The above photo was taken before being taken these gunners were taken prisoners, if any can be identified please email me.
In October 1942 there was a lot of activity in the Singapore PoW camps. The Japanese had decided to use the prisoners for labour parties. This began with Java Parties 1 and 2 being taken by rail to Bam Pong, Thailand, with other parties being transported to Taiwan and Japan. One party was made up of 600 Ak. Ak. Gunners from Southern Area under the command of Lt-Col. J. Bassett, R.A. (35th L.A.A. Regt.). This party, now known here as Gunner 600 Party, sailed eastwards from Singapore on 18th October, being written in the Changi register as “Destination New Guinea”. The Bureau of Records and Enquiry at Changi later were led to believe the ship was torpedoed and all on board lost.
The Gunners 600 Party included 126 officers and men from the 35th’s 144 Battery, 7 Coast Regt., 9 Coast Regt., 11 Coast Regt., 3 Heavy Ak. Ak., 5th Searchlights and the Hong Kong Singapore Artillery. There was also a few from Royal Army Medical and Service Corps.
The ship used to transport them was an ex-Liverpool coaler. In “What Price Bushido” it is noted as being the Eige Maru or the Masta Maru, we now think it was the Kenkon Maru. 400 men were put into the first hold and the remainder into the smaller aft hold.
Under miserable conditions with only a thin layer of straw on the floor the prisoners found it hard to breath and also the the stench from sweating bodies. The ship called at Timor, Bali and the Halmarhera Islands, the on the first casualty was when Battery Sergeant Major Tommy Lamborne of 11 Coast Regt. dying on his way to the benjo (toilet), he was buried at sea during that afternoon.
On the 5th November the ship arrived at Simpson Harbour, Rabaul on the island of New Britain, which the Japanese had captured from the Australians in January 1942. The local villages were known as Kanakas and they lived under the constant threat from volcanoes, one of which was very active.
Bgr. E.G. Gray was the first casualty on Rabaul, being badly beaten he was then tied to a stake and left to die.
On the 16th November 517 of the 598 prisoners were selected for transportation, the destination was said to be New Guinea, their personal belongings were stowed away at Kokopo, the sick remained at Rabaul.
Late the following February ‘Blackshirt’, who was in charge of the party that left for New Guinea, returned to the Rabaul camp at Kokopo and informed the prisoners that five of the 517 party died while working at Bouganville, in the Solomon Islands, due to an American bombardment. This was later confirmed by a Japanese known to the prisoners as ‘No 3 Captain’.
Bill Dunne with two other Rabaul prisoners loaded a truck up with the now 512 belongings left at Kocopo and went with the truck to the Rabaul Harbour where it was unloaded. They saw at a distance a white prisoners camp, who they assumed were the 512 but they were too far away to recognize anybody - Bill Dunnes letter . The ship sailed again on the 5th March for an unknown destination. As there were no survivors from the party who left for Ballale Island it is impossible to follow their journey but after the war it was found that the Japanese report of their ship being sunk was a lie. The prisoners were taken to Ballale Island and used to build an airstrip.
The map above shows how close Ballale is to Bougainville, I question why the PoWs were taken back to Rabaul if they were on Bougainville before being transported to Ballale, was the ship going back to Rabaul in February as a cover up. Ozaki says in his statement he arrived on Ballale late November 1942 and a few days later the prisoners arrived on Ballale ?
The prisoners however on Ballale Island faced many dangers as the Americans were advancing on the Solomon Islands and the battle in the South Pacific had turned ugly. There were atrocities committed by both sides following an incident in March when US parachutists were fired on by Japanese fighter planes. The prisoners were in very bad health, being bombed by US aircraft and having to endure increased beatings by Japanese guards who took their hatred of the US bombing out on the prisoners.
From January 1943 through to July 1943, US aircraft bombed Ballale Island, the heaviest bombing was in March. As the prisoners did not have slit trenches these attacks must have contributed to many of the prisoners deaths on an island roughly only one mile square - US Bombings Operations on Ballale Island .
The air strip was damaged by American bombardment in June 1943 before it was finished. The Japanese could not finish the air strip and had no further use for the prisoners, the prisoners who were still alive at this point were executed. Ozaki’s statement confirms the dates of death which would not agree with the 512 being on the ship returning in March.
A mass grave was found on Ballale from the help given by Chinese labourers, but again controversy as they believed the prisoners on Ballale were Australians. Artefacts found confirm they were from the Gunners Party. These 435 bodies had no service tags and were moved to a temporary War Cemetery at Torokina, Bouganville. Then later on 13th December 1945 to Bomana War Cemetery, Port Moresby.
A roll on the Bomana Graves is now available thanks to John Winterbotham.
Of those who were left at Rabaul only 18 survived, those who died are buried at Rabaul.
These pages are not meant to upset families but are written as a tribute to those of the 600 Gunners Party who gave their lives for their country.
Further information can be found at Gunner Alfred William Burgess who gave his life at Ballale Island on the 5th March 1943.