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by Tetsuo Watanabe
National Library of Australia  1995
Soft cover
88 Pages
Photos, Maps
ISBN 0646250523

Language: English

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The Naval Land Unit
That Vanished In The Jungle

This book was originally published by Tetsuo Watanabe as "Kaigun rikusen-tai janguru ni kiyu" in 1982. Throughout the war, author Watanabe kept a dairy that he used to write the book. Translated to English by Hiromitsu Iwamoto in 1995.

Rarely does a short book, only 88 pages in length have such a profound impact. This is the best account I have ever read about what the war in New Guinea was like for the Japanese, from a survivor who entered service in June 1942 and survived until the the end of the war. The book describes hardships and feats of survival, and documents the travels of one Naval surgeon whose career began in Hong Kong, then to the torpedo ship Hiyodori operating in the Solomons, and finally in a Naval unit in New Guinea.

Hong Kong
The book begins at the end of June 1942, when Tetsuo Watanabe had just completed war medicine studies and moral was high, heading south to Hong Kong. Conditions there were wonderful for the Japanese there were plenty of supplies, luxury items, even house keepers for every two officers and staff cars to drive around, played baseball, and there was even time for romance in the lazy months overseas. But, all had no illusions about their service to come, and that all would probably never come back.

After briefly returning to Japan, Watanabe's was next bound for Rabaul, aboard the aircraft carrier, Taiyo. His first impressions of Rabaul were about its beauty and the strength of Japanese forces stationed there. The harbor was crowed with ships and planes were always flying in the sky. The mountain towering above the harbor was also impressive.

Furious battles aboard Torpedo Ship Hiyodori
Tetsuo embarks on Hiyodori for a sortie from Rabaul boubd for Lae, whose crew were in high moral and said "Soon we will show you a real man's war" Their mission was not without incident, as a bombing attack by B-17's that dropped bombs and circled around to strafe. Tetsuo's jaw was wounded from a piece of shrapnel from a nearby blast, but was consoled by the sight of a B-17 falling with its wing on fire. In a unique turn of events, their ship picked up one of the Australian crew members who survived the crash, and the author remembers "He caught a look at my face bandaged except for my eyes, then he looked away". The Hiyodori accomplished its mission to resupply troops at Lae and then returned to Rabaul. Back at Rabaul, Tetsuo jaw was operated before returning to service. The hospital was crowded with malnutrition and diseased survivors from Guadalcanal that had narrowly escaped via submarine.

Hiyodori continued patrols off New Ireland, Bougainville and the central Solomons were her backyard. The author recalls how fierce naval battles and the Allies use of radar meant the Navy had lost its divine power in night engagements. Other patrols up to Truk and the Mariana Islands meant being chased by enemy submarines.

Back to Japan and Reassignment
After being reassigned briefly to Japan, the author notes the decline of the Imperial naval students in Yokosuka, men over forty and boys of only fifteen. During this assignment, Tetsuo married but only a month later, he was assigned to the war zone, flying first to Rabaul then awaiting submarine to Eastern New Guinea. His new wife and colleagues knew this would probably be his demise as the saying at the time was: "Java is heaven, Burma is hell but you never come back alive from New Guinea."

Back in the war zone things had changed, even his flying boat from Yokohama was attacked inbound to Rabaul. The harbor at Rabaul had also changed, all the warships were gone, and no Zeros were in the sky, and the town was destroyed from air raids.

New Guinea & Retreat
On December 7, 1943 Tetsuo boarded I-181 and two days later lands at Sio, one one of the last Naval vessels stranded garrison. Watanabe joined the 82nd Naval Garrison where his first task was to decide which of the groups sick and wounded could begin the retreat along the north coast of New Guinea. WWII is full of hardship and struggles beyond imagination. Without a doubt, the plight of the Japanese in New Guinea must be considered one of the worst, and after reading Watanabe's account the fact that anyone survived is amazing.

Their retreat from Sio up to Madang and then to Wewak took almost six months and covered some of the most inhospitable and varied terrain in the world. From mountains, deep ravines, impenetrable rain forest and primeval swamp. There was no food, and trails were littered with the rotting dead of Japanese soldiers. Many died horrible deaths from starvation, disease and insanity, killing themselves or asking to be killed. In addition, the columns of troops were constantly bombed, strafed and shadowed by aggressive allied air attacks.

Kairiru & Muschu Islands
The final and darkest part of the Naval Land Unit's long struggle played out on Kairiru Island occupied by the Imperial Navy just off Wewak. There, the war situation was so bad that men fantasized about food during their free time, and the chickens on the island were painted green to camouflage them from the repeated and frequent Allied air attacks and staffers. The end of the war is not then end of Watanabe's story.

After August 15, the surviving men were interned on Muschu Island. Even in the face of defeat, Watanabe remember scolding a colleague and punching him for slouching in the face of the Australians, even in defeat he did not wanted the Australians to look down upon the the Navy. It was not until January 1946 that the survivors were finally returned to Japan, and many died on Muschu. In all Watanabe had been in New Guinea for two years, and left with only his life and a tin of tobacco and rations given to him by Australian troops.

Highly Recommended Reading
So little is written in English about the service of 'ordinary' Japanese. For that reason alone, this book is a worthy addition to any Pacific historian's library. It is a rare glimpse into the life and hardships they experienced in New Guinea. Personally, I learned about this book as a recommendation from John Douglas and visit several locations where Watanabe was stationed.

The books epilogue states so eloquently:
"So many years have passed. But I still cannot forget my experiences of the war. I thought unless somebody wrote about it, it would be forgotten forever. In this respect, writing down every word if the survivors is so important, because it can record the vivid memories of the men who actually fought and even those who died. Their testimonies should remain even if memory of the Pacific War fades away."

Review by  Justin Taylan  

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Last Updated
October 23, 2019

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