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    Watom Island East New Britain Province Papua New Guinea (PNG)
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Justin Taylan 2019
Location
Lat 4° 7' 0S Long 152° 4' 0E  Watom Island is a volcanic island off the Gazelle Peninsula of New Britain. Also incorrectly spelled "Watum" in some sources. To the southwest is Talili Bay and beyond the Gazelle Peninsula and Rabaul. To the northeast is Saint Georges Channel and to the west is the Bismarck Sea. Prewar and during the Pacific War part of the Territory of New Guinea. Today located in East New Britain Province in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Wartime History
During January 1942, Watom Island was occupied by the Japanese without opposition. Occupied by the Japanese for the duration of the Pacific War. During late 1942, a contingent of 300 British Prisoners Of War (POW) from the Royal Artillery that surrendered at Singapore were transported to Watom Island and interned for the duration of war. On the island, they were used to dig tunnels and as labor. The prisoners were neglected, starved and killed by their Japanese captors. None of the officers or NCOs survived. On September 6, 1945 the Japanese garrison at Rabaul and the surrounding area including Watom Island officially surrendered.

British Prisoners of War (POW) liberated from Watom Island
On September 7, 1945 only eighteen British Prisoners Of War (POWs) survived captivity and were liberated by the Allies. Afterwards transported aboard HMAS Vendetta (D69) to Jacquinot Bay for medical treatment.

  1. L/Bdr Patrick Ahern, 851969, 7th Coast, Flrmoy, Ireland
  2. Gnr Alf Baker "'Blackie'" , 1799596, 3rd AA, Plymouth, Devonshire
  3. Sgt Joe Blythe, 1700369, 35th LAA, Nottinghamshire
  4. Bdr Harry Burglass, 843976, 20th HKS, Yorkshire
  5. L/Bdr Frank Docketty, 2048251, 5th SL Surrey
  6. Bdr W. Dunne, 3850959, 9th C, Lancashire
  7. Gnr Joe Fowler, 850014, 7th C, Derbyshire
  8. Gnr Ben Gabbert, 1635296, 6th AA Lancashire
  9. Gnr W Jonah Jones, 1604796, 3rd HAA, Shropshire
  10. L/Sgt M. Matts "Tiffy", 1063742, 7th C, Portsmouth
  11. Gnr G Dai Moore, 1492839, 7th C, South Wales
  12. L/Bdr W. Murphy "Spud", 857219, 3rd AA, Scotland
  13. L/Bdr Charlie D. Newell, 1058699 7th Coast, London
  14. L/Sgt P. Noland "Nobby", 845353, 9th C, Northern Ireland
  15. Gnr Fred W. Slater, 1686309, 5th SL, Nottingham
  16. Gnr Len Smelt, 35th LAA, Nottingham
  17. Gnr Ken Walker, 7th C, North Wales
  18. Gnr G. White "Chalkie", 868015, 3rd HAA, Scotland

Today
Watom Island has no electricity and gets only a handful of outside visitors and is only accessable by banana boat.

POW Tunnel and Naval Gun
Peter Leggett reports: "The large tunnel the British POWs dug, is still there, housing a large naval type gun on high ground at the north of the island. There are other small tunnels cut into rock on the island. Watom itself is volcanic and was formed before the Gazelle Peninsula. Nothing much else on the island, I've walked over it many times. At present time there is a ban on scuba diving and people visiting the island from a problem caused with Star Dancer over a year ago. I have been talking with a number of the people who have asked us to go back there once things are sorted out with their community leader."

Japanese Tunnels
The island is volcanic and formed before the Gazelle Peninsula, so work labor done by POWs was very hard. Some tunnels can be seen from the sea, cut in the cliff face above the high tide mark. These tunnels do not go in far and would have been used more as a pill box for Japanese soldiers defending shore approaches.

References
Investigation and confirmation of POW sites on Watom Island by Samuel Niba Billy
AWM Statement by 851969 L/Bdr Patrick Ahern 1945, 7 Coast Regiment British Army (AWM 54 1010/4/175) [PDF]
(Page 3) "851969, L/Bdr Ahern Patrick, 7 Coast Regt, Singapore Fortress, (British Army) being duly sworn, states:-
...About a a few of us were transferred to Watum [Watom Island]. There were times when we were beaten by Jap soldiers, but the Sjt Maj, whom we called Victor McLaghlan (Tanaka Juni) protected us fairly. He was always good to me although later he gave L/Bdr Newell a dreadful time. I think it was only the end of the war that saved his life. We were made to work digging tunnels for feet wide and five feet high for Japanese shelters. This was very hard work, but Victory met us fairly reasonably.
The times alternated between good and bad. Some good commanders, etc were Sjt Higaka Tanaka Sojo of Captain Nishihara 2 Lt Sirasawa bad ones who I could identify are Cpl Yana Sjt Majr Harodhi Sjt Hamada they were infantry troops on Watum.
Towards the end of the war and particularly at the end the Japanese Captain and NCOs were particularly friendly and protective to us and seemed to be generally overjoyed at the conclusion."
Long Way - Watom Island by Colin Docketty
What Price Bushido? (1991) by Alf Baker
Hostages To Freedom (1995) by Peter Stone page 326 (Surviving Prisoners Of War - Eighteen British)
COFEPOW Rabaul - The British Prisoners Of War
COFEPOW 'The Gunners 600' - Rabaul - The Survivors
Thanks to Samuel Niba Billy, Peter Leggett, Steve Saunders and Collin Docketty for information and photographs

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Last Updated
September 7, 2020

 

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