Anyone who has done some cursory reading about the Second World War in the Pacific will know that for the Japanese soldier, surrendering to their enemy was not an officially sanctioned option. While the surrender of individuals and small groups certainly occurred, it was unusual for units of Japanese to lay down their arms on the order of their commander. Such a surrender occurred in northern New Guinea in 1945.
The Imperial Japanese Army’s Penal Code of 1908 decreed that the punishment for a commander who allowed his unit to surrender, was death. While the revised code of 1942 decreased the punishment to a “minimum of sixth months imprisonment,” surrendering to the enemy without fighting to the death was still an action that was actively discouraged.
It was unusual then, for a professional Japanese soldier and commander of a unit, albeit a small, cobbled-together one, to not only initiate the surrender of himself, but also order those under his command to follow suit, and indeed to move his unit away from concentrations of his countrymen to facilitate such an end.
The 18th Army was the Japanese formation in northern New Guinea, and since the Allied offensives of mid 1943, had been pushed progressively north and west along the coastline and through the rugged interior in the same direction. By the middle of 1944 the enemy had been cleared from the Huon Peninsula, and not long after, U.S. forces assaulted the western edge of New Britain, on the opposite side of which was the great Japanese southern base of Rabaul.
On the 15th of April, 1945, a 24-strong patrol from the 2/5th Australian Infantry Battalion, 17th Australian Infantry Brigade, 6th Australian Division, departed on foot from Aitape on the northern coast of mainland New Guinea to prowl the Drekiker area – three days march from their brigade headquarters – and keep it clear of the enemy. The force was to be maintained by air, and communication was to be by native courier. They established their base at Drekiker on the 21st, and about the 25th, a fighting patrol from the platoon attacked 40 ‘well dug in enemy’ in the Kubriwat area, killing 4, and suffering 2 lightly wounded of their own. On an unknown date in the following week, the force killed another 3 enemy, and wounded an additional 4.
On the 1st of May, still in the vicinity of the most recent clashes, a patrol under the command of Lieutenant Miles (who was the officer commanding the detachment), came across a piece of paper stuck on a stick in the middle of a track. After tentatively approaching for fear of it being booby-trapped, the paper was discovered to be a F.E.L.O. (Far Eastern Liaison Office) ‘surrender’ leaflet, on the back of which, a member of the Japanese party in the area had written in broken English, words to the effect of “We intend to cease fighting, send an officer to this place.” These F.E.L.O. leaflets were part of a wide-ranging propaganda campaign to encourage the Japanese to ‘cease fighting’ (the word ‘surrender’ was not used), and had been dropped in their thousands by Allied aircraft in many locations in New Guinea and surrounding areas.
The following day, Lt. Miles and small protection group returned to the same location, but their enemy were not there. They were tracked with the assistance of indigenous information to a village in the area named Wongrer, where a courageous local entered the Japanese position with a white flag and informed them that an Australian officer was waiting to receive them and would guarantee their safety, as per the content – in Japanese – of the F.E.L.O. leaflet, a copy of which almost all of the surrendering enemy possessed. The unit adjutant, a Captain Kickuchi, Tadashi, and two others, went forward, and arranged the details with Lt. Miles for a formal surrender the following day.
On the 3rd, the surrender itself took place uneventfully in the same village. The Japanese – remnants of the 1st Independent Mixed Battalion (Dokuritsu Konsei Ichi Daitai) – had been armed with 1 Light Machine Gun, 17 rifles, and 3 Australian Owen Sub-Machine Guns which had been captured from the same Australian battalion, the 2/5th some months previously. The weapons themselves were in excellent condition, and they had possessed “a considerable amount of ammunition” for all of them, so it was not for want of a means of defence that they surrendered.
Nor was their decision to hand themselves over to their enemy, against which most of the party had been fighting since late 1942 / early ’43, a matter of starvation, because with the exception of one private who had a skin disease called yaws, the Japanese were in fair-to-good condition, with the two commissioned officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Takeshita and Captain Kickuchi, observed to be in ‘excellent’ shape.
Aside from the two officers already mentioned, the remainder consisted of 3 lieutenants, 4 warrant officers, 3 sergeant-majors, 6 sergeants, 7 corporals, 13 lance-corporals, and 3 superior privates. None of the group were younger than 25, with fifteen being 30 or older. Prior to the war, 14 of the group had been farmers, 4 had been labourers and 3 clerks, with other occupations including shirt maker, student, chauffeur, fisherman, umbrella maker, motor mechanic, steel worker, house painter, tailor, glass worker and veterinary assistant.
The only professional soldier among them was their commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Takeshita, Goro, who was 44 years of age, and who had not only initiated their surrender, but had ordered his men to surrender with him. Not only that, but after losing contact with other units in the 18th Army in March, Col. Takeshita had intentionally directed his group away from the ‘front line’ where he knew ‘friendly’ forces to be concentrated, because he feared that both his own countrymen might prevent his unit from surrendering, and because he feared that Australian troops might shoot them first, thinking they were being attacked.
The officers of the party later stated they only surrendered because they were ordered to do so by their C.O., and the Japanese N.C.O.s – which were the majority – revealed that they thought little about the surrender, but they all highly respected their C.O., and wished to follow his orders.
Their unit had been formed after the Japanese counter-attack disaster at the Driniumor River in August, 1944 against U.S. forces, and was a conglomerate of the remnants of various other units. They had begun with 120 personnel, but 20 were killed in action and roughly 60 died of wounds or sickness.
Up to that date, the Takeshita group was the first enemy unit – albeit a remnant – to surrender to Australian forces in New Guinea in such a planned, formal manner.
[References available on request].