Lonely graves in the enemy's homeland

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At least one Commonwealth ambassador fainted during the laying of the wreaths, but that was due to the heat, not to emotion. The Service of Remembrance at the Yokohama Commonwealth War Cemetery yesterday was solemn and dignified, but it was not an obviously moving occasion.

There were 10 ambassadors, ministers from Protestant, Catholic, Muslim and Buddhist churches, and officers of the British, Australian, Canadian, Japanese, United States and Pakistani armed forces. But there were no bereaved friends or relatives, in fact no one personally connected with any of the 1,700 dead buried on the hillside. When the ceremony ended, few of the 130 people present lingered long in the heat. Just one grave in the whole cemetery bore an offering of fresh flowers.

Yesterday's ceremony was a one-off to mark the 50th anniversary. The embassy people usually make their way out here on Remembrance Sunday in November when, conveniently, it is much cooler, and ambassadors are less likely to faint. For the rest of the year the Commonwealth War Graves Commission keeps the cemetery and its gardens impeccably tidy.

The plight of civilian internees and prisoners-of-war held in Japanese camps in mainland Asia is well known, and has become even better known in this 50th anniversary of Japan's defeat. Earlier this month a group of British former prisoners of war appeared in a Tokyo court, demanding compensation from the Japanese government; last week a group of Chinese brought a similar case. But few, even within Japan, know much about the fate of those who lie in Yokohama. Some were the crews of crashed aircraft; some died at sea and were washed ashore in Japan. But most were brought here after capture elsewhere, and died as slave labourers in camps up and down the mainland.

The names on the simple black plaques tell fascinating stories. "The people who came here weren't necessarily soldiers," Len Harrop, a retired artillery colonel who has looked after the Yokohama cemetery for 40 years, said."And they died in different ways. Some died in accidents, some were killed by friendly fire in allied bombing on the cities and factories."

Prisoners endured the worst sufferings of a country which barely had enough food for its own civilians and they witnessed the convulsions of the last days of the war. British PoWs watched the mushroom cloud forming over Hiroshima and were flogged for it by their guards. Twenty-three American prisoners were killed by the atomic bomb; for years the US government refused to acknowledge the fact, and even now their names are absent from the roll of victims under the city's memorial cenotaph.

In the Australian section of the cemetery Col Harrop pointed out a rare woman's grave: "Stewardess LE Gleeson, Merchant Navy, Requiescant [sic] In Pace." German raiding ships cruised the Indian Ocean pirating allied shipping which they would board and then sail to Japan. There the vessels were rechristened with Japanese names, and the crew enslaved. Miss Gleeson was a civilian on one of them, the Nankin. She died in a camp in Fukushima, in the cold north of Japan on 7 April 1945. "If she'd lasted another four months," said Col Harrop, "she might be around today."

In the Indian section are a set of graves without ages or even complete names: "Suleman, 17 September 1943", "Wahid, 19 February 1944". These were lascars on the Nankin who were forced to continue working on it under its Japanese masters. One day there was an accident in Yokohama harbour, when a fire spread to the ship's ammunition, and many of the Indian crew were killed.

Prisoners who died in Japan were cremated according to Buddhist custom, and their ashes stored in a temple near Osaka. The difficult task of identifying and burying individual remains began after the war. Several groups of individual graves are marked "Buried Near This Spot".

"Those might be air crews," the colonel said, pointing, "or men killed in a bombing or an accident like a warehouse fire. They couldn't sort them out, didn't know which was which. Ten people here, you see."

Buried near this spot are Staff-Sgt WS Campbell, age 32; Cpl RAH Cane, age 26 and Sgt J Fergus, age 39. All died on 2 October 1942. Col Harrop receives visitors now and then, but Japan is too far and too expensive for Yokohama to become a place of pilgrimage like the Normandy cemeteries. "The agreed Commonwealth policy is not to repatriate the dead, but to bury them where they fell among their comrades of the same campaign," he said.

Even if their families wished it, none of the remains of the men and women buried here would be allowed to return home. "I suppose all prisoners of war died lonely deaths," one old man at yesterday's ceremony said. "But how much lonelier to have died here, not even in conquered territory, but in the enemy's home country."