Some thoughts on recovering stolen money

A grim reminder of Rabaul's war horrors


Rabaul gallows c 1946 - Backhouse SHORTLY AFTER arriving in Rabaul in 1959, I was given a course in firing a .303 bren gun and other weapons.

We had two bren guns in the police armoury, along with several Owen guns and about 200 .303 standard Lee Enfield service rifles.

At that time rifles were on individual issue to native police, who took their guns with them when proceeding on home leave.

Rabaul gallows 1960 - Hayes The native police barracks was located a short distance south of Namanula Hill Road in the area known as Matupi Farm.

At the rear of the barracks was a weapons range and it was there I noticed the skeletal remains of twin gallows: one a wooden structure and the other of wood and steel.

During the 1942-45 war, when Japanese forces captured the New Guinea Islands and much of the mainland, innumerable war crimes were committed against servicemen and civilians.

After the war, the Australian War Crimes Commission sat at Rabaul from December 1945 to August 1947 and on Manus from June 1950 to April 1951 and there were two trials at Wewak in late 1945.

In all, 503 Japanese were tried and 92 were convicted, sentenced to death and, after appeals, executed.

With the war crimes trials impending in Rabaul, two gallows were erected by an Australian Army construction unit, probably on the site of the pre-war native police barracks and gallows which had been destroyed during the war.

There were two means of execution: shooting, which was regarded as being an ‘honourable’ death; and hanging, a ‘dishonourable’ death reserved for the very worst the crimes. Many high ranking Japanese officers came into this latter category.

Most executions were carried out by hanging. For these executions, several experienced pre-war New Guinea police officers and a civilian either volunteered or were required to hang those condemned.

The first execution by hanging was on 20 March 1946 when a warrant officer of the infamous Kempei Tai was executed. In total, 84 men were hanged on the Rabaul gallows and five in Manus.

On one occasion, as a Japanese about to be hanged, on being asked if he had anything to say, he screamed “Banzai” in an apparent attempt to cause a large number of assembled captive Japanese witnesses to riot. His words were quickly cut short.

It seems likely that the last time one of the gallows was used was for the execution of a native policeman in Rabaul in April 1947 for the bayonet murder of a local woman. There were two subsequent executions by hanging in Lae at the police barracks in December 1954 and November 1957, the last in PNG.

Over the years the corrugated galvanized iron that shielded the gallows was pillaged by nearby shanty town dwellers.

The end of the gallows came in April 1960, when Malaguna Technical College principal George Harrington required building materials for his school and removed what remained of these structures.

Photos: Top left – Rabaul gallows 1946 (Captain Joseph Backhouse). Top right – Rabaul gallows 1960 (Inspector Maxwell Hayes)

Sources: The Australian War Crimes Trials and Investigations (1942-51) DCS Sissons. Pacific Islands Monthly (May 1947). Papua New Guinea Gazettes. Uncle Joe’s Story by Kym Osley (2002)


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Linda Hutson

It is stated: "Over the years the corrugated galvanized iron that shielded the gallows was pillaged by nearby shanty town dwellers."

This is not correct. My father, Allan Hutson, "acquired" the iron and made a carport out of it. Local townspeople were upset about this, even though they had no intention of preserving or destroying the site.

And besides that, there have never been, to my knowledge, any "shanty town dwellers" in Rabaul.

Stephen Asprey

My father, Captain SJB Asprey NX81642, was an investigator for all three sessions at Rabaul. He never talked much about the trials etc.

On my 21st birthday in 1971 he asked me to join him in his study at home in Sydney. There was a thick, yellowing file on his desk tied up in string.

He said that the file contained carbon copies of transcripts of evidence for the worst Japanese offenders in New Britain during the war. They were mainly about what was done to missionaries and nurses.

He asked me to sit and read them so I would know what really happened. It took me all day and into the night. It was horrific.

When I was finished he took the papers and burnt them in the incinerator.

Henry Sims

Come off it, Paul. Sweetness and light works for some, just ask Peter.

But when times get tough, a bit of the punishment "thing" does wonders, if nothing other than getting a few perpetrators out of the way; permanently.

Hanging can be messy if not done correctly, same as for electrocution and chemicals, but the do-gooders will not allow capital punishment in any form.

The number of "rascals" in the world is growing exponentially and we all wait for the revolution.

The threat of God has lost it's power but, in time, a legally placed bullet will certainly put a stop to anarchy.

Paul Oates

Over 30 years ago when I was with Defence, I remember discussing with some servicemen what it was like in PNG just after the war.

A navy officer (then very junior) told me he toured through PNG at the time. When I mentioned Finschhafen, he recalled his misadventures when he heard about the fabulous PX supplies being held there by the US forces.

He snuck out after hours and scrabbled under the side of one of the buildings that were open at the bottom for ventilation purposes.

He was just about to collect his loot when a Marine sentry challenged him and he ran and made a dive out our under the wall as the .45 bullets hit around him.

He was next stationed in Rabaul and heard about how the Japanese POW's had collected a lot of loot which they were still holding.

He eventually found his way to a barbed wire prison camp with what he believed were Japanese inside and now in possession of a .45 pistol, entered the camp and bailed up the first bloke he saw that had a decent watch on his wrist.

Threatening the POW with his pistol, he used sign language to extract the watch but the rest of the prisoners started to mob him and he just made it to the gate.

At that moment, a jeep pulled up full of US troops and grabbed him, extracted the watch which they gave back to the POW's and roared off before any further argument.

He was then told in the most forceful terms that he had actually turned up at a camp that the Japanese had run for Chinese prisoners and that the US were at the time, processing for repatriation.

A born loser? Well he was a Naval Lt Cmdr at the time he was telling me in 1978.

Another ex Army chap reckoned he was in Rabaul at the time they were executing Japanese POW's convicted of war crimes.

Apparently they used to take the bodies of the freshly executed to Rabaul hospital and x-ray the necks to ensure they were performing the execution in the most effective manner.

We weren't all sweetness and light were we?

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