Friday, February 14, 2014

Bangka Massacre

Seventy-two years ago today, the SS Viner Brooke and a convoy of ships were sunk by Mitsubishi Zeros in the Bangka Strait. The survivors, evacuated from Singapore, washed up on Bangka Island, east of Sumatra. Australian women, children, wounded soldiers, and army nurses found themselves without shelter, food, or protection.

With few choices, the civilian women and children set off to find the invading Japanese so that they could surrender. Left behind were the wounded, 100 British troops from another bombed ship, 22 Australian nurses, and an elderly lady.

On February 16, Japanese troops discovered these survivors on Radji Beach. The soldiers immediately rounded up the men and took them over a bluff. After hearing several bursts of machine gun fire, the women on the beach knew the men were gone. The Japanese detachment returned, cleaned their bloody bayonets, and reloaded their guns.

They then ordered the 22 Army nurses, two of them wounded, together with the elderly civilian, to march into the sea, line abreast, and face the sea. It was about noon; the sea was tranquil, a light breeze played, palms lined the tropical shore. The nurses wore their grey dresses and Red Cross armbands. The Japanese soldiers then machine-gunned the women and left their bodies to float as so much debris onto the shore.

One survived.

Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, struck by a bullet that pierced her thigh, floated on the sea in shock. She gathered her wits and pretended to be dead until the Japanese left. She hid with a wounded British private for 12 days before deciding once again to surrender. They were taken into captivity, but the private died soon after. Bullwinkel was reunited with survivors of the Vyner Brooke. She told them of the massacre, but none spoke of it again until after the war lest it put Bullwinkel, as witness to the massacre, in danger. Bullwinkel spent three and half years in captivity; she was one of just 24 of the 65 nurses who had been on the Vyner Brooke to survive the war.

In captivity, the nurses and civilian women recall that their Japanese captors tried to "coerce" them into becoming Comfort Women in brothels set up by their military. Refusing meant that they faced starvation and other deprivations. Few felt that there was a choice. One nurse, Elizabeth Simmons records in her book, While History Passed that “I think all the girls would agree that this club [brothel] experience was the most repulsive and unpleasant in our whole imprisonment. I know it stands out grimly in our memory.” 

Another nurse, Betty Jeffrey in White Coolies notes that “Somebody suggested that we should all swear never to mention it, or tell any tales about anyone if and when we were released.” And nobody ever broke that promise. Simmons' book was the basis of the movie Paradise Road.

Nurses Memorial on Bangka
On March 2, 1993, in the presence of seven of the surviving nurses, including Sister Vivian Bullwinkel, the Nurses Memorial was dedicated on Bangka Island.

It is situated near, Radji Beach, the spot where survivors of the sinking of SS Vyner Brooke came ashore and where 21 Australian Army nurses were massacred.

The memorial incorporates stone from the: 'Women's Camp' which the Australian Army nurses occupied for a time as Prisoners of War. A bronze plaque records the names of all 65 nurses who were aboard the SS Vyner Brooke
Bangka Island is reputedly the setting for Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Japan's War on History Comes to America

On February 6, 2014, the foreign policy journal The National Interest ran on its award-wining opinion pages, an essay by ADBC former National Commander Edward Jackfert. Mr Jackfert, 92, lives in Wellsburg, West Virginia and Tampa, Florida. For many years he was in charge of the ADBC's legislative agenda and saw first hand both on the national and state level Japanese government lobbying undermine the American POWs of Japan efforts for justice. His experience, thus, motivated him to write the following:

Ed Jackfert
Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe has a promise to keep. And it is a promise that tests his and any American governor’s ability to stand up for his constituents against economic blackmail. During his campaign he vowed to support having school textbooks note that the Sea of Japan is also called the East Sea. Japan has reacted to this small addendum by threatening to withhold trade and investment from the Commonwealth.

Japanese ambassador Kenichiro Sasae and a pack of lobbyists have warned Governor McAuliffe that allowing two names for the body of water between Japan and South Korea, North Korea, and Russia would endanger Japanese investment in the State. The Japanese government wants to retain a linguistic vestige of Western expansionism and Japanese colonialism. Korea was a colony of Japan through half of the twentieth century and was forced to abandon its language, geography, history and culture.

As a former prisoner of war of Japan, I am familiar with the Japanese government’s use of economic threats to defend its colonial era history and unwillingness to take responsibility for Imperial Japan’s war crimes. Tokyo used these against legislation in 2001 in West Virginia to kill a resolution calling on the Japan to offer a formal apology and compensation to former prisoners of war.

In the spring of 2001, the Rules Committee of the West Virginia House of Delegates unanimously approved House Concurrent Resolution No. 7. As this happened at the end of the legislative session (81st), the full House did not have time to consider the resolution. I was assured that it would be approved in House and Senate in the following year during the 82nd Legislature.

Japan’s Consul General in New York reacted to this delay by sending a letter to West Virginia legislators, Governor, and others stating that the “positive cooperation and strong economic ties” between Japan and West Virginia might be damaged if the resolution was approved. Japan would not buy the state’s coal and steel. His warning was successful and the result was that neither chamber of the Legislature ever reconsidered the resolution.

The Japanese government’s repeated intervention in efforts to set history straight is a painful reminder of the indignities I endured at the hands of my Japanese captors. I was a U.S. Army Air Corps mechanic, surrendered on May 6, 1942 at the fall of the Philippines. I became one of the thousands of POWs shipped to Japan in fetid holds aboard “hell ships” owned by Kawasaki's K-Line or Mitsubishi's NYK. In Japan, I was brutalized and humiliated as a slave laborer by four prominent Japanese companies during World War II. I was forced to work for Mitsui, Nippon Steel, Showa Denko, and Nisshin Flour Mills*.

There were over sixty Japanese companies that used American and Allied POWs as well as Dutch, Indian, Korean, and Chinese civilians for slave labor. Most are major corporations that still exist and likely do business in Virginia. None have acknowledged or apologized for their use and abuse of these unwilling workers.

Virginians once questioned why a French company (Keolis) that is unapologetic for the Holocaust is allowed to service their VRE rail line. They should now ask why Sumitomo, Kawasaki, and Mitsui rail cars run on the VRE. Conditions in their factory camps (yes, plural) rivaled the inhumanity in those of the Nazis.

I think the Virginia governor should stand up to Japanese threats and ask that maybe it’s time for a means test of corporate responsibility for Japanese companies that want state contracts. Too many Virginians, native born and immigrant, suffered horribly for these companies to now allow them to operate with impunity in the Commonwealth.

No governor should allow a foreign government to blackmail his state. Further, no American should allow a foreign government the opportunity to again humiliate its once subjugated peoples. In the end, Governor McAuliffe must decide what lesson that he wants Virginia’s school children to learn: that there are reasonable alternatives to geographic names or that their governor can be swayed by intimidation.

*See this link for descriptions of POW camps:
Toyko 17B (Nisshin Flour Milling), Tokyo 16B (Showa Denko), Tokyo 2B (Mitsui), and Tokyo 5D (Japan Steel Pipe, today's JFE Holdings).

Edward Jackfert, a native of Wellsburg, WV, was a POW of Japan captured on Mindanao, The Philippines. He was twice National Commander of the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor