Masaharu Homma's War Crimes
The United States of America and Japan in the Philippines

September 26, 2009
by William P. Meyers

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"Homma was tried, convicted and executed as a war criminal by the man he defeated, [General Douglas] MacArthur." You will find that bit in a footnote on page 400 of John Toland's The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire. Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma was the commander of the Japanese conquest of the Philippines at the beginning of the war between the U.S. and Japan.

The Philippines had been conquered by Spain by 1565. In 1898 the U.S. embarked on a war of aggression against Spain, and in the process, working with the Philippine independence movement, defeated the Spanish in Manila. The U.S. then fought the independence movement, killing probably one to two million Filipinos in the process. The Philippines became a U.S. possession and the center of U.S. military activity in Asia. [See also The U.S. Conquest of the Philippines]

By 1940 General Douglas MacArthur was in charge of keeping the Philippines under U.S. control, and of conquering as much of the rest of Asia as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt might direct. The Japanese felt that America, Great Britain and the Netherlands were pushing them into a war, and decided to liberate east Asia from these colonial powers. Japan struck first with its highly successful military operations against the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, the British stronghold of Singapore, and the Philippines.

MacArthur bungled the defense of the Philippines in too many ways to recount in this essay. Because he was afraid of a rebellion in favor of independence and alignment with the Japanese, in particular he failed to train and arm his Filipino troops.

Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma, with the Japanese 14th Army, was assigned to "liberate" the Philippines by General Count Hisaichi Terauchi, commander of the Southern Army. Homma was "an amateur playwright and leader of the pro-British American minority in the Army" [Toland p. 214]. He had "long opposed the road to war. He had spent eight years with the British, including service in France in 1918 with The British Expeditionary Force and had deep respect for and some understanding of the West." [p. 313]

Homma's army evaded MacArthur's coastal defenses on December 22, 1941 and headed down the road to Manila. More Japanese landed southeast of Manila, and MacArthur ordered his army to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula. Manila was abandoned to the Japanese without a fight. Bataan was supposed to be fortified against a long siege, but because MacArthur thought his Americans could defeat the Japanese easily, it was neither well-fortified nor stocked with food.

General Homma wanted an orderly entrance into Manila, with no looting or raping, so he halted his columns on so his men could clean up and move in tight formation [p. 324].

For any fighting against the Americans and their puppet Filipino troops [I use the word "puppet" only because that is the word always used by American newspapers to describe Asiatic troops that fought on the Japanese side], Homma planned to use his crack 48th Division. But the 48th was ordered to Java, so Homma had to conquer the Americans and Filipinos in Bataan with a bunch of old men not equipped or trained for fighting, the 65th Brigade. It was led by General Akira Nara, an Amherst College graduate trained by the U.S. Army at the Fort Benning Infantry School [p. 325].

Bataan was defended by 15,000 American and over 65,000 Filipino troops. Deaths in combat would be high on both sides, as would sickness and deaths from tropical diseases. On the American side, in addition, lack of food led to starvation. But MacArthur, comfortable, safe and well-fed on the island of Corregidor would not allow his officers to surrender. The Filipinos troops were becoming hostile because they received far less in rations than the Americans [p. 332]. Eventually MacArthur and most of his staff high-tailed it to Australia, leaving General Wainwright in charge.

By the time of the final battle on April 3, 1941, of the starving troops defending Bataan, only 7000 were truly effective fighters. Three-quarters or more of the Americans and Filipinos had malaria; many had been wounded; all were starving. MacArthur, Wainwright, and, back in the states, George Marshall and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, did not care; they wanted their troops to fight to the death.

General Homma did his best to plan humane treatment for any troops that surrendered or were captured alive. He expected them to number 25,000. The plan was that they would walk to Balanga, a maximum distance of 19 miles, normally no problem for soldiers. From Balanga two hundred trucks would take them to San Fernando, where freight trains would take them to Capas. They could then walk the 8 miles to their interment in Camp O'Donnell. [p. 366]

Some Japanese soldiers and officers were not as humane as General Homma. In particular a clique of officers around Colonel Masanobu Tsuji believed all prisoners should be executed. As in any army, Japan's soldiers had been treated brutally by their own officers, and many were in no mood to be nice the the enemy soldiers who had caused them so much grief.

The number of Bataan POWs was probably around 76,000. Most were half dead to begin with, wounded, malarial, and starved. The Japanese were not prepared to feed or provide medical care for that many men. It was hot and water was in short supply. Deaths during the transfer were heavy. Japanese guards killed numerous POWs for disobeying orders when the men unable to walk further. At the same time there are stories of many Japanese officers and men doing what they could for their prisoners, including protecting them from the more brutal soldiers.

Who was to blame for the famous Bataan Death March? It seems to me that given that a war was on, we can certainly blame General Homma for poor planning and his officers for poor execution. But MacArthur had not simply planned poorly. He had decided, repeatedly, to let the men under his command starve.

General Homma was not liked by the Japanese Army General Staff. He had taken too long to conquer the Philippines. His immediate superior "was displeased with Homma's lenient treatment of Filipino civilians. Homma had forbidden pillage and rape and ordered his troops not to regard the Filipinos as enemies but to respect their customs, traditions and religion." [p. 396]

Homma was relieved of duty, retired, and spent the remainder of the war in Japan.

Why then, was he tried and convicted as a war criminal? Someone had to hang for Douglas MacArthur's mistakes. It sure was not going to be MacArthur, who had been installed as U.S. war lord over Japan. Many lawyers and jurists, including a U.S. Supreme Court justice, protested Homma's conviction in "a highly irregular trial, conducted in an atmosphere that left no doubt as to what the ultimate outcome would be." [p. 400]

As chance (or conspiracy) would have it, Colonel Tsuji, who actually committed numerous war crimes, was not tried.

I am against war crimes, and crimes against humanity. I believe that, generally, there have not been enough war crimes convictions. In particular, the U.S. has committed a large number of war crimes during its history, including during World War II. I believe every war criminal should be punished, but trials should be fair so that only the guilty are punished.

I could argue that Japan was an aggressor in World War II, and therefore even if Homma was a relatively humane aggressor, it was his duty to refuse to fight. Having followed orders instead, he was in fact a war criminal.

But standards of justice should be uniform. American generals who have not refused to fight in the many U.S. wars of aggression should be treated as war criminals.

As to wars of aggression, there are gray areas, but the U.S. has been in quite a few. That is how we got the United States from the natives to begin with. We were the aggressor in the War of 1812 and clearly the aggressor in the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars. The government of the United States was the aggressor in Korea, and then in Vietnam. We are certainly the aggressor in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then there are the little aggressions (to us, not to them), the invasions of central American nations, and the aid to our puppets when they have been aggressors.

Both the Democratic Party and Republican Party have participated repeatedly in war crimes and crimes against humanity. If you use the Nuremberg trials (and hangings) as a standard, being a party leader in a government that commits war crimes is a punishable offense.

We ordinary Americans must examine our pasts, examine our consciences, and change our evil ways. We cannot depend on politicians to do the right thing in our name. As Barack Obama has so clearly demonstrated since he has taken office.

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