Aitape-Wewak campaign - Indian POWs
In December 1944, after the 6th Division AIF assumed responsibility for operations in the Aitape-Wewak area and extended their campaign along the northern coast of New Guinea, they began to liberate large groups of Indian Prisoners of War. Many Australians have described these encounters with the sick and starving Indians in unit and battalion histories.
On Bougainville, Australians found more Indian prisoners and, by the end of the war, almost 6000 Indians had been recovered in Australian New Guinea.
Jemadar (Lieutenant) Chint Singh, was one of the Indian prisoners rescued by the 6th Division in Wewak. He became a key witness to the experiences of Indian POWS in New Guinea. In his affidavit to the War Crimes trial of the Japanese commandant of Wewak, Colonel Takano, he described his men's suffering after an Allied air strike killed and wounded some of them.
… 17. In August 1943 we were working on the airstrip at Wewak and Allied aeroplanes bombed the area. This was the first big air raid and about five or six Indians were killed and about thirteen were wounded. The wounded men were brought to camp by Col TAKANO in a big truck and the Indians were crying out in pain. Col TAKANO picked up handfuls of sand from the beach and threw it at the Indians in anger. He said in broken English 'Why are you crying? This is not my fault. It is Roosevelt and Churchill.' They were taken out to the truck and placed on the beach. The Japanese medical officer attached to Col TAKANO's staff examined the men but then he did not give them any treatment. The Japanese medical officer gave the Indian medical officers some bandages and medical necessities but the quantity was not nearly sufficient. After a few days the wounds of the Indians became infected and they all died within a short time thereafter.
['War crimes and Trials – Affidavits and sworn statements – Chint Singh, Indian Army.' AWM 54, 1010/4/31]
Hundreds of the Indian POWs had died when Colonel Takano relinquished his command at the end of 1943:
… 23. Up to December 1943 when Col TAKANO relinquished his command about four hundred men had died from ill treatment, lack of food, heavy work and long hours of work, lack of medical necessities and lack of medical treatment. In addition to the four hundred men who died about three hundred had become almost permanently disabled through tropical ulcers and sickness.
Approximately 40,000 Indians were captured and imprisoned by the Japanese, most of them at the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. Approximately 30,000 of those captured appear to have joined the pro-Japanese Indian National Army (INA) but those who wouldn't remained captive. Indian POWs were held in Singapore, Malaya, Sumatra, British and Dutch Borneo, Hong Kong and Burma, but more Indians were transported to New Guinea than to anywhere else. Their Japanese captors formed the men into 'working parties' and nine companies (approximately 5000 men) were sent to Rabaul and six companies (approximately 3000 men) were sent to Wewak in New Guinea.
Amongst all the Allied prisoners of war under the Japanese, the Indians sent to Wewak were the only group of prisoners to mount protests against their conditions. They mounted a petition, a hunger strike and what Japanese witnesses described as an 'uprising'. Towards the end of July 1943 their officers submitted a petition in English to the Japanese Colonel Takano. They requested better food, medicines and medical attention as well as shorter working hours and a day of rest every week. They also requested safer living conditions so that they would be protected from Allied aircraft attacks. The Japanese response was one of anger and Takano requested his officers to enforce tougher working conditions on the prisoners. In August 1943, there were approximately 20 Indian casualties after an Allied air raid on Wewak. Five or six of them were killed immediately and the others, left without medical treatment all died of infected wounds soon afterwards.
Apparently undeterred by their unsuccessful petition in July, the Indian officers tried again the following month when they attempted to stage a hunger strike. The weakened men were forced back to work with threats of death. For a few days conditions improved slightly but then returned to normal.
By April 1944, the Americans were planning to land along the Sepik coast of New Guinea and so the Japanese ordered many of their Indian prisoners to march towards Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea. The debilitated prisoners were marched through the coastal jungle from Wewak to just inside the border of Dutch New Guinea, 300 kilometres to the west.
The first Allied prisoners of war captured at Singapore to be recovered by the advancing Allied forces were recovered in March 1944. When the US 1st Cavalry Division seized the Admiralty Islands they rescued and liberated 69 Sikh prisoners who had been used as labourers at Los Negros. These men were taken to Australia before being shipped to India in October 1944.
Initially, the Americans and Australians were unfamiliar with Indian troops, many of whom spoke Urdu rather than English. Despite their best intentions, both the Americans and Australians breached cultural and religious sensitivities, feeding them meals they could not eat.
By late 1944, First Australian Army headquarters had issued instructions for the 'processing' of the thousands of Indian survivors that they had recovered. The men were issued with Australian uniforms and kit, including some muslin for turbans, individual cooking utensils if caste rules required them, and Australian pay books as well as varying levels of pay according to their ranks.
The men were placed in temporary camps in the islands and from there to detachments of the Indian RAPWI (Returning Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) Mission. Many of them passed through a depot in Brisbane before being repatriated by sea to India.
Although the experiences of Indian prisoners of war was just as severe as those of the other Allied troops captured at the Fall of Singapore, they have not received the same attention, not even in their own unit histories.
Dr Peter Stanley, Senior Historian at the Australian War Memorial, has written of their experiences Great in adversity: Indian prisoners of war in New Guinea, in his article in the Australian War Memorial Journal.
Much of the information here has been drawn, with his permission, from his article.