Son fights for justice 55 years after his father's death
Relatives want answers from the British government over a second world war atrocity, reports Julian Ryall
Allan Jones does not remember his father, who was shipped to the Far East to serve in the Royal Artillery when he was just an infant. But he vividly recalls learning that his father, Lewis Jones, had died in November 1943.
'I remember my mother receiving the official telegram and being terribly, terribly upset,' said Mr Jones, a retired British Telecom employee from Essex.
According to the War Office letter, which arrived in January 1944, Jones had died when a Japanese ship transporting prisoners of war had been sunk off Indonesia. The shock deeply affected his mother, who died in 1968 at the age of 64. Mr Jones says she never recovered from the loss of her husband and her health deteriorated after she received the news that he had been killed.
Such experiences were frequent in Britain, and the world, during the years of the second world war, and Allan Jones grew up thinking he knew as much as there was to know about the death of his father, along with 414 other British and 133 Dutch military personnel.
It was not until his retirement that Mr Jones decided to look a little more closely at the circumstances of his father's death. And what he found first surprised and then shocked him.
In documents provided by the Australian National Archives in Melbourne and others held at the British government repository at Kew, it quickly became apparent that his father had been the victim of one of the worst atrocities of the war and that the British government had concluded, in 1949, that rebuilding relations with Japan was more important than lifting the lid on the massacre.
'We were told that he died when his ship was torpedoed, and that was it as far as we were concerned,' said Mr Jones.
'But that's not what happened. We were not told and we should have been informed. It was our right.'
Mr Jones has completed a book that brings together all the strands of the tale of the SS Suez Maru and wrote this month to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to request action.
He also stated that legal advice he and other relatives of those killed suggested they had a strong case for an official apology from the government and also, if the case were taken to the European Court, they stood a good chance of winning compensation.
For more than 60 years, the full story of the Suez Maru atrocity remained hushed up, but Lewis Jones' personal story began when he was captured in the early stages of the war, as Imperial Japanese forces swept down the Malay Peninsula, through Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Jones was one of 548 POWs forced into the hold of the 4,645-tonne merchant vessel - one of the 'Hell Ships' that transported prisoners to serve as slave labourers during the war.
Escorted by Minesweeper No12, the Suez Maru was about 330km east of Java when it was torpedoed by the US Navy submarine Bonefish.
The ship sank quickly and many men drowned before they could escape from the holds, although as many as 300 POWs were able to cling to floating debris.
The minesweeper picked up the Japanese survivors, estimated at 93 soldiers and 205 injured or sick troops, before Captain Osamu Kawano ordered his men to open fire on the men in the sea with rifles and machine guns.
The Japanese government later informed London that the men had all died when the ship was sunk, and it was not until 1949, when one of the Japanese crewmen who had witnessed the atrocity and claimed to be no longer able to live with the secret came forward, that the truth came out. In a letter to General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the occupation forces, Yoshio Koshiki wrote: 'Some of them waved their hands. I heard people moaning in pain. The bursts of machine-gun fire did not cease for some time.'
Interrogated, he said that some of the men even stood up on pieces of wreckage in an attempt to make themselves easier targets. The minesweeper rammed rafts and lifeboats.
The Japanese commanding officers were later questioned at Tokyo's Sugamo Prison. They confessed to their actions and admitted falsifying official documents on the case. Armed with witness testimony and confessions, investigators believed it would be a simple matter to obtain a conviction for war crimes, although their efforts had already been overtaken by higher political considerations.
In March 1949 - just two months before Koshiki's letter arrived - the Allies' Far Eastern Commission decided that it was time to wind up the trials of suspected Japanese war criminals.
About 900 cases had been investigated, but the feeling among the Allies was that steps needed to be taken to keep Japan close to the west politically and militarily. In Europe, the Berlin airlift was on, Chinese communists were forcing the Nationalists to leave the mainland for Taiwan and the Korean war was just months away.
General MacArthur also made it clear that he opposed another war-crimes trial as he was attempting to build bridges with Japan.
Documents that Allan Jones uncovered show the alarm the Suez Maru incident caused in the British government.
'On balance, I feel that there are very good grounds for regarding September 30 as the terminal date for the Japanese trials,' British secretary of state for war Emmanuel Shinwell wrote to foreign secretary Ernest Bevin.
'It is unfortunate that the first case to be ruled out should be a particularly bad one; but for all we know there may be others as bad, and if we do not drop this or any other bad case, I cannot see how we shall ever put an end to these trials.' Bevin replied to Shinwell's letter by stating: 'There must inevitably be a strong moral case for bringing war criminals of this kind to trial, despite the delay.'
Although it was 'most unfortunate that the first case to call in question the decision of the Far Eastern Commission on war-crimes trials should be one as bad as that of the SS Suez Maru', Bevin nonetheless concluded that 'it would be preferable to support the decision of the Far Eastern Commission and maintain the suggested terminal date for Japanese trials' as that would be the only action that would receive international support.
Captain Kawano was released on December 6, 1949, and neither he nor anyone else complicit in the massacre was ever officially questioned again.
Concerned that their decision would cause uproar in the British press and among the relatives of the dead, Britain's political leaders decided to say nothing more, in the hope that the matter would soon be forgotten.
It might have been, had it not been for Lewis Jones' son.
'If they catch a Nazi war criminal today, they still prosecute him,' he said. 'But no Japanese has been prosecuted since 1949, and the men who committed this act confessed to it. Then they were suddenly released. That information was then withheld from the relatives of the men.
'I have felt all sorts of emotions,' he said. 'This is not a question of vengeance, but the families should have been told what had happened. We are British subjects and we had every right to expect that we would have been informed about this.'