Archive for April 3rd, 2017

1946: Masaharu Homma, for the Bataan Death March

Add comment April 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Laid down on the altar I am
Offered as a victim to God
For the sake of
My newly born country

-Verse written by Masaharu Homma awaiting execution (Source)

Imperial Japanese Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma was shot by a firing squad outside Manila on this date in 1946 for the notorious Bataan Death March.

Homma commanded the 14th Area Army tasked with occupying the Philippines immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor opened a Pacific War against the U.S.

Retreating from the Philippines in early 1942, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur famously vowed, “I shall return.” To Homma’s grief, he did just that.

While MacArthur cogitated his revenge, Homma was finishing off the remnants of his last great stand in the Battle of Bataan. Bataan was a victory for Japan, but a bloody and protracted one; it cost the lives of some 7,000 Japanese, and the three-month battle has sometimes been credited with slowing the Japanese advance sufficiently to safeguard Australia; it also left the occupiers with an unexpectedly huge complement of POWs.

On April 9, 1942, the very day fighting ended at Bataan, transfers began for these prisoners, who would be driven by train and then marched overland some 60+ miles to Camp O’Donnell. More than 60,000 Filipinos and about 15,000 Americans endured this harrowing five- or six-day slog — the Bataan Death March.

A few books about the Bataah Death March

Early reports of the death march made grist for this wartime propaganda poster in the U.S.

This crucible of endurance, both physical and spiritual, came by its evil repute honestly; in the age of the Internet, numerous appalling testimonials are within easy reach of a web search. They recount battle-wearied men enervated by hunger and thirst, liable to be summarily shot or bayoneted for making themselves the least bit conspicuous to captors who already disdained them for having the weakness to surrender in the first place.

Some were murdered at the outset: having any Japanese “trophies” on one’s person when captured was liable to be worth a summary bullet, or a quick flash of an officer’s katana. An even more certain death sentence was falling behind on the march, and wounded prisoners could expect no quarter: they had to keep up with their compatriots or the Japanese “buzzard squad” trailing a few score meters behind every marching peloton would finish them off with any other stragglers. In different groups POWs might be thrashed or killed over any trifling annoyance; meanwhile, those suffered to live trudged under a wasting sun, nearly unnourished but for fetid handfuls scooped from mud puddles, dying on their feet hour by hour. Dehydrated to the point of madness, some snapped and ran suicidally for the tantalizing nearby village wells that marchers were prohibited from accessing.

Something like a quarter, and maybe nearer to a third, of the souls who set out on the Bataan Death March never reached Camp O’Donnell. Those who did entered new portals of torment: rent by dysentery and crowded cheek to sunken jowl, prisoners died off daily by the dozens until they were finally dispatched — often crammed like sardines into the bowels of “hell ships” — to different Japanese work camps.

The Bataan Death March was a no-question basket of war crimes, egregiously flouting existing POW treatment accords.* It’s far more questionable whether our man Gen. Homma was the right person to answer for it.

Homma had segued directly from the Battle of Bataan to the succeeding Battle of Corregidor after which he had been cashiered for a homeland desk job.

Ironically, it was an excess of leniency that helped earn Homma his enemies among the brass — the opposite of the thing that hanged him. For many who observed the postwar trial slating him with 48 war crimes violations related to the Death March, Homma was a figure more tragic than wicked, prey to returning victor MacArthur’s pique at the defeat Homma had once inflicted upon him.

Little reliable evidence could show that Homma blessed or even knew of the atrocities committed in the march, but he himself allowed during trial that “I am morally responsible for whatever happened in anything under my command.” According to Homma’s American defense attorney Robert Pelz — a biased source to be sure — the general slipped into genuine disgust and remorse during the trial as a parade of witnesses remembered their ordeals. “I am horrified to learn these things happened under my command,” Homma wrote in a note passed to Pelz at one point. “I am ashamed of our troops.”

The hanging verdict was controversial then and remains so now. “If the defendant does not deserve his judicial fate, none in jurisdictional history ever did,” MacArthur complained. He honored the mercy application of Homma’s wife Fujiko only insofar as to permit the general a more honorable execution by musketry, instead of hanging.

The bulk of the U.S. Supreme Court okayed the procedure by which the U.S. military brought that fate about, although Justice Frank Murphy issued a scorching dissent urging that in the haste and partiality of the proceedings against both Homma and General Tomoyuki Yamashita “we abandon all pretense to justice, let the ages slip away and descend to the level of revengeful blood purges.”

One who would share that sentiment was an 18-year-old Navy man who observed the trial, Bob Perske. Perske would remember this his experiences on the Philippines at the end of World War II “sharpened his sensitivies toward vulnerable persons” and influenced a subsequent career advocating for people with disabilities as well as those caught in the toils of the criminal justice system. Executed Today formerly interviewed Mr. Perske in connection with the wrongful execution of a mentally disabled man in Colorado, Joe Arridy.

* It’s worth noting that Japan was not party to the 1929 Geneva Convention on the Treatment of POWs.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Shot,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,War Crimes

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