Secret Australian WWII interrogation cells for sale

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Australia’s only military interrogation centre built during the Second World War is being sold by the federal government.

Japanese and German prisoners-of-war were questioned and enemy documents decoded at the once top-secret defence department site in Brisbane.

The battle has now started to save the former Witton Barracks, a piece of Australian history that was once not even drawn on official plans.  

A decision on selling the disused but heritage-listed site is expected by year’s end.

“The jail cells are a unique part of Australian history and should not be lost,” said Brisbane war historian, Dr Jack Ford.

“Once lost, you can’t regain what’s there and you can write all the books you like about what happened there - the interrogation of Japanese prisoners - but they are a physical reminder to people.”

The purpose-built prison cells are tucked away in the suburb of Indooroopilly on the Brisbane River, eight kilometres from CBD.

Hundreds of high-value prisoners-of-war were interrogated there and one died.

“There are less and less Second World War structures in Brisbane as each year goes by and they are being demolished to make way for developers,” Dr Ford said.

“Brisbane was a major headquarters in the war, far more important than Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra.” 

Developers are eyeing the prime river-front real estate for apartment blocks. Up to 10 storeys are allowed.

Local federal MP Jane Prentice hopes to secure the site for the Brisbane City Council (BCC) for a bridge duplication project.

“In recent years, with no-one there (at Witton), of course the bureaucrats want to sell it off and make money,” she said.

“Now it would be inappropriate to have a commercial development and sell it for commercial rates, when the council and people of Brisbane, who are also taxpayers, desperately need some way of crossing the river.”

Witton Barracks is next door to the heritage-listed Walter Taylor bridge. Its two lanes will be a capacity in about a decade, with the rapid, high-density urbanisation of the area.

“Everyone understands there will need to be in the future a new bridge at that location. BCC has given a very clear undertaking to the federal government that they will preserve those heritage buildings.”

From Brisbane, the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in the South-West Pacific US General Douglas MacArthur directed the war against Japan.

In late 1942, the headquarters of a joint US-Australian intelligence agency were set-up in the requisitioned colonial residences of ‘Tighnabruaich' and ‘Witton House’ in Indooroopilly. 

"There are less and less Second World War structures in Brisbane as each year goes by and they are being demolished to make way for developers."

“ATIS stands for Allied Translator and Interpreter Service. It was a joint American and Australian unit established for two purposes,” Dr Ford said.

“One was to interrogate enemy prisoners-of-war, mostly Japanese but some Germans, and as well to examine captured documents to glean from those whatever valuable information they could get.” 

ATIS started with a few dozen Australians and Americans who could speak Japanese. 

As Allied forces began defeating the Japanese in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea in late 1942, prisoners and thousands of documents started flooding in. 

Three cell blocks were built that could hold 15 prisoners. 

“The kind of intelligence they were getting was invaluable, it was coming largely straight from Japanese captured at the front,” said Dr Ford.

“The latest intel on units operating in New Guinea, and also the condition of the units, their supply situation, their morale, and that helped the Allies formulate their battle plans for their campaigns in New Guinea and later the Philippines.”

Prisoners would spend up to a week being interrogated before being transferred to the Gaythorne transit camp and then on to PoW camps in Victoria and News South Wales.

Thirty-one Japanese prisoners-of-war died in Brisbane during the war, with one death at Indooroopilly. 

Private Kingo Yamashita was found hanging in his cell after interrogation in August 1943. The Queensland coroner ruled it was suicide.

German navy officers and crew from the blockade runner Ramses and submarine U-168 sunk in the Indian Ocean were also interrogated at Witton. 

Thousands of interrogation reports were produced, hundreds of Japanese manuals and documents translated and some of the material was used as evidence in Japanese war crimes trials.

A major ATIS success was the translation of captured Japanese Army code books. Their work is compared to the German code breakers at Britain’s Bletchley Park.

Much of what really happened at Witton has remained largely untold because the Americans removed almost all documentation from Australia.

“If you want really detailed information, it’s almost impossible to find out,” Dr King said.

“It was considered top secret, in fact when you look at site plans for the design of the site, the interrogation cells, the cell blocks they kept the Japanese in are not drawn in there’s just a words saying, ’Top Secret’ where they are.

“It’s was very hush, hush, and they didn’t want anyone to know. It was so secret even the local people didn’t know what was going on on the site.”

In July 1945, more than thousand personnel were working for ATIS in Brisbane. 

As the Allies advanced through south-east Asia, ATIS relocated to Manila just months before the end of the war, taking almost everything but the cell blocks with them.

“It’s a story people don’t know about because it was deliberately meant for them not to know about it,” Dr King said.

“Seventy years on after the end of World War Two, I would have thought it was time the story was told behind Witton Barracks.”

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