Aitape, Papua New Guinea (July 19, 2017)
One day during the First World War, in light of the heavy losses German fighter aircraft were inflicting on Allied reconnaissance aircraft, the Royal Flying Corps made a decision: from now on, reconnaissance aircraft would require an escort of at least three fighter aircraft. The date of that decision: January 14, 1916.
Meanwhile, on that same day in the small town of Gunnedah in Australia’s New South Wales, many thousands of miles away, a child came into the world and was named Leonard George Siffleet. He would grow into a toddler, a teen, an adult. He would become a soldier. And then one day during the Second World War, he would die by beheading, and it would be captured on camera.
It was in 2017, by accident, that I learned about Sgt. Leonard G. Siffleet’s beheading. I was traveling along the north coast of New Guinea, en route from Jayapura (on the Indonesian half of New Guinea) to the town of Madang in the independent country of Papua New Guinea. It was a journey that would take several days.
When I reached the small town of Aitape, I had a meeting in a small open field between the market and post office with several landowners whose permission I needed in order to visit an old WWII airstrip outside town. It was during this meeting that I noticed a nearby memorial plaque and later walked over to read it. It said that Sgt. Leonard G. Siffleet was executed at Aitape Beach on October 24, 1943. So were the two Ambonese soldiers captured with him, H. Pattiwal and M. Reharing. A picture of a bound and blindfolded man, on his knees and with a sword soon to come down on his neck, was etched into the plaque.
Months later, back in a part of the world with speedy wifi, I read that the picture etched into the plaque had been found by American soldiers on the body of a dead Japanese soldier in Hollandia (modern Jayapura) in April 1944. It is the only known picture of a Japanese soldier executing an Allied prisoner of war.
The next morning, I walked to the beach. The sky was gray — even the sea seemed that way. A light rain fell. I stood here a while.
And then I closed my eyes, slowly lowering my body into a kneeling position in the sand. I listened — every few seconds, you could hear the crash of a wave come down, followed by calm silence — and I felt the rain on my skin. And I thought of Sgt. Leonard G. Siffleet, who was once a baby, and here in Aitape became no more.
THINGS MENTIONED OR RELATED:
- Aitape, Papua New Guinea
- A page on the Australian War Memorial website, which includes more information about Leonard Siffleet, including several photos, one of which shows all three prisoners side by side.
- Some video footage from my visit on July 19 to the old WWII airstrip and its jungle-covered planes.