A couple months ago, researching images related to World War Two, I ran across a curious photograph of what I had perceived to be an American pilot leaning on the tail section of an American plane, the F6F Hellcat. Being at an air museum for eight months, one gets to know airplanes.
What struck me was both the intensity of the man’s face and the unique feature of a beard. Saving that image for another time, I continued my line-up of images. I would periodically return to my laptop and open up that shot. What was also unique was that it was in full color. It wasn’t the hand tinted images that were typical of the early 1940s. Color film had been invented in 1939 but the ease and use of it took time and so for most of the war, black and white film captured most of the images world-wide. Staring back at me with windblown red hair and beard, was a grizzled pilot, older than his years. A pilot full of wisdom and experience.
What was also unique was there was no identity, no clue as to who he was. Two weeks ago I started painting his likeness. Because our beards are similar in length, many visitors thought we were related. In my gut, I felt something but what, I wasn’t sure. Somehow though, this photograph seeped into my psyche. As I worked on the painting, the connection grew. I knocked it out in three days but was reluctant, like all the other paintings to date, some ninety-five of them, to take it off the easel. I tweaked it. I stared at it. And I asked: “Who are you?” I refused to remove it, making way for something new.
What I started piecing together, regarding the wearing of the beard, was that it was either so late in the war that US Navy restrictions were lifted and combat missions weren’t going to high altitudes, therefore no longer requiring oxygen masks or… what? Someone suggested he could be British. A lead perhaps. I researched and found that this pilot was part of the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the British Navy where an arrangement had been made with the US government to loan/lease American aircraft, specifically the Corsair and the Hellcat. That made sense. The Royal Navy allowed beards on their sailors so it made sense it would continue the courtesy to their pilots. But there were no clues to pilots names.
More research led to a museum in England dedicated specifically to the Fleet Air Arm. I sent a copy of the photograph asking for their help. “A needle in a haystack,” they wrote back the next day but I stayed positive. After all how could such a great photograph, in this day and age with technology at hand, go unaccounted for. More research, more nibbles. And then this morning, came a reply from the museum. It wasn’t full confirmation but the link attached slowly peeled back this man’s identity.
What I was reading was a blog specifically dedicated to finding this man’s identity. I was not alone! Their search had started in March 2011 and a fascinating verbal sleuthing began at the top of the page. Slowly, excitedly I scrolled down, reading each word, fascinated by the little tidbits. Links led to more sites and deeper into the mystery, more concrete answers pouring out. And then I read what was the most heart-breaking story. I was not prepared.
“The Palembang Nine” was an article about nine pilots flying with the Royal Navy. One pilot, Second Lieutenant John “Jack” K. Haberfield was listed at the top. A New Zealander! A Kiwi. He had been stationed on the carrier HMS Indomitable 1839 Squadron flying the Pacific Theatre, all clues that matched what the museum’s contact had relayed to me. And the story continued. This is what I read:
Haberfield, a New Zealander, had enlisted with the Fleet-Air-Arm in August 1941 at the age of 21. He left his home town for service overseas, where he piloted a range of planes, largely orchestrated for carrier-based raids. The last squadron he served was with the 1839 Squadron and the Pacific Fleet, where he piloted Hellcats from the HMS Indomitable.
Haberfield had gone missing during his last raid on Palembang, Sumatra on 24th January 1945. The following letter from the Commanding Officer of the 1839 Squadron, addressed to Haberfield’s mother, accounts the incidents that led up to his disappearance:
“We made an attack against the oil refineries at Palembang in Sumatra: our squadron was escorting some of the bombers & Jack (Haberfield’s nickname) was leading a section. Over the target we were attacked by Japanese fighters and a fierce fight developed, during which it was on possible to see what was happening in a small part of the sky & there were aeroplanes everywhere. Jack’s wingman saw him attack an enemy fighter and followed it down in a steep, fast dive, then lost sight of him. He was not seen again after that. Several pilots reported having seen aircraft crash into the ground, but none could say with certainty whether they were our own or the enemy’s.”
Commanding Officer Shotton
The story continued:
The oil refineries in Palembang was a critical source of oil for the Japanese,which became the reason why the Fleet had targeted Palembang. Unfortunately the raid was at the expense of the nine men who, like Haberfield, had gone missing.
The whereabouts of the nine men had remained unknown throughout the war. It was only after the war ended, that British authorities began to investigate the disappearance of the men in 1946.
Investigations began in Palembang; where the men were last seen. It was discovered that the men were kept prisoners in Palembang Prison until February 1945, when they were transferred to Singapore and housed in Outram Gaol.
In Singapore, Japanese Major Katooka Toshio informed British investigating officials that the men had been shipped to Japan for interrogations but never made it as the ships were attacked and sunk by Allied bombings in March 1945. The investigating officer believed that he was telling the truth but it was revealed later by General Atauka, Chief of the Juridical Department for the 7th Army, that the nine men were illegally executed after the war on 15th August 1945.
Upon discovering this, investigating officials were prepared to arrest Major Toshio and Captain Okeda (the officials responsible for the men’s execution). However before that could have been done, both men committed suicide. The following was written by Major Toshio before he committed suicide:
“We took nine prisoners from Outram Road in a lorry to the beach at the northern-most end of Changi and executed them with Japanese swords. The bodies were put in a boat prepared beforehand and sun in the sea with weights attached. Now that the responsibility must be borne out publicly I hereby pay for my deeds with suicide.”
I sat back, tears in my eyes. AFTER the war! August 15th they were executed -nine days after the bombing of Hiroshima, six days after Nagasaki. ONE DAY AFTER JAPAN SURRENDERED! I spent the day numb.
I had had visions of connecting with this man. I was connected to him on so many levels. For years I’d been haunted by a black and white photograph in Life magazine’s book on World War Two. It showed an Australian pilot, blindfolded, kneeling, a samurai sword held high by a Japanese soldier, seconds before its downward thrust. This was not supposed to be the fate of my “Jack”.
I had taken three days away from the air museum. Returning today, I approached my easel, eager to be reunited with my Kiwi friend. As some friends have already responded with kindness to this news posted on facebook, I will continue honoring him. Someone I work with posed a poetic thought: “He died before you were born. Is it not possible he’s come back to life through you?” I cannot know such things. But I know I will wear this beard for a long time in Jack’s honor.