1944: Oskar Kusch, Wehrkraftzersetzung U-boat commander

Add comment May 12th, 2020 Headsman

No assignment in the Third Reich’s war machine, nay not even the fearful eastern front, was as dangerous as service in the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat fleet.

Terrors of English shipping in the early war years, these submersible predators became prey once overwhelming U.S. materiel poured into the theater, and Allied intelligence started cracking German signals. By war’s end, fully three-quarters of the wartime U-boat personnel had sunk into watery graves.

And on top of all the intrinsic perils of fighting a losing war from the inside of a submerged tin of beans, you’d better do it with enthusiasm or you’ve got the prospect of going up against the wall like Oskar Kusch did on May 12, 1944.

A submariner since 1937, Kusch come 1943 stood in command of U-154.

He fulfilled his office creditably — that’s what the official history has come to reflect via a postwar rehabilitation — but was ratted out for Wehrkraftzersetzung, a lethal polysyllable meaning “subversion of the war effort”. This capital crime classed as sedition a wide range of utterances that showed their speaker anything other than relentlessly positive about the war effort: spreading skepticism in official propaganda, showing distaste for Naziism, and most certainly entertaining doubt as to the Reich’s manifestly fading prospects for victory.

In practice, of course, not everybody who cast a gimlet eye on Berlin’s war pronouncements was so handled, but it’s the sort of law to keep everyone nervous. And if, say, one has torpedoed the promotion prospects of one’s second-in-command with a lukewarm performance evaluation, then it’s the sort of thing that First Watch Officer Ulrich Abel can wield for revenge.

Soon enough, Kusch was being informed upon for candidly assessing the Germans’ dire strategic prospects and for seditiously removing the mandatory picture of Hitler to a place less likely to oblige a lot of gratuitous obeisance. He was moreover found to have tuned into foreign radio stations, which was also a crime. The brass decided to make an example of him, overriding an initial prison sentence so that they could stand him in front of a firing squad near the Baltic Sea juncture of the Kiel Canal.


Marker honoring Oskar Kusch, on the present-day street Oskar-Kusch-Straße, near the place Kusch was executed.

For all the mean absurdity of his death, Kusch’s shit luck lay not in being denounced to a kangaroo court but in the mere fact of his enrollment in the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat service. After all, seven weeks after his own execution, his former vessel was sunk off Madeira with all hands lost. And for that matter Kusch’s enemy, Ulrich Abel, predeceased his own victim, having attained through his complaints command of a vessel of his own, his great desideratum which Executed Today hopes that he enjoyed with urgency — for Abel and his own ship were likewise sent to the bottom in April 1944.

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1945: Theo van Gogh, famous name

Add comment March 8th, 2020 Headsman

Theo van Gogh, a Dutch resistance fighter of portentous lineage, was executed by the German occupation on this date in 1945.

This man was the grandson of the famous Theo van Gogh, art dealer and brother to troubled, brilliant painter Vincent van Gogh.

Our Theo was a 23-year-old university student in Amsterdam pulled into anti-Nazi resistance by the imposition of a hated loyalty oath on university personnel and was arrested several times, repeatedly tolling his father for bribes to extract him.

The arrest he couldn’t buy his way out of was a home raid on March 1, 1945 — the very last weeks of the war, while these Germans were in the process of being stranded in the Low Countries. Evidently the collapse of the Reich didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the cause, because on March 8 the Germans imposed a collective punishment of 100+ executions in revenge for the Dutch resistance’s attempt to assassinate a prominent SS officer.* Theo van Gogh was one of them.

Besides his name-brand ancestry, Theo the World War II resistance figure is also the uncle (quite posthumously — this man wasn’t born until 1957) of film director Theo van Gogh, who’s a far-right martyr in his own right thanks to the vociferous anti-Islamic work that resulted in his 2004 assassination.


Prisoners’ Round (after Gustave Doré) (1890), by Vincent van Gogh.

* That officer, Hanns Albin Rauter, was executed for war crimes in 1949.

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1944: Osmund Brønnum

Add comment March 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Osmund Brønnum — boxer, Communist, and anti-Nazi Resistance martyr — was executed in Quisling Norway on this date in 1944.

Brønnum (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) practice the sweet science for still-extant Oslo club Vika IF and later progressed into a municipal sports administrator.

A committed Popular Front advocate who had also studied in Moscow, Brønnum greeted the German occupation of his native soil with a turn to printing underground propaganda for the Norwegian Resistance — until, sensing danger, he attempted to escape to Sweden only to be arrested at the border.

He was shot with six other men (notably ichthyologist Iacob Dybwad Sømme) at the Trandumskogen forest execution site (and, a natural enough double role, mass grave). A granite marker unveiled there in 1954 pays tribute to “173 Norwegians, 15 Soviet subjects, and 6 Britons” executed in the forest over the course of the war.

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1947: Jonas Noreika, “General Storm”

Add comment February 26th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Lithuanian anti-Soviet partisan Jonas Noreika was executed in Moscow.

Memorial plaque honoring Jonas Noreika in Vilnius; it was destroyed in 2019 by an anti-fascist politician. (cc) image from Alma Pater.

Long held as a hero of Lithuanian patriots, “General Storm”* has been headline news in recent years having his legacy complicated.

It all started when author Silvia Foti, Noreika’s granddaughter, took up her late mother’s unfinished project to write a biography of their famous kinsman. At the time, she accepted the received lore that Jonas Noreika had been an anti-Nazi resister during the Second World War, prior to being an anti-Communist resister afterwards — a story facilitated by Noreika’s 1943 arrest and detention in the Stutthof concentration camp among dozens of other high-profile Lithuanians taken as hostages.

But Foti’s understanding of events evolved painfully, as she described in a wrenching 2018 Salon article with the spoiler-alert title “My grandfather wasn’t a Nazi-fighting war hero — he was a brutal collaborator”.

According to Foti’s research in conjunction with the (since-deceased) director of Vilnius’s Sugihara House and Holocaust researcher Grant Gochin, Noreika was a principal of the anti-Soviet June Uprising sparked by the Nazi invasion of the USSR, but preceding the Wehrmacht’s actual arrival; in those days, Lithuanian militia seized control of towns, often massacring Jews (or, which was tantamount to the same thing, preventing their escape to the Soviet Union). Foti believes that Noreika did exactly this in his town of Plungė in the Samogitia region where he was later appointed as a county administrator during the German occupation.

[Sugihara House director Simon] Dovidavičius; was the first to suggest that my grandfather conducted the initial akcija (action) during World War II before the Germans arrived. It coincided with Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, when Hitler invaded Russia, the same day Lithuania began its uprising with the Germans against the Soviets, marking the start of a Holocaust there, where 95 percent of its 200,000 Jews were murdered, the highest percentage of any country in Europe. (About 3,000 Jews remain in Lithuania today.)

Within three weeks, 2,000 Jew had been killed in Plungė, half the town’s population, and where my grandfather led the uprising. This preceded the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, when Nazi Germany decided to make mass-murder its state policy. Put in more chilling terms, Dovidavičius claimed that my grandfather, as captain, taught his Lithuanian soldiers how to exterminate Jews efficiently: how to sequester them, march them into the woods, force them to dig their own graves and shove them into pits after shooting them. My grandfather was a master educator …

By the end of the trip [to Lithuania] I came to believe that my grandfather must have sanctioned the murders of 2,000 Jews in Plungė, 5,500 Jews in Šiauliai and 7,000 in Telšiai.

Foti’s revelations have been roughly received in a country where the Holocaust complicity of anti-Soviet national heroes remains a very sore subject; there are still monuments to and streets named after her grandfather in Lithuania, and apparently a military academy there even published a prewar antisemitic essay by Noreika in 2016 in a wholly uncritical light.

* Not to be confused with a Philadelphia property repair contractor.

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1946: Jean Luchaire, Vichy journalist

Add comment February 22nd, 2020 Headsman

Collaborationist French journalist Jean Luchaire was shot on this date in 1946.

Fortuitously just too young for the trenches of the Great War, Luchaire (English Wikipedia entry | French) was the son of playwright Julien Luchaire, and he — the son — emerged in the interwar years as an important pacifist and advocate for French-German rapprochement.

The 1939-1940 war between those countries obviously dunked this philosophy into the crucible, and not long after the Wehrmacht marched into Paris on June 14, 1940, Luchaire emerged as a friend of the Vichy government.

His Les Nouveaux Temps* — founded in November 1940 with the direct backing of Germany’s Vichy ambassador** — became a premiere outlet of Vichy collaboration, and Luchaire directed the national press association to similar ends. After the liberation of Paris, he spent the war’s waning months in refuge with the remains of the Petain government, running a newspaper and radio station for the dead-enders.

Spurned for asylum by Switzerland after the war, he was captured by American soldiers in the Italian Alps and delivered to his homeland, where he was condemned as an occupation collaborator and shot at Fort de Châtillon, outside Paris.

His daughter Corinne Luchaire, a silver screen star in the late 1930s who became a society fixture in occupied Paris, published a postwar memoir defending her father’s conduct. She died of tuberculosis in 1950.

* Luchaire had founded and edited a newspaper called Notre temps in the interwar period. It’s not the same journal as the present-day publication of the same name, which was founded in 1968.

** The Francophile Ambassador Otto Abetz married Luchaire’s French secretary. Two of Abetz’s nephews, Peter and Eric Abetz, have had political careers in Autralia.

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1946: Maliq Bushati, Lef Nosi, and Anton Harapi, of Balli Kombëtar

Add comment February 15th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1946,* communist Albania executed three former officials of its deposed wartime government.

Fascist Italy occupied Albania during World War II.

In a situation mirroring that of neighboring Yugoslavia, there were two resistance movements that sometimes maintained an uneasy truce and other times went straight at one another’s throats: the communist National Liberation Movement (LNC or LANC), and the nationalist National Front (“Balli Kombëtar”).

In 1943, when Mussolini’s government collapsed, Nazi Germany took over control of Albania. Wary of postwar domination by communists — and the likelihood that this party would not cede bordering “Greater Albania” regions like the Yugoslavian province of Kosovo — Balli Kombëtar cut a deal with Berlin to run a collaborationist government.

Our principals for this date were all prominent figures in that government: Maliq Bushati, the prime minister; Lef Nosi, a member of the High Regency Council, and Anton Harapi, a Franciscan friar who consented to be the Catholic community’s representative in the governing council.

Needless to say, Balli Kombëtar did not long benefit from German support, and succumbed to the partisan movement — both the domestic LNC, and the allied Yugoslavian partisans under Tito. Its adherents faced the fury of their conquerors.


From left: Maliq Bushati, Lef Nosi, and Anton Harapi.

Those who could, fled to the west to enroll as exile auxilia for the coming Cold War: the attempted 1949 Albanian Subversion was one of the CIA’s earliest regime change attempts — notable in that the covert operation was betrayed to Moscow by the Kremlin’s British intelligence mole Kim Philby, resulting in hundreds of deaths.

* The Internet brings some citations for February 20 instead of February 15; I have not been able to locate the source of the discrepancy. The British diplomatic communique reporting on the trial is my authoritative primary source here: “The trial took place, in eight sessions, in a squalid cinema in Tirana before a house packed by Party members who constantly interrupted and jeered, while three military judges on the stage kept hurling accusations and abuse at the defendants, jointly and severally. All three were held responsible for, among other things, Albania’s entire war losses … Defendant’s counsel was howled down as a ‘fascist’ and never succeeded in making himself heard … The three accused were shot two days afterwards, on 15 February.”

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1945: Giovanni Cerbai, partisan

Add comment February 10th, 2020 Headsman

Italian partisan Giovanni Cerbai was shot on this date in 1945.

A communist who fought in the Garibaldi Battalion during the Spanish Civil War, “Giannetto” was interred in transit through France and spent the early part of World War II confined to the Bourbon island panopticon of Ventotene* — a misery shared by many other prospective guerrillas.

“While the flames of the war grew and approached all around, while in the cities and in the countryside workers, employees, professionals and intellectuals were agitating, moving, pressing for peace and freedom, in Italian prisons and confinement islands hundreds and thousands of anti-fascists pined in their forced inactivity,” wrote fellow Ventotene detainee Luigi Longo in his memoir. “The island of Ventotene was like the capital of this captive world. In the spring of 1943 it gathered about a thousand leaders and humble militants from all the currents of Italian anti-fascism … We shared our common sufferings, the same hopes and an equal love of freedom.”

This prison was liberated by American forces in December 1943 but Cerbai had already escaped in August, joining the partisans.

“A fighter of exceptional enthusiasm and daring,” per the hagiographic words of his posthumous military valor decoration, he had a brief but distinguished service in the field, surviving the Battle of Porta Lame. Cerbai was eventually captured, and shot at the outset of a notorious weekslong massacre of prisoners by the fascists.

There’s a street named for him in his native Bologna.

* Another communist political prisoner in this same fortress, name of Altiero Spinelli, drew up with fellow leftists in 1941 an illicit text titled “Manifesto for a free and united Europe” — more familiarly known as the Ventotene Manifesto. (Full text here.) Spinelli’s document called for a federation of European states to mitigate the potential for wars, a crucial precursor of the European Federalist Movement that Spinelli would co-found in 1943; Spinelli for this reason is a forefather of postwar European integration. And not just a forefather: he died in 1986 as a member of European parliament, having dedicated his postwar life to the project.

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1943: Lepa Radic, Yugoslav Partisan

Add comment February 8th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1943, young Yugoslav partisan Lepa Svetozara Radic went to a German gallows.

A Bosnian Serb — her village today lies in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, steps inside the river that forms its border with Croatia — Lepa Radic was just 15 when Europe’s Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941. Her family’s established left-wing affiliations brought them swift arrest by the fascist Ustashe, but Lepa and her sister escaped in December and joined Tito‘s Communist partisans.

In early 1943, Nazi Germany mounted a huge offensive against the partisans. On a strategic plane, the offensive failed: the partisans were able to preserve their command structure and fall back, also decisively defeating in the field their nationalist/monarchist rivals, the Chetniks, which set them up to dominate postwar Yugoslavia.

But for those upon whom the blow fell, it was a winter of terrible suffering. The Germans claimed 11,915 partisans killed, 2,506 captured … and 616 executed.

So it was with Lepa Radic. This Serbian Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was captured during the engagement trying to defend a clutch of civilians and wounded. They publicly noosed her at Bosanska Krupa after she scorned the opportunity to preserve her life by informing on fellow guerrillas with the badass retort, “my comrades will give their names when they avenge my death.” (Various translations of this parting dagger are on offer online.)

After the war, Yugoslavia honored her posthumously with the Order of the People’s Hero.

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1949: Leander Jacobs and Hector Chavis

Add comment December 30th, 2019 Headsman

Associated Press story from the Gastonia (North Carolina) Gazette, Dec. 30, 1949:

RALEIGH, Dec. 30 (AP) — Two Indian farm workers died today in the gas chamber after a futile effort by one to save the life of his companion in crime.

Leander Jacobs, 28, and Hector Chavis, 29, were executed for the robbery-murder of Martin L. Blackwell, 79-year-old Lumberton storekeeper.

Jacobs yesterday told Prison Warden Joe Crawford and Paroles Commissioner T.C. Johnson that although Chavis participated in the robbery, he took no actual part in the killing.

For this reason Chavis did not learn until about 3:30 a.m. today that he was going to die at 10 a.m.

Crawford told him that Governor Scott had decided not to intervene.

“All he said was, ‘Thank you’.” Crawford said.

Chavis entered the chamber calm. Jacobs walked briskly. They both were pronounced dead in less than 12 minutes.

The governor’s decision followed conferences at the mansion last night and this morning with Paroles Commissioner T.C. Johnson to whom Jacobs made his statement.

Jacobs made his confession to Johnson and Central Prison Warden Joe Crawford. Johnson said Jacobs’ story was a “full confession” and was the first detailed account obtained from either of the men.

The two Indian farmers were convicted last April in Robeson superior court of the robbery-murder of Martin L. Blackwell, 79-year-old Lumberton storekeeper.

Jacobs’ statement came yesterday shortly after he heard that governor [sic] would not intervene. The condemned man said he only wanted to clear his conscience before he died.

Johnson said “He told us that he didn’t want to take another man with him.[“]

However, the paroles commissioner pointed out that despite Jacobs’ attempt to take the full blame the fact remained that both men were present at the murder scene and both shared in the ensuing robbery.

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1943: Four Aussie escapees, at the Hotel Tacloban

Add comment December 25th, 2019 Headsman

Christmas Day of 1943 witnessed the demoralizing beheadings of four Australian POWs in the Japanese camp near Tacloban on the Philippines island of Leyte.

This camp held Aussie and British war captives, but its definitive account titled The Hotel Tacloban* comes from the mouth of a lone American mixed in among them — witness to the cross-cutting tensions in this little world between the two nationalities, and between enlisted men and officers. Of notable import for this episode is the campwide resentment of the ranking British officer, one Major Roland Leeds Cumyns.

By the account of our American interlocutor, Cumyns “was the most arrogant, most conceited son-of-a-bitch I’d ever come across in my life; an impossible officer who was thoroughly convinced that God was an Englishman.” Worse, he embodied the class snobbishness of the privileged caste from whom British field officers were drawn and shamelessly aligned himself with the Japanese camp commandant Captain Yoshishito. The Australians in particular, for whom British class prerogatives were not imbibed with mother’s milk, abhorred him. “Pampered, primped and preened, the Major wholeheartedly believed that it was his manifest destiny to ascend to the pinnacle of his profession,” sneered our American observer, who fraternized mostly with the Aussies. “The Major took every opportunity to attend to his own creature comforts while flaunting his disdain for the plight of the Australians.”

On Christmas Eve, our four principals — names of Travis MacNaughton, Justice “Jassy” Colby, Larry Whitelam, and Tommy Philips, Aussies all — escaped from the Hotel Tacloban. Maybe they would have acted differently had they but known that the U.S. invasion of the Philippines would begin on the beaches of Leyte itself just ten months hence — but then again, ten months in this particular camp might have been worth the risk of one’s life. U.S. Army rangers who liberated the prisoners apparently wept to behold the “monstrous degradation” of their condition.

So thrilled that night by news of the breakout that the British and Australian sections competed in belting jovial renditions of “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and “Waltzing Matilda”, the camp by Christmas morning was tense with nervous anticipation. And as feared, right around daybreak, all four escapees were driven up on a flatbed truck, “badly beaten, blindfolded and bound in chains.” The entire camp was called to assemble for what came next, not excepting those in the infirmary who were carried out and propped up by their unwilling comrades, for “no ones was to be spared the executions.”

When everyone was present, Captain Yoshishito advanced and stood impassively beside the Major, both of their backs turned indifferently on the open space separating them from the four condemned Aussies on the back of the truck. With Yoshishito was the Executioner, a scabbard hanging from his hip, its tip dragging along the ground, the handle on the ceremonial sword itself almost a foot long and tucked up under his arm. Expressionless, their hooded eyes darting left and right, Yoshishito’s lieutenants stood poised and alert in front of Travis, Jassy, Larry and Tommy.

Tommy was reacting the worst; he’d gone completely to pieces. He was crying hysterically and had to be dragged kicking and screaming by the guards. Jassy and Larry were sobbing to themselves, struggling hard not to collapse. Travis was the only man who had not broken down. Standing ramrod straight, no sign of fear visible on his bearded face, he calmly asked that his blindfold be removed. The Major, with Captain Yoshishito’s approval, granted Travis’s request, and one of the Japanese officers untied it and pulled it off. And even though he stared directly into the rising sun, Travis didn’t blink. His eyes were glowing fiery red.

The guards separated the men four paces apart. They motioned for Travis to kneel in the dust with his head bent forward and he did so, without hesitation. The Executioner drew his sword and moved beside him. Dawn cast long shadows across the prison yard — the moment seemed arrested by the level sun.

I wanted to look away as I watched over the shoulder of the man standing in front of me, but there was some crazy compulsion to see. Try as I might, I couldn’t move my eyes from the blade on the ceremonial sword, which was long and slightly curved, but neither heavy nor thick nor ornate. Both hands on the hilt, the Executioner raised it above his shoulder, the sunlight momentarily glinting off the steel, then he brought it down.

I closed my eyes when he hit Travis — I couldn’t watch anymore after that — I just stood there with my eyes shut tight, hating myself and shivering inside, wanting desperately to cover my ears with my hands. But that wasn’t allowed, and three more times I heard that awful sound (the little bastards saved Tommy for last, for the devastating psychological effect), and then there was silence. Merciful silence. And in that absence of sound that followed the beheadings of Travis MacNaughton, Justice Colby, Larry Whitelam, and Tommy Philips, there wasn’t one man, Brit or Aussie, who didn’t know deep in his heart that the Major had to go. Speaking for every man there, Sgt. Major Goodhall, good soldier of the disgraced English Army, a man who’d been turned inside-out by his commanding officer’s treachery, a man who could no longer stand idly by while his honorable world crumbled around him, with utter contempt, turned and spit in the Major’s face.

Stunned speechless, his eyes blinking rapidly and his jaw muscle twitching uncontrolably, the Major quickly wiped the spittle away, then proceeded to strip Goodhall of his rank and ordered him placed under arrest. “Was there to be no end to the insults heaped upon him?” he seemed to be thinking. The man was insane.

Captain Yoshishito was astounded. It was inconceivable to him that ordinary soldiers of any army would demonstrate even the slightest hint of disrespect to their commanding officer. Such acts of defiance ate away at the very foundation upon which the chain of command is structured. Yoshishito stood there bewildered, regarding the situation with total disbelief — genuinely grieved that his brother officer, our lovely Major, had once again been publicly disgraced. Regaining his senses, Captain Yoshishito quickly signalled to his lieutenants, who selected eight Australians at random to dig graves and bury the dead. Then, speaking through a Filipino interpretor, he notified us that we were to be denied the right to conduct funeral services, that there would be no general issue of rice for the next two days, and that only the minimum water ration would be distributed, British officers excluded. The Australian officers were offered the same exemption, but flatly turned it down.

No one waited to be dismissed. Everyone just turned around and walked back to their huts.

The camp’s Aussie enlisted men drew straws the following morning for the responsibility of visiting their collective judgment on Major Cumyns. As night fell on Boxing Day, two of them garroted Cumyns in his tent, while their American adoptive comrade stood lookout.

* The Hotel Tacloban is by the American journalist Douglas Valentine, drawn from his conversations with (and primarily in the voice of) his father, the actual POW — also named Douglas Valentine. It’s a brief and compelling read, and it had an importance to the younger Valentine’s subsequent path quite surpassing the fact that it was his first book: Valentine’s empathetic portrayal of military men and the grim realities of war impressed CIA Director William Colby so much that Colby facilitated Valentine’s requested access to dozens of agents involved in the notorious Vietnam War-era assassination campaign, the Phoenix Program. The resulting interviews in turn led to Valentine’s still-essential tome The Phoenix Program and a subsequent career focus on the Agency which has produced (along with a great many articles) a book about intelligence coordination shaping the War on Drugs titled The Strength of the Pack, and the more recent volume, The CIA as Organized Crime. In Valentine’s own estimation, “Tacloban was key to unlocking the CIA’s door.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Japan,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Philippines,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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