Alistair Urquhart was just 20 when he was called up in World War II. For 60 years, he has remained silent about the relentless brutality he endured at the hands of the Japanese army. Now, he reveals the full horror of his 750 days as a Far East prisoner-of-war. Here, in our first extract of his compelling autobiography, we learn of his capture and enforced labour on the notorious 'Death Railway'.
Survivor: Former prisoner of war Alistair Urquhart as a young soldier
The construction of the Death Railway was one of the greatest war crimes of the 20th century. It was said that one man died for every sleeper laid. Beatings on the railway were totally routine.
The threat of a rifle butt across your head loomed large. For no reason at all, wire whips would lash into our backs and draw blood. Some guards would creep up on you and strike the open tropical ulcers on your legs with a bamboo stick, causing intense agony.
No man was more sadistic than the Japanese camp commandant Lieutenant Usuki, whom I called the Black Prince.
He was a true bastard. Darker than the other Japanese soldiers, he strutted around like royalty, his beefy gut protruding from beneath a shabby uniform. He despised us totally. We were scum to him.
His right-hand man was Sergeant Seiichi Okada, known to us Brits simply as Dr Death. Short and squat, he took the roll-calls and carried out all of the camp commandant's orders.
Ruthless in the extreme, he loved tormenting us. He especially revelled in a sickening brand of water torture.
He had guards pin down his hapless victim before pouring gallons of water down the prisoner's throat using a bucket and hose. The man's stomach would swell up from the huge volumes of water.
Okada would then gleefully jump up and down on him. Sometimes guards tied barbed wire around the poor soul's stomach. Most died; only a few survived.
But no matter how hard these two terrible men pushed us, we could not progress more than 20 feet per day through the dense jungle.
'He delighted in tormenting us'
After 60 straight days on the railway - with no days off - we had reached the dreaded slab of rock that barred our path for the next 500 to 600 yards.
The mere sight of that rock must have been enough for one prisoner, who made a bid for freedom.
I was unaware that anyone had escaped until one morning at tenko (camp), a sorry-looking chap was dragged before us. He had been beaten horrifically, his swollen and bloody features were virtually unrecognisable. The interpreter told us: 'This man very bad. He try to escape. No gooda.'
Two guards threw him on the ground in front of us and made him kneel. He did not plead for mercy. He knew his fate and waited silently, resigned to it.
The Black Prince, who seemed to have dressed up especially for the occasion, strode forward and unsheathed his samurai sword. He prodded the prisoner in the back, forcing him to straighten up.
Then he raised his sword and there followed a moment of such horror that I could scarcely believe it was happening.
This was one of the many instances of barbarism on the railway that I would try to shut out of my mind. But I could not escape the chilling swoosh of the blade as it cut through the air or the sickening thwack as it struck our comrade's neck, followed by the dull thump of his head landing on the ground.
Retribution: Prisoners who tried to escape were beheaded often in front of the other captives
I kept my eyes firmly shut but swayed on my feet and felt a collective gasp of impotent anger and revulsion.
I know that I am a lucky man. I am 90 now, one of the last remaining survivors of my battalion of the Gordon Highlanders.
Why did I - a 20-year-old, ambitious apprentice for an Aberdeen plumbers' merchant when I was called up shortly after the outbreak of World War II in September 1939 - survive the unbelievable horrors inflicted by the Japanese when so many others did not?
It's a question I have often asked myself. But it is not one I have discussed with those of us who did survive because, like them, for more than 60 years I have kept my silence. So many of us Far East prisonersofwar did, and all for the same reasons. We did not wish to upset our wives and families - or ourselves.
I swayed with shock, as if I had been punched
The Gordons were Aberdeen's local regiment. My father George, a teacher, had served with them during World War I.
Like so many others of his generation, he had known the horrors of the Battle of the Somme, during which 9,000 Gordons were killed. My father never talked of his experiences. Later, after my own hellish war, I would understand why.
I have never fully recovered from my time in captivity. In the early years, the nightmares became so bad that I had to sleep in a chair for fear of harming my wife Mary as I lashed out in my sleep.
And I have never been able to eat properly since those starvation days. As to why I survived, I speculated that it was due to a combination of determined spirit and physical fitness.
I had always been very sporty. As a grammar school boy, I played football, rugby and cricket as well as taking part in swimming and athletics. Little did I know then just how my sporting endeavours would save my life during the war.
Three months after being called up, I was posted to Singapore. It was widely regarded as a cushy number, a place where British colonials enjoyed a privileged, bungalowdwelling existence, with servants to prepare their Singapore Sling cocktails, grown men - known as 'boys' - to run their households and ayahs (native nannies) to look after their children.
Brutality: Unlike the well-fed extras in the movie, the POWs did not whistle the Colonel Bogey tune. Nor did they have any semblance of uniform
As a member of the Armed Forces, I was among the thousands sent there to protect them. Not that anyone thought back then that Singapore was vulnerable. The diamondshaped island at the tip of the Malay Peninsula was Britain's greatest fortress east of Suez, protected by huge 15in guns that pointed out to sea to deter naval assault.
But in February 1942, the Japanese soldiers landed on Singapore island.
We learnt the terrible news that the Japanese had committed a massacre at the Alexandra military hospital.
More than 300 patients, doctors and nurses were systematically murdered in the shadow of the Red Cross that was meant to protect them. The invaders actually bayoneted some of the patients on the operating table.
Each beating chipped away at my will to live
On February 15 the shelling stopped and a ceasefire was proclaimed. But with water cut off and no air cover, the situation was deemed impossible. During humiliating negotiations, General Arthur Percival, General Officer Commanding (Malaya), was bluffed into surrendering to an overstretched and much smaller Japanese force.
Two days later, I came face-toface with Japanese soldiers for the first time. I was in my office at Fort Canning, where I worked as a Garrison Adjutant's Clerk, when suddenly the door burst open and two men were standing before me - their eyes filled with fury and hate. Yammering and screaming in Japanese, they began jabbing their bayonets at our chests.
They punched, slapped and kicked me and the other servicemen in the office before ordering us outside, where an astonishing sight met our eyes: hundreds of men filing out of the underground bunker, their hands above their heads, fear writ large across their ashen faces.
They lined up alongside us while some of the Japanese privates went down the rows snatching watches off wrists, cigarette lighters, packets of cigarettes - anything of value. Officers had their faces slapped and their epaulettes ripped off, their caps thrown to the ground.
As we stood there in the blazing sun, reality broke over me in sickening, depressing waves. I was a captive. My liberty was gone, and there was no telling when I would have it back.
Incessant: The POWs were routinely tortured during their time with the Japanese, many thousands died as a result of overworking or ruthless barbarism
In October 1942, after almost eight months incarceration at the notorious Changi POW camp (where, in the early days, 50,000 men were crammed into accommodation designed for 4,000), I was selected to go up-country. Along with other Gordon Highlanders, I was marched to Singapore railway station where, inside the waiting train, we heard banging and frantic cries: 'We can't breathe! Open Up! Open Up!'
I was wedged into a container of around 18ft by 10ft with about 30 other men. Our captors screamed and lunged at us with bayonets. There was no room to sit down; to make matters worse the sides of the steel carriage were searingly hot. Dehydration set in quickly. It was like being buried alive.
As the train headed northwards, the smell inside the carriage became unbearably foul. Without toilets the men had to relieve themselves where they stood. Several were ill with malaria, dysentery and diarrhoea. People vomited and fainted. Dust swirled around the wagon stinging our eyes and adding to our unbearable thirst.
I was wedged into a container of around 18ft by 10ft with about 30 other men
On and on we went. Day became night. No one spoke; it was just too much effort. I considered suicide and began to fantasise that the train would jump its tracks and that I would be killed swiftly, without any more suffering. I willed the RAF to drop bombs on us and end our misery.
Just before dusk on the fifth day we ground to a halt, the doors rolled back and the guards ordered us off. We were in Thailand. Our 900-mile train journey was over. Helping some of the sicker men off the train, I noticed a teenage soldier lying at the rear of the carriage. One of the lads jumped back up and tapped his foot. 'Come on, son, we're here.'
Lifeless eyes stared back. I turned my back and walked away. I did not want to see his face and carry that image with me; anything that sapped the will to live had to be avoided. The Japanese officer's translator then told us that we had yet to reach our final destination. We had a 50-kilometre march ahead of us. Starting immediately. To be completed that night.
I swayed with shock, as if I had been punched in the face.
About 600 prisoners - diseased, vermin-infested and at their lowest ebb - began that trek into the jungle. Leaving behind our last glimpse of civilisation, we started what was to be in total a 160-kilometre death march. Anyone who collapsed or refused to go on was left to die. Theirs was either a lingering and lonely death or the swift and brutal thrust of a bayonet.
Torture: Scenes from the movie starring Alec Guinness were nothing compared to the treatment of the real life POWs
In the late afternoon of the sixth day, after we had been trudging for around 32 hours, we arrived at a small, sparse clearing in the middle of the jungle. It took some time for us to comprehend that this was 'it', the ultimate objective of our tortuous journey.
Through an interpreter, a guard told us: 'This is your camp. You make home here. Build own huts. All men work on railway.'
A railway! Here in the middle of nowhere. It seemed mad. The following morning, we began work on the infamous Death Railway, the 415-kilometre Burma to Siam track through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet.
If I had realised then that it was just the first of 750 days I would spend as a slave in the jungle, I would have broken down and cried like a baby.
We all had various stages of beriberi, malaria, dengue fever and dysentery
Later, the Australians would dub the railway Hellfire Pass, and I could not have thought of a better name for it myself. Even Japanese engineers had estimated that it would take five years to complete. The Japanese Imperial Army would prove them wrong, however. It had a secret weapon: slave labour.
In just 16 months, a railway linking Bangkok with the Burmese rice bowl and its vital oil fields would be completed at a terrible human cost.
We all had various stages of beriberi, malaria, dengue fever and dysentery. A new illness had also started to ravage some unfortunate prisoners. Called tinea, it was nicknamed 'rice balls' because the hideous swelling had the tormenting tendency to attack, crack and inflame the scrotum.
We were beaten frequently but it never got any easier to withstand. Each time I took a beating it chipped away, not just at my waning muscles, but at my will to endure them.
The dilemma was whether to swallow your pride by going down at the first blow or to retain some of your dignity by taking several blows and standing up to them. If you refused to show that their blows were hurting you, they would fly into rages and the beating could be severe, even fatal.
Some men found the going easier by bonding with another prisoner. They would share food and water and even took beatings together. It was not the way for me. I watched the heartache of men losing their best pals. They soon followed their mates to the grave.
Hollywood: Unline the film prisoners of war in Japan faced terrifying evil on a day-to-day basis with thousands losing their lives at the hands of their captors
If a man driven mad by the incessant beatings turned on a guard, he would be tethered, spread-eagled, to the ground. Guards wrapped wet rattan - the same string-like bark used to lash our bamboo huts together - around his ankles and wrists, then tied him to stakes.
As the rattan dried, the ties would slowly gash into the skin, drawing blood and tearing into sinew and cartilage as they pulled limbs from their sockets.
It reduced even the toughest men to agonised screaming. It was a way of torturing all of us.
The ties would slowly gash into the skin, drawing blood and tearing into sinew
Often, when we returned from a day on the railway, the men would no longer be there. Nobody asked where they had vanished to. I certainly did not want to know. After such a horrific ordeal, death at the end of a Japanese bayonet would have been welcomed.
After a few weeks of steady progress on the railway, we had reached the River Kwai, across which the Japanese intended us to build two bridges. It was going to be a major engineering operation and I doubted that we would manage it in our state and with the pathetic tools we had to hand.
As the wood and bamboo structure of the first bridge went up, I made the most of my head for heights and tried to work aloft. Some men hated being up high, but for me it meant I was out of reach of the guards and their flailing sticks.
For those working in the river, sometimes up to their necks, life could be much more difficult. The filthy water infected cuts and sores. The additional danger of falling objects, including logs and struts, meant that mortality rates were extremely high.
The building of the bridge on the River Kwai took a terrible toll on us, and the depiction of our sufferings in the film of the same name was a very sanitised version of events.
Unlike the well-fed extras in the movie, we did not whistle the Colonel Bogey tune. Nor did we have any semblance of uniform. We were naked, barefoot slaves. And there were certainly no pretty and scantily clad local girls wandering through the jungle.
Horror: In the early days of the Changi POW camp 50,000 men were crammed into accommodation designed for 4,000
And, contrary to the film, our real-life commander, Colonel Philip Toosey, did not collaborate with the Japanese. Instead, we made constant attempts at sabotage.
Men whispered orders to impair the construction of the bridge wherever possible. Some, charged with making up concrete mixtures, deliberately added too much sand or not enough, which would later have disastrous effects.
We collected huge numbers of termites and white ants and deposited them into the grooves and joints of loadbearing trunks. Out of sight of the guards I furtively sawed half way through wooden bolts, hoping they would snap whenever any serious weight, like a train, was placed upon them.
One night in our POW camp I awoke with dysentery calling. Holding my aching stomach I raced to the latrines, but on the way back to my hut a Korean guard stopped me. He yammered in my face and at first I thought he was admonishing me for failing to salute him. Then he pointed at my midriff and to my horror I realised he was becoming frisky.
'Jiggy, jiggy,' he was saying, trying to grab me. 'No!' I shouted at him.
Without hesitating I kicked him as hard as I could, barefooted, square between his legs.
He collapsed, groaning in agony. I bolted, but his roaring had summoned hordes of other guards and, unfortunately, I ran slap bang into one of them. He seized me, and rifle butts and fists sent me to the ground.
I was dragged to the front of the Japanese officers' hut. The interpreter was raised, along with the camp commandant, the dreaded Black Prince.
He seized me, and rifle butts and fists sent me to the ground
This was a moment of absolute terror. Throughout my 14 months of captivity I had tried at all times to stay out of range of the brutal Japanese guards, and now here I was receiving the personal attentions of the camp's sadist-in-chief.
He asked the Korean for his side of the story. No doubt he left out the bit about making sexual advances towards me. When he was done the commandant asked why I had assaulted the guard. I told them the truth. The Black Prince started screaming at all and sundry and I knew I was in serious trouble.
They took the Korean guard away and marched me to the front of the guardhouse, where I was forced to stand to attention. Racked with pain and suffering from broken toes, I wobbled and wilted.
Any sign of slumping over brought a flurry of rifle butts to the kidneys to straighten me up again. Every minute of every hour throughout that night was pure torture. At sunrise my fellow prisoners assembled for breakfast and rollcall before going out to slave on the railway. The guards kept me behind.
The rising sun bore down on my defenceless body, and when I lost consciousness my personal minders threw buckets of water over me and kicked me to attention. It was relentless. Sunset came. The other POWs returned and averted their eyes - a sure sign that my predicament was serious. Nobody showed any signs of sympathy, to do so was to risk reprisals on themselves.
The rest of the chilly night passed in a blur of kicks and beatings. I hallucinated and felt as if I were going insane.
Come the second morning, the Black Prince instructed two guards to haul me off to the black hole.
My heart sank. I knew that most men kept in these higher forms of punishment - semi-subterranean cages made out of bamboo and proportioned so you could not stand, lay down or even kneel fully - did not come out alive. And if they did, they had been reduced to crippled wrecks who never fully recovered.
The guards threw me into one of the bamboo cages. Darkness and the filth of the previous occupants engulfed me. I sobbed, falling in and out of consciousness.
Days came and went. Malaria struck me down, causing uncontrollable shivers. Lice were crawling all over me. In the darkness, the sense of isolation was devastating and I became half out of my mind with pain and exhaustion. My degradation was complete. My only notion of time came from the arrival of a watery bowl of rice once a day. I had counted six or seven bowls by the time they allowed me out.
As I crawled out of the dark cell, I deemed myself lucky to have spent such a short period in the black hole. I had been in for a week. It could easily have been a month.
I reached my hut on all fours and Dr Mathieson, the British Army doctor in our camp, got to work on me. Slowly he and his orderlies brought me back to life with lime juice, water and scavenged food scraps, a little milk and some duck eggs. Within a week, even in my feeble condition, I was passed as fit and sent back to work. This was just as well. For worse still was to come.
U. S. Army personnel toiled to identify the charred remains of Americans captured at Bataan and burned alive on Palawan. 20 March 1945
During World War II, in order to prevent the rescue of prisoners of war by the advancing allies, on 14 December 1944, units of the Japanese Fourteenth Area Army (under the command of General Tomoyuki Yamashita) brought the POWs back to their camp and when an air raid warning was called the remaining 150 prisoners of war at Puerto Princesa dove into three covered trenches for refuge which were then set on fire using barrels of gasoline.
Prisoners who tried to escape the flames were shot down by machine gun fire. Others attempted to escape by climbing over a cliff that ran along one side of the trenches, but were later hunted down and killed. Only 11 men escaped the slaughter and between 133 and 141 were killed.
The massacre is the basis for the recently published book Last Man Out: Glenn McDole, USMC, Survivor of the Palawan Massacre in World War II by Bob Wilbanks, and the opening scenes of the 2005 Miramax film, The Great Raid. A memorial has been erected on the site and McDole, in his eighties, was able to attend the dedication.
Evidence of the episode has been recorded by two of the eleven survivors: Glenn McDole and Rufus Willie Smith from the 4th US Marines Bones from the victims were discovered in early 1945. 16 Japanese soldiers were put on trial for the massacre in Yokohama in August 1948.
A trial of Japanese personnel involved in the massacre initially sentenced the men to death, but later, they were released in the general amnesty.
The incident sparked a series POW rescue campaigns by the US, such as the raid at Cabanatuanon January 30th, 1945, the raid at Santo Tomas Internment Camp on February 3, 1945, the raid of Bilibid Prison on February 4, 1945, and raid at Los Baños on February 23, 1945.
It was testimony of survivor, Pfc. Eugene Nielsen, US Army, was able to convince the military to embark on a campaign to save the POWs in the Philippines back in 1945. In 2006, Nielsen was interviewed again by Geoffrey Panos on the behalf of the University of Utah.
Oliver North’s “War Stories” recently aired a program about the POWs of the Japanese during WWII. According to Mr. Roger Mansell (his website: http://www.mansell.com/pow-index.html ) who was interviewed by Oliver North during the program, this popular Fox News Network show is watched by nearly 18 million Americans every week.
One of the episodes included in the program was the Palawan Massacre in which 139 POWs were burned to death by the Japanese on December 14. 1944 on Palawan island, Philippines.
A list of victims complied by Ms. Lorna Nielsen Murray is available at http://www.west-point.org/family/japanese-pow/Palawan.htm Ms. Murray is the daughter of Mr. Eugene Nielsen, one of the only 11 survivors of the Palawan Massacre.
Here, former member of the 4th Marines Band, Mr. Donald Versaw, who lost two of his fellow band members in the massacre, writes about the dedication of a new marker for the victims that took place on October 4, 2003 in Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
Glen McDole, one of the only three survivors of the Palawan Massacre, tells an audience of about 200 the story of his miraculous escape from Japanese captivity in 1944. Before him lie the remains of 123 victims of one of the most savage atrocities in World War II. Seated about the podium, right to left is: Ralph Church, Cemetery Administrator of Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery; Eugene Nielsen, the second survivor of the Palawan Massacre; Mr. McDole; Joseph A. Dupont Jr., Vice Commander 4th Marine Association and former POW once confined at the POW camp; Captain Martin Christie USMC (ret.) and Commander of 4th Marine Association; Chaplain Weber, Captain Missouri National Guard. In this view the new bronze maker conceived and promoted by Joseph Dupont and others is draped with patriotic bunting as the extreme left of the picture.
Victims of the Japanese Massacre
These U.S. prisoners of war of the Japanese were on the island of Palawan, P. I., as slave laborers building an airfield for the Japanese military. Believing that an invasion by the U.S. forces was imminent, the prisoners were forced into three tunnel air raid shelters, thus following orders from the Japanese High Command to dispose of prisoners by any means available. Buckets of gasoline were thrown inside the shelters followed by flaming torches. Those not instantly killed by the explosion ran burning from the tunnels and were machine gunned and bayoneted to death.
DOOMED PRISONERS OF WWII
US bomber crew shot down over Japan were dissected while ALIVE in horrific WW2 experiments: Japanese university acknowledges full details of atrocity 70 years on
A Japanese university has opened a museum acknowledging that its staff dissected downed American airmen while they were still alive during World War Two.
The move is a striking step in a society where war crimes are still taboo and rarely discussed, although the incident has been extensively documented in books and by US officials.
A gruesome display at the newly-opened museum at Kyushu University explains how eight US POWs were taken to the centre’s medical school in Fukuoka after their plane was shot down over the skies of Japan in May 1945.
There, they were subjected to horrific medical experiments - as doctors dissected one soldier’s brain to see if epilepsy could be controlled by surgery, and removed parts of the livers of other prisoners as part of tests to see if they would survive.
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Terrible fate: Captain Marvin Watkins, top left, and his crew were downed over Japan. Six of them and two others not pictured were dissected alive or subjected to other terrible medical experiments at Kyushu University. Pictured in the back row (l to r) are: Marvin S. Watkins (interrogated and released at the end of war) William R. Fredericks (died in medical experiment), Howard T. Shingledecker, (fate unknown), Charles M. Kearns (died at crash site), Dale E. Plambeck (died in medical experiment) Front row: Robert C. Johnson (died at crash site), Teddy J. Ponczka (died in medical experiment), Robert B. Williams (died in medical experiment), Leon E. Czarnecki (died in medical experiment), Leo C. Oeinck (died at crash site), John C. Colehower (died in medical experiment)
Acknowledgment: Some of the POWs had parts of their brains and livers removed in macabre experiments, while others were injected with seawater. Details of the experiments have been hushed for the past 70 years by the university. A visitor is pictured looking at the exhibit at Kyushu University
TERRIBLE FATE OF FLIGHT 42-65305
Captain Marvin Watkins and an unknown number of hastily assembled crew boarded their B-29 Superfortress bomber on the evening of the 5 May 1945.
They took off on a bombing mission against an airfield in Fukuoka in the south of Japan.
It was just a few months before Japan would surrender, but the final few months of the war were bitterly fought.
Mainland Japan had been within range of US bombers since November 1944 and the Japanese showed little mercy to downed pilots.
Captain Watkins' aircraft was rammed and destroyed by a Japanese fighter flown by 19-year-old Kinzou Kasuya.
Local residents on the ground reported seeing about a dozen parachutes.
One US airman was killed when another Japanese fighter flew through his parachute, cut the cords and sent him plummeting to the ground.
Another crew member drew his pistol when he touched the ground and opened fire on the Japanese approaching him. When he reached his last bullet, he shot himself dead.
The local residents stabbed another crewman to death and left others with knife wounds.
Local Army officers then sent Watkins to Tokyo for interrogation. He survived the war in a PoW camp.
The rest of the crew were handed over to the medical staff at Kyushu University where they were subjected to the terrible experiments.
Another soldier was injected with seawater, in an experiment to see if it could be used instead of sterile saline solution to help dehydration. All of the soldiers died from their ordeal.
The horrific episode has been described in previous books, one by a Japanese doctor who took part in the experiments, but the museum represents an official acknowledgement of the atrocity
When the incidents came to light during a discussion with professors in March, the university decided to include information about the experiments within their new museum.
About twelve airmen - the exact number is unclear - were aboard Captain Marvin Watkins' B-29 when it took off from Guam on a bombing raid against an airfield in Fukuoka.
They all bailed out when their aircraft was rammed by a Japanese fighter.
One was killed when another Japanese fighter flew into his parachute. Local residents converged on the surviving airmen as they landed- one emptied his pistol at the crowd before shooting himself dead, another was stabbed to death by locals.
Of the remaining airmen Captain Watkins was taken for interrogation and survived the war, he is believed to have died in Virginia in 1989. The rest died during the horrific vivisection experiments.
Todoshi Tono, one of the doctors involved in the experiments, later dedicated his life to exposing the atrocities after the war and wrote a book against the wishes of colleagues who wanted their crimes to be lost in the mists of time.
In 1995, he told the The Baltimore Sun that one of the US soldiers Teddy Ponczka had been stabbed by locals after his plane had crashed - and presumed he was going to be treated for the wound when he was taken to the operating theatre.
The soldiers were flying a B-29 bomber, pictured, when it was shot down over the skies of Japan. Eight of the men on board were taken to the Kyushu Medical School and experimented on. None survived the vivisections
WAR CRIMES IN THE NAME OF THE EMPEROR
The Japanese armed forces committed a wide range of war crimes during brutal combat in the Pacific and China.
Images of Japanese soldiers using captured enemies for bayonet practice have become the symbol of Japanese barbarity, and the ordeals endured by Allied prisoners on the Bataan Death March and construction of the Burma-Siam railroad are well known in popular culture.
Allied airmen who were shot down over Japanese held territory could usually expect to be killed if they were able to bail out, often after terrible torture or a short arbitrary 'trial'.
But aside from the atrocities at Kyushu University, a group of medics known as Unit 731 carried out thousands of experiments on Chinese and Russian prisoners of war.
In a camp in northern China, thousands of prisoners were infected with various diseases and subjected to invasive surgery without anesthesia to study the effects. Limbs were also amputated and re-attached in unnatural positions, and some victims' esophegeal tracts were attached directly to their intestines.
Others were used to test grenades and flame throwers.
The architects of Unit 731 were given immunity after the war so Soviet and US forces could study their data on biological warfare.
Instead, surgeons allegedly removed one of Ponczka's lungs to see what effect surgery has on the respiratory system, before injecting him with seawater.
'I could never again wear a white smock,' Dr Toshio Tono told the newspaper 50 years on.
'It's because the prisoners thought that we were doctors, since they could see the white smocks, that they didn't struggle. They never dreamed they would be dissected.'
After the prisoners were killed, Japanese doctors preserved their remains in formaldehyde until the end of the war.
Evidence of the experiments was heard at an Allied War Crimes tribunal in 1948 against 30 doctors and university staff, by which time the body parts had been destroyed.
In total 23 people were found guilty of vivisection – dissecting and performing surgery on a living thing – and five were sentenced to death.
General Douglas MacArthur later commuted all death sentences when he was military governor of Japan and all the perpetrators were released.
Dale E. Plamback was killed by Japanese surgeons after he was dissected alive and was injected with seawater. His grandson has spoken of his horror after he found out about his ancestor's ordeal
The grandson of one of the American airmen vivisected alive by Japanese doctors during World War II has revealed the moment he was told of the horrific experiments as a teenager.
Bob Bruner said that his mother Ginger said he had a 'right to know' and so told him that Dale E. Plambeck was shot down over Japan and 'had been vivisected'.
Bob, who was 13 or 14, at the time did not know what it meant and so asked his mother to explain.
She replied: 'They dissected him'.
Ginger also explained how the Japanese surgeons replaced her father's blood for seawater in the warped experiments that eventually killed eight American prisoners of war.
Bob spoke to Dailymail.com in the week it emerged that the Japanese has broken a 70-year taboo and for the first time put on display an exhibit which details the gruesome episode.
The museum at Kyushu University, where the experiments took place, features medical records and exhibits in an apparent attempt to move on from the past.
The operations were one of the most shameful episodes in Japan's wartime history and saw medics removing a whole lung, a liver and pieces of the brain from the Americans to conduct tests for epilepsy.
Six of these men and two others not pictured were killed after they underwent medical experiments, including Plamback, seen on the far right top row. Three died when their plane crashed. Only Cpt Marvin Watkins, pictured on the top row far left, survived the war. The cause of death of the 11th soldier pictured is unknown
A memorial has been erected for the US soldiers at the site in Japan where the B-29 bomber was shot down
The airmen fell into the clutches of the Japanese after their B-29 bomber went down in a bombing raid against an airfield in Fukuoka on May 5 1945.
The families found out in 1947 and from reports of the trials of the accused two years later. The first official recognition of what happened from the US government came in a letter sent to relatives in 1950, by which time 23 surgeons had been convicted.
But later the legacy of the experiments lived on and the grandchildren of the men who died had to be told what happened to their relatives.
In an interview with Dailymail.com, Bob said that until his mother told him the truth, he thought that his grandfather was Merlin Anthony, Dale's best friend who married his widow Toni after he did not come home.
Instead Bob learned that his real grandad was from Fremont, Nebraska and was just 22 when he died.
Bob, now 51 and an Iraq War veteran living in Bryan, Texas, said: 'Me and my brothers were travelling to see family in Nebraska and my mother said: 'I think it's time for you to understand that you had another grandfather'.
'Of course, I was like: 'Wow'. Mom said that Dale's best friend married my grandmother when he was killed in action. She said he was a navigator in a B-29 Superfortress.
'They were shot down over Japan and they were vivisected. I asked: 'What's that?' My mother said: 'They dissected him'.
'She made mention of them using seawater for blood and so forth and tried experiments on these people for war. I was between 13 and 14.
A small exhibition has opened in the museum at Kyushu University detailed what happened to Plamback and his comrades. Bob says it 'burns him up' that evidence of the medical experiments wasn't destroyed
'She said that you have a right to know... my mother said that this was what happened... and it was very cleanly put'.
Bob said that initially he felt 'anger and sadness', adding that now as a veteran 'I can put myself in their shoes... the confusion they must have endured.'
Time has not made the details of the experiments any easier to read, or to fathom.
The most comprehensive account was by Todoshi Tono, a student doctor at Kyushu hospital at the time, who wrote a book against the wishes of colleagues who wanted their crimes to be lost in the mists of time.
In 1995, he told the The Baltimore Sun that one of the US soldiers, Teddy Ponczka, had been stabbed by locals after his plane had crashed.
Ponczka presumed he was going to be treated for the wound when he was taken to the operating theatre but instead his lung was removed and he was injected with seawater.
Like the other seven, he never made it home.
Soldiers Charles Kearns, left, and Leo C. Oeinck, right, are pictured after their wives were asked to sign and identify the men. Both men died after their bomber was shot down by the Japanese armed forces in May 1945
The crash site now has a small memorial to the men, with an American flag flying next to it. The family of Plamback, killed in medical experiments, said they 'don't hold a grudge' against the Japanese
Bob Bruner said that he had mixed feelings about the museum exhibition going on show.
He said: 'I don't have a problem with it, but why now? Where has all this stuff been?
'It was supposed to have been destroyed - that burns me up a bit. I understand that they are not very proud of their history but...'
Iraq war veteran Bob Bruner with his mother Ginger, who says she is not bitter over what happened to Dale
His mother Ginger added: 'There's nothing I can do about it. There's nothing you can do about it. That's history. I would have to see it.
'I don't hold a grudge against the Japanese. If you ask me if what they did was OK I'd say no, but I'm not a bitter person.'
While eight men died in the experiments there was one man who survived - Lt Marvin Watkins, the commanding officer of the plane.
His son Samuel said that his father was taken away to Tokyo for questioning because it was thought he would have intelligence on flight plans and so avoided the same fate as his men.
Lieutenant Marvin S. Watkins, the captain of the bomber that was shot out of the sky, was not forced to undergo medical experiment and survived the war. The press report from 1945 records his evacuation. His son told the MailOnline that he was never able to forgive himself for not being able to save his crew
LETTER TO TORTURED PLAMBACK'S WIFE: 'HE DEVOTED HIMSELF NOBLY'
Lieutenant Marvin Watkins wrote a letter to soldier Dale Plamback's wife after he was freed from Japan - before he knew his friend had been dissected alive by cruel surgeons carrying out medical experiments.
Oct. 19, 1945
Dear Mrs. Plambeck,
This is to express to you my sincerest sympathy during the trying days of waiting. I can appreciate your anxiety for I also have been waiting for news of other members of my crew.
You have been informed by the Squadron Commander and by several others as to what trouble we encountered and that report is correct. I will attempt to give a few more details. Everything was normal and no fighters or anti-aircraft fire was encountered until we had released our bombs and turning away from the target. There was a twin-engine fighter high ahead of us and a little to the right that made a pass on our formation and getting our ship in his sights and when it came through it was only a near-miss of crashing into us. A fire was started in #4 engine and gas tank which soon got out of control, making it necessary for us to leave the ship before an explosion occurred. The bail-out signal was sounded and all left the ship in an orderly manner. The engineer and I were the last to leave and by that time the wing had burned off and the ship was out of control. We had hoped the fire might burn out.
I can authentically say that your husband left the ship and parachuted down safely for I was later captured and held as prisoner in an adjoining room to Dale. There were five of us together but in separate rooms at some Army camp near where we crashed. Japanese customs and policies forbid us to talk to each other, but in spite of this Dale and I had a few words together. He was alright and said all the boys in his compartment got out and they parachuted down together.
After about three or four days and several interrogations, I was separated from these boys and taken by train to Tokyo and there I received quite a number of very thorough interrogations and was held there as a prisoner until liberation. During this time, I was unable to contact any of my crew and to date I haven't heard a word. Lt. Fredericks, Sgt. Ponczka, Cpl. Colehower, Dale and I were together at this camp on Kyushu.
After liberation, I was taken to Okinawa and then Manila. While there, I personally checked all rosters of liberated personnel, and asked the Red Cross to do likewise, without any success. I sincerely hope by this time you have heard something.
As Dale's airplane commander, I was pleased to have him as a crew member and know his fellow crew members regarded him very highly also. He devoted himself nobly as a combat crew member and you can be proud that he in no small way contributed to the success of the missions in which we participated.
I wish there was more information in regard to Dale but due to the Japanese customs and our separation, this is all I have. If there are any questions you would like answered, please feel free to write at any time. I regret very much I haven't been able to write sooner, but due to traveling or subject to moving all the time, my mail is just catching up.
Since liberation, I've been under observation and am still classed as a patient even though I feel fine and look well. Tomorrow I begin a 30-day convalescent leave. Wish to assure you that it was four rough months.
My family and I wish to extend our deepest sympathy to you and your family. I remain,
Marvin S. Watkins
Samuel said: 'The museum sounds interesting. I want to know how it's being presented.
'I'm interested in what kind of spin they put on it. Are they trying to show that they were totally innocent or are they trying to come to grips with it?
'Marvin's attitude towards history was: "If you don't know your history, you are doomed to repeat it".
In an interview with Dailymail.com, Samuel revealed that his father never forgave himself for not being able to save his crew.
He said: 'He always said: "I have done all I could do for my men. I went to testify at the trial. The convictions were handed down. That's all I could do for my men."
'He had the feeling that he was the aircraft commander and he was responsible for bringing them home and he didn't. He had some sad feelings over that. He survived and they didn't. He always kept it very quiet.'
Sam Watkins, whose father Lieutenant Marvin S. Watkins was the only survivor of a group of soldiers who underwent vivisection at the hands of Japanese surgeons. He was taken to Toyko to face brutal interrogations
Marvin only opened up to a fellow veteran who he met after coming back, a dentist and doctor who became his confidant.
He felt only somebody with a medical background could understand what had happened to his comrades.
Samuel said: 'He felt guilty because he was in charge of his men. He was supposed to get them home. Once they were captured most of them were scattered so he did not have a lot of control over the situation.
'He said in his testimony that he and the engineer got out of the plane when one of the engines fell out.'
In 1980, a few years before he died, Marvin was contacted by a Japanese woman who was the wife of an American reporter.
She said that she had been contacted by Mr Tono, the Japanese doctor who wrote a book on the experiments, and said that he wanted to meet.
A portrait of Lieutenant Marvin S. Watkins in later years. He met a Japanese doctor who wrote a book about the medical experiments, but had an argument when Watkins called the Japanese a 'bunch of barbarians'
Mr Watkins said his father, Marvin Watkins, felt guilty when he learned what had happened to his men. 'Once they were captured most of them were scattered so he did not have a lot of control over the situation', he said.
Samuel said: 'Dr Tono wanted to meet my dad so he flew over to America. The Japanese doctor started asking some really emotional type of questions and dad got a bit upset and called them (the Japanese) a bunch of barbarians. That offended the Japanese doctor, but there were no hard feelings.'
When he returned to the U.S. Marvin initially moved back to Church Falls, Virginia, where he grew up. But he was soon restless.
He borrowed his father's car and drove out to see all the families of the men who had died.
Samuel said that he spent so much time on the road his family 'lost track of him' and only knew where he was by the parking tickets they got.
He said: 'The trip must have been tough. He never spoke about it.'
Marvin later moved to Richmond where he worked in the Department of Highways from the mid 1950s until his death in 1984.
One of the few people he did speak to was author Marc Landas in: 'The Fallen: A True Story of American POWs and Japanese Wartime Atrocities'.
Press cutting cover the prosecution of a former Japanese army nurse who was involved in the macbre experiments. She and 29 others were tried for vivisection at an Allied War Crimes tribunal in 1948
The book makes clear that even though Marvin was the sole survivor, his went through his own hell when was sent to Tokyo where he was questioned by the Kempeitai, the Japanese gestapo.
'The Fallen' details how he was put in one of six eight by 10ft prison cells which held 108 prisoners who were not allowed to bathe and, deprived of sunlight, their skin turned grey.
The book says they were also banned from talking so huddled close enough to hear each other breathe as they were so desperate to communicate with each other in any way they could.
The conditions were appalling and prisoners were banned from standing up and had to sit on hard wood boards - they had to crawl on all fours if they wanted to move around.
All they had to eat each day was one rice ball that they ate off the floor, the book says.
The gravestone of Lieutenant Watkins, who died in 1984. His experiences during the war were documented om a book by Marc Landas called 'The Fallen: A True Story of American POWs and Japanese Wartime Atrocities'
During one brutal interrogation at the hands of a guard known to the prisoners as 'Whiskers', Marvin refused to give a false confession, the book says.
Each time he refused he was beaten with bamboo sticks or punched and kicked until Whiskers lost his patience and pulled out a scabbard.
Marvin realised he was about to be beheaded.
The book says: 'Whiskers forced him to expose his neck and hang his head whilst still kneeling.
'Then Whiskers stood over him, weapon suspended in the air above his head. Marvin inhaled - his head swirled, his eyes shut, his hands trembled - then exhaled.
'In one swoop hand and blade descended. Whiskers did not decapitate with one blow; instead he simply tapped Marvin's neck with the side of the blade'.
Landas writes that this was worse than being dead.
The book says: 'Whiskers had obliterated Martin's faith that his own life was under his control…
'Marvin understood that his captors could take his life at a whim. It was the ultimate feeling of impotence'.
Newly released army documents prove that two American POWs wrote encoded messages to Army intelligence after their 1943 visit to Katyn, pointing to Soviet guilt for the 1940 massacre
Newly declassified U.S. army documents reveal that two American POWs sent secret coded messages to Army intelligence after their 1943 visit to Katyn, pointing to Soviet guilt for the 1940 massacre.
After witnessing rows of corpses in the Katyn forest, on the western edge of Russia, the American POWs told Washington they believed the Nazi claims that Soviets had carried out the killings of 22,000 Polish officers.
Having seen the advanced state of decay of the bodies, the POWs concluded that the killings must have been carried out by the Soviets rather than the Nazis who had only recently invaded the area surrounding the Katyn forest.
The documents shed further light on decades of suppression of Soviet guilt within the U.S. government which began during WWII when the blame for the massacre was being pointed at Nazi Germany. The long-held suspicion is that President Franklin Roosevelt didn't want to anger Josef Stalin, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan.
Kaytn massacre: This 1952 photo, shows a view of a partially emptied mass grave in the Katyn forest where approximately 22,000 Polish men were killed. Newly declassified documents add proof that the U.S. government helped cover up the Soviets' responsibility
The testimony about the infamous massacre of Polish officers might have lessened the tragic fate that befell Poland under the Soviets, some scholars believe.
Documents released Monday lend weight to the belief that suppression within the highest levels of the U.S. government helped cover up Soviet guilt in the killing of some 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners in the Katyn forest and other locations in 1940.
The evidence is among about 1,000 pages of newly declassified documents that the United States National Archives is releasing Monday and putting online.
The most dramatic revelation so far is the evidence of the secret codes sent by the two American POWs — something historians were unaware of and which adds to evidence that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Soviet atrocity relatively early on.
Cover up: Secret codes sent by the two American POWs about the massacre¿ something historians were unaware of - adds to evidence that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Soviet atrocity relatively early on
The declassified documents also show the United States maintaining that it couldn't conclusively determine guilt until a Russian admission in 1990 — a statement that looks improbable given the huge body of evidence of Soviet guilt that had already emerged decades earlier. Historians say the new material helps to flesh out the story of what the U.S. knew and when.
The Soviet secret police killed the 22,000 Poles with shots to the back of the head. Their aim was to eliminate a military and intellectual elite that would have put up stiff resistance to Soviet control. The men were among Poland's most accomplished — officers and reserve officers who in their civilian lives worked as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or as other professionals. Their loss has proven an enduring wound to the Polish nation.
In the early years after the war, outrage by some American officials over the concealment inspired the creation of a special U.S. Congressional committee to investigate Katyn.
In a final report released in 1952, the committee declared there was no doubt of Soviet guilt, and called the massacre 'one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.'
Deceit: The long-held suspicion is that President Franklin Roosevelt, centre, didn't want to anger Josef Stalin, left, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan during World War II. In this 1943 file photo, Stalin, Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill meet for the first time to discuss Allied plans for the war against Germany and for postwar cooperation in the United Nations
It found that Roosevelt's administration suppressed public knowledge of the crime, but said it was out of military necessity. It also recommended the government bring charges against the Soviets at an international tribunal — something never acted upon.
Despite the committee's strong conclusions, the White House maintained its silence on Katyn for decades, showing an unwillingness to focus on an issue that would have added to political tensions with the Soviets during the Cold War.
It was May 1943 in the Katyn forest, a part of Russia the Germans had seized from the Soviets in 1941, when group of American and British POWs were taken against their will by their German captors to witness a horrifying scene at a clearing surrounded by pine trees: mass graves tightly packed with thousands of partly mummified corpses in well-tailored Polish officers uniforms.
The Americans — Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr. — hated the Nazis and didn't want to believe the Germans. They had seen German cruelty up close, and the Soviets, after all, were their ally. The Germans were hoping to use the POWs for propaganda, and to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and its Western Allies.
But returning to their POW camps, the Americans carried a conviction that they had just witnessed overwhelming proof of Soviet guilt. The corpses' advanced state of decay told them the killings took place much earlier in the war, when the Soviets still controlled the area.
They also saw Polish letters, diaries, identification tags, news clippings and other objects — none dated later than spring of 1940 — pulled from the graves. The evidence that did the most to convince them was the good state of the men's boots and clothing: That told them the men had not lived long after being captured.
Fighting: Franciszek Herzog, 81, holds up a picture of his father who died in the massacre. Herzog has been hoping for more openness from the U.S. since Gorbachev's 1990 admission and previously made three attempts to obtain an apology from President George H.W. Bush
Stewart testified before the 1951 Congressional committee about what he saw, and Van Vliet wrote reports on Katyn in 1945 and 1950, the first of which mysteriously disappeared. But the newly declassified documents show that both sent secret encoded messages while still in captivity to army intelligence with their opinion of Soviet culpability.
It's an important revelation because it shows the Roosevelt administration was getting information early on from credible U.S. sources of Soviet guilt — yet still ignored it for the sake of the alliance with Stalin.
One shows a head of Army intelligence, Gen. Clayton Bissell, confirming that some months after the 1943 visit to Katyn by the U.S. officers, a coded request by MIS-X, a unit of military intelligence, was sent to Van Vliet requesting him 'to state his opinion of Katyn.' Bissell's note said that 'it is also understood Col. Van Vliet & Capt. Stewart replied.'
MIS-X was devoted to helping POWs held behind German lines escape; it also used the prisoners to gather intelligence.
A statement from Stewart dated 1950 confirms he received and sent coded messages to Washington during the war, including one on Katyn: 'Content of my report was aprx (approximately): German claims regarding Katyn substantially correct in opinion of Van Vliet and myself.'
The newly uncovered documents also show Stewart was ordered in 1950 — soon before the Congressional committee began its work — never to speak about a secret message on Katyn.
'Content of my report was aprx (approximately): German claims regarding Katyn substantially correct in opinion of Van Vliet and myself'
Code sent by U.S.Capt.Stewart
Krystyna Piorkowska, author of the recently published book 'English-Speaking Witnesses to Katyn: Recent Research,' discovered the documents related to the coded messages more than a week ago. She was one of several researchers who saw the material ahead of the public release.
She had already determined in her research that Van Vliet and Stewart were 'code users' who had gotten messages out about other matters. But this is the first discovery of them communicating about Katyn, she said.
Another Katyn expert aware of the documents, Allen Paul, author of 'Katyn: Stalin's Massacre and the Triumph of Truth,' said the find is 'potentially explosive.' He said the material does not appear in the record of the Congressional hearings in 1951-52, and appears to have also been suppressed.
He argues that the U.S. cover-up delayed a full understanding in the United States of the true nature of Stalinism — an understanding that came only later, after the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb in 1949 and after Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe were already behind the Iron Curtain.
'The Poles had known long before the war ended what Stalin's true intentions were,' Paul said. 'The West's refusal to hear them out on the Katyn issue was a crushing blow that made their fate worse.'
The historical record carries other evidence Roosevelt knew in 1943 of Soviet guilt. One of the most important messages that landed on FDR's desk was an extensive and detailed report British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent him. Written by the British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile in London, Owen O'Malley, it pointed to Soviet guilt at Katyn.
Murdered: New evidence adds proof that the U.S. government helped cover up Soviet guilt in the killing of some 22,000 Polish officers. Franciszek Herzog, pictured here in 1938, died in the massacres
'There is now available a good deal of negative evidence,' O'Malley wrote, 'the cumulative effect of which is to throw serious doubt on Russian disclaimers of responsibility for the massacre.'
It wasn't until the waning days of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe that reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admitted to Soviet guilt at Katyn, a key step in Polish-Russian reconciliation.
The silence by the U.S. government has been a source of deep frustration for many Polish-Americans. One is Franciszek Herzog, 81, a Connecticut man whose father and uncle died in the massacre. After Gorbachev's 1990 admission, he was hoping for more openness from the U.S. as well and made three attempts to obtain an apology from President George H.W. Bush.
'It will not resurrect the men,' he wrote to Bush. 'But will give moral satisfaction to the widows and orphans of the victims.'
A reply he got in 1992, from the State Department, did not satisfy him. His correspondence with the government is also among the newly released documents and was obtained early by the AP from the George Bush Presidential Library.
The letter, dated Aug. 12, 1992, and signed by Thomas Gerth, then deputy director of the Office of Eastern European Affairs, shows the government stating that it lacked irrefutable evidence until Gorbachev's admission:
'The U.S. government never accepted the Soviet Government's claim that it was not responsible for the massacre. However, at the time of the Congressional hearings in 1951-1952, the U.S. did not possess the facts that could clearly refute the Soviets' allegations that these crimes were committed by the Third Reich. These facts, as you know, were not revealed until 1990, when the Russians officially apologized to Poland.'
Herzog expressed frustration at that reply.
'There's a big difference between not knowing and not wanting to know,' Herzog said. 'I believe the U.S. government didn't want to know because it was inconvenient to them.'
Decades of denial and deceit: How one of the most barbarous crimes in world history was covered up
September 1939: World War II begins with the German invasion of Poland from the west, quickly followed by the Soviet invasion from the east. The carving up of Poland results from a secret pact between Adolf Hitler's Germany and Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. The Soviets soon capture thousands of Polish officers and transport them to POW camps in Russia. They also deport hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians to Siberia.
April-May 1940: Soviet secret police kill 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners of war and dump their bodies in mass graves. The murders, carried out with shots to the back of the heads, take place in the Katyn forest in western Russia and other locations. At that time, letters from the officers to their families come to a sudden stop, bringing despair to relatives and creating an early Polish belief that the Soviets killed them. Questioned by Polish leaders on the fate of the officers, the Soviets begin decades of denying their guilt.
1941: Germany attacks Soviet Union, and in its eastward advance overruns the territory surrounding Katyn. The Soviets join the Allies in the war against Hitler.
April 1943: Nazi Germany's propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels announces the German discovery of mass graves at Katyn. Goebbels hopes public knowledge of the Soviet crime would sow distrust between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies and weaken their alliance.
May 1943: As part of the Nazi propaganda effort, the Germans bring a group of American and British POWs to Katyn, as well as other groups, to see the remains of the Poles in the mass graves, in an advanced state of decomposition.
May 1945: World War II ends. Upon being freed Lt. Col John H. Van Vliet gives his first report to Army intelligence on what he witnessed at Katyn, one that disappeared and still has never been found.
1951: The U.S. Congress sets up a committee to investigate the Katyn crimes after questions about the whereabouts of the missing Van Vliet report from 1945. Even ahead of the formal establishment of the committee, Van Vliet in 1950 makes a second written report on his impressions from Katyn.
1952: The Congressional committee concludes there is no question that the Soviets bear blame for the massacre. It faults Roosevelt's administration for suppressing public knowledge of the truth. The report also says it suspects pro-Soviet sympathizers within government agencies buried knowledge about Katyn. It expresses anger at the disappearance of the first Van Vliet report and says: 'This committee believes that had the Van Vliet report been made immediately available to the Dept. of State and to the American public, the course of our governmental policy toward Soviet Russia might have been more realistic with more fortunate post-war results.'
1990: The reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admits that the Soviets bear guilt for Katyn.
Did Britain's Commando heroes die in vain? Their daring raids drove Hitler to order them shot on sight, but a new book argues the soldiers, who died in their hundreds, did little to change the course of the war
Bedraggled, beaten, starved and manacled, the seven British soldiers captured on an undercover sabotage mission in occupied Europe were hauled from their cells at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Nazi Germany.
Their private war was over. Forced to their knees beside an open trench, they were shot in the back of the neck by SS troops. Their summary execution 70 years ago on October 18, 1942, was a landmark.
They were the first to die as a result of Adolf Hitler’s notorious (and illegal) Kommandobefehl or Commando Order, his revenge instruction for dealing with members of the elite Commando force who fell into German hands.
Ruthless: Commandos were drilled to climb, run and kill better than anyone else
The Commandos were the poster boys of the British military in World War II, the toughest and the bravest, cherry-picked from every regiment, ruthlessly trained and then let loose on clandestine missions in German-occupied Europe.
Hundreds of them died on what in many cases were suicide missions, operations so daring and dangerous that the commanders who sent them were grateful if any got back alive. But what was the point of their sacrifice? A fascinating new book by military historian James Owen concludes that what these men of iron actually achieved was precious little.
It was Winston Churchill who set up the Commando units, in the aftermath of Dunkirk. Britain stood alone and under siege, and until the country recovered the strength to fight back in numbers, the Commandos would be the ones to take the battle into the enemy’s backyard.
They would be the inspirational daredevils who would defiantly bat on for Britain and pave the way to eventual victory.
The Rambos of their day, they dashed across the Channel to cause mayhem in French ports, infiltrated enemy positions in the North African desert, blew up power plants, lighthouses, gun emplacements, anything whose loss would inflict damage on the enemy.
They were trained to march, run, climb, swim, canoe, shoot and brawl better than anyone else. And to kill without compunction — a strong arm round a sentry’s neck from behind, a quick jab with a knife in the neck, another enemy down.
Commandos in a landing craft taking them ashore during training in Scotland, 1942
The British public loved their exploits, graphically retold in newspaper articles and radio broadcasts. A man in a green beret was guaranteed to be stood drinks all night in any pub by a grateful, doting public.
But Hitler came to loathe them as they stormed the walls of Fortress Europe and opened up chinks in his armour. Hence his secret order, issued after 18 months of incursions, to execute each and every one of them.
Even if they were in uniform and even if they had surrendered, he fulminated, they were not to be treated as prisoners-of-war. They were ‘bandits’ and ‘criminals, to be ‘eliminated’, no questions asked.
A month later, 34 more commandos were dead when the gliders taking them on a secret mission behind enemy lines crashed. Those who didn’t die in the wreckage were summarily shot.
And the carnage went on as Hitler pursued his vendetta against an elite force who so dramatically mocked his mastery of the Continent. That the Fuhrer felt compelled to respond so ruthlessly was, bizarrely, a back-handed compliment, a badge of honour for his tormentors.
The very first Commando raid in March 1941 had set the tone. It had been sent to destroy fish oil factories on the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway, and met with such little opposition that one officer went to the post office and sent a telegram.
Commandos engaged in street fighting in Ouistreham, Northwestern France
‘To A Hitler Berlin,’ it read. ‘You said in your last speech German troops would meet the English wherever they landed Stop So where were they?’ The taunting had gone on ever since.
Like wasps, the Commandos were clearly getting under the enemy’s skin. The mission for which those seven brave men paid with their lives that day in Sachsenhausen was typical of the damage and the irritation they were causing.
Twelve men set out on what was designated Operation Musketoon, led by the dashing 33-year-old Captain Graeme Black — whose pre-war occupation, improbable for a hardened warrior, had been making handbags for the couturier Norman Hartnell.
Their mission was to penetrate deep into enemy-occupied Norway and wreck a smelting plant producing much-needed aluminium for the German army. They spent four days crammed in the hull of an ageing submarine in the North Atlantic before being infiltrated into the coastal waters of enemy-occupied Norway in rubber dinghies.
Then they paddled four miles to the shore, hiked up a mountain carrying 60lb of gelignite apiece and hauled themselves across a glacier on ropes. Their target was not the plant itself but a hydro-electric station that powered it. The team split in two, with Black leading the main force to the generator building, creeping in the dark past the barracks where 100 German soldiers were sleeping.
Once inside, they worked feverishly to pack explosives around the turbines and attach delayed-action fuses. It was all done in the dark in 15 frantic minutes, then they were out and on their way, heading back up the mountain.
Commandos and Sherman DD tanks advancing towards Ouistreham, June 6, 1944
They had gone just a few hundred yards away when there was a tremendous explosion behind them and they stopped to gaze back with satisfaction. Job done.
Meanwhile, the other team had climbed high above the building to plant collars of gelignite around huge iron pipes feeding water to the plant. A second explosion sent millions of gallons of water and ton after ton of mud and gravel cascading down into the remains of the turbine room.
Soon the machinery was under 15ft of silt and sand. Job doubly done.
But now the saboteurs faced the hardest part of their mission — getting away. Ahead lay a 40-mile trek to neutral Sweden across tough mountainous terrain, with what seemed like the entire German army now on their tails.
They paused on a ridge, taking pot shots at their pursuers, hoping to hold them off. Salvoes of German bullets sent them scurrying on. There was a life-and-death struggle with an enemy patrol in a hut where they sought shelter and one Commando was fatally wounded.
The rest split up but for the seven there was no escape. They emerged into an open bowl to see field-grey uniforms lining the rim on all sides. Black crouched behind a rock, but when a couple of grenades were tossed towards them, they stepped out with their hands up. It was all over.
Of the others, three battled through blizzards and snow drifts, waded rivers and hid from tracker aircraft buzzing overhead for a week before making it to safety. The other went half-mad with hunger and cold but was helped by locals until, after 13 days on the run, he crossed into Sweden.
Back home — with the fate of Black and the six captured with him unknown, as it would be until the end of the war — the mission was trumpeted as a great victory.
Once again Britain’s shock troops had made their mark, as they had done in dozens of daring raids on the coast of France, in Italy and North Africa, inflicting pain and retribution on the enemy and hampering his war effort.
Commandos disembarking carrying bicycles at an unidentified location in Normandy in northern France during Operation Overlord, 1944
But the truth was not quite so rosy. The aluminium plant for which Black and his six comrades-in-arms took bullets in the neck at Sachsenhausen was not made inoperable for the rest of the war, as had been intended. It was back up and running within three months.
The same missed opportunity went for many other do-or-die Commando missions. The most famous raid of all was the one by men in canoes — the so-called Cockleshell Heroes — to destroy ships in the Garonne estuary in France with limpet mines and cut off Germany’s vital supplies of rubber from the Far East.
A dozen men set off, only two returned, but, according to Winston Churchill, their efforts shortened the war by six months. In reality, says author Owen, it is doubtful it did so by six minutes. The ships attacked were sunk in shallow water and were soon refloated, repaired and back at sea.
In his honest appraisal of the Commandos, Owen doesn’t doubt the verve and dash of heroes like ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill who went into battle with a longbow, a sword and his skirling bagpipes. Or the 5ft-tall ‘Tich’ Cowan, a former admiral, who was allowed to join the Commandos at the ripe old age of 73.
He was captured on a behind-the-lines mission to Tobruk as he took on advancing German tanks with his revolver. He only surrendered when he ran out of bullets.
Nor does he downplay the mind-boggling bravery of the likes of Lieutenant George Knowland, a bank clerk in civilian life, who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for holding a hill in Burma virtually single-handed against 300 Japanese soldiers. Nor does he underestimate the daring of the teams who slipped across the Channel in the run-up to D-Day.
Under the noses of the Germans, they checked out beach and cliff defences or left false trails that the Calais coast rather than Normandy was the planned invasion point.
But lives were thrown away needlessly. Just three out of 34 came back from an attempt to assassinate Rommel, Germany’s best general, at his headquarters in the African desert. It turned out he hadn’t been there for months. The whole plan had been misconceived.
Of 265 commandos who attacked the French port of St Nazaire, more than 200 were killed or captured, but their success was only partial. They put the dry-dock permanently out of action, depriving the German navy of a base to service its battleships.
Specialist commando group X-Troop who helped to take the Pegasus Bridge in Normandy
But the raid failed to wreck the submarine pens, from which a much greater danger to Allied shipping would emerge.
‘You know a lot of you aren’t coming back but you push it to the back of your mind,’ recalled one survivor of a raid in which hundreds were to die. ‘I just hoped that if I got a bullet it’s a quick one and I’m finished, not wounded.’
The Commando fatally wounded on Operation Musketoon was stoical as his comrades were forced to leave him behind. ‘If a nation is to live, some must be willing to die,’ he told them. It was a noble sentiment that could have been the Commandos’ motto.
Yet in the end, says Owen, for all the effort invested in the Commandos’ missions, and for all the courage they required, none proved to be essential to victory. In reality, it was the ordinary, rank-and-file conscript army that won the key battles to defeat Hitler — Alamein, D-Day, Normandy and so on.
Some argue that the Commandos may even have hindered the success of the conventional forces. There were many in that Army who felt that they would have won the war sooner had the Commandos not creamed off the best of their fighting men.
Battles were won by a hard-core of soldiers, the anti-Commando brigade argued. If the ones with backbone were hived off to go on jaunts of dubious worth, then it was inevitable the main forces would suffer. They had a point.
So, if their missions were often failures and their existence posed problems for the regular army, was there any point at all to the Commandos? The answer is that their buccaneering image — skilfully enhanced by propaganda — raised morale at home at a time when the prospects for Britain looked bleak.
Myth has a powerful part to play in winning wars. Poland, Belgium, Holland, France, the Mediterranean, North Africa and much more besides had been overrun by Hitler’s hordes.
The image of the invincible British Commando, dagger between his teeth, striking night after night in a carefully co-ordinated campaign of sabotage and raiding, was a symbol of defiance against all the odds. No wonder Hitler wanted to crush it.
The Commandos were a magnificent exercise in bravado and guts at a time when Britain’s very survival was in doubt. Those seven brave Britons who went to their gruesome death in a Nazi concentration camp 70 years ago might have taken some final comfort from knowing that.
Alistair Urquhart was 20 when he was called up to fight in World War II. Today, at 90, he is one of the last survivors of his battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. For 60 years, he remained silent about the starvation, torture and brutality he endured at the hands of the Japanese Army. Now, in a unique memoir, he reveals the full horror of his years as a Far East PoW. Here, in our final extract from his autobiography, he documents the terrors of the infamous hellships and the devastation of Nagasaki.
Back home: PoW survivor Alistair Urquhart endured agony at the hands of the Japanese army , By late 1943, a new chapter of slavery and misery awaited me. I was back in Singapore to work in the docks unloading bags of rice and sugar from various ships.
Whether they were Japanese ships or ones they had captured, I was unsure. We would pick up the heavy bags and take them on our shoulders to the warehouses.
By now we were so starved that the sacks were heavier than us. I weighed less than 7st and our terrible decrepit and weak physical state made the work unbearable. Every muscle, sinew and joint ached in the heat.
The days turned into weeks and then into months. There seemed no end to our torment. Then one day, in September 1944, while working on the dockside, we were suddenly herded on to a large cargo vessel. There was no warning.
Using sticks, the Japanese drove us like cattle down into two holds that had quite obviously not been made to accommodate human beings. They wanted around 450 of us in each.
The lads below were shouting and pleading for them not to let any more men in. But the louder they shouted the more frenzied the guards became and down we went into the depths of hell.
Nothing in all of our suffering had prepared me for this, and even today I can scarcely find the words to describe the horrors of the Kachidoki Maru.
In the hold, there was standing room only, all of us packed like sardines, with no toilet facilities. Most had dysentery, malaria and beriberi, a disease caused by our limited diet and marked by pain and paralysis.
The guards battened down the hatches, plunging us into a terrifying black pit and the most fearful clamour went up as claustrophobia and panic gripped the men. Yet a strange tranquillity overcame me. I felt resigned and just thought: 'This is it.' I would never see home again.
We knew nothing about these ships, which would become infamous in the annals of history as 'hellships' - a fleet of dozens of rusting hulks used to shuttle supplies and prisoners around Japan's Far Eastern empire.
Some of the most appalling episodes of the war occurred on these ships in which men, driven crazy by thirst, killed fellow prisoners to drink their blood.
Nineteen of the 56 hellships were sunk by submarines and aircraft and a total of 22,000 Allied prisoners died during agonising voyages to the slave camps in Japan and Taiwan.
Down in the bowels of that ship the heat was unbelievable. Temperatures quickly reached in excess of 100F.
The Japanese hellship Kachidoki Maru: Prisoners onboard were packed like sardines, with standing room only and no toilet facilities
I could not move. No one could. You couldn't sit or lie down. And the smell was indescribable - an overpowering stench of excrement, urine, vomit, sweat, weeping ulcers and rotting flesh clogged the atmosphere.
Thirst became our biggest problem. At no time were we given water. People don't understand what real thirst truly is. You start to hallucinate and see mirages, and that is the most dangerous thing. People died down in the holds from suffocation or heart attacks. Their bodies lay among us.
Six days out of Singapore, I wondered how much more I could take. Then in the distance came a muffled explosion. We had sailed into a trap set by the American submariners. Suddenly, we felt a tremendous blast and a torpedo tore through the hold. The ship shuddered and tilted. We were going down.
The hatches became level with the sea and by some miracle the water washed me out. The sea was a mass of thick oil as a total of 12 ships in our convoy were sunk that night.
I knew from my Boy Scout training that I had to swim away to avoid getting pulled down by the suction. Those of us who could swim were the only ones who stood a chance.
In the bowels of that ship, the heat was unbelievable. Temperatures quickly reached in excess of 100F
I put my head down and powered with desperate overarm strokes, dodging debris as I went, all the time gulping down oil. It was like drinking fire.
When I was 50 yards away, I felt safe - for the moment. The sea was aflame. Like a scene from Dante's Inferno, smoke filled the night sky and screams came from all directions.
I turned to look at the ship. Treading water, I saw it list and then in just a few seconds the stern slipped silently under.
Even after the sinking, the killing went on for those who survived and got on to rafts. Anyone starting to panic was thrown back into the sea. Many gave up, already so weak, dangerously dehydrated and ill.
Dying men called for their wives, their children or mothers. Others gulped salt water and quickly went mad, drowning themselves to end the torment.
Two hundred and forty-four of my comrades on the Kachidoki Maru died that night. It was tragic beyond belief that, having survived the Death Railway, they became prisoners of the deep.In the water with bedlam all around, a great urge to be on my own engulfed me. It felt like the safest tactic.
My prayers were answered when a single-man raft came floating past. Exhausted, I hoisted myself into it. Soon, I was alone and bitterly cold in the night air. I knew that I had to stay awake to stay alive.
When light came in the morning there was not a thing in sight. It was so hot out on the open sea with the unrelenting glare bouncing off the water. My burning skin was dissolving into salt-water immersion sores, made even more painful when crude oil got into the fissures. It felt like being cooked alive.When the sun went down again, it was bitingly cold. Terrified of rolling off the raft, I still had to stay awake. I was at my lowest ebb. Half of me wanted to give up. The other half refused. And so it went on. By the time the sun came up on the fifth day, I could no longer see; my eyes had been seared by the dazzling sun.
I had no eyebrows or hair on my head; I think the sheer shock of what was happening to me had caused my hair to fall out. I fell into a trance-like state. I was on the edge of death.
At some point on that day, there came a lot of shouting around me. I was lifted into a small boat and then on to a Japanese whaling ship. The next thing I knew, I was being dropped off at a port where there were other shipwrecked PoW survivors. There must have been at least 100 of us.
As a punishment, we were paraded through the village naked. Some of the locals turned their backs on this terrible procession but others jeered and spat at us. I was past caring.
And then something incredible happened. As we stumbled along in the pouring rain, someone started singing Singin' In The Rain'. Slowly, we all joined in with altered lyrics crudely deriding our captors. Even after all we had been through, we were defiant, our spirits unbroken.
August 9, 1945 began like any other boring day in captivity, and at dawn I began my daily chores around our PoW camp.
But on an air base thousands of miles away in the Mariana Islands, Captain Charles Sweeney, a young U.S. Air Force officer, aged just 25 like myself, was beginning a day that would be anything but normal.
It was three days after the bombing of Hiroshima and the outcome of World War II seemed obvious. But the diehards in the Japanese government wanted to fight on.
Now U.S. President Harry Truman decided that another message must be sent. Sweeney's mission was to deliver an A-bomb named 'Fat Man'. At over 10ft long and 5ft in diameter, it weighed in at 10,200lb.
At around midday I had finally plucked up the courage to undertake my most hateful task - emptying the latrine cans on to the Japanese officers' tomato plants. It always made my stomach turn but I did have to marvel at the spectacular effect it produced in the plants, which boasted tomatoes the size of apples.
'A sudden gust of hot air like a giant hairdryer blasted into me, knocking my shrunken frame sideways': Alistair Urquhart describes the moment the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945
I was taking care to avoid being splashed when there came a tremendous clap of thunder from the direction of Nagasaki. Then moments later, a sudden gust of hot air like a giant hairdryer blasted into me, knocking my shrunken frame sideways. Later, the other prisoners came back from their day at a nearby factory and began to talk of a massive bomb raid. No one had any concrete information. We just knew that something big had happened down in Nagasaki. In fact, temperatures at ground zero in the city had flashed to between 3,000 and 4,000C after Fat Man was dropped from 30,000ft by Sweeney's crew. The entire area had been flattened and 39,000 people had been vaporised instantly by this bomb. The world had changed for ever.
For several days at our camp, it was business as usual. Then on August 21 we were paraded and the Japanese commander read out the declaration of the cessation of hostilities. The war was over.
We waited to be rescued. One day, early in September, I heard a commotion outside. U.S. marines had driven into camp. We stood and watched in amazement. Smiling and strapping Yanks in pressed khaki uniforms were dispensing cigarettes by the fistful, hugging rag-and-bone strangers.
Men were shouting and screaming, throwing things in the air, weeping and kissing the earth, lost in emotion. I shook hands with Dr Mathieson, our camp medic. We shared a silent moment taking it all in before I went to collect what few things I still had.
I jumped on one of the first trucks to speed out of the camp towards Nagasaki harbour, where a ship was waiting to escort us to freedom.
From the rear of the lorry, I stared at the countryside. The hedgerows and trees were dying. Trees had been reduced to knee-high ashen stumps. Soot, ash and dust lay piled deep like fresh snow along the verge. No birds sang. Nothing lived.
The Yanks told us proudly that they had dropped a 'special bomb' on Nagasaki, but I knew nothing of radioactivity or of the near fatal consequences my exposure to it would have.
You could not tell Nagasaki had once been a city with a pre-war population of 195,000. It looked like the dark side of the moon.
At Nagasaki harbour, the Americans had engineered some makeshift open-roofed showers. I had my first proper wash in three and a half years and was fumigated and de-loused before being placed on the scales. When I had left my home in Aberdeen, I had weighed a healthy 135lb, but here in Nagasaki I was reduced to a skeletal 82lb.
We sailed home to Southampton, via America, finally docking on November 17. I sent a cable to my family saying, 'Home tomorrow'. Twenty-four hours later, my train pulled into Aberdeen Joint Station where I knew they would be waiting.
Aftermath: A battered Buddha statue on a hill above a razed valley in Nagasaki
I spotted Mum first. We hugged, and I shall never forget the look in her eyes. I hugged my Dad and my sister, Rhoda, and the tears could no longer be held back.
My parents had aged far beyond their years. My ordeal had taken a toll on them as well as myself. I turned to the young chap beside them and said: 'Are you Rhoda's boyfriend?' Eyebrows raised, he said: 'No, you bloody fool! I am your brother Bill.'
It emerged that they had all thought I had been killed. None of the cards I had sent from the camps had ever arrived. I was back from the dead.
On the tram journey home, I asked where my elder brother Douglas was. They told me that he was 'abroad' working for the Foreign Office. I wouldn't see him again until the following Christmas, when he returned as a shattered wreck. He refused to tell anybody where he had been and was very nearly a broken man.
By time we reached home I was already feeling panicky. So much had changed. Mum had prepared a lavish breakfast with tattie scones, sausages and eggs. We sat down with everyone on their best behaviour. But despite much encouragement I could only pick at my food.
I felt ill. I could barely lift my head and the conversation buzzed around me. It was all too much. Suddenly, I snapped and slammed my fork down on Mum's finest crockery. The room fell silent. 'I'm going out,' I announced. I needed to be alone.
I walked and walked. Before long I was miles from home. I did not return until around five o'clock the next morning. My parents were still up, obviously worried sick.
I hated myself, but I had lived a solitary life for so long that their love only suffocated me. In many respects my family felt like strangers.
For the next few months my daily routine consisted of more long and pointless walks.
My body fell apart. I started to suffer with pains from beriberi, and the cold winter air did not help. Nor could I eat properly. Much to my surprise I craved rice, the lousy stuff we had all hated so much.
Much to my surprise, I craved rice, the lousy stuff we had all hated so much
My GP arranged for me to be examined at a military hospital. They ran tests and suggested different foods, but I was still unable to take anything except fluids. I became weaker by the day.
Then a baffled doctor visited my bedside and said he couldn't understand why I couldn't take food. I told him: 'If you had to survive on nothing else but rice and water for three and a half years, then maybe you could understand!
'Maybe my body is craving rice,' I suggested. 'We could try it,' he said.
It seemed logical and, perhaps not surprisingly, it worked. My body responded to the rice. My throat opened up and my bowels went from a stormy sea to a millpond.
I ate rice pudding every day for several weeks - and relished it, too!
After three months, I came out of hospital armed with instructions for my mum on how to cook tripe, which she despised. She cooked fish, poached in milk, with servings of rice, as exotic as it got in those days.
To this day I still have to eat rice two or three times a week, with some fish or chicken. Anything else causes havoc with my insides. The diet, courtesy of the Emperor's Imperial Army, along with years of dysentery, had destroyed the linings in my stomach and done irreparable damage.
By February 1946, I had regained some strength and thought it was time to dust off my old ballroom dancing shoes and attempt a night out. At the Palais de Dance, I met Mary Milne, a local lassie, three years younger than me. I told her I had been a prisoner of the Japanese, but that was as much detail as I gave. She didn't ask me any questions and I liked it that way.
Dancing was the best rehabilitation I could have asked for. By that summer I felt fitter both mentally and physically and my thoughts returned to work. I went to see Mr Grassie, my old boss from the plumbing merchants where I had been a young apprentice before the war. He wasn't one to show his feelings, but I swear that as he ushered me into his office, he shed a tear.
'It's grand to see you,' he choked. I reported for work in early in September and Mr Grassie, a veteran of the Great War, assigned me to the office section. He never asked about my war experiences.
I threw myself into a career and worked my way up to become managing director of another plumbing supplies business.
Mary and I married. We were able to enjoy family life with our two children and, as they grew up, I took great pleasure from their success.
In my 70s, after losing Mary to a stroke, I developed an aggressive cancer that doctors believe may have been linked to my exposure to radiation at Nagasaki. The skin cancer I am currently battling is unquestionably the result of slaving virtually naked for months in the tropical sun.
But at 90, I am still working on my slow foxtrot and living life to the fullest. I dance five times a week and organise two weekly tea dances. I campaign for the residents of my sheltered housing complex and have managed to persuade the council to give us funds for computer, painting and t'ai chi classes to keep us active.
Always in my thoughts and prayers are the faces of those who died - those prisoners who endured terrible deaths in a distant land.
But for their sake, I remember that life is worth living and no matter what it throws at you, it is important to keep your eyes on the prize of the happiness that will come.
Exactly 63 years ago today, amid a calm sea, shoals of landing craft headed for the beaches of the Pacific island of Peleliu, unleashed from an armada of American warships anchored off shore.
In his landing craft, Marine Colonel 'Chesty' Puller told his men: "You will take no prisoners, you will kill every yellow son-of-a-bitch, and that's it."
Smoke shrouded the island. For three days intensive gunfire from five battleships and five heavy cruisers had been pounding its seven square miles of coral and rock. Now the Marines were going ashore to mop up what little they imagined would be left of the Japanese garrison.
They went off in an almost cocky mood - just as their successors would go into Iraq decades later - confident that their firepower and superior technology would bring an easy victory.
The Navy's bombardment would allow them to take the island unmolested. The Marines reckoned on four days at the most to do the job.
But the invaders were in for one of the most unwelcome surprises of the war.
Brutal: The Japanese fought relentlessly
The Marines hit the beaches at 08.32. There were no Japanese to be seen. But within minutes, medic Bill Jenkins was cradling his first casualty.
"Practically the whole back of his head was shot off, and I was lying down there trying to fix him up. One of the guys came up and said, 'Doc, get out of there, he's dead.'"
A tough infantryman named Wayley was hit four times before collapsing. As he and a friend lay under cover in a tank-trap, he asked his buddy to get a stretcher, but the moment the friend moved, machine-gun fire caught his arms.
"One was 99.9per cent off and the other almost as bad," said Jenkins after treating him. "I could have clipped both arms off with scissors. But I just kind of wrapped them up the best I could with T-shirts and tourniquets."
Against the odds, the man survived. Nearly 2,000 of his fellow countrymen did not.
More than 10,000 Japanese were defending the island and had deployed on a series of coral ridges with commanding views of the shore. The terrain was ideally suited to defence - which surprised the Americans, who had explored the beach beforehand, but not the hinterland.
Peleliu had been a mining site. Each ridge was honeycombed with tunnels, in which the Japanese had installed electricity and living quarters, impervious to shells and bombs. Reinforced concrete blast walls protected each tunnel mouth.
The beach at Peleliu, flailed by enemy fire, became one of the Marines' most shocking memories of the entire war. More than 200 died just on the first day. Peleliu was a significant event. Like the D-Day landings three months earlier launching the Allies' drive on Germany, the island was the first steppingstone towards a full-scale attack on Japan, 2,000 miles away.
The trauma inflicted on the Allies by Pearl Harbor, the loss of Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Burma, the Dutch East Indies and scores of Pacific islands had finally faded. That morning of September 15, 1944, the fight to force Emperor Hirohito and his armies to surrender and end World War II was beginning.
But it was happening in a way the Americans had never expected. By nightfall, the 12,000 Marines ashore were crowded into scrapes and holes
on a mile-long beachhead, which granted each man a few square feet of coral, sand and insects. Japanese infiltrators crept into American forward positions, grenading and testing nerves.
There was little scope for outflanking enemy strongpoints. These could be assaulted only headlong, each yard of progress was paid for in blood.
A senior Marine wrote: "The shells, mortar barrages, napalm strikes and bombs that poured in killed many Japanese in exposed positions on the peaks, but from the caves there were new relays of snipers and machine-gunners to replace those who had fallen." Once, the Japanese launched a counterattack. It was easily repulsed, the enemy shot to pieces. When feeble Japanese 'tankettes' surrounded an American tank, it destroyed 11 of them in a circle, 'like Indians round a wagon train' according to Marine General O. P. Smith.
Here was the pattern for all the battles to come: when the Japanese moved, they were slaughtered, but when they held their ground, they were extraordinarily hard to kill. It took a week and 3,946 U.S. casualties just to secure the island's airfield.
Even then, the Japanese overlooked the Americans from Bloody Nose Ridge and kept up sustained fire on their positions. After the Japanese shot down medics who were helping to recover the wounded, heavy mortars laid smokescreens to protect stretcher-bearers.
"Our troops should understand," a command report read, "that the Japanese is no better able to go without food than we are, his stamina is no greater, the Jap gets just as wet when it rains and he suffers as much or more from tropical ills."
Yet all this was often hard for Americans to believe as temperatures reached 115F. Their lips and ears blistered in the sun. Scores of men suffered heat exhaustion. The jagged coral wore out boots within days: 1,000 new pairs and 5,000 sets of socks were flown in.
'Chesty' Puller asked his men if there was anything he could get them. Predictably, they asked for a drink stronger than water. He issued medicinal alcohol mixed with powdered lemonade. Others found a cache of Japanese sake and beer, and were briefly heard singing.
Long-range flame-throwers proved the most effective weapons against Peleliu's cave mouths, but each assault was painfully slow and costly. Almost all the defenders chose to perish rather than quit. It was six weeks before the island fell and even then some refused to give up.
On November 24, a month after the Japanese commander, Col. Kunio Nakagawa, committed suicide, his surviving soldiers killed a group of souvenir-hunting American soldiers. The last five known Japanese on Peleliu surrendered in February 1945.
Statisticians later calculated that, to capture this tiny outpost, U.S. infantrymen fired more than 15 million bullets, 150,000 mortar bombs and 118,262 grenades. It had taken 1,500 rounds of artillery ammunition to kill each member of the garrison.
Some 1,950 Americans died. And that was just one stage on the road to Tokyo. Things could only get worse. As Japan's Pacific perimeter narrowed, the enemy knew where to expect the Americans, and had ample time to prepare to receive them.
Here there were no great battles like those of the war in Europe, no Normandy campaign and no Bulge. Instead, there was a series of intense miniatures, like this one.
The U.S., whose power seemed so great when viewed across the canvas of global war, found itself unable to leverage this in battles of bloody handkerchief proportions. Such contests were decided largely by the endeavours of foot soldiers and fought on Japanese terms that suited their temperament, skills and meagre resources.
The defenders had no means of withdrawing, even if they wished to do so. Their extinction, therefore, required a commitment of flesh against flesh, the sacrifice of significant numbers of American lives.
Many of us gained our first wonderfully romantic notion of the war against Japan by watching Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific. Memories of its scenes pervaded my consciousness as I wrote this history. It may be entertainment, but it catches a few truths about the struggle.
A host of innocent young men and a scattering of young women found themselves in a wildly exotic setting. The Pacific's natural beauty provided inadequate compensation, alas, for the discomforts and emotional stresses they endured.
For every fighting man who suffered the terrors of battle at places like Peleliu, many more men experienced heat and boredom at some Godforsaken island base.
One-and-a-quarter million Americans served in the Pacific and Asia, a zone of operations embracing a third of the globe. Almost 400,000 British servicemen fought in the Far East, with more than two million soldiers of Britain's Indian Army.
The Japanese part of World War II is often demoted by those preoccupied with Europe and Hitler. That is still a source of resentment to those obliged to fight in it.
The lives of 103,000 Americans were sacrificed to defeat Japan, along with more than 30,000 Britons, Indians, Australians and other Commonwealth servicemen, many of whom perished in captivity.
The U.S. casualty rate in the Pacific was three-and-a-half times that in Europe. It is small against the slaughter in China and Russia, but it seemed a high price, given the Western expectation that nations as rich and technologically powerful as theirs should be able to gain easy victory.
U.S. forces fought their way across the Pacific, supported by a huge array of ships, planes, men and guns. At peak production in March 1944, an aircraft rolled out of an American factory every 295 seconds. By the end of that year, almost 100 U.S. aircraft carriers were at sea. American planes and submarines were strangling Japanese supply routes.
The cumulative cost was enormous, when every ration pack and truck tyre had to be shipped halfway across the world to the battlefield. There was constant waste. Americans fighting for their lives were negligent about the care of food, weapons, equipment and vehicles.
Few Westerners who served in the war against Japan enjoyed it. Veterans agree the North African desert was the most congenial, or rather least terrible, theatre. Thereafter in ascending intensity of grief came north-west Europe, Italy and finally the Far East.
Soldiers, sailors and airmen never felt entirely healthy during Asian or Pacific service. The stifling heat below decks in a warship made daily routine enervating, even before the enemy took a hand. The only interruptions to months at sea were provided by brief spasms in an overcrowded rest camp on a featureless atoll.
For those fighting the land campaigns, disease and privation threatened the men's welfare. "Hello, suckers," Tokyo Rose taunted them from Radio Japan. "I got mine last night, your wives and sweethearts probably got theirs back home - did you get yours?"
Men of the British 14th Army, pursuing its own course against the Japanese through the Burma jungle, were also suffering.
"Here it is a Burma moon with not a girl in sight and a few dead Japs trying to stink you out," Sergeant Harry Hunt wrote to a relative in England. "It must be lovely to soldier back home, just to get away from this heat and sweat, from these natives, to get together with white men.
"There it comes, the rain again, rain, rain that's all we get, then the damp, it slowly eats into your bones, you wake up like nothing on Earth. Better close now before I use bad words."
One of Hunt's senior officers, Major-General Douglas Gracey, took a bleak view, too: "The capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed.
"Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of them prefer death or suicide to capture. The fight is more total than in Europe. The Jap can be compared to the most fanatical Nazi youth and must be dealt with accordingly." Extreme methods would have to be used to defeat them.
All sides had their delusions about the war. Winston Churchill nursed the belief that victory over Japan would enable Britain to sustain its rule in India, and reassert command of Burma and Malaya. The U.S. cherished a parallel fantasy, equally massive, that it could liberate China from its Japanese occupiers and turn it into a liberal society.
The Japanese, meanwhile, cherished the most absurd illusion of all - that they could still win. At its zenith in 1942, the Japanese empire extended over 20 million square miles.
From the north-eastern extremities of India to the northern border of China, from the Dutch East Indies to the jungle wildernesses of New Guinea.
As late as the summer of 1944, much of that empire still seemed secure. Midshipman Toshiharu Konada loved his 'runs ashore' on Java from the heavy cruiser Ashigara. He and his friends dined at a local Italian restaurant, ogling the proprietor's daughter, the first European girl they had ever seen.
When they gazed around their anchorages at the serried ranks of battleships, cruisers, destroyers that Japan still possessed, there seemed no grounds for despair. "We understood that this would be a long, hard war. But it seemed worth it, to achieve peace and security for Asia."
When Masaichi Kikuchi graduated from army officer school that summer, he went home to his tiny village bursting with pride and keen to show off his new uniform. In a community where everyone lived in thatched cottages with their plough horses, chickens and silkworms, he was a celebrity.
"We grew up in a world where everyone who was not Japanese was perceived as an enemy," he said. "Chinese, British, American. We were schooled to regard them all as evil, devilish, animalistic.
"Conflict was commonplace for our generation. Everyone took it for granted. Even when we knew things were not going well, it never occurred to any of us that the whole war might be lost."
A pilot said: "We realised Japan was in a tough spot. But we young men believed that, whatever was happening, we could turn the tide."
Col. Masanobu Tsuji remained as confident as when he masterminded the capture of Singapore.
"We believed that America, a nation of storekeepers, would not persist with a loss-making war, whereas Japan could sustain a protracted campaign against the Anglo-Saxons."
Many young Japanese, however, were discovering the growing vulnerability of the empire. Huddled wounded in a cave on a Pacific island, Sgt Hiroshi Funasaka looked down on an American camp, brightly lit in the darkness: "I imagined the Americans sound asleep in their tents. They might well be easing their weariness by losing themselves in a novel.
"In the morning they would rise at leisure, shave, eat a hearty breakfast, then come after us as usual.
That sea of glowing electric lights was a powerful mute testimonial to their 'assault by abundance'."
Petty Officer Hachiro Miyashita had lived through hours of frenzied fire-fighting when American bomb strikes tore open the flight-deck of his carrier, and endured the harrowing experience of clearing casualties and body parts. He thought of close friends from the petty officers' mess, now among the fish, and muttered to himself: "My turn next."
"As we sailed home, seeing the hangar decks almost empty, sorting out the effects of all the crews who were gone, gave us a terrible feeling."
Insights like these were granted just to the minority of Japanese who had witnessed U.S. firepower firsthand. Back in the home islands, everyone was conscious of the privations imposed by the American blockade, but so far had suffered only desultory bombing.
The prospect of abject defeat - which air attack and massive casualties on the Eastern Front obliged Germans to confront long before the end - was still remote from Japan.
By late 1944 Hitler's people had suffered over half their total wartime losses, more than three million dead. By contrast, Japan's human catastrophes were crowded into the last months of war, during their struggle to avert the inevitable.
Japan's commanders and political leaders were privy to the desperate nature of their nation's predicament, but most remained unwilling to acknowledge its logic. In the last phase, around two million Japanese people paid the price for their rulers' blindness, a sacrifice which availed their country nothing.
But even when the Japanese strategic predicament was hopeless, when resistance became - by Western lights - futile, their soldiers fought to the last. These desperate battles reflected, in some degree, the warrior ethic of bushido.
Overlaid upon this, however, was a rational calculation by Tokyo.
Its chosen course was to impose such a ghastly blood price for each American gain that this "nation of storekeepers" would find it preferable to negotiate, rather than accept the human cost of invading Japan's main islands.
If such a strategy was paper-thin, and underestimated American resolution, it determined Japanese conduct until August 1945. Desperate courage and superior fieldcraft enabled Japanese soldiers often to inflict pain on American forces, but never to alter the outcome. The Japanese people were far more enthusiastic about going to war in December 1941 than the Germans had been in 1939. Japan's mission to expand territorially into Asia, and to defy any nation which objected, enjoyed popular support.
Cultural contempt for the West was widespread. "Money-making is the one aim in life [of Americans]," asserted a Japanese army propaganda document.
"The men make money to live luxuriously and over-educate their wives and daughters who are allowed to talk too much.
"Sex relations have deteriorated with the development of motor cars; divorce is rife. America, while outwardly civilised, is inwardly corrupt and decadent."
And now those Americans were coming closer. When the island of Saipan was captured, thousands of civilians killed themselves, most by leaping from cliffs, rather than submit to the American conquerors.
Vice-Admiral Matome Ugaki wrote in his diary: "It's only to be expected that fighting men should be killed, but for women, children and old men in such large numbers on a helpless, lonely island to prefer death to captivity - what a tragedy!
"None but the people of the Yamato nation could do such a thing. If 100 million Japanese could display the same resolution, it wouldn't be difficult to find a way to victory."
Here was a vivid example of the spirit prevalent among Japan's leadership in 1944-45. Many shared a delusion that human sacrifice, the nation's historic 'Yamato spirit', could compensate for a huge shortfall in military capability.
To an extraordinary degree for a nation which chose to launch a war, Japan failed to equip itself for the struggle. Its army was principally composed of infantry, poorly supported by armour and artillery. Japan built only light tanks. Soldiers carried a 1905 model rifle.
As a young student at the Naval Technical Institute before the war, Haruki Iki listened as senior officers flaunted their contempt for the radar development programme. They said: "Why do we need this? Men's eyes see perfectly well."
Though Japan had some of the trappings and could boast some of the achievements of a modern industrial society, in mindset and circumstances it was nothing of the kind. In an Asian context it seemed mighty, but from a global perspective it remained relatively primitive.
In the early stages of the eastern war, many Asians were attracted by Japanese claims that they were liberating subject peoples from white imperial dominance. Yet it soon became plain that far from the conquerors purposing an Asian brotherhood, they envisaged replacing the hegemony of Westerners with that of another superior people - the Japanese.
The British, French and Dutch had much to be ashamed of in their treatment of their Asian subject peoples. Their behaviour, however, never matched the murderous cruelty of Japan's imperialists.
In Manchuria, Tan Yadong, a 19-year-old Chinese peasant girl, forced to serve the Japanese as a "comfort woman" recalled one of her comrades who became pregnant.
"They hung this poor girl from a tree. They killed her by cutting her open with a knife in front of all the people of our village. I could see the baby moving."
Here was a mirror image of the Nazi vision for Hitler's empire. Its worst implication for the Japanese was that many were taught to believe their inherent superiority would ensure victory, regardless of economic factors.
Yet they were woefully backward. A Japanese infantryman carried barely half the load of his American counterpart, because he lacked all but the most basic equipment.
It became normal for them to fight in semi-starvation. Their wounded were vulnerable to gangrene, as they had no anti-tetanus drugs.
Their 'virtues' were due to national culture and an ethos imposed from the top. From the day a man joined the Japanese army or navy, he was subjected to conditioning more brutal than that of the Russians.
The NCO commanding Iwao Ajiro's recruit detail disliked bruising his hand by beating offenders, ordering them to beat each other. At first they did so without enthusiasm, causing the sergeant to shout: "You are soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army! When you hit a man, do it as if you mean it!"
During Japan's war in China, bayonet training on live prisoners and beheading them became institutionalised. Such practices were designed to harden men's hearts - and they were effective in doing so.
Hayashi Inoue, a company commander in the 55th Regiment, said he accepted obedience unquestionably: "If we were told to defend a position, we did it. To fall back without orders was a crime. We were trained to fight to the end. Nobody discussed doing anything else.
"We regarded dying for our country as our duty. If men had been allowed to surrender honourably, everybody would have been doing it."
Most were no more enthusiastic than their Allied counterparts about meeting death. They had simply been conditioned to accept it.
A chasm existed between the two sides' attitudes to captivity. It was driven into the psyche of every Japanese soldier and every citizen, that death must be preferred.
The stigma of surrender hung over every Japanese. In this respect, the military code served Japan's rulers well. Withoutbushido's terrible sanction of dishonour, a host of Japanese would have given themselves up, rather than perish to prolong futile resistance.
Refusal to face the logic of surrender was perhaps the most potent weapon of Japanese forces.
When American and British troops became familiar with their preference for self-immolation, by means often designed to encompass Allied deaths, they grew unwilling to accept risk or take an enemy alive.
It is sometimes alleged that Western barbarism thus matched that of their foes. Yet it is hard to see why an Allied soldier should have risked a grenade from a Japanese soldier who made gestures of surrender.
Against such an enemy, Allied soldiers were understandably nervous. In the battle for the Philippines - next after Peleliu - names such as Bloody Ridge and Breakneck Ridge became etched into the consciousness of thousands of them as they strove to dislodge the Japanese from their positions, then to hold these against counter-attacks.
Much of the story was of commanders struggling to make men move forward, when those at the sharp end feared that to comply would prove fatal to their welfare.
There was a black comic moment on Shoestring Hill, when a runner shouted an order for a three-man American picket to pull back. The whole company took this as a cue, climbed out of its foxholes and streamed downhill. By the time the movement was halted, the Japanese had occupied the American positions. Huge exertions were needed to win them back the next day.
The pattern of American activity was grimly monotonous. Each dawn a unit moved out, advancing up some steep hill until the enemy was encountered. Companies rotated taking point. Captain Paul Austin, leading F Company of the 2/34th Infantry, dreaded his CO's phrase, "It's your turn in the morning."
The first intimation of meeting Japanese was a burst of fire, often fatal to the leading Americans. The rest hugged cover until artillery was called in.
Then they waited for a set-piece attack organised in company or battalion strength. This required hours, sometimes days. When the assault closed in, Japanese survivors withdrew - to do the same thing again a few hundred yards back.
At night, the Japanese kept up intense activity, probing and raiding American positions. Little damage was done, but such 'jitter parties' kept tired men from sleeping and often precipitated promiscuous American shooting, resulting in many 'friendly fire' casualties.
One night Sgt Marvin Raabe led 30 men in three bayonet charges to dispossess Japanese of vital ground. Some of his men were exasperated by the noisiness of the Japanese wounded in front of their positions.
"One enemy soldier, about 35 yards in front of the platoon position, had a regular little ritual," wrote an infantryman. "First, he would moan and wail for a few minutes, then sing in Japanese, then string out a long line of epithets, decidedly uncomplimentary, at the defenders."
An NCO endured the racket as long as he could, but finally climbed out of his foxhole, marched down the hillside and fired three shots. "Now sing, you bastard," he said, returning to his post.
The horror of it all was apparent to John Lane on the island of Iwo Jima. "You'd come across dead Japanese, some hit by flame-throwers, eyes boiled out, lips burned away, white teeth grinning, uniforms burned off and sometimes the first layer of skin, too, so the muscles would show as in an anatomical sketch. Penis sticking up like a black candle stub. Napalm boiled the blood, causing an erection, some said."
But there would also be "little piles of dead Marines, waiting to be collected. Six or seven guys piled up, turning greenish-grey, then black."
And the toll of Americans was about to rise ever higher. A rare Japanese PoW told his captors: "All of our units are now considered to be suicide units."
The word 'kamikaze' had not yet been heard, but within weeks - as we will see in Monday's instalment - it was on the lips of every American fighting man as he faced the deadliest onslaught of all from Japan's 'divine wind' of suicide bombers.
The Great Escape murders: How the Nazi slaughter of escaped heroes led to one of post-war Europe's biggest manhunts
Immortalised in the film The Great Escape, the mass breakout from PoW camp Stalag Luft III on March 24-25, 1944, was swiftly followed by terrible retribution – the cold-blooded murder of 50 recaptured prisoners, on Hitler’s direct orders
Fifty of the Allied airmen who tunnelled out of Stalag Luft III were executed in chilling scenes like this.
On March 29, 1944, Australian Squadron Leader James Catanach and three fellow Allied airmen found themselves languishing in a Nazi prison just a few miles short of the Danish border.
After being prisoners inside Stalag Luft III, a notorious PoW camp located 100 miles south-east of Berlin, freedom had seemed so close just days before.
Two years after being shot down over Norway, Catanach had been part of the most daring escape of the war. Some 76 Allied airmen had tunnelled out, before attempting to disperse across Europe and escape back to Britain.
The 22-year-old Aussie spoke fluent German and believed – wrongly, as it transpired – that he had a reasonable chance of making it to neutral Sweden.
Catanach and Arnold Christensen of the Royal New Zealand Air Force had managed to make their way to the railway station at Sagan, the town nearest the camp, and catch the express to Berlin. They spent the night in the capital, avoiding detection, and purchased train tickets to Flensburg.
It was here, in this ancient city on the Baltic coast, that they were spotted and arrested.
Now, with Christensen and fellow escapees Hallada Espelid and Nils Fuglesang, Norwegians with the Royal Air Force, Catanach sat wondering what awaited them. They assumed the Germans would return them to a prison camp, as was normal protocol.
STILL IN THEIR ESCAPE CLOTHES: Photographs of (from left) Lieutenants Hallada Espelid and Nils Fuglesang, Norwegians with the RAF, Australian Squadron Leader James Catanach and Pilot Officer Arnold Christensen of the Royal New Zealand Air Force, taken by the Kriminalpolizei shortly after their arrest in Flensburg in March 1944. All four were murdered by the Nazis
But that afternoon, Major Johannes Post of the Gestapo and his comrade Oskar Schmidt arrived to question the quartet.
Post, 38 years old and a stocky five-and-a-half-feet tall, was an ardent Nazi, fanatical in his loyalty to Hitler and intimidating to all who knew him.
The interrogation proving futile, the prisoners were handcuffed and marched to the waiting cars outside. Post took custody of Catanach in his car and set off with his driver, eyeing his captive in the rear-view mirror. Out in the countryside, where the road curved sharply to the right, the Mercedes came to a halt.
Catanach was told to get out and cross the road, where a gate opened into a meadow. Without uttering a word, Post then pulled a Luger 7.65mm pistol from his pocket and shot Catanach between the shoulder blades, killing him instantly.
As Post pocketed his weapon, the second car arrived. Schmidt ordered his driver to pull in behind the Mercedes. The journey back to Sagan, he told his three prisoners, would take several more hours. The men would be wise to relieve themselves.
Schmidt and his two partners marched the prisoners across the road. One of the airmen saw a dark object lying in the grass. The realisation that it was Catanach drew a panicked scream.
Frances McKenna had been a detective-sergeant in Blackpool, where his dedication had earned him the nickname 'Sherlock Holmes'
All three jumped backward and tried to scramble away before three gun reports echoed across the meadow.
Two of the airmen fell lifeless; the third hit the ground but struggled, opening his mouth as though wanting to speak. Post approached the airman and put a bullet in his head.
Built on Hermann Göring’s orders, Stalag Luft III sat in a clearing in pine forest 200 miles south of Germany’s Baltic coast. The camp holding Allied airmen was designed to be escape-proof. The barracks were set on stilts.
Concrete pilings that served as foundations for each washroom and kitchen were dug into the earth. Prisoners would have to dig through these before they even hit soil.
And the Germans sank microphones 10ft underground to pick up the sounds of any subterranean activity.
Squadron Leader Roger Bushell was 32 years old when he arrived in 1942. He had already been a prisoner for two years and had a reputation as a veteran escape artist.
Assuming command of the escape committee, Bushell hatched a plot to break out 250 inmates.
The audacious plan called for the simultaneous digging of three tunnels named Tom, Dick and Harry. To avoid the microphones, vertical shafts would be dug 30ft down before horizontal digging commenced.
To reach the cover of the nearby forest, he estimated that tunnels would have to reach at least 200ft.
Disaster struck in September 1943 when Tom was discovered, but by March 1944 it was thought Harry – at 336ft – had reached the cover of the trees. The escape was set for Friday, March 24, a moonless evening.
On the night, freezing temperatures had hardened the ground. It took more than an hour to open the exit shaft, only to reveal a near-catastrophe: Harry fell a good 20ft short of the forest, meaning escapees had to risk crawling across open, snow-covered ground to the trees.
By four in the morning, it was decided the 87th man in the tunnel would be the last to go. Above ground, meanwhile, a sentry patrolling the perimeter approached the edge of the woods to relieve himself, only to notice steam rising from the ground.
As he approached, three escapees broke cover with their arms raised high. Startled, the guard fired a single shot into the air.
Armed guards swarmed the compound and eventually a roll call was taken. The numbers tallied were startling. Seventy-six men had escaped.
Stalag Luft III, the notorious PoW camp located 100 miles south-east of Berlin, was the scene of a mass breakout in March 1944
Hitler’s rage was all-consuming. He summoned SS chief Heinrich Himmler and Reichsmarschall Göring and ordered that all 76 fugitives be executed upon recapture.
Word of such an atrocity, Göring explained, might result in fierce Allied reprisals. Himmler agreed, prompting Hitler to order that ‘more than half the escapees’ be shot. Random numbers were suggested until Himmler proposed that 50 be executed. Hitler ordered his SS chief to put the plan in motion.
The Kriminalpolizei (the criminal-investigations department of the Reich police) issued a Grossfahndung, a national hue and cry, ordering the military, the Gestapo, the SS, the Home Guard and Hitler Youth to put every effort into hunting the escapees down. Nearly 100,000 men needed to defend the Reich were redirected to the manhunt.
By Wednesday, March 29, five days after the breakout, 35 escapees languished behind bars in the cramped cells of the jail at Görlitz, not far south of Sagan.
Those who remained on the run hoped to make destinations in Czechoslovakia, Spain, Denmark and Sweden. Luck, however, worked against them.
They were seized at checkpoints, betrayed by informants or simply thwarted by freezing temperatures. Before long, all but three of the fugitives were back in captivity.
Two weeks after the escape, the whereabouts of the escapees remained a mystery to the prisoners inside the camp. Just six men had thus far been returned to Stalag Luft III and marched directly into the cooler, the solitary-confinement block.
Murdered in cold blood: A list of the escapees, with photos, who were shot. Among the dead were 25 Britons, six Canadians, three Australians, two New Zealanders, three South Africans, four Poles, two Norwegians, one Frenchman and a Greek. But on April 6, Group Captain Herbert Massey, the senior British officer in the camp, was to learn the fate of so many of his men.The camp commandant, Colonel Braune, informed him that 41 had been killed while resisting arrest or attempting to escape after being captured; not one had been merely wounded. Braune was unable to look Massey in the eye as he told him the lies.
On April 15, a list identifying the victims appeared on the camp’s noticeboard. The list now contained not 41 names, but 47. Two days later, a representative of the Swiss Protecting Power visited Stalag Luft III on a routine inspection and was given a copy of the list. Among the dead were 25 Britons, six Canadians, three Australians, two New Zealanders, three South Africans, four Poles, two Norwegians, one Frenchman and a Greek.
The Swiss government then reported the killings to the British government, including three additional victims, bringing the total number of those murdered to 50. Churchill was incensed, and even amid the final push for victory made finding the killers a priority.
‘His Majesty’s Government must record their solemn protest against these cold-blooded acts of butchery,’ Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden told Parliament. ‘They will never cease in their efforts to collect the evidence to identify all those responsible… When the war is over, they will be brought to exemplary justice.’
In August 1945, three months after the Allied victory in Europe, the man to mastermind the hunt for the killers was found. Tall and lean, Frank McKenna had been a detective-sergeant in Blackpool, where his dedication had earned him the nickname ‘Sherlock Holmes’.
Escape route: A reconstruction of 'Harry' from the tunnel entrance point at the Stalag Luft III Prisoner of War Camp in Zagan, Poland
He could have spent a relatively safe war in the police, but instead joined the RAF and volunteered to join a bomber aircrew, flying on 30 missions. He subsequently secured a posting with the Special Investigation Branch (SIB) of the RAF Police, where Group Captain WV Nicholas, the head of SIB, quickly came to admire McKenna’s puritanical work ethic. When the Sagan case file hit his desk, Nicholas knew who to send it to. In McKenna’s view, the odds of conducting a successful investigation were daunting but not impossible. His plan was to comb the files of regional war-crimes record offices in the hope of establishing leads.
Despite the obstacles and the sheer numbers involved, McKenna believed the investigation would last several months at most. It was an optimistic assessment. Joining McKenna in the hunt for those responsible for the 50 murders was Wing Commander Wilfred ‘Freddie’ Bowes, chief of the Special Investigation Branch, British forces, Occupied Germany.
Powerfully built, he had served in the RAF since 1918, the year it was founded, and didn’t suffer fools gladly.
Their investigation saw them criss-crossing the rubble-strewn landscape of post-war Germany and Europe. Each murder case proved to have its own challenges, as they pursued every clue in the search for justice.
In February 1946, Bowes left for Czechoslovakia to pursue a lead in the murders of Squadron Leader Tom Kirby-Green and Canadian Flying Officer Gordon Kidder.
The two airmen had got as far as southern Moravia in their attempt to reach Hungary before they were murdered. Now, a prisoner called Friedrich Kiowsky had implicated Gestapo officer Erich Zacharias in the killing.
Two years earlier, while working as a driver for the Frontier Police in Zlín, Kiowsky had seen Zacharias take part in the killing of the two Allied prisoners. The handcuffs were taken off the dead men, and everyone present was given the strictest instructions to discuss what had happened with no one.
A Gestapo lawyer later helped witnesses orchestrate their alibis should the International Red Cross launch an investigation. They were to say the two fliers had tried to escape while relieving themselves and were shot at a distance of 20 to 30 metres.
Bowes wanted to see the actual crime scene for himself, so he and a member of his team travelled by jeep until Kiowsky told them to stop.
Bowes pulled the jeep over and surveyed the landscape: open country, with no possible cover for anyone attempting to escape.
One of the fallen 50: Johannes Post at his trial, at the moment the death sentence was passed
A few weeks later, McKenna arrived in the American-held port of Bremen. Records showed that a German national by the name of Erich Zacharias worked as a clerk at the U.S. Army Refrigeration Plant at the docks.
McKenna arranged a U.S. Army military police escort, and that afternoon descended on the docks, where he spotted Zacharias standing outside the refrigeration plant. He was taken under armed guard to an American-run prison while McKenna sought permission to transfer him to British control.
In the interim, however, Zacharias managed to escape, running off and disappearing into the nearby wreckage of a bombed-out building.
Weeks later investigators intercepted a letter addressed to a friend of his and sent American soldiers to storm the return address – a house in Brunswick – where they found the fugitive Zacharias packing for a long trip.
McKenna took Zacharias into custody and placed him in a British holding facility in Minden. A strip search revealed a wristwatch of the kind worn by British aircrews. Zacharias made no attempt to assert his innocence.
On April 5, 1946, McKenna then escorted Zacharias to the London Cage: three large white mansions in Kensington Palace Gardens operated by MI19, the branch of the War Office charged with the interrogation of captured enemy personnel.
Lieutenant Colonel AP Scotland oversaw the facility’s operation. When Scotland received Zacharias at the London Cage, the Gestapo man struck him as being ‘a wild young brute’. McKenna warned the colonel that his new inmate had a penchant for escaping, but Scotland dismissed McKenna’s concerns.
Too short: Richard Attenborough and Steve McQueen in iconic film The Great Escape. 76 PoWs made it out through 'Harry' but the tunnel fell 30 yards short of vital woodland cover
Zacharias was soon transferred to a holding facility at Kempton Park Racecourse in Middlesex. But on the night of May 13, he took his tin dinner plate and began scratching away at the wood surrounding the lock on his cell door, eventually scraping away enough to release the mechanism and escape for a second time.
Officials sounded a national alarm, while the BBC broadcast news of the escape, warning that Zacharias, ‘a Nazi police officer’, was extremely dangerous.
He was not at large for long, for later that morning a member of the public spotted a man hiding in a local park. Zacharias was discovered beneath a bush, nursing a sprained ankle.
By May 1947, the investigation appeared to be winding down. The RAF had tracked down 329 suspects, 23 of whom were directly complicit in the Sagan murders. Two of those individuals were dead by their own hand, and one – Kiowsky – was in Czech custody.
Soon afterwards, the commandant of the holding facility in Minden called McKenna to say that the North West Europe War Crimes Unit had just brought in a man working as a haulage contractor.
The man’s name was Johannes Pohlmann, but he had been identified by a witness as former Gestapo officer Johannes Post. McKenna went to see the prisoner, and pulled from his tunic a picture of Post.
The face was thinner – but the eyes and prominent chin left no doubt in his mind.
His cover blown, Post freely admitted to knowing all about the murders of Catanach, Christensen, Espelid and Fuglesang, adding with apparent pride that he was in command of the execution squad. He even admitted that the last word Catanach had uttered was ‘Why?’ On July 1, 1947, 18 defendants in the Sagan case went on trial at the British Military Court in Hamburg charged with committing war crimes by killing and ordering to kill prisoners of war who had escaped from Stalag Luft III. All the defendants pleaded not guilty.
The defence argued that orders issued by Hitler were legal; disobeying them was not. International law, however, deemed the following of such orders to be illegal, and on September 3, 1947, the court rendered its verdicts. All were found guilty.
Post, Zacharias and 12 others were sentenced to hang. Six months later, on gallows built by the British Army’s Royal Engineers, the 14 Sagan murderers went to their deaths at the end of a rope, bringing to an end one of the most extraordinary manhunts of the 20th century.
Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and World War II. It was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel.
Unit 731 was the code name of an Imperial Japanese Army unit officially known as the Kempeitai Political Department and Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory. It was initially set up under the Kempeitai military police of the Empire of Japan to develop weapons of mass destruction for potential use against Chinese, and possibly Soviet forces.
Seventy years after World War II, Mitsubishi finally apologizes for forcing 900 American POWs into its horrific Japanese labor camps
The giant Mitsubishi corporation became the first Japanese company to say sorry for its behavior in the Second World War with a face-to-face apology to a former American prisoner of war.
Executives from Mitsubishi Materials met James Murphy, 94 and relatives of his comrades who suffered as slave laborers in the companies mines and factories.
The apology was made at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles by a senior company executive to 94-year-old Mr Murphy, one of two US survivors, and the only one fit to travel to the ceremony.
Apology: James Murphy, (right) 94, accepted an apology from executives of Mitsubishi Materials, which used roughly 900 American PoWs for slave labor during World War II. Above board member Yukio Okamoto shakes his hand at a ceremony in Los Angeles
Seventy years later: senior executive officer Hikaru Kimura (center) offered a 'most remorseful apology' for 'harsh, severe hardships' of soldiers who were forced to work in copper mines
Mitsubishi also ran mines to supply raw materials for the aircraft.
Hikaru Kimura, senior executive officer for Mitsubishi Materials Corp, said through a translator that the company offered a 'most remorseful apology' to the about 900 PoWs who suffered 'harsh, severe hardships' while forced to work in Mitsubishi mines and industrial plants.
'Being one of the few surviving workers of that time,' Murphy said in a statement, 'I find it to be my duty and responsibility to accept Mr. Kimura's apology'.
Murphy, who lives in Santa Maria, California, and was forced to work in Mitsubishi copper mines under harsh conditions, called the apology sincere and remorseful.
'This is a glorious day,' Murphy said. 'For 70 years we wanted this.'
He stressed that the apology was not half-hearted, qualified or self-aggrandizing for Mitsubishi. He said the apology 'admits to wrongdoing, makes sincere statement showing deep remorse,' and offers assurances that the wrongs will never be repeated.
'Hopefully the acceptance of this sincere apology will bring some closure and relief to the age-old problems confronting the surviving former Prisoners of War and to their family members,' he said, according to NPR.
Remembered: Murphy is one of only two surviving soldiers who were used in the camps, and the only one who could make the journey to receive the apology
Sincere: Murphy said that the apology of the executives was remorseful. Above, Mitsubishi Materials senior executive officer Kimura at the ceremony
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, an associate dean at the center whose primary focus in the past has been Holocaust education, said he believes the move is unprecedented.
'It's the first time a major Japanese company has ever made such a gesture. We hope this will spur other companies to join in and do the same.'
Akira Kobayashi, the company's executive, called the wartime period 'one of the dark episodes' for the firm when last year he met with Kathy Holcomb, whose father was captured in the Philippines.
The Japanese government apologized for its treatment of prisoners in 2009 and 2010 but no industrial giant has ever before acknowledged its guilt.
'We also have to apologize for not apologizing earlier,' board member Yukio Okamoto said, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Some 12,000 American prisoners were shipped to Japan and forced to work at more than 50 sites to support imperial Japan's war effort, according to Kinue Tokudome, director of the US-Japan Dialogue on PoWs, who has spearheaded the lobbying effort for companies to apologize.
Horror: While the Japanese government has apologized for their treatment, no industrial giant has acknowledged guilt. Above, US prisoners after liberation in the Philippines
Restitution: Petitions for compensation for PoWs in Japanese and American courts have been rejected because of a 1952 treaty. Above, British and Australian prisoners of war march out of a Japanese camp
About 10 percent of those were estimated to have died, according to Tokudome, though the US Congressional Research Service says that 40 per cent of the 27,000 Americans taken prisoner in the Pacific Theater died in captivity.
Suits in Japan and the US by PoWs seeking compensation have been denied by courts because of a 1952 treaty that offered mild compensation to the victims.
AMERICAN POWs HELD BY JAPAN
Estimated American 27,000 prisoners were taken by imperial Japan during World War II
Roughly 40 per cent of those died while in the custody of their captors
12,000 prisoners thought to be transported to Japan to work in forced labor camps
More than 1,000 believed to have died
672 British soldiers also at camps
More than 60 companies are thought to have used the slave labor, including major ones such as Nippon Steel.
Other POWs subjected to forced labor sat in the audience along with many members of Murphy's family.
Stanley Gibson, whose late father worked alongside Murphy in the mines, flew from Scotland to Los Angeles for the ceremony to represent his family after hearing about it in news reports just a few days earlier.
On the stage was a photo of the two men being liberated from their captors.
There were also 672 British soldiers made to work in camps.
No British camp survivors are alive, but many had health problems caused by their brutal treatment as prisoners.
Their families have received no acknowledgement and have also called for an apology for their relatives forced to produce war planes for Japan.
Tortured: Ten per cent of the prisoners who were taken to Japan are estimated to have died. Above, Japanese soldiers stand guard over American war prisoners in 1942.
More than 60 companies are thought to have used the slave labor, including major ones such as Nippon Steel. Above, prisoners at a liberated camp in Yokohama celebrate and hold an American flag
Vera Houghton, 90, from the Wirral, the widow of RAF prisoner Leslie Houghton, said the apology was overdue.
'Even if they had done it in 1950, people would have accepted it,' she said. 'But this apology is not coming from the people who did these things. It is coming from their grandchildren.'
Discussion of American POWs' treatment is taboo in Japan, though talk of the issue has recently begun to increase.
A museum exhibition that opened earlier this year in Kyushu University had a small section about a group of soldiers who were used for medical experiments, according to the Telegraph.
None of the US soldiers survived after seawater was allegedly injected into their veins and parts of their livers were removed to see if they would stay alive.
Five were sentenced to death and four were given life sentences for the atrocity, though they were eventually released after General Douglas MacArthur weakened their sentences.