Omuta Miike, Fukuoka #17-B - Japan
Fukuoka #17 Branch Prisoner of War Camp
was a Japanese Prisoner-of-war camp located at Mitsui Kozan Miike Kogyo-Sho coal mine and Mitsui Zinc Foundry in Shinminato-machi, Omuta-shi, Fukuoka-ken, Japan.
Omuta Miike, Fukuoka #17-B – Japan,
A provincial manufacturing town Omuta was about 40 kilometres from Nagasaki in southern Kyoshu. A large camp, it held about 1700 men made up of Americans, Dutch, British and Australians. As the Americans had been there the longest they held most of the ‘good’ jobs in administration and cookhouses. The Americans and Australians worked in the coalmines and the British in the zinc mines for Mitsui Company and the Dutch coaled ships.
Amongst the Australians were 18 men of 2/4th from Don Force who had left Non Pladuk, Thailand for Singapore in June 1944. They sailed on ‘Aramis’, a former French troop carrier. There were 200 Australians and 300 Dutch on-board and arrived Moji on 19th June 1944.
The second group of 2/4th men in camp were mostly from ‘A’ Force and were on the last transport to leave Singapore for Japan. The ‘Awa Maru’ with 525 Dutch, American and Australians left Singapore on 26 December 1944 and included 18 men from 2/4th. The Awa Maru arrived Moji mid January 1945.
Omuta was the first built camp they had seen since Changi. Quite different to bamboo and atap huts of Thailand/Burma. Facilities included a reasonable hospital, a communal bath, barbers shop and a canteen or sorts.
This was all that was ‘good’ about Omuta.
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 the 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. One watched every item they owned for fear of theft!
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.
This camp first opened 7 August 1943. Originally the campsite was a 200 yards square area and the buildings were formerly labourer’s quarters constructed by Mitsui Coal Mining Co. and operated by the Japanese Army. By April 1945 the camp had been expanded to 200 yards wide by 1,000 yards long. It was enclosed by a wooden fence approximately 12 feet high with 3 heavy gauge electric wires with the first one about 6 feet off the ground. There were several fir trees within the compound which was kept very clean at all times. The Japanese buildings were also located within the compound.
The POW barracks comprised 33 one story buildings 120’ x 16’ with 10 rooms to a barrack of wooden construction with tight tar paper roofs and windows with panes of glass. 3-4 officers were accommodated in one room 9’ x 10’ and 4-6 enlisted men in the same size. There was no heating – the climate was relatively mild however the poor general health of the POWs due to malnutrition, found the accommodation found the damp and cold extremely penetrating. It was worse for those who arrived from the tropical climate of Singapore/Thailand. Each room had a 15-watt light bulb however during the day, the rooms were sufficiently lit without the light bulb!
Bedding consisted of tissue paper and cotton batting covered with cotton pad 5’8” long and 2.5 feet wide. 3 heavy cotton blankets were issued by the Japanese in addition to a comforter made of tissue paper, scrap rags and scrap cotton.
There was a latrine at the end of each building consisting of 3 stools raised about 1 foot from the floor on a pedestal. Each was covered with a detachable wood seat and there was 1 urinal. There was a concrete tank beneath each stool and the POWs made wood covers for all stools to discourage flies. The tanks were removed twice weekly by Japanese labourers.
Air raid shelters 6 feet deep x 8 feet wide and 120 feet in length. They were timbered similarly to the coal mines and covered with 3 feet of slag and splinter-proof roof.
It was now the middle of winter and the change from tropical temperatures greatly affected the men. They slept on tatami mats with the resident fleas and imported lice. Any sleep was a bonus.
Well organised, the camp also had many rules to the point of being excessive, for which there were punishments.
These included wearing hat inside, not wearing hat outside, not placing your (identity number) tag on bed when going to benjo, as well as numerous other tags including sick tag, hospital tag, etc.
The lack of food, cold weather, heavy work and long hours in coal mines, sickness, adhering to constant pressure of rules and finally the constant and daily bombing raids took a toll on the men. The men existed in a state of perpetual anxiety.
It became worse, their shoes of canvas and rubber two toed sand-shoes wore out. The men now walked barefoot two miles through the snow and ice to the mine. There were also subjected to rock and coal falls as they were now taking out the safety pillars left in previous working of an old mine.
The POWs were at the end of their endurance.
DOWN THE MINES
Work in the coal mine where 75% of POWs were employed was labour intensive and mining equipment suppled to use underground was antiquated and prone to regular failure. On arrival in Japan the POWs, who had previously worked out in the open on the Burma-Thai rail link were given a brief period of training by Japanese civilian mine employees on how to be miners.
Working in the mines was highly dangerous, not only because of rock falls, the men were subjected to unexpected bashings whilst working. They mostly had no shoes or protective clothing whilst working and marching to and from camp, and then were brutalised by camp guards for what? Then on top of this was the extreme shortage of food created by the American Mafia who had already reported several POWs to the Japanese for punishment – at least one POW had died. And not to forget – the men were subjected to frequent and sometimes very heavy air bombing raids.
Lou Lonsdale was recorded in “Ghosts in Khaki’ by Les Cody –
“In the exploration section some of the lateral tunnels were so low we were bent almost double whilst carrying jack-hammers, drills, shovels, picks and heavy logs for timbering. Most were involved in getting coal out; blasting then shovelling the coal into trucks and elevators for carriage to the surface. It was hazardous dodging trucks and Ken Lally WX9318 was killed when hit by a rake of trucks as he was returning to the coalface after mealtime. The guards in the mine and camp were much on the same level as those in the jungle – the slightest excuse was used to bash or punish POWs.
Ken Lally WX9318 aged 30 years died on 23 March 1945.
His death ‘hit’ his 2/4th mates very hard.
Punishments included nearly naked prisoners forced to stand to attention in the snow in zero temperatures and periodically bashed, buckets of water thrown over them and left to freeze. Many were forced to kneel in the snow on bamboos with a bamboo pole behind their knees, Japanese guards frequently jumped on the protruding ends of the pole. One Australian after being severely bashed spent five days in this position and when released, gangrene from lack of circulation had set in and both legs had to be amputated.”
“My job was timbering and laying rails in the tunnels. All work had to be carried out in a semi stooping position and any attempt to relieve the strain on your back by sitting or stretching on the tunnel floor was greeted by a barrage of rocks or coal from the civilian overseer. The tunnels were dripping with water and our only clothing was a G String.”
Les Krasnostein WX7446 who arrived with ‘Aramis’ Party prepared an affidavit for War Tribunal. Read further
Mick Hummerston WX10931 arrived Moji on Aramis and worked at Fukuoka No. 17.
He wrote ‘some of the food at this camp was not too appetising – including dog, whale meat that he described like eating Tarzan’s Grip! When it was the season for persimmons they would eat them endlessly until season was finished, then there were frogs – and they would eat them for a while’.
But there was always tobacco available to buy.
The POWs never had any days off from work. During the latter months they spent time in air raid shelters as the Americans bombed regularly – the sight of the bombers raised the men’s spirits. At the same time they feared the future – when would the Americans invade, and where would they invade? What would happen to them – would they be wiped out by the Japanese?
One day there was a great explosion over the Bay (we were located across the Bay from Nagasaki) and thought the bombing may have hit the gasworks. Next minute they saw a great mushroom of smoke and they felt the shaking of it over the Bay – 30 miles away.
Of course the men did not know about the Atom Bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki – eventually they learned the details. There were several hidden radios in the camp. Suddenly the war was over – “but we POWs were to stay where we were. An American Major came into the Camp – all the Japanese had gone.”
The American bombers began dropping food in 44-gallon drums.
Mick Hummerston decided he couldn’t wait around at Omuta for a month to leave as the POWs were advised and about 3 days after the news he with several POWs decided to leave (they were threatened with a court -marshall when caught up with). “Being court-marshalled after being a POW for 4 years would be like having a holiday!”
Looking back Mick decided it was a stupid thing to do – but four of them departed camp. Walking to the Railway Station they intended to head south of the Island where they knew the Americans had taken over the Airport. The group proceeded to take arms off every armed soldier they came across!
On the train journey they had to get out a few times because the railway lines had been destroyed in every large town. They walked to the other side of the town to find another train. Sometimes they were picked up. The cache of arms grew considerably. They must have looked a terrifying sight. Four skinny men in rough clothes each armed with rifles.
Eventually they found there was no railway line to continue their journey. They came across a Japanese kempitai (Military Police) sitting in a truck. The 4 men commandeered the truck and under great duress got the driver to deliver them to where the Americans were, about 30 miles away.
The first American they came across in the perimeter of the air base couldn’t believe his eyes! He asked where they were from. They were probably the first POWs the men had seen.
Mick and his 3 mates were flown out to Manila after a day at the American base. They were provided new clothes. The four of them stayed in Manila for nearly 3 weeks. They were eventually joined by the POWs from Omuta by which time they were quite fat!
At war’s end there were 31 men from 2/4th at this camp. The men did not depart Omuta until 15 September 1945, four weeks after Japan’s surrender during which time many thought they would never be rescued. We know these POWs had been living on a knife-edge for many months with the appalling living and working conditions.
‘While at the said camp I was employed in a coalmine along with other prisoners. My particular duties involved the timbering and layering of rails in the tunnels of the coalmine. The conditions under which this work had to be performed were particularly unpleasant. The tunnels themselves were insufficiently high for the average Australian to walk upright therein, hence work had to be carried out on a semi-stooping position. The tunnels were dripping with water and the only clothing worn by myself and the other prisoners working with me was a garment known as a “G String”, which consisted of a piece of cloth tied between the legs.
My condition while at the said camp was one of very poor health. My weight at that time was between 7 and 8 stone, whereas my normal weight is fourteen stone. I was also suffering from dysentery and suppurating carbuncles. The moisture in the said tunnels adversely affected my carbuncle so that they continually remained open and would not heal.
I remember a number of civilian overseers who directed the work of prisoners at the said Camp. I remember particularly one of these civilian overseers who was known to me as ‘the Screamer’ or ‘the Screaming Demon’. This overseer was far shorter and more thickset than the average Japanese and had a very broad face and large mouth’.
I worked in a gang of prisoners supervised by ‘the screamer’ on numerous occasions. He made conditions of work far worse in his gang than did other overseers under whom I worked. The Screamer’ had an uncontrollable temper and was continually screaming and screeching at prisoners. For no reason whatsoever he would frequently assault the men by hitting them with any implement available and also by throwing at them large lumps of coal or rock. It was his custom to make a particular point of hitting his victims upon any spot where they had suffered injury or had bandages to protect a wound or sore. When he assaulted me, which he did on numerous occasions he would always strike at my carbuncles, causing me the most acute pain and making conditions of the work almost insupportable.
I did not notice that any other prisoner died as the direct result of the assaults of ‘the Screamer’, although prisoners were dying continually throughout my stay in the Camp.
There were other overseers who ill-treated myself and other prisoners but I cannot now remember their names or describe them clearly. I have had difficulty in recalling details of the conditions at the said Camp owing to the fact that I endeavoured ever since my release to repress all memory of what we suffered during our internment.’
SWORN at Albany in the State of Western
Australia this 18th Day of July 1947
Before me: Signed W. E. Cake
Signed by A Commissioner of the Supreme
Court of Western Australia for taking Affidavits.’
FYI: A carbuncle is a red, swollen, and painful cluster of boils that are connected to each other under the skin. Compared with single boils, carbuncles cause a deeper and more severe infection and are more likely to leave a scar. People who have a carbuncle often feel unwell in general and may experience a fever and chills.