Queensland lawyer John Bell thought the Japanese troops responsible for the strangling of his grandfather in New Guinea had been tried and sentenced. He knew that 64-year-old John William Bell had been among a party of 23 Australian nationals, including a 14-year-old boy, who were rounded up and garrotted on New Ireland's Kavieng wharf in 1942. War crimes investigators indicted six Japanese over the massacre in the late 1940s. But what Bell didn't know was that the Australian government dropped the case against a seventh man, the officer who decreed that the victims be strangled. "I think it would have been proper at the time for him to be pursued,'' he says.
Formerly secret documents obtained by Time show how Australian officials, under pressure to shut down the trials, decided to slash the remaining cases from 45 to 20, mainly because they did not relate to Australian servicemen, because the identities of the victims were unclear, or because prosecution might not have resulted in the death penalty. The Kavieng case was just one example. "The cold war considerations had imposed themselves, and the new Menzies government decided that it needed to accept Japan as an ally,'' says historian Michael Carrel, who recently completed a Ph.D. thesis on the subject.
There were to be no exceptions to the new rule, according to a Jan. 17, 1950, minute from the Adjutant General, Major General Warren Anderson, to Army Secretary Frank Sinclair. Even the cold-blooded bayoneting of Chinese men, women and children at Linden, in New Guinea, went unpunished.
"On arrival at the settlement (Warrant Officer) Murashige rounded up the Chinese ... Three males were taken a little way into the jungle where they were made to kneel on the ground and were then bayoneted in the back,'' the document says. "The remaining three or four women and a similar number of children were executed in the same manner.''
Anderson writes: "Conviction of the accused appears probable and a court might possibly award the death penalty." But, he adds, "it is doubtful whether the Australian Military court should concern itself at the present juncture with cases involving Allied nationals."
Another case related to the deaths of more than 500 British p.o.w.s on Ballale Island, near Bougainville. Almost 300 died when forced onto the airstrip during an Allied bombing raid; 150 more died from ill-treatment, and the rest were bayoneted and buried in mass graves. The case was dropped because the victims were not Australian; relatives were told the men had died when a prison ship carrying them was sunk. "We only found out in 1997 what really happened," says June Woods, 69, whose father Alfred Burgess was one of the victims. "The government should have held the Japanese responsible." Sixty years on, the sorrow of her loss is deepened by the sense of betrayal she feels. "It was definitely covered up. There's got to be hundreds more that don't even know their dads were on that island. I think it's awful not to know.''