Just when you think you have learned or read the worst story or stories about POWs – illnesses they suffered, tropical ulcers which destroyed limbs, bashings they endured, deaths of mates, the stench and fifth they lay amongst, the months and years of hoping ……the terrifying sea journey wondering if they would live to see another day – these men arrived to work at Mitsui Omuta, Japan.
Omuta Camp 17
The mine was ruled by Mitsui, the camp was ruled by IJA and finally there was the American mafia to deal with. They all used brutality beyond our comprehension.
The Australian POWs had to quickly learn that honesty and spirit of comradeship which existed in Singapore and on the railway did not exist here. Thieving, cheating and racketeering was the way of life. Wet clothes could never be hung to dry out unless you watched over them. The same for food and utensils in the mess hall.
The American mafia was in fact a group known as the Democrats run by Lt. Edward Little of the US Navy who ran the Mess Hall and Sgt Bennett who was in charge of Camp Duties.
Starving men traded anything and illegal food trading took up much of camp routine.
Corporal Billy Alvin Ayers, 4th Material Squadron 1942 Bombardment Group, US Army Air Corps wrote in his Affidavit:
“Bennett and Little made every effort to win favour of the Japanese prison authorities”
“The two Americans would report minor infractions of Omuta’s fierce rules to the Japanese, causing POWs to suffer severe discipline by the Japanese.”
This was quite probably the real home of ‘King Rat”.
Lt. Little was court-marshalled after the war, however this seems of little compensation for the misery for which he and his thug mates were responsible.
The above information has been gathered from several sources including:
‘No Time for Geishas’ by G.P Adams, Corgi, London 1973
‘On Paths of Ash’ by Robert Holman edited by Peter Thomson, Pier 9, Murdoch Books P/L, NSW 2009.
‘Slaves of the Son of Heaven’ by Roy Whitecross, Kangaroo Press, 2000.
For some men the thought of being crushed by collapsing ceilings, suffocation and/or blast injuries were very real. Others simply feared working in a confined space. Apprehension was dealt with the usual Japanese method of persuasion and brutality. It is known some Dutch and Americans deliberately injured themselves (such as breaking an arm) to avoid mine work.
WX16727 ‘Lou’ Lonsdale who arrived with ‘Aramis’ Party 19 June 1944 describes working underground in his Affidavit to War Trials. (AWM54 File 1010/4/92)
‘We were worked 8 or 9 hours a day on shift work in the mine and were actually away from camp about 12 hours because we had to march about two miles to the mine and back again. Work in the mine was divided into three sections.
Work in the extraction section consisted of blasting the coal wall and shovelling coal into trucks and elevators to the surface.
In the preparation section work consisted of building rock walls along the tunnels as coal was being taken out, to make it as safe as possible.
In the exploration section work consisted of tunnelling through from given points making new laterals and coal.
Japanese and Koreans were working in the mine at same time as the POWs and Chinese labour battalions worked in the adjoining mine, which connected with the mine we were working in. Reports came to us that the Americans had originally owned the mine and abandoned it as they considered it unsafe to extract more coal. When we arrived at Omuta we found the mine had been re-opened. We were taking out pillars of coal that should have been left there for safety measures. In some parts of the mine laterals had sunk so low we were bent almost double while carrying tools such as jack hammers, shovels, picks etc. and heavy logs for timbering. There were quite a lot of falls of coal and rock. Ironically the Japanese suffered most in these falls’.