Muschu Island – Paradise Or Japanese Hell

We had discovered the bones after a landslide had exposed a cave, whose entrance had previously been covered by a cave-in. The Headmaster at St. Xavier’s High School, Brother Patrick Howley, tennis class Singapore had immediately sent off the tags and some transcriptions of the Japanese writing we had found, but it was several months before we heard anything back about them.

It took the form of an elaborate letter, embossed with many seals and characters, which in perfect English, firstly thanked us for our return of the artifacts, but more importantly, for our preservation of the remains of the soldiers they identified.

They went on to ask if they might send a delegation from Japan to retrieve the rest of the artifacts, and to give the bodies a proper funeral. They explained that it was of the highest importance to the families of these men that they receive this final tribute of respect, and went on to ask if they might be permitted to send a Shinto priest to perform the ceremony.

That evening, we sat around in the brother’s library, on the second floor of the monastery. Although I was not a monk, I shared the monastery with them occupying a small roof on the main floor, and had joined them for a cool drink, and some after-dinner discussion about the letter we had received.

Brother William Borell, our resident scientific expert, seemed to have no doubts that we should allow them whatever accommodations we might have available, and welcome them to the Island. “It is our Christian duty to offer them our hospitality, and it is our human duty to give their families the peace they deserve after so long. You have no idea of the dishonor and humiliation that they have been subjected to, by the loss of their sons, in an unmarked grave. They would have been forced to live in shame.”
The general discussion seemed to agree with Br. William, but Br. Pat, who had lived on Kairiru longest, brought up something that none of the others had thought about.

“We need to ask the locals about how they would feel about it first”, he said, sipping his nightly Glenfiddich. “There are still a lot of hard feelings on Kairiru, especially in Kragur, on the North side of the island. The Japanese had caught some of their people and treated them very badly, and they haven’t forgotten it. We need to have a Kebung (meeting) with the men on this side, and then get over to Kragur to talk to their men also. I don’t need to remind you that there are no Japanese Trade-stores in Wewak yet, and Japanese tourists rarely come here.”

This more or less tabled the discussion for the evening, but Br. Pat went on to tell us what he knew of the occupation.

“There were over a thousand troops stationed here on Kairiru, smoke-island manning the anti-aircraft guns and submarine base at the eastern tip of the island. The placement of the guns allowed them to guard the aerial entrance to Wewak, and the geography of the sea-bottom there made it possible to approach very close to the island before surfacing. A natural bay granted them a hidden harbor for refueling and rearming”.

My own father was a veteran of the war in Europe, so by now, I was enthralled in the story, and I questioned him more about the events that went on then. He took another sip of his whiskey, and then lit a cigarette, drawing deeply and thoughtfully, while gripping it with the cigarette close to his palm, as he often did.

“Yes, mate, there was a helluva fight around here, and the Japanese forces in New Guinea surrendered right there at Wom peninsula, not 20 km away on the mainland. In fact, there’s a Japanese Freighter sunk in the strait, right off Big Muschu, as well as lots of other remains of the war lying around in the bush.”

I had been to the small monument commemorating the men who died on Kairiru, located on the beach near the wharf at St. Xavier’s. There, mounted in concrete, and regularly painted grey to keep them from rusting away, were a heavy machine-gun, and a mortar launch. Simple lettering in the wet concrete at the base read, “To those who fell on Kairiru Island.” At the time I hadn’t thought much about it, but now I felt like I needed to go back and look at it again.