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The Army That Disappeared

by Ernest A. Herr

    An army is a lot of people. This Japanese army included some 170,000 of the finest soldiers ever to march off to war. They marched off never to come back, back to the homes, families, mothers, fathers, children and friends that they might have once known. They would die on the island of New Guinea, some 160,000 of them. They would die horribly, not in real combat, only a small percentage of them would go that way, most were doomed to die of dysentery, malaria, malnutrition or just complete exhaustion.

    Ogawa Masatsugu was one of these soldiers and was with the Seventy-Ninth Regiment of the Twentieth Division stationed in China. He was transferred with his unit to New Guinea in January of 1943.  He would be the only one from his company to board a transport ship bound for Japan and home after the war. People would come from all over Japan to see him expecting to see some large powerfully built iron man.  Instead, what they saw was a thin small framed man who walked slowly due to back injuries brought on by his ordeal in New Guinea. Many of the people who came had relatives or friends in the army that disappeared and it was hard for them to imagine what had happened and why no one returned alive from New Guinea.  Ogawa, now a professor of medieval Japanese literature, knew the answer.

    Ogawa Masatsugu's regiment was on the offensive in the eastern area of the island when General MacArthur launched "Operation Cartwheel" (an American and Australian offensive) in June of 1943.  At the coastal town of Finschhafen on September 22, Australian troops defeated a numerically superior Japanese force and drove them away from the coast.

    "I was amazed how weak the Australian soldiers seemed.  Their infantrymen ran before us when we attacked.  The next day, though, their artillery and airplanes bombarded us from all sides.  Only when we were totally exhausted did their infantry return to mop up at their leisure.  Our side had no fighting capability left." This, a quote from Ogawa.

     The Japanese army was forced to conduct a "fighting retreat" across the Owen Stanley Mountain range harried at all times by the Australian and American troops.  Facing an impossible situation for a retreat, most armies of the world would have surrendered to save the lives of their troops.  Not so for the Japanese army, surrender was out of the question.  This army would have to fall back and in its retreat, cross mountains and travel through some of the most impassible jungles in the world.

    "When we left Finschafen, we had already passed the limits of our energy, and yet we had to crawl along the very tops of ridges and cross mountain ranges.  It was a death march for us. It had rained for more than a half  a year straight.  Our guns rusted.  Iron just rotted away.  Wounds wouldn't heal.  Marching in the rain was horrible.  Drops fell from my cap into my mouth mixing with my sweat.  You slipped and fell, got up, went sprawling, stood up, like an army of marching mud dolls.  It went on without end, just trudging through the muddy water, following the legs of somebody in front of you."

    "At times the rain was heavy in the mountains, not like in Japan.  It was more like a waterfall.  You'd have to cover your nose or it would choke you.  A valley stream could turn into a big river instantly. If you got caught there washing your face, away you went.  People could die of drowning while crossing the mountains.  I climbed mountains four thousand meters high.  Dark black clouds swirled around us.  I had the feeling the heavens were glowering down on me.  Beyond the clouds, you could see stars even in daylight.  It was like being in the eye of a typhoon, suddenly seeing those stars shining behind the dark clouds.  It was a weird experience." This, a direct quote from Ogawa.

    This type of experience had to be endured month after month.  There seemed no end to it.  After the battle at Finschhaven, the Japanese army had been marching for almost two months and had crossed most of the mountain ranges and was almost to the coast and salvation.  But there was another gorge ahead.

    "After the main force had passed over the gorge, they blew up the suspension bridge.  The thousands who trailed behind were left to die.  We were at the end of the line.  Soldiers who had struggled along before us littered the sides of the trail.  It was a dreadful sight.  Some were already skeletons -- it was so hot that they soon rotted -- or their bodies were swollen and purple.  --  The whole mountain range was wreathed in the stench of death.  That was what it was like.

    Because our own forces blew up the bridge before we could cross it, we were forced to  march an additional month because we were one day late.  It was about the tenth day of February 1944.  Behind me there were thousands completely dispersed, scattered.  Many had gone mad.  I couldn't get over the fact that, delirious as they were, they still marched in the same direction.  Nobody, no matter how insane, walked the wrong way.  The dead bodies became road markers.  They beckoned to us:  "This is the way.  Just follow us corpses and you'll get there."

    In New Guinea, we didn't know what was killing us.  Who killed that one?  Was it death from insanity?  A suicide?  A mercy killing?  Maybe he just couldn't endure the pain of living.  I remember the war as mainly one of suicides and mercy killings.

    I knew an army doctor, about thirty-five years old, who volunteered to shoot all those who knew they could not survive.  This I consider "sacred murder."  Often subordinates asked their superiors to kill them when the main force was about to depart.  If you were left behind, that was the end.  A man who had the strength left to pull the pin could always blow himself up, so everyone tried to keep one hand grenade until the last moment.  Even those who tossed away their rifles never threw away their last grenade.

    Osawa had given up hope of surviving and thought, "If you're going to die  anyway, die gloriously."  He therefore volunteered for special missions.  Again and again he came back from these only to find it was the main unit that was wiped out while he was on the dangerous assignment.

    "In the world we lived in on New Guinea, you had no use for the language or knowledge you had accumulated before you went there.  Literature, which I'd studied at Keijo Imperial University, meant nothing.  I sensed that the extremes of existence could be reduced to the human stomach.  Lack of protein, in particular, fostered a kind of madness in us.  We ate anything.  Flying insects, worms in rotten palm trees.  We fought over the distribution of those worms.  If you managed to knock down a lizard with a stick, you'd pop it into your mouth while its tail was still wriggling.  Yet, under these conditions, a soldier offered me his final rice and a soldier I met for the first time gave me half a taro root he'd dug up.

    "We didn't know anything about the war situation outside our bit of jungle.  One day at the enemy camp we saw two flags go up, the Union Jack and the Japanese flag.  We heard Banzai! Banzai! in Japanese.  We'd never heard anything like it before.  We then had three days of silence.  Planes flew over and dropped leaflets proclaiming,  Peace has come to the Orient.  Even the regimental commander didn't know about the end of the war.  This must have been about August 15, but even that I didn't know exactly.  It would be a lie if I said I felt sad, or happy.  I can't analyze my feelings at that time. I just felt, Well, so it's over."

    How did Ogawa survive when most everyone else perished in this tragic campaign?  Of course he was doomed from the start as he was locked into a military system that specifically forbade surrender.  As the Field Service Code of January 15, 1941 stated,

    "Meet the expectations of your family and home community by making effort upon effort, always mindful of the honor of your name.  If alive, do not suffer the disgrace of becoming a prisoner; in death, do not leave behind a name soiled by misdeeds." *

    Ogawa survived because he was able to hold on until the day that Japan surrendered, otherwise he was doomed to perish just as the other soldiers of this army did.

    Who can be blamed for a philosophy that brought senseless death to  millions of Japanese.  It would be easy to place the blame at the feet of the Emperor God Hirohito who was the only single person that could have prevented this disaster at that time.  But, he too appeared to be caught up in the wild and glorious speculations as to  the heights the Japanese nation might be destined.  Maybe the only thing left to blame would be the human weakness of believing what we want to believe no matter how much evidence and good common sense points to the contrary.

JAPAN AT WAR  AN ORAL HISTORY  by Haruko Taya Cook & Theodore F. Cook
(Lost Battles)

                * The Field Service Code:  Tojo Hideki, Army Minister, Senjinkun[Field Service Regulations] (Tokyo: The Army Ministry, 1941) [reprinted by Boei mondai kenkyukai, Tokyo: 1972], chapter 2, sect. 8.

This true story was condensed from a large and was completed September, 1998 writing