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General Homma Was Sentenced to Death for the Bataan Death March but That Was Not the Only Reason

An air warrior, MG has a checkered and owns a string of cars including Mustang and BMW

The beginning

World War II is a watershed in world history. It may perhaps never be repeated. The Japanese for what they felt were valid reasons decided to break out of the stranglehold of the US and Britain and launched a war in SE Asia. Their initial success was simply magnificent as the Imperial army swept all before it. In 1942 the Imperial army invaded the Philippines. The commander of the Imperial Army was Lieutenant General Masaharu Homma. He commanded the Japanese 14th army.

Philippines were a protectorate of the USA and it had a large contingent of the US armed forces stationed there. The Japanese attack was characterized by lightning speed and a well-formulated battle plan. The commander of the US forces was General Douglas MacArthur who faced General Homma. In this battle, General Homma proved himself an astute general and MacArthur had to flee the Philippines.

general Homma at his war crimes trial

general Homma at his war crimes trial

The battle

The battle lasted for three months from 7 Jan-9 April 1942 and in the end, almost 75000 US and Philippine troops surrendered. The battle is important as it is the first occasion that such a large number of US troops surrendered

This by itself is not anything new, as in war surrenders do take place. But this surrender needs evaluation as to its aftermath an act of great cruelty by the Imperial army took place. Before this, the Americans were out-thought and out-gunned by the astute Homma. The fighting was severe, but the Imperial army carried the day.

Escape of General MacArthur

General MacArthur escaped secretly by a special boat to Australia, leaving Major General Edward P King to surrender the US Troops. He surrendered on 9 April 1942. MacArthur should have made an evacuation plan. Perhaps the speed of the Japanese attack non-plussed him. Just as Rommel left the Afrika Corps to fend for itself, while he escaped to Germany, MacArthur also left his troops and escaped to Australia

Leaving the soldiers to become POWs of the Japanese was the first step in great hardship for the captured soldiers. The US general staff were aware of the Japanese philosophy of treating surrendered men and harsh treatment was only expected of them.


US troops captured/ The Death March

General Homma accepted the surrender of US and Philippine troops and now their ordeal began. The captured POWs without food and water were made to walk 80 miles from Mariveles Corregidor to San Fernando. A box train was used by the Japanese army to take the POWs from San Fernando to Capas. This train had no ventilation or sanitary facilities. This is known as the Bataan death march.
The death march consisted of making the POWs walk on foot for the entire day without stopping. No food or water was given by the Japanese. Those POWs who were sick or infirm were just bayoneted to death by the Japanese soldiers. Nearly 12000 Philippine and US soldiers died in this death march.

End of the War

One wonders how this atrocity took place as Japanese ignored all canons of law and the Geneva Convention, while executing this march. At the end of the war this was classified as a war crime and general Homma was arrested. General Homma denied that he had knowledge of this crime but this by itself is a weak defense as a commander in the battlefield must know what his subordinates are doing.


The trial of General Homma

The trial commenced on 3 January 1946 at Manila. The Philippine population which had suffered badly at the hands of the Japanese was hungry for the blood of the general who was classified as the ‘Butcher of Manila’. General Homma pleaded not guilty to all the charges. He claimed that he was not aware of the march and the subsequent hardship it caused. In court he came out as a suave, polished officer of the Imperial army. But witness after witness testified on oath that General Homma was responsible, though the court could find no document that directly linked Homma with the acts of the Imperial army.

Weak evidence

Most of the evidence presented would not in modern jurisprudence pass the test of natural justice. But as Homma had mentioned, the trial was a foregone conclusion and Homma was sentenced to death by a firing squad. The Supreme Court of the United States refused to intervene though two judges Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge dissented and in their judgments asked that the trial be not treated as a trial by a victor as it would set “dangerous precedents.
The question which needs to be answered is whether Homma received a just sentence or not? There is no doubt that the death march took place and thousands died. The event took place when the Imperial army commander was general Homma. It is possible he was not fully aware as he claimed about the death march, or maybe he was aware of the march but not the atrocities committed by the Imperial Army. But in legal jurisprudence, there is something called vicarious liability. Homma was thus culpable; a commander cannot absolve himself of the act of his troops. But perhaps he did not merit the death sentence. In those days death sentence was the norm mainly because of the cruelty of the occupying Imperial army and the Americans executed hundreds of Japanese " war criminals." Probably Homma was part of this syndrome.

The finale

The defending team led by Major Skeene and Lieutenant Robert Petz recall that they were convinced that Homma was not culpable to be shot by a firing squad. But the handpicked members of the Court-martial did what MacArthur expected them to do, sentencing Homma to Death. The general’s wife also met General MacArthur in Tokyo and requested him to review the sentence. MacArthur has recorded this in his book, but all the same, he confirmed the Generals death sentence. One factor that may have played on the mind of MacArthur was his defeat earlier at the hands of Homma.

The defense lawyers were convinced Homma was not guilty and at the most merited only a prison sentence. One has a lurking feeling that the bigger crime of general Homma was of having defeated MacArthur in the battle of Bataan. Had MacArthur commuted the death sentence to a prison term I am sure his reputation as a victor would have been greatly enhanced. MacArthur followed the law of the victor despiting the dissenting judgment of the two Supreme Court judges. General Homma was executed in a nondescript place in the jungle with no trace on 03 April 1946. The speed of his execution raised no eyebrows as General Homma was certainly culpable for the action of his troops and many were happy at his execution.

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MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 20, 2020:

Thanks, Tom for the info.

tom on October 20, 2020:

lt gen wainwright surrendered not king,1977 movie macarthur gregory peck in title role

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 20, 2020:

Thanks for the biography of MacArthur.

tom on October 20, 2020:

william manchester was famous american journalist wrote american caesar douglas macathur 1977

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 20, 2020:

Tom, thank you. Your information is appreciated as I have not read the book you refer.

tom on October 20, 2020:

william manchester biographer of macarthur says homma and yamashita innocent ,yet executed,on pretext of war crimes by their troops

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on January 06, 2020:

Thank you Parduman for your comment.

Lt Col Parduman Singh on January 06, 2020:

I do not agree with the author about the death sentence to Gen Homma. I think he deserved to be hanged but he had an easier passage and was shot. A commander has to stand by his troops and their action sare his responsibility. The death march was terrible and I think of anything similar being done by the Indian or British army. He was a good soldier and did beat MacArthur there is no doubt about it but it does not absolve him of his responsibility. In fact, he should have been a man and owned up to it. A very interesting article that stimulates the mind of a soldier like me. Thank you, MG

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on July 27, 2015:

thank you Lions for your opinion. Nice to read it.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on July 24, 2015:

I respect your argument Emge, but I have to disagree. I just finished General Wainwright's memior of his time in captivity. Homma was directly responsible because he accepted Wainwright's surrender personally (on film) and could have improved the treatment of American and Fillipino soliders immediately prior to his removal from command in June 1942 (he remained as CO in name only; Yamashita took over). Orders could have been written up and approved. But nothing was done. Same goes for Yamashita.

As for MacArthur, ego did a play a role in his decisions. There's no doubt about it. That doesn't make them bad decisions. His greatest achievement was the occupation of Japan, far greater than any of his battlefield victories. And his performance in the Philippines was not up to par, including his return in 1944.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on June 16, 2015:

Thank you Nate B11 for commenting and reading

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on June 16, 2015:

Very interesting events in world history.

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