THE BOMBERS’ FIRST destination was Ballale, an island so tiny that its crushed-coral airstrip reached from one side of the island to the other. Officially part of the Shortland group, the arrowhead-shaped isle lay fourteen miles southeast of Moila Point on the tip of Bougainville. The airfield was built by the Imperial Navy’s 18th Construction Battalion, headed by Lt. Cmdr. Noriko Ozaki, between November 1942 and January 1943. Because the Japanese had no bulldozers for such big projects, much of the labor was done by hand. In early December 1942, a shipment of 517 POWs arrived from Rabaul to work on the airfield—and therein lay another dark story of Japanese atrocities.
Known unofficially as the “Gunners 600,” the prisoners sent to Ballale were among the thousands of British soldiers captured after the surrender of Singapore the previous February. Some 50,000 POWs were initially held near Changi Prison, but in mid-October about 600 Royal Artillerymen were sent to New Britain. After three weeks of misery at sea aboard a “hellship,” they arrived at Kokopo on November 6. One prisoner had died en route, and many others were sick with dysentery, beriberi, and malaria. About a week later, 517 men were sent on to Ballale, leaving 82 of the sickest at Kokopo.
From the time of their arrival at Ballale, the British gunners were harshly treated. Ozaki himself was said to have beheaded a prisoner the next day, no doubt to establish his absolute authoritarianism. The POWs, housed in a compound of huts near the southwestern end of the airstrip, received no medical attention and were not allowed to dig or construct air-raid shelters. Korean laborers, Chinese prisoners, and native islanders also worked on the airfield, but they were strictly prohibited from making contact with the white prisoners.
The island’s occupants were all living on borrowed time. On January 15, 1943, a single B-17 from Guadalcanal bombed the airstrip, and within a matter of weeks, aerial attacks became heavier and more frequent. Unknown to the American aircrews, dozens or possibly even hundreds of POWs were killed by friendly bombs. The Japanese permitted the burial of the victims, whereas POWs who died due to illness or neglect were placed in rice sacks and dumped at sea. By the time [Admiral Isoroku] Yamamoto’s party approached Ballale, the tiny island had been hit at least fourteen times—and only a few dozen of the original 517 gunners were still alive.
Whether Yamamoto was aware of the British prisoners at Ballale is unknown. Either way, the gaunt, sickly survivors would probably have been kept out of sight while the commander in chief visited the garrison. There is no point in speculating further, however, because Yamamoto never reached the island.
21 May 2014
Singapore POWs in the Solomon Islands
From Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943, by Bruce Gamble (Zenith, 2010), Kindle Loc. 5582-5601: