Victors’ Justice

Several years ago I wrote about the trial of Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara for the execution of the 98 American civilian POWs on Wake Island during World War II (see War Crime). In recent months I’ve been digging deeper into trial records and contacting government agencies to help the Forsberg family find a material item used as evidence in the Sakaibara trial. My research has revealed some interesting new (to me) material on the Wake story and offers a new perspective on the Asia-Pacific war crimes trials themselves.

The Sakaibara trial, December 21-24, 1945, was one of the earliest war crimes trials held in the Pacific after WWII. The U. S. Navy conducted the trials on Kwajalein and Guam from 1945 to 1949 under rules established by the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). Higher profile cases were tried in Tokyo by the newly established International Military Tribune of the Far East (IMTFE), similar to the Nuremberg trials in Germany. For the navy trials the newly established War Crimes Office investigated alleged war crimes and the Office of the Judge Advocate General (Navy JAG) conducted the proceedings. Prosecutors were navy judge advocates, accused war criminals were provided with defense counsel, and select military commissions of five to seven U. S. military officers passed judgement and sentences for each charge. Our long search shows that material exhibits were retained from these trials.

In the Sakaibara trial prosecution returned time and again to actions being in violation of the 1929 Geneva Conventions on treatment of prisoners of war (such as execution without trial). The defense of Lt. Soichi Tachibana, accused of murder for his brief role in passing Sakaibara’s order down the line, claimed that he was just following orders as required in the Japanese navy. Prosecutors countered that in U. S. military law a soldier is bound to obey “only the lawful orders” of his superior. The third defendant in the Sakaibara trial, Lt. Toraji Ito, who arrived on Wake a mere hour before the massacre, wrote a statement for the court, but hanged himself before the trial. The defense of superior orders would be raised in many of the war crimes trials. The trials were conducted relatively quickly and appeared to bypass numerous opportunities for objections. Reading trial transcripts in full and watching the prosecution and defense strategies unfold is an eye-opening experience – though eyeballs are sorely taxed in the process.

I was particularly interested to read the testimony of the witnesses at this trial that sheds more light on the 98. Lt. Commander Jiro Miyasaki, the senior medical officer on Wake in 1943, was well acquainted with American doctors Lawton Shank and James Cunha and named several others he knew among the American prisoners. Dr. Miyasaki testified that he and Dr. Shank often consulted and assisted in surgical procedures. Dr. Cunha provided dental care for the Japanese garrison as well as the Americans in a dentistry chamber that Miyasaki set up in his sick bay. When questioned about the July 1943 beheading of a prisoner for theft, Miyasaki stated that he was present to certify death and named the man as “Jack Fenix” (Fenex).

The Japanese doctor and others testified that the American POWs were well fed at about 3600 calories per day, having even better rations than the Japanese garrison due to remaining American provisions on the island, and generally healthy. (The Japanese garrison would endure disease and starvation during the Allied blockade of Wake in 1944-45.) Prior to the events of October 1943 the prisoners had adequate housing and air raid shelters, played baseball and watched movies for recreation, and were very lightly guarded in their compound and at work. However, during the destructive bombing raids of October 6 and 7, a radio apparatus was found under the flooring of the American kitchen and this combined with possible signaling between the prisoners and American forces prompted increased security. Despite the testimony, I have never seen any evidence of American or Allied contact with the Wake POWs during the war.

In one other note, the often repeated story that the prisoner who escaped the massacre carved the “POW Rock” on Wilkes just has to be laid to rest. The circumstances of the massacre and its context with heightened Japanese defenses across the atoll in preparation for an expected American invasion preclude the possibility that one man could or would make his way across the lagoon in the dark with a bag of tools to leave his mark neatly chiseled in rock. The last man was found in the vicinity of the food stores and the Japanese shrine on Wake about a week after the massacre and was quickly executed by beheading on the shore of Peale, either by Sakaibara or on his order, as he testified in the trial. The POW Rock inscription is neatly chiseled, a process that required time, light, and no fear of the noise it produced. The date, 5-10-43, is not a flip of the October date, but most likely a day in May when a group of prisoners were taking a break from work and the guard didn’t care.

In addition to the Sakaibara-Tachibana trial, I have found several other trials relevant to Wake Island: a 1946 trial of three Japanese officers accused of murder in the execution of Julius “Babe” Hofmeister in May 1942 on Wake, a lengthy 1948 trial of the Japanese interpreter accused of malicious treatment of POWs on Wake, and a trial for several prison guards at the notorious “Camp 18” at Sasebo, Japan, where 53 of the Wake POWs died. These promise more anguishing but interesting material on the fate of those who came to Wake, as well as the evolution of the postwar legal process for war crimes.