On lonely scrubland at the Aru Islands port of Dobo on this date in 1943, the Japanese military beheaded kidnapped Australian Rev. Leonard Kentish.
Nobody knew his fate at the time — his wife spent years tring to discover it — but the so-called “Kentish Affair” was one of the true oddities of the Pacific War: a civilian of no particular import to the war effort who was snatched from Australian territorial waters.
On January 22, 1943, the civilian Kentish, chief of Northern Territory Methodist missions to the aboriginal peoples, had hitched a ride on the HMAS Patricia Cam, a wooden tuna trawler that had been requisitioned as a wartime naval transport. The Patricia Cam wasn’t running any blockades — she was strictly for local cargo runs, in this instance shuttling among Elcho Island and the Wessel Islands just off Arnhem Land.
She had no radar capacity, and no inkling at all of her fate that afternoon when the Aichi E13A floatplane dove out of the sky and skimmed above the Patricia Cam, within 100 feet of the mast — dropping a bomb amidships that ripped open the trawler’s belly and sent her to the bottom.
While survivors scrabbled in the Arafura Sea for “overboard drums, planks, boxes — anything that would float” the raider circled for another pass, splintering with a second bomb an emergency canoe that men were crowding into, then strafing the waves with machine gun fire. Finally, the victorious seaplane set down in the waves.
And then mysteriously, the pilot gestured Rev. Kentish into the vacant seat of his plane, and took off. Kentish was the only prisoner taken, and his countrymen never again laid eyes on him.
Sixteen other people survived the attack and were rescued a few days later. But poor Mrs. Violet Kentish remained entirely in the dark as to the fate of her husband. “I know that Len is not beyond God’s love and care wherever he may be,” she vainly pleaded to the Minister of the Navy. “But you will understand because we are only weak humans, the heartache and longing for one we loved so much.” (Quoted in Australia’s Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War Two)
After World War II, she desperately resorted to firing letters to newspaper editors, until an intelligence officer chanced to read one published in the Argus and made the necessary inquiries via U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff in Tokyo to unravel the mystery. In the clipped official findings:
1. The Rev KENTISH was taken on board a Jap float plane on Jan 22 43 after it had sunk the patrol vessel HMAS “PATRICIA CAM” off WESSEL IS.
2. Unfortunately no info can be obtained of the whereabouts of the Rev KENTISH until 13 Apr 43, when he arrived at DOBO.
3. The Rev KENTISH was held at DOBO as a prisoner till the 4 May 43. Throughout this period he was subjected to ill treatment by severe bashings, the most common being punches in the nose and eyes to such an extent that his nose was broken, and he had great difficulty in seeing. His diet, as such, was just sufficient to keep him alive.
4. On the morning of 4 May he was taken in to the scrub, (a distance of under 200 yds from the township of DOBO) where a grave had been prepared, and executed.
5. The execution was carried out by the order of 1st Lieut SAKIDJIMA.
6. The remains of the Rev KENTISH have been recovered, and handed over to Capt STOCKWELL, of the War Graves Unit. They will be transported to AMBON, and buried in the Internees cemetery there.
7. This case is now considered closed. All dates must be treated as approx.
The consequence of this inquiry was a 1948 war crimes case against Lt. Sagejima Maugan, who was hanged in Hong Kong on August 23, 1948 for conducting Rev. Kentish’s execution.