Below is the theme song of "サヨンの鐘" (The Bell of Sayon, 1943) performed by 李香蘭Li Ko-lan of 滿洲映畫Manchuria Film Production. This was a very popular propaganda movie intended for the Aborigines in Taiwan who often enlisted in the IJA after attending the picture show. It had a simple yet effective plot of patriotism and sacrifice with Li's character Sayon, an Atayal girl, dying in a flash flood while sending her Japanese teacher off to the war:
There have been theories on why the Aborigines accepted Japanese militarism so soon after the 霧社Wu-She Incident of 1930 when members of the Atayal tribe were mercilessly suppressed. Only they themselves are in a position to tell others why.
Also, very little about the 高砂義勇軍 is known outside of Taiwan; in fact, not even within Taiwan itself. It is part of the Taiwan heritage that must not be lost. Luckily, oral history has been and is still being preserved; although, much as the rest of the fading WW2 generation, it'll become too late soon enough. The least we can do here is to try to provide a little overview:
The Japanese had experienced first hand the fighting skills of the Aborigines in many previous conflicts. It was natural for the military to regard them as a potential source of fighting men. In the beginning, the Aboriginal warriors were recruited into the IJA as 軍夫 to serve as laborers to ferry military supplies. The exact date of their departure for the Philippines was unclear; although it was before 1942, before the draft laws became official. Between 1942-43, there have been 7 contingents/brigades sent to the Pacific war theaters, each consisted of a few hundred men. The first brigade of 500 distinguished themselves in the battle of the Bataan Peninsula on May 7, 1942. With the victory, the ranks of the Aboriginal soldiers were elevated to 軍人, i.e., bona fide soldier, with equal rights to the Japanese. This status was accorded to the subsequent 6 groups of enlistees. And in 1943, two teams of 500 men each recruited from those already in service were even trained as special forces; they were sent to Luzon Island and suffered heavy losses there. For example, none of the 80 薰空挺身隊paratropers led by Lt 中重男中尉 survived the mission on Nov 26, 1944. All together, a conservative estimate of about 4,000 served in the Pacific War.
In the photo below, the 薰 soldiers in training can be seen carrying a long Aboriginal knife/machete (番刀, also known as 義勇刀, with a 48-cm blade and 16-cm handle) and the Model 38 rifle with its bayonet. Also, the star emblem on the steel helmets was painted with fluorescent dye for easier identification at night.
It is said that an Aborigine can survive anywhere in the wild with a box of matches, a packet of salt, and his personal knife.
Each of the 9 Aboriginal tribes has their own design of the knife which is given to the newborn-boys as a gift to last a lifetime. They are allowed to wear the blade at age 12. It not only is a deadly weapon, but more important, it is also a multifunctional tool. It figured prominently in the Pacific War, a war essentially of perfecting survival skills in hell and this tool was absolutely indispensable. There was also a spiritual bond between an Aboriginal man and his knife, not unlike that between the traditional Japanese samurai and his sword.
The Aboriginal soldiers saw action in 4 different battle theaters:
The Philippines: On Dec 22, 1941, the Japanese landed at Lingayen Gulf and encountered fierce resistance from Gen Jonathan Wainwright's army. The bulk of the US-Philippines forces quickly retreated south to Bataan Peninsula where they were eventually defeated and forced to surrender on April 9, 1942. The infamous Bataan death march was its aftermath. Earlier in March of 1942, 500 Aboriginal enlistees reported to duty in Kaohsiung and formed the 高砂挺身報國隊. They shipped out on March 15 and arrived in San Fernando for 5 days of basic training. Then they were assigned to various Japanese units to carry out duties that included transport and supply of ammunition, transport and care of the wounded, collection of salvageable weapons, construction of camps and field hospitals, communications, and burial of the dead. Often, however, they also pick up rifles and become scouts as well as participate in fire fights. Because of their bravery, resourcefulness and endurance on the battlefield, the high command decided to grant them the regular army status, and renamed them 高砂義勇軍. After Bataan, they went to Bagio to construct roads and bridges. And 6 months later, 100 of them joined the 橫山先遣隊 and went on to fight in New Guinea.
East New Guinea: The battles at New Guinea were a total waste. There was no coherent war plan. They were fought more for attrition to draw in the Americans. It was in fact the Japanese military's attempt to shift the national attention from the humiliating defeat in the Solomon islands. On July 21, 1942, the 橫山先遣隊 arrived in Buna in preparation for attacking Port Moresby. This task force consisted of the 15th Independent Engineers Company and the 144th Infantry Company of Osaka with the 55th Artillery Company, the Aboriginal soldiers, and the Korean laborers in support. They were 96 Paiwan tribesmen from Kaohsiung-shu and 5 Amis from Taitung-Hualien. Also, on June 26, 1942, the 5th Aboriginal brigade as part of the 18th Army landed in Hansa Bay, north of Papua New Guinea, moving south to assist in the attack of Port Moresby. They were 85 Atayals from Hsinchu-shu. The march south took almost 6 months through Wasu, Madang, then downhill to Aitape where they were re-supplied by the 7th Aboriginal Brigade, under the IJN, with food and ammunition transported from Wewak. In March, 1943, the supply convoy for the 18th Army was annihilated in the Dampier Strait, the Army had to retreat to Wewak and then But. This was also a time when cannibalism crept in. The orders of no Japanese flesh allowed were also ignored. Except the First and the Third Aboriginal brigades, the other five had all been thrown into this hellhole. By the end of the war, 160,000 Japanese POWs were detained at Musu Island, and among them, around 2,500 Aboriginal soldiers.
The Solomon islands: The battles at Tulagi Island and Guadalcanal on Aug 7, 1942 are well-known (see, for example, here). Relevant to this blog is that earlier in July, the Third Brigade (600 men) under the IJN departed from Kaohsiung and stopped over Manila for 3 days. Upon learning the news of the American attacks, 200 were diverted to defend Guadalcanal by way of Rabaul. After the defeat in Guadalcanal, they ended up on Bougainville Island growing rice and after the war they were confined to a concentration camp on Fuaru Island.
Pulau Morotai: The Battle of Morotai started on Sept 15, 1944 and continued until the end of the war, or, technically until 1974. The island was defended initially by 500 Taiwanese soldiers, the main component of the 2nd Provisional Raiding Unit. They faced an overwhelming invading American force by a ratio of 100 to 1. As in other battles in the Pacific, the defenders and the reinforcements suffered greatly from diseases and starvation. The Americans needed Morotai to stage the invasion of Mindanao to re-take the Philippines, hence the all-out assault. Private Teruo Nakamura, the last confirmed Japanese/Aboriginal holdout on Morotai or elsewhere, was captured by Indonesian Air Force personnel on Dec 18, 1974.
As those Taiwanese war-dead, the Aborigines are also enshrined in 靖國神社Yasukuni Jinja in Tokyo.
There have been numerous movies and TV programs about the Pacific War. The most recent one is the HBO mini-series, "the Pacific" (April, 2010); its first 3 episodes depict the battle of Guadalcanal - exclusively from the American perspective of course.
Not only the Aborigines, men and women from Taiwan were also part of this history. The Taiwanese enlistees have often been portrayed as guards of POW camps, while in fact most of them, 80,433 to be precise, fought on the front line. Their stories still remain untold.