Here’s the Story of a Little Known World War II Atrocity

By Joe Darby

From time to time I like to share with you readers bits of little known history. This account is about, I believe, one of the more heinous atrocities of World War II.

In early March 1943, in the middle of the war, a Japanese warship steamed out to sea with a cargo. This was no cargo of goods or supplies, however, but a cargo of human beings. They included 38 Catholic priests and nuns, including a bishop, six Protestant missionaries and more than 15 civilians of various nations, including some children. The members of the clergy were not citizens of enemy countries to the Japanese Empire — Americans, British or Australian.

No, in fact they were Germans, citizens of the Nazi nation that was allied with Japan in the quest for world domination. But the religious people had little use for the Nazi regime and were working only to save souls in the Pacific islands. And that was enough to make them suspect in the eyes of the Japanese war machine.

The captain of the destroyer Akihaze, Lt. Cmdr. Sabe Tsurukichi, received orders to take part in a roundup of civilians on New Guinea and transport them to the island of Rabaul. They took aboard the Catholics on New Guinea then stopped at the island of Manus to get the Protestant clergy and the other civilians, This was done because the Japanese thought the clergy were providing information on Japanese ship movements to the Allies. It was not them, however, but a group of dedicated “coast watchers” purposefully inserted behind enemy lines.

On its way to Rabaul the Akihaze stopped at the island of Kavieng, where the ship’s commander received sealed orders. “Execute all civilians on board.”

Being the good, obedient Japanese officer that he was, Tsurukichi promptly complied. So he ordered a platform to be erected on the stern, meanwhile, gathering all of his prisoners into a forward cabin. Crewmen came first for the male passengers. After having to give their names and other personal information, the men were then taken one by one to the stern, where they were tied up. blindfolded and shot with rifles and a machine gun. They were then tossed overboard into the ship’s wake.

After all of the men were killed, the same thing was done to the women. Finally, two little Chinese orphans on board were simply thrown overboard into the churning ocean.

The efficient crew then dismantled the execution platform, scrubbed the decks of blood and got rid of the victims’ personal effects. Tsurukichi conducted a brief ceremony to honor the spirits of the dead. And then sailed on into the war.

This all came to light through the testimony of witnesses from the islands as well as two former Akihaze crewmen at an Australian war crimes trial in 1946.

The loss of these 60-some innocents was one small incident in the tragedy of World War II, which took the lives of many millions. But I think it’s worth the retelling.

By the way, Tsurukichi was never tried for his part in the massacre. The war took its own vengeance on him. On Nov. 3, 1944, the US submarine Pintado sunk the Akihaze and the destroyer went down with all hands.