|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
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.
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
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 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
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
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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October 23, 2019