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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1876: The samurai leaders of the Hagi and Akizuki rebellions

4 comments December 3rd, 2009 Headsman

Unless you’re a Jedi knight, feudal warrior castes and industrial civilization go together like sashimi and fries. So, when the Meiji Restoration made its choice for Japanese modernization, it gained the enmity of the samurai it necessarily dispossessed.

A news nishiki-e woodblock depicting the defeat of the Hagi Rebellion, with the conquering Miura Goro on horseback. (Click for a wider, three-panel image.) From here.

In many cases, said samurai were especially burned at having initially backed the restoration’s restoration of the emperor and attendant jingoistic sloganeering, only to find themselves on the outs as soon as the new government got its feet under it.

Over the 1870′s, the samurai caste was essentially abolished, and it lost its sword-toting privileges along with (come the advent of a new conscript army) its military import.

Small wonder that once-haughty military folk fought this unwelcome progress katana and wakizashi.

In 1876, the Shimpuren Rebellion helped spark sympathetic retrograde uprisings both named for their locations, Akizuki and Hagi. In all of these, the aggrieved samurai made desperate bids to reassert their lost position and reverse Japan’s westernization.

In all of these, they failed.

Leaders of both the Akizuki and Hagi Rebellions — Wikipedia gives it as two from the former (Masuda Shizukata and Imamura Hyakuhachiro) and seven from the latter (notably Maebara Issei) — were beheaded together this date in Fukuoka.

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2008: Michitoshi Kuma, “It can’t be undone now”

1 comment October 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2008, during a record-setting year for executions, Japan hanged Michitoshi Kuma, 70, and Masahiro Takashio, 55.

Michitoshi Kuma attracts our notice in particular not simply because he insisted throughout his trial and appeal that he was innocent of abducting and murdering two seven-year-olds in 1992 … but because the circumstantial evidence that convicted him was buttressed by a DNA testing regime that has fallen into disrepute.

One crucial piece of evidence against Kuma was the DNA samples taken from blood near the victims’ bodies. The samples were tested with DNA typing of the MCT118 locus.

The same method of testing was used in the case of the murder of a young girl in Ashikaga, Tochigi Prefecture, in 1990, known as the Ashikaga case. The test result was seen as crucial evidence in supporting the life sentence handed down to the accused, Toshikazu Sugaya.

However, the result was overturned when the DNA was tested again as part of the immediate appeal filed by Sugaya’s defense counsel after his request for a retrial was dismissed.

Sugaya, 62, was freed from prison on June 4, 17 years after police had arrested him.

“At first glance, DNA tests look scientific. That’s why it’s dangerous to have complete faith in them,” Iwata said.

“The tests were carried out in a particularly sloppy way in the early 1990s, when the Iizuka and Ashikaga cases occurred,” he said, adding that the Iizuka case likely was another example of a wrongful conviction.

“It can’t be undone now,” one of the defense lawyers lamented upon hearing of the hanging — conducted, as per usual in Japan, in secret and without prior notice to either the inmate or his attorneys.

The Ashikaga case, in which another prisoner convicted about the same time as Kuma and with the same DNA technology was exonerated and released a few months after Kuma’s hanging, embarrassingly reversed what had once been a signal judicial triumph for early DNA testing.

“The media treated the science as if it were invincible, like Atom Boy,” [one of Toshikazu Sugaya's attorneys] said sarcastically. “They just kept admiring the DNA judgment without reservations.”

The objections Sugaya’s exoneration prompted about Kuma’s conviction, of course, arrived a bit too late.

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