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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 .
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.