The Bataan Death March War-Crimes Trial: Was It Fair?
JAMES BALDASSARRE 'S LONG-AWAITED CHANCE for payback was at hand. The 51-year-old sergeant, whom a reporter called the “perfect prototype…of the hard-bitten, sardonic ‘old Army regular,’” had watched Japanese guards torture and murder his fellow prisoners during the Bataan Death March in April 1942, and he had endured more than three brutal years as a prisoner of war, swearing to stay alive to see his captors get what they deserved.
Now, on January 9, 1946, he was in the Philippine capital of Manila to testify at the war-crimes trial of Masaharu Homma, the Japanese general who commanded the soldiers who had brutalized thousands of helpless American and Filipino prisoners during the march four years earlier. There was no doubt where Baldassarre stood. “They should hang the man. He is a no-good son of a bitch. I should pull the rope…. Send him to me. I’ll fix him up,” he told reporters outside the courtroom.
Homma’s defense attorneys portrayed their client as an out-of-touch commander, kept in the dark about the atrocities his troops were committing. The prosecutors, however, believed Homma knew about his men’s barbarity and had chosen to ignore it.
Dozens of survivors were lined up to testify against Homma, so prosecutors would have little trouble proving the horrors of the march—but more was needed. The case hinged on a cloudier issue: could Baldassarre and other witnesses link Homma to the atrocities of the march by showing Homma likely knew what his men were doing and had turned a blind eye to it? The answer could determine whether Homma lived or died.
AT THE START OF THE WAR , Japan targeted the Philippine islands, an American possession since 1898. Tokyo assigned Lieutenant General Homma and his 14th Army to capture the islands, and expected the campaign to take no more than 50 days. Homma’s opponent was General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the American and Filipino troops in the Philippines.
Born in 1888, Homma was a career soldier and a man of eclectic interests. A tall, stern-looking man, he had graduated from Japan’s military academy in 1907 and from its army staff college in 1916, and had served as military attaché to London from 1930-32. He spoke fluent English, enjoyed Western literature, wrote poetry, and was an avid tennis player.
On December 10, 1941, the first Japanese infantry troops invaded the Philippines when a small force of Homma’s men landed on northern Luzon, the main island. They quickly showed how brutal they could be. His soldiers entered the office of Buenaventura Bello, 51, an administrator at Northern College in Vigan. They ordered him to remove the American and Philippine flags from his office, but he refused. “These hands are made to defend them and never to pull them down,” he said. A soldier shot him in the groin. (Bello survived.)
Homma’s main landings were at Lingayen Gulf, north of Manila, on December 22 and, two days later, at Lamon Bay, to the south. MacArthur abandoned Manila on December 26, declaring it an open city to spare civilians from attack, and withdrew his forces into the 25-mile-long Bataan Peninsula, across Manila Bay from the capital. Homma misread the retreat as the disorganized flight of defeated troops, but it was a planned withdrawal by soldiers ready to fight. MacArthur had anticipated making a stand on Bataan if his men couldn’t stop the Japanese on the invasion beaches; mountainous Bataan was well-suited for defense, and MacArthur intended to hold it.
A tall and striking figure, Homma (center) appears on January 20, 1942, with Jorge B. Vargas, a Filipino politician who later served as an administrator during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Japan’s invasion had begun the prior month. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
From January 1942 onward, MacArthur’s American and Filipino troops maintained their grip on Bataan, withstanding repeated Japanese attacks, and by early February, Homma realized he needed more men. Tokyo was already impatient with him for the campaign’s slow progress, and Homma was ashamed to need reinforcements.
While MacArthur’s troops continued to stymie the enemy, their situation was growing dire. A Japanese blockade of the Philippines meant the men had to make do with what they had. Food was in short supply. Rations were cut to 2,000 calories per day in January, about half of what a soldier needed; by March, they were down to 1,000 calories per day—“just about enough to keep a man alive if he stays in bed,” army doctors said. Medicines began to run low, and malaria and dysentery took their toll.
Once Homma had his reinforcements in hand, he planned a final offensive for early April. Confident of victory, he had his staff devise a plan to transport the American and Filipino soldiers he expected to capture on Bataan to prison camp. Under the plan, prisoners would assemble at Balanga, about 19 miles north of the southern tip of Bataan. From Balanga, they would march about 35 miles north to San Fernando. From there, they would travel by rail to a prison camp in central Luzon. On paper, the plan prepared by Homma’s staff called for humane treatment of the prisoners, a staff officer insisted.
Japanese troops advance to the
front in Bataan in preparation for Homma’s massive April 3, 1942, offensive;
days later. Despite assurances of “kindly” treatment (below), throngs of POWs were then subjected to the horrors of the Bataan Death March. (Naval History and Heritage Command) (U.S. Air Force)
The U.S. War Department, too, knew the end was near, and in March 1942 had ordered MacArthur to evacuate to Australia to avoid his capture by the Japanese. Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright replaced MacArthur, and Major General Edward P. King Jr. was put in command on Bataan.
On April 3, 1942, Homma launched his offensive, and his troops sliced through Allied lines. The American and Filipino defenders no longer had the strength to fight. Almost every man suffered from the effects of prolonged starvation as well as from malaria or dysentery, the chief medical officer, Colonel Wibb Cooper, recounted. Most had lost 20 to 30 pounds, and commanders estimated that many weren’t fit enough to walk 100 yards without resting.
On April 9, 1942, General King surrendered the approximately 75,000 troops on Bataan, the largest surrender in American history. He set aside U.S. Army trucks and cars to transport his men to prison camp, but the Japanese refused to use them. When King sought assurances that the Japanese would treat his men humanely, an officer replied, “We are not barbarians.” Nevertheless, King had reason to worry because Homma’s men had already shown that they often played by their own rules. They had continued to bomb Manila after MacArthur had abandoned it. Prisoners of war had been executed, and Japanese planes had targeted an army hospital marked with a red cross.
THE PLIGHT OF THE BATAAN PRISONERS quickly degenerated into chaos. The Japanese had expected no more than 40,000 prisoners, but the number was nearly double that, and they hadn’t anticipated just how malnourished and sick the men were. The main problem, however, was that Japanese soldiers viewed their captives with contempt. As Homma himself admitted, the Japanese army treated surrender as the ultimate disgrace, and its soldiers were taught to die rather than capitulate. Contempt led to harsh treatment. According to historian Charles A. Stenger, during the war, 40.4 percent of the American servicemen held by the Japanese died in captivity, while the death rate for those held by Germany was 1.2 percent.
Homma had other matters on his mind, and “interest and consideration for Prisoners of War was ‘thin’ from Homma on down,” said Colonel Toshimitsu Takatsu, one of Homma’s staff officers. Homma’s job wouldn’t be done until he seized Corregidor, the island fortress in the mouth of Manila Bay. As long as Allied forces held Corregidor, the Japanese couldn’t use Manila Bay, one of the finest harbors in Asia. Because of mounting pressure from Tokyo, Homma became preoccupied with Corregidor. Prisoners had to be removed from Bataan quickly so that he could bring troops and supplies to southern Bataan for an amphibious assault on the island.
Guards treated prisoners and civilians with savage fury. Sergeant Michael Bruaw heard a group of 25 prisoners scream as guards used them for bayonet practice. Major Richard Kadel saw a terrified Filipino family of eight flee when shells from Corregidor exploded nearby. A patrol caught them, and an officer held a baby by the legs as he sliced off the infant’s head with his sword. His men forced the other seven to kneel as they beheaded them one by one.
American and Filipino prisoners marched in groups of 100 up Bataan’s two-lane Old National Road toward Balanga and San Fernando. Men struggled to keep up, but they had no choice because the alternative was death. Guards, whom the prisoners called “buzzard squads,” finished off those who couldn’t go on.
Sergeant Baldassarre saw a colonel stagger off the road, muttering, “I can’t make the hike anymore.” Before he went six feet, a guard shot him. The same fate befell a lieutenant who stumbled off the route murmuring, “I am all in.” Sergeant Horace Clark watched a soldier he knew as Big Smitty drop from exhaustion. Big Smitty’s friends tried to pick him up, but guards chased them away as another guard beheaded the helpless soldier. Major Bertram Bank helped carry a weakened lieutenant colonel; a guard forced Bank to drop the man, and then drove a bayonet through the colonel.
The side of the road along the route soon became littered with corpses that remained unburied for days. In the 18-mile stretch between Balanga and Lubao, for example, Sergeant Baldassarre saw hundreds of American and Filipino bodies. If a corpse stayed on the roadway, passing trucks flattened it.
Japanese guards force Filipinos to view dead POWs. Treatment of prisoners was brutal from the start, with the Death March claiming thousands of lives. (U.S. Marine Corps/National Archives)
Guards tormented the exhausted men by speeding up the march to double-time pace. As Japanese trucks passed by, soldiers in them reached out with clubs to hit prisoners. Major Fred Castro saw guards throw exhausted men into a pit. One begged for mercy as the guards forced prisoners to fill the pit with dirt, burying them alive. Near the Pantingan River, guards tied several hundred Filipino prisoners together and attacked them with swords and bayonets. Only a handful survived.
The heat drove prisoners mad with thirst. Artesian wells dotted the route, but
guards beat or killed prisoners who tried to drink from them. Men became so
parched that they drank from streams filled with rotting corpses. Even rest
breaks had a sadistic twist. Guards forced prisoners to sit under the
blistering sun without shade, food, or water.
To Lieutenant William E. Dyess, a fighter pilot captured on Bataan, “we ceased to be men—more like filthy, starving rabble.”
Filipino civilians took pity on the prisoners. “They could hardly walk. Some of them, they were carried by their companions,” said Fernando Ocampo, an American-educated Filipino architect. Ocampo and his sister brought baskets of bananas, rice cakes, and hard-boiled eggs to give to the prisoners, but a guard kicked the food into a ditch. When the captives scrambled to retrieve it, guards hit them with rifle butts. Prisoners saw guards beat or kill other Filipino Good Samaritans.
For most prisoners, the march to San Fernando took nearly a week. The Japanese provided food sparingly, if at all. Lieutenant Dyess, for example, was fed only one mess kit of rice the entire time. At San Fernando, the prisoners were crammed into steel boxcars for the four-hour train ride to Camp O’Donnell, a former Philippine army base and now a prison camp. Dyess counted 115 men in one car. Many suffered from dysentery, and the boxcar floors were covered with human waste. Guards kept the doors locked, and men struggled to breathe the hot, fetid air. They arrived at Camp O’Donnell “dehydrated, starved and in the merest rags of clothing,” Brigadier General James R. N. Weaver reported. No one will ever know the exact number of men who perished on the march and the trip to Camp O’Donnell; historians estimate the death toll at 10,000.
Deaths continued after the POWs arrived at their prison at Camp O’Donnell, where, later in the war (top), a U.S. soldier and a war correspondent uncovered crude grave markers. The atrocities remained unknown until Lieutenant William E. Dyess (below) escaped in 1943. (Bettmann/Getty Images) William E. Dyess (U.S. Air Force)
At Camp O’Donnell, the suffering continued. The men were inadequately fed, and disease ran rampant. Relief agencies brought food and medicines to the camp, but the Japanese kept these items for themselves. By June 2, 1942, more than 25,000 American and Filipino prisoners had died at Camp O’Donnell.
Homma ended the campaign by capturing Corregidor on May 6, 1942. He had taken nearly five months to finish a task expected to take no more than 50 days, and he paid with his job. On August 5, 1942, he was relieved and sent home to Japan, where he spent the rest of the war in retirement.
HEAD TURNED, EYES CLOSED
THE U.S. GOVERNMENT and the American public didn’t learn of the Death March for more than a year. They got the news after Lieutenant Dyess escaped from Davao prison camp, on the Philippine island of Mindanao, in April 1943, made his way to Australia, and gave the first eyewitness account of the march. When his story hit newsstands on January 28, 1944, it sparked a level of anger not seen since the Pearl Harbor attack. President Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed that those responsible would pay. Congressmen vowed vengeance. The public spoke with its wallet, and war-bond sales nearly doubled. Homma had become a marked man.
As Japan’s formal September 2, 1945, surrender approached, MacArthur was sent to Japan as the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, and part of his job was to oversee the trials of Japanese war criminals. On September 11, he ordered the arrest of 40 suspects, Homma included. When Homma turned himself in four days later, he told reporters he was surprised to be on MacArthur’s list. As for the Death March, he said, “I don’t think it was such a tough march.”
General Douglas MacArthur arrives at Japan’s Atsugi Air Base on August 30, 1945—several days before the formal surrender—to oversee the occupation as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. His authority included oversight of all Japanese war-crimes trials. (National Archives)
On November 4, 1945, the United States charged Homma with a war crime for failing to “control the operations of the members of his command, permitting them to commit brutal atrocities and other high crimes” against Filipino and American soldiers and Allied civilians. The charges specified 47 separate acts of barbarity that included not only the Death March but also the mistreatment of civilians interned in Manila, neglect of prisoners at Camp O’Donnell, and the widespread abuse of Filipino civilians. If convicted, Homma could be sentenced to death.
On December 15, five generals—four Americans and one Filipino—were selected as judges for Homma’s trial. One—Philippine Major General Basilio J. Valdes—had an axe to grind against the Japanese. They had murdered his brother, Alejo, when they mistook him for Basilio. An experienced litigator, 53-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Frank E. Meek, was named the lead prosecutor, heading a team of one Filipino and five American officers. Major John H. Skeen Jr. was selected to head the defense team of six junior U.S. Army officers. Skeen, a 27-year-old attorney who had never tried a criminal case, had expected to rotate home and wasn’t thrilled to be defending Homma. In a letter to his wife, however, he promised to “give the S.O.B. everything possible in the way of defense.” All the judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys served under MacArthur’s command.
In pretrial motions, Homma’s attorneys attacked the proceedings for numerous reasons, including the rules of evidence MacArthur’s headquarters had put in place. These rules, for example, allowed the prosecutor to present affidavits in lieu of live testimony—something impermissible in American courts because it violated the accused’s right to confront the witnesses against him. The issues Homma’s attorneys raised were already before the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, who had been sentenced on December 7, 1945, to hang for the brutal acts his men committed when Allied forces retook Manila earlier that year.
Homma’s lawyers also challenged MacArthur’s pervasive role in the proceedings: not only had he ordered the trial, with the judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys all serving under him, but if a death sentence were imposed, MacArthur would decide if it would be carried out. Since Homma had beaten MacArthur on Bataan, they argued, MacArthur’s role in the proceedings created the appearance that the trial was about revenge for that defeat, not justice. The judges denied these motions and ordered the case to proceed.
witness to truth
THE TRIAL BEGAN on January 3, 1946, in Manila’s high commissioner’s residence, still pockmarked with damage from the fighting to recapture Manila. To Lieutenant Robert L. Pelz, one of the defense attorneys, the 57-year-old Homma looked like “a tired-out grandfather who has girded his loins for a last battle.”
No one contended that Homma had ordered any atrocities or participated in any. He was charged because he commanded the men who had committed these crimes and had done nothing to stop them. While a commander’s duty to control his troops was well-established, the breadth of command responsibility was a murky issue. The uncertainty was whether a commander was automatically liable for his men’s misconduct or whether he was criminally responsible only if he knew, or should have known, what his troops were doing. In his opening statement, prosecutor Meek promised to prove that Homma had had actual knowledge of his men’s misdeeds. Their brutality was “so widespread and so broad in pattern and design and so continuous,” he argued, that Homma had to have known. Next, Meek moved to back up his words with evidence.
He showed that Homma’s headquarters at Balanga were 500 yards from the march route: so close, Meek asserted, that if he “cared to listen he could have heard the screams of the wounded and the dying.” But Meek wanted something more direct to prove Homma’s knowledge, and Sergeant Baldassarre and a Filipino captain provided it.
Baldassarre recalled numerous Japanese officers in staff cars passing the prisoners during the march and described seeing one high-ranking officer on the march route near San Fernando. A Japanese soldier told him it was Homma. When asked at trial if the high-ranking officer he had seen was in the courtroom, Baldassarre pointed at Homma and said, “He is right there now, sir.”
At Homma’s trial, Buenaventura Bello (standing, center) displays the American flag Japanese invaders ripped from a wall after shooting him when he refused to move it. (Bettmann/Getty Images)
Captain Alberto Abeleda described a similar incident. On the route near Lubao, Abeleda saw a “big, flashy car” stop in front of a warehouse. Japanese soldiers snapped to attention as an officer got out of the car, spoke to one of them, and then left. Abeleda described the officer as a big man, and Homma stood just over six feet tall. Abeleda told the judges he later saw Homma’s photo in a Manila newspaper and recognized him as the officer he had seen.
This testimony hurt Homma’s cause badly. Numerous witnesses had described how the march route was strewn with corpses, implying that no one who traveled that road could have missed seeing them. If Homma had seen those corpses, he knew his men were running amok and had a legal duty to stop the carnage.
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between life and death
ON JANUARY 21 the prosecution rested. It was now the defense’s turn, and Homma’s attorneys sought to establish that Homma had been ignorant of what his men were doing. Surprisingly, the defense also called several of Homma’s underlings to try to show that the march wasn’t all that bad—an impossible position in light of the harsh conditions that numerous survivors had already described.
Major Moriya Wada swore that fewer than 30 prisoners perished on the march and that they had died from disease, not mistreatment. Colonel Yoshio Nakajima insisted he saw prisoners near Balanga resting in the shade and eating Japanese rations while other prisoners swam in a nearby stream. Colonel Seiichi Ohta maintained that guards gave the men ample food and water and allowed them to rest as needed. Homma’s chief of staff, Takeji Wachi, went further, insisting that guards helped tired prisoners to the side of the road to rest or onto trucks to ride to San Fernando. These witnesses all had a motive to lie to avoid being charged with war crimes themselves.
One month into the trial—on February 4—Homma took the stand to insist he hadn’t learned of the march’s horrors until hearing the survivors’ testimony. He portrayed himself as a figurehead with limited authority over his subordinates. Preoccupied with Corregidor, he had relied on these subordinates, he claimed, and they hadn’t reported any mistreatment to him. “I am ashamed of myself should these atrocities have happened,” he said. He admitted traveling on the march route on several occasions but claimed, “My memory on the point is somewhat obscure.” He denied seeing any corpses. “I was not looking for them particularly,” he explained.
The same day Homma took the stand, the defense got bad news when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in the Yamashita case. Since that case raised the same issues as Homma’s, it was now unlikely the high court would hear his lawyers’ motions.
As the trial neared its end, the defense tried to humanize its client by calling Homma’s 42-year-old wife, Fujiko, to testify that her husband wasn’t the kind of person to countenance atrocities. “I am proud of the fact that I am the wife of General Homma,” she said, as Homma wept at counsel table. Mrs. Homma, described by a reporter as a tiny kimono-clad woman who spoke “animatedly and earnestly,” was such a sympathetic figure, prosecutor Meek later remarked, that he was “never so glad in all my experiences in court to have a witness get off the stand.”
Homma’s wife, Fujiko—here at her husband’s side—testified on his behalf and later made a direct appeal to MacArthur to spare his life. (AP Photo/Max Desfor)
February 11 was decision day. Homma stood as the chief judge, Major General Leo Donovan, solemnly announced that they found him guilty and sentenced him to be “shot to death with musketry.”
That same day, the Supreme Court refused to hear Homma’s case, which removed the last legal obstacle to Homma being punished by military judges operating under the rules set by MacArthur’s headquarters. Two justices, Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge, disagreed and condemned the proceedings. “Hasty, revengeful action is not the American way,” they stated, and compared the trials of Homma and other Japanese officers to “blood purges” and “judicial lynchings.”
Homma’s fate now rested with MacArthur. As supreme commander, he would decide if Homma would be executed or spared. Fujiko Homma traveled to Tokyo to plead her husband’s case, and MacArthur met with her on March 11. She was a “cultured woman of great personal charm,” he said, and he called the meeting “one of the most trying hours of my life.” He promised to give “the gravest consideration” to what she had said.
Notwithstanding Mrs. Homma’s pleas, MacArthur affirmed the conviction and death sentence 10 days later. “If this defendant does not deserve his judicial fate, none in jurisdictional history ever did,” he stated. “There can be no greater, more heinous or more dangerous crime than the mass destruction, under guise of military authority…of helpless men.” As for the proceedings themselves, “no trial could have been fairer than this one,” MacArthur said.
The sentence was carried out at 1 a.m. on April 3, 1946, at Los Baños, a former internment camp south of Manila. MPs led Homma, hands bound behind his back, into the yard and tied him to a post. He was “calm and stoical,” a reporter noted, and refused to make a final statement. A black hood was placed over his head, and an army doctor put a four-inch round target over his heart. On command, 12 soldiers standing 15 paces away fired. “Army precision marked the grim, nearly silent drama,” the Associated Press reported.
SINCE 1946, HISTORIANS and legal commentators have had harsh words for Homma’s trial. The evidence was strong enough to allow the judges to find that Homma knew what his troops were doing, so the outcome might have been the same regardless of the circumstances. MacArthur’s pervasive role, however, created an unsettling appearance of unfairness and bias, leading to a preordained result.
Homma had beaten MacArthur on Bataan, the only time the Japanese had defeated the U.S. Army in a major campaign and the only battlefield loss MacArthur had ever suffered. The judges answered to MacArthur, and MacArthur’s rules of evidence wouldn’t have passed muster in an American court. An experienced prosecutor was pitted against a courtroom novice, and just one person—MacArthur—had the power to spare Homma’s life. The deck appeared to be stacked. D. Clayton James, a respected biographer of MacArthur, called the trial a miscarriage of justice, and William Manchester, another prominent MacArthur biographer, went so far as to conclude that Homma was convicted by a kangaroo court “which flouted justice with the Supreme Commander’s approval and probably at his urging.”
Sergeant Baldassarre, however, shed no tears. In fact, he didn’t understand why Homma deserved a trial at all. The Japanese “never trialed us. They killed people like flies” and gave the prisoners “nothing but bullets and bayonets,” he told reporters during the trial. To the crusty sergeant, a score had been settled.
Standing with his lead American attorney, Major John H. Skeen Jr., at left, Homma learns that he has been sentenced to be “shot to death with musketry.” (AP Photo/Max Desfor)