Magazine article American Heritage

The Trial of General Homma: Was He the Beast of Bataan, or Was His True War Crime Defeating Douglas MacArthur? A Troubling Look at the Problems of Military Justice

Magazine article American Heritage

The Trial of General Homma: Was He the Beast of Bataan, or Was His True War Crime Defeating Douglas MacArthur? A Troubling Look at the Problems of Military Justice

Article excerpt

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 Guantanamo.) 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.

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. …

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