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Atrocities aboard Japanese destroyer Akikaze during WWII

Adults executed, babies thrown overboard from Japanese destroyer Akikaze during WWII

If you’re a history buff, you might have heard of all kind of atrocities that took place during World War II (WWII).

However, have you heard about how adults were executed and children thrown overboard while still alive?

About Japanese destroyer Akikaze

Akikaze was a Minekaze-class destroyer that was built for the Imperial Japanese Navy immediately following the end of World War I.

In those days, the Minekaze class was considered advanced for their time. They served as first-line destroyers in the 1930s.

Akikaze was laid down on June 7, 1920 and launched on Dec 14, 1920. It was completed on Apr 1, 1921, Akikaze was commissioned on Sept 16, 1921.

During her career, she served under Torpedo Squadron 1. In 1938-1939, her division was assigned to patrols of the central China coastline in support of Japanese combat operations in the Second Sino-Japanese War.

During War World II, Akikaze was on patrol and convoy escort duties. From January to the end of April 1942, she was based at Davao (Philippines).

By May 1942, Akikaze Was based out of Rabaul, escorting transports throughout the Pacific.

Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Akikaze departing Yokosuka. Credits: Public Domain.

The Prisoners-of-War (POWs) aboard Akikaze

After departing Rabaul, Akikaze moved to Wewak (Papua New Guinea) from Mar 8, 1943 to deliver medicine and supplies then to nearby Kairuru Island.

On Mar 15, the Akikaze loaded Catholic Divine Word missionaries (mostly German citizens) including Bishop Joseph Loerks, six priests, 14 friars, 18 nuns and another Chinese woman with her two children.

Two days later, 20 more civilians were brought aboard from Manus. They were German missionaries, one Hungarian missionary and Chinese civilians including six women. The second batch of missionaries were reported from the Liebenzell Evangelical Mission.

Other reports stated that the Chinese infants were the children of Wewak storekeeper Ning Hee. Additionally, the POWs who boarded from Manus were reportedly consisted of an European infant, a plantation owner named Carl Muster and plantation overseer Peter Mathies, two Chinese and four Malays. There were reports stated there were at least two Americans among the missionaries.

However, it is difficult to determine the identities of the POWs as most records were destroyed after the end of WWII.

Altogether, there was a total of sixty POWs aboard the ship including three children.

Life on board the Akikaze

At first, the POWs on board were treated with dignities. They were well fed and taken care off.

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The commander even removed some of his crew from their quarters so the missionaries and children could be sheltered from Allied bombs should his ship have encountered enemy forces.

Furthermore, the ship’s surgeon was ordered to attend to the sick POWs.

Suddenly, things changed dramatically over one order.

Many historians have described the events leading to the massacre.

Bruce Gamble in his book Target: Rabaul: The Allied Siege of Japan’s Most Infamous Stronghold stated, “Akikaze’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Tsurukichi Sabe, evidently presumed he would deliver the civilians to New Britain.

Several hundred missionaries and associates were already interned at Vunapope, the largest Catholic mission in the territory.

But the message delivered at Kavieng rattled him. With a pale, somber expression Sabe gathered his officers and informed them that 8th Fleet Headquarters had issued orders “to dispose of all neutral civilians on board.””

The Akikaze crew’s testimony

Perhaps, the one would give the best account of what happened during the is one of the crew of Akikaze.

In his interrogation in December 1945, the crew member described the slaughtering (which he said took 2 hours 50 minutes) as follows:

Each internee passed beneath the forward bridge on the starboard side and came upon two waiting escorts. Here they were blindfolded with a white cloth and supported by each arm.

By this time the interrogation of the second person was begun. Meanwhile, beneath the bridge of the quarter-deck on the starboard side, both wrists of the first person were firmly tied and he was again escorted to the execution platform. On the execution platform, they were faced toward the bow, suspended by their hands by means of a hook attached to a pulley, and at the order of the commander, executed by machine gun and rifle fire.

After the completion of the execution the suspension rope was slackened and it had been so planned that when the rope binding the hands was cut, the body would fall backwards off the stern due to the speed of the ship. Moreover, boards were laid and straw mats spread to keep the ship from becoming stained.

Thus, in this way, first the men and and the women executed. The child going on toward five years old was thrown into the ocean.

The testimony of Akikaze crew can be found in the paper The Australian War Crimes Trials and Investigations (1942-51) by D.C.S. Sissons.

Appeasing the dead

Meanwhile in Slaughter at Sea: The Story of Japan’s Naval War Crimes, Mark Felton described how the executions took place.

“At a given signal the destroyer would suddenly increase speed, the noise of the engines used by the Japanese to disguise the shots coming from behind the curtain. A four-man firing squad then took aim and dispatched the victims with a single, along with a burst from Lieutenant Takeo’s machine gun. Afterwards, the body was dropped to the deck, untied and pitched over the stern of the ship as she continued on her way. Whether international or not, the nature of the prisoners’ deaths, suspended as if crucified, was the final indignity to their beliefs.”

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After all the internees were killed, the captain held a short religious service in honour of the recently deceased.

The motives behind the killing

The big question is why killed them? What did they do to deserve to be executed?

Felton theorised that the Japanese suspected there was a spy among the civilians.

He wrote, “The missionaries were suspected by the Japanese authorities of using concealed radio transmitter to report the movements of Imperial Navy ships to the Americans.

The spying story was most probably concocted by the Tokei Tai naval police as an excuse to dispose of the Germans, giving them a reason to kill them within Japanese military law.”

But why kill the Germans, who were the Japanese allies? Germany and Japan were both belonged to the Axis power.

Most of the times during WWII, the Japanese helped to protect the civilians of their fellow Axis forces.

Gamble explained that the Japanese forces in New Guinea did not regard German missionaries as allies, even though Nazi Germany and Japan shared a military allegiance.

“Instead, missionaries came under the jurisdiction of the minsei-bu as neutral civilians,” he stated.

The investigation

After the war ended, many war crimes came to light including the Akikaze massacre.

According to Yuki Tanaka in his book Hidden Horrors, the staff members of the Australian War Crimes Section who investigated the massacre on the Akikaze tried to discover who issued the order for the executions.

The executions were clearly against the Geneva Convention.

Meanwhile, the Australian War Crimes Section realised that this order could not have been issued by a single and relatively low-ranking staff officer. They believed that the source was several senior staff of 8th Fleet Headquarters.

The Australians interrogated Rear Admiral Onishi Shinzo. He was at that time the chief of staff at 8th Fleet Headquarters. They also interrogated vice admiral Mikawa Gunichi, who was the commander in chief.

Onishi at first tried to avoid responsibility. He claimed that the Akikaze did not belong to the 8th Fleet but rather to the 11th Fleet.

Of course, Onishi could not lie his way out of this because the vessel clearly belonged to the 8th Fleet.

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Meanwhile, Mikawa claimed that he did not issue the order to move the civilians in the first place let alone execute them.

It was possible that Onishi and Mikawa both collaborated and blamed their subordinates in order to avoid prosecution.

Moreover, the Akikaze’s captain, Lieutenant Commander Sabe and his second-in-charge both died in action during the war.

As dead men could not talk, the living could spin stories as they want.

Why did Australia refused to proceed with the charges?

In the end, the Australian War Crimes Section did not continue with the prosecution.

The official reason is that they were no Australians among the victims.

A ‘victim of war crimes’ is defined in the Australian War Crimes Act 1945 as “the provisions of this Act shall apply in relation to war crimes committed, in any place whatsoever, whoever within or beyond Australia, against British subjects or citizens of any Power allied or associated with His Majesty in any war, in like manner as they apply in relation to war crimes committed against persons who were at any time resident in Australia.”

Even though the victims had been living in an Australian territory, they were not Australian citizens.

On July 18, 1947 the Australians handed the matter over to the American authorities. The Americans in turn never took further action on the case.

What happen to Akikaze?

On May 1, 1944, Akikaze was reassigned to Destroyer 30 of the Central Pacific Fleet. Together with Yukuzi (flagship) and Uzuki (destroyer), Akikaze departed Mako Guard District heading toward Brunei.

Mako was the major navy base for the Japanese in Taiwan before and during WWII. It is located at present-day Makung, Pescadores Islands.

The ships were escorting carrier Junyo and cruiser Kiso. Two days into the journey, a US Navy submarine fired a spread of torpedoes at Junyo.

In order to save the carrier, Akikaze intercepted them sacrificing herself.

Akikaze sank with all hands at about 257 km west of Cape Bolinao, Philippines.

In the meantime, it is unsure what happened to Onishi after the war. As for Mikawa, he lived a quiet, peaceful life in Japan, dying in 1981 at the age of 92.

It has been more than 75 years passed since the Akikaze massacre, one question remains; who gave the order to kill the sixty civilians including three children?

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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