In measured steps a column of five men enters the screened enclosure concealing the hangman’s noose. The officer in command gives a terse order, and the somber group halts. More commands are given, and the execution detail moves toward the brightly lit gallows.
One man catches all eyes, the central figure whose hands are bound in front as he approaches the gallows steps. He is the first of three Japanese soldiers sentenced to die this morning. The condemned man is dressed in the plain garb of a private soldier, stripped of ‘decorations and other appurtenances signifying membership in the military profession,’ by personal order of General of the U.S. Army Douglas MacArthur. At his side is a Buddhist priest.
Waiting at the top of the gallows is Lieutenant Charles Raroad, a military police officer charged with executing the condemned. ‘The stage was set under a tropical star-studded sky,’ Raroad wrote just hours later. ‘The stars, usually so warm and friendly, seem gradually to lose their warmth and assume the air of dignified judges turned stern witness.’
At the top of the gallows stairs the executioner steps aside to let pass 61-year-old Lt. Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita. Nothing about him suggests he is the same ‘Tiger of Malaya’ whose troops rampaged through the South Pacific early in the war. Raroad later called him a ‘heavy, squat, yellow-visaged figure that seemed calm and stoic about his impending doom.’
Twelve days before this day of execution, MacArthur denied the Japanese general’s final appeal. ‘It is not easy for me to pass penal judgment upon a defeated adversary in a major campaign,’ MacArthur wrote in his terse, four-paragraph decision. ‘I have reviewed the proceedings in vain search for some mitigating circumstance on his behalf. I can find none.’ And so now Raroad prepares Yamashita’s passage, working with quick, confident movements. First Raroad places leather straps around Yamashita’s arms and legs, followed by a black hood over his head. Finally, Raroad drops the noose around Yamashita’s thick neck, ‘the bulging knot pulled taut under the left ear.’
Now the stillness is interrupted, ‘hardly broken,’ Raroad later wrote, by the high-pitched chant of the Buddhist priest who stands in front of the trussed figure. The priest’s words gradually fade as Raroad prepares to speak. He pauses and then asks, ‘Have you any last words to say?’
There is a brief, muffled reply from Yamashita: ‘I will pray for the Japanese emperor and the emperor’s family, and national prosperity. Dear father and mother I am going to your side. Please educate well my children.’ Then, the condemned man nods, and Raroad looks around a final time to, as he later wrote, ‘gather strength and control.’ The knife blade in Raroad’s hand flashes momentarily in the bright, yellow light as he quickly draws it down across the counterweight holding the rope. Immediately the silence is shattered by one rasping shriek as the retaining bolts of the trap door pull free. The figure standing before Raroad plummets down, only to be arrested with a sharp jerk after a 6-foot fall. It is 3:02 a.m., February 23, 1946, at the Philippine Detention and Rehabilitation Center near Manila, and the Tiger of Malaya is dead.
‘The General died before dawn,’ proclaimed the next day’s Pacifican, as the Pacific Stars & Stripes was called in the Western Pacific. ‘Executioner Lieutenant Charles Raroad sent Yamashita to join his ancestors.’
It was an ignominious end for one of Japan’s greatest soldiers. Yamashita began his military career in 1916, after graduating with honors from the Japanese War College. During the interwar years he served in many influential posts in the army, including staff, command and attaché duties in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. In 1937 he was posted to Korea, where he commanded an infantry brigade.
By 1941, Yamashita was the commanding general of the Twenty-Fifth Army. His plans for taking Singapore were already underway. On December 8, 1941, he struck, marching his troops for nine weeks through supposedly impenetrable jungle to pounce on Great Britain’s ‘Gibraltar of the East.’ On February 15, 1942, Yamashita prevailed, when British Lt. Gen. Sir Arthur Percival and 130,000 Empire troops surrendered. It was the largest surrender in British history.
Five months later, Yamashita was transferred to the backwaters of Manchuria, the victim of Prime Minister Hideki Tojo’s jealousy and Yamashita’s often-voiced dislike of the warlord’s policies. For the next two years that is where Yamashita stayed, watching his command dwindle away as his soldiers were called to fight in more active theaters. Then, in the fall of 1944, when the Pacific War had reached its zenith, Yamashita received orders to command the defense of the Philippines. It would be his final call to destiny.
By then the Allies had swept the emperor’s soldiers away from most of their fanatically defended island bastions. Yamashita already knew that the Philippines were next on the Allied list for liberation. He also knew that the Philippines were an absolutely vital link in the shrinking supply lines of Japan’s crumbling empire. Yamashita had no illusions about his chances for success. At best he hoped to deprive the Allies of the Philippines as a forward operating area for as long as possible. He reached Manila on October 5, 1944, two weeks before his last battle would begin.
Meanwhile, MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific area forces were on board hundreds of troopships bound for the Philippines. On October 20, Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger’s Sixth Army stormed ashore almost unopposed on the east coast of Leyte. As soon as Yamashita learned of the invasion, he reluctantly ordered troops stationed on Luzon to reinforce Leyte’s outnumbered garrison. More troops were brought in from Korea and Manchuria. By November, the Japanese had 45,000 soldiers facing MacArthur and more were on the way. Eventually, 75,000 Japanese soldiers would be thrown into the fight on Leyte.
The battle raged for more than two months. Before it concluded in late December, Yamashita had lost 60,000 soldiers killed. U.S. Army casualties were 3,500 killed and 12,000 wounded. MacArthur called the battle for Leyte ‘perhaps the greatest defeat in the annals of the Japanese army.’ Still ahead, however, were the grim battles for Luzon and the Philippine capital, Manila, the prewar ‘Pearl of the Orient’ and MacArthur’s adopted home.
The opening gambit of the battle for Luzon started on December 15, 1944, when MacArthur ordered troops ashore on the nearby island of Mindoro. MacArthur knew that if he attacked Luzon without overwhelming superiority the invasion would be a bloodier repeat of the 1942 Japanese conquest. To that end he needed airfields to gain air superiority and protected supply routes that avoided Luzon’s still dangerous air force.
Young Japanese kamikaze pilots already were crashing their planes onto the decks of Allied ships. The first American ship lost to the suicide planes had gone to the bottom on October 25, when planes from the hastily formed kamikaze squadron of Vice Adm. Takijito Onishi’s First Air Fleet sank the escort carrier St. Lô. In all, 16 ships would be sunk off the Philippines and another 80 damaged before the Americans gained total control of the air.
The invasion of Mindoro surprised Yamashita. He had anticipated that MacArthur would develop airfields farther south, thinking that it would take too long to build runways on the marshy ground of Mindoro. Within eight days of landing, however, American and Australian engineers had two fighter strips in operation. A week later they added a bomber base for Fifth Air Force medium bombers.
Within three weeks of landing on Mindoro, Allied aircraft were striking hard at Luzon. More than half the ships carrying supplies to Yamashita were sunk. Thousands of fresh troops drowned, and those that managed to get ashore had nothing to eat.
Yamashita was left with few options. The only offensive weapons he still possessed were the young pilots who were willing to fly one-way suicide strikes at MacArthur’s support ships, and their numbers were dwindling. The situation on the ground was even worse. On paper, Yamashita had 275,000 troops, but those numbers were deceptive. Many of his soldiers were survivors of other battles thrown together in ad hoc outfits of dubious value. Many more were service troops and second-rate line units.
Another 16,000 sailors and special landing-force troops of the 31st Naval Base Force were stationed around Manila under the command of Rear Adm. Sanji Iwabuchi. Although Iwabuchi was nominally under Yamashita’s command, in practice the fiery Bushido warrior chose to ignore orders from Yamashita that he did not like.
The plan Yamashita finally adopted for defending Luzon was simple. He would abandon Manila and its environs and head for the hills. Already resigned to losing eventually, Yamashita simply hoped to occupy as much of the island as possible to deny its use to MacArthur. He later claimed that he was already prepared to cede Manila to MacArthur when the Sixth Army struck. Meanwhile, Iwabuchi put his own simple plan into effect. Iwabuchi planned to defend Manila to the death.
On January 9, 1945, MacArthur finally mounted his invasion of Luzon. At two points on Lingayen Gulf, 110 miles north of Manila, 68,000 men from Krueger’s Sixth Army waded ashore. Two days later, Krueger established a secure beachhead and began forging inland. With I Corps on the left flank and XIV Corps in the van, Krueger headed for Manila.
For the rest of the month he piled on new divisions, until almost the entire Sixth Army was ashore. Throughout January, Krueger’s troops fought a series of tough actions that slowed their assault on Manila to a crawl. Some of the pressure on the Sixth Army’s front was relieved on January 31, when the 11th Airborne Division came ashore by boat at Nasugbu Bay, 55 miles southwest of Manila. But it was not until February 3, when the newly arrived 1st Cavalry Division drove 70 miles through thinly held Japanese lines to reach the eastern approaches to Manila, that the Sixth Army’s goal was in sight. The following day the 11th Airborne Division entered the city from the south to catch Iwabuchi’s sailors in a giant vise.
Remarkably, MacArthur was still hopeful that Manila could be taken without a serious fight. To that end he ordered his soldiers and airmen to use restraint when taking the city. MacArthur completely forbade the use of tactical airstrikes in the city, and he told his gunners to shoot sparingly. There were both philosophical and practical reasons for doing so, MacArthur told his generals.
First and most important, MacArthur said, Yamashita could not feed Manila’s 700,000 civilians. Second, if Yamashita allowed his army to be bottled up in Manila, he could not defend the rest of the island. Finally, MacArthur, for whatever reason, did not believe that Yamashita would order the city’s destruction.
Perhaps MacArthur believed that the dire warnings he had been broadcasting to Yamashita after landing at Leyte would give the Japanese general pause. In a broadcast initially read on October 4, 1944, and repeated many times during the ensuing campaign, MacArthur warned Yamashita that he would ‘hold the Japanese military authorities in the Philippines immediately liable for any harm’ to POWs, civilians and internees trapped in the Philippines.
By February 6, facing mounting casualties, MacArthur purged himself of his grand delusion and ordered his soldiers to use their artillery. He still forbade tactical bombing. Once the earlier prohibitions against using heavy artillery on important buildings was rescinded, the Sixth Army began applying its full might against the Japanese. As fighting raged from building to building and strongpoint to strongpoint, the battle slowly consumed the city.
Later, Yamashita protested that the naval troops and service units still in Manila were not supposed to be there. During his court-martial, Yamashita testified that even before MacArthur had invested Manila he had given orders for his troops to pull back into the mountains to the north and east. The bulk of the Japanese forces complied, he said, though some army service troops and almost the entire contingent of Iwabuchi’s naval force stayed behind.
The U.S. Army’s own reconstruction of the battle several years later somewhat supported Yamashita’s view. In fact many of the service troops in Manila were simply trapped there by MacArthur’s relentless attacks. But others, particularly Iwabuchi’s naval troops, had refused to leave. It was those die-hards who faced Krueger’s troops.
By February 23, the Sixth Army had forced most of Manila’s defenders into the Intramuros, the 150-acre ‘walled city,’ a three-square-mile area near Manila Bay, where many government buildings stood. The retreating Japanese left thousands of murdered and mutilated Filipino civilians in their wake. Holed up with them were 4,000 more civilians who could not escape.
When the Americans began the task of reducing Iwabuchi’s final stronghold, the slaughter was terrific. Still denied air power by MacArthur, the soldiers resorted to massive doses of artillery to give them the edge. Inside the walls of the old Spanish city, Japanese soldiers and sailors went on a vindictive rampage, burning and looting indiscriminately. When the last shot had been fired, Intramuros was razed to the ground, as were the stout government buildings where the Japanese had sought final refuge. Included in the destruction was MacArthur’s six-room penthouse above the Manila Hotel.
The carnage MacArthur witnessed was incredible. Almost all of Iwabuchi’s 16,000 troops, including their commander, were dead. More than 1,000 American soldiers were also killed, and another 5,500 were wounded. But the greatest toll was taken on Manila’s defenseless population. More than 100,000 souls, including most of those trapped in Intramuros, had been wiped out. Thousands more were wounded or missing.
The fall of Manila did not end the Philippine campaign. Yamashita was still to the north of Manila with the bulk of his remaining army, and there were many bitter campaigns ahead. For the remainder of the war, Yamashita’s soldiers fought a series of fierce delaying actions along Luzon’s Cordillera Mountains. It was not until the last day of the war that Yamashita stopped fighting. And then, on September 2, with nowhere else to go, Yamashita surrendered. ‘If I kill myself,’ the general explained,’someone else will have to take the blame.’ The blame was not long in coming. On October 8, 1945, five weeks after Japan unconditionally surrendered, Yamashita was arraigned before a military commission in Manila and charged with war crimes. MacArthur had drawn up the charges, appointed the military commission, and set the rules for the trial.
Yamashita was charged with failing to ‘discharge his duty as commander to control the operations of the members of his command’ between October 2, 1944, and September 2, 1945. In the same specification Yamashita was accused of ‘permitting them to commit brutal atrocities and other high crimes against the people of the United States and its allies and dependencies.’ The prescribed punishment was death. Yamashita’s defense was simple. He claimed he was not there. During his trial at the high commissioner’s residence in Manila, Yamashita testified that he had ordered his troops to leave Manila to the Allies. But because of the stranglehold MacArthur had placed around his garrisons in Manila, he was unable to make sure the orders were carried out.
Yamashita denied any involvement in the atrocities that took place in Manila. ‘I positively and categorically reaffirm that they were against my wishes and in direct contradiction to all my expressed orders,’ he told the court-martial panel. ‘They occurred at a time and place of which I had no knowledge whatsoever.’
It was to no avail. MacArthur had already made up his mind. Yamashita was defended by a battery of competent trial attorneys. His case was even appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. During the first week of January 1946, the high court listened to arguments from both sides. The defense claimed that Yamashita could not have received a fair trial under the mandates dictated by MacArthur. The prosecution argued that the destruction of Manila by Japanese troops under Yamashita’s command was all the evidence needed to convict him. In a 72 decision, the high court ruled Yamashita’s conviction and death sentence were just and fitting. The two dissenting justices called it ‘a legalized lynching.’
MacArthur would hear none of it. On February 11, 1946, he wrote: ‘This officer, of proven field merit, entrusted with high command involving authority adequate to responsibility, has failed this irrevocable standard; has failed his duty to his troops, to his country, to his enemy, to mankind; has failed utterly his soldier faith. The results are beyond challenge.’
On February 21, 1946, Lt. Gen. W.D. Styer, commander of the Western Pacific forces, ordered Colonel John H. Fonvielle, commanding officer of the Philippine Detention and Rehabilitation Center near Manila, to carry out MacArthur’s order. Two days later, Yamashita dropped through the gallows floor, unrepentant to the end. ‘Before my God I have told the truth,’ he announced through an interpreter when the sentence of execution was read. ‘I do not believe that I have sinned. I think that I–my soul–will live forever.’
Yamashita swung below the gallows for 25 minutes, swaying to and fro in the early morning breeze. Raroad, the executioner, remembered how the lights suddenly went out–because someone had thrown a circuit breaker–and how the taut rope stood out ‘evilly, connecting the crossbeam and the platform. ‘Yamashita, general in the Imperial Japanese Army and its commander of the Philippine Islands, had been hanged by the neck until dead.’
This article was written by Nathaniel R. Helms and originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!