Len Siffleet, a special operations soldier who became well-known for the manner of his death, was born at Gunnedah, New South Wales, on 14 January 1916. A keen sportsman, he became a good swimmer but also enjoyed less physical pursuits; he once outfitted the Gunnedah pipe band with highland hose that he had knitted.
In the late 1930s Siffleet moved to Sydney in search of work and was rejected by the police because of poor eyesight. Whatever defect marred his vision it was not sufficiently serious to prevent his being called up for the militia in August 1940. He served with a searchlight unit at Richmond Air Force Base but was released after three months and returned to civilian life.
After his mother's death in 1941, he and his sister, Pearl, took responsibility for bringing up their two youngest brothers, a task made necessary by the itinerant nature of their father's work. In September 1941, Siffleet joined the AIF and was posted to the 1st Division Signals Company at Ingleburn. He twice went absent without leave, possibly to see the woman to whom he had become engaged, Clarice Lane.
Siffleet went on to complete a specialist signals course at the Melbourne Technical College before volunteering in September 1942 for special duties, joining Z Special Unit. In October he went to the Z Experimental Station in Cairns where Special Operations Australia trained its operatives. While Siffleet was training, the Dutch section of the Inter-Allied Services Department was planning a mission to establish a coast-watching station in the hills above Hollandia in Dutch New Guinea, recently occupied by the Japanese. Siffleet became the operation's radio operator.
Siffleet was promoted to sergeant and transferred to M Special Unit in May 1943, but by then he and his party were trekking along New Guinea's mountainous spine en-route to the north coast. In mid-September the mission, along with members of another special operations team travelling with them to Aitape, were discovered by New Guinean natives. Surrounded by a group of more than 100 locals, Siffleet fired on the attackers, wounding one, and managed to break free. He was quickly caught and, along with his companions, was handed over to the Japanese. He was taken to Malol near Aitape where he was beaten, interrogated - apparently revealing little of importance - and then imprisoned for two weeks before being moved to Aitape.
Just after 3.00pm on 24 October 1943, after languishing in prison for several weeks, Siffleet and two fellow prisoners were marched to Aitape Beach. Kneeling before a crowd of Japanese and New Guinean onlookers and wearing blindfolds, the three prisoners were beheaded and buried. A photo of a Japanese civilian holding a sword over a haggard looking prisoner captured the last seconds of Siffleet's life. It was found by American troops in 1944. The photo continues to be misrepresented as other victims of Japanese executions but its subject was positively identified as Siffleet in 1945.
Len Siffleet was born on 14 January 1916 to Leo and Elizabeth Siffleet in Gunnedah, New South Wales. He was the third of seven children.
Len was an active and industrious child. He was a good sportsman, and was particularly good at swimming. At one point he used his knitting skills to outfit the Gunnedah pipe band with highland hose.
In the late 1930s he moved to Sydney with his older sister Pearl. Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Len was called up for Militia service in 1940. He served in a searchlight unit for several months, but was released following the sudden death of his mother. He and his sister took on the responsibility for raising their younger siblings and Len supported the family financially.
Now engaged to Clarice Lane, Len joined the AIF in September 1941 and was posted to the 1st Division Signals Company at Ingleburn. In August 1942 he was sent to Melbourne to undertake a specialist signals course. The next month he volunteered for special duties and joined Z Special Unit. Sent to Cairns for training, he was selected to join a Dutch operation setting up a coast-watching station in Dutch New Guinea. This operation was given the code name aWhitinga.
Christmas 1942 found Len in Port Moresby, and it was here that he wrote his last letter home to his sister Pearl: aI hope you and the boys are well. I would like to see them, probably by the time I get back they will have grown to manhood. Thereas no doubt they would have brightened up the place at Christmas. It would be grand if we could bring back one of those Christmases we used to have at home. Perhaps as the years go on, we may have the pleasure again.a
In February 1943 Lenas team was flown to Bena Bena, where they began their long trek through thick jungle and mountainous terrain to Aitape on the New Guinea coast. Though already deployed, in May Len was transferred to the newly raised M Special Unit and promoted sergeant.
By September Len and his comrades had reached the mountains above Aitape, but their presence was betrayed soon after by locals sympathetic to the Japanese and a bounty was offered for their capture.
Warned by other New Guineans that their operation had been compromised, the team pressed on. Some weeks later the partyas leader was killed in a Japanese ambush. Len and his comrades attempted to escape to the south, but during a meal break at Wantipi they were surrounded by about 100 local supporters of the Japanese. Len shot at his attackers, wounding one, and though he briefly broke free of the encirclement he was soon caught.
Len and his comrades were beaten and abused by their captors as they were taken to a Japanese outpost at Malol. Here the men were subjected to interrogation. Len was beaten repeatedly and, under extreme duress, gave away basic details of his mission while also providing false details to protect other operations in the area.
After two weeks the prisoners were transferred to Aitape, where their executions were ordered. At 3 pm on 24 October Len and two others were led onto the beach to a pre-dug hole in the sand. The men were blindfolded and then beheaded. They were buried in the sand and their bodies were never recovered. He was 27 years old.
The final moments of Siffleetas life are captured in one of the most confronting images from the Second World War. Siffleetas story, including this photograph, is featured in the permanent Second World War Galleries.
Len Siffleetas name is listed on the Roll of Honour on my left along with some 40,000 Australians who lost their lives in the Second World War.