In August 1946, a year after Japan’s surrender in World War II, several Japanese military personnel were prosecuted and sentenced to death for war crimes. Specifically, they were accused of torturing and executing eight American pilots who had been shot down. However, an additional charge was presented in euphemistic terms, as it did not exist in any legal code: “preventing honorable burial” or “destruction of the corpse” were some expressions used to refer to what was actually considered cannibalism of the bodies of the Americans. This episode has gone down in history as the Chichi-Jima Incident.

Chichi-jima, formerly known as Peel, is an island in the Ogasawara archipelago, formerly known as the Bonin Islands. It is located about two hundred forty-two kilometers north of Iwo Jima, which is at its southern end, and is part of the Ogasawara subprefecture, Tokyo.

Discovered by the Spanish navigator Bernardo de la Torre in 1543, this group of islands was annexed by the Tokugawa shogunate in 1675. However, it wasn’t until 1830 that the first inhabitants, oubeikei – settlers of Hawaiian origin – settled there, and in 1862, Japan officially proclaimed its sovereignty.

At the outbreak of World War II, there were only two settlements on Chichi-Jima, a piece of land that is less than twenty-four square kilometers in size. However, a small naval base had been established for supplying the archipelago, equipped with gunboats, minesweepers, and seaplanes; it also had a radio station and a weather station. At the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it had the largest garrison in southern Japan, with about three thousand eight hundred men and artillery.

The oubeikei, considered suspicious, had to adopt Japanese customs, change their names, and choose between joining the military or being evacuated along with other civilians, especially towards the end of the war as battles approached Japanese territory.

By mid-1944, U.S. forces were on the doorstep, and their large B-29 aircraft could carry out air raids on Japan from the Marianas without refueling.

However, the Americans faced a double problem: their escort fighters, the P-51 Mustangs, did not have as much range, so the bombers had to defend themselves in the air. Additionally, Japanese radar and the two airfields installed on Iwo Jima allowed them to detect and intercept the bombers.

Therefore, capturing Iwo Jima, which included its surroundings, was necessary. This marked the beginning of Operation Downfall, the plan to seize the Japanese islands, including Chichi-Jima.

The command of Chichi-Jima, and the 109th Division, belonged to Lieutenant General Yoshio Tachibana, born in Ehime in 1890. He was a recently promoted officer with little battlefield experience – mainly the Sino-Japanese War – as most of his career had been in staff roles. Ordered to defend the Ogasawara Islands, he fortified the base to repel a possible invasion that never materialized.

Instead, the Americans chose to focus their forces on Iwo Jima, which fell on February 25, 1945, and implemented a blockade on the rest of the archipelago, considered of lesser strategic importance. As Chichi-Jima supplied the archipelago, by mid that year, the twenty-five thousand Japanese soldiers stationed there were running out of supplies, and their daily ration was limited to two hundred forty grams of rice per person. Hunger began to spread, becoming a decisive factor in the events that followed.

The naval blockade did not rule out the possibility of aerial bombardment, so American planes began dropping their fatal payloads to undermine the defenses. In early September, the attack that would initiate the Chichi-Jima Incident took place: after a raid from the USS San Jacinto aircraft carrier by six Grumman TBM Avenger torpedo bombers and several escort fighters, nine pilots were hit by anti-aircraft fire and had to parachute. Eight of them became prisoners; their names were Lloyd Woellhof, Grady York, James Dye, Glenn Frazier Jr., Marvell Mershon, Floyd Hall, Warren Earl Vaughn, and Warren Hindenlang.

The ninth pilot escaped, changing the future of the United States. This man, who managed to steer his aircraft away from the island to land in the open sea and survive alone on a life raft – his two companions sank with the plane – was George H.W. Bush. Probably, he did not imagine that forty-four years later, in 1989, he would be elected president of the United States. He had joined the Navy upon hearing about Pearl Harbor and graduated in ten months, becoming the youngest naval aviator to date at the age of nineteen, and participated in the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

Lieutenant Bush, already promoted, was the sole survivor of the operation. He survived both initially and subsequently, as while the other eight pilots saved their lives, their fate as prisoners would be fatal after five months of captivity, beyond the usual beatings and torture. In February 1945, Jiro Sueyoshi, a captain in the Imperial Navy, ordered Major Sueyo Matoba, commander of the 308th Independent Infantry Battalion, to execute Lieutenant Warren Earl Vaughn. It was then arranged for the battalion’s military surgeon to dissect his body.

However, the purpose of this surgery was not medical; his liver was extracted and distributed among the officers to eat. The explanation lies in the scarcity of food that the Japanese were experiencing; Matoba himself would later state that their actions were driven by hunger, as they had tried all edible animals and plants, such as rats, mice, dogs, and lizards. He added, “I barely know what happened after that. We weren’t really cannibals.”

Nevertheless, factors such as the strange belief that the ritual consumption of human liver was beneficial to health also played a role, as expressed by Vice Admiral Mori Kunizo, the base commander at the time of the bombing. It probably also stemmed from the customary disdain that the Japanese officers felt for those who surrendered, and the fact that Japan classified downed pilots as war criminals.

This macabre recipe was repeated over the following months with the other prisoners, and Matoba extended the ingredients to all the meat and organs – apparently showing a personal preference for the buttocks. Tachibana himself joined the feast, with later testimonies stating that he expressed how delicious he found the improvised food. Thus, five of the eight American aviators were eaten, and the others also perished, decapitated by katana blows.

The garrison of Chichi-Jima resisted as best as it could, and, as mentioned earlier, the island was not conquered. However, upon the signing of the surrender, the Americans finally landed, arrested about thirty Japanese commanders, and acted on the report made by Yoshitaka Horie, a liaison officer between the Navy and the Army. He had opposed cannibalism and tried to save the life of the American officer representing the prisoners, who also taught him English but failed. They were deported to Guam, and in August 1946, a trial began, where they were accused of war crimes.

As mentioned at the beginning, the main charge was the murder of prisoners of war. Since no penal code foresaw cannibalism, it was supplemented with the accusation of destroying the bodies and preventing them from receiving a honorable burial. As expected, Tachibana and his companions suffered physical abuse at the hands of their guards, who wanted to avenge the desecrated victims. However, these painful moments lasted no more than three months, the time it took for the court to render its judgment.

Five were found guilty and executed, including Tachibana, Matoba, and Sueyoshi. All the prosecuted soldiers and the trial’s medical officer, Tadashi Teraki, spent eight years in prison, after which they were released. Vice Admiral Mori Kunizo was sentenced to life imprisonment, but the Netherlands opened another trial against him for another case – the massacres of prisoners of war committed in the Dutch East Indies – and he ended up being hanged, while five of his officers received life sentences, and fifteen received various penalties.

As an epilogue, it is interesting to note that the person assigned to defend the accused was Koken Tsuchiya, who would later become the president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. At that time, he was a young lawyer whose budding career had been interrupted by the war. The Chichi-Jima Incident was his first case, and it is curious because he was stationed on the island and claimed not to have seen any evidence of cannibalism.

Moreover, he had been ordered to execute the man considered the first victim, Lieutenant Warren Bourne, with whom he had established a friendly relationship, and perhaps that’s why he was replaced by a fellow soldier. According to Tsuchiya, the execution did not take place on a beach, as claimed, but in the crater caused by an enemy bomb, and by then, Bourne had gone mad due to hunger.

Tsuchiya added that, as the officer on duty, he caught two soldiers trying to retrieve Bourne’s body and expelled them, with no knowledge of any further attempts. This testimony may seem somewhat contradictory, but it should be noted that during World War II, several cases of cannibalism by Japanese troops were documented, and sometimes they had no qualms about keeping their captives alive to amputate limbs for consumption.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 14, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en El incidente de Chichi-Jima, cuando prisioneros estadounidenses fueron devorados por oficiales japoneses, cuyo único superviviente fue George H.W. Bush

Sources

James Bradley, Flyboys | Jeannie M. Welch, Without a Hangman, Without a Rope: Navy War Crimes Trials After World War II | Timothy P. Maga, Judgment at Tokyo: The Japanese War Crimes Trials | Chester G. Hearn, Sorties into Hell. The hidden war con Chichi Jima | Robert D. Eldridge, Iwo Jima and the Bonin Islands in U.S.-Japan relations | Wikipedia


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