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VJ Day 75: Victory, Liberation and Remembrance Legacy of Liberation

By May 1942 Japanese forces had occupied vast swathes of Southeast Asia and the Pacific, capturing hundreds of thousands of Allied servicemen. Despite this stunning success their victory was not total: they still faced a grinding war in China, a resurgent American Pacific Fleet, Commonwealth forces that escaped Burma into India, and the Australian foothold on the island of New Guinea.

Japanese aircraft carrier en route to Pearl Harbor, 7 Dec 1941 - AWM P03172.005 (left), 11th East African Division on the road to Kalewa, Burma - IWM SE 1884
Queen’s Own (Royal West Kents) at the Battle of Sittang Bend - IWM ART LD 5617

BURMA

In India, Commonwealth forces from Burma were rebuilt, while new units of the Indian Army were raised and reinforced by British and African units. In late 1942 and 1943 stalled operations were launched into Arakan Province in western Burma, while Commonwealth special forces, known as ‘Chindits’ raided behind Japanese lines.

In early 1944, another advance in Arakan was met by Japanese counterattack, but despite being surrounded, Commonwealth forces held firm at the Battle of the Admin Box. Further north, Japanese forces launched an invasion into India but were repulsed following the battles of Imphal and Kohima FIND OUT MORE . Commonwealth forces counterattacked, quickly retaking Burma and reaching the capital Rangoon on 1 May 1945 FIND OUT MORE . Japanese forces attempted to retreat into Thailand but were caught at the Battle of Sittang Bend in July and virtually destroyed. Commonwealth forces were now poised to invade Malaya and recapture Singapore.

A Fijian medical orderly administers an emergency plasma transfusion, Bougainville - IWM NZ 1445

NEW GUINEA & SOLOMON ISLANDS

By early 1942, Japan had captured the islands of New Britain, New Ireland and Bougainville, as well as much of the British Solomon Islands as far as Guadalcanal. Japanese forces also invaded the northeast coast of the Australian-administered New Guinea. In May 1942 they were stopped short of Port Moresby on Papua New Guinea’s south-eastern coast by American and Australian naval forces at the Battle of the Coral Sea, reducing the risk of a Japanese invasion of Australia.

Japan garrisoned its captured islands while attempting to seize Port Moresby via the mountainous ‘Kokoda Trail’. Australian, Papuan, and later US forces fought desperately to repulse the attack amongst the densely jungled mountainous terrain, greatly aided by locally raised labourers, porters and stretcher-bearers.

A Matilda tank of 2/4th Australian Armoured Regiment, with infantry during mopping-up operations on Bougainville. – IWM HU 69099

In August 1942, a US-led force invaded Guadalcanal to capture the Japanese airfield then under construction, marking a shift from defensive to offensive action by the Allies. Japanese forces were reinforced and counterattacked on land and at sea, beginning a long, bitter contest for the chain of islands along the Pacific Rim. By November 1943 the Allies had invaded Bougainville. After initial amphibious landings supported from sea and air, Allied troops moved inland. Again, the Japanese were reinforced and put up a fanatical resistance. The Allies were still fighting on the island in June 1944, when a patrol of Commonwealth troops was ambushed near Mawaraka.

Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu came to their aid. Sefanaia, aged 24, came from Yacata, Fiji and had worked as a carpenter before enlisting in 1942 with his older brother. His name Sukanaivalu means “return from war”, as he was named after his island chief, whose return from fighting in France during the First World War in 1918 coincided with Sefanaia’s birth.

Corporal Sefanaia Sukanaivalu – Republic of Fiji Military Forces Archive (above), Local stretcher bearers bring back the wounded, Kokoda Track, New Guinea. – AWM 013641 (left)

Under heavy fire, Sefanaia crawled forward along the jungle track to rescue two wounded men before crawling on to a third. On his return Sefanaia was hit and fell to the ground unable to move further. Several attempts were made to rescue him despite Sefanaia’s protests as to the danger. Realising that the men would not withdraw without him, Sefanaia raised himself up in front of the Japanese machine gun and was killed, deliberately sacrificing his own life to preserve those of his men.

For his heroism and self-sacrifice, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. After the war his grave was brought to CWGC Rabaul (Bita Paka) War Cemetery, Papua New Guinea. He is one of 117 Fijian servicemen of the Second World War Commemorated by the CWGC.

THE HIGH SEAS

The war at sea against the Japanese was fought over vast distances. The Battle of Coral Sea was the first that relied totally on carrier-based aircraft to strike the enemy, something that would become commonplace in the theatre

Japanese aircraft carrier Zuikaku (centre) and two destroyers manoeuvring, while under attack by U.S. aircraft, 20 June 1944. - Official U.S. Navy Photograph, 80-G-238025 USA National Archives.

In June 1942, having broken Japanese naval codes, US forces successfully ambushed the Japanese fleet heading for the US airfield at Midway. There followed a series of smaller actions throughout 1942 off the Eastern Solomans and Santa Cruz Islands as the Allies and Japanese fought for control of Guadalcanal. Meanwhile the US navy began an advance across the central Pacific securing isolated islands to use as forward bases for an attack on mainland Japan. Elsewhere, Allied submarines sank Japanese, ships starving Japan of vital imports while isolating Japanese island garrisons.

In June 1944, the US Navy engaged the Japanese fleet at the Battle of the Philippine Sea, inflicting heavy casualties and sinking vital carriers, opening the way for the invasion of the Philippines. Japanese naval forces tried to counterattack but were resoundingly defeated and permanently crippled at the Battle of Leyte Gulf.

Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho under attack by US aircraft, the Shoho sank shortly after, Battle of the Coral Sea - AWM 157892 (US NAVY PHOTO NO. 11497) (left), Explosion onboard the USS St. Lo following a kamikaze attack, 25 October 1944 - Official U.S. Navy Photograph (right)

By 1945 the net was drawing in on the Japan. US marines seized Iwo Jima in late January 1945 and landed on Okinawa on 1 March. The Royal Navy had been occupied by the war against Germany but following D-Day the threat at sea was much reduced. The British Pacific Fleet was formed and sailed to Australia early in 1945 to prepare for the invasion of Japan. The largest and most powerful British Fleet ever assembled, it was nevertheless still dwarfed by the vast US Navy.

In August 1945, the fleet was launching attacks on Japanese shipping and targets on the home islands.

The British Pacific Fleet, HMS Euryalus (left) being oiled from a tanker while the carrier HMS Formidable (centre) and HMS Undaunted (right) steam close by. - IWM A 30072

On the morning of 9 August, Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray took off from the carrier H.M.S. Formidable to attack Japanese warships in Onagawa Wan (Bay). Robert, aged 27, was born in Canada, the son of a Boer war veteran, and had enlisted in the Royal Canadian Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1940. He was an accomplished pilot who had been Mentioned in Dispatches for his part in attacking the German battleship Tirpitz and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his part in sinking a Japanese destroyer near Tokyo on 28 July.

Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, VC - www.cmp-cpm.forces.gc.ca (above), HMS Victorious and HMS Implacable seen from the deck of HMS Formidable as the ships turned into position. - IWM A 30193 (left)

During the attack on Onagawa Wan, facing fire from shore batteries and five warships, Lieutenant Gray flew very low in order to ensure success. Although he was hit and his aircraft was in flames, he was able to sink a destroyer, before crashing into the sea. Lieutenant Gray was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

Like many of those who served with the Commonwealth naval forces, Lieutenant Gray has no known grave. Instead, his name is inscribed on a memorial not in Southeast Asia but in his home country. For Gray, this means the CWGC Halifax Memorial in Canada. Those who served with the Royal Navy are commemorated on three memorials at Chatham , Portsmouth and Plymouth , which also honour Australian naval dead. Naval aviators of the Fleet Air Arm are named on the CWGC Lee-on-Solent Memorial .

Borneo

The last major offensive of the war by the western Allies was on the island of Borneo. On 1 May 1945, the I Australian Corps, which included two US regiments, landed on the island of Tarakan, off the north-east coast of Borneo. Their objective was the island’s airfield.

Australian troops land from US landing ship at Labuan Island, 10 June 1945. - 80-G-49565 USA National Archives

One of those taking part in the landings was Corporal John Mackay . Despite being only 25, John was a five-year veteran, having falsified his age in order to enlist in June 1940. He had served in North Africa, Syria, Papua and New Guinea. John’s unit landed at Lingkas Beach on Tarakan before advancing inland along the Aman River. The battalion was held up by a Japanese strongpoint known as ‘Helen’, which John's company attacked on 12 May. Corporal Mackey led his men along a narrow ridge under fire from three Japanese machine guns. Corporal Mackey charged the positions, fighting with rifle, bayonet, grenades and submachinegun, silencing two of them before being killed while attacking the third. . Despite John’s bravery, the Japanese held out for two more days before ‘Helen’ was bombed. John was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was buried near where he fell, but after the war was moved to CWGC Labuan War Cemetery .

Matilda II tank & troops of the Australian 9th Division near Victoria, Labuan, 10 June 1945 - AWM 018663 (left), John Bernard Mackey VC – AWM 134468 (right)

Once taken, the Allies used the airfield at Tarakan to support landings at Labuan island and Brunei Bay on 10 June, and Balikpapan on 1 July. Japanese troops, though outnumbered, put a up a determined resistance, fighting as they retreated into the interior of the island.

CWGC Labuan War Cemetery , the only Commonwealth war cemetery on Borneo, was begun in 1945 by medical units of the Australian 9th Division. It contains the graves of over 2,000 Commonwealth servicemen, while the CWGC Labuan Memorial lists the names of over 2,300 servicemen who have no-known grave; testament to the ferocity of the fighting and the brutal treatment of Allied POWs by the Japanese.

CWGC’s Labuan War Cemetery and Memorial

“I AM BECOME DEATH”

By mid-1945 the Allies had fought their way to within sight of the Japanese mainland and began preparations for an invasion, scheduled for November. The human cost of the fighting to that point had, however, been terrible, as the Japanese had fought fanatically defending the ground they ceded.

Boeing B-29A-45-BN Superfortress 44-61784 6 dropping incendiary bombs to Osaka, Japan, 1 June 1945 – USAFHRA

Bombing by Allied air forces had reduced the majority of Japan’s cities to rubble, while Allied naval forces cut off vital imports. Despite their desperate situation, the Japanese government refused to surrender. A joint declaration by the Allies at the Potsdam conference in July went unanswered.

"We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action. The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction."

Prompt and utter destruction swiftly followed.

On 6 August 1945, the US Air Force dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima killing at least 70-80,000 people. Developed in secret, the weapon heralded a new age of unimaginable destruction.

The mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, photographed from an escorting American B-29 aircraft, 9 August 1945. - IWM MH 2629 (left), A view of the devastation caused by the atomic bomb, Hiroshima, August 1945. - IWM MH 29437 (right)

On 8 August the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and the following day invaded Manchuria. That same day a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing over 35,000 people in the initial blast and thousands more over the following weeks and months from radiation.

An unexpected casualty was Corporal Ronald Francis Shaw of the RAF. Ronald had been captured on Java in 1942 following the crash of his aircraft. He was held there for a time before being transported to Japan, - during which voyage he is thought to have survived the sinking of the Tamahoko Maru by a US submarine in June 1944. Of the 770 POWs onboard only 212 survived. They were brought to Fukuoka 14 prison camp in Nagasaki, which housed some 440 Allied POWs. Ronald was put to work in the shipyard’s iron foundry.

Ronald Francis Shaw. Nagasaki Peace Museum. (above), CWGC’s Yokohama War Cemetery, where some 1,500 Commonwealth servicemen are commemorated (left)

The camp was far enough away from the epicentre of the explosion to avoid the firestorm, but close enough to be caught in the blast/shockwave. Ronald is believed to have been crushed under a collapsing wall. A number of Dutch and American POWs are also believed to have been killed as result of the explosion. Ronald was cremated and after the war his ashes were interred at CWGC Yokohama War Cemetery .

Faced with the devastation of the bombings and the Soviet Union’s entry into the war, the Japanese Emperor broadcast the country’s surrender to the Allies on 15 August. The formal Instrument of Surrender was signed on 2 September 1945, on the battleship USS Missouri, in Tokyo Bay.

LIBERATION

Following Japan’s surrender, Commonwealth naval forces were quickly dispatched to the territories of Malaya, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina – all still occupied by Japanese forces. Their aim was to liberate Allied POWs and civilian internees but also to re-establish western imperial control over Southeast Asia. This re-imposition of western rule caused tensions with local pro-independence movements, many of whom had fought as guerrillas against the Japanese. It would lead to open conflict in the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina and British Malaya.

A British flag flies above a cheering crowd during the arrival of the 5th Indian Division at Singapore, which marked the end of three and a half years of Japanese occupation. - IWM SE 4648

Japanese authorities had not followed the 1929 Geneva Convention concerning prisoners of war: they did not confirm how many were held or who or where they were; food and medicine were withheld, people were beaten, tortured, and used as disposable forced labour.

Recently liberated woman shows the amount of food provided for five people during captivity in Stanley Civil Internment Camp, Hong Kong. IWM A 30549 (left), Liberated POWS from Ambon onboard ship for Australia AWM 019307 (right)

Allied prisoner recovery teams were prepared for poor conditions, but the extent of the malnourishment and illness only became clear when camps were found. When the advanced team parachuted into Sumatra and saw the surviving prisoners, they signalled that the task was immense and thousands of lives hung in the balance – food, doctors and medical supplies were needed immediately. By the end of October, some 71,000 liberated prisoners and internees had been evacuated from Southeast Asia from over 250 camps, with over 20,000 more still to come. Some were too weak and sick to recover and would not survive the journey home. Many others would suffer life-long effects from their years in captivity.

REMEMBRANCE

While the living were located and helped, the graves of the dead were sought and recorded. With the help of former POWs, records kept in secret during captivity, and some information from Japanese authorities, British and Australian Army Graves Service teams looked for scattered graves and visited cemeteries that POWs had made for their comrades. In consultation with the War Graves Commission, sites were chosen for permanent cemeteries and graves brought together to create them. It was then the turn of the Commission to take these sites and make them into beautiful, contemplative spaces, with fine architecture and horticulture.

POW camp cemetery in Borneo, September 1945. AWM 118562 (left), A roadside grave. AWM 042578 (right)

Our archive offers a peek into this work and its challenges, as the Commission created a new canvas for commemoration in a new part of the world.

TAUKKYAN WAR CEMETERY & RANGOON MEMORIAL

Panoramic view of Taukkyan War Cemetery, February 1955. CWGC Archive

The war left graves in many parts of Burma and many Commonwealth servicemen with no known grave. Because of prolonged post-war unrest, considerable delay occurred before the Army Graves Service were able to complete their work. In 1951 Taukkyan was chosen for a cemetery to be made by bringing four battlefield cemeteries together. The graves were placed into four plots, keeping men grouped by original cemetery.

View of Taukkyan War Cemetery, November 1955. CWGC Archive

The Rangoon Memorial, for the names of almost 27,000 servicemen who died during the campaigns in Burma and have no known grave, was placed in the centre of the cemetery. The circular rotunda in the middle allows the inscription – ‘They died for all free men’ – to appear in five languages in positions of equal importance.

Aerial view of Taukkyan War Cemetery & Rangoon Memorial, 2020. CWGC

KANCHANABURI & CHUNGKAI WAR CEMETERIES

Prisoners of war began both of these cemeteries, burying their dead comrades in captivity. When War Graves Commissioner Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Longmore visited these cemeteries in January 1947, his tour diary records that it took four hours on a bad road, with no rest house or hotel for visitors.

Wooden crosses in Chungkai, September 1945. AWM P02310.12

‘Accessibility for relatives bad…Both cemeteries very isolated.’ He understood the ‘sentimental’ reasons for their location, but his concerns about accessibility prompted him to recommend these cemeteries not be made permanent. This might surprise some of the thousands of visitors who come to pay their respects in these beautiful places today.

Chungkai War Cemetery © Brian Harris

KRANJI WAR CEMETERY & SINGAPORE MEMORIAL

Colin St Clair Oakes was the Commission’s Principle Architect for Southeast Asia. He had served in the war and would now play a key role in the creation of places to remember fellow servicemen.

Aerial view of Kranji War Cemetery early in the work. CWGC Archive

Singapore needed a large cemetery to be the focus of remembrance there, and to make a home for graves from small cemeteries around the island. A memorial was needed also, for the names of more than 24,000 Commonwealth servicemen and women who had no known grave. Finding a location was challenging. In January 1946 St Clair Oakes visited the small POW cemetery at Kranji, writing of graves ‘sandwiched together in neat, orderly rows in an old rubber plantation’ but he thought that overall, the ‘situation [was] not exceptional.’

Cross of Sacrifice with Memorial behind, July 1956. CWGC Archive

The preferred site at Changi could not be kept for a cemetery as the airport needed to expand; Kranji became the best place to build the cemetery and memorial. Those who visit can attest that St Clair Oakes and the CWGC transformed this ‘not exceptional’ site. Beautifully planted rows of headstones girdle a slope crowned by the Singapore Memorial, whose design calls to mind all three of the fighting services - a fitting place to remember thousands who died in the Second World War with the Japan.

Kranji War Cemetery

With thanks to the Imperial War Museum, USA National Archives & the Australian War Memorial.