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Research Guides

Japanese War Crimes in the Pacific: Australia's investigations and prosecutions

1 Introduction

Image 1: A.9. Atrocities, Publicity Censorship Directions, issued under the Press and Broadcasting Censorship Order, 31 October 1944

Image 1: A.9. Atrocities, Publicity Censorship Directions, issued under the Press and Broadcasting Censorship Order, 31 October 1944
NAA: SP195/9, 11
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That atrocities are an inevitable part of even a modern war was well known in Australia prior to World War I.1 That atrocities were also playing a part in the new war against Japan was very rapidly brought home to Australians in early 1942, as disturbing reports of breaches of the laws and usages of war began emanating from the field.   

In April 1942, for instance, Australian military personnel who had escaped from the Japanese occupation of New Britain told horror stories to the press about 'acts of ferocity' by Japanese towards surrendered Australians.2 These included accounts of the 'shocking' and 'cold-blooded' massacre of Australian prisoners of war at Tol plantation, which had taken place in January 1942.3 Given that there had been semi-official reassurances after the fall of Singapore in early 1942 that Japan was properly treating Australian prisoners of war, and advice that the public should disregard 'sensational stories' and rumours spread by 'morbid-minded people',4 the impact of the horror stories was substantial.

One of the earliest Australian responses to alleged Japanese atrocities came in May 1942, when the Australian Army convened a Court of Inquiry which was instructed to inquire into and report on, among other things:

  • any acts of terrorism or brutality practised by the Japanese against Australian troops
  • the treatment of Australian prisoners of war by Japanese troops (including deaths occurring after capture)
  • any breaches of International Law or rules of warfare committed by Japanese forces.5

The Court of Inquiry found that the Tol massacre, for instance, had been established 'beyond all possible doubt' and that '[n]o excuse whatever existed for this outrage', which was a clear and 'most flagrant' breach of international law.6 The Court of Inquiry also pointed out that the evidence that Australian prisoners of war being held by the Japanese in New Britain were being 'reasonably well treated' was 'meagre'.7 While the Court of Inquiry's report had limited circulation, a number of Australian Government departments and the military services were becoming 'interested in this question of Japanese atrocities'.8

By the end of 1942, only a year after the declaration of the war against Japan, the Australian Army had issued instructions to its commands that reports on allegations of breaches of rules of warfare be forwarded to Army Headquarters in Melbourne.9 In that same month, Australia also applied to be represented on the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC). In mid-1943, Sir William Flood Webb, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Queensland, was given the first of three commissions to investigate and report on Japanese atrocities and war crimes.  

While the Australian Government, and the Army in particular, were quite active on the issue of Japanese atrocities during the war, the wartime censorship regulations meant that the Australian public remained rather uninformed about the subject. Edmund Bonney, the Chief Publicity Censor,10 was taken 'severely to task'11 over the fact that atrocity stories from New Britain had been passed for press publication. He warned all State Censors on 11 April 1942 that 'further Japanese atrocity stories' should be given 'the closest scrutiny'.12 Indeed, the Advisory War Council – the bipartisan parliamentary body set up instead of a negotiated national government during the war – swiftly directed that 'atrocity stories should not be published', unless they were officially released under the name of a government minister, the chief of staff of an armed service or by General Headquarters and then only after it was decided whether the 'probable effect on public morale would be good or bad'.13

The Advisory War Council's direction in early 1942 was effectively the start of concerted censorship of atrocity stories in Australia – and, therefore, censorship of knowledge of alleged Japanese war crimes. Censorship was authorised during the war under regulation 16 of the National Security (General) Regulations 1939 (Cth):

if it was necessary or expedient so to do […] in the interest of the public safety, the defence of the Commonwealth or the efficient prosecution of the war, or for maintaining supplies and services essential to the life of the community.14

Under regulation 16, a Press Censorship Orderwas issued in October 1939, which specified a number of matters that were subject to censorship, prudently encompassing a variety of national security and military operational matters, and also:

any other matter whatsoever information as to which would or might be directly or indirectly useful to the enemy or prejudicial to the public safety, the defence of the Commonwealth or of any other part of His Majesty's dominions, the efficient prosecution of the war, or the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community.15

In practice, this matter was interpreted from 1939 to 1944 as encompassing anything that might negatively affect public morale, which most definitely included press accounts of atrocities and war crimes committed by the enemy. Censorship directions that unofficial atrocity stories were not to be published were repeatedly issued by Bonney, the Chief Publicity Censor, throughout the war.

After the war, there was a massive swell of publicity about Japanese atrocities, as personal accounts came from newly released Australian civilian internees and prisoners of war and returned service personnel. Press censorship was also lifted. The first of Sir William Webb's war crimes reports was tabled in Parliament and lengthy extracts were republished in the press, often with graphic headlines.

Australian investigations into alleged Japanese war crimes kicked into high gear in late 1945 and prosecutions commenced in late November 1945. From 1945 to 1951 Australian Military Courts went on to try 812 accused Japanese of war crimes in 300 trials. Sir William Webb continued his war crimes career, as he was appointed as Australia's judge and later President of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which tried Japanese major war criminals from 1946 to 1948.

Yet, after the flurry of postwar activity, it became reasonably difficult to acquire detailed knowledge of Australia's war crimes investigations and prosecutions of Japanese.16 For many decades, war crimes investigation files and the trial proceedings were closed to the public. Even though the trial proceedings were finally opened for public access in 1975, the enormous wealth of Commonwealth records on war crimes investigations and prosecutions, scattered across several locations, has regrettably continued to preclude most scholars or researchers from delving into the area.17 The author hopes that this guide will help to remedy that situation, particularly as more and more records are digitised. For example, all of the Australian war crimes trial proceedings – bar a few large maps – are now online and freely available anywhere in the world, which is rare for post–World War II trials.

Researchers are advised that while the majority of war crimes records are now open to the public, a small minority of files (some of which are recorded here) are exempt from public access or are partially redacted. Under s33(g) of the Archives Act 1983 (Cth), a record is an exempt record if it contains 'information or matter the disclosure of which under this Act would involve the unreasonable disclosure of information relating to the personal affairs of any person (including a deceased person)'. This section is often tripped in relation to war crimes files that contain documents dealing with identifiable victims of war crimes and atrocities that were perpetrated against them. In some cases, however, dedicated researchers will be able to identify persons whose names or personal information are redacted in some files. It is up to the individual researcher whether they choose to publish identifying information or not. For example, out of respect for descendants, the Australian War Crimes Trials project members at the Melbourne Law School have chosen not to publish the names of victims of cannibalism in their publications.

What this guide covers

While Australians fought alongside the Allied powers in the European and Pacific theatres of World War II, and were the victims of atrocities in both, this guide covers generally only the Pacific theatre.

This decision reflects the reality that the bulk of Australian records on war crimes investigations and prosecutions concerns Japanese war crimes, not war crimes in Europe. Issues relating to war crimes in Europe were largely left by Australia to be dealt with by the United Kingdom. For example, while Australia made official reports to the United Nations War Crimes Commission of Australian cases of Japanese war crimes, the United Kingdom's Treasury Solicitor's Office made the official reports of Australia's cases of German war crimes. Most significantly, of the 300 Australian war crimes trials, not a single one relates to the European theatre.

This guide covers:

  • the Australian war crimes inquiries headed by Sir William Webb from 1943 to 1945 (Chapter 2)
  • Australia's involvement in the United Nations War Crimes Commission (as it covered both theatres of war) (Chapter 3)
  • the Australian Army's Directorate of Prisoners of War and Internees, which had charge of most of the postwar investigations and the war crimes trials (Chapter 4)
  • files on war crimes investigations (Chapter 5)
  • the War Crimes Act 1945 (Cth) and the Australian Military Court war crimes trials (chapters 6–7)
  • the Australian War Criminals Compounds in which convicted war criminals were held (Chapter 8)
  • the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, 1946–48, over which Sir William Webb presided (Chapter 9)
  • the repatriation, parole and release of convicted war criminals (Chapter 10).

The guide also includes four appendixes, including:

  • a complete index of accused Japanese war criminals by surname (including their names in Japanese kanji script where known), which lists the charge/s they faced, trial location and outcome
  • an index to the trial proceedings and related correspondence files in the archival records
  • an index to the key documents in the digitised version of each trial.


1 Even as early as September 1914, various Australian newspapers instructed their readers at length on 'what is fair fighting?' and provided a list of 'war crimes' in response to claims that the Germans were committing them; see, for example, 'War Crimes. What is Fair Fighting? Early Atrocities', Sydney Morning Herald, 7 September 1914, p. 5.

2 Letter from Mr EG Bonney, Chief Publicity Censor to Mr [Brigadier] EG Knox, Director-General of Public Relations, Department of the Army, explaining the 'background to Censorship policy with regard to enemy atrocities', 3 December 1942, National Archives of Australia (NAA): A11663, PA33.

3 See, for example, 'Jap Atrocities Against Australians', News (Adelaide), 7 April 1942, p. 3; and 'AIF Massacre. Survivor's Story. Wholesale Murder. 125 Men Die; 2 Escape', West Australian (Perth), 10 April 1942, p. 5.

4 From, for instance, Major General Gordon Bennett, the General Officer Commanding, Australian Infantry Force in Malaya, who had just controversially 'escaped' from the fall of Singapore: Adele Shelton Smith, 'Special Interview with Major-General Bennett', Australian Women's Weekly, 14 March 1942, p. 7. See also 'Gen Bennett's Views on War Captives', News (Adelaide), 11 March 1942, p. 3.

5 See the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry with Reference to Landing of Japanese Forces in New Britain, Timor and Ambon, Australian War Memorial (AWM): AWM226, 1/1.

6 ibid, p. 23.

7 ibid, p. 24.

8 Department of the Army Minute Paper, 'Japanese Atrocities', 7 April 1943, NAA: MP742/1, 336/1/1145.

9 Memorandum from Brigadier WJ Urquhart for Adjutant-General to the Secretary, Department of the Army attaching 'Statement Concerning Action Taken to Apprehend Japanese War Criminals', 27 September 1945, NAA: MP742/1, 336/1/980.

10 See John Hilvert, 'Bonney, Edmund Garnet (1883–1959)',  Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, Canberra, n.d,

11 As recalled by EG Bonney, Chief Publicity Censor, in a letter to the State Public Censor, Brisbane, 10 March 1944, NAA: SP109/3, 329/07.

12 Letter from EG Bonney, Chief Publicity Censor to the Secretary, Department of Defence, 18 April 1942, NAA: SP109/3, 329/07.

13 Letter from EG Bonney, Chief Publicity Censor to Mr [Brigadier] EG Knox, Director-General of Public Relations, Department of the Army, explaining the 'background to Censorship policy with regard to enemy atrocities', 3 December 1942, NAA: A11663, PA33.

14 National Security (General) Regulations, no. 87 of 1939, made on 13 September 1939 (as amended by Statutory Rules no. 34 of 1940, no. 120 of 1940, no. 9 of 1941, no. 475 of 1942 and no. 137 of 1943) pursuant to the National Security Act 1939 (Cth). For an analysis of the passage of the National Security Act 1939 and operation of wartime censorship, see Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1939–1941, in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, series 4 – Civil, vol. I, Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1952, pp. 174–87.

15 Order 3(vi), Press Censorship Order, issued 4 October 1939 (later repealed and re-issued in 1943 as Press and Broadcasting Censorship Order), pursuant to regulation 16, National Security (General) Regulations,ibid. For the original 1939 version of the Press Censorship Order, see Commonwealth of Australia Gazette, no. 99, 6 October 1939, pp. 2105-2106. Similar censorship orders over film and radio broadcasting and postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications were also issued pursuant to regulation 16.

16 The standard internationally-cited work on the Australian trials until recently, for instance, has remained Philip Piccigallo's 1979 book, even though Piccigallo used newspaper reports of the trials, not the trial proceedings, for his analysis: Philip R Piccigallo, The Japanese on Trial: Allied War Crimes Operations in the East, 1945–1951, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1979, see Chapter 7 on 'Australia and Other Commonwealth Trials (Canada, New Zealand)', pp. 121–42.

17 Georgina Fitzpatrick, Timothy McCormack and Narrelle Morris (eds), Australia's War Crimes Trials 1945-51, Leiden: Brill Nijhoff, 2016. For selected other publications using the trial proceedings, see Dean Aszkielowicz, The Australian Pursuit of Japanaese War Criminals, 1943-1957: From Foe to Friend, Hong Kong Press, 2017; Michael Carrel, 'Australia's Prosecution of Japanese War Criminals: Stimuli and Constraints', in David A. Blumenthal and Timothy LH McCormack (eds.), The Legacy of Nuremberg: Civilising Influence or Institutionalised Vengeance? Martinus Nijhoff, Leiden, 2008, pp. 244–45; David Sissons, 'Sources on Australian Investigations into Japanese War Crimes in the Pacific', in Journal of the Australian War Memorial, 1997, vol. 30,; and also David Sissons, 'The Australian War Crimes Trials and Investigations (1942–1951)', n.d., Papers of DCS Sissons, MS 3092, Series 10, National Library of Australia. See also: Caroline Pappas, 'Law and Politics: Australia's War Crimes Trials in the Pacific 1943–1961', PhD thesis, University of New South Wales, 1998; Michael Carrel, 'Australia's Prosecution of Japanese War Criminals: Stimuli and Constraints', PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 2005; and Dean Michael Aszkielowicz, 'After the Surrender: Australia and the Japanese Class B and C War Criminals, 1945–1958', PhD thesis, Murdoch University, 2012.