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Library Reference Number: 185

A Shadow Over the Rising Sun

Jack Burgess, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

Although myself and crew were fortunate enough to stay airborne while looking down at Japanese troops going about their activities, we had no illusions about our fate if by chance we were brought down into the hands of those we could see on the ground. Dropping men into Japanese territory and returning regularly to drop in their supplies, it was only after the ‘bomb’ stopped the horrors of war in the Far East that we learned some of the detailed information on Japanese atrocities on prisoners-of-war.

It would be a great injustice to those unfortunate enough to be taken prisoner by the Japanese, if no one told a little of the facts regarding those unable to speak for themselves. One aircrew example is that concerning a crew from my sister Squadron No.159.

Flight Sergeant Stanley James Woodbridge, a wireless operator with 159 Squadron, took off with his crew on the night of 31st January 1945. Their task was to trace the location of Japanese radar installations in Rangoon, Bangkok and Mandalay.

The operation was successful and the B24 Liberator was turning for home at 03.10hrs when it suddenly developed engine trouble and the skipper gave the order to bail out. Incredibly, six of the eight crew members managed to parachute into the same area and reunite on the ground. The other two airmen, who were in the rear of the Liberator, were never seen again and are believed to have perished in the crash. The six survivors, two officers and four NCOs, started to make their way towards the coast in the hope of finding an Allied vessel to carry then to safety. Flight Sergeant Woodbridge had managed to send out a last minute SOS message but, as it turned out, the Bay of Bengal had been searched for several days without success.

Meanwhile, the surviving crew members came upon a small village and offered the headman a large sum of money if he would get them a small boat. He agreed and told them to hide. For two hours, the six men waited, confident that they would soon be back with their friends in the squadron but when the headman returned, he brought a force of Japanese soldiers with him.

The six airmen were conveyed down the Irrawaddy River to the Bassein district where they were handed over to the Japanese 55th Engineering Regiment. Lieutenant-Colonel Murayama, the regimental Commanding Officer: instructed Lieutenant Okami, his civil defence officer, to question the six British airmen. The skipper was the first to be interrogated. He produced a document on which was written, in Japanese, an extract from the Geneva: Convention stating that prisoners of war need only tell their captors their name, rank and serial number. Japan was ostensibly a signatory of the convention although it had been no respect er of the rights of those prisoners who were forced to build the Burma railway. When the skipper refused to reveal the name of his base, he was severely beaten for half an hour. The Navigator was then questioned but was not beaten because the interrogator was only interested in learning the identity of the wireless-operator. All four NCOs were beaten, but when the interrogator recognized that Flight Sergeant Woodbridge was the wireless operator, it was he who bore the brunt of the tortures.

Woodbridge was asked to reveal his codes and wavelengths, to give technical details of the equipment carried in the Liberator, and reveal what links he had with operators on the ground who were responsible for providing details of Japanese targets. Woodbridge repeatedly refused to reveal one scrap of information to his captors and whereby the fate of the four RAF airmen were sealed. The beatings began again and continued for four hours. Fists, bamboo canes and swords in their sheaths were used on the badly bruised Woodbridge. One of the soldiers, a ju-jitsu expert threw the exhausted airman around for some considerable time, even knowing that Woodbridge had injured his back on his parachute landing. Each time Woodbridge collapsed, he was kicked forcibly on the body until he struggled painfully upright only to be flung down again by the ju-jitsu expert.

At intervals, another officer, Lieutenant Kanno encouraged his soldiers to kick the defenceless airman where he lay. Eventually Kanno's patience was exhausted with the realisation that no amount of torture would force the courageous airman to speak. Woodbridge was then told he was to meet the same fate as his colleagues, who had already been executed.

As a last resort, Woodbridge was taken into a woodland where indescribable acts of torture were carried out, but still refusing to betray others, he was brought out again. As Stanley Woodbridge reached the spot where his three fellow crew members had been executed, he paid a silent tribute to them. They had been forced to dig their own graves, a trench about two and a half feet deep and long enough to take four, not three bodies. After digging the trench all three men had been ordered to stand in line, then a Japanese officer, Lieutenant Matsui, invited his soldiers to kick and beat them. The airmen were then brought to the edge of the trench, blindfolded and forced to squat. Matsui ordered two prisoners to be beheaded and then Kanno ordered a Corporal to behead the third airman. All the bodies were subjected to bayoneting. Woodbridge was beheaded by one of Kanno's fellow officers, Lieutenant Okami, and pushed into the grave. He died defiant.

When the British overran Rangoon, the two officers of Woodbridge’s crew who had survived were found in gaol and released but the fate of the four RAF NCO airmen had been sealed. Liberator aircrew carried ’38 Smith and Wesson revolvers in order to make their own “ultimate decision” on capture yet Stanley Woodbridge had made his own decision to remain true to his country until the bitter end.

In 1947, at the war crimes trials conducted in Rangoon, Kanno, Okami, and a Corporal were convicted and hanged. Lieutenant-Colonel Murayama was sentenced to death and it was established that Lieutenant Matsui had been killed in action during the Japanese retreat from Burma.

On 28th September, 1948, it was announced that Stanley James Woodbridge had been posthumously awarded the George Cross.

When the ‘bomb’ forced war in the Far East to come to such a sudden end, the Japanese had no time to obey written orders to execute all prisoners if the Allies advanced too closely. It was only then that we realised the full implications of what had taken place. The emaciated bodies of returning survivors illustrated the vast contrast of cultures, and where the Japanese regarded surrender as the most unacceptable disgrace, and treated their prisoners accordingly. Along with others, I listened to weak, thin little figures, that a few years ago had been fit young men, remark they were the lucky survivors. They claimed many of their comrades had been strung up to a fence and used for bayonet practice as a past-time since they were regarded as scum for surrendering.

During that period, a dreadful shadow had crossed over the face of humanity.

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