James Gowing Godwin was the only New Zealander to serve as an investigator with the Australian War Crimes Sections in the Pacific, and was instrumental in the controversial conviction and execution of a high-ranking Japanese officer. The son of Violet Eva Jackson and her husband, James Gowing Godwin, a wool buyer, he was born in Blenheim on 12 March 1923. After attending Blenheim Borough School and Marlborough College, he worked as a clerk in the local Social Security office.
In 1942 Godwin enlisted in the Royal New Zealand Air Force, training at Woodbourne and Wigram. After advanced flying training in Canada, in late 1943 he joined the Fleet Air Arm and was posted to the aircraft carrier Illustrious , flying Corsair fighters in the Indian Ocean. In March 1944, while he was returning from leave in New Zealand to rejoin the Illustrious in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), his merchant ship was sunk by a Japanese heavy cruiser and he was captured. The prisoners were made to stand on deck for hours in the sun, with their hands tied painfully behind their backs and only sea water to drink, and Godwin was beaten with rifle butts for speaking. In Java he was threatened with execution and forced to kneel on tacks while being beaten. He spent the rest of the war in labour camps in Japan, where he faced exhausting toil and constant hunger. In 1945 he emerged from captivity a walking skeleton, and spent six months in hospital.
Godwin had acquired a smattering of Japanese while in captivity, and after becoming a captain in the Australian army he was appointed an investigator with the Second Australian War Crimes Section in Tokyo in July 1947. He investigated a wide range of Japanese war crimes, including mass killings of prisoners of war. In particular, he built up the case that culminated in the hanging of Lieutenant General Nishimura Takuma, commander of the Imperial Guards Division, in 1951. Nishimura was found guilty of ordering the mass execution and cremation of 155 wounded Australian and Indian soldiers at Parit Sulong, southern Malaya, in 1942.
Nearly fifty year later, Godwin's reputation was unfairly impugned as a result of fabricated evidence produced by a lobbyist for an American group seeking compensation for former Japanese prisoners of war, James MacKay. According to MacKay, Godwin, disgruntled by his belief that many atrocities had gone unpunished, had brought back to New Zealand clandestine copies of many of his files, including material on New Zealand pilots who had died in suspicious circumstances. MacKay in fact forged these files, and used them as the basis for a book, Betrayal in high places. Using MacKay’s 'evidence' an Australian journalist in 1996 questioned Godwin’s impartiality in the Nishimura case. He claimed that Godwin, influenced by his own brutal treatment as a prisoner of war, had manipulated crucial affidavits of three Japanese witnesses.
After his time in Tokyo, Godwin also served with the First Australian War Crimes Section, based in Singapore, but his work was cut short in 1950 due to an American and British desire for post-war reconciliation with Japan. In the early 1950s Godwin joined the British colonial service, holding a variety of positions including district officer on Christmas Island and senior assistant to the minister of finance of Sabah (now part of Malaysia). On 25 May 1962 he married Sally Tan Oon Neo in Kuala Lumpur. The couple’s final home was Sydney, where James had trouble finding work, although he spent some time as an administration officer for UNICEF. He suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in his later years, and died in Sydney on 2 May 1995, survived by Sally; there were no children of the marriage. It is likely that his life was shortened by his wartime imprisonment.
A colourful and controversial figure, James Godwin was a courageous and dedicated investigator seeking justice for the thousands of victims of Japanese war crimes. His reputation fell victim to an unscrupulous attempt to doctor the historical record for monetary gain.