An Australian tour operator and a 90-year-old Japanese World War II veteran believe they have solved the mystery of a renowned digger’s disappearance on Papua New Guinea’s Kokoda Track writes ILYA GRIDNEFF
PORT MORESBY, Jan 29 AAP – The remains of a fearless World War II Digger stabbed to death for taunting a Japanese officer may at last be laid to rest with all the reverence he deserves.
The real story behind Captain Sam Templeton’s disappearance in Papua New Guinea almost 70 years ago has finally emerged thanks to the dedication of a former trooper in the Japanese Imperial Army.
Ninety-year-old Kokichi Nishimura, known as the Bone Man of Kokoda, says it was he who buried Captain Templeton in a shallow gravein the jungle following his brutal summary execution soon after he was captured near the Kokoda Track.
According to official records, Capt Templeton, a World War I veteran, was a company commander with the famed Australian 39th battalion in New Guinea, when he vanished near Oivi village on July 26, 1942.
One report said he had been trying to warn reinforcements of the massive Japanese presence in the area.
CaptTempleton was a soldiers’ soldier, dismissive of rank and revered for his courage under fire.
Historians say he was technically too old for front line duty. He was born in 1900 – but lied about his age to qualify for combat.
CaptTempleton’s Crossing at Eora Creek on the Kokoda Track is traversed by thousands of Australian trekkers each year and this month Mr Nishimura teamed up with Kokoda Spirit trekking company operator Wayne Wetherall to locate the captain’s crude bush grave.
Mr Nishimura says he still remembers where Capt Templeton is buried and the pair recently spent several days digging for clues and think they may have pinpointed the spot, but need to consult with the captain’s family about what should be done next.
Mr Nishimura, who has spent the best part of 25 years recovering the remains of fallen Japanese comrades, was a member of the 2nd battalion, 144th Regiment of the Japanese Imperial Army that fought Australian troops in the same area.
Mr Nishimura told reporters in Port Moresby he buried Capt Templeton after an enraged Japanese officer killed the captured Australian.
“It seems Captain Templeton got lost, being pushed back by Japanese soldiers,” he said through an interpreter.
Mr Nishimura said Capt Templeton was taken for interrogation and the Japanese commander became enraged when the Australian said there were “80,000 Australian troops waiting for the Japanese in Port Moresby”.
“How many of you will see out the day?” Capt Templeton asked mockingly.
Mr Nishimura said that remark infuriated the Japanese even more.
“The commander got angry at Templeton’s answers and he stabbed him,” he said.
“They (Australians) were all very brave soldiers with high spirits, therefore I don’t want to leave this mystery open,” said Mr Nishimura.
Late last year AAP visited Mr Nishimura at his home on the outskirts of Tokyo.
Humble, reserved and precise, Mr Nishimura recalled the closing stages of the New Guinea campaign.
“At that time (of the Japanese retreat) there was no choice (for the wounded Japanese) but to die, because there was no food or supplies,” Mr Nishimura said.
“Those soldiers knew they were being abandoned and they were ready for what was happening to them.
“And knowing all that, they gave a smile rather than tears.”
Mr Nishimura promised that he would return one day to recover the bodies of his comrades. As the only surviving member of the 2nd battalion, some 30 years later he kept his word.
“It’s my way of life, if I make a promise with somebody I keep it. Whatever it is I just keep my promises,” he said.
Armed with a metal detector, mattock,shovel, a few language dictionaries WW II battle plans, maps and official documents he secretly kept despite orders to destroy them, Mr Nishimura set out on a mission.
Over the years he found the remains of hundreds of Japanese soldiers.
Those identifiable were returned to families while the unknown were buried in Japan’s official war shrine in Tokyo.
While upholding the Japanese traditions of loyalty and respect, Mr Nishimura has been a thorn in the side of a Japanese governments reluctant to acknowledge the past.
His obsession often riled authorities on both sides, frequently landing him in the thick of controversy.
“I am sure I am a headache to the Japanese government – I am sure I am on the black list as a dangerous man,” he said.
Mr Nishimura fought on every front line in Japan’s Pacific campaign.
After PNG he served in Singapore and Burma before returning home to Japan in August 1945.
Mr Nishimura survived being shot three times, suffered just about every type of malaria and was once so malnourished he weighed around 30 kg.
He said the screams of an Australian soldier he killed in hand-to-hand combat still haunt him.
“My habit it is to avoid risk – I don’t try to survive (in combat), I think my body naturally moves in the right direction,” he said.
After the war he married and built a multi-million dollar engineering company. To his family’s dismay, on retirement he sold the company, left his wife and two sons with the fortune and returned to PNG.
His only daughter Sachiko went with him and they still live together.
“I left my sons but never explained the reason to them,” he said.
“I am sure they have a lot of resentful feelings towards me, but still I don’t care.
“They are strangers now. I am not interested in meeting them. I have more family in PNG. Not many in Japan.”
In January this year Mr Nishimura returned to his adopted home in Oro province on PNG’s northeast coast to locate Capt Templeton’s grave.
The Oro connection was established in WW II when a villager, Trofian Iewago, helped some Japanese soldiers, including Mr Nishimura, survive.
Mr Nishimura never forgot and when he returned to PNG to start collecting bones he lived with the Iewagos.
Trofian’s son Romney remembers Mr Nishimura well.
“When he first came he would point at the dictionary and we would work out what he wanted,” Romney said.
“He and Dad became very close and Dad said, ‘I will make you our brother and you become a clansman’.
“We call him ‘Ijiba Nishimura’ as Ijiba is our clan name and he was initiated and became one of us.”
Trofian’s daughter Geraldine called her first-born daughter ‘Sachiko’ in honour of Nishimura’s daughter.
Mr Nishimura’s amazing story has been recorded by a man who stumbled upon it by accident. While walking the Kokoda Track journalist Charles Happell literally found a small plaque Mr Nishimura erected in memory of Japan’s fallen soldiers.
Mr Happell researched Mr Nishimura’s story and wrote a book: “The Bone Man of Kokoda.”
Before returning to Tokyo Mr Nishimura said his most recent trip to PNG would be his last.
With his customary brevity, he dismissed talk about what will happen to his own bones.
“My daughter sometimes mentions that,” he said.
“But once you are dead you can’t do anything or say anything, so to say, ‘I want this after I die,’ that kind of thing is the most stupid thing you can do, so I don’t have any idea.”
– The writer is AAP’s Papua New Guinea correspondent