Many of us are aware of the obscenities of the Thai–Burma Railway and of the notorious Sandakan prisoner-of-war camp established by the Japanese in Borneo.
But until the publication of Mark Baker’s latest offering, The Emperor’s Grace, little has been known about thousands of Australians who were sent to work as slave labourers in the factories and mines of Japan during World War 11.
Ideally suited to tell this harrowing tale, Baker is a former foreign correspondent who worked in Southeast Asia and Indo-China for a number of news outlets. He also covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the civil war in Bougainville, during which he was wounded.
‘The Emperor’s Grace’ is a compelling story of the men of C Force. This involved a contingent of 3,800 Australians, plus some Dutch, British and American prisoners of war, shipped from Singapore to Japan in November 1942.
Many of these men worked in appalling conditions in the Kawasaki shipyard, near the Japanese POW camp on the outskirts of the Japanese city of Kobe.
This was before an intense American incendiary bombing campaign in early June 1945 destroyed the shipyard and razed much of the city.
From early 1943 Allied prisoners had also worked under utterly dreadful conditions in the infamous Yoshikuma coal mine near the POW camp at Fukuoka where Australian and other prisoners were kept to be used as slave labour. This was until the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought hostilities to an end.
Baker’s fine book is based on original first-person accounts, including meticulously-kept and hitherto unpublished diaries and memoirs of a number of Australian combatants, many of whom survived their cruel imprisonment on the Japanese mainland.
The book is enhanced by the inclusion of a number of hitherto secret contemporary sketches and drawings of his surroundings by Signaller Private Robert Boyed (Bob) Mitchell. After the war, Mitchell studied art at East Sydney Technical College and became a full-time artist in New South Wales who embraced abstract expressionism.
The book is enlivened by a number of mini biographies of key Australian participants. These include Captain John Paterson – a highly respected commander of the 8th Division Signals Corp; Lieutenant J.F. D. (Doug) Lush – a fine athlete who was taught at Melbourne High School by Australian cricket captain Bill Woodfull; and Lieutenant Ken Trumble – who hailed from one of our most distinguished cricketing families.
These three combatants rightly regarded themselves as brothers in arms. In particular, Paterson and Lush were firm friends, and remained so until their deaths.
As well as these key officers, Baker also focuses his attention on ordinary Australian soldiers. Especially illuminating is a short summary of the life and times of Tomas Murphy, a 15-year-old who lied about his age to go to war and lived to tell the tale.
As Baker explains, in 1941 Murphy stole his brother’s name to enlist with the 8th Division Signals. Known to all as Spud, young Murphy would survive conflict, capture and working in the Kawasaki shipyard and the Yoshikuma coal mine to return home a year before his 21st birthday.
For years, as Baker puts it, Murphy “was haunted by his wartime experiences and kept a Japanese sword under his bed, fearing a danger to his wife and family that he could never define”.
Baker’s powerful, lucidly -written, and throughly researched story of Australian and other POWs enslaved in mainland Japan during World War 11 deserves a wide readership.
This should be aided by the fact that Baker’s revealing wartime history is also carefully indexed and extremely well illustrated.
As well as Bob Mitchell’s excellent black-and-white and coloured drawings and sketches,several other illuminating illustrations grace the book.
To me, two photographs stand out. The first in black-and-white and captioned “Free man”, is that of Captain Paterson touring the ruins of Osaka in September 1945. The second, taken in 1988, is a colour shot of former POW camp interpreter Kazuo Kobayashi who is sitting next to the former Japanese prison guard Sergeant Yoshinari Minemoto.
As Baker convincingly demonstrates in ‘The Emperor’s Grace’, Minemoto was wrongly jailed for war crimes and Kobayashi was extremely helpful to Australian and other Allied POWs.