Darwin war history
Japanese War Crimes Trials, Darwin 1946.
by Norman Cramp
It is not commonly known that shortly after the cessation of hostilities in World War Two, 19 Japanese military personnel were tried in Darwin for war crimes perpetrated against Allied service personnel. The trials, conducted in the Officers’ Mess, Larrakeyah Army Base between March and April 1946, covered war crimes carried out on the island of Timor between 1943 and 1945 and were the only such trials conducted on Australian soil.
AMF Military Tribunal members at the ‘Bench’ during the trials.
To accommodate the hearings, the Officers’ Mess was transformed into a makeshift courtroom with the Tribunal members seated at the ‘bench’. The walls were festooned with the Australian flag and a photographic portrait of the King. The Defence and Prosecution Officers sat at separate desks to the prisoners and awaited their turn to address the court and examine and cross-examine the accused and the witnesses. The accused was marched in under armed guard each morning and seated in an area set aside for them, with their Counsel nearby.
Of the 22 Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) personnel tried, six were officers, 15 were Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and one was a Private. In all, three trials were held with 22 accused being arraigned, two of whom, Yutani and Kasezawa, facing two separate trials for war crimes. So, 22 accused persons, but 24 alleged crimes.
Prior to the trials proceeding, the Defence Counsel argued the trials were unconstitutional and illegal, and as such should not be allowed to proceed. His objections were overruled by the Tribunal members and the cases proceeded.
The accused Imperial Japanese Army personnel bowing to the Tribunal members prior to the trials commencing.
The First Trial
The first trial dealt with the ill-treatment of Australian Army members, Captain (Capt.) Cashman, Capt. Wynne, Lieutenant (Lt.) Liversidge, Lt. Ellwood, Sergeants Shand and White and Corporal Lawrence between 1943 and 1945. The ill-treatment included beating, physical torture, starvation, deprivation and mental torture.
The accused were:
Captain Kasukane SAIKI
Captain Kisaburo AKUZAWA
Captain Teishu MORI
Captain Raisaku ABE
Sergeant Taizo ARAI (Kempei Tai)
Sergeant Eiji NARUTA
Sergeant Tamotsu KITANO
Sergeant Kunio HARAGUCHI and
Lance Corporal S KAMIMOTO (Unit HQ – 48th Division)
The Second Trial
The second trial dealt with the beating, torture, starvation and deprivation of an Australian Army member, Corporal James (Dummy) Armstrong, and a British Army member, Gunner Martin (Christian name unknown), from London, England. The ill-treatment (i.e. beatings, torture, starvation and deprivation) was a part of IJA’s (Colonel Yutani) attempts to extract information from Armstrong and Martin regarding Allied troop positions, battle of order, local native support network, ‘other’ Allied spies in the region (or on the island).
At the time the crimes were committed, Col. Yutani was a member of the notorious Kempei Tai (the Japanese Military Secret Police) and the senior IJA Officer in Koepang, Timor. As commanding officer, the crimes were committed and under Yutani’s instruction.
The accused in that trial were:
Lt. Col. Yutani Yujiro (Kempei Tai)
Sgt. Kasezawa Toshinobu and
Private Sano Taketomi
The Final Trial
The third, and final trial, dealt with the execution of Armstrong and Martin in Koepang in 1943. Both men had been captured when the island of Timor fell to the IJA in February, 1942. Soon after his capture, Armstrong had either volunteered for, or had been sent on, a mission by his Commanding Officer to escape from the POW camp just outside Koepang and to make contact with the Australian Commandos known to be in the Dili region of the island. It is not known if Martin also volunteered at the same time or he met Armstrong after his (Armstrong’s) escape.
It was a massive and, as it turned out, an impossible mission. Armstrong remained at liberty in the Timor jungle, journeying across the island for nearly a year before he and Martin were betrayed in mid-1943 by locals and re-captured by the Japanese. Once captured and returned to Koepang, Yutani proceeded to torture the two men.
Yutani’s intention was to gain information that it would have been impossible for the two men to have known, given they had been in either captivity or wandering around enemy territory for over a year, with no radio equipment, and no contact with either the Commando units on the island or other POWs or escapees.
Unable to break the men, or at least extract the required information, Yutani ordered they be executed. As a result of this order, Armstrong and Martin were blindfolded and hauled into a truck under armed guard. They were taken to a secure area (to avoid interruption) just outside Koepang, where they were taken behind a building, lined up and shot. Martin was shot first. When Armstrong realised what awaited him, he made a break for it but, being blindfolded, he crashed into the corner of the building, rendering himself almost unconscious. The guards returned him to the execution spot where, according to a Timorese eyewitness, Yutani shot him in the back of the head.
Yutani and the accompanying troops returned to barracks and hoped the matter would pass and be forgotten – or that Japan would win the war, in which case the matter would never be raised. However, Japan was defeated, following which, all Allied POWs were released and questioned about their treatment whilst imprisoned. Records were checked to ascertain the names of the POWs present and accounted for in the camp. It was during this process that the fate of Armstrong and Martin was revealed.
All of the IJA personnel accused of the various crimes were transported to Darwin on a RAN destroyer to stand trial. It is not known why the trials were held in Darwin, rather than at Manus Island where most trials dealing with crimes in this part of the Pacific region were held.
Although all of the trials concerned horrific atrocities inflicted on the POWs by their Japanese captors, by far the most serious trial was that of the execution of Martin and Armstrong. The Japanese were defended by an Australian Army lawyer (Counsel), provided by the AMF/Commonwealth government, while the prosecuting Counsel was also from the AMF. The line the defendants took throughout was that Armstrong and Martin had been killed in an Allied air raid on Koepang. The defendants insisted that, prior to their deaths, the two men had been treated well, with dignity and respect and that the accused were innocent and had no case to answer.
The trial lasted 14 days, from 15th April to 29th April, during which time the court adjourned to the Koepang prison for on-site investigations and hearings, but the defendants stuck to their story. Finally, one of the accused broke ranks and advised the court that he had heard the senior NCOs discussing, during a heavy drinking session, the execution of the two prisoners. He reported that he was aware that the two POWs had been executed. One by one the accused pleaded guilty, including Yutani, although he argued that he was simply acting on orders from a higher authority.
The Tribunal, after hearing all the evidence and arguments for and against, handed down the following decisions and sentences. Interestingly, no mention was made of, or punishment meted out for perjury against any of the accused even though all had lied under oath during their trials.
The Court's Decision
Trial No: 1
Saiki: Guilty of 2 of 11 charges and sentenced to 3 months imprisonment with hard labour.
Mori and Abe: Guilty of 2 charges and sentenced to 1 month imprisonment with hard labour.
The other 6 accused were acquitted.
Trial No: 2.
Yutani: Guilty on both charges.
Sano: Guilty on one charge.
Kasezawa: Not guilty.
Trial No: 3.
Yutani: Guilty and sentenced to death by shooting.
Miyata: Guilty and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment.
Kasezawa: Guilty and sentenced to 5 years imprisonment with hard labour.
Takahashi: Guilty and sentenced to 4 years imprisonment with hard labour.
Kagayama: Guilty and sentenced to 4 years imprisonment with hard labour.
Most, if not all, of the accused appealed against the severity of their sentences, but the appeals were denied. Yutani was taken to Rabual, Papua New Guinea, where he was executed by firing squad. It is unknown where the other guilty parties were imprisoned or how much of their sentences they served.
The penultimate chapter of this tragedy is that information came to light from local natives, that the bodies of Armstrong and Martin had been discovered accidently after the murders, and had been cremated when the natives had burnt the land in preparation for crop sowing. It was reported to the court, that when the bodies were located the heads were missing – meaning the victims had been decapitated after death by firing squad.
The last and possibly saddest part of the story, other than Armstrong and Martin losing their lives for no valid reason, is that James Armstrong’s mother only learned about his fate via a newspaper article covering the Darwin trials. She had not heard from her son since just prior to his capture by the Japanese and had asked the Commonwealth government and the Australian Army for details on his whereabouts and well-being – all to no avail.
James Armstrong and Gunner Martin have no known graves, but Armstrong is commemorated on the memorial cairn within the Adelaide River Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, Northern Territory.
Colonel Yutani behind the wire at Larrakeyah Army Barracks. He was found guilty of executing (murdering) two Allied prisoners and executed at Rabaul.
Lest We Forget
Darwin Military Museum
How to Contact and find the Darwin Military Museum
Click on Address: LOT 5434 Alec Fong Lim Dr, East Point NT 0820
Darwin Military Museum