1947: Hisakazu Tanaka, Hong Kong occupier

Add comment March 27th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Hisakazu (or Hisaichi) Tanaka was shot by the Chinese Koumintang for war crimes committed during the Japanese occupation of China.

Tanaka headed the Japanese Twenty-Third Army from March 1943 through the end of the war; for the last year or so of that period, he was also the last governor of Japanese-occupied Hong Kong.

Captured in Canton at the end of the war, Tanaka was tried by the Allied occupiers for permitting the execution of a downed American airman on April 6, 1945. That unnamed airman had been tried in wartime Japan for targeting civilians during his bombing raid, a judgment that Tanaka’s tribunal vociferously disputed.

Though he drew a hanging sentence for that offense, it was not carried out: instead, the doomed general was handed over to the Chinese nationalists to answer for the depredations of his 23rd army.

No surprise, the outcome there was pretty much the same.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Hong Kong,Japan,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,War Crimes

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1947: Three Jewish terrorists and two British hostages

1 comment July 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1947, three members of an Irgun commando team who had engineered a massive prison break of Zionist terrorists were hanged for the affair.

The Acre Prison Break was a meticulously coordinated operation by the Zionist underground in British Mandate Palestine that, a Conservative MP later charged, “reduced British prestige to a nadir.”

A team of guerrillas attacked the prison from the outside, coordinating with imprisoned Irgun and Stern Gang operatives who had explosives smuggled into their cells to help detonate their way through the walls. Hundreds of prisoners — most of them Arabs availing the opportunity — escaped.

According to the London Times (May 6, 1947), 16 escaping prisoners were slain in the affray, with eight British guards and police wounded.

More crucially for our purposes, five of the guerrillas who assailed the prison were captured. Three — Haviv Avshalom, Yaakov Weiss, and Meir Nakar — were taken armed, and sentenced to death by the British.

To browse the contemporaneous western press coverage is to visit a Holy Land very familiar to the present-day reader, filled with “terrorists” and “extremists” and “fanatics” and “murderers” abetted by “those who incite them from a safe distance and supply the funds and the weapons which they put to such deadly use.”* Except that this discourse was directed at Jews, not Arabs.

One good way to earn such an imprecation would be to kidnap two British soldiers and hold them hostage against the execution of the sentence. That’s exactly what the Irgun did.

The British searched for their men, but disdained to stoop the majesty of the law at the pleasure of some seditious blackmailer. So, early this morning at that same Acre Prison they had lately helped to liberate, Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar went to the gallows.


Left to right: Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar.

Palestine awaited with anxiety the expected discovery of two kidnaped British sergeants whom the Irgunists have vowed to kill in retaliation. The Mosaic law of vengeance applies and any show of clemency would be regarded by the extremists as evidence of cowardly submission.

New York Times, July 30, 1947

The Irgun had already applied that Mosaic law of vengeance.

On the evening of that same July 29, it hanged its two hostages, intelligence corps sergeants Clifford Martin and Marvin Paice. The bodies were moved and strung up in a Eucalyptus grove near Netanya, to be discovered the next day, booby-trapped with a land mine. A scornful note announced their condemnation for “criminal anti-Hebrew activities.”


The bodies of Sgts. Clifford Martin and Marvin Paice, as discovered on July 31, 1947, hanging from Eucalyptus trees.

Moderate, mainline Zionists were horrified.

Of all the crimes that took place till this day on this land, this is the most grievous and disgusting one and will stain the purity of our peoples struggle for freedom. May this act of hanging remain as a sign of Cain on the doers of this disgraceful deed! The heavens and the earth are my witnesses that most of our population took desperate measures to free the hostages and prevent this shame.

-Netanya Mayor Oved Ben Ami

Said disgraceful deed-doers were far from apologetic.

And you could say they had a point, since although the threat did not prevent the death sentences at hand from being carried into execution, its example proved to be a lively deterrent: Avshalom, Weiss, and Nakar were the last Zionists executed by the British. Then-Irgun leader, and later Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin made no bones about the trade.

The Brits were a little less sanguine about “the sergeants affair”.

A Times editorial for Friday, Aug. 1 fulminated against “the violent deeds of the Palestine terrorists [that] will not readily be effaced,” comparing them to “the bestialities practised by the Nazis themselves.”**

Over the ensuing long weekend’s summer bank holiday, racist riots against Jews shook Britain. Jewish businesses, cemeteries, and synagogues were smashed up and vandalized all over the island, to the horror this time of milquetoast liberals like the Manchester Guardian, with again-familiar lines like: “to answer terrorism in Palestine with terrorism in England is sheer Hitlerism. We must be desperately careful to see that we do not let ourselves be infected with the poison of the disease we had thought to eradicate.”

Fine points for debate in Britain, which within months was bugging out of the Levant as open war engulfed Palestine — the violent birth pangs of modern Israel and its embrace of its own subject populace with its own frustrated national ambitions pursued by its own violent extremists.

* London Times editorial, May 21, 1947.

** Irgun propaganda’s riposte: “We recognize no one-sided laws of war. If the British are determined that their way out of the country should be lined by an avenue of gallows and of weeping fathers, mothers, wives, and sweethearts, we shall see to it that in this there is no racial discrimination.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Israel,Jews,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Terrorists

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1947: Nikola Petkov, “a dog’s death”

Add comment September 23rd, 2010 Headsman

At midnight as the calendar turned over to this date in 1947, anti-communist Bulgarian politician Nikola Petkov was hanged in Sofia’s central prison.

Petkov was a principal in a still-extant peasant party that briefly held state power in Bulgaria in the early 1920s.

His anti-fascist activities did him no favors as Bulgaria’s aligned with the Axis, and he spent the war touring his country’s internment camps.

The anti-fascist Fatherland Front that Petkov co-founded — allying with the Communist party in what would prove to be a Faustian bargain — had become the government by the end of the war, with Petkov in a ministerial role.

Unfortunately for Petkov, greater ministers of greater states were even then carving up spheres of influence in the postwar world. In the process, the Bulgarian statesman would get carved right out.

Here’s the blog of this critically acclaimed novel’s author.

With Bulgaria slated for the Soviet bloc and all its scary political purges, the Fatherland Front was soon controlled by the Communists. Petkov mounted brave but futile opposition as a Member of Parliament — until he was arrested in the parliament building itself, an apt image for Bulgaria’s entrance onto the Cold War chessboard as a red pawn.

The show trial and resultant death sentence “for having tried to overthrow the legal authority and restore Fascism in the country by conspiring with military organisations” briefly exercised western diplomats filing appeals and high-minded talk about justice during the summer of 1947.

Which stuff earned the derision of Bulgarian Premier Georgi Dimitrov, so Soviet-aligned that he was a Soviet citizen.

In this menacing speech to the Social Democrats the next January, his Don’t-Mess-With-TexasBulgaria umbrage at outside actors for having the temerity to object stands in ironic contrast to Dimitrov’s own history as a prewar international cause celebreback when he was unjustly accused in Nazi Germany for the Reichstag Fire.

So sauce for the goose-stepper is sauce for the dialectical materialist?

Negatory.

As you remember from this rostrum I many times warned your political allies from Nikola Petkov’s group. They did not listen to me. They took no notice of all my warnings. They broke their heads, and their leader is now under the ground. You should now think it over, lest you share their fate … When the trial against Nikola Petkov began you said “The court will not dare to sentence him to death. It would be too horrible. Both Washington and London will rise against it in order to stop it.” I said then: “Nobody can stop it. Those who may try to intervene from abroad will only worsen the position of the accused and his friends.’ What happened? What I said would happen. The court fulfilled its role, fulfilled the will of the people and sentenced the traitor to death.

Then you said: “If they execute the death sentence, the glass of patience will overflow. The whole world will rise against it, and all its wrath will fall on the back of the Bulgarian people.”

Of course, if there had been no interference from abroad, if they had not tried to dictate to the sovereign court, the head of Petkov could have been saved Yes, it could have been saved. His death sentence could have been commuted to another sentence. But when they tried to blackmail the Bulgarian people and question the authority of a sovereign court, it became necessary for the death sentence to be executed. And it was executed.

What happened then? Who rose against it in the country? Where were the demonstrations, the mutinies with which we were threatened? Nothing like that happened.

And what happened abroad? Not even decent diplomatic notes were delivered, which could have been expected. No one raised a hand in defense of Petkov. Some people in the West shouted for a while, but soon quietened (sic) down … The whole incident was soon forgotten.

The Balkans In Our Time

Hard to say Dimitrov was wrong about that: just one week after Petkov’s execution, the United States officially recognized a Bulgarian state dedicated (so the U.S. State Department had only just declared) “to remov[ing] all save a purely nominal opposition and to consolidat[ing], despite its professions to the contrary, a totalitarian form of government.”

“To a dog, a dog’s death,” sneered the official trade union council about Petkov — a taunt liberally repeated by Radio Sofia.

The “dog” was posthumously rehabilitated in 1990, and now has the requisite post-Soviet public monuments.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Treason

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1947: The avatar of Doctor Wonder

1 comment July 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1947, according to the modern mystical sect of Daheshism, the eponymous founder Dahesh was shot as a spy at the Iran-Azerbaijan frontier — only to reappear perfectly alive in his native Lebanon.

Not that Dr. Wonder.

This Dr. Wonder:

Now, every theology looks like mummery to an outsider practically by definition, and far be it from Executed Today to impugn anyone’s spiritual truth. But: you might want to strap yourself in for Dahesh.

Born Salim Moussa Achi, “le docteur Dahesh” — “a Franco-Arabic amalgam that translates as ‘Dr. Wonder'” — made his unusual name in Beirut in the 1930’s and 1940’s “for his mesmeric gaze, the sway he held over some highly placed Lebanese (especially women), and his propensity for performing Houdini-like ‘wonders’ — including transmuting strips of paper into banknotes, appearing and disappearing at will, removing his head before retiring, and summoning spirits.”

Expelled from Lebanon, he is supposed to have walked across Syria and Turkey to Azerbaijan,* been caught without papers in that dangerous neighborhood, and shortly thereafter executed as a suspected spy.

Next thing you know, he’s back in Beirut, ready to fulfill his destiny of dying in New York in 1984 as a collector of forgettable 19th century art. And also performing “thousands” of miracles revealing him to be the reincarnation of Jesus Christ, which we know for a fact because he never claimed to be Jesus.

Something like that. Finer points elided.

Daheshism today evidently claims a few thousand followers — including the wealthy Zahid family — and no centralized church-like entity. Its most prominent public billboard is New York’s Dahesh Museum, which houses the late Doc Wonder’s collection of the official French Academy art overthrown by impressionism.

And the miracle on this date in 1947?

Sure, you (o ye of little faith!) might think that he slipped back into Beirut and seized on the shooting of some poor undocumented schmo who happened to resemble him.

But actually, the trick was to swap places with one of your six celestial avatars, a race of real good sports about suffering martyrdom since that’s also what the “crucified” Jesus did.**


* The sourcing is mixed on whether “Azerbaijan” here should be considered the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic then a constituent of the USSR, or its neighboring Iranian region, also called Azerbaijan.

** In this, Daheshism echoes very longstanding mystical approaches to spirit/body dualism; some early Gnostic Christians seem to have believed that Christ was not flesh in the literal human sense, and therefore his apparent death was otherwise. The Koran also supports the notion that Christ did not die bodily.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Azerbaijan,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Iran,Known But To God,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Shot,The Supernatural,USSR

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1947: Shigematsu Sakaibara, “I obey with pleasure”

12 comments June 18th, 2009 Headsman

In the evening of June 18, 1947,* six convicted Japanese war criminals were hanged** by the U.S. Navy War Crimes Commission on Guam.


An unidentified Japanese prisoner ascends the gallows on Guam.

The most lastingly notable of the six was Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, who was hanged for ordering (and perhaps in one instance, personally conducting) an infamous mass execution on Wake Island that has already appeared in these pages.

According to Judgment at Tokyo:

For some, the hanging of one of these six men had been a horrible tragedy and perhaps even a mistake. Rear Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara had enjoyed the reputation of “gentleman soldier” and protector of the common man. Hailing from a wealthy family near Misawa in Tohokhu province, some 450 miles north of Tokyo, Sakaibara never forgot his roots. Forever poking fun at the fast-paced Tokyo lifestyle, the rear admiral touted the value of rural living, the integrity and honesty of those who lived in Japan’s rugged north country, and Tokyo’s need to recognize their great contributions to the war effort. Contemplating a postwar political future, he would be following in the footsteps of his politically influential family in northern Japan. That future was linked to championing the rights of returning veterans and other have-nots. Misawa had indeed had a heroic reputation as an important navy town and base for years. Sakaibara had assisted in the training exercises held there for the Pearl Harbor attack plan in late 1941. His future seemed golden no matter who won the war. But what some in his command called “The 1943 Incident” changed all that.


Shigematsu Sakaibara (right foreground) surrendering Wake Island on September 4, 1945.

These events, Sakaibara admitted in his trial, had taken place in an atmosphere of near starvation and impending doom. The defense counsel especially emphasized that point, asking the commission to understand and respect the pressures and strains on Sakaibara at the time of the incident. But the commission was not in a forgiving mood. In the chaos of retreat or not, innocent civilians had been murdered.

… Unfortunately for Sakaibara, several members of his former command expressed surprise on the witness stand when asked about the desperate situation on Wake in 1943. These men insisted that Sakaibara and his defense team’s description of a starving, chaotic Wake was an exaggerated one. There had been no unexpected miseries, confusion, or sense of peril, they said. Sakaibara’s fate was sealed.

True to form, defendant Sakaibara offered a very literate final statement to the commission. In contrast to so many of his colleagues on trial in Tokyo, on Guam, or elsewhere, Sakaibara, albeit with carefully picked words, admitted he was guilty of rash and unfortunate actions. He appeared especially convincing when he noted that he wished he had never heard of Wake Island. But his most memorable comments involved his own view of morality in war. A nation that drops atom bombs on major cities, the rear admiral explained, did not have the moral authority to try so many of his countrymen. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind, Sakaibara claimed there was little difference between himself and the victors over Japan. With that statement a legend grew, particularly in his home town, of Sakaibara, the victim of American revenge.

… As late as the 1990s, some people there, not necessarily of the World War II generation, still bowed in reverence to Sakaibara family members out of respect for the “sacrificed” gentleman soldier.

His last words:

I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure.

* Some sources places the executions on June 19; the U.P. wire story, dated June 19th, referred to the hangings occurring “last night,” and the preponderance of evidence I have been able to locate appears to me to support the 18th rather than the 19th.

** An interesting bit of interservice-rivalry color on proceedings in Guam, courtesy of Prisoners of the Japanese:

The United States Navy had hanged fewer than a handful of men in more than a hundred years … Now on Guam they had all kinds of Japanese to try and sentence to death … They had to requisition an Army executioner to show them how to hang. He was a lieutenant with silver-rimmed glasses, a leading-man moustache, and a paunch. He used the traditional British drop formula, but he was an innovator as well: He invented a method of lowering the dead body to the stretcher without having to cut the rope.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Famous Last Words,Guam,Hanged,History,Japan,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,USA,War Crimes,Wrongful Executions

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1947: Willie Francis, this time successfully

8 comments May 9th, 2009 Gilbert King

(Thanks to Gilbert King, author of The Execution of Willie Francis (book site), for the guest post, the second of two. Read the first here.)

On May 9, 1947, Willie Francis was executed in the same electric chair that he had walked away from a year and a week earlier, when a drunken prison guard and trustee bungled the wiring. Willie’s story had made front-page headlines around the country as the United States Supreme Court grappled with questions about what the State of Louisiana was permitted to do with regard to double jeopardy and cruel and unusual punishments.

One of the things that drew me to this story as I was working on my book, The Execution of Willie Francis, was the shroud of secrecy that surrounded the Willie Francis case.

Willie was accused and convicted of killing 53-year-old Andrew Thomas, a Cajun pharmacist who was something of a mystery to the people in the small town of St. Martinville, Louisiana. Thomas’ brother Claude was the town’s chief of police, and Willie was convicted by twelve Cajun jurors and sentenced to death by a Cajun judge. His court-appointed attorneys neither called nor cross examined any witnesses, and did not even make a case in defense of their 16-year-old client.

The prosecution based its entire case on a confession obtained while Willie was in police custody without the aid of a lawyer. In this confession, Willie wrote, “it was a secret about me and him,” which was never explained. It was obvious to me that there was more to Willie’s story than the version presented in trial and to the public.

In my research, I came across a photograph taken on the evening Willie had survived his own execution. He’d been brought back to his cell, and the sheriff allowed reporters and a photographer to visit with Willie, where he told them that death tasted “like peanut butter” and looked a lot “like shines in a rooster’s tail.” The photographer asked for a few pictures, and Willie, holding his dog-eared Bible, stood in front of a dull pink wall. The flash fired.

This picture was never used by any of the newspapers. There was a lot of glare on the wall, and the photographer had gotten a much better one of Willie smiling — the picture that ended up on the front page of many newspapers the next day. But there was some writing on the wall image that was barely legible. I scanned it onto my computer and ran it through Photoshop, adding contrast and burning and dodging until the words could be read. The handwriting matched Willie’s.


Detail of the enhanced photograph. Click for the full image.

Not surprisingly, the sheriff had testified under oath that Willie had confessed to killing Andrew Thomas in writing on the wall of his cell a month before he was scheduled to die in the chair. But the Sheriff had also taken Willie’s words out of context, reading only select portions of the writing, and mischaracterizing others. In fact, Willie Francis, just as he had when he wrote in his confession that “it was a secret about me and him,” alluded to something different than the robbery-turned killing prosecutors accused him of. Willie wrote, “Practically I killed Andrew by accident. It will happen once in a life time”

Only two people know the truth about that fateful confrontation at the house of the Cajun bachelor and the black teenager who once worked for him. Both are dead, and the official story does not ring true. Willie Francis never denied killing Andrew Thomas. But he disputed the prosecution’s accusation that he was trying to rob the pharmacist. “I wasn’t after money,” Willie insisted to a reporter before he went to the chair a second time. Yet he would never elaborate, and took whatever “secret” there was between him and Thomas to his grave.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1947: Ding Mocun, not as hot a lay in real life

Add comment July 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Ding Mocun was shot for “conspiring with a foreign government to overthrow China” in Shanghai by the Kuomintang.

This former Communist turned right-wing radical may be most readily recognizable outside China as the real-life inspiration behind Ang Lee’s steamy 2007 art-house menace to undergarments Lust, Caution.

Based on a story by Eileen Chang (or Zhang Ailing), Lust, Caution fictionalizes Mocun’s real-life escape from an attempted assassination in 1939.

That incident was authored by Ding’s young plaything, who turned out to have a very serious side indeed. (Ding had her shot.)

While the attempt on the turncoat spy’s life really happened, there’s some dispute over whether Chang really had this particular woman strongly in mind over the twenty-plus years she composed her story. There’s more about the evolution of the fictional story here, but you’ll need Chinese skills to follow the links to Chang’s evolving text.

At any rate, Ding’s actual death would come by order of a more august character: Chiang Kai-shek.

Why so many people out to get him?

Despite his nationalist credentials, when Ding lost a party struggle in 1938, he found a gig with the collaborationist government of Japanese-occupied China running a nasty intelligence unit that made nationalists and Communists disappear. That’s the sort of resume anyone would be touching up come the mid-1940’s, and Ding went with a revision (not widely credited, though it has its advocates) that he was secretly passing information to the nationalist resistance all along. And as the nationalists and Communists turned on one another in the postwar power vacuum, it looked like his usefulness to the Kuomintang might get him off the hook after all.

It worked for a while, but Chiang — or so goes the story — caught a tabloid expose about Ding catching R&R at a lake when he’d used a medical pass to get out of prison, and impulsively ordered him shot.

Perhaps Ding’s status as official evildoer vis-a-vis a China whose messy birth many are old enough to remember helps account for the resonance of literary works that engage him as a human being. In a nonfiction vein, Konrad Lawson’s layered critique of the pro-Ding apologia linked above thoughtfully evokes the complexity of Ding’s era and the challenges it poses for historiography.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Treason

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