Neville was a cousin to the Liversuch boys and had a younger sister named Jean. Their father Harold was Jessie's brother. Neville was raised in Abertysswg near the junction of the Rhonda and Rhymney valleys of South Wales. In his town, he was considered a friendly lad and a skilled billiard player.
When news hit that the whole contingent of men had been captured from their troop ship in the Java area in 1942, it hit his parents Harold and Mary very hard. They were stricken with ongoing anxiety over his welfare and their inability to contact him in any way. After many months of worry, they were given news (possibly from the Red Cross) that Neville was likely in a jungle work party under Japanese jurisdiction.
After the fall of the Japanese Empire, some of the prisoners returned home to the Welsh valleys and one particular man who returned home to the town of Merthyr contacted Harold and his wife Mary. He told them that he had been in the same work group with Neville. According to the man, Neville had died at the hands of the Japanese.
The story he told Harold and Mary was that Neville was found singing in his hovel one night and slashed in the face with a whip. This left Neville unable to see and therefore unable to work for the Japanese. Now thought of as a "useless mouth to feed' Neville was led to a nearby river and drowned.
This is the account our family had heard and had believed since 1945. I am sure that the man who approached Harold had the best of intentions but I believe that for one reason or another, he had gotten the story wrong.
"I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
Neville had been inducted into the Regiment of the RAF along with many of his friends and after they were given their training, they took a short leave before boarding ships bound for Asia. The time that Neville left England was near the same time as the fall of Hong Kong, the sinking of the Prince of Wales and the Repulse in the South China Sea.
At the same time, the Americans were being driven from Corregidor and onto the Bataan Peninsula. Relentlessly, the tanks and artillery pounded and advanced through the jungle, banyan trees and mango trees like large lawn mowers constantly pushing back the American and allied forces. Surrender was weighed against starvation.
Before long, there were no stores of food, medical supplies or even precious water for their survival. Those who were able, tried to escape and those who were too injured and unable to walk were left behind with a single medic to attend to them. Then came the inevitable fall of Bataan.
General Douglas MacArthur himself had fled Manilla for Australia leaving the Gulf of Sumatra, Indonesia and Java for the onslaught of the Japanese forces. This is when he spoke the words; 'I shall return'. It is also where Neville and his men were left for capture by the enemy as 'Expendables". Part of the cost of war. The entire shipload of airmen were taken prisoner.
At that time, the Japanese forces were not participants with the Geneva Convention of war practices and treatment. They were free to starve, beat and torture their prisoners as they saw fit.The prisoners were worked from sun up to sunset and left to sleep in huts or lean-tos that they built themselves. Each was made to bow to his guard each morning or when approached. Many of the men fell to the ravages of the jungle diseases such as Berri Berri, Malaria, Dysentery and Dengue with bodies weakened by starvation while their Red Cross Care packages were withheld. Instead, the Japanese used the care packages for themselves.
The Japanese at the time considered surrender to be a shameful act, they would rather die a hopeless death than be taken prisoner. So they treated their prisoners with great contempt. Although the details are sketchy at best, it is clear that Neville was killed as a prisoner of the Japanese and never given a proper burial or even a grave with a marker of any kind. He remains lost to history somewhere in the jungles of Java.
That was the story Ron and his family were left to live with until his death and that of his parents and Neville's parents.The Attitudes of the Japanese Soldiers is explained below in this excerpt.
Japanese policy toward POWs does not just concern the prisoners they took, but their own men. The Japanese soldier was not allowed to surrender — under any circumstances. Even badly wounded soldiers were not allowed to surrender. It was seen as shameful and not only dishonored the individual, but his family as well. It was totally contrary to Japanese military doctrine and the doctrine imposed on the nation by the military. Nationalists and militarists, usually one and the same, sought inspiration in the past. They reached back to ancient myths about the nation and emperor.
The Japanese came to see themselves and their emperor as being directly descended from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. The militarists demanded that the Japanese restore a past racial and spiritual purity that because of contamination by the West had been lost.
Children were indoctrinated from an early age to worship the Emperor as a living deity. War was presented as a legitimate act which would purify the self and the nation. As part of this national ethos the supreme sacrifice of life was regarded as not only a small matter, but the purest of accomplishments. Soldiers were told, "Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you."
This was all part of Japan's ancient samurai heritage. The revered samurai code of ethics was known as 'bushido'. It served as as the basic code for Japan's military during World War II. The main classic of Bushido is 'Hagakure'. It was begins with the words, 'Bushido is a way of dying' (early-18th century. Its central thesis is that only a samurai prepared to die at any moment can devote himself fully to his feudal lord. And the Japanese military did a very good job of implanting this spirit throughout Japan.
It was not only the professional soldiers that came to believe this. The military managed to convince the millions of civilians drafted that surrender was not an option. The soldiers were told that the Americans were monsters and would torture them.
Perhaps even more important was the idea of honor. surrender was seen as dishonorable. As a result, many of the Japanese soldiers captured were wounded and no longer capable of resistance. (Many attempted suicide when they had recovered a little. Even Japanese soldiers cut off in isolated Pacific garrisons and starving were not allowed to surrender. And there are instances of Japanese soldiers holding out in the Pacific for years after the war.
Nothing more was known about the fate of Neville and the men he was with when captured by the Japanese forces in Java until 1949. A Lieutenant in the Japanese forces finally came forward and offered written testimony to the Far East Command, detailing the circumstances of the sinking of a cargo vessel named the Seuz Maru.
March 1943. Japanese Maru code JN14 had been broken by the U.S. Submarine command. They now knew the departure times and movements of the Japanese vessels in the Java area.
On the Moluccan Islands of Pulau Ambon and Pulau Haruku, deaths among the allied prisoners were a daily occurrence. This was due to systematic starvation, disease and the regular beatings by the Japanese guards. By November of 1943, over 400 prisoners had died and approximately 700 were too sick to work. The Japanese decided to transport the sick back to Java. Among these men were 221 British RAF servicemen. It is believed that Neville Lawes was one of them.
Lieutenant Koshio Masaji asked for an investigation into the massacre of as many as 542 allied prisoners. Until that time, their fate was listed as being upon the ship when it was torpedoed and sunk by an American submarine. The result of his disclosure was an inquiry into his own actions, the actions of the captain of the Suez Maru and the captain of the Japanese Minesweeper W12.
After being used as forced labour by a Japanese regime that ignored or changed their interpretation of any parts of the Geneva Convention that inconvenienced them, prisoners were shuttled back and forth to different camps in the Java area. Some were transported between Surabaya and the tiny island of Ambon.
Due to the threat of allied submarines in the area, the 6,400 tonne, Class 1A cargo vessel, Suez Maru was in danger of attack at any time. The Suez Maru was designated PS #45 which stands for 'Prisoner Ship #45'. It was one of 56 such ships. It was never fitted with the proper POW markings as laid out in the Geneva Convention. Lieutenant Koshio consulted with his superior officer, Unit Commander Colonel Anami. He was ordered to follow the high command orders not to allow any of his prisoners to fall into enemy hands. Masaji was told; 'You will kill them all'.
There were four holds on the Suez Maru and the first two were occupied by Japanese patients. Holds three and four contained 127 Dutch and 422 Allied prisoners. The dying prisoners on stretchers were allowed to remain on deck near holds three and four. If they should die enroute, they would not have to be hauled up from below. They could simply be wrapped in gunny sacks and thrown overboard.
Just after noon time on 26 November, the boarding of patients and prisoners was complete and the Suez Maru put out to sea from the Port of Ambon. Its expected arrival in Surabaya Harbour was 30 November. It was escorted by Minesweepers W11 and W12 and began steaming through the Banda Sea toward Surabaya.
On 26 or 27 November, the Minesweeper W11 was diverted west to Kendari Air and Naval Base and arrived in Kendari in 28 November. Now the Suez Maru was left with only Minesweeper W12 in these very dangerous waters. As well the minesweeper was not pinging. Their mine detecting sonar was turned off. On the night of 28 November Minesweeper W12 also diverted, leaving the Suez Maru alone at sea. The reason for this is not known, but W12 eventually reappeared again and remained some distance away.
22 November, 1943. The USS Bonefish 223, a Gato Class submarine of the United States Navy, embarked on its fourth partrol from its base in Freemantle, Western Australia. Its commander was Lt. Commander Thomas W. Hogan. Bound for the Flores Sea enroute to the South China Sea, on the evening of 28 November while running the Bali Strait, her radar contacted a vessel approximately 27 kilometres out at 1927 hours.
The Bonefish tracked the ship and took up position for an attack in the area of the Kangean Islands, She positioned at approximately 1.3 kilometres away on and intersecting course. The Suez Maru was an easy target.
0800 hours, 29 November the USS Bonefish 223 fired four torpedoes at the Suez Maru and Minesweeper W12. These were troublesome magnetic torpedoes and were given to many problems. Two bursts were reported but it is believed that only one hit the Suez Maru. The other may have been a premature detonation in the water. The Minesweeper W12 was not hit.
The lookouts on board the Suez Maru sounded the alarm upon seeing the wakes of the approaching torpedoes. the Suez Maru began evasive maneuvers but there seemed no help or protection from the W12. It is speculated that the fourth torpedoe hit the Suez Maru in the stern, where the fourth hold full of prisoners was located. This would have caused a large numbers of casualties. The prisoners from the third hold began climbing over to the fourth hold to assist the injured as the ship was now dead on the water. The propeller shaft had been broken by the explosion and the engines had ceased to run.
The Suez Maru was now listing in the water and those who could were jumping into the sea. The guards were ordered to throw rafts overboard as the distant W12 called for assistance and reported heavy loss of life. At 0940 hours the Suez Maru slipped below the surface along with the dead and the men too weak to make it overboard.
Now approximately 200 to 250 surviving POWs were left bobbing in the sea, clinging to rafts, and any other floating debris they could find. The Minesweeper W12 returned to pick up Japanese and Korean survivors. This went on until about 1400 hours and the last of the Japanese survivors was plucked from the sea.
Lieutenant Koshio was one of the last to be picked up and was confronted by the commander of the W12, Captain Kowano Usumu. Kowano told him that the Minesweeper was now full to capacity and could not pick up any more survivors; that there was a danger of capsizing. He wanted to know what was to be done with the prisoners in the water who were now floating in a long line.
After a short discussion amongst his officers, Captain Kowano ordered that all surviving allied prisoners be shot; that the standing orders of the army be carried out. 'Under no circumstances must any allied prisoners fall into enemy hands.' This was made more certain by the presence of an allied submarine in the area.
At 1415 hours the W12 began shooting the survivors. It began cruising slowly past the prisoners on the port side. It would then circle around and repeat the procedure. They fired machine guns and rifles while the sea began to turn red with the blood of the prisoners. In a defiant act, some of the prisoners stood up on the rafts and other debris to present themselves as willing targets.
Even after two and a half hours, there was still sporadic gunfire which finally came to an end after 1630 hours. The Minesweeper W12 eventually moved off, headed for Batavia (Now Jakara) as American planes were reported to have dropped magnetic mines at the entrance to the harbour at Surabaya.
Although, the Captain and crew of the Minesweeper M12 tried to be thorough, there was one survivor of the massacre. The Australian corvette HMAS Ballarat, an Anzac Class Frigate, while enroute to Colombo, found and recovered a British POW named Ken Thomas who had been left floating at sea for approximately 24 hours.
The government of Japan informed London that all the men had died as a result of the sinking of the Suez Maru.
After the end of World War II, at the War Crimes Trial, no action was undertaken to indict Lieutenant Koshio or Captain Kawano Usumu for the murder of the prisoners that day.
Kranji War Memorial in Singapore. The site where Neville's
name is carved in one of the many stone walls.
Neville's Name is listed on column 427.
After the fall of Japan, General Richard K. Sutherland accepted the surrender of the Japanese on September 2, 1945 aboard the USS Missouri BB-63 in Tokyo Bay, with a signature from Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu on the Deck of the Battleship Missouri. Douglas MacArthur issued arrest orders for the alleged war crimes of Japanese Prime Minister Hideki Tojo who was taken into Custody on 11 September 1945. He was sentenced to death on 12 November 1948 and hung 41 days later on 23 December 1948.
With the news of the fall of Japan, the captors finally started distributing the care packages to the prisoners in an effort to appear more humane and perhaps receive kinder treatment themselves in the event of their own capture. it was a pathetic effort and for many of their prisoners, too late.
The only record left of Neville Lawes and his comrades is an engraving on a stone monument at a war graves cemetery in Hong Kong.