Story behind one of the most enduring images

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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.

Leonard Siffleet

This enduring photograph would capture the last seconds of Leonard Siffleet's life. (Credits: Australian War Memorial)

This enduring photograph would capture the last seconds of Leonard Siffleet’s life. (Credits: Australian War Memorial)

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.

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Argunners Magazine is an independent online historian and collector's magazine, dedicated to the militaria and history of both Axis and Allied powers during the World War 1 & 2. Argunners is a central resource offering the latest militaria and war history news, journals, articles and press releases related to these themes.

24 Comments

  1. erolkephalas on

    Bart et al, thank you for posting interesting information on Argunners, I am fascinated WW2, I read from all perspectives of the war, and can’t thank you enough for the material that you constantly provide.
    For all the people who post attacking comments I would like to say this.
    By keeping alive all these threads about WW2, means that the people who took part are remembered if you don’t like it go elsewhere or post articles that we can read, everyone has an opinion, but respect is also due to the research made by posters.

  2. Once the War started, the Japanese set the rules of engagement by the Bataan Death March, Nanking, and the treatment of POW’s .
    The Fire Bombing of Tokyo or the 2 Atomic Bombs dropped is nothing in comparison to the loss of life on both sides had the Allies had to land on the Japanese mainland. American may have lost a million men and the Japanese would have lost 70-80% of their population. So they few hundred thousand who died in the last few months of the war is minimal to the grander scale.
    History is just that, history..passing on the facts to folks who were never exposed to it is the point if this.
    No matter the side one stands on, the savage and brutal nature of the Japanese military is fact!
    It’s sad all the war criminals weren’t prosecuted but instead given immunity and brought to the US under Operation PaperClip.
    The Japanese faired nicely, compared to the Germans! They are still hunting down guard and paper pushers from the death camps, but when was the last time a Japanese Guard was found, tried and executed ?
    The final solution pales compared to the actions of the Japanese in China!

    • Of course air power destroyed through raids designed to destroy whole cities and populations of civilians something like 60 other cities. The Atomic bomb runs where in the mid to low casualty events though the radiation effects were terrible. But the cost of bringing the war to an end was far higher than two cities. Tokyo being the most notable. Most of these raids were war crimes. Which in a sense only drives home the point you are making. There was no easy way to bring the war to an end.

  3. Thanks for the article I have have seen that picture several times and wondered who it was and now I know and appreciate your effort. Btw, I see no anger what so ever.

  4. I think you should start showing us what your information resources are. It’s well known the sensational photos online are mostly propaganda to increase the fighting spirit. See the photos who were killed by your atomic bombs. You won’t need any words with misspellings.

    • “Your atomic bombs” ? Sorry, my country doesn’t have atomic bombs neither did they ever drop one. What fighting spirit? Are you going to fight the Japanese? I write on history, doesn’t matter what side and as accurate as possible. I also wrote on survivors of the atomic bombs, such as Tsutomu Yamaguchi and how he survived both bombs. What wartime photographs aren’t propaganda? All wartime photographs can be used as propaganda. Information sources are listed and links provided to AWM. I write on all aspects of history and both sides. Don’t deny what happened it’s as simple as that, but be fair for both sides not just one!

  5. This man wanted to play war and lost. I really dislike the tone of this article (And reading the comments apparently I am not the only one who caught this tone).
    This man is not a hero. He’s just someone who died in war, fully knowing that this could happen. He’s not an innocent civilian, it was not even his first mission, and I don’t even want to know how many people he killed before.

    I don’t read anything in this article that could justify even writing an article about him… There were millions of people who died in this war, some who probably saved more lifes than he did.

    Maybe I’m wrong (I didn’t even google his name), but it is your job to tell us if he did something remarkable except having a photo taken of his death. Because with this you’re just fueling people like Dequella and Walt Craig.

    Maybe you should write about Japanese Internment Camps in America. Because, you know, those were civilians. But on the other hand, then people like the ones mentioned wouldn’t comment on your article and you would loose precious readers.

    Cheers and sorry for maybe being too harsh,
    Lena

    • Lena, I write on both sides on history either bad or not. This man isn’t a hero? He is far more hero than most of us behind our computer. This man, during a World War, volunteered to serve his country and sadly lost his life in an inhumane manner. I’m a soldier myself and I can tell more then others that I respect all sides during the war, since both fight for their motherland or fatherland or for anyone other ideal. They had more balls back then, than most have now. Now they just get humiliated and laugh with it because they don’t have the balls to do something.

      If I find another interesting photograph of World War (I or II) I will write about it, just to tell a slightest detail of history that occurred. Sorry, that I don’t currently write on the Endlösung or the Japanese Internment Camps or Space shuttles that everybody knows about. You admit that you didn’t even google his name, nor probably did you know who he was.. It’s for that reason I write, individuals are far more important than just numbers or statistics.

      Sorry that I bore you with uninteresting articles. Seems I lost a precious reader now.

      Yours truly,
      Bart of Argunners Magazine

  6. We are supposed to feel guilt for Hiroshima & Nagasaki, but this reminds why we don’t. Karma coming home.

    • Dear Walt Craig, I definitely understand the anger and all the ones responsible should be put on trial tor receive the same fate – I’m with you. Thought is revenge and murder of thousands civilians justified? Another historical fact, this tactic of ‘revenge killing’, fired backwards on the Germans during WWII – ‘Kill 1 of us’, ‘We kill 10 of you no matter innocent or not’ .. Don’t forget that afterwards you’ve 10 families of innocent victims that are hating you and will join the resistance, which exactly happened in the Soviet-Union.

  7. Well done and hats off!! I appreciate everyone who seeks to unravel the stories of the photographs. I also try to do something similar here in the Czech Republic and you can see my results here: http://tommy-yankee.cz/americka-armada/veterani/ Would be possible, only with your permission to translate the article into Czech and publish it on our website with your authorship?

    Thank you for your reply and keep it up!!

    • Dear ‘Ari’, thanks for your comment. Did send you an e-mail but if it shouldn’t arrive, which editing should be done? This way I can correct any spelling mistakes, wrong use of words, etcetera… After your comment, I noticed and corrected some typing errors. All help is – as always – highly appreciated. You can contact us via reply or via e-mail argunnersmagazine@gmail.com

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