1967: The Asaba Massacre

Add comment October 7th, 2018 Headsman

The Asaba Massacre during Nigeria’s Biafran War culminated on this date in 1967 with a horrific mass execution.

Nigeria had attained independence in 1960 but still carried the legacy of its many decades under British control. Notably, the borders bequeathed to Nigeria amalgamate a coastal, Christian population in the south to an inland, Muslim population in the north — a fissure that continues to shape Nigeria down to the present day.

The ethnicity of interest for this post is the Igbo, one of those southern and Christian populations, and also a people who had been ethnically cleansed from the north in 1966 after an exchange of Christian and Mulim coups brought Nigeria to the brink of disintegration. Their homeland in southeast Nigeria — historically known as Igboland, and called Eastern Region within Nigeria — would become from May 30, 1967 the breakaway state of Biafra.

Biafra’s bid for independence triggered a devastating war with the Nigerian federal government. By the time that it ended in early 1970, perhaps as many as two million Biafrans were dead from mass starvation.

Asaba, where our massacre takes place, is a predominantly Igbo city on the western (non-Biafran) shore of the Niger River, opposite the Biafran eastern shore city Onitsha.

In the war’s opening weeks, Biafran forces actually struck out from their homeland and into Nigeria proper, crossing the Niger River. They would re-cross it in the opposite direction days before this massacre, taking bridges from Asaba to Onitsha and then cutting those bridges to frustrate the federal troops pursuing them.

Federal soldiers reaching Asaba in the first days of October took out that frustration on the city’s Igbo population, whom they robbed and abused as rebel sympathizers. Murders/summary executions for several days together comprise the Asaba Massacre of Massacres … but the single most emblematic and traumatic event took place on Saturday the 7th.

On October 4-6, soldiers occupied the town, and some began killing boys and men, accusing them of being Biafran sympathizers. On October 7, Asaba leaders met, and then summoned everyone to gather, dancing and singing to welcome the troops, and offering a pledge to One Nigeria. People were encouraged to wear akwa ocha, the ceremonial white, embroidered clothing that signifies peace, hoping that this strategy would end the violence. Although there was much trepidation, and some refused to participate, hundreds of men, women, and children assembled for the march, walking to the village square of Ogbeosewa, one of the five quarters of Asaba. Ify Uraih, then 13 years old, describes what happened when he joined the parade with his father and three older brothers, Paul, Emmanuel (Emma), and Gabriel:

There, they separated the men from the women … I looked around and saw machine-guns being mounted all around us … Some people broke loose and tried to run away. My brother was holding me by the hand; he released me and pushed me further into the crowd … They shot my brother in the back, he fell down, and I saw blood coming out of his body. And then the rest of us … just fell down on top of each other. And they continued shooting, and shooting, and shooting … I lost count of time, I don’t know how long it took … After some time there was silence. I stood up … my body was covered in blood, but I knew that I was safe. My father was lying not far away; his eyes were open but he was dead.

Exactly how many died is not clear; between 500 and 800 seems likely, in addition to many who died in the previous days. Most victims were buried in several mass graves, without observing requisite ceremonial practices. Along with his father, Uraih lost Emma and Paul; Gabriel was shot repeatedly, but recovered. The long-term impacts were profound; many extended families lost multiple breadwinners, and the town’s leadership was decimated. ()Source)

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1415: Lello Capocci, schism victim

1 comment October 7th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Lello Capocci was beheaded at Rome’s Capitoline Hill.

Capocci in a sense was a casualty at second remove of Europe’s “Western Schism”, the awkward 40-year era (here entering its twilight) when the Catholic world divided into two and then three rival papal claimants.

The Schism’s opening up in the first place owed a little to the viperous politics of Capocci’s Rome, to which ancient capital the papacy had in 1377 been returned from its Avignon exile by the last clearly legitimate pope, who then promptly died.

Having been deprived of the papacy for the best part of a century, the Roman populace raised a violent clamor for the College of Cardinals to anoint a Roman successor. (The Avignon popes had all been Frenchmen.)

In a confused conclave echoing with the din of a riot at the doors, the cardinals settled on the Archbishop of Bari, who was not one of their number,* as a compromise candidate whom the French cardinals could live with. This man, now dignified Urban VI, was an Italian … but not a Roman; he was, indeed, a subject of Rome’s resented neighbor Naples. He also turned out upon closer examination by the cardinals who elected him blindly to be a bit of a prick, when for instance “the very next day after his coronation he gave offence to many Bishops and Prelates, who were sojourning in Rome … When, after Vespers, they paid him their respects in the great Chapel of the Vatican he called them perjurers, because they had left their churches. A fortnight later, preaching in open consistory, he condemned the morals of the Cardinals and Prelates in such harsh and unmeasured terms, that all were deeply wounded.” (Source)

Piqued at this arriviste threatening them over their simoniacal predilections, the cardinals popped over the nearby town of Anagni and expressed their buyers’ regret by electing a different guy pope. This completely irregular action was justified by the curia on the grounds that the rude Roman mob had stampeded the initial decision.

So now you’ve got two guys, Urban VI and Clement VII (the latter resuming residence at Avignon, where much of the papal bureaucracy still stood) both claiming to be pope. In the official church history, Urban rates as the legitimate pope and Clement as the illegitimate antipope but this situation had no precedent: it was the very same body that had elected each man and, despite their mutual excommunications, there was no doctrinal controversy dividing them. Small wonder that it befuddled and infuriated contemporaries.

Once commenced, the two opposing “obediences” proved nigh impossible to reconcile and initiated rival successions — Urban giving way to Boniface IX, Innocent VII, and Gregory XII in Rome; Clement to Benedict XIII in Avignon. In 1409, a church council tried to resolve the schism by vacating the existing papal claims and naming Alexander V pope. Unfortunately, neither the Roman nor the Avignon claimant had signed up for the plan, so this blunder forked the schism into a third obedience.

And it is this moment that brings us in roundabout fashion to our man, a very minor figure from the standpoint of posterity: the Roman noble Lello Capocci (Italian link).

Locally in the Eternal City, the Avignon pope didn’t much feature but the Roman pope and the third guy (not the short-lived Alexander but his successor John XXIII**) were simultaneously rivals of one another, and (as would-be rulers of the church) rivals of the Neapolitan crown for power in Rome.

Although the Capoccis were traditionally adherents to the papal authority in this scrum, the Schism had finally come to its endgame in 1415 when the Council of Constance successfully deposed all the claimants to St. Peter’s throne.† The papacy would stand vacant for two years, although the cardinal legate of the fugitive John XXIII still governed unsteadily from the Castel Sant’Angelo — and it appears that amidst a disordered situation Capocci treated with the nearest potential guarantors of stability. (The short-lived but frightening-for-aristocrats popular revolution of Cola di Rienzi would still have been in living memory for a few old-timers.) He had his head cut off for attempting to betray the city to Naples, which would indeed regain sway in Rome … but not until a couple of years later.

* Nothing in canon law says the pope has to be a cardinal first, or even a member of the clergy, but that’s the way it works in practice now: Urban VI is still the most recent pope to have been selected from outside the College of Cardinals. (The Young Pope will be the next.)

** The antipope John XXIII — who refused to submit to the Council of Constance and “was brought back a prisoner: the most scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy, and incest” (Gibbon) — made the regnal name “John” radioactive for centuries of subsequent popes, notwithstanding its popularity among the laity; it was thought an adventurous choice in 1958 when a newly elected pontiff — a great reformer of the church, as it would prove — made bold enough to announce himself Pope John XXIII.

† We would be remiss on a site such as this not to add that this is also the council that invited under safe conduct, and then perfidiously condemned and burned, the Bohemian reformer/heretic Jan Hus.

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1989: Francis Minah, Vice President of Sierra Leone

Add comment October 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1989, Sierra Leone politician Francis Minah was hanged at Freetown’s Pademba Road Prison as a traitor.

He was a veteran minister of state under the country’s dictatorial first president Siaka Stevens — a reign recalled in Sierra Leone historiography as the “17-year plague of locusts” that looted the country and opened the path to its horrific civil war.

Nearing 80 years old in 1985, Stevens stepped down and handed power off to another officer as self-dealing and authoritarian as he, Joseph Saidu Momoh.

In early 1987, Momoh dramatically announced the discovery and defeat of an alleged coup attempt against him* and arrested his own Vice President Minah as its instigator. In a farcical trial — Minah denied his guilt to the last — Minah was convicted and death-sentenced with 15 other alleged participants. Most had their sentences commuted to prison terms, but Minah and five others all hanged on October 7, 1989.

* It was indeed Momoh’s fate to be deposed by his army: that happened in 1992.

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1546: The Fourteen of Meaux

Add comment October 7th, 2015 Headsman

If the execution of the “Fourteen of Meaux” falls far short of the massacre of the Vaudois as regards the number of its victims, its strictly judicial character makes it more instructive as an example of the treatment of heretics.

In the year 1546 the Reformers of Meaux organised themselves into a Church after the pattern of that set up by the French refugees at Strassburg eight years before. They chose as their first pastor, a wool-carder, named Pierre Leclerc, a brother of the man who was burnt at Metz.

Their number increased under his ministry, and the matter soon came to the ear of the authorities. On September 8 a sudden descent was made on the congregation, and sixty persons were arrested and sent to Paris to be tried by the Parliament. Their greatest crime was that they had celebrated the Holy Communion.

On October 4 sentence was pronounced. Fourteen were sentenced to be tortured and burned, five to be flogged and banished; ten, all women, were set free, while the remainder were to undergo graduated forms of penance. The sentences were carried out at Meaux on October 7.*

Etienne Mangin, in whose house the services had always been held, and Leclerc, were carried to the stake on hurdles, the rest on tumbrils. They had all previously undergone what was known as “extraordinary” torture, and all had refused to reveal the names of other Reformers at Meaux. At the stake six yielded so far as to confess to a priest, thereby escaping the penalty of having their tongues cut out; the others who remained firm suffered this additional barbarity, which it was the custom to inflict on those who died impenitent. The congregation at Meaux was thus broken up, but the survivors carried the evangelical seeds to other towns in France.

The “Fourteen of Meaux” were not the only victims of the year 1546. Five others had already been burned at Paris, including the scholar and printer Etienne Dolet. Others were burned in the provinces. The next year, 1547, opened with fresh executions; and on January 14 the mutilation of a statue of the Virgin was expiated by a solemn procession at Paris.

Such was the policy which Francis I began definitely to adopt towards Protestantism after the affair of the placards, and which he put into active execution during the last seven years of his life. How far was it successful? As we have seen, it drove a large number of persons into exile; and these consisted chiefly of the better-born and better-educated among the Reformers.

It intimidated many into outward conformity with the Church. It prevented all public exercise of the Reformed religion, and all open propaganda. Religious meetings were held by night or in cellars; doctrines were spread by secret house-to-house teaching, or by treatises concealed amongst the wares of pretended pedlars.

On the other hand the frequent executions helped to spread the evil they were meant to repress. The firm courage with which the victims faced death did as much as the purity of their lives to convert others to their faith. Moreover, the influence of the exiles reacted on their old homes. From Geneva to the other Swiss centres of Protestantism missionaries came to evangelise France.

The Cambridge Modern History, vol. 2

* There are some sources that aver Oct. 6, and it appears that the primary documents are not explicit on the exact date of execution. This Proceedings of the Huguenot Society collects a great deal of information about the Fourteen of Meaux and settles on Thursday, Oct. 7 (see fn 54, page 101 and fn 64, page 103) — in part because the Parlement also demanded that the heretical house be razed, with Catholic services to be held there every Thursday.

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1998: Jonathan Wayne Nobles

6 comments October 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1998, Jonathan Nobles was executed in Texas for a double murder — choked off by the lethal drugs as he sang the words “…sweetmother and child” in the Christmas hymn “Silent Night”.

On parole for theft, the drug-addled former electrician Nobles broke into an Austin home on September 13, 1986 wielding a 5.5-inch knife and turned it into a scene of carnage.

Nobles knifed to death two young women, 21-year-old Mitzi Nalley and 24-year-old Kelly Farquhar; when Mitzi’s boyfriend, Ron Ross, attempted to come to their aid, Nobles stabbed him 19 times. Ross survived but lost an eye in the attack.

Nobles confessed and was convicted with ease. This is very obviously not a happy story (few are, on this here site) because two innocent humans were destroyed in the bloom of youth, and a third paid for the crime with his own life. But the journey of redemption and forgiveness undertaken thereafter by both Nobles and at least some of those whose lives he devastated cannot help but inspire.*

The Nobles of death row — the man who was finally executed, 12 years after the crime — was at the last a hard man to hate. He converted on death row to Catholicism, eventually becoming a lay preacher. Murder, of course, is such a great crime because in the end the loss is eternal and can never really be repaired or compensated. Nevertheless, it was clear to all those who knew him that Nobles’s remorse, his change, was deep and genuine.

“I don’t think I’m the monster who perpetrated these terrible acts,” Nobles said not long before his execution. “Nothing I can do for a thousand years can relieve me of my responsibility.”

Mitzi Nalley’s mother, Paula Kurland, made an even more dramatic journey from the other side of that horrible night in Austin. Kurland decided that she needed to forgive her daughter’s killer in order to release the bitterness of his crime.

“You forgive because it frees you,” she said. “Hopefully, one day, it will free the offender, but that’s not the reason you do it. You do it because it frees you.”

Kurland eventually met Nobles face to face — “the hardest thing I ever did, second only to burying my child.”

I went against my whole family, but I knew that if I didn’t tell Jonathan I had forgiven him, I would be a prisoner for the rest of my life. And I couldn’t live with that. …

I never wanted to ask him why. That was never important to me. What was important was that I have the opportunity to give him back the responsibility for the devastation and pain and destruction that he brought into a lot of people’s lives.

The singer-songwriter (and longtime anti-death penalty activist) Steve Earle, who befriended Nobles, was one of the witnesses to his execution.** Earle quoted his friend’s last statement, addressing most of those present by name, thus:

I know some of you won’t believe me, but I am truly sorry for what I have done. I wish that I could undo what happened back then and bring back your loved ones, but I can’t. [to Paula Kurland] I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I wish I could bring her back to you. [to Ron Ross] And Ron … I took so much from you. I’m sorry. I know you probably don’t want my love, but you have it.

[to Steve Earle] Steve, I can’t believe that I had to go through all this to see you in a suit coat. Hey man, don’t worry about the phone number, bro. You’ve done so much. I love you. [to his own aunt] Dona, thank you for being here. I know it was hard for you. I love you. [to a British pen pal] Pam, thank you for coming from so far away. Thanks for all you have done. I love you. Bishop Carmody, thank you so much. Reverend Lopez and you, Father Walsh, I love you all. I have something I want to say. It comes from I Corinthians. …

The verse he then recited from memory, the “love is …” passage of 1 Corinthians 13, is all that’s reported on Texas’s “last statements” website.

Earle’s song “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)” is inspired by Jonathan Nobles.

* These attempts by both offender and victim to alleviate the spiritual injury inflicted by the crime exemplify restorative justice, an approach to crime and justice that emphasizes healing over punishment.

** “I don’t think I’ll ever recover from [seeing Nobles executed]. I have absolute waking nightmares about it.” –Earle

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1536: Sebastiano de Montecuccoli, poisoner of the heir?

Add comment October 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Italian nobleman Sebastiano de Montecuccoli was torn apart at the Place de la Grenette in Lyons for poisoning the dauphin Francis, heir to the French throne.

Sebastiano de Montecuccoli was a knight from Ferrara who had arrived in France in the train of the Catherine de’ Medici when she was married off to the no. 2 French prince Henri. He was fast friends with the royal princes, but his proximity to the family horribly turned against him when the 18-year-old Francis played a game of tennis, then caught ill and dropped dead. The last thing poor Francis had done was ask Montecuccoli for a glass of water.

In an era of forensics-by-guesswork, a sudden and unexplained death inevitably drew suspicions of poison — all the more so in a France gone security bonkers in the wake of the Affair of the Placards.

So just was in that glass of “water,” eh?

Sebastiano, upon his arrest, was found to possess a tome of poisons. This was a common enough interest among his class. (Catherine de’ Medici also had an interest in poison.) Nevertheless, it was great material for tunnel-vision investigators, and the young Italian soon provided a corroborating self-incrimination under torture: Sebastiano had offed the crown prince on orders from France’s longtime rival Charles V, who also just happened to be fighting a war with France over the duchy of Milan at that very moment.

Sebastiano attempted to recant this confession once he was off the rack, but to no avail. Many 16th century contemporaries could descry the eventual consensus of posterity that Sebastiano was a naif, and not an assassin. (Francis likely died from a disease.) Less generous by far was the judgment of the Lyonnaise citizenry who fell upon and ravaged Sebastiano’s body after it had been torn apart by horses.

Thanks to the unexpected death of the heir that triggered this horrible punishment, Francis’s brother Henri advanced to the crown prince seat and eventually became Henri II of France (until Henri’s own unfortunate sporting mishap) … and that Italian bride Catherine de’ Medici became Queen of France.

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1898: Alfred C. Williams

Add comment October 7th, 2012 Robert Wilhelm

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm, author of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. -ed.)

When Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo, his conviction seemed highly unlikely. There appeared to be no direct link between Williams and Gallo. There was no absolute proof that Gallo had been murdered, or even that he was dead. But in this case, circumstantial evidence, rather than increasing doubt, actually succeeded in dispelling doubt, bringing investigators closer to the truth and drawing the noose ever tighter around Alfred Williams’s neck.

John Gallo was a young Italian immigrant who worked on a farm in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. He was industrious and popular with the other workers, but kept to himself and very seldom left the farm. Gallo lived alone in a small shack in the rear of the farm. In the early hours of July 28, 1897, the shack caught fire and burned with flames so high they could be seen in neighboring towns. The shack was leveled, leaving nothing but ashes and the charred remains of a body, so badly burned that it could not be identified.

The body was so charred that it took two examinations to verify that it was, in fact, the body of a human. The head and neck were gone, both arms and both legs had been completely consumed, bone and all, by the fire. The spinal column remained with some back muscle attached; the heart, liver, kidneys, and bladders remained, but were badly burned. Everything else was completely gone. The medical examiner could state that the body was that of an adult human being, but nothing more.

With the destruction so complete, it appeared to investigators that nothing could be learned to explain what had happened that night. But as the investigation progressed, details began to emerge, like an image developing on a photographic plate. The fact that there was too little information became a clue in itself, and soon investigators were able to compile a list of facts that pointed to foul play:

  1. The body had been destroyed to a greater extent than would be expected from a fire in such a small building.
  2. The deceased had not been burned in bed. The bedsprings had survived the blaze but the body was found several feet away.
  3. The victim had not been dressed. Some buckles, metal buttons, a few coins and the clasp of a pocketbook were found by the side of the bedsprings, none were found near the body.
  4. The body lay in the doorway between rooms with the head back in the room toward the bed, not falling forward as a person naturally would if trying to escape from a burning room.
  5. A kerosene-oil can, which was usually kept near the stove, was found in the middle of the floor
    next to the body.

It was believed that the victim had been murdered before the fire started. His body was doused with kerosene and ignited, which would account for the severe damage to the body. The flame then quickly spread to the rest of the house.

John Gallo had earned $1.50 a day at Phillips’s farm and was paid monthly, always in five dollar bills. He spent very little and at the time of his death, it was suspected that he had around one hundred dollars earned on the farm. It was also well known that Gallo always carried three twenty dollar gold pieces that he had earned on a construction job prior to coming to the farm. No trace of the gold pieces or any melted gold were found.

Another crime had allegedly been committed near Lynnfield in the early morning of July 28. That afternoon, Alfred C. Williams reported that he had been held up near his rooming house in Wakefield. He had been unable to sleep and went outside to smoke a cigar. As he stood with one foot on the rail fence by the road, someone struck him on the head from behind. He turned to fight back, striking his assailant on the nose causing it to bleed. He was knocked unconscious, robbed of his watch and a small amount of money, and then thrown down the banks of Wakefield Pond.

He told his story to the police, showing them bruises on his neck and face from the fight, and bloodstains on his clothing from the assailant’s nose. The officers were skeptical of his story and held Williams for questioning. Unlike most holdups, Williams apparently had more money in his possession after the crime than he did before. On July 27, Williams had not had enough money to buy a meal or even pay a five-cent streetcar fare. The morning of July 28, he paid his back board bill and made some purchases. The police found seventy-five dollars, in five dollar bills, on his person.

The police learned that Williams had previously worked as a laborer on Phillips farm and knew the habits of the deceased. They searched Williams’s room and under the carpet, they found two twenty dollar gold pieces. When Williams was told where they found the coins he responded, “I know, I put them there.” They also found a bloodstained coat and vest in his room. Alfred C. Williams was arrested for the murder of John Gallo.

At the trial, the prosecution presented a case against Williams that was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. While there was nothing to directly link Williams to the fire, his familiarity with Gallo’s habits, his possession of money — including gold pieces — the day after the fire, the bloody clothing, and Williams’s inconsistent stories, taken all together were incriminating.

The defense challenged the very core of the evidence. There was no proof that the body found in the ashes was John Gallo’s; it could not be proven that a murder was committed or that the fire was not started accidentally; there was no proof that Alfred Williams was anywhere near the fire that night. But Williams was sticking to the story that he was held up on the night of July 28, so his alibi was also a matter of circumstantial evidence, and no one seemed willing to believe it. The jury deliberated for six hours before returning a verdict of guilty, first degree murder.

Alfred C. Williams was hanged in the yard of Salem jail on October 7, 1898. It was not a public hanging; the sheriff issued a few invitations, but only for the purpose of providing legal witnesses. Williams’s arms and legs were bound and his head was covered as he stood on the gallows. At 10:01 a.m. the trap was sprung and Williams dropped six feet, one inch. His neck was broken and he died within seconds. Williams professed innocence to the end.

Get Murder and Mayhem in Essex County here.

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1924: Frank Johnson, the first electrocuted in Florida

1 comment October 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1924, “colored male” Frank Johnson was electrocuted in Florida.

He was, in fact, the very first to die in the Sunshine State’s electric chair.


The original Florida electric chair.

“Old Sparky” (numerous electric chairs shared this nickname) was brand new here in the Roaring Twenties, a jerry-built contraption outfitted with “homemade accessories” to replace the icky old gallows with a brave new world’s brave new mankiller.


Top: a scantily-detailed penitentiary “personnel card” for Frank Johnson. Middle: details of the execution. Bottom: Florida’s official typed list of its early executions.

All images are from this Florida Department of Corrections page.

This same furniture that killed Johnson would ultimately take the lives of 265 men and one woman — notables from Giuseppe Zangara to Ted Bundy, milestones like John Spenkelink, and scores of strange and forgotten perps among them.

Notoriously error-prone by the end of its run, the device was finally replaced in 1999.

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2007: Five women in Hoiryeong Public Stadium

Add comment October 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 2007, according to the Daily NK, five women were publicly tried, then immediately shot, in Hoiryeong Public Stadium in North Korea’s North Hamkyung province.

Their crime, “prostitution”, is supposed to be a euphemism for aiding refugees escaping to China in the area that also generated an infamous execution film broadcast on Japanese television in 2005. (And other death sentences earlier in 2007. North Korea is not enthusiastic about escapees.)

As usual with the insular state, details are hard to come by. The North Korean Human Rights Infringement Center claimed Pyongyang carried out 901 public executions in 2007; that figure would potentially make it the world’s #2 (after China) death penalty user, though Amnesty International doesn’t even venture a tally of North Korean executions.

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1943: 98 American civilian contractors on Wake Island

33 comments October 7th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1943, after Japanese-occupied Wake Island was subjected to a withering bombardment from the United States Navy, garrison commander Shigematsu Sakaibara ordered the summary execution of 98 American prisoners of war.

Wake Island came under Japanese attack immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor raised the curtain on the Pacific theater — and was overrun in two weeks.

It was strategically situated halfway between Hawaii and the Philippines. That’s why the Japanese wanted it — and that’s why the Americans wanted it back.

Caught in the middle were 1,600-plus Americans captured when Wake fell in December 1941, 1,100 of them civilian contractors of construction conglomerate Morrison Knudsen there to build a naval base. Most of these, and all military personnel, were shipped to POW camps in China early in 1941; only 700 contractors would survive their four-year sojourn in Japanese captivity.

By September 1942, only 98 Americans remained* on Wake Island — all contractors, the last remnants of the prison labor force who had been forced to lattice the island with defensive fortifications against the expected American invasion.

U.S. forces bombed Wake Island repeatedly during World War II — rare respites from the monotony of forced labor — but the most intense attack was an orchestrated naval bombardment and aerial attack beginning Oct. 5. Shigematsu Sakaibara feared it was the prelude to a long-anticipated landing attempt. And he wasn’t the only one: reporting the attack, the New York Times tried to read the tea leaves of the official pronouncements:

The fact that Wake was attacked yesterday by surface bombardment as well as aeriel bombing probably indicates that a major reduction of Wake is now intended. The atoll, which is the closest Japanese base to Pearl Harbor with the exception of a few islands in the Marshalls group, is a key stepping stone on Japan’s fastest aeriel route to her other central Pacific possessions in the Marshalls and Gilberts southwest of Hawaii.

Still,

[o]ccupation by United States forces of Wake Island, which is 1,033 miles from Midway, has been predicted for some time, but there is no indication that such an operation is probable immediately.

Sakaibara, unfortunately, didn’t have a Times subscription.

Expecting a landing, and fearing the prisoners would rise up as a “fifth column” against their captors when it came, Sakaibara had the 98 prisoners machine-gunned en masse on the beach. One of them managed to survive and escape the slaughter, but was recaptured shortly after, and is supposed to have been personally beheaded by the admiral. It’s said that unidentified man carved a (misdated) testimony to the crime on a nearby coral rock known as “98 Rock”: “98 US PW 5-10-43”.

As it turned out, the landing never did come. The U.S. Navy bypassed Wake Island, allowing it to languish under a blockade as it advanced elsewhere in the Pacific, and received Sakaibara’s peaceful surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Although the Japanese had hastily exhumed the murdered POWs and reburied them in a cemetery as the end of the war approached, the cover story on the “Wake Island Massacre” soon cracked. For this day’s affair, Sakaibara was convicted of war crimes by an American tribunal, and hanged in Guam on June 18, 1947.

* The identities of the 98 are known, and are listed online here as well as on a plaque at the site.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Innocent Bystanders,Japan,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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