1942: The Laha Massacre

Add comment February 20th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, 200-plus Australian and Dutch prisoners captured after the Battle of Ambon earlier that same year were summarily executed near Laha Airfield on present-day Maluku, Indonesia. It was the last and the largest of a series of POW executions in the days following the February 3 conclusion of the battle; collectively, they’re known as the Laha Massacre.*

The individual incidents, timelines, and body counts of the several incidents are reported with a good deal of variance and conflation in the sites describing these horrible days, but the evening of February 20 as the consummating atrocity appears to me solidly attested — as does the destruction of a Japanese minesweeper during the battle (by this time, an event that was a couple of weeks past) as one of the motivations. The Japanese officer tasked with conducting the butchery, a Captain Nakagawa, recorded the event in a grim diary entry. (According to Ambon: The Truth About One of the Most Brutal POW Camps in World War II and the Triumph of the Aussie Spirit, Nakagawa did not approve of the executions, but he obeyed his orders.)

The prisoners of war were brought by truck from the barracks to the detachment headquarters, and marched from there to the plantation. The same way of killing was adopted as before, i.e. they were made to kneel down with their eyes bandaged and they were killed with sword or bayonet. The poor victims numbered about two hundred and twenty in all, including some Australian officers.

The whole affair took from 6 p.m. to 9.30 p.m. Most of the corpses were buried in one hole, but because the hole turned out not to be big enough to accommodate all the bodies an adjacent dug-out was also used as a grave.

LOS NEGROS, March 9 (A.A.P.-Reuter) — The Australian War Crimes Court here yesterday heard how Japanese sailors beheaded, bayoneted and shot 200 Australian war prisoners at Ambon in February, 1942.

The massacre lasted four hours.

The prosecutor, Major Alex Mackay, of Perth, told the Court, “The Australians were killed in a spirit of revenge.

They were all killed, so no one could live to tell the story of the massacre.

The Japanese sailors whipped themselves into a frenzy and shouted the names of dead comrades during the killings.

THREE CHARGED

Before the Court are Navy Sub-Lieutenant Takahiko Tsuaki, Warrant-Officer Keigo Kanamoto, and Seaman Shikao Nakamura — all charged with having murdered Australian prisoners.

The names of other former men of the Japanese Navy appear on the charge sheet, but these men have evaded arrest.

Major Mackay said the prisoners were not blindfolded.

They did not know they were going to be executed until they arrived at the side of prepared mass graves.

They had been told they were going swimming.

AFTER SHIP SANK

Major Mackay said the massacre occurred soon after a Japanese minesweeper had struck a mine and sunk in Ambon Bay.

About 20 Japanese were killed.

Survivors of the ship’s company took part in the execution.

One Australian, an officer, managed to loosen his bonds and to seize a rifle from a Japanese, said Major Mackay.

He levelled the rifle at one of his captors and pulled the trigger. But the rifle was not loaded.

Another executioner shot and killed the officer.

“LENT MY SWORD”

In a sworn statement, one of the accused, Kanamoto, said:

Every executioner, without exception, shouted names of fallen comrades and cried ‘in revenge of so-and-so’ as he swung his sword.

Kanamoto denied having executed anyone. He said he lent his sword to a friend so he could take part in the execution.

“Brandishing the naked blade, he let out a yell and brought the sword down,” said Kanamoto.

A head rolled into a prepared pit.

He then beheaded another victim. This time the sword cut too well. The blade, in full swing as it cut off the prisoner’s head, almost touched and wounded my leg.

“MADE TO KNEEL”

In his sworn statement, Tsuaki, another of the accused, said some of the victims were made to kneel facing the grave, and then were bayoneted from the back through the heart.

Another witness said he looked into a grave and saw the bodies of about 20 executed prisoners-of-war.

“I heard some faint moans from inside the grave.”

The trial is expected to last a week.

Tsuaki admitted conducting an execution, “to set a good example to others”: “Observing all the rules of Japanese swordsmanship, I beheaded the victim with one stroke.” He and Kanamoto were both convicted; Kanamoto caught a prison sentence, while Tsuaki was one of five Japanese hanged as war criminals and then buried at sea on June 11, 1951.

These five were the last death sentences of Australia’s controversial post-World War II war crimes proceedings.

* This massacre on Ambon is not to be confused with the 17th century Amboyna Massacre at the same island.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Beheaded,Execution,History,Indonesia,Japan,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Netherlands,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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