In a fading black-and-white photo snapped 70 years ago, Japanese Gen. Masaharu Homma, history’s “Beast of Bataan,” sits stoically on a hard bench in a makeshift Manila, Philippines, courtroom. He is dressed in a white suit and rifling through pages of evidence that ultimately would send him before a firing squad.
Behind Homma, standing guard in a U.S. Army MP’s uniform and white helmet, is Jim McNamara, a Charlottean since 1963. Just 19 then, he’d joined the fighting in the Philippines six months before it stopped, and then, with little chance of going home, was placed in the 738th Honor Guard assigned to keep watch on some of Japan’s most fearsome military leaders on trial for war crimes.
Many Americans know about the trials of Nazi war criminals in Nuremberg, Germany. Lesser known were the complicated and sometimes controversial trials of about 5,700 accused Japanese war criminals in Tokyo and other Asian Pacific countries where the Japanese had unleashed unspeakable crimes against humanity – including in the Philippines.
With Japan’s surrender in September 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Forces, oversaw the occupation. As the world watched how MacArthur would dismantle Japan’s military, he decided that the commanders in the Philippines would be the first to go to trial. High on the list were Homma, held responsible for the so-called Bataan Death March at the war’s outset, and Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who commanded Japanese troops in the Philippines.
I didn’t know it then, but it was like watching history.
By the time the Tokyo tribunal began in May 1946, McNamara was already on guard duty in Manila, listening in on the hastily assembled Manila trials at the bullet-pocked American High Commissioner’s Residence. What unfolded was a snippet of legal history that would capture headlines and newsreels around the world.
“I didn’t know it then, but it was like watching history,” said McNamara, 89, whose job was to escort defendants from their cells in the residence to the courtroom, and once they were sentenced to a waiting armored truck.
What sticks in his memories 70 years later is the little emotion each officer showed. He’d nudge them to the front of the commission for their sentencing. “The commissioners would say, ‘OK out,’ ” recalled McNamara, a retired regional manager for a pharmaceutical company. “And they would stand at attention, click their heels, then bow and I’d take them to the truck. They never chickened out.”
Found Manila in shambles
McNamara grew up in Washington, D.C., and was 17 and a student at a D.C. military school in August 1944 when he tried to enlist in the Marines.
A bad left eye disqualified him. It was probably a good thing – he would have been assigned to a Marine unit that ended up fighting at Iwo Jima, one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific. “I was told that half of them got killed,” he said.
He signed up for the draft, anxious to get into the war before it was over. “All but three people in my class of 96 had gone into the military and into the war,” he said. “I felt left out.”
By then, the Army needed replacements, and McNamara was sent to Camp Blanding in Florida and assigned to a rifle company.
With Allied forces preparing to invade the Japanese mainland, it took 31 days on board a troop ship to get to the Philippines. McNamara got off at Luzon and walked 20 miles to join the Army’s 37th Division in Manila.
The 37th had already captured the city, after a fight that left it in shambles. He was in combat for six months, until two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima (Aug. 6) and Nagasaki (three days later) forced the Japanese to unconditionally surrender.
Before the formal signing of surrender documents in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, Japanese military leaders worked long hours destroying heaps of evidence of war crimes. They advised POW commanders to hide or blend in with civilians.
Gen. MacArthur quickly ordered the round-up of suspected war criminals and established a War Crimes Board to investigate the allegations.
McNamara was reassigned to the honor guard.
‘They were brutal’
MacArthur decided that Yamashita and Homma would be held responsible for atrocities in the Philippines and the Bataan Death March. He wanted them tried quickly, even before the creation of the tribunal that would try the major war criminals in Tokyo and elsewhere.
Yamashita, the last general in charge of the Japanese Army in the Philippines, was tried first, charged in late September 1945 for not controlling his troops who committed more than 100 crimes. The crimes included slaughtering Filipinos and American POWs, women, children and priests and beheadings, burnings, tortures and destruction.
Everyone in those trials said, ‘This was not my idea, we were ordered to do it.’
A military commission convicted him on Dec. 7, 1945, the fourth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that drew America into the war. His sentence: death by hanging. His conviction was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, his American lawyers questioning whether the trials were legal. The court upheld the conviction, though there was a dissenter who wrote that Yamashita hadn’t received a fair trial.
He was hanged Feb. 23, 1946, outside Manila.
Jim McNamara missed his trial; he’d arrived a month after Yamashita’s trial began. But he was standing guard over Homma as Yamashita awaited his appeal.
Homma had commanded the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Japan hit full force, outnumbering Allied troops 17-1. The Americans and Filipinos were ill-fed and ill-equipped to hold off the Japanese advance.
Most who survived the onslaught were ordered to surrender on Bataan Peninsula or a speck of island called Corregidor in mid-1942.
Those captured on Bataan were forced to march 65 miles along hot jungle roads with little water and less food to a POW camp in the city of San Fernando. Ten thousand died on the six-day march – 650 of them Americans – during some of the war’s darkest hours. They were shot or bayoneted for collapsing or stopping to sip water from artesian wells. Some dug their own graves. Many died from hunger or disease.
Homma was extradited to the Philippines after Japan’s surrender and faced 48 counts of violating international rules of war for not controlling his troops who committed the atrocities. He was also charged with bombing Manila in late 1941, after MacArthur had declared it an open city, and for refusing to accept the surrender of Americans on Bataan in May 1942. But it was the mistreatment of Filipino and American prisoners that earned him his “Beast of Bataan” nickname and a place at the top of those tried first.
“Everyone in those trials said, ‘This was not my idea, we were ordered to do it,’ ” he said. “They’d lay someone up against a fence and tell them to do something, and if they didn’t, they just bayonetted them. They were brutal.”
Stories were tragic
McNamara talked to some of the defendants, but not Homma or Yamashita. His orders were to get Homma and the others from their cells and escort them to the commission room.
But he listened closely to all the testimony. During Homma’s trial, dozens of Bataan march survivors were flown from the United States to testify.
Homma wore suits, while the others, including Yamashita, wore uniforms. McNamara said that Homma’s wife was allowed to testify that her husband had been dismissed from his command in August 1942 because hadn’t been hard enough on the Filipinos.
A five-man commission convicted Homma. His sentence: “Shot to death with musketry.”
McNamara and other MPs escorted him from the room – his head held high, shoulders back.
“I look back and I’m proud of what I did,” McNamara said. “I remember thinking Homma and the others deserved everything they got. The stories that were told against them were tragic. I couldn’t believe that they could do these things to another human being.”