1947: Shigematsu Sakaibara, “I obey with pleasure”

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.

On this day..

32 thoughts on “1947: Shigematsu Sakaibara, “I obey with pleasure”

  1. He was right about the bombs. But he didn’t know about them when he decided to murder everyone. Anyway, no one would exonerate him for that in those days. That was a war where any murder was cool if it happened from a plane.

  2. Thank you very much for sharing your content; it truly helps and provides additional knowledge. If you’d like to join us and have a chance to win a lot of money, just take a look at this

  3. Thank you very much for sharing your content; it truly helps and provides additional knowledge. If you’d like to join us and have a chance to win a lot of money

  4. Thank you very much for sharing your content; it truly helps and provides additional knowledge. If you’d like to join us and have a chance to win a lot of money, just take a look at this

  5. Thank you very much for sharing your content; it truly helps and provides additional knowledge. If you’d like to join us and have a chance to win a lot of money,

  6. Thank you very much for sharing your content; it truly helps and provides additional knowledge. If you’d like to join us and have a chance to win a lot of money, just take a look at this

  7. woooow, amazing blog to read, thanks for sharing, and move on. finally, i found the best reading blog site on google, thanks for sharing this type of useful article to read, keep it up,

  8. It’s really a great and helpful piece of information. I’m glad that you just shared this helpful information with us. Please stay us informed like this.

  9. A dispicable coward who got what he deserved. Pity that many more Japanese war criminals like him escaped the death penalty.

  10. Sakaibara, as did other Japanese, committed his murder of innocent civilians before the atomic bombs were ever dropped. By killing everyone of the surviving civilians he no doubt thought there would be no one left to recount what he called ” a rash and unfortunate act”. It was customary for Japanese to show bravado and the resolve to fight to the end. He did neither by failing to do Seppuku or acknowledge his own moral cowardice.

    • He did not kill, “every one of the surviving civilians…” There were over a thousand civilians on Wake, a few were killed during fighting, others shipped to labor camps ..

  11. The passage quoted from Judgement in Tokyo is awful. I hope the rest of that book isn’t as bad.

    The main reason we are suppose to sympathize with Shigematsu is because of his progressive politics and because he might have become a politician? While it might sometimes feel like people are willing to let their favored politicians get away with murder, you don’t see people actually suggesting they do. But that author just did.

    The author also just accepts Shigematsu’s atomic bomb comparisons at face value. Never mentioning that Shigematsu’s murders took place in 1943 almost 2 years before the A bombs. Rather than being excused by the atomic bombs, one could say Shigematsu is incriminated by them! Could Japanese war crimes(by Shigematsu and others) have contributed to the choice to drop the atomic? Probably they did.

    Despite the bravado in his final statements, I have to wonder if Shigematsu went to his death feeling the weight not only of 98 dead Americans but of many many more dead Japanese.

  12. How can you glorify a man like Shigematsu Sakaibara who murdered in cold blood 97 civilians and personally beheaded the 98th. He got what he deserved it sounds like a revisionist liberal penned this article.

  13. Something I say all the time, especially in this “poor me” era, is that if YOU pick on someone, tease, someone, bully someone, and then someone bigger or badder or tougher comes along and gives it to YOU, you have no right, absolutely no right, to now say your are the “bullied.” You are the loser, the victim of karma, and get what you deserve.

  14. Pingback: Wars, conflits and strategy on 18 June in Asian history | The New ASIA OBSERVER

  15. Pingback: On 18 June in Japan's history | The New ASIA OBSERVER

  16. I can think of one big difference between the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Admiral Sakaibara: We never lied about dropping those bombs on the two cities, but Sakaibara lied about executing his civilian prisoners.

  17. Pingback: On 18 June in Asian history | The New ASIA OBSERVER

  18. The name Charles Rexroad has been given for this executioner, but I cannot find references to him anywhere online.

  19. Pingback: Life Is Unfair, Bitch But I Think Death Is Too Easy For Cowards | Rctlfy's Blog

Comments are closed.