Australian War Slaves


Japan ‘s embattled Foreign Minister, Taro Aso, is under new criticism for his family coalmine company’s brutal exploitation of Australian prisoners forced to work in slave-like conditions during World War II.

Old records recently made available to me show that 199 Australian captives were held in bondage by the Aso Mine Company in the last year of the war. Two died: Signalman John Watson from NSW, aged 32, of the 8th Signals Division, and Private Leslie Edgar George Wilkie from Queensland, aged 28, of the ALF 2/10 Ordnance Corp.

The aristocratic Aso, already being criticised from Washington to Beijing for what a New York Times editorial called his ‘offensive and inflammatory’ attitudes, has never admitted or apologised for his firm’s use of slave labour. The Japanese Government has paid no compensation to hundreds of thousands of enslaved workers, or to families of the thousands who died.

Now, Australian Robyn Lim, Professor of International Relations at Nanzan University, Nagoya, and a former Australian intelligence analyst, has added to criticism of Aso in an article in the Japan Times. Lim argues that Aso’s record is potentially harmful to the Japan-Australian friendship.

She notes that Sir Alexander Downer, the father of Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer (who met Aso for the first time last month in Sydney), was a Japanese PoW at Changi, the hellish Japanese prison in Singapore. And former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s uncle died at Sandakan, Borneo, in the death march that killed 2,400 Aussie prisoners.

But closer to Aso and now haunting his controversial appointment, is another man, Harold Stephen ‘Mick’ Kildey, who was 85 last Sunday. Kildey was held at Camp No. 26 in Fukuoka Prefecture in Kyushu, which serviced the Aso Yoshikuma mine where he worked back-breaking hours in extreme danger, deep underground. He was there from 5 May to 15 August of 1945, according to him and Australian war records.

Kildey, from the Gold Coast’s Burleigh Heads and formerly a field ambulance corporal, only recently discovered Aso was now Japan’s Foreign Minister. He said: ‘I would like to give him a piece of my mind if he comes here and tell him exactly what happened the beatings, the starving, the vermin, the cold … the dead.’

To Japan’s surprise, its indifference over this and other unresolved war crimes is blighting its Asian foreign relations, particularly in China and the Koreas. These countries suffered the most from Japanese atrocities, which began with the Imperial Army’s 1931 invasion of northern China and ended 14 years later with an estimated 20 million deaths across the Far East.

Prisoners make the letters OK to indicate their
condition in a Yokohama PoW camp (1945)

Aso’s coalmines enslaved up to 12,000 Korean workers from the mid-1930s as well as the Australians and 100 British PoWs in 1945. Authorities in Tokyo ordered many records destroyed in 1945, but three amateur Japanese historians in Kyushu have documented the details.

The mine workers toiled underground for 14 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week, no holidays. They lived in vermin-infested housing behind three-metre high electrified fences patrolled by brutal guards. They were starved and beaten ‘half to death’ as Kildey, who still suffers a back injury from the work, described it. He added:

When shifts changed we couldn’t sleep for 24 hours and food and clothing were never enough. We were rags and bones. Yet we were sent down to the No. 16 level really dangerous and two levels below where any Japanese would go. There were cave-ins all the time.

The two dead Australians are buried in the Commonwealth Cemetery at Yokohama. Watson, whose military number was NX71818, died on 19 July, 1945, of chronic bronchitis and chronic enteritis. Wilkie, QX2984, died on 7 November 1945, from acute pneumonia and intensely painful neuralgia in both legs.

Kildey remembers Watson well, and cared for him shortly before he died. He recalled: ‘He was just a skeleton and I will always remember him whimpering with pain when I just accidentally bumped his backside, because it was just skin and bone.’

Although these events were decades ago and Japan is now Australia’s comrade-in-arms in Iraq, its failure to confront its war crimes legacy is potentially harmful. Professor Lim added:

A rising generation in Australia is reading about the Pacific war or looking it up on the internet, and now we have another actual survivor talking about his sufferings in a way that must badly embarrass the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo. Can Japan really expect Australia to be a partner in constraining Chinese ambition if Japan’s selective amnesia is part of the problem? Unlike Germany, [Japan] seems incapable of settling these issues of World War II.

The PoW names from Aso Mines convey a previous Australia. Almost all were of Anglo-Celtic origin Barnes, McDonald, Hudson, Quinn, Trapp and given their ages, were often regulars, not conscripts. Only 29 were under age 25, but 20 were over 40. The youngest was 20; the two oldest both 52.

They came mainly from three army sources: the 2/19th Regiment and the 8th and 9th Signals Divisions. Others were from 22 Brigade Headquarters, the 2/10 FAA, and the 2/2 MAC. Altogether, the Japanese forced thousands of Allied prisoners from North America, Britain, Europe, Australia and New Zealand into gruelling labour.

Taro Aso

Critics say that Taro Aso, who is 65, cannot claim generational separation. He headed the 134-year-old family firm, now called the Aso Group, from 1973 “79 before entering politics with the Liberal Democratic Party. During that time he did not address the issue of enslaved workers, who have unsuccessfully sought recompense, or at least an apology, for decades.

Aso maintains close links to the family firm today. In 2001 it entered a joint venture with Lafarge Cement of France, with Aso’s younger brother, Yutaka, as president of the new company. Last December the French Ambassador in Tokyo awarded Yutaka Aso the Legion d’Honneur at a champagne reception. Guest of honour was Taro Aso.

German officials, whose country has so far paid US$6 billion in reparations to European victims of Nazi enslavement, say family links alone do not disqualify German citizens from public office. But they are expected to show atonement or make amends.

As a staunch defendant of Japan’s iron-fisted colonisation of Korea (1910 “45) and Taiwan (1895 “1945), Aso has also made racial supremacist remarks that recall Japan’s pre-war fascist period. ‘In my country he might make it into parliament,’ said a German embassy official in Tokyo, ‘but not into government.’

Aso, related to the imperial family through marriage and the grandson of a former conservative Prime Minister, could yet rise much higher in the Japanese Government. He is one of three leading candidates to succeed Prime Minister Koizumi in September. But Japanese critic Tatsuro Hanada, a Waseda University professor, said: ‘Aso’s attitudes and behaviour are a political issue and his qualifications are an important subject for the Japanese public.’

Yet, no public debate takes plac
e and major Japanese media ignore the issue. Although enslavement of PoWs contravenes the 1929 Geneva Convention, this was not ratified by Japan. However, it is regarded internationally as a gross human rights violation.

Neither Aso nor his Foreign Ministry answered inquiries, but one unexpected development at the weekend suggests a possible new mood. The Australian, British, US and Dutch Ambassadors in Tokyo are to be invited to a PoW memorial service next month attended by Aso. ‘Let’s hope that comes from the heart and is not just a tactic,’ said professor Lim.

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