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 known as the “good prototype … of the hard-bitten, sardonic ‘previous Military common,’” had watched Japanese guards torture and homicide his fellow prisoners through the Bataan Loss of life March in April 1942, and he had endured greater than three brutal years as a prisoner of warfare, swearing to remain alive to see his captors get what they deserved. 

Now, on Jan. 9, 1946, he was within the Philippine capital of Manila to testify on the war-crimes trial of Masaharu Homma, the Japanese basic who commanded the troopers who had brutalized 1000’s of helpless American and Filipino prisoners through the march 4 years earlier. There was little question the place Baldassarre stood.

“They need to hold the person. He’s a no-good son of a bitch. I ought to pull the rope …. Ship him to me. I’ll repair him up,” he instructed reporters exterior the courtroom. 

Homma’s protection attorneys portrayed their shopper as an out-of-touch commander, saved in the dead of night concerning the atrocities his troops had been committing. The prosecutors, nevertheless, believed Homma knew about his males’s barbarity and had chosen to disregard it. 

Dozens of survivors had been lined as much as testify towards Homma, so prosecutors would have little hassle proving the horrors of the march — however extra was wanted. The case hinged on a cloudier difficulty: Might Baldassarre and different witnesses hyperlink Homma to the atrocities of the march by displaying Homma doubtless knew what his males had been doing and had turned a blind eye to it? The reply may decide whether or not Homma lived or died.

HOMMA and the Philippines

AT THE START OF THE WAR, Japan focused the Philippine islands, an American possession since 1898. Tokyo assigned Lt. Gen. Homma and his 14th Military to seize the islands, and anticipated the marketing campaign to take not more than 50 days. Homma’s opponent was Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the American and Filipino troops within the Philippines.

Born in 1888, Homma was a profession soldier and a person of eclectic pursuits. A tall, stern-looking man, he had graduated from Japan’s army academy in 1907 and from its military employees school in 1916, and had served as army attaché to London from 1930-32. He spoke fluent English, loved Western literature, wrote poetry, and was an avid tennis participant. 

On Dec. 10, 1941, the primary Japanese infantry troops invaded the Philippines when a small power of Homma’s males landed on northern Luzon, the primary island. They rapidly confirmed how brutal they may very well be. His troopers entered the workplace of Buenaventura Bello, 51, an administrator at Northern Faculty in Vigan. They ordered him to take away the American and Philippine flags from his workplace, however he refused.

“These arms are made to defend them and by no means to tug them down,” he stated.

A soldier shot him within the groin. (Bello survived.)


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Macarthur’s protection

Homma’s primary landings had been at Lingayen Gulf, north of Manila, on Dec. 22, and, two days later, at Lamon Bay, to the south. MacArthur deserted Manila on Dec. 26, declaring it an open metropolis to spare civilians from assault, and withdrew his forces into the 25-mile-long Bataan Peninsula, throughout Manila Bay from the capital. Homma misinterpret the retreat because the disorganized flight of defeated troops, nevertheless it was a deliberate withdrawal by troopers able to combat. MacArthur had anticipated making a stand on Bataan if his males couldn’t cease the Japanese on the invasion seashores; mountainous Bataan was well-suited for protection, and MacArthur supposed to carry it. 

A tall and putting determine, Homma (middle) seems on Jan. 20, 1942, with Jorge B. Vargas, a Filipino politician who later served as an administrator through the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Japan’s invasion had begun the prior month. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)

From January 1942 onward, MacArthur’s American and Filipino troops maintained their grip on Bataan, withstanding repeated Japanese assaults, and by early February, Homma realized he wanted extra males. Tokyo was already impatient with him for the marketing campaign’s sluggish progress, and Homma was ashamed to wish reinforcements. 

Whereas MacArthur’s troops continued to stymie the enemy, their state of affairs was rising dire. A Japanese blockade of the Philippines meant the lads needed to make do with what they’d. Meals was in brief provide. Rations had been lower to 2,000 energy per day in January, about half of what a soldier wanted; by March, they had been right down to 1,000 energy per day — “nearly sufficient to maintain a person alive if he stays in mattress,” Military docs stated. Medicines started to run low, and malaria and dysentery took their toll.

Homma’s Plan

As soon as Homma had his reinforcements in hand, he deliberate a remaining offensive for early April. Assured of victory, he had his employees devise a plan to move the American and Filipino troopers he anticipated to seize on Bataan to jail camp. Underneath the plan, prisoners would assemble at Balanga, about 19 miles north of the southern tip of Bataan. From Balanga, they might march about 35 miles north to San Fernando. From there, they might journey by rail to a jail camp in central Luzon. On paper, the plan ready by Homma’s employees known as for humane therapy of the prisoners, a employees officer insisted. 

Japanese troops advance to the entrance in Bataan in preparation for Homma’s huge April 3, 1942, offensive; defenders surrendered
days later. Regardless of assurances of “kindly” therapy (beneath), throngs of POWs had been then subjected to the horrors of the Bataan Loss of life March. (Naval Historical past and Heritage Command)
(U.S. Air Pressure)

The U.S. Struggle Division, too, knew the tip was close to, and in March 1942 had ordered MacArthur to evacuate to Australia to keep away from his seize by the Japanese. Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright changed MacArthur, and Maj. Gen. Edward P. King Jr. was put in command on Bataan. 

On April 3, 1942, Homma launched his offensive, and his troops sliced via Allied strains. The American and Filipino defenders not had the energy to combat. Nearly each man suffered from the consequences of extended hunger in addition to from malaria or dysentery, the chief medical officer, Col. Wibb Cooper, recounted. Most had misplaced 20 to 30 kilos, and commanders estimated that many weren’t match sufficient to stroll 100 yards with out resting.

On April 9, 1942, Gen. King surrendered the roughly 75,000 troops on Bataan, the biggest give up in American historical past. He put aside U.S. Military vehicles and vehicles to move his males to jail camp, however the Japanese refused to make use of them. When King sought assurances that the Japanese would deal with his males humanely, an officer replied, “We’re not barbarians.”

However, King had motive to fret as a result of Homma’s males had already proven that they usually performed by their very own guidelines. They’d continued to bomb Manila after MacArthur had deserted it. Prisoners of warfare had been executed, and Japanese planes had focused an Military hospital marked with a crimson cross. 

POW Hell

THE PLIGHT OF THE BATAAN PRISONERS rapidly degenerated into chaos. The Japanese had anticipated not more than 40,000 prisoners, however the quantity was almost double that, they usually hadn’t anticipated simply how malnourished and sick the lads had been.

The principle downside, nevertheless, was that Japanese troopers considered their captives with contempt. As Homma himself admitted, the Japanese military handled give up as the last word shame, and its troopers had been taught to die quite than capitulate. Contempt led to harsh therapy. In accordance with historian Charles A. Stenger, through the warfare, 40.4% of the American servicemen held by the Japanese died in captivity, whereas the dying fee for these held by Germany was 1.2%. 

Homma had different issues on his thoughts, and “curiosity and consideration for Prisoners of Struggle was ‘skinny’ from Homma on down,” stated Col. Toshimitsu Takatsu, one in every of Homma’s employees officers. Homma’s job wouldn’t be accomplished till he seized Corregidor, the island fortress within the mouth of Manila Bay. So long as Allied forces held Corregidor, the Japanese couldn’t use Manila Bay, one of many most interesting harbors in Asia. Due to mounting strain from Tokyo, Homma turned preoccupied with Corregidor. Prisoners needed to be faraway from Bataan rapidly in order that he may convey troops and provides to southern Bataan for an amphibious assault on the island. 


Guards handled prisoners and civilians with savage fury. Sgt. Michael Bruaw heard a gaggle of 25 prisoners scream as guards used them for bayonet observe. Maj. Richard Kadel noticed a terrified Filipino household of eight flee when shells from Corregidor exploded close by. A patrol caught them, and an officer held a child by the legs as he sliced off the toddler’s head together with his sword. His males compelled the opposite seven to kneel as they beheaded them one after the other. 

American and Filipino prisoners marched in teams of 100 up Bataan’s two-lane Previous Nationwide Street towards Balanga and San Fernando. Males struggled to maintain up, however they’d no selection as a result of the choice was dying. Guards, whom the prisoners known as “buzzard squads,” completed off those that couldn’t go on. 

Sgt. Baldassarre noticed a colonel stagger off the highway, muttering, “I can’t make the hike anymore.” Earlier than he went 6 toes, a guard shot him. The identical destiny befell a lieutenant who stumbled off the route murmuring, “I’m all in.” Sgt. Horace Clark watched a soldier he knew as “Large Smitty” drop from exhaustion. Large Smitty’s pals tried to select him up, however guards chased them away as one other guard beheaded the helpless soldier. Maj. Bertram Financial institution helped carry a weakened lieutenant colonel; a guard compelled Financial institution to drop the person, after which drove a bayonet via the colonel. 

The facet of the highway alongside the route quickly turned suffering from corpses that remained unburied for days. Within the 18-mile stretch between Balanga and Lubao, for instance, Sgt. Baldassarre noticed lots of of American and Filipino our bodies. If a corpse stayed on the roadway, passing vehicles flattened it.

Japanese guards power Filipinos to view useless POWs. Remedy of prisoners was brutal from the beginning, with the Loss of life March claiming 1000’s of lives. (U.S. Marine Corps/Nationwide Archives)

Guards tormented the exhausted males by rushing up the march to double-time tempo. As Japanese vehicles handed by, troopers in them reached out with golf equipment to hit prisoners. Maj. Fred Castro noticed guards throw exhausted males right into a pit. One begged for mercy because the guards compelled prisoners to fill the pit with filth, burying them alive. Close to the Pantingan River, guards tied a number of hundred Filipino prisoners collectively and attacked them with swords and bayonets. Solely a handful survived.

The warmth drove prisoners mad with thirst. Artesian wells dotted the route, however guards beat or killed prisoners who tried to drink from them. Males turned so parched that they drank from streams stuffed with rotting corpses. Even relaxation breaks had a sadistic twist. Guards compelled prisoners to take a seat beneath the blistering solar with out shade, meals or water.
To Lt. William E. Dyess, a fighter pilot captured on Bataan, “we ceased to be males — extra like filthy, ravenous rabble.”

No REspite

Filipino civilians took pity on the prisoners.

“They might hardly stroll. A few of them, they had been carried by their companions,” stated Fernando Ocampo, an American-educated Filipino architect.

Ocampo and his sister introduced baskets of bananas, rice muffins and hard-boiled eggs to present to the prisoners, however a guard kicked the meals right into a ditch. When the captives scrambled to retrieve it, guards hit them with rifle butts. Prisoners noticed guards beat or kill different Filipino Good Samaritans. 

For many prisoners, the march to San Fernando took almost every week. The Japanese offered meals sparingly, if in any respect. Lt .Dyess, for instance, was fed just one mess equipment of rice your complete time. At San Fernando, the prisoners had been crammed into metal boxcars for the four-hour prepare journey to Camp O’Donnell, a former Philippine military base and now a jail camp. Dyess counted 115 males in a single automotive. Many suffered from dysentery, and the boxcar flooring had been coated with human waste. Guards saved the doorways locked, and males struggled to breathe the recent, fetid air. They arrived at Camp O’Donnell “dehydrated, starved and within the merest rags of clothes,” Brig. Gen. James R. N. Weaver reported. Nobody will ever know the precise variety of males who perished on the march and the journey to Camp O’Donnell; historians estimate the dying toll at 10,000. 

Deaths continued after the POWs arrived at their jail at Camp O’Donnell, the place, later within the warfare (prime), a U.S. soldier and a warfare correspondent uncovered crude grave markers. The atrocities remained unknown till Lieutenant William E. Dyess (beneath) escaped in 1943. (Bettmann/Getty Photographs)
William E. Dyess (U.S. Air Pressure)

At Camp O’Donnell, the struggling continued. The boys had been inadequately fed, and illness ran rampant. Reduction businesses introduced meals and medicines to the camp, however the Japanese saved these things for themselves. By June 2, 1942, greater than 25,000 American and Filipino prisoners had died at Camp O’Donnell.

Homma ended the marketing campaign by capturing Corregidor on Might 6, 1942. He had taken almost 5 months to complete a job anticipated to take not more than 50 days, and he paid together with his job. On Aug. 5, 1942, he was relieved and despatched residence to Japan, the place he spent the remainder of the warfare in retirement. 


THE U.S. GOVERNMENT and the American public didn’t be taught of the Loss of life March for greater than a yr. They acquired the information after Lieutenant Dyess escaped from Davao jail camp, on the Philippine island of Mindanao, in April 1943, made his approach to Australia, and gave the primary eyewitness account of the march. When his story hit newsstands on Jan. 28, 1944, it sparked a degree of anger not seen because the Pearl Harbor assault. President Franklin D. Roosevelt vowed that these accountable would pay. Congressmen vowed vengeance. The general public spoke with its pockets, and war-bond gross sales almost doubled. Homma had change into a marked man. 

As Japan’s formal Sept. 2, 1945, give up approached, MacArthur was despatched to Japan as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, and a part of his job was to supervise the trials of Japanese warfare criminals. On Sept. 11, he ordered the arrest of 40 suspects, Homma included. When Homma turned himself in 4 days later, he instructed reporters he was stunned to be on MacArthur’s record. As for the Loss of life March, he stated, “I don’t suppose it was such a troublesome march.” 

Normal Douglas MacArthur arrives at Japan’s Atsugi Air Base on August 30, 1945—a number of days earlier than the formal give up—to supervise the occupation as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. His authority included oversight of all Japanese war-crimes trials. (Nationwide Archives)

On Nov. 4, 1945, america charged Homma with a warfare crime for failing to “management the operations of the members of his command, letting them commit brutal atrocities and different excessive crimes” towards Filipino and American troopers and Allied civilians. The costs specified 47 separate acts of barbarity that included not solely the Loss of life March but in addition the mistreatment of civilians interned in Manila, neglect of prisoners at Camp O’Donnell, and the widespread abuse of Filipino civilians. If convicted, Homma may very well be sentenced to dying. 

On Dec. 15, 5 generals — 4 Individuals and one Filipino — had been chosen as judges for Homma’s trial. One, Philippine Maj. Gen. Basilio J. Valdes, had an axe to grind towards the Japanese. They’d murdered his brother, Alejo, once they mistook him for Basilio.

An skilled litigator, 53-year-old Lt. Col. Frank E. Meek, was named the lead prosecutor, heading a staff of 1 Filipino and 5 American officers. Maj. John H. Skeen Jr. was chosen to move the protection staff of six junior U.S. Military officers. Skeen, a 27-year-old lawyer who had by no means tried a legal case, had anticipated to rotate residence and wasn’t thrilled to be defending Homma. In a letter to his spouse, nevertheless, he promised to “give the S.O.B. all the things potential in the way in which of protection.”

All of the judges, prosecutors and protection attorneys served beneath MacArthur’s command.

In pretrial motions, Homma’s attorneys attacked the proceedings for quite a few causes, together with the principles of proof MacArthur’s headquarters had put in place. These guidelines, for instance, allowed the prosecutor to current affidavits in lieu of reside testimony — one thing impermissible in American courts as a result of it violated the accused’s proper to confront the witnesses towards him. The problems Homma’s attorneys raised had been already earlier than the U.S. Supreme Court docket within the case of Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita, who had been sentenced on Dec. 7, 1945, to hold for the brutal acts his males dedicated when Allied forces retook Manila earlier that yr. 

Homma’s legal professionals additionally challenged MacArthur’s pervasive position within the proceedings: Not solely had he ordered the trial, with the judges, prosecutors, and protection attorneys all serving beneath him, but when a dying sentence had been imposed, MacArthur would determine if it could be carried out. Since Homma had overwhelmed MacArthur on Bataan, they argued, MacArthur’s position within the proceedings created the looks that the trial was about revenge for that defeat, not justice. The judges denied these motions and ordered the case to proceed. 

witness to reality

THE TRIAL BEGAN on Jan. 3, 1946, in Manila’s excessive commissioner’s residence, nonetheless pockmarked with injury from the combating to recapture Manila. To Lt. Robert L. Pelz, one of many protection attorneys, the 57-year-old Homma appeared like “a tired-out grandfather who has girded his loins for a final battle.” 

Nobody contended that Homma had ordered any atrocities or participated in any. He was charged as a result of he commanded the lads who had dedicated these crimes and had accomplished nothing to cease them. Whereas a commander’s responsibility to manage his troops was well-established, the breadth of command accountability was a murky difficulty. The uncertainty was whether or not a commander was mechanically responsible for his males’s misconduct or whether or not he was criminally accountable provided that he knew, or ought to have identified, what his troops had been doing. In his opening assertion, prosecutor Meek promised to show that Homma had had precise data of his males’s misdeeds. Their brutality was “so widespread and so broad in sample and design and so steady,” he argued, that Homma needed to have identified.

Subsequent, Meek moved to again up his phrases with proof. He confirmed that Homma’s headquarters at Balanga had been 500 yards from the march route — so shut, Meek asserted, that if he “cared to pay attention he may have heard the screams of the wounded and the dying.” However Meek wished one thing extra direct to show Homma’s data, and Sgt. Baldassarre and a Filipino captain offered it. 

Baldassarre recalled quite a few Japanese officers in employees vehicles passing the prisoners through the march and described seeing one high-ranking officer on the march route close to San Fernando. A Japanese soldier instructed him it was Homma. When requested at trial if the high-ranking officer he had seen was within the courtroom, Baldassarre pointed at Homma and stated, “He’s proper there now, sir.”

At Homma’s trial, Buenaventura Bello (standing, middle) shows the American flag Japanese invaders ripped from a wall after taking pictures him when he refused to maneuver it. (Bettmann/Getty Photographs)

Capt. Alberto Abeleda described an identical incident. On the route close to Lubao, Abeleda noticed a “large, flashy automotive” cease in entrance of a warehouse. Japanese troopers snapped to consideration as an officer acquired out of the automotive, spoke to one in every of them, after which left. Abeleda described the officer as an enormous man, and Homma stood simply over 6 toes tall. Abeleda instructed the judges he later noticed Homma’s photograph in a Manila newspaper and acknowledged him because the officer he had seen. 

This testimony damage Homma’s trigger badly. Quite a few witnesses had described how the march route was strewn with corpses, implying that nobody who traveled that highway may have missed seeing them. If Homma had seen these corpses, he knew his males had been working amok and had a authorized responsibility to cease the carnage.


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between life and dying

ON JAN. 21, the prosecution rested. It was now the protection’s flip, and Homma’s attorneys sought to determine that Homma had been blind to what his males had been doing. Surprisingly, the protection additionally known as a number of of Homma’s underlings to attempt to present that the march wasn’t all that dangerous — an not possible place in gentle of the tough situations that quite a few survivors had already described. 

Maj. Moriya Wada swore that fewer than 30 prisoners perished on the march and that they’d died from illness, not mistreatment. Col. Yoshio Nakajima insisted he noticed prisoners close to Balanga resting within the shade and consuming Japanese rations whereas different prisoners swam in a close-by stream. Col. Seiichi Ohta maintained that guards gave the lads ample meals and water and allowed them to relaxation as wanted. Homma’s chief of employees, Takeji Wachi, went additional, insisting that guards helped drained prisoners to the facet of the highway to relaxation or onto vehicles to journey to San Fernando. These witnesses all had a motive to mislead keep away from being charged with warfare crimes themselves. 

HOmma Speaks

One month into the trial, on Feb. 4, Homma took the stand to insist he hadn’t realized of the march’s horrors till listening to the survivors’ testimony. He portrayed himself as a figurehead with restricted authority over his subordinates. Preoccupied with Corregidor, he had relied on these subordinates, he claimed, they usually hadn’t reported any mistreatment to him.

“I’m ashamed of myself ought to these atrocities have occurred,” he stated.

He admitted touring on the march route on a number of events however claimed, “[m]y reminiscence on the purpose is considerably obscure.”

He denied seeing any corpses.

“I used to be not searching for them significantly,” he defined. 

The identical day Homma took the stand, the protection acquired dangerous information when the U.S. Supreme Court docket refused to intervene within the Yamashita case. Since that case raised the identical points as Homma’s, it was now unlikely the excessive courtroom would hear his legal professionals’ motions. 

Because the trial neared its finish, the protection tried to humanize its shopper by calling Homma’s 42-year-old spouse, Fujiko, to testify that her husband wasn’t the type of individual to countenance atrocities.

“I’m happy with the truth that I’m the spouse of Gen. Homma,” she stated, as Homma wept at counsel desk.

Mrs. Homma, described by a reporter as a tiny, kimono-clad girl who spoke “animatedly and earnestly,” was such a sympathetic determine, prosecutor Meek later remarked, that he was “by no means so glad in all my experiences in courtroom to have a witness get off the stand.”

Homma’s spouse, Fujiko—right here at her husband’s facet—testified on his behalf and later made a direct enchantment to MacArthur to spare his life. (AP Photograph/Max Desfor)

The Verdict

Feb. 11 was choice day. Homma stood because the chief decide, Maj. Gen. Leo Donovan, solemnly introduced that they discovered him responsible and sentenced him to be “shot to dying with musketry.”

That very same day, the Supreme Court docket refused to listen to Homma’s case, which eliminated the final authorized impediment to Homma being punished by army judges working beneath the principles set by MacArthur’s headquarters. Two justices, Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge, disagreed and condemned the proceedings.

“Hasty, revengeful motion is just not the American method,” they said, and in contrast the trials of Homma and different Japanese officers to “blood purges” and “judicial lynchings.”

Homma’s destiny now rested with MacArthur. As supreme commander, he would determine if Homma can be executed or spared. Fujiko Homma traveled to Tokyo to plead her husband’s case, and MacArthur met together with her on March 11. She was a “cultured girl of nice private attraction,” he stated, and he known as the assembly “one of the attempting hours of my life.” He promised to present “the gravest consideration” to what she had stated.

However Mrs. Homma’s pleas, MacArthur affirmed the conviction and dying sentence 10 days later.

“If this defendant doesn’t deserve his judicial destiny, none in jurisdictional historical past ever did,” he said. “There could be no higher, extra heinous or extra harmful crime than the mass destruction, beneath guise of army authority … of helpless males.”

As for the proceedings themselves, “no trial may have been fairer than this one,” MacArthur stated.

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, arms sure behind his again, into the yard and tied him to a publish. He was “calm and stoical,” a reporter famous, and refused to make a remaining assertion. A black hood was positioned over his head, and a military physician put a four-inch spherical goal over his coronary heart. On command, 12 troopers standing 15 paces away fired.

“Military precision marked the grim, almost silent drama,” the Related Press reported. 

justice served?

SINCE 1946, HISTORIANS and authorized commentators have had harsh phrases for Homma’s trial. The proof was sturdy sufficient to permit the judges to search out that Homma knew what his troops had been doing, so the result may need been the identical whatever the circumstances. MacArthur’s pervasive position, nevertheless, created an unsettling look of unfairness and bias, resulting in a preordained end result. 

Homma had overwhelmed MacArthur on Bataan, the one time the Japanese had defeated the U.S. Military in a serious marketing campaign and the one battlefield loss MacArthur had ever suffered. The judges answered to MacArthur, and MacArthur’s guidelines of proof wouldn’t have handed muster in an American courtroom. An skilled prosecutor was pitted towards a courtroom novice, and only one individual — MacArthur — had the facility to spare Homma’s life. The deck gave the impression to be stacked. D. Clayton James, a revered biographer of MacArthur, known as the trial a miscarriage of justice, and William Manchester, one other distinguished MacArthur biographer, went as far as to conclude that Homma was convicted by a kangaroo courtroom “which flouted justice with the Supreme Commander’s approval and possibly at his urging.” 

Sgt. Baldassarre, nevertheless, shed no tears. In actual fact, he didn’t perceive why Homma deserved a trial in any respect. The Japanese “by no means trialed us. They killed individuals like flies” and gave the prisoners “nothing however bullets and bayonets,” he instructed reporters through the trial. To the crusty sergeant, a rating had been settled. 

Standing together with his lead American lawyer, Main John H. Skeen Jr., at left, Homma learns that he has been sentenced to be “shot to dying with musketry.” (AP Photograph/Max Desfor)