Skip to main content

The Trial Of General Homma

June 2024
31min read

Was he the Beast of Bataan, or was his true war crime defeating Douglas MacArthur? A troubling look at the problems of military justice

On the morning of December 16, 1945, Lt. Robert Pelz steeled himself to meet a monster. A young Army lawyer not long out of Columbia Law School, Pelz was stationed in Manila, where he had been assigned to work on the trial of the most notorious Japanese war criminal of them all: Masaharu Homma, the general who had handed America a staggering military defeat—the surrender of the Bataan Peninsula on the Philippine island of Luzon. Homma’s trial was to begin on January 3, 1946, in less than a month.

Pelz dreaded the prospect of defending him. Widely referred to as the Beast of Bataan, Homma was the man thought responsible for the deaths of nearly 10,000 starving American and Filipino prisoners who were marched in sweltering heat from Bataan to squalid concentration camps in central Luzon. This catastrophic relocation of POWs had become universally known as the Bataan Death March.

In mid-September 1945, shortly after the Japanese surrender, American forces apprehended Homma in Japan and flew him in secrecy to Manila to stand trial. Now, three months later, Robert Pelz and four other khaki-clad lawyers on Homma’s appointed legal team waited to meet their defendant inside the High Commissioner’s Palace, the very building the general had used as his residence and headquarters during the invasion four years earlier.

The door swung open, and Homma entered. A figure of striking good looks, he was 57 years old. Tall for a Japanese man at the time, he stood just over six feet and wore a crisp cream-colored business suit. The general gave a deep bow and removed from his coat pocket a speech he had prepared. Reading in a soft, dignified voice that was unexpectedly high-pitched, he thanked the assembled lawyers for their impartiality and expressed gratitude to the United States Army for providing him with a defense team. The general was fluent in English, Pelz noted, and spoke with a British accent.

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 Guantánamo.) 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.

One of the events that put him there: American and Filipino prisoners struggle toward Camp O’Donnell in April 1942 on what became known as the Bataan Death March.
associated press2007_1_35

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.

Against their expectations, Pelz and his colleagues took an almost immediate liking to the general. In his diary, Pelz wrote that Homma was “charming” and a man of “obviously high character.”

It was an odd twist of fate that General Homma should have been assigned to attack the American-held Philippines in the first place. He had been openly pro-Western before the war, a self-described Anglophile who had lived for years as a military attaché in Oxford and London, and he was widely known as the most Europeanized of all the Japanese generals.

The more Homma talked about his life, the more captivated Pelz became by this surprising man. The general seemed to have traveled everywhere and known nearly everyone of consequence. He had been at the coronation of King George VI, had been to Palestine and Afghanistan, and had lived for years in India. He’d met Gandhi, Churchill, and Mussolini. During one of his several trips across the United States, he had been led to the top of the newly built Empire State Building by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.

Homma had already laid out many of the arguments for his own defense. Pelz saw in Homma’s pensive round face a resolve to fight the judgment of history. Writing of this first meeting in his diary, Pelz said the general “was obviously nervous and eager. He looked like a tired old grandfather who had girded himself for a last battle.” At the same time, Homma seemed to recognize that this battle was probably unwinnable. He wrote in his journal, morosely: “Justice is not applicable to the defeated. They will start the trial on the assumption that I am guilty… . There is no hope at all that I’ll be saved. There is no possibility. At night I feel dizzy from despair.”

A captured Japanese painting shows Gen. Jonathan Wainwright surrendering to Homma, May 6, 1942.
u.s. air force2007_1_37

Today Robert Pelz is 88 years old. Three years ago I met him at his law offices on Park Avenue in Manhattan, where he was a senior partner in the firm of Loeb & Loeb, focusing primarily on trusts and corporate matters. He is a dapper man with a sardonic wit and black eyebrows that arch and squirm like furry caterpillars above his thick glasses. He lives in the New York suburb of Purchase, in Westchester County, and plays golf regularly. He has a taste for fine Honduran cigars, and when he is smoking, he can look strikingly like Groucho Marx. By his office desk he kept a framed photograph of Masaharu Homma from the days of the trial, the image signed by the general in a florid hand.

Pelz picked up the photograph and studied it for a moment. “Funny to say, but Homma was a nice man, a gentleman.”

We went around the corner to one of Pelz’s favorite lunch spots, the Four Seasons, and over his usual dry martini he talked about the general and the sensational war-crimes trial that had launched his career nearly 60 years earlier. He was 27 then, the son of a Brooklyn banker hard hit by the Depression. Pelz was barely a lawyer then—he had only recently passed the New York bar—but somehow he’d ended up on Homma’s defense team, an impressionable young lieutenant handed what would be, in many ways, the most fascinating case of his career. Of the five lawyers who represented the general, Robert Pelz is the sole survivor. “You caught me just in the nick of time, before my memory goes,” he told me with a wry smile.

MacArthur chose the venue, the jury, and the rules of evidence in the trial of a man who had beaten him on the battlefield.

Pelz recalled the charged atmosphere in Manila. “The war hysteria had not ended. ‘The Beast of Bataan’—it was all over the newspapers.” The trial was also overshadowed by an unmistakable sense of personal vendetta. Although Douglas MacArthur was not there—he was ensconced in Tokyo, running the American occupation—his powerful and often grandiose persona was vividly felt in the courtroom and indeed everywhere in Manila, the city he had long called his home. Four years after the fact, the fall of Bataan remained a torment to MacArthur. It had been the largest surrender in American history with the exception of Appomattox. By the time his men laid down their arms in the spring of 1942, MacArthur had been safely evacuated to Australia to rebuild the Army, uttering his famous line “I shall return.” He had returned, and in a sense, he was still fighting General Homma.

In 1945 Pelz already held a jaundiced view of MacArthur, whom he called “the Great I Am,” and his opinion hasn’t changed in 60 years. “A conceited ass,” he told me, “a fine general, and a terrible man.”

Homma in Egypt in the mid-1930s; he was probably more widely traveled than any other Japanese general.
courtesy of masahiko homma2007_1_38

For Homma’s lawyers, it was not enough to show that Homma had no knowledge of the war crimes in question. His trial would turn on the slippery concept of “command responsibility.” As the commander in the field, the court asserted, Homma was liable for crimes of commission and omission; even if he was technically innocent, he should have known what was happening and done something to stop it. No enemy of an American army had ever been tried in a capital case under so sweeping a premise.

Certainly it was not a concept that American armies have ever applied to themselves. (To raise a modern analogy, by the interpretation of command responsibility asserted in the Homma trial, Gen. Tommy Franks could be held directly responsible for the abuses that occurred at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib Prison and the more than 30 homicides that have reportedly occurred among Afghani and Iraqi prisoners while in U.S. custody.)

Pelz spent the better part of two months with Masaharu Homma, meeting with him nearly every day, and like all his colleagues on the defense team, he grew close to the general. Immediately following the trial, he escorted Homma’s distraught wife, Fujiko, back to Tokyo and was a guest in the general’s home on the outskirts of the ruined city. He met Homma’s family and friends and got a sense of his broad and often surprising world. Over the years, he would maintain a correspondence with the Homma family.

In time Pelz came to regard Homma as a complicated, ambiguous, and thoroughly ill-starred man who had not received anything like a fair trial. The seemingly clear-cut case of the “Beast of Bataan” pointed up the enormous difficulties that can arise when the U.S. Army ignores American traditions of due process and unilaterally arrogates to itself the right to try—and condemn—an adversary.

What’s more, Homma proved a thoroughly unsatisfactory villain. Here was a figure out of Shakespearean tragedy, an aesthete fighting a war he did not believe in, for a totalitarian regime he detested, and yet, in the end, having to answer with his life for that regime’s savagery.

General Homma and his defender Robert Pelz, who, to his surprise, became friendly with his client.
courtesy of robert pelz2007_1_39

Masaharu Homma came from a military tradition. He was the son of wealthy landowners, and his rise to prominence had been controversial and erratic, marred by his liaisons with beautiful but socially undesirable women. Among his various posts, he had served as head of the Army Propaganda Department in the mid-1930s, when he befriended Japan’s foremost writers, painters, and dramatists. His colleagues viewed him as fiercely intelligent, highly principled, and vaguely effeminate. He had a habit of composing verse during the heat of battle. Within the 14th Imperial Army he was widely known as the Poet General.

People close to Homma thought him temperamentally unsuited for the demands of his chosen profession. Friends told his Japanese biographer that they hated to go to movies with Homma because he would often “put his handkerchief to his face and cry endlessly.” Masahiko Homma, one of his sons, remembered that his father once tore down a sharply pointed bamboo fence at the family house because he was suddenly seized with the notion that it “looked cruel.”

Several years ago, while writing a book about survivors of the Bataan Death March, I went to meet Masahiko Homma at the general’s birthplace, Sado Island, off the coast of Honshu. This is a magical realm dotted with temples and crumbling shrines. The people of Sado speak a dialect that is said to be closer in cadence and intonation to ancient Japanese, and the island’s folktales and No rituals preserve customs that have largely disappeared on the mainland.

General Homma remains a hero here. After all, he is the only Japanese general who ever decisively defeated an American army. Masahiko Homma still lives in the general’s elegant wooden house, which was built in 1881 and is set on a tangled green hilltop in the village of Hatano. On the morning I arrived, I could see a misty panorama of rice paddies stretching to the sea, an impressive sweep of terraced land that has been in the Homma family for hundreds of years.

The author stands next to the shrine dedicated to Homma on Sado Island.
author’s collection2007_1_40

Masahiko Homma looks a lot like his father: the same air of quiet erudition, the same round face and penetrating gaze. A taut, owlish man well into his eighties, Masahiko graciously entertained me for several days. Pouring endless cups of green tea, he and his wife showed me the general’s letters and photographs, his medals, his Imperial Army sword.

Like his father, like every Japanese man of his generation, Masahiko Homma was also a soldier in the Imperial Army. In 1943 his unit was captured by Russian troops in the Kuril Islands, north of Japan, and shipped to the Soviet Far East to slave in Siberian work camps. More than 60,000 Japanese soldiers died in captivity. Homma remained a Soviet prisoner in Siberia for five years before being released to go home to Sado.

It was only then, as an ex-POW returning to American-occupied Japan and still recovering from an ordeal of unimaginable mistreatment, that he learned the bitter irony of his family’s fate: His own father had been tried by the United States for the crime of mistreating POWs. Masahiko took his own path after he returned home, becoming a Christian and a committed pacifist and then adopting a quiet life as a schoolteacher on Sado. He almost never spoke of his father.

In a tranquil wooded spot close to the Homma homeplace is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the general. The discreet stone obelisk was established by the family after the war, and locks of the general’s hair and other personal remnants that Fujiko had brought back from the Philippines were entombed beneath it. What happened to Homma’s body was never reported.

One afternoon during my visit Masahiko went to pay his respects. “Father was always kind to me,” he said, through a translator. “He used to take me to baseball games in Tokyo. It was not unusual in those days for fathers to strike their sons to discipline them, but he never did.” Masahiko blinked. “If Father had a fault, that was it: He was too sweet to be a disciplinarian.”

After a long day of interviews we went to dinner at a nearby restaurant that specializes in fresh abalone cooked in the traditional Sado style. Having removed our shoes, we all took our places around the low table. A waiter came and lit Bunsen burners beneath four glistening abalones served on the half-shell, one for each place setting. Soon there was a crackling sound and a slight singeing smell, and then the four large mollusks began to curl, almost rhythmically, against the heat.

Masahiko Homma, the general’s son, and his wife.
author’s collection2007_1_40a

It was then that I realized that our abalones were not only freshly opened but still alive, and they were writhing in reaction to being cooked in their shells. After five minutes of this, my abalone seemed to give one final gasp of life and then fell limp in its shell. The whole spectacle was strangely elegant, and at the same time it was a horrible thing to watch. My translator, a Buddhist priest, said, “It looks cruel, but here on Sado, there is no other way to eat abalone.”

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 war-damaged 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, hand-picked 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.”

People close to Homma thought him temperamentally unsuited for the demands of his chosen profession.

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 far-reaching repercussions.”

The trial was held in the High Commissioner’s residence in Manila. Homma and his attorneys are at the far left.
courtesy of robert pelz2007_1_42

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 cigarette 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.”

The poet general was born on January 28, 1888. From the time he was a little boy, he wanted to be a writer, and by high school he had published poems and short stories in Tokyo magazines. But in 1905, when he was 17, the Russo-Japanese War broke out; as Homma put it, “the pitch of patriotism was raised to the highest degree,” and he decided to pursue a career in the military. In 1907 he graduated from the Military Academy in Tokyo at the top of his class.

A few years later Homma attended the prestigious Imperial Army Staff College, graduating with highest honors. One of his classmates there was Hideki Tojo, the intensely ambitious future prime minister who would lead Japan into its ruinous war with the West. Homma hated him. “His dogmatic character was deeply repugnant to me, and his pro-German idea was widely in variance with my liberal [views].”

In 1913 Homma married Toshiko Tamura, the theatrical daughter of a famous geisha and a prominent general. The following year they had their first child, Michio, and soon thereafter Masahiko was born. Homma was attached to the Imperial General Staff and in 1918 was sent overseas to study English as a military attaché to Great Britain, which was then a Japanese ally.

Attached to a British unit, the young Japanese captain was taken to the Western Front and got a glimpse of the Great War in its waning days. He was in London for Armistice Day and, as an officer of an Allied power, took part in the royal victory procession.

Later that year he received a devastating letter from his mother: She was now raising his two sons on Sado Island because his wife, Toshiko, had become a prostitute in Tokyo.

Reluctantly Homma sought a divorce, and Toshiko was required to renounce her two sons. Homma freely sent her the handsome sum that her lawyers demanded. When it was all over, he told a friend, “I have paid for the funeral of my love.”

After serving with a unit in the British regular army, Homma became an assistant to the Japanese military attaché in London, a post that had him traveling all over Europe—Paris, Brussels, Berlin, Rome. In the summer of 1922 he was promoted to major and sent to New Delhi, where he lived for three years as the Japanese resident officer in what he called “the most fascinating country in the world.”

At the end of his Indian duty, Homma returned to Japan, and in 1926 he married a wealthy young divorcée named Fujiko Takata. A calm, radiant, bright-eyed woman with porcelain skin, Fujiko was the daughter of a major Japanese paper manufacturer, and she had traveled widely in the United States.

Although out of favor with the increasingly fervid ideologues who ran the Japanese military, Homma continued to rise within the Army ranks. In 1941 Tojo became prime minister, and the military began to tighten its grip on the nation. Tokyo pressed on with a grinding campaign in Manchuria, despite a crippling oil embargo placed against it by the Western powers. Everywhere there was talk of war. Homma was ordered to command the 14th Imperial Army and was informed in November of 1941 that he would have only a matter of weeks to prepare for his assignment: Wrest the Philippines from the Americans.

Fujiko Homma takes the stand in her husband’s defense; she charmed even the flinty members of the jury.
courtesy of robert pelz2007_1_44

“War against the USA would be a disaster, I knew, but I could not show any feeling in it, as … I would have been called a traitor,” Homma wrote. “Tojo [did] not understand Anglo-Saxon temperament and its potential strength… . Japan was already exhausted from its prolonged war in China and was not in a position to wage another against the U.S. and Great Britain. It was sheer madness.”

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 head-quarters 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.

General Homma stands to hear the verdict.
national archives2007_1_45

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.”

That same week in February, Homma’s wife, Fujiko, flew to Manila to testify as a character witness in his behalf. It was unheard of for a traditional Japanese woman to thrust herself into the limelight in this way, but Homma’s lawyers thought her appearance in court might engender sympathy for the general. The defense lawyers were immediately impressed with Fujiko. In his diary, Pelz describes her as “graceful,” “a charming lady,” noting that she “seems to carry her load beautifully. She makes a wonderful impression wherever she goes … with her sweet smile.”

To Homma’s surprise, the Army granted his request to allow his wife to visit him privately one night at the High Commissioner’s Palace. The meeting took place on the evening of February 15. Homma walked into the room carrying a cigarette box and an album of family photographs. They greeted each other with intense but restrained emotion and talked about their children and friends back in Tokyo. Homma was cheerful, she recalled, but he entertained no illusions about his fate. “I would like my funeral to be quiet, with only the family present,” he told her. “I don’t need a very big tomb either.”

Fujiko said, “Masaharu, we will be dining together at home again before too long.”

Homma shook his head. He told her, “I was amazed to hear the prosecutors describing so many details, with such long lists of Japanese atrocities. The case is quite hopeless.” He said that he had never ordered any war crimes but that he was “willing to take part of the responsibility for my subordinates’ actions. It would please me to join the souls of the millions of Japanese soldiers who fell on the battlefields.”

Homma remains a hero on Sado Island; he is, after all, the only Japanese general to ever decisively defeat an American army.

Homma handed Fujiko the cigarette box, and they said their good-byes. When Fujiko returned to her quarters, she opened the box to find two envelopes. One contained clippings of her husband’s fingernails, the other a lock of his hair. According to the historian Arthur Swinson, who researched the circumstances of Homma’s life and death for his 1969 book, Four Samurai , Fujiko knew precisely what these effects meant. “As he had explained to her just before leaving,” Swinson wrote, “his belief was that the Americans would refuse to hand over his body; and these fragments were all he could offer as a relic for the funeral rites. The pathetic fragments which would release his soul and enable him to join the gods.”

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.”

Q. Did you take this matter up with General Homma?

A. I did not consult him.

However, a month later, when Wada made another inspection and found that the camp commandant had made few or no improvements, he testified that as soon as he returned to headquarters, he made a report to Homma.

Q. What did General Homma say?

A. He said that that was very unsatisfactory. He told me to study the plans and find some solution. Relieving the camp commandant came first, and General Homma also told me to study how we might pursue a policy of generally releasing prisoners of war.

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.”

General Homma is led out of the courtroom for the last time.
national archives2007_1_45a

A few years ago, while living in Tokyo as a media fellow of the Japan Society, I had the opportunity to meet Moriya Wada. Hard of hearing and nearly blind, he was, he said, “walking toward the mountain of 93 years.” He smiled and said, “Everyone is dead; all my colleagues have died. I’m the only one left.” He recalled that when he arrived in Manila to testify, “the American lawyers were very kind to me. And I was pleased to see how well everyone treated Fujiko.” Wada expressed great regret that the Death March had happened, although he was emphatic that the whole event was unintentional.

“Perhaps Homma’s orders were not thorough enough,” Wada told me. “Perhaps they were not getting through all the way down to the soldiers. At the time we were all involved in shortsighted plans for war. But we should have done more to collect food and water. When the Americans stumbled out of the jungle, we were not ready for them. There were four times as many prisoners as we had planned for, and they were in much worse condition than we had ever imagined.”

Wada looked down at his shoes and shuffled them back and forth, awkwardly. “The Japanese soldiers were all desperate, just like the Americans,” he said. “But we should have done more. Yes, it is true, we should have done more.”

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-in-chief 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 court-martial 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.”

Fujiko Homma was the final witness to take the stand. Wearing a formal black kimono, her hair pulled back in a tight bun, she shuffled elegantly toward the witness chair in traditional sandals with white split-toed socks. Once she sat down, she gazed across the room at her husband and smiled warmly. As the translators reworded the questions, she stared in intense concentration at the ceiling, blinking rapidly, sometimes craning her neck to hear better.

“He told me often,” she said, “military force is a thing which should be used to defend the Mother Land. He also said this, ‘If a country engages in a war of invasion, that country will inevitably lose.’” She talked about their life together, his love of music and art and drama, his Buddhist faith, his political ideas, and his long-standing differences with Tojo.

The entire courtroom seemed captivated. “She was mesmerizing,” Robert Pelz told me.

At one point Fujiko gazed again at Homma and said, “Although my husband is in this court as an accused, yet I still feel honored that he chose me as his wife. I have a 17-year-old daughter and I pray to God that she will find such a fine man to marry as Masaharu Homma.”

As she left the courtroom, she turned and gave a deep bow to the five members of the military commission. Several of the generals smiled at her, and one of them even bowed back. Later that day Pelz spoke to a Bataan veteran, a Major Tisdale, who had carefully listened to Fujiko’s testimony. “She is a lovely woman,” Tisdale agreed, “but she does not really know her husband. I kept seeing the tortured bodies of my friends as she spoke.”

“There is no hope at all that I’ll be saved,” Homma wrote. “There is no possibility. At night I feel dizzy from despair.”

The following day 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 Homma 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 au 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.

A U.S. Supreme Court justice said of the trial: “Tomorrow the precedent here established can be turned against others.”

The same day as the verdict and sentence were handed down in Manila, some 7,000 miles away in Washington the United States Supreme Court declared that it would not intervene in the Homma case. But two justices, Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge, strongly dissented. Justice Murphy’s lengthy remarks were uncharacteristically strident. He argued that “this nation’s very honor is at stake. Either we conduct such a trial as this in the spirit and atmosphere of our Constitution or we abandon all pretense to justice, let the ages slip away and descend to the level of revengeful blood purges. Apparently the die has been cast in favor of the latter course.” Justice Murphy concluded: “Tomorrow the precedent here established can be turned against others… . No one can foresee the end of this failure of objective thinking and adherence to our high hopes of a new world… . A nation must not perish because, in the natural frenzy of the aftermath of war, it abandoned its central theme of the dignity of the human personality and due process of law.”

On the same day as the Supreme Court’s announcement, 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.”

Years later Fujiko related part of the conversation to the historian Arthur Swinson.

“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.”

In late March Homma jotted a note to his children back in Japan. “This is the last letter your father will leave you in this life. There is so much I want to say about what is called Anglo-Saxon justice, but I will not. The death penalty does not mean that I am guilty; it means, rather, that the United States has avenged itself to its satisfaction.”

Homma was moved from Manila to the tiny volcanic town of Los Baños to await his execution. On the evening of April 2, 1946, he stayed up late in his cell with a Japanese chaplain and several American MPs, drinking beer and eating sandwiches. He seemed in good spirits. “Here’s to you,” he said at one point, raising a glass and smiling at his companions. “Please congratulate me on the start of a new life.”

On one occasion, however, the general became cross. “I am being executed for the Bataan incident,” he said. “What I want to know is: Who was responsible for the burning of 150,000 innocent civilians at Hiroshima—MacArthur or Truman?”

If it was one of MacArthur’s intentions to render his adversary a historical nonentity, he seems to have succeeded. When I visited Los Baños a few years ago, I found that Homma’s execution site was all but forgotten, and so overgrown with jungle that I had to hack my way there with a machete. And when I lived in Japan, the Poet General seemed to be an obscure figure everywhere but on Sado.

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. Many of the scholars and historians I interviewed tended to dismiss and even scoff at the issue of their country’s widespread mistreatment of Allied POWs; one prominent historian I spoke to alluded patronizingly to “your so-called Death March.” Like Homma on the night of his execution, people in Japan consistently raised the issue: Why weren’t Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes? And what about the firebombing of Tokyo, in which 100,000 civilians died in a single night? The answer, they suggested, was simple: Because the United States won. 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 Hiro-hito 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.

After escorting General Homma’s wife back to Japan, Robert Pelz came home to New York to pursue his legal career. He kept up an active correspondence with Fujiko Homma until her death. As a successful Manhattan corporate attorney he never returned to the sticky subject of adjudicating war crimes. Yet what he has heard from Guantánamo troubles him; the sweeping authorities the Army has ascribed to itself, the apparent lapses in due process, the liberal use of hearsay and affidavits, seem all too familiar to him.

One afternoon we were smoking cigars up in his “sanctum sanctorum,” as he calls it, a room over his garage in Purchase he built for his daily tobacco indulgences. Pelz was leafing through his scrapbook. “It was an impossible case to try. Clarence Darrow couldn’t have won it,” he said. “Because one way or another the Army was going to get its conviction. You could feel MacArthur’s presence.”

And yet there was about Homma’s life a paradox, I suggested, the paradox of “the chrysanthemum and the sword,” in the phrase of the famous Japanese observer Ruth Benedict. Like eating abalones in the Sabo style, his life was characterized by an odd commingling of elegance and cruelty. I asked Pelz how such an obviously civilized man could have allowed such barbarities? If he didn’t know what his troops were up to, then why didn’t he? What was it about the Japanese Army of his day, or the shortcomings of his personality, that permitted an environment of moral drift in which such events could happen?

Pelz drew on his cigar. “I don’t know. I’m convinced that he was not aware of these things. As the military commander, he should have known. He should have sought out that intelligence. He of all people. But at the same time, command responsibility is such a tricky legal concept. Where does it end? MacArthur certainly wouldn’t take responsibility for everything that happened under his own command. No general would.”

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 general 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.



Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.