1945: 8 American flyers at Fukuoka

13 comments June 20th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945 — morning after a devastating U.S. air raid that destroyed much of Fukuoka — eight previously-captured American airmen* were summarily executed there in retaliation.

In a precedent that dated back to the Doolittle raids, Japan officially considered as a prospective war criminal any enemy airman who could be connected to indiscriminate bombing. Tokyo didn’t follow this logic to the point of executing all downed Americans — indeed, late in the war, beleaguered Japanese civilians became increasingly hostile towards the government for allowing excess legalism to stand in the way of exacting some satisfying revenge for the cities burning under American bombs — but it did execute some, and it had sanctioned legal theorems that could have accommodated quite a bit more bloodletting.

Finding Tokyo short of prison space, the government ordered on May 1, 1945, that the various armies should no longer send to the capital any downed airmen they captured. In the chaos of the war’s last months, this would create the context for local commanders at the Western Military District in Fukuoka to put those legal theorems to seriously nasty use.

Four captured airmen held in Fukuoka were stuck in an indeterminate judicial process which the army realized was going nowhere slowly. The others were just plain underfoot. Over the period of May-June, between a couple of ambiguously-worded orders and the officers’ annoyance at having to divert scarce resources to these captives, an understanding formed if “the air raids increased and conditions became more chaotic, the prisoners would be executed without a trial.”

Well, as U.S. papers exultantly reported on June 20,

About 3,000 tons of … incendiary bombs … were released by the B-24s from low level starting about three a.m. … The three cities [Fukuoka, Toyotashi and Shizuoka] were tasting for the first time the bitter flames of war, roaring over factories, shops and thousands of congested homes.

Timothy Lang Francis, whose “‘To Dispose of the Prisoners’: The Japanese Executions of American Aircrew at Fukuoka, Japan, during 1945″ from the November 1997 Pacific Historical Review traces the confluence of factors that made possible this day’s executions, describes the fate that was unfolding for Fukuoka’s eight captive airmen at about the same time those words were going to press.

All were blindfolded and had their hands tied in front. Several swords were obtained from the Legal Section. [Yusei] Wako** then told the twenty or so assembled Japanese that, “in compliance with the Commanding General†’s orders, we were going to execute the plane crash survivors.” One officer, Lt. Michio Ikeda of the Medical Section, volunteered himself, and Wako ordered Probationary Officer Tamotsu Onishi, since he was skilled in kendo, to assist him as a third executioner. Sato watched the proceedings from one side.

The first flyer was brought to the edge of the pit and made to sit on his haunches. Wako then ritually washed one of the swords and stood behind the prisoner, slightly to the left. Raising the sword above his right shoulder with both hands, Wako brought it down on the flyer’s neck. “Both the body and head fell into the pit,” remembered Wako; “I washed my sword and ordered the guard to bring another flyer to the pit. I killed this flyer exactly the same way I had killed the first one.” Onishi then executed a third prisoner in the same manner.

In the pause that followed, Lt. Kentaro Toji, an officer attached to Western Army Headquarters, approached Sato. According to his pretrial affidavit, Toji said to Sato, “My mother was killed in the air raid on Fukuoka this morning, and I think it would be fitting that I be the one who execute these American flyers.” Sato told him to wait while Wako ordered Ikeda to execute the fourth flyer. Toji, after borrowing a sword from Onishi, beheaded the last four prisoners. The pit was then filled with dirt.

This is all well and good, but Tokyo’s orders to its armies had been to do the juridical legwork on these cases themselves — and not just to summarily kill prisoners. So, in a bit of ex post facto bureaucratic butt-covering, the Western District Army’s legal section proceeded to close the matter by shipping the central government a report saying that all these prisoners had been killed during the previous night’s air raid. Problem solved!

No known direct connection to this particular atrocity, but there’s a recent documentary about an elderly Japanese man who used to serve at Fukuoka that looks worth the watching.

* Six of the eight were Robert J. Aspinall, Merlin R. Calvin, Jack V. Dengler, Otto W. Baumgarten, Edgar L. McElfresh, and Ralph S. Romines. The other two remain unidentified. These eight were, maybe, the lucky ones: Fukuoka had had 16 prisoners from downed bombers, but the other eight weren’t around to be beheaded because they’d previously been given over to the local hospital to suffer ghastly deaths in vivisection experiments.

** A Judge Advocate who had also been involved in the Doolittle trials.

† Gen. Isamu Yokoyama. When he’d been briefed prior to the June 19 raid that the army was fixing to just dispose of its prisoners if it came to that, Yokoyama had done the Pontius Pilate act and informed Wako, “I have decided to concern myself only with the decisive battle and hereafter do not bother me with the problem of the flyers.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Bludgeoned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Hostages,Japan,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Soldiers,Summary Executions,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1942: Three Doolittle raiders

2 comments October 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1942, three captured American airmen who had bombed Japan in the Doolittle Raid were shot in Tokyo.

The Doolittle Raid — named for its commander, Jimmy Doolittle — was America’s April 1942 retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor a few months before.

The mission: bomb the Japanese homeland.

Later in the war, American advances in the Pacific would enable the Yankee to do this regularly. In 1942, it was all but a suicide mission.

The plan involved launching 16 B-25s from an aircraft carrier — an unprecedented feat in itself — to fly light with arms and heavy with fuel to just make it 400 miles to Honshu, and with any luck on to China before the tanks ran dry.

Considering that the bombers had to launch in a panic when the carrier group was spotted a couple hundred miles too early, the raid’s success was downright miraculous: all 16 bombers made it on to (or near enough) the mainland without being shot down, where the crews bailed out and, for the most part, escaped to allied forces. Jimmy Doolittle would title his autobiography I Could Never Be So Lucky Again.

But not all were quite as lucky as Lt. Col. (later, General) Doolittle.

Farrow (left) and Hallmark. Spatz was a member of Farrow’s crew, and is pictured center in that plane’s crew shot here.

Two (out of eighty) drowned when their ride was ditched in the drink. Eight others were captured by the Japanese.

Four of those eight captives would survive the war to tell the tale. A fifth died in captivity. And the other three — pilots William Farrow and Dean Edward Hallmark, and (for somewhat unclear reasons) gunner Harold Spatz — were shot this day in a Shanghai cemetery following a sketchy military trial which condemned them for hitting civilian targets.

Designed largely for its psychological effect, the morale-boosting Doolittle raid has attracted interest from countless other sources who treat it in greater depth. DoolittleRaid.com and DoolittleRaider.com both provide detailed online information about the raid.

For more traditional media, one could do worse than bomber pilot Ted Lawson’s book, and its subsequent propaganda film adaptation, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Shot,Soldiers,Torture,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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