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Homma - The Beast Of Bataan

The Bataan Death March
Nearing the end of the Bataan Death March, a thinning line of American and Filipino prisoners of war carry casualties in improvised stretchers as they approach Camp O'Donnell, a new Japanese POW camp, in April 1942 during World War II.

The Manila war crimes tribunals were distinct from the international trials that were then being prepared in Tokyo under the auspices of the Allied Powers. In Manila the U.S. Army was running the entire show. (In fact, the Army would not unilaterally administer a war crimes trial like this until the cases now being prepared for the Iraq and Afghanistan war detainees at Guantanamo.) Homma was to be tried as a Class C war criminal before a five-man Army tribunal. The Class C designation applied to Japanese soldiers charged with committing war crimes in the field, and whenever possible these individuals were to be tried in the countries where the crimes took place. Class A and B designations, on the other hand, applied to politicians and war ministers who had operated in the upper echelons of the regime; these men would be tried in Tokyo later before international juries.

Homma's tribunal, then, was an anomaly. In Manila, a victorious army was trying the army it had vanquished. As the Supreme Allied Commander of the Pacific Theater, Douglas MacArthur was responsible for selecting the venue, the defense, the prosecution, the jury, and the rules of evidence in the trial of a man who had beaten him on the battlefield.

Homma had been indicted on 48 counts of violating the international rules of war, but during this first meeting with his lawyers the general said he was pleading "not guilty" to all of them. As the commander of the 14th Imperial Army he was "morally responsible," but he said he neither knew about nor condoned - let alone ordered - any of the crimes for which he was now being charged. Of all the charges, he seemed to understand that those associated with the Bataan Death March would be the hardest to defend against. And yet Homma appeared to have only a vague notion of what this incident was supposed to have been. He said the very first time he'd heard the term was shortly before being taken into American custody, when several reporters asked him about his role in the atrocity.

The Homma tribunal convened on January 3, 1946. The trial took place inside the High Commissioner's Palace (now the U.S. Embassy in Manila) in a well-appointed though wardamaged room of marble walls, white French doors, and high transom windows. The humid chamber was nearly always packed.

Every day the general wore a business suit with a clean white handkerchief in the breast pocket. To his immediate left, a stenographer quietly pecked away, and behind him a team of Japanese translators sat at the ready. At the head of the courtroom, the military commission, headed by Maj. Gen. Leo Donovan, sat like an austere pantheon of shaven-headed gods. These five generals, handpicked by MacArthur, would serve as both judge and jury. (The other four members of the commission were Brig. Gens. Arthur Trudeau, Warren McNaught, and Robert Gard, along with Maj. Gen. Basilio Valdes, former chief of staff of the Philippine Army, whose brother had been beheaded by a Japanese soldier.)

It is impossible to understand the mood of the tribunal without appreciating the widespread hatred that Filipinos and Americans still held for the Imperial Army, which had a remarkably sordid record of atrocities all over Asia. In syndicated reports, Homma was often unabashedly referred to as a "butcher," a "villain," and "the arrogant Japanese general:" The newsreels invariably showed him with doomsday music playing wickedly in the background.

For such a high-profile capital case, Homma's defenders were astonishingly green. The team was led by Maj. Jack Skeen, a 27-year-old Baltimore admiralty lawyer who had never argued a case before. Upon learning that he would be representing the Beast of Bataan, Skeen had written his wife: "Within one minute I became essential, screwed, and famous.... After a few days I will recover from the shock & will give the S.O.B. everything possible in the way of defense:"

Another lawyer on the team was Capt. George Furness, a Bostonian who specialized in real estate law. Pelz, only a first lieutenant, was the youngest of Homma's five lawyers. Despite his neophyte status, he proved one of the more forceful and effective members of Homma's counsel; in the old footage the lanky young man comes across as dogged and almost bumptiously bright, his eyebrows knitting energetically as he lays out his arguments.

At the outset of the trial, Homma's lawyers tried to get the case dismissed by raising, no doubt quixotically, several rather sweeping procedural objections. In the first, George Furness spoke of General MacArthur's all-encompassing role in presiding over this tribunal: "no man should be placed in the position of being in essence accuser, prosecutor, defense counsel, judge, jury, court of review, and court of final appeal. He should particularly not be placed in this position where he is a military commander who was defeated by the accused in a campaign out of which the charges arose."

The five military commissioners quickly threw out this call for dismissal (Pelz says he and Skeen were "reamed" for having the temerity to bring up this point at all) and changed their phrase "who was defeated by the accused" to the more emollient "who unsuccessfully opposed the accused."

It was Robert Pelz who raised the defense's second major procedural objection, this one concerning the extraordinary latitude the prosecution was being afforded to introduce hearsay and circumstantial evidence into the court record. For months the prosecution's lawyers and investigators had been traveling across the United States and the Philippines, gathering scores of depositions from individuals who detailed war crimes that allegedly occurred under Homma's command. Many of these documents had been forwarded to the court as direct evidence. Pelz argued that it was "shocking to anyone trained in Anglo-American law to see a man sentenced to death after trial by affidavit and deposition. How can we deny this accused the right to confront witnesses against him?"

Pelz was swiftly overruled. But years later one of the five commissioners, Gen. Arthur Trudeau, would acknowledge that the tribunal's reliance on affidavits "troubled" him. "MacArthur's instructions," Trudeau wrote, "really said that circumstantial and hearsay evidence may be admitted if you run short of sound evidence. I am afraid that we created a precedent that may have farreaching repercussions:"

As these important preliminaries unfolded and the prosecution began to call up its first witnesses, General Homma's mood only darkened. In the evenings, after his lawyers went home, he would return to his cell and stay up late writing letters to his family in a haze of cigaretke smoke, or doing charcoal-pencil sketches, or making notes in a formal longhand for a lengthy manuscript that told the story of his life. After the trial Homma would give this manuscript to one of the American MPs charged with guarding him, Capt. Lewis Carter, with whom Homma had become friendly. Written in English, the unpublished document is titled, simply, "My Biography, by Masaharu Homma."

During the first week of January 1946 the case against Masaharu Homma crescendoed. The prosecution presented witness after witness who had been on Bataan shortly after the American surrender. It was a week of sickening testimony - with descriptions of beheadings, live burials, rapes, massacres, and acts of gratuitous torture. And while all these savageries were taking place, the prosecution was able to establish, Homma's headquarters had been no more than 500 feet away from the Death March route.

On the other hand, no evidence was ever presented that showed Homma knew about any of these atrocities. Listening to this testimony, Homma at first took the posture of denial, shuffling uncomfortably in his seat and vigorously shaking his head. But after several days, as the witnesses kept coming, his mood and bearing visibly changed. He slumped in his seat and stared distractedly at the floor. At several points he took out his handkerchief and quietly wept. Pelz wrote in his diary: "I saw Homma this evening and he is becoming a broken man.... I truly believe he had no idea of the things that had occurred:" Pelz said Homma had jotted a note during some of this testimony and passed it over to the defense team: "I am horrified to learn these things happened under my command," the general wrote. "I am ashamed of our troops."

On January 10 a leather-tough Bataan veteran and former POW from Brooklyn named Jimmy Baldassarre took the stand. It's quite possible that the appearance of this bald and toothless old master sergeant did more damage to the defense than all the other testimony combined. Like previous witnesses, Baldassarre described Death March tortures and killings in blunt detail, saying that he saw "hundreds and hundreds" dead along the side of the road; what made his testimony uniquely devastating, however, was that he claimed to have spotted Homma riding in an "official car with some kind of yellow sticker on the front" along the Death March route, thus placing the general at the scene of the crime, something no other witness could do.

In fact, Baldassarre's claim was nearly impossible; almost no one in the U.S. Army other than a few high-ranking officers knew who Homma was, let alone what the man looked like. But the sergeant stuck to his story. "He was dressed differently, and he was more stout then," Baldassarre said on the stand, never taking his eyes off Homma. "But I remember him, and he is in this room. It was Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma."

In his diary, Homma wrote: "The trial got into the March of Bataan. Both lies and statements close to the truth came out. It is so awful that it makes me furious, and the tears stream down.... It is painful to hear such cruel examples, one after another. I am utterly exhausted both in mind and body."

In early February the defense put on the witness stand a number of former 14th Army staff officers who shed interesting light on the peculiarities of hierarchy and tradition within the Japanese military, while also making it clear that Homma had indeed ordered his subordinates to treat prisoners in accordance with international law.. The most lucid and articulate of these staff officers was 40-year-old Moriya Wada, a major who had been in charge of logistics and planning under Homma. He testified that in mid-April he had inspected the first enclosure where the POWs were assembled-a fetid place known as Camp O'Donnell-and was disgusted. "The housing, sanitation, water, and food-all were not good. The facilities were insufficient. There were many malaria and dysentery patients. The disinfecting of the latrine was poor." Wada closely questioned the camp commandant about the squalor and was promised that "conditions would improve."

Within days, Wada said, the commandant had been removed, great numbers of Filipinos had been freed, and Homma had approved a plan for alleviating conditions at the camp - including procuring more food, improving sanitation, providing for decent burial, putting in water pipes, and "securing band instruments and sporting equipment to better the health and morale of the prisoners."

Wada also testified that, between late February and the end of July 1942, General Homma made 10 separate requests to Tokyo for large supplies of medicines. He also requisitioned his superiors in Saigon for 100,000 tons of rice. But the 14th Army received only "one-thirtieth of what was requested."

On February 5 Masaharu Homma climbed to the witness chair to testify in his own behalf. He explained - in good English - that he was not allowed to select his own staff officers, nor could he dismiss or transfer subordinates with whom he was displeased; that authority rested solely with General Headquarters in Tokyo. In the field, Homma explained, a Japanese general would rarely interfere with his staff officers' work, just as staff officers would not presume to distract the commanding general with minutiae. "The commander," he said, "is informed only of important matters.... The machinery of the army headquarters is set to work automatically. Officers discharge their duties on their own initiative."

Homma said that his victory in Bataan was never assured, that in fact there were three "critical moments" during the campaign when he thought he would utterly fail. Mainly, these moments of despair stemmed from the fact that like the Americans, his army was running out of medicine, food, and ammunition. "I could not ask for reinforcements from Tokyo," he testified. "It isn't considered proper in the Japanese Army for the commander-inchief to ask for reinforcements. He must do with what he was given."

Homma testified that during his time in the Philippines more than 100 courtsmartial were carried out against Japanese troops, for crimes ranging from looting and abuse to rape. Homma emphasized that he was "particular" about the crime of rape, noting that he went to the extreme step of ordering copies of courtmartial reports involving rape to be sent back to the parents of the offenders. Asked if this extra bit of family humiliation was the "usual practice" in the Japanese Army, Homma replied, "No, it was not. It was entirely my own idea."

Homma acknowledged that he had been driven in a staff car several times along the route of the Death March but claimed to have seen nothing out of the ordinary. "From testimony I have heard in court," he said, "it appears there were many bodies along this route, but I don't see how that could be so, for I didn't see any. However, I was not particularly looking for bodies."

The commission heard closing arguments. The defense tried again to show that Homma was unaware of the crimes in question; that they were at odds with his long-established record of decency; that his own army was starving and diseased and lacked sufficient vehicles with which to transport large numbers of captives; that the peculiar hierarchy of the War Ministry in Tokyo gave him no authority to select or fire his own ranking staff; and finally that Hornma did order numerous improvements in the living conditions of POWs once the true circumstances were reported to him.

The defense ended its argument with the lengthy and passionate remarks of its lead counsel, Jack Skeen: "This entire case is an indictment not of an individual but of the system and background of the Japanese Army and the Japanese theory of waging war. It is sought to judge this accused by the standards of our own army; we can only fairly judge this man by the standards established by the Japanese Army. "Over the past six weeks, we of the defense have become thoroughly convinced of the sincerity and integrity of General Homma. Should Homma's life be taken the world will have lost a man who could do so much toward the continuation of peace."

Then it was the prosecution's turn. Lt. Col. Frank Meek, the chief prosecutor, declared: "All the rules of decency and all the laws of war were violated by this accused.... Someone is to blame and that someone is General Homma. He had knowledge of this crime because his headquarters was 500 yards from the `death march' as 70,000 Americans and Filipinos dragged themselves past. If he had cared to listen he could have heard the screams of the dying.'

Later in the day Robert Pelz, who had been selected to escort Fujiko Homma back to Tokyo that evening, stopped by the High Commissioner's Palace and had what he described as "probably my last real conversation" with Masaharu Homma. "The General said he is satisfied that the whole matter ... is now a closed book," Pelz wrote in his diary, "that everything that could be done has been done. He feels that the record is his explanation to the world." Pelz noted that Homma broke down "when he told us how grateful he is for our efforts." "I am grateful to have known you," Pelz replied. The general bowed his head. "I am honored that you should say so." Then Pelz said, awkwardly, "Au revoir." ("Although," he confided to his diary, "we both knew in our hearts that it was not an revoir.")

On Monday, February 11, the commission returned to the courtroom to announce the verdict. General Homma, wearing a gray herringbone suit, was brought before the five generals and stood at attention. General Donovan reiterated the charges and concluded, "Upon secret written ballot, two-thirds or more of the members concurring, the Commission finds you guilty."

Then Donovan pronounced the defendant's fate: "The Commission sentences you to be shot to death with musketry." Homma did not flinch. The sentence was considered something of a victory for the defense. To be "shot with musketry" - to face a firing squad, as opposed to a noose-was considered a much more honorable death for a member of the military profession, and Homma took some relief in knowing that he would die a soldier's death.

Fujiko Homma called on Douglas MacArthur at his Tokyo headquarters. She knew that he had the power to lessen her husband's sentence. MacArthur received Fujiko graciously. In his memoirs, he recalled that his visit with her was "one of the most trying hours of my life. I told her that I had the greatest possible personal sympathy for her and understood the great sorrow of her situation." "Would you please read through the records of his trial once again?" she asked MacArthur. "I will do so as soon as possible," he replied. "I hear that the death sentence will be sent for your confirmation. It's a very hard job for you, I suppose."

MacArthur answered in a tone Fujiko described as "unpleasant and arrogant." He said, "Never you mind about my job." On the way out Fujiko bowed and said, "Remember me to your wife." As he'd promised, General MacArthur did review Homma's case, and on March 20 he made his findings known. "I have concluded," he said from Tokyo, in a statement that was magniloquent even by his standards, "that no trial could have been fairer than this one. No accused was ever given a more complete opportunity for defense. No judicial process was ever freer from prejudice:" He continued: "The proceedings show that the defendant lacked the basic firmness of character essential to officers charged with high command. [Homma's crimes] have become synonyms of horror and mark the lowest ebb of depravity of modern times.... I approve the findings of guilt and direct the Commanding General, United States Forces of the Western Pacific, to execute the sentence:"

If it was one of MacArthur's intentions to render his adversary a historical nonentity, he seems to have succeeded. Japan, of course, has been widely accused of suffering from a kind of national amnesia on the subject of World War II. The victor always decides what is a crime and what isn't.

Shortly after the Homma trial, the International Military Tribunals of the Far East got under way in Tokyo. Conducted in haste, they were far from perfect; certain individuals may have been unfairly singled out while others who most definitely should have been pursued (starting, perhaps, with Emperor Hirohito himself) were never brought to trial. But at least the organizers of the Tokyo trials, as with the proceedings at Nuremberg, attempted to conduct them in a spirit of internationalism, with citizens from all the victorious Allied powers represented on the juries; whatever their faults, the Tokyo tribunals were not run by a single army sitting in judgment on the army it had just defeated.

In the end, 25 Class A war criminals were convicted and sentenced in Tokyo. Seven were put to death and 16 were given life sentences. Elsewhere in Asia, more than 5,700 Class B and C criminals were brought to trial. Of those, 3,000 were convicted and sentenced; 920 were executed.

Just before 1:00 A.M., on April 3, 1946, a group of MPs appeared in Masaharu Homma's room and handcuffed him. Marching in double ranks, they escorted the gen eral to a large open area illuminated by floodlights. Homma was calm as the guards tied him to a post and slipped a black hood over his head. An Army doctor pinned a square swatch of white cloth directly over his heart.

Fifteen paces away 12 Army marksmen raised their M-16s in unison and clicked off their safeties. In accordance with military protocol, 4 of the 12 rifles contained blanks, so that no one would know who had fired the lethal shots. In the humid night silence, an Army officer read aloud the charges, the verdict, and the sentence. Then he raised his right arm, and the firing squad took aim. A moment later he dropped his arm to his side and cried out, "Fire!" The dozen rifles answered. Homma slumped forward. The doctor examined the wounds, listened to his heart, and declared him dead. A disk of blood grew on the white cloth and seeped through the cream-colored suit.

Hampton Sides is the author of Blood and Thunder: An Epic of the American West. The Trial of General Homma. American Heritage. February / March 2007.

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