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Human face of war
Post-war Rabaul
Japanese armed forces in the South-West Pacific Area adopted a fundamentally defensive strategy after the “vital national line of defence” policy was implemented by Imperial Headquarters in September 1943. The Japanese were isolated behind Allied perimeters in some areas, such as New Britain, but in other areas, such as Bougainville, eastern New Guinea and Borneo, they were later subjected to costly Allied offensives. By the end of the war, 9,470 Australian soldiers had died in action against Japanese troops; a further 8,031 died while prisoners of war. In this same area, over 330,000 Japanese troops had died as a result of wounds or disease or had been killed in actions against Australian or American forces since hostilities began in January 1943.

Nevertheless, there remained over 350,000 Japanese troops, including civilian workers, stationed in an arc across the north of Australia at the end of the war; from Java and Borneo in the west, through Dutch New Guinea, British New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago, to Bougainville in the east. The main formations and strengths of these forces were approximately as follows:

AreaFormationStrength at end of war
Java, Lesser Sundas16th Army
21st Special Base Force
British and Dutch Borneo37th Army
22nd Special Base Force
Dutch New Guinea, Celebes2nd Army
23rd and 25th Special Base Force
British New Guinea18th Army
27th Special Base Force
New Britain, New Ireland8th Area Army
South-East Area Fleet
Solomon Islands17th Army
8th Fleet

The emperor of Japan addressed the empire at noon (Japanese time) on 15 August 1945 to announce that the war was over, uttering the famous line that Japan would have to “endure the unendurable and suffer what is insufferable”. In a scene repeated throughout Japan and its territories, General IMAMURA Hitoshi, commander of the 8th Area Army, gathered with his senior advisors at army headquarters in Rabaul to listen to the broadcast. Though static and interference masked the intent of the emperor’s message, it soon became clear that the war was over and that measures would be implemented to cease hostilities and demobilise. Orders to that effect were sent to Rabaul by Imperial Headquarters in Tokyo on 17 August.

The first task for the Australian forces was to accept the surrender in the South-West Pacific Area, in regions corresponding to the table above. The 1st Australian Army was responsible for Japanese formations in British New Guinea, New Britain, New Ireland and the Solomon Islands, as well as troops from Ocean Island and Nauru, while I Australian Corps was to oversee arrangements in Dutch New Guinea and the Netherlands East Indies as far west as the Lesser Sunda Islands and Borneo. Japanese units in various areas were contacted, and arrangements began throughout the region for surrender ceremonies, disarmament, removal of defensive placements, housing and provision of troops, and finally repatriation.

The largest concentration of Japanese troops in the region at the end of the war was on the Gazelle Peninsula in New Britain, centred on Rabaul. The Australians had grossly underestimated strengths in the area, and were faced with a dilemma how to support over 100,000 Japanese troops prior to their repatriation. The solution was contained in orders issued on 10 September by the commander of the Australian garrison force, Lieutenant General Vernon Sturdee, for the Japanese to construct around ten camps in the Rabaul area and to continue their wartime self-sufficiency efforts. Sturdee had appointed General IMAMURA as senior commander of all Japanese forces, and he relied on existing chains of command to oversee camp life and repatriation preparations.

Despite initial difficulties which arose after relocation from existing cultivated land, the Japanese troops at Rabaul managed to maintain relatively high levels of self-sufficiency, despite labour shortages for farming caused by high levels of malaria and requirements for other labour duties. General IMAMURA, in order to maintain discipline and prepare his troops to contribute to the redevelopment of post-war Japan, also instituted a comprehensive re-education system at Rabaul. Officers in the camp prepared textbooks and delivered lessons to troops on a range of compulsory and elective subjects, which included practical lessons on farming and self-sufficiency, technical instruction in mathematics and science, vocational training, and general education in history and religion.

As a result of Allied investigations, both during and immediately after the war, 924 Japanese were identified as being suspected of committing war crimes. Courts under Australian jurisdiction were convened at eight locations in the region. Most suspected war criminals were tried in Rabaul. Of the 644 found guilty, 148 were sentenced to death by hanging or firing squad, while others served sentences which ranged from one month to life in prison.

Repatriation of Japanese troops from the South-West Pacific Area was initially delayed by a lack of shipping. In August 1945, around 157,000 Australian troops were also stationed in forward areas. By December that year, only 76,000 had been repatriated on Australian ships and aircraft, and by three British aircraft carriers in the region. While Japanese soldiers were repatriated relatively early from some areas – all 18th Army soldiers had been repatriated from Muschu Island between November 1945 and March 1946 – it was not until 28 February that the first soldiers from Rabaul boarded the aircraft carrier Katsuragi bound for Japan. By mid-1946, another 37 vessels had departed, leaving only around 500 suspected war criminals and a reduced Australian garrison at Rabaul.

The former soldiers who returned to Japan from the South-West Pacific Area were among over 5,000,000 Japanese civilians and former service personnel who were repatriated by the end of 1946. The demobilisation of many veterans went unnoticed amid the devastation of post-war Japan, but many played important roles in rebuilding the country. It has been more difficult, however, for subsequent public recognition and commemoration of the sacrifice of Japan’s soldiers during the war. Such actions are inexorably bound up with debates about the war of aggression, atrocities, and the victims of Japan’s war.

Contributed by Steven Bullard (AJRP)


Hara Takeshi and Yasuoka Akio (eds), Nihon rikukaigun jiten (Dictionary of the Japanese army and navy) (Tokyo, Shinjinbutsu Ôraisha, 1997), pp. 494–95.
Hattori Takushirô, Daitôa Sensô zenshi (A complete history of the Greater East Asian War) (Tokyo, Hara Shobô, 1965), pp. 1,006–07.

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New Britain
The underwing of a Beaufort in Bougainville on 17 August 1945 reads “surrender”. Leaflets were also dropped to ensure Japanese troops knew that the war had ended.
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General IMAMURA hands his sword to Lieutenant General Sturdee during the surrender ceremony on board HMS Glory on 6 September 1945. The senior naval commander, Vice Admiral KUSAKA, looks on.
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Japanese soldiers, here working a garden in No. 5 Group Camp near Rabaul, continued their self-sufficiency efforts while awaiting repatriation. Education classes were also run to prepare soldiers for life in post-war Japan.
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An Indian soldier identifies a suspected war criminal at Rabaul in November 1945. Over 640 Japanese soldiers were convicted of war crimes by Australian military courts.
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Japanese troops from the Solomon Islands crowded aboard the carrier Katsuragi at Rabaul in January 1946. The Australians were responsible for repatriating over 300,000 troops after the end of hostilities.
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