In my post Never Returned – Disappearance in the Markham, I introduced three Australian soldiers who went missing, presumed captured by the enemy, in New Guinea in mid 1942, and whose bodies were never found. At the time of writing, I was aware of indigenous intelligence that had stated that two of the men, Sergeant Mayne and Signalman McBarron, had been executed by machine-gun fire. No other evidence of their fate seemed to exist.
Recently, however, I stumbled across a 605-page file in the National Archives of Australia’s online database, which revealed more potential clues about the fate of Mayne and McBarron, but that of the third man, Rifleman Anderson of the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles, remains a mystery.
After the war, attempts were made to investigate the small number of Australian and American servicemen who had gone missing in the area. The post-war interrogation of a former member of the 82nd Naval Garrison Unit, which in mid 1942 was in charge of the defence of Lae, revealed that two Australians had been captured not far west of Lae about the middle of that year by a patrol from No.2 Company of 82 Keibitai (Commander Miyata), under the command of a Lieutenant Shimazu, Junki. The Australians, who were dressed in khaki, were transported back to Lae in a motor truck and “placed in a small room in which a telephone was kept.” They were interrogated at 82 Keibitai Headquarters, but the details were not known by the man under interrogation who was a mere company clerk. After roughly four weeks, an order was received from Keibitai HQ to execute the two men. He did not know who executed the men – whom he was not able to identify from photographs presented to him – or the location or method of their death.
A former officer of 82 Keibitai was also interrogated, and while he admitted to recalling that two Australians had been captured in about May ’42 and brought back to Lae, he added little more of significance, apart from that one man was tall and young, and the other older and shorter. He too was unable or unwilling to identify Mayne, McBarron or Anderson from photographs presented to him.
While the details remained vague, it appeared that at least two of the three missing men were captured, interrogated, and sometime in the weeks afterwards, executed. It is possible that these two were Mayne and McBarron, and that perhaps Anderson had been wounded and either died of his wounds, or was ‘finished off’ by the enemy.
A lieutenant of the Imutai (medical section) 82 Keibitai, Kurobane, Setsuo, recalled upon questioning by Australian authorities that “Shimazu’s patrol traced 3 Australian soldiers, one of whom was wounded in the resultant engagement. The wounded Australian, bleeding copiously managed to elude capture by a spirited dash into the jungle. The other 2 were captured … they had in their possession packs, arms, some golddust and gold-speckled pebbles which were later distributed amongst the Keibitai as souvenirs.” Kurobane stated that two men from No.2 Company had volunteered as the executioners, but when the moment came, they tried to pull out of the task but were firmly ordered to carry it out. Kurobane stated that at the place of execution, the two Australians “appeared carefree.” Each were beheaded, “killed instantly as their heads were almost severed from their bodies.”
Kurobane’s recollections appear questionable, for the capture of Mayne and McBarron did not take place on the same day as the disappearance of Anderson, but three weeks apart. That he remembered their possessions including gold dust, but not the names of the two chosen executioners, is also strange. Given his own role as a witness to the executions as relayed by another officer, it makes sense that Kurobane’s story might contain elements of fantasy. As no other Japanese officer or other rank mentioned a third Australian being pursued or captured, it is possible that Rifleman Anderson was not captured at all, but rather died of his wounds alone, having escaped his pursuers, or was killed while incapacitated.
Lt. Shimazu was also interrogated and recalled that the two men captured, one of whom was a signalman (thus identifying McBarron), were taken “near a bridge west of Old Munum” as they had set out to “man an observation post.” Shimazu thought, as one or two others had also commented, that both men had blonde hair. He also stated that the men were executed on the orders of 7 Naval Base Force at Rabaul, because transporting them to there to higher headquarters was difficult, as “Our only link with Rabaul was by occasional submarines which brought only essential supplies.” In contrast to medical officer Kurobane’s almost poetic memory of their honourable death, Shimazu stated directly that the two men – blindfolded and with hands tied behind their backs – were in turn bayoneted several times in the back and “thrown into the graves which were then filled. Lieutenant (medical) Kurobane did not ascertain if life was extinct in the bayonetted Australians before their bodies were buried.”
This leaves open the chilling possibility that one or both of the men may have been buried alive.
Complicating Shimazu’s recollection, however, is that he placed the execution of the two men just a matter of weeks after two Australian airmen had been captured at Salamaua, and during the time when Captain Ugai, Ken, was commanding 82 Keibitai at Lae. Ugai had taken command from Miyata at the beginning of 1943. He also recalled that they had been captured in October, 1942. Like Kurobane, however, Shimazu had drawn a rough sketch of the place of their execution near a waterfront jetty just to the northeast of the easternmost end of the Lae airstrip. Both sketches identified a roughly similar location.
While these post-war interrogations confirmed that two Australians had been kept and executed at Lae, unfortunately it did not lead to the finding of their bodies, or any further hint of Rifleman Anderson’s fate.
While now, 75 years later, their names are known only to surviving family, as soon as circumstances provided the opportunity, their countrymen pursued all possible avenues to bring closure to the mystery of their disappearance from the Markham Valley. They were not then forgotten, but history rolls onwards.
[References available upon request].