Death as a Strategy & Tactic: The Lonely Garrison of Abemama アベママの玉砕: 孤島の玉砕

Fate of Japanese Soldier

History is full of last stand stories. Desperate groups of soldiers fighting a last-ditch defence against an enemy who is either numerically or qualitatively superior.  Annihilation is a constant theme, but it is not always assured.  The siege of Vercingetorix’ army at  Alisia in 52 BC, was a close run thing, Caesar’s besieging army being nearly wiped out by encircling Gallic counters attacks. Xenophon and the dwindling remains of his 10,000 were somehow able to keep it all together against the Persians so at least a few of them made it home. At Gandarmak during the Second Afghan War the entire 44 Regiment of Foot was wiped out almost to the last man on a distant hilltop in freezing snow with only two officers surviving.  General Townsends’ beleaguered Anglo-Indian army cut off by the Turks at Al-Kut in 1916 showed the dangers of an overconfident army, something the French were ever able to repeat with a flourish of disastrous planning  and defeat at the hands of the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

Sometimes the turn of the card was more predictable. No one expected any Spartans to emerge alive from the 300 at Thermopylae, and there was slim chance of any successful outcome for the Texans at the Alamo, or the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto. Peasant rebellions had a depressing predictability of outcome of which only their medieval participants seemed to be unaware.

In defeat death was not always a sure thing for the losing army.  Conventions of war, written, believed or implied, might reasonably expect a soldier to live out his days after the battle ended, sometimes as slaves of their conquerors as many of the armies defeated by Rome. Some, such as the Swedes captured by the Russians at Poltava, might if they were nobility, have expected to be ransomed or used as a chattel form of currency among other Russian nobles. Napoleon in true agnostic style usually expected to add and make use of as any conquered enemies as would follow him and his version of republicanism.

Those facing slaughter usually had poor expectation in the quality of mercy offered by the enemy, but it is rare for countries to implement a consistent strategy of positioning troops in places where their annihilation is planned and their survival regarded as an ultimate shame. It is rarer still that this would be elevated to a strategic policy of national survival. Japan in World War II is one of the few countries in history to implement death and dying as the preferred method of strategy in either defeating or securing favourable terms from the enemy.

Gyokusai Shugi

In a span of about 6 months from December 1941 to the end of May 1942, the Japanese secured and became one of the largest empires in history. From the Aleutian Islands in America’s remote Alaska, to the seas of the South Pacific and  the jungles of Burma and the barren interior of China, Japan seized countless islands, atolls and archipelagos over vast tracks of water and millions of miles of boundless jungle and mountainous terrain.

Whatever the accepted causes of the war in the Pacific, it was agreed that the real strategic and economic aims of Japan were the desire to secure a commanding position in the  heartland of China. Defence of the Pacific offered a way of stifling American power stabs across this ocean mass towards the Japanese home islands. Stationing troops everywhere was impossible so Japan established garrisons on hundreds of islands and the interior Chinese land mass. Pacific defence was seen as part of an interlocking strategy: island chains would be held with a larger central garrison on a main island. Air power would operate from these unsinkable airstrips to provide protection and, if necessary, offensive strength, against any expected American attack. Americans were expected to be operating at a disadvantage because they were operating from sinkable aircraft carriers and had to project power far from established land-based air power.  Japanese central bases at Rabaul, Truk, Palau, Tavi Tavi, Saigon, Tarawa, Guam and Saipan, Kwajelien and a host of other atolls and islands supported smaller garrisons on even further outlying islands. Any American thrust would be defeated by the superior positions offerred by the Japanese forward bases, American naval elements defeated and invading land forces mopped up by Japanese garrison troops.

Even by today’s standards almost all Japanese positions were remote . In the 1940s, reliable maps did not exist for most of the areas of the Pacific and mainland Asia. Japanese and allied troops found themselves transported to fight in areas where no one had ever heard, where few would follow and no one would care had ever existed once the wave of war passed. Saipan is over 1500 miles from Tokyo, and the distance to outer atolls and the nether reaches of Burma was an additional 1500 – 2000 miles!

The Japanese, fighting along internal lines of communication and supply, found themselves with garrisons defending an outer sphere of control of  2000 – 3500 miles from the Japanese home islands, the distance from New York to London.  It would be harder to imagine another case of nations trying to confront each other with large mobile armies over such distances in area discontiguous  of direct land transportation in locations that often did not appear on maps and only rarely in newspaper headlines. The major landings and battles on these islands sometimes, but not always,  made it into the morning newspaper reports from the front (as long as they did not have to compete with other more major battles, most of them in Europe).

Japan had large garrisons of up to 10,000 men on Saipan, Truk, the Palau island group. Such islands were deemed part of an unbroachable line of defence for the Japanese home islands. In the case of the Solomon Islands, New Britain and Japan’s main base at Rabaul, total numbers exceeded 100,000 Japanese soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilian functionaries.

Some garrisons were small. Islands deemed more strategic had larger numbers. Satawan Atoll in the Caroline Island Group with about 1000 members including a tank company. One such small detachment on the atoll of Abemama, in the Gilbert Islands possessed a 25 person Japanese garrison

The battles to retake Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa were well reported at the time. The story of the fall of the tiny erstwhile garrison on Abemama gained a report in some newspapers that it was siezed and its garrison eliminated. No mention of how many or how few defenders and no reports of US casualties and nothing outside of official reports. Abemama and the defeat of 25 Japanese infantrymen was overshadowed by the larger and more ferocious landing on the main island of Betio at Tarawa atoll in the Gilbert Island Group 80 miles to the north.

At Abemama a landing by about 100 Marine scouts discovered only 25 Japanese soldiers on the island. Initial orders were to scout and wait for the main assault force of two battalions two days later. Locals informed the scouts the garrison was small. The Marine commander decided that waiting for the main assault might be seen as not taking proper initiative. He resolved to take the island before the arrival of the main force. The Marines improvised and duly got their support submarine that had landed them, to shell the Japanese positions.

The Noble Death of Sergeant Kimura and Gallant 25

Defending Abemama was a small garrison, called in rough translation, the “Third Special Base Group, Abemama Detachment.” The unit was not large enough to merit an officer and was commanded by a Master Sergeant, Kimura Koutoku who was certainly thinking of how best to acquit himself as a soldier of the emperor and of Japan if the enemy landed. The marines made initial contact and killed three of Kimura-san’s subordinates on patrol on the south part of the island. Kimura dug in his men on the north end of a causeway separating two islands in the atoll. As contact developed between the two forces and the battle gained shape, Kimura and his detachment kept up a vigorous fire on the marines maneuvering to cross the causeway.  Shellfire appeared to have little effect upon suppressing either the firepower or the will of Kimura’s men.   Kimura’s detachment is described as “unphased” by the shelling and they kept up a steady rate of fire killing one marine, and wounding two others. Stopped for the night the marine captain resolved upon discretion and reverted to his original role of waiting for the main force before trying to secure the rest of the atoll and losing more men. Buttoning down their positions on the far end of the causeway they dug in and waited.

Sergeant Kimura and his men, relatively unscathed,  realising they never had a chance and most probably hearing by radio of the defeat of their brothers on Tarawa and Makin to the North on November 24th knew  help was not coming. From scattered eye-witness accounts from natives on the north island we know that sake was broken out and passed around. Although many may have drank direct from the bottle, there is every indication that soldiers poured cold sake in shallow plate-like saucers, many  with the chrysanthemum emblem of the Emperor, and drank a last toast. Kimura-san and his detachment committed suicide the next morning, most likely by shooting themselves in the head, or holding grenades to their heads or mid-sections. Kimura-san was a sergeant and therefore not an officer and may or may not have carried a sword. In most cases the final act was accomplished in bloody style with modern weapons lacking all of the romantic notions of ritualised “seppuku” the cutting open of the belly.

The curious lack of activity in the Japanese positions  was only noticed by the marine detachment across the causeway when a local islander reported the demise of the Japanese garrison.

Few know about this engagement but is a sort of case study of many Japanese garrisons during the war.  After most engagements there were simply no survivors. In the best case a small handful of soldiers, usually too badly wounded to commit suicide, were captured, typically less than 1% of the garrison. Their recollections rarely made it into memoirs. They were usually too ashamed to put pen to paper to recount things that were commonly regarded as shameful in Japanese culture. Small battles were not the exception.  Larger, more ferocious battles such as the US Army landings on Attu in the Aleutian islands more or less fell off the pages of history even though 2300 Japanese and 560 American soldiers lost their lives fighting in this truly artic wasteland.

Historical Interpretations: The Western Way of War

Western interpretations have commonly portrayed the Japanese soldier as fanatical, dominated by an irrational emotion reinforced with a medieval mind-set of Bushido. This has largely endured to the present with much of the allied World War II histories exhibiting a Manichean interpretation of the history of Japan and the mindset of its warriors. Most of the contemporary histories in English are told exclusively from the point of view of the allies using only western language sources. British Empire, US Russian and Chinese troops ended up controlling the ground after their battles with Japan ceased.  Their accounts overshadowed those of the Japanese soldier, who no longer existed and in many cases burned the only documentation relating to the battle. There were precious few if any Japanese survivors, and those who were left preferred the Japanese trait of silent endurance and suffering – the very quality that made them so enigmatic and feared during the war. In the end, there was no “other” to analyse – the “other” was not merely ignored, in most cases he ceased to exist entirely.

The first blush attitude of many historians even today is  one of dismissive disbelief and a faith in  the inevitable triumph of the western way of warfare — large industrialised science-based, rational democracies grinding down a backward, tribal, and myth-ridden island nation of Japan – two civilisations one modern and one more in common with the Middle Ages.

But Japanese soldiers should be the subject of study and, in some sense awe, at their ability to endure, suffer and give everything they had for what they believed in. However alien such ideas may be to the western mindset Chester Nimitz in a gross understatement regarded the Japanese as “courageous and patriotic” in defence.

The attempt at this collection of accounts is not to try to reinterpret the morality of the Japanese Imperial forces in World War II. There is no attempt to portray any acts of brutality as either noble or motivated by a moral purpose that is laudable to any modern society. The actions of Japan cannot be a whitewash of the gross excesses of large parts of the Japanese army and their ill-treatment and sometimes contempt for the largely Asian soldiers and civilians they often abused and sometimes massacred, not to mention their cruelty and indifference to allied prisoners or war.

There is however value to be gained in studying the actions and attitudes of Japanese soldiers placed in extremis  as one would study western armies, why they fought and how they survived. Analysing the battle identity of Japanese soldiers is something that has been very much overlooked. Such studies have been done by western authors of the German Army for a long time. The constraints of the Japanese language and culture and self-serving narratives of the victor have militated against the establishment of all but a very thin vein of study of the armed forces of Imperial Japan.


We cannot tell much about the moral makeup of Sergeant Kimura and his men. They had families, and they were also swept up by the organs of society most soldiers endure: conscription, propaganda, military training and an overwhelming sense of duty for the defence of their homeland and the honour of their People, Constitution, King or Emperor.

That death is better than dishonour is a more prevalent in armies than we like to think. In the Japanese army it was the natural tactical and strategic default. But from Sevastopol to Dien Bien Phu it is common currency of almost all national military foundation and raised to almost mythic proportions in the cradles of western democracies such as Britain (Rourke’s Drift), the US (Alamo and Bataan), Canada (Dieppe and Hong Kong). The actions of Japanese soldiers in the Pacific War may appear more inscrutable to western eyes,  but it does not make him any less human.  It is hoped that the translated narratives of this blog will make these men appear less  “the other” as they are commonly portrayed in much of western historiography.

Despite the march of time, the vast majority of the remaining Japanese soldiers who were prisoners of war, remain reluctant to talk about their experiences. In many cases they have related narratives on the agreement their name would not be published. Progress and modernity in Japan have little smoothed the edges of what many consider the retrograde morality of surrender. It is still mainly understood and respected in Japan that death for country and emperor was preferable to the dishonour of capture. This may be at odds with what we expect of soldiers in western armies, but a glance at the modern world shows it is far from uncommon.

Rod Szasz Sept 2013/09/20


Published by: rszasz739

Entrepeneur with over 25 yrs Asian-related experience. Have travelled to many of the more isolated battle sites in the Asia-Pacific region. Good Japanese to English translation capability.

Categories Uncategorized5 Comments

5 thoughts on “Death as a Strategy & Tactic: The Lonely Garrison of Abemama アベママの玉砕: 孤島の玉砕”

  1. Very well put. The Japanese military was characterized by systemic brutality throughout its ranks, and when coupled with the perceived disgrace of surrender as well as the Gyokusai mindset, it led to catastrophic consequences for the ancient nation. I don;t think any country in modern warfare has suffered so much death by fire. Caves on Peleliu and Iwo Jima as well as more than half of Japan’s urban area burned. How horrible that death is, too.

    The firebombing was horrific, but given the record of Japanese society during the war, total destruction was the only technique. The culture of the Meji-era version of Bushido combined with the willingness of Hirohito to destroy his people with Gyokusai sacrifice pushed Japan to fight on after Saipan fell. TThat would have been the time to surrender, and had they done so more than half of the eventual dead would have been spared. The inept military leadership was drunk on its own idealism.

    The biggest surprise about the war is that Japan surrendered at all. It looked for a while like the entire population would be sacrificed. Had Hirohito not surrendered, they would have fought until Japan ceased to exist. Russian occupation of the North and American occupation in the South might well have exterminated every Japanese. Both America and Russia have long histories of genocide, so it would not have been out of character.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I have thought long and hard about this… the more I think the more I find out that I do not come down firmly with any answer.. Japanese political and military decision making was so unpredictable one does not know what to make of what would have happenned in the event of a general invasion of the home islands…. . I can however understand that almost everyone had reached the conclusion that such an invasion was not desirable and should be avoided if at all possible…(esp. after Okinawa) hence the decision of the use of the Atomic bomb… which again unleashes a tonne of thoughts..

    Having said this I am less and less sympathetic to the Alperovitz thesis that the use was primarily to signal the Soviets. I think it accomplished that admirablhy, but I am less inclined to believe it was the major reason for use… But I of course am open to any new documentation making itself known.

    In having justice in going to war does not mean that a nation’s actions are always moral in waging the war. In that sense we have a history of losing ourselves in the moment when under threat, cooler heads should prevail. It could have been possible for incredible losses in a ground war on the main island, the extent of which our (US and British Empire) moral actions would have been even more tested than they were in WWII. The moral trend was definitely not going the right direction before the war ended….who knows where it could have lead had it continued… There are some lessons here for our leaders today. T
    Sincerely, Rod

  3. The officer “leading” his men had them in parade formation while on an increasingly “kill the Americans” rant, and as reported by two separate sources, one indicating 1. the individual had a sword in left hand, 2. a pistol in right hand. 3. as his antics became increasingly erratic trying to stir up the troops, his weapon accidently discharged, hitting him in the head or stomach, depending on which local inhabitants story is most accurate. Both accounts match in that when seeing their non-com in charge die such an ignoble death, they lost heart, dug their own graves, laid in them, and proceeded to shoot themselves. A lesson to be learned about inability to adapt and overcome.

    1. This is what I read from an official report on the battle too. In fact, this group of Japanese had ample ammunition and everything else to continue to fight and defend their position. They chose to commit mass suicide instead once they lost their leader. I cannot share the author’s view that their deaths were noble. If anything this demonstrated cowardice, as all Japanese soldiers (and civilians too) were brainwashed into believing that they would meet a fate worse than death if captured by the Americans.

      Don’t get me wrong, I find a lot of Japanese soldiers very courageous and am fascinated by the battles they fought in (which was what brought me here). However, I do not think the Abemama battle was a good example of courage and honour of the Japanese soldiers.

      1. Agreed. Moreover I am not sure what an honourable death means… in the big sense of the term. The article was meant to exemplify many aspects of the Gyokusai Shugi (“Honourable Death Principle”). I think I wanted to explain that it was not only the large battles where this behaviour was extent, but also on isolated islands…. I found myself wondering… what would I do…? It is at least an interesting thought experiment to put oneself in their shoes. On that note I think the problem in the transliteration of Gyokusai Shugi into “an honorable death” — I personally do not like this definition, but stick with it because that more recognises certain irrational philosophical principles surrounding the Japanese preferred interpretation. I have used the term “annihilation battles..” I think this may capture more.

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