- Historic Sites
The Bonins—isles Of Contention
Americans settled early on the tiny, strategic Pacific islands, and dominate them again today. But the Japanese want them back
Februrary 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 2
American troops under Marine Colonel Presley M. Rixey arrived in October to begin the repatriation of Japanese soldiers, and in the tedious days that followed, victors and vanquished played baseball on the scarred small-plane airstrip. With Rixey came Fred Savory, great grandson of Nathaniel, to work as an interpreter. One of Rixey’s tasks was to find out what had happened to several American flyers shot down over the Bonins. Savory and other islanders had heard gruesome rumors in Japan during the last months of the war. General Tachibana insisted that some of the prisoners had been sent to Japan and that the others had lost their lives during American air raids, but Rixey, prompted by Savory, investigated further. His findings were that Tachibana and some of his subordinates had ordered the pilots executed by bayonetting and decapitation; that two of the bodies had been dismembered, and that Major Matoba Sueo served human flesh in his officers’ mess. Nothing in modern international law prescribed a penalty for ritual cannibalism, but the penalty for murder was death. Tachibana, Matoba, and three other officers were hanged in 1947 after a war-crimes trial on Guam.
Under the terms of the Allies’ Cairo Declaration of 1943, Japan, once defeated, was to be stripped of all Pacific islands seized or occupied by her since World War I. The Potsdam Declaration of 1945 limited Japanese sovereignty to the home islands, leaving the fate of the outliers to be determined later. After the war the United States Navy was given the responsibility of administering the Bonins and the Volcanoes, as well as the islands of the former Japanese mandate in Micronesia.
The Navy simply designated the Bonins a closed area. No plans were made to bring back the seven thousand Japanese civilians who had lived on Chichi Jima and Haha Jima before the war. But what would happen to the islanders from Yankeetown? Fred Savory drafted a petition to the Stäte-War-Navy Coordinating Committee in Washington, asking that they be allowed to go home. The Navy approved, arguing that the islanders had been at Chichi Jima for generations, whereas most of the Japanese civilians were recent immigrants, supported only by military expenditure. The Yankeetown settlers deserved special consideration. Their western blood had left them open to persecution in Japan during the war, and several of them had been useful to the Allies after the war, helping to convict Japanese war criminals. They were an easily identifiable special group, and their numbers did not pose serious problems. In October, 1946, about one hundred and thirty islanders returned to Chichi Jima, and Colonel Rixey flew the Stars and Stripes to welcome them.
The islanders were given Navy quonset huts to live in, and under the friendly eye of the Americans, the Savorys and their companions took up their interrupted life where they had left off in 1944. They regarded the islands and the coastal waters as theirs once more. Japanese boats venturing inside the three mile limit were likely to be fired at, and once the islanders shot and killed a poaching fisherman.
Soon after the end of the war the Japanese government began agitating for the return of their civilians to the Bonins. The Japanese-American treaty on 1952 allowed Japan “residual sovereignty” in all the southern islands, but left them under American administration. On Okinawa, the presence of a large American force did not entail the permanent exclusion of Japanese civilians, but in the Navy’s view American strategy in the Far East would be best served if the Bonins were empty of Japanese. Some men in the American State Department looked forward to the return of civilians to the Bonins, however, and when Robert Murphy was appointed United States Ambasador to Japan he intended to see that this was done “without delay.” But Admiral W. Eadford, miind by taking him on a cruiser tour of the Bonins and explaining their strategic importance.
At the beginning of the 1950’s the Navy was represented at the Bonins by a lone chief petty officer, who was assigned to help the Yankeetown fishermen put their port backin some kind of working condition. Year by year, however, the Navy incresed its strenght, creating by the end of the decade a top-secret base of unknown but obviously formidable capacity.
The Japanese government and the active League of Bonin Evacuees Hastening Repatriation looked uneasily at this development. They argued along two lines: complete sovereignty over the Bonins should be returned to Japan, and expatriated civilians should be allowed to go back to the Bonins. Most of the League’s members suffered economic hardship by being separated from their lands, and in October, 1955, they sent a delegation to Washington to press their case. They were countered a month later by four men from Yankeetown (two of them named Savory), who were flown by the Navy plane to the American capital: they petitioned, unsuccessfully, for the annexation of the Bonins by the united States and the grant of American citizenship to the islanders. In their minds the worst possible thing that could happen would be a new wave of Japanese immigration. As old Wilson Savory put it later, the islanders would be forced onto the beach “to eat coral dust.”