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Prisoners of War

I: The Turn of the Tide in the Far East

page 325

I: The Turn of the Tide in the Far East

ALTHOUGH the naval defeats in the Coral Sea and off Midway Island brought to a standstill the Japanese drive to the south-east, they did not prevent the Japanese holding stubbornly to the ground they had occupied nor destroy their hopes of future conquests. In early June 1942 they attacked the Aleutian Islands; their submarines made sorties as far as Sydney and Newcastle and for a long time remained a danger to shipping in the Pacific. The task of rolling the Japanese back the way they had come proved long and arduous. In early August Allied forces got a foothold on Guadalcanal in the Solomons, from which a Japanese assault in October failed to dislodge them. But it took six months to clear Guadalcanal, and it was not until the Japanese had been crippled by four costly naval actions in these waters that the way was clear for further Allied landings in the Solomons in September 1943. By then Papua had been cleared and the Japanese were being driven slowly westward in northern New Guinea; by that time, too, the Japanese had been driven from the Aleutian Islands. Before the end of the year the United States forces, by their attack on the Gilberts, had pierced the outer perimeter of the Japanese defensive system and forced in a wedge near the Equator that threatened to cut the now greatly elongated Japanese lines of communication to the south.

In 1944 the wedge was driven deeper. At the beginning of the year United States forces landed first in the Marshall Islands and shortly afterwards in the Carolines, and so secured the bases for the liberation of the Philippines and the carrying of the war a stage nearer to Japan itself. By the end of the year Leyte and Mindoro in the Philippines had been invaded, and the Allied aero-naval superiority was such that nothing seemed able to stop their inexorable advance in all sectors of the Far Eastern front.

The bulk of the New Zealanders who were held in captivity by the Japanese fell into their hands in the first few months of the war in the Far East, when the Japanese forces carried out their lightning page 326 conquest of South-East Asia. In the years that followed only a few Navy and Air Force personnel were added to those taken in this initial stage of hostilities. Two further naval officers were captured when the Behar, taking them to Colombo, was seized by the Japanese in the Indian Ocean in April 1944. A few New Zealand Air Force pilots continued to be lost over Japanese-held territory until almost the end of the war.

The largest additional loss of civilians occurred when the Union Steamship Company's vessel Hauraki, 37 of whose crew were classified as New Zealanders, was seized by a Japanese raider. While bound for Fremantle in July 1942 she was held up and boarded, and the crew were forced to sail the vessel to Singapore. They did their best to ruin the engines on this forced voyage and were able to conceal and get rid of nearly all documents which might have been of use to the enemy. On arrival at Singapore most of the crew were put ashore and interned in Changi Jail. The remaining 20-odd of the engine-room staff and senior officers were made to sail the vessel on to Japan, and were treated there as prisoners of war.