Masaharu Homma and Japanese Atrocities
Who was to blame for the atrocities perpetrated on American POWs in the Philippines? While there is no easy answer to that question, one of the men who was charged with war crimes was Japanese Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma.
Surrender and Evacuation
Lt. General Masaharu Homma was the commander in charge of the Japanese Imperial forces during the first battles for the Philippines. He served in the Philippines from December 1941 through August 1942. It was Homma who forced and accepted the surrender of the Americans at Bataan. Homma also ordered the evacuation of American and Filipino forces from Bataan.
The irony, according to author Hampton Sides, is that Homma was not a fanatical militarist. Rather, he was a compassionate moderate with a love for all things English. He had a passion for the arts, and was keen on American movies. A sensitive, principled intellectual with pro-Western leanings, he had been schooled in military academies as well as at Oxford. He was friends with Japan's leading writers and artists. Dubbed the "Poet General," he liked to paint and write poetry during battles.
His military strength was his mind. He was considered a brilliant theoretician. His weakness was delegating authority and overseeing the practicalities of his command. Perhaps it was that weakness that allowed his subordinates to brutalize Americans and Filipinos while Homma publicly pronounced that POWs would be treated kindly and fairly. Perhaps he wasnegligent of duty.
Denied Knowledge of Atrocities
At the end of the war, war crimes trials were convened in Manila. Homma was tried for crimes including abuses of POWs in the Philippines, atrocities related to the death march and the bombing of Manila after it was declared an open city. Homma accepted moral responsibility as commander — but maintained that he had no knowledge of atrocities until after they had occurred. According to historian Philip Piccigallo, Homma was convicted for the actions of his troops rather than for directly ordering atrocities.
On April 3, 1946, Lt. General Masaharu Homma was executed. His wife appealed to American general Douglas MacArthur to spare his life; her pleas were denied.
Atrocities in the Philippines
On December 14, 1944, Japanese soldiers forced 150 American prisoners of war at a compound on Palawan into an air-raid shelter. Then they doused them with gasoline and threw in a match.
A Survivor's Story
A few of the Americans, a very few, survived. Army PFC Eugene Nielson was one of the survivors. He later described the atrocity to U.S. intelligence officers:
The trench smelled very strongly of gas. There was an explosion and flames shot throughout the place. Some of the guys were moaning. I realized this was it -- either I had to break for it or die. Luckily I was in the trench closest to the fence. So I jumped and dove through the barbed wire. I fell over the cliff and somehow grabbed hold of a small tree... There were Japanese soldiers down on the beach. I buried myself in a pile of garbage and coconut husks. I kept working my way under until I got fairly covered up... The Japanese were bayoneting [prisoners on the beach]. They shot or stabbed twelve Americans and then dug a shallow grave in the sand and threw them in.
Nielsen hid in the garbage until the Japanese soldiers left. He then made a break for it but the soldiers saw him and started firing. He jumped into the sea and was shot several times. Miraculously, he lived and managed to escape -- swimming for nine hours and eventually finding his way through the Philippine jungle to American guerrilla forces.
It was Nielsen's story that helped convince the American Command to rescue the prisoners at Cabanatuan prison camp. It was also his story that made the prisoners of Cabanatuan particularly terrified.
The Cabanatuan POWs had heard all about Palawan. They had assembled a secret radio and, in fact, knew a lot about American movements and successes in the war. The radio was ingenious. It was assembled inside a water canteen. Former POW James Hildebrand recalled how the prisoners tricked the Japanese into helping them build their secret radio:
...[The guys] were fixing Japanese radios and they would take certain parts out and tell the Japanese those parts needed replacing, and it was up to the Japanese to get those parts. Well, the Japanese never asked for those parts back, and if you get enough parts you can make a radio, and that's exactly what they did. They fooled the Japanese soldiers.
Living in Fear
The news of Palawan terrified the POWs. Many felt that they were next. They believed that their Japanese captors were plotting their massacre. After all, they had all seen acts of Japanese brutality firsthand. Many had been through the infamous death march — where the Japanese army had marched an estimated 72,000 Americans and Filipinos 65 miles to San Fernando, Pampanga. Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers, estimates that 750 Americans and 5,000 Filipinos died on the march -- victims of starvation, disease, and random executions. (It should be noted that estimates vary widely. A study document put out by the Department of Veteran's Affairs puts the American deaths at 650 and Filipino deaths at 16,500. Forrest Johnson, author of Hour of Redemption, puts the U.S. deaths at 2,275 and Filipino deaths between 9,000-14,000.)
Atrocities on the March
On the march, the men witnessed arbitrary executions of their fellow American and Filipino soldiers and of Filipino civilians who had offered food or water to the marchers. Bert Bank remembers:
One of the POWs had a ring on and the Japanese guard attempted to get the ring off. He couldn't get it off and he took a machete and cut the man's wrist off and when he did that, of course, the man was bleeding profusely. [I tried to help him] but when I looked back I saw a Japanese guard sticking a bayonet through his stomach.
Cruelty in the Camps
The POWs also experienced intense cruelty at the hands of their captors in Cabanatuan. All had witnessed hundreds of their compatriots die for lack of food and medicine. All had witnessed torture and summary executions. All had experienced Japanese brutality firsthand.
Former POW Richard Beck remembered:
It's a very sinking feeling to know that you are going to be abused for a long period of time, and that's exactly what it was, it was a long period of abuse -- starvation, beatings... Some people were shot for no reason at all, so you never knew how to assess the situation, whether you should try to lead a low profile. It was a case of never knowing how to cope.
The Kill-All Order
The Cabanatuan POWs' fear of becoming victims of another large scale massacre were well founded. After the war, it became clear that there existed a high command order — issued from the War Ministry in Tokyo -- to kill all remaining POWs. This order, read in part:
Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups, and whether it is accomplished by means of mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, or decapitation, dispose of them as the situation dictates. It is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces.
It also became clear after the war that the Japanese were responsible for horrific abuses of POWs aboard tankers leaving the Philippines and bound for Japan. These tankers became known as hell ships. The Japanese put masses of men in the holds of tankers and gave them little food, light, room or water. The men died at an alarming rate — of suffocation, thirst, and madness. They also died of allied bombing , since the hell ships were not marked with a white cross, as specified by the Geneva Conventions, to indicate POWs were on board. The men who survived these tankers became slave laborers in Japanese mines and factories.
Throughout the Pacific theater, the Japanese treated POWs and civilians barbarically. Survivors of camps in Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Burma and Laos all reported experiencing tremendous cruelty, torture, disease and starvation. It is an astounding fact that while POWs died at a rate of 1.2% in Germany, they died at a rate of 37% across the Pacific.
At the end of the war, war crime trials were held in Tokyo and throughout the Pacific to attempt to serve justice to the perpetrators of these atrocities.