67th Line of Communication Hospital (Japanese) Japanese Medics in New Guinea

by Dr. Hargis Westerfield, Division Historian


In the New Guinea Campaign, Jap health-medical problems were much like our own North American health problems. Like most Americans, their homeland had a climate of just three hot months. Tropical diseases struck them just as hard as they struck us. And our Navy and Air Force cut off food and medicines to a mere trickle.

Malaria was of course the most feared disease, for it recurrences made men unfit for combat or labor. During early New Guinea days, quinine retarded symptoms - until 18th Army Medics discovered atabrine, to take in mid-1943.

Another major malaria preventive was protection from mosquito bites. But the uniform designed for New Guinea was short-sleeved, with knee-high pants. Soon men got orders to cover their bare extremities in any way possible.

But enlisted men still sickened with malaria much more than officers. Reason for this difference was due to a cause which quartermasters had not foreseen. An officer had his own private netting, but several men had to share the same bar. With more men, there had to be more entrances and exits - and more chances for malaria’s mosquitoes to slip in.

Jap treatment for malaria was to take three atabrine pills daily for the first five days. After that, they took plasmochin -1-1/2 pills daily for three to five days. Recovery was usual.

They found no typhoid or cholera in New Guinea, but stagnant water caused much amoebic dysentery. Skin disease was abundant - scabies, ringworm, tropical ulcers - that formed a white pimple on the smallest cut. Much skin disease may have been due to failure to bathe. Men could bathe daily in Japan, but combat conditions made it difficult to bathe.

Some deaths came from eating sago. After rice was almost cut off, "sac sac" was made from the sago palm. Men cut down a 10-15 year-old tree, stripped the bark, and beat the soft trunk into pulp. They boiled it to a watery mass. After straining through a coarse cloth, it became a white powder. It was then mostly starch, the basis for various types of recipes. But it lacked fats, carbohydrates and vitamins. Many men bloated from it; some men died.

More men died than they should have from wounds in battle. They had to leave seriously wounded men to die on the field, for they had no immediate medical treatment. Back in the few large Line of Communication hospitals, for every wounded man, there were 100 cases of disease.

And there was a deeper reason for the 100 to 1 ratio of sick to wounded in Line of Communication hospitals. A wounded man had almost no chance for life unless he could escape by hobbling or crawling - or if he had friends nearby.

For the Japs lacked trained, front-line medics to give first aid under fire and bring them back to safety. Often the Japs had to retire from a position with only a temporary hospital close to the rear. They had no procedures to remove sick or wounded to safer hospitals at a time when they could be removed. The command staff did nothing until able soldiers began falling back under fire. Then the head of the temporary hospital often shot his patients or had them commit suicide with grenades. (In the Sanananda Hospital lot, no officer was in charge. Able Jap soldiers fought us from among the patients; we had to shoot anything that moved.)

Best illustration of Japanese medical-food problems appears in the story of the final days of 67th Line of Communications Hospital and South Seas Detachment Headquarters at Girua. (Girua was the coast base for Sanananda Battle.) The Chief of 18th Army Medical Section, Major Keyno Tajima, never forgot his week's visit to Firua.

At Girua, rice ration was almost nil when Tajima arrived.

Standard rice ration of the Jap soldier was 28 ounces, but by the end of December, it fell to 10 ounces, then to two ounces the first week of January. By 12 January, the rice ration would be exhausted, at 67th Line of Communications Hospital and South Seas Detachment Headquarters’s.

On 7 January, Major Tajima with orderly came to Girua. Both Tajima and orderly wore new uniforms with sparkling shoes. The orderly carried a small trunk of rations and cigarettes and a heavy knapsack of more rations.

First soldier that Tajima saw near the beach was an emaciated man helpless on his back, beginning final convulsions before death. Just then a Yank observation plane droned above. As Tajima and his orderly took cover in the jungle, they heard other planes machine-gunning the coast road.

Another soldier stood before them in the jungle - in a shredded uniform coat. Below the coat, he wore only a loin-cloth. His face was pale; his eyes were sunken. In this condition, he was feebly searching for food - from anything that crawled in the earth, insect or worm.

The wandering soldier said, "I've had nothing to eat for several days. If you have cigarettes, won't you give me just one?" Tajima offered him one of the "Hikari" brand of cigarettes which he had brought to give away. The soldier happily lighted it, then smoked with a joyful look in his eyes.

After the crackle of the strafing machine guns died away, Tajima left his heavily loaded orderly behind and hurried ahead. Everywhere he smelled and saw corpses on the road and off in jungle openings. He had to wade thigh-deep into a small stream crossing the road. Here was another ghastly sight - another soldier lying near death beside more corpses. He could no longer move. His eyes pierced into Tajima' s eyes - like trying to appeal for something. Tajima could not look him in the eye any longer and turned away.

Nearing the South Seas Headquarters, Tajima saw other ragged, skinny soldiers, and more corpses. To the Kempetai (MPs) and Medics he gave repeated orders to bury the corpses and clear the road. Soon he learned that his order was impossible to obey. Starvation and fever had so run down South Seas Detachment men - even men of Headquarters’ - that they had no strength to pull corpses out of sight from the road - let alone cremate or bury them.

Still trudging towards Headquarters, Tajima gave out more cigarettes to a number of men and officers. They accepted them joyously. Later, some men told Tajima, "You have made us happy with your cigarettes. It's like being a soul in hell and seeing the God Buddha."

Tajima groped his way to the well-dug fox-hole of Colonel Yosuke Yokoyama, Commanding Officer of the shrunken 15 Engineer Regiment. Cheerfully Yokoyama greeted him and led him to the fox-hole of smiling Lieutenant Colonel Yoshinobu of Supplies, and Detachment Commanding Officer, Major General Kensaku Oda. Tomita grinned, but Oda was grave and skinny and sunken-eyed.

Almost all officers and enlisted men whom Tajima saw at Detachment Headquarters’ seemed extremely miserable. Faces were pale yellow and lean from starvation, like the soldier to whom Tajima had given the first cigarette. Only rarely did any enlisted man wear pants - merely loincloths. No enlisted man had shoes. Tajima learned that they had lost their equipment and had to throw their arms into the flooded Kumusi River. This was after their retreat back over Kokoda Trail from trying to capture Port Moresby - back in early March 1943.

Tajima had to admit that the command system of South Seas Detachment was broken down. They still had a phone network, but it was useless without accessory equipment. Headquarters’ officers had quit their standard procedure of gathering runners to carry orders to their units. Officers feared that any assembly would draw bombs or shelling. Only exception would be when a small ration was doled out.

Many patients were in hospital, but many more returned to lie beside their outfits because of hospital food shortages. Majority of Detachment Headquarters’ men were having daily fever attacks and spent much time laid up until temperatures moderated. One of the worst fevers was Major Matsuo Kowai's. Kowai was in fact lucky that his aggravated malaria invalided him from the Army. Kowai was the only field grade officer who endured the whole campaign and lived.

Visiting Staff Officer Tajima himself began suffering illness almost at once. On his second day at Girua, colitis weakened him. Also because of the swamps and heavy continuous rain, his leather leggings and shoes became as "glutinous as jelly." He had to wear cloven-toed canvas sneakers.

Two-three days after arrival, Tajima received a telegram for the troops from the Emperor. Almost no pencils and paper were left at Headquarters’ to copy the words for runners to read to the troops. Tajima's own map case was rain-soaked and his message paper a watery pulp. Finally officers acted as runners to bear even the Emperor's message - which was surely an attempt to lift the morale of a defeated army.

Yet, despite disease and starvation, Major Kemo Tajima - seven years later - still spoke highly of Japanese morale at Girua. No matter how sick or despairing the men were, neither Australians nor Americans would attack. (At least Tajima experienced no attacks during the time he was with South Seas Detachment Headquarters.)

But because of disease and starvation, destruction of the South Seas Detachment's remnants had to come. Never again would it mount an attack over the mountains to capture Port Moresby. On 13 January 1943, two days before Tajima left Girua, 18th Army's Hatazo Adachi order the Detachment Japs to flee by motor launches or barges of by foot westward up the Guinea Shore.

Diary of Medical Sergeant Kiyoshi Wada shows the change in morale that the surviving Detachment Japs underwent. At first, on 22 December 1943, Wada was resigned by cheerful. He wrote that spending five months on this island of distress and sorry was good training that comes just once a lifetime for a man.

But malnutrition and disease were taking their toll. Wada had recurrent malaria. He was always hungry. Some days, a little rice came to him, or a handful of dried vegetables. Around Christmas, he wistfully heard that front-line soldiers had found comfort packages of sweets on Aussie corpses. On Christmas Eve, he ate coconut and octopus - and on Christmas Day another handful of rice.

Once Wada caught a few sea crabs, which he ate raw. Once he ate snakes. Soon he and his buddies ate grass, "just like horses," as he wrote. By 10 January, all the grass and roots had been eaten around Girua. (The day before, on 8 January, 2nd Battalion 163 Infantry had cut Killerton Track and interdicted remaining trickles of supplies into the crucial South Girua area.) On that night of 10 January, heavy rains flooded the hospital wards. Allied shelling increased. Wada wrote, "I am troubled. I am troubled."                                                                                          

A Japanese barge fleet was already moving sick and wounded from the Buna-Gona-Girua coast. In black night, newly trained engineers without a compass had crossed from New Britain over 450 sea miles to land at Mambare in New Guinea. Hiding by day and moving by night, they crept down the coast to Girua. When barges slipped in to Girua, sick and wounded crawled to the coast, or rode the soldiers of walking wounded. Watching the barges leave in heavy rain one night, Sergeant Wada lingered miserably on the beach. Some Medics were on board to care for the casualties, but Wada was left behind. Earlier in New Guinea, he had been ready to die any time for Japan. Now this malarious and starved Medic longed with all his heart for the home he would never see again. Back at the hospital, a shell would kill him.

On 20 January, South Sea Detachment's Major General Kensaku Oda and Lieutenant Colonel Yoshinobu Tomita, his Supply Officer, watched their last men slip on foot west into the jungle swamp to try to infiltrate through Australian lines. Saying to the last soldier of the rear guard, "That's the end of that. I'm going to smoke one cigarette at leisure," Oda with Tomita remained behind. The soldier hesitated. "March on," ordered Oda hearing pistol shots, the soldier hurried back. Oda and Tomita lay on a cloak where they had killed themselves.

On 21 January, our E Company 127 Infantry (32 Division) patrolled into the remnants of 67th Line of Communications Hospital at Girua. Sick and wounded still alive lay scattered everywhere, some in final stages of starvation. They found unburied dead, and several "skeleton" walking around. They took 69 helpless men prisoners, but had to kill 20 others who died resisting capture.

The whole Girna story epitomizes the whole Japanese medical problem in New Guinea - of a malarious or wounded army deprived of the medical supplies and attendants it needs to survive.


CREDIT: Most important source is Major Kempe Tajima's 3-page level size typescript, "Statement Concerning the Condition of Girua in Early January of 1943" - in Vol IV, Statements of Japanese Officers in World War II. Almost as important is Major General Yoshio Hirose's 3-page legal size typescript in Vol II, Statements of Japanese Officers in World War II. Sergeant

Wada's story is in Aussie Lida Mayo's Bloody Buna. Other sources include Engineers' Lieutenant Colonel Y. Shibazaki's interview in Interrogation of Japanese Officers in World War II, also Vol. II, Dr. Samuel Milner's Victory in Papua, and Aussie Dudley McCarthy's South-West Pacific Area - First Year. Please remember: My Japanese Marine friend, Makoto Ikeda, says that the troops were treated more humanely by the time the war was over.