Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 30 

Sources on Australian investigations into Japanese war crimes in the Pacific

Author: David Sissons

{1} In this paper I outline briefly some of the sources that are available on Australian investigations into war crimes in the Pacific War and on the Australian war crimes trials that ensued.

{2} The location of the various documents to which I shall refer is indicated in each case by the alphabetical prefix to its registration number: ‘AWM’ indicates the Australian War Memorial; ‘A’, the Canberra office of the Australian Archives; and ‘MP’, the Melbourne office of the Australian Archives.

{3} In the 310 Australian trials, the first of which commenced on 30 November 1945 and the last of which concluded on 9 April 1951, 814 enemy nationals (i.e. Japanese, Formosans and Koreans) were tried by Australian military courts under the Australian War Crimes Act. Among the crimes charged were the ill-treatment of POWs in work camps and in permanent POW camps, the massacre of troops after capture and of civilian internees, the execution of crashed airmen and of POWs recaptured after escaping, and acts of assault, torture and murder of individual residents of occupied territory.

{4} Following the Japanese landings in New Britain and New Guinea, evidence accumulated of the commission of atrocities. For example, in April 1942 survivors brought their eye-witness accounts of the massacre of captured troops at Tol and Waitavalo. And at Milne Bay in September, and during the Owen Stanleys campaign, corpses were recovered of Australian troops and local natives who had been bound and then killed with the bayonet. It was at that time that the Australian authorities began preparations to bring war criminals to trial at some eventual date. In December 1942 Australia made application to join the United Nations War Crimes Commission, an Allied body whose primary function at that stage of its existence was the preliminary examination of charges against individual war criminals for extradition for trial by the ally laying the charges. And in June 1943 the Australian Government issued the first of three successive commisions to Sir William Webb, the Chief Justice of Queensland, to take evidence on oath from witnesses of war crimes in the Australian theatre of operations. [1]

The trials

{5} First let us consider the trials. The Australian War Crimes Act closely followed the United Kingdom war crimes regulations (in the drafting of which Sir William Webb was consulted). It was enacted by the Commonwealth Parliament in October 1945 and authorised certain military officers to convene military courts to try any person charged with committing a war crime against any person who had at any time resided in Australia, or against any British subject or citizen of an allied power, and where guilty, to award sentence of death or lesser penalty. The Act provided that the trial procedure should with some modifications be that of a field general court martial; but (like the legislation and charters esstablishing each of the national and international war crimes courts established by the Allies) the Act authorised the courts to admit as evidence any oral statement or any document appearing on the face of it to be authentic, thereby relaxing the strict rules of evidence of the Anglo-American common law system. In other words, whereas in the trial or court-martial of one of our own citizens or soldiers, the only evidence the prosecution can tender against the accused is the words from the mouth of a witness physically present in court and available for cross-examination by the accused, an enemy charged with a war crime could be convicted solely on the basis of the written statement of a witness whom the Prosecution did not bother, or did not choose, to produce. The justification advanced for this discriminatory treatment was that in war many of the witnesses were likely to have met their deaths by the time trials could be held, and that transporting witnesses to the place of trial would be difficult.

{6} For an overview of the Australian trials I would refer you to the ‘Report on the Directorate of Prisoners of War & Internees at Army Headquarters 1939-1951’, Vol 2, Part 5, ‘War crimes’ (pp. 394-452) held at the Australian War Memorial (AWM 54, 780/1/6) or, if this is not readily accessible to you, to my own account in the fourth and subsequent editions of the Australian Encyclopaedia. The space constraints of this paper call for a more succinct description, and I would therefore refer you to the two tables that follow.

Table A (Click here)

{7} Table A was compiled at Army HQ from the Register of Proceedings maintained by the Directorate of Prisoners of War and Internees (DPW&I) for each of the six series of Australian trials: (i) Morotai, Labuan and Wewak (‘M’); (ii) Rabaul (‘R’); (iii) Darwin (‘D’); (iv) Singapore (‘S’); (v) Hong Kong; and (vi) Los Negros (i.e. Manus) (‘LN’). These registers are held at the Australian War Memorial (AWM 226, 15 to 17). Within each series each trial was allocated an identification number in order according to the date the proceedings were received from the court. Hence, for example, the first of the trials at Manus was recorded as LN1.

{8} To indicate the scope of the Australian trials I have prepared Table B in which they are classified by victim. This indicates, for example, that more of the Australian trials were for crimes commited against Indian POWs brought by the Japanese as labourers into the Australain theatre than for crimes comitted against Australian POWs. This is because there were bilateral arrangements between the Allies that, in general, for reasons of convenience the ally in whose custody the accused was at the cessation of hostilities and in whose hands the evidence lay would conduct the trial and include where possible an officer of the victim’s nationality on the court. Thus it is that all the trials arising out of the ill-treatment of Australian POW in camps in Japan were tried by US Eighth Army courts, often including an Austalian member and sometimes with the prosecution conducted by Australian prosecutors. Similarly in those Burma-Thailand Railway cases where Australian POWs were a minority among the victims, the trials were usually by British courts, often including an Australian member and sometimes with the prosecution conducted by Australian prosecutors.

Table B (Click here)

Official trial transcripts

{9} The official transcript of each trial is preserved at the Australian Archives in Canberra in CRS A471.

{10} How does one search for the trial that one wants?

{11} One can search for it by the name of any of the accused in the full alphabetical list recently compiled at the Australian Archives.

{12} More people, however, are likely to be searching for trials of a particular type of offence (e.g. witholding rations or medical supplies from POW), offences committed at a particular location, or offences committed against a certain category of victim (e.g. against an airman, or a local Chinese resident). This is more difficult. The only way is to skim through the 59 pages of the consolidated list, 'Japanese war criminals charged under the War Crimes Act 1945 by Australian military authorities 30 Nov 1945 to 9 April 1951 against whom findings and sentences were confirmed" searching the column, ‘Charge (abbreviated)’. Here is a specimen page.

Consolidated list (Click here)

{13} When you have found the trial, note the name of the accused and find the transcript number in the alphabetical index to which we have already referred. Reading through this consolidated list from cover to cover is also a convenient way of securing an overview of the trials.

The trial summary

{14} For those who want a more detailed overview of the trials as a whole than the consolidated list provides but who have not the time to read the 300 transcripts, the External Affairs Department’s files of the trial summaries are a convenient tool. Here is a specimen of a completed trial summary (Australian Army Form 117a).

Trial summary (Click here)

{15} Note: The copies of the summaries sent to the Department of External Affairs are held at the Australian Archives, Canberra (CRS A1066, file UN46/WC/8, parts 1 and 2, and CRS A1838, file 1550/7, part 1. This collection is incomplete except for trials M22, M36, R1, R4, R121, S1, S13, S15, S19, S25 and LN1-26).

{16} In these summaries, when, as was often the case, the list of Accused or Prcis of Evidence exceeded the space provided, these were continued on a second (and sometimes a third) page.

The investigations

{17} For some researchers, however, it will be not just the crimes actually brought to trial that will be of interest. A typical enquiry might be ‘What evidence was collected regarding the massacre of the Australian nurses at Banka Island, and why was this case not brought to trial?’ In so far as the investigation and prosecution of war crimes was the function of the Director of Prisoners of War & Internees and his war crimes staff (DPW&I) at Army Headquarters, one would expect to find the answer in the Central Registry files of the Department of the Army 1943-51 (i.e. series MP742) in one of the 560 files registered under the subject, ‘War Crimes’ (i.e. 336/1/-). How does one search them? Some 250 of these 560 files DPW&I designated as ‘Investigation Files’, and these it catalogued under 36 geographical headings. This 15-page catalogue survives (AWM 226, 36; copy in MP742, 336/1/2125). Fortunately, ‘Banka Island’ is one of the 36 headings. There we are directed to file 336/1/1976, ‘Massacre of 21 Aust Nurses and Murder of Aust Trade Commissioner, Mr Bowden, on Banka Is’.

{18} Similarly, if one wished to find out what crimes were alleged to have been committed against 8th Division POWs at 30 Kilo Camp, one would go to the heading, ‘Burma/Siam Railway’, and find that, of the 50 investigation files listed there, one component of file 336/1/929 deals with ‘30 Kilo Camp, Retpu’.

Searching for individual affidavits

{19} In the course of the investigation of war crimes by the Australian Army some thousands of affidavits taken from POWs were used: 1,725 by 2 Australian War Crimes Section in Tokyo (1946-49) and perhaps a similar number by 1 Australian War Crimes Section at Singapore and Hong Kong (1946-48). Some 2,120 of these are filed alphabetically under the name of the deponent in AWM 54 1010/4/1 to 151 (which seems to be an unregistered collection put together in DPW&I when the two overseas War Crimes Sections were repatriated and disbanded). Similarly, the depositions taken by each of the three Webb inquiries (471 in Webb I, 112 in Webb II and 208 in Webb III) are bound with the official transcript of its proceedings and controlled by an alphabetical list of witnesses attached to its Report. [2] Webb III also contains an alphabetical listing of witnesses showing the place, date and nature of each offence alleged.

Sample page from Webb report (Click here)

Books and articles referring to the war crimes and criminals

{20} There is not a large literature on the war crimes , the trials or those convicted at them. A bibliography is attached.

NOTE: In accordance with Japanese practice, Japanese names appear with the surname first.

© David Sissons

David Sissons is a noted scholar of twentieth century Japanese history and of Australian-Japanese relations in particular.


1. Webb I, ‘A report on Japanese atrocities and breaches of the rules of warfare’ was submitted on 15 March 1944. The report is held by the Australian War Memorial (AWM 226, 5) and an unsigned copy by the Australain Archives (CRS A4311, 745/5). The transcript and exhibits are held by the Australian Archives (CRS A6236 and A6237).

Webb II, ‘A report on war crimes against Australians committed by individual members of the armed forces of the enemy’, was submitted on 31 October 1944. The report is held by the Australian Archives. Volume 1 of the Transcript (pp 1-227) is held by the Australian War Memorial (AWM 226, 6); Vol 2 (pp 228-271), by the Australian Archives (CRS A4311, 658/2).

Webb III, ‘A report on war crimes committed by enemy subjects against Australians and others’, was submitted on 31 January 1946. The report, transcript and exhibits are held by the Bills and Papers Office of the House of Representatives (Record No. 5624, Vol 1, Vol 2 Parts 1 & 2, presented 10 April 1946).

2. See note 1 above.


Dickinson, G., ‘Manus Is Trials’, Royal Australian Historical Society - Journal and Proceedings, Vol 38 (1952), part 2, pp. 66-77. An account of the Manus trials by the Australian legal officer assisting the Japanese defence counsel.

Somiya, S., ‘The Account of Legal Proceedings of Court for War Criminal Suspects’ (Typescript, 53 pp). An account of the Ambon trial (Shirozu and 90 others, M45) by the Japanese Counsel for the Defence. This English translation of the book Somiya published in Tokyo in 1946 is held by the Mitchell Library, Sydney. As the translator has (quite understandably) misread the author's name as Munemiya, the translation was catalogued accordingly.

Glenister, R., ‘B & C War Crimes Trials held by Australia: Fair trial and the Geneva Convention’ (31 pp, typescript), in War and the Japanese: Fifth National Conference of the Japanese Studies Association of Australia (Griffith, JSAA, 1987). Deals with the Ambon Trial (M45).

Moffitt, A., Project Kingfisher (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1989, 306 pp). The author was Prosecuting Officer in two of the Sandakan-Ranau Death-March trials (M28 & M36). He deals, inter alia, with Japanese war crimes in general and with four of the Labuan trials (M17, M28, M36, R176).

Williams, B.R., Blood Oath (Sydney, Angus & Robertson, 1990, 279 pp). Fiction. Deals with war crimes and includes very fictionalised representations of two of the trials at Ambon (M45 & M43).

Nelson, H., '"Blood Oath": A reel history', Australian Historical Studies, Vol 24, No. 97 (October 1991), pp 429-42. Deals with the two trials fictionalised in the film Blood Oath (M45 & M43).

McCormack, G., ‘Apportioning the blame: Australian trials for Railway crimes’ in Burma/Thailand Railway: Memory and history (Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1993), pp 85-115. Refers to five of the Australian Burma Railway trials (S2, S7, S12, S26 and S27) and to the United Kingdom ‘F’ Force trial (WO 235/1034)).

Creed, D., Rayner, M. & Rickard, S., ‘It will not be bound by the ordinary rules of evidence’, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, No. 27 (October 1995), pp 47-53. Discusses two Rabaul trials in which the accused were hanged for the rape (R1) and torture (R35) of Chinese residents.

Ward, I., Snaring the other tiger (Singapore, Media Masters, 1996, 338 pp). Deals with the Parit Sulong massacre trial (LN2).

Tanaka, Y., Hidden horrors (Boulder, Westview, 1996, 267 pp). Deals in general with Japanese war crimes in the Australian theatre and in particular with the Sandakan-Ranau, Banka Island, Tol, Kavieng and Akikaze massacres and cannabalism.

Books and articles in Japanese

Somiya, S., Ambonto Sempan Saibanki (Tokyo, Horitsu Shimposha, 1946, 82 pp). See entry in English-language bibliography, above.

Katayama, H., Ai to Shi to Eien to - Aru Sempansha no Nikki (Tokyo, Gendai Bungei Shuppan, 1958, 285 pp). This is the prison diary and letters of Katayama Hideo, a young Volunteer Naval Reserve linguist officer who participated in the execution of the crew of an RAAF aircraft at Ambon. He was sentenced to death at Morotai (M43) and executed at Rabaul on 23 October 1947.

Katayama, H., ‘Shi no Dokoku - Rabauru Sempan no Shinso’ [Trans. ‘Lamentation at death - The truth about the war criminals at Rabaul’], Dokyumento Nihonjin - 8 Anchihyoman (Tokyo, Gakugei Shorin, 1969), pp 246-87. This is a remonstrance against the injustice of the trials and specific acts of ill-treatment of the war criminals in Australian custody at Labuan, Fauro, Torokina, Morotai and Rabaul, addressed to the Australian Attorney-General, Dr H.V. Evatt, by Katayama on the day of his execution. A copy of a re-translation into English (by CSDIC, HQ BCOF) in February 1948 of the Japanese translation is held by the Australian War Memorial (AWM114, 423/10/36).

Imamura, H., Shiki - Ichigunjin no Rokujunen no Aigan (Tokyo, Fuyo Shobo, 1970). This is the autobiography of the Japanese theatre commander at Rabaul who was sentenced to ten years imprisonment (R175). He deals with his trial and the treatment of the prisoners in custody at pp 431-73.

Toyoda, J., Shokei no Shima [Trans. ‘Island of executions’] (Tokyo, Bungei Shunju, 1976, 269 pp). This author chose to write his well researched account of the Ambon case (M45) in the form of fiction.

Aoyama, S., Shi no Dangai ni Tachite [Trans. ‘Standing on the precipice of death’] (Kajiki, Kagoshima Prefecture; privately printed, 1977, 32 pp). Naval Captain Aoyama’s death sentence for the ill-treatment of Australian POW on Hainan was commuted to 12 years imprisonment. He writes of his trial (HK3) and imprisonment.

Ninomiya, Y. (ed), Dai Niju Keibitai (Ambon): Omoide no Ki [Trans. ‘20 Land Guard Unit, Ambon: Collected memories’] (Tokyo, Dai Niju Keibitai Senyukai, 1978, 261 pp). Contains at pp 20-80 the Commanding Officer’s (Shirozu) explanation of the Ambon trial and the diary kept by his second-in-command, Miyazaki, in custody. Both were shot at Rabaul on 25 September 1947 (M41 & M45).

Toyoda, J., Kita Boruneo Shi no Tenshin Gyokusai [Trans. ‘North Borneo - The deadly withdrawal’] (Tokyo, Mikasa Shobo, 1980, 363 pp). This author chose to write this well researched account in the form of fiction. It deals with the overall withdrawal of the Japanese troops from Sandakan to the west coast rather than with the two Sandakan-Ranau death marches.

Kokaze, I., ‘Shusen Zengo to Sempan Bengo no Kaiso’ [Trans. ‘Recollections of Counsel for the Defence’], in Rabauru Keiyokai, Rabauru (Tokyo, Rabauru Keiyokai, 1980), pp 159-83. Refers to about 20 Rabaul trials in 1946-47 (incl. R1, R12, R29, R31, R55, R60, R113, R121, R122) in which Kokaze participated as one of the Defending Officers.

Nakano, T., Rabauru Gunji Hotei: Aru Nihonjin no Saiban Kiroku [Trans. ‘The Rabaul courts - A record of some of the trials’] (Tokyo, Keiso Shuppan, 1982, 274 pp). A fellow-NCO writes of three trials arising out of the ill-treatment of Indian POWs in which three of his comrades were sentenced to death and executed (R32 & R33) and his CO was sentenced to ten years imprisonment (R98). (The latter finding and sentence were not confirmed).

Utsumi, A., Chosenjin BC-Kyu Sempan no Kiroku [Trans. ‘The Korean B and C Class war criminals’] (Tokyo: Keiso Shobo, 1982). At pp 169ff refers to the case of Hiromaru, sentenced to death by an Australian court (S26) (commuted to 20 years by the Confirming Authority).

Ota, A., Rabauru Sempan Saiban no Kaiko [Trans. ‘Recollections of the Rabaul war crimes trials’] (Tokyo: Rabauru-kai, 1985, 221 pp). Refers to the trial of General Imamura (R175) and other Rabaul trials in which Ota was a member of the Defence team.

Kamisaka, F., Kai ni Natta Otoko: Naoetsu Horyo Shuyosho Jiken (Tokyo: Bungei Shinju, 1986, 196 pp). This deals with the Yanagizawa trial in which 7 members of the staff of POW Camp 4B at Naoetsu in Niigata Prefecture were tried for the ill-treatment of Australian POWs. The court was convened by the G.O.C., US Eighth Army, who appointed an Australian officer as the Legal Member of the court and Australian officers as the Prosecutors.

Hayashi, E., Jusatsu Meirei - BC-Kyu Sempan no Sei to Shi (Tokyo: Asahi Shimbunsha, 1986, 265 pp). This deals with the Sugasawa trial in which 4 members of the staff of POW Camp 6B at Orio in Kyushu were tried for the murder of an Australian POW. The court was convened by the GOC, US Eighth Army who appointed an Austalian officer to the Court and Australian officers as prosecutors.

Hayashi, M., Sempan ni Torawareta Shokuminchihei no Sakebi [Trans. ‘The protest of a colonial soldier imprisoned as a war criminal’] (Sadohara, Miyazaki Prefecture, privately printed, 1988, 293 pp). The author was one of the Formosan guards (Okabayashi, Takemitsu) tried by an Australian court at Labuan (M37) for the ill-treatment of Australian and British POWs in Kuching POW Camp.

Onda, S., ‘BC-Kyu Sempan - Sabakareta no wa Nani ka’ [Trans. ‘The B and C Class war criminals - What was judged?’], Chugoku Shimbun. In this long series of articles in the Hiroshima daily newspaper, parts 59 (26 April 1991) to 66 (3 May 1991) deal with the Australian trials.

Iwakawa, T., Koto no Tsuchi to Naru Tomo (Tokyo, Kodansha, 1995, 830 pp). This book is a collection of the author’s 52 articles on the B and C Class war crimes trials that appeared in the Tokyo monthly journal, Seiron, between July 1987 and October 1991. Nos. 16 (September 1988), 17 (October 1988), and 50 (August 1991) refer to the Australian trials.