Australian Embassy

Stewardess L. Elizabeth Gleeson

It has been said that the wars that we can see are but a fraction of what really happens, and most wars, like glaciers, lie hidden beneath the surface. The war in which an Australian woman, Elizabeth Gleeson, who was transported to Japan as an internee during World War II, may have been that kind of war.

In the initial battles of World War II, the Japanese armed forces took more than 100,000 prisoners from the south-east Asian regions, 33,000 of whom were transported to Japan. They were sent to the factories and coal mines all over Japan to fill up the severe shortage of labourers. In those days, people in Japan were not much enlightened on any international laws regarding the handling of POWs. To our shame, those POWs suffered inhumane treatment. As a result, nearly 10% of them had lost their lives in Japan by the time the war ended. About 1,200 of them were from Commonwealth nations.

There exist two foreign cemeteries in Yokohama where I live. One is what Japanese call "Gaijin Bochi" built on a hill near the centre of the city, which, because of its exotic appearance and harbour view, is now one of the most popular tourist spots. In contrast, not many people know about 'another foreign cemetery' located in the quiet suburbs. And this is the final resting place of those deceased POWs from Commonwealth nations.

My first visit to the 'another foreign cemetery' was about 20 years ago. Ever since I have continued to make visits there whenever I could find the time. Except for ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, there are usually very few people there and the place is enveloped in silence. This is not surprising. A cemetery 8,000km away would be much too far for most families to visit.

On one if those occasions, in the Australian section of the cemetery, I came across a gravestone engraved with the name of a women 'Elizabeth Gleeson'.

Elizabeth Gleeson was a stewardess on the commercial ship Nankin, which had been conscripted by the Royal Australian Navy. She died on 7 April 1945, a mere 4 months before the war ended. The Nankin left Fremantle on 5 May 1942, bound for Colombo. However, 5 days later, it was attacked by a German raider on the Indian Ocean. The raider did not sink the Nankin, but instead transferred to other German ships the crew and passengers, numbering more than 400 including about 40 women and children. All the prisoners were eventually taken to Yokohama, where the Germans turned over them to the Japanese with a strong demand not to inform international organisations concerned of anything about the civilian internees. Complying with their strange request, the Japanese authorities secretly transported the group of 138 internees, including women and children, to a Catholic convent in Fukushima, about 300km from Yokohama to the north. Elizabeth Gleeson was in that group.

In Fukushima, it was not the nuns of the convent who looked after them. Most of the nuns were themselves from Canada and had been removed from there just before the internees arrived. It was the kempeis and the local police that were ordered to supervise the internment camp. Obviously due to their lack of knowledge about international law, the human rights and dignity of the internees were ignored, and inhumane acts took place there everyday.

I do not wish to make excuses for what happened, but not everyone in Fukushima was so cruel. There were some who helped the internees behind their supervisor's backs. One such example involved Elizabeth Gleeson.

One day in May 1984, the convent in Fukushima received a telephone call from a priest of another church in the same prefecture. He said that a man from Australia would be visiting them soon. The man's name was Gleeson, and he wanted to find out the truth about the death of his wife, who died at the convent during the war. The nuns were somewhat thrown by this telephone call, because, as I mentioned earlier, they themselves were sent away from the convent during the war and had never seen any of the internees. Nevertheless, the nuns sympathised with him, and began a search for anyone who had been involved in the convent at the time. Before long, they found a woman who had acted as an interpreter for the internees.

The women remembered Elizabeth Gleeson who had been spending most of her time working in the kitchen, preparing meals for the small children of the camp. In the spring of 1945, Elizabeth Gleeson suddenly became ill and complained of abdominal pains. In Japan in those dark days, however, due to general shortage of medicine, there is no evidence that Elizabeth Gleeson received adequate treatment at the convent. Eventually, the Japanese tried to take her to hospital, but furious at the tardiness of their response to her illness, Elizabeth's friends refused to allow them to take her away, insisting that they would care for her in her dying hour. Several days later, on 7 April, Elizabeth Gleeson passed away in a room at the convent. She was cremated the next day, and her remains were buried in a corner of the convent's own graveyard. Apparently, the grave was marked with a small white cross.

The day after the interpreter heard the news about Mr Gleeson, she visited the graveyard and found the grave marker whose paint had peeled away after 40 years was almost fallen over. On her way home she called in on a carpenter acquaintance, and ordered a white cross for which she paid from her own pocket.

When Elizabeth Gleeson was transported to Japan, her husband was at war. He received notification of his wife's death after the war and informed that the cause of death was "intestinal obstruction". However, someone warned him that his wife's death may have been caused by torture by the Japanese, which made him unduly suspicious and unsatisfied with the answer he received to his inquiries to the governments of both countries. He finally made the decision to come to Japan himself.

On his arrival, Mr Gleeson was greeted by the priest, the nuns of the convent who had never met his wife, and the woman who had worked as an interpreter. Nevertheless, the nuns welcomed him warmly into the convent, and showed him around the place where his wife had been interned for almost 3 years. Afterwards, they all headed for the graveyard. At the graveyard office a very thorough member of the staff showed Mr Gleeson the doctor's diagnosis made of his wife at the time, and the records of the very simple funeral held after her death. Then, the interpreter guided him to the grave. There was the white cross with his wife's name written on it, albeit in Japanese, and the grave was decorated with flowers of the season. The next day a solemn mass was held for the late Elizabeth Gleeson at the church nearby, attended by the priest and the nuns. Mr Gleeson and the interpreter also took part. After the mass Mr Gleeson said, "I have fought a long and bitter battle to find the truth, and I am glad that I finally came to Japan." He left Fukushima relieved from the protracted suspicion.

On a visit to Australia several years later, I wanted to meet Mr Gleeson, so I contacted his attorney. It was them that I learnt from him the sad news of Mr Gleeson's death. In fact he had been told by his doctor of his cancer the year before he came to Japan.

Besides the strange German conduct of concealing the internment of 138 civilians in Fukushima, there are some other mysteries in relation to their capture of the Nankin. However, it seems impossible to clarify them before the relevant documents are released in the future.

(Australian War Section, Plot E, Row D)

Author's Profile

Masako ENDO
Born in Kobe, Japan
Lived in Sydney for some 10 years
Non-fiction writer especially on the historical relation between Australia and Japan.

Request for information from Readers

I wish to receive information from anyone, irrespective of civilian or naval member, that experienced attack by Japanese Midget Submarine on Sydney on the midnight of 31 May 1942 and either preceding or subsequent attacks by other Submarines.