1945: 8 American flyers at Fukuoka

On this date in 1945 — morning after a devastating U.S. air raid that destroyed much of Fukuoka — eight previously-captured American airmen* were summarily executed there in retaliation.

In a precedent that dated back to the Doolittle raids, Japan officially considered as a prospective war criminal any enemy airman who could be connected to indiscriminate bombing. Tokyo didn’t follow this logic to the point of executing all downed Americans — indeed, late in the war, beleaguered Japanese civilians became increasingly hostile towards the government for allowing excess legalism to stand in the way of exacting some satisfying revenge for the cities burning under American bombs — but it did execute some, and it had sanctioned legal theorems that could have accommodated quite a bit more bloodletting.

Finding Tokyo short of prison space, the government ordered on May 1, 1945, that the various armies should no longer send to the capital any downed airmen they captured. In the chaos of the war’s last months, this would create the context for local commanders at the Western Military District in Fukuoka to put those legal theorems to seriously nasty use.

Four captured airmen held in Fukuoka were stuck in an indeterminate judicial process which the army realized was going nowhere slowly. The others were just plain underfoot. Over the period of May-June, between a couple of ambiguously-worded orders and the officers’ annoyance at having to divert scarce resources to these captives, an understanding formed if “the air raids increased and conditions became more chaotic, the prisoners would be executed without a trial.”

Well, as U.S. papers exultantly reported on June 20,

About 3,000 tons of … incendiary bombs … were released by the B-24s from low level starting about three a.m. … The three cities [Fukuoka, Toyotashi and Shizuoka] were tasting for the first time the bitter flames of war, roaring over factories, shops and thousands of congested homes.

Timothy Lang Francis, whose “‘To Dispose of the Prisoners’: The Japanese Executions of American Aircrew at Fukuoka, Japan, during 1945” from the November 1997 Pacific Historical Review traces the confluence of factors that made possible this day’s executions, describes the fate that was unfolding for Fukuoka’s eight captive airmen at about the same time those words were going to press.

All were blindfolded and had their hands tied in front. Several swords were obtained from the Legal Section. [Yusei] Wako** then told the twenty or so assembled Japanese that, “in compliance with the Commanding General†’s orders, we were going to execute the plane crash survivors.” One officer, Lt. Michio Ikeda of the Medical Section, volunteered himself, and Wako ordered Probationary Officer Tamotsu Onishi, since he was skilled in kendo, to assist him as a third executioner. Sato watched the proceedings from one side.

The first flyer was brought to the edge of the pit and made to sit on his haunches. Wako then ritually washed one of the swords and stood behind the prisoner, slightly to the left. Raising the sword above his right shoulder with both hands, Wako brought it down on the flyer’s neck. “Both the body and head fell into the pit,” remembered Wako; “I washed my sword and ordered the guard to bring another flyer to the pit. I killed this flyer exactly the same way I had killed the first one.” Onishi then executed a third prisoner in the same manner.

In the pause that followed, Lt. Kentaro Toji, an officer attached to Western Army Headquarters, approached Sato. According to his pretrial affidavit, Toji said to Sato, “My mother was killed in the air raid on Fukuoka this morning, and I think it would be fitting that I be the one who execute these American flyers.” Sato told him to wait while Wako ordered Ikeda to execute the fourth flyer. Toji, after borrowing a sword from Onishi, beheaded the last four prisoners. The pit was then filled with dirt.

This is all well and good, but Tokyo’s orders to its armies had been to do the juridical legwork on these cases themselves — and not just to summarily kill prisoners. So, in a bit of ex post facto bureaucratic butt-covering, the Western District Army’s legal section proceeded to close the matter by shipping the central government a report saying that all these prisoners had been killed during the previous night’s air raid. Problem solved!

No known direct connection to this particular atrocity, but there’s a recent documentary about an elderly Japanese man who used to serve at Fukuoka that looks worth the watching.

* Six of the eight were Robert J. Aspinall, Merlin R. Calvin, Jack V. Dengler, Otto W. Baumgarten, Edgar L. McElfresh, and Ralph S. Romines. The other two remain unidentified. These eight were, maybe, the lucky ones: Fukuoka had had 16 prisoners from downed bombers, but the other eight weren’t around to be beheaded because they’d previously been given over to the local hospital to suffer ghastly deaths in vivisection experiments.

** A Judge Advocate who had also been involved in the Doolittle trials.

† Gen. Isamu Yokoyama. When he’d been briefed prior to the June 19 raid that the army was fixing to just dispose of its prisoners if it came to that, Yokoyama had done the Pontius Pilate act and informed Wako, “I have decided to concern myself only with the decisive battle and hereafter do not bother me with the problem of the flyers.”

On this day..

22 thoughts on “1945: 8 American flyers at Fukuoka

  1. American pilots killing innocent men and women : a shame. Good they were punished with the same punishment : death !

  2. Selfish as it may be, my father was in the Sea of Japan when the bombs were dropped and would have likely been part of the invasion had they not surrendered.
    The likelihood of his death would have increased many fold.

    Next, why didn’t Japan surrender after the first atomic bomb?

    They surrendered for fear of Russia.

    Something else to consider: Would Truman have been held accountable for not dropping the bomb, had the invasion yielded as many American deaths as estimated?

  3. Pingback: Blog of the day – Executed Today | BlazingCatFur

  4. An additional tragic irony: the production of The Bomb created numerous National Sacrifice Areas in the US that are permanently contaminated. Hanford and Oak Ridge are the most famous, but far from the only examples. The post-1945 production of these Weapons of Mass Destruction created numerous other toxic sites. Nevada Test Site. Savannah River Site. Fernald. Rocky Flats. Uranium mine tailings. Fallout in Utah and other downwind states. Fallout for the Marshall Islanders. More people have been killed from the manufacturing and testing of these weapons than were killed on August 6 and August 9, 1945. Read Dr. John Gofman, a Manhattan Project veteran (and medical doctor), for technical details. He helped create the first visible quantity of Pu-239 and later started the biomedical division of Lawrence Livermore Lab (but was fired for pointing out that nuclear power reactors would kill people if allowed to be built).

    The atomic bomb was a boomerang, one that hit American civilians, too.

    I’ve met a number of US soldiers and sailors who were “atomic veterans,” brought to watch tests in Nevada and the Pacific a few years after 1945. All had serious health consequences from their irradiation (and none that I met are alive today).

  5. The Japanese had completely run out of fuel. Sure, they had fanatics preparing to resist invasion but their war machine was out of fuel. They were trying to make fuel out of pine trees (to fuel kamikaze planes). It’s obvious that an invasion would have been very bloody but it is also a very well documented fact that the Japanese had been floating surrender terms with the US since May 1945 (with the provision that they could keep the Emperor, which ultimately was allowed).

    I think the military commanders who knew the logistical situation at the time — and said the atomic bombings were not needed — understood the situation far better than the civilians who thought the incineration of cities was needed to end the war. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the end of World War II, but the start of a new conflict.

    At Auschwitz the Nazis could kill thousands a day. The Atomic Bombings killed the equivalent of many days throughput at Auschwitz with a single bomb.

    It is interesting that many of the atomic survivors actually don’t like to play the victim, but point to the absolute necessity to prevent further atomic bombings anywhere as they are incompatible with the survival of civilization.

  6. One more thing: The following is a perfect example of how stupid some people become when rewriting history:

    “The consensus among scholars is the that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it.”

    Oh really? Well, the alternative would mean ending the war with far more American deaths due to the invasion, and Truman knew it. The Japanese were not going to surrender just because we asked them to lay down their arms.

    And oh, btw, you’re wrong when you say the Japanese would have surrendered if we’d allowed the Emperor to stay enthroned. They did not want to fall under our occupation and have our troops on their home islands. In other words, they started the war, and they didn’t want us to finish it. But we did so anyway.

  7. Mark—These are opinions, and with all due respect, the facts speak otherwise. Indeed, in light of the facts, I can’t believe “Hap” Arnold would say such a foolish thing. Even a brief reading of the invasion plans, set for Nov. 1, 1945, reveal just how destructive this invasion would have been. it would have dwarfed the Normandy campaign in both scope and violence. The Japanese had 5000 kamikaze planes to use on the American fleet transport ships, and even the Higgins boats coming to shore. They had an army, well-equipped, on the home islands waiting for us, and as I said earlier, the civilians were being trained to fight us as well.(Later discussions with Japanese personal as to what they had and where -troops and weapons, etc–gave us a good idea of what we were up against).

    For Eisenhower to make such a statement as repeated above, shows how out of touch he was with the situation in the Pacific. Of course, Eisenhower, was not a combat soldier (never tasted war personally) and so how could he really understand anyway? Even Gen. Patton bemoaned Eisenhower’s lack of ever being under fire.

    Even a brief reading of the books out there concerning this invasion will show any level-headed person how bad this battle would have been had it unfolded. it would have meant extremely high casualties on both sides.

    Many today try to rewrite history, and the Japanese love to play the victim. But the truth is out there, and it goes far beyond the opinions of the men posted above. of course, I could have included dozens of quotes from those who understood how dangerous the Japanese remained for that battle, but I always like to point to the actual facts of what would have transpired had the invasion occurred, rather than give the pro and con opinions of the people of the time. Opinions are like, well, you know.

  8. Yes, I know about the late 1945 plans and I also know about the casualty differences between Tokyo and Hiroshima.

    But Japan was petitioning for surrender, although with the requirement that the Emperor be kept as head of state (which is what happened).

    Hiroshima was the single biggest slaughter in history. The higher casualties of the burning alive of Tokyo took lots of planes. Killing over a hundred thousand human beings with a single bomb from one plane was an advance in technical efficiency of genocide. If we don’t learn from that we risk seeing this in countless cities. If there are survivors I don’t think they’ll care about who was “right” and who was “wrong.”

    “It always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.”
    – General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold
    Commanding General of the U.S. Army
    Air Forces Under President Truman

    “I had been conscious of depression and so I voiced to (Sec. Of War Stimson) my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. It was my belief that Japan was, at this very moment, seeking a way to surrender with a minimum loss of ‘face.’ ”
    – General Dwight D. Eisenhower

    “It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was taught not to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying woman and children.”
    – Admiral William D. Leahy
    Former Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

    “I am absolutely convinced that had we said they could keep the emperor, together with the threat of an atomic bomb, they would have accepted, and we would never have had to drop the bomb.”
    – John McCloy

    “P.M. [Churchill} & I ate alone. Discussed Manhattan (it is a success). Decided to tell Stalin about it. Stalin had told P.M. of telegram from Jap Emperor asking for peace.”
    – President Harry S. Truman
    Diary Entry, July 18, 1945

    “Certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.”
    – U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey’s 1946 Study

    “Careful scholarly treatment of the records and manuscripts opened over the past few years has greatly enhanced our understanding of why Truman administration used atomic weapons against Japan. Experts continue to disagree on some issues, but critical questions have been answered. The consensus among scholars is the that the bomb was not needed to avoid an invasion of Japan. It is clear that alternatives to the bomb existed and that Truman and his advisers knew it.
    – J. Samuel Walker
    Chief Historian
    U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

    • A major part of Truman’s decision involved dropping the bombs and having Japan surrender immediately and not later. And most importantly on our terms (the US) and not terms he feared might involve Stalin if the war lingered. As Truman knew, Stalin had more than a million troops on his southern border with the Japanese in Manchuria. Stalin was poised to invade the Japanese there and make a typical Soviet land grab..as he had already done repeatedly in Europe. However, the US had done the fighting and provided all the heavy lifting in terms of hundreds of thousands of lives, casualties and sacrifice. The War had to end immediately and on our terms.

      • If doing most of the fighting and dying entails a right to the fruits of the peace then you cannot possibly consider Soviet gains in the European theater a “land grab”.

  9. If I remember correctly the Japanese were given the chance to surrender before we dropped any bombs and they declined to do so.

  10. Mark ….with all due respect, you do not know your history. Japan was not defeated by August 6th 1945. They still had four million men to defend the home islands, and they were training the civilians to resist the invaders. It was going to be a blood bath. My father, serving with the 5th Marine Division, was set to land in the first of troops on November 1, 1945. Please, sir, know your history before commenting. Also, more Japanese were killed during the fire bombing of Tokyo than during the Hiroshima bombing. Again, know your history before commenting

  11. Celebrating August 6 and 9 (the anniversaries of the incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) makes as much sense as celebrating the Rape of Nanking or Hitler’s birthday.

    The bombing of Hiroshima was the biggest simultaneous slaughter in human history, hopefully there won’t be a sequel that is even nastier.

    General Eisenhower and many other US military leaders went on record afterwards that the atomic bombings were not needed to end the war, the only questions were whether the war would end before or after the Soviets joined the battle against Japan and whether the US would agree to the Japanese request that the Emperor be kept as the head of state. Japan was already defeated by August 6, 1945, out of fuel and starting to starve.

  12. My brother in law’s father was shot by the Japanese after the fall of Shanghai for the supreme crime of listening to the BBC World Service.

  13. The world needs to remember how EVIL the Japanese were during the Second World War. With this in mind, here are a few factual things we need to remember:

    Wherever the Japanese battle flag was unfurled in their quest to conquer the Pacific, torture and murder soon followed. The Rape on Nanking is a perfect example. What happened in Nanking was not an exception with the Japanese Army, but the rule.

    The leadership of the Japanese Army (and all military forces of Imperial japan) sanctioned the raping of the female population of whatever countries they conquered, and as we all know, they forced over 50,000 women to serve in army and naval units as “care-givers” to the soldiers so the men could have their needs met. Is there anything more barbaric ? Well, yes, there certainly is:

    The Japanese High Command sanctioned the murdering of civilians and opposing military forces who’d been captured, whenever it pleased them, for they believed in ruling with the proverbial Iron Fist. Just as the above article pointed out that General Yokoyama refused to stop his officers (something he easily could have done), this was common practice with the Generals, AND IT WAS SANCTIONED CONDUCT.

    Keep in mind two things as well: The first, the Japanese started the war, and they conducted a war of complete aggression and domination (to the point of murder on a vast scale), and they did not adhere to the rule of law towards Allied prisoners of war.

    The second thing we must remember is this: The Japanese were completely racist in their attitudes towards others; and I do not mean just towards Westerners. And they wallow in hypocrisy! That is, they wine and complain that they are the “victims” (can you believe it !!!) because we dropped two atomic bombs on them; which, at that time, was just another weapon. Never mind that we had beaten them back across the Pacific, kicking them off one island after another, and beating them in one sea battle after another to stop their aggression. Never mind all the murdering and destruction they’d caused, or that we killed far more firebombing their cities than we killed with the A-bomb (which, apparently, was okay with them because they never complained about that!) , but we were the evil ones because we dropped those particular bombs, AND THEY WERE THE VICTIMS! Talk about the biggest bunch of BS ever unloaded by a guilty nation; a nation that has to this day REFUSED TO ADMIT THEIR GUILT IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR.

    And finally (and this is the greatest difference between the United States in WW2 and the nation of Japan), when we finally “conquered” them, what did we do? Did we rape women? Nope! Did we execute prisoners of war? Nope! Did we conduct ourselves in the same way the Japanese military did when they were in power over conquered countries? Why of course not! What’s the difference? The Japanese (during world war two) were every bit as evil as the Germans. Unlike the Germans, however, they have refused to admit their guilt, and until they do, the rest of the world needs to view them with suspicion.

    • I’ve only started studying the Pacific war of WWII within the last decade, but I’ve learned a great deal that has been far more horrible than I ever imagined. My father, who was a career Marine, once commented that the Japanese were a very violent culture. At that time, I was a teenager, in Hawaii, with many Hawaiian-Japanese friends. I couldn’t imagine why he would say that, but I understand it, now.

      I agree with you that the Japanese were every bit as wicked as the Germans, back then. I think, if it’s important for the world to remember what the Nazis did to the Jews (which I believe it is) it’s also important to remember how the Japanese treated any Americans they got a hold of. Thousands of men who were stationed on island of the Pacific shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack were ordered to surrender, with the hope that they would stand a better chance of survival. I guess we thought our enemy would behave somewhat honorably, but they treated POWs every bit as badly as the Nazis treated the Jews!

      Here is a link to an amazing article you might be interested in http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/minters-ring-the-story-of-one-world-war-ii-pow-40301808/

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