Hell on New Britain
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Hell on New Britain

WWII

Hell on New Britain

Allied POWs suffered tremendous hardships but managed to survive in captivity at Rabaul.

Allied POWs suffered tremendous hardships but managed to survive in captivity at Rabaul.

By Adam Lynch

The American effort to neutralize the big Japanese air-sea base at Rabaul on the island of New Britain in the South Pacific was heating up, and 18-year-old aviation radioman John Kepchia was about to feel the heat.

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The Order to Bomb Rabaul

After 33 missions, the U.S. Navy airman from Greensburg, Pennsylvania, was becoming painfully aware of the almost daily routine. Early morning awakenings; monotonous breakfasts of mutton, powdered eggs, and powdered milk; dangerous bombing missions into Japanese-held island bases; and, if luck held, a return home.

Although Kepchia always had the same kind of pre-mission apprehension that everyone else felt, by the time the big Grumman TBF Avenger started in on its bomb run and Kepchia began firing his rear-facing .30-caliber machine gun at ground targets to suppress antiaircraft fire, he always said he “never had time to be scared.”

On the morning of May 21, 1944, in his tent on the island of Bougainville, Kepchia had been shocked awake by the frightened voice of Chief Petty Officer “Matty” Mathewson shouting, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!”

In the half light Kepchia saw turret gunner Dick Lanigan from St. Louis, still lying on his cot pointing a .38-caliber revolver at Mathewson. Lanigan, like everyone else, was getting edgy. Many Japanese troops still remained in the mountains ringing the Allied base, and they often tried to infiltrate the U.S. compound at night. So, Lanigan slept with his handgun. As Mathewson shook him awake, Lanigan cried out, “What’s the matter with you, Chief? You want to get killed? I thought you were a Jap!”

The two crewmen walked across the plywood tent deck into the humid morning air. Their pilot, Ensign Donald D. Atkiss from Philadelphia, known to the men as “Dee-Dee,” joined the crew at briefing where they learned the target for the day, the well-defended Vunakanau airstrip at Rabaul.

The 18 TBF Avengers of Torpedo Squadron 305, carrying the identification Stone-2, would each be loaded with four 500-pound bombs. They would join six Royal New Zealand Air Force TBFs from Squadron NZTB 30. The intelligence officer told the crews that if they were shot down they should try to locate a friendly native who could take them to Australian coastwatcher Captain John Murphy in the southern half of New Britain.

“We’re Going Down!”

At 7:50 am, the 24 planes began lifting off Bougainville for the nearly two-hour flight to New Britain. There were no aborts, and at 9:45 the first plane in the group headed down toward the target.

“Dee-Dee peeled off to the left and pushed over at 9,500 feet,” remembered Kepchia. “Antiaircraft bursts started showing at 6,000 feet. On the run-in, Lanigan was firing his .50-cal. turret gun as far forward as possible. I was on my knees, facing the rear, firing my stinger gun. Even with a limited view through the aft bottom window, I could see the faces of Japanese gunners trying to shoot us down. Suddenly, I heard our ship taking hits. I felt a sharp pain on the top of my head and noticed blood on my hands when I wiped my face. My compartment filled with smoke, and my eyes were burning terribly.”

Atkiss called flight leader Lieutenant Vance Vorndam: “1 Stone-2; This is 18 Stone-2. We’re hit in the engine and on fire… We’re going down!” In his excitement, Ensign Atkiss had given the wrong aircraft identification. He, Lanigan, and Kepchia were actually in 22 Stone-2. Even so, Atkiss kept his cool.

Moments later they hit the jungle. Kepchia says he had just fastened his straps when the rugged Avenger ploughed into the trees, slid over the ground, and careened to a stop. “I sat there in the sudden silence trying to regain my wits. We had survived!” Lanigan was still in his turret but on his back. Kepchia kicked out his escape hatch cover, ran up over the wing to the cockpit, and flipped on the electric switch so Dick could rotate his turret. Then he gently shook his still inert pilot.

Kepchia and Lanigan carefully lifted Atkiss out of the cockpit and set him down in the high grass. The pilot was in great pain. Suddenly they heard the sound of an airplane.

They had gone down several miles south of the target, and Vorndam, risking more antiaircraft fire, had turned back after the group had formed up to start home to look for them. He flew the route the downed plane had taken, but there was no circling. They watched the flight leader join up with his departing squadron on a straight heading back to Bougainville, and knew they were truly alone.

The men hoped to somehow elude Japanese search parties and eventually make contact with coastwatcher Murphy. It was a slim hope. Kepchia and Lanigan carried Atkiss between them in a crude sling rigged from a parachute harness but were soon gasping and out of breath. Atkiss urged them to leave him, but his crewmen refused. In the distance they heard Japanese patrols moving through the trees, spraying the underbrush with machine-gun fire. Local natives had been pressed into helping with the search, and the three airmen spotted them first.

When they approached the natives, the airmen were told that the Japanese were too many and that there was little hope of eluding them.

“We pushed on for another 45 minutes and came to a clearing where we stopped, exhausted, frightened and running out of options. We smoked our last cigarettes and waited for the Japanese,” remembered Kepchia.

The Plight of the “Horrios”

On that same afternoon, just 30 miles north on New Britain, a small group of American prisoners and one Australian were struggling through another long day. The Japanese called the prisoners “Horrios,” among whom starvation, disease, lack of medical treatment, and Japanese brutality were taking a vicious toll. They were held in a camp operated by the Rabaul Sixth Field Kempei-Tai, Japanese military police. The commanding officer, Colonel Satoru Kikuchi, had an extensive staff plus a cadre of guards whose personalities ranged from vicious and cruel to fairly benign.

The original six cells at Kempei-Tai headquarters at Rabaul were about nine feet by 18 feet with wooden bars. Each cell held as many as eight prisoners. Later, as more prisoners were brought in, more space was required and additional buildings were used. The Horrios (mostly airmen) had been told repeatedly that any attempt to escape would be followed by execution. Some prisoners, after only a few months of captivity, getting only a handful of rice a day, rapidly lost weight and will. They became severely depressed and literally waited for death. Others, even longtime prisoners, called on inner strength and somehow kept battling.

On this day, Air Force B-24 Liberator bomber pilot Lieutenant Jim McMurria, from Columbus, Georgia, now in his 16th month of captivity, eagerly accepted his small ball of rice and four ounces of watery soup. Obtaining food was a constant challenge. From time to time a guard might throw some leftover fruit or pickles or banana peel into the compound, but the normal food rations were not enough to sustain life. However, the more imaginative prisoners discovered they could bargain for food or cigarettes by occasionally treating the guards to fanciful storytelling. The stronger prisoners on outside work detail could sometimes steal a bit of food.

Some learned to create a careful relationship with a guard, which could lead to an occasional piece of coconut. There were predictable instances of plotting and scheming among the prisoners and guards that resulted in extra food for some at the expense of others. Those prisoners who failed to improvise or adapt often failed to live.

McMurria looked around at his emaciated and depressed group of fellow prisoners. The tall pilot and his crew, part of the Fifth Air Force’s 90th Bomb Group based at Port Moresby, New Guinea, had been shot down on January 20, 1943, while on a reconnaissance mission. It was his 20th, and McMurria’s lone plane had been jumped by more than 20 Japanese Zero fighters. After a running gunfight with two engines out, McMurria ditched his Liberator in the water. The big plane broke in two and sank, but eight of the 10-man crew got out. With the help of friendly natives, the men avoided capture for about three months. Their luck ran out on the little island of Catavar, where a squad of Japanese soldiers burst out of the underbrush shouting and threatening to shoot.

The crew was taken by boat to the Rabaul camp. By now, McMurria was one of only 30 POWs remaining of 60 once held there. In November, four of McMurria’s crew and four other prisoners, picked for no discernible reason, had been shipped to Japan where they survived the war on work details.

By the summer of 1944, the prisoners were seeing firsthand the increasing number of American bombing raids against Rabaul. But even if the war came to a successful end, the prisoners wondered about their fate. Would the Japanese execute them? Would they be transported to Japan? Would they ever see home again? Malaria and malnutrition led to beriberi and scurvy. Testicles became grossly swollen. Faces and ankles became puffy. Dysentery plagued them. The days dragged by as the survivors watched their friends dying at the rate of one a month.

POWs Under Air Raid

Allied POWs suffered tremendous hardships but managed to survive in captivity at Rabaul.

Nursing an allied POW back to health after months of starvation and torture.

As American raids against Rabaul continued, the Japanese commander forced the prisoners to move out of their crude cells for a time and into a cave dug into a hill that served as an air-raid shelter. It was 40 feet long, only four feet wide, dark, and wet. The prisoners were handcuffed to each other in pairs.

McMurria said, “When we completely filled the cave a large blanket was fastened to the entrance permitting no view to the outside nor light to come inside. We stood and stood unable to sit down in the cramped quarters while the raids continued for two more days without letup. We were fairly safe from the bombs but in a terrible sanitary mess and had been given no water for over 48 hours. We managed to soothe our parched throats by gradually inching out to the front of the cave and chewing on the rain drenched blanket covering the cave. After three full days and nights of standing in the cave without food or water, the attacks on Rabaul leveled off and we were called outside and allowed to sit down.”

Captured Airmen

Of those POWs already in the camp on the day Kepchia, Lanigan, and Atkiss were shot down, six would survive to the end of the war. Kepchia would be the seventh survivor from the camp and the only one from his aircraft to make it. In addition to McMurria and Kepchia, the final survivors included Lieutenant Al Quinones, a P-38 Lightning fighter pilot from Mesa, Arizona, shot down on his first mission out of Port Moresby in November 1943, and Lieutenant Joe Holguin, from the barrios of Los Angeles. Talking together in Spanish was a valuable morale boost for them. Holguin was a navigator aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress bomber “Naughty but Nice,” which went down on June 25 that year on a 43rd Bomb Group mission to Rabaul from Port Moresby. Holguin was the only member of his crew to parachute out alive, but was severely injured when he came down into trees.

The other three survivors were Lieutenant Joe Nason, a U.S. Navy dive-bomber pilot from Westborough, Massachusetts, who was also captured in November 1943 on his first mission; Sergeant Escoe Palmer, a gunner aboard a B-25 Mitchell bomber, from Gainesville, Georgia; and Australian coastwatcher John Murphy who, unknown to the American forces, had been captured in November 1943.

Meanwhile, Kepchia, Atkiss, and Lanigan were about to become the latest American prisoners brought in. Their capture would come in that humid jungle clearing where they had been awaiting the inevitable. When the Japanese search parties finally spotted the Americans they ran toward them with fixed bayonets.

“I had decided to shoot rather than be run through, but an English-speaking officer yelled at us, ‘Raise your hands you damn fools or these soldiers will kill you!’” remembered Kepchia. “They yanked my gun out of its shoulder holster, but Lanigan had hidden his pistol in his boot top and when they found it they knocked him down and hit him with their rifle butts. Our captors marched us through the jungle for several hours with natives carrying Dee-Dee in a makeshift stretcher. Finally, we were shoved into a deep trench where they gave us water but no food. We spent the night there, bloody, scared, and wondering if we were going to be shot.”

The next day, the trio joined the dwindling number of Horrios at the POW camp at Rabaul. When brought in, the three newcomers were shocked to see the emaciated condition of the prisoners. Kepchia said they “were just skin and bones and looked like Zombies.” As the days went by, the new arrivals also began to lose weight rapidly, and to add to their misery, bombing attacks on Rabaul by American forces were increasing.

“B-24’s attacked Vunakanau and Lakunai air bases with 500-pound bombs,” remarked Holguin of an October 1944 raid. “This was one of the most frightening experiences because Lakunai was only a mile or two from the camp. We could hear the roar of the engines and the firing of the antiaircraft batteries. But the most frightening sound was the swishing noise of the falling bombs. We were sure this would be our last day on earth.

“We survived, but on November 2, attacks on Rabaul renewed with full fury. The first wave of B-25s approached at low level, hedge-hopping right over our camp with guns blazing and engines at full throttle. Empty bullet casings fell on the tin roof of our cells as they roared by. Once again we believed the end to our wretched existence had come.”

“Horrio, you next die!”

Of the seven POWs who would still be alive at the end of the war, Navy pilot Nason appeared to be the least likely to make it. His 6-foot-3 body had dropped from 220 pounds to less than 85. Quinones and Murphy, also captured in late 1943, had remained in much better shape. Nason was ill most of the time. He became withdrawn and depressed, huddling under an old horse blanket.

The Japanese guards watched him sinking and shouted, “Horrio, you next die!” Surprisingly, Nason did not die, but his family, because of a series of inaccurate official telegrams, believed him to be already dead.

Nason’s SBD dive-bomber, from Squadron VC-38 based at Munda Point, New Georgia, in the Solomon Islands, had been hit by antiaircraft fire over Bougainville on his first combat mission. He bailed out and avoided capture for five days by hiding in the jungle.

A Message Home

On October 9, 1943, his mother, Mrs. Lucy Nason, got a U.S. Navy telegram at her home in Westborough saying that her son was officially listed as missing in action but probably dead since he had been seen hanging limply in his chute while descending into an antiaircraft barrage. A few months later, on March 15, 1944, Mary Elizabeth Ostendorf also got a telegram from the Navy. It read, “It is with deep regret we inform you your fiancé, Lt. Joseph Nason, previously listed as missing in action, must now be declared dead as of 23 October, 1943.”

Then came the bombshell! A little over one month later, on April 29, Mary Elizabeth received a letter from Mrs. Marion Wagner of Berkeley, California. Mrs. Wagner had been listening to her shortwave radio when she heard a broadcast from Tokyo featuring a program called “Humanity Calls.” She heard a voice identified as that of prisoner of war Lieutenant Joe Nason of Westborough, Massachusetts, with a message for Mary Elizabeth Ostendorf: “Dearest Mary … If you receive this letter it will indeed be an act of God. Just as it is an act of mercy that I am alive now. The Japanese people are caring for me adequately. I love you and miss you more than ever.”

Nason had made the recording at the invitation of the Japanese but never seriously thought it would be heard back home. A few weeks later, on May 24, Joe’s father, Noah Nason, got a letter from the U.S. Navy saying that the same broadcast had been picked up by a listening facility on the West Coast and Lieutenant Joseph Nason was apparently alive. Not until the flier came home did he learn his message had actually gotten through.

Tortured by the Japanese Military

Kepchia, Lanigan, and Atkiss now found themselves trying to stay alive in an inhumane and brutal South Pacific prison camp. They were the last three Americans brought there. A few days after arriving, Kepchia was taken for interrogation before the senior Japanese interpreter, Shigero Tsukahara, who spoke fluent English. The prisoner described the scene.

“I was brought into a small hut containing two chairs and a table on which were a bowl of fruit, a pack of cigarettes, a glass of water and a map and pencil. I was told to sit down. Tsukahara asked ‘You have been treated well?’

“There I was with a black eye, broken nose, swollen and cut lip and this guy had the guts to ask me if I had been treated well. I had a smirk on my face when I answered ‘Does it look like it, Mr. Tsukahara?’ He replied, ‘You must realize that you are very fortunate you were not captured by the Japanese Army or Navy.

“They would have tortured you, questioned you and then bayoneted you or beheaded you!’ I brought up the Geneva Convention and was told, ‘The Japanese Government did not sign the Geneva Accord and we do not abide by any rules except our own.’

“I was handed a large map of Bougainville and told to mark where U.S. troops and antiaircraft guns were positioned. I made marks all over the map. Tsukahara called in some guards, and I was hit and kicked. I fell to the floor and was kicked again while on all fours. I finally was allowed to get up and was again told to mark the positions. I chose different random sites and was again punished. I couldn’t have given him the positions if my life depended on it and by now I was sure that it did. I kept making new marks until they were apparently satisfied because they smiled and gave me a drink of water and a cigarette.”

It was shortly after capture that Kepchia says he received the first of several “medical injections.” The Japanese told him it was to keep him healthy, and although Kepchia struggled to avoid the shots, guards tied him to a chair.

“I was given a shot in my right shoulder and then another in my arm. I felt a hot sensation starting at the roots of the hair on my head. I slid to the floor and later seemed to be floating on air. I was taken back to the truck and returned to where Atkiss and Lanigan were. Atkiss had apparently been treated by a doctor, and his chest pain seemed less severe.”

Conflict Within the Camp

Inevitably, the harrowing conditions led to quarreling, bickering, and even outright fighting among the POWs although their weakened condition kept that to a minimum. Some men became close to each other while developing bitter relationships with others. The most controversial prisoner was Murphy. A territorial administrator in New Guinea before the war, conversant in Japanese, fluent in native dialect and pidgin English, Murphy volunteered to serve as a coastwatcher for the Allies. Unfortunately, he and his party were soon discovered after being landed by submarine on New Britain.

Murphy, the very man Kepchia, Lanigan, and Atkiss were told to locate if shot down, was himself a prisoner of the Kempei-Tai. There is no disagreement among the survivors that Murphy was a strong but domineering type of man. His knowledge of local geography, language, and customs; his nerve; and his crafty personality in dealing with the guards and other prisoners often worked to help. But some thought him selfish and resented his bullying leadership.

Allied POWs suffered tremendous hardships but managed to survive in captivity at Rabaul.

John Kepchia returns to his downed Grumman TBF Avenger.

Deaths in the Camp

In early 1944, Major Saiji Matsuda became executive officer of the camp. Although he allowed occasional prisoner benefits, as the year wore on, weaker prisoners continued to die at an alarming rate. In February about 20 POWs had been taken to Japan. That left 50, but almost immediately that number was reduced again. On March 4, 26 Americans and 5 Australians were taken to Talili Bay for transportation to nearby Watom Island. They died during an American strafing attack. After the war, the Japanese claimed they were all killed by American fire, but other POWs charge at least some of the victims were executed by the Japanese in retaliation for the raid.

By the end of June 1944, only 20 prisoners remained at the Rabaul camp. Many of those who died were actually new arrivals who had been prisoners for a relatively short period of time but were unable to adjust to disease and the lack of food and medicine. And yet, for at least some of the wretched men still alive, there was an improvement in their condition.

In July, Matsuda was replaced by Warrant Officer Tarataro Matsumoto. The Japanese seemed to finally accept that the war was not going well for them, and a slightly less brutal atmosphere settled over the camp. Even so, the dying went on and by August only 11 men were left. Quinones, as he had done from the beginning, constantly cared for the sick Horrios as best he could. Palmer continued to endlessly describe the plots of the countless Western movies he had seen, and Nason hung on in suspended animation. Allied air raids against Rabaul had tapered off, and although the prisoners could not know it, Rabaul had been isolated and bypassed by American forces. There would be no invasion.

Conversations between Horrios and guards became less hostile, and the men even staged a small but sad Christmas observance. The prisoners remembered Christmases past and tried to believe they might yet see home again.

As 1945 began, the stronger prisoners were allowed to start a garden. Murphy and McMurria invented a cigarette rolling machine. Guards would bring them tobacco leaves they had stolen from a native garden. The enterprise allowed for the trade of food for cigarettes. Joe Holguin was given a decrepit little sewing machine and by repairing guard uniforms was able to barter for precious food.

POWs as Experiment Subjects

Despite these small improvements, the situation remained critical. Disease was still rampant, and through that summer nine more prisoners had died. Among the 11 now left there were bets as to who might be next. Despair and bickering increased. One day Kepchia began bitterly arguing with his pilot Atkiss about how and why they were shot down. The argument escalated, and Kepchia advanced on Atkiss with clenched fists. Holguin intervened; Kepchia stopped, began to cry and retreated, shaking his head. The Horrios were reaching the limit of their endurance.

Then, overhearing bits of conversation among the guards and by asking careful questions, the Horrios learned Germany had been defeated and that American airpower was bombing major Japanese cities. They knew the end of the war could not be far away, but they were well aware their physical and mental conditions were rapidly deteriorating. Two more men had died and now, at this critical time, one of the cruelest events occurred.

On July 19, Dr. Einosuke Hirano, attached to Eighth Army Headquarters, paid a return visit to the camp. In the middle of April, he had taken blood samples from 10 prisoners ostensibly for malaria research. Five of them, he believed, had immunity to malaria, and to prove it he ordered the five injected with blood from five Japanese soldiers who were suffering in varying degrees from malaria. The five, taken in order, were Atkiss, Lanigan, Nason, McMurria, and Holguin. Each returned with a piece of fruit and a cigarette. Within two days all five were shivering and then burning with fever.

On the night of July 29, Lanigan died. In the early morning of the next day Atkiss expired while the indestructible Nason lay in a semi-coma for several days.
Warrant Officer Matsumoto approached the cells, and McMurria raged at him. “First you shot me down, then you exposed me to bombing raids by my own people. You have starved me and denied me the medicine we need and still you have not been able to kill me. Kill me if you wish but use your rifle. That would be more honorable than dying of disease or neglect!”

Matsumoto replied that he had tried to stop the medical experiments but that headquarters had ordered Dr. Hirano to proceed. Holguin says Matsumoto then slipped him a few packages of quinine, which he gave to himself, McMurria, and Nason. About a week later came the first hint that a dramatic change was about to occur.

Against All Odds

On August 7, the seven prisoners had noticed unusual activity in the camp. The guards gathered in small groups, talking urgently and pointing to the POWs. Holguin says one of the guards told him, “The Americans are destroying the cities of Japan. Tokyo has been burning for days. American soldiers may soon invade Japan.” The guards and the Horrios did not yet know that atomic bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9.

But the camp commanders knew. On August 16, 1945, Warrant Officer Matsumoto paid the prison shack an unexpected visit in the middle of a tropical downpour. In broken English, the commander informed the prisoners that the war was coming to an end. The cell doors were unlocked. Within the hour, Major Matsuda, now back at Rabaul, invited the men to come out. The seven men squatted on the ground outside the shack.

In a bizarre scene, the sudden outpouring of emotional release touched prisoners and guards alike. Suddenly, abundant rice, candy, fruit, and condensed milk were there for the taking. Guards and Horrios actually embraced and laughed and cried together. The prisoners even poured sake into their rice. The next morning, hung over but happy, the seven survivors were told by Major Matsuda that they were no longer prisoners.

There were still days of frustration waiting for transportation and the inevitable logistic delays, but on September 7, 1945, the seven boarded the Australian corvette HMAS Vendetta and started the first leg toward home. Nason had to be carried on a stretcher, and Kepchia was too weak to walk without help.

Kepchia said, “You would have thought we were a bunch of relatives leaving on a long trip. We were hugging each other and the guards were hugging us and shaking hands with us. We had to be totally nuts but we were so very happy. I shall never forget those we left behind.” Somehow, against all odds, the seven had survived.

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