifle slung over his shoulder and looking at the ground told me that they would not be coming. I blew off what the bloody hell do you mean you ask us to make room for you and now you don’t want it. One could sense something was wrong and it very shamefacedly came out, they had been killed, a soldier had opened up on them with a Tommy gun and shot the lot. The boys and I were pretty aghast at this and we said they had been tied up; the poor messenger was also rather stricken and tried to explain how it happened. A soldier that opened up had his mate killed alongside him during the night. It somehow cast a dark shadow over us including the poor B who had to tell us.
So, some conceived of Japanese as fellow men, and believed that killing them was at times immoral.
Those who did the killing also had their emotions tested. An Australian who had just killed a walking Japanese skeleton at Sanananda described him as a “rather poor specimen of humanity”. Even such grudging admissions did acknowledge the humanity of this enemy, and soldiers who killed Japanese tended to think more than usual about this point. Thus an Australian who had ambushed and killed two Japanese soldiers elsewhere at Sanananda reflected that “it was pure murder”. Captain May reported a conversation with a wounded sergeant who had been on patrol near Wau when confronted by a Japanese officer wielding a sword. In a tone that made clear his regret, the sergeant told May, “I think he must have been an M.O. or something and I had to shoot the poor bastard”.
Occasionally, when Australians examined corpses, they saw evidence of the civilian side of their enemy. Fearnside writes of an incident in New Guinea in 1945 where his platoon ambushed and killed a lone, emaciated Japanese soldier. He says that although they were immune to compunction about such homicidal acts, searching the body brought a haunting emotional impact. They found two objects: one was a rudimentary map of Australia. The other was a faded photograph of a beautiful Japanese girl: such images brought home the fact that the enemy too had a civilian, peaceful background.
However, such fellow feeling could vanish under the pressure of events. Thus one day in January 1945, a 6th Division infantryman wrote in his diary about how his unit had fed prisoners and protected them from angry natives. The day after, and immediately after an ambush of his unit, he wrote, “[w]hat little pity one had for the animal cravens we had here as prisoners yesterday has now vanished”. In jungle warfare, there was not much scope for compassion.
In preparing this talk, one particular story has often come back to me. It concerns an Australian NCO, Steve Sullivan, who took some men to look around the battlefield of Slater’s Knoll, Bougainville, during the fighting there in March 1945. They found a wounded Japanese and several of the men suggested to Sullivan that they kill him. Sullivan objected. “I knew all about the Japs and their treatment of prisoners,” he recalls, “but to my mind that is not good enough reason to kill a man in cold blood. We are not Japs.” He couldn’t do what he identified as a Japanese thing to do: that is, kill a defenceless human being. Yet it was also an Australian thing to do against Japanese in this war. The fact that we were not Japs prevented Sullivan from killing the man; for other Australians, this difference was precisely what justified killing them: they’re not like us in their behaviour and their appearance, so we can kill them. Ironically, in their brutal treatment of each other, Australians and Japanese had something in common.
As this anecdote suggests, it’s difficult to generalise about Australian soldiers’ attitudes. However, one cannot help but make grim conclusions as to their feelings about their Japanese counterpart. Their evaluations of his martial prowess varied, but they usually feared him and almost invariably hated him. They were passionate in their willingness to kill him.
This paper was delivered an international symposium for the Remembering the war in New Guinea project held on 19-21 October 2000 at the Australian National University, Canberra.
1. Pte R. Robertson, 2/2 Bn, Letter 15/12/42.
2. Gullett, Not as a Duty Only, p. 127.
3. Cpl J. Craig, 2/13 Bn, Diary 28/12/43.
4. Battle of Wau, p. 50.
5. Legg, War Correspondent, p. 54.
6. Wells, "B" Company Second Seventeenth Infantry, p. 159.
7. Sig T. Neeman, 17 Bde Sigs, Letter 16/1/42.
8. G. Johnston, Toughest Fighting in the World, p. 228.
9. Russell, Second Fourteenth Battalion, p. 123.
10. "Japanese Threat", Oxford Companion to Australian Military History, p. 323.
11. In report: "Operations Milne Bay 24 Aug-8 Sep 42, Lessons from Operations", p. 11.
12. Not as a Duty Only, p. 127.
13. Johnston, Toughest Fighting in the World, p. 207. Dower, War without Mercy, pp. 53, 71.
14. Diary 20/9/43.
15. Charlton, War Against Japan 1941-1942, p. 34. McKernan, All In, p. 141. "Japanese Threat", Oxford Companion, p. 324.
16. AWM 3DRL 6599, "Aus. Trg. Centre Jungle Warfare Canungra Training Syllabus Precis & Instructions", Serial No. 29.
17. Not a Conquering Hero, p. 83.
18. Robinson, Record of Service, p. 99.
19. O'Brien, "A Rat of Tobruk", p. 21.
20. Australian Archives (Vic): MP742/1, File No. 336/1/285.
21. Givney, First at War, p. 288.
22. Long, Final Campaigns, p. 342.
23. Brig J. Field, 7 Bde, Diary 31/12/43.
24. Tpr B. Love, 2/7 Cav Regt, Diary 12/1/43.
25. Macfarlan, Etched in Green, p. 123.
26. AWM: Canungra Training Instructions, Serial No. 62.
28. Lt B.H. MacDougal, 2/3 Bn, Letter 20/3/45.
29. Bentley, The Second Eighth, p. 186.
30. Pte Keys, Letter 4/10/43.
31. Robertson, Letter 15/12/42.
32. AWM: Canungra Training Instructions, Serial No. 19. The lecture continued: "but is, as has often been described, 'a cunning little rat'."
33. Dawes, "Soldier Superb", p. 44. My emphasis.
34. Walker, Middle East and Far East, p. 520.
35. Gnr.G. Chapman, 2/14 Fd Regt, Letter 10/3/45.
36. Diary 30/1/43.
37. Love, Diary 14/1/43.
38. Quoted in ibid, 31/12/42.
39. Diary 4/2/43. M.O.- Medical Officer.
40. Half to Remember, p. 195.
41. Pte Wallin, 2/5 Bn, Diary 20/1/45.
42. Shaw, Brother Digger, p.136.
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