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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1612: John Selman, Christmas cutpurse

Add comment January 7th, 2012 Headsman

400th death-day congratulations go to John Selman, a brass-balled nimblefingers who was hanged on this date in 1612 for stealing … at Whitehall … on Christmas … in the presence of the king. And, Selman himself added in his scaffold confessional, “in the time of divine Service, and the celebration of the Sacred Communion.” That’s like hitting for Stuart England’s malefaction cycle.

This common thief had tried to blend among the ermine-clad set at church with a black-velvet cloak getup, but drawn enough suspicion to be nabbed with a 40-shilling purse he’d brazenly boosted from a nobleman‘s retainer.

Francis Bacon, one of Selman’s judges, affected a suitably hyperbolic indignation at the effrontery of it all: “The first and greatest sinne that ever was committed was done in Heaven. The second was done in Paadise, being Heaven upon Earth, and truly I cannot chuse but place this in the third ranke.” Tens of thousands of human beings in the judge’s immediate ambit — England, Europe — had been slaughtering one another to the glory of God for the past century when Bacon said that. He’d surely give Nancy Grace a run for her money.

Then as now crime moved copy, and if the realm’s lord magistrates were ready to measure this guy up against Beelzebub, one can readily imagine the woodblock tweets he sent a-flying among the hoi polloi. Selman’s audacious escapade relieved his last days’ dread with the gift of celebrity. Writers scrambled to churn out Selman-tinged copy, like these inevitable ballads.

With hands and eyes to heaven,
all did in reverence stand:
While I in mischife used mine eye,
and my accursed hand,
Now was my mischiefe ripe.
my villanyes full growne,
And now the God in secret knew it.
did make it open knowne.

Hopefully God got a cut of the action from these writers. Talk about a Christmas gift for a scribe.

No less a personage than Ben Jonson hastily wrote Selman into his Twelfth Night masque Love Restored as “the Christmas Cutpurse”: this debuted the same night the real Selman made his last peace with God and man awaiting the next day’s hanging on the road to Charing Cross. (After all this Christmas reverence, they piously held off on the hanging until the full twelve days of Christmas had elapsed.)

Selman’s 15 minutes apparently took years to run, because Jonson went back to the same inspiration for 1614’s Bartholomew Fair — perhaps basing the character of Ezekiel Edgworth on Selman.

At playes and at sermons and at the Sessions,
‘Tis daily their practice such booty to make;
Yea under the gallows, at executions,
They stick not the stare-abouts’ purses to take;
Nay, one without grace, at a better place,
At Court, and in Christmas, before the Kings face.
Alack then for pitty! must I bear the curse,
That only belongs to the cunning Cut-purse?
Youth, youth you hadst better been starv’d by thy nurse,
Than live to be hang’d for cutting as purse.

“A Caveat for Cutpurses” from Bartholomew Fair

Jonson sure got that right: under Selman’s own gallows-tree this day, “one of his quality (a picke-pocket I meane) even at his execution, grew master of a true mans purse, who being presently taken, was imprisoned, and is like the next sessions to wander the long voiage after his grand Captaine Mounsier Iohn Selman.”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Scandal,Theft

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1941: Eight Russian POWs at Flossenburg

1 comment December 24th, 2011 Headsman

Seventy years ago today, eight unknown Russians — prisoners of the Wehrmacht’s ultimately self-defeating thrust into the Soviet Union — hanged at Flossenburg concentration camp.

By way of a moving 1995 New York Times article, these anonymous Red Army men give us a glimpse at the world of the pink triangle.

Between 10,000 and 15,000 homosexuals may have been incarcerated in the camps, Dr. [Klaus] Mulller said, out of approximately 100,000 men who were arrested under Paragraph 175 of the German criminal code, which called for the imprisonment of any “male who commits lewd and lascivious acts with another male.” (The law was silent on lesbianism, although individual instances of persecutions of lesbians have been recorded.)

Perhaps 60 percent of those in the camps died, Dr. Muller said, meaning that even in 1945, there may have been only 4,000 survivors. Today, Dr. Mliller knows of fewer than 15.

Their travails did not end at liberation. They were still officially regarded as criminals, rather than as political prisoners, since Paragraph 175 remained in force in West Germany until 1969. They were denied reparations and the years they spent in the camps were deducted from their pensions. Some survivors were even jailed again.

Old enough to be grandfathers and great-grandfathers, the survivors scarcely courted attention as homosexuals, having learned all too well the perils of notoriety. “It is not easy to tell a story you were forced to hide for 50 years,” Dr. Mullers said.

One of the first men to break his silence was the anonymous “Prisoner X. Y.,” who furnished a vividly detailed account of life as a homosexual inmate in the 1972 book, The Men With the Pink Triangle, by Heinz Heger, which was reissued last year by Alyson Publications.

By a coincidence that still astonishes him, Dr. Muller said, Prisoner X. Y. — “the best documented homosexual inmate of a camp” — turned out to be Mr. [Josef] Kohout.


The Men With the Pink Triangle inspired the play Bent, later made into a motion picture.

After his arrest in 1939, Mr. Kohout was taken to the Sachsenhausen camp and served at the Klinker brickworks, which he called “the ‘Auschwitz’ for homosexuals.” Prisoners who were not beaten to death could easily be killed by heavy carts barreling down the steep incline of the clay pits.

In 1940, he was transferred to Flossenburg. On Christmas Eve 1941 inmates were made to sing carols in front at a 30-foot-high Christmas tree on the parade ground. Flanking it were gallows from which eight Russian prisoners had been hanging since morning. “Whenever I hear a carol sung –no matter how beautifully — I remember the Christmas tree at Flossenburg with its grisly ‘decorations,’ ” he wrote.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Known But To God,No Formal Charge,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Russia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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Feast Day of St. Stephen

5 comments December 26th, 2009 Headsman

The day after Christmas — or the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, in a more traditional coinage — is the feast of St. Stephen.*

St. Stephen is well-known as the “protomartyr”, the first Christian to die for his faith. (Jesus doesn’t count.) There’s a St. Stephen’s Gate in Jerusalem so named for its supposed proximity to the site of the protomartyrdom.

We get the Stephen story from the New Testament Acts of the Apostles, as given in this from the Tyndale-derived King James Version (Acts 6:8 – 8:3)

And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.

Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God. And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council, and set up false witnesses, which said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law: For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us. And all that sat in the council, looking stedfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.

Then said the high priest, Are these things so? … [elided; Stephen preaches on at great length before he comes to the point]

Howbeit the most High dwelleth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet, Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord: or what is the place of my rest? Hath not my hand made all these things?

Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.

When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.

But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.

And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

As for Saul, he made havock of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison.

The persecuting “Saul” at the end of this text is, of course, Saul of Tarsus, the future St. Paul.

Here’s a set of Catholic devotionals for the day, and here’s a more secular vibe on the day’s various quirky Anglo traditions.

As for that song …

Good King Wencesla(u)s, a tenth-century Bohemian ruler, is himself a saint — the patron saint of the Czechs, as a matter of fact.

Wenceslas was murdered in a palace coup, supposedly leading his servant Podevin to avenge that death, for which said Podevin was in turn executed. The lyrics of the song “Good King Wenceslas” celebrate the king and his loyal page undertaking together the charitable works they were famous for.

“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”

In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.

* At least, it’s the Feast of St. Stephen in the Latin rite. The occasion is observed on Dec. 27 in the Orthodox tradition.

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1928: Marshall Ratliff lynched for the Santa Claus Bank Robbery

19 comments November 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1928, the man whose disguise christened one of the most bizarre crimes in Texas’s colorful history was lynched behind a theater … producing “The Noose”.

The Santa Claus Bank Robbery was, in the words of one columnist present for the affair,

the most spectacular crime in the history of the Southwest … surpassing any in which Billy the Kid or the James boys had ever figured.

The story begins on December 23, 1927, in the town of Cisco, where a genial man dressed as Saint Nick strolled down the main drag dandling playful children en route to the First National Bank.

Santa — Marshall Ratliff — and three accomplices then conducted one of the most inept bank robberies in that craft’s ample stock of ineptitude.

A general gun battle erupted during the robbery, owing to the general citizenry being armed, and a standing reward available from the bank association for shooting a bank robber in the act. When the quartet finally fought their way to the getaway car — killing two cops in the process — they realized it was almost out of gas.

After a few days’ dodging a manhunt, everyone was rounded up, one of them in corpse form. Two of the surviving three drew death sentences, and Henry Helms sat in the Lonestar State’s electric chair on September 6, 1929.

But Kris Kringle — er, Ratliff — had his execution delayed by a sanity hearing that brought him back to Eastland County, where he feigned illness and killed a guard in an abortive escape attempt. The good folk decided they’d had about enough of due process.

Quoth a newspaper report of the day (reproduced in A.C. Greene’s book on the case):

All yesterday afternoon they gathered in little groups about the town and muttered about [the guard] Jones’ shooting which physicians said probably would prove fatal. Last night a crowd in front of the jail swelled to nearly a thousand at 8:30 o’clock.

At about 9 o’clock, some 200 men slipped into a side door of the jail and asked for the man. Jailer Gilborn refused to give him up. They overpowered Gilborn, took his keys and got Ratliff.

… He was dragged in the direction of the public square, but the crowd would not wait to go those few blocks.

At 200 yards from the jail a strong telephone cable was pointed out, a rope flung across it. A noose was put around Ratliff’s neck, a dozen men on the other end of the rope bent their weight, and Ratliff was jerked from the ground.

The rope broke. Messengers were sent for another, and again the mob set to its task. Then someone remembered that men about to die are usually given a chance to say a last word. For another moment he was lowered to the ground, but, displeased at his mumbling, the crowd yelled, “String him up!”

Part of the Themed Set: The “Ex” Stands For “Extrajudicial”.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Lynching,Murder,Texas,Theft,USA

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