Looking back at Labuan War Crimes Trials during World War II

After the Second World War (WWII) ended, Labuan became one of the locations where war crime trials took place.

From December 1945 and January 1946, 16 war crime trials took place at Labuan.

Some of the cases trialed at Labuan were the ill-treatment of prisoners of War (POW) at Batu Lintang Camp, the Sandakan Death Marches and the final executions of POWs at Ranau.

Two military policemen guard four Japanese officers outside the Labuan court. Courtesy of Australian War Memorial. Copyright expired-public domain.

Why hold the war crimes trials in Labuan?

According to Georgina Fitzpatrick in the book Australia’s War Crimes Trials 1945-51, Labuan was the location of Australia’s 9th Division headquarters.

“There was a large garrison of Australian soldiers there to guard a war criminal’s compound and to provide other ancillary staff needed for war crime trials. Labuan was also the location of an Australian General Hospital (AGH) where those liberated Allied prisoners of war who were not well enough to be evacuated to Morotai had been sent to recuperate from their ill-treatment in Kuching camp. This placed them in proximity to the Japanese war criminal compound, where they could assist in identifying war criminal suspect,” Fitzpatrick stated.

Bearing witness at Labuan War Crimes Trials

It was rare to have former POWs of the Japanese to be present in person at these trials as a witness.

However, it did happen in the Labuan War Crimes Trials.

One of the six survivors of Sandakan Death Marches Warrant Officer William Sticpewich appeared at three different trials at Labuan.

Athol Moffitt was the jurist who was involved with the Labuan War Crimes Trials.

After the war, Moffitt reveal in his diary that Sticpewich had been flown back to Labuan at the request of the Japanese defence team.

The Japanese thought that he might be a friendly witness.

Unfortunately for them, this particular move became the defense team’s ‘greatest mistake’.

According to Moffitt, Sticpewich ‘got on the right side of the Japs and can speak quite a lot of Japanese – being very handy as a carpenter and good at fixing machines he made himself invaluable to the Japs during his imprisonment.

“He had the run of the camp and got a little extra food from the Jap leavings. He also poked his nose into things and can now tell us all sorts of things as to what food they had and what medicines they had etc.”

During his return to Borneo, Sticpewich was not only providing evidence against the Japanese. He also retook the Sandakan Death Marches route to help locate the graves of Allied forces.

Interpreters of Labuan War Crime Trials

Since the Australian prosecuting team spoke in English and the Japanese military obviously spoke in Japanese, the court needed interpreters to carry on with the trials.

One of the interpreters at Labuan reportedly went an extra mile to do his job.

Lieutenant Joseph da Costa was considered one of the most fluent of the Allied Translator and Interpreter Service (ATIS) interpreters at Labuan.

Despite that, da Costa was still concerned that the suspects did not understand what was going on.

Before the war broke out, he was studying in Japan and later onboard one of the last ships to leave to Australia in 1941.

While his spoken Japanese was fluent enough, da Costa was not familiar with military or medical terms in Japanese.

He then started a practice of visiting the specific prisoner in the evening to go over the day’s proceedings to make sure the suspect knew what had been said during the day.

Sergeant Donald Mann was another interpreter provided by ATIS at the Labuan trials.

Born to English parents, Mann was a former resident of Kobe.

Like da Costa, he too had been evacuated from Japan in 1941.

Since these two interpreters provided by ATIS were actually living and studying in Japan, their Japanese language proficiency was considered at higher standard compared to at other trials.

The Japanese defence counsel in Ambon war crime trials Somiya Shinji for instance argued that the accused were ‘unable to defend themselves sufficiently’ because they could not express ‘in an exact and accurate manner what they wanted to state’.

Defending the war criminals at Labuan War Crimes Trials

Speaking of the defence counsel, their competence was an issue which was raised many times during the trials.

The defending officer in one of the Labuan trials actually said this during his closing statement:

“The only thing for which I should like to make an apology and to beg your understanding is the problem of language. My English knowledge is extremely limited. Besides that, I am not will informed in jurisprudence at large and am quite ignorant about the Australian laws and regulations which this case is charged with. I am afraid this weakness will let me feel not only inconvenient but also to feel a kind of irritation of not being able to express my mind fully, like to scratch an itchy spot from outsides shoes.”

One of the defending officers in Labuan was Colonel Yamada Setsuo.

Even though he had been the Chief Legal Officer at Kuching during the Japanese occupation, there are some doubts that Yamada actually had legal qualifications.

Reporting on Labuan War Crimes Trials

More than 75 years passed since the war ended and the current generation roughly know about the atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII.

However when the war literally just ended, the public, particularly the families of war crimes victims, had no idea the heinousness that their loved ones went through.

Now came in the question of how much the public should know.

According to Fitzpatrick when the Labuan trials started, the press entered into ‘a gentleman’s agreement with the military authorities to reveal only general details of what had happened to and to refrain from publishing the names of victims’.

During that time, the readers were give some amount of detail about conditions of starvation and brutality in the camps as well as about the death marches and massacres.

By doing this, the Australian military believed that they were trying to protect the families.

On the contrary, they were accused of cover-up.

Still, some of the news reports published by the Argus and the Sydney Morning Herald gave more than enough details on the cases that they must have frightened any relatives of men missing in action.

Eric Thornton from the Argus for example reported, “Shots entered the house where sick POWs were lying, and they began to move out. Those too sick to walk started to crawl toward the grass, and all were slaughtered on the spot. When asked why he did not stop the slaughter, Sugino said he was so excited he did not think of it.”

Japanese Sergeant Major Tsurio Sugino was from the Borneo Prisoner of War and Internee Guard Unit.

He was charged with ‘having caused to be killed 46 Australian, British and Indian POWs (survivors from Labuan POW Camp) at Miri on Oct 6, 1945. Sugino was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Any convicted Japanese war criminals who received a death sentence and whose sentence was confirmed were executed where they had been tried.

Those who were sentenced to terms of imprisonment were initially held where that had been tried before they were moved to other places such as Rabaul.

The last trials

The last Australian-run trial held on Labuan was a mass trial of 45 guards.

These guards were suspected of ill-treating prisoners at the Batu Lintang Camp.

The trial was completed on Jan 31, 1946. After that, any other trials on Labuan were conducted by the 32nd Indian Brigade.

Overall, the Australians conducted 16 trials in Labuan between Dec 3, 1945 and Jan 31, 1946, in which 145 accused were involved, 17 were acquitted and 128 were found guilty.

In the end of the Australian trials, 39 Japanese had received death sentences, 36 by shooting and three by hanging.

So what the survivors thought of these results?

Victims’ Responses to the Trials’ Results

The Survivors of Batu Lintang Camp.

Michelle Cunningham in her book Defying the Odds: Surviving Sandakan and Kuching published some accounts on the victims’ point of view on the trials’ verdicts.

She wrote, “Some months after the war a British officer, Captain H.D.A. Yates, who had remained in the army in Borneo wrote to his former prison mates to update them on the war crimes trials and the questioning of the guards. He commented on the fate of several of the guards, suggesting that some sentences might be a bit harsh and lamenting that those for the most hated guards might not be harsh enough. He was pleased that Tadao Yoshimura, the assistant quartermaster at Batu Lintang, had escaped prosecution, for he had been one of the ‘good’ boys.”

The parting gift

While there were many horrific accounts that were revealed during the Labuan War Crimes Trial, there was one unexpected story that was disclosed many years after.

According to an article by the Journal of the New South Wales Bar Association, Russell Le Gay Brereton was the first investigate and prosecute Japanese guards during the Labuan trial.

An event that would stay with him forever was witnessing the formal surrender of General Masao Baba.

He formally turned over his sword to Australian Major General George Wootten at Labuan on Sept 10, 1945.

As part of his job as an investigator, Brereton flew to Kuching and stayed at The Astana. He found the Astana to be ‘the last word in luxury. Marble bathrooms and all’.

He also flew to Sandakan which for him the worst POW camp.

Brereton was then appointed as prosecutor in the first of the Labuan War Crimes Trials particularly the trial of Sgt Major Sugino.

During the trial, he impressed the Japanese defenders and officers with his concern for justice. The defending officer Yamada reportedly invited Brereton ‘to be his guest in Japan’ after things have settle down.

Brereton left Labuan on New Year’s Day in 1946 with a parting gift from General Baba.

The general presented him a Japanese calligraphy written in thick brush strokes on rice paper with translation and dedication on the reverse side read, “True heart is the core of everything.”

Baba was brought to Rabaul for trial and was found guilty with command responsibility for the Sandakan Death Marches.

He was executed by hanging on Aug 7, 1947.

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 is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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