By Pierre Kosmidis
Balalae airfield lies obscured in the vicinity of Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. It would have been the final destination of Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Imperial Japanese Navy, flying from Rabaul to Balalae island, if his Mitsubishi G4M “Betty” light bomber of 705 Kōkūtai had not been shot down and crashed in the jungle of Bougainville island by P-38G “Lightnings” of the 339th Fighter Squadron, 347th Fighter Group.
The airfield built during WW2 by POWs is still in use today and echoes the tragic past of this tiny island, dubbed “the unsinkable aircraft carrier”.
Few are aware that apart from the WW2 aircraft wrecks scattered around Balalae, hundreds of Prisoners of War tragically died by Allied bombing or were summarily executed by the Japanese.
In October 1942, 600 British prisoners of war, with their commander Lt. Colonel John Bassett, were loaded onto a ship which would take them to a prison camp.
The ship headed to Rabaul on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea and in November 517 POWs were taken to Balalae to build the runway still in use today.
Approximately 100 of the prisoners died from overwork, exhaustion and tropical diseases, but a great number were killed by allied air raids on the island.
A B24 raid on the night of 12-13 March 1943 may have killed as many as 300 of the prisoners of war when bombs literally blew up their camp.
In late June 1943 another heavy air raid followed by shelling from US navy ships convinced the Japanese that the island was about to be invaded and they decided to execute all the surviving prisoners. On 30 June 1943 the survivors, perhaps 70 to 100 men, were all bayoneted or beheaded.
After the war ended a mass grave was discovered by Australian investigators and the remains of over 400 men were removed in November-December 1945 and are now buried at the Bomana Commonwealth War Cemetery in Port Moresby.
According to Lieutenant Commander Norihiko Ozaki of 18 Naval Construction Unit,
“every regiment was making arrangements for the eventual enemy’s surprise landing and attack and were working hard all night, but the enemy did not attack our island.
After all, because of vigorous changes and disadvantages in the war situation, everybody’s morale was strained by extreme excitement. Under this pressure the provisions of the defense plan, including the execution of the prisoners was carried out automatically. It can also be said that faced with a crisis, this action was unavoidable”.