On this date in 1946, Japan Gen. Takashi Sakai was shot by the World War II Allies at Nanking for war crimes.
Fifty-eight years old at his death, Sakai had built his career in the 1920s and 1930s manning various commands in the occupation of China.
Sakai’s forces committed numerous summary executions and other cruelties on troops captured from the overwhelmed garrison before Hong Kong finally surrendered on Christmas Day.
The whole operation was much more protracted and difficult than Japan had anticipated and perhaps as a result Sakai was relieved of responsibility for the (similarly brutal) occupation of Hong Kong, and eased into retirement back on the mainland.
His next visit to China would occur under very different circumstances — where he would find himself obliged to dissociate himself from the atrocities that his men had authored in the capture of the city. His war crimes tribunal was not impressed.
The Tribunal dismissed the accused’s plea that he could not be held responsible for the above violations because they were perpetrated by his subordinates and he had no knowledge of them. The Tribunal’s findings were as follows:
That a field Commander must hold himself responsible for the discipline of his subordinates, is an accepted principle. It is inconceivable that he should not have been aware of the acts of atrocities committed by his subordinates … All the evidence goes to show that the defendant knew of the atrocities committed by his subordinates and deliberately let loose savagery upon civilians and prisoners of war.
The principle that a commander is responsible for the discipline of his subordinates, and that consequently he may be held responsible for their criminal acts if he neglects to undertake appropriate measures or knowingly tolerates the perpetration of offences on their part, is a rule generally accepted by nations and their courts of law in the sphere of the laws and customs of war.
(Conversely, Sakai’s attempt to cite superior orders as defense against charges for his part in initiating the war also got short shrift. So in terms of the chain of command, he got it coming and going.)