John A. Glusman / San Francisco Chronicle – 2005-08-11 00:33:22
(August 7, 200) — “It’s a real crime when US forces open their fire toward innocent people,” said Mohamed Salaheddin, an Iraqi doctor whose brother was killed by an American patrol earlier this year. “They killed him without any reason, they suddenly shot at his car.”
Civilian casualties are a tragedy of the war in Iraq, as is friendly fire — or amicicide — as the US Army calls it, although both were largely taken for granted during World War II.
The United States indiscriminately bombed Germany and Japan, killing tens of thousands of civilians in harrowing fire raids. The American B-29 attack on Tokyo in March 1945 is not as notorious as Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it caused some 83,703 deaths. “We knew we were going to kill a lot of women and kids when we burned that town,” General Curtis LeMay of the Twentieth Air Force bluntly explained. “Had to be done.”
The fact that there were Allied POWs on the ground in Japan’s major cities was of little concern. B-29 crewmen were neither briefed on the whereabouts of their compatriots before their missions, nor in after-action reports.
“And it was a good thing we didn’t know,” said 1st Lt. Leslie E. Hodson, an airplane commander with the 73rd Bomb Wing, on Saipan. “We would have tried to avoid them, even though there was little chance of it.”
My father was an American Navy doctor who had been captured on the island fortress of Corregidor in the Philippines in May 1942 and transported to Japan in mid-1944. Assigned to the Allied medical staff of the Kobe POW Hospital, he was in the port city when it was firebombed 60 years ago.
Three raids culminating on June 5, 1945, destroyed more than 50 percent of Kobe, a cosmopolitan city the size of Baltimore with a pre-war population of nearly 1 million.
Kobe: A City of the Dead
When the POWs saw B-29s darken the sky that morning, they cheered. Here was the first sign of an American military presence in more than three years. Then the bombs began to fall, incinerating their hospital camp, killing several POWs, wounding many others. Some 3,614 Japanese died in the attack, 10, 064 were wounded, and 51,399 buildings were demolished. When my father looked out over the smoldering ruins of Kobe from the slopes of the Rokko Mountains, he saw a city of the dead.
He was one of the lucky ones. His buddy George Ferguson, also a Navy doctor, had been forced to stay behind in the Philippines because he suffered from amoebic dysentery.
1,792 US Sailors Killed by US Attack
But by the fall of 1944, the Japanese were in the final stages of transporting all POWs — able-bodied or not — from the Philippines to Japan and its territories to supplement a dwindling labor force. By then, US submariners had perfected a technique of hunting enemy vessels in “wolf packs. ” Once preparations were under way for the Allied invasion of Leyte, “wolf packs” were dispatched to prowl the waters between the Philippines and Japan.
On Oct. 11, 1944, Ferguson was one of 1,800 POWs who boarded an unmarked merchant vessel in Manila known as the Arisan Maru. The conditions were crowded beyond belief. The heat was suffocating. The POWs were denied food, water, sanitary facilities.
Then on Oct. 24, 1944, the Arisan Maru was targeted by US submarines and sunk, most probably by the Shark, which in turn was silenced by the Japanese destroyer, Harukaze. Of the 1,800 POWs aboard, a staggering 1,792 perished, including my father’s friend Ferguson. It marked the single greatest confirmed loss of American life in a maritime disaster, greater than the Titanic and Lusitania.
One ship, one sinking, and almost as many Americans dead as US combat deaths in Iraq. Many of the POWs were survivors of Bataan, defenders of Corregidor, and many of them had been subjected to years of malnutrition, disease and physical abuse at the hands of their Japanese captors. Why?
“The Japanese ships weren’t marked,” my father explained. “The Navy had no idea they were targeting their own men.”
This was the official excuse, the one that was given to the mothers, fathers, and spouses of the deceased, such as Ferguson’s wife, Lucille, by the Navy Department.
True, the Japanese failed to indicate that their merchant vessels were carrying POWs, a violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War which Japan signed, but did not ratify.
The US Knew the Risks
But there had been a series of Japanese merchant vessels carrying Allied POWs that were sunk by American submarines prior to the Arisan Maru disaster. Moreover, through ULTRA intelligence, the United States had the ability to track Japanese Navy and merchant vessels, listen in on Japanese radio messages, pinpoint shipping routes, and in some cases ascertain exactly what cargo was on board.
“Two hundred medical personnel prisoners who are to be transferred to Japan embarked on the Kenwa Maru,” read one radio message intercept, referring to the ship on which my father was transported to Japan in late February 1944. “They are scheduled to debark at Moji.”
In addition, there was an extensive network of American and Filipino guerrillas throughout the Philippines, who closely monitored Japanese ship and troop movements and relayed that information by radio to Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific Area Command headquarters. In at least one instance, according to Pvt. James Carrington, who became chief of headquarters security forces for the East Central Luzon Guerrilla Area, Filipino observers counted by hand the number of POWs boarding a Japanese merchant vessel in Manila.
Granted, the logistical challenges of intercepting messages, deciphering them, recoding them and decoding them in time to take effective action were enormous. But this was not the “fog of war” that characterizes ground combat. Indeed, it appears as if no action was taken following the Arisan Maru disaster to prevent a similar tragedy from occurring, which is exactly what happened.
On Dec. 13, 1944, another Japanese transport ship, the Oryoku Maru, was bombed off of Olongapo in the Philippines by US carrier planes, resulting in 300 POW deaths. This was followed, on Jan. 9, 1945, by the bombing of the Enoura Maru, in which 316 more POWs, many of them survivors of the Oryoku Maru, died.
Ground Casualties in Vietnam: 2%
Ground Casualties in 1991 Gulf War: 17%
Army historians have estimated ground casualties from friendly fire in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War at approximately 2 percent, while they soared to 17 percent during the 1991 Gulf War.
By contrast, of the nearly 60,000 Allied POWs who died in Japanese custody during World War II, almost a third can be attributed to friendly fire.
As Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal coolly acknowledged: “The great necessity for destroying Japan’s vital lifeline of shipping gave us no choice but to sink all Japanese ships encountered.”
John A. Glusman is the author of Conduct Under Fire: Four American Doctors and their Fight for Life as Prisoners of the Japanese, 1941-1945 (Viking).
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.