It’s probably one of the most famous images of World War II and you will certainly have seen it before but do you know the history behind it? This is the story of Leonard Siffleet.
The photographs came to light after they were discovered on the body of a dead Japanese officer near Hollandia by U.S. troops in 1944. One of the photographs (shown on the right) was featured in various newspapers and in Life magazine but was thought to depict Flight Lieutenant Bill Newton who had previously been captured in Salamaua, Papua New Guinea and was beheaded on 29 March 1943. Still today, the soldier is occasionally misidentified as Bill Newton.
The soldier, who would become known for the manner of his death, was Leonard George “Len” Siffleet.
He was born on 14 January, 1916 in Gunnedah, New South Wales, Australia. Leonard Siffleet, who loved sport and adventure, moved in the late 1930’s to Sydney in order to search for work. He tried to join the Police forces but was rejected for having a poor eyesight. Nevertheless in August 1940, Siffleet was still called up for the militaria, where he would serve in a searchlight unit at Richmond Air Force Base for a period of three months before returning to civilian life. Not long after, in September 1941, he enlisted in the Second Australian Imperial Force and joined the 1st Division Signals Company at Ingleburn.
Leonard Siffleet went on a signals course at Melbourne Technical College before he volunteered for special operations in September 1942. He was posted to the Z Special unit and went in October 1943, to the Z Experimental Station in Cairs, where he would receive further training. Siffleet was promoted to Sergeant on 5 May, 1943 and was assigned as a Radio Operator in his unit. Not long after his promotion he was transferred to M Special Unit and was sent with fellow soldiers to Hollandia, Papa New Guinea.
Mid September 1943, while being part of a team led by Sergeant Staverman and which included two Ambonese members of the Netherlands East Indies Forces: Private Pattiwahl and Private Reharin, Siffleet was underway to Aitape while traveling behind Japanese lines. At some point, early October 1943, they were discovered by New Guinean natives and got surrounded, Siffleet fired on some of the attackers before fleeing but he was quickly caught along with his companions.
The New Guinean natives turned them over to the Japanese soldiers and they were taken to Malol where the men were brutally interrogated. After being interned there for two weeks, they were moved to Aitape.
On 24 October, 1943 Sgt. Siffleet, Pte. Pattiwahl and Pte. Reharin were marched to Aitape Beach. Bound and blindfolded, kneeling before a crowd of Japanese and native onlookers, they were forced to the ground and executed by beheading. The execution was ordered by Vice Admiral Kamada, the commander of the Japanese Naval Forces at Aitape. After the war, Yasuno Chikao, who executed the beheadings, was sentenced to death but subsequently served 10 years imprisonment as he had acted in a subordinate capacity in the matter.